Authors Encourage Christians to Ask Right Questions

Post a Comment » Written on September 26th, 2008     
Filed under: News
By Stan Friedman

CHICAGO, IL (September 26, 2008) – Answering three questions put forth by the senior devil character in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters would enable Christians to fight social ills more effectively and in ways they might never have imagined, two authors said Tuesday night during a presentation at North Park University.

Bob Smietana and Charles North, who co-authored Good Intentions, told the gathering in Anderson Chapel that Christians may even inadvertently back ideas that thwart their goals and lead to more harm than good because they don’t consider the questions.

Smietana, a 1987 graduate of North Park University and former features editor of The Covenant Companion, is the religion writer for The Tennessean in Nashville. North is an associate professor of economics at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. The school honored him in 2005 with its Outstanding Faculty Award.

Smietana said the Screwtape character tells his nephew that God wants people to ask three questions when making choices: “Is it righteous? Is it prudent? Is it possible?” Christians don’t answer all of the questions, however.

“We ask if it is righteous,” Smietana said. “We never ask if it is prudent or possible.”

As a result, Christians too often make the same mistakes as Krispy Kreme donuts and Veggie Tales. As different as the companies’ products were, the businesses shared a similar experience, North said.

Both companies had a great idea that seemed to work for a while, but then the executives began to think economic realities didn’t apply to them. As a result, Krispy Kreme was forced to close stores and lost nearly $200 million in 2005. Phil Vischer, the creator of Veggie Tales, went bankrupt.

Like the executives, Christians too often erroneously think that a good idea is good enough to achieve goals, Smietana said. Or that if they feel good about making what seems like a righteous choice, then they have been effective.

“There’s not time to waste in making mistakes,” Smietana said. “It’s too important for us not to pay attention to.”

Smietana said North Park professors pushed him to consider how everything he does affects people around him and the world. North said he began to further think about the issues as Baylor sought to integrate faith concerns into every class.

According to Smietana and North, enlightened self-interest coupled with moral limits will lead people to do good. Smietana shared that people in his home state of Massachusetts were much more intentional about recycling plastic bottles when they were able to get deposits returned.

The most important factor in dealing with poverty, North said, is developing what economists refer to as human capital, which is a product of education, health, skills, expertise and personal habits. He and Smietana shared how enlightened self-interest and developing human capital combine to overcome poverty and improve living standards:
•    Churches that begin nurturing students’ academics early and then make sure they get through college will enable them to earn $1 million more on average than people who don’t attend college. Smietana told how Oakdale Covenant Church in Chicago has been successful. See Oakdale for a story in The Covenant Companion about the program.
•    The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is more effective than raising the minimum wage to lift people out of poverty. For people earning below a specified wage, the EITC can reduce taxes and even lead to thousands of dollars being given to the taxpayer. “It’s free money from the government for poor people who are not getting it,” Smietana said. Churches could do “enormous good” simply by helping individuals fill out basic tax returns so they can take advantage of the credit.
•    The best way to raise living standards in Third World nations and lift people out of poverty is to help them develop their own businesses and solutions to social, political and economic issues. The United Nations’ Millennium Goals, which seek to raise one billion individuals out of poverty by 2015, ultimately will fail because nations always have had to develop gradually by creating and re-investing capital.
•    Pollution will be reduced only when it becomes more economically beneficial for companies and individuals to not pollute.

During a question-and-answer period, the two men said they were unsure about the bailout plans being proposed, but North said that inaction most likely would lead to more severe consequences. They referred people to the Freakonomics blog for what they consider to be some of the best discussion on the issue.

Smietana cautioned against holding unchristian attitudes toward executives of the corporations. “The easy political answer is to say, ‘Those greedy buggers at Lehman Brothers are evil, terrible, awful!’ ”

He reminded the audience that employees and executives at the investment bank were no different than the people who were killed and injured when the company’s offices were destroyed in the 9-11 attack.

“They didn’t change from people we cared about and loved to become evil now,” Smietana said. “The one Christian thing we should never do is demonize other people.”

North and Smietana continue to publish a blog related to the book.

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