Revivalistic Christianity Requires a Christian Society? Not Quite.

Albert Mohler makes an interesting point:

Third, looking specifically at the baptism numbers, the decline is both remarkable and lamentable. The most obvious insight is that we do not care as much about reaching lost people as we once did. That would be the observation that should cause Southern Baptists greatest concern. We will consider that question below. The second observation that would quickly come is that our methods of evangelism are not as effective as they once were. Honestly, that argument is beyond refute. Southern Baptist growth was largely driven by revivalism and its programs. We should not be surprised that revivalism is most effective in a context of Christian cultural dominance.

I think he’s half right.

Finally admitting that the future of the Southern Baptists–to say nothing of American Christianity in general–won’t be forwarded by a revivalistic model is something that’s gone down hard for many, and not just Baptists either.  Pentecostals and Charismatics keep looking for that great revival to “win American back for God,” but it’s a Pickett’s Charge approach that will get Pickett’s Charge results.

But to say that revivalistic Christianity is facilitated by “Christian cultural dominance” leads to a chicken and egg problem.  Which comes first: the revival or Christian cultural dominance?  I think that American history, from the days of Finney (who brought eighteenth century religious torpor to a grinding halt) to the SBC’s own efforts to convert the Booze Belt to the Bible Belt, would put the revival first.

What revivalistic Christianity does require is an open society where the Gospel can be set forth in an open forum to “poker playing dog” kinds of people, and get an open response.  The openness is fast fading, driven by such things as restrictions by social media, the “shaming and doxxing” culture of Christianity’s enemies, and the heavy hand of the state.  Coming up with a “Plan B” to something that’s worked for two centuries is what’s flummoxed Evangelical leaders, Baptists and otherwise.

Fortunately we have the examples of places like Iran and China to show us that you don’t need an open society to have the growth of the church.  Getting that message through to our leadership is another story altogether.

But there’s one problem Mohler neglected altogether: the ethnic makeup of the SBC.  Being as white as it is, it’s just in the crosshairs for the assault we’re seeing on the church, demographic and otherwise.  (The Episcopal Church, for those of you tempted to crow, is even whiter.)  What we need to do more than anything else is get out of the way and let those whose numbers swell our ranks to take the lead.

Ah, but that’s the really tricky part…

Renunciation is Central to Christianity, But You’d Never Know It

I recently had an interesting back and forth with a guy I went to prep school with on “Renouncing Privilege.”  Evidently he and I have a different take on what that means, as evidenced by his comment:

Many of the students were, and probably still are wealthy, still privileged. I would not try to make the point that the young men became followers of Gandhi, just that they recognized an abusive power that they had the means to abolish and voted accordingly.

Some of my idea comes from the current assault on “white privilege,” the only logical solution being that white people just step aside and let everyone else run things.  (I document here how some well-heeled and bi-coastal white people have tried to get around that obvious conclusion for their children’s’ benefit.)  But much of my view on the subject is conditioned by the New Testament itself:

“I tell you,” answered Jesus, “that at the New Creation, ‘when the Son of Man takes his seat on his throne of glory,’ you who followed me shall be seated upon twelve thrones, as judges of the twelve tribes of Israel. Every one who has left houses, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or children, or land, on account of my Name, will receive many times as much, and will ‘gain Immortal Life.’ But many who are first now will then be last, and those who are last will be first.  (Matthew 19:28-30 TCNT)

Calling the people and his disciples to him, Jesus said: “If any man wishes to walk in my steps, let him renounce self, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, and whoever, for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, will lose his life shall save it. (Mark 8:34-35 TCNT)

I’ve spent time on the rich young ruler elsewhere.

In the past Christians have understood what this meant.  Consider this from J.N.D. Kelly’s Jerome:

In the fourth century it was common for really serious Christians, at their baptism or when they experienced a deeper conversion, to break with the world, abandoning career, marriage and material possessions in order (in the expressive phrase of Cyprian of Carthage) ‘to hold themselves free for God and for Christ.’  The ascetic strain which had been present in Christianity from the start, and which in the west tended to set a premium on virginity, inevitably received a powerful practical impulse with the disappearance of persecution and the emergence of a predominantly Christian society where much of the Christian colouring was skin-deep.

That’s something that advocates of the “Benedict Option” should keep in mind.

In any case such is virtually unknown in American Christianity, which is too hog-tied to upward mobility (and that link is a big reason why American Christians do what they do politically, on both sides of the spectrum.)

Since straight-up renunciation doesn’t go down well, is there another way to meet the challenge of the Gospel?  One comes from the Anglican/Episcopal George Conger, who has tried to deal with this by putting this verse into practice:

The servant who knows his master’s wishes and yet does not prepare and act accordingly will receive many lashes; while one who does not know his master’s wishes, but acts so as to deserve a flogging, will receive but few. From every one to whom much has been given much will be expected, and from the man to whom much has been entrusted the more will be demanded.  (Luke 12:47-48 TCNT)

He explains the “critical moment” for his commitment to “givebacks” here, in an encounter with then candidate George H.W. Bush:

I commented on that idea years ago:

If one were to name the Episcopal Church’s strongest point from a practical standpoint, it was this: the emphasis on the importance of “give back”. It’s something I miss in a Pentecostal church. This isn’t to say that Pentecostals are not willing to help others–they certainly are, and are for many reasons better positioned to do so than Episcopalians–but the context is entirely different, and it doesn’t percolate to the upper reaches of the organisation the way one would like it to. But that’s also generational: baby boomers, for all the talk and their self-righteous insistence of making the next generation volunteer, are mostly too self-centred to know what true give-back is.

That said, I think that the road to that needs to run through some kind of renunciation.

Although there are many people who don’t have a lot to renounce (that’s another lesson that comes from many years in a Pentecostal church) American Christianity would do well to learn from Our Lord on renunciation, if for no other reason than that, if things go south, renunciation will be a lot easier than having it taken away from you.

Remembering “Les Reflets”–French Christian Folk at its Best

Back in February I moved this album to YouTube:

I have always been entranced by this work, as you can tell here.  But tbh I never thought this would be one of the more popular albums I posted there.  I was wrong, but not for the best reason: Daniel Fernandez, who was one of the writers and performers for the group, passed away recently, which sparked the interest.

I’m glad I made it readily available for all those who appreciate (and even those who were part of) the group.  It’s a fabulous example of Continental folk music, Christian or secular, and shows that Christians can certainly do “artsy” type of music when they really want to do so.

There are actually two of their productions featured here: the other (sort of a composite) can be found here.

We Remove Blasphemy Laws, but Woe Betide if You Dare to Blaspheme Our Secular Sensitivities! — The Evangelical Seanchai

News has broken today that Israel Folau, the Australian full back, has been sacked by Rugby Australia. His offence was to post on Instagram that hell awaits “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolators”. Let’s leave aside the fact that professional sport includes many more drunks, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators than […]

via We Remove Blasphemy Laws, but Woe Betide if You Dare to Blaspheme Our Secular Sensitivities! — The Evangelical Seanchai

The Thing About Myself that @rachelheldevans Brought to Mind

I was saddened by the last voyage of Rachel Held Evans.  It is never good for such a thing to happen, especially at this time in life.  She was not so far from us and my wife and I know several of her fellow parishioners at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland.

It’s best to put your opinions out on someone while they’re still here, and the one extended piece I did on her was this one in 2013 on a series of tornadoes in Oklahoma.  It reminded me of a simple fact about myself; that, although my years in the Evangelical-Pentecostal world have on the whole been positive, I’m glad I was neither raised nor came of age in it.  I’ll reproduce the body of my response to her (and her opponents):

The truth is that both Evans and her Evangelical opponents are working from one shared assumption: that we have a performance-based God whose purpose is to either a) fulfil our every wish or b) punish us for every fault.  Both implicitly assume that people are the measure, and neither really represents reality.  They represent responses to Evangelical Christianity’s current “selling point”, i.e., that if you get on God’s side you’ll have a life of bliss.  One emphasises the downside of not being on his side (and I’ll admit that too many Evangelicals are big on that) and the other attempts to apply post-modern “I deserve the best” mentality to a universe where such an assumption has no basis.

Such dialectics are, for me, a reminder of how blessed I was that my chief intellectual formation as a Christian was as a Roman Catholic and not a Protestant, let alone an Evangelical.  It has saved me a great deal of grief and probably apostacy.  So let me lay out what I think is the reality we have.

For all of its wonder, this world and universe is fallen and not God’s ideal for us.  That ideal will be found in eternity with him.  Before that happens we’ll have problems.  Sometimes these problems are big, sometimes these problems are small.  Sometimes these problems are the result of being in the path of unintended disaster, some are really of our own making.  (The global warming fanatics, for their part, can point to Oklahoma as a high-carbon consuming place because of its low-density settlement, large vehicles and ubiquitous air-conditioning, so there, you can make a liberal case against Evans).  But in either case the key is to secure our eternity so that we can deal with the problems that come our way in this life.

But ultimately that redemption, like everything else we get from God, is undeserved.  We don’t have the intrinsic worth to expect otherwise; God’s act of redemption was an act of undeserved love.  Coming from a congenial region, Evans may think this is harsh.  But as I’ve said before (and there are exceptions to this) growing up in a place like South Florida convinced me that, if there is a “default” in eternity, it isn’t heaven.

To think otherwise is, IMHO, to take on an entitlement mentality about God, which for many of us extends to the people and institutions around us.  Personally I can’t stomach that; entitlement mentalities not only go against my grain as a Christian, but they also really rub me the wrong way from my secular upbringing (and, yes, Rachel Held Evans, some of us really do have a secular background).  I would say that my walk with God has softened my attitude towards the world around me, which would otherwise be misanthropic and condescending (and I struggle with both).

It’s time to stop being so “deep in our own stuff” and broaden our horizons.

Memory eternal, and prayers for her family.

The “Acceptable Religion” Concept Makes a Comeback

Historical amnesia is a common American malady.  One of those aspects of American life that is oft forgotten is that of the “acceptable religion,” the idea that certain religions are more socially acceptable (and thus more amenable to their adherents moving up) than others.  In the past, this was mostly an intramural contest within Christianity (with the Lodge lurking in the background); certain forms of the faith were more “acceptable” than others, thus the Episcopal Church was the “church of Presidents.”  (I think we just buried our last one.)  That made Christianity, especially in the South, a socio-economically stratified business: people changed churches both to help move up and to announce that arrival when it happened.  Those who had the bad taste to buck the trend had…bad taste, with the consequences that followed.  The first groups to push back in a significant way against this were Jews and Roman Catholics, but it wasn’t an easy struggle for either group.

Today, of course, the new “acceptable” religion is sexually-driven secularism, and it’s setting the trend for taste in a new way at Yale:

But in late March, Yale Law School adopted a novel tactic: one-upping the protesters. It announced three major policy changes that went further than many of the protesters’ demands, all under the guise of an expanded nondiscrimination policy.

The new policies require all employers to swear that, when hiring students or graduates who benefit from certain Yale funding, they will not consider an applicant’s “religion,” “religious creed,” “gender identity” or “gender expression,” among other factors. The effect of this, for instance, is if a Yale Law student or graduate wishes to work for an organization that does consider religion in hiring — say a Catholic organization or Jewish advocacy group — Yale will cut them off from three important programs.

Because the United States had the bad taste to make another decision–anoint a group of private schools as its ne plus ultra educational institutions–this will probably stick in some form, since students at private schools of any kind don’t enjoy the same broad First Amendment protections from university intrusion that their state school counterparts do.  But it’s a serious shot across the bow, especially for climbing Evangelicals who want their children to move up without the inconvenience–and eternal consequence–of formally adopting an “acceptable” religion.

But such has never really been an option, has it?

Do not love the world or what the world can offer. When any one loves the world, there is no love for the Father in him; for all that the world can offer–the gratification of the earthly nature, the gratification of the eye, the pretentious life–belongs, not to the Father, but to the world. And the world, and all that it gratifies, is passing away, but he who does God’s will remains for ever. (1 John 2:15-17 TCNT)

My Lifeway Memory: Doing Church of God Business in a Baptist Bookstore

The news that Lifeway Christian Stores will all close brought back a memory of something that happened in one of them that was, in some ways, life altering.

In 2010 the Church of God decided to abolish the Department of Lay Ministries, which I was working for at the time.  That left me without a job with the church.  Mercifully that wasn’t my main source of income, but there’s something special about doing God’s work, even when the institutions don’t always go your way.  This was all complete by the end of August, a month after the church’s General Assembly.

Sometime during the fall I was in the Lifeway store in Chattanooga, when I ran into Dr. Donnie Smith, who was the Executive Director of the Church of God Division of Care.  The Care Division includes the ministries of the denomination which used to be called “benevolent.”  These include the Church of God Chaplains Commission (which trains and certifies chaplains for the military, prisons, etc.,) Church of God Ministerial Care (which works to restore ministers in the wake of personal disaster,) Operation Compassion (which furnishes supplies by the trailer load for disaster relief,) Smoky Mountain Childrens’ Home and, as much as Ilhan Omar hates to hear it, Ministry to Israel.

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The Church of God Chaplains Commission Board, Fall 2008. Donnie Smith is in the front row on the right. At the far left is Tom Offutt, who figures into this story.

Donnie’s wife Barbara, who was making a miraculous recovery from a stroke, was down from Cleveland to get her hair done, and Donnie had some extra time, so he went to Lifeway.  We talked about church events and people for some time; it was nice to keep up.

But keeping up wasn’t the end of it: a couple of weeks later Donnie called me and offered me a position on the Care Board.  Tom Offutt, who was from Winchester, VA (where my Aunt Dorothy had lived for many years) had passed away suddenly shortly after his appointment, leaving a vacancy of the Board.  It was a pleasant surprise to get this invitation, and to get “back in the loop” in the life of the international church.  I’ve been on the Board ever since; it’s been an excellent experience.

I’ve always thought it strange that two Church of God people–one a current General Assembly appointee (Donnie) and one former one (me) would gather in the Baptist bookstore to discuss Church of God things.  But our own publishing house has had its share of misadventures in the “brick and mortar” store business; that’s why Lifeway got our business.

And 2010 was a year of other changes: about the same time my Kenyan department head at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and his Cameroonian assistant sat me down and asked me to obtain my PhD.  This decade has been an adventure in many ways.  God is always doing something new in our lives, and the fact that it was in Lifeway shows that he has a sense of humour too.  For his part Donnie passed into eternity last summer, too soon gone; I am grateful to him for giving me the opportunity on the Care Board that he did.

There are many who disparage Lifeway for their restrictive policies on what they would carry.  But it’s like the places I can’t teach: institutions make decisions that they must live with, and it’s their prerogative to do so.  Personally I think that Lifeway’s closing of their stores is a net loss for the church in this country.  But that’s just me.

About Those Honorary Doctorates in the Church of God…

I’ve spent the past several weeks going on about social and political things, but this week I’d like to discuss a pet peeve of mine in the glorious church Church of God I’m a part of: the issue of honorary doctorates, and the calling of their recipients “Doctor.”  Fortunately our Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Tim Hill (to use the Anglican form of address) has come out with a nice piece on the subject, Let’s Talk About It: Honorary Doctorates.  Coming from someone who a) received one, b) is called “Doctor” as a result, c) doesn’t require it and d) is now Presiding Bishop, it’s a welcome treatment of the subject.

I like Tim Hill, think he’s a man of integrity and transparency, know many in his family.  I think his personal qualities are worth far more than whatever title he holds. Putting that first comes from years of working in the Church of God at the denominational level, to say nothing of my years-long involvement in Anglicanism.  Pentecostals like for their leaders to have “the anointing,” but personal integrity before God and the church is really more important, and once that’s established the anointing will flow.

My own journey with this issue is only partially related to the fact that, much closer to the pearly gates than to my birth, I received my own earned doctorate.  A product of an Episcopal background and a Roman Catholic early adulthood, I didn’t join the Church of God until my late twenties.  To be honest, it was (and still is) an alternative universe.  Being in the construction industry, people with “too much education” don’t always get a warm reception (or maybe they do!) One professor at West Point even cautioned me about putting “PhD” after his name on my website, as he was concerned about the “warm reception!”

One thing I discovered early in my years in this church was that many in its upper echelons were called “Doctor.”  Growing up in a church with clergy equipped with plenty of formal education, that was no surprise.  It didn’t become apparent until much later that these doctorates were honorary doctorates.  Where I came from, the only people who were referred to as “Doctor” were either a) medical doctors or b) those who earned what accreditation types refer to as the “terminal degree.”  Some parts of the press only refer to people this way with (a).  So I thought this was strange, not only because it ran against general practice but also because I figured our laity wouldn’t take to educated people!

Part of solving this mystery in the “alternative universe” came when I came back to teach regularly about ten years ago.  Since most of my colleagues have a PhD, some of the students called me “Dr. Warrington.”  I tried to dissuade them from this practice but found it a “whack-a-mole” proposition, as Tim Hill did.  I think that some of it was just habit but some of it was currying favor.  I suspect that this same motivation inspires our people as much as it did my students.

But a great deal of it, I think, comes from a deep-rooted inferiority complex in our people, and a desire to move up in the world.  That’s a reversal of some long-held values, but a reversal I was unaware of until it was, for me at least, too late.  Our people wanted to show that they had arrived, and having a surfeit of doctors at the top was one way of doing that.  I still think that this inferiority complex is dangerous and will get us into trouble sooner or later, if it hasn’t already.

So what’s there to be inferior about?  Modern Pentecost’s position in Christianity reminds me of an apocryphal story about Maurice Ravel, the French composer, and George Gershwin, the American one.  Gershwin decided to take some lessons from Ravel, who asked Gershwin, “How much do you make in a year?”

“Oh, a quarter of a million dollars,” Gershwin replied (this was back in the 1920’s.)

“Perhaps I should be taking lessons from you,” Ravel replied.

Most churches would do well to take lessons from the Pentecostals and Charismatics regarding their outreach and the growth that can come from it.

One pastor up north had a series of sermons entitled, “Trading Your Title for a Towel,” referring to the foot-washing in John 13.  When he quit his church to take another one, he should have entitled his last sermon, “Throwing the Towel In.”  Let’s throw the towel in on calling everyone “doctor,” stop worrying about our “inferiority,” and be the men and women God wants us to be.

Running Scared: My Response to a Baptist Pastor on the Millennials

It’s not often that Vox gives a voice (which is what they’re supposed to do) to a Baptist, but one John Thornton, Jr., a youth pastor in North Carolina, has written an intriguing article about why millennials are so anxious and burnt out these days.  As a college professor who teaches in a state which is more Baptistic than North Carolina (more about that later,) I get to teach many of those millennials who are handed off to me after their youth pastors are done with them.  He’s said some things that need to be said, although my solution to the problem may differ from his.

Let’s start with the good part: I basically agree with his core thesis, which runs like this:

About a year ago, I decided I wanted to find out more about their lives. I’d heard from parents, teachers, and friends with children that kids today live increasingly busy and stressful lives compared to previous generations. I wanted to know not only what that looked like but how the kids themselves felt and thought about it. What I discovered gave me a good deal of pause about the world kids live in today and what it’s doing to them.

We hear a great deal about “snowflakes,” especially at the collegiate level.  I don’t think that’s justified.  What we have is a generation that’s running scared, one which has so much uncertainty under the surface that they really want to shut out anything that might upset the apple cart, including free speech, due process, etc.  If we want to get to the root of the problem we must understand what it is.  I think that the current anxious state of the millennials stems from four trends in our society that are driving their angst.

The first is the collapse of stable families.  The family is the first institution, one that antedates the state, and it’s the first one that we are exposed to as humans.  To live in a society where a family unit can collapse just because someone take a notion to find self-fulfilment is enough by itself to inspire anxiety.  Now the state exercises unprecedented power to interfere in the life of the family, inducing more uncertainty.

The second is the impact of environmentalism as a religion, and American environmentalism in particular, which regards the human race as unwanted and profligate intruders in the pristine wilderness they envision we started with.  That’s a major shift from the Christian concept that we are the pinnacle of creation, charged with the responsible stewardship of God’s creation.  The message today to all of us is that we don’t deserve to be here, although those who proclaim this the most loudly are in no hurry to lead the way to the exit.  Put another way, we have transitioned from being the GOAT (current usage, Greatest Of All Time) to the goat (my mother’s usage, the capricious barnyard animal that butts or the human counterpart.)

The third is our deteriorating economic underpinnings.  Thornton gets this:

Between 30 years of stagnant wages, the rising costs of housing, health care, and education, and a recession just as many of us graduated from college, it’s no wonder that millennials are on course to do financially worse than previous generations, just as Gen X did before us.

To this I would add our national debt, which has passed the point of no return.

The fourth is the warp speed advance of technology, which both creates and destroys careers.  This is amplified by the fact that, instead of buffering our people from the downside effects , it seems to amplify them.

Thornton sums up the result of all this:

While many of us who work with kids don’t want to name the likelihood that the generation behind us will do even worse than us, it’s hard not to see that we communicate it to them regardless. These kids aren’t even being told that the point of all the work and the stress is a better life — they’re being told it’s necessary just to survive.

So we come to the great questions the Russians like to ask: what is to be done? Thornton isn’t much at answering this, but his description of how our schools are approaching the problem is worth the read.  From his description of that “solution” it seems to me that it too is part of the problem.

The United States has gone on so long and been so successful that it has lulled its people into a false sense of security.  That only amplified the tendency of people to drift through life and just go along with the culture.   One of the things that separates people at the top of society from those at the bottom is the fact that the former tend to be more goal-oriented, which requires people to think ahead.  What the schools are trying to do is to push the ethic at the top down.  The problem is that they’re going about it the wrong way.  They’re trying to instil a careerist and corporatist ethic with an emphasis on socialisation, which gives them (assuming it works) a motivated workforce that won’t challenge the existing order.

What they need to do is to teach our people to think, and let their innate desire for personal improvement to take them where they can go.  Traditionally that’s done through the arts, but it can (and should) also be done through the sciences, especially mathematics.  It’s interesting to note that this is done in places like China, Russia and Iran, where the state is stronger and has the means and the will to keep the existing order in place.  That’s the risk: if you teach people to think, they will discover the extensive cognitive dissonance they are presented with and try to do something about it.  The current Exhibit A for this is France, where a people educated with that Cartesian logic realise that things aren’t working out as they thought they would or should.  Macron, taking a leaf from the B-school types in the Anglophone world, will try a managed debate in the context of a managed democracy, but whether that will work in France is still an open question.

Getting our school system changed in this way is a long and difficult process, filled with opposition from those who benefit from the current state of affairs.  But let’s consider this from another angle: what should Christian churches do in the face of this anxiety level?  I think that’s the question that Thornton, as a youth pastor, would like to get answered, and I would say that it is for me also.

Let me start by replicating a brief post I did three years ago:

From The World of Mathematics, this quotation from the British mathematician Augustus de Morgan:

I commend my future with hope and confidence to Almighty God; to God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, whom I believe in my heart to be the Son of God but whom I have not confessed with my lips, because in my time such confession has always been the way up in the world.

Jesus Christ is still the “way up” in eternity.  But de Morgan’s problem of confessing Christianity as a way of worldly advancement has pretty much been solved both here and in the UK.  The sooner we come to grips with what that means, the better.

The basic problem we have in Evangelical Christianity is that it has been sold as the “way up” in this world.  DeMorgan lived in an England where membership in the established church was either a necessary or facilitating way to obtain positions and status in society.  It’s ironic that the Baptists, who strived to disestablish the same established church in places like North Carolina (and succeeded,) would eventually turn to make being a respectable religion a key part of their appeal.  And those who came behind the Southern Baptists have followed suit in one way or another.

But now Christianity’s appeal to be the “way up” in this life as a prelude to the next doesn’t work the way it used to, if it ever really worked at all.  And that’s the way it should be.  Jesus Christ did not come into this world to affirm the careerism that was and is endemic in the Middle East and now on these shores.  Instead we need to be presenting Christianity as an alternative to the careerist rat race that’s set before us, that ultimate happiness in this life and the next doesn’t come from checking off our bucket list or getting the dream career or even “changing the world” (and you should always be careful whom you’re shilling for.)  Most importantly of all, we need to make it clear that being a Christian will cost you.  There are things you may never get to do, schools you’ll never (or shouldn’t) go to, and positions you’ll never take.  But the joy of following Jesus daily will more than offset those losses, that joy buttressed by the fellowship of other Christians.

That’s what the New Testament sets forth.  Are we prepared to live it?  That’s the question in front of us, and we need to answer it quickly.