Silicon Valley Dystopia

“The new road to serfdom — actually, it’s more like a hyperloop — runs right through Silicon Valley.” via Silicon Valley has our backs

This post by Nicholas Carr at Rough Type references a recent New Yorker profile of venture capitalist Sam Altman.  I share Carr’s skepticism and the profile is worth reading.  If I understand correctly, Altman’s vision appears to distill down to the following:

  • Technological advancement will bring artificial intelligence and cheap energy.
  • This will bring limitless wealth, and drive down the cost of producing pretty much everything and put pretty much everyone out of a job.
  • Therefore governments should provide stipends to everyone so they can do whatever they want.

All of which sounds wonderful.  But there may be some fundamental dysfunction baked into this vision of technocratic utopia.  This statement by Altman suggests rather a technocratic myopia:

“People pay a lot for a great education now, but you can become expert level on most things by looking at your phone.”

Galaxy S6
Galaxy S6

Exactly which fields of study could one reach expert level via a smart phone?  Neuroscience?  Biochemistry?  Mathematics?  Structural Engineering?  Linguistics?  Philosophy?  Religion?

One of the bothersome aspects of some technocrats’ visions of the future is the apparent shallow appreciation for subjects beyond the range of their expertise.  Perhaps this would not be a problem if learning was merely the collecting of oversimplified and trivial facts, unencumbered by connection to any real context.  Or at least, whatever such info-bits content providers choose to serve up.

But as it happens, most of the really important stuff requires too much mental bandwidth and breadth of experience to fit on a three or four-inch screen.

Some Unusual Central Heating

Now THIS was interesting (to an ancient history buff).  We take modern climate control technologies very much for granted:

“I built a hut with a tiled roof, underfloor heating and mud and stone walls. This has been my most ambitious primitive project yet and was motivated by the scarcity of permanent roofing materials…” Source: Building a hut with a kiln-fired tiled roof, underfloor heating and mud pile walls.

I recently added this site to my list after seeing the video of the construction  process.  Do go there and have a look.

The author’s use of fired clay is impressive enough but the heated floor is what really caught my attention.  It works the same way as the Roman hypocaust and Korean ondol.  I was some way though viewing that portion of the build before it dawned on me what I was looking at.

The Roman designs heated large surface areas and large masses of masonry, leading to the need for a lot of labor to feed the furnace.  Although this was probably not a big deal from the Roman point of view because of the prodigious use of slaves.  But the author’s use of large stones in the floor covering a heating channel should provide a source of radiant warmth for the entire living space long after the fire went out.  And would require less labor for the resultant heat.



on another site before reading the author’s post.

(Lost in) Permanent Translation

The non-profit publisher Crossway is releasing what they are describing as a “permanent” English biblical translation.  I am having some difficulty with what I think I hear them saying:

“Beginning in the summer of 2016, the text of the ESV Bible will remain unchanged—in the same way that the King James Version (KJV) has remained unchanged ever since the final KJV text was established almost 250 years ago (in 1769). Thus, all present and future editions of the ESV reprinted and published by Crossway will contain the Permanent Text of the ESV Bible—throughout the life of the copyright, in perpetuity. This means that current readers of the ESV Bible—as well as their children and grandchildren—will be able to read, study, and memorize the ESV unchanged for generations to come.”[1]

Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed has some issues with the translation details.  I am not qualified to speak to his points as I don’t read any ancient languages.   My issue is at the conceptual level, with the notion of “permanent.”  Perhaps Crossway means they intend no further revisions.  But the way the King James Version is referenced suggests the English Standard Version will need no further revisions.  I hope I am misunderstanding this.

Permanent translations of anything are in principle impossible.  It really doesn’t matter whether we are talking about Paul’s letters to the Corinthians or Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War.  Language itself is not permanent.

Linguists use a concept known as “drift” to describe the impermanence.   Words come in and out of usage.   Sounds and pronunciations change.   Meanings shift.   Syntax changes.  I am told that use of writing slows this process down but does not eliminate it.   Which means writing that is “…unchanged for generations to come…” will become unintelligible to those generations, and rather quickly.   Writing from the 19th century is already hard going for most modern readers.[2]  Think about how many people you know that have actually read works by Herman Melville or Alexandre Dumas.

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

If it were not for linguistic drift, English readers could still use the King James or Geneva bibles.   The texts could be cleaned up with current manuscript discoveries and they would good to go.  But since Crossway is presenting us with the permanent ESV those translations apparently were not sufficiently permanent.

The goal of translating any ancient text ought to be to make the original sense of that text available to a modern reader.  It really doesn’t matter whether that ancient text was written by Aristophanes or the Apostle Paul.

As it happens, the Koine Greek of New Testament is not the Classical Greek of Aristophanes, Homer, and Plato.   It eventually developed into the court and liturgical language in the Byzantine empire but its origin was the everyday marketplace Greek of the Hellenistic world.  A good bit of the New Testament was likely oral composition in this very ordinary language, dictated to an actual writer.[3]  It was then likely read out loud, to be heard and understood by groups of very ordinary people.

The problem for us modern ordinary people is that we lack the linguistic and cultural context of the ancient audiences.   Translation and the teaching and preaching that accompany it ought to be helping us engage that context, and hear what those ordinary people heard.  Without that help we are apt to read our own linguistic and cultural contexts back into the text.   And hear something quite different from what the author intended to communicate.

This is why linguistic drift is relevant.  Language shifts in meaning and our understanding of it is tethered to an advancing present.  And the shift will inevitably decouple our present understanding from the fixed written meaning anchored in an increasingly distant past.  Which means the success of any translation in accurately supporting a reader’s understanding of an ancient context is only temporary at best.

And an update.

It doesn’t appear to have taken Crossway very long to reverse course and and apparently drop the idea of “permanent.”  The text quoted above has been dropped and the following is from a statement by the publisher:

“Our goal at Crossway remains as strong as ever to serve future generations with a stable ESV text. But the means to that goal, we now see, is not to establish a permanent text but rather to allow for ongoing periodic updating of the text to reflect the realities of biblical scholarship such as textual discoveries or changes in English over time.”[4]

I am surprised it took a bit of controversy (see article) to figure out that inevitable changes in the language might be one factor necessitating updates to the translation.

But I’m neither a translator or a linguist so what do I know?


[1]  About the ESV. Crossway, 2016.  Retrieved from September 19, 2016.

[2]  There is also a matter of shrinking attention spans that impacts on this, as well (see Eighteen Minutes).  But the linguistic drift likely makes the attention issue harder to overcome.

[3]  There are several probable reference to an author’s use of a writer in the New Testament (known in the ancient world as an amanuensis):  Romans 16:22, 1 Corinthians 16:21, Colossians 4:18, 2 Thessalonians 3:16, 1 Peter 5:12, and Galatians 6:11.

The practice is likely to have been far more wide-spread than is first apparent, even among the literate, which St. Paul clearly was.  We are the children of the printing press and formatted text — our modern text-saturated culture really has no sense of the cognitive demands of writing and reading in the ancient world.  For a related discussion see this earlier post.

[4]  Crossway Statement on the ESV Bible Text. Crossway, 2016.  Retrieved from September 28, 2016.

Thought Leaders

I’ve watched a bit of TED and there’s been quite a lot of good stuff on it.  As I’ve noted previously, the format of TED successfully makes use of the shrunken attention spans of modern culture.  But the packaging that makes TED work also suggests its effectiveness has very little to do with the actual content.

With that in mind, here’s a bit of Canadian satire from Pat Kelly of This is That.  It’s about how to inspire people and say nothing at all:



There is a very good chance that you could take any given TED talk, flip the content so it says the opposite of the original, and the audience engagement would be just as high.


A Faith of Trust, Allegiance, and Loyalty

Skeptics ridicule the truth of the Christian message because of the discontinuity they see between Christian belief and behavior. They may have a point. Modern Christianity seems grounded in cognitive experience, more or less anchored by formal theologies expressing ethics governing what we think and how we behave. The problem is that what we think often gets compartmentalized from how we behave.

We claim a transformative power but we seem to end up with a faith that seems to be mostly a matter of rules and propositional truth. It might help to step back a bit from our arguments with skeptics and think about what faith actually is. A book review by Kate Cooper recently caught my attention, in which she profiled Roman Faith and Christian Faith, by Teresa Morgan.

The review describes our primarily cognitive and ethical treatment of faith as anachronistic. In contrast, “…ancient moral writers tended to think of faith in the relational sense of trust, allegiance, and loyalty.” Cooper quotes from Morgan’s book, anchoring faith in an ancient context of “‘an exercise of trust which involves heart, mind, and action’”.[1]

I am looking forward reading the book to engage the historical context the book promises for the New Testament. It seems to square with my recent reading of Roman history and Roman authors.  But what Cooper calls modern faith might also have some quite ancient roots, courtesy of the Hellenic culture diffused across the Mediteranean and eastward following Alexander’s conquests.

Hellenism was under-girded by a world of ideas incubated in the life of the polis, or the Greek city-state. The clearest biblical connection with this was Paul’s encounter with Athenian aristocracy at Mars Hill,[2] when they brought Paul from the marketplace where he was preaching. They wanted to hear his unfamiliar ideas and proclamations of a foreign god, and to consider them within the business of the polis.

But the problem with this Greek world of ideas was its functional isolation. The city-states which gestated Hellenism were stratified into fairly rigid divisions between the activities of citizens (men), women, immigrants and their descendants, freedmen, and slaves. In the classical period citizens were the only ones who could own houses or land, or participate in public life and in the governance of the city. What this participation actually looked like might vary with the city but most of the actual work to support it was performed by someone other than citizens.

The result was that the Greek world of ideas was structurally disconnected from the practical and everyday. The intellectual heritage of the Western World owes a great deal to the ancient Greeks. But we may also owe them a tendency toward cooking down truth as a matter of bare cognition, separated from the activities of everyday life.

This does not mean faith operates in some sort of intellectual vacuum. Something must be true, and over the centuries Christians have done a fair bit of philosophy to engage this. But we used to also recognize that the truth statements within Christian creeds were never wholly reducible to propositions.

Unfortunately, some of our fine-grained modern theologies seem to do just that, resulting in a theoretical faith where the ethical content never reaches very far. It is a faith that has become very much like the philosophy of the ancient Greeks: positions to think about but that are mostly sectioned off from the ordinary day-to-day. And on those occasions we actually do drag them out of their boxes they are so wholly odds with that day-to-day as to discredit any message about Jesus.

It is a modern variant of something James was addressing in his letter to Jewish Christians dispersed throughout the ancient world.  He nails this in his discussion of faith and works (James 2:14-19).

What I have been told by someone who actually reads Greek is that the words translated as “faith” and “believe”[3] in English are really noun and verb forms of the same expansive word, encompassing a both a belief in the truth of something, as well as a far broader sense of trust and dependence concerning the fidelity of someone. The way the Greek word is heard depends on the context. James 2:19 is commonly translated in English as “believe,” and the context suggests a paraphrase:

You accept the truth that God is one. You do well. The demons also accept this and shudder.

A faith restricted to the cognitive and ethical can easily become a faith of bare facts — the faith of the demons.

In the preceding text, 2:14-18, the Greek word is commonly translated as “faith.” The context suggests something very different from 2:19.

And this difference would have been understood quite clearly by any Roman hearing the reading of James’ letter. The Romans who spread with their empire had some critical cultural differences from the Greeks of the city-states. Immigrants to Rome often became citizens, and sometimes this included freed slaves and their descendants. As Mary Beard has unpacked in SPQR, this making of immigrants and thousands of slaves into citizens is a major part of what enabled Rome to dominate the ancient world. And in their founding myths “…however far back you go, the inhabitants of Rome were always already from somewhere else.”[4]

As a matter of clarification I don’t want to convey any impression that this meant empire and the associated making of slaves was a good thing. It was not. A slave in a Roman mine was unlikely to live very long. And Romans were probably as exploitative, xenophobic and ethnocentric as anyone else.

But the point is that the Roman social stratification was somewhat less rigid than in a Greek city-state. It was more interconnected, with citizens bound together in patron-client relationships of mutual obligation. Roman citizenship did not inherently insulate everyday citizens from activities with outsiders, or from otherwise doing the everyday business of Rome. Ordinary Romans proudly put their ordinary occupations on their tombstones. And landless Roman wage laborers might find themselves working on the same project alongside of Roman slaves.

Commodus denarius – Wikimedia Commons

For the Romans hearing a reading of James’ letter, truth did not stand in a vacuum devoid of the business of everyday life. The context of James 2:14-18 would have been understood in the sense of fides, what Cooper’s review identifies as encompassing “trust, allegiance, and loyalty.”  Romans were accustomed to the sense of fides as found inscribed on coins and worshiped as a minor deity.[5]  It conveyed as sense of reliability, such as in the trust between two parties.

It is what a Roman would have heard when the Greek pistis was translated in Latin. In the ancient world these words appear to have been mutually intelligible. What we commonly translate as “faith” might possibly be heard like this by an ancient Roman:

Show me your trust, allegiance and loyalty, without works, and I will show you my trust, allegiance, and loyalty, by my works.

Our most common response to skeptics is to reach for some form of apologetic. Perhaps the proper response would be to recover a more ancient sense of faith.


[1]  Kate Cooper.  Review: Teresa Morgan, ROMAN FAITH, CHRISTIAN FAITH.  I’ve added the book to my list to acquire and read.  It’s quite expensive which suggests it is directed at an academic audience.  Also at:

[2] Acts 17:16 ff.

[3] James 2:14-18, faith: πιστιν – pistin, πιστις – pistis, Strong’s G4102.  James 2:19, believe: πιστευεις – pisteueis, πιστευουσιν – pisteuousin, Strong’s G4100.

[4] Mary Beard. SPQR: A history of ancient Rome. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2015. p78


Practical Passwords for Regular People

“Dadada.”  According to the article below this was the password for Mark Zuckerberg’s hacked LinkedIn account.  I found this astounding.  And I am just a regular guy who works in an office full-time, not some super-geek.

“A group of hijackers known as OurMine, possibly from Saudi Arabia, briefly took over Facebook chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s Twitter and Pinterest accounts yesterday.” – Source: – How Not to Be Mark Zuckerberg About Your Passwords

But Zuckerberg is ridiculously wealthy.  He can afford to pay people to clean up the mess.

For the rest of us poor schmucks the article has some suggestions which are worth perusing.  I got my AOL account in the late 80s and have used hundreds of various online accounts since then..  I probably have at least 50 active user passwords.  It would be nice to have a reasonable way to manage that.  Unfortunately the suggestions are not packaged for users in the real world.  And the article fails to engage real-world questions that need to be asked about any website you use before deciding which to use:

  • Are you famous or do you otherwise have some sort of highly visible public profile?
  • Is the information you need to protect important?
  • Would theft of the information affect anyone besides you?
  • Is the data valuable?

If the answer to all these questions is “no” then pick any junk password you like.  If you answered with a strong “yes” to any, then find someone with actual expertise and don’t fool around with trying to do this on your own, particularly if you need super-secure options like hardware tokens.  But most people will likely answer “no” to the first and a mild “yes” to one or more of the rest.  So here is my stab at a rework of the suggestions, in order of priority:

  1. Turn on basic two-factor authentication (2FA) for every site that provides it.  Two-factor (or multi-factor) means something besides your user name and password is required to sign in.   The easiest version to use sends a text to your mobile phone with an access code when the site fails to recognize you.  A slightly more complicated but more reliable variant installs an app on a smart phone (which most people have these days).  Basic 2FA means most thieves will need your crappy password and physical possession of your phone.
  2. Lock all your computers, tablets, and smartphones.  A basic four-digit pin or pass-code is probably fine, provided that the device does not connect to a corporate network, and has no remote access capability (or remote access is turned off).  This is basic stuff.  You lock your residence and car, don’t you?

This should keep out casual thieves and provides reasonable security for most of us.  But if a thief gets both your passwords and access to your computer and mobile phone you have bigger problems.  You might now be some hacker’s personal project.  Or you might be bound, gagged, and in the trunk of a car bouncing along a dirt road.  As one writer has pointed out, your potential threats boil down to “Mossad or not-Mossad[1].”  If it’s the first one you are pretty much screwed.

For sites that don’t provide two-factor authentication, do the following:

  • Create unique and reasonably complex passwords.  Passwords should contain at minimum mixes of upper case letters, lower case letters, and numbers.  Special characters should be added if the site allows.  But as long as you do not spell out actual dictionary words, your passwords need NOT be super long or super complex.  Eight characters is good enough for most purposes.  Whether to use more depends on how much damage unauthorized access will do.  Passwords for your bank need to be longer than passwords for your streaming media.
  • Long passphrases can be easier for most people to remember than completely random sequences.  Just don’t use components that you have posted on social media.  Use something obscure, like the combination of a partial childhood address and the name of a childhood pet.  Or the long name of a band you would never admit listening to.  Then mangle it with numbers and mix the upper and lower cases.
  • If you have too many passwords to remember, then create a secured list to build a barrier between where you record them and where you use them.  A plain, old paper notebook is just fine, provided you keep it somewhere reasonably safe.  An encrypted Microsoft Office or Evernote document, or something equivalent will also work.  Or if you are at least slightly geeky you can use a password manager app[2].  The point is to find something that works for you and create the barrier.   So when your device gets stolen and/or hacked the thief doesn’t get your passwords.

The article had some additional suggestions, which are distilled below to something normal people might actually use:

  • Don’t let websites retain information that connects to your financial accounts.  This means debit cards, account numbers, or anything else that points directly to your bank.  The only exception I can see to this is the website of another bank.  Charges on a stolen credit card can be high-order nuisances.  But stolen bank balances are something else entirely.
  • If you let your web browser store your login information, then use a browser that encrypts the data and requires a password to access it.  And never allow storage on a computer you don’t own and completely control.

Oh, and if your passwords are stored on your computer or smart phone please remember these gadgets are not immortal.  Back up the list to a flash drive or printout and hide that  somewhere you can find it.  And be sure to include those stupid security questions and answers.  You might need them a year from now.


[1] James Mickens. This World of Ours. “;login: The Usenix Magazine.” January 2014

[2] If you want to really lock your stuff up and need a suggestion for a password app I use KeePass.  It’s highly configurable and open-source (and free).  I’ve also heard good things about LastPass but I’ve never used it.

December 4, 2017 update:  Thank you to a reader who pointed me to a secure password generator at this site:  She rightly pointed out how easy it is to slip into making weak ones.


Peaky Blindness

flickr CC
flickr CC

In the course of our recent Netflix binging my wife and I started watching Peaky Blinders.  This is a BBC television series set in post-WWI Birmingham, England, and is centered around the activities of a street gang for which the series is named.  What the gang actually looked like is debated but the name is said to originate in the style of cap and a practice of sewing in razor blades to create an improvised weapon.  It’s an intriguing story and the core conflict in the first season is between the leader of the gang and a police detective who intends to stamp the thing out, by any means necessary.

But as of the fifth episode we are done.  The issue for us was the simulated sex.  I wrote about this last year after reading about interviews with actresses Dakota Johnson (here) and Rosamund Pike (here), following the release of movies referenced in the interviews.

It is one thing to set up or imply an affair and it is possible to argue as a matter of taste about the specifics of how this is depicted.  But the problem with physically simulating the sex itself is that calling it mere acting places the issue in a hair-splitting and artificial frame.  This framing comes from what happens on a film set being a fairly mechanical process; a good bit is about tricks involving camera angles, pillows, and strategic cover-ups that are intended to protect the dignity of the participants*.  Or so the argument goes and some of the production might be merely that.  But two partially (or mostly) naked people making out in direct physical contact IS sex, and artificially isolating the process from actual arousal and coitus doesn’t make it anything else.  We’ve just gotten so used to this over the last several decades that we can no longer see it for what it is.

At some point this contact places the performers inside of boundaries that ought to be crossed only in healthy relationships between consenting adults.  And what I would like to suggest is that the relational wreckage strewn throughout the film business at least in part attests to the results of treating those boundaries like they don’t exist.  At a cultural level we can quibble over what such healthy relationships might actually entail, and no, you can’t draw a straight line between cause and effect.  But the functional context is an industry that simply ignores the matter to turn a profit.  This seems like the textbook definition of exploitation and we’re just blind to that.

So let’s reset the production with appropriate strategic angles and coverings, and make it a stage play.  Oh, and bring a phone with a decent camera.

Can you see it now?


*Shooting Film and TV Sex Scenes: What Really Goes On

Did Jesus Have a Wife? – The Atlantic

Harvard historian Karen L. King ignited a controversy at a 2012 conference in Rome when she presented a papyrus fragment which appeared to refer to Jesus’ wife.   An article in the July/August 2016 Atlantic details a subsequent investigation into the fragment’s provenance:

“A hotly contested, supposedly ancient manuscript suggests Christ was married. But believing its origin story—a real-life Da Vinci Code, involving a Harvard professor, a onetime Florida pornographer, and an escape from East Germany—requires a big leap of faith.”  Source: Did Jesus Have a Wife? – The Atlantic

An interview with the  Boston Globe  echoed the Atlantic article.  King has acknowledged that material given to her in support of the fragment’s provenance appears to have been fabricated.  And King’s source has denied forging the papyrus or any knowledge regarding its authenticity.

It is possible that the fragment might be an old fraud.   But King clearly believes she has been lied to (see follow up Atlantic column), so this seems unlikely.

The article is quite long but well worth reading.  It lays out the anatomy of what increasingly appears to be an elaborate deception.  In fairness King never ruled out the possibility of fabrication.  But I am not an academic so I really don’t understand why the document was presented publicly in the first place, given the very large blank space where the provenance ought to have been.  The scholarship is summarized by the Harvard Divinity School here.

The most effective deceptions are indirect. The perpetrator presents a fragmentary context buttressed primarily by misdirection and a few strategic lies.  The core falsehood is misstated, as if the con artist doesn’t actually believe it, and is trusting the mark to help sort the matter out.  It helps if the deception fits into something the mark really wants to believe.  Then the mark is allowed to fill the very substantial blanks with whatever facts and opinions may happen to fit.

And even otherwise knowledgeable people get sucked in.

Hacking Your Phone – CBS News

Well, this is a problem.

“Sharyn Alfonsi reports on how cellphones and mobile phone networks are vulnerable to hacking

Source: Hacking Your Phone – CBS News”


It appears that a hacker with no more access than your cellular number can exploit a hole in network security to turn on your camera, read your email and texts, and listen in on your calls.  And who knows what else?

Makes me want to run right out and do my banking on a mobile phone.

The video is behind a paywall but it is definitely worth watching.


The Wrong End of the Telescope

I am really wondering how there could be such a thing as explicitly “Christian” economics.  I bumped into this question in a blog where the writer, Roger Olson, surveyed major strains of economic thought in the context of distributive justice and gave examples of prominent Christian proponents.  But what especially caught my eye was this assertion:

Every Christian church ought to be an “intentional Christian community” that practices distributive justice within itself by making sure no member suffers from loss or lack of goods needed to live a life of well-being and no member hoards wealth above and beyond what is needed for a comfortable life of well-being.[1]

This idea has some resonance.  The modern church in our materialistic culture pretty much ignores John’s question highlighting the discontinuity between indifference to need and the love of God [2].  But I don’t think you can get at this by adopting the lens of a societal-level political idea.  Thinking about the organization of society and looking from this to the behavior of the Church is looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

Contributed to Flickr by Charles Nadeau. Creative Commons
Charles Nadeau – Flickr C.C.

Christians should think about organization, economics and politics.  But the problem is that broad concepts necessarily spawn structures and mechanisms to implement them.  But the process of organization grows the structures into institutions.  Institutions leverage our influence and can accomplish a lot of good.  But the under-girding organization also create routines that channel thinking in terms of resource allocation and who reports to whom.  Which means using the wrong end of the telescope can result in the conflation of Christian practice with functional processes and societal norms.

This happens because the systems of organization used will inevitably tend to reinforce certain personal traits and behaviors at the expense of others. Some of these will be negative and the flavor will vary with the nature of the system. And sooner or later one or more of the negative traits will inevitably come to serve the self-interest of the leadership. Once this happens the processes for advancement and retention will start to advantage people with those negative traits.

Which, for example, is why authoritarian systems accumulate sycophants, and part of why corporate systems become fodder for Dilbert cartoons.  As organizational growth weakens mechanisms that hold people accountable, a feedback loop forms that favors the selection of leaders who benefit in some way from their subordinates’ misbehavior. This reinforcing effect is the same, whether the system is used by a government, a business, or a church.

To be clear, we need organization.  Forming institutions increase the reach of what groups of people can accomplish.  But the ethics of the individuals in the institutions are the key.  It is the only way to fight the tendency for organization to aggregate human vice and frailty.  Otherwise, before we know it, the organizational forms in the institutions we’ve created allow the broader culture to colonize our faith.

The tendency of organization to aggregate our weaknesses suggests that creating explicitly Christian economics might be impossible in principle.  My suspicion is that we might be better served by concentrating on the Christian ethic governing our personal behavior.  This ethic ought to inform both how we treat others both inside and outside the church, also ought to inform how we interact with whatever economic system we happen to find ourselves in,  including whatever systemic evils it might bring.  It is the other end of the telescope.

New Testament writers seem zeroed in on this personal ethic, as is apparent in Paul’s letter to Philemon:

I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.)  I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart…

…perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother…(Philemon 10-15, Revised Standard Version)

Some Protestant pastors and theologians in the 19th century clearly used the wrong end of the telescope in relation to this passage.  They started from the standpoint of their culture and as a result stood the text on its head, and turned it into the “Pauline Mandate” for slavery.[3]  The intellectual gymnastics used to achieve this are baffling,  but the results are a clear image of what results from the conflation of social and economic norms with what Christians ought to do.

It is impossible to know why Onesimus was with Paul.  A traditional interpretation is that he was a runaway.  But the lack of any reference by Paul to the customary harsh treatment of escaped slaves  argues against that.  It is more probable that he was sent for some now unknown reason.  Slaves in the Greco-Roman world were viewed as tools and the owner clearly didn’t think much of this particular one.  Paul’s use of “beloved brother,” however, says absolutely nothing about the formal relationship of master and slave.  It is wholly focused on personal behavior, to the probable discomfort of Philemon.  We have no record of how Philemon actually responded, but the preservation of the personal letter argues in favor of some fundamental changes.

Such changes make us uncomfortable.  It is actually easier to think about Christianity in the context of big ideas of the broader culture.  We would much rather blame whatever system we are in, rather than engage our personal behavior within it.


[1] Olson favors “justice as fairness,” as articulated by John Rawls. Roger E Olson

Rawls was an American political and ethical philosopher, whose major work was A Theory of Justice (1971), a defense of egalitarian liberalism which contained arguments later revised in Political Liberalism (1993). A decent overview of his thought is available here:

His thought was highly influential and I’ve found it attractive. But his fairness theory is in part dependent on an idea about free, equal, reasonable citizens who can agree to cooperate at the expense of their own interests. My reservations about this, however, originate in a career that involved significant contact with the public. I have met very few people whose real-world behavior suggests they might be able to act in a way that supports Rawls’ ideals. Most folks just don’t seem to have that much give in them when in conflict over their interests.

[2] “…if any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?”  I John 3:17

[3] Larry R Morrison.  The Religious Defense of American Slavery Before 1830.  Journal of Religious Thought; Fall 80 / Winter 81, Vol. 37 Issue 2, pp 16-29.  Retrieved from