Jefty Economics and the Least of These


{Somewhere in this rant is a worthy post. My apologies to readers in advance that the worthy post didn’t materialize.}

In the course of reading a smattering of Christian blogs wrestling with the economic devastation laying waste to America, I happened across Al Mohler’s take on the subject. By the time I got done reading the last word, it was all I could do not to shake my head in disbelief.

To understand the rest of this post, please read Mohler’s post, “A Christian View of the Economic Crisis.”

Done? Okay…

The first thing that bothers me about Dr. Mohler’s post is that it appears to be caught in a classic, science fiction time warp. If I didn’t know better, I’d say Eisenhower was president.

This is a great problem for much of conservative Evangelicalism. We’re like Jefty in Harlan Ellison’s seminal short story “Jefty Is Five.” In that work, the narrator tells of a neighbor boy who remains five-years old all his life. Jefty’s radio plays dramas from the 40s and 50s that were canceled decades ago. Jefty sends away for secret agent decoder rings offered by cereal companies that no longer exist—and receives them in the mail. In short, Jefty never grows up, nor does the ethereal, dead, dusty world that swirls around him. And he scares the willies out of the normal people who encounter him.

When I read Dr. Mohler’s post, it’s like I’m perusing Jefty’s newspaper, and I can read how the corporations are leading our country to greatness, and every father receives a gold pocket watch (that matches his smoking jacket) after 40 years on the job because he worked hard and climbed the corporate ladder like all hard workers do, and, golly gee willikers, his company put out the best darned widgets at the best darned price, and if you ever had a problem with your widget, they’ll send a repairman in a pressed suit (and a tie, even!) who won’t charge you a dime, and he’ll have your problem solved in fifteen minutes or your money back plus 10 percent for your trouble.

And at night, angels tuck you into bed.

That’s how Jefty economics works.

Jefty economics bases its reality on the old advice that with a little hard work, and the right amount of pluck, any freckle-faced lad can himself embody the classic Horatio Alger story and become a captain of industry.

It sounds so swell.

This, however, is what the Bible says:

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.
—Ecclesiastes 9:11

Jefty economics can’t account for chance. It doesn’t allow that people may deviate from the climb to the boardroom by simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Lazarus outside the rich man's house - by DoréIt can’t account for the capricious whims of a college admission committee that this year (and this year only) thought that building ashrams in India was a more noble reason for selection than your solution to world hunger, therefore you had to settle for Podunk U. instead of Harvard. It can’t factor in that after you killed yourself for decades to crawl to a middle management position in Kludge Corporation of West Oconomowoc, the CEO’s mistress left him and, in a fit of pique, he sacked your entire department and farmed it out to bean counters in Pakistan. The next thing you know, you’re a greeter at Wal-Mart wondering how the American Dream passed you by.

Who can understand how these things happen? The Jeftys of the world would turn on their radios and give you the answer: “The Shadow knows….”

Welcome to the world of Jefty.

Only problem is, that’s not your reality or mine.

In some ways, I can’t fault Dr. Mohler. Seminary presidents, theologians, and academicians aren’t the best at taking the lifestyle pulse of janitors, taxi cab drivers, and third-shift workers at the old widget factory (who just lost their jobs because the Armani-wearing board of directors moved the work to Shanghai).

See, Jefty economics functions in such a way that the real world, with all its gritty, black ugliness, doesn’t exist. The Jefties of this world can’t see it. The people who are getting killed economically, and have been getting killed for a long time, never happen. They’re simply not there.

Here’s reality: The way we do business, the way we fuel our economy in this country, the way we have been practicing capitalism in the good ol’ U. S. of A. has come home to roost.

I’ve been watching what has been happening to the middle class over the years. It’s not pretty. Hard-working people have been watching their real wealth evaporate. Families I know who were adamant that they were going to maintain the conservative Christian ideal and keep mom at home are not only having to have mom work but are seeing both wage earners’ incomes stagnate to the point that polygamy sounds like the only viable economic option.

And as for the mantra that hard work gets you ahead, it’s time to let that Jefty-ism die. Perhaps at one time it was true, but I know so many people who are killing themselves with hard work and are getting nowhere because they aren’t the right kind of person, didn’t go to the right Ivy League school, didn’t take the Skull & Bones pledge, don’t know the right Masonic handshake, don’t have the right skin color, don’t have the right religious beliefs, and on and on.

I met a person several years ago who shames most of us in hard work. I watched that person get brutalized time and again by the kind of wicked people who populate so much of today’s corporate world. That wonderful person kept a clean nose, gave 210 percent all the time, was the last to turn off the lights at night, and got nowhere. There was always some Maserati driver in a corner office who made sure this person never got out of the cubicle. That constant heel to the neck hurt that person incalculably.

Truth is, I know too many people like that one. They’ve been the canaries in this economy’s coalmine for years. And now the mine’s caved in and gas is seeping into the depths. Is that a striking match I hear?

Here’s the worst part: The kind of people that flame out in the economy aren’t welcome in a lot of conservative Evangelical churches, those gorgeous, multi-million dollar edifices full of Jeftys.

I know because I’ve been in a few Jefty churches. I sat in a men’s Bible study at a prominent Baptist church as a half dozen captains of industry talked about “those people.” Just the other day, a friend told me that the pastor of his old church spotted him in a restaurant and just had to regale him with how wonderfully the new building plan was going and all the millions that he’d raised. Dropped all the monetary figures just to show my friend how stupid he was to leave such a dynamic church. But my friend knew this same church split earlier because a handful of its people had the nerve to evangelize poor Hispanics. You know, dishwashers, gardeners, and garbagemen. Those people. The ones you let into your corner office to dump out your trash can, but God forbid they should aspire to anything higher. Besides, they could never get into the country club—except perhaps as the catering help.

When I hear Dr. Mohler talking the way he does in his piece, I have to wonder if he knows how the sub-economy populated by the least of these lives. If he understands that we really are Two Americas and are becoming more so every day. When he says that people today invest in the same companies that Warren Buffett does, I’ve got ask: “Dr. Mohler, have you priced some of Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway stock lately? You might be able to buy some at $135,000 a share, but I sure can’t.  And have you noticed that the Gateses and Waltons of the world who can plunk down $100,000 without batting an eye get offered a whole new world of higher-paying investments that Joe Sixpack can only dream about?” Then I’d like to introduce the seminary president to hard workers like Edwin Howard Armstrong. And then I’d introduce him to people who don’t have Wikipedia entries, people who broke their backs working and lost their homes anyway. People who don’t have Ivy League networks. You know, people to whom chance just so happened to happen.

Part of me says I’m being unfair, but part of me says I’m not.

Here’s the saddest part of all. The people who are still operating under the economic pretensions of the “I Like Ike” era are the ones who were looking the other way while the morally-challenged, who laughed all the way to the bank at the expense of the rest of us, engineered  this fine economy we have now.

Yes, I’m angry.

I’ve been saying for years that the global economic game we’ve been playing is not even zero sum but negative sum. When the Church sat back and welcomed the Industrial Revolution like it was the Second Coming of our Lord Himself, we erected an idol that would eventually taint every part of our lives. I find it ironic to the nth degree that so many conservative Evangelicals are fighting the culture war tooth and nail, failing at the same time to see that the war itself is the natural outcome of what they welcomed 150+ years ago.

Christians cannot turn blind eyes to social and economic justice and NOT reap the whirlwind.

We conservative Christians gave up on reforming business practices. Left that to the liberals. No, a few of us tasted the wealth for a while and it intoxicated us. (“Hey, no fair, Dan! We compensated by starting a workplace Bible study to show we still cared about the souls in our companies. That counts, doesn’t it?”)

Despite what Mohler says, too much of how we lived was based on greed and short-term thinking. As long as our companies posted better figures quarter over quarter, who cared what havoc our practices would wreak down the road? Leave that for some other generation!

Well, that generation is here. And, too bad, we’re it.

Thanks, Jefty.

Goodbye, Jerry


Jerry FalwellThough I normally don’t comment on the deaths of well-known people, I need to write about the loss of Jerry Falwell.

Al Mohler posted some thoughts on Falwell and the resulting comment firestorm caught me by surprise for its sheer mean-spiritedness on both sides. Even in death, Falwell proves a most polarizing figure.

I didn’t know Rev. Falwell at all. Never met him. I watched him preach a few times on TV, but honestly, I was more interested in following his ASL interpreter. (I was learning ASL at the time.) Falwell’s preaching didn’t do much for me.

I wish Falwell had not become the face of Evangelicalism. I cringed every time the press went to him or to Pat Robertson for comments on current events. But Falwell was a product of the South, and he spoke like a true Southerner: unashamed of his opinions and happy to let you know them. If you understood that, you understood the man.

So as much as I wasn’t a fan, I wish to comment on two important truths, one he reinforced and one he later said.

No matter what any Christian thinks of Jerry Falwell, he decisively answered a most important question that all Christians must consider: Does a sacred/secular divide exist?

For most of Christian history, the answer has been yes. Jerry Falwell said no. And I believe he was right.

We can’t underestimate the profundity of pulling down the curtain between the sacred and the secular. Many of us today fail to realize how much we’ve gained by understanding that all of life is sacred, and it loses none of its sacredness when it intersects with everyday living. Eliminating that divide better frames the Kingdom of God in its proper context. The Kingdom penetrates everything it touches when Christians advance.

Jerry Falwell believed that Christians should not be ashamed to enter secular realms with the Gospel. Before he came on the scene, too many of us lived a double life. He didn’t found the idea, but he made it popular for Christians to go into the highways and byways of the world confident in Christ.

We forget what it was like before Falwell, don’t we?

Sadly, while the idea reflects God’s heart, the execution of that mandate doomed itself by going too far. Instead of letting the light of Christ speak, we decided to make something happen. Like Moses striking the rock, we overstepped our bounds and made a laughingstock of Evangelicalism. We equated expanding the Kingdom into secular realms with attempting to rule it with a not-so-subtle iron fist. In effect, the mishandling of the elimination of the sacred/secular divide led to power grabs from overly smug Evangelicals, rather than a humble glowing of light from within the traditionally dark areas of life long ago abandoned by believers.

Such promise….

As for what Falwell said, this comment post-9/11 got a lot of press:

“I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.'”

Despite the fact that Falwell later apologized for the remark, I believe he was right—though not just in regard to the sins of those easy whipping boys.

For decades, America’s been gradually slouching toward Gomorrah. Some will claim the blame goes to the groups Falwell targeted in his comment. Others will say our lack of compassion for the poor, justice for the disenfranchised, and love for the least of these surpasses the sins of those other groups. Yet more will say that our materialism and pillaging of the planet at the the expense of other peoples and nations are the cause. Whatever the case, Falwell looked at 9/11 as a wake up call for the soul of our country.

Unfortunately, few of us seem to have answered that call. We just go on our merry way, humming a tune only we know, oblivious to signs of impending judgment.

So it’s hard not to see Jerry Falwell for what could have been. We Christians in America got Falwell for a spokesperson rather than a more Francis Schaeffer-like mouthpiece. Never one for subtlety, Falwell pushed everything fast, hard, and far. Excess toppled it all in the end.

Still, as much as some Christians are ashamed of Falwell for that excess, I can still thank him for making more of us aware of the truth that the Kingdom of God is not hemmed in. Christians do have a mandate to be salt and light in the most tasteless and dark places. If that’s ultimately his legacy, it’s a fine one to leave us.

Speed Kills the Christian Soul–Part 2


Q1: What is the chief end of man?

A1: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever.

— Westminster Shorter Catechism (1674)

My small group met this last Friday and the theme that came out in prayer requests and other revelations was simple: folks are struggling under a load of things to do. FranticPeople are going to bed at 4 AM and getting up at 7 AM. Homeschoolers are scheduled to the max trying to pack requirements in every day. Life has become a clumsy dance of “do this, then do that” and our days have come to resemble little more than a succession of nags.

One mom wondered what would happen when her lone hour a day to herself went away come August. Too many of us know exactly how she feels.

In the last few weeks, I spent

  • Eight hours on the phone trying to schedule a plane flight for three people
  • Three hours trying to get information on my phone service (and still no response)
  • Several hours trying to enroll my son in a state-approved homeschooling program (and I’m still not done)
  • Cramming six errands spread across the city into two-and-a-half hours
  • Mowing the grass to the tune of nine hours
  • Switching my entire Web presence to a new host, new domains, and new software—untold hours
  • Switching from Eudora (after twenty years of use!) to Thunderbird, and laboring through all the bureaucratic importation nonsense that went with that switch
  • Attending six worship band practices
  • Dealing with car maintenance issues
  • Spending a couple hours wrangling on the phone with a service company that didn’t perform the service I asked of them
  • And, sadly, finding very little time to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

There are countless unmentioned experiences in that list, but suffice it to say, my candle’s had more than two wicks burning at the same time. While this may sound like whining, I suspect it’s a whine all too common in most people’s lives. The pace of life continues to speed up.

One commenter to Part 1 said the answer was in moving to the country. Well, I already did that and only found a new set of problems. The issue is not so much where we live, but how we live.

When I look at what consumed most of my time the last few weeks, much of it had to do with the following:

  • Bureaucracy, usually made concrete by the endless filling-out of forms or jumping through hoops
  • Technology, our new master
  • Maintaining possessions, the things we own that ultimately control us
  • Lack of personal community, wherein we must individually do what the community used to do for us collectively

Those four issues form a quadrilateral in no way like Wesley’s, yet they’re just as spiritually significant. Not only that, but they feed off each other. We have bureaucracy because we no longer live in communities of trust. Our lack of community leads us to self-sufficiency, the stepfather of technology. Our bureaucracy safeguards our possessions, of which an increasing number are technological. We ultimately replace people with items and then call our lives good.

Modern Man’s dilemma is not so much that we cannot make time for ourselves, but that the things we’ve created to make time for ourselves ultimately consume all our time and destroy relationships. Not only relationships with flesh-and-blood human beings, but with God Himself.

It’s difficult to imagine not having a car in the United States, but how hard do we have to work to buy and maintain that car? In my own case, it seems not a month goes by that I don’t have something to do related to vehicles: oil changes, tire rotations or replacements, licensing, insurance, various bits of maintenance, and working hard enough to afford the cost of $3 gas alone. With gas that high, every trip becomes a logistical nightmare. How many errands can I run in one sprint into the city? When? How? And what if something comes up that upsets that delicate balance? The dentist wants to reschedule? Ugh.

Cars are a simple one to question. There’s the bureaucracy of simply owning one, with all the titles, government regulations, and yearly paperwork. It’s technology, and it’s gotten so technological that no one can service his own anymore. I can’t get my 13-year old truck an oil change at many oil change centers because they don’t have the right wrench to remove the specific kind of plug that’s on my oil pan. Multiply that by several million cars and you’ve got a tech nightmare. And you thought computer operating system differences were a hassle!

Cars also mean insurance, because in our litigious society no insurance means no legal way to drive in most states. That’s an added—costly—hassle. And as I mentioned earlier, there’s expensive maintenance. And community? Well, there’s not much personal community in a car. Most of us don’t carpool, and it seems odd to even have a neighbor or friend in our cars. Our cars are meant to hold our nuclear families and that’s usually about it.

But unlike Europe, which developed in self-sufficient burghs, America is a vast, spread-out place that astonishes non-Americans. Almost every Japanese I’ve met in America is swift to comment on our interstates and the amount of time we spend on them. And we have to spend a lot of time on them because everything sprawls in this country. A few weeks ago I asked how many of you lived within fifty miles of extended family and I would say that 90% of you did not. So we depend on cars to get us there—if we want to see extended family, that is.

Multiply cars, phones, jets, computers, insurance policies, and the like. My eight hours on the phone trying to schedule a flight is the length of the flight there and back. Hmm. What gained then? And for a family reunion, too. Isn’t family supposed to be nearby? If 90% of us have none within fifty miles, then I guess not.

I’m getting snarky here and I apologize. Already this post has failed my usual test for quality. But still I must ask, What has all this bought us except hectic lives that go full throttle 24/7/365?

And what about God? Do we even have time for Him, much less to truly enjoy Him?

It bothers me that it’s the hardcore green liberals that are asking the question that Christians should be asking but aren’t: Is our daily existence dictated by evil, rather than by good? In our case, we understand that God is the good here, but the problem does not go away by defining good.

On this issue, I took Al Mohler to task over his non-answer when he usually has one. Perhaps that was unfair. To Mohler’s credit, he does quote Francis Schaeffer’s book title. Schaeffer asked, “How then shall we live?” in that eponymous book, and it’s a valid question.

I believe we are living in an evil construct. There is no good to be found in much of our activity. In past posts I’ve wondered aloud where the Christians are who are envisioning communities that eschew pharisaic bureaucracy, man-handling technology, devotion to things, and a lack of devotion to people. A few are cropping up, but not nearly enough to make a dent in the dialog in our churches. Mostly, those folks are seen as cranks or environmentalists or some other irritant not worth engaging. That’s too bad.

Not only are our lives being stolen by bureaucracy, technology, possession maintenance, and lack of community, but I genuinely believe that there are demonic components behind those four issues. We dismiss too easily and laugh at the notion, but could there not be a better way, a way that more fully expresses the life of God in the individual rather than the individual at the mercy of his surroundings? I believe that reality exists and is possible, but only if better people than me start working toward it.

In Song of Solomon, it says:

Catch the foxes for us, the little foxes that spoil the vineyards, for our vineyards are in blossom.
—Song of Solomon 2:15 ESV

Our vineyards today are overrun with little foxes, but we are not catching them. In fact, we take them for granted, have made our peace with them, and then no longer wonder why we aren’t fruitful. We take barrenness as the natural state of living.

If we desire to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, something has to give.