The Hunger Games: Unnerving

Earlier this year, I read Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden. It was very riveting. If you want to know the extent to which Totalitarian government can go, this book is a must-read.

There is no limit to the ways that government will assault your dignity–and humanity–given sufficient power. Shin Dong-hyuk–the only known person to have been born in a North Korean prison camp–and managed to escape, provides a stirring, damning, devastating real-life testimony to that.

Enter The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. I’ve got several FB friends–and a couple friends from my church–who have read it, and the feedback was very good. I still was reluctant to read it, as it appeared to be a fad. The Christian hoopla over the book reminded me of The Prayer of Jabez, and some pastors even went as far as preparing Bible studies based on various themes in the book. I had a bad feeling about that.

Then my former crisis pregnancy center boss–JH–recommended it. She’s of a similar mind as me, and, usually, if she recommends something, I’m not disappointed.

The Hunger Games (THG) was no exception.

THG takes place in a futuristic society called Panem, located in North America, with the Capitol based in what we know as the Rocky Mountains. The country is divided into twelve geographical districts, with a thirteenth that allegedly was destroyed for rebelling against the Capitol. As punishment for the rebellion, each year a boy and a girl from each district–between ages 12 and 18–are selected to fight it out in The Hunger Games. This is televised in a reality show setting, with the contestants–called “tributes”–fighting each other to the death within a large climate and terrain-controlled arena.

The plot begins in the poorest of the districts: District 12, which is in Appalachian coal mining territory. The main character–Katniss Everdeen–volunteers for the Games in order to take the place of her 12-year-old sister (Primrose), who was drawn from the names of girls. The male “tribute” from their district–Peeta Mellark–has had a crush on Katniss since his youth.

The leadup to the Games is sickening to read, as you have a government-media culture that puts the best reality show face on what is basically a kill-fest. Before the Games, the tributes are under pressure to put on a great posture for “Gamemakers” in order to get donations from sponsors that will prove invaluable during the games. Fashion consultants give special attention to the costume design, tributes get scores on their abilities with weapons and fighting techniques, and even their televised interviews.

The tributes themselves are also a sea of complexity:

Katniss: A survivor through and through, and who is very cynical about her fellow competitors. She is reluctant to trust anyone, even though she is not averse to forming some alliances, such as with Rue;

Peeta: A baker’s son who has been in love with Katniss his whole life. He has done many things intentionally to help and protect Katniss, even at risk to his life. Still, Katniss has trouble trusting him.

Rue: a young girl whose great talent is roaming high among the trees, and evading captors. She forms a friendship with Katniss, who also is effective in the trees;

Foxface: a young girl whose great strength is staying away from the fights. She is very evasive, very sneaky;

The “Careers”: these tributes have been trained their entire lives for the Games. They are big, tough, and brutal. They will kill even their “allies” without a second thought. They have their sights trained on Katniss from the get-go. The most notorious of the bunch–Cato–is one of the last standing.

The Games pits tributes against each other, and–like a reality show–encourages alliances and subplots while pushing them to kill each other. The “Gamemakers” often switch the conditions–such as weather–in order to get more action going. Ultimately, it pits the people of the respective districts–who watch the games religiously–against each other, as they root for their tributes to kill others.

The complexity does not merely extend to the tributes, either.

The trainer for Peeta and Katniss–Haymitch, a former Games winner–was drunk, surly, and shrewd. He is difficult for either Peeta or Katniss to trust, and yet he has a tendency to come through for them in ways they don’t expect.

I don’t know Suzanne Collins, nor am I aware of her political leanings or her thoughts on the direction of government. I suspect that her views are probably well to the left of mine.

But in THG, Collins gives us a devastating portrait of where we are heading as a country. To call it Orwellian would not do THG justice: Next to Panem, Orwell’s Oceania is a libertarian paradise. It is what you get when you combine North Korean-style fascism with American reality television culture.

Four and a half stars.

Leverage, by Karl Denninger

Karl Denninger is no stranger to these pages. With respect to the financial meltdown–and subsequent bailouts–that have crippled our economy, Denninger was one of a handful of commentators and economists who called it.

He has written a book about the conditions that led to the collapse, complete with an assessment of the current situation and what needs to change. That book is called Leverage.

I’ve read a fair share of books about the meltdown, and Denninger’s is probably the most comprehensive assessment of the debt situation in the United States. He leaves no stone unturned: federal spending; the complicity of the Federal Reserve from Volcker to Bernanke; Congress; Presidents from Reagan to Obama; federal regulators whose negligence bordered on criminal; Government-Sponsored Entities (Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac) whose leaders were grossly corrupt; the OTC derivatives that brought down AIG and other hedge funds; the banksters who got to walk away richer in spite of the financial carnage they caused; the consumer credit industry; the pension system; the health care system; and, of course, the student loan racket.

But Denninger doesn’t just stop there: he describes, in detail, the evolution of the culture of debt, fed by an increasing sense of entitlement by the American people, in coordination with a mother lode of unfulfillable promises made by government at local, state, and federal levels. He could have easily named the book Debt Spiral.

Anyone who thinks we can resolve Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security by making small changes, needs to read Leverage.

Some reviewers contend that Denninger’s nebulous solutions–“we need to have a discussion about X”–weaken his case. Honestly, I think that is a strong suit on his part: there are no pretty answers to our crises, and Americans need to decide, soberly, what the heck it is we want from our government.

Ponzi schemes tend to promise something for nothing. Those who invest early in that scheme will benefit–and many have. Trouble is, if you still are holding the bag when the scheme breaks, you are screwed. And make no mistake, government has run several Ponzi schemes, and the system has run out of suckers. Next to our government, Bernie Madoff looks like an Eagle Scout.

Perhaps Denninger’s most controversial section is his take on our health care system. Liberals–and some conservatives–will cringe when they look at his recommendations. While I have mixed feelings about his solutions for health care, but he does provide a good explication of the problems that exist in our system.

His chapter on energy promotes something that Ticker readers are well-familiar with: the liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR). I’m not necessarily on the bandwagon, but–honestly–we need to look at more alternative sources of energy that offer the scale and energy density that we need.

The LFTR reactor could be a potential solution, but we won’t know until we get the government the heck out of the way and allow innovators and developers pursue it. As for the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) folks, I say build it in my back yard. I’m game.

Overall, I give Denninger 4.9 out of 5 stars for this one. I highly recommend it.

Book Review: He Is Not Silent, by Albert Mohler

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) President Albert Mohler has spent–and continues to spend–considerable time confronting contemporary culture. I was at SBTS when he was inaugurated, I have met him several times, and have discussed some of the issues that he has held dear. I am familiar with the culture that he has been confronting on many levels. All will not support everything he has done as President, but I know a few liberals who will concede that some of his reforms were necessary.

When he arrived at SBTS, there were no ethics professors who supported the pro-life position on abortion. Practically every Old Testament professor was an evolution supporter.  There was hardly unanimity in the pastoral counseling department about the Bibical position on homosexuality.

In many ways, SBTS circa 1993 reflected a lot of the emerging problems in the evangelical world. There is hardly unanimity among conservative theologians about what constitutes an “evangelical.” That umbrella term can include Pentecostals, Presbyterians, many shades of Baptists and Congregationalists, and even the “emergent church” movement. All have different degrees with which they define and regard the Scriptures. Even among those that would indentify as “conservative”, there is a degree to which they emphasize the importance of preaching, or even how to approach teaching.

That is the culture that Mohler addresses in He Is Not Silent. In a nutshell, it is a pep-talk to preachers, an exhortation (a) to embrace expository preaching, (b) to preach the truth boldly, and (c) to preach the Gospel as a contrast to the fallenness of the world, not ignoring the ugliness of sin.

In making the case for expository preaching, he contrasts that with topical preaching. In this respect, I believe he needs to clarify what he means by topical preaching. After all, one can address a topic–such as prayer–while taking an expository approach to the sermon. For example, I could preach a sermon on prayer, while addressing how different people prayed in Scripture–Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets, Jesus, Paul, Peter–and arriving at applications based on those cases in Scripture. A comprehensive Biblical treatment of that topic, in fact, would do much to prevent the mania over fashionable movements like “The Prayer of Jabez”.

On the other hand, preaching which relies on popular psychology–and/or is low on Biblical exposition–is deserving of condemnation. I get the impression that such fluff is what Mohler is confronting. And it happens among conservative ranks more often than most conservative wish to admit.

In addition, Mohler provides a exhortation to the preacher to proclaim the truth boldy. Against the backdrop of a world awash in skepticism, it is imperative that the preacher be ready to provide answers to very hard questions. What is truth? What is the more Christian approach to issues like homosexuality, abortion, poverty, environmentalism, natural disasters? How does the Bible relate to science and technology? How does the Biblical presentation of God–the Trinity–differ with that of other popular religions (Islam, Paganism, Buddhism)? How do we love our enemies? How do we answer the challenges posed by contemporary skeptics?

It is less about defending God–after all, God needs no defenders–but rather about fulfilling the Great Commission, providing the case for the Gospel, because the world needs to hear it. Mohler is on-target on that front.

Even among the redeemed, there are issues within the Body that need attention. Sexual immorality is as serious today as it was in first century Corinth. False doctrines are as prevalent today as they were in first century Galatia and Colossae. Christians in the Islamic world and China are facing the same challenges as the first century Church. Christians in America are facing the same issues as those of Laodicea. It is on the preacher to instruct, confront, encourage, and exhort with respect to the Gospel message. Mohler hits that key point well.

Say what you wish about the fundamentalists, but God never gave any word to His people that is on par with that given by Robert Schuller and Norman Vincent Peale and the Word of Faith wackos. Jesus preached about hell; Jesus taught the disciples to eschew wealth; Jesus confronted sin among the Disciples, ripped the Pharisees repeatedly, and even spoke derisively about the political leaders. While Jesus had a positive message, it was a sober message with stern warnings. He even had doomsday messages (Matthew 24).

Against that backdrop, most of the religious programming on television is outright garbage, and most contemporary preaching in America is watered-down and/or just powerless due to a lack of regard for the Gospel. To that end, Mohler is on the mark in confronting the evangelical world. For the conservative who knows better, it makes a good refresher. For the one who has started down that slippery slope, it makes a good reality check. For those who are well-established in heresy, it could be your final warning.

Personally, I think Mohler has provided a necessary book to the preacher, and even the teacher. For many who are established, it will seem like a repeat of first grade. Still, for anyone who wants to see the case for expository preaching, this is a good book. If you want to know more about the how, John MacArthur’s book–Expository Preaching–is more comprehensive. MacArthur deals with the how, whereas Mohler deals with the what. I’m tempted to write my own book, chronicling the nutballery of contemporary preachers. I could call it Suppository Preaching.

In many respects, the conservative might read the book and say, “I’ve heard it all before”. Still, many “conservative” preachers have fallen for the ear-tickler approach to preaching. Baptist culture actually encourages it, as the preacher is always a deacon’s meeting away from getting fired if he steps on the wrong toes. If much of what passes for conservative preaching came from the left, we wouldn’t tolerate it. But if it comes from the right, it gets a pass.

Not with Mohler.

I have another key disagreement with Mohler: I am not convinced that expository preaching is hard. In fact, I find it quite easy; topical–pop-psych–preaching is actually more difficult because it is more difficult to place in logical structure whereas expository preaching goes with the flow of Scripture. The pop-psych style requires a lot more immersion in the vagaries of popular culture, whereas an expository style puts more emphasis on Scripture and less on immersion in the world. One need not be a Hebrew or Greek expert–although some knowledge of the languages is helpful. One need not be immersed in the popular commentators, although some familiarity with them can be helpful. What matters is (a) the preacher is established in his spiritual walk, (b) he has a fundamental understanding of the breadth of Scripture and an appreciation for its depth, (c) he is studious in his approach to Scriptures, and (d) when confronted with an issue, pursues a, “what does Scripture say…” approach.

It’s not just about expository preaching; expository preaching leads to expository counseling.

Conservatives and Reform-school theologians will like the book. Moderates will be put off by the high view Mohler takes with Scripture. Liberals will want to burn the book altogether.

Overall, I give it a 7.5/10.

Book Review: America’s Great Depression, by Murray Rothbard

Understanding the dynamics of economic calamities is extremely important; unless we heed the lessons learned when they happen, we are going to repeat the cycle.

If Murray Rothbard’s account of the events leading up to–and following–the onset of the Great Depression are accurate, then we have not learned that lesson. Rothbard lays that out in unadulterated detail in America’s Great Depression.

In fact, as one reads the book, all one needs to do is change the names and the dollar amounts, and we get a near-identical picture of our current financial crisis.

Rothbard starts by making the case for the Austrian (Von Mises) theory of the business cycle: that boom-bust cycles are caused by infation of the money supply which leads to an eventual correction (recession/depression) that causes the money supply to deflate, leading to drops in wages and prices. (Prior to 1929, depressions usually lasted little more than a year before full employment eventually returned.)

After he lays out the dynamic, he then confronts–very effectively–the various criticisms of the Austrian model.

Once Rothbard has made the case for the Austrian model, he lays out a stunning assessment of the events of the 1920s and early 1930s.

Here are some observations:

*Just like the 1020s, the Federal Reserve inflated the money supply in the late 1990s. The stock market bubble burst in 1929; the tech bubble burst in March 2000.

*When the stock market crashed in 1929, the Fed responded by inflating the money supply even further. In 2001, the Fed cut the Fed Funds Rate and the Discount Rate by a combined 1,000 basis points.

*The Hoover Administration, contrary to modern dogma, responded with a very interventionist policy:

  • They worked with industry leaders in an attempt to keep prices and wages stable.
  • They implemented public works programs in an effort to help the unemployed.
  • They formed government enterprises to help stem the tide of foreclosures.
  • They implemented bankruptcy reforms that favored the debtors.
  • They implemented bank holidays in an attempt to stem the tide of bank failures.
  • They worked with the Federal Reserve to keep pumping the money into the financial system.
  • They fought to stop short-selling

Contrast that with today’s actions by President Bush, Treasury Secretary Paulson, and Fed Chairman Bernanke:

  • They have dumped trillions of dollars into the financial system, in order to provide liquidity to the credit market.
  • They have increased the FDIC guarantee of depositor accounts to $250,000.
  • They passed an $800 billion “bailout” package to prop up financial institutions.
  • They seized control of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and AIG.
  • They passed an economic stimulus package earlier this year.
  • They are taking ownership interest in large national and regional banks.
  • They are even looking at directly aiding distressed homeowners.
  • They blocked the short-selling of financial stocks.

Sadly, Rothbard makes the damning case that none of the government efforts to “help” the economy worked; in fact, their interference in the market only made the Great Depression worse. A 1 or 2 year correction turned into a 10-year disaster during which the GDP fell over 50%.

If Rothbard’s case is accurate–and it appears to be so–then the world in general, the United States in particular, is in for a nasty ride.

Why does Rothbard’s case seem strong? It is monetarily sound.

If you are working and earning $30,000 per year, then start taking out loans and opening up credit card accounts–credit expansion–then you will be able to spend a lot more and acquire a lot of assets faster than you would by living on your salary.

The trouble is, you cannot run up an infinite amount of debt. At some point, the deflation must happen. Either (a) you cut your spending and pay down your debts, (b) the creditors move in and seize your assets, or (c) you go bankrupt, or (d) first (b) then (c). After the correction, assuming you have learned your lessons, you can then recover.

It’s the same way with economies, only nations–unfortunately–can always print more money and create new credit out of thin air whereas we cannot. When nations create large amounts of fiat money, it comes back and bites us one of two ways:

(1) It results in high inflation, possibly hyperinflation (like Zimbabwe)

(2) It results in larger government debt (like the United States)

Either way, it adversely impacts the economy by impeding the natural correction process. At best, it defers the crash for a later date (and at compound interest). At worst, it prolongs a crash that is in progress.

Rothbard has provided a necessary indictment of three sacred mantras in serious need of public debate today:

(1) Government intervention to ease the effect of recessions

(2) The Federal Reserve and their role in business cycles

(3) Fractional reserve banking.

Rothbard makes a devastating case against government intervention–in the form of increased spending–to prevent and mitigate recessions. He shows that, as the depression kicked in, the government’s burden on the taxpayer–and the GDP–actually increased. This resulted in money going to government–which produces little or no economic value–where it could have gone to industry, which does produce economic value. He also takes Hoover’s attack on short-sellers to task, as it prevented the necessary corrections that would have made market liquidation more orderly.

In fact, he makes a strong case that, during recessions, government sould cut spending and reduce their proportionate load on the taxpayers.

Arguably, his most damaging indictment was on the Federal Reserve. Their monetary policies of the 1920s–in collusion with the Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover administrations–ramped up a level of global economic activity that was not sustainable. We created money faster than the economy created value. This made for a crash that should not have been surprising.

In addition to the Federal Reserve, Rothbard aimed both barrels at the paradigm of fractional-reserve banking. He quite aptly referred to it as a counterfeiting system. Most people don’t realize this, but when a bank gives you a loan, they are not giving you money; they are creating money on your behalf. When debts go unpaid and banks must write that off, that results in the destruction of money and a deflation of the money supply.

In lieu of fractional reserve banking, Rothbard makes a strong case for the gold standard, which mitigates the capacity of our Treasury to play with the money supply.

This does leave us a warning, however: even within a gold standard, government will work to inflate the money supply. This is because, as Rothbard eloquently puts it: politically, inflation is always preferable to recession.

Unfortunately, Rothbard’s critique of Hoover-Roosevelt does not shine a positive light on Bush-Paulson-Bernanke. Even worse, both major Presidential candidates–McCain and Obama–support the very same policies that Bush has implemented; they differ only on details. Neither has said a word about monetary policy or the role of the Fed.

In fact, while Bernanke likes to say that he learned the lesson of the Great Depression–he credits Friedman’s monetarism and promises that he will never let it happen again–even Anna Schwartz, Friedman’s partner in A Monetary History of the United Stateschides Bernanke for “fighting the last war”.

Bush, in turn, has abandoned the supply-side heritage of Reagan in favor of Hoover-FDR Keynesianism on steroids.

What can we expect in the next 6 to 12 months? If I had the perfect answer, I’d be on television.

While the bailout money could provide some semblance of a recovery as lenders start lending again, the resultant debt is going to bode catastrophically for the American people. Economic activity is not going to reach its prior level for many years. Irrespective of who wins on Tuesday, neither will be able to snap a finger and make all things well.

For now, Americans need to cut spending, stock up on necessities (food), and work to pay down debts. I’d venture to say that, regardless of the short-term effect of the bailout, things are going to be trending badly for a while.

As Rothbard points out, government is not helping this one bit.

Della Reese is God: Review of The Shack

William P. Young–WPY–has apparently been watching too many episodes of Touched by an Angel.

His novel, The Shack–a fictional account of a man (Mack), struggling through a life of tragedy that incuded an alcoholic and abusive father and the brutal murder of his daughter Missy–has created a firestorm of criticism (in particular from Tom Neven and Ted Slater of Boundless) as well as an outpouring of praise.

Both the criticisms and the praise are valid.

First, I’ll discuss what WPY got wrong. Some of it is obvious; some of it is subtle. It is serious enough to merit red flags that the Christian reader ought to be prepared to explicate in a discussion of the book.

(1) While WPY seems to support the Trinity, he represents two members as women. His reasoning was apparently to emphasize the theme that God often encounters us outside our perceived mindsets–and this is a valid point–on the other hand, against a modern backdrop of feminist theology, that was a very poor choice on his part. Many orthodox Christians are understandably critical of that element.

(2) While WPY rightfully focuses on relationship aspect of the Faith, he is dismissive of admonitions to believers. Paul provided many of them to churches in Corinth, Ephesus, Galatia, Colossae, and Rome. Some of those carried stern warnings, some of which were eternal in nature. Church discipline is not absent in the NT, unpleasant as it may be.

(3) WPY glosses over coverage of killing and suffering in the Old Testament. On one hand, to his credit he appears to support Creation and the Fall and its effects on humanity. On the other hand, he appears to downplay the justice of God.

(4) While WPY appears to support the Atonement, He appears to emphasize the death of Christ as merely an act of love and not justice as well. Ted Slater of Boundless captures my sentiments well, as WPY dismisses the premise that God actually forsook Jesus on the cross.

(5) WPY ignores God’s justice. Consider p. 120:

“I am not who you think I am, MacKenzie. I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it.”

Sin is not a disease in need of cure; it is a condition that has rendered us dead. Because justice is a key aspect of God’s character, punishment for sin is necessary. Jesus bore that punishment on the cross.

(6) WPY is dismissive of authority. As unpleasant as the subject is, there is no getting around the issue of authority if one seeks to be truly honest with Scripture. This is the case in the garden; this is the case in the wilderness; this is the case during the time of judges, of kings, of exile, post-exile, the time of Christ on earth, and in the Early Church. While my libertarian streak wishes WPY’s treatment of this to be correct, I can’t endorse it.

Still, one must consider that there are lots of Christian groups–church and parachurch–that dysfunctionally exercise authority, at the expense of relationships. To that end, I empathize with “Papa”.

(7) WPY’s portrayal of God was far too cuddly than the presentation of Scripture. God was often very stern and tough, even smacking down Job. Jesus was brutal with the Pharisees, even as He loved them. While He was generous with women in a way that challenged societal paradigms, He was still blunt even by our Westernized standards.

On the other hand, I can see where readers would be attracted to the book.

(1) The presentation of forgiveness was very good. That alone is a very important theme of the book.

(2) The presentation of the problem of evil with respect to God’s character, human condition, and human freedom–while not perfect–was balanced. A little Arminian for the Reform folks, but not shabby.

(3) He does a masterful of presenting the issue of living life independently–without God–versus dependently (on God). That is perhaps the part he nailed the best. Americans–the most prosperous people in world history–pride themselves in independence. Heck, it is part of the title of our founding document.

But to be in Christ and to be independent are incompatible.
(4) He does a nice job of presenting the inadequacy of Man to fulfill God’s commandments, which any learned Christian understands is a key theme of the Old Testament as well as the Sermon on the Mount.

(5) He gets it on the relationship theme.While he drops the ball on admonitions for believers, WPY does emphasize that the walk of the believer is a relational one, not merely a set of DOs and DONT’s. The Christian life is not about a bunch of Confucian proverbs about good living; it is about knowing God.

While Tom Neven of Boundless is right to call Young to account on many theological points, we must not forget that The Shack–like the Chronicles of Narnia (where God is an animal, and the Trinity is not represented much at all) or The Lord of the Rings (Gandalf is farther from the Biblical model than Sarayu or Papa in The Shack) or the Space Trilogy (where the Holy Spirit is nonexistent in Out of the Silent Planet)–is a work of fiction, and that it is not to be confused with the Scriptures.The latter are authoritative; the former are not.

Overall, I cannot give the book a blanket condemnation; nor can I give it a ringing endorsement. When Young is right, he’s in the bullseye; when he’s wrong, he’s off by a mile.

The reader who has had tragic experiences–abuse, the death of a loved one, profound suffering–will easily identify with MacKenzie.

Unfortunately, Young’s feminized renderings for the Father and Holy Spirit will cost him 4 stars. I see what he was trying to do, but against our cultural backdrop he has stepped in it.

Ergo, an 8 star book will get only 4 out of 10.

CORRECTION: Jesus was brutal with the Disciples, even as He loved them. I mistakenly said Pharisees. Not enough coffee last night.

Book Reviews: The American Church in Crisis (David T. Olson) and unChristian (Dave Kinnaman)

The United States of America is headed in the same spiritual direction as Europe: toward a post-Christian society. Absent another Great Awakening, that will be our new reality within this century, and no amount of denial will change that fact.

David T. Olson provides a devastating statistical assessment of this in The American Church in Crisis. Almost every denomination is in decline, and even those that are growing are doing so at rates that lag overall population growth.

In other words, while the Church is growing numerically, Her overall representation of the population is actually in decline.

Some denominations–such as the mainline Protestant sectors (United Methodists, United Church of Christ, Christian Church DOC, Episcopalian Church USA, Presbyterian Church USA, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America)–have been in freefall for several decades. Much of that is attributable to secularization via liberal theology and far-left politics.

Even so, the Southern Baptist Convention–for decades a solid, growing denomination–is experiencing tepid growth, with overall membership in 2006 less than a quarter percent greater than 2005, and with baptisms–EVIDENCE OF NEW BELIEVERS–declining from 2005 to 2006.

In other words:

  1. Of the little growth experienced by the SBC, the number of Christians transferring from other denominations exceeds that of people actually receiving Jesus Christ.
  2. The marginal contribution to the Body of Christ by the Southern Baptist Convention HAS GONE DOWN! Adding members from other denominations IS NOT adding to the Church but rather transferring believers from one denomination to another. The number of NEW BELIEVERS is in decline!

Ergo, one cannot blame the decline of the Church exclusively on liberal theology. That may carry some weight as we assess mainline denominations, but the Southern Baptists are experiencing decline in spite of otherwise conservative theology.

For many pastors and laypersons on the front lines, this is not news. As a former youth minister and minister of education–and a layperson who has served in various teaching roles spanning children through adults–I’ve seen this coming for most of the last 20 years. Neither the causes nor the remedies can be summed up in the bumper stickers that dominate our theological landscape, nor is it all the fault of the Church.

That said, Olson’s book should be a required text in every Bible school and seminary, and laypersons ought to read it, too.

Olson does a good job with the analysis, and does a better job avoiding getting bogged down in a theological morass. This is not about the definitions of Biblical inerrancy, or the culture wars, or the five points of Calvinism, or Reform Theology versus Arminianism, or contemporary versus liturgical worship styles. Churches of all the aforementioned stripes have pockets of growth while being in overall decline.

Olson, whose passion is church planting, even provides some constructive ideas for how the Church can emerge from this decline, and even thrive in a post-Christian world.

As for a more in-depth examination of what the post-Baby Boom generation thinks of the Church, unChristian--by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons–will make your skin crawl.

Where Olson provided a statistical assessment that showed a Church in decline, Kinnaman and Lyons provide a statistical assessment that shows a large part of the reason why.

Fairly or unfairly, the Church has an image problem, especially among younger people inside and outside the Church.

Some of that image problem is unavoidable: much coverage of the church by the secular media has been neither fair nor representative of the Church as a whole.

Some of that image problem is indeed the fault of the Church, and has been fomented by religious political movements, in particular those on the right.

As a lifelong supporter of the pro-life cause, I can attest to those criticisms, many of which are valid.

For my first three years out of college, I wore three hats outside my regular job: I was a counselor at a crisis pregnancy center. I was also President of the county Right to Life chapter. I was also a speaking director for a maternity home.

My Sunday nights often involved going to a different church, giving a presentation on behalf of the maternity home, ostensibly raising the money we needed to keep our operations afloat. During the week–after work–I would work three-hour shift at the crisis pregnancy center. On weekends, I would help the Right to Life group plan the baby photo contests for the county and state fairs, as well as work on the newsletter.

During my work in that arena, I got to know a lot of people who were supportive of the pro-life cause. Sadly, this is what I observed happening: the cause became more important to them than the Faith from which a passion for the cause emanated.

On the matter of homosexuality, the situation was even worse. A very prominent evangelical pastor in the area was very ostensible in his opposition to gay adoptions. In his discourse, he referenced homosexuals via epithets.

For every conservative pastor who says, “We hate the sin but love the sinner”, there are almost as many like the aforementioned who would burn homosexuals at the stake given the legal wherewithal.

Compounding matters, as Kinnaman notes, the religious right blundered horribly when the Christian Coalition refused to hire a leader who desired a global AIDS outreach. (That the past President of the Christian Coalition was tacitly supportive of child slavery and child trafficking, and mounted some of the dirtiest political campaigns in recent history, does not help either.)

While the Biblical position–that homosexual behavior is not compatible with Christian faith–is indeed the proper Christian perspective, it is a completely different matter when Christians expend effort in promoting every political cause that is predisposed against gays.

Moreover, while it is correct to point out that the gay community should bear a large amount of responsibility for the spread of AIDS, it is equally correct to point out that Christian indifference to the AIDS suffer is anything but Christian.

Even on abortion, the Church has shown considerable insensitivity toward women who have had prior abortions. During my crisis pregnancy center days, I had no small number of clients who had one or more prior abortions. Most were not proud of that fact. Kinnaman provides an account of a women–having had a prior abortion–who experienced condemnation by others in a Bible study.

Fact: about 1 in 4 women of childbearing age have had at least one abortion. That is a great tragedy for both the child aborted as well as the women who must now deal with the aftermath. While I know a few who are comfy with their prior choice, I know many more who are not.

It’s a golden ministry opportunity on which the Church has punted.

While it is necessary to confront feminism–and other vestiges of theological liberalism–in the Church, the Church must not forget the scoldings that Jesus handed the Pharisees for punting on loving their neighbor, in spite of their otherwise sound doctrine.

Kinnaman also confronts the “get saved” culture fomented by the shallow cultural fundamentalism of Southern Baptists and other evangelical groups that overemphasize “conversions” and “professions of faith” to the exclusion of real discipleship.

Many conservatives will read Kinnaman with a degree of skepticism, as he includes perspectives from some far-left ministers (such as Jim Wallis of the Sojourners). On the other hand, Kinnaman also provides commentary from conservative leaders such as Charles Colson. Overall, the balance is there, and the truths are inconvenient.

The only thing I think Kinnaman did not address was the shoddy state of the youth ministry and their transition to young adults. That, perhaps, is the subject for another book.

Overall, Olson and Kinnaman have provided a stunning assessment of the Church in the United States. Anyone who cares for the future of the Church ought to take this assessment seriously.

Book Review: Where Have All the Good Men Gone

I’m going to be blunt: reading books about Christian singleness usually carries as much excitement as forensic proctology. And, when Charles–formerly of SingleChristianMan.blogspot.com–alerted me to A.J. Kiesling’s book Where Have All the Good Men Gone, I figured this was going to be another Debbie Maken screed all over again.

At first, as I opened Where Have All the Good Men Gone, and looked at the endnotes, I rolled my eyes. One chapter exclusively references Debbie Maken’s book Getting Serious About Getting Married. Kiesling starts out as if this is going to be an anti-male rant. I forced myself to keep reading. She referred to her singles gatherings where there were four women for every man present. (Sign me up for that Church…YESTERDAY!!!)

Instead, I found myself pleasantly surprised. THIS is the book that Debbie Maken could have written, had she not been blinded by her rage against men. THIS is the book that our friends at Boundless need to be promoting. (Ted: are you taking notes?)

If you are looking for a book that addresses why the Church has the dilemma of singleness–and what the Church must do–this is not your book. (Someone else is writing that one.)

If you are looking for a book that provides top-notch Biblical exegesis, this is not your book. (The book in progress might go there.)

If you are looking for a book that fingers one particular sex for the blame, you will be disappointed. (The author of the book in progress said his won’t go there either.)

If you are looking for a book that lays out–candidly–what is on the minds of Christian singles, men and women alike, and provides practical advice for each group in their pursuit of marriage, then this is your book.

Kiesling’s approach was different from Maken’s in that–rather than impute her experiences on the general–she actually made a good-faith effort to determine what the unmarried Christian men and women were thinking of each other. Her study was not perfect: she did an Internet survey of 120 Christian singles and used their responses as the primary content of her book.

While her method was not perfect in the scientific sense–she did not break down the respondents by age, region, denomination, or other levels of granularity–she was not aiming toward that end.

Still, I think she hit the important points, and–get this, folks–she was fair and balanced.

What you get is a sobering portrait of the hurts, the frustrations, the insecurities, the expectations, the hangups, and barriers that each sex has erected against the other.

I am not mentioning specifics, because I would rather you read it for yourself.

Kiesling’s tone is not one of judgment or condemnation; in fact, this is arguably the most constructive book–and practical one–that I have read on the subject.

If you are Christian, single, and want to be married, this is a must-read.

On a scale of 1 to 10, I give it a 9.

Preview: Jonah Goldberg Issues Warning to Americans

Within the next couple weeks, I will begin writing a multi-part review of Jonah Goldberg’s book Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to The Politics of Meaning. It is perhaps the most important book since Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. Every American ought to read both.

Here are some very important points:

  1. Fascism is inextricably tied to the American Progressive movement, which was the forerunner of modern liberalism.
  2. Many of America’s formative “progressives”–from John Dewey, W.E.B. DuBois, Clarence Darrow, and Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson–had agendas very consistent, and were themselves complimentary of, classical fascism.
  3. Classical fascism–from the French Revolution to the Bolshevik Revolution to the Italian, Spanish, and German (Nazi) and even American variations–combined nationalism, socialist economics, subversion of individual liberties, and a humanist religious agenda in which the State demanded loyalty,
  4. Fascism is not without precedent in America: Woodrow Wilson, in fact, employed it EXTENSIVELY during World War I in ways that made Joseph McCarthy look like a civil libertarian.
  5. The implications of our past experiments in fascism reveal a stern warning to Americans today: GOVERNMENT IS YOUR ENEMY!

That last point is perhaps the most important. Ronald Reagan, whatever faults he had, was very correct in his inaugural address: government is the problem. His record was not perfect, but when push came to shove he supported more liberties and not less. He didn’t cut the size of government; he did, however, cut the rate of expansion of the government. Contrast that with our current disaster of a President. We had more freedoms on January 19, 1989 than we had on January 20, 1981.

Anyone who believes that government is inherently altruistic needs to read Liberal Fascism. Do not let the title fool you: irrespective of your political leanings, it is the howling reproach to anyone–liberal or conservative–who thinks that big government is anything but a danger to personal liberties and true peace.

In fact, any conservative who reads Liberal Fascism and does not see the dangers of the neoconservatism of Bush and the modern GOP, has a single-digit IQ.

Book Review: The Irrational Atheist, Part 3 of Many (Atheism and Science)

Just as with defining “Atheist”, defining “science” required some extra legwork. After all, one of the primary arguments advanced by High Church Atheists (HCAs) is that religion–in particular Christianity–is an impediment to scientific progress.

Vox Day followed up his definition of Atheism with a definition of science, then proceeded to demonstrate not only how the logic of the HCAs against Christians is false, but also that (a) the same argument that the HCAs use against Christians–applied empirically–could be used against science and (b) that HCAs aren’t really promoting science but are rather advancing a case for either a return to the old Enlightenment (Harris, Dawkins) or a new Enlightenment (Hitchens).

In defining science, Vox applied a threefold definition supplied by PZ Myers:

  • science as a body of knowledge (scientage)
  • science as a methodology (scientody)
  • science as a profession (scientistry)

These definitions were critical, as Vox seeks to determine–using available data–which portions of science are particularly threatened by religion. After all, science has a substantial body of history associated with its practice, and therefore the relationship between science and religion should be ascertainable from that historical record.

This is where Vox delves into dissecting common mantras that have been promoted by the scientific community. One of the most prominent is that the Medieval period was the “Dark Ages” during which autocratic religious control stifled scientific progress, artistic development, and technical innovation and that the Enlightenment provided a great period of advancement by divorcing science from religion. In fact, Vox shows that–far from divorcing science from religion–religion and science have not had the strained relationship promoted by the HCAs.

Taking it one step further, Vox exposes the HCAs for being promoters–not of science–but rather of the Enlightenment, while cross-dressing that agenda in scientific veneer. This is because Dawkins–while an evolutionary biologist–promotes his Atheism without engaging in scientody (the empirical method) to make the case. Similarly, Harris makes his case for Atheism by making a plethora of assertions that–tested against a mountain of empirical data–are not only false, the data makes the case against him.

Harris and Dawkins argue using reason without data–even though data was readily available–while Hitchens argues using pure rhetoric while eschewing reason and data. Vox exposes them in all their nakedness.

Setting up his case against Atheism, Vox challenged Atheists to list the crimes of religion against science. PZ Myers and his devotees provided a list, which Vox provided for all to see (pp. 57-58). It was quite petty.

Taking it one step further, Vox turned the HCA line of reasoning on science. I remember Vox doing that on his blog–and in a WND column–and I did not respond as I figured he was going somewere with this. I remember the Atheists complaining about how Vox (a game designer who has made a good living creating state-of-the-art technology) was anti-progress. They took the bait: hook, line, and sinker.

Vox Day–a practitioner of the scientific method–was showing how the arguments of HCAs against Christians could, using empirical data, be used against them. In fact, Vox sets up a very damaging case against Atheism, because the empirical evidence of Atheist government is one of mass murder and scientific atrocity against Man.

While I could spent lots of time discussing the fine points he made, The Irrational Atheist is perhaps a great handbook of examples for how to think and reason critically. Here are some key takeaways that Christians and non-Christians alike can appreciate:

  • Always look for evidence. Reason without evidence is just untested hypothesis at best and gratuitous speculation at worst. Asserted as authoritative without results, it is misrepresentation. Done deliberately, it is fraud. When someone makes a general claim about the crimes (or accomplishments) of a particular religion, the data is probably out there. Never be afraid to look, and when you find it, don’t be afraid to see what you see.
  • Always look at the details. A good example of this was the way Sam Harris–using state crime data from the FBI–asserted that “red” states have higher crime rates than “blue” states. Vox, on the other hand, demonstrated that the same data was available by county, and showed that it was the “blue” counties within those “red” states that had the highest crime rates.
  • Never trust something just because it is repeated in academic circles. Vox spent lots of time dispelling myths about (a) the “persecution” of Galileo, (b) the Spanish Inquisition, (c) the “greatness” of the Enlightenment, and (d) the “superior” morality of Atheism.
  • Be honest about what you find. One of the biggest failures of the HCAs–Dawkins and Harris in particular–is their lack of intellectual honesty. In fact, Vox makes a compelling case that Harris was deliberately dishonest. On the other hand, while refuting Daniel Dennett, Vox commends him for his intellectual honesty. If you don’t have an answer, a good sign that you’re a grownup is the willingness to admit it rather than pull a fraudulent answer out of your ass.
  • Always ask the question, “Compared to what?” While the Spanish Inquisition and pogroms against Jews are certainly nothing for which Christians can brag, the total deaths of each of those combined are far less than the total killed under Atheist regimes during peacetime!

At the end of the book, Vox gets a little controversial, confronting the uber-Calvinist premise of God as Master Puppeteer (probably shades of his back-and-forth with The Responsible Puppet.)

In so doing, Vox provides an alternative model: that of God as game designer. In my final part of the review of his book, later this week, I will address this. While I am not in complete agreement with him–especially with respect to some of the particulars of Open Theism–I think that, with some modifications, the Game Designer model has traction. (I get the impression that Vox has a sequel to TIA in the making.)

While the Game Designer model is overly Arminian–I think he underplays God’s Sovereignty–it does form a basis for understanding the riddle that combines God’s justice, sovereignty, omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience, and justice. While no model is perfect, Vox makes provides a framework that constitutes a good faith effort to reconcile predestination with free will. More on that later.

Book Review: The Irrational Atheist, Part 2 of Many (What is an Atheist?)

In The Irrational Atheist, Vox Day begins by attempting to define what an atheist is. This is not very easy, because–as Vox points out in the first chapter–neither Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, or Harris can seem to agree on a definition.

Vox settles by defining Atheists in terms of High Church Atheists–intellectuals, academics, scientists, and other in high society who are open promoters of Atheism-and Low Church Atheists–common folks who either claim no religion (functional atheists) or who otherwise identify themselves as secular.

While most of his attack in TIA is restricted to the High Church Atheists (HCAs)–in particular Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and, to a lesser extent, Dennett–the inclusion of Low Church Atheists (LCAs) is also important in terms of understanding the obfuscations made by Atheists.

One such common obfuscation is that Christians are more likely to commit crimes than Atheists. In stating this, Atheists will point to the number of professing Christians in prison, compare that with the number of professing Atheists in prison, and–VIOLA!–Christians are thugs in the waiting!

In fact, Vox shows that including LCAs with HCAs, if you are a Christian in prison for a crime, your prison mate is more than four times more likely to be an LCA or HCA than a fellow Christian. (Which could make you–the Christian prisoner–more likely to be forced to be a prison wife.)

The only issue with which I take exception to Vox in this chapter is the first part of his opening chapter:

I don’t care if you go to hell.

God does, assuming He exists, or He wouldn’t have bothered sending His Son to save you from it. Jesus Christ does, too, if you’ll accept for the sake of argument that he went to all the trouble of incarnating as a man, dying on a cross, and being resurrected from the dead in order to hand you a Get Out of Hell Free card.

Me, not so much. I don’t know you. I don’t owe you anything. While as a Christian I am called to share the Good News with you, I can’t force you to accept it. Horse, water, drink, and all that.

I do care if you go to hell–I don’t even wish it on the radical feminists, communists, sexual predators, BATFE agents, and other degenerates whom I despise–although, as a Christian libertarian like Vox, I don’t care enough to attempt to force you to believe. After all, there is no Biblical precedence for forced conversion.

Jesus Himself even said that a man cannot come to him unless the Father draws him. (John 6:44) Even then, like Vox, I accept the premise that a man generally has free will to reject that invitation. (I’m more Reform than Arminian, but I am not a five-point Calvinist either.)

On the other hand, my worldview is quite congruent with that of Vox. My dad grew up in a country (Iran) that is today totalitarian. I am a Cold War Reagan conservative: government is the problem, totalitarian regimes are evil, and Christianity is congruent with more liberty and not less (II Corinthians 3:17).

However, the HCAs do not share an outlook that is conducive to liberty of thought. As Vox points out in his book–and I have on this blog–Dawkins has equated religious education with child abuse. In so doing, Dawkins appeals to national and international government frameworks that exist to combat child abuse.

Similarly, Harris has opined that mass extermination of people–on the basis of what they believe–could be justifiable. (Harris would head up the new Thought Police.)

What makes them a danger is not so much their case for Atheism–which really is nothing new under the sun–but rather their arguments against religion in general and Christianity in particular. It is those hypotheses against which Vox Day applies the scientific method, with results that are as devastating as they are academically and professionally embarrassing for HCAs.