Without Structure There’s No Art

Francis Schaeffer’s book, The God Who is There, introduced me to the intersection of Christianity and the arts. He wrote about the influence of art in Western society, a theme further developed in his later book, Art and the Bible:

What is the place of art in the Christian life? Is art- especially the fine arts- simply a way to bring worldliness in through the back door? What about sculpture or drama, music or painting? Do these have any place in the Christian life? Shouldn’t a Christian focus his gaze steadily on “religious things” alone and forget about art and culture? … I am afraid that as evangelicals, we think that a work of art only has value if we reduce it to a tract.

art, like this sculpture of Samson killing the lion, is created by imago Dei humansSchaeffer insists that Christians have a legitimate stake in the world of fine art. It’s part of what it means to be human made in God’s image. Human art flows from the cultural mandate of Genesis 1 and 2. Indeed, if the creation of art is not from God, from whom does it derive?

Darrow has written many blog posts on this subject (see below). His forthcoming book on wisdom will include an intriguing excerpt from author and columnist Janie B. Cheaney.

The ancient (and possibly mythical) philosopher Pythagoras discovered that dividing a lyre string in half produces an octave, while three-quarters of the string sounds a fourth and two-thirds sounds a perfect fifth. These mathematical ratios produce a pleasing musical progression known the world over. Based on this external framework, Western music established principles of harmony and melody that endured all the way up until the early 20th century. And what happened then?

Contemporary composer John Adams put it this way: “I learned in college that tonality died somewhere around the time that Nietzsche’s God died, and I believed it.” No God, no order. Musical structure collapsed, clearing the way for Arnold Schoenberg, who composed pieces built on abstract principles of numerology. From there it was only a step or two to John Cage, who tossed dice to pick the notes for his compositions and staged “symphonies” around kitchen appliances. Not all avant garde composers abandoned tonality, but music cut off from its defining structure ceased to be anything we would recognize as music. (emphases added)

I’m guessing Cheaney’s critique would be dismissed, if not hooted down, in many music schools. We’ve been reminded all our lives that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” the musical equivalent of which is “tonality is in the ear of the listener.” Cheaney is challenging that assertion. She would no doubt affirm individual taste in our appreciation of the arts. But she also asserts that much of modern art amounts to an abandonment of the “defining structure” that had always framed the artist’s creativity.

Of course the suggestion of any transcendent structure to the creation of art would be anathema to some, but only because of a concomitant rejection of divine order (see Romans 1:20-21). That unseen structure comprises the framework necessary for art’s pleasing effect. Rob the structure and whatever remains has little resemblance to art, visual or aural.

But why does so much modern art feel the need to abandon the structure? Maybe because to the degree that the artist’s worldview is driven by atheism and evolutionism, there is no place for order. The very notion of a structured universe clashes with the randomness necessary to a materialist view of reality. To be sure, there are artists who profess atheism yet produce pleasing art, i.e. art undergirded by the “defining structure.” In doing so they are rejecting the worldview of atheism and borrowing from the Judeo-Christian worldview. In that sense, John Cage’s “music” represents a compositional approach more in synch with atheism’s creed: what rationale could a true atheist mount for creating anything other than random sounds?

Yes, artists create. They apply imagination to their world, to their work, and the result is something never before witnessed in the world of humans: a music score, a painting, a film, a story, a sculpture. If that imagination comports with the reality of an orderly universe, they can achieve beauty. On the other hand, the John Cages, more honest to the underlying doctrine of randomness, must strike out in some “new” direction (since to create is to make something new) by “breaking the rules.” The resulting chaos—desultory strokes of color, erratic sounds—leaves the audience empty and fails to do justice to the artist’s own imago Dei nature.

Author J.R.R. Tolkien, in his splendid essay, “Tree and Leaf,” effectively exposes this tendency in contemporary art by means of some of the most elegant prose in the English language. Every artist struggling to create would benefit from these words.

Spring is, of course, not really less beautiful because we have seen or heard of other like events: like events, never from world’s beginning to world’s end the same event. Each leaf, of oak, ash and thorn, is a unique embodiment of the pattern, and for some this very year may be the embodiment, the first ever seen and recognised, though oaks have put forth leaves for countless generations of men.

We do not, or need not, despair of drawing because all lines must be either curved or straight, nor of painting because there are only three ‘primary’ colours. We may indeed be older now, in so far as we are heirs in enjoyment or in practice of many generations of ancestors in the arts. In this inheritance of wealth there may be a danger of boredom or of anxiety to be original, and that may lead to a distaste for fine drawing, delicate pattern, and ‘pretty’ colours, or else to mere manipulation and over-elaboration of old material, clever and heartless. 

But the true road of escape from such weariness is not to be found in the wilfully awkward, clumsy, or misshapen, not in making all things dark or unremittingly violent; nor in the mixing of colours on through subtlety to drabness, and the fantastical complication of shapes to the point of silliness and on towards delirium. Before we reach such states we need recovery. We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses – and wolves. p 58

Christians who are artists have the opportunity to participate in, and contribute to, the beauty that lives in the orderliness of a universe created by a God of order. As Father Thomas Dubay points out, such beauty frames both our calling and our destiny.

Both science and theology agree on the objectivity of beauty. While there is a subjective readiness in us, greater or lesser, for perceiving the splendid, both disciplines assume and insist that beauty is not merely in the eye of the beholder; it is primarily something “out there.” … Revelation and theology have for centuries likewise taught the same idea cast in religious terms, namely, that the purpose of creation is man, destined to be enthralled eternally in triune glory. The Evidential Power of Beauty, pages 16-17.

– Gary Brumbelow

See these related posts:

Imitating the First Artist: The Place of Beauty and Creativity in God’s Design

Christian Artists: Imitators of the Grand Creator

Artists Speaking to the Culture

How MUSIC Shapes a Culture and the World

A Powerful Resource for Creating Godly Culture

How to Disciple a Nation with a Paintbrush

Get the complete list of posts on this subject by clicking “Arts” from the dropdown at Categories.

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Is Christian Freedom Disappearing in Canada?

How long will Christian freedom remain in North America?

Unless the direction of our nations change dramatically, citizens of the United States and Canada will soon have occasion to apply these unforgettable lines credited to the German anti-Nazi, theologian, and Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemöller.

Neimoller quote






Niemöller’s words carry insight that has meaning for Christians and other persecuted minorities throughout history.

Jordanian wearing a kiffiyeh

Jordanian wearing a kiffiyeh

Today, Christians in Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt are being attacked by militant Islamists. Though much more advocacy is sorely needed, these brothers and sisters are getting at least some voice from groups like BreakPoint, RUN Ministries, et al.

In the meantime, Christians in Canada are also being persecuted … not by jihadists wearing keffiyehs, but by secular fundamentalists in three-piece suits. Canadian Christians are not being threatened with beheading, but they are being attacked and marginalized, simply for their religious beliefs.

On January 9, 2015, a Canadian constitutional lawyer, Albertos Polizogopoulos, wrote an article in The Cardus Daily titled “Christian Lawyers and Doctors Need Not Apply.”

It has become a scary time to be a Christian professional in Canada.

In 2014, lawyers and doctors were targeted by their own professional associations for direct attack because of their religious beliefs.

For Christian lawyers, the first salvo was fired at Trinity Western University’s law school. TWU, which exists to “develop godly Christian leaders” in a variety of marketplaces, requires its students and staff to sign a Community Covenant. This pledge, based on religious beliefs, to abstain from certain activities and behaviours during their time at TWU, includes the use of alcohol on campus, viewing pornography, and “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.”

It seems that the Judeo-Christian concept of a covenantal marriage between a man and a woman is abhorrent to secularists. Wouldn’t a level playing field have room for all reasonable views? Apparently not. Confessing Christian professionals must be crushed. They have two options: renounce their faith (exactly what the jihadists demand), or flee for their professional lives.

On January 20, 2015, the American author and editorialist Rod Dreher, inspired by Polizogopoulos, wrote a piece on the same threat with the provocative title, “Canadian Christians: Tomorrow’s Soviet Jews.” Dreher ends his piece with these sober comments:

But how long will American Christians be free to work as lawyers and doctors (or other professionals) without having to deny their faith or participate in something they consider to be gravely immoral? I suppose the US Supreme Court will at least partly answer that question in its gay marriage ruling this summer.

If you are a North American Christian and you are not preparing, and preparing your children, to suffer for the faith, you are not reading the signs of the times. Do not let yourself be blinded by the Law of Merited Impossibility, which says, “It will never happen, and when it does, you people will deserve it.”

Will Christians in the West simply say, “This cannot happen here”? The signs indicate otherwise. It already is happening here. In Gresham, Oregon, the owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa have been found guilty for discrimination for declining a request to provide a cake for a same-sex “wedding.” They await a March 10 sentencing and could be fined as much as $150,000.

Yet the next generation need not suffer as the Jews did in Germany and Russia. Free people can rise up and stand against a growing tyranny. But we will need to love freedom more than we love our toys, our technology, and our comfortable lives.

  • Darrow Miller

See these related posts:

ISIS “deChristianizes” Mosul: Is the West Next?

Needed: A Theology of Suffering

Why Are Western Christians Silent While Their Brethren Suffer?

Posted in Culture, Current events, Freedom | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Haiti’s Poverty: Not Enough Money?


“CapHaitienMarche” by User:Doron – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Is Haiti’s poverty about insufficient funds?

When it comes to fighting poverty, we tend to rely too much on money. We equate poverty with the lack of money, so naturally we want to give money.

This is especially the case with government anti-poverty programs. Governments have access to lots of money. “There’s the poverty, here’s the money.” With a pile of money always at hand, the “solution” to poverty is obvious. If the money we’ve spent so far has not eradicated the poverty, just spend more money.

For example, take it with Haiti, the Western-hemisphere poster child of poverty fighters. Last month was the five-year anniversary of the island nation’s infamous 2010 earthquake. Before the earthquake, Haiti’s people were dramatically poor. The earthquake exacerbated an already appalling life for most of the 10.7 million Haitians. It also shook loose lots of international generosity. Ten billion dollars, to be inexact. Yet Haiti is still poor.

That’s the testimony of Raymond A. Joseph, a former Haitian ambassador to the US. He wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal,

As the fifth anniversary of the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake approaches, Haiti is in disarray, to the shame of the international community and the country’s leadership. …

Where has more than $10 billion pledged for Haiti in 2010 gone? The U.S. Congress would like to know. 

Joseph points out that corruption and bureaucratic waste have diverted billions of dollars. Sad, but true, and another indicator that piling up dollars doesn’t stamp out shortages.

Ten billion dollars over five years is $2 billion every year … $167 million every month … $5.5 million every single day.

Would anyone suggest that’s not enough money?

Maybe. So let’s move to another example, one that appears in Darrow’s soon-to-be-published book, Rethinking Social Justice: Redeeming Biblical Compassion. In 1964, US President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war. On poverty. Johnson’s War on Poverty turned 50 years old in 2014. In that time, the poverty level in the US has changed little. In an earlier post we quoted Robert Rector, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and one of the nation’s leading experts on poverty.

Fifteen percent of Americans still live in poverty, according to the official census poverty report for 2012, unchanged since the mid-1960s. Liberals argue that we aren’t spending enough money on poverty-fighting programs, but that’s not the problem.

Maybe those “liberals” are right. Rector disagrees, but before we weigh in, here’s the pertinent question: Just how much money have we spent fighting the War on Poverty?

The number is virtually beyond comprehension: $15 trillion.

If a number like that makes your eyes glaze over, here’s another way to measure it. $15 trillion over 50 years works out to $821.9 million every day. (And in case someone says it’s not about how much we’ve spent over 50 years but how much we’re spending now, Robert Rector points out that, “If converted to cash, current means-tested spending is five times the amount needed to eliminate all official poverty in the U.S.”)

Is $15 trillion not enough? At what point does it become obvious that more money is not the solution?

Of course money is not nothing. We all use money. But money isn’t the solution to poverty because the lack of money isn’t the cause of poverty. The short-term exceptions—natural disasters, man-made catastrophes, war—don’t change the general principle that poverty comes from believing lies.

What lies?

  • The lie of overpopulation: Poverty comes from too many mouths to feed from a too scarce resource base.
  • The lie of evolutionism: Humans are merely highly evolved animals subject to the same environmental forces (read survival of the fittest) as all other beings.
  • The lie of atheism: No providential Creator is at work in the universe; no divine stamp on humans enables their imagination, creativity and productivity; no divine accountability calls them to virtue.

Poverty comes from believing lies: “Women are inferior to men.” “We are poor and there is nothing we can do about it.” “ Work is a curse.” The solution is found in embracing the truth that derives from Judeo-Christian theism, the biblical worldview.

To be more specific, the solution to poverty is bound up in a resource abundantly and universally available: human minds which have been shaped by the worldview of the Bible.

  • Gary Brumbelow

See these related posts:

The Root of the Disaster in Haiti

HAITI, AMERICA, and the Effects of Biblical Thinking

Haiti and Israel: A Study in Contrasts

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Do You Want Political Correctness or Freedom of Speech?

We often write about the erosion of freedom in the West. This post points to some hopeful exceptions. Some people of stature are speaking truth, openly countering the political, academic, and communication elites. Those who bully ordinary citizens into political correctness and culturally relativity are being confronted with growing boldness by leaders who are rediscovering the ability to speak truth.

Let’s start with the scientific community. Evolutionism is a private club of Western universities. Membership requires subscribing to a naturalistic set of assumptions, principally the theory that nature is the only reality. You must agree to follow the facts only as far as the boundaries of naturalism permits. No transcendent reality is allowed, no dissent tolerated!

This mindset reminds me of the late communist Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s “Little Red Book.” All Chinese were required to read and study Chairman Mao’s thoughts. Disagreement was forbidden. Dissenters were forced into re-education camps and executed if they remained recalcitrant.

Anyone who questions evolutionism’s assumptions or seeks to follow evidence outside the naturalistic boundaries risks expulsion from the club. To get an idea of what this looks like watch Ben Stein’s satirical film, “Expelled.” Stein’s documentary explores the limits of academic freedom in the arena of science.

But now, many credentialed scientists have begun to openly express their doubts about the Darwinian model. A growing number (currently over 950) have signed a document titled “A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism.” These scientists affirm that “We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.”

freedom becoming rare in Western universitiesHowever, it is not only the science world that limits academic freedom. Many American universities which at their founding were bastions of free speech no longer tolerate the same. Today speech is confined to the politically correct and the morally and culturally relative.

The free-speech advocates of the 1960’s are now tenured faculty at major universities. These who once fought for free speech as youth are now fundamentalist atheists who stifle inquiry and expression. What irony! What hypocrisy!

Dr. Ben Carson, the neuro-pediatrician who first successfully separated twins conjoined at the head, taught and practiced at Johns Hopkins University for years. In May 2014 Carson was forced to cancel his commencement address because, in an earlier interview on TV, he had dared to speak of the link between homosexuality, pedophilia and bestiality. Similarly, Rutger’s University, long a citadel of free speech and academic freedom, invited US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to speak at the commencement ceremony. But student and faculty protests against Rice’s support of the Iraq War forced the hand of the administration which finally reversed the invitation. So much for free speech.

Thankfully, just as some scientists are pushing back against the tyranny of evolutionism, other academics are resisting the suppression of the same free speech which is critical for universities to thrive. Two such dissenters are University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer and his colleague, Provost Eric D. Isaacs. In July 2014 these administrators appointed a Committee on Freedom of Expression “in light of recent events nationwide that have tested institutional commitments to free and open discourse.” The committee’s report was published January 6, 2015.

The report excerpts the 1902 speech of then university president William Rainey Harper declaring that “the principle of complete freedom of speech on all subjects has from the beginning been regarded as fundamental in the University of Chicago … this principle can neither now nor at any future time be called in question.” While the report has its flaws, it nonetheless is commencing a long-needed discussion on the fundamental role of academic freedom and free speech on a university campus.

Two more events in January suggest a new spring of freedom.

On January 16th, following the deadly jihadist attacks in Paris, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls repudiated the Obama administration’s attempted censorship of explicit condemnation of radical Islamists. “I refuse to use this term ‘Islamophobia,’” Valls declared, “because those who use this word are trying to invalidate any criticism at all of Islamist ideology. The charge of ‘Islamophobia’ is used to silence people.”

Valls took the discussion to a further level. Because of growing hatred of Jews (anti-Semitism is the more politically correct term) in France, thousands of Jews are emigrating. Prime Minister Valls had the audacity to say that “if 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France.” He regards his nation free and pluralistic; if Jews are forced to leave, France will no longer be free and pluralistic. It will no longer be France.

The second occasion that gives hope that a new wind is blowing took place on January 19th in London. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal spoke at the Henry Jackson Society at the House of Commons. Jindal courageously spoke the truth about Muslim immigrant communities. He said they are trying to “colonize Western countries, because setting up your own enclave and demanding recognition of a no-go zone are exactly that.”

Some Muslim enclaves in European and North American cities are considered “no go zones.” Often even the city police are afraid to enter these neighborhoods. Women dare not appear unveiled. Sharia holds sway; the laws of the country or municipality don’t apply. Female genital mutilation is practiced. Young girls are raped and sold as brides. Notwithstanding such hideous realities, the politically correct media often speak of “imaginary” or “so-called” no go zones. Jindal continues, “I think that the radical Left absolutely wants to pretend like this problem is not here. Pretending it’s not here won’t make it go away.”

In post-modern culture you can deny reality and the problem disappears. If you say it isn’t so, it isn’t so! There is no room for appealing to truth (because there is no absolute truth), no place for the facts.

To the scientists who have dissented from Darwin, to the University of Chicago administration, to Prime Minister Valls, and to Governor Jindal … thanks for your willingness to push back against the tyranny of the politically correct.

May a new generation of free thinkers arise, people who are willing, for the sake of truth, to think outside the box of academic and politically correct tradition, and thus help preserve human freedom.

  • Darrow Miller with Gary Brumbelow

See these related posts:

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM in America: Will it Survive?

A Personal Story About Why Words Matter

Truth, Rhetoric, and Freedom: Words Matter


Posted in Current events, Freedom, Language | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Can A Military Dictator Be A Man of Peace?

When the Messiah sent out his disciples two-by-two, he instructed them to identify the man of peace in the community and engage with that person.

When you enter a house, first say, “Peace to this house.” If a man of peace is there, your peace will rest on him; if not, it will return to you (Luke 10:5-6 NIV).

The Aramaic expression “man of peace” refers to a person in a community or nation who seeks peace. This is a person of influence, often one who has a good reputation and provides an entry point for others to engage the larger community.

The world is waiting for a man of peace. This is especially true in that part of the world aflame with violence among Muslims, as well as the violence between Muslims and so many other groups: Jews, secularists, Hindus, Buddhists, Animists, and Christians.

Is there a man of peace in that world?

Maybe there is. We may have witnessed a man of peace in North Africa. A man of stature in Egypt, the heart of the Islamic civilization, has spoken words of peace.

man of peace Abdel_Fattah_el-Sisi

“Abdel Fattah el-Sisi” by Kremlin.ru.

I speak of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. On New Year’s Day 2015, Sisi spoke at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, considered the leading center for Islamic studies in the world. He was addressing a group of religious scholars celebrating the birthday of the prophet Mohammed. His words were a rousing call for the reformation of Islam. To his audience of Islamic scholars and religious leaders he asked a startling question:

Is it possible that 1.6 billion people (Muslims worldwide) should want to kill the rest of the world’s population—that is, 7 billion people—so that they themselves may live? Impossible.

You imams [prayer leaders] are responsible before Allah. The entire world—I say it again, the entire world—is waiting for your next move because this umma [a word that can refer either to the Egyptian nation or the entire Muslim world] is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost—and it is being lost by our own hands.

The corpus of texts and ideas that we have made sacred over the years, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world. You cannot feel it if you remain trapped within this mindset. You must step outside yourselves and reflect on it from a more enlightened perspective.

We have to think hard about what we are facing. It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire Islamic world to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing, and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible.

President Sisi boldly called for peace to replace the strife at the heart of the Muslim world. Then on January 8th, the day the Coptic church celebrates Christmas, Sisi made a surprise visit to St. Mark’s Coptic Cathedral—the seat of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Before the church and its Pope Tawadros II he brought greetings during the Christmas Eve Mass. This act was unprecedented in modern Egyptian history.

Sisi, as a Muslim, is risking his life at the hands of Islamists, to extend the hand of peace. May his actions and clarion call mark a turning point in Islam’s relationship with the world! As Sisi celebrates the coming of the Prince of Peace with the Coptic Church, may the Peace of Christ come to that ancient land and her neighbors in North Africa and the Middle East.

  • Darrow Miller

Related posts:

Leaders of Muslims Condemn ISIS Tactics

Islam: Religion of Peace or Religion of War?

LOVE NEVER FAILS: The Christian Response to Jihadism

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Commerce, Roads, and Mennonite Obedience to the Cultural Mandate

In our previous post we pointed out that community existed before the creation in the three-in-one God. Here we will pursue a further dimension of that truth as it was lived out in the Mennonite communities of the Gran Chaco.

The God of community made humans to live in community, and then gave a mandate to that human community, a mandate to create commerce:

26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,[a] and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

27 So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

This commission is known as The Cultural Mandate or The Creation Mandate, and it includes two subordinating clauses: one social and one developmental.

The social dimension in turn has two distinct parts. The first is demographic: we are to be fruitful, to create families and communities of families. The second part is geographic: we are to fill the earth. We are not to stay in one place. The horizons are wide, human beings are to spread to the ends of the earth where there is further potential to flourish.

The second subordinating clause of the Cultural Commission is to “have dominion” over creation, to take what God has made and do something with it. We are to develop the earth and create godly culture.

All that leads to this observation: the community of human beings were made to engage in commerce. That term comes from the Latin commercium comprised of com, “together” and merx, the genitive form of mercis, merchandise.

1 Kings 8:63 reveals that the people of God carried on commerce at the public market, chiefly the open spaces near the gates, where goods were brought for sale by those who came from the outside the city.

King Solomon extended commerce through shipping (2 Chronicles 9:21). The king’s ships went to Tarshish with the servants of Huram. Every three years these ships returned bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks.

Commerce in Israel was governed by law; it was to be carried on in justice. “You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” (Lev 19:36 ESV).

Webster’s 1828 dictionary shows the comprehensive nature of commerce: “1) … an interchange or mutual change of goods, wares, productions, or property of any kind, between nations or individuals … 2) … mutual dealings in common life. 3) … a vast commerce of ideas.” (emphasis added)

commerce developed in Gran Chaco after Mennonites built roads

“Chaco Paraguay,cattle ranch, Presidente Hayes Province” by Peer V – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Commerce depends on connections between families and communities. Which brings me to this historical observation about the Mennonites in the Gran Chaco: when these immigrants arrived, there were no roads.

After 20 years, the Mennonites had built a sense of community within their colonies, but each settlement was isolated from the others and from the rest of Paraguay. Without roads, a trip to Asunción, the capital city, took from five days to several weeks. The journey was by oxcart on pathways, connecting to a freight rail line and finally via unpredictable river boat. This extended travel resulted in pillage and spoilage, often erasing all profits from their labors.

By this time the colonies were no longer starving but still poor. The people worked hard. Their work was productive with what they had, but they lacked the dynamic of commerce. Besides this economic impact of their profound isolation, the limited human contact with the rest of the world was demoralizing.

The Paraguayan government had promised the pioneers it would build roads and extend the rail line to the colonies. These promises were left unfulfilled. Development of the colonies was stifled. But the government’s lack of engagement created a challenge, not an insurmountable barrier, for the colonies. They did it themselves!


Road construction in the Gran Chaco in the 1960s. Photo by Eldo Morresi, page 100, published in 1971. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

The Mennonites knew they needed to connect to the larger world for the development of commerce, both economic commerce (goods and services) as well as the commerce of ideas. So they began to construct roads. They created voluntary associations and linked with Mennonite communities in Canada and the United States to build needed roads. Mennonite author and historian Edgar Stoesz writes, “When the kilometers of roads built and maintained by Mennonite colonies in Paraguay are laid end to end, they reach from New York to Vancouver.”

These roads allowed the colonies to move from isolated subsistence agricultural economies to a vibrant commercial economy connected to Paraguay and the world. The Mennonites’ roads brought flourishing to “the Green Hell.” The God-given dream of the transformation of a wilderness into a place of abundance is being accomplished. Much of the reason has been the building of roads that opened the pathway of commerce.

  • Darrow Miller

This post is fourth in a series on the transformation of the Gran Chaco in Paraguay.

Part 1 – A Wasteland Transformed to a Garden

Part 2 – The Church and Development in Paraguay’s “Green Hell”

Part 3 – Community: The Engine of Mennonite Economic Development

Related posts:

What Did Jesus Send Us to Do?

Great Commission Utilitarianism, Part 5 & Final

Posted in Cultural Mandate, Economic Development | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Community: The Engine of Mennonite Economic Development

We wrote earlier about Edward Stoesz’s book, Like a Mustard Seed, describing the unlikely story of the Mennonites in the Gran Chaco of Paraguay. Stoesz describes nine principles that guided these immigrants in transforming a wasteland to a garden.

The second of Stoesz’ principles applied by the Mennonites was Community. It was the Mennonite cooperatives that provided the economic engines for transforming a desolate countryside into a prosperous and flourishing land.

Too often, the modern church has been influenced by a catastrophic combination of materialism and misguided spirituality often called the prosperity theology. Essentially, this doctrine teaches that Christians who have enough faith will become materially wealthy. Another way to understand this teaching is as a combination of the mysticism of animistic religions (such as African Traditional Religions and shamanism) on the one hand and Western materialism on the other.

The Judeo-Christian worldview argues that God has ordered the universe to function a certain way. When people discover God’s laws and principles and steadfastly apply them, they experience positive consequences. When people deny the existence of such an ordered universe, or rebel against the order, negative consequences result.

The Pentateuch tells the history of God transforming a slave nation into a free nation, an impoverished people into a flourishing people. God says that the secret to human flourishing is to live within the framework of his creation order. We see this in Deuteronomy 4:5-6:

See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the Lord my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.”

What transformed an impoverished nation into a great nation? Observing the ordinances of God and living under them. Similarly, we read in Deuteronomy 30:11-20,

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.

But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.

This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

The correlation between behavior and consequences is not mysterious. No, these are God’s ordinances, and they are right in front of our eyes. There is a clear “if … then,” consequential relationship.


  • You love the Lord your God
  • walk in obedience to him, and
  • keep his commands, decrees and laws;


  • You will live and
  • [You will] increase, and
  • the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.

The Mennonite Colonies that settled in the Chaco of Paraguay had a godly vision of what this barren land could become and understood that if they loved God and were obedient to his order, the land would prosper. There is no mystery here. There is trust, obedience, and hard work.

As mentioned above, one of the nine principles the Mennonites applied was community. This is a biblical concept born out of the reality that God is Trinity. Before the creation of the world, God existed as Trinity – the One and Many God. Within this three-in-one nature God communed, lived in community, and communicated. When the Trinity created human beings, he created us in his image to reflect community, communion, and communication. This is the theological foundation for the Mennonite value of community in the Gran Chaco.

The Mennonites adopted a position that avoided two unacceptable extremes. On the one hand, they eschewed the modern Western concept of the autonomous individual (individualism). On the other hand, neither did they give credence to the elimination of the individual for the sake of the many (communalism). Rather, they understood the importance of individuals and individual families banding together in communities, creating cooperatives that helped to fuel the economic development of their societies.

Werner Franz, the director of the Mennonite seminary in the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion, spoke of the Mennonites’ theological foundation for the formation of cooperatives: “For many, the cooperative became the institution that serves to give practical expression to the words of Jesus, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord your God … and your neighbor as yourself.’ Or in Paul’s words to the Galatians, ‘Bear ye one another’s burden.’”[1]

Both the Reformers in Europe and the Puritans in the United States understood that one of the biblical principles of economics was a moral responsibility to the larger community. Hard work and savings, two other biblical economic principles, generate wealth. That wealth is not simply for personal consumption. There is a cultural principle of generosity that stands in stark contrast to the secular/materialistic culture of greed. The Mennonites understood the concept of generosity. This was reflected in a common saying that captured their understanding of community: “Gemeinnutz vor Eignnutz (the common good ahead of personal gain).”[2]

community helped drive Mennonite economic developmentStoesz identifies four functions[3] of these cooperatives as they related to the Mennonite colonies:

  • Quantity Purchasing: While the colonies were self-sufficient, producing most of what families needed, there were certain staples that were not produced in the colonies. The cooperatives allowed the colonies to purchase these staples in large quantities in the Paraguanian capital and ship them to the colonies for local sale.
  • Marketing: This was the reverse of the purchasing system. Individual farmers produced perishable goods which they could not get to a market in a cost effective and timely manner given the distances involved. The cooperatives allowed the colonies to share the transportation costs to solve this problem.
  • Banking: Early on the colonies had a barter economy; there was little cash and no banks. The cooperatives functioned as a banking system to manage money flow and create lending services.
  • Financing Social Services: A small fee was charged by the cooperatives for the purchasing and marketing of products. These fees were pooled to support the colonies’ social services such as schools and health care.

Families came together in churches for spiritual and social reasons, and banded together in cooperatives for economic reasons. These cooperatives allowed for the economic growth and the flourishing of the whole community.

In our next post we will look at the importance of roads to create an infrastructure to allow for the growth of commerce between the colonies and the outside world.

– Darrow Miller

[1] Stoesz pg. 136.

[2] Ibid. 136

[3] Ibid 134-135

This post is third in a series on the transformation of the Gran Chaco in Paraguay.

Part 1 – A Wasteland Transformed to a Garden

Part 2 – The Church and Development in Paraguay’s “Green Hell”

Related posts:

Your Community is a Reflection of God

Social Justice, Community and Culture: A Final Reflection

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Charlie Hebdo and an Atheist’s Comparison of Islam and Christianity

The responses to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris include an intriguing reflection from an atheist comparing Islam and Christianity.

Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are the world’s three great monotheistic faiths. All three trace their linage to the patriarch Abraham. He is father of the Arab (largely Muslim) peoples though his son Ishmael, of the Jews through his son Isaac, and of the Christians who were “grafted in” through the Jews (see Romans 11:17ff).

But notwithstanding their historic roots, Islam and Christianity have grown in very different ways.

Self-professed atheist and author, Robert Tracinski, has written an informative piece on the contrast of Islam and Christianity. During the darkness following the Charlie Hebdo attack, Tracinski wrote, “Why Islam Is More Violent Than Christianity: An Atheist’s Guide.”

The Charlie Hebdo massacre once again has politicians and the media dancing around the question of whether there might be something a little bit special about this one particular religion, Islam, that causes its adherents to go around killing people.

It is not considered acceptable in polite company to entertain this possibility. Instead, it is necessary to insist, as a New York Times article does, that “Islam is no more inherently violent than other religions.”

Is it true, as Western elites contend, that Islam is no more inherently violent than other religions? Tracinski insists that such a statement is “absurd.”

Charlie Hebdo syndrome addressed in Emancipating the WorldIn the book Emancipating the World: A Christian Response to Radical Islam and Fundamentalist Atheism, I argue that the symbol of Islam is the sword and the symbol of the Christian faith is the cross. The former conquers through violence, the later emancipates through self-sacrifice and service.

Not all Muslims are violent. Not all Christians are self-sacrificing servants. Far from it; most Muslims are non-violent and many Christians, like our modern culture, are self-serving. These are simply the standards set by the corresponding founders of Islam and Christianity.

  • Darrow Miller

See these related posts:

Hamas and Israel: Is There a Moral Equivalence?

Leaders of Muslims Condemn ISIS Tactics

What Gaza Could Be But for Hamas

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“RELIGION is Vital to Democracy” says the Marxist!

Did you hear the one about the Marxist who praised religion?

Sometimes truth issues from a most unlikely source.

  • Melchizedek, king of Salem, appears as if from nowhere to bless Abraham, patriarch of God’s covenant people (Genesis 14).
  • Balaam, who presents as a pagan priest in some ways, repudiates Israel’s enemy and blesses God’s people (Numbers 23).
  • “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just” (Dan 4:36-37 ESV).

One could read these stories and wonder, “A ‘pagan’ speaking truth to God’s people? What’s wrong with this picture?” But truth is not the exclusive property of any people. Truth is built into the creation order and hard-wired into every imago Dei human. The fall has corrupted, but not obliterated, that imprint. And it’s intriguing when truth comes from an improbable speaker.

I thought of that observation recently when I viewed a video (see below) produced by Clayton Christensen, a professor at Harvard Law School. Dr. Christensen reported on a conversation with a Marxist economist from China who was finishing a Fulbright fellowship at Harvard. Christensen asked this man if he had learned anything surprising or unexpected in his studies. Without hesitation, the economist replied, “I had no idea how critical religion is to the functioning of democracy.”

What’s this? A Marxist extolling the virtues of religion? Wasn’t it Karl Marx who famously said, “Religion is the opium of the people”? 

Here’s the larger context of that well-known quote:

Marx on democracy and religionThe foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. … It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. … 

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. (quotation from Wikipedia article entitled “Opium of the people.”)

The Fulbright scholar professed himself a Marxist. Yet, his founder’s convictions notwithstanding, this Marxist economist (a citizen of atheist China, another irony, this one political) recognized and affirmed the positive and vital effect of religion on the practice of democracy.

Of course America’s founding fathers understood this truth (even if many in today’s political class want to suppress it). As President John Adams observed, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

The Marxist told Dr. Christensen that democracy works not because a government was designed to oversee what everybody does, but rather because most people most of the time voluntarily choose to obey the law. “In your past most Americans attended a church or synagogue and were taught there to respect the law. Americans believed they were accountable to God.”

As Dr. Christensen notes, the implications for the future are troubling.

As religion loses its influence over Americans, what will happen to our democracy? Where are the institutions that will teach the next generation of Americans that they too need to voluntarily choose to obey the lawsIf you take away religion you can’t hire enough police!

Are we now discovering the futility of applying a constitution designed for “a moral and religious people” to an increasingly irreligious society?

– Gary Brumbelow

See these related posts:

The OXYMORON of Atheist Compassion

You Can’t Legislate Morality?

Atheism’s Death Wish: The Roots of Cultural Suicide

Posted in Freedom, Imago Dei, Morality | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Another Story of Christianity Blessing China

Christianity blessing China economicallyGiven the reality of Christianity blessing China, the country’s leaders would do well to give greater freedoms to their Christian churches. A recent study indicates that such freedoms would benefit the country as a whole, in real economic terms. Loosening the screws on Christians would help everyone.

That’s how the story is reported by Brian J. Grim in his article at First Things, “What Christianity Contributes To China’s Economic Rise.”

Grim, founder and president of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, highlights a recent study from a pair of Chinese academics, Qunwong Wang of the Institute of Statistics and Econometrics at Nankai University in Tianjim, and Xinyu Lin of the Renmin University of China in Beijing.

According to Wang and Lin, China’s noteworthy (and most observers would add, unlikely) economic growth owes much to Christianity. “Wang and Lin find that Christianity boosts China’s economic growth. Specifically, they find that robust growth occurs in areas of China where Christian congregations and institutions are prevalent.”

The fact is, the data shows that religion in general benefits an economy, at least in part because religious belief and exercise tend to gather people, and people, as Grim puts it, are the “real creators of economic success.” The exponential effect of human networking lends a powerful impact on local, regional and even national economies. But Christianity in particular “has the most significant effect on economic growth.”

This should be no surprise to Christ followers who believe that the biblical worldview comports with reality, that God established humans imago Dei to be, among other aspects, economic man. We were made for enterprise, to use our imagination and problem-solving skills to create wealth and human flourishing. That hard wiring can be submerged in a society only so long. Even China cannot forever suppress the emerging of God-given humans bringing shalom to their world.

Go here to read Grim’s remarkable story.

– Gary Brumbelow

Related posts:




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