Jesus as salesman. Relatable Jesus.

We really don’t know much about Jesus.

To show that, here’s a perspective on Jesus from Bruce Barton – a critical dissection of his method that, for unclear reasons, I don’t think Christians are usually willing to entertain:

Finally he knew the necessity for repetition and practiced it.

It has been said that “reputation is repetition.” No important truth can be impressed upon the minds of any large number of people by being said only once. The thoughts which Jesus had to give the world were revolutionary, but they were few in number. “God is your father,” he said, “caring more for the welfare of every one of you than any human father can possibly care for his children. His Kingdom is happiness! His rule is love.” This is what he head to teach, but he knew the necessity of driving it home form every possible angle. So in one of his stories God is the shepherd searching the wilds for one wandering sheep; in another, the Father welcoming home a prodigal boy; in another a King who forgives his debtors large amounts and expects them to be forgiving in turn – many stories, many advertisements, but the same big Idea.

Another selection:

His language was marvelously simple – a second great essential. There is hardly a teaching which a child cannot understand. His illustrations were all drawn from the commonest experiences of life; “a sower went forth to sow”; “a certain man had two sons”; “a man built his house on the sands”; “the kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed.” The absence of adjectives is striking.

Jesus used few qualifying words and no long ones. We referred a minute ago to those three literary materpieces, The Lord’s Prayer, the Twenty-Third Psalm, The Gettysburg Address. Recall their phraseology:

  • Our Father which art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.
  • The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
  • Four score and seven years ago.

Not a single three-syllable word; hardly any two-syllable words. All the greatest things in human life are one-syllable things – love, joy, hope, home, child, wife, trust, faith, God – and the great advertisements, generally speaking, are those in which the most small words are found.

Irreverent to speak of Jesus as marketer? Was he simply an advocate of a “big Idea?” Is it right to consider and judge his method, even if we find it flawless?

On that note, here’s another selection to consider – this time from the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark:

And as He walked by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. Then Jesus said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” They immediately left their nets and followed Him.

I’ve read this over and over. I think it shows just how little about Jesus we really know.

As a kid in Sunday School, I remember watching animated movies about this episode — of Jesus calling his disciples to “follow me.” In them, he walks about seemingly unknown to the hoards of people living around the Sea of Galilee. He walks up to random young men that he seemingly didn’t know beforehand. He asks them to drop their things and follow him.

They obey.

If you really think about it, there are only a few explanations for this. People do not randomly leave their families and livelihoods behind to follow a stranger. Have you done this? Has anyone you know done this?

Even cult leaders develop a relationship with their followers before leading them away from their families and livelihoods. Perhaps they wrote a book that their followers have read. Maybe they demonstrate powerful understanding of things their followers care about. Whatever it is, cults don’t appear spontaneously–their leaders possess some characteristic or history that lends them influence in their followers’ minds before they make the decision to leave everything behind.

On that note, I see two possible explanations for Simon and Andrew’s bizarre behavior.

  1. They were influenced by some supernatural power to follow a man they knew nothing about.
  2. They knew something about Jesus that quelled their natural, healthy hesitancy to follow him anywhere.

The first one is, I think, the most commonly-believed explanation. Movie depictions of this episode often entail some majestic-looking bearded man walking, trance-like, toward Simon and Andrew, and calling their names in a hypnotic voice. They, also trance-like, drop their things and follow him as he continues walking down the lake-shore.

I can’t prove this explanation wrong. It’s plausible. It is, however, lazy. It forgoes any more relatable explanation, or one that might be more useful to one with a healthy skepticism of random, supernatural events. I don’t like such explanations. They don’t jive with what we know to be true about the human condition.

The second one is interesting because, if it’s true, it opens the door to further knowledge about Jesus’ life and influence prior to the beginning of his ministry. We don’t know much about Jesus’ twenties except that he was a carpenter. We don’t know if he had friends, where he lived, or how he spent his time.

Extra-biblical depictions of Jesus during this time tend to skim over it, often alluding to twenty-something Jesus as a sort-of “man in waiting” who knew his ministry was not to begin until later.

But such a depiction isn’t necessarily true. It’s conjecture. It’s possible that Jesus had a full life and was very influential among his contemporaries. Perhaps he was a profound speaker. Maybe he was exceptionally strong or tall or boisterous. Maybe he was a genius (see Luke 2) and engaged others with deep insights about God and the Torah.

What I’m really getting at is the possibility that Jesus was very relatable, and that we really know very little about him. Christians believe he is God, but they also believe he is “fully man.” So could others see in him a person they wanted to be? Could they relate to him? Did his boldness inspire them to live better lives? Did they aspire to be more like him? Did they even think that was possible?

Yes, I think, on all points.

Faithful presence (anti-“culture war”)

From James Davison Hunter:

Christians need to abandon talk about ‘redeeming the culture’, ‘advancing the kingdom’, and ‘changing the world’. Such talk carries too much weight, implying conquest and domination. If there is a possibility for human flourishing in our world, it does not begin when we win the culture wars but when God’s word of love becomes flesh in us, reaching every sphere of social life. When faithful presence existed in church history, it manifested itself in the creation of hospitals and the flourishing of art, the best scholarship, the most profound and world-changing kind of service and care – again, not only for the household of faith but for everyone. Faithful presence isn’t new; it’s just something we need to recover.

On Pope Francis, think deeper

Pro-market Christians in America could learn much from Pope Francis about holy living and compassionate thinking if only they’d think more deeply about his message. Instead, they’re too quick to extract superficial, tangential inferences about what his teaching means for the cause of free market capitalism. Indeed, advancing free markets is no end in itself — it is, or ought to be, a corollary cause for those believe, with sound and defendable reasons, that markets are a just way to bring economic progress to all peoples. Citing Pope Francis’ (alleged) anti-capitalism alone to argue against his teaching reveals a total misunderstanding of why beliefs about economic life are worth holding and, possibly, of the very nature of God.

Neither should one evaluate Pope Francis according to whether he’s pro-America. If a Christian disagrees with the Pope, it ought to have something to do with the Pope’s theology. Patriotism, as an ideal, simply doesn’t rise high enough to serve as any defense against anyone who claims to speak for or about God, no matter what one may think of such a teacher’s true place or motive. If my God is wrong because you’re country is great, it’s country, not God, who you serve.

So don’t interpret Pope Francis’ exhortations against greed and inequality as falling somewhere to the left-of-center on the political spectrum. When the Pope criticizes the market, he’s not doing so as an advocate of further state regulation. He’s doing so as an advocate of holy living. In this sense, we ought to take his teaching on restraint, discretion, and sacrifice personally — applicable to our own lives in some way that perhaps only we can know — and not as part of some larger, implicit ideology or political campaign. Ironically, if we all did this, I’m convinced we’d hear much less about the “evils of capitalism,” even in the context of an economically competitive, “free market” society.

All of this hits on a larger, more insidious issue plaguing American churches today. Sadly, how many have chosen to interpret the Pope — as speaking anti- this or pro- that, instead of do this or do that — is how so many Christians interpret sincere exhortations from truly good teachers. Sound, Biblical teaching on issues like sexuality, family, and citizenship are too quickly seen as denouncements of this or that way of thinking about such issues rather than as (sometimes hard) lessons on how we, personally, can walk with God. The extent to which we think about the Pope’s, or any good teacher’s, lessons on life in such terms is the extent to which we fail to glean what’s truly valuable in good teaching. To be wise has never been so much about understanding what’s true and good, but about willing and living accordingly.

How to argue with the Pope

If you’re going to argue with Pope Francis, at least respond in kind.

When the Pope speaks about immigration reform, wealth redistribution or climate change, he’s proclaiming God’s perspective. You may not believe he knows anything more about God’s perspective than you do, but you can, I hope, acknowledge that he believes this is true. His comments on “political” issues like the ones I listed above are rooted in, he believes, a correct understanding of Scripture and what we know about God through our observations of the universe.

So saying something like…

“The Pope is wrong about climate change. Anti-warming policy is bad policy — it’s just a red carpet for bigger government.”

…means nothing to him and those who believe him. He, along with millions around the world, believes this is God’s perspective. It doesn’t matter what you think about anti-warming policy, even if you could prove it wrong, as long as God is for it.

So if you’re going to argue with the Pope, do so in kind. Here’s how:

If you don’t believe in God, then don’t argue with the Pope’s facts. His facts are of a different kind than yours. For you, the Pope is simply wrong because he believes in a false being called “god.” Why argue any further than that? Why analyze and critique his statements according to your understanding of things? He says what he says because, he believes, God says it that way. Showing him some “evidence” that is rooted in something other than God’s revelation is pointless.

If you’re a Christian but not Roman Catholic (or, for that matter, Roman Catholic but not a Francis fan), then correct the Pope with Scripture and an appeal to general revelation (that is, what we know about God from our observations of the universe). Correct his theology. Correct his view on God’s will for these particular “political” issues, specifically. Don’t go around saying he’s wrong about, say, immigration reform because that’s bad economic policy. Why should he care? Why should anyone who takes him seriously care? If God said it, it’s not bad economic policy (according to those who take him seriously).

What’s worst is when Christians who don’t like the Pope think he’s wrong because his views don’t align with free market capitalism. What if God’s views don’t align with free market capitalism? If you want to wage a sound argument against the Pope’s ideas, show that God supports free market capitalism, or whatever you think God supports.

These thoughts are jumbled. I hope you get what I’m trying to say.

Basically, if you think Pope Francis is wrong about things and you’re not a Christian, don’t argue with the specifics of his propositions. Argue with the source of his ideas. If you think Pope Francis is wrong about things and you’re a Christian, take issue with his theology. Don’t say he’s wrong just because the numbers don’t add up — again, why should he or his supporters care if they truly believe he speaks for God?

Drastic oversimplification

From Peter J. Leithart at First Things:

Evangelicalism is also a conversionist faith. The key crisis of life is the moment of commitment to Christ. In Woodlawn, most of the characters convert early in the film, necessarily so because the story is about the effect of the revival on race relations. But that means that the line of character development is flat. The really crucial character development has taken place in the moment of conversion. The main exception is Coach Gerelds, and not surprisingly, it’s Coach Gerelds who ends up being the dramatic focus of the film, the character whose emotions and motivations we get to know best.

Theologically speaking, character development is “sanctification.” A conversionist form of Christianity places less emphasis on sanctification than on conversion and justification. In films, that translates into drastic oversimplification of human psychology. For Evangelicals, there are only two sets of motivations, as there are two kinds of people: Saved and unsaved. While that is ultimately true, it is not the whole story.

Be Germanicus

From Eusebius’ The History of the Church:

Special mention is made of the noble Germanicus, who by divine grace overcame his natural physical fear of death. The proconsul tried to dissuade him, stressing his youth and begging him as one still in the very prime of life to spare himself, but without a moment’s hesitation he drew the savage beast towards him, wellnigh forcing and goading it on, the more quickly to escape from their wicked, lawless life. After his glorious death the whole crowd were so astounded by the heroism of God’s beloved martyr, and the courage of Christian people everywhere…

Brace for more stupid, unwarranted Islamophobia

Mark my words: Mainstream media pundits will make a big deal out of the fact that the gunman in Ottowa today was a Muslim. In fact, they usually only use the word “terrorist” when the perpetrator was a Muslim.

That’s sad, because most terrorists aren’t actually Muslim. In fact, between 9/11 and 2012, only 33 of the more than 300 Americans killed by terrorist acts died at the hands of Muslims. I don’t want to downplay that number, but consider that more than 180,000 Americans were murdered during this time for reasons unrelated to terrorism, or that the Virginia Tech shooter alone killed 32—just one less person.

I also notice a tendency among media pundits to blame Islam when a criminal is Muslim like they blame guns when a criminal is either insane or has no obvious motive. Many accept the first tendency yet decry the second by pointing out that only a minuscule fraction of guns are used to kill innocent people. But we can’t have our cake and eat it, too. If blaming guns is wrong because guns are almost always used responsibly, then blaming Islam must also be wrong because Muslims are almost always not terrorists.

No matter what anyone tells you about the “inherent violence of Islam” or Muslims’ tendency toward terrorism against Western targets, remember that more than seven million Muslims live in the United States today who have never committed a terrorist act. These people live in our neighborhoods. Their children go to our schools. They work at our banks, our pools, our grocery stores, our city halls. Saying Islam is inherently violent is like saying driving is safer than flying–it’s simply false, based entirely on ‘gut feeling’ and not on real-world data.

I don’t want to defend Islam. I’m not a Muslim. I think Muslims are wrong. I hate the way many of them treat women. But I also hate false information–especially when it leads to unwarranted fear.

Is religious adherence bad for the economy?

I have a new post up at First Thoughts about religious adherence and economic performance.

This one was prompted by a frustratingly shallow NPR story about Ramadan’s effect on GDP in majority-Muslim countries. Ramadan, it said, and (by implication) similar events in other religions steal from productivity as religious adherents divert energies toward something other than productive efficiency.

I argue otherwise. Go read the post to find out why.

On a related note, today happens to be the last day of Ramadan. How fitting!

Placing Blame Where Blame is Due

This article was originally published at Valuesandcapitalism.com on November 29, 2013.

In his book “Life at the Bottom,” Dr. Theodore Dalrymple describes the common behaviors that he observes in many of his lower-class patients. Among the most apparent of these is an attitude of “dishonest fatalism”—a consistent unwillingness to accept blame.

“The knife went in,” said one patient awaiting his trial for first-degree murder. Another blamed his thieving ways on an insatiable addiction to the thrill of stealing—an addiction he expects the doctor to treat. A third insists his “head just went,” to explain away his assaulting a companion.

While Dalrymple beats me in time spent with lower-class criminals, I know just the attitude he describes. I see it all the time, and not just among the poor.

It goes like this: As human beings find themselves in dire financial, medical, social or emotional circumstances, they often cope with guilt by shifting blame from themselves to others, or even to objects. Whether the discomfort is or is not their own fault, they explain their situation in terms of how their environment is responsible for it. Unemployment is caused by greedy managers; obesity by the availability of fatty foods; divorce by unreasonable spouses; laziness by clinical depression. Whatever the problem, its cause (and solution, for that matter) is fate—someone or something beyond the victim’s control.

Dalrymple is hardly alone in noting the implications of this attitude on poverty and working-class crime. In fact, entire studies exist on the psychology of the lower class as it pertains to control over their financial future and their motivation to escape the poverty cycle.

But fatalistic thinking is not unique to the poor. In some way or another, we all pass the blame for our problems to avoid the pain of recognizing our own deficiencies. And in our era of big government, politicians are the most common scapegoat. Whether to explain unemployment, failing schools and even obesity, liberals and conservatives alike target bad policy as the prime mover behind the nation’s biggest economic and social problems.

Of course, much of this blame is deserved. Governments at every level are generally poorly-managed and financially insolvent. Officials are often short-sighted—motivated by special interests more than by their constituents’ well-being.

But blaming government can also be dangerous, as it often masks underlying personal deficiencies that only contribute to the problem at hand.

Take, for example, America’s student loan crisis. According to the Federal Reserve, Americans now own more than $1.2 trillion of student loan debt, prompting some economists to call the program “unsustainable.” Only 40 percent of student loan borrowers make their scheduled payments, and almost 10 percent of all loans in repayment are delinquent.

Without a doubt, government policy has only exacerbated this problem. For decades, politicians wooed young voters with lenient, low-interest student loan policies, enticing young adults to take on massive debt long before they have any stable income. Now, some even propose laws that make student loan forgiveness easier for struggling borrowers, further encouraging young adults to finance their education with borrowed cash.

But the decision to borrow money is not made by government agents, admissions counselors or the increasingly competitive job market. Yes, college tuition can be prohibitively expensive and many jobs require a degree, but acquiring debt is the sole decision of the borrower. Inability to repay indicates poor financial decisions—ones from which borrowers should learn lessons to apply to their choices in the future.

Similar examples include debates about poverty, abortion and gun control. Even as concerned citizens, we too often forget our own role in encouraging unwise choices and instead blame politicians. Like Dalrymple’s patients, we are often blind to our own faults and quick to point out the problems with everything around us, and with government most of all.

Until we shuck this habit, consider any and all government policy ineffective. There is little politicians can do to counteract bad choices on the part of their constituents. Likewise, there is always something we can do to improve our own lives, no matter how difficult the current environment.

Bad laws make life harder, but so do vanity, sloth and even a poor diet. Taking the blame when it’s yours to take is the easy first step toward improving poor circumstances—economic, political and personal alike.

Material Problems Have Moral Solutions

This article was originally published at ValuesandCapitalism.com on April 18, 2013.

Is material prosperity the key to moral improvement?

For Marxists, the answer is yes (as explained in my last post). In fact, according to Marx’s narrative, the moral and social ills of society are directly attributable to material poverty. The only way to improve moral life, then, is to first improve economic conditions.

But history tells a different story.

In his book “Economics as Religion,” economist Robert Nelson tells the story of Zambia in the late twentieth century. As one of Africa’s poorest nations, Zambia was, for many years, the number one recipient of foreign aid. Hoping to improve the economic life of the Zambian people, nations around the world poured millions into Zambia in an attempt to spur investment and economic growth. But after three decades of aid, Zambia’s economy actually worsened—its GNP was smaller than when the aid first began.

Needless to say, economic factors alone are not enough to improve the moral life of poor people. In fact, causation is precisely the other way around.

The Zambian story shows clearly that without strong moral foundations—especially with regard to theft and property rights—economic growth is almost impossible. Wealthier nations could pour all the capital they wanted into the Zambian economy, but as long as officials failed to respect the rights and lives of their countrymen, it would never make a difference.

In the early twentieth century, famed economist Frank Knight argued a similar thesis in response to progressives and socialists who sought to use government economic programs as a means to eradicate societal ills. He wrote in 1939:

The idea that the social problem is essentially or primarily economic, in the sense that social action may be concentrated on the economic aspect and other aspects left to take care of themselves, is a fallacy, and to outgrow this fallacy is one of the conditions of progress toward a real solution of the social problem as a whole, including the economic aspect itself.

According to Knight, then, social progress occurs not when public officials realize that all social problems have economic causes, but rather, when they understand that this idea is a fallacy. Instead of reforming economic policy, then, to try and improve social conditions, human beings everywhere ought to remember that the source of social ills is not necessarily economic, and that even economic problems may not have economic causes.

For example, consider poverty. Of course, many people around the world are born in to poverty and never escape it. Others are the unfortunate victims of fraud, disease or natural disasters that have taken a permanent toll on their economic life.

But it’s no secret that many economic problems have their cause in moral or familial breakdown. The children of married parents, for example, have more economic resources, more parenting from their fathers, and face less risk of psychologically traumatizing parental break-up. According to the US Census Bureau, children of divorce are more likely to be in poverty, diminishing their prospects of paying for a college education. Additionally, even the poor themselves are extremely likely to name drug abuse as the number one cause of poverty.

Material prosperity is important for societal health. It facilitates saving and investment that drive the engine of economic progress. But material deprivation alone is not the cause of societal breakdown.

Helping the poor, then, is often more a matter of moral support than an issue of economic policy.

Where Money Meets Morality

If there’s one political issue that puts America to sleep, it’s monetary policy.

Yes, most will concede that monetary policy is important. But the fact is, between all the M1s, M3s, CPIs, PPMs, and Vt=(nT/M)s, the average person gets lost in what appears to be a hopelessly complex system of regulation and statistical modeling.

This is regrettable, considering the profound influence money has on our well-being. Even more unfortunate is the fact that many otherwise well-informed citizens “defer to the experts” for practicality’s sake, believing that educated monetary officials cannot possibly propose a policy that is counterproductive, let alone immoral.

But monetary policy is no less vulnerable to moral abuse than is any other political issue. Indeed, monetary policy undergirds a huge part of human life, affects every other political decision, and has a deeply moral component that should concern any informed observer.

For example, the Old Testament—sacred to three of the world’s major religions—contains commands regarding money that are essentially ignored by modern-day policymakers, liberal or conservative. Granted, many of these commands rest on implicit assumptions, but they are obvious assumptions nonetheless.

When God commands his people to use “honest scales and honest weights” (Leviticus 19:36), laments that Israel’s “silver has become dross” (Isaiah 1:22), and is said to consider “diverse weights” and “false balances” an abomination (Proverbs 20:23), it becomes easy to understand money as an area of human commerce with which God’s law is concerned.

This is because in ancient times, inflating the currency did not involve complex procedures like “quantitative easing” or extending credit on fractional reserve. Rather, inflation was achieved by coin-clipping or other deceptive measures designed to make phony coins appear to be real. This is aptly called “counterfeiting” today, and is not considered morally justifiable.

But while most Americans today recognize that counterfeiting is dishonest, many do not hold monetary officials responsible when they take a roundabout approach to doing the same thing. When the Federal Reserve adds a few zeros to the end of its balance sheet in order to buy Treasury bonds, they create money out of thin air. This money was not earned—it was simply contrived into existence.

Certainly some will disagree. This sort of monetary expansion, they will say, is necessary during economic recessions. I’ll leave that argument to another day. But the conflict remains: How can one defend “just weights and measures” while advancing a policy that would have the money supply altered—distorting its true value—by majority vote?

But religious concerns aside, monetary inflation harms people—especially the very poor and those on a fixed income. Unfortunately, most people who are being cheated by inflation probably don’t know it, believing instead that policymakers would not inflate the currency if it were not good for their constituents.

But when the government increases the money supply, every dollar you have is suddenly worth a little bit less. All that money you have been saving up over the past ten years is not worth as much as it was when you started to put it away. Saving becomes slower and more difficult.

Yes, wages will eventually adjust to account for the devalued dollar. But this takes time—a lot more time than it does for grocers to change the label on their loaves of bread or bottles of milk. And for those on a fixed income, wage increases are very rare indeed.

Needless to say, inflation equals a sort of theft by those who use the newly created money to serve their own ends, for their new purchasing power is earned at the expense of everyone else.

It should be obvious now that monetary policy is something that should concern those who profess an allegiance to a higher moral code, and especially to those who claim belief in the Judeo-Christian God. The issue is far from black-and-white, but caution—not apathy—should be our approach to this important issue.

Read the article at ValuesandCapitalism.com.