Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Going crazy for the truth

My son and I watched the movie The Informant! which is based on the true story of Mark Whitacre who was one of the most senior corporate whistle-blowers in US history.

At times the movie is strange and hard to follow. This is heightened by the voice over commentary and the music. But that is partly the point because the story does have some strange and unexpected twists.

The movie highlights just how corporate culture can be, mental health issues, the high personal cost of being a whistle-blower, and the value of a supportive spouse.

Poor Jesus

I am currently reading through the Gospel of Luke and this morning read how in 4:18-19 Jesus announces five purposes for which God sent him in fulfillment of Isaiah:

18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
   to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
   and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,

19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor."

It is interesting to read the Africa Bible Commentary on this passage:
It is clear that from the beginning to end Jesus was oriented to the needs of the poor, both those who were poor within themselves and those who were poor in social, economic and political contexts. His parents were not wealthy and lived in a despised village. In hist public ministry he lived poorly, mixed with the ordinary folk were the poor, the prisoners, the blind and the oppressed. Furthermore, he shocked the elite by eating with social outcasts. He acted and spoke in a manner that caused him to be seen as a serious threat by the various establishment groups in his country and by the Roman Empire. Eventually, the religious establishment and the Roman colonial power murdered Jesus.
 The etching is the 'Hundred guilder print' of Christ preaching by  Rembrandt.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Combining academics with mission

This is great video about the South Asia Institute for Advanced Christian Studies.
Earlier this year I gave a few lectures there on science and theology. It is a wonderful place and worthy of support.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The unique History of the Bible

 A Hindu scholar of the world's religions once said to Lesslie Newbigin:
I can't understand why you missionaries present the Bible to us in India as a book of religion. It is not a book of religion-and anyway we have plenty of books of religion in India. We don't need any more! I find in your Bible a unique interpretation of universal history, the history of the whole of creation and the history of the human race. And therefore a unique interpretation of the human person as a responsible actor in history. That is unique. There is nothing else in the whole religious literature of the world to put alongside it. 
Newbigin, 1999, A Walk Through the Bible, Louisville, KY: John Knox Westminster Press, 4. See also Lesslie Newbigin, 1989, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 89. 
Taken from an essay Reading the Bible as one Story by Michael Goheen.

You have no friends!

This is probably the cruelest thing one can say to an acquaintance.
But, that is what happens to the central character at the beginning of the French movie Mon Meilleur Ami (My Best Friend). He is challenged to prove within 10 days that he actually does have a best friend.
This is an amusing and touching movie about the value, struggles, fragility, and rarity of friendship in the modern secular professional age. I found it refreshing (and strange) to see  a movie that was just about platonic relationships rather than romantic ones.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Why didn't Jesus publish?

A couple of gems from the Postscript to Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview by Albert Wolters.
In the history of the church redemption has often been misunderstood to be salvation from creation rather than salvation of creation. But the point of the gospel is that creation itself is the goal of the salvation that the gospel announces. (page 121)
 in making provision for the communication of the good news to many different cultures in the succeeding centuries, Jesus did not (like Mohammed) write a book. Rather, he formed a community to be the bearer of this good news. The identity of that community is formed by its mission - its being sent by Jesus - to make known the good news of the kingdom. (page 122)
The postscript was co-authored by Michael Goheen and some of the same material can be found in his essay Reading the Bible as one story.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Moving the Science-Theology dialogue South

I have been asked to write a Guest Editorial for a forthcoming issue of the journal Science and Christian Belief. This is an honour.
I have chosen to explore the issue of Science and Theology in non-Western contexts. I do not consider myself particularly qualified (or entitled?) to write on the issue but I hope it is reasonable and constructive for me to raise the issue and stimulate discussion.
I welcome comments on a draft.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The perspective of time

We are preoccupied with the immediate. Everything happening now seems so urgent and so important. To get things in perspective it is interesting to look back at old magazines and see what was in the headlines, what the hottest gadgets were, and what people were predicting about the future.
I have just been going through an old pile of Time and Newsweek will titles such as "The Best of 1999",  "Pictures of 1980", "The Most Influential People in America in 1997."
Here are a few things that struck me.

The recurrence of wars, of corruption in government and business, of famine and environmental problems.

Forgotten celebrities, politicians, and sports stars.

The Best of Cybertech of 1999 is an interesting list. Top is the Sega Dreamcast [what is that?!]. Google only ranks no. 7 on the list!

How seriously we take ourselves.

The presence of cigarette advertising (such as the 1989 ad below). We have made some progress by banning it.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Global future of Christianity

The last few decades have seen a dramatic change in the demographics of the global church.
Philip Jenkins, a historian at Penn State, has documented this in several books. A recent one is The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South published by Oxford University Press in 2006.
2002 interview with Jenkins published in The Atlantic Monthly is worth reading. Here is the beginning:
For someone who isn't familiar with Christianity as it's practiced in the Southern Hemisphere, how would you define it? In general terms, how does it differ from the ways that Christianity tends to be practiced in the North? 
There are a number of prime things I would list, but high on the list is the fact of poverty—that very often in the global South you're dealing with people who are not the world's fat cats. That means that they tend to relate much more closely to the biblical world and its concerns than do people who are rich and from the First World. Often they're people without access to the kind of medical care that the First World takes for granted, so the medical, healing, and exorcism elements of the Bible make very good sense to them. The other fact, apart from poverty, is novelty. In many parts of the global South, Christianity is a much newer religion than it is in Europe or North America. That's particularly true in Africa. Of course, Christianity has been in South America for a long time, but the kind of Pentecostal and Protestant Christianity that's come in over the last fifty years is obviously a newer kind of experience. So in some cases these are families that are discovering the Bible and Christianity for the first time, and it seems to be a new and rather intoxicating experience.

I can't get no satisfaction

Next week in Queensland we have the annual ritual of "schoolies week" where large numbers of high school graduates descend on a section of city of Surfers Paradise to pay exorbitant amounts to stay in apartments, get drunk, cause trouble, ....

I was interested to read this week of research that found 70 per cent who attend actually find it a negative experience which does not live up to expectations.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Grinding out a "living"

I think the movie Reign over me is worth watching. It deals with the relationship between a "successful" cosmetic dentist and his former college room-mate who has become a recluse following the death of his wife and three daughters in 9/11. The movie highlights dealing with grief, mental health issues, long term friendships, grace in relationships, escaping from the grind, and the folly of upper middle class aspirations.
I liked the use of Bruce Springsteen music but at times the movie is spoiled by gross "locker room" dialogue.

A lighter and stranger movie which highlights the meaningless of the middle class grind is Stranger than Fiction.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Remorse is not repentance

This morning I was reading through Matthew 27 which includes the account of the death of Judas. The Africa Bible Commentary has an interesting and important insight about this passage.
It is instructive to compare Peter and Judas at this point. This comparison may well be the reason that Matthew interrupts the flow of the story to report on what became of Judas. Peter wept bitterly and Judas was seized with remorse . Bitter tears may well lead to repentance and eventual restoration, as happened to Peter. But Judas' remorse led only to recrimination and, in his case, to suicide. Peter made no attempt to undo what he had done, but eventually submitted to the authority of Jesus. Judas, on the other hand, tried to undo what he had done, and when he found he could not do so he decided to take his own life.
 Judas returns the silver by Rembrandt

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A finely tuned argument

Victor Stenger has a new book, The Fallacy of Fine Tuning: Why the Universe is not Designed for Us. Stenger is a prominent atheist and author of the bestselling book, God: the Failed Hypothesis. [A detailed critique of that book was published in Science and Christian Belief by David Bartholomew, formerly Professor of Statistics at the London School of Economics.]

What is fine tuning? Basically it is the idea that the laws of physics and fundamental constants of nature [e.g. charge and mass of the electron] are "finely tuned" so that carbon based life can exist.  Some argue that this is evidence that we were meant to be and that God designed the universe accordingly. I believe that Stenger claims this argument is flawed because it is "carbon-centric" and that one can imagine alternative scenarios and universes where life is based on a different element (e.g. silicon, which is the basis of computer technology). Alternatively, one might even consider the possibility that life is not based on atoms and molecules but on the dark matter or dark energy which comprises most of the universe.

What do I think about these objections? First, we cannot completely rule out the existence of such alternative "templates" for life. But, these are just speculations and lack specificity. This is similar to the claim/argument that Richard Dawkins makes in The God Delusion that physicists will invent a theory [e.g. the multiverse] that will explain fine tuning, just as Darwin explained the emergence of "apparent design" in biological systems. Alternative new explanations of anything are always possible. But usually in science (and everyday life) we focus on the concrete possible explanations we have access to now and consider their relative merits.

How likely is an alternative chemistry for life? One reason we might be skeptical is that evolution has not produced it yet! Biomolecules do use a diversity of chemical reactions and different metal ions [iron, molybdenum, copper, zinc, manganese, vanadium, ...] are used for different purposes in metalloproteins. But, it seems the template in any and every species is still nucleic acids (for DNA and RNA) and amino acids (for proteins). If one could use silicon to perform some function then one might expect some part of nature to have discovered it. I am reminded of Richard Feynman who said:

'There is no such thing as polywater because if there were, there would also be an animal which didn't need to eat food. It would just drink water and excrete polywater'

Also, for the last 50 years chemists have been desperately trying [with minimal success] to come up with synthetic structures which can perform even the simplest functions [e.g. photosynthesis] that biomolecules do. Stenger is a physicist. But, I think most chemists would acknowledge that there is something very special about carbon based chemistry.

Having said all this, I think caution and caveats are in order. I do not think fine tuning proves that the universe is designed for life. Furthermore, I certainly do not think it proves that God exists. [See Tony Wright's cautionary comments on an earlier post]. To me it is just a fascinating observation which confronts us with questions of a non-scientific nature. Is there some greater meaning and purpose to the universe? The end of science is the beginning of theology.

I thank Stephen Driscoll for asking me some questions that stimulated this post

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Meticulous immorality

I enjoy reading "light" thrillers for relaxation, but find it hard to authors I like. I have read all the novels by my favourites: John Grisham, Federik Forsyth, and Christopher Reich. [I also like Dan Brown, provided one does not think about the veracity of any of the history or science!]
Hence, I have been looking for a new author and may have found one, Daniel Silva. I just finished The Rembrandt Affair. It had enough originality and surprises to keep my interest.

But, this is post is more about a fascinating thing highlighted in the book. During the Holocaust, the Nazi perpetrators kept meticulous records of what they were doing.  I am not sure what to make of this. It does show the propensity of humanity to perform incredible evil, to compartmentalise morality, to believe one will never be caught, ....

Friday, November 11, 2011

Known by the company you keep

I first became aware of Leonid Molidnow as co-author of Stephen Hawking for his recent popular book The Grand Design, which has received negative reviews. The other day while browsing books in a Sydney airport bookstore I also discovered Molidnow has co-authored a book with Deepak Chopra,  The War of World Views: Science vs. Spirituality.
Two bestselling authors first met in a televised Caltech debate on “the future of God,” one an articulate advocate for spirituality, the other a prominent physicist.  This remarkable book is the product of that serendipitous encounter and the contentious—but respectful—clash of worldviews that grew along with their friendship.    
In War of the Worldviews these two great thinkers battle over the cosmos, evolution and life, the human brain, and God, probing the fundamental questions that define the human experience.
You can read on Wikipedia why Chopra is a "magnet for criticism." I find it deplorable the manner in which he tries to use quantum physics to support his ideas about New Age spirituality and "medicine."

I would not describe Molidnow as "a prominent physicist". I had not heard of him until he co-authored the popular book with Hawking. Various publicity material for the books states Molidnow "is at Caltech" which gave me the impression that he was a faculty member. However, his own webpage at Caltech states he is there as a guest.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Between radicalism and conservatism

I am reading the next instalment of Creation Regained. The quotes below capture some of the last chapter, Discerning Structure and Direction. I think it is helpful because it provides for a balanced perspective on what a Christian's attitude to the "status quo" should be.
We shall argue that in all cases the task of the Christian is to discern structure and direction... structure denotes the essence of a creaturely thing, the kind of creature it is by virtue of God's creational law. Direction by contrast refers to a sinful deviation from that structural ordinance and renewed conformity to it in Christ.
...no given societal order is absolutely corrupt ... some element in every situation is worth preserving...   a Christians rejection of evil must always lead to a cleansing and reform of created structures, not to an indiscriminate abolition of an entire historical situation.
so our focus on structure rejects a sympathy for revolution, and our focus on direction condemns a quietistic conservatism.
For Christians, this renewing orientation is particularly important, since severe social oppression and injustice can easily seduce them into identifying the whole social order ... with the world in its religiously negative senses. When this fatal identification is made, Christians tend to withdraw from all participation in societal renewal. Under the guise of keeping itself from the world, the body of Christ then in effect allows the powers of secularisation and distortion to dominate the greater part of its life. This is not so much an avoidance of evil as a neglect of duty.
Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview, pages 88, 94, 95
Liberty leading the people, a classic work of the French Revolution.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Partnership across cultures

This week my wife and I attended an event sponsored by Overseas Council of Australia who support theological education in the majority world. [There are sister organisations in the UK, USA, and New Zealand]. The speaker was Elie Haddad, President of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon.

There are many reasons why I support OCA. Briefly, in the West we are very rich, both financially and in terms of Christian resources [full time paid pastors, buildings, theological colleges, books, Bible translations, ....]. We should share these resources. The best (and cheapest) way to provide theological education for pastors and church planters is in their own culture. We should support indigenous workers rather then sending (at great expensive) Westerners who come with significant cultural baggage.
A clear statement of this argument is on the South Asia Institute for Advanced Christian Studies (SAIACS) web site.

The OCA website is highly informative and contains material I consider essential such as annual reports, financial statements, and details of the board of directors.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Companies with real impact

The New York Times runs a series Fixes which "looks at solutions to social problems and why they work."
The latest article is about "Impact sourcing" [as opposed to "outsourcing" where Western companies maximise their profits by using workers on low wages in the majority world] which profiles several companies that were specifically set up to alleviate poverty in the majority world by hiring and training the unemployed poor for data processing tasks.

The article has an interesting definition, "Social enterprises seek to be profitable, but prioritize social impact."

I thank my lovely wife for bringing the article to my attention.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Medium is better

The bigger the better!
Small is beautiful.

Small means too much energy is spent on struggling to survive. There is no economy of scale. Furthermore, if there are lots of small independent organisations doing similar things there is usually duplication of effort.

For example, three small churches in one suburb all maintain their building (or set up in a public facility), all do the committee work and paper work and fund raising needed to employ a pastor, and all three pastors prepare a sermon each week. All three struggle to organise a barely viable youth group. Merging into one church which employs one senior pastor and one youth worker would be much more efficient and effective. But, everyone would have to compromise and adapt....

But as organisations grow they can also become inefficient and problematic. "Big" can lead to corruption, bureaucracy, internal squabbling, loss of focus, comfort, and arrogance. Furthermore, big and "successful" Christian organisations with significant resources can attract the wrong kind of people. People who are attracted to "success" and power, rather than people who want to humbly serve and are willing to make sacrifices. People who want to be in the limelight and have their ego stroked. People who want a "career" rather than people who are actually passionate about the mission of the organisation.
[This point is well made in the book Revolution in World Missions by K.P. Yohannan in the context of Western organisations try to hire staff in the majority world.]

So the struggle is to find the balance between big and small. Medium is better.