Friday, October 24, 2008


Ben Stein is best known as a comic and an actor (Ferris Bueller). He is also on TV with economic commentary and an occasional commercial pitch. To some he would seem an unlikely choice to host a documentary on the conflict between science and religion. Or, more particularly, evolutionism and intelligent design. ID (intelligent design) is the theory that human life is so complex it points to an intelligence greater than our own as "creator". It's a plausible idea for many people. Except among certain scientists. It bucks the scientific political correctness that only allows one theory to explain human origins and that is Darwin's theory of evolution. The scientific community is so closed to other possibilities that the mere hint of a thought of intelligent design in a scientist's head can get him or her fired from the university where he or she teaches or the scientific organisation for which he or she works. That is the situation that got Stein interested in looking into ID and why it is so threatening to the scientific community.

Why, exactly? Stein interviews scientists who have been fired for their heretical statements regarding ID and scientists who ridicule those statements. He asks what is ID and why is it so threatening. Is it a right wing Christian conspiracy? Is it creationism trying to sneak in the back door? Stein, who is Jewish, doesn't think so. In fact, Stein is equally interested in Darwin and the evolutionary theory he came up with. He visits Darwin's home/museum and follows the train of this thought to Hitler and the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. In one hospital used by the Nazis to exterminate "inferior human beings", he finds traces of the doctrine of natural selection and the survival of the fittest. It was a laboratory for Hitler's new race of superior human beings. Darwin's theories were fleshed out in America during the eugenics craze after WW2 when thousands of "inferior" human beings were sterilized.

As Stein follows the evolutionary thread that started with the denial of academic freedom to some scientists who harbor heretical thoughts of ID, he winds up face to face with some of the most prominent atheists of our day. Here is where Stein answers his question about why ID is so threatening. It threatens the scientific orthodoxy that says God can have no place in scientific inquiry. This is a new orthodoxy for older scientific greats labored from a faith foundation summed up in the expression," thinking God's thoughts after him." Today, that is heresy. ID is so threatening that every hint of it must be extinguished because it could be a way for God to sneak back into science. This is untenable for many of the leading scientist/atheists of the day. One leading scientist from Cornell tells Stein that if one follows Darwinism out to all its implications, one of those is atheism. There is no God, no afterlife, no meaning or purpose to our lives. As someone who was raised in a religious home, he accepts this as the consequence of his quest for scientific truth. It is one of the most chilling moments of the film.

As Stein sat in the field where once there had been a Nazi concentration camp, he posed a question to another one of the experts he was interviewing. Do you think Hitler was insane, he asked. No, the expert said, I think in his own mind Hitler thought he was doing good. In their own minds, I am sure the scientific establishment thinks it is doing good, too, as it shuts down dialogue about ID. But as Stein posits in the film, if science is the quest for truth, what are they afraid of?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Small Churches

Small churches don't get a lot of credit in our country. Bigger is better here, always. Big box stores get way more press than mom and pop operations, if you can even find them anymore (we are fortunate to have a few in Kodiak). We have small churches here, too. People in Kodiak are kinda stuck with them because if they are going to go to church they can't drive somewhere else where there is a big church. Big churches are all the rage in the lower 48. They have the latest audio and video technology, cushy stadium seating, entertaining speakers and music, state of the art childcare, parking attendants, cafeterias, bookstores, and cool websites with their own pod casts. Small church facilities often have a worn out look; they depend on volunteers for everything from childcare to youth ministry to worship leading to lawn care, the preaching is enthusiastic (at best) to boring (at worst) and more often than not, unpolished. Budgets are bare bones so a lot of things that need replacing just get reused. Schedules are flexible and you can't really depend on things running on time, if they run at all. I can see why so many people are attracted to big. Big stores where choice is high and price is low and big churches where choice is supreme, too, and it seems like you get a lot more for your money.

Funny thing though is that most big churches know that the life of their big church is found in the small groups in the church. Big churches are really made up of lots of very small churches. Which makes sense. If small churches in small places like Kodiak "teamed" up more we could share a lot of resources and provide more for our people. Unfortunately, there is usually more competition than cooperation among small churches in small places.

However, the good news for small churches is that usually good things come in small packages. MySpace, the first enormously popular social network site, had 200 million users worldwide in 2007. Yet, the average number of "friends" for a user is a small number: 67. Given the generous definition of 'friend" as anyone from a good friend to someone you might recognize on the street but might not, this number constitutes an average person's social network. And it is pretty small. In fact, MySpace and other social network sites are "collections of small networks of people." ( Culture Making by Andy Crouch, 242). So are big churches. So are small churches. Crouch makes the point that people making a difference in culture are small groups of people. He says: "every cultural innovation no matter how far-reaching its consequences is based on personal relationships and personal commitments." A small group of people is almost always enough! Jesus had his core group of 3; his larger group of disciples numbered 12; at Pentecost 120 were gathered waiting for the Holy Spirit to come. That's good news. In small churches we often feel overwhelmed and under resourced. If only we were bigger then God could use us to accomplish big things. Yet, Crouch illustrates that many of our greatest innovations started from a small group: Google began with 3 people.

We all have our 3 and probably our 12 and we may even go to a church of around 120. Here is how Crouch puts it: "your 3 are the people you know and trust and you share a passion and commitment with. Your 12 is the larger circle of good friends you could call on in a time of need. Your 120 are contacts who would respond to something compelling and worthwhile if you put out the word. In the small church, your 3 could be your prayer group, your 12 your small group or a church committee on which you serve and the 120 could be the whole church!

So who are your 3? Crouch says that is the most important question for your calling. Who are the few people you trust enough to risk creating something together?

"The quest for 3, the recognition that all culture making is local, the willingness to start and end small, all seem to me to be the only approaches to culture making that do justice to the improbable story of God....Christian culture making a matter of community" - and I would add small communities. Small communities can do a lot. They can do what is necessary in the places God has put them. They can make a difference where they are.

Thursday, October 9, 2008


This week Kodiak voted down a new school because it would entail an increase in property taxes. Housing is already expensive here. As one young couple said to me, "We can't afford a house now so why would I vote to make it more expensive?" We don't have a huge tax burden here like say someone from New York does (where I am from) which leads the US in tax burdens. But, lots of other things are much more expensive here than New York.

From Kodiak, this week, we could see the continuing market meltdown. No one seems to know what to do. It has put a scare into a lot of people. Some are pulling their money out of the market. Some see a conspiracy by the government to take control of our financial institutions. Some see plain old fashioned greed coming home to roost. But, when the average person watches his or her retirement lose 30% to 40% of its value from just one year ago, it is cause for concern and considering alternative plans.

I remembered this week when we lived in Philadelphia in the early 80s. We were part of a Christian community. Most of us owned our own homes. They were in a part of the city where housing was very cheap and we bought a row house that needed a lot of work. People helped each other out working on their homes. We bought food cooperatively. We shared cars so not every family needed one. We met for Bible study during the week and worship on Sunday in a rented space at a community center. We worked together on mission projects like making sure a nearby apartment building had heat for it's elderly residents. It was located right down the street from where our church met and the first time I visited one of the elderly tenants there was a thick block of ice which had formed on her window sill. She sat in a chair covered in blankets. We managed to draw attention to the problem and it was fixed.

It was not perfect. No community is. We always had personal issues to sort out. But I wonder if this financial crisis - if it is long lasting - will make alternative communities like that one more attractive. Most of us are used to very independent living. We are used to having plenty of choices and options moment by moment. We don't like to have someone or something "cramp our lifestyle". Most of us were looking forward to enjoying our retirement doing what we always thought we wanted to do, whatever that is.

Soaring energy prices which impact the cost of just about everything else have taken more of each paycheck. Now our future paychecks which we have been saving for are dwindling daily. Seems like we need a plan.

Kodiak is not Philadelphia but some of the principles translate pretty well. We could have a potluck and Bible study once a week. We could buy staples in bulk and break them down to share with each family unit every month. We could share fish during the summer months. We could have a storage shed filled with a variety of tools that members could borrow when needed and return. We could have a church vehicle that was available to be loaned out in emergencies. Shared housing is another area we might explore. The parsonage, for instance, could be made into two living units and rented to members. We might acquire other property or use an area of the church building for short term shelter.

This may just be some thinking out loud on my part. It would not be easy to make some of these changes. But some people are already hurting. If the financial downturn is long lasting, more people will be soon. As I read the Bible, we are a dependent people, on God; and an interdependent people, on each other. I don't read much about independence. Do you?

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Great Bailout

Tonight the Senate votes on The Bailout #2. Many Americans are up in arms about it. There are good reasons to feel anger at the indulgences and excesses of the Big investment houses and banks. However, not passing this Bailout (an unfortunate name for what is a financial rescue operation that will benefit all of us) will have a grave impact on us all as we try to get credit or we try to retire on funds that are dwindling by the day. Monday's no vote led by conservative Republicans in the house has already caused great fear and panic, especially among the elderly. There was no need for it. It is surprising that God favored bailouts in the Old Testament. Debt was not something sinful but it was seen as part of life and God's People were to be quick to make loans to those who needed them. In Deuteronomy 15:7-10, God's Word says: If there is a poor man among your brothers ... do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs. Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: 'The seventh year, for canceling debts is near' so that you do not show him ill will and give him nothing. He may appeal to the Lord against you and you will be found guilty of sin. Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all you do..." This is quite an amazing text. It refers to the "seventh year" in which all debts were canceled.

In the Old Testament God's People are urged often to loan freely to foreigners (interest bearing) and to fellow Israelites (interest free). These were hard times and poor harvests, bad weather, or raiding enemies could imperil small family farms and the small family living off the farm. The debtor was to be treated compassionately. Indebtedness was taken seriously and the debtor was responsible to repay. However, every seventh year (the seventh seven year period was called the Year of Jubilee) all obligations were canceled whether the debtor deserved such compassionate treatment or not. It seems like God was concerned that a permanent debtor class not be allowed to form in Israel. The family unit needed to be secure and economically stable. That was God's will. Besides interest free loans, God's laws provided for a tithe for the poor (Dt. 14:28-29) and gleaning (Dt. 24:19).

Now it is true that these "debtor laws" were meant to sustain poor farmers down on their luck and not commercial businesses. But the underlying principle is: Debt can be canceled if it achieves a greater good. The question can be asked: what greater good is achieved when a bunch of unscrupulous debtors and lenders get off the hook. Still, there are a great many people who are paying a huge price - and will keep paying - because of the economic malpractice of others. As it was in the simpler Old Testament times so it is today: no good comes from greater insecurity and more economic instability in the family home.

Debt in the Old Testament was neither good nor bad. It is a result of the very precarious conditions of life. God's concern was that "there be no poor among you." Some would say the impending Bailout is going to make some rich people richer and not penalize the guilty parties in this banking crisis for their malpractice. However, it seems certain that a great many others will be made poorer and much unneeded stress will be added to hard working families if this Bailout is not passed.