The Bills

Over the last few years, we’ve been getting some bills.

It started with false fire alarm bills.  A couple hundred a shot.   Then the rectory was set a sewage bill.  More recently, the city mistakenly invoiced churches a few hundred dollars for a service.

I’m not against charging churches for services.  I think we’re lucky to be tax-exempt, and cities have a right to establish some criteria for churches who benefit from the support of the community.  But as the Wall Street Journal reports, there is a major shift on the horizon, and it will put pressure on our institutions.  Enormous pressure.

About thirty years ago, churches often benefited from the noblesse oblige of wealthy members.  They would sometimes pay down the end of year budget.  They might pay the first check at the beginning of the year.

Ironically, when tax rates were higher, churches probably received more donations from its prosperous members.  But over the last couple of political generations, we’ve not seen a rise in donations among the powerful.

In part because our assumptions regarding how the prosperous spend money are wrong.   Nobody has an instinctive urge to give.   As classes interact less the powerful become a little more arrogant and impatient.

The second is that an individual with money behaves rationally with their money.   Money does not bestow wisdom; it does not insulate from error.  They can be tyrants or indulgent.   They can be whimsical or intentional, magnanimous or miserly.   But there is no reason to idealize their smarts or energy.

What does this have to do with churches paying more bills?   As the “resourced” abdicate their responsibility to maintain the social contract, states are too afraid to ask them to pay their fair share.  This means more will be expected from those who are active in not-for-profits, churches and other institutions that rely on public support.    Lower taxes upon property owners and the well-paid means that we’ll be expected to pay for more.

It’s optimistic to assume that lower taxes mean that people will be more generous with what they do have.  I’m sure some families will do so.  But we are inclined to adjust to our incomes, and at some point what was once an unexpected windfall becomes our perpetual expectation.     It’s easy to think we deserve our wealth, and that we are instinctively generous toward others.   The church, however, teaches that it’s all a gift of God, and that we our generosity is never enough, except through His grace.

I think there might be good criteria to keep ourselves off the public dole; but we’ve implicitly rejected the idea that there is a common good worth having, or that the prosperous might willingly sacrifice for the sake of others.   The survival of the third sector economy, and its ability to take care of the least fortunate, requires the commitment of all stripes.  But alas, too many think they give enough.

Gervais has an opinion about something

Ricky Gervais recently penned a little Christmas message in the Wall Street Journal.  He’s the creator of the show “The Office” and a talented comedian. I’m a fan.

In it, he declares he’s an atheist.   And Merry Christmas.

It’s the holidays.  We want to sell a few papers, and everyone wants to know what celebrities think about God.  For every Christmas, the culture wars get a little heated up, fundamentalists and atheists slogging mud at each other, pained at each other’s existence, and the conflict is, in itself, entertaining.  Even recently, atheists have organized to buy advertising on buses and conservative Christians have gotten offended.

I’m for more atheism in the public sphere.  Most of my friends outside of the church are non-believers.  A few of my friends IN the church are non-believers. Few have a deep historical and theological understanding, but for most of them, church is not where they are, or where they’re friends are.

At one time there was greater public dialogue.  Our founding fathers were far more open about religious faith.  They were generally not believers in the sense most atheists critique “belief.”  They had far more honest conversations about the role of religion and religious institutions in society.   In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, some atheists had great popularity.   And religion was not aways a part of political conversation.  It was not always demanded of our presidents before Jimmy Carter.  It may have been the language of civil society, but only a few of our presidents have been religious in any serious sense of the word.  Atheists were rarely persecuted in any serious sense; but they may have joined churches.

And granted, I’m embarrassed just considering conversations between Christians and Atheists. I pity the Christian, eager to please and convert; I empathize with the atheist, surrounded by idiots and hypocrites, insisting on using an obscure language created somewhere on the Alien Planet of the Past.   I think there are plenty of different ways to have conversations about religion and faith, but usually they end up being variations of “you’re an idiot” vs “you have no soul.”

Nonetheless, I was disappointed.  It wasn’t that Gervais had once loved Jesus and then abandoned him at the age of at eight.  Hell, I first gave him up when I was four.  The bible itself for me was a weird, incomprehensible document,  confused on the number of animals in the ark or where Jesus was really from.   When I asked my father about God and Jesus, he gave me a book about Greek myths.   At nine, I confronted a Methodist pastor, a friend of my Atheist father, about dinosaurs.  “Do you really believe that the earth was created in six days?”  After all, I knew better.  The pastor, by the nature of his profession, an idiot.   He came back with “It’s a story,” he said.  “I believe in Dinosaurs also….  It’s a story that we interpret.”  But there he was – a living breathing thinking Christian.

I didn’t give up my atheism there, but realized that I was doing a grave disservice to myself if I thought that religious people were as simple as Gervais presumes.

In plenty of churches, people don’t believe in a God that looks like the God he describes.   So when Gervais argues we’re more like atheists, I wonder if he has read the pagans who accused Christians of precisely this:  our God was more like no-God than the imperial God.    Who are the clergy and lay people who believe in an anthropomorphic God?  No clergy I know; and my unscientific internal polls of my own lay people indicate they’re much more skeptical than your average Ayn Rand reader.

God made him an atheist?  Well, yes.  That’s actually the way Christians have typically described faith – as a “gift.”   It’s the challenge inherited from both Calvinism and the idea of the “invisible church.” His funny retort has been a theological response to understand unbelief.

He compares science’s gifts over the comforts of religion; identifies of cultural taboo with religious creed.  All trite; and all ignorant.  Not even a passing understanding of the church’s contribution to astronomy; or it’s doctrinal antagonism toward folk superstitions.   I don’t need every atheist to get the history right, but it remains disappointing when someone who loves truth can’t get his own facts straight and seems to believe that the content of religion is found mainly in the propositions people make about their faith.  Most clergy would cheer his brief proclamation of the beauties of truth.

Religious people do not oppose evolution.  We enjoy “imagination, free will, love, humor, fun, music, sports, beer and pizza.”    A few of us are unimaginitive puppets without heart or joy who won’t watch a Lions game at the local pub.  But Jesus at the right hand of the Father is a place in our imagination that refers to a particular understanding of relationships; we haven’t given up on free will as a way of explaining evil; and we’ve got some pretty great music.   Our heaven is like a wedding feast.  We also had something to do with making beer and wine. Just a little homework, Ricky, and you’ll find that boozing and Godding have a long, intimate history.  Some would argue that without religious institutions, we’d be far more sober than we’d enjoy.

His pedestrian confusion of faith and the afterlife confirms he knows only one sort of believer.  How many mainline Christians actually believe in fire and brimstone?   I asked my senior posse that question a couple years ago.   Not one of them did, although they did express a wish that some people would go there.   They were much closer to the traditional annihilationist conception of hell without any formal classes in theology.  They had just spent probably 10 minutes more time thinking about the question than Gervais.

And last, I just wish he were funny.  But perhaps this is an improvement.  Atheist comedians can now be as unfunny and thoughtless as all the other pundits.  I guess I’m going to have to lower my standards.

But until then, I’m sticking with Woody Allen.

Two Beers and Terra Firma

Thomas Frank, in my view the smartest cultural commentator with a regular column, leaves the WSJ.  He founded the Baffler, a cutting edge leftie magazine, but with great writing.

As the right howled “socialism,” President Obama took pains to demonstrate his loyalty to the exhausted free-market faith. On trade issues and matters of economic staffing, he loudly signalled continuity with the discredited past. On the all-important issue of regulatory misbehavior—a natural for good-government types—he has done virtually nothing.

The real audacity has all been on the other side. Many Republicans chose to respond to the crisis not by renouncing the consensus faith of the last 30 years but by doubling down on it, calling for more deregulation, more war on government.

That they have partially succeeded with such a strategy in these years of financial crisis, mine disasters, and oil spills is testimony to their political brilliance—and to Democratic dysfunction. As is the burgeoning populist movement that now stands beside the GOP, transforming anger over unemployment into anger over the auto bailout and the good pensions enjoyed by public workers.

He’s moving to Harper’s.  Of course, he was one of the few columnists who drove conservatives absolutely livid with rage.