Sunday, June 29, 2008


It’s hard to believe that here at Florida State summer is already half over. Our late April to late August break puts us out of sync with more traditional parts of the country, where summer-itis is just getting into high gear and lasts through Labor Day.

One of the vanities of trying to post a blog is the idea that someone out there might be interested in your “ten favorite list.” I’m finally giving in to the temptation. It seems that over the past week two of the great Christian denominations, the Anglican community and the Presbyterian Church (USA) have reached the tipping point of whether they are going to witness to modern culture or dance to it. I’m not going to beat the dead horse of the issues involved; if you’ve followed the denominations you know what I’m talking about. Instead, I’d like to address exactly that broader issue: how do Christians faithfully witness in the culture without becoming captives of the culture. It is a question as old as Mars Hill and as new as the various Mars Hill churches around the country. Because I want to be different, here is my 11-week list of things to study about Christians and culture. In many parts of the country, these ideas will last through the last gasp of summer, until there’s just a hint of Fall in the air (something that doesn’t happen in the South until sometime in October or November).[1]

Week 1: Read The Gravedigger Files by Os Guinness. This is absolutely the place to start. In this classic book from the 1980s, Guinness nails the corrosive power that modern culture has on the Church. Furthermore, he shows the different paths of the liberal mainline churches (“trendies”) and the conservative evangelical churches (“fossils”). If there was ever a book that is fulfilled prophecy, this is it. Bonus activity: Try an “out of sample” evaluation of the “reform” groups in both camps: renewal groups in liberal denominations, emerging churches among former evangelicals. Ask if they are really reforming, or just making the same mistakes over again.

Week 2: Watch a DVD of Magnolia. Ask yourself how a director who disclaims any religious intent can make such a profound tale of sin, lack of forgiveness, redemption, and divine intervention. Talk about the bigger question: can non-Christian artists create Christian art? Bonus activity: try to catch all of the references to Exodus 8:2. [Warning: a well-deserved R rating]

Week 3: Download the lyrics of “There is a River” by Jars of Clay. Make a list of all of the Biblical references.

Week 4: Watch a DVD of Primer. Unlike Magnolia, this shoe-string budget Indie phenom from 2004 was, in fact, written and directed by a Christian, Shane Carruth. Ask the opposite question: does every film, song, book by a Christian have to have a “Christian” message. Arguably, Primer does address an important moral issue. Can you figure out what it is? Bonus activity [spoiler]: See the movie a second and third time and try to figure out which Abe and Aaron are which.

Week 5: Read Daniel in the Old Testament. This is the ultimate story of a devout man who struggles to remain loyal to God in a foreign culture. Bonus activity: Find a copy of the Apocrypha and locate the story where Daniel plays an Old Testament Sherlock Holmes.

Week 6: Watch a DVD of Lars and the Real Girl. This story is about nothing else if not the struggles of a Christian community (a Lutheran church in a small Canadian town) to balance agape acceptance and agape speaking the truth to one of their flock who has gone astray. In the end, it is all about the casseroles. Never has Hollywood allowed a Christian character to ask “What would Jesus do” with more sincerity.

Week 7: Read The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Because. You. Must. The beloved Lutheran pastor warns of the perils of a nominally Christian society infected with “cheap grace.” This book was written around the time that Bonhoeffer was running his unofficial seminary, and close to the time he abandoned his pacifism and joined an armed resistance against Adolf Hitler.

Week 8: (Nobody will believe I included this). Watch a DVD of the movie Frailty from 2001. I wish I could remember the site, but the greatest statement I ever read about this movie was that it was a high concept horror movie built around the idea that “Fundamentalist Christians with Guns” would scare the pants off of people in Boston, Brooklyn, Berkeley, and Boulder. Instead, it has the most culturally subversive ending imaginable. OK, so maybe this is “cheap thrills” week and nothing else. I can remember showing this movie to a group of horrified Presbyterians in a movie-Bible-study series. [Warning: a well-deserved R rating].

Week 9: Read the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120 – 134). Bonus activity: Read the companion guide A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society by Eugene Peterson.

Week 10: Read “The Simple Art of Murder” by Raymond Chandler. Discuss the role in our culture of his untarnished man who must go down the mean streets. Then, read a Chandler novel, preferably Farewell my Lovely or The Long Goodbye. Bonus activity: draw up a list of contemporary actors who would make a good Philip Marlowe.

Week 11: Read Colossians. This is Paul’s letter to a church fighting an infection of an unnamed heresy.

[1] Virtually nothing in this list is my original discovery. My thanks to everyone who pointed me in these directions. I hope the readers will find as much in them as I have.

Saturday, June 28, 2008


A couple of days ago a local U.S. Representative (who, because I don't want this to be a political post, shall remain anonymous) sent me an e-mail exposing what he called energy "myths." One of his purported myths was that increased U.S. oil and gas production would lower energy prices. His argument went as follows: there is more oil drilling in the U.S. now than when oil prices started ramping-up; thus, we see that opening more areas to oil production can not lead to lower prices.

BZZZZ, Congressman. It's time for you to attend some remedial study-sessions for my Principles of Economics class. As the above diagram shows, if supply technology for oil production remains the same (the Supply curve) but demand for oil sustains a shift in underlying demand conditions (from D to D+) the result will be both higher market prices and and more production. Such a demand shift is undoubtedly consistent with rapid industrialization of countries such as China and India. If, on the other hand, the conditions and technology of supply change so as to shift the supply curve to the right, then there will be downward pressure on price together with increased production. What would cause such a supply shift to the right? An obvious example would be discrete changes in regulatory policy that open new areas to exploration and development (that is, more areas open to drilling). Florida politicians may want to continue to argue that, unlike residents of Texas, Louisiana, California, Scotland, Norway, and so forth that our citizens are specially entitled to consume energy resources without having to look at oil platforms on the horizons, but you can't make that argument on a misunderstanding about the difference between movement along a supply curve and a shift in the supply curve. You can argue about how large the price response from increased areas for U.S. oil exploration and production would be, but that's a different question, and one that is difficult to answer in advance: MYTHBUSTED - BUSTED.

Furthermore, to pursue the broader purpose of this blog, I wonder whether we can find in Christian theology any rationale for Florida's "special" status not only in avoiding offshore drilling but also in not having a great deal of energy infrastructure such as refineries and pipelines. I recall that several local Christian pastors argued that if residents of Tallahassee weren't willing to allow coal fired power plants in our backyard, we shouldn't be proposing to build them elsewhere and then import the electricity. I think that there's something to that argument. Residents of Tallahassee arguably pay a premium in our electric bills from our "anti-coal" requirements, and I think that there is a Christian case to be made that we shouldn't try to avoid that cost by exporting that externality to other people. There is likewise a serious thought-experiment as to whether residents of Florida's coastal areas should be willing to pay a differential tax to help other people who could benefit from lower energy prices from off-shore Florida drilling.

By the way, before the Congressman's staff figures out whose e-mail I'm talking about and rushes to send me a comment that a supply/demand model is inapplicable because of OPEC, it's pretty obvious that OPEC does not have the power to "fix" the price of crude oil in the sense that it can eradicate the upward slope of the effective world supply curve.