Saturday, December 24, 2016

A nice dialogue about Christmas faith

Nicholas Kristof is a journalist I admire, particularly for his concern about social justice issues. I recently posted about a nice book that he co-authored with his wife about poverty alleviation programs.

In the New York Times, Kristof has a nice dialogue with Tim Keller,  entitled Pastor, Am I a Christian?
I like the questions discussed and the civil and mutually respectful tone of the back and forth.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

A landmark event in USA social and political history

I should be wary about recommending movies that I have watched on a long flight. The combined factors of boredom and fatigue can reduce my critical faculties. Sometimes if I watch the same movie at home later with my family, I wonder why I recommended it.

Nevertheless, I am confident that Confirmation is worth watching, particularly because of the issues it raises and the historical significance of the events it chronicles. In 1991, Clarence Thomas was nominated to be a justice of the USA Supreme Court. Anita Hill, who had worked for him previously accused him of sexual harassment. At the time, she was a law professor at Oklahoma University and appeared before the Senate judiciary committee. Thomas denied the allegations. It degenerated into he says vs. she says. Some believed him. Some believed her. Who people believed was strongly correlated with their political views.

The trailer is here.

I found some of the movie painful to watch. The lust for power and struggle for political influence was striking and distressing. The most disturbing thing for me was seeing the manner in which a group of old white male Senators interrogated and attempted to discredit a young African American women.

There is a PBS News interview with Anita Hill, 25 years after the event, that is worth watching.

In spite of Hill's allegations, Thomas was still confirmed by the Senate. Yet, the event was a landmark significantly raising the consciousness of the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, leading to new laws and policies.

Some might say great progress has been made in 25 years. However, I find it very disturbing that this year a US presidential candidate was caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women. And, he was still elected!

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Who do you love to hate?

Republicans or Democrats, Atheists or Christians, young earth creationists or evolutionary biologists, Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton, Calvinists or Arminians, Muslims or Hindus, supporters or opponents of same-sex marriage, liberals or conservatives, Sydney Anglicans or the Uniting Church, Greens or One Nation, complementarians or egalitarians, Stockbrokers or social workers, pro-life or pro-choice, blacks or whites, capitalists or socialists, …?

Over the last decade, I think there has been a significant decrease in civil debate, both in public and private. Those with different views or from different social groups are disparaged or “demonised”. Sometimes this is blatant; other times it is more subtle.
Some groups seem to get their identity from who they “not” or what they are opposed to.

What is causing this contempt for the “other”?
I see several contributing factors.

Social media. 
This leads to people congregating in groups of “friends” who have similar views, values, and “identity” to their own. Highly specialised and like-minded groups (Calvinist Chelsea fans who also like cheese…)  can congregate. They don’t have to engage seriously with alternative views. They are in a “content bubble”. Communication is impersonal and terse. People say things online that they would be much less likely to say face to face to another. Extremist and impulsive views that were once said personally to a small group of people can now unfiltered reach thousands and even millions. Specialised and extremist talk radio and cable TV hosts play a similar role.

 In a wide range of countries some candidates and parties have been able to successfully exploit “identity” politics and fear of and contempt for the “other” to get elected. The last USA Presidential election is an example.

I feel my view is true and yours is wrong and so it does not matter what evidence there is for a different view.

I should stress that none of us is immune to these tendencies. We are all prone to pride, prejudice, and self-righteousness.
I also stress that on my random list above there are some views or people I strongly disagree with. Some I find extremely troubling and even dangerous.
Not all views are equally valid. But, that does not give me the right to “hate” them.

Why should everyone be concerned about this?
Democracy, peace, and community depend on reasonable and diverse debate.

Why should Christians be concerned?
Our identity comes solely from being a follower of Jesus and knowing we are loved by God.
It transcends nation, denomination, ethnicity, and any particular theological or political views. And, everyone is made in the image of God, regardless of their views or behaviour, and is loved by God. Thus, they are to be respected and valued as a person.
Humility and gentleness need to replace self-righteous anger.
Consider the way that Jesus interacted with tax collectors and prostitutes.
He also harshly confronted the Pharisees for their pride and self-righteousness.

Monday, November 28, 2016

A nuanced atheist view of Jesus and Christian theology

Previously, I have written several posts featuring Terry Eagleton. He is a prominent literary theorist, a Marxist, an atheist, and a critic of both religion and the New Atheists.

Yesterday, I watched the first of his 2008 Terry Lectures at Yale University, which were later published as Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate.
It presents a fascinating, nuanced, challenging, and provocative view of Jesus and Christian theology. Some of it I do not agree with but it is worth engaging with.

I am looking forward to watching the other lectures.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Science involves faith

As I have discussed before, I do not like the term "science and faith".  It is misleading because both science and Christianity involve faith, reason, and evidence. I prefer terms such as "science and theology" or "science and the Bible" or "science and Christianity".

A nice example of how science involves faith is a column, Reasonably Effective: Deconstructing a Miracle, published in 2006 in Physics Today. It is by Frank Wilczek who shared the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics.

He first discusses Eugene Wigner's famous 1960 article, "Unreasonable effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences." He then continues:
Acts of faith
Since any answer to a “why” question can be challenged with a further “why,” any reasoned argument must terminate in premises for which no further reason can be offered. At that point we pass, necessarily, from reason to faith. Our present faith in symmetry and locality is grounded in the good experience we’ve had with them so far. At present, I think, we can carry our explanations no deeper.
As good believing scientists we must take our faith seriously—so seriously that we feel compelled to act on it, and thereby to test it.
He then goes on to discuss supersymmetry in quantum field theory and says how he anticipates the associated elementary particles will be observed in the Large Hadron Collider in the following years (i.e., from 2006). However, it is interesting that ten years later this is not the case. Nevertheless, despite the evidence to the contrary, some physicists still have "faith" that supersymmetry is valid. 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The value and importance of children

Last week I gave a talk at a SAIACS chapel service.

It was based on Luke 18:15-17
People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them.  But Jesus called the children to him and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’
I considered the relevance of this to four categories of children:

i. our own children if we have them
ii. children in our church
iii. children in society
iv. children on the margins: the unborn, orphans, street children, trafficked, handicapped, …

Here is an edited version of the talk. 

The quote about Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision, is from here.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Lecture on Science and Religion

Last week I was honoured to give a lecture on "Science and Religion" at St. Stephen's College, Delhi University. Here are the slides.
The question time after the lecture (both formal and informal) was particularly interesting.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Tragic white mothers and black maids

I enjoyed watching the movie The Help with my wife and some friends. It is striking that the racist events depicted in the movie occurred in my lifetime. A friend pointed out the almost complete absence of men in the movie; the men that were featured in a small way were passive or abusive. One exception is a preacher in a black church.

The white mothers in the movie were really strange to me. They thought their black maids were "lower life forms" but entrusted them with raising their children. What does that say about the mother's view of their own children? Were they just a burden and inconvenience like mopping the floor?

Towards a Christian perspective on an individual academic discipline

I have had some interesting discussions with friends about how one moves towards a Christian perspective on your own academic discipline. Here are some slides and a questionnaire.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

This week in the New York Times

I think the New York Times is a benchmark for high-quality journalism. It is independent, thorough, thoughtful, and analytical. When in the USA in July and August I really enjoyed reading a hard copy every few days.
My wife and I do have an on-line subscription; both so we get access and because it is important to support high-quality journalism. Currently, in India, I am restricted to reading online.

Here are four articles from the past few days that I thought were particularly stimulating.

Buffett Calls Trump’s Bluff and Releases His Tax Data
Warren Buffett is one of the wealthiest people in the world. Yet, he has real integrity, generosity, a modest lifestyle, and a concern for social justice.

Flush and Dominant, Australia’s Banks Come Under Pressure
It is always interesting to see what it takes for Australia to make it into the New York Times. Unfortunately, it is often major failings of Australia, such as our shameful treatment of asylum seekers. I did not realise that the "big 4" banks are comparable in size to Goldman Sachs, and more profitable.

The Professor Wore a Hijab in Solidarity — Then Lost Her Job
This long Magazine article concerns a former Professor at Wheaton College. The article is striking for the detailed discussion of subtle and important theological issues.

Among Donald Trump’s Biggest U.S. Fans: Hindu Nationalists
This is an example of how the Times finds interesting and important stories that others don't even look for, let alone report.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

In what country do I belong?

I enjoyed watching the movie A Decent Arrangement. A young man who grew up in the USA with Indian parents returns to India so his aunt can arrange a marriage for him. It nicely captures some of the identity crisis of immigrant children, the conflict of cultures, and questions about the nature of marriage, romance, and love.

 I am currently in India and I also feel the movie nicely portrays some of the uniqueness of India: the street scenes, the sounds, and the smells?

The Times of India gives an Indian perspective of the movie that I found helpful.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Answering some good questions

I was asked by some friends some questions such as "Why do you believe in Science and in the Bible?". Here are some slides with my attempt at an answer.

Another question concerns the historical interaction of science with Christianity. This talk addresses some of that.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Cooking up a family reconciliation

I enjoyed watching the movie Today's Special. It is a light-hearted "foodie" movie. A young man in New York  wants to become a great chef. However, due to his father'hs poor health he is forced to take over the Indian restaurant owned by his father, an immigrant of Indian Muslim origin.


It nicely portrays the reconciliation of father and son and multi-cultural New York. The movie makes you want to go out and eat some good Indian food. This is good since I am in India right now!

Sunday, August 14, 2016

We need to pay for high quality journalism

I am just finishing seven weeks in the USA. For the last 3 weeks I have enjoyed buying and reading a hard copy of the New York Times every couple of days. This is journalism at its best. They have an impressive array of in-depth articles. Many have clearly involved a lot of background research. This obviously costs money and is difficult to support in an era when newspapers are under such extreme commercial pressures.

This video from John Oliver highlights how serious the problem is and the severe negative implications for society.

Good journalists in a democracy enhance the accountability of both public and private institutions, where small companies, churches, local governments, sporting clubs, multi-national corporations or the United Nations.

For just one example, look at this nice New York Times article, How Think Tanks Amplify Corporate Americas Influence.

This has challenged me to be wiling to pay for some of the content I read.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The profundity of a mundane existence

My family enjoyed watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
It promotes a very interesting idea: real heroes are not necessarily those who do glamorous things, attract fame, or have outstanding achievements, ...
Real heroes may be those who do a simple job well; faithfully and with integrity.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Small practical steps towards poverty alleviation

I recently read A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity
by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

It gives a nice overview of initiatives, both large and small, to alleviate poverty in both the USA and globally. The book has many strengths.

It is practical. Rather than being overwhelmed with statistics and the massive size of the problem it gives many concrete examples of individuals and organisations that are making a difference. It ends with some very specific suggestions of what the reader can do now.

It is encouraging and inspiring. Analysis of different issues is interweaved with stories of a diverse range of individuals, from children to wealthy businessmen, who are taking action.

It is challenging because it puts a human face on poverty, with stories of individuals.

It is balanced and realistic. It does not gloss over how difficult some of the problems are and how many well-intended iniatives fail, and sometimes even make the problem worse. Consequently, it discusses the value of randomised trials, such as described in Poor Economics.

Solutions are multi-faceted  because poverty is so complex. There is a role for small and large organisations, local and global action, political activism, education, creating social enterprises, ...

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Where does the love of money lead?

My family recently enjoyed watching The Big Short, which retells the true story of investors who made a lot of money betting (shorting) on the collapse of the USA housing market in 2008.

Like other movies and newspaper headlines (e.g. Panama papers or Rupert Murdoch) what often strikes me is how greedy and insatiable some people are. Almost everyone would like to have a million dollars. Some would like a few millions. But some want hundreds of millions, even billions, .... What are you going to do with it? In the end it must be a psychological problem. It is not really about the money but an obsession and the adrenaline rush of making the money ....

This clip captures some of the essence of the movie.

But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.
1 Timothy 6

Saturday, July 2, 2016

A dark period of American history

I enjoyed watching the movie Trumbo, which is based on the fascinating and true story of the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo who was blacklisted in Hollywood in the McCarthy era because of communist sympathies.

It nicely portrays Trumbo's engaging personality, the petty personal and political ambitions of his opponents, and the personal cost to his family of his stubbornness and his principled stand.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Uncomfortable wealth

Last sunday night I gave a sermon at Unichurch in Brisbane on James 5:1-6.
Here are the slides.
For me this is a very uncomfortable passage.

To illustrate the issue of paying fair wages to workers I showed a clip from this video (beginning at 10:30).

Sunday, June 5, 2016

An excellent book on the theology of science

I have just finished reading the wonderful book Faith and Wisdom in Science by Tom McLeish. I think it may be one of the best (advanced) books about the relationship between science and theology.
Next monday night I will lead a discussion about the book at the monthly theology book club I am a part of.

Maybe the book partly resonates so much with me because like me, McLeish is both a theoretical condensed matter physicist and a Christian.

To get some of the flavour of the you can look at the associated blog which links to several reviews and a few videos where McLeish discusses the book.

The book is rich and highly original. Here are just a few ideas that I thought were particularly valuable.

Science should be be viewed as a richly human scholarly endeavour that should not be divorced from the humanities. Here he draws heavily on the classic book Real Presences by the literary critic George Steiner, who suggests

"Only art can go some way towards making accessible, towards waking into some measure of communicability, the sheer inhuman otherness of matter..."

McLeish takes this as a departure to explore that this is actually what science should really be about.

We should not think about "theology versus science" or "theology and science" but "a theology of science" and "a science of theology".

The book of Job, rather than Genesis, should be the starting point for a theology of science.

Science involves pain and love and worship. Science should be about "a meaningful reengagement  and reconciliation with nature".

Science today has lost this richness due to being instrumentalist and seen solely as a means of "wealth creation".

Drawing from a report about the safety of nanotechnology, McLeish considers several popular narratives for science, identified by the philosopher, Jean-Pierre Dupuy

1. Be careful what you wish for - the narrative of Desire
2. Pandora's Box - the narrative of Evil and Hope
3. Messing with Nature - the narrative of the Sacred
4. Kept in the Dark - the narrative of Alienation
5. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer - the narrative of Exploitation.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Science: what has love got to do with it?!

Science raises theological questions.
An important example is:
Why does science work?
This is not a question that science can answer. All it can say is that science works; and very well, often.

This week I realised there is another interesting question.
Why do scientists love what they do?
 It goes far beyond the joy of a successful businessman or plumber. There is sometimes something "religious" and "mystical" about scientists devotion and pleasure in their work. Furthermore, many young scientists are willing to work long hours, often with less financial reward and job security compared to other options available to them. Why do they do it?
Again, this is not a question that science can answer. But, theology does address.

Three different recent events brought this question to mind.

First, the atheist scientist Sean Carroll has just published a book The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. He advocates a "religion" called poetic naturalism. A good critique of the book is by another atheist scientist Peter Woit. The relevant point here is that it highlights how even for atheist scientists there is something deeply religious about science.

Second, last week I saw the excellent movie, The Man Who Knew Infinity which nicely illustrates some of the joy and mystery of discovery in mathematics.

Finally, and most importantly I am finishing reading the wonderful book Faith and Wisdom in Science by Tom McLeish. He has a whole section entitled "Love" in the chapter, "A Theology of Science".
By "love" he means "the super-rational .... emotionally engaged delight in, and action to sustain the well being of another."
Love, pain, and perseverance cannot be separated.
"Above all it is a love that seeks to understand."
New scientific theories "need to loved into being".
He gives the example of the novel (and for long controversial) concept of reptation in polymers.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Science and the Bible talk

Tomorrow evening I am giving a talk at the FOCUS (Fellowship of Overseas University Students) group at University of Queensland.
Here is the current version of the slides. 
I am looking forward to a lively question and answer session after the talk.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

When did you last hear a politician give a speech like this?

One that questioned the value of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measure of the health of a country.
Indeed, it is extraordinary that the speech below was given by Robert Kennedy in 1968 when he was running for President of the USA.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The question no one is game to ask

... except for raging grannies.
Why do we need endless economic growth?

My wife and I watched the documentary, "Two Raging Grannies".
You can buy it on Vimeo.
Two Raging Grannies from Faction Film on Vimeo.

Here is the theme song from the Raging Grannies activist group.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Learning about global inequality and hunger

Today my wife organised a hunger banquet (similar to those designed by Oxfam) for a group of friends. Guests were randomly assigned to one of three groups of people:
1. high income (15% of the world, living on more than $10K per year),
2. medium income (25% of the world, annual family income of $1-10K),
3. low income (60% of the world, less than $3 per day).

The different groups are then served appropriate meals:
1. steak, vegetables, and soft drink
2. rice and beans, water with a purifier
3. one cup of rice each, dirty water

You then discuss the associated feelings and issues, before moving to discussion of (local and global) initiatives we can be involved with to address poverty, hunger, and social injustice.

I found it quite confronting and illustrative. What was striking was, as the host, how much time my wife had to spend preparing and serving the food for the small number of "wealthy" guests. The other guests did not get much attention. This was quite representative of how the global economy is oriented towards to keeping affluent Westerners happy.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The narrative of Genesis

The first few chapters of Genesis can be a source of endless controversy and confusion. This need not be if one reads them in the context of the whole book. This video nicely introduces the narrative of the whole book.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The highs and lows of family

My wife and I enjoyed watching My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (at the movie theatre!). It is light hearted fun but does deal with the challenges of marriage, extended family, in-laws, immigrant identity, and children leaving home...

We enjoyed it so much we decided we will watch the original again tomorrow night.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Honour, shame, and the Gospel

The Gospel of Jesus transcends culture. Nevertheless, communicating it and living it out does take different forms in different cultures. This video nicely presents the Gospel that may be more meaningful in cultures in which honour and shame play a central role.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Is eclectic Christianity an oxymoron or a tautology?

I have recently participated in several Christian forums where the content and/or participants have been described by some as "eclectic"?

Generally this term has been used in an endearing and polite sense of "cuteness" that borders on "eccentric" because there were a wide range of topics and points of view presented by people from diverse church/denominational backgrounds.

A dictionary definition of eclectic is "deriving ideas, style, or taste from a broad and diverse range of sources".

On the one hand, some would say that true Christianity is narrowly and precisely defined by a set of very specific doctrinal statements. You are either in or out. If one is concerned with a general statement such as the Apostle's Creed this is reasonable. However, in reality some have much more narrow defining statements.

On the other hand, if you look at the life and teachings of Jesus you see he had a diverse set of followers, was very inclusive, and presented paradoxes that were hard to pin down in certain respects. Furthermore, historically church movements have been rather diverse.

I think this is one of the many dialectic tensions of Christianity: unity with diversity, truth with ambiguity, freedom through obedience, grace and law, ....

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Deconstructing "give a man a fish ...."

My wife brought to my attention this video can gives a simple but profound deconstruction of the popular proverb:
"give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." Poverty alleviation in the 21st century is much more complicated than that.


Saturday, April 2, 2016

The offence of the egalitarian God

Jesus was a radical. He was the friend of the weak and social outcasts. He taught that "first will be last and the last will be first" and how a poor beggar such as Lazarus could be heaven while a rich man would not (Luke 16:19-31).
This is quite offensive to those who believe (whether consciously or sub-consciously) that society should be ordered in a certain way and that ordering reflects the status of people before God.
But, the radical message of the New Testament is not new. This is also found in the Old Testament.
Consider Hannah's Song of Praise in 1 Samuel 2 
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
 he brings low and he exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
 he lifts the needy from the ash heap
to make them sit with princes
 and inherit a seat of honor.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Grappling with our emotions

I watched the movie Inside Out with my wife and daughter. It is both a serious and humorous look at how we deal with our emotions (joy, sadness, fear, anger) and how they shape us. The interplay of the different  emotions with memory (short and long term), trains of thought, and ideas is dealt with in a stimulating way with elements of education, intrigue, and humour.

I found the middle of the movie really depressing as I felt the main character was plummeting towards a major mental health crisis. However, since it is Disney this does not eventuate!

Monday, March 21, 2016

Oh, to be young again!

My wife and I enjoyed watching the movie, While We're Young. It chronicles the relationship between a middle-aged couple with a twenty-something couple. The former have become boring and are in awe of the spontaneity and creativity of their new young friends. Yet as they get to really know them they become aware of their foibles and flaws.

The movie manages to simultaneously deal with a whole range of issues: ageing and mortality, unfulfilled dreams, infertility, truth vs. creativity in documentaries, perfectionism, conflict with in-laws, ....

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Is this racist or just funny?

In Australia a new sit-com Here Come the Habibs just started on commercial television. It chronicles the interactions between a Lebanese immigrant family and their caucasian neighbours in a wealthy Sydney suburb. Some claim it is racist, others think it is built on stereotypes, and others think it is  just funny. It is bit in the genre of Upper Middle Bogan.
I actually really like it. I think it is quite funny and does a good job of making fun of the snobbery and latent racism of some Australians.

Friday, January 8, 2016

4 talks about the positive interaction of science and theology

Next week I am giving four talks at the annual summer school for clergy from the Anglican Diocese of Brisbane. Here is the current draft version of the slides. I welcome any feedback.

Awe and wonder: Science and worship

Augustine on Faith and Reason

The Biblical origins of modern science

Creation: from the Big Bang to the multiverse

Overall my goal is to illustrate the positive interaction of science and theology, particularly in history.

Monday, January 4, 2016

The struggle for women to have a voice

My daughter took me to see the movie Suffragette.
It was very moving and challenging. It is hard to realise that in most countries 100 years ago women did not have the right to vote. It did not come to Switzerland until 1971!
The movie "nicely" puts the denial of voting rights in the broader context of unequal pay, poor working conditions, child labour, domestic violence, sexual harassment, child custody issues, ....

After any "historical" movie my nerdy family reads and discusses Wikipedia pages about the relevant background. Reading the biography of Emmeline Pankhurst showed how like many influential leaders she had "clay feet". She was intolerant of dissenting views, even from her own children, and during world war one was extremely nationalistic, completing suspending her suffragette activities.