tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Reflections on the moon landing

When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut. The 1960s, when I was growing up, are remembered for a lot of things but I contend one of the decade’s greatest contributions to the world was the hope it offered through the magnificent achievement of the moon landing. I remember the Gemini and Apollo missions, particularly Apollo 11, the highlight of summer, 1969.

Thirty-eight years ago today, man was on the moon for the first time. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descended onto the moon in their Lunar Module, which was named Eagle, on July 20. About seven hours after landing, they emerged to have a look around, plant an American flag, and collect rocks.

I remember watching the grainy, black and white images of the two men, bounding around on the moon’s surface, where gravity has only one-sixth the pull it has on earth. I was 8 years old at the time but my parents let me stay up to watch the historic event. As I recall, Armstrong climbed down the ladder on the leg of the Lunar Module at about 10:30 p.m. local time. They spent less than two hours walking on the moon. By the time they returned to their space craft and blasted off to rejoin their orbiting colleague Mike Collins, it was July 21.

Of course, I was too young to contemplate the sacrifice required to get those men to the moon – three astronauts died in an Apollo 7 fire in 1967. And I really had no comprehension of the political nature of the effort. We were trying to beat the Russians to the moon. We won, although the fact that we made it impressed me enough that I didn’t really care that we beat anyone there.

As I grew into my teen years and started riding roller coasters I quickly learned I wasn’t cut out to be an astronaut. If I couldn’t handle a ride at Valley Fair, I certainly couldn’t handle a ride in a space ship. So, for a while I thought I wanted to be one of those engineers at Mission Control…one of those guys with a slide rule on my belt. But it turned out I was better with words than numbers so today I am a writer, only thinking about space exploration, not participating in it.

I learned an interesting fact about Apollo 11 recently while reading volume 2 of Bill Bennett’s America, The Last Best Hope. Surveying American history, Bennett writes about the moon landing and includes the fact that Aldrin conducted a mini communion ceremony in the Lunar Module upon their landing. He brought wine and bread with him. He poured the wine into a cup and broke the bread. He asked for silence from Mission Control so he could pray.

I Googled Aldrin to learn more. Evidently, it is a true story but nothing was said about it at the time because NASA was all ready in trouble for allowing Apollo 8 Astronauts to pray aloud as they circled the moon on Christmas Eve in 1968. I remember that space flight too. In fact, my mother gave me a plaque that displays one of the prayers the astronauts said that evening. NASA was sued by atheists who protested government dollars funding any public display of religion.

Personally, I can’t think of anything more natural upon landing on a new world than celebrating communion. That’s exactly what Noah did after the flood when the ark finally settled on land. (Gen. 8:20)

The internet research I did identified Aldrin as Presbyterian. I don’t know the theology Presbyterians bring to communion, but we Catholics call the communion ceremony Eucharist, which means “thanksgiving.” Noah was grateful for the new world, and so was Aldrin. It is a pity the lawyers prevented the ceremony from being broadcast to the entire world. Many people were very grateful for this moon landing – and all the opportunity it represented, all the hope it offered. I know I was, even to this day.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Salvation and free will

The July edition of Christianity Today magazine features an editorial that attempts to explain one of the central beliefs of Evangelical Christians. (The essay is posed below.)

Catholics and Evangelicals differ on the path to salvation – Catholics saying it is a matter of faith and works, and Evangelicals say it is a matter of faith alone. I have discussed this with Evangelical friends many times. The discussion typically devolves into an argument where the Evangelical accuses the Catholic of trying to earn his way to heaven and the Catholic saying Evangelicals believe they can do anything and still get to heaven since their actions have no bearing on their salvation.

I was happy to see Christianity Today acknowledge that their version of Christianity leaves open the question: Why be good? The editors of the magazine try to answer but they ignore the notion of free will, which – at least for me – leaves their argument wholly unconvincing.

As the magazine rightly points out, for Christians, good works do naturally flow out of love for God. But the Christian always has to make a decision about whether to do good or otherwise. He always has that choice. You may be able to argue that people who are strong in their faith do good without thinking about it, but they still have a choice. If they did not have a choice, they would not be living true love for God. Love always gives you a choice. You can always walk away from it. You can always choose to reject the one you love. If you don’t have that choice, it isn’t love.

Catholics are simply acknowledging that a person always makes a choice. If a person chooses to do good, he maintains a loving relationship with God. If he chooses to do otherwise, he damages his relationship with God. Catholics say if you love God, you will show it by choosing to do good. Evangelicals say if you love God, you will do good; Evangelicals leave out the discernment component of the process.

Evangelicals have a point in the sense that if there is no discernment about doing good then those good works are meaningless; they would be no different than a movement in my eyebrow due to a twitch. But our actions are not uncontrollable. Christian or not, we all make decisions about how we are going to act. That is unavoidable. The Catholic view of salvation acknowledges that reality. The Evangelical view seems to ignore it.

Catholics do not believe they can earn their way to heaven. If we did believe that, we would say that it only takes good works to get to heaven. But we don’t say that. We say it takes faith and works. Faith is meaningless if you don’t choose to live it out some way.

Free will makes us human, and images of God. To deny free will is dehumanizing. Animals, for example, don’t have free will. That’s why the Christianity Today essay does not help me. It seems to deny, or at least ignore, free will.

Virtue That Counts
Why justification by faith alone is still our defining doctrine.

A Christianity Today editorial

Evangelicals who visit Rome cannot help but enjoy the stately buildings and stirring sense of history. A few like it so much they never leave. Such is the case with Francis Beckwith, former president of the Evangelical Theological Society. In April, the Baylor University philosopher rejoined the Roman Catholic Church.

Such defections always provoke a little evangelical soul-searching, in this case about the classic doctrine of justification. Beckwith found the Protestant view, which assumes that sanctification follows justification, inadequate.

"As an evangelical, even when I talked about sanctification and wanted to practice it, it seemed as if I didn't have a good enough incentive to do so," Beckwith told Christianity Today. "Now [in Catholicism] there's a kind of theological framework, and it doesn't say my salvation depends on me, but it says my virtue counts for something."

Beckwith, in describing his confusion, has done us a favor, giving us an opportunity to explore a question that frankly many Christians ask: Why be good?

The Virtue of Christ
Justification by faith, which gives us assurance of our standing before God, is not just a pastoral doctrine. It goes to the very core of our theological tradition. Martin Luther described it as the "first and chief article" of Protestantism "on which the church stands or falls." It is no surprise then that recent affirmations of justification have attracted evangelicals as diverse as Tom Oden and R. C. Sproul, Pat Robertson and Ron Sider. Still, don't be surprised to see more debates about justification unfolding. Next month's cover story, by British scholar Simon Gathercole, will look at how some evangelical scholars are reinterpreting Paul's teaching on justification.

So what is the "first and chief article of Protestantism"? Scripturally, it goes like this: All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Alienated from God, hostile in mind, we practice evil behavior (Col. 1:21). Though we offend his perfect holiness, God acquits those who trust in him and in what he has done for us through Christ: "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21).

Theologically, we understand it like this: In his perfect life and obedient death, Jesus succeeded where Adam failed and became the head of God's new family. We belong to Christ; we belong to this new humanity. Christ is judged righteous, and we who believe are made alive in him.

The late medieval church framed its understanding of God's grace in terms of merit: personal merit was never enough, and the infinite merits of Christ were available only through the sacramental channels of the church. Luther and the other Reformers used Paul to challenge the church monopoly on merit. They rightly taught that only Jesus' merit counted before God and that only through faith could his merit be ours. God credits Jesus' righteousness to those who trust in him, declaring them just and acquitting them of their sins.

Such a radical idea has caused many to think: This is too good to be true. Surely I must contribute something to the process. But we contribute nothing. We don't even contribute faith. With God's gift of faith, we paradoxically deny the meritorious nature of human action and affirm the work of Another. It is not faith in faith, but faith in Christ.

Thus, Protestants from John Calvin to John Wesley have agreed: We have peace with God by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

Flaunted Freedom
Another question that has troubled Christians since the days of Paul is this: "Why bother to be good when it seems to make no difference to our salvation?"

Paul has little patience for such an attitude, partly because it displays a fundamental misunderstanding of what happens in justification. It is not only about getting rid of personal guilt; it is also about taking on a new corporate identity. "We died to sin," Paul says. "How can we live in it any longer?" (Rom. 6:2). We have been baptized into Christ's death; shouldn't we live with him in resurrection life? As members of his new humanity, shouldn't we live like it? Paul's conclusion: "Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body" (Rom. 6:12).

Simply put, those who are truly justified will lead lives of holiness, knowing with Paul that "we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" (Eph. 2:10).

Sadly, many in our churches have sold the extraordinary gift of justification for the pottage of therapeutic religion. Rather than finding assurance in Christ, some assure themselves they have done nothing so bad as to deserve condemnation.

Even worse, others flaunt their freedom, abusing the truth that Jesus covers a multitude of sins. As Paul said of people who accused him of teaching that we should sin to bring more grace: "Their condemnation is deserved" (Rom. 3:8).

Such attitudes do not exemplify trust in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who treats holiness with deathly seriousness. They turn the old notions of merit on their heads, treating a priceless gift—Jesus' righteousness—as if it had no value.

The Bible says this type of faith—faith without good works—is as good as no faith at all. It's as dead and meaningless as the selling of indulgences.

So, Professor Beckwith, virtue does count for Protestants—it signals our understanding that Christ's virtue counts for everything, and that any good the Holy Spirit enables us to do is but a grateful response to God's gift of justification.

When the church gets that, it gets our "first and chief" message, a message that still turns people's worlds upside down.

Monday, July 16, 2007

A miracle shared at camp

My family and I have just returned from a wonderful, long weekend in central Minnesota where we participate in a family camp organized by a friend at our Church. It is our third year at the camp, which is idyllic with a spring-fed lake, pine trees, and other magnificent natural accoutrements.

The get-away concludes with Mass in the log-cabin lodge at mid-day on Sunday. Perhaps one of the greatest blessings to come out of this experience over the past three summers is the opportunity to meet Father Mark Stang, who celebrated Mass last year and yesterday for us. Miracles do happen in this world and Fr. Stang is living proof. A year ago, he shared with us the miraculous story of how he became a priest.

Born in 1958, Mark Stang grew up one of 10 kids on a dairy farm near St. Nicholas, Minn. He grew up expecting to become a farmer but in his mid-20s he felt a nagging tug to the priesthood. He ignored it for a long time, telling himself that he wasn’t much of a student and probably couldn’t get through seminary. But, in fact, he enrolled in seminary and he advanced in his studies.

All the while, however, he couldn’t convince himself that God was really calling him to be a priest. He said he experienced long periods of “dry” pray. He thought about dropping out of seminary all together. He had been studying in Maryland when he decided to call it quits. He had his bags packed, ready to come home. But before going, he took in Saturday morning Mass. As he received communion, his knees buckled and he collapsed. After stumbling back to his pew, he saw a vision of himself as a priest celebrating Mass. He prayed for hours after Mass and ultimately interpreted the experience as confirmation that God wanted him to be a priest. He went back to his room, unpacked, and began to study in earnest.

After completing two and a half years of study, however, he was diagnosed with cancer. Even after undergoing chemotherapy, new tumors developed and doctors gave him a year to live, at the very most. He was close to completing his seminary studies; instead of devoting his time to an experimental treatment that may have prolonged his life, he worked toward ordination. He received permission from his bishop to be ordained early. If he was going to die soon, he wanted to die as a priest.

On August 25, 1990, he was ordained. He celebrated his first Mass on August 26 at his home parish. On August 27, he celebrated a private Mass with is family before leaving for the Mayo Clinic to recommence his treatment. But miraculously, when he showed up at the clinic, the doctors could no longer find any tumors. They examined him and could find no trace of cancer. It had completely disappeared. The doctors had absolutely no way of explaining it.

Next month, Father Stang will commemorate 17 years of the priesthood. I have heard him preach twice, and he clearly is burning with love for the Lord. Father shared this personal story with us last year, and I am so glad he did. I am inspired by miracles, which I know happen all the time. But it isn’t often that I get to hear a detailed, first-hand account of something so dramatic.

Monday, July 09, 2007


A lot of Catholics and non-Catholics alike have trouble understanding the Church’s teaching on marriage that prohibits the use of contraceptives. Patty Schneier was one of those people for 13 years. She and her husband, Larry, were doing just fine, thank you, and really didn’t need the Church to comment on the most intimate aspect of their marriage.

“I felt that the Church should just butt out,” Schneier said told an audience (that included me) last summer. “This is between me and my husband and God. And there’s no way some celibate old guy in Rome is going to tell me what I can and can’t do in my marriage.”

Schneier’s presentation was about how her attitude evolved on the question of contraception to the point where she now completely embraces the Church’s teaching. The resident of St. Louis will be in town on July 17 speaking at 8 p.m. in the John Roach Auditorium at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. If you struggle with the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage and natural family planning, I encourage you to attend this free program. Schneier is an engaging story teller who uses her beautiful singing voice to communicate a touching conversion story.

Friday, July 06, 2007

If you have debt, check out

I am intrigued by, the web site for borrowers and citizen lenders. Check it out at if you not familiar with it. I am writing about it, only because I think it is interesting; I have no vested interest in it.

If you are paying 18 percent or more on a substantial credit card balance, you need to look into this. The service offers a reasonable way to refinance that debt at a much more manageable interest rate.

Or if you are an entrepreneur looking for access to unsecured credit, this may be your answer. Loans up to $25,000 are available.

I think Prosper is an ingenious concept. Potential borrowers post their story on the web site, usually with a photo. They say how much money they need and what they are willing to pay for it. Potential lenders review the various borrowers and select the ones they want to fund.

Borrowers are required to sign up for an affinity group, which creates social pressure for the borrower to repay their loan on time. If the borrow defaults, others in that group have a much more difficult time obtaining additional credit through Prosper. (Grameen Bank in India has perfected this concept with micro lending to thousands of borrowers who, reportedly, rarely pay late.) Lenders on Prosper are encouraged to fund small portions of several loans in order to distribute their risk. Technically, Prosper makes the loans and sells participations to the lenders.

If you have money to invest, you might consider funding some loans. The interest rate is better than anything you will get at the bank, and you get the satisfaction of knowing you are directly helping someone. When you put your money in a mutual fund, you never get much of a sense for what that money is actually doing. Investors are so far removed from the borrower, that is, the people who are actually using that capital. The connection between investor and borrow is much more direct with Prosper.

I like entrepreneurship and this is one of the most entrepreneurial web services I have seen. The site itself is brilliant and it is helping entrepreneurs looking for investment opportunities as well as entrepreneurs looking to finance debt.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Six unstoppable trends

I had the privilege of listening to Dr. Barry Asmus address a business group in Alexandria, Minnesota a couple of weeks ago. Asmus is a senior economist at the National Center for Policy Analysis. He is a patriotic, free-market advocate who is not afraid to mix his rhetoric with references to God. In his speech at the Arrowwood Resort on Lake Darling, Asmus described six, what he called “unstoppable,” trends in our culture and economy.

Demographics is the first trend. The United States has a population of 75 million people between the ages of 40 and 65 years old. These are people at the peak of their productive years and their consumptive years. Our country is unique in this regard around the world. In most other developed places, the population is shrinking, including places like Western Europe, which is suffering a population implosion Asmus likened to the black plague of the 14th century. Japan and Russia also are not replacing their populations.

Stable prices is the second trend. Inflation has not been a factor for 25 years, Asmus said. While some commodities, such as gasoline, have seen price volatility, for the most part, prices for goods across the board have been predictable, rising at only a modest rate. The impact of technology has actually been to drive prices down on many of the most popular consumer goods. With competition increasing from places around the world, access to low-priced goods is greater than ever. More people in the United States have access to products such as tv sets and other electronics, house wares and quality sporting goods, nice clothes and small power tools than ever before.

Asmus acknowledged three inflationary blips in the last two and a half decades – Oct. 1987 when the stock market crashed, a mild recession in 1991, and a post-9/11 recession in 2001/2002 – but the country bounced back quickly in each case.

Taxes is the third trend. Asmus noted little economic growth in our country between 1930 and 1980, when marginal tax rates were as high as 70 percent. He noted that President Kennedy lowered taxes slightly to provide a little relief, but it wasn’t until President Reagan lowered taxes that the country’s economic environment began to improve. Reagan reduced the marginal tax rate to 50 percent, then to 28 percent. The result was unprecedented business expansion. “Even the fairest and lowest tax causes less work effort,” Asmus summarized. Reagan was the first president in decades who seemed to understand that. Since then, the first President Bush increased the marginal tax rate to 33 percent and President Clinton increased it to 39.5 percent. The current President Bush has lowered it back to 35 percent and he lowered the capital gains tax to 15 percent. For the previous 40 years it had averaged 27 percent.

Governments in many other countries understand the impact of taxes. Eleven of the 15 former communist Eastern European countries, Asmus said, have adopted a 15 percent flat tax. Ireland has made the most dramatic progress on taxes, going from the highest taxed country in Europe to the lowest with a dramatic positive impact on its economy. Ireland lowered its corporate tax to 15 percent from 35 percent. (Thomas Friedman writes about the Irish renaissance in his book, The World is Flat.)

“When you reward economic activity, you get more of it,” Asmus said. “When you penalize it, you get less of it.”

Productivity is the fourth trend. From 1900 to 1995, productivity in the United States grew about 1.5 percent per year, but since 1995, productivity has been growing at a rate of about 3 percent per year. “We have doubled the productivity of the American labor force,” he said.

In 1990, there was a real question about which country would be the productivity growth leader of the world: Japan, Germany or the United States? Since then, Japan’s productivity is remained exactly flat, Germany’s productivity has declined, and productivity in the United States has doubled. In 1990, the U.S. gross domestic product was $6 trillion; in 2007 it is expected to come in at $13 trillion. The gross world product this year is expected to be about $37 trillion; a third of that is coming from the United States, even though we have less than 5 percent of the world’s population here.

Entrepreneurship is the fifth trend Asmus discussed. As he has traveled around the world, Asmus said he has seen places where kids at age 18 or 20 are smarter than typical American kids, but by age 30, the typical American kid is better off than that person in the other country. Why? Asmus attributed the difference to entrepreneurship. In many other countries, the bureaucratic barriers to economic prosperity are simply insurmountable.

Asmus said it is almost as if Americans have entrepreneurship in their genes, because they excel in a way that people in other countries do not. Asmus cited the example of his own father who was a dirt-poor farmer most of the first half of his life. He left the farm, moved to town and got involved with a nursing home. Eventually he bought it. Then he bought another one, and by the end of his life, he owned and operated more than 50 nursing homes. Asmus shared many other success stories, including that of an ambitious taxi driver in Pittsburgh who offered such good service that he typically got $20 tips, and he shared the story of a day care provider who figured how to offer parents other services like dry cleaning pick-up/delivery and meal preparation. The ancillary services turned the child care business into a thriving, comprehensive service for “busy parents.”

Globalization is the final trend he discussed. The United States, with no tariffs between states, is a model of free trade that the rest of the world is emulating, Asmus said. A quarter of a century ago, he said, 17 countries around the world could be considered to engage in and promote free trade. Today the number is 80 countries. Free trade is bringing economic prosperity to more places on the globe than ever in history.

Asmus clearly sees a bright future for the United States and the entire world, barring any jihadist action that could bring it all to a halt. Asmus noted that as the world closed the 20th century, most of the world’s population was poor. “Three billion people had never used a telephone and half the world’s population makes less than $2 per day,” Asmus said. As we move into the 21st century, the prospects for worldwide prosperity are greater than ever, he said. He called property rights, rule of law, capitalism, markets, free trade, and stable price levels the ingredients in the recipe for prosperity.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Freedom, government and God

The nation commemorates its independence on the 4th of July, but it was on the 2nd of July that the Continental Congress adopted a resolution severing ties with Great Britain. Today, 231 years later, we still are living the great experiment known as democracy. Can a government, for the people, by the people and of the people, succeed? It remains an open question.

Certainly the answer is yes, if we remain sane. If we expect our government to solve all our problems, however, then we will fail. Many of us have ideas about what our government should do; it would be interesting to compare our expectations with those of the founding fathers.

So much political discourse today is about expanding government, giving it a bigger role in our culture. I don’t get the sense the founding fathers were interested in more government or bigger government. They just wanted more direct governance. They wanted the government to be close to the people, not across an ocean. You had to be very independent to come to America at all, so those early Americans weren’t looking for government to do more for them; they just wanted a government that would let them solve their own problems, pursue their own happiness.

Whenever I think about expanding government, I cannot ignore the words of God as recorded in the 8th chapter of 1 Samuel. The Israelites had been ruled by a loose confederation of judges since the time of Moses but as decades passed, they evolved to want something more formal, something bigger. They wanted a king. Samuel didn’t like the idea but God told him He would give them the king they wanted. But here is what God says about what it will mean to have a king (starting in the middle of verse 11):

He will take your sons and assign them to his chariots and horses, and they will run before his chariots… He will set them to do his plowing and his harvesting, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will use your daughters as ointment-makers, as cooks, and as bakers. He will take the best of your fields, vineyards, and olive groves, and give them to his officials. He will tithe your crops and your vineyards, and give the revenue to his eunuchs and his slaves. He will take your male and female servants, as well as your best oxen and your asses, and use them to do his work. He will tithe your flocks and you yourselves will become his slaves. When this takes place you will complain against the king whom you have chosen, but on that day the Lord will not answer you.

Although this warning was specifically directed at a monarchy, I think it is applicable to any government that we expect to save us, as the Israelites expected a king to save them. And the more we coronate our president, the more we resemble those Israelites, and the more this warning seems to apply to today. Certainly our government does take our sons and daughters for its military, and it tithes our property to fund its own agencies. And certainly people complain about our president as much or more than ever.

The main responsibility of a good government is to promote justice. People can make their own success in a just society. The founding fathers sought justice, which was self-governance. It was unjust for a government in Great Britain to rule a people across the ocean, to tax them without giving them a voice in the governing process. Today, a good government protects human life, property, and freedom, and enforces laws that support contracts.

A government cannot guarantee everyone’s happiness. It cannot supply everyone with food, shelter and clothing. People have to supply those things by their own hard work. The government cannot guarantee everyone’s health, education and welfare. Oh, we want government to raise our kids for us, to keep us healthy, to guarantee us a good-paying job, to guarantee us a house, to guarantee us a college education, not to mention elementary and high school education, and as of late, we want it to pay for our drugs. We want it to take care of our aging parents, protect us from all discernable risk, and provide wireless internet access anywhere and everywhere. We want, want, want and the government is trying and, of course, it cannot meet our expectations. So we complain, complain, complain.

We have a lot more laws today than we had in 1776. The additional laws, the bigger government don’t guarantee any greater level of freedom. The more unrealistic we are about our expectations for government, the more disappointed we will be. Freedom, of course, comes from God, not from government. While we can be grateful for good government, we cannot take our independence for granted. The less we trust in God and the more we put our faith in government, the more we put our freedom in jeopardy.