Sunday, January 30, 2011

This is the Gospel of the King who Saves

This morning at church we started a new sermon series on the Gospel of Mark, looking at chapter 1, verses 1-15. The extracts below highlight what it is all about: forgiveness of sins and God establishing a new kingdom, as he promised.

1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God....

4 John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins...

"After me comes he who is mightier than I, ..."

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God,15and saying,  "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel."

John the Baptist was the "Elijah" [one dressed in camel hair] who had been predicted to come. He points towards Jesus [he saves] Christ [King].
The painting below is from the Isenheim Alterpiece by Gruenwald. A copy hung in Karl Barth's office for much his career.

The myth of human autonomy

In modern life children think that milk comes from grocery stores and not from cows. Most of us are rarely at the mercy of "mother nature", the way that farmers are. We are autonomous, successful, and independent. And, if we aren't then we are working hard to make it so! But the doctrine of Creation speaks to this issue of dependence. Karl Barth has an interesting discussion of Genesis 1:29.
29And God said, "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. 

That man is directed absolutely to set his hope on God alone has its solid and undeniable counterpart in the fact that he is completely dependent on the cosmos surrounding him. And it is an incontestable and unshakeable sign of the real grace of God addressed to him that the cosmos is a home prepared to satisfy his own and his fellow-creatures' needs, to nourish him and them, 
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.1 The Doctrine of Creation, p. 207.

The painting is Paradise by Jan Brueghel, the younger (1601-1678).

Saturday, January 29, 2011

A father's private world

The New York Times has an interesting review of "My father at 100" by Ronald Reagan Jr. It sounds like a fascinating and somewhat tragic story of a son desperately wanting to engage with his father, a man who constructed his own reality in order to come to terms with the demons of his own childhood.
I thank my dear wife for bringing the review to my attention.

Friday, January 28, 2011

A sympathetic reading of the Tiger mother

To balance my previous post Slavery to the idolatry of children I refer readers to a more sympathetic reading of Amy Chua's book by Kathy Tuan-Maclean. 

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A day is coming...

This morning I was reading through the account in 2 Kings of the life of the prophet Elijah. I then listened to some of Mendelssohn's Elijah. In the libretto below I intersperse some relevant Biblical references/allusions:

Behold, God hath sent Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children unto their fathers; lest the Lord shall come and smite the earth with a curse.
[Malachi 4:5,6; These are the last verses in the Old Testament]

But the Lord from the North hath raised one, who from the rising of the sun shall call upon His Name and come on princes. Behold, my servant and mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth! On him the spirit of God shall rest: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of might and of counsel, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord. Thus saith the Lord: ‘I have raised one from the North, who from the rising, on My Name shall call.’
[Isaiah 9]

O come everyone that thirsteth, O come to the waters: O come unto Him. O hear, and your souls shall live for ever.
[Isaiah 55:1, John 7:37]

And then shall your light break forth as the light of morning breaketh: and your health shall speedily spring forth then: and the glory of the Lord ever shall reward you.
Lord, our Creator. how excellent Thy Name is in all the nations! Thou fillest heaven with Thy glory. Amen.
[Psalm 37:6, Isaiah 58:8]

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Slavery to the idolatry of children

Parenting has got to one of the greatest challenges in life. There seem to be no simple answers and knowing what the right thing to do and actually doing it are not the same thing. One of the thorniest issues is finding a balance between discipline, compassion, and flexibility. God is the perfect father and brings together loving discipline, compassion, and grace in his dealing with his children.

My wife brought to my attention the hot issue of Chinese tiger mothers and so I found fascinating reading an article in the Australian, Tough love for the tigers of tomorrow. Here are a few extracts I found particularly interesting:
Amy Chua, a mother of two girls, and a law professor at Yale University, as is her husband Jed Rubenfeld, has provoked incendiary responses in the US and increasingly in Asia too, from her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and from an essay published in The Wall Street Journal this month. 
[n.b. the article including the title are strung together by the WSJ and book publishers to be as controversial as possible to generate interest and sell books]. Here are some of the chosen extracts:

"A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it's like inside the family, and whether they could do it too.  
"Well, I can tell them, because I've done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa [now 18 and 15], were never allowed to do: attend a sleepover, have a playdate, be in a school play, complain about not being in a school play, watch TV or play computer games, choose their own extracurricular activities, get any grade less than an A, not be the No 1 student in every subject except gym and drama, play any instrument other than the piano or violin, not play the piano or violin."
"Even when Western parents think they're being strict, they usually don't come close to being Chinese mothers."
"The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable -- even legally actionable -- to Westerners." Chua lists three big differences: Westerners are anxious about their children's self-esteem, whereas Chinese parents demand top grades because they believe their child can get them; they believe their children owe them everything and they know what is best for their children.
She follows the tradition of The Book of Filial Piety, attributed to Confucius and long part of what has become Confucianism. This says "filial piety is the root of virtue and the source of civilisation . . . It begins with serving one's parents, our rulers, and is completed by establishing one's character."
"One of the worst things you can do for your child's self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there's nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn't."
Her two previous books were on how hyperpowers' rise to global dominance and how exporting free market democracy breeds ethnic hatred and global instability.
She has defended herself since, as being somewhat ironic. "These coaching suggestions seem a bit extreme," she concedes in the book after describing threatening to burn her daughter's soft toys if she failed to perfect a piano piece. "On the other hand, they were highly effective . ." She admits she is "not good at enjoying life." And says she wasn't a curious student: "I just wanted to write down everything the professor said and memorise it."
At an American Chamber of Commerce conference on Hong Kong's competitiveness that I attended 12 years ago, the discussion ended up focusing on education. A young ethnically Chinese businessman made the most memorable contribution to the debate, confiding that he had trailed in the bottom 10 per cent at his traditionalist Hong Kong high school until his parents sent him to the US. There, with his creative intelligence unleashed, he graduated in the top 10 per cent from high school, went on to score an excellent degree and had become a senior Time Warner executive.
Here are a few of my random thoughts. 

This is very sad. It shows slavery to religion, slavery to performance, slavery to fear, and reflects an idolatry of children. 

It shows how strong cultural influences are. Even for someone who has lived their whole life in the "melting pot" of the USA, they still see their identity and values in terms of their ethnic and cultural origins.

Someone can be very well "educated" but not particularly "enlightened." This applies not just to "tiger mothers" but also well-educated liberals who are so "wimpy" about disciplining their kids that they end up as drop outs or drug addicts.

Amazing Grace. How sweet the sound! It liberates and frees and motivates.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

In the name of God

I have been reading through 1 Kings which describes Solomon's reign and the construction of the Temple. It is striking to me how much it mentions and focuses on "the name of the LORD [YHWH]".  The temple was built "for the name", and "the name" dwelt there,..

It is interesting to read Karl Barth's discussion of the central role of the name of God, not just in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament as well:
This is the concept of the name of God. Knowledge, love, fear, trust, hope, praise, preaching, invocation are all related continually to this ... and yet even so they are unmistakably connected to Yahweh Himself. The righteous man thinks, speaks and acts in this name when he stands before Yahweh, under His protection and blessing. To this name of Yahweh, not to the One who dwells in Sinai or according to the later view in heaven, a house or temple is built in Jerusalem. Conversely this name ... for whose sake Yahweh forgives and is gracious and guides and does not forsake Israel; His name dwells indeed, as Yahweh chose, in Jerusalem. ...  
In His name is concentrated everything He is in His relation to His people, to the righteous, and from His name proceeds in some way everything that the people or the righteous can expect from Him as they stand in this relation. What does all this mean? Not for the old Testament alone but for ancient thought generally, and perhaps for what is called primitive thought (though it is not really primitive), a man's name is not something that comes to him from without, something accidental and non-essential,...  
the picture which the New Testament itself sets before us is that of the self-disclosure of this Father in which He is not the Father but the Son, the historical figure of this Man on His way from Bethlehem to Golgotha, the "name" of Jesus. Again, the concreteness and actuality of the self-unveiling of God for man, and the enigma of the self-distinction in God Himself which makes this self-unveiling possible, has not just increased quantitatively here in comparison with the Old Testament....
In thinking that it has to defend against Jesus as against a blasphemer the name of God dwelling in the house of stone in Jerusalem, it [Israel] denies this very name, and thus separates itself from it and from its own Holy Scripture, which is one long witness to this name as God's real presence and action in the human sphere. This presence and action of God Israel declines. Why is it that the Lord's Prayer in the New Testament begins in the style of the Old Testament: "Hallowed by thy name!"? How else could it begin? one might almost reply. This is the whole point with Jesus. His concern is not with something new but with that which is first and primal, with the God who wills to be God and to be known as God a second time in a different way, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who wills to be revealed in His name and hallowed in His name. 
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.1, pages 316-9.

The painting is Solomon before the ark of the covenant, by Blaise Nicholas Le Sueur

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Genesis 1 in a scientific paper!

Barbara Drossel is a Professor of Theoretical Physics in Germany and a Christian. There is an interesting interview with her on the Christians in Science website. To get your interest a couple of choice bits to get your interest:

Question: A few years ago you wrote an influential review entitled "Biological evolution and statistical physics", in Advances in Physics, which started with a long quote from Genesis 1, and then a comment about how Christians and Jews had accepted evolutionary thought. That is an unusual way to start a scientific paper. Why did you do this, and what has been the reaction of your colleagues?

 See the interview for her answer.

  In answer to another question she says:
My impression is that there are in Germany more physics professors than theology professors who believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Can physicists engage with postmodernism?

Alan Sokal, a Professor of Physics at New York University, became a "celebrity" back in 1996 when he succeeded in publishing a paper in the leading postmodern journal, Social Text, that was a parody of the gibberish that some academic postmodernists write about theoretical physics. Sokal's web site documents the "furore" that this generated.

Sokal's recent book, Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy, and Culture received a rather negative review from Peter Saulson in Physics Today. I symphathise with the review.
The subsequent exchange of letters between Sokal and Saulson is worth reading. There is also a somewhat critical review by David Mermin in Nature.  It seems Sokal has got somewhat carried away and is unable to see that some of the arguments and issues are a little more complex and subtle than physicists are used too.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Science and faith in dialogue

Biologos Foundation recently held a conference for scientists and church leaders which issued a summary statement on science and faith. I encourage reading of the full statement. It shows there is a broad community of leading scientists and evangelical church leaders who see no real conflict between science and historical Christian faith.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Brisbane flood post-mortem

It is disturbing to read in the Australian, Alarming report on Brisbane River risks covered up, about how a 1999 report to the city council was kept secret until it was leaked years later. Why the secrecy? Too many developers and real estate agents wanted to make money by building and selling on low-lying land.....

Another article, Toowoomba was a disaster waiting to happen has some interesting text:
Her eyes searched my face when she told me she had prayed to God last night and asked why he would allow such a thing to happen in a place like this: why, she said, would a good and loving God take innocent mothers and children away when they only went for a drive to the shop?
.....God had nothing to do with this. Generations of city councillors, engineers, landscapers and developers were quite capable of doing it by themselves...

Forget the models and the movie stars: the developers are the real celebrities in this city. With a rapidly growing population, Toowoomba is always keen to create more jobs.
A few months ago, the Anna Bligh state government announced plans to build an industrial park on the site of a major creek system at Wellcamp Downs, about 14km west of Toowoomba. The development is designated for toxic, hazardous and hard-to-locate industries...
At a recent community forum, a member of the public pointed out to several of the city councillors in attendance that it would be both very foolish and highly dangerous to move industries into such a delicate environment - the headwaters of a creek system that flows directly into the Murray-Darling system. The city councillors became clearly angry at this suggestion and quickly tried to dismiss fears with a cursory "Toowoomba needs jobs" and "progress is good for our town".
The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil...  God has given us freedom to choose how we live and unfortunately our sinful actions often lead to the suffering of others.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Against world views

The Christian faith is bound neither to an old nor to a modern world-picture.The Christian Confession has passed through more than one world-picture. And its representatives were always ill-advised when they believed that this or that world-picture was an adequate expression for what the church, apart from creation, has to think. Christian faith is fundamentally free in regard to all world-pictures, that is, to all attempts to regard what exists by the measure and with the means of the dominant science of the time.. as Christians we must not let ourselves be taken captive either by an ancient picture of this nature or one newly arisen and beginning to be dominant... Weltenschauung means something still more comprehensive than world-picture...
but by the decisive content of the Bible, Jesus Christ, we are by no means enjoined to adopt a Weltanschauung for our own.
Karl Barth, Chapter 9, Heaven and Earth in Dogmatics in Outline

According to the Wikipedia entry on the Language of the Third Reich
Welt- ("world", as in Weltanschauung, "intuition/view of the world"): this was quite a rare, specific and cultured term before the Third Reich, but became an everyday word. It came to designate the instinctive understanding of complex geo-political problems by the Nazis, which allowed them to openly begin invasions, twist facts or violate human rights, in the name of a higher ideal and in accordance to their theory of the world.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

It will never happen...

I live in Brisbane. Three years ago we had a terrible drought and had to conserve water. The government asked everyone to take 4 minute showers. The picture above is of the Wivanhoe Dam, which was almost empty. Back then it was hard to believe that it would ever be full again. But, today it is so overfull they are releasing 100,000 megaliters of water from the dam every day, as shown below.
As you may have heard, Brisbane is currently experiencing the worst floods in a century.  Previously, in 1974 there was a massive flood. But, we were told no future flood would be as bad as 1974, particularly because of the new dams. This was easy to believe because everything was so hot and dry and all the beautiful houses seemed so high above the river. But we tend to desperately think, "it won't happen" or at least "it won't happen to me", or "things will always stay the same". All this tendency to wishful thinking reminded of a passage in 2 Peter 3 which warns not about earthly floods but of God's judgement (which to Biblical writers was embodied in Noah's flood).
remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles,3 ... scoffers will come in the last days ... 4 They will say, "Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.5For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, 6and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. 7But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.

Just a good story?

On my recent long flight I also watched the movie, The Social Network about the founding of Facebook. I thought it was pretty interesting but then I read the Time magazine article about their Person of the Year, Mark Zuckerberg. The article explained that the movie differed from the real story, particularly in mis-representing Zuckerberg by giving him two primary motivations: to make money and regain a lost girlfriend, Erica. In real life, he has had the same girl friend since before he founded Facebook. It is interesting to read the Wikipedia page about how inaccurate the film is. Here are a couple of extracts:
Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz called the film a "dramatization of history ... it is interesting to see my past rewritten in a way that emphasizes things that didn't matter," 
Screenwriter Sorkin [who also made West Wing] has stated that, "I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling. What is the big deal about accuracy purely for accuracy’s sake, and can we not have the true be the enemy of the good?"
Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig wrote: ".... But from the story as told, we certainly know enough to know that any legal system that would allow these kids [the twins] to extort $65 million from the most successful business this century should be ashamed of itself."
Somehow, I have a problem with Sorkin's "creativity". It is a bit like Dan Brown's books. What do others think?

Reading the Time article, emphasizing how Facebook has "changed the world", actually stimulated my previous post, Masters of our destiny?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Masters of our destiny?

We continually hear how new technologies such as the internet, Facebook, email, mobile phones have changed the world. But have they really?

It is amazing what humans can now do. We can make iPods, tailor make molecules to use as drugs to cure deadly diseases, move single atoms around at will, understand the beginning of the universe, ...  If we can't do it now (cure cancer, understand quantum theory, ...) surely it is just a matter of time. Maybe..., This can lead to incredible hubris and optimism. But there is a lot we cannot do:
7For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 
James 3:7-8
This is just one of many reasons why I consider that the message of the Bible is not the least bit dated. All that email and Facebook has really changed is that it has provided new media and made it easier for us to have the same old relationship problems...  

Wholly concerned about the whole Gospel

Much is sometimes made about the debate in evangelical circles about the relative importance of evangelism (telling people the good news about Jesus) and social action (caring for peoples physical needs). However, I wonder if this is sometimes a false dichotomy. If we really do care about people and genuinely value them as created
by God then we will care about the whole person, and so be equally concerned about evangelism and social action.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Insignificant numbers

Phillip Adams is a noted Australian author, film maker, and atheist. He is author of Adams versus God:
“I believe and have always believed that life is totally meaningless and that we have no destiny, no purpose, no author. We just are. For a while, anyway. Then we aren’t.”
He often invokes scientific knowledge to justify his atheism. For example, he states
“I believe, I know, that we live on a minor planet in an off-Broadway solar system on the edge of the Milky Way and that, in the final analysis, we’re as significant as the eighth billion grain of sand beyond the final palm trees in the most distant oasis in the Sahara. . . . Consequently, I believe it’s absurdly vain to see ourselves as echoing God’s image and just as silly to anthropomorphise, to Disneyfy, the concept of God into anything vaguely human. Like the hippopotamus and the hedgehog, humans are simply an evanescent expression of the life force, as destined for oblivion as dodos and dinosaurs.”

I do not find this a particularly persuasive argument. Just because an object is one of many does not mean that the object is not of significance.

Our DNA consists of thousands of genes. They all are comprised a base pairs involving G, A, T, and C. One cannot argue that a particular gene is of no particular significance. A mutation in just one gene can lead to a deadly disease.

One could say that Barack Obama is just one of six billion people on the planet. But that does not accurately reflect his significance, importance, or influence. Mahatma Gandhi was just one of a billion Indian's who have lived. Yet he had great significance and importance.

This post was stimulated by hearing Ray Galea contrast this Adams quote to the positive view of man's significance in the universe in Psalm 8. Ray was speaking at the Queensland CMS Summer School. The talk is also chapter 2 in his book, God is Enough, which has an exposition of ten different Psalms.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The love of money

On a recent LAX-BRI flight I watched Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, directed by Oliver Stone, and a sequel to his 1987 Wall Street. I actually disagreed with many critics and thought it was better than its predecessor. Some of it was a bit disjoint and unbelievable but what I liked and enjoyed was a few specific scenes:

* Gordon Gecko ("greed is good") giving a lecture at Fordham University warning that the market was about to melt-down because of all the dodgy mortgages that banks had taken on. He captures well the greed and folly that led to this.

* A twenty-something son [an investment banker] "parenting" his mother by setting boundaries. Telling her he won't give her money to bail out her silly real estate deals, she should go back to her husband, and go back to nursing, a real job where she makes a difference in the lives of people.

* Gordon Gecko's line: "It is not about the money; it is about the game."

I thought scenes such as these gave the movie some real substance, whereas the original movie just showed how an ambitious young trader got burned because of his greed.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Empowering the poor

There is a fascinating and inspiring story in the New York Times about how low cost solar cells and LED lighting is beginning to have an impact on some of the 1.5 Billion people in the world who live without electricity.
One of the companies involved Barefoot Power  advocates a commendable bottom up [i.e. small scale] approach to meeting basic needs in the developing world. I was interested to see that the company has Australian origins and one of the board members is a former Anglican minister.

Unjust "justice"

One distressing thing about reading the book How soccer explains the world is the frequency with which some politicians tap into issues of injustice and inequity in order to rise to power, but are then just as corrupt and unjust as those they replace. Identification with football clubs seems to be one effective way to make the emotional connection they need with the masses in order to be swept into power. The "liberator" becoming the "oppressor" seems to happen in all cultures; whether it is communist idealogues in Russia, wealthy lawyers representing Labor parties in western democracies, nationalists in Serbia, revolutionaries in colonial Africa, .....

But this is not just a modern problem. I was interested to read in 2 Samuel 15 this morning about the Absalom's conspiracy in Israel. Here are a few extracts:
Absalom got himself a chariot and horses, and fifty men to run before him.2And Absalom used to rise early and stand beside the way of the gate. And when any man had a dispute to come before the king for judgment... 4Then Absalom would say, "Oh that I were judge in the land! Then every man with a dispute or cause might come to me, and I would give him justice."...So Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel.

The Tomb of Absalom is shown above.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

John Wayne without theology

I would have never thought I would write a post with that title! I did not realise that engagement with a movie such as True Grit, the movie in which John Wayne won his only Academy Award, required a knowledge of theological issues.
Yet there is fascinating Opinionator piece on the New York Times website by Stanley FishNarrative and the Grace of God: The new "True Grit". This underscores my earlier post asserting that one cannot not truly understand Western history and literature (and even the latest Hollywood movies) without a knowledge of theology.

Below is some the text of the article, which also quotes 2 Timothy 1:9. What is fascinating to me is that Fish actually states that there is a correct reading of the text! Why is this fascinating? Because as you can see from the Wikipedia page about him his approach to texts is largely post-modern and relativist.

“You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free with the exception of God’s grace.” These two sentences suggest a world in which everything comes around, if not sooner then later. The accounting is strict; nothing is free, except the grace of God. But free can bear two readings — distributed freely, just come and pick it up; or distributed in a way that exhibits no discernible pattern. In one reading grace is given to anyone and everyone; in the other it is given only to those whom God chooses for reasons that remain mysterious.
A third sentence, left out of the film but implied by its dramaturgy, tells us that the latter reading is the right one: “You cannot earn that [grace] or deserve it.”