If God Laughs, Why Can’t I?

1 Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
2 The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
3 “Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”
4 He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
6 “As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.” (Ps. 2)

P. J. O’Rourke helps me laugh. He has long alerted me (along with H. L. Mencken) to the pretensions and folly of uplifters, politicians, and do-gooders.

But when the world needs fixing, some find O’Rourke less funny:

That Mr. O’Rourke’s talents lay in finding and exposing hypocrisy and self-serving fantasy rather than making constructive arguments or proposals was no bar to enjoying his work. Nor was the fact that his was a libertarian rather than a conservative viewpoint. The drugs, the booze, and the womanizing pretty clearly indicated his cultural viewpoint and limitations. Still, for those like me who were young and stupid, he seemed a kind of swashbuckling privateer, taking down the enemy’s ships in a manner often fun to watch, if less than ennobling to anyone concerned. There was an immature “cool” to P.J. O’Rourke, the self-described “Republican Party Reptile,” which even his too often lazy approach to book-writing and his childish antics seemed not to erase.

Then some of us grew up. We began to recognize that Mr. O’Rourke’s ridicule was doing nothing to embarrass let alone stymie its targets, who lack any capacity for serious examination of conscience for the simple reason that they have assigned their consciences to the abstract principles of their ideology. In addition, we—especially those of us who were conservative from the start, but also those who simply grew into it—began to lead lives that left little room for childish antics. We found good women to marry, had children, and began raising them. Having begun the lives for which we are intended, we also soon recognized that the antics, entertainments, and even the politics of the college student are inappropriate for enjoyment or use in the home, even as they lack the power or even intent to protect that home.

Bruce Frohnen might have a point if he also pointed out that our politicians and policy analysts also think and talk a lot like children. That is, they continue to act and talk and look for votes and solicit funding on the basis of telling taxpayers and foundations and government officials that they can truly change the world.

But if the world can’t be changed, if sin and misery are par for this earthly course, then we need all the more those pundits who cut through the thin veneer of civilization and notice how pretentious are many of the fig leaves we use to cover our feeble and frail estate. Even better are those opinion writers who apply their skepticism to themselves, as O’Rourke does:

I thought there was a Republican Establishment who was supposed to keep things like Trump or, for that matter, Cruz from happening, and then I realized, no, they’re all dead. I’m the Republican Establishment now.

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What Do P. J. O'Rourke and the Bible Have In Common?

Ecclesiastes. All is vanity. Thanks to Carl Trueman, I read a funny and effective take down of the secular fundamentalists who think tobacco smoke is more dangerous that carbon emissions. (No doubt, ironies of this sort attend most projects of transformation.)

The first folly, the logic that says scary pictures will scare adolescents from smoking:

Nonetheless this is a brilliant marketing campaign by the Australian authorities, doubtless designed to increase tax revenue from cigarette sales to junior high school boys. If I were in junior high I’d promptly find a way to buy (bribing an older brother or cousin, if need be) this incredibly disgusting flip-top box. And then I would be beside myself with eagerness to get to school the next day and usher my pals into the boys’ room to show off my gruesome, shoeless, sockless purchase.

In the World Gross-Out Champ-ionship, which is the preeminent event and main purpose of seventh grade, I’d retire the cup. At recess we’d show the pack to the girls, eliciting the highly coveted “ICK!” shriek. After school a certain kind of girl, the kind who made our hearts flutter (which Australia warns that cigarettes also do), would ask, “Can I try one?”

Of course we’d smoke the things. Who could resist? I can’t resist myself. As a confirmed cigar-smoker, I don’t care much for cigarettes. But the 13-year-old abides in us all. And it’s an affair of honor. I am devoted to Lady Nicotine. She has been insulted.

Folly no. 2, taxing sin depletes tax revenues:

Sales of legally packaged and lawfully retailed Australian cigarettes are down. No surprise given that most smoking is not done in seventh-grade boys’ rooms and that a pack of cigarettes in Australia costs nearly $16. (The Australian dollar is worth approximately the same as the U.S. dollar except it has a kangaroo on it instead of George Washington.)

But this decline in sales has been offset by a 154 percent increase in sales of contraband and counterfeit cigarettes coming from overseas. These cost half as much and arrive in the pleasant traditional wrappings of their brand. (Though, in the case of counterfeit cigarettes, with some risk of misspelling​—​Malrbolo.)

In calculating the 154 percent figure KPMG seems to have done its homework​—​surveying thousands of adult Australian smokers, analyzing Australian Customs tobacco seizure data, and sending out teams to pick up the litter of 12,000 empty cigarette packs in 16 Australian cities and towns.

Not to rei-mpute base motives to the Australian government, but plain packaging has been a revenue disappointment as well. KPMG estimates that, as of mid-2013, contraband and counterfeit cigarettes have cost Australia a billion dollars in lost taxes.

Do you suppose there’s organized criminal activity involved? Consider that a pack of smokes costs a buck and a quarter in Vietnam. This makes the mark-up for smuggled heroin look like the profit margin on a Walmart Black Friday loss leader.

The third folly, where will it all end?

Beer is certainly next, with pictures of drunken fistfights, snoring bums, and huge, gin-blossomed noses on every can. Airplane crashes kill a lot of people. No plane should be allowed to land in Australia unless it’s painted drab dark brown and bears an image of fiery carnage along its fuselage. Cars kill even more. Perhaps a banner showing lethal wrecks could be pasted across the inside of every car’s windshield. And there’s food. Make all food drab dark brown (something of a historical tradition in Australian cooking anyway) and deck the labels with naked fat men.

Fortunately there are those who are still willing to fight for property rights and freedom of choice. Raúl Castro, for one. Cuba has gone to the World Trade Organization to challenge Australia’s Tobacco Plain Packaging Act. Cuba argues that the act violates the internationally recognized rights of trademark owners and does not comply with the WTO’s agreements banning technical barriers to trade and protecting intellectual property.

When Raúl Castro is your Milton Friedman, you’re ready for the intellectual firing squad. The thought process of Australia’s legislators should be stood up against the wall of common sense. Care for a last cigarette?

Belfast Replay: DG Opens for PJ

Talk about Providence. The weekend I was in Belfast (2 weeks ago) witnessed two book talks by authors from the U.S. The first was me talking about Calvinism (more below), the second was P. J. O’Rourke who was promoting his new memoir, Baby Boom. PJ spoke at the Ulster Museum, an impressive facility in Belfast that covers most aspects of Northern Ireland politics and culture. I chatted at the Evangelical Bookshop, an unusually good bookstore operated by the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. If you ever get to Belfast, you should visit both.

It almost goes without saying that O’Rourke was funnier than I, even though we both used stages of life to frame our subjects.

PJ contends that you cannot understand the boomers as a block since the dates for this demographic cohort run from 1946 to 1964. The experience of people like him who were born just after World War II was different from boomers like me who grew up in with the threat of missiles in space. The older boomers smoked a lot more dope. The youngsters paid attention in school. So O’Rourke divides the boomers into the grades of senior high school, with the seniors (himself) being a whole lot more experimental than the freshman. In the senior group, running from 1946 to 1951, are such disparate figures as Hillary Clinton and Cheech Marin. To the junior class (1951-1955) belong the computer whiz kids, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. O’Rourke didn’t mention any representatives for my sophomore class (1956 to 1961). But the standout from the freshman class is Barack Obama, a group of Americans so swimming in the BS produced by the seniors that Jeremiah Wright’s rants about African-American brains could never have distracted Obama from his smart phone.

I used age to divide Calvinism into its old, middle-aged, and young identities. Old Calvinism (1520 to 1660) includes the institutional churches that arose with the help of the magistrates — why we call it the magisterial Reformation. This Calvinism was established, national, institutional (read churchly), and had its greatest influence among the Swiss, Scots, Dutch, English, and Germans (all of which except for the Swiss became the major exporters of Calvinism to non-European settings).

Middle-aged Calvinism (1660-1800) was on the move. It transferred from Europe to Africa, North America, and Australia through colonialism (English and Dutch) and immigration (Scots and Germans). Calvinism also spread beyond the walls of the institutional churches through the rise of experimental Calvinism (also nadere reformatie) which strove to make all of life reformed especially since the national churches (England and the Netherlands) would not. Middle-aged Calvinism also spread through the auspices of foreign missions, first created by parachurch agencies inspired by experimental Calvinism (and the example of David Brainerd), with the established churches bringing up the rear of support for foreign missions — many were still trying to do home missions (the American West or the Scottish Highlands).

The youngest group of Calvinists, the truly Young Calvinism, were the churches that after 1800 began to extricate themselves from the confining compromises of ecclesiastical establishment by forming either voluntary or secessionist communions. The Dutch kicked off the process in 1834 with the Aufscheiding, which later inspired Abraham Kuyper and the Doliantie which formed the backbone of the GKN (1892). Then came the Free Church of Scotland with the disruption of 1843 led by Thomas Chalmers. In the twentieth century the chief efforts to leave behind Reformed establishmentarianism came from J. Gresham Machen who withdrew from the Protestant mainline through the doctrine of the spirituality of the church, and then from Karl Barth who articulated such a high view of divine transcendence that Christian truth could never be reduced to societal or cultural (or even ecclesiastical) norms.

By this scheme the so-called “New” Calvinists are really middle-aged since Edwards is their home boy, a man who stands smack-dab in the middle of Calvinism’s second stage. This also means that if the New Calvinists want to be truly young, they need to come to terms with Chalmers, Kuyper, Machen, and Barth.

O’Rourke still isn’t laughing even if he is home by now and taking his advance and honorarium to the bank.

Oldlife.org 201: Wit and Sarcasm

The first installment in this series about this blog was to clarify what a blog is. One aspect that I did not mention was that the more successful blogs are provocative – that is, they agitate readers and that’s why people come back. The most successful blogger in the world arguably is Andrew Sullivan, the former editor of the New Republic, and his blog is hardly tepid.

This leads to the second point in need of clarification. Oldlife.org is the on-line presence of the Nicotine Theological Journal. Long before provocations started at this blog, the editors and authors of the NTJ were provoking readers and library patrons in hopes of thinking through the implications of Reformed faith and practice today, with a little levity and sarcasm thrown in. The editors’ inspiration was partly Andrew Sullivan whose time at the New Republic made it one of the most thoughtful, rancorous, and witty magazines on politics and culture at the time. But Sullivan was not the only inspiration. Other authors who wrote on serious matters with wit and sarcasm that provided models for the NTJ were Richard John Neuhaus, P. J. O’Rourke, Joseph Epstein, H. L. Mencken, and Calvin Trillin.

None of these sources, readers may object, are Reformed. Which raises the question whether Reformed authors may engage in wit and sarcasm when pursuing their convictions. Well, the answer is yes. If you spend much time in the polemical writings of the Old School and Princeton theologians, you will find a fair amount of wit and sarcasm. Here are a couple examples, the first from Charles Hodge after a seven-round dogma fight with Edwards Amasa Park (named for Jonathan Edwards – ahem) over theological method and the nature of Calvinism:

It is a common remark that a man never writes anything well for which he has “to read up.” Professor Park has evidently labored under this disadvantage. Old-school theology is a new field to him; and though he quotes freely authors of whom we, though natives, never heard, yet he is not at home, and unavoidably falls into the mistakes which foreigners cannot fail to commit in a strange land. He does not understand the language. He find out “five meanings of imputation!” It would be wearisome work to set such a stranger right at every step. We would fain part with our author on good terms. We admire his abilities, and are ready to defer to him in his own department. But when he undertakes to teach Old-school men Old-school theology it is very much like a Frenchman teaching an Englishman how to pronounce English. With the best intentions, the amiable Gaul would be sure to make sad work with the dental aspirations.

The second comes from Benjamin Warfield in one of the last pieces he ever wrote, an article objecting to the latest proposal (1920) to unite the largest Protestant denominations in the United States:

Now it is perfectly obvious that the proposed creed contains nothing which is not believed by evangelicals. and it is equally obvious that it contains nothing which is not believed by Sacerdotalists – by the adherents of the church of Rome for example. And it is equally obvious that it contains nothing which is not believed by Rationalists – by respectable Unitarians. That is as much as to say that the creed on the basis of which we are invited to form a union for evangelizing purposes contains nothing distinctively evangelical at all; nothing at all of that body of saving truth for the possession of which the church of Christ has striven and suffered through two thousand years. It contains only “a few starved and hunger-bitten” dogmas of purely general character – of infinite importance in the context of evangelical truth, but of themselves of no saving sufficiency. So far as the conservation and propagation of evangelical religion is concerned, we might as well for a union on our common acceptance of the law of gravitation and the rule of three.

By the way, these were a couple of quotes readily available from Hodge and Warfield. If you go farther into their works, along with those of Old Schoolers like Dabney and Thornwell you will find many more examples, sometimes of laugh out loud proportions.

One last source of inspiration for Oldlife.org and the NTJ is – duh – J. Gresham Machen. He did not show a lot of wit or sarcasm in his writings. But his polemics were nonetheless blunt, so much so that many who believed charity to be the only Christian virtue considered Machen mean and beyond the pale. But it is precisely Machen’s candor and warrior spirit that is worthy of emulation. The following is from a piece he wrote for an inter-faith gathering on the relations between Christians and Jews:

The fact is that in discussing matters about which there are differences of opinion, it is really more courteous to be frank – more courteous with that deeper courtesy which is based upon the Golden Rule. For my part, I am bound to say that the kind of discussion which is irritating to me is the discussion which begins by begging the question and then pretend to be in the interests of peace. I should be guilty of such a method if I should say to a Roman Catholic, for example, that we can come together with him because forms and ceremonies like the mass and membership in a certain definite organization are, of course, matters of secondary importance – if I should say to him that he can go on being a good Catholic and I can go on being a good Protestant and yet we can unite on common Christian basis. If I should talk in that way, I should show myself guilty of the crassest narrowness of mind, for I should be showing that I had never taken the slightest trouble to understand the Roman Catholic point of view. If I had taken that trouble, I should have come to see plainly that what I should be doing is not to seek common ground between the roman Catholic and myself but simply to ask the Roman Catholic to become a Protestant and give up everything that he holds most dear.

. . . So to my mind the most inauspicious beginning for any discussion is found when the speaker utters the familiar words: “I think, brethren, that we are all agreed about this . . .” – and then proceeds to trample ruthlessly upon the things that are dearest to my heart. Far more kindly is it if the speaker says at the start that he sees a miserable narrow-minded conservative in the audience whose views he intends to ridicule and refute. After such a speaker gets through, perhaps I may be allowed to say that I regard him as just as narrow-minded as he regards me, and then having both spoken our full mind we may part, certain not as brothers (it is ridiculous to degrade that word) but at least as friends.

None of this is to suggest that Oldlife.org pulls off the wit, sarcasm, polemics, or bluntness of the writers who have inspired this endeavor. It is only to point out that the tone and style of Oldlife.org is not over the top.