Thursday, November 29, 2007

50,000!

I did it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I was at 49,754 words at 11:30am when I had to leave for an appointment. Agony. I returned, sat down, and got over the hump.

I'm actually into the third part of the story. William died at 49,754, and we are now back to the story begin voiced by a narrator. The journal has been discovered, it is time to re-visit William's life in reverse from his own perspective.

I have, I believe, the last line of the novel:

Honey, I think I'd like to go and talk to Marcus. Would you mind coming? We have a lot to talk about on the way.

Monday, November 26, 2007

45,592

Less than 5,000 words to go.

At this point, there is no way William dies before I get to 50,000 words. I at least managed to get his wife to file for divorce today, but I have to get some transition out of this phase of everyone's lives before he can die.

At least I now know that I could get to 50,000 in one more sitting if I had to.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

42,435

5 days left to write. I think I'm going to make it.

I not longer believe that I will kill William before the month ends. The novel will only be at most 75% complete when the competition ends, but at least I will have a whole story and 50,000 words.

I'm very excited.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

40,273

Today is 80% of the month. The target would be 40,000 words.

Somehow, I manage to continue to avoid writing the lat section of the story. At least I have my main character in Boston, where he will be dying very soon (soon as in pages, he will actually live 3-4 years, all of which will be summarized).


But he isn't dead yet, and until he dies, I cannot start the last section.

Maybe tomorrow.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Writing on Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving.

35,000 words. I need to get to 36,666 by the end of today to keep on pace.

The current part of the story scares me. I am writing of my pastor character's first deep insight, and I really want to get it right. I've written about 2,800 already today, it doesn't feel like that. I thought the writing was going slowly, but that's actually a lot of words. It gives me hope.

While writing my pastor's monologue of self-discovery, the structure for one of my other writing ideas came into focus. It is a story I really like, and now I think I know how it goes.

I'm not telling, so don't ask.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

32,273

Today, the pace is 30,000 words. Only 12 more days left in the month.

I am writing of the "conversion" of the pastor character. It is an interesting process for me; I do not want my novel to be a "Christian" novel, so I do not want his recovery to be expressed primarily in religious terms. But at the same time, that would be a part of what I would want to have happen to him in this story. Right now, I am attempting to use little religious terminology to describe his internal conflict. I figure that if I do not like the final product, it can be re-cast in editing.

Sometime in the next couple of days, I will write the last significant event in William's life and send him off to his death for the second time in the novel (the first chapter ends with his death in the hospital). Then I work back through his journal, using that as a mechanism to really explore William's own life struggles, and to use them to bring about the redemption of my final character.

Should be a piece of cake. :-)

Saturday, November 17, 2007

30,538

28,333 needed to be on pace. I'm also over 100 pages in Word. Wow, will there be a lot of editing if I pursue this story any more. I'm thinking about changing the name of my main character!

2 great quotes, purportedly from Hemingway:

"The first draft of everything is garbage."
and
"There are no great writers, only great editors."

The Premise of God (a follow-up)

My earlier post on my analogy between dark matter and God generated an interesting comment (interesting not least of all because it showed that someone is still reading). I did not think I could do justice to the substance of that comment in the space of a followup comment, so I have commenced a new post to address the arguments therein.

[your post] mistakenly assumes a creator is the simplest solution...
We start with a very slippery confusion about what it means for a designer to be the simplest explanation for the appearance of design in the universe. My reader takes issue with the notion that God (or any designer) could be simple. But that is not my point. It is irrelevant whether the actual designer is simple or complex, it is not the nature of the designer that I am calling simple, simple, it is the fact of the designer as an explanation that is simple. To repeat the argument: in every instance in this world where we see the appearance of design, there is a designer responsible for it. The ambiguity in what is meant by design has lead design theorists, of late, to speak in terms of information content rather than design. Stated another way then, my argument is that systems which contain large amounts of information are always, in our current experience, designed. Information does not generate at random by any currently known process. And the laws of physics seem to imply that we will find no such process.

This is an observation that is plain to nearly every human being that ever lived. Even to the skeptics. The search for intelligent life in outer space depends on the absence of information content outside of intelligent agency. In fact, the argument of the naturalist appears to be that life is too complex to have been designed. I am not sure how that follows: everything of sufficient complexity in our everyday experience is designed; except the most complex of all. That must, of necessity come about by accident. Or, to use Dawkins' favorite illustration, by a series of tiny, improbably steps. But there aren't enough steps, and there isn't any reason to believe in a near-infinite process of accidents as a better explanation. Unless you choose to.

So I assert again: given the appearance of design in the universe, the presence of a designer is the simplest explanation for that design.

Now to the question of the complexity of the designer. The second half of the first paragraph of the comment in question makes the point (again due to Dawkins) that if there is a designer, it must itself be so complex that it is in much greater need of its own designer. Thus begins an infinite regression of designers. Isn't it just easier to assume no designer and to cut off the regression before it begins? The answer, unequivocally, is 'no.'

The error here is one that has been made with regards to this particular argument for centuries. The argument that the world needs a designer is one of the classical arguments for the existence of God. That it has not been effectively countered is evidenced by the fact that this new generation of evangelistic atheists feels compelled to offer a new counter-argument. But the problem with the new counter is that it is, in fact, the same as the old ones. Universally, the actual argument is simplified and misstated. This makes sense, it is easier to counter an argument if it is oversimplified and missated (we all make this mistake). My commenter recognizes this flaw, but attempts to sweep it away with a joke and another misstatement.

To the point: the classical theodicy states that "Everything that is caused has a prior cause." Put another way, "everything that is created has a creator." Or again, in terms of design, "everything that we see in this world that has high information content is the result of a designer." In each form, there is a built-in, necessary limitation to the regression. In the first form, we limit the regression to those things that are caused. This is not merely a trick, or a little joke to get out of a tight spot; it is a necessary characteristic of the argument. For we cannot speak of things that are outside of our experience; we know only about the laws that govern this universe. It is true that in this universe, our experience is that all effects have a cause. But if the first cause were itself outside of our universe, we can say nothing about the necessity of its causation. It operates under rules about which we cannot say anything meaningful. Again, do not think of this as some sort of philosophical nit put in place to shore up an otherwise weak argument. In fact, this is one of the most striking differences between the God described in the Bible and the gods of the rest of mankind: the God described in the Bible is truly transcendent and separate from His creation. Thanks to the skeptics, we now understand that logic and the laws of the universe require this of Him. If there is a designer, he would have to be like the God of the Bible in this sense. For another approach to this argument, see this article.

There is no use at this point arguing that if the designer is wholly different then it is meaningless to talk about him. I will concede the point only to observe that the Bible has already made it for us. The story Jews and Christians tell is of a God so different from us that He has had to speak in symbols and analogies just to give us a fighting chance at knowing anything about Him at all. If you do not believe in any God, then the notion that one might try to talk to men is purely ridiculous. But to land on your presuppositions at then end of an argument is not logic, it is fallacy.

The second paragraph begins by misstating the purpose of my post. I do not care one whit that science is using a plug, they are welcome to their plug. When you run up against the end of all you can observe and there is something missing, you have no choice but to guess about what else is there. Rather, my point in my post is that science is being less than forthright when they complain that the hypothesis of a transcendent designer is not scientific. I believe that the design hypothesis is of the same sort as the dark matter hypothesis: it is a good fit, given the data we have, for explaining a phenomenon which we cannot otherwise explain, one which produces causes which appear, to our instruments, to be uncaused.

It is a vast overstatement of the current science to say that dark matter conforms to the laws and structures of the universe: the actual form, composition and distribution of dark matter is so completely unknown that it exists only in the equations of relativity and quantum mechanics. There is no single, widely accepted interpretation of these equations; to say that dark matter follows the laws of physics is to say that the laws of physics follow the laws of physics. Dark matter is an interpretation of the laws, naturally it follows them. Except, of course, when it doesn't, and then the theory is neatly modified to make it fit. This is not dishonest, it is the nature of cosmology. What is dishonest is trying to make it more than it is.

The comment asks why not state that magic is the cause of the phenomena now attributed to dark matter? From what I understand (and I admit to only a layman's understanding) that is not far from the truth. There is little difference between magic and dark matter. Dark matter and energy are nothing more than the remainder of a sum that has yet to be completely solved. It may be the right remainder, or it may not (it is looking like a good candidate though). But an honest look at history will recognize that it began its life not so different from magic.

Finally, as the comment winds down, we encounter another one of Dawkins' favorite analogies: comparing the hypothesis of God to the hypothesis of a mysterious, unseen teapot encircling the earth (or perhaps orbiting the sun in the same orbit as the earth). If we carefully define the teapot, goes the argument, then we can never disprove its existence. For every counter-point made to the teapot hypothesis, its defenders cleverly devise a new explanation, each more inaccessible than the last, so that finally there is no evidence that can be brought to bear against the teapot. The problem with this analogy is that it only acknowledges one side of the issue. The teapot in question explains nothing outside of itself. Those who reject the existence of the teapot have a simpler, neater world. This is not the case with God. The analogy ignores the fact that God answers certain nagging questions that remain intractable in his absence, design being only one of them. And while it is certainly fair for the skeptic to say "convince me," it is not an argument, it is a request. I believe that the evidence says that God explains a good deal more of our experience as humans than does naturalism. Lewis makes this point in several of his books; and I have yet to see convincing arguments against him. Again, for a different spin on this point, see this article.

The comment states that magic is not on an equiprobable footing with dark matter; I contend that atheism is not on an equiprobable footing with theism. At least, none of the neodarwinist atheists that I have read so far have managed to make it so.

27.968

26,666 needed to be on pace.

I started yesterday with the second section of my novel, written in the voice of my second character, recounting the last decade of my main character's life and the impact he had on him. I wasn't sure it was going to work, but I am thrilled. The voicing is so natural, I think it would have been tedious to read if spoken by a narrator. I have three main episodes I need to get into this section: William's (the main character) marriage, his learning about the downfall of the man who ruined him at NASA, and his divorce. I then can move him to the main city where he re-connects with the third major character and dies. As of right now, William is newly-married.

I think of my story in words now. I figure I will wrap this portion of the story in less than 10,000 words, leaving me 12,000 or so to finish up. Since I expect the final section of the story to be nearly as long as the first two combined, I shouldn't have any trouble hitting 50,000 words.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Halfway

Today is November 15th, the halfway point in the month. I have been on the ragged edge of being sick for several days, so I have not stayed up late to write. That meant, in order to get to 25,000 words, I had to write nearly 6,000 today.

I'm at 25,116.

I have been asked for my profile information. You can find me here: http://www.nanowrimo.org/eng/user/232474.

I have finally made it out of the first part of my story. As a narrative device, I have decided that the novel will have three sections: in the first, the story is told by a narrator; in the second, it is told in the voice of the burned out pastor whom my hero befriends; in the third, it is told by a combination of a narrator and excepts from my hero's journal. As I approached the transition between parts 1 and 2, I became nervous about the effectiveness of this idea. Then I realized that if it doens't work, I can just quit and go back to the narrator.

But my last 1000 words tonight were in the pastor's voice, and I am really liking it. Once again, at great personal risk, I am including a (very) lightly-edited excerpt from this section. I hope you enjoy it.

Besides, I couldn’t ever get away from the fear that maybe, even though I didn’t believe it, what I was saying was actually true. I could see that many of the people in my congregation who left each Sunday and tried to live what I said seemed somehow happier than I was. I tried to convince myself it was simply because they were simpletons who could be satisfied with easy answers to the hard issues of life, while I was the sophisticated and wise pastor who knew the truth behind the words. But even that explanation didn’t ring true for me. I’m sure it didn’t help that my wife seemed to be one of the simpletons. Especially since I had met and married her at Princeton, and knew her to be more intelligent than I.

So naturally, I did what every good man does who knows that his life is a lie and that, whoever else he may be fooling, he isn’t fooling himself. I threw myself more wholeheartedly into the lifestyle. I had left Princeton a teetotaler, not on any moral principles, but simply because I had seen the foolishness of my peers who allowed themselves to become too enamored of string drink. But the social circle in which I now travelled demanded a sophisticated appreciation of fine drink, and so, slowly at first, I began to have a glass of wine, or an after-dinner drink, just to be a part. I wish my story were more original, I have always wanted to think of myself as my own man. But the reality is that after 10+billion human beings, there aren’t any new ways to ruin one’s life. I had never kept alcohol in the house, since we never hosted any of the parties, but I began to keep some “good” liquor, and some of the more highly-regarded beers of the region, just to help me “relax” at the end of the day. At least, I told myself that that was the reason; I now understand (as I’m sure you already guessed) that the alcohol was to mask the pain of my meaninglessness. Serving as a pastor for so long, I met a great many frauds. The most important of them were given the opportunity to sit in my office and confess their sins to me, as I sat wisely nodding and offering them what absolution my faithlessness and the theology of my church allowed.

The irony was that as I sat there, something inside of me longed for someone to whom I could confess, someone who could offer me absolution. As I sat there as the high and lofty judge of the poor, lost soul who was before me, I was actually giving them what I could not find for myself. So I did the only thing I knew, I drank.

My wife knew, I’m sure she did. Like I said, she was more intelligent than I, but she also believed. I’m certain she had seen through my fa├žade a long time before, and she didn’t believe any of it. I suspect that she prayed for me daily. She went to all the parties, she drove me home drunk at the end, and she generally made sure that I kept something together for the sake of my congregation.

You have probably noticed by now that I speak of her in the past tense. She was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 47. When she went in to see the doctor, he estimated that she had actually had the cancer since her early 30s. These days, mammograms and self-exams might have saved her life, but we didn’t have or know about such things back then, and she died within months of the diagnosis.

Monday, November 12, 2007

19,107

The robots at NaNo say that I have 19,125. Either way, I'm almost 40% of the way to my goal.

I really didn't feel like writing today. I wasn't able to write the last 2 nights, so I went from ahead to behind and now back ahead (to be on pace, I would need 18,333 words today). Thankfully, after about 15 minutes I got into the flow, and cranked out about 3,200 words. NaNo has pep talks from famous authors every couple of days, Sue Grafton (whom I have never read) talked today about writing just to write. She even encouraged us to plan on never letting this see the light of day to reduce the need to produce something presentable. We shall see, I still like my story so far, although not necessarily the writing. I know there will be massive editing and re-writing needed.

I'm in the midst of destroying my character's hope right now; I definitely need this life to be shortened. I may end up killing him off in his late 20s - he's 19 at this point in the story.
So the beginning of my store will need a complete timeline revision. Assuming I every go back.

Friday, November 09, 2007

15,877

I wrote a lot today. In fact, I could keep going, except that it is midnight and I need to get some sleep. It's a good thing I wrote extra today, as tomorrow my son's band has to play at a football game 40 miles away from here, and we will be out very late, probably too late for me to write tomorrow. Right now, I have enough words to remain on track even if I write nothing tomorrow.

I decided to introduce one of my other significant characters early. I have morphed the burned-out Psychiatrist into a burned-out Neurologist, and have brought him in at this stage to do some preliminary examinations. This has allowed me to do some foreshadowing with regard to his future situation, and to enable Will to seek him out later. I have also developed the conflict that will result in Will to leave his first position (currently at NASA, that will probably change in the editing); I expect him to leave in the next 5,000 words or so.

I also feel like I am finding my voice. I noticed a couple of days ago that my vocabulary seemed to have shrunk while writing this story, but today I found that a broader range of expression came more easily. Hopefully, that trend will continue.

3,000 words was a nice amount. It felt like I had time to really enter the story, if I have time, I may shoot for that number rather than the minimum 1,667. Besides, I know that I won't be done at 50,000, so I might as well write more.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Still writing

12,233 words. 45 pages in Word 2007 with 12 point Calibri.

Today's goal is 11,667, so I am 600 ahead. The problem is, I have now decided that my timeline (in the novel) is too long. I originally planned that my character would live about 60 years, so his early adulthood would occur in the early 1960s. Now I think I need him to live only 35 or so, so I can move his life into the 80s. But I chose for him a career at NASA during the space race. While I can keep him at NASA and move him to the shuttle years, I'm afraid of how much work that will be. Plus, I don't have time to go back and edit right now, so at some point I either change timelines and leave the issue to be fixed, or I finish the current timeline and re-do everything later. Not sure which way to go.

On the other hand, I am having little trouble generating words. Those who know me will not be surprised about that. Whether the words are any good remains to be seen.

I'm also in doubt as to whether I can be done in 50,000 words. Seemed like a lot a week ago.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

NaNo update

10,117.

I am 1/5th of the way through the month and still on schedule. Except for the fact that I am way less than 1/5th of the way through my story.

I should have known 50,000 words wouldn't be enough.

Monday, November 05, 2007

My novel, day 5

I don't know how long the average participant in NaNo lasts before giving up (their website has been unnavigable for days), but I'll bet many drop out by now, or at least have begun to fall so far behind the pace that they are effectively out.

I am at 8,844 words. By the end of day 5, you need 8,333 to be on pace for the 50,000. It takes an hour or more every night to crank out the necessary words. They tell you not to do any editing; I don't need the restriction - I no more want to go back and rework this now than I want to try and break the world record for sitting in a bathtub with rattlesnakes that a Texas man just set. No, right now I just want to get the story moving along. I am just about to hit the first major tragedy of my main character's life; I'm a little nervous about plunging in to real drama.

On the other had, I am really liking the story. I'm sure it is severely lacking in depth of presentation (that's what editing is for), but in general terms, I'm pleased with how it is coming along. Against my better judgment, here is a small sampling of my writing:

---------------

After gathering his belongings, Will headed out of the hospital and straight for the General’s office. Space was in short supply in the engineering areas, so the General had a small closet of an office with no receptionist to control access. Will had just started to knock on the door when he heard his name from inside. Against his better judgment, he didn’t knock, but leaned closer to the door to listen.

“… I know Carlisse is sick. But the doc thinks that with some limitations, he can still be involved in our work.” That was the General’s voice; Will was surprised he hadn’t heard it booming further down the hall.

“What the hell good to me is a 17 year old freak who can’t work when there’s work to be done?” Will didn’t recognize that voice. “10 hour shifts! You said you were going to have him do some drawings; I wonder if the doc will let him do some of that in his dorm. And does that 10 hours include his work towards his doctorate? If it does, I’ll be lucky to have him 7 hours at a time. Look General, when you told me you had found just the piece we needed to complete this team, I didn’t expect you would bring me a boy who’s only half a man.”

Will stared at the door, unsure of what to do next. He started to turn, and then heard the door open behind him. He looked, and saw Henry, the guy Robby had told him as the actual team leader, storming out of the office. “Get me someone else, General.” He looked up and saw Will. Without a word, he brushed by and disappeared down the hall. Will turned to look at the General, who had an apology on his face.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

NaNoWriMo

This month, I recently learned, is National Novel Writing Month. Please notice that it is not "Writers Month," but "Writing Month." This is the month, set aside several years ago, in which people are challenged to write a novel of 50,000 words. There is a web site, www.nanowrimo.org, local chapters devoted to helping you get through the process, and lots of resources in the form of books and pamphlets.

As my profile says, I have a deep desire to be a writer, so I decided to take the plunge and sign up. You don't have to pay anything, just sign up and start writing. I attended last night's countdown event, and wrote the first 600 words of my novel.

I hope to blog on the process over the next month. To get to 50,000 words in a 30 day month, you have to write 1,667 words per day. So I may not have any energy to write another word after finishing my writing each day; but if I do, I will record some thoughts.

So what is my novel? At the moment, it is a novel of redemption. My main character is a man of prodigious gifts but a devastating neurological disorder that prevents him from ever realizing his potential. In the process of his life, he builds meaningful relationships with a pastor who has lost his faith and a burned out, cynical Psychiatrist. Through the strength of our hero's character, both men find their lives and purposes restored. It will not be an explicitly Christian novel, although the themes in the novel will reflect my Christian worldview.

Will I publish any of it? I doubt it. It would be nice, but it is probably too much to hope that my first attempt, drafted in a mere 30 days, will be of any substance. But the process will tell me something about myself, and I will share that, at the least, on this blog.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Dumbledore is gay!?

So J.K Rowling has stated, in answer to a fan's question, that Dumbledore is gay.

I believe this neatly delineates one of the central cultural questions of our day, to whit: what exactly is the essence of homosexuality? Is a person gay because of something in their nature, or are they gay because of their behavior? The answer to that question lies behind the entire cultural war. So I find it interesting that the most successful fictional series of our time provides such a compelling answer.

How does Rowling's response answer the question? Just this: You see, Dumbledore never exhibits a single gay behavior throughout the entire series (I know, I've read every book multiple times). He is only gay because Rowling imagines him to be gay. I believe this is the same for the vast number of homosexual men (women too, to a lesser extent). However, the facts as expressed in the series make the point in start terms. Since Dumbledore does not exist, he cannot actually be anything, except what the author says he is. His homosexuality exists entirely in Rowling's mind.

This is not to lessen the realities of real, live homosexuals. It is just to say that there is an interesting statement about the thought processes of a culture when the statement of J.K Rowling is taken as having any meaning whatsoever.

Monday, October 22, 2007

An analogy between Intelligent Design and Dark Matter

In my reading, the most common complaint raised against Intelligent Design is that by invoking a creator, design advocates are invoking something that is by definition unmeasurable and is therefore irrefutable. The argument is that any truly scientific theory must be falsifiable, and the postulate of an invisible creator, totally separate from the universe it created, is not.

Two answers, one positive and one negative are most commonly given in response. On the negative side, it is noted that Darwinian evolution is itself not falsifiable, to the extent that it is so open-ended that it is able to subsume any data, even contradictory data. On the positive side, design theorists invoke Paley's Watchmaker, and argue that in our experience anything that bears the appearance of design is most simply explained by the presence of a designer.

While I, as a design theorist, find the argument against evolution compelling, it seems that those on the other side are able to ignore it (perhaps just from wishful thinking). On the positive side, a great many philosophers have taken aim at the Watchmaker analogy, believing themselves to have shown it lacking. And while anyone familiar with philosophy can see through their arguments, they are given much weight among evolutionists simply because they have been cited so frequently that they appear to be well-established. So I am here, in this totally unread blog, proposing an analogy that I believe is very apropos, and will be much more difficult for the opponents of design to set aside.

Most cosmologists currently believe that the vast majority of the mass of the universe consists of so-called dark matter and/or dark energy. What makes this matter/energy dark is the fact that it cannot be measured, except indirectly, by any known scientific process. That is, we cannot see it or detect it directly, we can only infer it from its effects on things around it. The only reason that scientists believe that it exists is that it appears to be necessary to make the current theories of the structure of the universe "work out." Or put another way, dark matter and energy is the simplest explanation for the universe that we see.

Just like a creator.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Scratch Lives (Living For Eternity)

Wayne Cordeiro, in his book Doing Church as a Team, writes of this notion of "scratch lives:"
To contrast the brevity of our earthly existence with that of eternity, I would take out my ballpoint pen and draw a vertical scratch on [an] extended cable. Then I would tell you that the width of that scratch mark (about 1/32 of an inch) represents the length of our life on earth compared to eternity. Not very long!

But do you know what most people do? They not only live on that scratch, but they also love that scratch.... They live scratch lives, have scratch businesses, raise scratch families with scratch hopes and scratch dreams....

....They try to elongate it, stretch it and extend it as much as possible. But even in the midst of their attempts, they know deep inside that there's got to be something more.
There is no doubt that a great many people live only for this life, squandering their time here on nothing more significant than acquiring new toys and new experiences. There can be no question that a life so lived misses the greater point of life, living only for the now rather than for eternity. But my question is this: what does it really mean to live for eternity? The old American saw tells us that "you can't take it with you." What exactly do we take with us?

For years in church I was taught (and then I taught from the pulpit) that all we take with us are the lives that we touch for Christ. A beautiful sentiment, but is it true? I think, to the extent that it reminds us that we cannot live solely for ourselves and calls us to look for opportunities to impact others that it it true But I, at least, too often forgot that one of the lives I could touch would be my own. God has great love for me, and created me that I might love Him as well.

C.S. Lewis, in the Great Divorce, argues that our lives in eternity are but an extension of our lives here on earth. We begin to develop our character in this life, a character which is grown and extended for all of eternity. The point here is that our lives as lived actually count for eternity. We do not live just to make a choice for Christ and then help others find their way to Him; rather, we live so that we might make choices and develop character that, in God's design, can only be made and developed in the context of this life. I suspect that this life is unique in its structure and opportunities; and that we will look back from eternity on this life and regret a good deal more the things we didn't do in this life than we will regret the things we did. And these will not just be "spiritual" things.

Very few people can live their lives successfully on the big stage. Of all the people currently alive, I can only count Billy Graham as having successfully navigated the treacherous waters of significant earthly power without grounding himself on the reef of great personal failure. If this is so, why does nearly every person long for great significance? I suspect it is because God has placed in us an understanding that our lives, lived out on this little stage of our scratch, will extend for all of eternity. And it is in that eternal extension that they will find great significance. So it become incumbent upon each of not, not only to engage in great spiritual activity, but to be as truly and authentically ourselves as we can manage within the context of our short lives.

For I suspect that one of the "few things" that God calls me to be faithful to is just being as authentically Don Wilcox as I could be. In the midst of the big questions of life, I think He will ask me if I attempted to live the life He gave me. I cannot believe He has no interest in that.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

What is a soul?

It occurs to me that if I am going to talk about souls, I would do well to be clear on what I mean by "soul." There are two points which require clarification.

First, I believe that the Bible teaches, and logic dictates, that human beings are comprised of two parts: a body and a spirit. The body is the physical component, encompassing all those functions which are traceable to physical processes, including much (but not all) of what we think of as "mind." The spirit is non-physical, representing the free-will of man. It is the part of us that recognizes and responds to God, and is the source of our moral sense. As Lewis puts it, the spirit is the necessary origin of "ought." When I use the word "soul" in this series, I am referring primarily to the spirit, but would also include that part of us that is more ambiguous. By this I mean the place where body and spirit interact, those aspects of our personality and nature that cannot be traced easily or definitively to either the physical or non-physical. All of this together is what I mean when I speak of the soul.

Now, if you had searched inside my thoughts to determine what the phrase "creation of the soul" meant to me before a couple of days ago, you probably would have found something along the lines of this image: when the time came for God to create a new person, He would reach into a jar of "soul-stuff," pull out a handful, pat it really good, and stick it inside the body. Not that I would have expressed it in this way, but that is more or less the image I think I had. But once I began to consider the subject more intentionally, I understood that this is woefully inadequate. You see, this picture makes the soul a mere add-on to the body, stuck in to "animate it," and introduces a division between body and spirit that is not present in reality. Although I spoke of body and spirit as two parts of a human person in the previous paragraph, I do not think they are two separate, symbiotic entities. Rather, they are the two inseparable components of a complete human. This is why Paul speaks so unambiguously of a physical resurrection: man is both body and spirit, so when God creates a man, He creates both components fit together to make the whole. And when God resurrects a man, He will resurrect both, bringing an whole man into eternity with Him.

In light of this, then, a much more reasonable image of creation would be God carefully crafting the soul and body together into the shape and form that He desires. He designs the soul as the seat of the humanness of the created person, and builds into the soul all the possibilities that He sees for that person. The body is designed to facilitate the soul reaching its fullest potential within the lifespan that God has measured for that body. This is a much more creative and loving act than I would have considered until now. It is in this act of creation that God first expresses His love for the individual that He is creating.

So that's it. The soul is the non-physical (or spiritual) component of a human. It is created uniquely and specially by God to be the true expression of His love for that individual. Even these simple facts have profound implications. We shall investigate them in the coming days.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Souls and the sovereignty of God

As a long-time evangelical, I have not thought much about the creation of souls. I would imagine it was probably a topic of interest to the early church fathers, and may still occupy theologians of one stripe or another. It has not, heretofore, interested me. This all changed for some unknown reason several days ago, when I awoke thinking about the implications of the fact that souls are created by God.

I remember from my theology training that the question of the pre-existence of souls is one that occasionally pops up in Christian theology, but to me there is little to discuss. A simple syllogism summarizes it all: Primary Premise: God alone is uncreated; Corollary: everything else must be created; Secondary Premise: all things are created by Him. Conclusion: all souls are created by God.

Back to the main subject. My first thought on subject (I am going to move slowly through all the ramifications as I try and think through them all) is that the fact of God's active creation of souls implies that God exercises sovereignty over the structure, nature and disposition of every soul that He creates. This implies that He knows the soul - its capabilities, limitations, and potentialities - from the very moment of its creation. This does not constrain the actual freedom of the created soul; God may know it well yet still grant it real freedom to make choices (however, see my post on choice for more on this). For example, I know my children very well, but they still have the capacity to surprise me. God knows the details of a created soul to a much greater extent, and deals with that soul from a position of both love and power.

This may all sound either like silly philosophical nonsense or trivial tautologies to you, but I believe that it has profound implications on a number of subjects having to do with God's sovereignty, human freedom, and the nature of salvation. I intend to explore these implications in coming posts.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Choices

I believe that man has a free will. If forced to pick, I would choose to come down on the side of Arminius, but I believe that the real answer to the question: "Is God sovereign or is man free?" would be "Yes." Not just because I love to answer "either ... or ..." questions with a "yes" or "no" answer, but rather because I believe the question is too simple to capture the complexities of the issue.

However, I have another thought on the subject of man's free will. Personally, I think we have a good many fewer truly free choices than we realize. I believe that the combination of our created nature and our upbringing (nature and nurture) determine the vast majority of our actions. There are situations in which we theoretically have control over our choices, but in reality, the experiences we have already lived through have so shaped who we are that our actual behavior is effectively determined.

I wonder if, when we look at our lives from the perspective of eternity, if we won't be surprised to see that we made, not thousands of decisions, but maybe just 2.

OK, 3.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Alcohol

It is one of those subjects that seems to come up on a regular basis: the tenuous relationship between Christians and alcohol. For years as a young person I was given the impression, if not told outright, that the Bible forbids consumption of alcohol. This worked out fine for me, I had no taste for the stuff, and my total abstinence made a positive impression on my non-believing High School friends. I was invited to all the parties, and while I was there the alcohol wasn't. I'd like to think that I may have saved a few lives just by showing up at parties. I'll never know.

The problem is, the Bible does not forbid alcohol; so as I grew into adulthood and began my career as a student and teacher of the Bible, I was forced to come to terms with this fact. There were a few years of struggle - the "badness" of alcohol was firmly entrenched. Then, for a couple of months I had a job as a waiter, and I found that when I worked late I would have trouble unwinding from the stress. During those days I found that a little alcohol helped me to fall asleep more quickly. I never developed a taste for strong stuff, and to this day I prefer a wine that tastes like KoolAid. But I will drink when in a group, and even occasionally on my own. If anyone is still reading my blog, this probably shocks you.

It shouldn't, at least not because I am a Christian. There are plenty of reasons not to consume alcohol, and I have seen many studies linking alcohol to a wide range of negative results. Just today, I came across another: in her book Unhooked, Laura Sessions Stepp takes a look at the "hook-up" culture of casual sex that is prevalent among those in their late teens and early twenties. She covers a lot of ground, and backs her work with a lot of interviews. One of her conclusions is that alcohol is used by young people as a means of greasing the skids towards casual sex. Now, I do not know enough to take issue with this relationship; certainly it looks plausible on the surface. However, I came across an article by a Rev. Mark Creech in which he takes this relationship and draws an equivalence between casual sex and alcohol.

To begin with, there is a logical fallacy here - just because alcohol is used to facilitate casual sexual behavior does not mean that alcohol is the cause of that behavior. In fact, the work by Ms. Sessions indicates rather that the intent to have sex clearly predates the use of alcohol, the alcohol is simply an available tool. One assumes that were it not available, the young people would find another aid to suppressing their consciences. To argue from this relationship that Christians should totally abstain from alcohol is to draw too broad a conclusion. Nearly every activity in life contains some element of risk; wisdom comes not from eliminating risk, but rather in managing it. The Reverend Creech contends that there are no redeeming qualities in either drinking or sex outside of marriage; this is patently untrue. To be fair, he actually states that there are no redeeming qualities that are not countered by risks - but to say this is just to say that there are risks. I think Rev. Creech means that he wants these acts to have no benefits. But even sin has benefits, otherwise it wouldn't appeal to us. As in all areas, we must be clearheaded in our thinking if we are to make wise choices and decisions.

But all of this comes to a head when Rev. Creech states that, while the Bible does not explicitly condemn consumption of alcohol, it
treats alcohol somewhat like it does slavery: it doesn't universally condemn the practice, but it clearly undermines and ultimately dooms the custom by the lofty moral standards set forth throughout its many pages.
The only way to see this analogy is to bring it into Scripture with you. The Bible, as always, has an exceedingly practical approach to alcohol. It warns about and condemns excessive use; but recognizes and encourages careful partaking. There is no similar perspective on slavery, which is redeemed in the law by raising the status of slaves, and is ennobled in the New Testament by being adopted by Paul as the image of the Christian life. The situation with alcohol is totally different. There is nowhere where the Bible encourages the offering of slaves as part of the sacrificial system (Exodus 29:40 and Leviticus 23:13). Jesus did not turn water into a slave (John 2), nor did Paul recommend that Timothy take along a slave to further his ministry (1 Timothy 5:23). But mostly, I am fairly certain that we do not celebrate the Lord's Supper with bread and a slave.

Does consumption of alcohol bring along certain risks? Absolutely. Should young people abstain until they are adults? Without a doubt. Are there people who should avoid consumption of alcohol at all costs. Indeed (some are my friends). But let's not have any of this adjusting what the Bible says in order to "protect" us from the evils of the vine. God was apparently not afraid of His people enjoying alcohol. We shouldn't be either.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Names

I am in the process of fixing a conceptual problem in the software that I work on. As I began to delve into the code to change it, it occurred to me that the problem has resisted early attempts to resolve it because some of the key pieces of the program have misleading names.

This seems a trivial issue at first glance. Why get all hung up on the names of pieces of the code? Just fix the problems and move on. After all, we have a major release coming up in just a couple of weeks. But truly, names are not trivial. It is a basic human trait to name things. I believe that the significance of naming is reflected in the fact that the story of Adam naming the animals is one of the stories retained in the creation narrative. I honestly can say that I do not remember taking any great note of this fact in the past. The presence of this tale in the creation story should give us an indication of the importance of naming to humans.

Upon further reflection, this becomes obvious. We name everything, mostly because names give us short handles for the complexities of the universe. So much of many advanced courses studies comes down to learning the names of things; consider the examples of medicine and law. By learning the names of the things around us, we simplify the complexity and make the difficult manageable. Imagine if every time you wanted to talk about your child, you needed to go all the way back in your family tree to describe their lineage - their name eliminates all of that.

But names do more than just label things - they bring connotations and emotional content as well. This is why, in modern political discourse, it is so important that you get to pick the names used in the discussion - the term "pro-choice" has many fewer negative connotations than does "pro-abortion." The correctness of either term is not the point; the point is that the power to choose names often dictates the course of the ensuing debate.

But we use names internally as well. For years, I struggled against the internal name "useless" that I applied to myself. I didn't really recognize it, but that name informed everything I did and all of my thoughts about myself. As I learn to abandon that name and recognize the truth, I learn to apply more accurate names to myself.

There is a lot more to this; but I would do well to think more intentionally about the names that I apply to myself and to those around me. After all, they define the world for me, whether accurate or not.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Clear thinking

A new paper argues that democracy is doomed to be non-optimal (that is, to rarely take the best course of action) because most people in a democracy will not bother to understand an issue before acting on their preconceived notions about that issue. As a result, democracies tend reflect the unfounded beliefs of their population, and only very slowly make changes.

At the same time, Walter Williams' most recent article on townhall.com notes separately that people do not typically have an accurate understanding of the costs of their actions. They tend to value maintaining the status quo without considering whether the current course will accomplish the goals they have in mind.

You put these two together, and I doubt most of us are really in any position to act, or even speak intelligently, on any issue of great importance.

I would really enjoy discussing these issues with people who disagree with me; but of course, rational discourse is no longer in vogue. It is easier to call names than to allow for the possibility that you might have to re-think your position.

If all this doesn't make you pessimistic about our future, I'm not sure what will.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

High-risk activity

It shouldn't be, but apparently taking your children to a movie targeted at them has become a high-risk activity. I took my boys (11 and 14) to see Transformers today. I have heard good reviews from a number of sources that I normally find trustworthy, so I felt good despite it's PG-13 rating. Unfortunately, there was way more "13" in this movie than I would have liked.

One scene in particular really makes me angry. The main character (a 16 year old boy) is in his bedroom looking for something the good robots really need, when his parents come up to inquire as to the racket he and the robots are making. Now, you have to know that there are a number of very funny, clever things about this scene. At one point the lead robot (Optimus Prime) is looking in the window and speaks to our hero in a voice that is reminiscent of a parent mildly frustrated with their teenager. To hear it come from a giant robot was hilarious. Anyways, his parents come into the room, and follows a discussion about what is going on that centers on "self-pleasuring." I choose not to use the standard term here because I do not want my blog to go down the same path as the stupid movie. I was so frustrated. And the scene went on and on, all while I was sitting next to my 11 year old who needs not be exposed to this right yet. He will be soon enough, it was just so aggravating to have to sit through this totally gratuitous scene.

Why is this necessary? There was absolutely no need for it, and I remained sufficiently angry throughout the rest of the movie that it lessened my overall enjoyment. Why would anyone target a movie to young boys and then go in this direction? The low-key sexuality of the starlet was bad enough, but is there not a single person in all of Hollywood with the practical sense to know that this would be inappropriate for a large portion of their target audience?

And since when is this subject even funny?

Monday, July 30, 2007

Harry Potter

I love the Harry Potter books. I have since the first one came out all these many years ago. From the very beginning I have differed strongly with the shallow perspective of many Christians concerning these books. In my previous life as the associate pastor of an evangelical church, I kept my opinion mostly to myself. However, I no longer have this constraint, so I thought I would take a minute to reflect on the issue.

I was one of the millions who stood in line at midnight to get a copy of the 7th book. I knew that I could have just slept in and gotten one the next day. I didn't even start reading it until I awoke the next morning. I just wanted to be a part of the fun of the final book. I met 5 or 6 really interesting people in line; one of the young ladies in out little group won the door prize of a signed poster and we all rejoiced with her. I think that is one of the nice things about the books - the heroes are unquestionably the good guys, and the bad guys are unquestionably evil - so there are not a lot of ambiguous fans. Everyone roots for the good guys. It's a huge club.

Since then, I have read two very different articles about the series, both by conservative Christians. One, in the online journal OneNewsNow.com, is a wondrous example of the silly, shallow stupidity spouted by Christians who don't bother to think beyond the surface. Nearly nothing the "evangelist" Tim Todd says about the books is inaccurate, yet he is viewed as credible by many. He makes statements about J. K. Rowling without any corroboration, and rather than quoting her, he makes vague references to things she is reported to have said. All in all, it was embarrassing; but even worse, I am fairly certain that Mr. Todd is not, and will never be, embarrassed. And worst of all, there are probably many people who read his writings or hear him speak and accept what he says as authoritative without ever bothering to check his credentials.

The other article, by La Shawn Barber in townhall.com, (do not read her article if you have not read the final book, to say it has spoilers is a MASSIVE understatement) is none of these things. Ms Barber is a fan, and she see the positive qualities in the stories for what they are. There is no superstitious fear of a book because "magic" is the underlying plot device; rather, Ms. Barber points out the power of the common themes of sacrificial love, true friendship and rebirth. These are themes that resonate with humans because they are the themes on which our fallen world is now built. The final resolution of history will come from the sacrificial gift of the One who created it. Men and women are destined for a glorious rebirth because of that sacrifice. And while the Potter books do not use these themes for religious reasons, the themes are nonetheless there, and believers can find much that recalls for them the truths in which we place our hope.

Finishing the final book was horribly bittersweet. I will greatly miss Harry, Ron, Hermione, Hagrid and Dumbledore. I have looked forward to each new adventure, and have loved sharing them with my boys. If you haven't had the opportunity, or have been afraid, go find a used copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and read it. Or, if you haven't the patience, watch the movie. These are stories that reflect the Great Story told by the Greatest Storyteller of all.

My children recently asked me if I thought God liked the movie Evan Almighty (we all did), and I told them I thought He probably did. I'm pretty sure He likes the Potter books as well.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

More on civility

Yesterday, while talking about the helicopter crash here in Phoenix, I touched briefly on the loss of civility in our culture. This came to my mind in part because of a segment on the Hugh Hewitt show last evening. He and his guest were reviewing some of the submitted questions for the GOP YouTube debate, and they and I were both struck by the tone of the questioners. So many of the clips featured people being major-league smart-alecks. Now, I have a long history of sarcastic wit, it probably is even genetic to a certain extent for me, so I can appreciate the approach (I have, however, sworn it off, but that is for another time and post).

The problem with sarcasm in adversarial relationships (and debate questioners are typically adversarial towards their targets) is that the sarcasm effectively ends communications. The target of such attitude would really like to propose a suitable destination for the attacker, who is themselves obviously looking for a fight. So, rather than doing anything to mitigate the dissension and find a place of conversation, the sarcasm guarantees that neither participant in the exchange is even vaguely open to communication. And both leave feeling that they got the better of the situation.

Personally, I would love to see a lot less attacking, fewer sound-bite arguments, and more open discussion of what we purport to be talking about. With all the sarcasm, there isn't much communicating going on right now.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Tragedy

I live in Phoenix. Today, two news helicopters collided in mid-air, killing the pilot and photographer in each aircraft. My prayers go out for each of the families. They were following a police chase of a stolen vehicle, and early reports are that there was some confusion as to which was above the other.

I am hoping that this will cure us of our morbid cultural fascination with these stupid car chases. Years ago the sports channels stopped broadcasting idiots who run onto the field of play during a game; I think a similar, self-imposed moratorium would be appropriate here.

In general, I would welcome a preference for facts over voyeurism in news coverage. I think this morbid fascination with the exciting is telling of the overall degradation of civility on our culture.

Or maybe I'm just a prude.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Blogging

I haven't posted in months. Many things are changing in my life, and I cannot any longer keep track of everything. As a result, I have let blogging slide, even though I enjoyed the expression immensely while I was doing it.

I'm back now. I do not think there is anyone reading me; but I am no longer writing to be read. I am writing to write. Hopefully, someone will read, but even if not, I still need to write. There is something visceral for me about expressing my thoughts. When I was teaching or pastoring, there was a natural outlet. Those things are gone for me for now, and I need to do this on this forum.

So if you're still out there, I welcome you to come back and get re-acquainted. I have placed my email address and real name on my profile, I would love to hear from you as well.

Until tomorrow.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Jerry Crawford

Jerry is (was?) an NBA referee. During a game last week, Crawford, known for having a short temper at times, gave Tim Duncan of the Spurs two technicals while sitting on the bench. If you know me, you know that I am a long-time Spurs fan. I know that Duncan is a bit of a complainer (but with the possible exception of Hakeem Olajuwon, every big man with a post game is), but two technicals for a guy who is sitting on the bench NOT saying a word to the official is a new on for me. The explanation Crawford gives is that Duncan, who was laughing it up with his teammates on the bench, was laughing at him for a series of bad calls. But no matter what the reason, Duncan was out, and the entire NBA world waited to see what the league would do.

Duncan got fined the characteristic $25,000. Crawford received an indefinite suspension, effectively ending his officiating career. Everyone was stunned. Crawford has been in the league 31 years, and his grandfather and father and one of his brothers (or some such combination) have been profession sports referees. Yes, Crawford has a temper, but this seemed a huge overreaction. Most everyone thinks that the punishment is not commensurate with the crime.

But I find myself wondering if maybe I don't know the whole story. Yes, the results to not seem in accordance with what I know. So I have two possible conclusions: either the league is overreacting, or I don't know the whole story.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Hypocrisy

I was listening to Dennis Prager a couple of days ago. He was interviewing Michael Rogers, a gay activist and journalist who aggressively "outs" politicians (especially those on the right) who are not supportive of gay rights in their public life. His purpose, he says, is to attack the hypocrisy of those who profess one thing but live another in their private lives.

Dennis spent a great deal of time trying to get Mr. Rogers to explain exactly what it is that most concerns him about politicians who privately practice homosexual behavior but who publicly oppose the lifestyle. In spite of continued questioning, the journalist refused to elaborate. He just kept coming back to the "great evil" of hypocrisy. At one point, Dennis asked him if there was any difference between a person who in private practices homosexual behavior but in public supports policies that are viewed as anti-gay, and the person who supports penalties for cheating but who is himself not always honest. Mr. Rogers was not willing to acknowledge that these are morally similar. I suspect that he did not want to make the admission because such hypocrisy is much more widespread, and to recognize any equivalence between the two hypocrisies would dilute his source of outrage.

And I got to thinking (how many times have I said that in this blog?). If hypocrisy is defined as behaving one way in private while being against such behavior in public then we are all guilty of hypocrisy. It is commonly recognized that people are often most adamant in their condemnation of behaviors that hit close to home. This has always been presented to me as a bad thing, but I wonder. Perhaps it is not that we are hypocrites as much as it is that we aspire to be better than we are; and we rightly recognize that many of our private behaviors are wrong. In a great many cases we even want to see them disappear from our own lives. During the time between recognizing our failures and overcoming them, we run the risk of being labeled hypocrite. But I do not think that it is hypocrisy to believe that everyone ought to behave better than we actually do. Do we not all agree that society would be better if everyone behaved better than they actually do. We cannot define socially-acceptable behavior based on what we do. This is the flaw of moral relativism.

But you don't have to be a relativist to make this mistake. The church also misses this distinction as well, expecting that those who lead will themselves not struggle with sin. Or at least not with any sin that the leader may condemn in public. With one exception, no one has risen to this standard of flawless behavior. The story of the Bible is one of deeply flawed people who manage to continue to follow God in the very midst of their flaws. In the New Testament Paul himself admits that his struggle with sin was ongoing and frustrating. I myself expect and desire that my behavior would always be more Christ-like and good than it actually is. But my sins are not any less wrong just because you or anyone else may struggle with them as well. And lately, I have learned that I have enough to do worrying about myself, and have little time remaining to worry about so-called "hypocrisy" in others.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The 2nd Amendment

I have been thinking lately, and have about come to the conclusion that the second amendment to the United States constitution is partially obsolete. The amendment states (in full):
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
Looking back at the writings of the early leaders of our government, you see that there are two purposes for this right. The first is to provide for powerful defense of our country in the event of war; the second is to allow the citizens the ability to protect themselves from the power of the federal government. As examples of the second, consider the following quotes:
Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed; as they are in almost every kingdom in Europe. The supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword; because the whole body of the people are armed, and constitute a force superior to any band of regular troops that can be, on any pretence, raised in the United States. A military force, at the command of Congress, can execute no laws, but such as the people perceive to be just and constitutional; for they will possess the power, and jealousy will instantly inspire the inclination, to resist the execution of a law which appears to them unjust and oppressive.

---Noah Webster, An Examination of the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution (Philadelphia 1787).
Clearly, Webster is arguing that an armed citizenry provides protection against the central government. Patrick Henry, at the Virginia ratifying convention, made the same point:
Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect every one who approaches that jewel. Unfortunately, nothing will preserve it but downright force. Whenever you give up that force, you are ruined.
The question I ask is: does anyone really believe that today, with modern military weaponry, that armed citizens possess any power to stand in the way of their government? Please know that I am not arguing for violent overthrow of the government, nor am I arguing for the repeal of the second amendment.

What I am saying is that we need to think carefully about what the second amendment does actually provide in this day and age. While defense against armed invasion remains a real benefit of an armed citizenry, the risk of actual invasion of our country is truly minimal. The ability to defend our personal property against criminal behavior, while very real, was not (to my reading) part of the original intent, and it is in many ways regulated by our government. Are we now left with a right without a purpose?

This matters because there is a very real push by many in our country to gut, if not downright repeal, the second amendment. Those who wish to defend it need be very clear exactly what it is that they are defending. We live in a society that does not by default accept the judgement of those long dead as sufficient reason for any action. The question now for those who defend the second amendment: what exactly are you defending? If you do not come up with an adequate answer, you are destined to lose.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Dawkins - Look Ma! No God!

Chapter four of The God Delusion gets to Dawkins' main point - why there almost certainly is no God.

Once again, he is all over the place in this chapter, throwing his logic in as many directions as possible, presumably hoping that some stick. I can only assume he is impressed by the force of his reasoning; I am not. Perhaps I will have a chance to comment specifically on some of these individual issues, but his primary argument (which does not consume the bulk of the chapter) is that if there is a creator-God, then he is most certainly exceedingly complex, as he must be able to devise and implement the amazingly complex universe that exists. However, any such being does not solve the problem of the existence of the universe, it simply pushes the question back one layer. That is, when believers invoke God as an explanation for the complexity of the universe Dawkins says we haven't explained anything.

Put more simply, Dawkins is arguing that you cannot bail on answering the question, "If God created everything, who created God?" Traditionally, believers have argued that God, being eternal, simply has no beginning. Dawkins doesn't buy it. The crux of his argument is that, while the universe is extremely improbable; it does you no good to solve it by assuming something even more improbable. And Dawkins finds the notion that there is a god extremely unlikely. It is to this issue that he devotes the bulk of the chapter.

But why is this so? Is God improbable just because Richard Dawkins finds Him so? The bulk of Dawkins' argument is that smart people don't believe in God. Really. He cites studies showing that there are only a small fraction of believers in Mensa; that there is an inverse relationship between IQ and religious faith; that the higher the scientific honor, the less likely the scientist is to believe in God. I am fairly certain that I could dismantle each of these studies if given the raw data - for example, the Mensa study. For those who don't know, Mensa is a society that has as its primary membership criterion an IQ above the genius level. Why might believers be less well-represented in Mensa than in the rest of American society? Could it be that believers of high IQ have better things to do than join Mensa? Could it be that the church provides a more comfortable community? Could it be that believers are just less likely to find meaning in measures of intelligence. I suspect that the relationship between IQ and faith is less dramatic than this study would indicate.

As an alternative to God; Dawkins resorts to two rather insubstantial arguments. First, he says (without elaboration) at least a dozen times in this chapter that natural selection explains everything. It is so consistently stated, it becomes almost a creed. But I have no more confidence in the truth of the proposition that natural selection can create highly unlikely structures than he has in the proposition that God did it. And Dawkins' assertions to the contrary, natural selection doesn't explain anything.

His second alternative to God is what is known as the anthropic principle. Put simply, the anthropic principle says that, no matter how unlikely it is that life should show up in the universe, it must have happened because we are here. Or, more basically, "I know it may be hard to believe, but this all just happened. We know this is true, because if it weren't, we wouldn't be here to know it". No mechanism is needed to explain how it happened; so you are free to pick the mechanism you want. Dawkins picks natural selection. I don't.

I do not have time to list his other points. Hopefully I will be able to address them in successive posts. But the breadth of Dawkins' misstatement of theistic positions is breathtaking. He has decided that there is no God, and that those who disagree are idiots. Interestingly, He himself quotes the verse which tells us that fool has said in his heart there is no God. He would just contend it is the other way. His arguments are not compelling.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Slavery and Virginia

So, Virginia has passed a resolution officially apologizing for slavery. I find it ironic on this day - when a movie about a man who devoted his life to pushing the legislature of the British Empire to make significant changes is playing around the country - that a group of legislators makes a meaningless symbolic act in an effort to demonstrate their leadership and compassion.

It takes no guts today to pass such a resolution in the United States; it takes brains and courage to do something that would actually have a positive effect on the oppressed in our nation today. Pity there are no men or women of vision and courage in the legislatures of our country today. I am certain that this resolution (and the similar one being considered in Missouri) will have a profoundly positive impact on the lives of those inner-city children being raised in fatherless homes, and one the lives of the thousands of young black men who turn to gangs and crime because they believe that there is no other option for them.

Well done.

Amazing Grace Movie

I went and saw the movie Amazing Grace this afternoon with my kids (as we walked up to the box office, my pastor and his family were there as well, so we all saw it together. But I digress.) Wilberforce has always been one of my heroes, not just because of his work to abolish the slave trade; but because he understood, as the movie makes so clear, that it is possible to serve God and change the world at the same time.

The movie was wonderful in every way. It started slow, as they attempt to establish the story. But soon I was engrossed in the telling of a story that I already knew. There have been a significant number of movies in the last couple of years that attempt to tell a story with which I was already familiar; and I have been disappointed in nearly all of them. The Lord of the Rings movies were the lone exception until today. The movie gave me an appreciation for the time Wilberforce devoted to his cause, and for the frustrations of his slow progress. The depth of the anguish suffered by John Newton (composer of the hymn Amazing Grace) is brought into stark reality in the movie. The acting is wonderful, the cinematography beautiful, and the storytelling magnificent. No matter what you believe about Christianity, I recommend this movie as the telling of the story of a true hero of the modern western world.

If you have children, know that there is a scene of animal cruelty at the beginning of the movie, and several tellings of the true fate of slaves that might be unnerving for smaller children. There are also a handful of profanities, all mild, except for 2 uses of the N word. Both are in context; but after all these years of avoiding the term in my own life, it was rather shocking to hear. Just caught me off guard, that is all.

The best line of the movie, for me as a believer, comes from the mouth of John Newton, when he says "This I know. I am a great sinner; and Christ is a great saviour." The line is historical, the truth is timeless.

Go see the movie. Now.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Dawkins - The God Hypothesis

Chapter 2 of Dawkins' book is devoted to the question of the reasonableness of what he calls The God Hypothesis (a phrase taken from LaPlace). The question he asks is simply this:
It is reasonable to assume that there exists a super-human, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us? (page 31)
He proceeds in the chapter to address a myriad of subjects, almost none of which is germane to his question. In fact, by the end of the chapter, he has made absolutely no progress in answering the question. Rather, he has regaled us with stories of atheist-phobic hicks, theologians who express offensive opinions and ill-advised studies of the efficacy of prayer. He has told us that Jefferson was an atheist who simply didn't know that it was a permissible opinion. He has mocked theists simply because they are theists, choosing only the most superficial arguments as the targets of his derision.

Finally, he concludes his narrative with an attempt to argue that because Stephen J. Gould wants the province of Science and Theology to be non-overlapping, then theists must accept this restriction. He does this in spite of the fact that the greatest theological thinkers have never made such an argument. He observes that some say that Science addresses the how of the universe and Theology the why. This seems to be an artificial distinction - useful at times, but hardly a general rule. Rather, I would state that Science and Theology can both offer their explanations for what we see around us - and may the best explanation win. Interestingly, Dawkins would undoubtedly accept such an offer; but he is already convinced that Theology has nothing to bring to that table, so there would be no competition. Unfortunately (for him and the book), he never gets around to actually making the case in this chapter.

What he does do is to state, over and over again, that Theology is of no value. He quotes all of his patron saints (Darwin, Jefferson, Einstein, Sagan, et. al.) over and over, as though the only thinkers in this age were men who questioned the existence of the God of Abraham. It is as if his argument is, "God must be a silly idea, because Jefferson (or Sagan, or whoever) says so". The chapter comes down to a "my experts can out-think your experts". And while he does quote a number of "theistic thinkers," he noticeably manages to avoid quoting anyone who thinks deeply about these issues (Ravi Zacharias, C. S. Lewis, and William Dembski come to mind). It then comes as no surprise that he sees no value in the thinking of theologians - those he mentions say nothing of value to me either.

I do not think that Dawkins' book begins well for him. To begin by setting up straw men and resorting to ad hominem attacks on one's opponents is to begin with nothing. A friend sent me a link to a review of the book by a thinking theist. I am going to avoid reading it until I have finished the book myself, but the introduction to the review notes that Dawkins spends much of his time making arguments that would make a first-year theology student wince; not because they are so devastating, but because they are so superficial. After chapter 3, it feels that way to me.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Richard Dawkins, part 1

I picked up Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion yesterday and began reading it. Dawkins is probably the best-known modern atheist, and this book is an evangelistic text for the cause of atheism. I bought it, not looking for a new belief system, but because I wanted to see what he had to say. It is my intention to comment on the book in my blog over the next couple of weeks as I read it.

I am certain that I will differ on much of what he says. However, in the first chapter he writes something with which I not only agree; but which has significantly helped me to understand where he is coming from. He writes:
The notion that religion is a proper field, in which one might claim expertise, is one that should not go unquestioned. [A] clergyman presumably would not have deferred to the expertise of a claimed 'fairyologist' on the exact shape and colour of fairy wings. (page 16)
This is a point which deserves consideration. If religious belief is no more significant than belief in fairies, then it is deserving of no more respect. Since he devotes the bulk of his book to demonstrating that religious belief systems are of little or no merit, I will set aside the assertion for now.

But independent of the accuracy of his contention, I cannot argue with the logic. And it helps me to understand better why so many people regard religious belief with disdain. You see, I not only hold to a particular belief system, but do so with all the intelligence I can muster. Because of this, I can hold open the possibility that religious belief is rational, even if I disagree with the particular belief. But Dawkins, and others who hold to a philosophical atheism, regard those same belief systems as wholly irrational, or in Dawkins' words, delusional. Thus, they need be given no consideration at all.

I disagree, but now I understand.

One more thing, Dawkins' logical applies across religious systems: if what I as a Christian believe is true, then all other religious systems are no better than fairyology. This calls the entire multi-cultural / religious freedom premise into question.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Evidence

One of the reasons why Science can't claim access to absolute truth is that deduction (drawing a conclusion from previously known facts) is very susceptible to what is called the expectational bias. That is, we look only at the evidence that supports the conclusion we expect to reach, ignoring the counter-examples. The most common example of this is the tendency of humans to only see the events that confirm their expectations. If I think that all Phoenix drivers are idiots when it rains (and they are), I will only tend to notice to poor drivers on a rainy day, effectively ignoring all the evidence (good drivers) that contradicts my perspective.

I got to thinking; expectational bias is probably why God placed such a severe penalty on prophets who predicted wrongly in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 18:22 prescribes death for a prophet whose prediction does not come true). Prophets in those days commanded a lot of attention and influence. Lower the threshold for that sort of power, and it is easily abused. So God chooses to draw attention to the counter-examples, raising the bar for the status of prophet, and protecting His people from abuse.

And there is, in my experience, a lot of abuse in churches when people are allowed to speak in the name of God. I am increasingly skeptical of anyone who would believe that they have heard from God on anyone's behalf but their own. Too often I see these people waltz in, pronounce their dictum from Sinai, and waltz out leaving tsunami-like damage in their wake (to mix at least 2 and possibly 3 metaphors). When confronted with their errors, they respond with disclaimers; but when correct, it simply bolsters their belief in their gift. I wonder if we would be so quick to speak in the name of God if He enforced the death-penalty in modern Charismatic churches.

I don't know how many readers I still have after my month off, but if there are any of you out there, I would challenge you to find for me even a single Scriptural basis for members of the church speaking from God into another person's life (what is sometimes called personal prophecy). I do not know of one, which makes me even more skeptical of the validity of this practice. If you know of one, I would be interested to hear.

Hmmmm. This could have been a part of my heresies series.

Heresies, part 3 (the Gospel)

Let me first acknowledge that a series with over 3 months between part 2 and part 3 does not actually count as a series. Nonetheless...

I find myself, as of late, questioning much of what I have thought about the gospel. Not the core stuff, not the truth that Jesus, as both God and man, came to earth to re-open relationship between God and man. Not that part. The other stuff. In particular the notion that we must present the event of Jesus' life, death and resurrection solely in terms of sin and forgiveness. This notion is so prevalent in evangelical circles (in which I have travelled my entire adult life) that it is seen as a cheapening of the gospel to address the felt needs of those in our culture. This is particularly true if that means the we don't get around to "You are a sinner destined for hell" before a person responds to the message.

The problem with this approach is the education required. You see, there is good evidence that modern American culture does not come with a built-in perception of sin. So before we can give someone the good news that Jesus died for their sins, we have to convince them of the bad news that they are sinners. I'm afraid that too often we have lost them before we ever had a chance to really touch them.

But what our culture is looking for is a sense of purpose, a sense of community, and a chance to meet God. These we have in the church as well. In fact, Paul spends much of his writings talking to people about building community and about living a life of purpose. I find myself wondering if we wouldn't be more effective in touching people's lives if we spoke to them about those things and let the Holy Spirit handle the awareness of sin part. Personally, I doubt that a person could enter a growing relationship with the God of the universe as related in the Scriptures without eventually coming to terms with the fact of their own sinfulness.

So it's not that I am looking for another way to God, maybe just another way to Jesus...

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Expectations

A very good friend of mine loaned me the DVD set for a TV series from the turn of the millennium. I am not going to tell you what the show was, in part because I do not want to spoil it for you should you ever watch it. And you should, because even though there is a good deal of sexual innuendo (and sometimes more than innuendo), it was an incredibly well-written show, and the characters were the kind you really want to pull for. Of course, this isn't much of an endorsement, since I'm not going to tell you what show it was.

When my friend loaned me the DVDs, he and his wife both told me that I would love the show but hate how it ended. It only ran for 2 years, and ended rather abruptly. I misunderstood what they were saying, and thought that the show ended on a very down note. So as I watched the show, I found that I had trouble enjoying the struggles through which the cast worked, assuming that it was all going to end very badly, and I was enduring a modern-day Greek tragedy.

But I was wrong. The show ends very positively, with the cast overcoming their struggles and building for future success. I loved this cast enough that I was tearful as I watched the ending. Tearful and stunned, because I expected tragedy. I found myself thinking, "I would have enjoyed that a lot more if I had known it was going to turn out OK."

Not the lesson I expected from a cancelled comedy. A good lesson, just unexpected. But the Bible says very clearly that our lives, as we walk in the relationship with God that Jesus' sacrifice has availed us of, turn out OK. No matter what the current struggles, this life is not a tragedy. He has promised in Romans 8, verses 28, 31, and 38, that He will bring triumph out of tragedy; that the looming disasters will not destroy us; and that the ending will make us cry with joy.

I would like to have that perspective during those times of my life when nothing seems to be going well. Perhaps, if I could grasp the truth of God's sovereignty over all, I would be able to enjoy, not just endure, every moment of my life, whether it appears to be destined for disaster or delight.

Monday, February 12, 2007

It's not fair! Emperor penguins get all the photos!

A friend sent me a link to this article on the disparity between the amount of attention that cute endangered species get as compared with ugly ones. My first reaction was "Duh!" but I thought I owed the writer, who is after all a professional journalist and paid for insightful, information-rich writing, to read the article and avail myself of their expertise.

Past research has shown that lack of human interest in an animal group can result in decreased funding for its protection.

Really?! That surprises me. Let me see if I understand: we human have all the money, but it took research to figure out that we only spend it on things we are interested in. Isn't that sort of the definition of interest? We spend money where we are interested. What's next? Research to determine that we only hang out with people we like? That we only engage in activities that we believe we will derive some benefit from?

Seriously, though, I find it very telling that our intellectuals no longer recognize that our interests must dominate our behavior. This is a central part of our freedom. I suspect that the same conservationists bemoaning the fact that we use our freedom to do whatever we want are the ones who argue that there is little or no significant difference between humans and other living species.

If that is so, let the ugly species get their own money.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Christian Art

Robin Parrish, who edits infuze magazine, has spent his last couple of editor's columns bemoaning the lack of quality art from the church. I feel his pain; I have found myself going to the recent flurry of movies produced by Christians with a great desire to see high quality. Unfortunately, I have been disappointed. Many of the films were above average, but in general they have not been superb.

I was thinking about this while reading the AFA Journal this morning. The AFA has for years been laboriously documenting the overwhelmingly negative attitude of Hollywood and TV towards anything Christian. This month, they have an article reviewing five movies either out, or just about out, that all have a decidedly Christian feel: Rocky Balboa, Amazing Grace, The Last Sin Eater, Thr3e, and The Goal. I haven't seen Rocky Balboa, I have seen Thr3e, and the other three are not out yet.

It is difficult to express how frustrating it was to read these reviews. For the most part, they focused on the negatives of the movies: the (relatively small) number of profanities, the lack of a complete telling of the gospel, and other elements. I find myself wanting to scream at someone, "Could you possibly just rejoice at the fact that there are 5 movies out that present Christian faith in a positive light!!!!" Sure, Rocky Balboa doesn't have a call to holiness in it, and the movie depicts faith in the context of making it through the hard times in life. But why is that bad? This is a major film from a major studio that presents faith as central to its main character's life. And this isn't just any character, Rocky is an American icon; as close to a cultural hero as we come in this country.

Just once, I would like to see these so-called defenders of American and Christian cultural sensitivity recognize that not everyone shares the purity of their vision. We live in a culture that is awash in vulgarity and profanity; and I for one appreciate the attempt to make a movie that shows that faith works in that world, not just the one inside the four walls of a modern evangelical church.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Poem of Your Life

An old song, from 1994. I have been on a bit of a retreat for the last week, with lots of time in my car. I pulled some music, and grabbed this CD by mistake. Not that I don't like it, I was just shooting for another one by Michael Card. Anyways, the album is called Poiema. The first song, titled The Poem of Your Life really struck me.

Life is a song we must sing with our days
A poem with meaning more than words can say
A painting with colors no rainbow can tell
A lyric that rhymes either heaven or hell.

We are living letters that doubt desecrates
We're the notes of the song of the chorus of faith
God shapes every second of our little lives
And minds every minute as the universe waits by.

The pain and the longing, the joy and the moments of light
Are the rhythm and rhyme, the free verse of the poem of life.

So look in the mirror and pray for the grace
To tear off the mask, see the art of your face.
And open your earlids to hear the sweet song
Of each moment that passes and pray to prolong
Your time in the ball of the dance of your days
The canvas of colors, of moments ablaze.
With all that is holy, with the joy and the strife
With the rhythm and rhyme of the poem of your life.

So I find myself wondering: do we live our lives too small? Do we allow everyday life to become mundane? Do we lose the reality that God Himself, the One who made and sustains us, the One who loves us to the point of His own pain, that He Himself shapes every second of our lives? Do we forget the truth that we live our lives in front of a crowd of witnesses, not jeering our failures, but cheering our success; pulling for us and rooting for us the way I do when my boys play games? Do we even remember that the angels themselves look with wonder on us as they see the magnificent love of God expressed in the lives of His redeemed children?

There is a point perhaps in understanding that this life is temporary, but not because it is unimportant. There is nothing unimportant about any of our lives - God has laid out for us a life that is to be a song, a poem, a painting.

My heart cries for this to be true. As I write, I ache for this to be a reality. I hope as you read you feel it as well. Tear off the mask, see the art of your face. Sing, dance, exalt in the poem of your life. It is why He made you.

A Wild Creator

I am reading a book titled Wild At Heart. In it the author makes the statement that our creation is wild, but good. He uses as examples the jungles of India with their tigers, the desert Southwest with its rattlesnakes. You could also look at the fearsome beauty of the Grand Canyon, where discovery always includes great risk. His point in the book is that God Himself loves adventure.

This got me to thinking. We assume that much of the risk in our world is a result of the fall: that tigers eat people because the world is broken. Many creationist theologians even argue that animal death is a result of the fall - that in Eden, there were no carnivorous animals.

But I wonder. If the image of a fierce and wonderful God that we see in Scripture is accurate, perhaps He made these things just so from the beginning. As Lewis says in Narnia, "He isn't safe, but He is good." I wonder sometimes if it wasn't always this way. He didn't make us, especially men, to look for safe. Perhaps the God who loves a good adventure built such a love into us as well, and made for us a world of adventure, not always safe, but definitely good.