Friday, December 31, 2010

The paradox of the King of Peace

The baby that was born in the manger was not exactly what the Jews must have been expecting their Saviour to be.
There was a good sermon at church on sunday about Isaiah 9
6 For to us a child is born,
   to us a son is given;
 and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
   and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7Of the increase of his government and of peace
    there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
   to establish it and to uphold it
 with justice and with righteousness
   from this time forth and forevermore.
Jesus was not quite the Saviour that might be expected from this passage. A baby born in a stable in an obscure part of the Roman empire. In that context a Governor who brings peace would be the Pax Romana - a political "peace" that was brought by violence and fear. Wikipedia states:
Romans regarded peace not as an absence of war, but the rare situation that existed when all opponents had been beaten down beyond the ability to resist.[3]

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A secular education is an oxymoron

It is hard for me to believe that modern history and western literature can really be understood without a good knowledge of the Bible and the basics of theology; regardless of whether one believes it or not. I have even heard Richard Dawkins make this point! Alister McGrath has a relevant book, In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and how it changed a Nation, a language, and a culture.

However, it seems the new national curriculum proposed for Australia claims otherwise, as discussed here. Just before Christian there was a good opinion piece in the Australian, Bible study opens door to mastering literature.

The picture is from the Gospel of John in the Lindisfarne Gospels.

The interplay between football and politics

Football is art; but also politics, economics, and sociology.

I bought a great book for my family for Christmas, How Soccer explains the world: an unlikely theory of globalization. I really enjoyed reading the fascinating mix of history (both football and political). Each chapter focuses on a different country (Serbia, Scotland, Italy, Ukraine, Brazil, England, Spain, ...) and how football clubs become expressions of politics, racism, corruption, capitalism, and nationalism. As a purist who enjoys football for its own sake, I found aspects of the book are quite depressing. It almost makes you want to never watch a professional football game again.

The book is very well written and easy to read. The main weakness is it does not achieve what its title (and every chapter heading) claims. It does not really show that football explains anything. What it really does (and does it very well) is show how football reflects and interacts with significant social change such as globalisation. The book reflects the common fallacy of not distinguishing between causality and correlation. For example, the Rangers-Celtic rivalry/animosity in Glasgow does not cause or explain the origins of the ethnic (Irish vs. Scottish) / "religious" (Catholic vs. Protestant) animosity. I think the Rangers-Celtic rivalry provides a vehicle for some people to express some of these hatreds.

The book also illustrates humanities deep need for community, group identity, to be right, and to express passionate emotions. I sometimes think that being a fanatical fan can provide outlets that God intended us to express in worship and church life. 

The author is Franklin Foer, who was editor of The New Republic from 2006-2010. There is an interesting review in the New York Times. 

In conclusion, it is a great piece of literature and even if you are not a football fan, you will learn a lot about the world from reading it.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Barking at woolly priorities

I am a effusive dog owner. But sometimes things need to be kept in perspective.... We live in a very affluent age; many of us have too much time and money. I think this is reflected in an article in todays Wall Street Journal about how some owners of border collies [who have a very strong herding instinct] are renting sheep to keep them entertained!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

An American Christmas icon

Last night my family followed an American Christmas tradition and watched the iconic movie It's a Wonderful Life. It is a "feel good" movie about the value of one life and how we can be a much greater blessing to people than we realise. It also highlights the personal cost to one man of standing for justice in a community.

It is interesting to see how banks, debt, and mortgages figured heavily in American life in the first half of the twentieth century, as they do this Christmas.

There is an interesting post about the movie on the Desiring God website. [My wife brought it to my attention]. As long as you don't use the movie to define your theology, your concept of heaven, or your notion of what Christmas is all about, then it is good harmless fun. But is such a separation really possible?

Friday, December 24, 2010

The end of parenting

Ross Campbell has written a number of books on parenting that my wife and I have found very helpful. We are currently reading Help your Twentysomething get a Life... It discusses the phenomena of the "boomerang generation" who are coming back to live in their parents homes as adults ... sometimes bringing with them emotional scars, large financial debts, little motivation, and young children...
Some of these problems are a consequence of modern affluence and a desire to "bless" our children, not realising that we are not helping them reach independence and maturity.
My children are not twenty yet, but the book does have helpful advice and warnings that are relevant.

The full Doonesbury comic from December 19 is here.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

What can Christians expect of a secular society?

There is a good op-ed piece A Tough Season for Believers in the New York Times by Ross Douthat. Here are a couple of extracts:
University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter’s “To Change the World,” [is] an often withering account of recent Christian attempts to influence American politics and society....
Thanks in part to this bunker mentality, American Christianity has become what Hunter calls a “weak culture” — one that mobilizes but doesn’t convert, alienates rather than seduces, and looks backward toward a lost past instead of forward to a vibrant future. In spite of their numerical strength and reserves of social capital, he argues, the Christian churches are mainly influential only in the “peripheral areas” of our common life. In the commanding heights of culture, Christianity punches way below its weight....
Christians need to find a way to thrive in a society that looks less and less like any sort of Christendom — and more and more like the diverse and complicated Roman Empire where their religion had its beginning, 2,000 years ago this week.
It is great to see such issues being discussed in the "public square".
Indeed, if Western Christians read the book of Revelation we should not find the secular nature of  Christmas or of public policy hard, but to be expected.

Winter wonderland holiday

My family and sister-in-laws family (plus their cute puppy) just had a wonderful cross country skiing holiday. We  skiied about 2 km from the car park to one of the Summit Meadows cabins near Mt. Hood, Oregon. We had to carry all our own food and clothes. It was a wonderful time, even if we never really saw Mt. Hood.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Hitler's mistaken theology

Just after World War II, Karl Barth gave a series of lectures in the bombed out remains of Bonn University. These were later published as Dogmatics in Outline. He gives a beautiful and profound exposition of each phrase of the Apostle's Creed. Chapter 7 is "God Almighty". Here are a few extracts:
God is not 'power in itself'.... when Hitler used to speak about God, he called him `the Almighty.' But it is not 'the Almighty' who is God; we cannot understand from the standpoint of a supreme concept of power who God is.... God's power is from the start the power of law.... God's power is holy, righteous, merciful, patient, kindly power.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Creation is not creationism

There is an interesting New York Times article Astronomer sues University of Kentucky, claiming his faith cost him a job.
One lesson is: always assume any email you sent will become public.
The article also underscores how some scientists have trouble distinguishing belief in the Christian doctrine of creation, from young earth creationism, anti-evolutionism, and intelligent design.
A deposition in the law suit makes fascinating (and scary) reading. Naive academics are no match for lawyers!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The special relationship Down Under

I am currently in the USA with my family and in-laws. My wife opened a copy of the New York Times to discover a full-page advert with a statement about Australia-US relations that had been signed by 90,000+ Australians. The statement concerns the poor treatment of Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, by the US and Australian governments. It is organised by GetUp! a new internet based Australian political. There is much that I would not agree with  GetUp!  but I thought this was a well thought out and valid statement and so I just signed it.

Hawking back tracks?

There is an interesting article in the November issue of Scientific American,  Hawking versus God: What Did the Physicist Really Say about the Deity? The battle for eternity is fought on Larry King live. Here is an extract:

As the media frenzy spread from bloggers and tweeters to prime-time television, the authors countered that they never meant to claim that science proved that there is no God. “God may exist,” Hawking told CNN’s Larry King, adding, “but science can explain the universe without the need for a creator.”
“We don’t say we’ve proved that God doesn’t exist.” Mlodinow says. “We don’t even say we’ve proved that God hasn’t created the universe.” As for the laws of physics, he says, some may choose to call those God. “If you think that God is the embodiment of quantum theory, that’s fine.”

Friday, December 17, 2010

Another fallen scholar

I wrote an earlier post Fallen scholars about the issue of how we evaluate and respond to the work and ideas of scholars who have their own personal moral failings. When in the bookstore this week I encountered another case. You can buy a copy of Technological Slavery: the complete writings of Ted Kaczysnki, otherwise known as the Unabomber, who is currently in Federal Prison for killing three people.
The book points out that he receives none of the funds from the book sales; they go to the American Red Cross. It contains several endorsements from people who stress they do not endorse his violent acts but have to concede that some of his ideas have merits and should be engaged with.

You can read the complete text of Industrial society and its future online. Decide for yourself. There are thirteen references in the complete writings to Jacques Ellul whose ideas do have a resonance with Kaczynski.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Are you wealthy?

Much of the discussion about tax cuts for the wealthy in the US defines "wealthy" as a household income of more than $250,000 per annum. There is a good article in today's LA Times, How much money makes you wealthy? It all depends... by Geraldine Baum. A few things it points out. Only 2.5 per cent of Americans make more than this amount.
There is nothing in sociology or economics that defines what income you need to be rich," said Joel Slemrod, a University of Michigan economics professor and tax policy expert.
Survey data have helped economists understand popular views — and perceptions vary widely. Slemrod cited one survey showing that Americans, on average, believe an income of $122,000 is enough to be rich. "The higher your income," he said, "the more money you think you need to be rich."
The latter point also agrees with my limited experience. Most people I meet define the wealthy as one or two higher levels of income or affluence than themselves. This includes people who have million dollar homes, stock portfolios, drive luxury cars, take family holidays overseas, and send their children to private schools.

Did you receive a high school education? Do you have electricity and clean running water in your home? Do you always have enough food to eat? Do you sometimes drive a car? Do you have a bank account? Do you have access to medical and hospital care?
Then you are more affluent than something like 95 per cent of the world's population.
6Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, 7for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. 8But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. 9But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.
1 Timothy 6:6-10

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

My kingdom is not of this world

This is a German postage stamp that was issued to mark the 50th anniversary of the Barmen declaration, largely written by Karl Barth, and adopted by German churches who stood against Hitler's attempt to establish a "German church" which identify God's Kingdom with the Third Reich.

God is on our side. That is what every nationalistic movement wants to believe and can be used to justify not only war but also atrocities.

I am currently reading a fascinating book, Heavenly serbia: from myth to genocide by Branimir Anauzulovic which chronicles the blending of nationalism, church, folklore, and violence in the history of Serbia. A good summary and critical review of the book is here.

I recommend reading the full text of the Barmen declaration. Although, obviously written is specific historical context, there is much to be challenged about the sin of idolatry of nation and State, and the Lordship of Christ over the church. That is relevant to people of every nation and at any time.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Judge not and you will not be judged

There is no doubt that peoples childhoods have a significant effect on their behaviour as adults. This does not excuse wrong doing but at least should lead to compassion and a hesitancy to judgement. Consider a man with the following background. His mother was a prostitute. His father's other children expelled him from the family home. This led to him hanging out with "a band of worthless fellows". But because of his physical prowess, his relatives later recruited him as their military leader, in a cynical and desperate bid to ensure their own survival. I doubt he benefited from much moral guidance from his father or the warmth of family life!
What should we expect of such a person? Do we have right to pass judgement on such a man for making foolish promises which he then keeps to save face? Who is the man? This is the background of Jephthath, a Judge of Israel, who sacrificed his own daughter to fulfill a foolish vow he made to the LORD.

A previous post The shock value of Judges presents a complementary perspective.

Aside: It is interesting that Handel wrote an oratorio Jephtha but did not follow the Biblical text in having Jephthah's daughter sacrificed.

"Jephtha's Rash Vow", by James Gundee and M. Jones, London. Published January 20, 1807. Illustrates the description of Jephtha in Antiquities of the Jews, Book V, by Flavius Josephus

Monday, December 13, 2010

Revelation about the Trinity

How is revelation defined? Karl Barth has an interesting discussion in Church Dogmatics 1.1, Section 8, which I reproduce some of below. He contends that revelation cannot be define a priori and divorced from Scripture. He also stresses the Trinitarian nature of revelation. The Father reveals Himself through the Son by means of the Spirit. The paragraph in italics below is the summary.GOD IN HIS REVELATION
God's Word is God Himself in His revelation. For God reveals Himself as the Lord and according to Scripture this signifies for the concept of revelation that God Himself in unimpaired unity yet also in unimpaired distinction is Revealer, Revelation, and Revealedness.
1. THE PLACE OF THE DOCTRINE OF THE TRINITY IN DOGMATICSIf in order to clarify how Church proclamation is to be measured by Holy Scripture we first enquire into the prior concept of revelation, ...Perhaps more important than anything dogmatics can say with reference to the pre-eminent place of Scripture in the Church and over against the Church is the example which dogmatics itself must give in its own fundamental statements. It must try to do what is undoubtedly required of the Church in general, namely, to pay heed to Scripture, not to allow itself to take its problems from anything else but Scripture. The basic problem with which Scripture faces us in respect of revelation is that the revelation attested in it refuses to be understood as any sort of revelation alongside which there are or may be others. It insists absolutely on being understood in its uniqueness. But this means that it insists absolutely on being understood in terms of its object, God. It is the revelation of Him who is called Yahweh in the Old Testament and θεός [theos = God] or, concretely, κύριος [kurios = LORD] in the New Testament. The question of the self-revealing God which thus forces itself upon us as the first question cannot, if we follow the witness of Scripture, be separated in any way from the second question: How does it come about, how is it actual, that this God reveals Himself? Nor can it be separated from the third question: What is the result? What does this event do to the man to whom it happens? Conversely the second and third questions cannot possibly be separated from the first. .... God reveals Himself. He reveals Himself through Himself. He reveals Himself. If we really want to understand revelation in terms of its subject, i.e., God, then the first thing we have to realise is that this subject, God, the Revealer, is identical with His act in revelation and also identical with its effect. ....we learn we must begin the doctrine of revelation with the doctrine of the triune God.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Leaking logic?

Different people see things differently. There is a good New York Times article by Steven Erlanger, Europeans criticize fierce US response to leaks

A few random thoughts.

I find it puzzling that those who claim that the Wikileaks founder Jullian Assange should be prosecuted for espionage type crimes do not make the same claim about the journalists who publish the documents Wikileaks provides them.

Trivia: Assange studied physics at University of Melbourne.

You should always assume that any email you write will eventually become public. This is a point I have made several times on my work blog.

Personal integrity of leaders (in any sphere) is crucial. Moral failures will be exploited by your opponents.

I liked the irony and double standards pointed out by the excellent (and chilling) article by John Haughton in the Guardian:

On 21 January, secretary of state Hillary Clinton made a landmark speech about internet freedom, in Washington DC, which many people welcomed and most interpreted as a rebuke to China for its alleged cyberattack on Google. "Information has never been so free," declared Clinton. "Even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable."
She went on to relate how, during his visit to China in November 2009, Barack Obama had "defended the right of people to freely access information, and said that the more freely information flows the stronger societies become. He spoke about how access to information helps citizens to hold their governments accountable, generates new ideas, and encourages creativity." Given what we now know, that Clinton speech reads like a satirical masterpiece.

Friday, December 10, 2010

A fun Christmas movie

Last night my family watched A Christmas in Connecticut, a light hearted movie from 1944. It is good harmless fun. A trivial aside is that when Barbara Stanwyck made the movie she was the highest paid woman in the USA.

Countries are like families

Sometimes when it is hard to understand politics, budgets, economics, and sociology I find it helpful to think of nations and states like big families. Drawing on this analogy, there was a good New York Times opinion piece by Thomas Friedman, Still digging.

It is amazing (and sad) for me to watch the battle going on in the USA about tax cuts for the wealthy. Ideology rules. At some point you have to compromise and realise that when you have a huge debt, you have to make hard and painful decisions: cut spending, raise revenue or do both. You can't keep putting it off...

Thursday, December 9, 2010

New book on science and the Bible

I have been asked to review the new book, Science, Creation, and the Bible by Richard F. Carlson and Tremper Longman III. Here are the chapter headings.

  1. Theological and Scientific Sources and Their Interpretation
  2. Characteristics of Theology and Science Relevant to the Conflict
  3. Biblical Interpretation–A Key Element in Resolving the Creation-Evolution Conflict
  4. Creation in the Old Testament
  5. Creation in the New Testament
  6. Genesis 1–2:3 and Genesis 2:25
  7. Genesis 1 and 2 as a Worldview Statement of the Ancient People of Israel
I am looking forward to this. It is admirable that one author is a scientist and the other an Old Testament scholar.

    Monday, December 6, 2010

    Keeping the poison in perspective

    This week I was surprised to see that The San Fransciso Chronicle had a front page article about biochemistry, Mono lake bacterium seen as model for life in space. The article was stimulated by a paper about to appear in the journal Science, A bacterium that can grow by using arsenic rather than phosporous. Earlier in the week a teasing press release from NASA had stimulated all sorts of wild speculation on the internet.
    This episode reminds me of all the hype surrounding the claimed discovery of "life on mars" about decade ago, which was actually the discovery of some "dead germ materials on a meteorite that may have come from mars" which later turned out to be have other possible explanations. Some commentators said the discovery presented profound problems for Christianity. I failed to see this, even before the evaporation of the results.
    So what has been discovered this time? Basically what the title of the Science paper says. In the extreme conditions found in Mono lake it seems there are some bacteria which are quite different from most other living things on the planet, which are poisoned by arsenic. These bacteria actually use arsenic instead of phosphorous. Do such life forms exist elsewhere? Where they important in the origin of life on earth? Maybe, but we have NO evidence. So any claims about life elsewhere are pure speculation and not scientific.

    Who belongs in church?

    Yesterday, in Seattle, my brother-in law and sister-in-law took my family to a performance of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by the Attic Theatre. It was not only entertaining and amusing but had a strong message of grace that Christmas (and church) is for everyone, regardless of their history or background.

    For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.
    Luke 19:10

    Friday, December 3, 2010

    Huxley on the limits of science

    T.H. Huxley (1825-1925) coined the term agnostic and was known for his antagonism towards Christian orthodoxy. Hence, I found it surprising to come across the following quote which I read in a report of John Hedley Brooke's talk at the 2010 London Conference of Christians in Science.
    The antagonism between science and religion, about which we hear so much, appears to me to be purely factitious — fabricated, on the one hand, by short-sighted religious people who confound a certain branch of science, theology, with religion; and, on the other, by equally short-sighted scientific people who forget that science takes for its province only that which is susceptible of clear intellectual comprehension; and that, outside the boundaries of that province, they must be content with imagination, with hope, and with ignorance. 
    The interpreters of Genesis and the interpreters of Nature (1885)
    For more on Huxley and the famous non-debate with Wilberforce in Oxford see this earlier post.

    Thursday, December 2, 2010

    Are Australians the WEIRDest people?

    You often see the strangest things in public printers. Today I was visiting the chemistry department at Berkeley and while waiting for a colleague in a meeting room I noticed someone had printed a paper, The Weirdest People in the World? from the Journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, so I quickly skimmed it. Here are a few intriguing observations.

    Henrich, Heiner, and Norenzayan [from the Psychology Department at University of British Columbia], the authors of the paper, define WEIRD as Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic. Their main point is that most "standard subjects" in studies of human psychology and behaviour are actually USA undergraduate students who are not only WEIRD but actually not representative of humanity in general! One example is the following.

    A 2002 paper in the journal Nature, Altruistic Punishment in Humans, claimed to resolve the puzzle, Why are humans often altruistic when there is no evolutionary advantage? The Swiss authors found that there was a strong tendency for subjects (all WEIRD) to be willing to spend some of their own resources to punish fellow members of society who were "free loaders" who were not altruistic. In particular they claimed to show that "cooperation flourishes if altruistic punishment is possible, and breaks down if it is ruled out. "
    However, Henrich et al., discuss a 2008 paper in the journal Science, by Hermann et al. Antisocial punishment across societies which contains the fascinating graphic below. One of the main findings of this study was that the extent of punishment of anti-social behaviour varied significantly between societies, even to the extent that some societies actually tended to punish altruism. But, what got my attention was that Australians showed the strongest tendency to punish free loaders!

    Wednesday, December 1, 2010

    Special or not so special

    I just flew Brisbane to Los Angeles. I watched two movies. The first was The Other Guys which was barely o.k. as a plane movie but would probably be mediocre in a normal context. The second was The Special Relationship about the relationship of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. I found it quite educational (especially about Kosovo) but a bit depressing because it is probably quite believable. I thought it made of the main players Cherie Blair came out looking good but the Clintons and Tony Blair were not portrayed in a sympathetic light (I am not saying they should be). I thought the picture it painted of the Blairs was somewhat reminiscent of that in The Queen.