President of the World

Some 200,000 Germans came out to hailBarack Obama . Does that make you like him more–after all, he would surely make America more popular around the world–or does it make you like him less, with global politicking and his talk of “global citizenship” giving you the creeps?

Back to 55 m.p.h.

So, what do you think about the proposals to to lower the national speed limit to 55 m.p.h. as a way to save gasoline and thus lower prices?

Orthodoxy & culture

The Russian Orthodox church is calling on the Russian government to denounce communism. OK, it’s a little late, but good on them.

In studying the different theological positions relating Christianity and culture, I find the Orthodox church to be something of a puzzle. It doesn’t seem to fit any of the major categories (culture above the church; church above culture; church separated from the culture; culture and church as distinct kingdoms under God). I asked an orthodox acquaintance who told me that the position of his church is to have monks who withdraw from the culture in order to pray for the culture. That’s a good answer, but it re-enforced my impression that the Christianity of the East is rather passive before the world, submitting to whatever regime it finds itself in but keeping alive an entirely separate spiritual existence. That means Christianity has not been as influential in the cultures of the East (though how could it have been given its domination by Islam and absolutist Czars). At its worse, though, the church sometimes collaborates with those regimes, giving spiritual sanction to the excesses of the Czars and even allowing itself to be infiltrated and used by the Soviets. I do salute the Orthodox Christians who have undergone persecution and martyrdom of their faith, including, arguably, members of the Russian royal family whose remains were discovered recently and confirmed last week.

The Western church, in contrast, both in its Catholic and its Protestant varieties, has always been activist and culture-shaping Even the separatist groups have defined themselves over and against the prevailing culture. This too has sometimes been to a fault.

I know some of you readers are Orthodox or Orthophiles (is that a word? if not, we need to coin it). I’d be glad to learn if this is a correct understanding or if I am missing something.

(I recall that I asked this before on this blog, but I still have questions.)

Those two doctrines of vocation

Here is what I was referring to in my coffee post: Calvin’s doctrine of vocation tends to emphasize working for the glory of God. That CAN result in doing things in isolation, a perfectionism that can be seen as “doing something for God,” possibly degenerating into a kind of work righteousness (as opposed to “works righteousness”). It CAN degenerate into scorn and ill-treatment of those human beings who are actually around us, resenting family members or customers for getting in the way of our work.

Luther, on the other hand, emphasized that vocation does not presume to serve God; rather, it serves our neighbor. Actually, God Himself serves our neighbor through our hands when we work in our callings. Thus, the focus in vocation must always be on the neighbor whom we are to love and serve.

Of course, we are to both glorify God and serve our neighbors, not playing these off against each other. The way God commands us to glorify Him is precisely to love and serve our neighbors, so these are not really in opposition. And, as was said, loving and serving our neighbor should include giving him the very best we can, and not just fulfilling him his possibly unworthy desires.

Right, we don’t know whether or not the barista in question is a Christian whose obsession with excellence was motivated by a desire to glorify God. I have, however, known Christians who pursued their work out of a religious motive but without regard of their neighbors. Also, there is no reason why Luther’s emphasis could not be shared by someone of some other theology, though his notion that God usually works through means–and ordinary, physical means at that–might not be accepted by hyperspiritual theologies.

The coffee maker and two doctrines of vocation

More thoughts on coffee and on the bigger issues of vocation and striving for excellence. Consider this article on really, really good coffee houses:

Lana Labermeier, who opened Big Bear Cafe in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Northwest Washington in June 2007, shares Gwathmey’s attention to detail. Tables and couches at this cozy neighborhood spot are filled night and day with computer-toting regulars who come for the coffee, take up residence because of the Wi-Fi and stay for the day, enjoying the artfully prepared, if simple, hot and cold sandwiches.

Labermeier, 27, who also buys beans from Counter Culture, exudes a laid-back friendliness, but her standards regarding coffee and all things culinary are unbending. She doesn’t stock artificial sweeteners, for example, and finds sugar unnecessary. “Our milk is sweet, and our coffee isn’t bitter, so give it a try without sugar,” she says.

She offers only whole milk; no skinny lattes in her cafe. She is also adamant that the biggest brewed coffee she serves is 16 ounces. She won’t serve 20-ounce coffees, for reasons that she preferred not to discuss for fear that they would make her sound “snobby.”

“A beautiful coffee ought to be savored,” she said.

Customers do not always appreciate such purism. At Arlington’s Murky Coffee, another Counter Culture outlet with a fanatical commitment to quality, a brouhaha erupted last week after a barista refused a customer’s request for a triple espresso served over ice, saying ice would undermine the integrity of the drink. The fight escalated, epithets were uttered, and customer Jeff Simmermon wrote about the dust-up on his blog (, which got 100,000 hits in less than a week; owner Nicholas Cho wrote about this tempest in a coffee cup on Murky’s Web site, too.

Purism might make some customers angry, but it can pay off in the cup.

You perhaps heard of the brouhaha–make that brewhaha–that erupted in the blogosphere over that customer who ranted and raved on his blog about how that barista refused his request for ice in his espresso. Let us consider this issue and these examples of purists in their coffee-making in light of the doctrine of vocation.

I happen to admire these artists of coffee who keep the integrity of their work and the quality of their product instead of selling out to commercialism and consumerism. On the other hand, I think this may provide for a good example of the difference between the Reformed approach to vocation and the Lutheran approach. Does one make coffee (or do whatever it is you do) to the glory of God [the Reformed view]? Or to love and serve your neighbor [the Lutheran view]? Do you see the difference that is going to make?

Sacramental theology & the imagination

The notable Christian thinker Peter Leithhart has written an essay entitled Why Evangelicals Can’t Write on the difficulty evangelicals seem to have in writing good fiction. It all comes down, according to Leithart, to the colloquy at Marburg where Zwingli rejected Luther’s affirmation of the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament. Leithart, who is Reformed and not Lutheran, sees Zwingli’s split between reality and meaning as having huge consequences for the Protestant imagination. You need to read the whole essay, but here is an excerpt:

Blame it on Marburg. More precisely: Blame it on Zwingli. A Zwinglian poetics leaves us with three choices: Either a flat mimetic realism that gives literary expression to “the real” without attempting to penetrate beyond the surface; or a flat didacticism that ignores the real in its haste to get to the point; or an allegorism that forges arbitrary links between the real and the symbolic, and in the end swallows up the real in its meaning. (Mr. By-Ends, Mr. Worldly-Wiseman, Faithful, and Hopeful are mere symbols, silhouettes of characters rather than characters.) Although, to give Bunyan his due, he was here following a typical (and very Catholic) medieval pattern in literature, while adding the astounding innovation of homely and realistic dialog. Nevertheless, the cardboard charactizations strike us the way they do for a reason.

In a Zwinglian poetics, things cannot be both themselves and also—simultaneously, without ceasing to be what they are, for the very reason they are what they are—something else. Zwinglian will not permit something to be both real and symbolic, to be both wholly itself and yet, because of what it is, to disclose something more than itself. Zwinglian poetics does not permit Southern customs to be Southern customs and yet, precisely because they are Southern customs, to be haunted by Christ.

The renewal of literature, like the renewal of the world, begins in worship. The renewal of literature, like the renewal of the world, begins from the pulpit, to be sure. But the pulpit will renew literature only when it is nestled where it should be nestled, between the font and the table.

Leithhart contrasts this split of the imagination with Roman Catholic and Anglican authors who do have a sense of the sacramental.

A Zwinglian could counter, OK, so where are all of the great writers on the other side of Marburg, the Lutheran authors? Well, we would have to go to Germany and, especially, Scandinavia, where I suspect there are some good ones. Bo Giertz. Hans Christian Andersen? Most of us English speakers are oblivious to authors in different languages. Our own Lars Walker, who is a good novelist himself, might alert us to some. In English, Walter Wangerin is a fine writer, and his work has far more of the tangible universe than many other contemporary Christian authors from other traditions.

HT: Scott Stiegemeyer, who offers some of his own insights on the subject.