Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The paradox of weakness

“Christianity is never as weak as it appears, nor as strong as it appears.  And whether we look backward or forward in history, we can see that time and again, Christianity demonstrates a breathtaking ability to transform weakness into strength.”

These are the final words of the second edition of the book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity by Philip Jenkins (Oxford University Press, 2002)

Saturday, December 28, 2013

What influenced me the most in 2013?

Here is my Best of list for the year.
It is not so much what I liked, enjoyed, or was impresed by. But rather what had the greatest influence on me.

Blog
Vinoth Ramachandra

Talk
Engaging the University by Terry Halliday

Books
Poor Economics
Helping without Hurting: How to alleviate poverty without hurting the poor and yourself

Movies
Les Miserable's

Personal experience
Visiting a Compassion Child Development Centre in India

Magazine
The Economist

Political events
USA drone attacks
Massive spying by intelligence agencies 

Bible passage
Matthew 25:31-46

Friday, December 27, 2013

Unexpected challenges to atheism

Chris Arnade has a Ph.D in physics and spent 20 years working as a trader on Wall Street [not an unusual career transition]. He lost faith in Wall Street and now photographs drug addicts in the poorest neighbourhood of Wall Street. He is an atheist and has an interesting article in the Guardian The people who challenged my atheism most were drug addicts and prostitutes. Here is the conclusion:

I want to go back to [my] 16-year-old self and tell him to shut up with the "see how clever I am attitude". I want to tell him to appreciate how easy he had it, with a path out. A path to riches.
I also see Richard Dawkins differently. I see him as a grown up version of that 16-year-old kid, proud of being smart, unable to understand why anyone would believe or think differently from himself. I see a person so removed from humanity and so removed from the ambiguity of life that he finds himself judging those who think differently.
I see someone doing what he claims to hate in others. Preaching from a selfish vantage point.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The give and take of the Old Testament

Reading through the Old Testament there is one word that keeps getting repeated "give".
The LORD gave Israel the land. A search reveals 170 times that "give" and "land" appears in the same verse in the Old Testament. Israel never earned the promised land.

Yet, today I noted a striking contrast in 1 Samuel 8:10-18. Israel demands a king to rule over them, just like the other nations. Samuel warns them:
“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots.... 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. 15 He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. 16 He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves...
God is so different from earthly human rulers. The natural tendency of the latter is to use power and office to take from the people rather give to them. This is in contrast to the ultimate Servant King.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Australia: still lucky after 50 years?

"Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck."

These famous words were the origin of the title of an influential book, "The Lucky Country", by Donald Horne, published in 1964.

The AFR [Australian Financial Review] Weekend has a special series of articles marking the (almost) 50th anniversary of the publication of the book, including an Editorial, and a lead article by Tony Walker.

The main issue for today is whether Australia is continuing to repeat the same mistakes, relying on the good luck of the wealth it generates from its natural resources. Most recently this has been from the China boom boosting prices and volume of our mineral exports. Maybe my pessimist temperament is too strong but I fear the analysis and warnings of Ross Garnaut may be apt.

I bought the AFR Weekend for the first time and was impressed. I have got sick on reading The Australian [too much mindless pro-business anti-Labor propaganda] and the Sydney Morning Herald [too many juicy scandals and crimes]. The AFR actually has some thoughtful analysis. I may buy it again. You can subscribe free online for January. But for me there is still no substitute for a hard copy...

The Nativity according to the Internet

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Mercy and Grace in the midst of colonial injustice

Last night my wife and I watched The Mission. Although it was made almost thirty years ago and has a very famous musical score I had never seen it before.

It is based partly on true events: in the mid 1700's Jesuit missions to Guarani, indigenous people  in South America, became pawns in a political battle between Portugal and Spain. The Catholic church hierarchy is more concerned with preserving their power and influence than siding with the weak. Unfortunately, this leads to massive slaughter of the Guarani, including un-armed women, children, and Jesuits. It is tragic and depressing.

The movie highlights the convoluted and perverse relationships between Western churches and colonial expansion and ruthless business interests. Money, power  and violence trump humanity, community, and peace.
Questions are raised about whether Christians should use violence to stop oppression and injustice.

But there are a few redeeming moments in the movie.
There is one particularly powerful scene is featured in the Youtube video below.
Mendoza [Robert de Niro] was a slave trader who is trying to do penance for the guilt of killing his half-brother. He carries a burden of all his weapons up the falls to the Guarani who he previously killed and enslaved. He is then confronted by them. How will they react?



We have "killed" and offended God who has the right to judge and condemn. We are burdened by guilt. We sometimes try to redeem ourselves by doing good works. How will God react?
With mercy and grace, forgetting our offenses, and taking away our burden.
Not because we deserve it but because what Jesus did on the cross.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Music in hell

War is hell: hate, broken relationships, violence, death, suffering, humiliation, evil, injustice, ....

I felt this again watching Paradise Road. It is based on the true story of women in a prisoner of war camp during WWII. To cope they form a vocal orchestra, that unites them, gives them dignity, and makes some emotional connection with their Japanese captors.

One noteable line concerns different attitudes towards the guards who often humiliated the women. One woman asks another [a missionary], "Why don't you hate them?".
"I can only feel sorry for them."

It raised many of the issues discussed by Miroslav Wolf, in "Exclusion and Embrace." How do the abused respond to their abusers?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Newspapers show just how much personal integrity matters

Apparently Karl Barth would begin each day by reading the newspaper and listening to Mozart. Various statements he made about the importance of reading the Bible and the newspaper together can be read here, including
"Reading of all forms outspokenly secular literature - the newspaper above all - is urgently recommended for understanding the Epistle to the Romans".
I grew up in a family that spent a lot of time reading newspapers. We received two each day, The Canberra Times and the Sydney Morning Herald. Often my father would buy the New York Times "Week in Review." But, now I struggle to keep up. I don't like reading stuff online. Hard copies seem expensive, waste a lot of paper, and can consume a lot of time.

During my recent visit to India we received a copy of The Times of India each day, for a month. In hindsight, we should have got The Hindu, since it seems to be of higher quality. I made sure I spend some time reading it each day. I really enjoyed this, but was motivated by the hope of better understanding India through this exercise. I feel I got a much better sense of just how India is both changing rapidly and struggling to adapt to that change. Unfortunately, it was also depressing because there was so much crime, corruption, suicides, silly advertising for luxury goods, political intrigue, .... It was just like a newspaper in Australia or the USA!

There was also one strong conviction I often come away with from reading all these human failings that enter the public domain. Personal integrity matters! A lot. The negative consequences of moral failures multiply "exponentially". Suppose I do something wrong [e.g. embezzle some funds at work], it becomes known, and enters the public domain. I contest my "innocence". This may lead to a work inquiry, debate within the institution, new policies, newspaper articles, statements by politicians, law suits, new laws, more public debate, more accusations, ... more newspaper articles, a broader government inquiry, .... This all costs money [perhaps far beyond the money I embezzled], takes up lots of time, and particularly distracts a whole range of people [my employers, journalists, politicians, my colleagues, lawyers, judges, ....] from focussing on weightier and more important issues they should be concerned with.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Disabled students or teachers?

I really enjoyed watching the movie Like Stars on Earth, about an Indian boy who suffers from dyslexia. It is a real tear jerker!
It is produced by and stars Aamir Kahn, who is also the iconoclastic hero of 3 Idiots.


I thought the following, taken from Wikipedia, was quite perceptive.
...in their article "Wake up call from 'Stars on the Ground'" for the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, T. S. Sathyanarayana Rao and V. S. T. Krishna wrote that the film "deserves to be vastly appreciated as an earnest endeavor to portray with sensitivity and empathetically diagnose a malady in human life". They also felt it blended "modern professional knowledge" with a "humane approach" in working with a dyslexic child. However, the authors believed the film expands beyond disabilities and explores the "present age where everyone is in a restless hurry". The pair wrote, "This film raises serious questions on mental health perspectives. We seem to be heading to a state of mass scale mindlessness even as children are being pushed to 'perform'. Are we seriously getting engrossed in the race of 'achievement' and blissfully becoming numb to the crux of life i.e., experiencing meaningful living in a broader frame rather than merely existing?" The film depicts how "threats and coercion are not capable of unearthing rich human potentialities deeply embedded in children", and that teachers should instead map their strengths and weakness....

Monday, December 2, 2013

When is immigration wrong?

The New York Times has an excellent Op-Ed piece Migration hurts the Homeland by Paul Collier a Professor of Economics at Oxford. He points out how immigration from poor countries to rich countries by the elite damages the former. Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, has recently been arguing on liberal political grounds for increased immigration to the USA. But, actually his arguments are just self serving, since companies such as his, benefit from the brain drain to the USA. The rich and powerful are insatiable.

On related issues, Vinoth Ramachandra has a provocative blog post Robbing the Poor, that points out Australia's double standards.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

How large is the middle class in India?

Today's issue of the Times of India features an interesting op-ed piece India's middle class awakes by Pavan K. Varma. He states
If we take a strictly economic criterion of defining a middle class person as anybody who belongs to a household which has a monthly income of between Rs 20,000 and Rs 100,000 a month, the middle class starts to look very substantial. Estimates reveal that as per this criterion the size of the middle class in 1996 was a paltry 25 million. Today, it is in excess of 160 million. And, by 2015, its numbers are expected to go up to 267 million.
A few comments.
First, this means that in 2 years the Indian middle class will be comparable to that of the USA!
and 13 times the whole population of Australia!

Second, the income amounts [20 to 100 thousand Rupees per month] convert to US$4,000 to $20,000 per year. This may seem strange. [It took me a couple of trips to India to understand this.] In the USA such a household income would define poverty. However, this illustrates how economics works. Broadly speaking, living costs scale with salaries. Salaries are roughly ten times lower than the USA, but so is food, housing, education, health care, and transportation. On the other hand some things don't scale. An iPhone costs as much in India as in the USA. Thus, the insatiable demand for them is puzzling!

Third, it should be obvious why Western companies find out-sourcing to India so attractive. IBM now has more employees in India than in the USA. Unless, Western workers lower their upper middle class expectations and associated wage demands it is hard for me to see how they are going to remain competitive.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

C.S. Lewis - the humble apologist


Vinoth Ramachandra has an interesting post, Which C.S. Lewis?
He mentions that his favourite piece of C.S. Lewis is “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer”.
Vinoth says, "I carry it in my Bible. I think it should be enshrined on the doors of all those churches and institutions that place too much emphasis on apologetics and preaching “techniques”."
Here is the prayer.
“From all my lame defeats and oh! much more
From all the victories that I seemed to score
From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf
At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;
From all my proofs of Thy divinity
Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.
Thoughts are but coins, let me not trust, instead
Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.
From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee,
O Thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.
Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye,
Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.”

Friday, November 22, 2013

Church in Bangalore

This past four weeks in Bangalore my wife and I have really enjoyed being part of Radiant Life Church located near SAIACS, where we have been staying. The church is very integrated into the local community, running the Shema school and a childrens home through the Radiant Life charitable trust.

Last sunday I was asked to give the sermon and spoke on "Seeing the faithfulness of God in creation", based on Jeremiah 31:31-37

Sunday, November 10, 2013

India: forward or backward?

I am in the middle of a five week trip to India. This is my fifth trip in the last four years. Two things that
are really clear about India today.
First, it is rapidly changing.
Second, it is struggling to cope with change.
Rapid economic growth and restructuring is being accompanied by rapid technological and social change. Institutions, all the way from the family to the national government are struggling to adapt. On this trip I am reading the newspaper, The Times of India, everyday. It accentuates the above observations.
In the Western world, dramatic changes associated with globalisation, economic restructuring, and technology are also happening. However, I feel that the change is happening at about one-tenth of the pace in India.

Is all this change positive or negative?
It depends on your perspective.
I thought the following quote from the book India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation's Remaking
was particularly interesting. It compares the problems of the old India, where life in villages was dominated by caste, to the new India, where life in the cities is dominated by capitalism.
this narrowing of tasks, while making things more efficient, also made it harder to find meaning in work. ... what caste did flagrantly, putting humans into their different boxes, globalization was doing more artfully: giving every worker a sliver of a specialized role, making him work harder and harder, depriving him over time of a sense of the whole, and eroding his connections with other humans. ... cousins in deprivation [are] the labourer driven from his land for the software company and the software coder who writes his narrow code, slogs for people he has never met, and suffers the fate of the new-economy worker bee: fifteen-hour days, bumper-to-bumper traffic, sexual and marital frustration, children who ask, `How come Papa never comes home?'
When caste wanted to separate man from man, it used the concept of dharma.. When capitalism wanted to separate man form man, it used the concept of production, of higher consumption, of better livelihood - whatever. The end result was separating human being from human being and erasing the socialness, the human essence, from the human being.
This is not the author, but someone he interviewed. You will have to look at the book to see who said it. That makes it of even greater interest and challenge.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Slavery in Australia

Nicholas Kristof has a fascinating and challenging op-ed Slavery Isn't a Thing of the Past in the New York Times [I read it in a hard copy of the Times of India. Such is globalisation!].

There is an interesting twist in the article that involves Australia and shows that some short term- "mission/social service" trips involving teenagers can have big impact!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The ugly side of commercial sport

How did cricket become so commercial?
When did exclusive TV rights for cricket and football/soccer begin?
How did Kerry Packer become one of Australia's most wealthy and powerful men?

I enjoyed watching Howzat? Kerry Packer's war. It retells the fascinating story of how Packer took on the world cricket establishment in the late 1970s in order to gain exclusive television rights for Australian test cricket.

One thing I did not like is that it does a good job building sympathy for his cause. This is in spite of the fact that it clearly shows that he was a ruthless businessman, who was crude, abused his staff, and had an insatiable thirst for money and power.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

From Einstein to Experiential apologetics

There actually isn't much of a connection.

Today I finished the presentation, Can science kill God?
There were a lot of questions about Einstein's theory of general relativity and big bang cosmology.

We then discussed Soren Kierkegaard, experiential apologetics, and the associated reading. Here are the slides.

The reading for tomorrow is the chapter on Universities from Vishal Mangalwadi's book, "The book that made your world."

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Presuppositional apologetics

In today's lecture we first reviewed foundationalism and its problems. I was grateful for the student feedback that yesterday's discussion was not clear and so we looked at it again. This included a discussion of Einstein's theory of special relativity. This is a model case that can be used to promote foundationalism but actually illustrates its problems. This is because it involves basic beliefs that are not self evident [space and time are connected and not independent] and conclusions that "don't make sense" [when it comes to adding velocities 2 + 2 does not equal 4!].

We then discussed the presuppositional approach to apologetics, as advocated by Cornelius van Til. Here are the relevant slides.

I then began a presentation, Can science kill God?, that highlights the distinction between actual science  and the philosophical interpretation of it. I will conclude that tomorrow.

The reading for the evening is the last chapter of the book, Truth and Subjectivity, Faith and History: Kierkegaard's Insights for Christian Faith, by Varughese John, co-ordinator of the course.

Writing and publishing seminar in Delhi

Last saturday in New Delhi I was invited by the North Delhi Intercollegiate Evangelical Union to present a seminar on Writing and Publishing. The audience was mostly postgraduate students and a few faculty. Here are the slides.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Towards Reformed Epistemology

Today's apologetics class was largely concerned with understanding what foundationalism is, its problems, and the alternative of Reformed Epistemology, pioneered by Alvin Plantinga.
Here are the slides I used.

A key reference is Plantinga's essay, "Reason and Belief in God."

Before tomorrow's class students are to read "The Point of Contact", a chapter in the book, Christian Apologetics, by Cornelius van Til, founder of the presuppositional approach to apologetics.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Apologetics in India

This week I am on leave [vacation/holidays] from work.
My wife and I are visiting SAIACS in Bangalore, India. I am teaching part of an Apologetics course taken by second year M.A. students.
Previously, Varughese John introduced the subject for two weeks and Rodney Holder (Faraday Institute) spent a week on Science and Religion.

Today I reviewed the three dominant forms of apologetics used in the Western world: presuppositionalism, evidentialism, and experientialism.
Here are the slides that go with todays lectures.
It also featured a lot discussions in small groups.
My challenge for the students is to come up with a distinctly Indian apologetics.
The reading for tomorrow is
*the last chapter, "Faith(s) and Reason," of Philosophy of Religion by Stephen Evans and Zachary Manis.
*my editorial, "Science and theology in non-Western contexts."

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Has science buried God in Novi Sad?

Tonight I am giving a talk, "Has science buried God?" at a cafe in Novi Sad, Serbia. The event is sponsored by an IFES student group from the university, a local church, and Project Timothy. They chose the title, which is borrowed from John Lennox, who will be visiting at the end of the month.

Here are the slides for the talk.
I hope the questions and discussion after the talk are as lively as the event in Belgrade last night.


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Higgs boson talk in Belgrade

Tonight I am giving a talk, "Higgs boson vs. God particle- scientific reality vs. media hype" in a cafe/bookstore in Belgrade. The event is sponsored by a local student Christian group.

The talk is particularly timely given that the Higgs boson is in the news again, following last weeks  announcement of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Here is the current version of the slides.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Genesis and science talk

Tonight I am giving a talk, "A scientist looks at Genesis" at HUB, a small Bible college outside Belgrade. The talk will be given with simultaneous translation into Serbian.

Here is the current version of the slides. I start with the excellent video, "Science and Genesis".

Some of the Faraday papers on science and religion have been translated into Serbian.

International church in Belgrade

This morning my wife and I enjoyed atttending the International Christian Fellowship in Belgrade. The special guests were a group of Roma [gypsy] Christians who sang some songs in Romani and shared personal testimonies. [A recent Christianity Today article chronicles many of the challenges Roma face and the growth of an indigenous church]. Another case of how the Gospel transcends culture.

One of the church attendees also is a research physicist; another case illustrating that science, intellectual rigour, and Christian faith and life can go together.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Talk on personal conflict and peacemaking


Last year at our church we worked through some material from The Peacemaker by Ken Sande. My wife and I also attended a weekend workshop to learn to apply some of the ideas in practical situations. I find it very challenging. But then the teachings of Jesus are!

Tonight in Ljubljana, Robin and I have been invited by ZVES a University student group to talk about some these ideas concerning personal relational conflict. Given that this part of the world has experienced conflict far beyond anything we have, we have a lot to learn. Here are the slides we are using for the talk. We look forward to learning from the participants in the discussion time.

Some Slovenian friends suggested this Youtube video [partly in Slovenian] is a somewhat amusing but cutting introduction to the issue.

At a deep theological and academic level, Miroslav Wolf's book, Exclusion and Embrace, provides a challenging perspective on the issue.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

University life in Slovenia

My wife and I are currently visiting Ljubljana, Slovenia. I am working at the Stefan Institute, and giving a Physics Colloquium. I was invited by a student Christian group, ZVES to give a talk, "Striving or thriving at University", this thursday night. Here is the current version of my slides. I am looking forward to some lively discussion after the talk and learning more about life in Slovenian universities.

Previously, ZVES hosted my distinguished Australian scientific colleague, Professor Peter Gill, who gave a talk, "A Professor with two heads?", about being a scientist and a Christian.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Church in Antwerp, Belgium

Two weeks ago I was in Antwerp, Belgium for a scientific conference. On the sunday beforehand I was able to attend the Antwerp Christian Fellowship. This is a multi-ethnic English speaking congregation.

There was a very moving presentation about the ministry Cherut [Hebrew for liberty], that reaches out to prostitutes in the red light district. Many are victims of human trafficking. Cherut was founded by one of the women from the Fellowship.

I also enjoyed meeting one of the elders, who had done a Ph.D in theoretical physics at New York University. He had become a Christian during that time and was involved with Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. To me this was just another small living example of how following Jesus and being a scientist are not in conflict.

Inequality for all

Is the USA the land of opportunity for all? Economic inequality is at a record level.
I am looking forward to watching the documentary Inequality for all, featuring Berkeley economist Robert Reich.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Church in New York City

There are several modern myths that are promoted by the media and believed by many
-young people have abandoned the church
-you can't be a Christian and an intellectual
-large cities are bastions of secularism
-traditional Christian doctrines and liturgies are out of date and need to modernise
-mainline Protestant denominations are dying

Last sunday I had an experience that provides some counter examples against all these. I was invited to attend the morning worship service at All Angels Episcopal Church in New York City. It is located on the Upper West Side.

The traditional liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer was combined with classic church music and hymns, contemporary worship songs, and two rousing Gospel [African-American] numbers. The room was packed with maybe 200 people, ranging from young families to the elderly. The multi-ethnic diversity reflected that of NYC. About twenty of the people there were faculty at universities. About thirty were graduate students, many at Columbia and New York University. There was also an announcement about the forthcoming city-wide campaign, The Price of Life, against human trafficking.

Afterwards I had lunch with a group of graduate students from NYU and two staff from the  Graduate and Faculty Ministry of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. We had an interesting discussion about the challenges of being a Christian and a graduate student, reminding me what a "pressure cooker" US graduate schools can be.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Revelation speaks to the Global South and North

I believe the message of the Bible transcends time and culture. I have just started reading through the book of Revelation and was struck by how the letters to the seven churches in the opening chapters are so relevant to the global church today, in all its diversity.
For example, to the suffering and poor church in the Global South [Smyrna]:

“‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander.... 10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison,that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation.Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.

While to the affluent and arrogant church in the Global North [Laodicea]:

17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. 20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Randomness does not preclude design

Previously I have posted about the misconception that if something appears to be random then it cannot have purpose.

Paul La Montagne recently pointed out to me that true randomness actually requires design. It is very hard to produce "random numbers". Mathematicians and computer scientists work very hard to design random number generators.

Hence, if we observe something that appears to be "random", i.e. has no underlying pattern or order we are not justified in claiming that it has not been designed. There could be a deep and profound and underlying order to it.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Resources for engaging with the church in the Majority world

Last night I gave a talk "Engaging with the church in Majority world" to the Stanford InverVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship.

I described some of my recent experiences, particularly visiting theological colleges, and student Christian groups affiliated with IFES. I really enjoyed the questions and discussion.

Here are some of the resources I recommended:

The Message of Mission by Howard Peskett and Vinoth Ramachandra

Poor Economics: a radical rethinking of the way to fight global poverty

When helping hurts: how to alleviate poverty without hurting the poor and yourself

Africa Bible Commentary

Connecting Resources for Tertiary Chemical Education with Scientists and Students in Developing Countries. A recent article I co-authored in the Journal of Chemical Education

"Science and theology in non-Western contexts"
An editorial I wrote in Science and Christian Belief

Compassion for child sponsorship

Overseas Council for partnering with theological colleges in the Majority world.

My work/science blog has a lot of career advice and some discussion of mental health issues for academics.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A typology for Christians interacting with society

Yesterday I enjoyed being at First Presbyterian Church Berkeley. The sermon by Ian Noyes was on Romans 12:9-21 which presents many challenges to Christians on how they relate to their opponents.

Ian made use of Miroslav Volf's “Two Noes and One Yes”. I had not heard of this before and found it helpful and challenging. I found Tim Keller also invokes this in his book Center Church: Doing balanced, gospel-centered ministry in your city. Here is the relevant quote:
Miroslav Volf titles a section of his book A Public Faith “Two Noes and One Yes”. This means, first, saying no to what he calls “total transformation” - to a goal of transforming the whole culture we inhabit. What Christians build culturally is not like the modern cities (Brasilia is the best example) that are built from scratch. It is like rehabilitating an existing city while living in it. It means, second, saying no to what he calls “accommodation”. Finally, we say yes to “engagement”, which Volf describes as “expressing the middle between abandoning and dominating the culture… what it might mean to assert one’s difference while remaining within it,” of “leaving without departing”.
Similar considerations apply to Christians interacting with universities. 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Turn the other check and change the world

I enjoyed watching the movie 42 about Jackie Robinson, the first African-American in Major League Baseball in the USA. It highlights the racism and antagonism that he had to endure. A key was his ability to endure silently, "turning the other cheek." Many consider that Robinson broke down prejudices, helping create the climate for the civil rights movement and the end of racial segregation.

Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers owner, who carefully recruited Robinson with a view to ending racial segregation in baseball said, "I am looking for a ball player who has the guts not to fight back." The shared Christian faith of Rickey and Robinson is nicely discussed in a post, Jackie Robinson and the pattern of Jesus.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Reading the Bible like Aesop's fables


With my son I have been reading through Counterfeit Gods: When the empty promises of love, money, and power let you down by Tim Keller.
I recommend it.

[Trivial cultural aside: the USA edition has "sex, money, and power" in the sub-title whereas I have a UK edition which is "love, money, and power"].

Each chapter considers a different idol in the modern/postmodern world and deconstructs it, engaging with a relevant passage of the Bible. Keller's exegesis often takes directions I would not have anticipated. [I mean this in the positive sense]. For example, I used to think positively of Jacob working seven years for Rachel [Genesis 29]: what an example of "true love"! However, Keller takes it as a sign of idolatry and infatuation.

Keller points out that we may read the Old Testament narratives with the wrong approach.
“The reason for our confusion [about the Bible] is that we usually read the Bible as a series of disconnected stories, each with a “moral” for how we should live our lives. It is not. Rather, it comprises a single story, telling us how the human race got into its present condition, and how God through Jesus Christ has come and will come to put things right.” (pp. 36-37)

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

An admonition from Ecclesiastes in the public square

Today my son and I played tourist in San Francisco. The picture below is the clocktower of St. Mary's Cathedral in Chinatown.

The only reason I saw this is that it featured in the excellent DK guide to San Francisco that we were using. I really love DK books, particularly the travel guides.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Non-issues for the Australian election

Next month Australia will have a national election. As is now common in Western democracies much of the campaign reporting and "debate" focusses on personalities, polls, hip-pocket issues, and fear [of immigration, financial collapse, ....].

It would be nice if we could have a robust national debate about substantial issues that will shape the kind of country Australia will be in one or two decades from now.
I believe that the affluent and peaceful life experienced by the bulk of Australians is a geographical and historical anomaly. Furthermore, I believe that our current lifestyle is not economically, environmentally, and politically sustainable.
Sorry I am such a pessimist. But, the world is changing rapidly. Life in Australia is like paradise compared to most of the world and it is easy to live in denial.

Here are a few issues I would like to see discussed. The order of the list is random. All of the issues are complex. Many are divisive.

How might we move towards constructive bi-partisan policies on immigration, climate change, and indigenous welfare?

What can be done to reduce "middle class welfare", the associated sense of entitlement and future unsustainable debts?

How can Australia increase its foreign aid and make it more effective? [Details of recent disappointing government actions are here].

How can Australia move beyond a foreign policy that is subservient to the USA?

To what extent are we willing to sacrifice our short-term financial interests in order to be building a more just and peaceful world?

How can the quality of public education be increased?

Australia is a multi-cultural Western secular democracy. Yet is has been shaped [mostly sub-consciously] by ideals with largely Christian/Biblical origins [human rights, rule of law, compassion,  ....]. What is the appropriate and constructive engagement of "religion in the public square"?

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Global inequality is changing

It is amazing how much the world has changed in twenty years. Somewhat for the better. The Economist recently ran a cover story about how the rapid economic growth of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) is slowing down. Embedded in the article is the graph below that takes a while to digest
[The] most populous countries [in the world] are no longer all that poor and its poor countries are no longer all that populous. Two decades of BRIC-led growth mean that there are far fewer people earning very little. In 1993 about half the world lived at below 5% of American GDP per person, according to an analysis of IMF figures by The Economist (see chart above). In 2012 the equivalent figure was 18% of American GDP per person.
The graph also predicts that 5 years from now 40% of the world's population will have an income greater than 25% of the US GDP per person.

To me this highlights both
- how incredibly inequitable global wealth was twenty years ago
- how much there has been a rapid expansion of "middle classes" in the BRICs in the last twenty years.

Noten, this does not mean that things are now just or that BRICs don't still have massive amounts of people living in extreme poverty.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

How did we get here?

Consider the following entrenched values of Western society:
  • all humans are of equal value and dignity
  • technology that saves labour is a good thing
  • public debate about political and social issues is good
  • rationality
Where did these values come from? 
Why are they not entrenched in many non-Western societies?
These questions are extensively examined by Vishal Mangalwadi

I have now read more than a quarter of the book. Mangalwadi persuasively argues that core Western values, such as those above, were driven by theology, and often by Reformation theology.
Sometimes we are told that some of these values derived from the Graeco-Roman world. However, although some of these values were present then, they had generally been abandoned or forgotten. For example, rationalism was supplanted by gnosticism and mysticism. 
The church sustained the idea of the logos because the Bible's framework provided a rationale for believing in reason. The logos had entered history and become flesh. Since rationality was a part of the nature of God that had been given to us, philosophy or rational understanding and systematisation of revealed truth ... was not something to be feared or shunned.
(page 84)

Saturday, August 3, 2013

When did immigration become "border protection"?

I just flew from Brisbane to the USA.
I am a bit slow to notice change. But I did notice that now in both Australia and the USA, "Customs and Immigration" has become "Customs and Border Protection".
I guess this reflects the increasing xenophobia, hostility to immigration, and fear in both countries.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Its all in the name

My wife and I enjoyed watching the movie The Namesake. It chronicles the life of a young man who is born in the USA to Indian immigrants and given the name Nikolai Gogol, after a Russian novelist. The story line centers around Gogol's attitude towards his name and how that reflects his closeness or distance from his family. The movies highlights the powerful interplay of family, culture, and personal identity. It portrays a very positive view of marriage and family.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

A computer scientist on his Christian faith

Donald Knuth is one of the most distinguished computer scientists in the world. He is also a Christian and in 1999 gave six lectures about science and faith at MIT. These were published as a book, Things a computer scientist rarely talks about. He also published a book 3:16 which has a commentary on all the 3:16 verses in the Bible.

In 2009 he fielded questions about science and faith at Google headquarters. It is a bit quirky, slow and rambling but it is worth the effort.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Seeing the world through very different eyes

My wife and I enjoyed watching the movie Temple Grandin. It is a semi-autobiographical account of the life of an autistic woman who was responsible for innovations in the treatment of animals in the livestock industry in the USA.

The trailer nicely illustrates just how differently she sees the world.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Is there nothing to it?

In Australia in August there will be three public events Life, the Universe, and Nothing, featuring Lawrence Krauss, an atheist cosmologist, and William Lane Craig, a Christian apologist.
A previous debate between the two is on YouTube and the transcript is here.

Some earlier posts critiqued some of Krauss' views.

A heart for the poor

I found the TEAR conference on A Heart for the Poor in May very challenging.

Here is a copy of the talk given by Charles Ringma. He nicely and simply gave the clear mandate from the Bible and from history for Christians to be actively involved in helping and caring for the poor in a constructive manner.

I also attended a workshop on "Vocation, Profession, and Mission," given by Dave Andrews. Some of the material is in his article Vocational Professionals. The opposite of an amateur is not a professional but a mercenary!


Monday, July 15, 2013

Integrating the Gospel with academia and service

The past few years I have learnt a lot and been challenged greatly by my Christian friends in the developing world. One example was last year I visited the North Delhi Intercollegiate Evangelical Union. They recently completed an "Intensive Summer Study" that consisted of meeting 4 hours a day for 6 weeks. The participants were required to purchase and read ten books that covered a wide range of topics from systematic theology to post-colonial theory. My wife and I followed the daily process on Facebook and on the blog. I found the commitment level particularly challenging given the cultural context of minimal resources, extreme pressure to succeed professionally, and an educational system based on rote learning and specialisation rather than analysis and integration.

Perhaps a key word describing the goal, process, and outcome is integration: integration of faith and practice, integration of worship and life, integration of the Gospel and academic disciplines, integration of ethnic diversity, integration of mission with service,....
Integrity is all about integration.

In the affluent and arrogant West we have much to learn from others living in very different circumstances.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Does a university education corrode Christian faith?

A common view, particularly in the USA is that attending a secular university is harmful to the faith of Christian students. But, is this view actually supported by data? It seems not. The relevant data and its interpretation is discussed in this blog post.

A related question is: does studying science decrease the religious faith of undergraduates?
A common view is that the answer is yes. However, the data suggests otherwise. In contrast, studying the humanities can have a negative effect on religious faith. For US universities the relevant research paper is here.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Child sponsorship is effective in alleviating poverty

I am a big fan of Compassion, including their child sponsorship programs.

I also believe that aid and development programs aimed at alleviating poverty need to be critically evaluated. Indeed, it is painful to acknowledge that some are not just inefficient or ineffective but can even be counter-productive. This is an important message of the wonderful book Poor Economics that my son and I just finished reading. The point is made from a Christian point of view in When helping hurts that my wife has read.

Hence, I was very interested to see the results of an extensive and independent study by a team of economists of the effectiveness of Compassion's programs. The study
Does International Child Sponsorship Work? A Six-Country Study of Impacts on Adult Life Outcomes was published in the Journal of Political Economy. Here is the abstract:
Child sponsorship is a leading form of direct aid from wealthy country households to children in developing countries. Over 9 million children are supported through international sponsorship organizations. Using data from six countries, we estimate impacts on several outcomes from sponsorship through Compassion International, a leading child sponsorship organization. To identify program effects, we utilize an age-eligibility rule implemented when programs began in new villages. We find large, statistically significant impacts on years of schooling; primary, secondary, and tertiary school completion; and the probability and quality of employment. Early evidence suggests that these impacts are due, in part, to increases in children’s aspirations.

Messy American history

Were the founding fathers of the USA Christian?
What should the role of Christian scholars be in the church?

These questions are nicely addressed an interesting post In God We TrustA July 4th Conversation on the Historian’s Vocation & the Church  on the Emerging Scholars blog.
I learnt some history I did not know, particularly about the Deist beliefs of the legendary George Washington.

One idea that is highlighted is that history is messier and more complicated than many of us would like to admit. If we acknowledge this we may have to give up some of our cherished ideas about who we are and where we are heading.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The mystery of healing and the gift of life

My family enjoyed watching the movie Awakenings. It is based on a true story of the partial temporary healing of patients in a strange catatonic state. The movie highlights the mystery of some illness, the hope of healing, the inadequacies of hospitals and health professionals, and what it means to be human and to be alive.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Why doesn't Australia allow recent refugees to work?

Kathleen Noonan had an excellent column Refugees have always added colour to our communities in the Courier Mail [Brisbane's tabloid newspaper] on saturday.
She raises a troubling and important question of the Australian government: why aren't recent refugees allowed to get jobs?

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Taking away the power and profanity of money


“We must bring money back to its simple role as a material instrument. When money is no more than an object, when it has lost its seductiveness, its supreme value, its superhuman splendor, then we can use it like any other of our belongings, like any machine. Of course, even if this relieves our fears, we must always be vigilant and very attentive because the power is never totally eliminated.

Now this profanation is first of all a result of a spiritual battle, but this must be translated into behaviour. There is one act par excellence which profanes money by going directly again the law of money, an act for which money is not made. This act is giving.”

Jacques Ellul, Money and Power (Marshall Morgan and Scott, 1986), p. 110.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

A gem of a movie

I watched the movie The Sapphires with my wife and daughter. Based partly on a true story it chronicles a female Australian aboriginal singing group who go to Vietnam to entertain US troops in 1968. It is entertaining but also raises important issues about racism and indigenous identity in Australia, both then and now.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Learning about poverty and wealth from refugees

In Christianity Today there is a challenging and fascinating article Saved by my refugee neighbours by Russell Jeung.
It raises questions about the nature of poverty. Many affluent people are actually poor because of the lack of relationships and community. Indeed much of Western affluence is aimed at being independent of others and withdrawing from community.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Contrasting Western and Indian ethics


My wife and I have enjoyed dipping into India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation's Remaking by Anand Giridharadas.

The author grew up in the US with parents who were immigrants from India. He returned to India a decade ago to "re-invent" himself,  discover his roots, and chronicle the radical social transformation that India is undergoing due to economic reforms.

He contrasts the morality of East and West by asking readers to consider which of the following actions they consider wrong (page 112):

1. To cut ahead of someone in line when you're in a hurry.

2. To let you your parents spend their last years in a nursing home.

3. To use your influence to help your nephew get a job in your company.

4. To let relatives visit your home without serving them a meal.

What do you think?

The author claims most Westerner's [or Indians trained/indoctrinated by Western colonialists (Anglophiles)] would claim that 1. and 3. are morally wrong, but not 2. and 4. In contrast, Indian's [such as industrial magnate Mukesh Ambani] would claim that 2. and 4. are wrong, but 1. and 3. are not.

Western morality, rooted in Judeo-Christian thought, is "concerned with a universal fairness, no matter who the person, no matter what the context." An Indian perspective has an "emphasis on applying ... norms in a family situations more than in the public square; it is the ethics of dharma, duty, not of abstract rules."

The author says these contrasts are explored in an essay "Is there an Indian Way of Thinking?" by A.K. Ramanujan.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Issues in Christian scholarship


This week at the Volfians group we will be discussing the short book Reason within the bounds of religion by Nicholas Wolterstorff.

There is a very helpful summary of the book by Michael Wilson.
Here is my summary of the summary!

Every scholar must choose:

1. what specific subject to investigate
2. what views to hold on that particlar subject

Wolterstorff suggests that a Christian scholar should have distinct views and practice relating to both these issues. To consider, the second, he reviews foundationalism and its failures.

Foundationalism is the classic Western philosophical perspective on theory construction.
One starts with a foundation of specific assumptions that are certain or self-evident. From this foundation one uses inference to demonstrate the certainty of new propositions.

Wolterstorff considers three different types of foundationalism:

1. Complementarism.
Following, Aquinas, faith and reason are considered to be complementary to one another.
Believers and unbelievers can both apprehend the truth of certain matters.

2. Preconditionalist Foundationalism.
"I believe in order that I might understand."
Augustine, Anselm, and Calvin had this view.
Unbelief can prevent apprehension of some matters.

3. Incorporationism.
Followed by many modern Protestants.
"everything the Bible teaches, ..., is incorporated within a body of foundational certitudes."

Foundationalism has significant problems as a self-consistent philosophy. "Many theories that seemingly warrant acceptance are not deducible from any foundation. The example is given of the claim, "all swans have wings." A strict foundationalist can only accept this if they exam all the swans in the world.
The problem is distinguishing between certainty and what is true with high probability.
Furthermore, foundationalism does not provide a justification for induction.

Falsification [Karl Popper's alternative to foundationalism] is not the solution. No theory stands alone. If some experimental result is inconsistent with a theory one does not then always abandon the theory. One may instead reject the experimental result as unreliable.

How does one actually weigh the evidence for a theory?
This is influenced by three things.

a. Data beliefs
Decisions about what data is valid and what is not.

b. Data background beliefs
Criteria one uses to accept some and reject some data.

c. Control beliefs
Criteria that one uses to assess whether a theory itself is an acceptable candidate theory.
Examples include  aesthetics, logical structure, or consistency with another theory.

Wolterstorff suggests that some Christian scholars make the supremacy of science as a control belief. In particular, "Christian commitment [does not] enter into the devising or weighing of theories within the sciences." [page 82]. Furthermore, Christian scholars seldom "suggest any research programs within the sciences" [page 105].

Finally, he turns to issue 1. above: what subjects should a Christian scholar investigate. He contrasts "pure theory" and "praxis-oriented theory." The relative priority is based on "deciding which holds the most promise of contributing most substantially to the cause of in-justice shalom." [page 133-134].

"in justice shalom" means that the "goal of human existence is that man should dwell at peace in all his relationships: with God, with himself, with his fellows, with nature, a peace which is not merely the absence of hostility, though it certainly is that, but a peace which at its highest is enjoyment." [page 114]

This is certainly a challenge for Christian scholarship.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Has Science disproved Christianity?

Here is a nice 3 minute interview where quantum physicist Geoff Pryde, gives his answer to this question.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

C.S. Lewis' challenge to Christian scientists


What kind of books should Christian intellectuals and scientists write? What will be the most effective for defending and promoting the Gospel? I find it surprising, interesting, and challenging to consider the view of C.S. Lewis.
While we are on the subject of science, let me digress or a moment. I believe that any Christian who is qualified to write a good popular book on any science may do much more by that than by any directly apologetic work. The difficulty we are up against is this. We can make people (often) attend to the Christian point of view for half an hour or so; but the moment they have gone away from our lecture or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted. As long as that situation exists, widespread success is simply impossible. We must attack the enemy's line of communication. 
What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects, with their Christianity latent. You can see this most easily if you look at it the other way round. Our Faith is not very likely to be shaken by any book on Hinduism. But if whenever we read an elementary book on Geology, Botany, Politics, or Astronomy, we found that its implications were Hindu, that would shake us. It is not the books written in direct defence of Materialism that make the modern man a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books. In the same way, it is not books on Christianity that will really trouble him. But he would be troubled if, whenever he wanted a cheap popular introduction to some science, the best work on the market was always by a Christian. The first step to the re-conversion of this country is a series, produced by Christians, which can beat the Penguin and the Thinkers Library on their own ground. Its Christianity would have to be latent, not explicit: and of course its science perfectly honest. Science twisted in the interests of apologetics would be sin and folly.
C.S. Lewis, "Christian Apologetics" (1945) included in God in the Dock (Eerdmans, 1970) 93.

Monday, May 27, 2013

An atheist who understands what faith in Jesus really is

Terry Eagleton is arguably one of the UK's most prominent literary critics. He is an atheist, but a prominent critic of the New Atheists. He takes them to task for their superficial treatment and mis-representation of Christian faith.

There is a nice series of interviews of Eagleton with Arnold Eisen, a Jewish scholar.

Here is one where he discusses his understanding of what Christian faith really is.

Why do charities spend so much money on fund raising?

Whose fault is it? How do we stop it?
It is easy to blame the charities/NGOs/churches/mission agencies and their leaders and staff.
But what about us, the prospective donors?

The problem is that many people do not give systematically and regularly but do respond to "crisis" appeals.
So a solution is to not respond to these appeals but rather to start giving small amounts in a regular fashion over a sustained period of time (3+ years). Electronic banking makes this very easy.

Once the charity realises they have a certain stable income stream and their "crisis" appeals have little effect, they may accept their budget and focus on spending it wisely rather than on raising more money.

Sorry, if I am a little idealistic. You can't change everyone else. But you do have a choice as to whether you join me in this strategy.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Are we good at heart?

What does history tell us?

Sir Herbert Butterfield was a Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University and noted historian. He has an interesting statement (reproduced here) about how if certain social safeguards are removed then our true nature will be revealed.

An essay The Christian and the study of history reviews Butterfield's broader contributions to scholarship.


Friday, May 17, 2013

Apologetics in the twenty-first century

There is a helpful article "Atheists, Archbishops, and Airport Novelists: Recent trends in Christian apologetics," by Greg Clarke in the latest CASE magazine.

He lists four positive trends
  • God is well and truly centre-stage in global intellectual life.
  • The affective dimension of apologetics is receiving new, and overdue, attention.
  • Christianity is often now presented as a story, a very good story, and a story into which anyone can enter.
  • The ethical discontents of secularism have become a pathway into discussion of the moral shape of Christianity.
The discouraging trend is "Too many centres of apologetic engagement are entwined with specific or institutionalised political commitments, to their detriment and to the confusion of the public..... If a project on the relationship between God and science ends up as bitter dispute about the politics of teaching evolution or creation in schools, it has probably not achieved its best end."

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The poor man has a name

Here is an interesting question.
Do any of the characters in the parables of Jesus have a personal name?
The prodigal son, the unmerciful servant, the good Samaritan, ....

I learnt this past week that there is only one: Lazarus, the poor man in the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus recorded in Luke 16:19-31

The Africa Bible Commentary (p. 1263) says
At the one extreme in this story is an unidentified rich man, whose clothing, mansion and lifestyle, mark him as one of the rich and famous. The very idea of such lifestyle might have been amazing to some of the original hearers. But deep in the night, when hunger kept them awake, they may have reflected on why some poeple enjoy life while others have to sweat and scrape just to get by. 
At the opposite extreme is a representative of the poverty of the masses, named Lazarus. All that he has going for him is the fact that he is the only person in all of Jesus' parables with a name, Lazarus. This name is the Latinized from of Eleazar and means "God is my help". Lazarus is a beggar, but he has a name. He is covered with ulcerated sores but he has human dignitty. He does not remain nameless. 
The sin of the rich man is that he has no heart. He looks at a man with a name, but does not ask him his name. He saw Lazarus' hunger and pain, but did nothing about it. He accepted the poverty of Lazarus as part of the normal order of things and thought it perfectly natural and inevitable that Lazarus whould lie in huger, pain, suffering, sickness and ultimately in death while he wallowed in luxury. There are none so blind   as those who will not see.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Not singing the national anthem

By many accounts Australia has a rather innocuous National Anthem, Advance Australian Fair. [We ditched "God save the Queen" in 1984 and I have to confess I actually don't know the words].

But, I came to understand that it is not actually so innocuous by watching an episode of Redfern now, a recent TV series that deals with some of the struggles of urban indigenous Australians. In the episode a new scholarship student at an exclusive private school finds he is incapable of singing it because of what it represents. The episode highlights the inability of white liberal Australians [including myself] to understand the real issues and to make token gestures.
But I thought the episode ending was a bit too "fairy tale."

I think the episode also highlights a profound difference between Australia and the USA. Patriotism has a different dimension. Many Australians are quite comfortable with accepting someone being Australian and NOT singing the national anthem.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Seven days that divide the world

The latest issue of Science and Christian Belief has a helpful review of the recent book
Seven Days That Divide the World: The Beginning According to Genesis and Science by John Lennox.

Here is the full review by Davis Young, Emeritus Professor of Geology at Calvin College:
The content of this short book is summed up rather well by its somewhat peevish title. Here John Lennox concentrates
on the first chapter of Genesis, having already published a broader take on science and religion in God's Undertaker (2007). His style is clear and accessible, with a welcome touch of humour, but it is also argumentative. This latter aspect comes out especially in the five Appendices, which take up more than a third of the book.
 
The first two chapters look back briefly at the old controversy over the earth's movement round the sun. Lennox explains how Old Testament verses that refer to a fixed earth were seen as speaking metaphorically once it became certain that the earth really does move. This account of the Galileo affair serves as a cautionary tale, from which he recommends humility in interpreting both Scripture and science. He also sets out his own position as a scientist who believes Scripture to be the Word of God (28). 
From this basis, Lennox moves on to consider what Genesis 1 has to say about the age of the earth. He acknowledges three main ways of interpreting the days of creation: as 24 hour days, as long periods of time or as a literary framework. He then offers a fourth way of his own, where the six days encompass a sequence of creation acts, each of which involved at least one creative fiat introduced by the phrase "And God said" (55). Lennox suggests that these days occurred at intervals over the long history of the universe. However, as he explains in Appendix E, he believes the phrase‚ "And God said" means "direct activity of the word of God" (186) and excludes "unguided natural processes" (172). He therefore rejects any idea of "theistic evolution" and this makes him, in current terminology, an old-earth creationist. 
This position becomes even clearer in the next chapter where he argues that human beings are a special creation and not a product of evolution. He insists that, according to Genesis, you cannot cross "the gulf between animals and human beings by unguided natural processes... Without God speaking there is an unbridgeable discontinuity" (70). Lennox offers us only two alternatives on human origins: either "a supernatural intervention" (74) or "random permutations of matter without any ultimate significance" (85). He does not include the possibility that, in a divinely sustained world, natural processes are due to the ongoing creative activity of God. The latter concept has long been part of creation theology, an area of study that is not really included in this book. 
In a final chapter, Lennox considers the broader world-view of Genesis 1. There is no discussion here of the cultural and literary forms in which the message was conveyed to ancient Israel. Instead, everything is quickly linked to modern science and to the author's battle with atheism. Then the Appendices take over and these include a dispute with Old Testament scholarship that poses a threat to his position. The last one contains his arguments against theistic evolution.
Overall Lennox does seem to be driven by a desire for doctrinal certainty. His insistence on an unusual interpretation of Genesis is linked to his particular doctrine of creation as divine intervention at certain points in world history. This leads him to reject any mainstream science, such as evolutionary biology, that would throw light on these points. The irony of this is that he is treating biology rather as the church treated astronomy in the Galileo affair.

Friday, May 10, 2013

How do Western Christians learn from non-Westerners?

There was recently an article What can we learn from African Christians? in the Briefing. It was written by an Australian church leader who for a decade has been involved in short term visits to Africa for providing theological education to African church leaders.

The article stimulated a fascinating array of comments that highlighted that Westerners making short visits may not see the real situation. Partly this is because they don't know or understand the local culture and so mis-interpret what they see. Also they are sometimes partly not shown the real situation because their hosts show them what they want to see (a vibrant enthusiastic church) and what will impress them leading to more financial support.

I will just give one of the comments from an African: 

I found that the comment section so qualified what the article was saying that it created the impression that there is very little to nothing to be learned from African Christians. This is very worrying for me. What is additionally worrying to me is that the solution most people are proposing is that more theological education from either missionaries, or organisations from outside the continent coming in to ‘partner with’ or just plain ‘educate’ local pastors is what is needed.
What this says and does is this – on the one hand, it communicates that viable solutions are not forthcoming from Africans themselves, which isn’t true. A lot of grassroots training programs are springing up across my country as well as others – some funded from outside the continent, others organised entirely locally. On the other hand, while showing a seeming lack of charity toward African Christians, saying that the solution is more theological training from ‘outside’ parties shows a remarkable lack of self-reflection as well. What flaws are there in Western Christianity, and are these not being imported into Africa with missionaries and educational programs? The question is, “Why is flawed Western Christianity welcome, and indeed is one of the major solutions to strengthening African Christianity, while flawed African Christianity is critiqued to the point it doesn’t even make it out of the gate?” If we are meant to check the log in our own eye before we speak of the speck in our brother’s, perhaps it would be great to have a companion piece to this present article, entitled “What can African Christians learn from us?” that we can similarly critique and reflect on.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

We are all fragile and so need each other

Last night my family watched the movie The Intouchables. It chronicles the unlikely relationship between a wealthy French aristocrat who is a quadriplegic and a Senegal immigrant who is a common criminal.
They bond as they learn a lot about life and humanity from each other.

There is a nice article Weakness is a treasure about the two real people on who the movie is based.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Bonhoeffer's cross-cultural experience

My wife enjoyed watching a documentary about Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
A few things I found striking.

His life was so driven by theology, and distinctly Christian (i.e., focussed on the person, works, and teachings of Jesus Christ).

The film footage of Hitler appearing before massive fawning crowds was haunting and scary. I struggle to engage with this as historical reality, particularly that it was only 70-80 years ago.

Pictures of church leaders saluting Hitler was even scarier!

Bonhoeffer's theology and life was distinctly shaped by experiences while a student in New York. In particular his friendship with an African-American student Frank Fisher led to involvement at a church in Harlem. Here he encountered a lively and emotionally engaged Christian faith, concern for social justice, and a model for the church as a community that was the visible presence of Christ in the world. The academic theology he learned in Germany (heavily influenced by Karl Barth) became alive.

Christians can learn so much from other Christians with different cultural backgrounds. Christ transcends culture.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Jesus, money, and true worship

I have been reading through the Gospel of Mark and was struck by two passages dealing with money and the poor.

After a woman anoints Jesus with expensive perfume, the disciples rebuke her. But he responds (Mark 14)

For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me.


Sometimes the first phrase is used to justify accepting poverty and not taking action to alleviate it. For example, we should instead use our money to build expensive church buildings that will "glorify" God.

But, that is far from Jesus point. Here he is concerned with the (self-righteous) attitude and actions of his disciples at that very specific moment before his death. He is not giving a general principle for all of his followers for all time. Furthermore, he seems to be assuming that at other times his followers will be, can be, and should be helping the poor.

The second passage from Mark 12 concerns a poor widow contributing money to the temple.

41 And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 And a poor widow came and put in twosmall copper coins, which make a penny. 43 And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. 44 For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

This challenges my practical, functional, and pragmatic attitude towards giving money away (and raising it for worthy causes). To Jesus giving is an attitude and should be sacrificial and an act of worship.