My First “Name Day”

We Orthodox have a tradition where each person celebrates his or her “Name Day”, which is the feast day for that person’s patron saint.  Today, June 9, was the feast day of Saint Columcille (Columba) – one of the great Irish Fathers of the Church. 

St. Columcille was a great evangelist, monastic, and “fearless accuser of sin and avenger of the injured”, according to the reading from the Synaxarion put out by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Brookline, MA. 

I have been unable to write in this blog for a while (working 7 days a week will do that) and, worse, I’ve been unable to attend any Divine Services at church lately.  If I’ve learned anything over the last couple of months, it’s the importance of regular church attendance.  One of the things about the Orthodox Church that appealed to me was the emphasis on corporate prayer and worship – the communal aspect of Christian life was significantly stronger than anything I’d seen or experienced before.  My parish priest has said several times that one “Lord, have mercy” said in church is more powerful than an entire Psalter sung alone.  I never fully understood the impact of corporate prayer and the divine Presence in the Liturgy until now.  I’ll have to reflect for a while longer to better articulate that point, but the point is that I now better understand how corporate prayer and worship feeds into individual prayer life and spiritual growth and healing.

And that healing even includes physical healing.  For about three weeks, I was struggling with a cold (and possible sinus infection) that I could not get knocked out.  Part of the problem was my lack of opportunity for rest, but even loads of vitamin c and medicine couldn’t get me over this nagging illness.  There were, however, two significant turning points.  The first was when I was on the brink of exhaustion and my cold was steadily worsening.  After days of misery, I decided to drink some Holy Water before bed.  The next morning, I felt much better!  I wasn’t totally cured, but I felt well enough to finish out my last week at work.  The second turning point was today.  This morning I was still struggling with the last remnants of my illness and then after I came home from church, I again felt significantly better!  I still have a slight cough, but I don’t have any more sinus pressure or problems with congestion or runny nose.  Some people might chalk it up to coincidence, but if you understand that God can and does use His uncreated energies to heal people through physical means (i.e. Holy Water) and through the Divine Presence (at Liturgy), then the idea becomes much more plausible.  This is especially true when we understand that the universe is a much more “open” system than most Westerners, who are children of the Enlightenment, are aware of. 

To close, I just want to say that it’s good to be back.  It’s good to be back on the blog and it’s especially good to be able to attend Services at church again!  I can’t help but see a providential hand in the fact that my return to church fell on my Name Day – the Feast of Saint Columcille of Iona.  It gives me hope and encouragement as I search for a job – one that I hope will allow me to use my gifts and education to teach young people about how to talk about God in an increasingly secular society. 

Holy and God-bearing Father Columcille, pray for us!

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Higher Criticism of Scripture

Before you ask, no.  No, I did not and will not watch “The Bible” on the History Channel.  If you want to know the story, read the book (rather, the books).  Putting aside the fact that the trailer alone contained several errors, it’s probably not a good idea to get your information from the channel that has shows about “ice truckers.”  If you want to get some serious information about the Bible, read it.  Or I could point you towards some lovely people in many great universities who study the Old and New Testaments for a living.

I’ve been wanting to write about the Bible for a while now and the History Channel production’s premiere is just a coincidence.

To be a little bit more specific, I want to write about “higher” (or academic) criticism of scripture and what it means for the average Christian.  Whether most believers know it or not, the History Channel’s artistic interpretation (I say that lightly) is based on at least some higher form of critique of scripture.  And even though I won’t watch it, but I feel comfortable venturing a guess, the production is also based on a particular view of the Bible itself – that the Bible is to be taken first and foremost as a basis (if not the basis) for the Christian faith.  It is a source of knowledge.  It is a source of revelation.  Whether the writers and scholars who worked on the production agree with the idea that the Bible is true or not is irrelevant.  The point is that the Bible is seen as a ground (or the only ground) for Christianity itself.

Before I go any farther, I want to briefly unpack what I mean by “higher” or “academic” criticism of scripture and then I’ll explain how I nearly lost my faith because of it.

To put it as plainly as I can, the idea behind academic analysis of scripture was (and is) to provide us with greater insight into some of the burning questions surrounding the Bible.  Who wrote the books?  When?  What was life like when the books were written?  What was going on in the broader historical context of the time when the authors penned their work?  And what do we know about the literary styles and/or rhetorical techniques of that time?

All of these questions have been broken down into various schools of analysis.  Some scholars focus on literary technique and style, while others focus on historical context, etc.  The broader questions involved in academic analysis of the Old and New Testaments have blossomed into very important, but more specific questions – such as the so-called quest for the “historical Jesus.”  On that specific question, some scholars have spent the greater part of their careers trying to find out what Jesus was “really like”; they try to move beyond the “myths” that have been built up around Him in the New Testament.  It is important to note that these scholars who dedicate their careers to studying the Bible often approach the texts as functional atheists.  This is more or less the standard practice for most scholars of the Bible.

While there have been some invaluable insights gained from the work of these biblical scholars, I will offer a word of caution in approaching this kind of information.  This warning, I should say, is directed more towards Protestants (especially evangelicals with a penchant for fundamentalism).  If you take these scholars seriously (as you should, generally speaking), you may be in danger of losing your faith.  That is to say, when one learns about historical and literary criticism, it becomes clear rather quickly that there are, in fact, several errors and contradictions in the Bible.  We don’t even know for certain who the authors are for each book or letter in the New Testament, much less the Hebrew scriptures.  More to the point, the argument for sola scriptura – that the Bible is the only source of divine revelation and authority for Christians – falls apart like a sand castle hit by a tidal wave.

My own faith was nearly totally lost when I first learned about what we know (and don’t know) due to the efforts of biblical scholars over the last several decades.  As a Southern Baptist, my faith was based entirely on sola scriptura and how could I believe any of the doctrines of Christianity if the basis for my faith was kicked out from under me?  But in His mercy, it was at that point that God began to lead me towards the Orthodox Church and my faith is now stronger than ever.

Maybe the simplest way I can explain my point is to say that if the Bible is indeed inerrant, infallible – the Word of God (inspired or dictated), one would imagine that there would be no contradictions or errors in science or history.  But what we’ve learned from higher criticism of scripture cannot be undone; we know that the Bible is not perfectly inerrant.  The information is out there.  The question is, what should Christians do with it?

Would it be right to dogmatize ignorance – double down on fundamentalism and bury one’s head in the sand?  Or should the core doctrines of the faith be abandoned altogether in favor of the social gospel – turning Christianity into a political ideology bent on soaking the rich in favor of the “poor, oppressed, and marginalized?”  Sadly there are all too many who have chosen these and other wide, destructive paths.

The point is that if one builds his or her entire belief structure on one point – say, the inerrancy of scripture and its place as the sole authority for Christianity – that person is open to disaster if that foundation for belief is swept away.  And what can we learn from that?  Ultimately, we see that the doctrine of sola scriptura leaves Christians in a vulnerable position and forces a person to have faith in a set of books instead of the Living God.  Real faith, after all, is an orientation of the heart towards God.  It’s not coming into accord with a set of facts and it certainly has nothing to do with idolizing certain ancient texts, which is ultimately a move to canonize a certain epistemology or a certain way of knowing what we know about God.  This is a critical mistake.

Instead of looking at scripture as, primarily, a source of knowledge and authority, we should look at scripture existentially.  What I mean by that is we should figure out what the text means for our actual lives today.  I tend to think the best way to learn about the real (existential) meaning of scripture is to look to the Fathers of the Church, who received Apostolic instruction and spoke the language(s) that the scriptures were written in.  If we do this, the scriptures will make us “wise unto salvation” as John Wesley said.  This is truly the primary purpose of scripture: if we absorb the meaning of the text and allow the Holy Spirit to use it to change us, we will live a full and authentically human life now and ultimately take on the divine nature.  The Holy Spirit, through scripture, transfigures us and makes us like Jesus Christ so that we will be ready at the end of time to stand in the divine Presence of perfect love, glorifying God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to the ages of ages.

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Why Go to Church?

We’ve all been there.  It’s early on a Sunday morning and the alarm buzzes, tearing you away from that awesome dream you were having, leaving you lying awake, still half asleep, staring at the ceiling.

And then the thoughts slowly start rolling in through the fog in your brain:

“I don’t really have to go to church today, do I?  I mean, the pastor isn’t going to miss me.”

Or: “I’m too tired to get up.  Besides, I’ve got an exam to study for.  I have to be well rested for that and God wouldn’t want me to fall asleep while I cram.  Right?  Right.”

Or: “I can worship God anytime.  I’ll read the Bible a little more this week and that should make up for it.  Maybe I’ll even listen to some Christian music while I read.  I’ll go to church next week.  Definitely.  Next week.  Now to flip the pillow over to the cool side…”

Finally: “I’m never drinking again…”

So what’s going on here?  Why do we choose to get up early on a weekend, dress up, put on a smile, and drive out to church?  For this post, I want to get into the issue of why we go to church.  What’s it all about?

Not long ago, I watched a video by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, abbot of the Orthodox Monastery All Saints of North America in British Columbia, Canada.  The youtube broadcast in question, which you can watch here, addressed the issue of worship.  What is true worship?  Why do we need to go to church?  Why do we need to worship alongside other people?  Can’t we worship God just as well on our own?  These are some of the questions that the archbishop addresses in his talk.

What’s interesting is, the answers to these questions depend on which Christian tradition you come from.  In other words, each tradition has its own answer in regards to the definition of true worship and the need for church attendance.

As I listened to Archbishop Lazar speak, I couldn’t help but reflect on my old, Protestant background.  It seemed so much easier to say that I don’t really need to go to church this week, that I can worship God on my own, when I was a Protestant.  This is because, generally speaking, most Protestant traditions (especially the Southern Baptist tradition that I came from) are much more individualistic than the Orthodox tradition.  I don’t mean to say that the individual has no place of importance for the Orthodox, but there is a much greater sense of the importance of the community – of the Body of Christ.  There’s a sense that “we’re all in this together.”  The Christian life, for the Orthodox tradition, is centered around the life of the Church – which is really the life of the Holy Spirit working in the Church.  For the Southern Baptists, though, the Christian life is much more centered around the individual.  For example, each individual is more or less free to interpret scripture however he or she deems fit.  The Orthodox, on the other hand, must interpret scripture in light of the teaching of the Holy Fathers of the Church and the sacred tradition of the Church – the life of the Holy Spirit.

There are two main points that struck me as I reflected on this issue of why Christians go to church (or at least why we should).  These are points taken from the Orthodox tradition that I think other traditions could richly benefit from.

First, in talking about why we Christians should go to church on Sunday, we should think about what genuine worship really is.

Orthodox are quick to point out that worship is not about having an emotional experience and it’s not even about “offering” God our adulation or praise or even our time and energy.  God doesn’t need anything from us and we’ve nothing to give – everything already belongs to Him.  What I’m getting at is a key point that atheists and agnostics typically make when they speak with Protestants.  According to many evangelical Protestant traditions, it’s often said that the purpose of human life is to glorify God.  But critics of Christianity are quick to point out that this means humanity is created by an egomaniac with infinite powers.  “God created us so he’d have more beings to bow down at the cosmic Throne?  Forget it, I don’t want anything to do with your divine, egomaniacal, puppet master.  We’re lucky he’s just a figment of your imagination.”

And the atheists and agnostics have a point on that one – on more counts than they know.  But that’s another topic entirely.

So if real worship isn’t emotionally connecting to God or offering our time and energy, then what is it?  According to the Orthodox tradition, real worship occurs when we choose to open our hearts to receive the gifts that God has in store for us.  Real worship is humbly realizing that we’ve nothing to offer and so we lay our hearts down before the divine Presence and receive the healing – the grace – that the Lord has for us.

Now, at this point, you may be asking, “So if worship if opening my heart to God, then why can’t I do that on my own time?  Why do I have to drive out to a building and open my heart to God with other people?

That gets us to the second point and this is something that I think sets Orthodoxy apart from any other Christian tradition.  As I said, real worship is humbly submitting oneself to God for healing.

But healing of what?

Our egocentrism and our alienation from God and others.  According to the Orthodox understanding of the Fall in Genesis, human beings never fell into “total depravity” as some Christian traditions believe.  Humanity did, however, fall into egocentrism or self-love and so the image and likeness of God was darkened in our nature.  It was darkened, but not lost.  We go to church to struggle against those marks of the Fall.  We go to church for healing.

So every Sunday, Jesus Christ freely offers healing to us all.  He does this first and foremost by offering the gifts of His divine Body and Blood in the Eucharist and also with the divine Presence of the Holy Spirit in the Liturgy and in the prayers and holy mysteries of the Church.  And this healing is received not in isolation, but in communion with others.  One must remember that isolation and alienation are marks of the Fall – we chose to alienate ourselves from God and from other people as well.  As we saw in the story of Cain and Able, human beings forgot somewhere along the line that we are all brothers and sisters.  We are a family.  So true worship is done together – with the people of God.  If we are isolated and alone because of the Fall, then we can’t receive healing in isolation.  Indeed, part of the healing process (restoring the fullness of human nature that we were originally created with) is unity with others.  Unity with other human beings helps take away the venom of the Fall.

In the Divine Liturgy, we are offered a chance to be restored to unity with God through the holy mysteries (especially in the Eucharist) and unity with others in coming together and growing in unselfish love towards one another.

This is the nature of true worship.  In the end, it’s not for God at all.  Quite the contrary – it’s for our own benefit.  By engaging in true worship, we set aside the old, sinful nature and little by little, we become more like Jesus Christ – taking on His divine nature.

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Forget About Politics: A Review of Jesse Ventura’s “63 Documents”

I hate to put a book down that I haven’t read all the way through or one that I’ve skimmed through parts of.  I love to read and I love to learn.  There have been only a handful of books that I haven’t read all the way through.

Jesse Ventura’s 63 Documents the Government Doesn’t Want You to Read is one of them.

And it’s not because it’s a bad book.

In fact, it’s incredibly well done.  Perhaps a bit too well done, in fact.

The former Minnesota governor and his co-author, Dick Russell, have put together a book that is informative, thoughtful, and well researched, with insightful and sharp commentary on each document.

And don’t get me wrong.  I don’t mean to say that I skimmed through the book.  Quite the contrary.  I read very carefully for about 85% of the book.  Reading through government documents doesn’t make for fun reading, but I was fascinated from the first document down through the last.  But as I continued to read, I found it harder and harder to pick up the book again to read through more documents.  The book is a heavy and sobering read.

I simply got to a point where I couldn’t stomach any more.  As I read what the American government has done over the last several decades, I literally felt sick and my heart felt like a lead weight in my chest.  I didn’t want to hear anymore.  I had enough.  I got through the vast majority of this invaluable work and then I just couldn’t bring myself to go through anymore – I had to skim through the last few documents.  It actually got to the point where my blood started to boil and I could hardly think.  All I could feel was utter hatred and disgust for the monsters who believe they can rule over us.  Indeed, they believe they have the right to rule the world.

Jesse Ventura has repeatedly said in televised interviews that one could easily substitute the word “Nazi” for “American” government and everything would fit perfectly.  When I heard the governor make that statement, I assumed he was being hyperbolic – a showman.  I thought he was trying to stir up interest or controversy over his newest book, but he was absolutely right.  It really shouldn’t be that surprising to anyone who actually reads the book, especially since the Federal regime knowingly harbored Nazi war criminals after WW2.

Reading 63 Documents makes you realize exactly what kind of people we’re dealing with when we talk about the people in the upper echelons of power.  The list of issues facing Americans, especially the younger generation, is utterly staggering and people go back and forth with one another about how to tackle the issues of the day.  But when you go through document after document detailing the lies, murder, theft – a nearly endless array of crimes perpetrated on the part of the Federal government, you will quickly see that there is no getting out of this mess through politics.

The system is Broken.  As George Carlin said, we’re “circling the drain.” The power elite own everything in the political system and if you think they’re going to simply let go of the reigns and stop ripping you off through taxation and the central banking system, while also stripping you of your basic, natural, human rights, you’re sadly mistaken.  Pitifully so.  These people see most of us as nothing but serfs.  They’re sociopaths, as Ron Paul rightfully pointed out in his Congressional Farewell Speech.  These people in government and in the megabanks that help pull the strings will hang on to their power with everything they have.  They’re too invested in the system to simply let it dissolve.

But, happily, it will dissolve one day.  As the Austrian (free market) School of economics teaches us, centralized control cannot last forever.  By its own nature, it eventually collapses in on itself.  The powers that be can only print so much funny-money, run up so much debt, and suppress the spirit of free enterprise and human freedom for so long.

Tyranny – central control – is not sustainable.  Freedom is the natural order of things.

So what are we supposed to do?  I know this probably wasn’t the governor’s intention, but his book made me very pessimistic about using the political system to bring about reform.  I think a perfect example to illustrate this point is the current state of what’s been called the “liberty movement.”  After the presidential campaign in 2012, the Republican Party realized that it could no longer continue to merely fool conservatives and hope to win.  So they looked to the Ron Paul campaign and decided to infiltrate and co-opt the libertarian crowd.  In addition to making open statements asking for libertarian support, the GOP has brought Ron Paul’s own son, Rand, deeper and deeper into the black hole that is neoconservatism in exchange for promises of “respectability” and influence in the Party.  So the lesson is that the establishment always co-opts political movements as soon as they get organized and gain a little steam.  Before this, the Tea Party was also co-opted by the GOP wing of the establishment.  The power elite are masters at “nipping problems in the bud,” so to speak.

I tend to think the best course of action is to prepare for the upcoming collapse that the government is bringing on itself.  Whether they know a collapse is coming or not is open for debate, but it’s clear that they have measures in place to control the American people if/when the collapse does, in fact, occur (as Ventura proves in his book).  Cautious buggers, these government leaches.  In the end, liberty will prevail because of the spread of ideas.  Liberty-minded Americans need to study economics, history, and political theory so that we can properly understand why the collapse occurred, how to fix it, and how to avoid another one in the future.  I know a lot of that material might be a bit boring for some, but we can’t afford to shrug it off anymore.  If you understood only a fraction of how evil the government is, I don’t think you’d argue with me on the necessity of educating ourselves and our neighbors.  So the more Rothbard, Mises, Hayek, Woods, Locke, Jefferson, Ventura, and Bastiat we read, the better.  One might want to throw in a good amount of Hunter S. Thompson as well, just for good measure.

In the end, education is the key.  Until then, do everything you can to get ready for a collapse of some kind (whether it’s fiscal, monetary, or worse, it’s best to be prepared).

In closing, I think we all owe a debt of gratitude to Jesse Ventura and Dick Russell for their wonderfully important work.  If you haven’t been paying attention to the state of affairs in this country lately, I’ve no doubt these 63 Documents, chilling as they are, will open your eyes up to just how far gone we are and just how evil the people who rule us truly are.  Politics won’t save us.  We’re well past that now.  What we need is patience, education that produces a revolution of ideas, and the courage to stand up to tyranny now and in the future.

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A Key Insight on Theology and Economics

Some of you may know I’ve started to study Austrian (or free market) economics.  I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of this field and it’s amazing how much overlap there really is between economics and theology.  In fact, there are some professional theologians who specialize in thinking about the theology of economics.  It’s a fascinating topic to study, but I’m not sure exactly how many people are focusing on it in departments of theology or religious studies.  It’s something I certainly want to learn more about, but since I’m not a Marxist, I think I’d have better luck sticking with systematic theology if I go into a PhD program.  Marxism is very fashionable right now in most theology departments, which is another topic in itself.

Even with the limited amount of reading I’ve done, I have come to understand one key thing that I think is a good starting point for all Christians to bear in mind when thinking about economics: all of us are made in God’s image and by virtue of that fact, we have complete freedom of action.  Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should take this as a license to do anything that would harm another person.  While God allows us the freedom to become as virtuous or depraved as we choose, it’s important to remember that the free market has provisions to protect people from fraud and abuse.  In fact, in the long run, it’s not in a business person’s interest to cheat others or treat employees poorly because over time (all other factors being equal in a free market system), that business person will lose his customers and employees.  If God allows us the freedom to choose how we conduct ourselves in this life, what business does the government have in telling us how to exchange goods and services with other human beings?

I’ll take another step to include an Orthodox Christian insight.  In Orthodox theology, human beings are not only seen as being made in God’s image, we are seen as essentially good.  While it is true that sin has separated us from God, the divine image was never lost and we are therefore good.

What does this insight have to do with economics?  It helps us understand why the fear mongering on the part of the government needs to be ignored.  The State would have us believe that we need the government to protect us from our fellow citizens.  The idea goes something like this: “You can’t trust your neighbor to have guns.  Let us take those from him (and you, too, while we’re at it).  Trust us – we won’t do anything to harm you.”  Or: “You’ve got to be wary of that free market, citizen.  It’s not really all it’s cracked up to be.  Your neighbor will cheat you and rob you blind in a second if you let your guard down.  The free market needs rules… our rules.”

But if the scriptures and the Fathers of the Church are to be believed, then we have no reason why we should be suspicious of our fellow citizens.  We should instead be suspicious of the fear mongers of the State who try to make us afraid of one another so that they might attain more power.  The natural order for human beings is community and I think this is connected to the fact that we are made in the image of the Trinity.  All three Persons have been living in perfect love and community with one another from eternity – this is Who we’ve been created by and we are reflections of Him.  As it is in God’s nature to act in cooperation and harmony with other Persons, we are likewise made to act in harmony with other human beings.

All of this, of course, is not to minimize the place of sin in this world.  Without God, all of us are prone to fall into selfishness or egotism.  Only by God’s unending grace can we be healed of our spiritual sickness and become fully human.  Nevertheless, when thinking about economics, a Christian must never forget where, or rather Who, we come from.  This is the beginning of sound economic thinking from a Christian perspective.

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Holiday’s Over

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve posted.  The holidays have been eventful, so I decided to put the blog posts on hold for a while.  Now that I’m back, I’ve decided to post some news and some things I’ve been thinking about during the last few weeks.

First item: I’ve been received into the Holy Orthodox Church through the holy mystery (or sacrament) of Chrismation.  I had the good fortune of being received into the Church on January 6, the Feast of the Holy Theophany of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.  During this great Feast, we celebrate the baptism of Jesus Christ by His Forerunner, John the Baptist.  At Christ’s baptism, God revealed Himself as Triune – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all present.  It was a joy and privilege for me to become an Orthodox Christian during this wonderful Feast and I am especially glad and humbled to finally and fearfully be in communion with the Ancient and Apostolic Church.  The Orthodox Church has always been a Eucharistic society, because it is in the Eucharist that we are able to physically participate in the life of the Trinity by taking the precious Body and Blood of Christ.  This is the greatest of the holy mysteries and I am still humbled and in awe of the fact that God led me to the ancient, Holy Orthodox Catholic Church to partake of the fullness of the Faith and His Divine Gifts in the Eucharist.  And to finally be in communion with the likes of St. Basil the Great, St. Irenaeus, and the rest of the Fathers of the Church… I can’t quite express how I feel.  It all hasn’t quite sunk in, but I thank God for bringing me this far.  I can’t wait to continue the journey!

I decided to take the name “Columcille” (or Columba, in the Latin form), after a pre-schism, Celtic saint.  I wanted to take a Western name and because most of my ancestry is Celtic, an Irish name seemed appropriate.  St. Columcille was one of the great Apostles of Ireland and he spent a good deal of his ministry in Scotland, preaching the Gospel to the people there and eventually set up several monasteries, including the monastery at Iona.  Iona is still a working monastery and I hope to make a pilgrimage out there one day to honor my patron saint and experience this “thin place” where God’s grace is powerfully and noticeably present.  My bishop, His Eminence, Metropolitan Isaiah, was at my parish that weekend and he got a kick out of the fact that I chose an Irish name, noting that the Orthodox faith has very deep roots in Ireland.

Now, I’d like to bring up a couple of other things.  First, some suggested reading.  I just finished a great book by one of my former professors at Perkins, William J. Abraham.  Professor Abraham’s “The Bible: Beyond the Impasse” should be required reading for anyone interested in the current state of theology in the West, and especially for those in ministry.  The book isn’t too long (only 115 pages) and provides an outstanding overview of the history of the place of the Bible in modern theology.  He lays out the current difficulties in academia and in churches across the West (America in particular) and provides an interesting, fresh look at the traditional doctrine of sola scriptura.  Abraham not only does a fine job of illustrating where we are as Christians in the West, but also provides a fascinating way forward into the 21st century.  The book is actually constituted by the contents of Dr. Abraham’s Heck Lectures at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio in April of 2007.  I cannot say enough about this book – it is an outstanding work on the theology of the Bible and I highly recommend it. 

Speaking of books, I’ve decided to write one of my own.  I’ve begun research for a book aimed at a more popular audience about heaven and hell.  Ever since Rob Bell came out with “Love Wins”, Evangelical Christians have been in a very intense debate about heaven and hell.  This is an extremely important discussion not only because it deals with the eternal fate of every human being who has ever drawn breath in this world, it also informs our understanding of who God is and what He is like.  There have been a few notable replies to Bell from the more traditional Evangelical side and I recently finished “Erasing Hell” by Francis Chan, which is perhaps the most highly regarded reply to Bell amongst traditional Evangelicals.  I was, frankly, horrified by what I read from Chan and decided to write a book in response.  I think the Orthodox Church has a unique and very important view on this topic and I’m convinced that the Orthodox voice will be very helpful in clearing up this debate.  I pray that God will help me and guide me as I continue this project.

That’s about it for now.  Sorry for the extended absence, but I’m back.  Cheers!

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Who’s Killing American Conservatism?

“I’m getting better.”
“No, you’re not.  You’ll be stone dead in a moment.”
“I don’t want to go on the cart.”
“Oh, don’t be such a baby.”
“I think I’ll go for a walk… I feel happy! I feel happy!”
*Whack!*
– From Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Sometimes I feel like the “bring out your dead” scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a good way to look at the state of American conservatism today.  It seems like every time genuine American conservatives get the slightest bit of momentum – or each time these traditional American ideas get a little life breathed into them, they take a proverbial blow to the head.

Before I get too far into this piece, I want to quickly define the term “American conservatism.”  What are conservatives in America supposed to conserve?  You see, American conservatism is its own, unique brand of conservatism.  It’s distinct from traditional, European conservatism.  In other words, the Founders of this country did not see themselves as conservatives, because traditional European conservatives argued for policies that protected the upper crust of society – the political elites.  The Founders were disciples of what we now call “classical liberalism.”  The focus was not on preserving the power of the politically well connected and the very wealthy – the focus was instead on limited government and individual liberty.  That is the unique American tradition – limited government and personal liberty.

Even into the early 20th century, there were some writers and politicians who believed in these traditional American principles that would have loathed the term “conservative”.  It was seen as backward and old fashioned – having nothing to do with traditional American principles.  Later on in the 20th century, though, the political landscape began to change; and those who advocated for limited government and believed in the sovereignty of the States and the individual eventually took on the term “conservative”.

Now, though, in the early 21st century, things are looking very bleak for American conservatives.  We now live in a society dominated by incredibly powerful multinational corporations, political special interests, and big government.  Using the popular political terminology of today, the political “Left” has taken over.  And I don’t mean only in the last few years.  The Democrats may have won the last two presidential elections, but the dominance of the Democratic Party in recent elections is only a very small part of the problem.  That’s because American conservatives are shut out of politics and have been for many years now.  We have no voice.

You may say: “But we have the Republican Party to counter the Left.  They’re trying to stop the Democrats from giving us big government.  If we didn’t have the GOP, the government would be out of control and they’d tax and spend us into oblivion.”

I have news for you: the Republicans are lying to you.  In fact, I almost made that the title of this piece.  If there’s any message that I want people to understand, it’s that very point.  The Republicans are lying to you.  All the time.  Virtually every word uttered by the overwhelming majority of Republican politicians – especially the leadership of the party – is utter horse manure.  They are lying through their teeth every single day.  And I’ll prove it to you.

Now, the Republicans are supposed to be for limited government.  Right?  After all, that’s what they tell us all the time.  “We’ll get the government off your back.”  “We’ll slash spending and reduce the size and scope of government.”  “We need to unleash the power of the free market.”  Sometimes they even have the gall to bring up the Founders and say something like this: “The Founders would be ashamed of where we are today.”

But what’s the truth about the Republicans?  Who do they really represent?  I’ll be as plain as I can here and then I’ll show you the evidence so you can decide for yourself whether or not I’m correct.  Which, by the way, is the last thing the Republicans (and Democrats) want you to do – think for yourself.  So, to put it bluntly, the Republicans represent old, European conservatism.  They’re largely ignorant of free market economics (if they aren’t being outright hostile to the free market) and they don’t care because they aren’t really interested in the free market at all – that would be harmful to the interests of big business.  They represent the political elite – the crony capitalists of today.  Their goal is to protect the well established and make sure that the average American is none the wiser.  What better way to do that than to spew out some rhetoric about freedom, limited government, while at the same time waxing poetic about the greatness of the American government (because of the greatness of the people, of course…), and how it’s those darned liberals – those pesky Democrats – that want to take your money and give it to their crazed, socialist constituents.  They understand that big business and big government feed off of each other, so they make people think that their policies are the “conservative” position while they demonize their partners in crime – the Democrats – as being populist, socialist utopians, yet they do nothing to actually repeal the measures taken by their Democrat peers.  In fact, when “liberal” programs taken on by the Democrats become ingrained in American society long enough, the Republicans will actually defend those big government programs just as vigorously as the Democrats – they’ll make defending those programs seem like the “conservative” thing to do (see Medicaid, Social Security, etc.).

In reality, the Republicans are authoritarians – deeply invested in increasing the size and scope of the government, while also ensuring that the elites are well protected.  Over time, special, big business interests began to infiltrate the GOP.  In the 20th century, leftist utopians also began infiltrating the GOP, calling for America to re-make the world in our own image – creating a world that would be “safe for democracy.”  This was how the neoconservatives became the dominant voice of the Republican Party and made perpetual war a part of the party platform.  Most registered Republicans don’t understand that the interventionist policies of the GOP actually have their origin in leftist political thought.  So the GOP was now fully on board with the welfare-warfare state in which big government and big business became partners in protecting the elites and draining the wealth of the American people.

I’ve mentioned many times before via social media that there is no substantial difference between the Democrats and Republicans – they each fool their constituents by using different rhetoric, but the policies are essentially the same.  Here’s the evidence.

In the midst of a financial crisis, the U.S. Senate has approved the 2013 NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act).  The 2013 bill called for $631 billion in spending on the military.  According to the article in the link, it also called for “a new round of sanctions against Iran, a permanent ban on ever transferring detainees from Guantanamo Bay, and continued funding for the occupation of Afghanistan.”  Moreover, the 2013 NDAA also contained the Feinstein Amendment, which was supposed to overturn the provision in the 2012 NDAA that called for the indefinite detention of American citizens without charge or trial, but there is still some debate as to whether or not the Feinstein Amendment actually restores the right to a trial by jury for American citizens.  The bill passed unanimously.  There was no debate – no resistance to this absurd amount of money being thrown at the military-industrial complex or the maintenance of the American Empire.

And what about this “fiscal cliff” that we’re hearing about these days?  Aren’t the Republicans supposed to be for fiscal responsibility?  Surely, they must understand the need for cuts in spending.  According to Robert Wenzel, the talk from the Republicans about cutting spending and lowering taxes is completely “bogus.”  On both sides of the aisle in Congress, the real aim in all these talks is increasing taxes.

But don’t we have some great champions of conservative ideals in the GOP?  What about all those “Tea Party” candidates?  We must have some Republicans who can talk sense in the midst of this madness.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you one of the “rising stars” of the GOP: Marco Rubio.  According to Chris Rossini at Economic Policy Journal, Rubio is one of the front runners for the GOP’s presidential nomination in 2016.  If that’s the case, we should all be very worried, indeed.  Rubio was recently given the Kemp Leadership Award, considered to be kind of a big deal for legislators.  In the article I’ve linked to, Rossini brilliantly breaks down Rubio’s acceptance speech.  In that speech, we can see what historian and best-selling author Tom Woods calls the “3×5 index card of acceptable political thought in America.”  The idea is, politicians are only allowed a certain amount of space when it comes to acceptable political thought in this country.  If a politician strays from the Romney-Obama spectrum, he or she is summarily dismissed as a lunatic or “fringe” by the establishment of both political parties and the mainstream media (see Ron Paul’s candidacy).

If you check out the article, you’ll see that Rubio knows virtually nothing about free market economics and actually differs very little from any other Republican or Democrat.  The gist of this “choice” we have between politicians with an “R” or “D” by their name is essentially: “Do you want big government or bigger government?”  This holds true even for “Tea Party” politicians like Rubio.

The sad truth of American politics is that an elected official can’t go very far up the political ladder if he or she wants to offer a legitimate alternative to the American people.  This is why politicians like Rubio are praised while the likes of Ron Paul are demonized.  This is why Republican constituents are given candidates like Mitt Romney to oppose the Democrats.  Romney was chosen by the Republican establishment because didn’t offer a viable alternative – he was just as authoritarian and pro-big government as Obama was and is.  There was no real choice in the 2012 presidential election, just as there is no real choice in virtually every other election in America each year at every level of government.  Dissenters are not tolerated.  Don’t believe me?

In the 2008 and 2012 GOP presidential primaries, the only candidate who had a record that was consistent with the principles of limited government and personal liberty (real American conservatism, remember?)  was Ron Paul.  And the GOP leadership did everything in their power to make sure his campaign was crushed.  He was marginalized by the establishment of the Republican Party, the mainstream media, and even the Democratic Party wrote him off as “fringe” because he dared to speak outside of the approved McCain-Clinton spectrum.  For his fidelity to the Constitution and the principles of American conservatism, he was deemed a heretic.

The Republican Party viciously attacked the one candidate who predicted the fiscal collapse, had never voted to raise taxes, never voted to restrict gun ownership, had an impeccable pro-life record (his profession was delivering babies, after all), and was a renowned expert on free market economics and famous critic of central banking and central economic planning (i.e. the Federal Reserve).  But he wasn’t bloodthirsty enough for the neoconservative-dominated GOP, so they tried to run him out of the party.  Besides, the GOP wanted to stay in the good graces of the bankers and corporate elite – the last thing they wanted was a man who was serious about sound money and a real free market.

The media and both parties stuck by their mantra: “Don’t listen to him, citizen.  He’s dangerous.  Listen to us.  Don’t pay attention to crazy Uncle Ron – he’s just an old crank, you know.  A relic.  He might even be racist.  No, you’re much better off not listening to him babble on about the unsustainablity of our foreign and domestic policies.  Here, citizen – listen to Romney and Obama.  These are sensible men you can trust to rule over… we mean… lead you.  Your government is here to protect you – we know best.  Now go back to sleep.  Watch football.  Spend money.  Everything’s fine.  Let’s go back to watching these two, very different political parties scream at each other and call each other names.  Let’s see if your side wins the horse race this time.”

Dissent is not tolerated.  Recently, the Republican leadership purged various Congressional committees of representatives who refuse to play ball.  Walter Jones, Justin Amash, and others who tend to avoid toeing the party line, were removed from their committee assignments by the Speaker of the House – many of those who were removed were known to be friends with Ron Paul.

Both political parties are able to grow the size and scope of government and carry out grotesque abuses of civil liberties and horrifically immoral policies through their manipulation of tribalistic tendencies that are in us all.  In other words, the Republicans have become very good at manipulating their constituents by what economist Murray Rothbard called the abuse and manipulation of the word “we”.  While the Democrats do the same thing with their own constituents, Republicans have gotten far too many people to agree to the notion that the GOP and even the government is “us”.

In other words, they make you identify personally with Republican policies.  So “we” need to increase spending on education with programs like No Child Left Behind.  “We” need to tell people what they can and can’t put in their bodies.  “We” need to kill thousands of human beings halfway around the world that have never threatened an American in their life.  These are “our” policies because the government is “we” and the government is doing this for “our” good.  By getting you to identify with at least one of the two wings of the big government party, they have manipulated you into agreeing to immoral and unjust policies that are not to your benefit at all.  They’ve gotten far too many Americans to identify personally with the government, so when someone critiques American foreign policy, for instance, it becomes a personal attack.

Instead, Americans should always think of the government (and both of the parties that run it) as “they” – not “we”.  You and I did not slaughter vast numbers of innocent people in this so-called “War on Terror”.  The government did.  The politicians enact legislation and they enforce their policies at home and abroad by violence.  If foreigners don’t agree to American influence in their internal affairs, the American government deems them terrorists and kills them.  You don’t want to pay taxes – even if rates are raised to absurdly high levels because of the policies enacted by our rulers?  You’ll be thrown in a cage.  If you resist, they’ll kill you.  This is the nature of our government today.  They recognize no limits on the power of the state.  This is true of Republicans just as much as it is of Democrats.

When Obama signed the NDAA, the GOP did not object.  When Obama murdered an American citizen, Republicans applauded.  When Obama renewed the Patriot Act, the Republicans supported it.  When George W. Bush bailed out the banks, Obama followed suit.  And both parties are funded by the same corporations.  The Republicans and Democrats are two wings of the same vulture.

To help drive the point home a bit more, I’ll give you an example of the mindset of the political elites in the GOP.  When asked what he thought about Americans who supported the principle of nullification of unconstitutional Federal law – what Thomas Jefferson deemed the “moderate” course of action for the various States to protect their people from the Federal government, Republican leader of the Florida Senate Don Gaetz called for supporters of nullification to be shot and hanged.  And this is from a man belonging to the party of “limited government.”

In his Congressional farewell address, Ron Paul said that government today was filled with “psychopathic authoritarians.”  I’m afraid Dr. Paul was correct.

So what are American conservatives to do?  We’ve no representation and the mainstream media stands against the people as part of the establishment.  The first step, I think, is to make sure that Americans break out of this tribalism that’s crippled our country.  In order to keep American conservatism alive, Americans must not allow themselves to slip into the dominant “left vs. right” narrative and get rid of the notion that “we” are the government.  It’s all too easy to slip into a simple “us vs. them” mindset, but this is how the rulers of this country maintain their control over the people.  The media, by the way, helps perpetuate this mindset – they’ve set up the networks so that everyone hears only what they want to hear.  No one has to venture outside of their own narrative and this is very dangerous.

If American conservatism is going to stand a chance, the old “left vs. right” paradigm must be shattered.  People must understand that there is no real “left” or “right” in the political spectrum anymore – it’s simply authoritarianism, collectivism, and legal positivism versus liberty, the sovereignty of the individual, and the rule of law.  In order for that to happen, conservative Americans have to understand that they’re being lied to.  The Republicans are not conservative.  They don’t represent you and they don’t care about the Constitution or the traditional American principles of limited government and personal liberty.  They want your money, they want your rights to be stripped away, and they want you to keep quiet about it.

Who’s killing American conservatism?  Generally speaking, we can say that it’s the Establishment as a whole.  But if we’re going to lay the blame anywhere in particular, it’s fairly simple – the Republicans are killing American conservatism.  I say, “Do away with the GOP.”  It’s the only way to keep American conservatism alive.

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