Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Excellent Essay on Solitude and Leadership

I'll have to thank David Brooks for his "Sidney Awards" in the New York Times for this essay and the previously posted one. This is a speech given to West Point cadets on leadership and the importance of solitude. Important for teachers and learners of all stripes. I'm reminded of Jesus going away early to pray -- that's a piece I fit into the silences in this article.

Excellent Essay on Churchill

I got more out of this essay on Churchill than from a biography I read about 10 years ago that was hundreds of times as long.

One of my favorite paragraphs:

Churchill’s real legacy lies elsewhere. He is, with de Gaulle, the greatest instance in modern times of the romantic-conservative temperament in power. The curious thing is that this temperament can at moments be more practical than its liberal opposite, or than its pragmatic-conservative twin, since it rightly concedes the primacy of ideas and passions, rather than interests and practicalities, in men’s minds. Churchill was a student of history, but one whose reading allowed him to grasp when a new thing in history happened.

Is that why the "What's Wrong with Kansas" crowd are mistaken -- that ideas and passions more primary than interests and practicalities?

Read more at http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2010/08/30/100830crat_atlarge_gopnik#ixzz19RGS8N5B

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Van Gogh Island

This picture, from Nature's Images of the Year, reminds me of a song about a starry, starry night:

EARTH AS ART Greenish phytoplankton swirl in the water around Gotland, a Swedish island in the Baltic Sea. Originally taken in 2005 by the Landsat 7 satellite, this picture was recoloured by the US Geological Survey for its ‘Earth as art’ online exhibition this year.

Book Review: Shadowheart

I love it when a four-book series comes together.

Of course, with Tad Williams, there's rarely any doubt that it will come together in the end, just like there shouldn't be any doubt that the "third and final" book will grow so huge it'll spawn a fourth book. Williams always seems to have a good germ of an idea driving each of his big series that you don't really expect. He's matured in his craft with this series, although I still feel like many plot points are made just to tweak the legacy of Tolkien in certain areas: for example, all families are dysfunctional in some way so let's make the central family dysfunctional in some 21st-century way. In many cases it's a nice chance of pace but sometimes it just seems gratuitous, change for change's sake. But really, every author in this genre is forced to keep some orthdoxies while choosing certain heterodoxies, and which should be which is ultimately a matter of taste.

The one thing that bugs me about the series is its theology. It's a polytheistic universe with at least three major cultures. In fact, one of the most confusing things about the series is that the gods all have three different names and the myths are all slightly different, so it's very hard to keep track of when all you have are fragments in the first place. I like the concept and find it an interesting take on our three faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Unfortunately, the underlying reality of it all reads as poorly thought out. Williams seems interested only in the question of whether the gods are, or are not. Not to spoil too much, but it turns out the gods are (in a 21st-century kind of way, but really, they are). And pretty much this is the extent at which you're left at the end of the book (with some hints as to how gods, ahem, resolve conflicts, that is, fight). Only one god really speaks, although there are hints of others, and those hints may be my favorite part of the series, especially near the end. You know, if you're gonna be polytheistic, go and be polytheistic and show us what it's like and how it works. In this sense American Gods by Neil Gaiman still wins my award for "excellence in polytheology." Williams just isn't interested in that aspect of his universe, although it drives everything else, or maybe it got edited out.

Despite this, Williams puts on a writing clinic showing how to juggle at least a dozen different major characters and plotlines, and how to shift scenes and (mostly) keep the story moving. He introduces some good ambuguity and true tragedy into a genre that desperately needs it. This is undoubtedly the best-written of all his books, and it's as well-plotted as any.

I suppose it ends up a bit like LOST for me: excellent at juggling multiple lines and telling a story, but what story is being told ends up not being fleshed out as much as you want. Regardless, I'll happily take it.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Book Review: The Ghosts of Cannae

Military history always seems like it will be much more interesting than it turns out to be. This book by Robert L. O'Connell is better than average on those counts in that is was very interesting throughout. The topic is Hannibal and the battle of Cannae two centuries BC, and how it fits into the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage. Cannae itself is roughly at the center of the narrative and the author does a good job of covering most topics succinctly and going back far enough to show where the wars came from. (I had previously only read about the darkness of the Carthaginian religion from G.K. Chesterton, and I assumed he was exaggerating a bit, but no, he was spot on, maybe even a little understated given the recent evidence of infant sacrifice ... yikes.) Cannae itself is described excellently -- you can see not only why Hannibal was so smart but also why the Romans walked right into his trap, it's not just that they were stupid! The drawbacks are common to much popular history: there's a few sections where the history gets so complicated that it reads more like a list than a narrative; as a non-specialist I need either more storytelling or less detail. Also, the epilogue at the end about the future impact of Cannae is way too short. I'd like something along the lines of the ending to The Ghost Map in which the lessons are made immediate and relevant, but instead we just have six pages, most of which tell us how Cannae does not apply when people have said it does! Overall it's a good example of the genre and an excellent reminder of how history is done. I can't help but think there's a few more details about characters like Hannibal and Scipio Africanus that would tell the story that much better, details like Malcolm Gladwell might ferret out, but that's just saying it's a good book not a great one. Well worth the time.

In Memory of Herb Haugo: Math is Not Linear

Since my father-in-law (who recently passed on) was a math teacher, I thought of him when I saw this great presentation. I don't think he'd agree with everything in it, but it would definitely interest him, and it makes good use of the Prezi presentation platform for zooming in and out.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Eulogy for Herb Haugo

My father-in-law passed away on the first of the month. At his service I gave a short eulogy based on this text here:

Lilly Ann asked me to comment on Psalms 121 to 134, which were important to her and Herb in the last weeks of his life. These are the “Psalms of Ascent,” short poems that the Judaeans would sing as they took the long, hard pilgrimage to worship at the Temple on Mount Moriah. The first Psalm of Ascent begins by looking at the countryside that Herb loves so much and calling on the creator of the hills to be our personal help: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence comes my help. My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” (Psalms 121:1-2)

Herb was not walking to mount Moriah, but he was ascending to heaven. One of the main points of the book of Hebrews is that an earthly temple is no longer our destination; instead, God has better things waiting in heaven for us. This was Herb’s ascent. In Hebrews, our pilgrimage is to “a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made of hands … “ (Hebrews 9:11). The earthly Temple, the most beautiful building in the world, was but a “shadow of heavenly things” (Hebrews 8:5) and “a shadow of good things to come. “ (Hebrews 10:1) Herb had the faith to know he was on the road to the heavenly temple and his new heavenly body. Herb knows that the God of creation is the God of his help, the God of the new creation to come.

Paul also knew this. In 2 Corinthians, he encouraged a group of confused, sad, and imperfect Christians, reminding them that the power that created the world and raised Jesus from the dead is at work even in suffering, even as bodies and minds fall apart:

“For God, who commanded the light to shine out of the darkness, has shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; … Knowing that he which raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise UP US also by Jesus, and shall present us with you.” (2 Cor 4:6-8)

“For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, works for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal. For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. … For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality may be swallowed up of life.” (2 Cor 4:17-18; 5:1, 4)

Herb’s body in his casket was a shadow of his former self, but that is not him. Herb’s resurrection body will be so vivid and real that we will say Herb in his earthly prime was just a shadow of his true self. Herb knew this and I have to think that’s why the Psalms of Ascent spoke so clearly, describing the mountains and valleys of life, from the joy of family to the pain and fear of a broken world.

(We saw this combination of joy and sadness at work when, just a week ago Friday, we were able to bring Herb’s 12th grandchild and 7th grandson, Benjamin Arthur McFarland, just three days old, to spend a few short minutes in Herb’s arms before Herb continued upward.)

After surveying all of life, The Psalms of Ascent end with worship in Psalm 134: “Lift up your hands in the sanctuary, and bless the Lord.” (134:2) After 45 years worshiping with the choir here, Herb has climbed the mountain to the better tabernacle not made with hands, and now he is worshiping in a light that will never fade, the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Let us persevere as he did until we meet again.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Two Stories I Don't Want to Forget

1.) I had a student tell me that a biochem homework question -- about why emulsifiers are required to make mayonnaise that doesn't separate out -- actually helped him reason through why a peanut sauce he had made was separated out, and then he solved it by using biochemistry to add a little egg yolk as an emulsifier. Biochemistry is useful! (For peanut sauces at least.)

2.) The same student told me his dad was sitting on a plane next to a medical student from a big state university in the midwest, and they started talking about how his son was taking biochemistry, and the med student mentioned he was listening to some biochem lectures from iTunesU ... and turns out the med student was listening to my lectures! A good reminder that I have no idea what work the iTunesU lectures are doing while I'm otherwise occupied.

Now, I don't think this particular student who told me these stories was angling for a better grade on the final that I'm going to start grading any minute now ... but you gotta admit these are some good stories!

Book Review: The Best of Star Trek (Graphic Novel)

You know, this wasn't half bad. Since I don't have time to read entire Star Trek novels anymore, why not read the best of Star Trek comic books? (It helps that many of the same writers write for both.) The plot of a 2- or 3-book series is similar to the plot of a TV episode or novel, and sometimes just as creative. This graphic novel was as worth the time as a TV episode would have been, so I'd have to say it's all right. The thing is, only one of the stories was able to be read by my son who's been asking me for Star Trek stories, because the others were either too self-referential or too theological, perhaps better to say anti-theological, building too much on Arthur C. Clarke's "sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic" dictum/hokum. (Is that materialist holy scripture then?) In any case, it was diverting enough. High praise indeed.

Book Review: Christians Are Hate-filled Hypocrites-- and Other Lies You've Been Told

(You can tell my ambivalence from the frequency of "however"s below!)

The title of the book says it all. The thing is, the first chapter quotes Rodney Stark extensively and I kept thinking throughout that Stark would've done it better. However, I welcome actual data applied to actual problems however I can get it. I'm glad it's out there because many of the things the author discusses are cases where the media has distorted some sociological data. However, it just doesn't do enough to avoid being a disappointment. My favorite part of the book was actually a chart from a blog that shows conversion rates from one denomination to another, which tells me that 75% of evangelical youth remain evangelical when they grow up. If that stat surprises you (because many people who have youth-group seminars to sell trumpet stats that are much lower than that, probably to sell tickets to their seminars) then you may want to check out this book.

It also doesn't help that, you know, everyone's a hypocrite in one way or another, so the accusation that Christians are hypocrites doesn't surprise or shock me, or even strike me as needing defending. However, some of the other assertions -- like that church doesn't affect divore rate -- are rightly put to rest in this book. I just wish there had been more of a focus on that, rather than measuring "warmth of feeling" toward other groups in the last half, which I don't find particularly helpful. Oh well.

Book Review: Towers of Midnight

Robert Jordan started writing a gargantuan fantasy epic when I was in high school. Throughout college, graduate school, and academia, Jordan gave me 11 1000-page books taking place in his world. He promised he'd finish it all up with a twelth, and then he died. Humph.

However, Jordan prepared for this possibility by keeping copious notes and eventually his estate gave the project to another fantasy author, Brandon Sanderson, who promptly promised that there was no way all that plot could be fit into 1 book and that he would instead write 3 books to finish the series. Towers of Midnight is the second of the jointly authored trilogy, meaning there better actually be just one book left. The good news is all the threads seem to be weaving together and there very well may be an end to the story in sight.

Towers of Midnight moves along at a positively sprightly pace relative to some of the mid-to-late Jordan-written titles, although even so the beginning of the book felt a little padded. Many times character progressions are told to the reader rather than shown, and I have to think Jordan wouldn't have been quite so forthcoming -- it reads more like Jordan's notes than Jordan's writing sometime. However, my major reaction is a sigh of relief that this saga is finally wrapping up and Jordan's plans are being revealed. Sanderson is competent and that's all I need from this series right now.

In fact, there are a few scenes that are beyond competent and are some of my favorites of the series. For one, there's a place about two-thirds of the way through where three or four conflicts come to climactic fights all at once, and actually overlap and intersect. This is brilliant and one of the things that only a series of this complexity could do. There's another scene in which a magical artifact is used to look forward in time rather than backward, and it shows some very unhappy endings, with some of the most poignant and affecting writing in the series, even presented in a creative narrative fashion. Finally, there's a climactic scene that you know is coming through the whole book because it's on the cover (and it's been coming for about six books now, fer-petes-sake), and it is pretty much what I hoped for, with a very clever twist at the very end that everyone should have seen but no one did (kind of like LOST Season 6). Overall, as a fan but not a super-fan of the series, I'm glad it's continuing the way it is and am looking forward to more of this in book fourteen. Including the words "The End" at the end -- right?

Book Reviews: Best Gospel of John Commentaries

I have a pattern for teaching Sunday School classes now:
1.) Check out about 7 or 8 commentaries from the SPU library.
2.) Read/skim the first section of the most recent ones.
3.) Keep using the ones I find useful; don't use the ones I don't.

In this manner the 7 or 8 become 3 pretty fast, and that's usually more than enough information for each Sunday class. I taught a Gospel of John class from September to November this year and the winning commentaries were (in order in which I'd read them):

1.) N.T. Wright's John for Everyone (200something)
2.) G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson's Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (2007)
3.) Craig S. Keener's The Gospel of John: A Commentary (2003)
4.) D.A. Carsons's The Gospel According to John (1990)

With the exception being that often Keener would quote Carson and put him into context, so often I could stop with Keener, while agreeing with much of Carson's work.

I especially want to point out how great Keener's work was. Its deliberate focus was on the social and historical context of the Gospel of John, which means he would talk about how that language or official position or whatever was used in Greek and Roman contexts, as well as Second-Temple Jewish contexts, and even the post-biblical Rabbinic literature. For the historical perspective alone this was far and away the most comprehensive, and Keener had welcome pastoral and theological insights as well. I am thinking I may move on to the Gospel of Matthew just because Keener has written a commentary for that too!

The Abandoned Blog No Longer Abandoned

Sorry I've been gone so long. First it was the class on the Gospel of John I taught that took up all my reading time, then it was the birth of my 4th son, Benjamin Arthur McFarland, on November 23, and then the death of Benjamin's grandfather (my father-in-law) on December 1. All events that take precedence over blog maintenance. However, I just gave my biochem final today and that means the schedule has cleared up considerably. I'm going to post some quick book reviews and soon we should be back to regularly intermittent posting.