Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Book Review: What Americans Really Believe


This book is an interesting fast check out from the library. I can't recommend buying it, but I wouldn't have read it if it were any longer or denser (therefore, more "worth the money"). Stark is a sociologist who used to be at UW for three decades and then moved to Baylor. This is a summary of recent polls in which he has asked Americans what they believe about x, y, and z. He will often take a poll question that's been interpreted one way and ask those type of respondents a few more questions to show that the results were correct but the interpretation of the results was wrong. I get the feeling once in a while that if someone turned the tables and asked a few more questions of HIS respondents, maybe some of HIS conclusions would be reversed back! But this is a valuable antidote to some ossifying common wisdom.

One point is a piece of data I thought I quoted on this blog not long ago (but now can't find it, maybe I just thought about blogging it!), that upwards of 30% of Vermont residents claim no religion when asked, making them the "least religious" part of the US and overtaking the Pacific Northwest for that category. The headline on the story of course was that religion's on the decline and has been for decades (a common-sense datum repeated off-hand in a blog interview with the skeptic Penn Jillette recently). Stark goes back to the data and finds that, funny, atheism's holding steady at 5 percent or less of the population, so he asks the people who say they have no religion just what they believe. A minority are atheists, but some are just anti-organized religion people and many are "New Age" types (not sure what to call them these days?). They're just not claiming a religion but statistically they're just about as "spiritual" as any other group (not that there's anything wrong with that). So it's not that people are believing stuff less. If anything they're believing more -- too much!

The common-sense datum I got deflated in myself was the conviction that people who went to mega-churches would be less active in service than those who went to smaller churches. Nope, because mega-churches score high in every measurable quantity across the board, hours of service, agreement with doctrinal statements, and everything inbetween. The mega-churches apparently grow for some good reasons. As someone who's seen his congregation grow from a couple hundred per Sunday to about 1600 ... I guess I should stop carping about the "sit back and take it in" mode of big churches, because I guess by the statistics they're doing more right than the little ones. Huh.

So take this book, read it quickly, and find out which of your myths need to be punctured by a little data.

Discovery of the Month

It's hard to blog on the road especially when you have the compulsion to wring the experience out of every last minute when you go to a theme park. And you go to three theme parks. And you drive two days each way to get there. And you have a new class to teach that you have great ambitions for but don't want to overload the poor students with the professor's great ambitions!

So it was a good trip and well near a miracle that we could drive to California and back with a 6 1/2-year-old, a 5-year-old, and a 2-month-old. The secret? Lots of rest stops.

Oh, and the highlight of the trip was that Sam got to fight Darth Vader and Aidan got to fight Darth Maul. And Mom and Dad got pineapple Dole Whip and grilled asparagus-and-bacon skewers. Disneyland is indeed where dreams come true.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

One Picture Before Tuning Out for a Fortnight

I'm going to be out of town for a little while but I just found this picture on my computer as I'm preparing to leave the office. It's the Daley Center in Chicago (as seen at the end of the Blues Brothers) with the windows done up like a periodic table as Picasso's sculpture looks on. Enjoy!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Book Review: Galatians and 1 and 2 Thessalonians

Here's another of my thoughts upon finishing one of NT Wright's Paul for Everyone commentaries.

The concept of family stands out when these three books are put together. Families are the units in which meals and finances are shared, where the main commandment is love, and where you don't put superficial or physical requirements on those who wish to enter, where you welcome the weak. Paul's message to these new Christians is that they've been welcomed into a family and it's time to live like one.

As someone who's been accepted into an academic "family" of sorts with the recent tenure decision, this angle of these books would stand out, now, wouldn't it? Of course, the process of getting tenure requires a certain "salvation of works" that is not really part of being a Christian ...
Some of my thoughts on Galatians show up in the previous post "A Natural Theology of Sin." Specifically it's Paul's shocking (for a former Pharisee at least) argument that the Torah had become an idol, and that God's plan was for the non-Jews as well as the Jews, not through Israel anymore but through Israel's real Messiah. Jesus' impact was so decisive that non-Jews didn't even have to look like Jews anymore, in any way that was a physical or cultural "badge" of being special or marked out from the others ... but they did have to act like Jews in relationships and behavior and morality and (as Jesus extended in the Sermon on the Mount) thoughts. This line between casting off Jewish "clothes" but retaining Jewish actions is present in all three letters.

It is a case of losing the nouns and keeping the verbs?* I'm just thinking that way because a few hours ago I was telling my biochemists in preparing for the final to focus on the VERBS, the actions that were happening, and not necessarily the convoluted and sometimes-too-specific NOUNS. I'll take that for now, though I'm sure there are some flaws in such a broad metaphor!

* Yes, yes, if you start thinking of that old DC Talk song I understand.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Book Review: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher

In a nutshell: This is a real-life murder mystery from the 1800's. Not as good as the over-the-top reviews make it out to be, but still worth it for the first and third "acts" (about 100 pages each). The middle 100 pages draaaags. It drags because the history itself drags as the investigation gets bogged down and stalls, but still, I didn't need to feel the frustration of the bogging-down process myself!

A surprising guest appearance in the third act from Thomas Huxley (Darwin's bulldog). It doesn't give anything away to say this, but the old saying is true: The author suspects "the scientist did it." (Not Huxley but the person he knew!) I don't know that I agree ... a scientist's output is so vast (and the conflicts in a scientist's life happen so frequently!) that you can glean quotes here and there that could lead to anything. However, I have to say her theory probably makes the most sense of anything, given the facts in this case. I'm left with reasonable doubt.

So, as a real mystery with real implications in which you can "play along," there's really not many other books like this one. Just don't feel bad skimming the middle 100 pages.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Natural Theology of Sin

I was reading this article by George Murphy when something clicked for me. Even since reading background on Paul's letters I've been thinking about idolatry and trying to make the leap of connecting the Roman idolatry that Paul argued against to the modern forms of idolatry. Really, it's about a definition of sin at its heart. Murphy's article is about applying the ideas of atonement to a world created by God as revealed through science. Murphy does a masterful job of quoting Scripture, early church writings, creeds, and integrating it all with a current understanding of origins.

The key sentence for me was this: "The basic human problem here is that, after humans had been created and given the chance for participation in the life of God, their choice of sin set them on the way back to nonbeing. Athanasius [early church father] argues that humanity was safe from dissolution and non-existence only through participation in the Logos [the Word of God/Jesus], and thus could be saved only by virtue of the re-creative work of the Logos."

That's what sin is, and it's why idolatry is such a problem. Idolatry, worshiping the wrong thing, drags you step by step toward being an animal, toward unconsciousness. Think about the "two masters"-type sayings from the Bible, and how idolatry eventually controls you, turns you into an addict of some sort. What sin does to you is it gradually erodes your own consciousness. You become like what you worship. You "devolve" into an animal, a robot, away from free will. Your own self-awareness is subsumed by the false god of desire that you pursue.

What Jesus did on the cross and what God did on Easter was to show us a new way and new creation, the way of being fully human and depending on God's new creation to set things right. Worship me, God says, know that my character is best shown in what Jesus did and said, and I will give you the freedom of full consciousness. Trust Me, take up your own cross and you will find that you are less of an animal, more of a human.

What's so insidious about idolatry is that anything, anything at all, can become an idol. Paul argued in Galatians and other letters that the Torah itself had become an idol to 1st-century Pharisees, so that even the good thing that is the Ten Commandments, when it became worshipped, blocked the way to understanding that imitating Jesus was the way to live.

Science can be an idol. Theology can be an idol. Tolerance can be an idol. Judgement can be an idol. A version of Jesus that omits the cross can become an idol. Information can be an idol. The internet can become an idol. Jesus came to show us the way past all this.

The hard part? The path goes through the cross. The good news? It's God's grace and power as creator, demonstrated physically on Easter Sunday, that makes any of this new creation possible.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Crisis of Credit Visualized

Here's a great animation (about 10 minutes long) describing how the current economic problems got started. Even if you already know most of the story, the way they draw it will tell you a lot about how good teaching works!

The only part I think is missing is the extreme overwillingness of the credit rating agencies to stamp everything as AAA due to their own lack of independence.

The Crisis of Credit Visualized from Jonathan Jarvis on Vimeo.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Over-Use of the Important Flag (!)

Since Friday afternoon I have received four e-mail messages flagged "Important" with the little red exclamation point by the sender. On the one hand, it's good to know that my email is indeed important and not an inconsequential, nihilistic blip. On the other hand, after a certain amount of time I'm sure an arms race will evolve, with TWO exclamation points for the truly important emails, then THREE, then FOUR with a little animated red flame background, then FIFTEEN ...

Sometimes all this importance just gets to me!


Friday, March 6, 2009

Martian Methane


The above image shows methane plumes detected on Mars. That doesn't sound that interesting until you put it together with the fact that more than 90% of methane around us is biological. Only minor geological or inorganic sources for methane are known. And the plumes are biggest in the summer, when microbes would be photosynthesizing on solar power. (Or maybe it's a geological process driven by the sun?)

Could this be the sign of microbes on Mars? Keep in mind that there's significant exchange of rocks between ourselves and Mars, and maybe some spore or something got ejected, floated over, and took hold.

Not to mention, the methane goes away quickly, and we're not sure how the methane could be oxidized that quickly. Mystery upon mystery.

Whatever it is, unless we can come up with a convincing non-biological explanation for it (and its timing), it's a interesting sign. I'd love to study martian biochemistry.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Babies > Network TV

So the cable bill keeps going up and it turns out I have a better option already in house:

"Other anthropologists have made the startling discovery that children have entertainment value, and that among traditional cultures without television or Internet access, a bobble-headed baby is the best show in town."

Gives the phrase "watching the baby" a whole new meaning.

Also in the same article, a scene that could have been from my house this weekend (the human scene, NOT the initial chimp scene!):

"Dr. Hrdy points out that mother chimpanzees and gorillas jealously hold on to their infants for the first six months or more of life. Other females may express real interest in the newborn, but the mother does not let go: you never know when one of those females will turn infanticidal, or be unwilling or unable to defend the young ape against an infanticidal male. By contrast, human mothers in virtually every culture studied allow others to hold their babies from birth onward, to a greater or lesser extent depending on tradition. Among the !Kung foragers of the Kalahari, babies are held by a father, grandmother, older sibling or some other allomother maybe 25 percent of the time. Among the Efe foragers of Central Africa, babies spend 60 percent of their daylight hours being toted around by somebody other than their mother. In 87 percent of foraging societies, mothers sometimes suckle each other’s children, another remarkable display of social trust."

Yes, I had lots of family over this weekend and for a time I forgot I had a baby. (Now I know Laurie's itching to comment on that last remark!)

(Read the whole article at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/03/science/03angi.html.)

What I like about this work is it makes the point that warfare, survival and big brains are not all there is to what makes us human. There's also trust, motherhood, and childlikeness. To enter the kingdom we'll have to have the latter set of characteristics, not the former.