Thursday, July 31, 2008

It's A Boy!

Our son was born yesterday morning at 9:52, 8 pounds 9 ounces, 19 inches long and perfect. My wife is also doing well (recovering much more quickly than she did last time), so hopefuly we'll be heading home tomorrow. Sorry no pictures; I'm using a hospital computer, as their wireless internet is secured. Thanks for everyone's thoughts and prayers!

Persecuted on Every Side

Unlike the other reposts this week, the following has not appeared on this blog before. It is based on two posts from Signs of the Times:

In the aftermath of the PZ Myers debacle (which I promise not to post on again!) a fair bit of persecution rhetoric has floated around. Both sides seem rather quick to claim the status of victims of their overbearing ideological opponents. In fact, this is nothing new, as this has been a popular political game for years. For instance, back in 2006 Joe Carter wrote an interesting post about the Left's fear of an American theocracy, arguing that it evidences a profound ignorance of the largely populist nature of evangelicalism [I should note that the formatting on Joe's post slightly messed up; I couldn't tell you why, but it makes it harder to read].

A number of his commenters responded that this phenomenon of claiming persecution (whether present or in the near future) is not limited to liberals, but appears just as often in conservative circles. As "ex-preacher" notes, for every secularist decrying "the coming theocracy," there's a conservative complaining about "the war on Christians":

Each side is convinced that the other side is out to get them. There's a strange paranoia among both leftists and rightists that their political/religious opponents are on the verge of coming to some type of absolute power and legislating the other side out of existence.
I think he's exactly right, and unfortunately, this kind of thinking is self-reinforcing. Since almost any kind of victory or inflated rhetoric by the opposition can now be claimed as "persecution" and used to drum up support for a favored policy or organization, this victim mindset can easily outgrow the facts. What used to be taken as evidence that democracy is working—people disagreeing, voicing their views and voting with their consciences—can now be taken as evidence of a vast conspiracy to take over the culture. This, in turn, is used to justify one's own inflated rhetoric and the cycle goes on.

The tactic might help draw attention or garner votes, but the result is always the same: Rather than helping to move everyone toward the middle and thus avoid the feared extremist takeover, this kind of rhetoric only furthers the division between those claiming persecution. Each side becomes more extreme and the chances of one group or the other's fears being realized is increased rather than decreased.

There are, of course, laws that discriminate unfairly against one group or the other; there are "hate speech" regulations that are sometimes abused to restrict freedom of speech; there are also very different views about how this country should be run and there is a chance (however small) that either the extreme left or the extreme right could run away with enough elections to forever change the face of our nation. But there is no coming theocracy, there is no war on Christians. The only way there ever will be is if we insist on our present course of polarizing every debate.

For in point of fact, it is often our rhetoric itself that keeps us from working together. If more of us were willing to give up our victim mindset, Christians might just find that many secularists would be their allies on this matter. For though it is certainly true that left and right, Christian and secular (two very different distinctions) disagree on many fundamental issues, freedom of speech and religion are concerns shared by all. It is only our rhetoric that keeps us from working together. It is our claim to be persecuted that risks leading to the persecution we fear.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

First Things First

This was previously posted here, and seems a good way to begin:

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.

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. Now 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” pursuits that eat up so much of our time. As he notes, our natural tendency to focus on whatever 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 many of the best things in life. While we’re busy putting out fires left and right, we find that there’s no time left for things like poetry [do click through and read this, it's good!].

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 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: 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.

*Now two, my daughter no longer keeps me up at night (that will be my son's job now), but as a curious and conversational toddler, she certainly still keeps me busy.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Dharma Initiative

Ok, one last thing before I take off. For all you LOST fans, check out (they sent me an email today; I think I remember signing up for something like this back at the end of Season Four).

Anyway, the site will run you through an interesting psychological test and if you pass (I assume you can't fail, but who knows), you can register as a Dharma Volunteer, whatever that means. Unfortunately, I kept getting an error message when I tried to register, but I'm curious what this is going to be. Try here for more information.

See You Next Week!

Tomorrow, tomorrow, I'll love you, tomorrow!
Sorry, but I'm a little excited (and I tend to get goofy when I'm excited). Tomorrow morning, my wife and I will make our way to the local hospital for the birth of our son, our second child, by scheduled C-Section. Rather than attempting to come up with new and exciting content in what I anticipate to be a rather distracted and sleep-deprived state, I'll be taking the week off. But not to worry (yes, I know you were all beside yourselves with grief!), following Drew's example I've scheduled several slightly updated reposts of material my newer readers might have missed. I've also scheduled a couple new items to keep things fresh. Let me also recommend my recent comment discussion with N. Adam, here, here, and here, which raised some interesting points.

In any case, feel free to discuss amongst yourselves, mock my ignorance behind my back, or simply go your merry way to greener pastures. I should still have Internet access and may poke my head in for a birth announcement, or an occasional comment, but probably no more than that til the middle of next week.

Before I take off though, let me just add that my wife is amazing. When I get a mild stomach ache, I moan in pain and spend the rest of the day on the sofa. She's been having contractions every day for weeks, each one feeling like she's had the wind knocked out of her, and not only does she never complain, she kept working full-time until last week and continues to do as much around the house as I let her. She's a saint, I tell you, and it's mainly for her sake that I wont be blogging for the next week—she needs me more than you do!

God bless, and I hope you all have a great week!

Quote - N.T. Wright on The Messiness of History

N.T. Wright, in The New Testament and the People of God:

History is not about tidiness, but, most often, about the odd, the unrepeatable and the unlikely. (pg. 107)

I Guess I Need to Read The Shack

This review has finally convinced me (HT Jesus Creed).

Monday, July 28, 2008

Mistaking Television for Reality

The opening paragraph of of this Newsweek article (HT Mark Shea) strikes me as ridiculously exaggerated, but... I don't even know what to say about the rest of it. Just wow:

The most influential legal thinker in the development of modern American interrogation policy is not a behavioral psychologist, international lawyer or counterinsurgency expert. Reading both Jane Mayer's stunning "The Dark Side," and Philippe Sands's "Torture Team," it quickly becomes plain that the prime mover of American interrogation doctrine is none other than the star of Fox television's "24," Jack Bauer.

This fictional counterterrorism agent—a man never at a loss for something to do with an electrode—has his fingerprints all over U.S. interrogation policy. As Sands and Mayer tell it, the lawyers designing interrogation techniques cited Bauer more frequently than the Constitution.

According to British lawyer and writer Sands, Jack Bauer—played by Kiefer Sutherland—was an inspiration at early "brainstorming meetings" of military officials at Guantánamo in September 2002. Diane Beaver, the staff judge advocate general who gave legal approval to 18 controversial interrogation techniques including waterboarding, sexual humiliation and terrorizing prisoners with dogs, told Sands that Bauer "gave people lots of ideas." Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security chief, gushed in a panel discussion on "24" organized by the Heritage Foundation that the show"reflects real life."

Somebody tell me this is fiction. Read the whole thing.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

PhD Comic

Heh. I can totally relate (don't hold it against my Thesis Advisor though, he's actually very helpful and available—I'm just by nature nervous about everything I write):

Quote – Freedom of Speech

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. (Spuriously attributed to Voltaire)

Friday, July 25, 2008

Further Reactions to PZ Myers and the Desecrated Eucharist

Here are a few more reactions to PZ Myers' Eucharist desecration (UPDATED, see below. For earlier reactions, see here; once again, I may add further worthwhile links as I find them):

The Duty to Defend the (Nearly) Indefensible

That angry email is understandable. Professor Myers is encouraging the desecration of [one of] the most sacred symbols of faith for the vast majority of the world’s Christians. He is doing so while making no great argument or artful satire. He is doing so simply because he despises somebody else’s views. If they feel anguish at his actions, then he mocks them for caring about what he (originally) called a “g-d d-mned cracker.”...

Christians have every right to point out that they think what Professor Myers is doing is wrong. We have an obligation to do what we can reasonably do to keep our services from being disrupted and our cherished ceremonies mocked, but our duty does not end there....

First, we must not confuse the actions of one skeptic with that of most skeptics.... Second, we must recognize that if P.Z. Myers does blaspheme, then it will be a sad act of theatrical atheism doing more harm to his own cause than to Christianity.... Third, we should remind ourselves that Myers is not alone in his lack of love for the feelings of his neighbor.... Finally, we must defend without reservation Professor Myers’ right to express private opinions.

Dohanue on Swastikas and Burning Crosses

Donahue’s statement, in calling for the University of Minnesota to fire Myers, from MYERS DESECRATES THE EUCHARIST

“It is important for Catholics to know that the University of Minnesota will not tolerate the deliberate destruction of the Eucharist by one of its faculty. Just as African Americans would not tolerate the burning of a cross, and Jews would not tolerate the display of swastikas, Catholics will not tolerate the desecration of the Eucharist.”

The important point to note here is that the Swastika and the burning cross (and the Confederate flag, for that matter), are symbols of actual violence committed against Jews and blacks. These are symbols of organizations that not only advocate, but who have actually committed, physical and violent crimes against the people involved.

Nothing in what Myers has done consists of a real or threatened act of violence against a human being.

So, what Donahue is doing in making this analogy to say that the act of putting a nail through a cracker is equivalent to the slaughter of 6 million Jews, the lynching and segregation of blacks, and a century of slavery.

To make such a statement, of course, is to denigrate - to utterly trivialize - the Holocaust, segregation, and slavery.

On the other hand:

The case for firing PZ Myers

I am unapologetically secular, but I hope that Myers gets fired. It disgusts me to agree even for a split second with the likes of wingnut Bill Donohue, but I agree with him. Myers is calling for people to take a religious artifact from a church under not only false pretenses but with intent to degrade that artifact's rightful owner. It is fraudulent and larcenous to present oneself to a priest or a bishop as a Catholic in good standing in a perceived state of grace (as defined by the Church) and to receive the Church's sacrament with intent of defiling it.

P. Z. Myers Must Be Fired

He also is in violation of the University of Minnesota Code of Conduct, which holds that faculty members "must be committed to the highest ethical standards of conduct" (II:2) and that "Ethical conduct is a fundamental expectation for every community member. In practicing and modeling ethical conduct, community members are expected to: act according to the highest ethical and professional standards of conduct [and] be personally accountable for individual actions" (III:1).

It also stresses that faculty members must "Be Fair and Respectful to Others. The University is committed to tolerance, diversity, and respect for differences. When dealing with others, community members are expected to: be respectful, fair, and civil . . . avoid all forms of harassment . . . [and] threats . . . [and] promote conflict resolution."

P. Z. Myers has done none of these things. He is in fundamental breach of the University of Minnesota's Code of Conduct and must be discharged.

I’ve said from the beginning that I don’t think Myers should be fired, no matter how disrespectful his comments—and I still think it would do more harm than good—but I am beginning to appreciate the opposing argument. At the least, I can’t condemn those who are demanding his dismissal, even if I disagree. It is one thing to speak disrespectfully about a religious symbol—it may be rude and counterproductive, but it should certainly not be illegal, nor should a tenured professor have to fear for his job for doing so. But to go the next step and acquire (though deception, if not fraud) the sacred object itself and then to publicly desecrate it—that is something else. Should it be illegal? I don’t know, but it certainly violates the dictates of civil society (and the Code of Conduct of the University of Minnesota). It also sets a precedent which could lead to many similar acts of desecration. Whether that justifies his firing, I’m not sure—in fact, if he were fired that itself would likely spark many more acts of desecration!—but I also must respect the freedom of speech of those who believe he should be.

UPDATE: It looks like freedom of speech is going to win out over decency. I'm shocked that he isn't being reprimanded at all, but I'm glad he's not being fired (HT Greg Laden):

Morris chancellor defends instructor who defiled Eucharist, tore Qur'an

The chancellor at the University of Minnesota, Morris, is standing up for a faculty member's freedom of expression after the instructor posted on the Internet a photo of a defiled communion wafer with pages ripped from the Qur'an....

In response today, University of Minnesota, Morris, Chancellor Jacqueline Johnson said the school has deactivated the link between Myers' personal blog and the university website, emphasizing his views "do not reflect those of the University of Minnesota, Morris, or the University of Minnesota system."

At the same time, Johnson said, while she believes "behaviors that discriminate against or harass individuals or groups on the basis of their religious beliefs are reprehensible," the school also "affirms the freedom of a faculty member to speak or write as a public citizen without institutional discipline or restraint."

In the end, I still think Rod Dreher's response is the most in line with what Jesus would have done:

P.Z. Myers desecrates the Eucharist
It's plain that the raging of Christians only feeds Myers' hatred. But what would he do if the response to his hideous blasphemy is ... love? What would he do if Catholics and other Christians, and even sympathetic members of other faiths, turned up en masse on his campus simply to pray quietly for him? What kind of witness would that be to the wider culture? How might that make straight the path to salvation for P.Z. Myers, and many who now admire him? Wouldn't that be blessing those who persecute you, as Christ commands us to do?

Humanity and Symbolism

Responding to my last post, Greg Laden objected to this comment of mine:

If cooler heads were to prevail, this ought to be the take-away lesson: To view a deeply cherished religious symbol as no more than baked bread, a book as no more than ink and paper, indeed a human being as no more than chemicals and electricity, this is not a mark of sophistication. It is, rather, proof of a sadly impoverished worldview.
He objected that:

There is nothing that links the part about a cracker and a book to the human in anything PZ has said or done, and it conflicts starkly with what he has said and done in the past. This is not even quote mining, it is attributing a very improper thought to a person who has never had that thought and never would. Up to that paragraph, I thought your comments were quite reasonable for a christian, and fair. But giving PZ Myers the attribute of believing the importance of people to be in the same category as crackers [is] utterly absurd.
I want to make this clear, because I can see how my clipped phrasing could be misunderstood: My point was not that Myers considers human beings to be of no greater worth than a cracker—far from it. The whole point of his post, which I agreed with, was that compared to a human life, "a cracker" is a small thing. But he went much further than that, saying not only that the Eucharist ought to be less important, but that it ought not to matter at all, on the grounds that “Nothing must be held sacred.”

My point was that this justification for his claim that "it's just a cracker" is based on an extreme and ridiculous form of reductionism that implies that the only thing that matters about an object is its physical composition. Since the wafer doesn't really turn into Jesus' body, Myers claims that no one has a right to be upset if he destroys it. My point was that, if you accept that premise it leads to absurd results, one of them being that a human is "no more than chemicals and electricity."

I would fully expect Myers (and any sane person) to reject that conclusion, but he cannot do so without rejecting the premise. For part of what it means to recognize that a human being is far more than the sum of their parts is to recognize that we—as individuals and communities—create meaning and hold certain things as valuable and sacred. The Eucharist is not just a cracker, because it is held dear by a community of people, just as a flag is not just a piece of cloth and a wedding ring is not just a piece of metal. In making the absurd claim that “it’s just a cracker,” Myers in fact rejects a key aspect of the humanity of over a billion people who do (rationally or irrationally) place great value on the Eucharist.

He is, of course, entitled to believe and argue that Catholics are mistaken in their devotion to the Eucharist, but he cannot reasonably claim that "it's just a cracker," nor can he find it surprising that those who hold it dear might be upset by his willful desecration of their cherished symbol.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

PZ Myers Follows Through on His Threat to Desecrate the Eucharist

Well, he did it:

I wasn't going to make any major investment of time, money, or effort in treating these dabs of unpleasantness as they deserve, because all they deserve is casual disposal. However, inspired by an old woodcut of Jews stabbing the host, I thought of a simple, quick thing to do: I pierced it with a rusty nail (I hope Jesus's tetanus shots are up to date). And then I simply threw it in the trash, followed by the classic, decorative items of trash cans everywhere, old coffeegrounds and a banana peel. My apologies to those who hoped for more, but the worst I can do is show my unconcerned contempt....

By the way, I didn't want to single out just the cracker, so I nailed it to a few ripped-out pages from the Qur'an and The God Delusion. They are just paper. Nothing must be held sacred.

As I said at the beginning, I agree with his insistence that disrespect for a communion wafer ought to be a much smaller matter than disrespect for a person, but his little stunt in fact disrespects both. Still, I can hardly blame him. Though plenty of valid objections have been raised against this kind of iconoclasm, they have been almost completely overwhelmed by the flood of semi-literate hate-mail he has received. In the face of such seemingly irrational hatred, it cannot surprise that he felt that drastic measures were needed.

In truth, his actual desecration was surprisingly understated, but that will not stop Bill Donohue and the Catholic League from doing everything in their power to make his life miserable. In the end, as a Protestant who does not believe in transubstantiation, all I can say is that PZ Myers has not in fact done any harm to Jesus, but those who have responded with hatred and death threats have certainly done so. They have proven his point for him, by making Christianity appear to be little more than irrational superstition, and seriously damaged the reputation of Christ in the world.

But to me the most interesting aspect of this incident arises from the fact that he also chose to destroy copies of the Koran and Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. On the one hand, adding a second form of blasphemy does nothing to diminish the disrespect of the first, but it does at least clarify his point: that to PZ Myers, "Nothing must be held sacred."

If cooler heads were to prevail, this ought to be the take-away lesson: To view a deeply cherished religious symbol as no more than baked bread, a book as no more than ink and paper, indeed a human being as no more than chemicals and electricity, this is not a mark of sophistication. It is, rather, proof of a sadly impoverished worldview. It is rational to condemn the atrocities committed in the name of a flag; it is mere childishness to desecrate and discard such a flag as "just" a piece of cloth. With this stunt, Myers has proven precisely nothing about the meaning of the symbol, he has only proven his own distaste for the sacred.

But I’m afraid that point will be missed in the rush to condemn his blasphemy, as many of those who should recognize the sacred value, not just of a Eucharistic wafer, but of a human being—made in the image of God—will instead treat him with "profound disrespect." And that is the real tragedy in this situation.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Christian Carnival and Then Some

This week's Christian Carnival is at A True Believers Blog, and includes my post on The Dark Knight and plenty of other things. In particular, this post which quotes an humorous Rabbinic discussion about animals too big for Noah's ark, and also links to a series of posts (here, here, here and here) on why the flood cannot have been global, and why it shouldn't matter.

In other news, Mark Shea links to an excellent post at Old World Swine on Harry Potter, magic tents, free will and materialism—you'll have to read it.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Dark Knight Reviews and Speculations About a Sequel

Here's an interesting review at First Things, which explores many of the same aspects of the film that I did, but in greater depth (minor spoiler warning for this and the next review):

Nolan focuses in The Dark Knight on the “idea of escalation,” the way Batman’s dramatic persona, with its violent heroism, calls forth a greater, more creative response from the criminal element. It would be hard to imagine a more compelling embodiment of the escalation of evil in Gotham than what Nolan and actor Heath Ledger have created in the character of The Joker, whose insouciant embrace of chaos eclipses the malevolence of Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs and John Doe from Se7en. What makes Nolan’s latest film such a success is not, however, Ledger’s compelling presentation of evil, on which critics have focused their attention, but the way in which he uses that character to bring out the depth and complex goodness of the other characters in the film, including Batman.
Next, John Carney, perhaps taking the films a bit too seriously, asks if Bruce Wayne's business dealings in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight might actually make him that "better class of criminal" the Joker claims to want (HT Peter Chattaway):
He seems to be a white-collar criminal, engaging in the kind of corporate crimes that attract our real-life two-faced prosecutors. He takes corporate resources to pursue his own interests, uses underhanded means to acquire a majority stake in Wayne Enterprises after encouraging an initial public offering, and intimidates a potential whistle-blower.
Finally, since Warner Brothers surely wont be able to pass up a cash-cow of a sequel (since everyone knows the third film in a trilogy is always the best!), check out's brief interview with Dark Knight writer David Goyer, who claims he and the Nolan brothers already have a theme and a villain in mind. He's not saying who, but there are plenty of possibilities (but watch out for spoilers if you haven't seen The Dark Knight yet).

Monday, July 21, 2008

Quote - Milton on Vice and Virtue

I've been wanting to quote this ever since I saw it on Jeffrey Overstreet's blog last month, and I'm reminded of it again after watching The Dark Knight. This from John Milton's Areopagitica:

He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true wayfaring Christian. I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.

How to be a Popular Evangelical Writer

Nice tongue-in-cheek list at The Constructive Curmudgeon (HT Fides Quaerens Intellectum, a great blog which I discovered just in time for it to go out of business!). A couple of them hit pretty close to home, especially the last:

14. Give a plethora of references to popular culture, but ignore theological classics.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Self-Interest and Sacrifice in The Dark Knight

Relentless. From the opening bank heist on, The Dark Knight never lets up. There is no climax to this film, just a series of emotional peaks, each more terrifying than the previous. With hardly a moment’s pause—even the Joker gives little comic relief, though Morgan Freeman drops a couple zingers—the flawless action builds uncontrollably to a breathless conclusion as Gotham falls to the brink of confusion and terror. This reboot makes Tim Burton’s Batman seem like a light-hearted farce.

It’s being said that The Dark Knight is as much a crime drama as a superhero movie—and it is—but it’s also a terrifying psychological thriller, reveling in misdirection and reversal. At the heart of all its turmoil, of course, stands Heath Ledger’s Joker, compared to whom all previous supervillains look like sissies. Easily stealing the show from Christian Bale’s Batman, his truly wicked sense of humor and casual disregard for human life makes you believe that absolutely any horrific conclusion is possible.

Jeffrey Overstreet calls him “one of the greatest portrayals of the devil I’ve ever seen” and I must agree. But if Satan is said to be disguised as an angel of light, this greasy clown is what he must look like underneath: appallingly ugly, brilliantly misguided, unpredictably deceitful, delighting not only in chaos but corruption. The Joker doesn’t just want to destroy goodness; he wants to make it impossible. In forcing one terrible choice after another, he dares you to choose evil even while you try to prevent it. He creates fear not just to terrify, but to dehumanize, to make the most horrific sacrifice seem defensible, even necessary. He has no plan, he tells us, but he clearly has a goal—to win “Gotham’s soul,” to ensure that no one is left innocent. And he nearly succeeds.

But he doesn’t succeed, and that is why the film does. Set over against this horrible evil are three men in particular. New District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) is tough on crime and puts a wholesome face on justice. Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman at his best) is a tested cop and a family man. And, of course, Bruce Wayne and his Batman are a mystery, simultaneously a playboy and a vigilante to the world, but few know his true identity; in fact, it’s questionable whether even he does. Together these three attempt to restore order to Gotham, and their triumphs and failures form the real heart of the film and keep it from collapsing into nihilism.

Through them, The Dark Knight takes pains to emphasize that even “the best of us” can fall, but it also recognizes the grandeur and complexity of human nature. At one point it is suggested that Harvey Dent is the hero the city wants, a “white knight” they can believe in, while Batman must be more than a hero, a “dark knight” who can make the hard choices that no one else can. What precisely this “more” means is never quite spelled out, but in contrasting these two kinds of heroes (and both Dent and Wayne waver between them), the film seems to be suggesting two very different possibilities. One alternative retains the appearance of selflessness but hides a spreading moral ambiguity leading to the rejection of order for chance and self-interest, as the sacrifices of others are accepted as necessary to defeat evil. Such compromises, made by several characters at various points in film, could suggest that true evil, unmasked and unhinged, cannot be defeated without taint, even if one may appear the selfless hero on the surface.

But the film offers another alternative, a self-sacrifice which embraces the appearance of evil rather than its substance. To face the consequences of the sins of others is seen to be the only true answer to overwhelming evil. In short, if the Joker’s goal is to create a dilemma where the most attractive option is to “do evil that good may result,” several characters reject the appeal of self-interest and choose good even if evil may result. Too much is lost for any tidy dénouement, but in its melancholy conclusion, The Dark Knight suggests that to truly be “more than a hero,” one must be strong enough to take that fall and survive it, to courageously choose the right and noble even at great risk, to sacrifice oneself for the sake of others. This is the only ray of hope in the darkness of unrestrained evil.

The Dark Knight is rated PG-13, but it pushes the limit of the rating with intense and gruesome (though bloodless) violence. Do not make the mistake of the several people at our showing who (inexplicably) brought young children—every one of them left part way through with a crying and terrified child.

Friday, July 18, 2008

On Forgiveness, Sorta

From Lark News:

On forgiving spree, man alienates friends, family
LUBBOCK, Texas — Dan Bentley, 38, used to have trouble admitting he was wrong, until a sermon series convinced him that asking forgiveness was the path to personal freedom. Now he is asking forgiveness so much that he’s on the verge of losing every friend he’s ever made. "I’m cleaning the slate with everybody, no matter how difficult that proves to be," he says. Bentley recently asked a woman at work to forgive him for spending years ogling her, especially when she wore particular outfits. He was promptly hit with a sexual harassment claim and a demotion.

Go here for the whole thing.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Part Two of Dr. Horrible

The second part of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is now available, and it's hilarious! Plus, the free website actually works now (so go here for the first part if you missed it). This segment does include a bit of over-the-top sexual innuendo near the end, but it's important to the plot, not merely gratuitous.

Am I the only one who likes Neil Patrick Harris' "villain" a whole lot better than Nathan Fillion's "hero"? I didn't expect that. I'm very curious how this is gonna play out in the final segment!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Latest on PZ Myers and "the Cracker"

Well, PZ Myers has not lost his job over this mess, but someone else has. Melanie Kroll, an employee of 1800Flowers, was fired for sending him a death threat with her work email. Turns out, it was actually her husband who sent the abhorrent email, but since it was her work account, she was responsible for its misuse.

In other news, Nick Milne has perhaps the best and most comprehensive discussion of the the whole series of events, from the incident at the University of Central Florida up to the present (HT: Matteo). In particular, he includes much more about what the student in question actually did, which places him in a much worse light than it had seemed at first (though I can't say it justifies Bill Donohue's making a national issue out of it). If you've been following this story at all, you'll definitely want to check out Milne's even-handed post.

UPDATE: Mark Shea, of Catholic and Enjoying It, has added his own lengthy response. I'm not in complete agreement with the post, but his conclusion is spot on:

It is right and just to be angered by Myers' assault on the Eucharist. Not all anger is sinful. But the purpose of anger is action, not desire for vengeance. Catholics who threaten violence against Myers in return disgrace our Lord who forgave his murderers and, just as surely, extends forgiveness to Myers even as he fights him with the same goads with which he fought Saul of Tarsus. Our task is to realize that our principal audience is not Myers and his vicious crew, but all the onlookers in our culture, who want to know if there is any real difference between Catholics and Myers. Show them, by your actions, that there is. The world is watching.

Christian Carnival 233

The Carnival is back in town, this time at Diary of 1. It includes my post on Islam, Christianity and the Freedom to Insult, and many others. Check it out!

I recently discovered, which would seem to be the ultimate triumph of the Internet over classic literature. It will send you moderate-sized portions of a book on a daily basis through email or RSS, so that you can read your Dickens or Hemingway without suffering the embarrassment of being seen with an actual (gasp!) tome in your hands. There are numerous classics available for free, and newer titles for the usual price of an ebook (though I’m not sure why you’d pay $5 for a book that will end up being scattered through your inbox in 100 installments).

Needless to say, I wasn’t sure how useful I would find the service, especially since I've never been able to get in the right frame of mind to read an ebook. When I’ve tried reading classics from, I generally find such a large block of text overwhelming, and give up after a few pages. Curious whether this “daily” format might help, I chose a classic (Pride and Prejudice, which I’ve always put off reading as a “girl’s book,” but recently very much enjoyed as a film) and set it to send the shortest amount possible per day, about half a chapter per email. At that rate, I’d finish Jane Austen’s classic in just 146 days! Heh.

It turns out, I’ve found that not only am I quite able to enjoy reading a novel in this form (at least one so well written as this), but that even after changing the settings to send three times as much text per day, I soon found myself repeatedly clicking the little link at the bottom of each email “to receive the next installment immediately.” For some reason, by breaking it up into manageable chunks, it’s easier to maintain my attention, even if I end up reading several portions in one sitting. In fact, I’ve read three-quarters of the book in the last 4 days, all in chapter and a half increments. I’m hooked.

So I guess that’s proof of my slavery to the Internet Age, but I can’t help but recommend the service, which provides a variety of options for how much and how often you want them to send portions of the book. My only complaints are that occasionally a paragraph break appears in the wrong place (not sure why) and it can feel a little unsettling to begin the next installment without having the previous one right in front of you. It sometimes takes a bit to remember what was happening (or even going back to the previous email for a reminder), especially when the previous day’s email ended in the middle of a chapter. Still, for a free service DailyLit is well worth checking out.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Film Tidbits

The long anticipated (ahem) first part of Joss Whedon’s new project Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (a short film starring Neil Patrick Harris, Felicia Day and Nathan Fillion) is available for free online viewing (HT Jeffrey Overstreet). The second and final parts will be released on the 17th and 19th, but will only be free through the 20th. Unfortunately, the website got too much traffic and crashed. It should be back in a few hours, but you can also buy the episode for $1.99 on iTunes, if you can’t bear to wait. [UPDATE: The site is back up and running, though impatience got the best of me and I had already coughed up the 2 bucks; it's delightfully wacky, just as you might suspect from the trailer!] In the mean time, here’s the Teaser:

Carmen Andres has a good review of Hellboy II: The Golden Army, discussing the film's spiritual themes.

In anticipation of The Dark Knight, due out this Friday, the first six minutes of the film have been posted as a trailer. Amazing, but be warned that it is quite violent: [Apparently the trailer wasn't authorized after all (it was on the Batman Begins Blu-Ray disk), so it has been removed.]

Finally, on a lighter note, I’ve never been a fan of “reality TV” and this video perfectly illustrates why (HT Think Christian):

Who needs love and friendship if you might win a pile of money?

Monday, July 14, 2008

PZ Myers Still Plans to Desecrate the Eucharist

In case anyone isn't yet sick of this subject, PZ Myers linked an interview he did this morning with The Minnesota Independent, in which he affirms that he still plans to follow through on his threat:

MnIndy: Has the outrcry over your your post given you second thoughts about getting a host and treating "it with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web"?

Myers: The response has done nothing but confirm it: I have to do something. I'm not going to just let this disappear. It's just so darned weird that they're demanding that I offer this respect to a symbol that means nothing to me. Something will be done. It won't be gross. It won't be totally tasteless, but yeah, I'll do something that shows this cracker has no power. This cracker is nothing.

So much for the theory that he was just trying to provoke a response. I'll leave it to you to sort out how thoroughly the interview reveals Myers' ignorance of the full extent of the issues involved.

Violence and Disrespect

Drew Tatusko has up an interesting post asking “Should Atheists ‘Respect’ Religion?”:

One common answer to the question of respect to religious belief that I have encountered in many an argument is an unqualified No. It is a simple argument with little persuasive rhetoric. Religion should not be respected or even much tolerated due to its track record of human harm and its basis in that which has, in the common parlance of the argument, not one shred of evidence. This seems to be the foundation for the entire whirlwind of extremism regarding the theft of a consecrated Eucharist wafer and the less than hospitable reaction from one PZ Myers.
Drew helpfully discusses the tension between this and Myers’ claimed liberalism, but I’m struck by something else: I find it particularly ironic that the very atheists most eager to accuse religion of leading to violence and oppression, are often the same ones boasting of their freedom to disrespect the views of others. It seems to escape their notice that it is precisely such a disrespect which has often been the direct cause of such violence and oppression in the first place, and this has been true both in religious and atheistic (mostly communist) nations. By engaging in such disrespect, Myers and others like him implicitly undermine one of their central arguments against religion.

Do they have the legal right do disrespect religion? Of course. But many things are and should be legal that are nevertheless a terrible idea.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Islam, Christianity and the Freedom to Insult

This post is based on another from two years ago, originally posted at Signs of the Times:

Amidst the brouhaha over PZ Myers’ claimed intent to publicly desecrate the Eucharist, some have been asking how this incident relates to that surrounding those 12 caricatures of Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper in 2005. Strictly speaking, the two cases are quite different. First of all, As Mike Dunford notes (HT James McGrath), there is a clear difference between merely depicting something offensive in a cartoon, and actually stealing a sacred object in order to desecrate it. But thankfully, Myers has not (yet?) followed through on his threat, so it is possible to interpret his words as no more than an in-your-face challenge to what he perceives as false reverence.

But perhaps the more important difference lies in the respective reactions these two incidents received. While Myers and his supporters might like to treat this as proof that Catholics are just as bad as radical Islam when it comes to taking insults, the facts simply do not support this. As Mike puts it:

In the case of the cartoons, the religious group involved was demanding a great deal from those who do not share their faith. The message that they were sending was, "I believe it is a grave sin to draw or print images of the prophet. Therefore, you must never draw or print such an image." That goes farther than demanding that others respect their belief; it is a demand that everyone constrain their actions because of that belief.

In the case of the Eucharist, the demand is much more modest. All that you need to do to refrain from desecrating the Eucharist is to stay away from Catholic churches. Period. That's it. You could argue, I suppose, that this demand also constrains your actions, but that's a bit of a stretch. After all, "don't go places where you haven't been invited" is (in most circumstances) nothing more or less than basic politeness.
And while a very small handful of angry Catholics have sent hate mail and death threats as a result of the present affair, those cartoons sparked real violence. Riots and attacks, even actual murders, spread across much of the Muslim world, all because someone had the audacity not to share their qualms about depicting Muhammad. However Myers may splutter, nothing even close to that has happened in this case. And no, Bill Donohue’s press releases (over-the-top though they may be) can in no way be compared to the fatwas that were issued for the Danish cartoonists.

All of which has reminded me of one of the more absurd responses to those comics. During the very week before Easter of the year they came out, South Park aired its own reaction to the retreat from free speech which had resulted. In the episode Cartoon Wars Part II, they mock the prohibition of any depiction of Muhammad, by claiming to be about to show the Prophet doing something totally innocuous (handing a “salmon football helmet” to another character), though actually showing a black screen with the words “Comedy Central has refused to broadcast an image of Mohammed on their network.” The show then depicted an immediate reprisal by al Qaeda: A video of George Bush and Jesus (among others) defecating on each other and the American flag. Take that free speech!

It was incredibly crude and sophomoric, so it’s little surprise that it drew the ire of some Christian groups, but once again the difference in reactions was telling. Muhammad was shown in a series of otherwise mild comics, published in an obscure newspaper, and sparked rage across half the Muslim world. Jesus was broadcast on national TV, during Holy Week, in the crudest possible way, and this was met with, what? A couple negative editorials and some hand-wringing?

The difference, no doubt, was largely a result of the fact that contemporary Westerners in general are less apt to rage over religious matters than those in some other parts of the world, but I also think it points to something deeper than the current political realities of blasphemy and free speech. It illuminates the nature of two very different worldviews. Islam teaches that Muhammad was a mere man who was so honored by God as to warrant treatment almost as if he were God. In sharp contrast, Christianity teaches that God himself became man, and willingly embraced treatment as a man.

Therefore, to depict Muhammad doing anything at all is to commit blasphemy, and can lead to violent consequences. Yet Jesus can be shown defecating, and the reaction is and should be quite different. That is because the central claim of Christianity—that God came in the flesh—is already a far greater insult than anything South Park could possibly portray.

As Joshua Anderson once argued in reference to Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, much of the insult Christians do sense in such “art” actually reflects an overly spiritualized view of Jesus. To drop a crucifix into a jar of blood and urine, to show Jesus “crapping” all over the place, even to threaten to desecrate the Eucharist, these are certainly offensive, but can they really compare to the offense of the crucifixion? In that moment, Christians believe, God himself was executed as a rebel.

The day of the crucifixion is known as Good Friday in the Christian Church, but that should not mask the true insult it's meant to recall: God on a cross. The outrageous claim of Christianity is that in Jesus, God himself took on human flesh—blood, urine, feces and all—and faced our jeering insults with grace. Thus, in shying away from showing Muhammad, while openly mocking Jesus' humanity, South Park expressed something deep and important in the difference between Muslim and Christian worldviews, even if only inadvertently.

Free speech—even PZ Myers'—must include the freedom to insult, for the world is full of evil, and sometimes the only proper response will be offensive. Yet freedom also requires a worldview that is comfortable enough with its own humanity to be mocked. On Good Friday, we are told of a God who affirmed that freedom to his very death; on Easter, we are told of a God who laughed even from the grave.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Quote - Chesterton on the Christian Critics

G.K. Chesterton, in The Everlasting Man:

Now the best relation to our spiritual home is to be near enough to love it. But the next best is to be far enough away not to hate it.... The worst judge of all is the man now most ready with his judgments; the ill-educated Christian turning gradually into the ill-tempered agnostic, entangled in the end of a feud of which he never understood the beginning, blighted with a sort of hereditary boredom with he knows not what, and already weary of hearing what he has never heard. (pg. 11)

UPDATED: Reactions to PZ Myers and the Catholic League

UPDATED July 24: Myers did indeed carry out his threat to desecrate the Eucharist.

The PZ Myers debacle has spawned an inordinate amount of blog commentary (two weeks ago, someone claimed more than 1300 blog reactions had been posted, most defending Myers—one can only guess how high that number must now be). Here are a number of worthwhile responses that I've seen. I may add more as I find them:

Prof. Myers, Webster Cook, and the Eucharist
This is the most comprehensive analysis of the series of events that preceded Myers' actions, written from a Catholic perspective.

The Case of the Communion Cracker
This atheist doesn’t address Myers' own role in the controversy, but he does offer a clear-sighted analysis of the events that preceded it.

Is there anything to the Catholic League’s complaint against PZ Myers?
Analyzes the University of Minnesota-Morris regulation against linking offensive material from the university website. Myers is a tenured professor there, and, until it was removed under pressure from the Catholic League, his blog was linked by the website.

I should add at this point that I would consider it a tragedy if Myers lost his job for this. Don't get me wrong, what he said and did was reprehensible, and a reprimand is probably in order, but to fire him (which seems pretty unlikely, given that he is tenured) would not only be a serious blow to free speech and the tenure system, it would only confirm the hysteria of Myer's supporters, turning him from an outspoken atheist into a martyr, and doing terrible damage to Christianity's reputation.

P.Z. Myers Must Be Fired
Though I disagree, this post provides the most compelling case for Myers' firing:

He also is in violation of the University of Minnesota Code of Conduct, which holds that faculty members "must be committed to the highest ethical standards of conduct" (II:2) and that "Ethical conduct is a fundamental expectation for every community member. In practicing and modeling ethical conduct, community members are expected to: act according to the highest ethical and professional standards of conduct [and] be personally accountable for individual actions" (III:1).

It also stresses that faculty members must "Be Fair and Respectful to Others. The University is committed to tolerance, diversity, and respect for differences. When dealing with others, community members are expected to: be respectful, fair, and civil . . . avoid all forms of harassment . . . [and] threats . . . [and] promote conflict resolution."

P. Z. Myers has done none of these things. He is in fundamental breach of the University of Minnesota's Code of Conduct and must be discharged.

The Institution Of Science Is Going To Keep Losing Prestige
Links to Richard Dawkins' show of support for Myers, which proves that he is equally clueless about the Christians he criticizes:

Readers of yesterday's thread "It's a G------d Cracker" will be aware of somebody called Bill Donohue, whose grasp of reality is so poor that he can't tell the difference between a wafer and Jesus. The shrieking hysteria of Donohue and other Roman Catholics over the temporary removal of a communion wafer from a church service epitomizes all that is ridiculous in the religious mind.

On PZ, Don Imus Atheism, and ""?

What alarms me the most about the incident, however, is the major perceptual hit that the community and brand continues to take because of PZ's antics. The Seed sponsored blog portal is supposed to be a place that attracts new audiences to science, but in fact, it has turned into the Web's leading echo chamber of anti-religious rants and sophomoric discussions of atheism, what the physicist Chad Orzel refers to as the "screechy monkey" problem.
Why the Eucharist is Not Simply a "Frackin' Cracker"
Ben Kepple offers a helpful explanation, his unfair swipe at Protestants notwithstanding (thanks Alex):

The Eucharist, as all Christians know, is the Body and Blood of Christ, stemming from the Last Supper, when Christ took bread, blessed it and told His disciples, "Take, eat; this is My body," and took a cup of wine and blessed it, telling His disciples, "Drink ye, all of it; for this is My blood of the New Testament"....

Now in the Protestant tradition, the practice of communion is a symbolic one. The congregation is, perhaps once a month, served some stale white bread and grape juice and the story of the Last Supper is recalled. Communion is given, the worshippers take it, and then leave, some annoyed at having had 15 minutes added to their Sunday worship.

But in the Catholic tradition, Holy Communion is a far more serious and central affair. The giving of Communion is the central act of the Mass. Far from being symbolic in nature, the Eucharist is transformed, through the mysterium fidei, into the Body and Blood, and through taking it one's sins are forgiven and one is reconciled with God. The Church does not pretend to understand how this works -- it is the Mystery of Faith -- but as other writers have pointed out, Catholics believe Christ harrowed Hell and in dying defeated death, rising three days later from His tomb. If Christ did that, they argue, then this is a small matter in comparison.

The Communion Wafer is Not Just a Cracker—But PZ Meyers Shouldn’t Lose His Job for Saying So

Meyers is, of course, wrong that the Catholic host is “just a cracker.” It is a symbol for many people’s contact with meaning and community, and to flame it in a gesture of disrespect is like going up to someone’s car and keying it because it’s “just a piece of metal.” People are likely to take it as a personal attack, and obviously people have in this case. Likewise, a flag is not just a piece of cloth, and a wedding band is not just a ring.
Indeed, several of the angry emails Myers received suggested that he perform some similar act of desecration against a Koran or Torah scroll, which is a terribly hypocritical thing to say, but it does illuminate how strongly Catholics feel about the Eucharist. To willfully (and “joyfully”) disrespect that is despicable, almost as despicable as sending death threats.

He Doesn't Speak for ME.

Although I don't have the stature of Obama, I can totally relate to his disentanglement with Rev. Wright right now. Although PZ has been a hero to me in the past year or so, I really have to point out right now that although I'm an atheist, PZ Myers doesn't speak for me. I found his comments to be not only inflammatory, but extremely disrespectful... not only of religion and the 'cracker' but of people. I also found it to be inconsistent with his promotion of rationalism. After all, what is rational about asking people to remove consecrated hosts from the churches and send them to him so he can desecrate them on video?
Religion's Everest
Finally, for the other side, fisking Donohue's claim that :

“[Myers had] better be careful what he says, because if I get any death threats, it won't be hard to connect the dots.”

Let's see ... yesterday Donohue issued his fatwah ... er ... press release and by that very afternoon PZ had received 4 death threats.

Now, Bill, go ahead and show off your dot-connecting prowess!

Thanks Richard for highlighting Insulating Religion, which helpfully analyzes Andrew Sullivan's response:

Who gets to decide what constitutes "mocking religion"? To the Muslims who objected to the Danish cartoons, they constituted an unacceptable "mocking" of their religion, just as Myers' advocacy of eucharist desecration constitutes an equivalent "mockery."...

That is to say, just as Myers has a right to be a dick, so did the newspapers. But the fact that they had those rights does not make their mockery and denigration of the sacred symbols of widely held religious faiths any less offensive or worthy of criticism.

Santi Tafarella, who also penned one of the above, adds some historical perspective:

What I think Myers is not yet acknowledging is that the destruction of cultural symbols typically forebodes the marginalizing and destruction of people, and that a civil dialogue between people is rarely possible in an atmosphere of iconoclasm.

Iconoclasm, in other words, is an ancient form of prejudicial expression that ought to draw as much horror from contemporary people as racism and sexism.
I'm not sure (truly) whether I would go quite that far, but it's got me rethinking the issue.

Also, in case there was any doubt, please recognize that those sending hate-mail and death threats make up only a tiny minority of Catholics. Francis Beckwith provides just one example of a more balanced and respectful Catholic response:

Professor Myers, Academic Freedom, and Intellectual Virtue in a Civil Society

Professor Myers should not be punished by his employer for what he said. Because he teaches at a state institution, Professor Myers has many protections at his disposal that insure and secure his academic freedom, which I wholeheartedly support. Having said that however, there is absolutely nothing wrong with those citizens who are drawing public attention to Professor Myers' imprudent and thoughtless comments. If, for example, I were to insult a colleague's mother by suggesting that he has had intimate relations with her, I should not be shocked if he were to punch me in the nose or not invite me to the faculty party he is hosting at his home.

Civil society requires that we treat others with respect, and that means that if we find their beliefs unreasonable, we should offer our arguments against those beliefs in a winsome and attractive way. When it comes to Catholic theology, we are talking about a complicated, rich, and sophisticated theological and philosophical tradition that has wrestled with a whole array of challenges, concepts and ideas during its two millenia. It stands to reason then that detractors such as Professor Myers have an obligation to study what they reject with the depth and diligence such a tradition demands of a truly curious and probing mind. "It's a Frackin' Cracker" is not the prose of an adult. It is the ramblings of what G. K. Chesterton said of the atheist, "who is often a man limited and constrained by his own logic to a very sad simplification."
John Pieret:

It's more important to find out what the Catholic authorities do once the emotions cool, rather than the words they used when emotions ran high (just as I'd be more interested in what PZ actually does if he happens to come into the possession of some consecrated hosts, rather than what he said he'd do when this story first broke).

Poking peoples' emotions with a sharp stick is likely to make 'em squeal and it's no use pretending to be surprised.

Is PZ Myers an Atheist Supremacist?
I have to answer No, but the post is interesting:

I have in my mind the image of a small frail women I once saw in a small parish church in England. Dressed in black and wearing a communion shawl over her head, she knelt at the communion rail to receive. "Amen," she said as she struggled to her feet. You could see in her face how meaningful this was. She probably knows little about molecules and atoms and cares nothing about arguments of substance about substance. It is, for her, the body of Christ. It is the moment of receiving the elements that for her is important.

Myers thinks this is mere superstition. He is entitled to this opinion. He is entitled to his belief in scientism, for ultimately that is his philosophy. Myers, who frequently argues intellectually, scientifically and rationally well, now wants to make a point with a stunt that has none of those redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Myers wants to shake the silly woman and explain to her that her belief is "silly superstition." On his blog he repeatedly tries to do this. His attacks on creationism and Intelligent Design and the existence of God have often been formidable and well articulated. But that is not what this is about now. He seems to have lost it, emotionally and intellectually."Okay, woman," he now seems to say. "Since I can't convince you I will trample on your holy bread, on your holy moment, on your faith."

P.Z. Myers Thinks Like a Bronze-Age Pagan
Responding to Myers' claim that:

The point of desecrating the host isn’t to make people angry--it’s to demystify and desanctify nonsense. It’s how we wake people up--by showing that their beliefs are powerless.
Jeff Martin retorts:

That's quite right. In this enlightened age, we do not settle religious and philosophical questions of inestimable importance by reasoning, examining the historical evidences, or any such recondite activity, but by subjecting the participants, or symbols dear to them, to the ordeal, to the end that Fate, the womb of possibility, the numinous power of whatever, might speak and deliver its verdict... let a singular communion wafer represent the entirety of the Christian claim, and let his sacrilege represent the claims of enlightenment, and if no bolt of lightning or pillar of fire descends from the heavens to smite him, Christianity stands exploded as rank superstition.
Finally, see my own posts on the subject here, here, here, here and here.

Now contrast all of that with Myers' latest, in which he destroys a Eucharistic wafer, along with copies of the Koran and Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, all to prove that... well, that he really doesn't believe anything is sacred.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Fundamentalists Come in All Kinds

A minor explosion occurred this week in the “culture wars,” started by a surprisingly small fuse. It seems a certain Florida college student attended Catholic Mass at a local parish and, instead of consuming the consecrated bread (which Catholics believe is literally the body of Christ), he took it home with him. When he initially refused to return the wafer, he unleashed a storm of protest that might shock anyone unfamiliar with how seriously Catholics take the Mass. Among the hysterical reactions to the incident, a spokeswoman for the parish was quoted saying “if anything were to qualify as a hate crime, to us this seems like this might be it.” Bill Donohue, President of the Catholic League, even called this an attempt to take “the Body of Christ hostage,” which was “beyond hate speech.”

In response, outspoken atheist scienceblogger PZ Myers wrote a blistering rant against “Dark Age superstition and malice,” mocking Catholics for even comparing the theft of “a cracker” with true hate crime:

Wait, what? Holding a cracker hostage is now a hate crime? The murder of Matthew Shephard was a hate crime. The murder of James Byrd Jr. was a hate crime. This is a g-------d cracker. Can you possibly diminish the abuse of real human beings any further?

Now if he had stopped there, I’d probably be agreeing with Myers, crude and disrespectful though he was. In fact, the student in question eventually returned the wafer because, he claimed, he felt his life was in danger. Ironic. Maybe it’s just me, but I tend to think death threats ought to be considered a more serious crime than disrespect of a religious ceremony. Jesus, I am sure, can handle the disrespect towards his Body shown by an ignorant college student “stealing” a consecrated wafer. But death threats against a student? How do you think Jesus views that? The Church, after all, is also believed to be Jesus’ Body, and I have a hard time accepting that a stolen piece of the consecrated bread can possibly be considered to do greater harm to that Body than the kind of vitriol some have leveled against this student.

Besides all that, I think the concept of “hate crimes” is seriously out of hand anyway, coming dangerously close to criminalizing thought. As I see it, if a crime is committed, the criminal should be punished for the crime itself, not for some presumed motive that the court attributes to him. Why should a crime be punished more severely just because it was motivated by hate rather than, oh I don’t know, spite, or greed, or lust, or even boredom? (For that matter, I'd think a person who can kill merely out of boredom ought to be considered a greater threat to society than one who kills out of hatred, but that's just me.) Intention should be relevant to crime, not the particular motive, or else we open the door to punishing beliefs and motives themselves, even where no actual crime is committed. In fact, that is precisely what has happened. Now that the concept of crime has been stretched in that way, simply saying certain politically incorrect things (like homosexuality is a sin) is now viewed as a “hate crime” by certain groups, which is not only absurd, but a serious threat to our freedom of speech. In short, “hate crimes” are ridiculous enough as it is, without adding disrespect for a religious ceremony to the list of illegal activities.

So like I said, if PZ Myers had stopped with defending the student and mocking Donohue’s absurd claim that the incident was “beyond hate speech,” I’d probably agree with him, though not with his abusive and vulgar tone. But Myers did not stop there. His post went on to encourage the willful desecration of the Eucharist:

Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There's no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I'm sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I'll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won't be tempted to hold it hostage (no, not even if I have a choice between returning the Eucharist and watching Bill Donohue kick the pope in the balls, which would apparently be a more humane act than desecrating a g-------d cracker), but will instead treat it with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web. I shall do so joyfully and with laughter in my heart.
As you might expect, his horde of sycophants have added a few thousand comments offering more of the same. Apparently they are all so blinded by disbelieving indignation that Catholics would consider “a cracker” so important, that they fail to notice how Myer's own response is quite as absurd and over-the-top as Bill Donohue’s, indeed, much more so. But it seems there are Fundamentalists everywhere, and in the sequel, both Donohue and Myers have found their inboxes flooded with vile and hypocritical hate mail.

All I can say is, if hate were a legitimate crime, there seem to be a lot of people guilty of it right now.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Happiness and Parenting

My second child, a son, is due in just under three weeks, and I’m already anticipating the sleepless nights and messy diapers (so don’t be surprised if suddenly disappear for a few days). Meanwhile, my daughter is now two years old, and while she is still relatively well-behaved, she’s learned how to throw a mean tantrum on the slightest provocation. For instance, today she threw herself to the floor, rolling and screaming and pretending to cry, simply because I told her that she couldn’t take her bowl of goldfish crackers with her to the potty.

When she throws such a fit, I only have a few options: 1. Give in, buying temporary peace but teaching her that such tactics work; 2. Bribe her with some other alternative, again, teaching her that such tactics work; 3. Ignore her and hope she’ll get bored and stop whining on her own (this rarely works); or 4. Punish her in one way or another, making her even more upset in the (faint) hope that next time she might become a better and more mature person. Bad options, all three, but necessary because she doesn’t yet have an adequate understanding of what’s good for her. She doesn’t understand why she needs to eat vegetables, why she can’t watch too much TV, why daddy can’t spend all day playing with her.

To be sure, there is much more to parenting than dealing with tantrums. My daughter also provides countless moments of laughter and joy, and when she hugs me and tells me she loves me—I wouldn’t trade that for anything. But one thing she doesn’t give me is much time to pursue my own interests. Whether she’s in a good mood or a bad, she always draws a lot of attention to herself. Life is simply more chaotic, stressful and full with her around. Perhaps that’s why this story doesn’t surprise me much (HT Thinking Christian):

The most recent comprehensive study on the emotional state of those with kids shows us that the term "bundle of joy" may not be the most accurate way to describe our offspring. "Parents experience lower levels of emotional well-being, less frequent positive emotions and more frequent negative emotions than their childless peers," says Florida State University's Robin Simon, a sociology professor who's conducted several recent parenting studies, the most thorough of which came out in 2005 and looked at data gathered from 13,000 Americans by the National Survey of Families and Households. "In fact, no group of parents—married, single, step or even empty nest—reported significantly greater emotional well-being than people who never had children.
I’m not sure how they can claim to measure such a thing, but if happiness includes settled contentment, I’ve little doubt that the average parent feels less of it than they would without kids—there’s just so much more to worry about as a parent. But such happiness is not the goal of life. It is precisely the challenges, the struggles, the fact that I am forced to center my attention on someone else, that teach me what real unconditional love is. In truth, I love my daughter more deeply than I ever could have imagined, and I’ve little doubt that the same will be true of my son. But that kind of love can hardly be reduced to mere “happiness,” for it includes not only great joy, but also a fervent desire to see the best for them, even when that means making all of us temporarily unhappy.

And I wonder if the same isn’t true of God’s love for us. For I too frequently don’t know what’s best for my life. I too frequently think the world ought to revolve around my desires. I too am frequently unable to see that the things that make me unhappy can be for my own good, to teach me how to be a better, more mature person. Perhaps I needed to become a parent myself, to learn why I am still a child of God.

My Published Writing

Here is list of all of my published work (print and online), with brief descriptions:

February 2005-February 2008: I was a regular contributor to the Crux Project blogs “New Adventures in Sci-Phi,” “Situation Critical,” and “Signs of the Times” (all three now defunct), and to the second incarnation of “Signs of the Times,” which replaced them in January 2006 when Crux became Salvo. [Except for what I have reposted here and what has preserved, the original three blogs are no longer available, but the newer “Signs of the Times” is here.]

February-November 2006 and June-July 2007: “It’s Greek to Me,” a monthly column published in First Edition, the newsletter of my local church. [This was a series of Greek word studies, 300-800 words each, written for a lay audience; they are not available online.]

June 2006: “Interior Design: DNA and Its Complex Specified Information” (plus two sidebars), in Salvo 1, pgs. 76-79. [A moderate-length article written before the Dover trial, it maintains a more positive view of the Intelligent Design movement than I currently hold; it is available here.]

April 2007: A review of The First Edition of the New Testament by David Trobisch, in Canadian Evangelical Review, Spring 2007 issue, pgs. 83-86. [A critical review of Trobisch’s revisionist interpretation of the canonization of the New Testament; it is not available online.]

August 2007-Present: C. Orthodoxy.

August 2007: “My So-Called Second Life: Born Again into a Virtual Reality” (plus a sidebar review of Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson), in Salvo 3, pgs. 38-45. [A lengthy article on the social impact of Second Life and other “Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games”; it is available here.]

August 2008: A review of the film Atonement, chosen as Runner-Up (Second Place) in the Looking Closer Review Contest. [Focusing particularly on the film's presentation of the corporate nature of evil. Click the previous link to read the review, or for an earlier version than that submitted, see here.]

September 2008: “Sex, Drugs and Reproduction: Birth Control is a Messy, Messy Business” (plus “Decoding Contraception” sidebar), in Salvo 6, pgs. 32-36. [A critical look at the moral and social impact and implications of contraception; available here. As the previous links indicate, this article was substantially revised by the editorial board to make it more one-sided than I intended, leading to my resignation from Salvo.]

I was also a Contributing Editor for Salvo from January 2007 to September 2008.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Greydanus on Hellboy, Christianity and Supernatural Fiction

Steven Greydanus has an excellent article up at Christianity Today on the way the supernatural is presented in films like Hellboy II, particularly how demons tend to get more play than angels or God, and how Christian symbols and objects (like the Cross, a Rosary, Holy Water, etc.) become weapons to defeat evil:

Why is there so much hell and so little heaven in these movies? Partly, perhaps, it's because filmmakers simply don't know what to do with God—not just theologically, but for the sheer dramatic difficulty posed by omnipotence. It's the Superman dilemma times infinity: Against that much power, how do you make the enemy a credible threat? Even Gandalf's power was ultimately too intimidating for Peter Jackson and company; once it became clear the wizard could drive off the flying Nazgul, the filmmakers feared the enemy might seem too diminished. (This was the rationale for the problematic scene in which the Witch-King shatters Gandalf's staff.)

Another reason for the neglect of heaven is simply that heaven is harder to do. C. S. Lewis noted this point in his preface to The Screwtape Letters, in which he regretted being unable to offset Screwtape's diabolical perspective with a parallel heavenly correspondence presenting "arch-angelical advice to the patient's guardian angel." While the task of twisting his mind into a hellish perspective was for Lewis oppressive but not difficult, assuming an angelic voice seemed to him all but unachievable.

While Lewis did later achieve some success in dramatically depicting the outskirts of heaven in The Great Divorce, the general disparity of depicting heaven and hell in art and drama has been felt by many. It's not hard to see why. Beauty is more elusive an effect than grotesquerie; misery and wretchedness are far easier to inflict, and therefore to imagine and express, than joy and beatitude are to bestow or evoke. Even biblical or cultural images of hell (unquenchable flames, demons with pitchforks) are more immediately persuasive than biblical or cultural images of heaven (thrones and crowns, halos and harps). Every sinful impulse in us is hell in miniature, while our best impulses fall infinitely short of the glory of heaven. In a word, God's absence is easier to imagine than the fullness of his presence.

Like the familiar narrative dilemma of the colorful villain who makes the hero look pale by comparison—think of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, Dorothy and the Wicked Witch, Clarisse Starling and Hannibal Lecter—the remoteness of heaven versus the imminence of hell seems a not unnatural creative side effect of our limited perspective as finite and fallen creatures.

The whole thing is worth a read.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Hellboy Shorts

Just for fun, here a few of the many humorous videos promoting Hellboy 2, which is due out this week (and is so far getting positive reviews). Enjoy:

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Camping and Reading... Under Water

The title and pictures (below) are for Carmen’s sake. The weather report promised near perfect camping weather: 70s or 80s with just a chance of light showers. Instead, a major thunderstorm poured rain on us for most of the trip, half flooding our tent. Still, our brief camping trip was as relaxing as I could have hoped, and I enjoyed myself immensely. Apart from a few walks with my daughter (she was not at all deterred by the rain, though she did maintain a fearful curiosity of slugs), I spent most of my time reading, with the rain noisily bouncing off the tarp over our heads, and a cheerful fire to keep us warm. Thanks to the weather, the campground was surprisingly empty for the week of a major holiday, and the few times the sun did peak out the rain made the towering maples seem even greener. Most of all, however, I just enjoyed getting away from the internet and my other responsibilities for a couple of days.

As for my reading, I finished John Stott’s Why I Am a Christian and finally read C.S. Lewis’ autobiographical Surprised by Joy. Stott was somewhat of a disappointment, to be honest. I’ve heard good things about him, but this book seemed a rather flat and mundane defense of Christianity. It offered a few good quotes and one or two original argumentative turns, but nothing that really stuck with me. I had to force myself to finish its brief 133 pages. Surprised by Joy, on the other hand, caught my attention quickly and did not let it up, offering not only an informative picture of Lewis’ early life and conversion, but also a fascinating examination of the human condition. It was also fun to see Lewis interacting with G.K. Chesterton’s work (another of my favorite authors). Anyway, one of Lewis' points is that the attempt to capture or analyze experience inevitably fails, and that is certainly true of the trip. These photos do nothing to capture the full onslaught of the rain, nor the true beauty of the trees: