Death tax alive and well

In this April’s Christianity Today Rob Moll reports on the resurrection of the death tax in 2011 under Obama. If you die in 2010, your heirs will inherit all of your wealth up to $3.5 million (after that it’s taxed at 45%), tax free. In 2011, anything over $1 million will be taxed heavily at 55%. Of course this will drive many to give more heavily to charitable organizations rather see their pile disappear down the government sink hole. Moll quotes Calvin College economist John Tiemstra who is in favor of progressive taxes because, scripturally, “Once people have met their basic needs, said Tiemstra, “equality is at least as important as prosperity.”” Heh heh. For the price of the contact lenses I’ll wear this month, I could feed someone for most of a month in a third world country. Why not have the government enforce equality? For one thing, it’s one sure way to squash prosperity (read incentive and therefore production and therefore jobs). And for another, generosity: “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?” (Acts 5:4).

Not that it’s surprising

But back in February at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama said “There is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being. This much we know.” Such bold wisdom is the stuff that is winning over (former) evangelicals. No wonder Planned Parenthood is enjoying countercyclical upswing in this economy.

Put down the Cheetos

Fasting is not a no to the goodness of food or the generosity of God in providing it. Rather, it is a way of saying, from time to time, that having more of the Giver surpasses having the gift. If a husband and wife resolve to give up sexual relations for a season to deal earnestly with  a problem keeping them at odds, this is not a condemnation of sex but an exaltation of love. Food is good. But God is better. Normally we meet God in his good gifts and turn every enjoyment into worship with thanksgiving. But from time to time we need to test ourselves to see if we have begun to love his gifts in the place of God.  –John Piper, A Hunger for God

This is one of the most important reasons to fast. For creatures who habitually breed contempt from familiar tokens of love, it is essential to regularly run diagnostics. Paul says that some people turn their stomachs into their god. Every right pleasure ought to indicate to it’s recipient the love and communion the creator of matter and sensation intended for his people. And there is nothing like hunger and thirst to bring to mind what our desires for God ought to be like and to confirm our utter dependence on his goodness and providence. In this sense, fasting is preparation for feasting just like not snacking all day sets one up for a hearty dinner.

I believe in Jesus today

I received my copy of Cornelius Venema’s new book about paedocommunion, Children at the Lord’s Table, last week and am hoping to work through it and make comments here. As a pastor in the CREC, I have the pleasure of ministering to those of both paedo and credo convictions, (those who believe in baptizing babies and not babies for anyone new to the discussion). While we welcome both stripes, the one thing that we insist on is that parents agree, whatever their conviction about when the water goes on, that their children are God’s: “the promise is for you and for your children…everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:39). So this doctrine is not part of the debate (at least not at this juncture), but I would point out that the theology of the second sacrament follows the first one. If baptism says something about the baptized, communion has to be consistent with that declaration. I don’t take issue with my baptist friends for not giving their kids communion, since the Supper is for the baptized. But I will be taking issue with this chap who says baptism means something (or at least his creed says it does), but then treats the baptized as if it doesn’t. So for you baptist friends reading along, please know that my issue is with those who apply the sign and then treat those who receive it as though they didn’t. Of course, you are welcome to make your own objections. To Christians with small children, the issue of when to bring them to communion is a pressing one, especially considering Christ’s words about preferring swimming with anchors around your ankles to stumbling little ones. This book’s introduction is provocative, but I’m going to try to be brief, thinking that Venema will work through some of his assertions more thoroughly later on

He begins by saying that title of Peter Leithart’s essay Daddy, why was I excommunicated? begs the question because it “was an answer masquerading as a question”. A true begging of the question, assuming what one ought to be proving, takes place in the midst of an argument, not in the title. Leithart’s article might have been a beggar, but this sort of thing isn’t the proof. I’m hoping the rest is more cogent. He goes on to say that the real question is “On what basis should anyone be admitted to the Lord’s Table?”, to which the “traditional” (read “correct” for Venema) answer is “a public profession of faith prior to a believer’s admission to the Table.” You see “if their baptism means anything, it means that they are invited to respond in fiath to the Lord’s gracious promise, which would qualify them to receive the sacrament that nourishes faith.”

Venema distinguishes soft and hard paedocommunionists, the former favoring “admission of children to the Lord’s Supper only at at an earlier age than is customary among many Reformed churches (middle to late adolescence). … Other advocates of paedocommunion take a “strict” position, favoring the admission of any baptized child of believing parents who is physically able to receive the Communion elements” (2-3). How old do you need to be in order to make a worthy, credible profession of faith that would entitle you to the nourishment of the Lord’s Supper? Apparently, middle to late adolescence since it’s only the “strict” view that Venema is objecting to. I would certainly be a strict paedocommunionist not because I believe “the only basis for admission to the Table of the Lord [is] membership in the covenant community,” but rather because I believe that what Venema calls for is an abitrary and baptistic (there, I said it) view of profession of faith. Baptism is a profession of faith and the baptists know it. But it takes a bapterian to apply the sign and then miss the meaning. Venema misses this completely when describing paedocommunionists: “When [they] apply this language to their view, they assume what needs to be proven: that the covenant demands the admission of all its members to the Table of the Lord, whether they have professed faith of not” (4). I’m sure this will come up again, so to suffice for now, when God established his covenant with Abraham “to be a God unto you, and to your seed after you” (Gen. 17:8), he gave him the sign and seal of circumcision. Circumcision was one means of keeping covenant covenant and expressing faith in the promise of God not just for the parents but also for their children. This is the whole point of the promise–the gospel is for your children, so believe it and circumcise/baptize them. And once you have done so, nurture them as if what God has said and you have believed (as evidenced by the baptism) is true. It will still be their baptism, every bit as much as your last name is theirs though it was given to them without their request or permission.

In this discussion, I can’t help but relate some personal experience. I have a four year old who has been coming to the Table since he was a little over a year. He loves the Bible (demands it be read to him), knows more hymns and Psalms than most of us, and looks forward to communion every week. One time last summer we were worshiping at a church while on vacation, and when the minister came around to give us the elements, he patted my son George on the head and said a “a special blessing you” but withheld the sacrament. Immediately my son looked at me as he fought back the tears. Now some might say this is sentimental, but to a worshiping then-three-year-old, that exclusion was a big deal. According to opponents of paedocommunion, he couldn’t examine himself to see whether he loved Jesus, and was effectively told that he didn’t. Now, how does anyone see this happening and not hear the echo of Matthew 19:14–“Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven”–ringing in his ears? To be fair, I did not contact that minister before hand (not expecting communion that week!), and so he was not prepared for the question, and it might have been necessary for him to submit to his church even if he personally wanted to give George communion, but the point stands. I had to explain to my son that he had done nothing wrong, and despite the fact that he believes in Christ and confesses his sins, some mistaken brothers and sisters don’t believe he is old enough to be nourished at the Lord’s Table.

Last night at dinner we were discussing these issues and I asked George whether we ought to have waited a few years before giving him communion. He responded matter of factly: “No. I believe in Jesus today.”

TV & Fame Junkies

Halpern again:

There is also a strong correlation between how much television teenagers watch and how badly they want to become famous. One of the survey questions was “If you could push the magic button to change your life in one way, which of the following which you pick?” The options were “(a) Becoming smarter”; “(b) Becoming much bigger or stronger”; “(c) Becoming famous”; “(d) Becoming beautiful or more beautiful”; and “(e) My life doesn’t need any improving.” Among those teens who watched one hour or less of TV a day, only 15% of boys and 17% of the girls chose fame. But among those who watched five hours or more a day — and many did — 29% of boys and 37% of the girls chose fame. (12)

Keeping the Feast

This is the season of Lent, however you observe it, the time of anticipation and preparation for the horror of Good Friday and the resurrection joy of Easter. The Apostles’ Creed says that Jesus was crucified by a particular governor who ruled at a particular time, and so the Church has always marked time around Christ. It’s funny, Christians used to argue over when to observe the feast, not whether to observe it at all. If our Christian faith means anything in this world, it has to mean something about how we think about calendar and generally the Church’s drift is to not think about it. For those who do think about it, one temptation is to think of it as a reenactment which in one sense is unhelpful. If you reenact the sorrow of the apostles at the crucifixion of Jesus, you’ll be reenacting their unbelief and sinful despair, which is just something else to repent of.  More on the whole season of Lent later. For now, John Westerhoff and William Willimon have great insight on how to think of the liturgical calendar:

We must be clear that we are not engaging, in our liturgical year, in a cyclic redoing of historical events in the life of Christ which are remembered in a merely historical way. Our Church year celebrates the present reality of these events for us today. As we stated in the discussion of the Eucharist, the “remembrance” (anamnesis) of Christians is not historical recollection; rather it is remembering in the sense of remembering who we are. The Church year gives us our identity in the present, not just our memory of the past. … [Is] our worship an honest, painfully contemporary attempt to proclaim and enact the Gospel in light of what we understand to be God’s past and present dealings with us as well as God’s future purposes for us? (Liturgy Through the Life Cycle, 55)

Get in a Collision

If you didn’t hear about the debates between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson at various locales on the east coast a few months ago, you’ll be glad to learn about the soon to be released movie Collision. I resist calling it a documentary because of the usual boredom associated with such productions. This one, however, is done by Darren Doane who has directed music videos for the likes of Jimmy Eat World. So here you have the sharpest, most colorful and witty atheist alive debating an experienced and satire-ready Christian apologist, framed and soundtracked by an MTV filmmaker. The live launch happened last week in Dallas. You can see trailers and sign up for release info at the official site.

Brain Map

Paul Allen gave us the Experience Music Project (a truly pomo building shaped like, if anything, a smashed guitar), the Allen Telescope Array that searches into deep space for extra terrestrial life, SpaceShipOne, and now the Allen Brain Institute which is trying to do the brain version of the Human Genome Project.

Jonah Lehrer writes in April’s WIRED that some unexpected and disheartening “data sets have already demonstrated that the flesh in our head is far more complicated than anyone previously imagined. The brain might look homogenous to the naked eye, but it’s actually filled with an array of cell types, each of which expresses a distinct set of genes depending on its precise location. … But the atlas has revealed a startling genetic diversity; different slabs of cortex are defined by entirely different sets of genes. The supercomputer analogy needs to be permanently retired.” It turns out the brain is far more complex than imagined,and that every new level reveals a new level with discrete regions, and of course those regions open up to more. “This is the bleak part of working at the Allen Institute: What you mostly discover is that the mind remains an immense mystery. We don’t even know what we don’t know.” Such are the difficulties of a brain cartographer.

And to add discouragement, just when you think you are getting somewhere, you remember that “the brain, after all, is a byproduct of evolution, an accumulation of genetic accidents. The data that looks so arbitrary might actually be arbitrary. If that’s the case, having a precise atlas of the rain won’t lead to  a unified theory–because such a thing can’t exist.” But if the brain is really the product of arbitrary genetic accidents, then these thoughts about the brain are nothing but more of the same, and what sense does it make to trust them? It’s amazing to watch people pull the rug out from under themselves and still think they have some cushy to sit on and grey matter to trust.

Regardless, the $100 million is not going to waste. The apparent uniqueness of individual brains is especially fascinating. It seems every brain has “a landscape of cells that has never existed beofre and never will again. … This variation is even visible at a gross anatomical level–different people have differntly shaped cortices, with differnet boundaries between anatomical regions. (This is why, for isntance, neurosurgeons hav eot painstakignly probethe cortex during surgery.) If the human atlas is like Google Maps, then every mind is its own city.”

If I could meet anyone and be anyone…

In his book Fame Junkies (Houghton Mifflin, 2007, xvi), Jake Halpern cites a survey he organized of 653 middle school students around Rochester, NY. When asked to choose from a list of famous people they’d most like to have dinner with (including “None of the above”, the girls who chose to dine opted least for George W. Bush (2.7%) and Albert Einstein (3.7%). A third place tie went to Paris Hilton and 50 (“Fitty”) Cent (15.8% each). Jesus Christ (16.8%) was second only to Jennifer Lopez (17.4%). I wonder, will a few billion people be worshiping JLo in two thousand years? How many people will have even heard of her in 50 years?

Another question inquired what job the students would most like to have. Among the five options, here are the rankings:

5. chief of a major company like General Motors (9.5%)

4. Navy Seal (9.8%)

3. United States Senator (13.6%)

2. president of a great university like Harvard or Yale (23.7)

And at number one, nearly double the percentage of the runner up:

1. personal assistant to a very famous singer or movie star (43.4%)

Now some will conclude from this something about the nature or inclinations of middle school girls. But to anyone who knows some, this speaks far more about their parents and educators.