Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Book Review: Saving the Appearances

The Owen Barfield Reading Tour continues. Saving the Appearances was a bit more uncomfortable for me to read than Poetic Diction, which had been written by Barfield about a quarter century before. It's a smidgen less pithy than Poetic Diction and lost me in abstract terms a few times -- something that never happened in Poetic Diction -- but if I want to be honest, the reason Saving the Appearances made me uncomfortable is that in it, Barfield goes after science. Well, "goes after" is a little too harsh, because Barfield is not suggesting a return to Medeival non-science -- he's suggesting going forward from what he terms the "idolatry" of materialism and scientism. He does it with the same dense but clear style that was such a revelation to me in Poetic Diction, and my goodness, I used to think some writers made me think but Barfield leaves everyone else in the dust for making you THINK. I spent as much time staring off into space processing what I just read as I did actually reading.

I'm going to have a bunch of quotes coming up to show you exactly what I mean by all this, but for now, my recommendation is to definitely read Poetic Diction first, but then read this one. At the end of the book Barfield finally gets specific about Christianity and he just rattles off fascinating paragraphs about topics I've spent years thinking about -- the creation of Adam, how to take the Eucharist, etc. -- and in each case he says something I've never really heard before (although I hear echoes of these ideas in Tolkien and Lewis).

A few "really?!" moments: the proposal that Galileo was insisting that the church's model of the heavens was wrong and that his was the only one to be right (with Barfield's implicit support of the proposal that BOTH could be right?!); the assertion that evolution and the Christian faith naturally go together (Lewis was never quite that sanguine, although his long quote from the Problem of Pain about human evolution would fit right in with Barfield's ideas); and the quote that I think may go too far, that "Man is the messiah of nature" in interpreting Romans 8.

I'm beginning to understand why Barfield isn't more widely read. He is indeed brilliant and seminal, but while Lewis and Tolkien work to make themselves accessible, Barfield is intent on clarity but not as much accessibility. He is intent on iconoclasm and that's an uncomfortable thing! He and Lewis do not agree on every point, but the importance of his thought is obvious in Lewis's quote that Barfield was "the wisest and best of my unofficial teachers". Your mind may be blown, and the fact that he's a Christian may not be obvious till the end of this book, and you may argue with him on certain points (I think I will!) but I fully recommend taking a "class" from Professor Barfield. (Even though he never was a professor, this was his side work from his day job as a barrister!)

Monday, December 12, 2011

Poetic Diction Quotes Part 4

p.181: “It is only when we have risen from beholding the creature into beholding creation that our mortality catches for a moment the music of the turning spheres.”

p.196: “It is precisely when such a writer starts complaining that his author uses the same word in two different senses that the discerning reader will prick up the ears of his imagination in the hope of acquiring some real knowledge.”

p.210-1: “The Greeks had no such word as ‘principle’: they called what I have been speaking of – with that divine concreteness which makes the mere language a fountain of strength for the exhausted modern intelligence – simply poiein and paschein – Do and Suffer.”

p.222: “It should be noted that Poetic Diction does not simply exalt the Poetic at the expense of the Prosaic, but emphasizes their essential relation, their dependence upon each other, and indeed their interpenetration.”

p.223: “But to take the Poetic really seriously is another matter. It is not to slang the Prosaic, and with it the whole world of science and technology, as the French Symbolists did, and hide yourself away in an ivory tower of ‘art.’ It is to begin to work on the interpenetration of the two by seeking to overcome in a man’s own experience what Coleridge termed the ‘outness’ of the phenomenal world. To say that this involves experiencing that world and his own individual spirit, not as other, but as ‘opposite’ is perhaps to say something. It is indeed to say what Coleridge said.”

p.224: “There is much work still to be done in revealing the part played by that underground stream in the development of modern science. Kepler is an obvious example, but we also need a new and unbiased biography of Isaac Newton and a study, not based on petitio principii, of such matters as the relation between alchemy and chemistry, astrology and astronomy.”

Friday, December 9, 2011

Books Review: Graphic Novel Round-Up, December Version

Here's a few one-sentence reviews of four recent graphic novels I've checked out from the library:

The Death-Ray by Daniel Clowes: Promising premise and style conveys razor wit and artistic spot-on renditions (see: the bully) at points, but I can't help feeling that the Japanese saga with the similar premise (average boy gains ability to "disappear" people) is better.

Batman: Noel by Lee Bermejo: I'm a sucker for creative renditions of The Christmas Carol, this one with Batman as Scrooge; some nice "fits" with the original story, especially Robin as Marley's Ghost, but feels underactualized, doesn't really convey the story but is a pretty nifty trick.

Hark! A Vagrant, by Kate Beaton: Silly and somewhat erudite, a combination I'm also a sucker for (the whole reason I'm a They Might Be Giants fan perhaps), and if half the strips don't quite work, I still found it diverting; kind of annoying to be reading this at the same time as I'm reading something about how people in different ages actually thought differently from us, because much of her humor comes from assuming they thought exactly the same as us! (PS: It's still funny.)

Nursery Rhyme Comics: Fifty nursery rhymes done by comics artists ranging from famous (Mike Mignola, Craig Thompson, Gene Luen Yang) to not-so-famous but intriguing, this was the most rewarding of the whole lot, and by far the most beautiful, with the bonus that I could give it to my kids without a second thought; there's a clever joke or bonus of artistic expression in each one.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Poetic Diction Quotes Part 3

p.126: “Yet it serves well enough to show how the man of today, overburdened with self-consciousness, lonely, insulated from Reality by his shadowy, abstract thoughts, and ever on the verge of the awful maelstrom of his own fantastic dreams, has among his other compensations these lovely ancestral words, embalming the souls of many poets dead and gone and the souls of many common men.”

p. 130-1: “When we can experience a change of meaning – a new meaning – there we may really join hands and sing with the morning stars; for there we are in at the birth. There is one of the exact points at which the genius, the originality, of the individual poet has first entered the world.” [like enzyme specificity/activity more than domains joining?]

p. 133: “Unless he has enough imagination, and enough power of detachment from the established meanings or thought-forms of his own civilization, to enable him to grasp the meanings of the fundamental terms – unless, in fact, he has the power not only of thinking, but, of unthinking – he will simply interpret everything they say in terms of subsequent thought.”

p.136-7: “Oscar Wilde’s mot – that men are made by books rather than books by men – was certainly not pure nonsense; there is a very real sense, humiliating as it may seem, in which what we generally venture to call our feelings are really Shakespeare’s ‘meaning’.” [The Shakespearean “explosion" = The Cambrian explosion?]

p.138-9: “Really, there is no distinction between Poetry and Science, as kinds of knowing, at all. There is only a distinction between bad poetry and bad science.”

p.144: “For all meaning flows from the creative principle, to poieion, whether it lives on, as given and remembered, or is re-introduced by the individualized creative faculty, the analogy-perceiving, methaphor-making machinery. In Platonic terms we should say that the rational principle can increase understanding, and it can increase true opinion, but it can never increase knowledge.”

p.167: “We have to but substitute dogma for literature, and we find the same endless antagonism between prophet and priest. How shall the hard rind not hate and detest the unembodied life that is cracking it from within? How shall the mother not feel pain?”

p.168: “For the pure prosaic can apprehend nothing but results. It knows naught of the thing coming into being, only of the thing become. It cannot realize shapes. It sees nature –and would like to see art – as a series of mechanical arrangements of facts. And facts are facta – things done and past.”

p.176: “No genuine lover of poetry and of words can pick up a book on, say, Botany or Metallurgy, and read of spores and capsules and lanceolate leaves, of pearly and adamantine lustres, without feeling poetically enriched by that section of the new vocabulary which actually impinges on his own present consciousness of Nature.” [my own fascination with geology is similar]

p.179: “’Language,’ wrote Emerson, in a flash of insight which covers practically all that has been written in these pages, ‘is fossil poetry.’”

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Book Review: Wonderstruck

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick is a wonderful little book that's a worthy sequel to The Invention of Hugo Cabret. But I don't expect a movie to ever come out of this one, because the major characters it switches between (one in words, one in pictures) are both deaf (and at one point, the lights go out too!). The medium of the picture/word alternation that Selznick accomplishes is even more suited to this story than to his last one. It helps to read it in a silent room (after the kids go to sleep) and you end up immersed in the characters' world. The contrast between the words (which follow a boy in the 1970's) and the pictures (which follow a girl in the 1920's) is also brings out different elements of each story: we can get inside the boy's head but we can only see the girl's face and expressions. On top of this all, the plot revolves around museums and world's fairs, which would be in my Julie Andrews style Favorite Things song if I had one. (Maybe I do ... I'm not telling!) This book is quieter and sadder than Hugo, and it is perfectly suited to this particular medium. Recommended -- in a different way from Hugo.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Science Projects and Easter Eggs

It was 1987. All the messages about self-esteem and believing in yourself must have impressed themselves onto my 7th-grade mind, because I had decided that my next science project would change the world. I had just finished a project in which I showed that the random numbers generated by my Commodore 128 computer were not truly random. My idea was to continue this iconoclastic mathematical investigation in an unexpected direction: I thought I would calculate how much time would be required for evolution to take place. I knew from reading my Bible and attending weekend seminars at my friend’s church that evolution couldn’t have happened, and so I knew what the result of my calculation would be before I started: it would be impossible. All I had to do was calculate the rate of random mutations in a species … and factor in interactions of genes … and DNA mutation rates …

Soon it became obvious that despite my quite fervent belief in myself, I didn’t actually know anything about the inner workings of a cell, much less an entire organism. Once I realized that the biochemistry of the world could probably not be represented in a Commodore 128 computer program, I moved on. My eight-grade science project studied the chemicals in the muck at the bottom of the Indian River. I shelved the project disproving evolution for another day.

Since seventh grade some of my views have changed and some have not. I’ve learned about both the inner workings of the cell and the Bible since then. Most important, I’ve stayed connected to a community of faith, listening for the inner workings of the Spirit.

Now I’ve changed my mind on the evolution project, and I think I had some of my “essentials” confused back then. I was looking for something like an “Easter egg” on a DVD menu, where an icon is hidden that you can find by clicking around with the arrow keys on your remote in a certain pattern. When you find the Easter egg some secret knowledge is revealed, usually a short bonus clip or a blooper reel.

I thought that evidence against evolution was like an Easter egg to be found by the self-confident faithful remnant of believers using “true” scientific techniques that were not deceived by the gullible results of atheistic scientists. I thought that by doing science in the right pattern I could find the secret proof that evolution simply could not have occurred, and that all it would take was a few well-placed experiments that would be blows of the axe to take the whole edifice down. I thought those experiments would be so easy and self-evident that even a seventh-grader could do them.

I was wrong. There was no simple disproof of evolution. When I learned about the evidence from the scientists themselves, I found it to be extensive and logical, and that it could not have been faked. I even collected some evidence myself by searching gene sequences. I could not develop an alternative explanation that fit the evidence, even with an open mind to God’s intervention. Not even the apparent compromise of Intelligent Design made sense to me: the metaphors were all wrong and the evidence was scanty. So I swallowed hard and gave up looking for the “Easter egg” in creation’s history that would force all the atheists to allow God into their lives.

Now that I look at it, it doesn’t seem to me that God works by planting “Easter eggs” in nature so that those with ears to hear will know that the thousands of scientists somehow have it wrong when it comes to the science. I was expecting God to intervene in a way that he chooses not to. I was expecting God to do what I wanted; instead, I had to listen hard to hear his still small voice. He was not providing a secret map to a secret trove of evidence. He was presenting Himself, on a cross, that this is His evidence and the way He chooses to work.

After years of fruitless emphasis on forcing Genesis 1 into the shape of science, I realized that I was missing the true “Easter egg” hidden by God in history. Hidden isn’t quite the right word because it’s not hidden, it’s proclaimed: the true “Easter egg” is Easter itself. This is the way God makes himself known, through Jesus and the Gospels.

I’ve learned enough about reading evidence now that I can look at the historical evidence around Easter and see a pattern that persuades me that something very strange happened in physical history. This event changed a group of unlearned disciples into the apostles of a new church. It transformed the Law of the chosen people into a new theology, a branching tree that would welcome all nations. It didn’t rely on repeatable experiments run by impartial observers but on witnesses, many witnesses, who were themselves transformed by what they saw. It founded a new temple built of people, with the cornerstone of a risen King, expanding with a diverse momentum and humble power that in my view can only be explained by the actual, unexpected, very strange resurrection of one man in the center of history. (For more on what I’m talking about, read N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God.)

I can understand those, including many scientists, who don’t see Easter this way. Historical evidence is different from scientific evidence. I think God leaves us with a choice each Easter. He doesn’t force anyone to follow Him, because even He cannot force love. Jesus puts Himself at the center of proof:

“Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.” (John 7:17) and “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.” (John 7:37). What I hear in these is this: don’t spend so much time in Genesis that you never turn to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

So arguing about what “yom” means or whether all of us are great-great-…-great-grandchildren of one biological Adam is a fine intellectual pursuit, but it must at some point take a back seat to seeing the intervention of the Father in the new creation of the historical Risen Christ and seeing the same Spirit that brought his body up from the grave surrounding and flowing through the church, even and especially in her suffering.

Jesus is the focus of the Bible, not Adam. New creation is the power of God as well as original creation. If anything takes precedence over Jesus in our words and thoughts, then we must have something out of order. In this time of advent, I constantly find out-of-order places in my life that must be brought back to Him. Jesus orders all things. He is the truth and the proof we require. He is King of life, of science and history, and of past, present, and future, no matter how deep that past may run.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Genesis Panel

This is a link to the Genesis panel at my church I was just on, along with my old friend the history of science professor, my new friend the science and faith degree-holder, and my new friend the bioinformaticist. It was unpredictable and a bit unnerving to talk in front of 300 people, only 10% of whom knew me ... but it was also a completely unique event and part of a much larger conversation at the church. We will probably continue through some kind of small group soon. For now, there's the recording for any who missed it!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The True Dominion Theology

The sermon today on Genesis 1 focused on the charge to Adam and Eve to "have dominion over" the creatures of the earth, which led to another trail of thoughts. (The observation that the object of the verb dominion includes all animals and no plants is not one of them ... don't know what to do with that one ...)

Stop 1 on the tour of "dominion" elsewhere in the Scriptures is Psalm 8, which has a straightforward echo of the Genesis term in the second half of the Psalm, but it can't be missed that to get to this word you have to go through the verse that reminds us that we really don't deserve this "dominion":

"When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?"

This dominion is a gift. And it can be revoked. Hezekiah pridefully shows his "dominion" and treasures to some people who will return with an army to take them by force and destroy the Temple that houses them. That dominion's days were numbered. This dominion isn't a blank check.

Stop 2 on this tour is only a few pages later in Psalm 19. But this mention is even more nuanced. Psalm 19 starts with a glorious descrpition of the "language" with which "The heavens declare the glory of God," then it describes the sun as a jubilant servant of YHWH, and then it jumps to a description of the law that is just as exultant and sweet as any sugar molecule (that's my own interpretation, of course). But the law provokes a shift of perspective from outward discovery and wisdom to inward self-discovery, the beginning of wisdom:

"Who can understand his errors? cleanse thou me from secret faults. Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me: then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent from the great transgression."

Here the dominion is actually a threat from one's own self! Any so-called dominion theology must include a possibility that dominion will be wrongly assumed -- by ME. Any prideful dominion theology is an exact contradiction of the use of dominion in this Psalm, and is at best an evil deception. (This exact usage recurs in Psalm 119, by the way, and Paul echoes it in his letters with "let not sin have dominion over you".)

The story of Scripture is dominion given, and dominion usurped (from without and within), and, in the prophecies of the Messiah and the fulfillment in Christ, dominion regained through a servant who is God, emptied. A very different type of king, the type who rides a donkey and is enthroned on a cross.

At the end of the book, the word comes back again, applied to Jesus and God simultaneously. The echoes of this usage from Genesis to the kings to the prophecies are all resonant in these mentions:

"Far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come ... "

Read Jude (this may be first use of Jude on this blog?):
"To the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever."

And of course Revelation, which fitting returns at last to the fundamental fact that God's nature always shares dominion from the first book to the last:
"And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen."

So this is why I don't recognize anything of this in what goes by the "Christian dominion" movement, and why "dominion theology" doesn't seem to understand who this God is or who this king is at all. Dominion is found through Christ, which means the Sermon on the Mount and the cross must be front and center to any implementation of the word. At least for people who call themselves Christians.

Poetic Diction Quotes Part 2

Another page of great quotes from Owen Barfield's book Poetic Diction:

p.86: [Shelley citing Bacon] “’Neither are these only similitudes, as men of narrow observation may conceive them to be, but the same footprints of nature, treading or printing upon several subjects or matters.’”

p.88: “Not an empty ‘root meaning to shine’, but the same definite spiritual reality which was beheld on the one hand in what has since become pure human thinking; and on the other hand, in what has since become physical light; not an abstract conception, but the echoing footsteps of the goddess Natura – not a metaphor but a living Figure.”

p.92: “Mythology is the ghost of concrete meaning. Connections between discrete phenomena, connections which are now apprehended as metaphor, were once perceived as immediate realities. As such the poet strives, by his own efforts, to see them, and to make others see them, again.”

p.100: “Mr Jespersen … builds argument upon argument to prove that the historical development of language is indeed ‘progressive’ and not a kind of falling away from grace, as his predecessors held. These arguments are absolutely convincing and require no comment, as long as we remember that, to the author, ‘progress’ in the history of consciousness does not merely include, but is synonymous with an increasing ability to think abstract thoughts.”

p.102: “These primary ‘meanings’ were given, as it were, by Nature, but the very condition of their being given was that they could not at the same time be apprehended in full consciousness; they could not be known, but only experienced, or lived. At this time, therefore, individuals cannot be said to have been responsible for the production of poetic values. Not man was creating, but the gods – or in psychological jargon, his ‘unconscious.’”

p.107: “Where then does the modern poet find again this poetic principle that is dying out of language? Where? Nowhere but in himself. The same creative activity, once operative in meaning without man’s knowledge or control, and only recognized long afterwards, when he awoke to contemplate, as it were, what he had written in his sleep, this is now to be found within his own consciousness. And it calls him to become the true creator, the maker of meaning itself.”

p.115: “It will, I think, appear that this ‘soul’, latent in words, and waiting only to be discovered, is for the most part a kind of buried survival of the old ‘given’ meaning under later accretions; or, if not of the ‘given’ meaning itself, then of an old ‘created’ meaning which has been buried in the same way. … That words lose their freshness through habit is a more humdrum way of saying the same thing; and it will do well enough, as long as we remember that ‘habit’ itself is only a familiar name for the repetition of the identical, and that the repetition of the identical is the very essence of the rational principle – the very means by which the concrete becomes abstract – the Gorgon’s head itself.”

p.120: “The new meaning must be strange, not incomprehensible; otherwise the poetry of the whole passage is killed, and the fresh meaning itself will be still-born.”

p.124: “Hundreds of dead words might be resuscitated by men like Bishop Percy and Sir Walter Scott; it was the task of even more vital spirits to awaken those that were only sleeping.”

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Invisible Umbrella Made Visible

Lots of people have posted this amazing time-lapse video taken from the space station. My favorite part, although this is heavily influenced by the fact that it's my favorite color, are the green auroras dancing over the surface of the earth. I talk in a few places about how those auroras show how the sun's radiation is constantly bombarding us, yet we have this magnetic core that rotates deep inside and protects us from the worst of that radiation. One of the effects of all this is the intense beauty of the auroras.

Someday I'll see one with my own eyes. I live far enough north, but there's always these CLOUDS over Seattle. Who knew??

Oh, and the rainbow around God's throne that looks like an emerald in Revelation? I now think I have a faint, faint idea of what it may look like.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Unmaking the Messiah

As my church goes through a series on Genesis 1-3, there's a danger of becoming "nearsighted" by focusing so much on the first few chapters that we start to miss the message of the rest of the book. I only say that because I'm guilty of doing it myself. But the practice of cross-referencing in the text of Scripture as the preacher preaches paid off again today, because a new connection jumped out.

There are two parts of the Hebrew Bible where the technical word "created" is used again and again, as always with God as the creator: Genesis 1 and Isaiah 40-55. That initial connection is true for other words as well. In particular, the statement that the earth was "without form" in Genesis 1:2 is echoed in this section of Isaiah as well. First in Isaiah 44:2 YHWH states "I formed you from the womb", and the calling of this figure is focused in the later passage:

Just as many were astonished at you,
So His visage was marred more than any man,
And His form more than the sons of men;
So shall He sprinkle many nations.
Kings shall shut their mouths at Him;
For what had not been told them they shall see,
And what they had not heard they shall consider.
Who has believed our report?
And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant,
And as a root out of dry ground.
He has no form or comeliness;
And when we see Him,
There is no beauty that we should desire Him.
(Isaiah 52:14-53:2)

Here, late in the Isaiah 40-55 poem, the figure of the Servant is emerging as a single person, as the refrain of "creation" with the special Genesis language is repeated again and again. God's promises to bring all nations to Jerusalem are somehow fulfilled in this person, and the shocking thing is that he's beat up and marred. He is "without form" like creation itself in Genesis 1:2. It's like old creation has gone wrong, and this Servant steps forward, takes on the wrongness in literally being unmade, and beyond anything he can do, he is remade into new creation. His "unmaking" is active, and at the hands of his fellow men, but when he is unmade he is remade again, and all the promises of new creation are true in him. The nations come to Jerusalem. The veil of death is taken away.

The "unmaking" happened on another level as well, in Philippians 2:
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus,
who, being in the form of God,
did not consider it robbery to be equal with God,
but made Himself of no reputation,
taking the form of a bondservant,
and coming in the likeness of men.

The "kenosis" of Jesus was creation in reverse, an emptying, a humbling, and an obedience. It was a loss of form, a reversion of God himself to the empty blank slate of creation in Genesis 1:2.

That the "unmade man" would be remade by the literal recreation of a dead man tortured by the state was something no one expected. It was more true than anyone expected, that the Servant would destroy death this way. But in Isaiah 40-55, maybe there's a glimmer of how someone who knew the Scriptures and saw God active in every word could see that all this could come together in a man dead for three days and brought back "according to the Scriptures", replacing and fulfilling Temple and Torah itself. Remaking everything in a new creation, one event in the middle of history anticipating the great event at its end.

This is how prophecy works. This is how God works. Words from different centuries all come together as one stream of living water, from one source, flowing into the future, consistent from Genesis to Isaiah to the Gospels to the Epistles. The only way to describe it is as the Word of God.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Poetic Diction Quotes Part 1

I have four pages of quotes typed out from Poetic Diction (helps me to remember them to do this!). I'll post them in several parts over the next few weeks because Owen Barfield's words are better than mine.

Poetic Diction quotes, 1973 edition

p.28: “Only by imagination therefore can the world be known. And what is needed is, not only that larger and larger telescopes and more and more sensitive calipers should be constructed, but that the human mind should become increasingly aware of its own creative activity.”

p.32: “… a true, participant knowledge as distinct from the haphazard pull-and-push ignorance which claims in public the name of science and admits in private that it knows nothing; which, when it turns inward to the mind of the Knower, finds there a nothingness within, to match the nothingness without. … Reflection on the poetic activity teaches us that the same imagination which created that kind of habit can both disturb it and create new ones.”

p.35: “Accordingly they have presented us with the human spirit as bewildered observer, or as agonized patient, compassionate in Hardy, humbled or repentant in Eliot, but always the observer, always the patient, helpless to alter anything but his own pin-pointed subjective emotion.”

p.36: “The possibility of man’s avoiding self-destruction depends on his realizing before it is too late that what he let loose over Hiroshima, after fiddling with its exterior for three centuries like a mechanical toy, was the forces of his own unconscious mind.”

p.58: “’In the infancy of society [wrote Shelley] every author is necessarily a poet, because language itself is a poetry. … Every original language near to its source is itself the chaos of a cyclic poem.”

p.73: “In other words, although, when he moves backwards through the history of language, he finds it becoming more and more figurative with every step, yet he has no hesitation in assuming a period – still further back – when it was not figurative at all!”

p.75: “The full meanings of words are flashing, iridescent shapes like flames – ever-flickering vestiges of the slowly evolving consciousness beneath them. To the Locke-Muller-France way of thinking, on the contrary, they appear as solid chunks with definite boundaries and limits, to which other chunks may be added as occasion arises.”

p.81: “We must, therefore, imagine a time when ‘spiritus’ or pneuma, or older words from which these had descended, meant neither breath, nor wind, nor spirit, nor yet all three of these things, but when they simply had their own old peculiar meaning, which has since, in the course of the evolution of consciousness, crystallized into the three meanings specified – and no doubt into others also, for which separate words had already been found by Greek and Roman times.”

p.82: “… their error merely lay in supposing that life actually created language after the manner in which their logic deconstructed it. They mistook elements for seeds – and called them roots.”

p.85: “… these poetic, and apparently ‘metaphorical’ values were latent in meaning from the beginning.”

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Book Review: Habibi

This is a beautiful book and an ugly book, deliberately. It is a book written by someone brought up Christian but set in a Muslim world (I don't say that casually -- the entire perspective is thoroughly through the Qur'an, and the seamlessness with which he presents it is one of the author's greatest accomplishments). It is a book with lovingly detailed drawings of piles of trash, a book that shows an all-powerful sultanate state from 1000 years ago with motorcycles beside camels (and the best depiction of cholera in comics I've ever seen).

To let you know what book I'm talking about, it's titled Habibi and it's by Craig Thompson, whose last major work was the similarly long (~700 pages) Blankets in 2003. Technically it's far superior to Blankets, but ... I can't help but like Blankets better. Blankets is the one I want to read again and give to others. For all the amazing integration of Islamic art and theology, for all the intricate numbers echoing through the plot and artwork, doing things I've never seen a graphic novel do, no, not even one by Alan Moore -- like most of Alan Moore's work, Habibi seems to be missing its heart. Which is really hard for me to say, this book is such a technical achievement. Upon reaching the summit I just felt cold.

Maybe it's the nagging feeling that, for all the emphasis on the stories of the Qur'an, you don't get the feeling that any of the characters really believes the stories or what they represent. Even motherhood is trumped by circumstance, which is completely unrealistic to me on a character level. Ultimately it's a cold universe without belief, in which power is really what rules, and only the most extreme coincidences allow love to live. That's too harsh, and I recognize it as I type it, because love does find a way to live in a surprising way (avoiding spoilers!) -- but what's a review without an honest reaction? I like it, I don't love it. I honestly wish I did.

The bottom line is that I picked up several copies of Blankets at the Library Book Sale just so I'd have a few to hand out to friends. But this one, if I see the beautiful hardcover edition I'll probably pick it up, but it'll be partly for collection, and partly to go through and see details like how each "number" recurs through the very plot of the chapter. In other words, don't expect one from me for Christmas. Which is really too bad, and it's ultimately just one person's personal reaction. If you liked Blankets it's worth a try because Habibi may be technically the best and biggest graphic novel I've ever seen. I know I'm not making sense, but I don't have to. It's my blog after all!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Book Review: Poetic Diction

I have pretty positive reactions to most books. A few I even think, when I put them down, that maybe someday I'll read them again. But very rarely have I ever felt like reading a book again as soon as I put it down. Poetic Diction is that book. I found this book by researching J.R.R. Tolkien, who was influenced by Owen Barfield's ideas, especially this book. Then I kept seeing Barfield's name and I found out that lots of people were deeply influenced by his thinking (and not just his close friend and the person to whom this book is dedicated, C.S. Lewis). He's writing about poetry, but he writes about everything, really, up to and including philosophy of science. For all the depth to the book, it is highly readable and succinct. Barfield was a member of the "Inklings," whatever that means, and this book is right up there with Tolkien and Lewis in its own way. Amazing.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Book Review: Green River Killer: A True Detective Story

If you've been waiting for CSI: Seattle to come out, maybe this book will do the trick. Or maybe not. Because although both this book and CSI are about a complicated case with police work and science, and this book (being a graphic novel) can be read in about an hour like a CSI show, the similarities stop there. This book is realistic to the point of being boring at times. The capture of the killer is not particularly dramatic, and much of the book concerns a long interrogation in which he can't remember anything precisely. But the value of this book is that it is real. It certainly was real for Jeff Jensen, the author, considering his father is Tom Jensen, the detective who at times was solely responsible for the Green River case. This book is about the small joys (and wearing grind) of perseverance. One of the small joys is the way Jonathan Case, the artist, captures the exact aging of the characters as the narrative skips back and forth from the early 80's to the early 00's. That's something you can only get from this medium. On the whole, it is so realistic that you're left to make meta-connections on your own; ultimately, this is a procedural at heart. But it's a good example of what graphic novels can do, and evidence that the genre has really grown up.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Crayola Sculptures

I want one of these. I mean, how hard can it be to make a crayon sculpture? On second thought, those are really BIG:


Saturday, October 15, 2011

Evolution is Not Simply Divergent

So I just wrote about how I enjoyed the little but formidable text Graphs Maps Trees, which applies scientific visualizations to literature. But there's a problems with the science, and once again, the trail for the misconception can be traced to Stephen Jay Gould.

Gould's point, repeated by Moretti, is that Darwin's original tree of life (yes, I know he was too smart to use that specific term, but it's what we call it now) was more to show divergence than simple common descent: in his diagram, only the most extreme branches continued from generation to generation, and he used to to account for species diversity. That's very true. Gould goes on to say (in a block quote in Moretti's essay) that evolution is a story of proliferation (this same branching of extremes), very different from cultural transmission in which an idea can be carried by a single human from one culture branch to another, and so the branches cross and weave and converge instead of just diverging.

The problem is that the real tree of life is indeed both convergent and divergent, like the cultural tree. The worst offender is this quote by a historian of technology, George Basalla:

"Different biological species usually do not interbreed, and on the rare occasions when they do their offspring are infertile. Artifactual types, on the other hand, are routinely combined to produce new and fruitful entities" (p.137). a.) e.g., the internal combustion engine was merged with the bicycle & the horse-drawn carriage to produce the automobile (p.138)

Um, no. As a biochemist looking at the tree of life, I see exactly this same repurposing of old parts and combinations to make new parts everywhere. Even the process of making antibodies is a shuffling of old parts to make something new. Basalla's quote only works for a limited set of macroscopic species, and I think it's the exception rather than the rule. Bacteria trade genes and build new things by combination all the time. Just because a mule is infertile doesn't mean convergence never happens.

This is a major point of the argument, and it actually helps Moretti, because he's arguing that convergence is the normal state of affairs in literature, and I'm happy to say I think it's the normal state of affairs in science as well. Conway Morris and Dawkins agree with me on this. Fascinatingly on p.81 Moretti argues that if divergence is king then randomness is running the show, but in human affairs like literature, convergence is dominant. Since I'm arguing that convergence is the characteristic of all evolution, then am I arguing that the ecosystem is more "human" than we may have thought? A provocative phrase, and I'm content to think about it for now.

True, the branches of the tree of life can never fully converge, but they can functionally converge. Moretti points out on p.85 that the branches of the tree of literature can never fully converge either, but always remain distinct. The more we talk the more I think we're basically talking about the same kind of tree.

In a nice summary of the branching diagram for literature, Moretti concludes that "literature moves forwords and sideways at once; often, more sideways than forwards. Like Shklovsky's great metaphor for art, the knight's move at chess." (p. 91) Do DNA trees of life imply that life makes similar knight's moves?

Book Review: Graphs Maps Trees

Graphs Maps Trees by Franco Moretti may have the highest thoughts-inspired-per-word ratio of any book I've read recently. Of course, it helps that there's not many words. This is basically three essays (one per word from the title) and an afterword by a geneticist for the scientist's perspective. Moretti argues that we should employ scientific techniques to assess trends and cycles in literature. Before visions of the graph from the first page of that textbook in Dead Poets Society start running through your head, I should point out that Moretti clearly puts this as complementary to traditional analysis oriented on a single text. Rather, this looks at each novel as a leaf on a tree, or a point on a graph, so overall trends may be seen, necessarily simplifying and missing something to see something else.

In Graphs, Moretti shows how genres tend to have a lifespan, and admits he doesn't know exactly why, but it may have something to do with broad patterns of social cohesion often called "generations." (He's puzzled, as am I, by why groups would organize like this when babies are pretty much born constantly, but that's just a tangent).

In Maps, Moretti shows how plotting the events in a series of village novels according to their location shows that the events eventually fragment and dissolve away from the village itself.

In Trees, Moretti shows how the way clues are treated in Sherlock Holmes stories can be sorted into categories that branch off like a tree. I have trouble seeing the real utility of the tree structure in this, it's more an if-then than a tree necessary, but his next tree shows how the person and tense used in different types of novels can change even within a sentence to show certain kinds of branching, and this is very interesting.

I have some bones to pick on the way science is used in the tree chapter, but I think that deserves a post of its own. On the whole, I like Moretti's approach, and I'd like to take some of it myself. The most important thing I learned from him may not be the techniques or ideas, but the sense of humility and openness, that this "scientific" approach is only one possibility while the traditional analysis still holds. Good to remember.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Life's Solution: Specific Notes and Quotes

Here I'm just going to make a record of my dog-eared pages from Life's Solution for future reference for myself. Feel free to look over my shoulder:

p.120-126 "Play It Again!" section.If anything, the role of convergent paths in evolution of E.Coli has been enhanced since this book same out in 2003. I'd like to do some of this myself ... How is it that Figure 6.3 can separate out adaptation from chance from history?

p.230 "Interstellar Nervous Systems?" section. Sodium pumps are found all over the place. This has been pinned down for the electrical eel recently. I wonder if there's more to see with this particular molecule's convergence.

p.266 Conway Morris directly addresses the point of qualia that Douglas Hofstadter mentions as well. It's worth noting that Hofstadter and Conway Morris (ahem) converge on this point. What do similarities in neural structure say about the question of "the redness of red" for philosophy?

p.288 Oxygen transport proteins convergence: I didn't know hemoglobin/myoglobin was found in so many places. Could that be a convergent structure? How would we know?

p.295 The Molecules Converge: Basically a 2003-era list of what I'm really interested in: convergent proteins. So many references, so little time!

p.297 "If convergent evolution is an 'eternal return' to the 'attractors' of functionality, then we cannot be surprised that history repeats itself." Then the fact that the hammerhead ribozyme is convergent.

p.307 "Yet, when within the animals we see the emergence of larger and more complex brains, sophisticated vocalizations, echolocation, electrical perception, advanced social systems including eusociality, viviparity, warm-bloodedness, and agriculture -- all of which are convergent -- then to me that sounds like progress."

p.313 A GK Chesterton sighting! "Reason and justice grip the remotest and loneliest star." (From Father Brown's first story.) The following description of planets made of gems sounds like a passage from Doctor Who! My "anglophilia" brain area is lighting up.

p.325 Eugenics and the morally ambiguous nature of progress, again in line with GK Chesterton. I'm going to have to keep assigning his book in Biochemistry ...
quotes John Green: "To the very end, [Darwin] failed to appreciate the morally ambiguous character of human progress. He failed because, like many social scientists today, he had no adequate conception of Man." I think Gould and Dawkins are keen to decry "progress" in evolution because they can only accept an unambiguously progressive formulation of progress. If progress is seen as ambiguous, then yes, you can say you see it in the natural world and the evolution of man.

For more on progress and anti-Gould rhetoric I should look up McKinney, Science, vol. 237, p. 575, 1987.

p.329 The six-point outline of "what salient facts of evolution are congruent with a Creation." Let me try my hand at summarizing them:

1.) Biochemical simplicity (building blocks)
2.) A method of navigating the vast possibilities (a mechanism like protein folding)
3.) The sensitivity of the process
4.) How life rearranges and adapts the old rather than building something brand new
5.) Many paths/branches but converging again and again on certain characteristics/structures
6.) The inevitable (and broad occurence) of intelligence, coming from complete sensing of the world.

Book Review: Life's Solution

Life's Solution is a rarity for me: a book I knew I had to own before I read it. I couldn't wait for it from the Library book sale, and I couldn't just check it out from the library. I've read several articles by Simon Conway Morris in different formats (for example, see the previous review of Real Scientists, Real Faith on this blog), but this is the book in which he takes 332 pages to write about what he sees in evolution as a scientist who discovered big parts of it (the Cambrian explosion) and an Anglican Christian who is friends with Richard Dawkins but doesn't agree with him on the question of God. For one thing, Conway Morris thinks there is a question in the first place! I was about to say this is a big, sprawling book, but in truth, my only quibble is that I wish it would've sprawled a little bit more. The last few chapters in which he tackles theology have nice turns of phrase but don't really seem to fully flesh out the theological implications of the convergent patterns that Conway Morris sees in evolution.

As a catalog of a bewildering array of convergences, this book is entertaining. Again, it left me wanting a little more, especially in the frequently repeated "This feature evolved at least 31 times," because this is such a central thesis of the book I'd like to know how we know that. But honestly, that's what the footnotes are for. Conway Morris focuses on the organism rather than its molecules for the most part.

The fundamental question this raises for me may sound a bit strange, but here it is: If indeed all these features, from bipedality to camera eyes, have evolved repeatedly and in a converging pattern, does this mean sin emerged in multiple ways, but convergently? That it happens in every young life with a different path but it ends up looking the same? I think this point can be a platform on which we can understand a theology of the fall of man in light of this science. But, of course, however we define the origins of sin, the important thing is that we agree on its destiny: summed up and healed by the cross of Christ.

This is what I mean when I say I want more theology at the end! But that's not really the purpose of this book. Even at the end, Conway Morris chooses a subtle turn of phrase when he could be more direct, and I think there's a method to his madness there. Ultimately, I think everyone who's interested in the deep structure of biology should find a way to read this book, it is a fascinating catalogue of a new way to look at the world that fits both science and faith. It's the biologist's counterpart to R.J.P. Williams's The Chemistry of Evolution, and anyone who knows me knows I don't say that lightly!

PS: I know there's tons of arguments out there about "evolution or not" and "what does it mean", and to those who don't have time to parse every argument, I say to just pick up a copy of this book or Williams's and flip through it. Then flip through The Signature of the Cell, the flagship Intelligent Design book. The books are about the same length but even a cursory glance at the content will show that Conway Morris and Williams are interested in looking at the world in truth, in all its glory. That kind of specificity is, I'm sorry to say, absent from Meyer's Signature of the Cell. You don't need to read the whole thing -- you just need to flip through a few pages. If Intelligent Design was a viable theory, this is the kind of book it would produce. I'm still waiting.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Book Review: When You Reach Me

This is children's literature, which I read aloud to Sam. It's very good children's literature, and all along I was hoping it would be more, but in the end, I have to put it on the children's shelf. There's a lot to like here: a time travel puzzle, a late-70's setting, tons of L'Engle references, the $20,000 Pyramid, and some nice sixth-grade emotional politics. It all has a purpose, even Dick Clark, and comes together in a really nice way. The climactic scene is very well written, for one. And the title character learns important stuff in a subtle way, so there's a moral but you can ignore it easily enough, which is important. Still, for all the intricacies of the plot, it was just a hair on the side of condescending (do children really need to be told how you can be in two places at once with time travel THAT many times?), and as an adult I was able to pick up on what was going on rather early. It was good for Sam to be forced to read through a book that looks at the world the way a girl looks at the world -- he got a little antsy sometimes but the nice plot convergence at the end made it worth it for him. Some people have overrated this book. I still think A Wrinkle in Time was better.

Book Review: Hannah Coulter

I listened to this book, by Wendell Berry, on my commute (got it as a free audio book through a promotion). It's the life story of a woman born in the 30's who lives on farms through World War II and up through the turn of the century. It sneaks up on you eventually that this isn't just a story: Berry is really saying something here. I've been aware for a while that he is a sort of Christian radical of a sort, as radical as you can get being an intense proponent of the small-farm way of life. His characters are beautifully nuanced, the voice of the narrator is consistent, simple, and profound, and there are lots of implications for science and technology-minded folks like me. I actually considered assigning this for Biochemistry reading but it's just a little too far. But it is as thought-provoking as the G.K. Chesterton I do assign about how to live life. I don't read many novels but this one may change my mind.

HIV as music

The video at this blog post from the Scientific American site has a sample of the HIV genome translated to music. But instead of just random-sounding four-tone melodies, the composer went a step further and included the amino acids that the genes represent, with a separate scale for those 20. It actually all comes together to sound like music -- sad music, which is appropriate, but definitely music.

LUCA Was Complex

I'm said I'm going to start collecting examples of complex ancient life, and here's another one: a study of particular structures in archaea (a branch of microbes) suggests that the Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA) was more complex than previously thought.

This is the article, and this is the science news story about it.

If J.R.R. Tolkien's ideas are right (and Owen Barfield's, whom he got them from), then we'll be seeing more and more of this. I'll be collecting them here for my memory and yours.

Lots of implications: from the simple "life is not an easy thing!" to the complex concept of "have we assumed too much about what constitutes 'progress' in biology?".

Great quote from the news article:

"You can't assume that the whole story of life is just building and assembling things," Whitfield said. "Some have argued that the reason that bacteria are so simple is because they have to live in extreme environments and they have to reproduce extremely quickly. So they may actually be reduced versions of what was there originally. According to this view, they've become streamlined genetically and structurally from what they originally were like. We may have underestimated how complex this common ancestor actually was."
File this with Brain Proteins Before Brains and the thioredoxin urzyme (coming soon, to a Day of Common Learning Lecture near you).

Monday, October 3, 2011

Historic Photographs in Legos

Would this be a good way to teach the boys history? Probably not, but they are pretty cool, and most of the photos are instantly recognizable:


HT: Paste Magazine

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

... But Student Research is HARD

Yesterday I posted some of my thinking as to why I believe student research is the best way to teach science. But not everyone does it. Why not? Because the students, especially at first, don't like it.

I understand why that may be. Yesterday's lab I tried to implement some of the structure of research in the teaching lab. I proposed a problem, gave some tools, allowed time and space in the experiment for mistakes, and then set the students free on some relatively simple tasks in the lab. But the whole point was they didn't know what would happen, and they had to manage their time and adjust on the fly to make it happen.

Part of the problem was I didn't know how the lab was going to go myself. Of course, it went slightly wrong. I called the class and modified the lab on the fly. The thing is, the students were flustered after that, and even after modifying the lab the students carried over a bit of their flusteredness, which made them much more tentative in their experiments. They pulled back in the face of the unknown even though the lab was designed to allow mistakes. It's possible that lectures in science courses reinforce this idea of perfectionism in "getting the right answer" that just isn't always there in lab. Things go wrong and you have to modify, and keep one eye on the clock.

So I think I learned something myself and the students (hopefully) learned something too. I will try again today with a few modifications. And we'll see if we can teach flexibility in thinking and the ability to make the right kind of mistakes in lab today. Considering that such teaching is my goal, I think we at least approached that goal yesterday, and maybe we can approach it today with less flusteredness.

The bottom line is it is definitely not easy, and I can understand why everything can't be done this way, but I think it's worth it. Ironically, it takes more planning to figure out how to set the students free than it does to teach a cookbook-style lab recipe to them.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Student Research is a Christian Activity

Today in Opening Convocation our University President referred to a recent lecture N.T. Wright gave at St. Andrew's, which refers to the Christian task in learning as the "Upside-Down University". My church just finished a series on Matthew 5-7 titled "The Upside-Down Kingdom." I think they're copying from the same notes somehow. (Which is a good thing!) It occured to me as I watched my friend, the molecular biologist, give the invocation at the beginning of the ceremony, that entrusting the progress of research to undergraduates is a risky proposition, and somewhat upside-down. Maybe that's what many scientists at a level fear about it -- and possibly justifiably so! Undergrads take a lot more time to teach and to oversee and to interpret and even to present results than grad students or post-docs. Progress is, as a result, slow by the standards of other labs. You can't work on the hottest problem because you'll almost definitely be scooped. But you do it this way because it's best for them. They are the reason you research in this way. And that's the kind of upside-down thinking that is summed up and put forward by Jesus himself, in his teaching on the one mount early on, and in his actions on the other mount on Good Friday. This is a good reminder as I start the busiest time of the year for me teaching-wise. I don't have students complete research for the short-term benefits. I do it for the long-term ones.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Does the Unbalanced Schedule Make Baseball More Boring?

As of today there are only 1, maybe 2 of the 6 divisions in baseball in which the winner of the division is not already settled, with almost a month of baseball to play. I honestly do not remember a close race in September -- ever. Now, part of that is the fact that I'm a Mariners fan and they haven't been exactly competitive the past decade or so, since I've become a fan (remember, kids, correlation is not causation!).

The thing is, I remember in about the year 2000 that a new "unbalanced" schedule was introduced, in which teams would play the other teams in their divison more often. This was specifically introduced to make September more exciting. It's clearly had the opposite effect. At least I don't have to worry about important baseball games interfering with preparation for the upcoming school year.

That's why I'm skeptical about schemes like adding a second wild-card team or realigning the divisions. I remember the claims made with past innovations (Exhibit A: "This time it counts!"), and I cannot remember one that really worked. Of course, I wasn't around when they introduced the DH, but I always must support that innovation because it gave us St. Edgar of the ALDS Double. I'm not diametrically opposed to so-called innovation, just skeptical.

On the other hand, advanced statistical metrics for understanding baseball? More please.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Book Review: I am a Strange Loop (Part 4)

(part 4 of 4)

I kept asking as I read, over and over: What is the point really? How should this change actions rather than self-regard? And what is the ethical downside to your philosophy? Typically a scientist should attack his own philosophy to make sure it still stands. This is one of the reasons I read this book myself, to attack my own philosophy with the best absolute materialism has to offer. But at the end of your book I’m hard-pressed to recall a specific ethical prescription. What should we DO, then? Rather, I remember spirited defenses again particular philosophical antagonists and the general concept of qualia. I’m left wondering if your definition of qualia fits with its proponents. Because they don’t seem to match, and that seems to be the whole point of qualia, that they don't match from person to person!

For all your concern with causality, you make a statement on the next-to-last page that upends your argument in another way: these symbols have helped us survive throughout the ages, adding an evolutionary wrinkle to your argument. But why should survival necessarily correlate with truth? I’m not sure, maybe it should deep down, but this concern is never mentioned in the whole book. Does your colleague Dennett’s “universal acid” eat away at your philosophy as well?

While we're at it: why do we live in a universe stable enough to exist for billions of years and give us strange loops? And, most importantly to me, to give ME this particular strange loop that is my only true possession? Isn’t that the strangest thing of all? I'm not satisified with your explanation that this is just what brains do as they grow. Why am I a brain, then, and not a powerful self-regarding computer? To you, it's a meaningless question, but to me, it has the most meaning of all. This viewpoint is ultimately all I have. At root is the question of why I'm not a "Boltzmann Brain" because that would be a simpler solution than the existence of the universe ... but, you know, I really do think the universe exists, it's not just me.

This comes down to a vision of what it means to be human. You say your vision is, well, true, but that it’s also deeper and subtler than the others because it teaches us to hold lightly, life is tenuous at its core, and that we are wildly different from what we seem to be. I worry that we’ve gone so far down the road to abstraction that we’ve succeeded in arguing ourselves out of existence: that nothing matters but it doesn’t matter that nothing matters. I’d like to see your viewpoint in conversation with others, especially those steeped in the strange story of the personality of the Creator seeking us out. Ultimately (and ironically, given your argument about the spread-out nature of consciousness) this is a one-man show and has the weaknesses that come with that. I’d like to see a back-and-forth with Marilynne Robinson on the importance of mind, or with Jeremy Begbie on the connections between the spiritual and physical in the music of Bach. I’d like to see a true dialogue, not one you make with yourself.

So thank you, truly, thank you for a provocative book. I could go so far as to say it was a storm against my own beliefs, washing away some accretions that didn’t really need to be there in the first place. But what stands when the storm has passed is the shape of the cross, and the conviction that we live in a universe of personality, which is therefore a universe of love. You come to a very different conclusion – I am richer for it despite my disagreements. I hope these other things may continue to pass the riches around.

Yours, Ben

Friday, September 2, 2011

Book Review: I am a Strange Loop (Part 3)

(part 3 of 4)

The biggest problem with this book is the same problem that always happens with Gnostics. No matter how hard Gnostics try, they always, always smuggle in passivity and elitism. Elitism comes before a fall. Once you quantify soul units (Huneckers, right?) you will start down the road in which some people are large-souled and some people are small-souled. The lines get redrawn: vegetarianism is a symptom of this condition, as is, contrastingly, dismissive attitudes toward the fetus. Once you try to enlarge your own consciousness you look around and see that other consciousnesses appear smaller. The section of the book where you hypothesize about switching your character traits with a football-watching, woman-ogling "red state" person is a big red flag. You can't get around the fact that you consider football watchers and right-wingers to have smaller souls than you. Which itself causes you to have a smaller soul: a paradox of the highest order!

Your line for "soulishness" is drawn at the ability to have friends. But you stop too soon here. In your introduction you mention that one of your sisters cannot understand and cannot speak. Throughout the book I was looking for you to talk about this, but she is not mentioned in the text more than fleetingly. I would really like to know how you look at her – I know you must love her – how does she fit into this book? She stands as a silent reminder of what may not be included in your philosophy. (This is one of the reasons I cannot write this as a dialogue. I simply don’t know how DH would respond.) A theological book called Suffering Presence by Stanley Hauerwas comes to mind as a way that these kind of things "fit" better into a philosophy than to yours. I know, there's enough to engage in with the study of the mind that you can't read everything -- but I would suggest that thinkers like Hauerwas offer a different way that stands in stark contrast to your philosophy at this very point.

And then, well, here comes the part where I get personally put off. At the end of the book you get to the point that really gets under my skin, in the section titled “Dig That Profundity!”. You describe how disappointed you are in a vocal group that sang one of your favorite Bach pieces at double tempo with vocal trills and – heaven forbid – SMILING at the audience. Your writing seems to recognize with its many qualifiers that you are elevating personal opinion and taste to universal standards for musical performance here, yet you go ahead and do it, which reinforces the apparent elitism of your position.

Let my strange loop comment to your strange loop on this one, because my strange loop has seen the world from the other side of the stage, and there's several things you aren't seeing. I work with a small ensemble to sing pieces from all musical eras, before and after Bach. For a three-minute piece you must dedicate several hours of rehearsal time. And you have to follow your leader – the conductor wants to go fast, you go fast, and the conductor will ALWAYS tell you to smile more, because most people actually like that, and the musician is always tempted to focus on the making music than the appearance of the body (although I would prefer to focus on the music myself, guilty as charged).

So because the ensemble you saw changed the piece you love away from the version that you had imprinted on your neurons as a teenager (by a biochemical chance, according to your philosophy, because I read a study that the music you hear when you're 14 will be the best music to you for the rest of your life), you jump to conclusions about the interiority of that ensemble, that they are flashy self-obsessed small-souled singers who just want to sell CD’s. Maybe if this was a Bach piece specifically about death or civil war, something inherently slow and melancholy, this critique might make sense, but it is just called “The Great” – it has no referent that I know of, and musically no reason not to change it away from your personal favorite parameters. I don’t know about those musicians, but I do know you can’t judge their motivations from the fact that you musically disagree with them. I’ve had a lot of judging comments just like this come back after we sing (in both directions: smile more! smile less!), which may be appropriate, but the problem is the certainty of the commenter. Ultimately you don’t know and you shouldn’t judge the self-centeredness of other people from a single piece at a concert. It seems pretty small-souled to do so!

It comes down to the act of judging others to be better than yourself, of humility (which you mention, yay) and, even if they're self-centered divas, of forgiveness (which you don't, boo). You know, I admit I'm often a self-centered divo, which probably shows from my own reaction to this. But I volunteer hours of my time every week to make music for God with my friends, and there are lots better ways to get attention and applause, quite frankly. I make the music because once in a while it's a thing of unique beauty that says something on a level that other things can't. Sometimes I even smile.

So I see a lot of similarity between your philosophy and my Christian belief: the Golden Rule, the lion lying down with the lamb, the importance of empathy and internalizing the “other” … but what I don’t see in this 400-page book is anything about forgiveness, which I think is absolutely necessary to life. By negating free will, have you also negated forgiveness? Is this philosophy therefore doomed to be limited to the comfortable or those who want to be comfortable – just like Gnosticism?

(Part 3 of 4 -- for those offended by my offense in the above paragraph please note all the positive comments in parts 1 and 2!)

Brain Proteins Before Brains

One of the grand unifying themes of recent findings has been that very old organisms contain molecules that are later used for complex purposes. It's the main theme of research into the origins of multicellularity, the immune system, rhodopsin, and now brain chemistry. I'm thinking more and more that this looks like J.R.R. Tolkien's approach to the origins of language, but much more needs to be in before we can say something. Yet my prediction is we will find a lot more molecules like this, the more we look. Let's see if that pans out. I'm writing more on the Tolkien connection to be published some day.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Book Review: I am a Strange Loop (Part 2)

(Continued: Part two of an anticipated four parts)

Your book really comes together when your own life fell apart, halfway through when you talk about the sudden loss of your wife. Like you say, this is a book with the same focus as the one you wrote in your late 20’s, but older and therefore sadder. The idea of letting your dead wife see her children through your eyes is heartbreaking and yet comforting. I can accept that as a good "echo" of the reality of marriage. And your philosophy lets you put forward a model of marriage with the idea of selves that are intermingled, reflected, and even transferred: truly a “one mind” argument that is very close to the Biblical term “one flesh.” Isn’t it interesting, though, that the Biblical term is that much more physical? At any rate, the soul-merger language you employ (and rightfully so!) about marriage is actually several steps down the road to the Paradox of all Paradoxes: the mystery of the Trinity, three “selves” merged yet distinct. So I have to thank you for your scientific insights enriching my theology!

You know, most science writing tries to (but often fails to) avoid teleology, the end purpose of things, while you dive headlong into it. Really, your model of a soul is all about the goals of the self. When you talk about Carol living in you, the main justification is that her ends live on in you. So I’m going to turn the tables on myself and argue against teleology in this respect. In marriage, the “ends” have merged, and her goals are your goals, but after she’s gone, the copy you have of her in you is faint and, here’s the real nub, it only matters to you (and less so to the others around you). Not to her. According to your philosophy, “she” stopped when her body stopped. Her memories do live on, that is so valuable. But she is only a reflection in your mind, a genetic reflection in your children, and she will never surprise you again. She will never truly know anything, if the ashes stay ashes and the dust stays dust. There’s no gentle way to say it: the consolation of living on in memory is a consolation to the rest of us but not to her. And you SHOULD fight against that, and that IS wrong, that death cuts a young mother off from her children and that she never gets to see them grow. Our insistence that the universe is wrong here is human; there’s no need to defend the universe by developing a complicated scheme for selves and self-awareness.

What I see in this book is an initial strict definition of causality that’s only bottom-up, and it ends up eating itself, or dissolving itself in Dennett’s metaphor of Darwinism (here meaning materialism) as the ultimate acid. You don’t allow top-down causality, then you end up disassembling your own will. I would like you to admit into your philosophy a third level of being and two-way causality. I don’t think anything is inaccurate in your description of the first atomic level, or even the second symbolic level, except you have made the choice by fiat that all reality must be reducible and laboratory-controlled. That explains a lot – but not everything.

It’s funny, as I was reading I said to myself, “I really wish he’d write about teleportation of the body” and then at the end of the book you do! So thanks for anticipating that. You seem to think this causes problems, so I may be missing something, but to me it’s simple. If I am disassembled on Earth and my atoms are reassembled on Mars, I have just been torn apart on Earth. End of story. The reassembly of my atoms means my memories and future actions and everything about me is on Mars, sure, and so to the rest of the universe “I” am still there. But to me, to my only possession of my point of view and my choices, I am gone. The copied me is a different me. Therefore, I will never step into a “teleporter”!

Now, my proposal with the resurrection is that the creator of it all can reconstitute everything down to my point of view and my will, which I believe requires my body to be reassembled, that this interiority can be put together but not by me or by any one of us, no matter how complicated our reassembly apparatus.

(To be continued in Part 3, in which I get a little snippy)

Monday, August 29, 2011

Book Review: I am a Strange Loop (Part 1)

(To sort out my thoughts in reply to this remarkable book, I was going to try something very much in the book’s spirit and impose a virtual dialogue between myself and its author (or more precisely, the neural representation of the author in my head), but my neural representation must be too thin because I ended up talking too much and drowning out the poor author. I just don’t have a strong enough strange loop of Douglas Hofstadter in my head, so I’ll write a normal-ish review but address it directly to him to see how that plays out.)

Dear neural representation of Douglas Hofstadter in my head (and I do mean “dear”),

Your book got under my skin for a couple of weeks, so I have far more to react to than can fit on a blog, but let’s start out with the overall adjectives and superlatives: although it’s a bit longwinded – you add some obvious “padding” to make the paragraphs fit your aesthetic scheme – it’s everything a book should be, exuberant, poignant, detailed, fun to read. Whereas your previous book Godel, Escher, Bach taught me how computers really work vividly enough to stick with me permanently, this book has an excellent chapter or two on math talking about the same thing from a different perspective, but really you spend most of your time trying to suss out philosophical implications that you feel were in the previous book but not picked up on by most. I picked up on them and am not as sure this book is necessary as you seem to think, but I do have a soft spot for good sequels, and this counts as one. Ultimately, I agree, the different emphasis of this book was necessary, although I wonder if it could have been half the length. Nonetheless, it’s a lot of fun to follow along. I find your emphasis on the developing and ever-changing self to be very helpful: I’m reminded of the one day in middle school that I tried to slick back my hair to try on a new self in imitation of a friend of mine, but by the end of the day it all fell back to where it started. Do you emphasize the mutability of the soul in order to minimize the constant elements to it? Yet aren’t those constant elements the truly distinctive ones?

I actually have no problem with where you start. I just think your universe needs more than you allow on top of what you already allow. I can see your entire philosophical-scientific scheme of what minds are made of as actually compatible with my orthodox Christian belief, because I think historically that the speculation on the soul as a separate substance is more a Medieval imposition on the text (in which they tried to make everything invisible – souls, righteousness, etc. – a kind of fluid or substance) rather than in the original text itself. So I have no theological objection to being built up from atoms, and being tied to my body, because according my theological system, we’re going to get bodies when we’re resurrected, so the body and soul are just as tightly linked for me as they are for you. Actually, being intimately linked to a pattern of atoms lets me see one level of just how God will reconstruct that pattern.

At this fundamental level, I have to ask that beyond your two levels of meaning -- the atomic and the abstract/mental/symbolic -- why can’t there be a third level of meaning beyond that? Now, I don’t think this third level is composed of patterns formed entirely by the first two levels, but I think it can interact with them. How it interacts may be a problem, but one that’s fun to think about rather than one that negates the entire system. And I don’t think this third level has to be some substance like what you derisively call “feelium,” which is as unfair a simplification on your part as Searle’s pop-can analogy, which you detest, is to your own philosophy. Better to call it “personality” than “feelium” and to remember that it is not reducible and not a substance or fluid or any thing like that, so mocking it with a substance-seeming synonym is just as wrong as Searle proposing one pop can can represent thirst. Your problem, as I see it, is that you still have to deal with the fact that a careening mass of atoms somehow gave rise to personalities in what is to you a universe void of personality. In your universe, the fact that I own a bit of personality that really is my only true possession is a problem, while in mine it is an expected and predicted part of the system. I find that amazingly strange in a universe of physics and thermodynamics – not impossible by any means, just weird.

Your insistence that “I” is an illusion (but an illusion that is real in that it should act real), and that the illusion can be disassembled with the proper scientific insight, seems much like the very old ideas of the Gnostics. Your focus on abstraction is the same as theirs. There is a paradox here, in that you build up your Gnosticism from purely physical bits, but end up with a realm of thought that de-emphasizes the physical bits and even seeks to escape them. In true scientific fashion, you have edited the first person out of your writing.

(To be continued in Part 2)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

George Murphy Quote of the Day

One of the constants of any ASA meeting is that George Murphy will give an excellent, provocative, challenging, and polished talk. His talk at the 2011 meeting ("Kenosis and the Inspiration of Scripture," which I just listened to online, and which can be found here) is no exception. Let me repeat the conclusion:

"The fundamental point in all of this is not one or another statement about the natural sciences or human history. It is rather that the Bible is both fully human writing and the Word of God, just as Jesus is fully human and fully divine. The scientific and historical limitations of Scripture should not be seen as embarrassments which have to be explained away, but as a consequence of the fullness with which God enters into the history of our world."

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Planet that Absorbs Light

Recently found: A planet that absorbs the light that falls on it. It is darker than black paint (by 20% at least).

If nothing else, a science fiction show set on this planet could save a lot of money on the cost of constructing the sets. And lighting. And CGI ...

The Hairs on (and the Neurons in) Your Head

[Part 3 of what has turned out to be a trilogy on Matthew 5-7]

The claim that God knows the number of hairs on your head is to my mind one of the most striking theological insights that Jesus gave us about God. He actually says this in Matthew 10 and Luke 12, not Matthew 5-7, which is interesting because in both cases he is talking to his closer followers and encouraging them to continue in hard times. Although it is not technically in the Sermon on the Mount it underlies its theology. It makes theological sense that God knows this much because practically all of the Sermon on the Mount depends on God knowing us entirely, down to the innermost thought, and being both Your Father Who Sees in Secret and Your Father Who Will Reward You. But it's so easy to slip out of the practical belief that, oops, just lost a hair, well, God's number just went down by one. It's one of those things that's hard to believe, yet is absolutely crucial.

There's a lot of hairs on a lot of heads in Jesus' day, like the sand on the seashore in the promise to Abraham, an inconceivably large number to human brains. The fact that we can look down orders upon orders of magnitude and see atoms and quarks, then look up orders upon orders of magnitude and see galaxies and superclusters of galaxies, is a difference of degree but not a fundamental difference. Whichever way you look at it, it's beyond you.

It's not too much more of a step to say God knows the numbers of neurons in your brain, and their current state. Come to think of it, maybe that's why we find this hard to believe, because we don't want to believe it. We don't WANT God to know all these random thoughts that run around inside our heads like the Beatles' "Revolution 9". (I heard once that Lennon said that song came closer than anything else to capturing the music he actually heard in his head.) Realizing God knows all that stuff for all of history gives a new perspective on infinite patience and gentleness. Maybe he can stand it because he once experienced it himself.

This comes down to one of the major problems I have with the Intelligent Design argument. If Michael Behe is right and the irreducible complexity of the flagellum required a little divine design the same way as someone might debug a balky program or sketch a blueprint for a car engine, then God stepped in to what Behe would argue is a random, meaningless process and injected a little bit of non-random meaning.

But that means for thousands or millions of years bacteria lived in a random, meaningless universe until God stepped in, played LEGO with the proteins, then stepped out again. If you argue that the flagellum needed a tinkering kind of miracle, then you must argue that the rest of the time the flagellum was non-miraculous. You end up with a universe that is 99.9% non-miraculous with 0.1% of a miracle thrown in. (And, if the percentage of miracles bugs you, it should, because quantifying the miraculous is the logical endpoint of the Intelligent Design philosophy.)

The thing that really gets me is that the 0.1% is constantly shrinking. I've seen it happen, Behe might argue it isn't, but my best professional judgment from decades of study is that it is. If and when we figure out a mechanism for flagellum evolution, then it becomes 0.09%. The mirculous has just been diminished.

The thing is, by focusing so much on the hardest-case scenario and demanding a miracle for it, the ID community inadvertently implies that everything else that is more easily explained is non-miraculous, and therefore random, and therefore meaningless. We end up in a more meaningless universe as a result. You can go with the "Dawkins universe" which 100% lacks meaning or the "ID universe" which 99.9% lacks meaning ... oh wait, I just read another paper explaining another biological mechanism, make that 99.91%.

What can get us out of this dichotomy? Reading closely the words of scripture.

If God knows the very hairs on your head, and by extention the very atoms, neurons, and thoughts in your head, and if in Christ all things hold together (thank you, Paul), then the process that produced thoughts from atoms is not a meaningless mechanism. It is a fascinating interplay of matter, mind, and relationship, held together by its Creator. God is immanent and active -- God is Creator and God is love. He is not absent, but he is patient. Every bond formed, every breath taken, every thought complete is a small miracle.**

Stop before you fall off the cliff of pantheism. God knows all about the hairs on your head but he is not the hairs. I think it's safe to say that God transcends hairs. Also, he is not your thoughts, but you can bring your thoughts in line with his direction, you can bring your thoughts to be "in Christ" as Paul would put it.

Because God knows all these things, you can talk to him, with your vocal cords or without. So what I really want to know of other Christians is not "What do you think about science?" or "How old do you think the earth is?". It's not "What denomination are you?" or "How do you interpet this word or that phrase?". It's a lot closer to the question "Do you pray?" because you gotta talk to God to really see his grace at work, but it's not even that, because I cannot tell when you're really talking to him or when you're mouthing words or dozing off, that's between you and him. What it comes down to is, how well do you love? Loving God is internal, but loving others is external and part of loving God, and it requires daily commitment and dusting yourself off after repeated failure. It requires conformity to the cross found at the heart of creation.

All the stuff about judge not lest ye be judged is part of this. God knows it all, I only know a part. Through a glass darkly, for now. The hope is that the Creator who started it all and who knows every hair therefore loves his creation, and will faithfully see it through from its incomplete, broken state to completion "in Christ." I'm not sure what that means but I'm looking forward to finding out. The path is through the pattern set in his story.

(** I've got more to say that is along the lines of how it is that a BIG disruptive event like the resurrection is a miracle brought about by this God who is closer to you than you are to yourself, but for now it's sufficient to note that, as Stanely Hauerwas pointed out in his Gifford lectures, the resurrection is a miracle that "goes along with the grain of the universe." It is ultimately consistent with the Creator's will and not a violation or suspension of it, and it is necessary.)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Book Review: The Ale Boy's Feast

Since this is book 4 of 4 in a series, I don't want to give too much away. But a few observations: This series is so unique it needs a new word for it (or we need to recover the original value of the word "unique"!). Most fantasy novels, you pretty much know what you're going to get, thanks to the "Ancestor" Tolkien founding the field and setting the rules that others riff on. Tad Williams has specifically noted that many of his plot points are specifically there to work out issues he had with Tolkien's series, both references and modifications. But the basic shape of the plot and the point of the writing all seems to be the same with carying levels of detail: to tell a story exploring a new world with many things different but most things the same as Tolkien's vision.

Because it's fantasy, and because he too follows a few of Tolkien's conventions, it would be easy to put Jeffrey Overstreet's books in with the rest, and I approached the series with those assumption, but it just doesn't fit. There's something distinctly different about Overstreet's vision. I've noted before how Overstreet writes cinematically: it starts from art, color, and image rather than being a typical campfire-type of story. In particular, in this closing book there's some metaphors about what art does and what it IS that are much deeper than any other fantasy novel, with the possible exception of Tolkien. It has a satisfying narrative conclusion; in fact, it follows the pattern of having multiple "endings" that unfold when the expected ending isn't enough. You see things in the conclusion that Tolkien himself didn't put in his trilogy, things that I always wished Tolkien would do. But the "satisfaction" of the ending, though real, isn't the point. Overstreet leaves just enough threads unfinished that it is not neatly packed up, but rather tantalizingly open, resolved yet still alive. Anyone who complains about a lack of resolution in this book, honestly, hasn't read the earlier books closely enough. (I feel the same way about LOST.)

I think one of the reason most fantasy authors avoid making their novels about "real" things like art and faith is that their writing honestly isn't up to it. Overstreet's writing supports his main point because it is up to the task. It is itself artistic and so the book can be about art. Lapidary phrases are scattered throughout the book like gems on the shore, turning up when you least expect it.

Other things I'm happy to say are in this book: a funny (to me, I've got a bit of a twisted sense of humor, and I thought the most evil characters were kind of darkly funny at first) Thomas Kinkaid reference; some really horrific scenes with the evil characters; a really solid resolution of the central mystery about the ancestor and the houses; a meaningful philosophical exchange between a student and his mentor about what's real and what's not near the end; and a fascinating underground geography that you can only do in a novel like this.

I realized near the end of this: I'm going to have to read it all again. Thanks Jeffrey for a wonderful and unique series.

And a final word: I miss the missing "scarjo." I know, I know it's still there, but the original term just seems more right to me. A matter of taste.

A final final word: are there any openings for imityriologists?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

From the Nearby Flowers to the Distant Future

It should be familiar by now. I've studied it all my life in one way or another and when I saw that the upcoming teaching series was Matthew 5-7, there was a part of me that thought I wouldn't get much out of it. That part of me was wrong. Every week there's something new and, well, the only word for it is convicting. It's not necessarily the eloquence of the teaching: I've seen the different pastors in the series struggle with the words like Jacob wrestling by the river. It's the words. These words are alive and unlike any other words.

As a scientist it amazes me how much of the Sermon on the Mount starts with observation of the natural world (anything that starts with "Consider ... "). Jesus saw God active, close, and immanent in nature, in the lilies of the field and the birds in the air, in the engineering principles of strong house foundations and the growth of trees. He also saw Scripture, and not just the words themselves but God's intentions behind the words, the transcendence of God's purposes. If you enter into the world of the Sermon on the Mount you find a world that is painted with bright colors far and near, one that rewards careful investigation and careful reading, but is more than the focus on the detail, it is the forest and the trees in one.

The fact that the lilies are thrown into the fire is not a problem like the problem of evil is for us comfortable people. Jesus says see how beautiful they are now, and how much more you are than they.

In the Everlasting Man, GK Chesterton sums this up:

“There is perhaps nothing so perfect in all language or literature as the use of these three degrees in the parable of the lilies of the field; in which he first seems to take one small flower in his hand and note its simplicity and even its impotence; then suddenly expands it in flamboyant colours into all the palaces and pavilions full of a great name in national legend and national glory; and then, by yet a third overturn, shrivels it to nothing once more with a gesture as if flinging it away. … Merely in a literary sense it would be more of a masterpiece than most of the masterpieces in libraries; yet it seems to have been uttered almost at random while a man might pull a flower. … There is nothing that really indicates a subtle and in the true sense a superior mind so much as this power of comparing a lower thing with a higher and yet that higher with a higher still; of thinking on three planes at once. … something that can only be called subtle and superior, something that is capable of long views and even of double meanings, …”

Just as Jesus looked at a lily from these angles, I want to pluck out DNA sequences and look at them the same way, looking not just for the relationships but at the Creator's intent behind those relationships, accepting the surprises as they come. And always, to remember, how much more are we? When Jesus looks at a lily and sees so much in it, it's important to remember, this is how God looks at us. We don't do this ourselves; the Spirit is the enabler and the catalyst of this view of the world. But when we step into it and let God work through it, I believe this will fix us.

This is why I believe: because these words are the words of life.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Judgment, Tenure, and the Fall

Academia is weird. There's the robes and square hats we wear to graduation, the impenetrable papers we write, and the way we constantly use personal eccentricities to disguise the injustices we perpetuate on those who work for us. And it costs a LOT of money to send a student to college to be taught by these weird profs. I get it. It's tempting to look at tenure and chalk it up as just another quirk, even a damaging mark, in academia. I admit I've asked that question myself. Why do we have tenure in this day and age?

This is why.

To sum up: John Schneider, a theologian at Calvin College, presented an article (and apparently is working on a book) about how he interprets the early chapters of Genesis in the light of the information stored in ancient DNA. Basically, the DNA evidence suggests that the community of humans we're all descended from is small, but cannot be from a single person. A cover article in Christianity Today and recent NPR story included Schneider. I just found out from that story that, although he had tenure at Calvin, he chose to step down uder pressure from the board, after 25 years. So the tenure system didn't protect Schneider from his board when he published an article they disagreed with. At the very least, a tenure system is there to protect professors to be able to publish interpretations contrary to their boards. Now, the added element to this mix is Christian orthodoxy: did Schneider violate the terms of Calvin's faith statement? Read his article and I don't think you see a "false prophet," but a Christian with some insightful things to say about the nature of the fall and the power of art. Whatever you see, I think the question is at least open.

Even if there is a disagreement about the nature of the Fall between Schneider and the Board, it should be re-emphasized that the version of the Fall being fought over is younger than the Bible. The person whose word is being reinterpreted is not really Jesus or Moses, but Augustine of Hippo. Augustine's ideas about the Fall were one of many options at the time. The Eastern church has a much different view of the Fall that branched off from different Christian fathers. So Schneider is not being punished for contradicting the Bible, but Augustine. I have to believe that should put the dispute in a different light.

Of all the opinions put forward, this exchange is the one that sticks out to me, from the NPR story:

“This stuff is unavoidable,” says Dan Harlow at Calvin College. “Evangelicals have to either face up to it or they have to stick their head in the sand. And if they do that, they will lose whatever intellectual currency or respectability they have.”

“If so, that’s simply the price we’ll have to pay,” says Southern Baptist seminary’s Albert Mohler. “The moment you say ‘We have to abandon this theology in order to have the respect of the world,’ you end up with neither biblical orthodoxy nor the respect of the

The problem with Mohler's quote is that it is exactly contradictory to the sermon I just heard on Sunday. That sermon wasn't from Genesis 1. It was from Matthew 7, the Sermon on the Mount, the famously, probably too-often quoted "Judge not, let ye be judged" passage. It's struck me how this passage is in tension with other passages, particularly 1 Corinthians when Paul says "Don't you remember, one day you're going to judge angels!" to the lawsuit-happy Corinthians. One of the things my pastor mentioned was that the judgment of Matthew 7 is one where you think you can tell where someone is at spiritually from external "indicators." It is a judgment of the soul, of intentions, which is exactly what Mohler is doing. Look at that quote: it uses the same words but twists them to make the respect of the world the focus of the statment, when it's actually incidental to Harlow's comment. Mohler is saying that the respect of the world is the primary driver of the scientists who seek to reconcile genes with Genesis. I don't know why Mohler is doing this, but from his words I can see that he is doing it.

Well, if Matthew 7 is Scripture then Mohler has just opened himself up to the exact same judgment, and that's what I'm seeing all over the internet today, with scores of opinionated people trying to determine, descry and declaim Mohler's inner motives. So now we have a rampant speck-vs-mote tournament in the virtual world. Just stop it.

Note that this isn't really about evolution. It's about the Fall. And it's not really about Genesis, it's about Augustine and later interpretations of Genesis. Schneider's writing actually helped me understand some things about the Fall, but I'm not sure we know enough science to speculate entirely on its historical nature yet. I think there's a creative and surprising solution out there that may not be entirely biological! I want to keep learning about it, because I think there's some fascinating ways in which we can understand the Fall and how it broke things apart. I'm sure it happened, but I'm not sure how. And I'd like to hear others who have thought about it without fear of reprisal.

If the Fall that we're fighting about is really Augustine's theology and not Jesus's, then that means Schneider was essentially fired because his writing disagreed with a human construct built on the foundation of scripture. 2000 years ago there was another debate between Jesus and the Pharisees about another human construct built on the foundation of scripture. I remember how that disagreement turned out. It would be a shame for the church to make the same mistake. But then again, isn't that what we all do? After all, we are fallen.