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Close To The Edge, or Over?


Udo W. Middelmann

The Francis A. Schaeffer Foundation

Chalet Les Montaux, CH 1882 Gryon, Switzerland #41 24 498 1656

Among the reading matters friends send me occasionally I received two or three copies of a commentary How Weber's ‘Protestant Ethic" explains US edge over Europe by Niall Ferguson, a professor of financial history at the Stern School of Business, New York University. It was published in a number of newspapers and journals.

Max Weber's thesis was that the Protestant work ethic in Northern Europe explains the rise of capitalism, the creation of wealth and individual responsibility on the background of the self-denying ethos, frugality and others patterns of behavior associated with the teaching of the Bible. In other words, much of capitalism results from a set of ideas and encouraged practices directly linked with Protestantism. Criticism of this proposition usually focuses on other factors, some more material like geography and climate, others more political and educational. I think it is still the most fitting insight into the effects of Biblical teaching on society.

The weight of ideas to shape material conditions and to improve or worsen them is more widely acknowledged today than even a few years back, when all problems of poverty were superficially linked to Europe and American exploitation of other societies.

The materialist proposition that we consumed more of the cake than others has been confronted with the proposition that where populations grow and needs exist more cakes should be baked and resources sought to have enough pieces to go around.

Ferguson sees in the experience of Western Europe in recent decades an unexpected confirmation of Weber's thesis. "In the pious, industrious US the Protestant work ethic is alive and well. Its death is a peculiarly European phenomenon – and has grim implications for its future…"

He sees the problem less in productivity rates (about the same in Europe and the US) than in the amount of time American and Europeans work. Are European's idle when they work only 1535 hours a year compared to 1976 hours for Americans? The discrepancy becomes even greater when you see the number of Americans working compared to Europeans as a percentage of the population. Europeans have higher unemployment, take longer vacations by law and retire earlier. These are the facts.

But in the interpretation Ferguson is too quick and ends up being superficial. For he sees a decline "in working hours coincide almost exactly with steep declines in religious observance," since "fewer people go to church" in Europe or say that God matters to them. He predicts that the European economy will fall behind the US in terms of absolute annual output, because the "spirit of secularized" sloth will have "slain the Protestant ethic."

That is a conclusion that is drawn more likely from a comparison of oranges and apples than from looking into more detailed factors that play a part in two related cultures. It is true that church attendance and affirmations of Biblical views are much more frequent in the US. But it must also be acknowledged that their effect has been diluted by an increasingly personalized and publicly irrelevant faith. What we profess as our belief and how that shows in our daily lives is often at variance in concert with many other faiths.

For while productivity on both sides of the Atlantic is about the same, with the US recently moving ahead thanks to larger investments in computers and robots to replace people, Europe is doing well over all. The reason for that is widely acknowledged to be that Christian ideas about human realities are preferred over merely economic measures. While Christianity is far less often confessed, its values and insights are more widely practiced in both public demeanor and in personal attitudes.

This does not bring salvation, but it makes for a community in which the person is more respected in his complex needs. The focus in Europe, from its Christian roots, is more on how we live, not how we pay for it. Gadgets, pay and success do not alone measure the quality of life. Having time to live, surrounded by people you know and a history of those who went before, recognizing their skill and labor, their food and wisdom, i.e., their culture; these are values beyond price.

For the most part economics should not be limited to mathematical quantities of output per man-hour, money supply and interest rates. They indicate much, but say little about contentment and satisfaction, about the life and health of the mind and soul. The Biblical promise for the Messianic age is after all that everyone will be able to sit under his fig tree, not just that he can take figs to market and get the going price.

A letter to an American paper during the Tour de France bicycle race remarked on the lovely countryside, the pleasant villages and towns, the human dimension of it all. It also regretted that beauty in America is limited often to natural grandeur distant from where people did their living. But why should beauty be contained mostly in people's private spheres, in homes or in unspoiled nature, but away from where people work, shop and go to school? Why do old towns need to be restored and made accessible for tourists rather than being maintained as they were in the past by people actually living, working and loving there?

Francis Schaeffer used to remind us how rich we were, for we are able to live, though having little money, in a context the rich of the earth are envious of. They have money, but little life except what they can now purchase in what little time is left.

Americans work so much after they have spent already hours in commuting. They must make do with very little vacation. Their ‘cultural' events are unaffordable for the average person, even if he were interested in more than theme parks and warehouses turned into antique centers and ethnic restaurants.

Some Europeans are idle. But often idleness is seen where Europeans are far more Biblical in their outlook, without personally knowing that such views came from sermons and their fathers' belief and practice. They start work at 6:30 and stop for a break (coffee and conversation with folk from other trades, business partners) at 9:30; they have lunch at 12. Start again at 1:30 and continue until around 5.

But these are craftsmen, skilled laborers, whose work is tops and will last for fifty years. Their work is more concentrated, more deliberate, more knowledgeable; there are no long walks from the parking lot or to the water cooler or coffee machine. They are more rested, can work harder and make as much money objectively in 11 months as your frazzled, interrupted and far-from-home commuter.

There is not merely a geographical explanation. A friend runs a successful insurance agency in Texas. He has his employees work 40 hours a week, closes over lunch and gives them an extra afternoon off, so that the children's music lessons and dental appointments don't have to fall on a Saturday. He finds that work in the office is more concentrated, efficient and in a humane time frame.

There is more unemployment in Europe, but that is due to a mixture of bad centralization of authority, which must change, and an honoring of a person's social, geographic and educational sense of place. Being up-rooted all the time through shifting jobs, exported labor, hiring and firing is good for mobility, initiative and drive. But it is also wickedly bad for those Christian values that do strengthen society, such as family, belonging and taking care of the needs of others. Europeans rather chip in trough higher social taxes than chase the unemployed out of town to seek work elsewhere. As the tend to take better care of public spaces and sink less into personal lawn care Europeans favor the history of a community and maintain it like a neat brick wall rather than letting many different stones roll down in a landslide.

In fact I wonder why America with its far wider and more public confession of Christianity is abandoning some of the more obvious Christian virtues and realities. Are getting ahead, detailed planning of your career, being mobile, rising in income, moving from starter home to mortgaged palace through a dozen addresses valued, because these alone can be measured in terms of income, productivity growth and personal worth? The European values a good life and sees that as a life well lived, where you can take the time to do more than advance economically. Laborers still discuss politics, movies, books and know something about the rest of the world, while they admire the local wine of a particular vintage and are not satisfied with hour-old drip coffee. It is cheaper, bottomless and warm, but that is about all one can say about it.

For many Americans the good life is one of economic advancement no matter what the cost to self, to health and family. Money is the measure, and he knows how to make it. In that certainty he readily spends more than he has, goes into debt and consequently has to work longer hours, seek a better paying job, yet always worried about job security, for he can loose it again at any time. With that, little time, space and pleasure is left to enjoy the life, the family, the pleasure he supposedly made all that money for.

When the mind and spirit are not nurtured to know what life is meant to be, a personal faith in Jesus has not given what Christianity has produced elsewhere around the world: the freedom from ignorance about life and the forgiveness from guilt to enjoy it. Never too late to make friends

Luke 16:1-13 brings us the parable of the unjust steward or dishonest manager from whom we are to learn how to make friends even with unrighteous wealth. That is a strange proposition and one that has given rise to all kinds of curious interpretations. I don't want to give another one of those, but shed some light on a possible reading of that text.

It is perhaps increasingly helpful in a time in which people make friends by all kinds of dishonest means. Salaries to retain managers, stock options to reward them, shareholder value increases to make friends with lenders around us are matched in Christian circles by special honors extended to donors, buildings named after wealthy people and prayer offered in return for a donation to the program.

I don't think that this is what Jesus had in mind. He does not speak of dishonest means to make friends. He does also not teach that to give material things away will earn access into eternal dwellings (vs. 9). In fact only a welcome by those arrived earlier is mentioned here.

Instead I propose to look at the audience of this parable in order to understand whom Jesus was addressing and what he may have wanted to tell them.

In ch 15:1,2 we find a first group of people, the tax collectors, employed by Rome to collect money for a hated government and to earn their own salary by increasing the take. They were considered sinners for that reason. They were on the side of Rome and took more than the law required. But then they had to live as well!

Pharisees and scribes made up the second group in the audience, vs. 2. They "knew it all" and excluded others from knowing about God by their rules and regulations, their love for details and style. They loved to play with the tricks of their trade, seeing contradictions where they wanted to. They proposed detailed exigencies for obeying the law and overlooked that God was to be loved with all heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself. For them man was made for the Sabbath. They were religious fanatics of sorts.

The third group is made of the disciples, who are now ‘also' addressed. All of us are reminded by Jesus that there is more to be done before the accounting we will have to give at the judgment. We should recognize that wrong needs to be righted, dishonest lease contracts need to be adjusted and fairness and justice instituted.

The manager's fault lay in overcharging leasers. The new and lower rates of less oil and wheat as payment should have been in place all along. The manager had not deceived the Lord, but his neighbors. His unjust treatment of those working the fields would not stand up in the coming judgment. Addressing the tax collectors Jesus is telling them that while they are to God as precious as a single lost sheep is for the good shepherd, they could and must do something to repair the damage their practice has caused among those from whom they took the money for Rome and themselves.

Addressing the Pharisees Jesus is saying that they should celebrate the return of the prodigal son and see their roll as one that facilitates, not hinders, the knowledge of God. They have made the life of seekers more difficult. Their habit was to reject sinners like the tax collectors or the prodigal son instead of seeing in them the coin of great price. God is sweeping out the house of mankind to find such people. God's rejoicing over the return of the lost son should be shared, not resented by the lawyers and Pharisees.

And to the disciples, among whom we are as well, Jesus says that we must review our lives to see what we should correct in our relations and treatment of neighbors before we will stand before the judgment of God over what we have done. Perhaps Jesus also had Judas in mind especially, since he was the one who held the moneybag, who objected to the ointment being poured on Jesus' feet and who finally sold him for 30 pieces of silver.

It is comforting to the tax collectors to be able to do something after salvation to repair the damage they have caused. Pharisees and lawyers can use their skill and knowledge to help people understand better the Lordship of Christ. And we are not exempt. We have widely reduced salvation to what happens when we enter a personal relationship with Jesus. But that involves repentance, a turning around, a change of habits and a deliberate seeking of justice.

Unfortunately we have often left this to what we get told or recognize personally. But there is no mystery about it, no private insight, no secret or hidden wisdom. "Personal" salvation should not be construed as a synonym for a private escape from judgment, a door to self-appointed priorities, a kind of Christian libertarianism. We remember that we are saved by grace through faith, not of works. But we should also recall the next verse with its mandate to do good works, for which God has created us anew in Christ Jesus.

The wisdom we should glean from the unjust manager is the insight that through us all kinds of evils persist, which we should change after we have become children of God. Our love for neighbor needs to include a concern for justice, an expression of compassion, generosity and giving encouragement. It needs to include a more critical evaluation of where and how we differ from the values and definitions of an increasingly non-Christian culture.

In our modern world, where so many areas of human interaction are regulated by legal standards we need to consciously review these from time to time. We need to place people again into the center of our concerns, rather than the market and its functioning so well. The market is an efficient tool for a multitude of things, but it has no compassion, makes no exception, is not generous or fair to the multitude of personal circumstances. It enables mathematics, but has little room for human considerations.

Jesus is telling the tax collectors, Pharisees and disciples to see that there are things to be done to undo evil in the world around them. Life is not fair, there is no justice under the sun, people are injured by their own and by inherited sin. And we have all contributed to it. Forgiveness from God is precious and a matter of salvation or death. But it needs now to be extended as practice of a new life into the world around us. What we believe for good reasons should not only make us feel good in a new confidence and assurance. It should also feel good for people outside, who by our skill and confidence find a practical evidence of what we confess to believe about God, Man, work, neighbors in society and justice in a cruel and painful world.

The dishonest manager is praised for his sudden change of heart. Knowing the judgment ahead he quickly changed the lease documents to reflect a fairer market value, a sense of honesty and the public admission of wrong. With those documents his case is more defensible in court. He changed his attitude from doing what he could get away with to what he should have done all along from a concern for justice and out of love for his neighbor.

While there was nothing he could do about the past the changes would be effective immediately and put a stop to an unjust use of power. Tax collectors, lawyers and disciples should be aware of that.

"For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil" (2nd Corinthians 5"10).

In January 2004 Crossway Books in Wheaton, IL, will publish my book

The Market - Driven Church

I wrote the book from a genuine admiration for what Christianity has brought to our world through the teaching of the church. There have always been ups and downs, struggles and conflicts, confusions and reforms. Yet the teaching of Christianity has slowly transformed an original pagan culture into something more humane, lawful and protective of life.

I am not sure of course where we are in our moment of history. And so the book also is a lament over how we have weakened that powerful message to appeal now more to our drives, lusts and felt needs than to declare the truth of God to the whole world. Often reduced to personal faith we join a noisy band in a cacophony of weakened testimonials.

Kierkegaard uses the phrase ‘attraction and repulsion' to describe his particular response to what he experiences in the 19th century church. He countered it with an irrational leap of faith, a kind of bungee jump without a secure rope, a personal experience of daring to believe something.

I also sense this attraction to the church and repulsion for what all parades under that banner. But unlike Kierkegaard I believe the Bible gives us more substance without an irrational leap, but also without reference to merely personal faith. The truth of the universe is not personal in the sense of something different for each person. It is the sound, healing and true word of God to instruct us through his letters, while we live in another country outside the garden, from which we were chased at the fall.

The book is not without humorous experiences, and at one time I was tempted to suggest as a title "Amused by Christianity." But as a fellow Christian I am addressed by the book as well; that's when the humor weakens and soberness is called for.

Look for it in your bookstore.

At the same time Crossway will also republish


Joshua and the Flow of Biblical History by Francis A. Schaeffer. I was asked to write the foreword for the new edition, which you find here.

‘Joshua is one of our favorite personalities in the Bible. In a dramatic march around Jericho's strong walls, he leads the band of migrating Israelites for seven days against a major protected settlement in the Jordan valley, until the walls fall with the sound of trumpets, and the city is conquered. We like such stories. David and Goliath is another one, followed by Daniel in the lions' den and Peter's miraculous liberation from King Herod's prison: "Get up quickly, dress yourself and put on your sandals!" an angel says. And then the iron gate, leading into the city, opened of its own accord (Acts 12:7 ff. esv).

‘These are real events, powerful actions in the flow of history, which later generations refer to with delight and confidence. They greatly appeal also to our age, which craves eyewitness events and defines what has happened in a person's life as significant truth. Here are action stories that could even surface in a video arcade.

‘Yet such events become merely the seedbed of anecdotes, personal interest stories, and testimonies unless they are rooted in a deeper soil of what Schaeffer called "True Truth." That notion is often foreign to our cultural climate. For now the story alone is the event; our thrill in response to it matters more than what actually happened or why it happened. Each person or each society has heroes who must perform marvels to satisfy what are easily heightened expectations for an over-stimulated public.

‘Part of the reason for this need among our neighbors in town or in the pew is that they are too much affected by various kinds of relativism with regard to personal faith, a loss of confidence in real truth, and an overconfidence in one's own understanding at this moment. Postmodernism, intimidation on an open market for religion, ignorance of a wider world, and hasty conclusions contribute to a lust for attractive events and a disdain for reflection from a wider perspective.

‘Joshua (and the Bible in its entirety) expands our field of vision. There is more to it than a story for the familiar Negro spiritual "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho." The series of sermons that became this book allows Schaeffer to stretch our minds. We are taken to a higher vantage point to observe a vast landscape with intersecting paths between fields, where the historic, spiritual and intellectual nourishment for the Christian life grows on the rich soil of God's revelation for the human race after the fall.

‘Joshua was the commander of the Israelites at the time when their exodus from Egyptian slavery brings them into the land promised to Abraham some 400 years before. The book of Joshua brings to life real history during a crucial period of transition for a people, who now settle down to also become a nation. They are the families of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their numerous descendents in later generations. After bondage they discover freedom and the need to practice discipline. From weakness and exploitation they move to power and responsibility for a state, a society, and the rule of law--God's law. They had known life under Egypt's ruling Pharaohs, but now they crossed the river Jordan to the other side and had to build their own civilization.

‘What they believed about God and humanity, their ideas about all of life, now more than before, needed to be first cleansed of any pagan Egyptian influences and then translated into the behavior and action of God's people. The personal faith of their sojourning fathers had to become the public demonstration of truth--about God, about human beings, and about life in history. For that is the Bible's insistence: We believe God to be alive. He has told us in his Word how we should live and order our lives, set our priorities, and what sense to make of being human.

‘Transitions often involve changes and adaptations. But the book of Joshua speaks also of the basis for continuity. The continuity of nature's laws across the globe and in all history is matched by the continuity of God's laws for human beings everywhere. The text links, going backwards in time, the five books of Moses, or Pentateuch, to the truth of God's character, the shape of creation, and the beginning.

‘But the book of Joshua also lets us go ahead into Israel's history, for which the social and ethical foundations are laid now in society and in geography: They take possession of their own land. Each Israelite must decide in the end whether he and his house would follow God, as Joshua said about his family. And that choice, repeated in each life and each generation, is then fleshed out in the subsequent texts, starting with the book of Judges, which describes a time when everyone did what was good in his own eyes with often horrendous consequences. The books of Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, and the prophets down the path of history reveal with great honesty the failures and confessions, the struggles and the victories of God's people all in the context of real history.

‘Joshua is in the Old Testament in relation to the Pentateuch what the book of Acts is in the New Testament in relation to the four Gospels. This book is the implementation of the insights and instructions given before, exhibiting in a new era their truthfulness, humanity, and joy from inside the believing and practicing community to the world around it. The importance of what is true, just, and right is fleshed out in continuous history from Moses in the past to faithful believers in all ages. They are not left alone to become an "again-and-again" society of stifled repeaters so common to most of the world's religions. The text of the Word of God in their midst needs to be understood, argued with, and applied. Judaism and Christianity insist that God has spoken outside our heads or hearts and left a record. Believers also have the promise of power from the only God, whose existence is the only sufficient explanation of their existence as human beings, as real persons. They have seen on multiple occasions the supernatural presence of God in their midst. It would be hard to miss the continuity of this in Christ's words in Matthew 28:18 and in Acts 1:8.

‘The consequences become evident in people's lives. We never stand alone, but are grafted into the continuity of confident believers, whether as Joshua or Elijah, as Deborah or Mary. For the same reason we are foolish when we neglect or violate what has been made so amply clear in the text we carry with us as a constant reminder to us of a larger reality than our personal feelings or even experience. The continuity of blessings is matched by a continuity in punishments: The sin of Achan finds its parallel in Acts 5, where Ananias and Sapphira hope to get away with lies. Sin is not to be taken lightly; its effects are real and require a heavy price.

‘The Bible speaks of a real and historic journey in time and space, not merely an internal, personal, or poetic one. God is the creator and judge of history, not just an idea in the mind of Moses or Joshua, as he is in the mind of Buddha or in the visions of Mohammed and Joseph Smith. Spirituality involves the willing submission to the mind of God, revealed by his Spirit in the form of language with reference to reality. It requires comprehension, not submission and denial. Biblical truth relates to right thinking and right acting, to soul and body, to time and space. It shows people in their obligation to God and their wonder over his interest in them. God's response to the fall of man starts with a question: "Adam, where are you?"

‘The continuity in Joshua, however, is more than merely historic. It is also a continuity of ideas and their influences over choices. Joshua describes for us the historic flow from revealed ideas, laws and God's promises to their realization in the landscape of life. God's care of his people becomes obvious, and their struggle with obedience, selfishness and fear is very human. There is a strained, yet tender relationship between the high calling given by God to the children of Abraham and then the often terrible fall from that position into the pit of greed and lust for power among their descendents.

‘In all the confusion and contradictions of human history, the steady and reliable promises of the God of the Bible stand out clearly as we pass from Moses to Joshua. They are upheld in the training of a new leader before Moses' death. With references to the past, Moses looks into the future and expects the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promises of God. There is a concrete dimension to the promise of God's work of our salvation given already to Adam and Eve right after their fall into sin in Genesis 3:15.

‘That longer perspective is the reason for Joshua's courage to take the survivors of the Exodus and the desert wanderings into a land where other people practiced inhuman religious rituals that needed to be stopped under any universal moral considerations. That perspective is not rooted in a tribal religion, but applies the continuing requirement to be human and rational, and to have ear and heart tuned to the mind of the creator of our humanity. The "consecration" required of each Israelite before entering the land was not a religious rite, but an examination by each person as to whether he or she was willing to abide by the law of God, marvelously summed up in the Ten Commandments. That would be their specific civilization: a people under a common law based on the truth of the universe, in which we should love God and our neighbor.

‘The law was a text written on stone, with expositions and applications remembered in a book of some kind, that would allow the people to come back to a standard of law, to be able to talk about it, and to discuss it, to meditate on and to practice it (Josh. 23:6). For God has powerfully exhibited its truth and life in his own dealings with Israel for generations.

‘The text of the Bible is the definition of reality, not a tribal or private religious code. It addresses humanity, not just believers. It is the moral law of the universe that favors life, reason and human kindness. The continuous inhumanity of the earlier inhabitants of the land gives the justification for their judgment by the one God, whose unique image we bear, and the termination of their practices. The land, as promised before to Abraham, was given to Israel at a time when the iniquity of sacrificing babies to the gods and goddesses of fertility had overflowed any acceptable measure. The Canaanites could find no court under God to justify their inhuman practices.

‘Similar continuity is shown between what God's people believed and what Rahab, the harlot of Jericho, understood and believed when she watched the agreement between revelation from Jehovah and the history of God's people since their leaving Egypt forty years before. She put word and history together and concluded, as anyone could and still can, that this was not a peculiar and private interpretation of a people in search of a colorful but invented identity. She heard about and saw the work of the living God, and she believed.

‘Schaeffer elaborates many other areas where the continuity of truth is shown. God's interest is not to test obedience in teaching bits and pieces of peculiar doctrines. The truth is a whole cloth, not a patchwork invention as people went along in the face of various experiences. Circumcision as the sign of God's covenant with his people continues into baptism, both of which are neither magic nor exclusively external. ‘They represent the circumcision of the heart and the cleansing from sin. The Passover feast since the Exodus is continued into the Communion observance around the Lord's body and blood for our forgiveness in the New Testament.

‘Discovering such continuity clarifies all kinds of puzzles that may often surface in a first reading of the Bible. It places the bits and pieces, the passages and verses, into a larger context and sheds light on what we are meant to understand of the wholeness of God's Word and work. This continuity gives weight to the understanding that God's interest is to make himself known and to use all kinds of instructions, events and situations to let us know of his loving and persistent interest to not remain a mystery, but to become known and loved.

‘There is a flow to history. The fall of Adam and Eve had a devastating effect of separating us from an immediate presence of God. Yet against all that, all Scripture is given to us to work on our minds and hearts in preparation for what God desires to accomplish with his people, with his creation. Schaeffer sees in Joshua a stretch of time that, like all of God's work in succeeding generations, reveals his sorrow over our sin and his gracious favor to us.

‘God's unconditional promise stands when men violate the character of God. This is not ordinary sin but stupidity. It is like rubbing your hand over a rough board and getting splinters. For it opposes what we are made to be and what the universe really is. God has revealed his character, and, if God's people obey his character, the conditional blessings stand. Once we understand this, we really understand the flow of history…'

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