I am now blogging at a new blog: erdman31.com

If you post comments here at Theos Project, please know that I will respond and engage your thoughts in a timely manner.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Contextualized and Relativized Ethics

Kierkegaard said, "Truth becomes untruth in this or that person's mouth." (I'll have to grab the citation information later.)

I like this move by Kierkegaard, even though it runs contrary to many conservative Christian thinkers. For me, however, the point of talking about the importance of relativity and contextualization in ethics is not to provide an opportunity to turn untruth into truth, but to open up the possibility that human beings often turn truth into untruth. In other words, relativizing "good/evil" and "truth/untruth" is about understanding how important context is to the discussion. Could it be that much of our inclination is toward self deception? That as human beings we find security in "truth," when such truth has merely been taken into a context where it can be used for "untruth"?

Ah, perhaps an interesting example from current events:

McClellan has some kind words for Bush, calling him "a man of personal charm, wit and enormous political skill." He writes that the president "did not consciously set out to engage in these destructive practices. But like others before him, he chose to play the Washington game the way he found it, rather than changing the culture as he vowed to do at the outset of his campaign for the presidency." [from Ex-press aide writes Bush misled U.S. on Iraq, citing Scott McClellan]

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Shaken not stirred

This from Hebrews 12:

You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; 19to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, 20because they could not bear what was commanded: "If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned." 21The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, "I am trembling with fear."

22But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, 24to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

25See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? 26At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, "Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens." 27The words "once more" indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.

28Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, 29for our "God is a consuming fire." [NIV, emphasis added]

I find this passage profound, because the writer places fear of God in a new context. First, he explains old way: God storms at the people from the mountain. In the old covenant, when God was near he was also very distant. The people trembled when God came near. He spoke from the storm and with fury.

This old way is in contrast to the new covenant: angelic glory, joyful assembly, redemption through Christ's blood. The comparison yields the conclusion: there is something better in the new way.

But the new way of joy and redemption begs the question of what place the fear of God may have. For the writer, the answer seems obvious: in light of what you are receiving, worship appropriately, namely, with reverence and awe. He then suggests the consistency between the old and new way: our God is a consuming fire.

The book of Hebrews is fascinating, because the author is reworking the entire Old Testament into a new framework. Sometimes the old fits well in the new; at other times the old needs to be radically recontextualized. In Hebrews 12, the constant is the God of a consuming fire; but the context is new. It is a unique Christological context. So, even the God of consuming fire is recontextualized.

Personally, I deeply appreciate the grace and joy of the Christian life; it is something I am only beginning to realize, I think. I try to start over with each new day: today I am a new Christian who is just now experiencing God's grace for the first time.

Yet as much as I love walking in God's grace, I also appreciate the moments when I can tremble in God's presence. Both God's grace and his consuming fire relate to his presence and nearness. God remains mysteriously non-disposable. In other words, there is no formula to conjur up his presence. He just appears. Or disappears. I don't mean to suggest that we should not seek him, but only that God is often like Lewis's Aslan in that he so often refuses to be compartmentalized or used. He resists the economics of market exchange where we can pay a price for a product that we consume for our own use. Nay, in fact, if there is an economics at work, then the reverse seems to be the case: it is God who is the consumer, the consuming fire. In many ways, it is we who are at his disposal.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Cola Turka Side of Life

Advertising is clearly one of the primary ways not only to sell a product, but as a means of selling a lifestyle and transforming culture. There is no longer a distinction: product is image and image is product.

Advertising just is culture and culture is advertising.

In 1971 Coke produced the "I'd like to teach the world to sing" commercial. As I understand, it is the most successful (or one of the most successful) ad campaigns ever. Though I am no expert on the history of marketing, this ad was a pioneer in abandoning the concept of blatantly selling the product and instead sold an idea: a better world; a world united in song. Oh, but a world also united in drinking Coke. (Ah, so they did not completely abandon the sale of the their product!)

In 2003 Cola Turka aired two very popular commercials with Chevy Chase. Certain elements in Turkey felt threatened by the invasion of American culture and products. Cola Turka seized the opportunity to sell its own cola and outwit the giant foreign mega-brands, Pepsi and Coke. The message of the ad? Cola Turka is not just another American-type cola. Whereas the other brands represented an import of American culture and threaten to Americanize the Turks, Turka Cola promises to Turkize the Americans! So, they used a famous American spokesman to pitch the idea.

Check out these two, highly successful Turkish ads for Cola Turka:

Either way one looks at it, the above ads represent the homogenized global culture now sponsored by ___________. I'm not here to make a value judgment, I think that there are opportunities and challenges. One positive potential outcome is that we can be united around being human beings and not by race, ethnic, or national distinctions. Of course, losing our distinctiveness also seems troubling.

In any case, go ahead and pop open a Cola Turka and celebrate diversity.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Five Mistakes Clinton Made

The following are from an interesting little article The Five Mistakes Clinton Made by Karen Tumulty

1. She misjudged the mood
That was probably her biggest blunder. In a cycle that has been all about change, Clinton chose an incumbent's strategy, running on experience, preparedness, inevitability — and the power of the strongest brand name in Democratic politics.

2. She didn't master the rules
Clinton picked people for her team primarily for their loyalty to her, instead of their mastery of the game.

3. She underestimated the caucus states
While Clinton based her strategy on the big contests, she seemed to virtually overlook states like Minnesota, Nebraska and Kansas, which choose their delegates through caucuses. She had a reason: the Clintons decided, says an adviser, that "caucus states were not really their thing."

4. She relied on old money
For a decade or more, the Clintons set the standard for political fund-raising in the Democratic Party, and nearly all Bill's old donors had re-upped for Hillary's bid. Obama relied instead on a different model: the 800,000-plus people who had signed up on his website and could continue sending money his way $5, $10 and $50 at a time. (The campaign has raised more than $100 million online, better than half its total.)

5. She never counted on a long haul
Clinton's strategy had been premised on delivering a knockout blow early. If she could win Iowa, she believed, the race would be over.

Now, of course, the question seems not whether Clinton will exit the race but when. She continues to load her schedule with campaign stops, even as calls for her to concede grow louder. But the voice she is listening to now is the one inside her head, explains a longtime aide. Clinton's calculation is as much about history as it is about politics. As the first woman to have come this far, Clinton has told those close to her, she wants people who invested their hopes in her to see that she has given it her best. And then? As she said in Indianapolis, "No matter what happens, I will work for the nominee of the Democratic Party because we must win in November." When the task at hand is healing divisions in the Democratic Party, the loser can have as much influence as the winner.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Indiana Primary Day

Today Indiana goes to the polls, and our votes actually mean something. Wow.

I am Jon Erdman, and I approve this message.

Monday, May 05, 2008

And Now In Local News

Normally Indiana is ignored in the primaries. Well, friend, truth be told, most of the time Indiana is ignored in just about everything! But this year Indiana actually has some influence in the upcoming Democratic primaries. (We vote tomorrow.)

As a result, Bill Clinton was in Warsaw, Indiana. Yes, that's right, Warsaw, Indiana.

Warsaw is right next door to my little lake side hamlet of Winona Lake. So, I went to see Bill speak on Saturday.

It was a good time. His message was conservative, no big surprise there. I was a bit worried at the outset of the speech because Bill seemed like he was zoning out! In fact, his mouth was kind of hanging open and he was leaning forward such that some high school guys behind me started laughing and joking that he was going to fall over.

Ah, but once Clinton started speaking, he got in the zone. The man is a very influential politician. He was very passionate and on point, glancing only infrequently at his notes. I was very impressed.

There was a young woman with him on stage, which of course caused the high school guys behind me to start cracking jokes. Being of a depraved mind, I joined in the course jesting and suggested that I had seen a young woman who had carried in a sign saying, "I want to be the next Monica." Yes, friend, I am wrong.

The President began his speech by saying, "This country is in trouble. And you know it." His tone was emphatic; he reminded me of sitting around a dinner table listening to my grandfather lecture. A few times during the speech, Clinton took a stern tone, warning the crowd that the United States had drifted off point from the utopia he created in the nineties. What is interesting is that Clinton never spoke of Barack. I don't recall him mentioning any other politicians by name, with the exception of mentioning a few local Democrat politicians. Only a few times did he mention "the other candidates."

Former Pres Bill Clinton Works Tough Crowd in Warsaw

(Hhhhmmmmm....I don't recall the crowd as being "tough," despite the fact that Warsaw is a staunchly Republican town. In fact, I recall quite a bit of applause and enthusiasm from the crowd. All in all, I would say that Bill had a very warm reception and good turn out.)
Bill Clinton visits Plymouth and Warsaw

Here is a hilarious Youtube clip of something of a typical Indiana local who couldn't get their camera to work in time!

In other local news...

Unfortunately for me, I missed the chance to hear Obama. He was in Ft. Wayne and then made a surprise stop yesterday in Elkhart, Indiana. Ft. Wayne is about 45 mins away and Elkhart is only 20 minutes or so. Darn. I would have liked to see Obama.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Accountability 2.0

For the last month or so, I've been thinking about accountability and law. From my experience, most Christian accountability groups/relationships are centered on some sort of legalism: have you not done the bad stuff. Some accountability relationships develop very specific questions that are asked at each meeting: Did you have impure thoughts, did you look at pornography, did you read your Bible everyday, did you pray everyday, etc.

The point of most accountability relationships is to keep one accountable for whether or not they have kept the rules. If someone screws up, then the result is shame. If one lies and says, for example, that they did not look at pornography when if fact they did, then presumably more shame follows, because now you are not only a pornographic sinner but also a liar. Trust me: been there, done that.

So, law and shame are interconnected in a traditional accountability relationship. This is not to say that there cannot be some positive accountability, however. One may use law/shame as the opportunity to encourage each other to "pursue God," to cultivate a more virtuous thought life, or to develop life-patterns that avoid coming into contact with particularly tempting temptations. But even the more positive "encouragement" winds up being a legalistic thing: if you fail to move in a positive direction, then you have violated the law.

Regardless of the good intentions of those involved, I find the law/shame approach to be largely ineffective. That is, it just hasn't worked well for me or those I have known. I would suggest that it has worked in some ways and in some situations; but by and large I find that most people struggle mostly with the same things over the long run.

Two quick reasons for the ineffectiveness: First, psychologically it seems as though when we focus on law (the "dos" and "don'ts") it usually produces all the more desire: desire to do the don'ts and to don't do the dos. Most human beings find it innate within them to want to break the law. Whether or not we actually break the law (and to what extent we are lawbreakers) seems to vary from person to person. Also, even if we don't like to think of ourselves as "lawbreakers," we still find the law a poor motivator. For example, reading one's Bible because of obligation somehow drains us and tends to make Bible reading even less desirable than it would be. Making a task (however positive and enjoyable it may be in and of itself) an obligation takes it into a new context that tends to make it tiresome.

The second reason is from Paul's theology. Paul seems to suggest in Galatians 5 that law and desire are linked such that law feeds off of desire and desire feeds off of law. For Paul, there is a law-desire economy at work that produces failure upon failure and ultimately "death." (Also compare Romans 7.) So, I see a good theological reason why law-shame and most accountability relationships are not very effective.

John (aka Ktismatics) comments on the psychological-theological connection:
Sinful desires are created by the law; the law is created because of sinful desires. It's a dialectic that needs to be abolished altogether in order to see synthesis on a different plane, which is the life of the; spirit and the fruit thereof. (personal correspondence)

I think Paul is saying that, within the slave morality of the Law, moral and immoral acts are equally unnatural and non-spontaneous. The Law simultaneously stimulates the desire to self-justify and the desire to transgress. The resulting sense of conflict and futility makes everything an effort. It’s the life of a slave.

But, says Paul, this futility isn’t necessary. Christ set the Galatians free; they’re no longer slaves but heirs. In Dostoevsky’s famous novel Ivan Karamazov concludes that if God is dead then everything is permitted, that all things are lawful. Curiously, Paul contends that just the opposite is true: if the Spirit sets you free then all things are lawful (I Corinthians 10:23). Has the Spirit put God to death? No, but the Spirit did put to death the slave morality of law-desire-transgression that had come to be identified with God.
(Everything is Permitted)

In my previous post on sin, I shared the illustration of thinking of Pink Elephants: if you try not to think of pink elephants, it just becomes all that much harder not to think about them. Hoosier commented on this:

I had lunch with one of my "accountability bros" several weeks ago at which time I told him I no longer was striving to be holy because any sin felt like utter defeat. He was shocked. I told him I planned to enjoy the grace already extended to me. Last week we had lunch again and he told me how down he was because of some struggles. I told him he was thinking too much about not doing it and that pulled him in.
Side note: when you hear pornography mentioned in a sermon, what's the first thing you think about? Exactly, pink elephants.

So, here is the question: Is there a law-less way to cultivate accountability groups?

Perhaps the manner in which we meet is important. Perhaps super secret, private meetings are counterproductive, because it cultivates that sense of shame and the need to hide one's true self (the secret self) from the rest of humankind. What if accountability were moved into the context of small groups/cell groups/house churches? What if Christians had a sense of trust, grace, and maturity such that anything could be shared?

In the fellowship of freedom that I envision, this is possible. The reason is that we are here to set each other free, not to weigh each other down with rules and laws. The point of the life of the believer is not to fulfill the law; it is to live by the Spirit in freedom and grace.

When there is a focus on meeting the laws and rules, we tend to feel weighed down and unmotivated. We also feel shame and failure. But why do we have to live this way. If Christ has set us free, we are free indeed? It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. (Fellowship and the Freedom of Self)

There is still a place for a confessional element in a fellowship of freedom. But this purpose of confession has little to do with law. Confession is important and should happen often. Confession helps us verbalize who we are: "I failed with pornography," "I overate and indulged my appetites in an unhealthy way," "I had meaningless sex with a co-worker," "I am having inappropriate thoughts about touching children." All of these "dark" confessions bring to light the direction of our lives, which helps us come to grips with who we are and where we are going. Do I want to define myself as someone who is driven by desires for pornography? Ultimately, it is a drive of the "flesh," as Paul calls it. But the fellowship of freedom is the best context to understand who we are and why we continue to go back to the flesh rather than embrace a life of freedom in the Spirit.

What does accountability look life if we redo the whole thing, top to bottom??? Thoughts or suggestions? I'm interested in feedback on this topic. How can believers make the most of their fellowship and truly grow as people and as spiritual beings? And is it too daring to suggest that nonbelievers might participate in the fellowship (Hint: Augustine's writings might lend support to this possibility)?