Sunday, December 23, 2007

Points to Ponder - The Problem of Pain

Different ages excelled in different virtues. If, then, you are ever tempted to think that we modern Western Europeans cannot really be so very bad because we are, comparatively speaking, humane - if, in other words, you think God might be content with us on that ground - ask yourself whether you think God ought to have been content with the cruelty of cruel ages because they excelled in courage or chastity. From considering how the cruelty of our ancestors looks to us, you may get some inkling how our softness, worldliness, and timidity would have looked to them, and hence how both must look to God.
C.S. Lewis The Problem of Pain, pg. 58 (Harper Collins)

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Merry Christmas!

Whew! My busiest semester yet is finally over. In two weeks I'll have to start again, but for now I at last have a chance to catch my breath, spend time with my wife and daughter, perhaps even write a few blog posts (has it really been a month since the last one?). As a start, here are two Christmas-related stories that caught my eye:

As it turns out, this central Christian holiday really does make us happier--imagine that! No offense to George Bailey and Charlie Brown, but depression and suicide rates actually decrease around Christmas.

Also, apparently even Richard Dawkins enjoys singing Christmas carols. I’d love to see a youtube clip of the arch-atheist himself singing:

Joy to the world, the Lord has come!
Let earth receive her king!
Let every heart prepare him room!
And heaven and nature sing!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


There’s not much on TV that I care about anymore, but NBC’s Journeyman has quickly become a favorite. Airing on Mondays at 10pm, the show is vaguely reminiscent of Quantum Leap, but with a number of twists (and no body-snatching). It tells the story of San Francisco reporter Dan Vassar (well played by Kevin McKidd), who suddenly and uncontrollably finds himself jumping back in time. With no more warning than a headache, he is repeatedly transported to some earlier time, stays for a short while, and then returns to the present.

Dan has no more idea why this is happening than we do, but he quickly discovers that his jumps are anything but random. Each time, he finds himself at some significant (often tragic) moment in another person’s life, and he usually follows that same person through several such events before moving on to a new “mark.” No one tells him who, how or why to help, but as he follows his “intuition,” things usually work out better than “the first time around.”

Besides the obvious drama these trips engender, additional tensions arise from the curious fact that Dan does not return to exactly the same time and place that he left, which means he is routinely missing for hours or even days at a time. This, of course, leads to all sorts of awkward questions and frustrations (not to mention, fortuitous escapes), especially when he discovers that his ex-fiancée Olivia, whom he thought had died in a plane crash, also travels through time with him.

These things keep the show exciting, but the real fascination lies in the mystery surrounding these “trips.” What or who causes them? How is it that Dan always shows up at just the right time and place to do the most good? How is such travel possible at all? What role does Livia play in all of this, and why does she so often come to the same places as Dan? Though we’ve been given some vague hints – particularly from a certain eccentric astrophysicist who occasionally drops in on Dan's life – most of these questions are as yet unanswered, leaving my wife and I with plenty to speculate about as we go to bed every Monday.

In all of this, Journeyman proves to be a surprisingly wholesome addition to prime-time television. Despite the relational tensions explored, there is no question of the importance of faithfulness, and Dan remains deeply committed to his wife and son. Perhaps more significantly, Dan’s selfless assistance of the people he tracks is central to the show. He occasionally (and understandably) grows frustrated with whatever “cosmic power” is making him “do its dirty work,” but even so, he routinely sacrifices his own safety to save these strangers. Indeed, in a few episodes he has even tried to save people he wasn’t sent to help, at great personal cost and despite Olivia’s warnings about the dangers of such a course.

Yet perhaps the most interesting aspects of the show, given the generally atheistic assumptions of most television, are the metaphysical questions it raises. All time travel stories are mind-bending in one way or another, but by leaving the means of travel undisclosed, Journeman adds a further level of interest. For even if Dan’s trips are so far unexplained, that doesn’t mean that just any explanation would fit. His jumps are not random, and the fact that he always goes back to precisely those times and places necessary to save people, points to some sort of conscious will behind the process. Though Dan does not control these jumps, it seems clear that someone does, and that someone is not only exceedingly intelligent and powerful, but also very concerned with saving the lives of even the lowliest of people.

Of course, this is only science fiction, but that sounds a lot like the Christian God. Yet the form of the argument is oddly familiar: Though we don’t know how this unnamed power sends Dan back in time, we can be certain they are doing so intentionally, because the “coincidences” are just too numerous to be accidental. This, it turns out, is precisely what Intelligent Design proponents claim about life on earth: that the purposeful nature of life points to design even while such evidence alone is not enough to prove who or how. In the history of life, as in Journeyman, we cannot help but ask how such things are possible (a fact that ID theorists too often forget), but in both cases the evident purposefulness of the process requires that any valid explanation must also involve a who.

Assuming the show survives long enough to raise the issue, you can bet that the only way we will ever know the true identity of the one behind the scenes is if they choose to reveal it. The argument from design can only go so far; apart from some form of revelation, all that remains is speculation. Though perhaps that's half the fun.

UPDATE: Corrected 11/23 to fix a couple typos an a factual error pointed out by my brother.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Revenge of Conscience

I stumbled upon this classic article while working on a paper on Numbers 31 (a horrifying passage!). As I remain embroiled in said paper, I'll present this without comment, but it is well worth reading: The Revenge of Conscience by J. Budziszewski (First Things 1998).

Friday, November 9, 2007

Everyone's Doing It

Ok, I'll jump on the bandwagon. I was gonna say this thing is random (Salvo is graded "Genius" while Signs of the Times is "Junior High Level," even though they're written by the same people), but as it turns out, I am a graduate student.... Anyway, I think it looks cool. :)

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Monday, November 5, 2007

Taking Things "on Faith"

This is a very busy week month for me, so while I work on my Thesis proposal, I’ll let someone else do the talking. Here is a post by James McGrath with which I agree entirely. He argues that biblical faith is not about believing things without evidence, but about trusting in God, which fact has significant implications for any view of creationism or inerrancy. By all means read it.

HT: Higgaion.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Christian Carnival CXCVI

Yesterday's post on Divine Invisibility is included in this week's Christian Carnival. Thanks to Henry Neufeld for hosting!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Divine Invisibility

One of the more common objections to Christianity concerns God’s “invisibility.” Many atheists insist that if God existed, we should expect his presence to be undeniably obvious. For instance, if God is all-powerful and wants us to believe in him, why not provide a steady stream of miracles, that we might see and believe?

There are many problems with this argument. One is simply that miracles are always open to interpretation. No matter how improbable an event, its very improbability makes it open to doubt. The atheist can always insist that even the most far fetched natural explanation is “infinitely more probable” than a miracle. Jesus himself highlighted this, saying: “If they do not believe Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31).

For sake of argument, however, let's assume this is mistaken. Let’s assume that if only God provided enough miracles (say one every week for every person in the world) that would be enough to prove his existence. Is that really the kind of world in which these atheists would want to live?

Many atheists claim that, if God exists, they just want him to prove it to them. Perhaps this is true of some of them – genuinely open-minded people who would be glad to find evidence for God – but I don’t think this makes up the majority of atheists. No, for most atheists the absence of God is something to be glad of. With no God, we are free to choose our destiny as we see fit (unless we’re not free, of course), whereas if he did exist, we’d have to submit to his authority. The existence of God, to many atheists, would forever reduce us to the status of children, unable to care for ourselves.

I do not say this in a derogatory manner, nor am I assuming that all atheists think this way, but many do, and it is to these that this argument is directed. The problem is that these two objections work against one another. For what would it accomplish, really, if God were to provide us with a constant stream of miracles? It might convince us of his presence (or perhaps we would simply dismiss it as another, rather odd, law of nature), but it would certainly reduce us to infants.

If God were to bombard us with constant miracles, what would be left for us to do? What motivation would we have to study or grow, what need would we have to advance or learn? For instance, why would anyone become a doctor, if they knew that God would cure every illness within a week? Why would anyone avoid getting sick or injured at all? How could we learn to take care of ourselves in any way, if God did it for us? Indeed, if he ever failed to do so, would we not complain: “you perform miracles every day, can you not take care of this as well”?

Occasional miracles are one thing – they can give evidence of God’s power, even if only to those who look for them – but if God were to reveal himself as constantly and predictably as many atheists demand, he would in fact be denying us the very thing these same atheists treasure: our freedom to live and learn for ourselves.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Feed the Hungry and Improve Your Vocabulary

This is a great idea: Free Rice is a vocabulary game that donates its ad revenue to purchase rice through the United Nations. For every vocab question you answer correctly, ten grains of rice are donated. Since they launched on October 7, they have already donated over 300 million grains.

The game automatically adjusts its difficulty based on your answers, so you not only feed the hungry, but improve your vocabulary at the same time. Check it out!

HT: Higgaion

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Knocked Up

Against our better judgment, my wife and I rented Knocked Up last night. She’s been wanting to see it for a while, mainly because it’s similar to one of her favorite movies (Fools Rush In) and she likes the lead actress. Unfortunately, this story of a couple of twenty-somethings who get pregnant on a one-night stand is even more crude than we feared. It’s absolutely filled with explicit language, drug use and nudity, nearly all of which is crass and unnecessary to the plot. I would in no way recommend the film, nor do I have any desire to see it again. In all honesty, we should have just turned it off; it was that bad.

But we didn’t, and in the end, Knocked Up worked surprisingly well as social commentary. Its intended audience is the perpetually adolescent guy who looks for “Unrated” versions and would like nothing better than to spend his days smoking pot with his buddies. Yet that is precisely the kind of lifestyle the film criticizes. The lead character (Ben Stone, played by Seth Rogen) is essentially a 23-year old frat boy (minus the college education), living with four guys who spend all their time smoking and goofing off. None of them have real jobs (who knows how they afford rent, let alone weed) and their only ambition is to create a website detailing their favorite stars' nude scenes. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that their real dream would be to actually sleep with those celebrities, but the website is their only achievable ambition.

If this is the type of guy the movie is meant to attract, however, it quickly becomes apparent just how empty such a life really is. Ben is a slob, living in a pig-sty with four friends who barely even like each other. Running out of money and wasting the best years of his life, he's going nowhere and he doesn’t even realize it. When he finally meets the girl of his dreams (Alison Scott, played by Katherine Heigl), he gets so drunk he hardly remembers sleeping with her, and doesn’t realize how much he disgusts her until it’s too late. If she hadn’t gotten pregnant, it’s certain she would never have gone out with him again (she only met him at all because she herself got too drunk while out celebrating a promotion).

And so the movie goes, until it finally allows Ben to hit rock bottom: nearly broke, his life is so meaningless that when an earthquake hits, the only thing he cares to save is his bong (he forgets that his pregnant girlfriend is sleeping in the next room). He doesn’t know what he’s missing until he and Alison’s brother-in-law spend a drugged-out weekend in Vegas. Sitting alone in their hotel room, they suddenly realize what a mess they’ve made of their lives. They have these smart, beautiful women who (completely improbably) love them, and yet they spend most of their time trying to get away from them.

By the time it’s over, Knocked Up is really about these two guys growing up and taking responsibility for their lives, which is a remarkably wholesome message from a movie that is anything but wholesome. I would not recommend this film to anyone (I rather wish I hadn’t watched it myself), but maybe, just maybe, it is the kind of thing that might wake up a few of the overgrown teenagers to whom it’s been marketed. For if there is anything more distressing than the characters in this movie, it’s the fact that there really are guys who live like Ben, and don't see what's wrong with it. This film is for them, and I hope it finds its mark.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Traffic and the Fall

After spending nearly five hours stuck in traffic today, this seems like a good time to highlight another of my favorite posts from Signs of the Times, Traffic and the Fall:

I once saw a cartoon about a perfect gentleman who became a maniac whenever driving. In everyday life, he’s relaxed and courteous – he even helps a spider off the walkway. But when he gets behind the wheel, his shoulders rise up, he leans forward with a grimace, his whole demeanor changes. Foot jammed to the floor, he races past unsuspecting grannies and runs other drivers off the road.

It was a ridiculous cartoon, but I have a confession to make (I’m not even Catholic!): After six months of commuting, I’ve realized that I am that man. I’m normally pretty easy going, but driving stresses me out to the extreme. I yell and swear. I rage when people fail to go at least five over. Don’t they know that speed limits are the minimum acceptable speed?! And if someone can’t drive in the snow, I feel an unbearable urge to bumper tap them into a ditch. Stoplights are the very beacons of hell.

Some picture heaven as clouds and harps; I imagine Bruce Almighty turning his car into a Ferrari and parting traffic like the Red Sea. If I pray while driving, it’s Please, God, give me a green light and an open road! After all, if he really is all-powerful and all-good, surely he could and would accomplish this minor feat. Yet he never seems to answer that prayer – maybe the atheists were right all along.

Or maybe something else is going on here. My relationship with traffic seems but a microcosm of my relationship with society in general. My inhibitions may disappear when no one can see me but those I leave in the dust, but the desires that surface were there all along. At my worst, I drive as though every road belongs to me. Deep down, I suspect I’d prefer to treat the whole world that way; it’s just not so easy most other places.

Never-mind that freeways wouldn’t exist at all, if not for the traffic that justifies their expense. Never-mind that society itself depends on the millions of others I’d love to push aside. Never-mind that everything I have is a gift. When driving I forget all that and my true self comes out. I don’t care that my red light allows you to safely cross the intersection – it costs me fifteen seconds, and that’s plenty of time to mutter something dreadful about your mother. I may be more civil elsewhere, but my attitude behind the wheel proves what I really am – a deeply selfish, sinful man.

And that’s just it. Perhaps the reason God steadfastly refuses to answer my traffic prayers, is because it’s not my commute that really needs fixing. It’s me. Selfish as I am, it’s easy to feel that if God were good, life would be smooth. But is it not rather those rough parts of life that force me to face what’s really wrong within me? What I need most is not that all others would make way for me, but that I might learn to make way for them, even in the privacy of my own car.

If God rarely answers my prayers for a swift commute, there are others he always answers. Pray for patience and the response is immediate – usually he puts some yokel in my path and asks how I’ll respond.

If you liked this post, be sure and read Kate Bluett's excellent response: Masks.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Even Good Vampires are Bad?

An interesting discussion has sprung up over at Boundless Line, considering whether traditionally evil characters - vampires, dragons, witches and wizards - can be legitimately portrayed as heroes, or whether this inevitably blurs the line between good and evil. As you might expect, I tend to think they can, if redeemed (for aren't we ourselves "good monsters"?), but the whole discussion is interesting, and Ethan Cordray in particular makes some important points for the opposite view:

The trouble with this is that even modern vampires are defined by an essentially evil quality: the need to consume the blood of others to sustain an artificial immortality. That is what makes them vampires, and that is what links them to the old folklore figures. No matter what their personalities or appearances might be, vampires still drink blood and live forever. That's what makes them vampires.

To imagine a "good vampire," then, is really an impossibility. Vampirism is essentially evil, and one who engages in it is thus a doer of evil. If being a vampire is the essence of a character -- that is, if it's what defines the character's personality and behavior -- then that character is essentially evil, and I think we can rightly demand that it be portrayed as such.

On the other hand, I think it's possible to portray a vampiric character that contains goodness, or even one that is morally transformed within a story. This would require, however, that the "redeemed vampire" character give up vampirism, just as we would expect a redeemed criminal to give up crime.
HT: Evangelical Outpost

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Hope and Sacrifice in A Tale of Two Cities

Not long ago, I mentioned that my favorite movie is The Shawshank Redemption. It truly is an inspiring story of hope and sacrifice, a Christian story in the deepest sense of the term. There is another story, however, that strikes me deeper. This evening I made my daughter stay up an hour past bed time so I could finish reading it to her, though I cried so hard I barely got through it.

I’m speaking of my favorite book, and no, it’s not Harry Potter. It’s A Tale of Two Cities, which is one of the most difficult and beautiful books I’ve ever read, and the most poignant depiction of the gospel lived-out that I’ve ever encountered. I’m not a fan of most of Charles Dickens' books – A Christmas Carol makes me gag – but this story is breathtaking.

Admittedly, it’s a tough book to read, and not just because it’s dark. Its language is so dense and carefully-phrased, it has to be read aloud for full effect. Through its first half, it presents several dozen seemingly unconnected events and characters, without explaining their importance. It takes a real act of faith to stick with the story, yet steadily its complex plot resolves itself into a true masterpiece in which there is nothing extraneous at all. Absolutely every detail of this story, from the first page on, is eventually tied into its stirring climax. Every minor occurrence becomes important before the end; every character plays their vital role in its completion.

Summarizing the plot would be difficult and give too much away, but in brief, A Tale of Two Cities, like Shawshank (and Les Misérables, my next favorite book), is a story of unjust imprisonment, and thus a symbol for our own universal bondage to sin. Like the characters in this tale, all of us are born into a system overrun with evil, and while we each must choose either to accept or to redeem what small realm of it we touch, we lack the power to truly escape it on our own.

It is called A Tale of Two Cities, and though this undoubtedly refers to London and Paris, whose distinctive histories shape its every contour, it is also the story of two other “cities,” what Saint Augustine called “the city of man” and “the city of God.” Set before and during the French Revolution – that bloody and lawless coup in a long line of such tragedies – it is first off a tale of the "city of man," as one nation's unbearable suffering symbolizes the misery of all those oppressed by the cruel and indifferent of the world. Worse still, in its depiction of the equally cruel and indifferent revenge that so often repays such oppression (and certainly did in revolutionary France), we see also the unending cycle of evil that so defaces all our attempts to save ourselves.

Yet this is not only a tale of “the worst of times,” it is also a tale of the best of them. Like Shawshank, this is a story that centers on a hope that can only be gained through sacrifice. Even better than Shawshank, it is a story which recognizes that sacrifice can only be authentic if embraced out of love. True, unconditional, world-conquering love, that is the heart of this story, and the final answer it gives to evil. This is not the sappy-sentimental, overly-sexualized love of a modern romance. No. This is a love that takes its inspiration from the one whose own sacrifice marked the turning point in history, whose own love founded "the city of God." In the end, A Tale of Two Cities is a story of his sacrificial love, lived out through redeemed men and women, which is the only hope we have in this dark world. As such, it is his words that one seemingly minor but ultimately central character recalls at the book’s climax, and it is these words that we too must recall if we are to have any hope at all:

“I am the Resurrection and the Life, he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. Whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”

Saturday, October 6, 2007

The Paradoxes of Christianity

Christian doctrine is a complicated thing. Though the gospel can be easily summarized – “For God so loved the world that he sent his one and only son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16 – teasing out just what it means for God to send his “one and only son” to save his “children” (!), leads to more paradoxes than your average time travel movie.

For instance, Jesus of Nazareth was (and is) both fully divine and fully human. Not half of one and half the other, but completely divine, eternal, only-begotten of God, etc. and completely human, temporal, begotten of a woman, etc. Yet how can Jesus be both eternal and temporal? How can the creator of everything become a creature? How can this be anything other than blatant contradiction?

Nor do the difficulties end with the nature of Christ. The Bible is also claimed to be fully human and fully divine. Salvation is by humanity’s free choice and God’s predetermined election. God is both the source of all that exists (including evil), and yet innocent of all evil. At every turn, Christian doctrine maintains, even proudly declares, such paradoxes.

What are we to make of all this. As Christians, have we grown so accustomed to these difficulties that we no longer recognize them as such? If the first rule of logic is non-contradiction, is our faith merely a colossal confusion? Perhaps, but there is another explanation. To see this, an analogy will be helpful, for Christian doctrine is not the only area of knowledge that includes such paradoxes.

Consider quantum mechanics: According to this branch of physics, at the microscopic level the universe is an extremely strange and paradoxical place. The fundamental particles of our universe – photons, electrons, quarks, etc. – boast a number of properties that certainly appear to be contradictory. For instance, according to Wave-Particle Duality, these fundamental particles act both as though they have a particular position and trajectory and as though their “probability wave” extends throughout the entire universe. According to Quantum entanglement and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, particles can influence each other instantly over infinite distances, and yet we can never know simultaneously where they are and how fast they are moving.

Of course, just because there are also paradoxes in physics doesn’t automatically excuse Christian doctrine for having its own. What is significant, however, is the remarkably similar form of these paradoxes.

First, in both quantum mechanics and Christianity, these paradoxes almost certainly result from our own finite perspectives. As human beings accustomed to dealing with objects measured in inches and feet (or centimeters and meters for my non-American friends), it’s hardly surprising that our language gets stretched to the breaking point when we begin talking about things – like quantum particles and the divine nature – far removed from such everyday experience. Presumably, these paradoxes are capable of resolution; we just don’t (yet?) have access to a broad enough perspective to resolve them. Our usual intuitions – that objects can only be in one place at a time, or that freedom and determinism are opposites – can lead us astray when facing such ultimate questions.

Second, in both quantum mechanics and Christianity, these paradoxes are confirmed by constant experience. Though Wave-Particle Duality could be dissolved by rejecting the experimental data that shows light particles acting like waves (e.g. the counter-intuitive Double-Slit Experiment), that wouldn’t solve the problem, it would only ignore it. Likewise, the Freedom-Predestination paradox could be dissolved by rejecting human freedom (as hyper-Calvinists do), but such does not solve the problem, it only ignores it. For just as Wave-Particle Duality is repeatedly confirmed by experiment, the Freedom-Predestination paradox is confirmed by our constant experience of both the reality of freedom and the still small voice of election.

Finally, in both quantum mechanics and Christianity, these paradoxes are central to the system of thought. The paradox of Wave-Particle Duality is not a peripheral detail of quantum mechanics, an exception that can be dismissed as a misunderstanding. It is rather the essential feature of the theory, the central fact by which everything else in quantum mechanics makes sense. In the same way, the dual nature of Christ – both fully God and fully man – is not some peripheral detail; it is the central fact of Christian doctrine. In both cases, the proof of the theory is not that it makes sense, but that it makes sense of everything else.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Mark Shea on Harry Potter

If my previous post was maddeningly vague on why I think Harry Potter is a deeply Christian tale, let me correct that by heartily recommending Mark Shea's piece over at First Things: "Harry Potter and the Christian Critics" (need I say Spoiler Warning?). He succinctly demolishes each of the major "Christian" objections to the series, and is well worth a read.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Harry Potter and the Christian Story

To many of us post-moderns, the Christian story seems rather a mundane thing. Residing in the back of our collective consciousness, it’s just familiar enough to seem unremarkable, yet just unknown enough to be misunderstood. Even Sunday school can be like a vaccine, providing just enough theology to leave us immune to the deep drama of the faith.

It was into just such a situation that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien wrote their works of fantasy. Their goal was to create fiction that could cut through that cultural immunity, and allow a modern audience to hear the Christian story as though for the first time. As Lewis put it:

I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons?
It was an admirable goal, but only partially accomplished. Both Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings would eventually become exceedingly popular, but only long after their intentions were respectively too well-known and entirley missed. Thus, for many readers, the Christian themes of Narnia were a bit too obvious, a bit too early, to evade "those watchful dragons," while the imaginative mythology of Lord of the Rings quickly obscured its own Christian trajectory. Don't get me wrong, both series are outstanding in their own ways, but it remains unclear just how well they fulfilled their intentions.

It was with this background in mind that I finally read J.K. Rowling’s epic Harry Potter series this past month (now you know why my blogging has been so much lighter!). Though I had seen (and enjoyed) a couple of the movies, reading the series all at once proved far more satisfying than I ever expected. Having studiously avoided reading anyone else's views on the series, I was most surprized by just how well Rowling (a practicing member of the Church of Scotland) had managed to accomplish precisely the goal that Lewis and Tolkien set themselves. On the one hand, she managed to build an absolutely unprecedented readership who adored the series without yet knowing where it was headed (according to some reports, the series had sold over 300 million copies before the final book was released!). On the other hand, by the end of the Deathly Hallows she had succeeded in retelling the Christian story in a way that is at once freshly engaging, deeply nostalgic, and hardly mistakable.

Though lacking the poetic beauty of Lord of the Rings, and obscuring some of Narnia's theological distinctions, Harry Potter pulls together countless imaginative story-lines involving dozens of well-developed characters, while seamlessly interweaving a host of important themes: from coming of age and facing death, to love and friendship, trust and loyalty, and redemption and sacrifice, to courage and betrayal, good and evil, and much else. That entire books were written decrying the series' “anti-Christian” message (I haven’t read them, but I can't imagine anyone writing one now), indicates just how well she has accomplished her goal.

So as not to spoil them for anyone who hasn’t yet read the books (you really should!), I wont go into any details, but suffice it to say that Rowling has admirably lived up to her forebears in Lewis and Tolkien, not least because she allowed her Christian themes to build to a fitting climax, rather than airing them out too early. In the end, Harry Potter proves much more explicitly Christian than The Lord of the Rings, yet much less obtrusive than The Chronicles of Narnia. I really cannot recommend it highly enough; I only wish I had another month to reread it, now that I know how it all comes together!

If anyone else here has read the series, what are your reactions?

UPDATE: If you've come to this post directly and want a more detailed account of Harry Potter's Christian nature, don't miss Mark Shea's "Harry Potter and the Christian Critics" (Spoiler Warning).

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Simulating Life?

I don’t often read Uncommon Descent, but Tom Gilson pointed out an excellent post by mathematician Granville Sewell, called “My Failed Simulation.” He asks:

In my 2000 Mathematical Intelligencer article I speculated on what would happen if we constructed a gigantic computer model which starts with the initial conditions on Earth 4 billion years ago and tries to simulate the effects that the four known forces of physics (the gravitational and electromagnetic forces and the strong and weak nuclear forces) would have on every atom and every subatomic particle on our planet. If we ran such a simulation out to the present day, I asked, would it predict that the basic forces of Nature would reorganize the basic particles of Nature into libraries full of encyclopedias, science texts and novels, nuclear power plants, aircraft carriers with supersonic jets parked on deck, and computers connected to laser printers, CRTs and keyboards?
Before you balk at his gross ignorance, make sure you read the whole thing. ;)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Jesus I Never Knew

For the second year in a row, my wife and I are leading an adult "Home Group" for our church. This year we're reading The Jesus I Never Knew by Philip Yancey. I have read it before (probably a decade ago), but I'd forgotten how good it was. Here is an excerpt from the excellent opening chapter:

Once, for a two-week period, I was snowbound in a mountain cabin in Colorado. Blizzards closed all roads and... I had nothing to do but read the Bible. I went through it slowly, page by page. In the Old Testament I found myself identifying with those who boldly stood up to God: Moses, Job, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, the psalmists. As I read, I felt I was watching a play with human characters who acted out their lives of small triumph and large tragedy onstage, while periodically calling to an unseen Stage Manager, "You don't know what it's like out here!" Job was most brazen, flinging to God this accusation: "Do you have eyes of flesh? Do you see as a mortal sees?"

Every so often I could hear the echo of a booming voice from far offstage, behind the curtain. "Yeah, and you don't know what it's like back here either!" it said, to Moses, to the prophets, most loudly to Job. When I got to the Gospels, however, the accusing voices stilled. God, if I may use such language, "found out" what life is like in the confines of planet earth. Jesus got acquainted with grief in person, in a brief, troubled life not far from the plains where Job had travailed. Of the many reasons for Incarnation, surely one was to answer Job's accusation: Do you have eyes of flesh? For a time, God did. (pgs. 17-18)
Though I would object that, even in the Old Testament, God is much more than just a cosmic Stage Manager -- barking orders from on-high but never actively participating -- he is in fact the central character of the play. Even so, there is a certain sense in which it still feels like we're down here muddling through, while God is way up there doing who knows what. It is encouraging to know that even the greatest saints felt that way, and were not condemned for it, but it is especially encouraging to know that God did something about it. However it may be true that God is the central character in the Old Testament, in the New he truly did learn "what it's like." No more could he be accused of ignoring our plight, for he had taken it upon himself.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Eyes Wide Open

Tomorrow, I say goodbye to summer and begin a new year of graduate school. This time of year is always melancholy for me, but also rather exciting. In keeping with that mood (and my newly busy schedule), here is another of my favorite old posts, Eyes Wide Open:

Psychologists tell us the human brain is wired for novelty. In the flood of information that bombards our senses, we unconsciously sift out what is new or different, focusing on the most pressing aspects of our experience.

We see this with particular poignancy in children. For them, everything is new, and they can scarcely take it in. The flowers hanging in the window, the music from the radio, even someone making dinner or a stupid plastic toy – each holds a kind of magic when they first experience it. Sometimes, my four-month old can entertain herself with nothing more than a mirror and a rattle.

But there is a dark side to this drive for novelty: boredom with the everyday. The brain’s innate curiosity is still so strong in the young that monotony can feel like torture. The spot where she loved to sit last week, makes her scream this week. The toy that made her giggle this morning, goes unnoticed this afternoon. The face she couldn’t stop staring at a moment ago, makes her cry now.

And this doesn’t end in childhood. As we grow, this tendency grows with us, pressing us to the limits of our environment. As kids we explore our neighborhoods and greenbelts. As teens we rebel against the limits of authority. As adults we reach for success, travel the world or seek out new experiences and ideas. All in an endless drive to find “the next thing.”

Sometimes this ends tragically. Even when it doesn’t, we find a constant struggle between the thrill of novelty and the obligations of life. School is exciting in September but drudgery by October, almost miserable by December. The woman who once occupied one’s every thought, is soon taken for granted. The cause that once seemed so important, now feels hollow. The situation hasn’t changed, but you have.

And it all happens so fast! When I started grad school last month, I began commuting a significant distance for the first time in my life. I had intended to illustrate this post with various observations that had fascinated me on the first few drives. But in just a month I’ve already grown so thoroughly familiar with the routine that I can’t even remember what those were, nor why they seemed significant. When the experience was new, it was filled with wonder – the views were grand and the oddities amused me – but in time the scenery grew dull and the quirks became frustrating. It’s a familiar pattern.

For all this, our tendency to seek out novelty remains a great gift. No matter how monotonous life gets, there is always this quiet voice telling us something better is possible. Our deep-seated need for originality drives much of what is best in life. From the adventures of Calvin and Hobbes, to the mysteries of romance, to our quest for scientific advance – our increased attention for novelty not only drives us to improve, it also helps us do so.

Like all our traits, it is up to us whether to use them for good or evil. If we become too enamored with what's new, we become unreliable and incapable of follow-through. If we ignore this need, we become disillusioned and incapable of progress. Virtue lies in the balance.

Either way, there is something deep within us that longs for something more than we have, something better that we can taste but never quite find. Perhaps this was part of what the author of Ecclesiastes meant when he wrote: “God has made all things beautiful, but he has set eternity in the hearts of men” (3:11). Or as C.S. Lewis put it: “Aim for heaven and you get the Earth thrown in, aim for the Earth and you miss both.”

Sunday, September 2, 2007

The World Clock

I find this just fascinating. It's called "The World Clock" and it keeps a running tally of various stats by the year, month, week, or day. Assuming the figures are at least reasonably accurate, they are startling. For instance, as of 10:30 this morning (PST), there have been over 31 million abortions, nearly 3 million new HIV infections, and over 18 thousand extinctions since January 1st. There have also been more than 90 million births.

Since most of the figures recorded are tragic, it's a rather negative way to view time, but watching the little numbers climb is rather more humbling than just seeing a final total.

HT: Think Christian

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

God's Warriors

If, like me, you missed CNN's documentary God's Warriors, Nathaniel Peters has a good review at First Things:

In truth, the whole of God’s Warriors shows that being God’s warrior means very different things to Jews, Muslims, and Christians. No Christian on the program ever says that being God’s warrior should involve killing an enemy, while many of the Jews and Muslims interviewed see violence as an acceptable part of doing God’s work.
HT: Thinking Christian

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

What's in a Joke

What makes you laugh? It seems like a silly question, but if you think about it, the answer is rather strange. Is it not precisely imperfection that we find funny? Does not all humor imply some form of criticism? Whether it’s a blond joke, a political cartoon, or your half-crazy uncle, it’s what’s wrong with the situation that is funny. Think of your own funniest memories, are they not in fact your most painful and embarrassing moments? Perfection is not humorous; the gap between ideal and reality is the realm of comedy.

Yet why should this be; why should what’s wrong with the world give us pleasure? Is comedy just a coping mechanism? Do we merely laugh at what we cannot fix? No, because humor is also an agent for change. Ridicule is a powerful weapon for those otherwise weak, and many enemies who could not be defeated by direct attack have fallen to a well-placed insult. Humor does not just mask evil behind a laugh (though it can be abused that way); it can also unmask it, by forcing its contradictions into the open.

For if humor depends on recognizing the imperfection of a situation, does it not also depend on an audience who knows better? When we laugh at someone like Homer Simpson it’s because we think we are better than him in some way, or know we should be. In either case, it is not just the imperfections that makes us laugh, but also our awareness of what the situation should be, but isn’t. In order to “get” the joke, you need knowledge – ignorance is only funny to those who are not ignorant.

This suggests that the closer one gets to the ideal, the better a position they are in to find comedy in even the worst tragedy. If that is true, then is God himself the ultimate humorist, the one who can truly bring good out of evil? Perhaps part of the joy of eternity will be to finally hear the punch-line to this whole cosmic joke?

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Something for Sunday - Billy Graham

This week, Billy Graham (88 years old) was admitted to the hospital for intestinal bleeding. On Friday, he received a personal call from President Bush himself, yet another reminder of how well he has managed to navigate the treacherous relationship between religion and politics. In case you missed it, TIME magazine recently ran a cover story on this very aspect of his remarkable career. Here are some excerpts, but I encourage you to read the whole thing:

At a time when the country was bitterly debating the role of religion in public life, we thought Graham's 50-year courtship of--and courtship by--11 Presidents was a story that needed to be told. Perhaps more than anyone else, he had shaped the contours of American public religion and had seen close up how the Oval Office affects people....

Billy Graham radiates qualities a president seldom encounters during office hours: innocence, guilelessness, sincerity strong as paint stripper. "I'm not an analyzer," he told us. "I've got a son that analyzes everything and everybody. But I don't analyze people." His critics called him gullible, naive to the point of self-delusion; his defenders, of which there were a great many more, called him trusting, always seeing the best in powerful people and frequently eliciting it as a result....

A fiercely partisan Democrat told us that Graham, a registered Democrat all his life, wasn't complicated once you realized he was actually just a Republican. But that's too simple an explanation. Graham liked all the Presidents and regarded them first and foremost as his friends--with the intriguing exception of Jimmy Carter. The fellow born-again Southern Baptist was the only President ever to organize a local Graham crusade. But on the heels of Graham's crushing experience with the Nixon Administration, the evangelist recalibrated his relationship with the White House and kept his distance....

From then on, Graham operated below the radar as three old friends--Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton--took their turns in the Oval Office. To his critics, the pastoral was political. The left deplored his spending the night with Bush on the day the Gulf War began; the right objected to his praying at Clinton's Inaugural. But Graham stood by them all, including his old charge George W. Bush, whom he publicly embraced on the final Sunday before the 2000 election--in Florida, of all places....

Graham recalled these friendships with the humility that comes with experience. "As I look back, I feel even more unqualified--to think I sat there and talked to the President of the United States," he said. "I can only explain that God was planning it in some ways, but I didn't understand it." He doesn't expect to make it back to the White House anytime soon, but he watches out for its occupant the best way he knows how. He does daily devotions, and whoever sits in the Oval Office will always have a place in his prayers.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Hope and Sacrifice in The Shawshank Redemption

My all time favorite movie is The Shawshank Redemption. It’s a tale of hope in the midst of despair, of salvation on the other side of suffering. It’s the story of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a successful banker condemned to Shawshank prison for the murder of his wife and her lover.

It’s a hard movie to watch, and certainly not for children. It doesn’t blink at the horrors of incarceration, but because of that, it offers a powerful exploration of human nature. From the depths of depravity when Andy faces gang rape by “the sisters,” to the heights of redemption when he teaches “Red” (Morgan Freeman) the meaning of hope, in all this we get a glimpse into what it means to be human.

Hope. That is the center around which this film revolves. Shawshank is a terrible place, but worse than the corrupt warden and sadistic guards, worse even than “the sisters” (they aren’t homosexual, Red notes, “they’d have to be human first”), its real danger is the power to dehumanize. For its walls and bars do more than just keep men inside, they change those they contain. “First you hate them, then you get used to them,” Red explains, “enough time passes, you get so you depend on them.” He calls it being “institutionalized” – spend enough time in prison and it no longer matters why you’re there; guilty or innocent, there comes a time when you no longer have an identity except as an inmate. You lose your autonomy, and by then even release leaves nothing but the broken shell of a man. “They send you here for life, and that’s exactly what they take.”

There is only one thing that can save a man in Shawshank – hope. Yet what is hope? Is it just a pipe dream, a delusion, a refusal to accept reality and thus ultimately hopeless. That’s what Red thinks, but Andy knows better. He knows that, whatever men may do to the body, they can never kill the soul. Referring specifically to music, he says you need it to remember “there’s something inside that they can’t get to, they can’t touch.” Even so, Andy is not content to ignore the world and hide in his mind. Twice, he risks his life and position to show his friends what hope means. In one case, he gladly accepts two weeks of solitary confinement for broadcasting opera over the prison loudspeakers. “Easiest time I ever did.”

For what Andy realized – and this is where the movie really shines - is that real hope is not about closing your eyes to the evil around you, stopping your ears and dreaming. No, true hope, paradoxically, comes by actively dying to yourself. “Get busy living, or get busy dying,” he tells Red, for it’s only when you willingly risk everything, that freedom becomes possible. That’s what Andy learned in Shawshank prison, and hope springs eternal.

“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

"Practical" Christianity

A common reason people reject or abandon Christianity is a feeling that it simply isn’t practical. For many in the average church, there is no obvious connection between what is preached on Sunday morning, and what they actually do the rest of the week. Talk of grace and eternal salvation, however uplifting, is often perceived as irrelevant to everyday life.

The problem is that we have shied away from the one aspect of Christianity that really is applicable – its moral teaching. Actually, that isn’t quite correct. The church hasn’t abandoned its moral teaching, but too often it has distorted it. Publicly, at least here in America, we have focused ever more attention on berating the surrounding culture for its sexual practices and selfishness, while paying ever less attention to the state of our own lives. Thus, the non-Christian world sees in Christian morality only a collection of harsh and unnecessary rules, because that is how many of our loudest advocates announce it.

Privately, countless churches do a wonderful job of living out the love of Christ, but as a whole, the Church in America has done a poor job of expressing its moral viewpoint to the outside world. How rarely do non-Christians hear that the heart of the gospel is actually a call to die to yourself, that you might live? How often do we show this by our actions?

The trouble is that we too often accept the assumption that the value of a thing lies in its utility. Dying to yourself is not practical; it doesn’t pay the bills or get you ahead on the ladder of success. Quite the contrary, it might even mean paying other people's bills and letting them go ahead. In the long run, this results in community, love, and mutual encouragement, but in the short run, it is hard, so we avoid it. Instead of dying to ourselves, we rest content in our cheap grace or pile harsh condemnation on those around us. In all that, we forget that Christian morality is intended to be a lively and liberating way of life, the outlines of what it means to be truly human. As N.T. Wright puts it in Simply Christian (by the way, Matt, I’ve changed my view of this book; the second half is excellent):

Only when we have set all that out quite clearly can we ever speak of “rules.” There are rules, of course. The New Testament has plenty of them. Always give alms in secret. Never sue a fellow Christian. Never take private vengeance. Be kind. Always show hospitality. Give away money cheerfully. Don’t be anxious. Don’t judge another Christian over a matter of conscience. Always forgive. And so on. And the worrying thing about that randomly selected list is that most Christians ignore most of them most of the time. It isn’t so much that we lack clear rules; we lack, I fear, the teaching that will draw attention to what is in fact there in our primary documents, not least in the teaching of Jesus himself.

The rules are to be understood, not as arbitrary laws thought up by a distant God to stop us from having fun (or to set us some ethical hoops to jump through as a kind of moral examination), but as the signposts to a way of life in which heaven and earth overlap, in which God’s future breaks into the present, in which we discover what genuine humanness looks and feels like in practice. (pg. 224-25)
If we want to change our culture, we must start by changing ourselves.

Three Dollars Worth of Gospel

From D. A. Carson's Basics for Believers: An Exposition of Philippians:

I would like to buy about three dollars worth of gospel, please.

Not too much – just enough to make me happy, but not so much that I get addicted.

I don’t want so much gospel that I learn to really hate covetousness and lust.

I certainly don’t want so much that I start to love my enemies, cherish self-denial, and contemplate missionary service in some alien culture

I want ecstasy, not repentance;

I want transcendence, not transformation.

I would like to be cherished by some nice, forgiving, broad-minded people, but I myself don’t want to love those from different races – especially if they smell.

I would like enough gospel to make my family secure and my children well behaved, but not so much that I find my ambitions redirected or my giving too greatly enlarged.

I would like about three dollars worth of the gospel, please. (pp. 12-13)
HT: Between Two Worlds

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Points to Ponder – The Brothers Karamazov

I am sorry to say, this is true of me more often than I would like to admit:

The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular. In my dreams, I often make plans for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually face crucifixion if it were suddenly necessary. Yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together. I know from experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs me and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he’s too long over his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I hate men individually the more I love humanity.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Monday, August 20, 2007

Creation and Evolution

In the relationship between Christianity and contemporary culture, few issues are more contentious than the debate over creation and evolution. The trouble lies not just in the numerous disagreements over the science of evolution, but also in the way that question has become tied to so many other concerns – from the age of the earth, to public school policies, to moral relativism and even the existence of God – that have only tangential relation to evolution itself.

The result, as should be obvious to anyone who has considered the matter, is a debate that constantly shifts from science to politics to theology, and back again, with little concern for consistency or clarification. This is a culture war in which even those on the same “sides” often disagree on all manner of fundamental principles, and spend more time misunderstanding and vilifying their opponents than reasoning with them.

Given this sorry state of affairs, I’m tempted to avoid talking about the issue altogether, especially as I am not, myself, a scientist or even a philosopher. But how can I do so? If I am going to talk about Christianity and contemporary culture at all, I cannot ignore this elephant in the room. However, to limit confusion as much as possible, I will simply begin by stating my current views as succinctly as I can, and hopefully over time I will be able to explain why I accept these positions:

  • I believe the existence of the universe is entirely contingent upon the will of God; it had a beginning and is not self-existent.
  • I believe the universe is somewhere around 13 or 14 billion years old, and the earth is approximately 4.54 billion years old.
  • I believe that life on earth is irreducibly complex and no blind processes alone can explain its origin.
  • I believe all human and animal life on earth has descended from one or a few common ancestors.
  • I believe that while natural selection explains many odd features of life, its power has been grossly exaggerated.
  • I believe it is an open question whether and how God has actively guided and propelled the continuing evolution of life.
  • I believe that, however they came about, the essential features of humanity – including morality, reason, society, etc. – are intended by God to reflect his image.


  • I believe morality is properly grounded in God’s own character, not created by humanity or inferred from evolution.
  • I believe that while atheism itself implies a meaningless and amoral universe, acceptance of evolution does not require acceptance of atheism or its implications.
  • I believe the Bible, including the first chapters of Genesis, is intended to reveal the character of God and shape us to reflect it, not to provide us with arcane details of history or science.
  • I believe that, ideally, public school science classes should only teach established science, but that, practically, parents and local school districts should have the right to decide for themselves what their students need to learn.
  • I believe that the relationship between Christianity and mainstream science is, and will remain, a complex one, but there is no unbridgeable chasm between them.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Something for Sunday - Held

I have long been skeptical of “Contemporary Christian Music” as overly sentimental kitsch (whether unfairly or not, I don’t know), but every so often I’ll hear something on our local station that makes me reconsider. Held by Natalie Grant is a particularly poignant song I heard yesterday. It well maintains the tension between honest sorrow and unflinching faith that many of the psalms explore. I don’t like the music video, but I love the tune and think it's a good example of what Christian art should be:

Held by Natalie Grant

Two months is too little.
They let him go.
They had no sudden healing.
To think that providence would
Take a child from his mother while she prays
Is appalling.

Who told us we'd be rescued?
What has changed and why should we be saved from nightmares?
We're asking why this happens
To us who have died to live?
It's unfair.

This is what it means to be held.
How it feels when the sacred is torn from your life
And you survive.
This is what it is to be loved.
And to know that the promise was
When everything fell we'd be held.

This hand is bitterness
We want to taste it and
Let the hatred numb our sorrows
The wise hand opens slowly
To lilies of the valley and tomorrow

This is what it means to be held.
How it feels when the sacred is torn from your life
And you survive.
This is what it is to be loved.
And to know that the promise was
When everything fell we'd be held.

If hope is born of suffering.
If this is only the beginning.
Can we not wait for one hour
Watching for our Savior?

This is what it means to be held.
How it feels when the sacred is torn from your life
And you survive.
This is what it is to be loved.
And to know that the promise was
When everything fell we'd be held.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Sickness Unto Death

I’m finally reading Kierkegaard’s classic treatment of human nature, and the following lines stood out as a perfect description of American pop-culture:

The man of immediacy does not know himself, he quite literally identifies himself only by the clothes he wears, he identifies having a self by externalities (here again the infinitely comical). There is hardly a more ludicrous mistake, for a self is indeed infinitely distinct from an externality. So when the externals have completely changed for the person of immediacy and he has despaired, he goes one step further; he thinks something like this, it becomes his wish: What if I became someone else, got myself a new self. Well, what if he did become someone else? I wonder if he would recognize himself. (The Sickness Unto Death, pg 53)
The tendency to define, and redefine, oneself according to external appearance has become so common that it’s almost a cliché, but what is really surprising is how often this is now embraced as a positive good. We can see this especially in the rise of virtual worlds like Second Life (on which I have much more to say in Salvo 3, due out this month). Here we find thousands of people who really believe that if they can just find the right look, or the right environment, it will somehow reveal their true self. Yet is it not instead the self, the real person beneath all appearances, which is lost in the shuffle?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

First Things First

Here’s another of my favorites, First Things First. I post it mainly because I need the reminder:

My daughter was born almost a month ago, and I could easily spend all day just watching her sleep (she returns the favor by keeping me up all night).* Of course, that’s not very practical -- there are more pressing concerns in life. And yet, it’s funny how easily far less important things end up filling my time. A couple weeks back, I wrote about an upcoming video game called Left Behind: Eternal Forces. Thinking about that game, and its similarities and differences to other games I own, really opened up my eyes and reminded me just how much time I waste on mindless and forgettable pursuits. I haven’t played a computer game since.

Stephen Covey (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, First Things First, etc.) categorizes all activities into four types based on whether they are “important or not important” and “urgent or not urgent,” and urges us to analyze all our activities by these two criteria.

You might expect him to advise focusing on the “important and urgent” activities, but he actually suggests focusing on those things that are “important but not urgent,” while cutting out the “not important and not urgent” ones. The natural practice of forever focusing on what is most urgent (interspersed with “breaks” filled with meaningless activities) may seem productive, but really prevents us from controlling our overall direction in life, and cuts out all the most worthwhile pursuits. While we’re busy putting out fires left and right, we find that there’s no time left for things like poetry.

But my interest today is on those “not important and not urgent” activities. With the countless distractions modern technology has provided us, it's easy to start to feel that we risk burnout if we fail to take time for such trivia. We get the idea that occasional breaks for sitcoms or video games actually help our productivity as a whole, and feel justified in “vegging out” every now and then.

Unfortunately, this simply isn’t true. The problem is when you start thinking you need to do these things, they steadily eat up more and more of your time, especially if -- like me -- you work from home. At first, maybe you can work a whole day before feeling like you need to “check out” for a half hour. Pretty soon every three hours you need an hour break. Before long, you hardly get much done even when you are working; you feel like you always need a break.

But a funny thing happens when you stop and say: I really don’t need to be playing these games in the first place. You feel really bored for a day or two, and then suddenly you find that you can be productive for longer and longer stretches without any “brain breaks” at all. I know from personal experience (and not just from the past couple weeks -- though my drastically increased blogging is a product of that -- but because in the past I have sworn off TV and video games for months, and saw similar results): it's shocking how little such activities are missed once you get away from them, and how much more you can get done once they're gone.

And the best part is: cutting out such “not important and not urgent” activities doesn’t just let you be more effective at accomplishing the urgent activities, it also (and primarily) frees up your time for all those (“important but not urgent”) things that you always want to do, but never find the time for. When you cut out meaningless leisure activities, you suddenly have the freedom to pursue the ones that are truly satisfying: hobbies, sports, viewing/reading/listening to art (which can include good movies and television, though it probably can’t justify an afternoon of Friends reruns), deep thinking and reading, meaningful conversation and -- my personal favorite –- watching your baby girl sleep.

*This was first written last June; my daughter is now 15 months, and while she no longer keeps me up at night, she's still a wonderful distraction.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Hell is Other People

G.K. Chesterton (whom, as my masthead suggests, I’m liable to quote rather often) once claimed that Original Sin is “the only part of Christian theology that can really be proved.” Criticizing the modern tendency to reject this doctrine, he argues:

The strongest saints and the strongest skeptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat. (Orthodoxy, p. 19)
How anyone can look at our world and claim that the average human is “basically good” is beyond me, but however indisputable, the universality of human evil remains an exceptionally difficult doctrine. If God is just, how can it be that he punishes us for the sins of our forebears? So what if our ancestors sinned, why should that affect us?

And yet, could it really have been otherwise? Theoretically, perhaps, God could have created a world of isolated individuals each with no power to harm another, but such would have been more like a cosmic prison than a good creation. As soon as God choose to create a world of freedom and society, he accepted the risk that we would use that freedom to destroy that society, and one another.

This leads to an alternate understanding of the concept of Original Sin. Such is not an arbitrary punishment God imposed on us because of our ancestors’ rebellion, as though he were spitefully getting back at our parents by cursing us. Not at all.

The doctrine of Original Sin instead recognizes the obvious truth that our actions as individuals always impact the society in which we live, the society in which our children are born. Our children are “born into sin,” not because God creates them sinful, but precisely because they are born into a community of sinful people – selfish people, prideful people, prejudiced people, people like you and me.

And that is why the fall of our ancient forebears was such a disaster, for it established a culture of sin which affects all aspects of human society. Such was the cost of the gift of freedom, such is the dark side of community.

A Dissertation Upon Dissertations

In case any of my readers are also graduate students, you might enjoy these excerpts from Fordham University’s very tongue-in-cheek “A Dissertation Upon Dissertations” (HT: Evangelical Outpost):

What Is not a Dissertation
The set of all-things-not-doctoral-dissertations, as a logician might say, has a vast and varied membership. Ocean liners, the square root of minus one, and pickled herring spring to mind. There is in general little chance of mistaking most of these things for a doctoral thesis, even in dim light. There are, indeed, a few things that bear a superficial resemblance to dissertations—telephone books, for example—but the clever observer will soon learn to distinguish them. (In the case of the telephone book, for instance, one will quickly note a strict logical progression in its contents that sets it apart from all but a few dissertations.)...

Audience. You may one day turn your dissertation into a book, during the many leisure hours you can expect to enjoy as a well-paid and pampered junior faculty member at the fortunate college or university that you select from the many that will vie for your services. You will then bask in the admiration of the theological world and the less critically grounded adulation of the general public, while living luxuriously on your vast royalties. Perhaps there will even be a lump sum for the movie rights....

Style. A dissertation should naturally be written well. On the most basic level, this means using proper grammar and being acquainted with the elements of style. Many students write run-on sentences, they join independent clauses with a comma or even with no punctuation at all they should instead use a conjunction between the clauses or separate them by a semicolon or a period. Also, incomplete sentences. They sometimes fail to place a comma before conjunctions introducing dependent clauses for they are not well acquainted with the rules of grammar. Being graduate students, there is a tendency to use dangling participial phrases; as inexperienced writers, adjectival phrases are treated in the same way. It is fortuitous that most students do not fall into the lacuna of improper word usage. But in a sea of mixed metaphors, their writing sometimes fails to bear fruit of ironclad perfection. Be very careful of this, as well as using pronouns with no clear referent, speling, and that parallel construction is used to express correlative ideas. After all, it can be embarrassing when the first question from the readers at your defense is,"Did you ever go to high school?" If you use this document as your model and proofread carefully, especially if you use a word processor to alter your text, and you will have no difficulties.

Accuracy, conciseness, and clarity are more important in a dissertation than elegant phraseology. This is not the place to wax poetic or--even worse--homiletic. Humor is of course totally out of place in the Grove of Academe.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Dawkins' Fawlty Logic

As I begin this new blog, it seems appropriate to highlight a few of the best posts I've written for Signs of the Times. On that note, here is one of my favorites, Dawkins' Fawlty Logic:

Every year, Edge magazine asks numerous people of interest a single question (HT: Telic Thoughts). This year's question: "What is your dangerous idea?" Richard Dawkins' answer: Determinism.

Not very unique, I know, but his explanation is noteworthy. According to him, "science" has dismantled the illusion of free will by reducing us to the blind interactions of our physical particles.

The result? A fantastic British comedy, apparently:

Basil Fawlty, British television's hotelier from hell created by the immortal John Cleese, was at the end of his tether when his car broke down and wouldn't start. He gave it fair warning, counted to three, gave it one more chance, and then acted. "Right! I warned you. You've had this coming to you!" He got out of the car, seized a tree branch and set about thrashing the car within an inch of its life. Of course we laugh at his irrationality. Instead of beating the car, we would investigate the problem. Is the carburettor flooded? Are the sparking plugs or distributor points damp? Has it simply run out of gas? Why do we not react in the same way to a defective man: a murderer, say, or a rapist? Why don't we laugh at a judge who punishes a criminal, just as heartily as we laugh at Basil Fawlty?

[D]oesn't a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system make nonsense of the very idea of responsibility, whether diminished or not? Any crime, however heinous, is in principle to be blamed on antecedent conditions acting through the accused's physiology, heredity and environment. Don't judicial hearings to decide questions of blame or diminished responsibility make as little sense for a faulty man as for a Fawlty car?

Dawkins’ is right about one thing: this truly is a dangerous idea. But he is quite mistaken about where that danger lies. He only sees in it an end to retributive justice, but much more is at stake than that.

Consider: Basil becomes so angry at his car precisely because it was not doing what it was supposed to. Yet cars can only be "faulty" because they are built for a purpose. A rock cannot be faulty; it can only be itself, for it was not made for any purpose. But according to Dawkins, people are more like rocks than cars. Their design is only apparent, not real, and they have no more purpose than a rock does (nor are they any more capable of determining their own behavior than a rock is).

But in that case, we have not only thrown out moral responsibility, we have also thrown out morality itself. We have not just destroyed the justification for punishing crime, we have also destroyed justification itself. All actions would then be just as right as all others (and just as wrong, since these words lose all meaning), and it is no longer possible to call anything faulty.

Ironically, while such a view wouldn’t prevent anyone from punishing a criminal for their "sins" (any more than it stops Basil from beating his car), it would prevent anyone from rehabilitating the criminal. For you can’t rehabilitate a man unless you have some idea of what man is supposed to be, and this is precisely what Dawkins has declared to be impossible for the science-savy to accept.

If we carried this Fawlty logic to its end, Basil would not only be irrational for beating his car, he would be irrational even to think there was a problem with it. No wonder Dawkins finds it unlikely that even he "shall ever reach that level of enlightenment."

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Welcome to C.Orthodoxy

People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.

-G.K. Chesterton

We live in a post-modern, post-Christian world. Everything we do and think is colored by this fact, but where does that leave those of us who remain, after everything, Christians? Must we close out the world, cling tooth and nail to a parochial understanding of our faith, and pray not to be lost in the deluge? Or do we give in, allow the secular world to dictate the terms of our thinking, and steadily abandon all that we hold most dear?

Neither of these strategies is tenable. The first rejects the future in nostalgia for the past; the second ignores our history in awe of the present. I believe that if this ancient faith is to play any substantial role in our contemporary world, it will not result from either ignoring, or uncritically embracing, the changes modernity has wrought.

So this blog is my clearing floor. Here I might discuss anything from art to anthropology, evolution to epistemology, society to soteriology. I might ponder history, theology, philosophy, science, ethics, politics, or just the latest TV show. My interests are wide-ranging, but beneath it all lies a simple question: How can Historic Christian Orthodoxy move into the 21st century without abandoning either its soul or its mind?

I do not profess to know the answer to this question, but I want the freedom to consider it. Doing so may carry me far afield, and even I do not know where it will lead, but that is half the fun. For I seek nothing less than a full engagement between post-modern culture in all its diversity, and historic Christianity in all its grandeur. I have no delusions that I will reach that goal, but I hope the journey itself will be worth the effort.

I believe that Christian orthodoxy embraces all aspects of life, but how it does so will remain an open question on this blog. Be certain, I have many opinions, some dearly held, but I am not so convinced of myself that I am unwilling to consider other views. No avenue will be too profane to explore. No doctrine will be too sacred to question.

Save one. I take it as a given that all which exists depends on the self-sacrifice of God. All goodness and love, order and justice, freedom and power flow from Him. He who had the power to control everything, has instead given us freedom. He who needed nothing, gave up everything. I believe that all Christian doctrine hangs on this single point: That God has accepted any cost, even death on a cross, to give us life.

The death of God. There is no more impenetrable paradox than this. That the source of all life could die; this cannot be fathomed, much less explained. It is like the sun – impossible to look steadily upon, yet necessary to view anything else. If false, it is the greatest farce ever conceived by man. If true, it is the most important thing that ever happened. I may not be able to encapsulate it, but I will not hesitate to examine the world by its light.

That said, I am willing to discuss it, and I am happy to converse with those who reject it. I welcome any question thoughtfully presented and will acknowledge any objection respectfully raised. But the self-giving love of God is my premise. All thinking must begin somewhere, no matter where it ends. For every journey, there must be a first step. This is mine.

I call this blog C.Orthodoxy, because, though I hope I am orthodox, I have no finished system. If you are looking for something stable and secure, you will not find it here. If you are looking for the freedom to explore God’s truth wherever it leads (or wherever I find it interesting!), then you have found a kindred spirit. I value honesty and love above all things, but I remain a human being, and a young and naïve one at that. I may get things wrong, sometimes painfully so, but I believe the surest way to find what is true, is to abandon any fear of being false.

All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

-J.R.R. Tolkien