Friday, February 29, 2008

Happy Leap Day

It feels like leap day never happens anymore, but that's probably because of the whole "skip leap day in 2000" thing. Thanks to Julius and Gregory for calibrating our calendar with the Sun. I'm going to go tell my students that this means they have a whole extra day to devote to research!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Three-Year-Old Description of Star Wars in 90 Seconds

I just found this very funny video of a three-year-old girl explaining the plot of Star Wars. Star Wars fans, you know who you are. Check it out.

Since I can't get the video to work easily, I'm just going to post the link:

Saturday, February 23, 2008

It's Only a Blood Moon

We had a total lunar eclipse last Wednesday, which I was able to watch between lab section and choir practice. Even at the beginning and end, when there was just a small slice of shadow on the moon, it was weird, because the shadow was on the wrong direction -- the moon might usually be that shape, but it was turned the wrong way. I could imagine how if you didn't know it's just shadows and light, you'd be pretty freaked out by the whole thing. Even fireworks are scary if you don't know they're only pointing up.
Then, as the eclipse intensified, it got freakier as the moon became dark red. The part that doesn't come across in pictures is just how dark and just how red it is. It's a velvet-type red, halfway to black, that's dim and dusky. It's a deep color that tells of deep things, and it really is the color of blood, another deep thing. Sunsets may be the color of fire, but lunar eclipses are the color of blood.
Which made two prophetic passages come to mind: Joel (quoted by Acts) and Revelation, both about the moon turning to blood before the day God comes to sets things right. This language must have been inspired by the lunar eclipse. Of course the transformation is not literal -- that's the point with prophetic language. But the image and the day it presages are still very real. Once in a while the moon does turn to blood to show us that God is still near.

Monday, February 18, 2008

On the Eighth Day

It was very early on the first day of the week and still dark, when Mary of Magdala came to the tomb.

Did you catch that? It was Sunday. This wasn't church day back then (yet), but it was first day of the workweek. To them, it was "Monday." John is making a point here, a point that has to do with Creation Week itself. He's saying the counter is starting over. We have moved into a New Creation, a new week of possibility opened by the creator himself. It's the first day again.

She saw that the stone had been moved away from the tomb and came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved. 'They have taken the Lord out of the tomb,' she said, 'and we don't know where they have put him.' ...

In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, ....

Did you catch that again? This isn't just "any Monday" for St. John. It's THE first day all over again. It's the Eighth Day of Creation. The Creator is moving and is stepping into creation. This may seem redundant but if it's important enough for John to repeat I figure I should repeat it 7 or 8 times.

Let's finish out the scene for one more hint.

... the doors were closed in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews. Jesus came and stood among them. He said to them, 'Peace be with you,' and, after saying this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples were filled with joy at seeing the Lord, and he said to them again, 'Peace be with you. 'As the Father sent me, so am I sending you.' After saying this he breathed on them and said: Receive the Holy Spirit.
In Genesis 2, the breath of God entered Adam and he became a living soul. Now the Creator was breathing again, and the disciples were receiving the Holy Spirit. Creation continued anew, with the same Creator moving and breathing and bringing life.
Right after this is the story of Thomas, which is a story of faith as much as it is of doubt. After all, Thomas demands evidence of the resurrection, and demands that it come to him. God gives him his request, but when the chance comes he is the first to call Jesus "my Lord and my God." This man whose body stands before him is also God, and is making all things new, starting with Thomas' own heart. Aidan, as you know, we gave you Thomas as your second name, in part because of this story (also Thomas More and Thomas Beckett and a few others!).
Let there be light. Let there be science. Let there be art. Let there be healing. Let new creation happen in his name.
One thing science-types like me are guilty of losing sight of when we spend so much time talking about creation is that we don't talk about our belief in new creation at the same time. While interpreting Genesis 1 is important, I think interpreting John 20 and Matthew 28 and Mark 16 and Luke 24 and 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 8, that's even more important. That's why this series needs an eighth day, and the Gospel of John gives the clear Biblical basis for saying so. I think all of these chapters, with far more words than Genesis 1, are records or eyewitness accounts of a singular, unrepeatable event that gave impetus to the extreme energy of the early church. To be a little facile, they're journal articles by different researchers on an experiment done by the Creator, an experiment done once that changed the world.
If it's unscientific of me to believe that, then it's also unscientific of me to study history and come to conclusions about anything happening that I haven't personally seen or controlled myself. In the resurrection I see God stepping into history to transform it in such a way that those who witnessed it were themselves changed. There were no disinterested observors of the event because there could be none -- one look turned Thomas from skeptic into theologian.
So on the eighth day God was active, and he presaged an event that He will carry out for everyone at a time of his choosing. In that light Christians have no choice but to live for that day by doing everything in light of that day.
If anyone is in Christ -- new creation. Eventually all will be healed -- so I'll start by trying to heal now. Eventually I will know as I am known -- so I'll work toward that now, because I know that those good things will persist into the Age to Come.
If anyone is in Christ -- new creation. J.R.R. Tolkien did an act of "subcreation" in making Middle Earth because he intuitively understood that in doing so, he was following Jesus. Each of us has to find the niche of subcreation the Creator has assigned.
In anyone is in Christ -- new creation. You become a new Little Big Bang, a cornucopia of blessing, and you can extend this goodness back into a warped and fallen creation, remaking and renewing it. This is the challenge for scientists, to redeem the world, knowing that we'll mess it up but hoping that grace will be there to help us get it right once in a while. It's neither the hubris or the fear that you see in popular accounts of science like Jurassic Park. Rather, it's a specific job, with limited reach, good days and bad days, with the potential to hurt if misused but the potential to heal if used right.
God is not a passive God doing untraceable and unexplainable creation events 5000 years ago, but God is an active Creator who steps into his own story and writes in a real-life Return of the King halfway through history. The Resurrection means the veil is rent and God is revealed as a first-century rabbi. God chose to be trapped for all time in that mode. He did not choose to be trapped in the gaps of creation, which we find as we watch those gaps get narrower each day. Every new finding about the relatedness of creation connects it all the more, but you must not forget that the same science that leads you to Descent with Modification also leads you to the crystal clear creation event that is the Big Bang. God has not carved his name on the moon, nor in the DNA or gaps between different species' proteins, but He has chosen to be trapped in history in other ways:
1.) The Big Bang singularity (the Father's hand?)
2.) The person of Jesus and the historical event of the resurrection
3.) The continuing work of the Spirit, seen clearly in the history of the early church
4.) The image of God in you, which is your sense of self and non-transferrable consciousness, represented by your name (see Day 6)
[For more on point 2 and why I'm so unreasonably confident in labeling the Resurrection as history, I highly suggest reading NT Wright's 800-page behemoth of a book, The Resurrection of the Son of God, which is far more readable than any 800-page book has any right to be.]
Those four items above are why I believe in God, and I think they are the most important things to pass on to you, my two sons. If you've gotten this far, Sam and Aidan, congratulations, this is all for you.
The event of the resurrection is also the only reasonable explanation I have found for how, two thousand years ago, there was a man (probably Jewish) who looked at the life of the man Jesus and started to write about him as the Creator of the universe, something no Jew and indeed no human would have done without an earth-shattering event observed first hand. Because John had seen and touched the living body of Christ, he knew the creator was once again moving, and was moving in the pattern shown by Jesus. So he took up his pen and wrote:
In the beginning was the Word / and the Word was with God / and the Word was God / He was in the beginning with God / All things were made through Him / and without Him nothing was made that was made / In Him was life / and the life was the light of men.
Sam, Aidan, I pray that God will show you how he wants you to take part in the grand symphony He wrote. You can be part of it. You can let there be light.
There was morning light into the empty tomb. The eighth day of creation was begun, and it continues to this day.
Love, Dad
PS: Thank you to all (both?) of my readers. Please let me know what you think of all this if you ever get the chance.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

On the Seventh Day: Bless You

Thus the heavens and the earth / and all the host of them / were finished / and on the seventh day God ended His work / which He had done / and He rested on the seventh day from all His work / which He had done / Then God blessed the seventh day / and sanctified it / because in it He rested / from all His work / which God had created and made.

Suddenly we have a lot of words to say (and repeat) that after six days God was done and He rested. Just like He set limits on the extent of the oceans earlier in the week, here God sets limits on Himself, and calls us to follow suit.

Most Sabbath sermons make the valid point that we should do less, turn things off, spend time with the family. What's ironic is these injuctions by definition are coming from someone who is, in fact, working and earning a paycheck by telling you to rest. As a family member of someone who's paid by the church (if only part-time), I've thought about the concept of the "mobile Sabbath" a bit. Maybe we Protestants could turn Saturday back into a work Sabbath and Sunday into a worship Sabbath?

To extend on the point that body, soul, and spirit are intertwined, I'd like to recall a quote from Oswald Chambers who says that waiting, worship, and work are intertwined. The categories are fluid and when worship and work are combined, we have to make room for rest in other ways. Being able to rest means you can give to others, which recalls another old saying, that "The seventh day receives from all others, blesses all others." It's a good thing to rest.
It's hard to rest when voices tell you that you should be making proteins right now, or reading papers right now, or working on lesson plans right now. It's hard to work ahead so that you can rest and aren't scrambling to do those things at the last minute. But it is a blessing when you do.
There is one way in which we get Sabbath wrong. In Jesus' time (and remember, this is when certain political factions got really bent out of shape if you didn't keep the Sabbath right), they actually did MORE on the Sabbath in one area than we do. They wouldn't cook or walk too far or heal somebody, but they would use the time to study Torah. They would read it as a family, memorize it on their own, argue its interpretation, all sorts of things that we would consider work but they would say "It's what the Sabbath is for."
So if they considered it appropriate for the Sabbath, why don't we? A lot of churches are toning down classes and education on Sundays because it cuts into family time. But the Sabbath is for study, resting and learning about God at the same time. Churches who cut back on Sunday School so that people can spend more time with their families are actually not following a Biblical or historical model. It may sound good, but it's along the lines of "Why are you spilling all that perfume on the floor? You could sell it and give the money to the poor!" One way or the other, we need to make time to learn as a family on the Sabbath.
And of course to make time for the divinely ordained New York Times Crossword Puzzle. Although that may provoke as many curses as it does blessings.

As we study we tell each other a story that continues for another 1188 chapters, of how this good creation was pretty much immediately marred by a choice made by a brand-new man and woman. This curse extended through all creation, who knows, maybe even through all time. Judgment of complete destruction couldn't work. Within a few chapters we zoom in on one old man whose father recently died, who's told to move everything and does. He's told to give up his son and does, then is stopped at the last minute. He has decendents who move to Egypt, become enslaved, and are brought out of Egypt by a series of extraordinary events. They take over a land and set up kings, but they keep worshipping the wrong things and eventually their small nation is piecemeal destroyed. Somehow it survives as an alien religion in a foreign land, mocked but growing. Prophets tell the kings and the exiles that one day God will make it right. They get relocated back to their old land, but are always under the thumb of someone: first Babylonians, then Greeks, then Romans. They even have a king but a king that is more "visitors team" than "home team." Through this time they wait for independence, trying from time to time to force it and always getting crushed back by Roman efficiency and ruthlessness.
Then a star appears. A teacher who insists on refusing to fight nonetheless stands up to the Romans. He stands up to everyone in power. And he gets killed for it in typical Roman fashion. Then he is laid in a tomb.
And on Saturday, the seventh day of the week, his body rests in the darkness of the grave, like a spirit hovering over the surface of waters.
It was evening, and it was morning. The seventh day was done.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

On the Sixth Day: Milk, Tools, and Questions

Then God said / “Let the earth bring forth the living creature / according to its kind / cattle and creeping thing and beast of the earth / each according to its kind” / and it was so / And God made the beast of the earth according to its kind / cattle according to its kind / and everything that creeps on the earth according to its kind / And God saw that it was good.
Within the past 10,000 or so years, a new force has been shaping evolution. We can find the evidence for it in our genes. One example is the gene for the enzyme that cuts milk sugar (lactate) down into simpler sugars for digestion. We have it when we're babies and we live off milk, but we don't need it when we're adults (sometimes it feels like you may need a milkshake, but trust me, you can get the physical support you need from bread alone). So, our bodies being efficient, we tend to turn the gene off -- unless we keep driking milk when we're older, and then it's beneficial to keep it on.

We can find the mutation in our DNA that turns off this enzyme and measure how long ago it happened. It happened about 5-7,000 years ago or so. So somewhere around that time, northern Europeans and Africans domesticated cows and lived off their milk, making the mutation that keeps the enzyme "turned on" that much more helpful -- and that mutation happened in two slightly different waus in the two different places. That new force is us, taking creation and twisting it by our very presence the way a massive star twists the space around it.

Note A: in geological/cosmological terms, 10,000 years is a hiccup, a twinkling of an eye. It's like this just happened, oh, I don't know, a day ago.

Note B: the sixth-day animals are land animals and seem to be anthropocentric, that is, focused on the animals most important to us. The focus is tightening in for this creation narrative and is focusing on its ultimate result: homo sapiens.

Then God said / “Let Us make man in Our image / according to Our likeness / let them have dominion over the fish of the sea / over the birds of the air / and over the cattle / over all the earth and over / every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” / So God created man in His own image / in the image of God He created him / male and female He created them.

If you walk around some parts of Africa, you might accidentally trip on a sharp-edged rock. There's some areas where they are scattered around like fruit that fell from some ancient tree. You can pick it up and look at it closely. It will fit solidly in your hand. Looking closely at it you'll notice its sharp edges were chipped off, in directions that clearly suggest intentionality. What you're holding is an ancient hand axe. Some places have so many of them it's hard to imagine they were strictly speaking all necessary. Rather, they may have been made for the sheer joy of it. Perhaps an ancient Jay Leno type collected dozens of them in a "garage" structure somewhere?

These tools are the world literally shaped by someone, the first really artificial things you can find. It's not far from these chipped rocks to Mount Rushmore. What they tell me is that the humans who made them are different, and recent. They changed the world when they appeared.

It's a fun exercise to compare humans to other primates and try to see what makes us different, because these differences must somehow add up to be the image of God. Which matter, which don't? I don't know, and in this area of science particularly, political rivalries and jumping to conclusions runs rampant. I have more questions than answers here. So here they are:

1.) Bipedalism: To walk on two feet, the pelvis must hold a load in a new way, and must narrow so that there's only a small opening for the baby's head. Is bipedalism Eve's curse?

2.) Health care: Near Lake Turkana in Kenya, hominid bones have been found that show unmistakeable evidence of too much vitamin A, something that happens when a person lives off a completely carnivorous diet. What's really interesting about these bones is that the growths on them are huge, far beyond the point where the person who had them would have been able to be useful or functional for hunting or gathering. So someone took care of this person and tended him or her for weeks, maybe months. Is this something verging on selfless love?

3.) Neanderthals: What the heck were they? I like this quote out of Bill Bryson's book: "The one certainty is we are here now and they aren't." See other posts about how they may have had red hair: and they may have even made music. They're as mysterious as, oh, again, I don't know, the "sons of God" of Genesis 8. Is that an ancient memory of competition between populations?

4.) Human genetic similarity: There is more genetic variation between 55 chimpanzees than there is in the entire human population. Now, as we learn more about how DNA works, this number may change a little, but at least by one measure, 5 billion people are more alike than 50 chimps on the DNA level. We really are that similar to each other. If that's so, what's the force that keeps us trying to kill each other in new ways? Could Cain and Abel be a paradigm for our fallen world?

5.) Words: We can talk, apes can't. This entire eight-day letter is a string of 26 symbols that (hopefully) bring meaning from my brain to yours. That's amazingly powerful. Over a few thousand years, people have used similar symbols to put ideas together, and we're told that God breathes life into those words and preserves them for us. Not only that, but God put on carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen atoms and walked among us. What weapon was his choice for his one and only life? The sword coming out of his mouth -- his words.

Now, the Kingdom of God is not just words, but power breathed into those words by the same Spirit that created the world. They are words that match reality because of that. My understanding of how they match reality is in this letter, and probably a third of it is wrong. (I'd be happy if only a third of it were wrong!) But it's the best I can do right now, looking at everything I can.

How does this all add up? We're told in Genesis 2 that God breathed into a man named Adam and he became a living soul. Not he got a soul, but he became one. To use a computer metaphor, God put some software into Adam's hardware (and he can upload that software again when he wishes). But the hardware and software are part of the same system: body, soul, and spirit are intertwined. Something that affects the molecules of my body has an impact on my soul.

I am a machine, and I spend most of my hours trying to understand how that machine works. But I know there's more than that to me, that there's a consciousness that sums up reality and allows me to look out and think about it. This consciousness as far as I know is not transferrable by any scientific device, and can't be captured or replicated. My own self-awareness is unique. Science has a hard time dealing with that, and the only way that I think it could would be if it could transfer consciousness, and I'd only believe it if I could experience that for myself. (That's quite a risky experiment, because if your self-awareness doesn't truly transfer, the only person who'd necessarily know would be YOU!) I don't think that's going to happen using a device, ever. But that's my own theory of consciousness.

So learn all you want about neurons, how they can mirror other people, how if they get damaged, the person inside them gets damaged, even about fascinating experiments like how firing certain ones of them can induce an out-of-body experience. Just don't assume that if you recreate the neurons you recreate the exact same self-awareness. Even if we could recreate the neurons, it would be a different person, just like identical twins with identical DNA are different people.

To represent this uniqueness, when you two boys were born, we gave you each your own names, Sam and Aidan. They are your possessions. Take good care of them.

This letter is only words, but in the end, that's what we have: words. And some words will endure forever. We need to align our words with His creative words, and His creation. Investigating it with science is one way to learn how to understand it, and how to take care of it. If you love the creator, love and care for his creation as well. That's how I interpret the end of this passage.

Then God blessed them / and God said to them / “Be fruitful and multiply / fill the earth and subdue it / have dominion over the fish of the sea / over the birds of the air / and over every living thing that moves on the earth” / And God said / “See, I have given you every herb that yields seed / which is on the face of all the earth / and every tree whose fruit yields seed / to you it shall be for food / Also, to every beast of the earth / to every bird of the air / and to everything that creeps on the earth / in which there is life / I have given every green herb for food” / and it was so / Then God saw everything that He had made / and indeed / it was very good / So the evening and the morning were the sixth day.
In the face of any questions, don't forget that it was VERY good. It's been messed up, but it will be corrected, any day now. The creator is still around.

It was evening, and it was morning. The sixth day was done.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Getting More LOST

Finally, the director-studio agreement led to a writer-studio agreement, and my favorite TV show will (probably) get more episodes this season. According to the E! website:

"What We're Hearing: Lost's actors are on standby, and the show is expected to produce more episodes this season. Fingers crossed! The bigger question is who'll keep the golden Thursday at 9 p.m. time slot once those Seattle Grace docs also return...How 'bout we put Sawyer and McDreamy in a cage and let 'em duke it out? ('Cause we know who'd win...)"

Yes! Here's to 8 more episodes as originally planned, but I will take whatever I can get. Episode 1 was what I expected, but Episode 2 was better and the show seems to be picking up speed.

Very mild spoiler alert: I just have to point out that new characters were introduced this season, and I ain't saying more than just to tell you one of the character's names was "Charlotte Staples Lewis." GET IT? C. S. ...

This kind of name is not unusual for the show, since we have other characters named Rosseau, John Locke, Edmund Burke, a scientist named Faraday, etc. It's one of the things that makes the show so resonant on multiple levels.

I love that show. Proud to be a fanboy. And I have my own special pet theory about the "Adam and Eve" skeletons, but we'll see if I'm right or not ...