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.