Archive for April, 2011
Over the past seven months I have had the honor of serving Preakness Valley United Reformed Church in Wayne, NJ as semi-regular pulpit supply. These dear brothers and sisters have been without a pastor for over a year now. I hurt for them in this difficult time, but I very much enjoy my visits to PVURC. I hope that I will still be able to visit occasionally, even after God blesses them with a permanent shepherd.
This Sunday evening, I’ll be preaching from Isaiah 5: “Where’s the Fruit?” If you are in north Jersey that evening and would like to stop by between 6-7pm, it would be great to see you at the service. I’ve given an excerpt of my sermon below, and the full audio will be posted here sometime next week, d.v.
[Isaiah] begins with a metaphor: a vineyard, planted and cultivated with care and patience. I visited the heart of wine-country in South Africa about a month ago—beautiful, beautiful countryside—and if you’ve ever been in a vineyard, you know how much care must be taken with the vines in order for them to produce both quantity and quality. The ground has to be plowed and fertilized. The vines need to be kept off the ground, watered, and pruned, for there to be any hope of a good harvest. Fences must be built to keep out trespassers, thieves and animals. Vineyards, and agriculture in general, take a lot of work up front, and of course a lot of faith that the rain, the ground and the sun will produce the desired result: perhaps a smooth, full-bodied wine.
So, we can feel the vinedresser’s frustration when he receives no usable yield for all his back-breaking labor. Metaphor has this wonderful ability to distance us from a situation, and illumining to us our own failures. In 2 Samuel 12, the prophet Nathan told a parable so persuasively that King David convicted himself of adultery and murder. Here, Isaiah’s audience feels a twinge of indignance toward the vineyard—before realizing that they themselves are the vineyard.
UPDATE: Audio is now posted here.
Can diversity be taken too far?
I’ve recently felt myself becoming more comfortable with diversity in my study of the Old Testament. In the theological realm, for example, I’ve been appreciating the tension between different perspectives on evil and the justice of God (e.g., Job, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations). In the historical realm, I’ve found different visions of postexilic restoration, in preëxilic, exilic and postexilic literature–for example, the ethnically exclusive vision of Ezr-Neh in contrast to the inclusive vision of Isa 56 and Zec 14.
I think I’ve found more room in my OT theology for diversity because I’ve become more reliant on the NT to tie all the OT’s loose ends together. If you conceive of Jesus as having fulfilled OT prophecies in a sort of direct, one-to-one correspondence, you can’t have as much diversity in the OT because different eschatological visions mean conflicting messianic roles for Jesus to fulfill. But the NT authors are looking retrospectively at eschatological events that the OT saints could never have imagined so vividly–and they see that Jesus was the true fulfillment of everything for which the OT saints hoped and described as through stained glass.
However, I think some folks hyper-fragment the OT, pitting the different perspectives against one another, while failing to see the unity in the OT. Advocacy readings of the OT, in the quest to be heard alongside traditional perspectives, have shouted down those who advocate unity.
Can’t we do both? Do Christian theologians rely too heavily on the NT to make a cohesive, redemptive-historical whole out of OT Scripture, or is this what the NT is supposed to do?
On Thursday, March 31, I departed around 8am from Philadelphia, bound for Stellenbosch, Western Cape, South Africa. I flew Delta to their hub in Minneapolis; then KLM overnight to Amsterdam; and finally, the 12-hour, 6,000-mile flight the length of Africa to Cape Town, arriving about 10pm on Friday evening.
This was my fourth time “hopping the Pond” overnight from the US to Europe, and it never gets any easier. At 6’3″ (190.5cm for you metric folks out there), trying to sleep in the economy seats on a plane is always a losing proposition for me. I’ve tried every position: pillow behind my lower back, pillow under my thighs, leaning back, leaning sideways, slumped over forward–no luck. Even two glasses of wine with dinner couldn’t do the trick. I figured I’d be better off reading as long as I could, and then watching movies to pass the eight hours.
Flying a total of forty hours to Cape Town and back, I watched quite a few movies and TV shows–too many to count. I can only read for so long before my neck starts to hurt, or I get too tired to concentrate. Here’s a brief account of some movies I watched–some of which I’m not very proud of, but hopefully my mistakes can be your wisdom:
- The American — A bland action film starring George Clooney as an American assassin in Europe. He hides out in Italy while on a job, and falls in love with a prostitute. Boring, but mercifully short. Don’t bother.
- Red — An action comedy with Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren and Morgan Freeman. Not the best movie ever by a long shot, but a fun date-night rental.
- Black Swan — I figured I’d give it a shot because it won all those awards, and I like Natalie Portman. Hyperdramatic, strange–sexualized in puzzling ways. Full of flat characters; Portman’s is the only one that develops–if going mad can be considered a development. I didn’t find it that interesting–certainly not worth the drug and sexual content.
- Little Fockers — The threequal to Meet the Parents. Full of awkward moments that are hilarious to some and just painful to others. As much as I like Stiller and De Niro, this one’s probably not worth watching.
- The Fighter — A classic sports-hero-comes-from-working-class-background-and-defeats-the-odds-achieving-pinacle-of-success movie–but so much more than that. This movie is about family relationships and tough love. I love Amy Adams. Definitely recommended, but the R-rating for language and drugs is well-deserved.
- The Tourist — I figured it out within 20 minutes. Canned plot; some funny moments, but mostly just a star-driven box-office draw attempt. Whatevs.
- Easy A — Not just another teen sex-comedy–though, unfortunately, the plot revolves around the main character’s falsified sexual CV. There actually a lot of truth here about the gravity of sex, the importance of a good reputation, and the double-standard that exists in our culture for women’s and men’s sexuality. Probably good to watch if you’re in youth ministry, or with a thinking teen or young person. But the vulgarity undercuts the film’s attempt to elevate sex as something to be treasured and taken seriously.
- The Killing Room — A minimalistically produced, bottle-episode thriller. Brutal, exciting and unpredictable. It probably had the chance to say something profound, but I don’t think it really did–then again, I was so tired at this point that I may have missed it.
But I digest…
Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam was one of the more interesting airports I’ve been through. It is designed particularly well for layovers, since it handles so much traffic as a hub in Europe. There is a rest area in the center section, with couches and laptop stations (and an hour of free WiFi!). Among all the shops where you can purchase typically Dutch products at hefty markup prices, there is a small mini-museum featuring paintings of lesser-known Dutch masters. As a fan of 17th-century Dutch paintings, I found this little display a welcome diversion, a chance to walk around and enjoy a few high-brow intellectual moments after many tired hours of watching inane films in a cramped aluminum tube. There were no Van Goghs or Vermeers, but beautiful nonetheless. Schiphol also offers the free use of small handcarts, which are found in clusters all around the terminals. In American airports you typically pay to use a cart, but these are free and everywhere. There were little barriers that would prevent the carts from being taken outside or on escalators, but other than that you could take them anywhere, leave them anywhere, and find another one just about anywhere–delightful.
The flight-tracker on the Amsterdam-Cape Town flight took us over quite a few countries in Africa: Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire), Angola, and Namibia. It made me think about the little I know of current events in those countries–Libya being most prominently in the news at that time. A graduate seminar on colonialism at Stellenbosch the next week made me think about the condescension many Westerners (like me) express toward Africans in thinking that we can be the solution to their problems. Even the term “Africa” is a Latin word applied collectively to a land mass of 11,700,000 mi² that is home to a billion people from thousands of different ethnic groups which have little or nothing in common with one another.
I arrived in Cape Town that evening, went through customs, and had to pay a R110 (about $15) tariff on CDs I would mail for my friend, Gordon, to friends on his behalf. Protectionist neanderthals… I successfully figured out how to use a pay phone to call Gordon’s friend, Craig, a young, local pastor whom I had never met but who graciously agreed to pick me up and let me crash at his place. After some confusion about the pickup location, we found each other at the airport. When we got to his home, I showered and then crashed hard, grateful after thirty-six hours without sleep.
Next installment: Cape Town to Stellenbosch.
I realize that my bloggage output has been somewhat lethargic lately. Travels have kept me quite busy in the last month, and I hope to reward your attention with some mildly interesting accounts of my excursions to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Amsterdam and South Africa.
Part I: Wisconsin
The week of March 19-26 I taught New Testament at PBU’s Wisconsin Wilderness Campus (WWC). WWC is a freshman-year, modular program; visiting instructors teach one credit-hour’s worth in a week (typically 14-15 hours of instruction). Some of the instructors come from PBU’s main campus, and some are outside instructors from other institutions.
I had the privilege of teaching Module 3 of The Pentateuch in October, which covered Numbers and Deuteronomy. This time, I was in much more sketchily-charted waters for an OT graduate student: the Corinthian, Prison and Pastoral Epistles of Paul.
Some may find it puzzling that PBU’s School of Bible and Ministry does not have distinct OT, NT and ST/HT departments, but I have always found this to be a strength. Of course, each professor typically teaches within a specialty, but the cross-pollination between the disciplines produces a wonderful collegiality and cohesiveness within the curriculum.
I must say: the challenge of preparing a course in the NT for undergraduates, while immersed in preparations for graduate exams in OT criticism and Philosophy of History, was very fruitful for me spiritually, personally and academically. Teaching undergrads has “kept it real” for me during this year of transition out of the conservative PBU/WTS bubble into a more progressive, Reformed university context at Stellenbosch (more on that later).
But how do you teach nine books of the NT in fourteen hours? Very carefully and selectively, as it turns out. The students had already studied Gospels, Acts, Romans and Galatians, so they had some Pauline context. I was able to give them my own interpretation of the NPP and a broad survey of some recent developments as best I could. We then dove right in to the texts. I tried to provide a survey of the context, themes and message of each book, and then examine a key chapter here, an important doctrine there. I tried to stay away from passages that could more easily be addressed in a Bible-study or sermon context, and to focus on passages that are difficult to exposit outside of a sustained, academic treatment.
One of the blessings of this trip was that Corrie and Daniel came along with me. Daniel has traveled more in his first year of life than some folks do in five years, and he is a little trooper on planes. Corrie was concerned that she might not have enough to do, but had always wanted to visit WWC since so many of our fellow students had enjoyed the program.
I was especially glad to have them along when I took ill on Tuesday night. I didn’t feel too great when I went to bed, but then I woke up with nausea and–well, other things. The flu hit me hardest Wednesday and Thursday; I could barely sit up, didn’t eat anything, ached all over, and just tried to stay hydrated. It was brutal. The students and staff were very flexible and reärranged the school-days for me so I could teach in the afternoons with some more rest. Corrie was wonderful; she nursed me back to health, brought me medication and little morsels of food, and even taught one class period for me (one of the benefits of having a wife with degrees in education and biblical studies!).
By Friday morning, thankfully, I was healthy enough to go to breakfast and adminster the exam. But I had fallen behind on my prep and grading, so the last day was not nearly as profitable as I had hoped. I apologized profusely to the students and staff, and of course everyone understood and was very supportive. Being ill–really sick, on my back, without any cure except waiting–does two things: it makes me appreciate good health, and it forces me to trust God.
I wonder whether the students will long remember most of the facts I taught that week (I hope something stuck, of course!), but the week was overshadowed by some other difficult circumstances at the camp. But I was encouraged by the depth of the students’ character and faith amidst the tumult, and I hope that they were able to see Christ in me, Corrie and the staff. I don’t really remember any “facts” I learned my freshman year; what I do remember is professors, teachers, friends–relationships that affected me deeply. I hope the relationships begun at WWC this year will bless the students and staff as much as they bless me.
Instead of flying back to PA on Friday as instructors typically do, WWC had booked me and Corrie a hotel in Minneapolis for Friday night since Saturday flights were significantly cheaper. We made the 3.5-hour drive from Cable, WI to the Twin Cities, checked in, and then made our first visit to the Mall of America, which I believe is the country’s largest mall (depending on the criteria). It’s huge, man–what a spectacle. It’s got a theme park in the middle of the mall that is visible from all the stores, and four or five floors worth of mallage. We went to a noodle restaurant–about all my stomach could handle–and then walked around a little and went back to the hotel, just to say we had been there.
We nearly missed our 7:20 flight the next morning, but made it home without other incident–tired and still somewhat ill, but satisfied. I gained some valuable teaching experience, but more importantly, shared experiences with and tremendous respect for my wife–a true אֵשֶׁת-חַיִל.
I was also a little panicked about the study-hours lost to sickness in preparation for my trip to Stellenbosch for oral exams. My departure on Thursday, March 31 and my arrival in Cape Town on April 1 will be the subject of my next post.
Amidst all the controversy surrounding the budget confrontation between the Democrats in the Senate and Republicans in the House of Representatives, the Cato Institute hosted an event a few weeks ago to mark the first anniversary of the passage of so-called “Obamacare.” Cato scholars explained why they think key provisions of Obamacare are unconstitutional and/or unwise, and other scholars who support Obamacare responded.
Much of the controversy surrounds the “individual mandate,” the requirement that every American purchase medical insurance. Now that insurance companies are no longer permitted to deny coverage because of a preëxisting condition, the individual mandate is the flipside, designed to prevent people from waiting until they get sick to purchase coverage they cannot be denied.
I’d like to share a few recent thoughts on Obamacare and medical care in general. I’d be interested in your comments, particularly my proposal (#4).
1. I think the practical merits of Obamacare are very questionable. It’s unclear to me how essentially putting many more folks into Medicare or a Medicare-like program will help, when Medicare is bankrupting the federal government.
2. So-called “insurance” may not be the best way to pay for medical care. Insurance is supposed to be protection against rare, catastrophic events, paid for with low premiums and hopefully never used. Homeowner’s insurance is a good example. Health “insurance,” on the other hand, has high premiums, and you actually purchase it planning to use it at some point—a prescription, having a child, or regular checkups. We don’t buy insurance for other things we use regularly, because it would be expensive—for example, we don’t purchase oil-change insurance or home-remodeling insurance. If I had such insurance, I would get my oil changed every week and remodel every year because I would incur zero marginal cost. Then my premiums would skyrocket, I would cancel my insurance and just pay for an oil change every 3,000 miles, and I would wonder why I had ever signed up for insurance in the first place.
3. The constitutional argument for the individual mandate in Obamacare is based on a certain reading of the “interstate commerce” clause, which has been interpreted since the 1930s in such a way that just about any economic activity can be regulated by the federal gov’t. The idea is: because everyone will use medical services at some point in their lives, the inactivity of failing to finance those services adequately actually constitutes economic choice that produces a negative externality (i.e., the hospital has to treat you whether you can finance care or not).
I don’t want to say there’s nothing to this. Healthcare is different in many ways from other services and commodities; we want outcomes rather than services per se. I don’t want to be nickel-and-diming this or that test while my wife is in the hospital—do every test, and figure out what’s wrong with her, dangit! This is also why people pay more for cruises with unlimited “adult” drinks, tips included: they don’t want to worry about anything. We are willing to pay extra overall, in exchange for not worrying about the individual services.
(Of course, some hospitals and HMOs have experimented in the past with outcome-based payment structures, rather than fee-for-service payment structures. But the problem is that Medicare is still fee-for-service, and Medicare pays more than 40% of the medical bills. As long as that structure is in place, doctors will still have incentive to perform more services than necessary, and hospitals will fight with insurance companies over reïmbursements, and insurance companies will pass on the costs to consumers in premiums.)
4. Obamacare’s advocates point out that quite a lot of medical care is delivered inefficiently and expensively in emergency rooms, since ERs are required by legislation to provide emergency treatment regardless of ability to pay. This is then part of the rationale for requiring insurance.
Now, only the most heartless anarcho-capitalist would want to live in a country where you could be refused life-saving treatment in an emergency because you can’t pay. Seriously?!? Let’s save a life first, and argue about money later.
But…perhaps there’s a better way to deal with that scenario, rather than the federal gov’t requiring everyone to purchase insurance. (I don’t much like the idea of single-payer, which would stifle innovation and create queues for services—but even that would be better than a gov’t mandate.)
What we have in the emergency scenario is what economists call a problem of externalities. Externalities affect people other than the voluntary participants in a private transaction. Thus, externality is a theoretical rationale for gov’t intervention, either to prevent a negative externality or to promote a postitive externality. Pollution from my car is a negative externality, so the government taxes gasoline to make me use less and to clean the environment (in theory). Technological research produces positive externalities, so the government protects copyrights and patents to encourage innovation that would otherwise have no exclusive profit motive. There are of course different opinions about the sorts of externalities that provide solid ground for gov’t intervention in a private transaction, but generally externalities are such a basis.
A fire company or a local police force is an example of a service that produces positive externalities. People benefit from knowing that, in an emergency, they can count on the police or the firemen to be there. These services are usually publicly funded by tax dollars (coërcion), since citizens might refuse to pay voluntarily, knowing that the fire dep’t will respond to a fire whether they paid private dues or not.
Most states also have minimum auto insurance requirements for driving on public roads. Some libertarians oppose this, but I do not (and as a federalist, I think states can try it if their legislatures want to). If you drive a huge piece of steel at deadly speeds on government roads, you need to be insured against damages you inflict upon others. If you keep inflicting damage, your insurance premiums will go up until you just can’t drive anymore.
Now, it’s a huge leap from, “Everyone who chooses to drive a car needs to have minimal insurance against liability,” to, “Every one of the over 300 million US residents must have insurance that covers mammograms and drug rehab.” But in principle, if emergency rooms are required to treat, couldn’t the gov’t (preferably state or local) require some minimal insurance to cover that possibility? I’m thinking of:
* Baseline insurance;
* Low premiums (I’d rather not have just tax dollars from the pot, since I want people to see the amount coming out of their check);
* Not to be used for routine care or in non-emergencies; and
* Privately purchased like auto insurance.
Companies could compete for the best rates, like auto insurance companies do now; they could look at the record of your use of emergency services (not all medical treatment, so they wouldn’t know whether you had diabetes or some other expensive chronic condition) and charge accordingly. They could also offer package discounts if you bought comprehensive insurance, just like I get a discount on my auto insurance because I have a renter’s policy as well.
I think there have to be better ways of encouraging people to finance their medical care wisely. I didn’t vote for McCain, but I liked his idea of taking the tax advantage away from employer-purchased medical insurance and just giving it to the taxpayer, irrespective of workplace. Then employers would eventually offer that extra compensation as additional salary, and individual families could purchase the combination of coverage they want from whichever companies they choose. Linking insurance to employment is a dumb idea that sprang up like a weed during the WWII-era wage/price controls.
But requiring everyone to purchase insurance is not something Congress should be doing. Let states experiment and reach agreements with other states about reciprocal funding of care, etc. I wouldn’t mind seeing a baseline insurance requirement, and then lots of innovation in financing of medical services on top of that.
There’s a lot here. Thoughts, especially on #4?
After 34 hours of travel, I have arrived safely in South Africa.
I waas in the Netherlands for a total of foour hours yesterday (thus the straange doouble vowels). I have three observations about my experience in Schiphol Airport.
First, for someone who speaks a little German, Dutch sounds very strange. My Austrian friend put it well: "It’s like they can’t decide whether they want to speak German or English, so it’s somewhere in the middle."
Second, there are these awesome little handcarts for luggage distributed about the airport–all for free. It’s so much better than US airports, where you have to pay $2-$4 to use a cart. When I stopped at the little art museum in the airport, I just left my cart outside–and when I came out a half-hour later, someone else had left one and I took it. It’s great–they’re everywhere.
Third, they will address you by name on the paging system and call you out for being late to your flight. Several times I heard in various languages successively: "Passengers Jan and Maria Kees, on flight KL0123 to Dubai: you are delaying your flight’s departure. Please proceed to Gate F5 immediately." Now EVERYONE in the airport knows about your little troubles on the toilet…
Stay tuned for more on my Cape Town experience…