Monday, December 31, 2007

Four More Years

So getting the NIH to tell you whether they're giving you a grant or not is a very drawn-out process. I have a three-year renewal (which may be stretched to four if you can do it) pending for them right now. I turned it in back in June, heard my scores in October, got my written evaluation in November, and waited through December for Congress to authorize the NIH fiscal year 2008 budget. Then, finally, at last, right around Christmas, my grant status changed to "To Be Paid." I'm trying to figure out how this can't be really good news ... but I can't, so I think it means the grant will be funded, and I'll be able to do research for four more years. I'll probably put off any sabbatical until after it's over ... so I think the NIH gave my lab a Christmas present!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Body vs. Flesh, Spirit vs. Soul: 1 Corinthians 15 Questions

Ok, I'd like to bring this discussion out to the front page, because it's important. The question stems from a general discussion of Bauckham and Wright's work, and it focuses on 1 Corinthians 15 in particular. Just what was Paul saying in that chapter?

I'm going from memory, but my sources include intense study of the epistle a year ago starting from Thiselton, Hayes, and Wright's commentaries, as well as the central points from Wright's 3rd book in Christian Origins and the Question of God and a tip of the hat to Bauckham as well, since evaluating his arguments is what got us here in the first place (although I only just read his book, and his book does not deal with Paul much at all, but rather the gospels and the early church fathers).

So the disclaimer is that I have studied all this on my own in some detail, but of course this isn't my day job. But I want to talk about what I think from reading the epistle and why, and this blog is the place to do it. I also can't vouch for any real organization, because I just want to rattle off my answers to various questions posed in particular by Stephen Carr in the previous comment section. (By the way, Stephen, hello, I've noticed your comments on some other blogs, including Mark Goodacre's NT Gateway blog if I'm not mistaken?)

OK, let me start with my bottom line. I don't know much Greek beyond the alphabet but I have studied this intently, and I've also been reading the Bible all my life (well, since I was 5 ...). So what I have here is a layman's perspective but a layman who practices the sciences and is trying to be the same person in the lab and in the pew. I'm obviously predisposed to trust the Biblical source because of my background. That's just where I'm coming from.

Coming from this perspective, growing up, reading 1 Corinthians and Romans always fascinated me but it seemed like there were passages and points that Paul spent time on, but didn't fit into my nice little evangelical Roman Road tract. Reading NT Wright's big book series made those odds and ends passages make sense and cohere, and also fit with my intuitive understanding of the passages from my personal reading. So that's a major influence, but it always comes down to a test of, what does the text mean? And that's the issue here: what is Paul saying in 1 Corinthians about the resurrection?

I think he's saying it's physical but different/transformed. Here's some motley points as to why:

1.) Let's start with the big negative statement: "Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" -- yes, and sarx (flesh) is not soma (body). Paul obviously has a negative attitude toward flesh as something to be gotten rid of. But Romans (written in Corinth soon after this letter) shows that flesh is one thing, a physical body is another. The whole point of the passage is that the body can be transformed, the flesh can be shedded. Paul's using "soma" so much he's wearing out his little sigma: "body" is the best way to describe his subject. That is unabashedly physical, although he seems to be struggling to describe its difference from our ordinary stuff, our "flesh and blood." If he's just talking spiritual, he'd be a lot better off just talking about spirit all the time. What's his body fixation if he's really thinking spirit?

2.) Paul does call some (it's important to keep in mind that the church was so fractured no one statement can describe them all) Corinthians fools for succumbing to the pressures of the culture around them, for believing that "there is no resurrection of the dead." But rather after death "God gives it a body as he pleases" with the metaphor of a seed. The seed produces something physical and continuous with itself. If Paul's trying to say God takes the spirit to heaven for eternal life he picked a terrible metaphor for it. Rather he picked a metaphor of something physical that disappears in the ground and dies (indeed, decaying a little) but reappears transformed. It's a much better metaphor for a physical transformation than for a spiritual translation of some sort.

By the way, this "foolishness" motif fits very well with the first 4 chapters of the letter. Also, in Chapter 5, Paul objects to their lawsuits because they bring church matters before the Romans, so their economic/legal habits are conforming to the Greco-Roman world. Chapter 6 = Paul objects to their sexual habits conforming to the Greco-Roman world. Chapter 8-10 = Paul deals with their tendency to go to dinner feasts in Roman temples (a nuanced treatment, but obviously caused by the tendency of the Greco-Roman world to influence them). Practically every problem Corinth has is caused by their going along with the Greco-Roman way of looking at things. Chapter 15 is no different, they're adopting the Greco-Roman attitude toward resurrection and God's ultimate justice. I can see how new believers would be pulled to be "more reasonable" with their crazy beliefs about the resurrection: Can't the resurrection just be spiritual in nature? The pressures from the surrounding world are evident throughout this letter, and the Roman pressure would be to spiritualize (Platonize) the resurrection, to remove the embarrassing Jewish Ezekiel/Isaiah-type physical dry-bones elements. Paul's basic point with Corinthians is to show how crucifixion and resurrection matter to all these areas. Chapter 6, especially, makes no sense whatsoever if physical resurrection is removed from the argument: "The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also." How can this mean anything else? The body matters intensely, and resurrection involves this body, the logic of the argument demands it. How could it be "for the Lord" if it'll just die and decompose? I don't think Paul's talking about donating your body to the great Carbon Cycle of Life when he says it's for the Lord -- he means something about it will persist through resurrection, and that is God's body now -- this physical arrangement of cells will be raised. To paraphrase an early church father, I don't know how he'll do it, but if he created it, he can re-create it.

3.) Back to Chapter 15, The next metaphor of different bodies first goes through species, then moves to the heavenly bodies. (A nice reference to the end of Daniel and the concrete resurrection prophecy there.) The point is a different kind of splendor from one thing to another, explicitly stating that heavenly and earthly things are different but also that earthly differs from earthly and heavenly differs from heavenly. If the point is physical vs. non-physical, again, Paul's making his point in kind of a strange way. Why does "star differ from star in splendor" just like men from animals? If the central point is the heaven-earth contrast, why explicitly include all of creation differing from each other? Now, if the point is that the creator can re-create, that makes sense. It doesn't make sense as simply distinguishing earthly from heavenly bodies. The point is God's power to create and create something as glorious as the moon. Sure, the bodies are different and glorious, but they're still bodies!

4.) "Natural" vs. "spiritual": I'm always reminded reading this how back in Chapters 8-10 Paul says that the Israelites wandering in the desert are "spiritual" food and drank "spiritual" drink. Spiritual food can be physical -- there's nothing more physical than the wandering in the desert. So the "spritual body" must be like the manna and water from the rock: provided from heaven, but real, tangible, and here.

5.) Back to the creed that is "of first importance": if it was a spiritual experience, why is it always "after three days"? Why is it emphasized that Christ was "buried" then raised (by the way, that would make an empty tomb -- and what's interesting is our two earliest sources on the resurrection are complementary: Paul talks about the appearance of the risen Jesus and Mark talks about the empty tomb. Both don't mention the other element, but together they are undoubtedly as early as we have -- so there's no evidence that one of these two elements preceded the other)? And of the "five hundred at once", if Paul's talking about a vision, that's some vision first off, and his statement "of whom the greater part remain to the present", why bother telling people to check a vision like that? I don't know of any other "multiple party" visions in ancient literature, and even if there are, I doubt that any of them include the "and they're still around" statement that is proof -- I don't doubt that people have visions, I doubt that they see something physical.

6.) Why is Christ the firstfruits if others have fallen asleep? If all we're talking about is life after death, the others would have joined him. If all we're talking about is Christ's exaltation, then he wouldn't be the firstfruits, he'd be the only fruit! This phrase is telling: what happened to Jesus will happen to the rest.

7.) Baptism for the dead: I don't think anyone really knows what to make of this. I think Thiselton had listed more than 30-40 theories on the practice. I'm not willing to draw any conclusions from it, since it's probably a bizarre local practice that justifiably withered away.

8.) Why must the corruptible "put on" incorruption if there is no physical continuity? That's a strange choice of words (why the concept of a corruptible core?) unless there's significant continuity.

9.) Destroying death doesn't make sense if the body's still decaying. The reversal, death's defeat, must be as real as the enemy for the enemy to be destroyed. For Paul's little victory dance to make sense, this is not an evasive maneuver: it is a destruction.

(And speaking of destruction: for stomach and food, Ch. 6 "God will destroy them both" is a statement of judgment, not of categorical abolition. God's judgment will destroy the glutton; that doesn't mean all stomachs and all food will be destroyed. It's a witty way of passing judgment on the Corinthians by reversing their own statements, and says nothing about the nature of the resurrection body. Judgment on the one hand, resurrection on the other.)

Either Paul's such a bad writer that he can't choose a metaphor to save his life, or he actually communicated his intention through these words.

For these reasons and more that I'm just not thinking of now (this is off the top of my head), I have always read 1 Corinthians 15 as being about the actual reversal of death, something strange and offensive and hard to describe, but something real and reported in great detail in about 50 AD, as something "handed down" in a polished, creedal form. How can that happen, that fast, among a group of fishermen following a dead rabbi? If you start from the point that there must be a normal explanation, I guess you'll be able to find one. I just don't find it plausible, myself.

Hayes, Wright, and the others have helped me see how the parts fit in to what has always been my basic reading of the text. So, for all the words back and forth, I can't see how I can change my mind from this position. It ties the chapter together, it ties the chapter to the rest of the letter, to the other Pauline letters, to the gospel, and to the Jewish prophets. I have studied and read this for myself more than most other parts of the Bible, and this is how I read it. This is a well-founded opinion based on evidence and a lifetime reading this passage, and the more I look into it, the more it fits with everything else.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Why Did It Have to be Testimony?

Now I've finished Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Some of the last few chapters on his theory that John the Elder and not John Son of Zebedee wrote the fourth gospel got a little long, although it's an interesting idea more proved in the negative than in the positive. The last chapter was more philosophical, about the process of history and the nature of truth. I got a new perspective on one of the questions that's been nagging me for a while: namely, if Jesus rising from the dead is the central event of history, why can't we know about it more directly?

I mean, even the Muslims claim to have the footprint of Muhammed's horse on the rock in the Dome of the Rock on the night he climbed on a steed and ascended to heaven (needless to say, that claim has not been subjected to rigorous chemical analysis and it might be just a chip in the rock ...). For Christians, our evidence is literary: four gospels, Paul's letters, and the social phenomenon of the spread of the Way. Why not something physical, some "this is the empty tomb" claim or ... well, the Shroud of Turin isn't and shouldn't be the cornerstone of anyone's faith. Why, in the end, do we just have testimony?

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life ... That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you. (1 John 1:1,3)

Personally, I'd like some camera evidence, a post-resurrection interview or two. I'm sure Oprah would book Jesus. But he rose before cameras existed. You know, as soon as there was photography, there was altered photography. So even photographic or camera evidence would be debated, I'm sure. I'm reminded how in the fantasy series I read, The Wheel of Time, the central Messiah-like figure the Dragon Reborn is declared at the end of book 4 or 5 and we're on book 11 and lots of people don't "believe in" him even with direct evidence. Even if Moses came back from the dead, some wouldn't listen to him ...

Seeing that many others have undertaken to draw up accounts of the events that have reached their fulfilment among us, as these were handed down to us by those who from the outset were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, I in my turn, after carefully going over the whole story from the beginning, have decided to write an ordered account for you, Theophilus, so that your Excellency may learn how well founded the teaching is that you have received. (Luke 1:1-4)

What we do have in the case of the gospels are claims to eyewitness accounts, claims to history. We have the physical account of the empty tomb paired with the spiritual account of interactions with the risen Jesus. The physical evidence we have is a negation (apaphatic?), an empty space. Like in John 20, two angels at each end of the empty slab form a new Ark of the Covenant, a new holy of holies, and we're left with the words of people who say "Trust me," and the lack of evidence to the contrary. Also, the changed, dynamic nature of the people asking to be trusted. But why does it have to be trust?

The tradition I handed on to you in the first place, a tradition which I had myself received, was that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried; and that on the third day, he was raised to life, in accordance with the scriptures; and that he appeared to Cephas; and later to the Twelve; and next he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still with us, though some have fallen asleep; then he appeared to James, and then to all the apostles. Last of all he appeared to me too, as though I was a child born abnormally. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)

As much as I'd like to biopsy the resurrection body and find out how it runs (reversed entropy?), I'm not given that chance. As much as I'd have liked Jesus to have, I don't know, carved YHWH into the moon rock as some universal, untouchable sign, I have not been given that evidence either. What I do have depends on a community and writings that claim this is true, and people's lives that have been changed, as well as the occasional obvious miracle and the constant miracle of a rational, good, and fertile universe. It must be necessary to know about Jesus through words and not experiments. It must be important to trust others, and not be able to run out and touch the wounds yourself. Blessed are they who do without. Blessed is the empty space.

Now we are witnesses to everything he did throughout the countryside of Judaea and in Jerusalem itself: and they killed him by hanging him on a tree, yet on the third day God raised him to life and allowed him to be seen, not by the whole people but only by certain witnesses that God had chosen beforehand. Now we are those witnesses-we have eaten and drunk with him after his resurrection from the dead- and he has ordered us to proclaim this to his people and to bear witness that God has appointed him to judge everyone, alive or dead. (Acts 10:39-42)

My academic education has been into a culture of suspicion. Peer reviewers slam a work if all the controls aren't run. Even so, some scientists fake their advances and net temporary gain, which hopefully gets found out in a few years. Science is dealing with the problems of fraud, and the fact that, no matter how suspicious you become, you have to trust somebody sometime. At some point, you have to say I trust that you actually ran that experiment or that control. I trust that you checked that it's the right protein. You can't be all positivist all the time. And the choice comes down to, not whether you trust, but who you choose to trust. And then, whatever you choose, you're let down in some way. Is the proper response more suspicion, or a tempered trust? How?

This disciple is the one who vouches for these things and has written them down, and we know that his testimony is true. There was much else that Jesus did; if it were written down in detail, I do not suppose the world itself would hold all the books that would be written. (John 21)

Bauckham's claim is that everything comes down to testimony, maybe testimony about an experiment, or maybe the testimony of a peer-reviewed paper, but testimony nonetheless, believing in second-hand experience. You can't do everything yourself. So maybe all we have of the risen Jesus is testimony, because all we have of anything is testimony. Testimony that can be tested, in a legal mode, but it can't always be repeated, and therefore it can't be experimented upon.

I think this is at the root of what people believe to be the science-religion conflict. Not a question of practice, but epistemology, how you know about the universe. Scientists trust the repeatable, the faithful trust the testimony of the unrepeatable. Both have flaws because humans are finite and incomplete, and so is any knowledge about the world. But they can co-exist: trusting the gospels and understanding/trusting experiments are actually not as different as they seem. Both must be corroborated with other information and put into a single framework.

So I'm left trusting that the things I read about in Isaiah, the prophecies Jesus himself trusted in (and was vindicated for on Easter Sunday), that these things both are coming true and will be brought about by YHWH someday, that God moved on Easter Sunday and he will move again, with Jesus as Judge and Redeemer. That as all the quotes before are in the past tense, the following is still future, but is begun by the resurrection and the church:

In this mountain will Yahweh of Hosts make to all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined. He will destroy in this mountain the surface of the covering that covers all peoples, and the veil that is spread over all nations. He has swallowed up death forever; and the Lord Yahweh will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the reproach of his people will he take away from off all the earth: for Yahweh has spoken it. It shall be said in that day, Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is Yahweh; we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

One raised from the dead so far, many more to come, some day. It will happen, by His hand. We trust and wait. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Mariners in the Crosswords

Today's New York Times crossword is usually pretty hard, but I was able to get started fast on this one thanks to the following clue in the upper right hand corner:

"6'5" All-Star relief ace with two identical first initials" (6 letters)

Yes, it's JJPUTZ, Seattle Mariners closer. Finally, he's getting some New York press!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

In Which the Author Argues that the Cross is More Like Nobel-Prize-Winning Bacteriology and Less Like Child Abuse

(Let's just see how long we can make these post headings, shall we?)

One of the most oft-repeated "rationalist" critiques of Christianity centers around the concept of the Atonement. If Jesus is God's Son, the argument goes, and if Jesus is the sacrifice that atones for our sins to appease God's wrath, then didn't God force his own son to die? Isn't that the very definition of child abuse? (The last term has been used specifically by that old bete noire, Richard Dawkins.)

No, I don't think so. I think it's more like what happened in an Australia lab in 1982, an event that was anointed into the scientific canon with the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Let me explain. When I was growing up I learned that stomach ulcers are caused by stress. This was the common, unargued orthodoxy. But in Australia two researchers, Robin Warren and Barry Marshall, noticed that ulcers showed several physical signs of infection and immune response in the area. Marshall was able to collect and grow unique bacteria from ulcers called H. pylori.

To prove that this bacerium caused ulcers, Marshall took an unusual step. He drank a vial of the bacterium, infecting himself with the bacteria and causing an ulcer. Then he drank an antibiotic that killed the bacterium -- and the ulcer went away.

My point is that Marshall was able to infect himself because he made the choice, and it's OK to perform an experiment on yourself. It's most definitely not OK to try the same experiment on your neighbor or colleague without her knowledge, and even if she says it's OK you have to sign a lot of forms proving that she knows exactly what she's getting into (a related problem with informed consent caused all sorts of legal trouble for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center at the turn of the century). Marshall didn't have to sign any forms for infecting, and then curing himself.

Dawkins' critique of the cross as a case of an angry father God demanding an innocent sacrifice for appeasement falls short on several levels. The only reason he's able to make this argument at all is that we are so far removed from the age of animal sacrifice that we only have a caricature of what it meant to the people who did it (oh, and people still do it, it just takes a different form, much like modern idolatry). But one fundamental element missing from his argument is the theology of the Trinity: God and his son are one, of one essence. The death of God's son on the cross is the death of God on the cross, the creator entering creation and meeting the worst of it, then defeating it on Easter Sunday. Jesus chose the cross (from provoking it with his demonstrations in the Temple to actively saying Your will be done in Gethsemane), and as fully God as well as fully man, he took the sickness upon himself of his own accord, like Marshall chose to drink the vial. There's no issue of consent or force for voluntarily sacrificing yourself, just like there's no problem with experimenting on your own stomach with ulcerating bacteria. What's really astonishing is that this self-sacrifice can be spread to all of us, because he is creator of the universe, and therefore self-sacrifice runs "with the grain of the universe" (Stanley Hauerwas). The cross shows us the way to the cure, and becomes the cure itself, justified on Easter morning with the ultimate justice of God.

Saying the cross is like child abuse is like saying that turning the other cheek is a passive shrinking back. It's not -- it's standing up, chest out, hands down, and putting your other cheek out there to be hit again. That takes courage.

I agree that the cross and sacrifice is an alien concept to my modern urban mentality, although I think if I lived on a farm, more in touch with nature, it may make more sense to me. But I definitely think it's important to distinguish what you inflict on yourself from what you inflict on others. The cross is one of the former.

There are two real stories in the world: those of aggression and those of sacrifice. I'm reading the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe to Sam right now, and for all its shortcomings I'm glad to read it because it is a story of sacrifice.

Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy and the Golden Compass movie have moved up on my viewing/reading list because he sets himself up as an existential, humanistic alternative to Narnia (don't think this is anything new -- L. Frank Baum's Oz books are just as humanistic and suspicious as any Pullman can come up with, I'm sure!). I do know in the movie there's not much of Pullman's philosophy (yet), but there is a big polar bear fight (and long ago I promised myself I'd see any movie that had a polar bear fight), where the strongest bear wins the battle. That's survival of the fittest, and yeah, it happens, but it's not the story I choose to build my life around.

Some may have wondered why I'm such a defender of Harry Potter books when the author goes around trying to change the books after the fact and all ... the reason is book 7 shows that the ultimate story of Harry Potter is one of sacrifice, and so I believe it is a True Story (with some unfortunate side notes thrown in). It is True because it reflects Good Friday and Easter Sunday, through a glass darkly, but unmistakably.

So which story is yours? Choose you this day ... you'll have to choose again tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Does Bauckham = Behe?

In the midst of reading Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham right now. It's a 2006 book that marshals evidence to argue that the Gospels (including you, John) were written by those who had witnessed the events, not by anonymous communities many years later. I find it interesting (and the only time I've skimmed was when he spent a chapter talking about the psychology of memory -- the irony is, that's the scientific chapter!).

Part of my difficulty in approaching this literature is a lack of current context. I poke around a little when I find a new author, to tell the NT Wrights from the Ben Witherington IIIs from the Lee Strobels (reporters, that is) from the Bible Code aficianados. So when I heard about Richard Bauckham, I assumed he was somewhere in the middle of that list (between Witherington and Strobel). Turns out he's actually more in the league of Wright, perhaps beyond, in terms of scholarly respectability. So I'm excited to read his book -- some of which is fascinating, some of which is based on scanty evidence and I don't quite buy. But he's no hack.

Last night I stumbled across a message board of scholars who had participated in the recent Society for Biblical Literature meeting, and under discussion was a panel in which Richard Bauckham discussed his work with three critics (wish I could get a transcript of that). The thread was instigated by one of the academic critics complaining about the evangelical "cheering section" for Bauckham and being worried about the fact that after the section people came up to him (the critic) and tried to persuade him to believe in miracles. He worried that the SBL is losing its objectivity and critical thinking, which set off a great back-and-forth. I mean, is believing that the resurrection happened automatically excluded from academic research? Are these "cheering sections" partisan and uncritical? (Never mind that Bauckham just deals with the subject of the writing of the Gospels in his book, not at all with the miraculous nature of what is written there!)

To me the question has extra resonance because I admire and am intrigued by the arguments of Bauckham and NT Wright, but I explicitly reject the intelligent design arguments of Michael Behe (in my opinion, the only ID arguments that are even addressable scientifically). When NT Wright talks about the the historicity of the miracle of resurrection, is that like Michael Behe talking about the (possible, although I don't buy it) historicity of the miracle of special creation of protein flagella? How is it that I buy NT Wright's arguments for the miraculous but not Michael Behe's? Am I being inconsistent?

Now, I've only had a bus ride to think about this, so I have more questions than conclusions right now (although I did also think about this topic when reading NT Wright's first volume of Christian Origins and the Question of God, where he talks about epistemology). However, here is my draft argument for why I think God physically raised Jesus from the dead, but also why I think the earth is very old and animals were created through a long, bloody development process of descent with modification:

In a sentence, the type of evidence and the mechanism of development, given the time frame, make all the difference in the world.

Biological evidence: Every animal uses the same amino acids, the same type of DNA molecules, the same DNA code, and has similar genes in similar orders. Every animal. I can't say there aren't acts of special creation out there but I can say it would be very easy to provide evidence for such acts, and we have no evidence. Also, there are old broken-down genes and old broken-down viruses all over our DNA, fitting in precisely with the long development over time. This is an ecosystem-wide conclusion based on the biochemistry, publically accessible in genomic databases across the web.

On the other hand, the evidence we have for Jesus (the Gospels + Josephus + Paul's letters + physical evidence of names on tombstones and archaelogical details) at least claims to be history written by people who saw what happened in many cases, and to argue against that you have to start from some form-critical assumptions that people very early on made very big mistakes, and then you lose that evidence because you assume it's lying. So you end up with less evidence because of your a priori assumption that, for example, 500 people couldn't have seen a physically resurrected Jesus (or been available for inquiry like Paul implies), so Paul or someone else must have developed that story within 20 years after Jesus' death, and added false evidence deliberately!

My point is you have to have a mechanism for the falling away from the truth and yet presenting yourself as the truth. It has to be a very fast mechanism to work over decades and be in place in 40-60 years or so, or 20 years in the case of Paul's strong check-it-out-if-you-doubt-it statements (for timescale comparison, think of The War by Ken Burns. Those vets are telling stories that are 60+ years old now, so Ken Burns is sitting down now and capturing their stories before they die. This seems similar in tone to the end of John's Gospel). For evolution there's time and a molecular mechanism that would work over millions of years, and Behe takes the most extreme case and says you have to prove it to convince him. That's not a good argument: millions of years is a lot of time, and the evidence of broken-down genes gives genetic drift a physical credibility. Not much evidence of broken-down non-canonical gospel stories: all the good ones are 200-400 years later, with the possible exception of the Gospel of Thomas, which regardless of its age is 1 witness against 4. It's nothing like the fact that there's more broken-down viruses than functional genes in your genome.

For the development of the Gospels I don't see how there is time for the drastic changes to the story that the form critics propose (this is part of Bauckham's argument so GOOOOO BAUCKHAM!! -- sorry, my evangelical cheering section just miraculously appeared out of nowehere). I simply don't see a mechanism, and the mechanism proposed by Wright and Bauckham actually makes sense within the timeframe, just with this itty-bitty catch: you have to think that Jesus walked out of the tomb and did some very strange things with a select number of people that he then left to tell everyone about it. The "experiment" is hidden by time, but we do have what claims to be the resulting written evidence. I buy that mechanism just like I buy the mechanism of genetic changes over time. It's the difference between the years in a lifetime and millions of years, and it's based on evidence.

So I don't see a miracle, or at least an abrupt now-you-see-it-now-you-don't miracle, in the development of life on this planet (I do see one in the creation of the universe, as my entry on Day 1 makes clear!). I do see a miracle in the sudden appearance of strong resurrection stories that people told as eyewitness truth and that some of these people died for. I also see a miracle in the exponential spread of an anti-imperial theology at the height of the Roman Empire's powers, without coercion or war, just by the spread of the news itself. Does that make me an a priori credulous investigator? Does it make me a "cheering section" because I hesitantly accept Bauckham's idea that the reason the gospels claim to be eyewitness accounts is because, you know, they are? That the reason Luke talks about the resurrected Jesus eating fish is because he did? (Just a side question: was it Friday or not, and was the Pope notified?)

In any case, I want to be consistent with my beliefs. I follow a God who took a step into history, necessarily kicking up dust at the time and leaving footprints. I believe his primary mode of evidence is the life of Jesus, and I want to be able to critically evaluate the possible mechanisms of who saw what, how they reacted, and what it means. Even though I have never seen a resurrection, I believe that one happened because of what history tells me (and also because of the present work of the spirit in the church and the lives around me, and I understand that such evidence is not technically peer-reviewable).

So I'm not going to go to Richard Bauckham's next talk and Do the Wave with the other evangelicals, but I will continue look at historical evidence with my best attempt at an open mind, and then commit to a conclusion as a result. It just leads me to different conclusions for the second part of Genesis 1 than it does for the first part of Genesis 1, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20. Isn't that what different evidence in different cases is supposed to do?

Friday, November 30, 2007

The First Christmas Pageant Ever

Welcome to Advent, the time of waiting for the sun.

I recently heard a story about Francis of Assisi (patron saint of this blog). He wanted to illustrate the Christmas story, so he rounded up some animals, a few sheep, a cow or two, a manger, and led them into a church to make the first Christmas Pageant ever. I have to imagine the cathedral custodian was grumbling, but the saint started a vivid tradition of recreating that night long ago, as recounted in Matthew and Luke, in 4 dimensions at the front of the church. It may have been the first modern dramatic performance ever, the precursor to opera. The point of it all was to make Christmas more real, and to bring it closer to the worshipers. All to praise the tiny baby in the manger. Once again St. Francis had a very, very good idea.

Now if we can only get our choir ready so that we sound good, and not like the braying animals ... we'll have done our part! We'll work on that this weekend at rehearsal and we'll see how we do December 8. Merry Christmas a month early, or should that be, a Patient Advent to all and to all a good night.

(Good news: this year we're singing "Scots Lullaby," one of my favorites which we haven't sung since Sam's first Christmas. That song is firmly associated with Sam's first few months, and I always love to revisit it.)

Friday, November 16, 2007

In a Parallel Universe I Have a Green Beard

I was listening to an interview with Richard Dawkins (author of The God Delusion), who casually mentioned that there is an infinite number of parallel universes, one in which he has a green beard, etc. Of course, this is the same Dawkins who condemns belief in God as unnecessary, and equates teaching your children about God with child abuse, all in the name of (worship of?) science.

What bugs me is this: why is it OK to believe in infinitely many infinitely complex and by definition undetectable things (parallel universes), but it's unreasonable to believe in a single entity that made it all? This entity is infinitely complex perhaps, and unknowable in many of the same ways, but to me a more reasonable proposition than the one in which every time an atom does ANYTHING, the universe splits in two. That's a load of universes there.

I personally find it more reasonable to believe in an infinite personality than in a meaningless infinity of universes. At the very least, I'd like my belief to be considered with the same respect given the multiple universe theory.

The question is not, "Will you believe in something unreasonable or something reasonable?", but rather, "Which unreasonable infinite thing will you believe in, one with personality or one without?". (I believe there are reasons to believe in the former, too, but at the very least they seem equivalent options from the perspective of necessary complexity.) And ... if there is an infinity of universes, isn't there one that includes a powerful creature very much like YHWH? How would we know if we were living in that universe or not?

Parallel universes are treated as a panacea by materialists but they don't seem very well thought out. I have a feeling that it's just too hard to take them seriously, it's such a preposterous idea. Where's William of Ockham when you need him??

Suggested listening for today's rant is "Parallel Universe" by Jan Krist: (click on MP3 or RA)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Harry Potter and the Assessment Test

A school in England has raised its assessment scores from the bottom 25% to the top by adopting a Harry Potter-based curriculum. Kids don't do subtraction, they "cast subtraction spells." Not chemistry experiments, but "color-changing spells." Here's a list from the article:

Example lessons from the "Harry Potter curriculum"

•Maths: subtraction is seen as a "spell" which has been created by Harry Potter. Children have to say the magic words "numerus subtracticus" when they give an answer eg "58 minus 14 - numerus subtracticus - equals 44".

•English: to learn about dramatisation, pupils create their own scripts for plays based on the text from chapter two of J K Rowling's debut novel Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

•Art: imagine what Harry Potter would do if he painted a version of Vincent Van Gogh's 1889 masterpiece The Starry Night. The Potter-inspired versions featured witches, dragons and other beasties.

•History: the history of flight, starting with a discussion of Harry Potter's broomstick, then discussing if that is real and tracing the real development of aviation, including the Wright brothers.

•Geography: comparing the children's home town of Arnold, Nottinghamshire, with Goathland, North Yorkshire, where the scenes of Hogsmead Station were shot for the Potter films.

•Computers: take a virtual tour of Harry's fictional school Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry on the internet, then create a map of Robert Mellors Primary and Nursery School using similar information.

•Science: put a stick of celery in a beaker of blue dye and see how it takes in the fluid, turning the celery from green to blue. Discuss whether Harry Potter could use this to turn one of his foes a different colour.

•Music: learn how to create a mood by performing a piece of music relating to the theme "Hogwarts at night". Using percussion instruments, the children made appropriately spooky sounds.

•PE: balance and co-ordination is taught by getting the pupils to pretend they are Harry Potter and his friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger getting on and off their broomsticks (pupils used imaginary broomsticks).

As a curriculum, I'd say this is a decidedly mixed bag, but you know, there are some good ideas there. You shouldn't need to invoke broomsticks to teach balance, but for something like math or science, I think this is exploiting a real connection that's always been there. Scientists incant in Latin, after all (or the closest English equivalent to Latin!). Snape's class was obviously a chemistry class, with cauldrons substituted for crucibles.

Some of the magical "rules" in J.K.Rowling's books are pretty arbitrary and inconsistent (I mean, can anyone actually imagine Quidditch being a real game?), but the main point is learning something complicated in order to accomplish a goal. In the case of these second graders, the goal is something like balancing your checkbook. Whether they think of it as a spell or as a calculation, the important thing is that they think of it at all. Something about the brain may in fact be wired so that it is more easily understood as a "spell" than as an abstract mashing together of various symbolic numbers.

On the one hand, this is obviously a fad, and it shouldn't be the basis for an entire curriculum. I have to imagine it will get old for the kids after a year or two. On the other, at its best, it's built on the truth that all language is a spell. The "good-spell" is the "Gospel," good news about events that happened in the real world, a story to repeat and cast again and again. J.K. Rowling doesn't cast spells with wands but with words. And by using words to talk about things like money and celery changing color, we are indeed casting spells. Why not talk about it that way, if it works with the way the brain is wired?

Actually, education at a place like SPU is also ideally a place where every action should be connected to an overarching story, this one the story of Israel and Jesus. The Harry Potter is actually a pale imitation of this that won't last long, but there's something to the narrative understanding of life that I think is very true and will indeed last.

I actually will talk about this more when I get to Day 6 of the 8 Days series, but for now, suffice it to say that just getting children to learn their maths is indeed a miracle and magic rolled into one.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

On the Fourth Day, Part 2: Survival Through Embrace

This Halloween, we went with a Veggie Tales theme: Sam was Bob the Tomato and Aidan was Larry the Cucumber. Next year we’re thinking Mario and Luigi from Super Mario Bros. may be in the cards. It’s good you don’t mind (for now) dressing up in complementary outfits, not only because it makes planning that much easier, but it points out the unique bond you have as brothers. Each of you isn’t complete without the other.

Brothers and sisters find they need each other (and become really annoyed with each other as a direct consequence). Walt Disney may have been more famous, but he needed his more down-to-earth brother, Roy, to tell him "no" and to keep his finances in line. Neither was whole without the other. These relationships, of brother to brother and father to son, form the core of books like Proverbs.

Just the other day, someone asked you, Sam, for your favorite color. You said, “Red, because my brother’s hair is red.” Aidan on Thursdays always looks forward to getting Sam from preschool: I hear over and over, “We go pick up Sammy now?” There’s no little brother or sister for you two yet: if and when one comes, our whole family will shift, and the addition of one more member will change the rest of us forever.

It was the same way with life, once brothers and sisters started to happen and become more and more different. All life looked alike for a long, long time, but once in a while, the cascade of chemicals being eaten and pooped out included a bunch of carbon atoms and double bonds fused together into something that was colored in the visible-light range. This would be the first pigment. This colored molecule could absorb the light from the sun (try putting on a black sweater and sitting out in the sunshine sometime to see what a little color can do). This molecule could get hot from the newly revealed sunlight, or maybe the energy could be funneled into one of the electrons and then carried elsewhere. If something happened to be around when the sun was out, this energy could run into it, then a whole new class of reactions would suddenly become possible. The fortunate little bug would be suddenly solar-powered, and it would be able to catalyze reactions no one else could do. For instance, that solar energy (photons) could be put to use piecing together carbons into more complex structures (synthesis): and then you’d have your first little chemist doing “photosynthesis.”

Once the relationship of the fourth day was established with the unveiling of the sun, the photosynthetic organisms would have an explosion of energy that they could use to do all sorts of things. We already talked how there was so much photosynthetic activity that the very composition of the atmosphere changed, and it became charged with oxygen. Then other reactions could use the oxygen. Strike a match, and you start a reaction between the oxygen in the air and the carbons in the wood (and step out of the way, because that’s an energetic reaction you just started). Some of the other bacteria on the fourth day started catalyzing similar reactions, burning carbon and oxygen, producing carbon dioxide, and then specializing by running other interesting reactions with the leftover energy. Let’s call these bacteria the “pyrotechnic” bacteria. Then the carbon dioxide would be swallowed up by the photosynthetic organisms, producing more oxygen, which was captured by pyrotechnics, etc. etc. etc.

Note how, in the relationship between the photosynthetic and the pyrotechnic bacteria, each requires the other. The waste for one is the food for the other. This is a stable relationship of more than one part, a relationship like the sun and the earth. I’d say the sun and earth would be a dependent relationship; photosynthetics and pyrotechnics would be an interdependent relationship. But for all the relationship, there’s still two separate little bugs swimming around, each with different jobs, but not too different and not too complex, really. Not yet.What came next on the fourth day was another remarkable leap. Remember how each bacterium has an oily fence of a membrane around it? Like soap bubbles, two bacteria can sometimes merge into one. And once in a long while, if you’re lucky, you can blow a special bubble with a small bubble inside of a big one, right? Well, bacteria were able to do that too. Instead of fusing into one bubble, each bacterium kept its own bubble, so that one was inside the other. At that point, two organisms became one, but each kept its identity, and a new chapter in life’s complexity started. This is even more intimate than a marriage: it’s like a birth in reverse, with a mother cell engulfing a “baby” cell.

There’s a complex interplay of trade-offs going on at this stage. The inside cell loses its freedom but gains protection from the elements outside. The outer cell must feed the inner cell, but it gains whatever new reactions the inner cell can catalyze. If the inner cell is very different, then the outer cell gains a whole new set of reactions, and maybe it can live in a different environment all of a sudden. On the whole it must have been worth it, and these “married bacteria” must have survived better, and producing more and more bacteria like them. This new relationship that led to life was a vivid embrace. It wasn’t just a survival of the fittest, but also a revival through embrace, a model of cooperation instead of competition. The new cooperation cost a lot of energy and a lot of freedom. In the end analysis, it was a very good move, because we see it working everywhere now. Look inside a photosynthetic plant cell and you will see tiny green baby bacteria called chloroplasts:

These trap light and carry out the reactions that produce oxygen from plants. I think if we’re to reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, we could repeat the same atmosphere-transforming trick from millions of year ago by harnessing tiny green chemists to convert carbon gas into carbon solids.

It’s not just plants that have subcellular sidekicks, but you do too. Look inside your cells and you’ll see red-brown blobs with a distinctive wrinkled shape:

(Image from

These are your mitochondria, and they carry out reactions opposite to the chloroplasts: like tiny internal combustion engines, they burn oxygen and spit out carbon dioxide. On that level, it’s almost exactly like the reactions in your car engine, but much more controlled and efficient. In tissues that need to use a lot of energy, like muscles, the cells can have thousands of mitochondria, more than Jay Leno has cars.

So inside most of the cells of your body, there are hundreds of mitochondria along for the ride. They make up a significant proportion of your weight. But don’t get upset, they pay their fair share: after all, where would you be if you couldn’t breathe in oxygen for energy? You’d have to be green and rooted in one place, that’s what. Higher brain function is very energetically expensive, and practically requires a complex, specialized engine like a mitochondrion to work at all. If you can read this, thank a mitochondrion. (And this is why biochemists shouldn’t write bumper stickers.)

The proof of this theory (called the endosymbiotic theory) is all around on the biochemical level. You can pretty easily pull mitochondia and/or chloroplasts out from a bunch of cells with a centrifuge. Then you can compare the “little baby bubbles” to the larger cells, and to bacteria. You find that some of the molecules match and some don’t. In fact, in every category we biochemists can come up with: proteins, DNA, RNA, membranes, sugars, you name it, chloroplasts and mitochondria look like bacteria, and they don’t look like the larger cells that surrounded them. You can take a piece of a chloroplast that makes proteins, and put it into a bacterium, and it works just the same -- these parts are interchangable!
Chloroplasts and mitochondria even reproduce like bacteria do. For chloroplasts, we can even find a bacterium that looks so much like a chloroplast that it’s got to be the source bacterium, or at least a cousin once removed from the source. Also, we can find small bacteria that have taken up residence in larger cells, but have not yet lost their identity to the other cell. Aphid gut cells contain lots of spherical bacteria that live inside and appear to be in the process of becoming permanent parts of the aphid. Therefore, we’ve found intermediates in the process, and evidence of end points all around. Not only has it happened repeatedly before: it is happening repeatedly now.

Mitochondria and chloroplasts are just the sub/intracellular examples. Don’t get me started on the extra/intercellular examples: the bacteria in your intestine that you need to digest your food, or the bacteria in plant roots that can uniquely grab nitrogen and break it apart into ammonia. These examples are so important that I think it’s fair to say that cooperation and relationship are at the heart of life, and are at least as important as competition and individual survival. Darwin is part of the story, but so is sacrifice for the good of the other.
Embrace, then, is part of creation. Miroslav Volf’s book Exclusion and Embrace uses this same word to sum up a discussion of forgiveness and justice for the church. To join the body of Christ is to lose your identity, even dare I say, to be “born again” into something rather than out of it. They’ll know we are Christians by our embrace. And embrace is costly, whether it kills us outright or causes us to lose our rights, or even what we cherish as our identity. Scary stuff, and easy to misinterpret, even easier to leave uninterpreted. I’ll let Volf’s amazing book speak for itself when it comes to the theological meaning of embrace – I will put this forward as one biochemist’s version of a scientific meaning.

The importance of cooperation intensifies when you realize that there’s a third, in-between state of cooperation between organisms. I’ve mentioned how separate organisms can cooperate from a distance, or can embrace to become one. Between these two extremes you can find the case where a bunch of single cells start to stick together into a blob, or to use the technical scientific term … a slug (hey, it’s not always complicated).

Consider the slime mold! When times are good, slime molds will exist as individual amoebae, tooling around independently, gobbling up the food, and watching the Spike network. But when the food runs out, they suddenly start to stick together, aggregating into a slug. They change in the process. Some cells become front cells, some become back cells, and the whole thing starts to act like a single animal: it can sense light or food, and it moves together as one. Now, this is probably beyond your time, but I just have to mention that reminds me of nothing so much as Voltron, Defender of the Universe. In other situations, this slug can change into a stalk that acts like a spore. At this point the scientists ran out of words that start with “s” and just published the data.

(Image from

(Image from The top is a slime mold aggregating into a slug, and the bottom is a slime mold slug lunching on surrounding bacteria.)

This transforming clump of cells was like another innovation that had to happen during the fourth day. When a bunch of cells get stuck together, different jobs get handed out to each one. Because of this, cells could specialize and cooperate, and another dimension of complexity could develop. Some cells could become eye cells, and some finger cells. It’s worth noting that each cell is important to the whole, and each function is needed, whether spectacular or mundane, public or private. It seems to me someone has hit on this (First) idea (Corinthians) before (chapter) but (twelve) I’m blanking on it right now ...
Some slime mold cells have specialized so much that they are equipped to seek out and destroy threats (including but not limited to other slime molds, no doubt). These sentinel cells perform the same function as our immune system, and show an amazing degree of specialization for something as lowly as a slime mold. And how do these sentinel cells take care of offending bacteria? Just like the whole process started, by engulfing and "embracing" the bacterium, just before atomizing it (hey, no one said every embrace was going to be sweet and tender!).
It’s worth noting that your own body is an exquisite example of specialization, with the immune system in particular being a proficient (if costly) example of how certain cells can take jobs no other cell can, and the end result is a system that can move, change and adapt in its mission to sniff out and attack germs.
In conclusion, life is found here, in relationship and cooperation. We are not just autonomous units fighting all the time, but we are carrying around pounds of bacteria, both inside and outside of our cells, that work with us to eat food and produce energy, so we can think about … those bacteria. In the context of life, death and suffering, an ineffable goodness is to be found in parts relating to become more than their sum. To put this principle into equation form, 2+2=5. I can imagine that God saw this and he said that it was good.
And so I’ll suppose that He did. On the fourth day, the biochemical blueprints for diversity were laid in the complex relationships of single cells, and they became more than single cells. Some became smaller and lost identity, some stuck together and gained a renewed identity as a microscopic body. Following this same template of creation, the next day would be an exponential explosion of diversity, life, and death, finally visible to the watching eye, as creation accelerated toward its end.
It was evening, and it was morning. The fourth day was done.

Friday, November 9, 2007

How to Win in Monopoly

The following link has an analysis of the economics of the game Monopoly. For instance, three houses is the "sweet spot" where your money is best spent, and railroads are the most profitable spaces on the board to own. It all makes sense to me. (Although, as a father, I'll probably won't be as cutthroat and set on winning as this implies -- I may in fact do the opposite to give my kids a better chance at winning! "Strange economics" to quote Bill Mallonee.)

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Best Commencement Speech Ever?

Let me start two consecutive posts with a question: Did you ever run across something that you read that was so along the lines of what you were thinking (but said so much better) that you realize it's what you were trying to think all along? In the recent James Watson post I added some comments at the end about worship/idolatry and science. And then today I got referred to a commencement speech by David Foster Wallace, who had this to say, even using some of the same terminology:

"Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

"If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clich├ęs, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

"But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings. They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing."

To quote Bob Dylan quoting someone else, "You gotta serve somebody." Foster's speech blows me away in its profundity, simplicity and humility. And for me, it leads to the question, what does it mean for a Christian to worship Jesus? The real Jesus, not a fake one set up by someone else. Because that's my way out from idolatry. Like I told Sam last night (after another one of his don't-make-me-go-to-sleep-yet theological questions), if Jesus made the universe, then following him, taking up our cross, is living the way we were made to live. Maybe a cliche, definitely true, and definitely convicting.

Read the text of Wallace's entire speech here (and thanks to Andy Whitman's blog for pointing this out, I am compelled to pass it along):

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Red-Headed Caveman

Did you know we have sequenced some Neanderthal DNA? It turns out some Neanderthal remains in Spain were well-preserved enough to pull out some genes. One of the genes they pulled out was one of the genes primarily associated with red hair (see previous post on Red Hair about Aidan, our red-haired boy -- I think it's the same gene, or similar). So they cultured cells, expressed the gene, and found it produces pigment the same way, and therefore, it looks like some Neanderthals had fair skin and red hair. Just like my boy.

Now I can tell him, "Stop acting like a Neanderthal!" And he can say "I can't help it Dad, it's in my genes!" (Never mind that my other son is already prone to saying things like that ...)

Also, I read recently that the red-haired gene is not Irish in origin but reflects a Viking source (by way of the Irish). So Aidan's got a Viking nature and a neanderthal nature. Good thing we have so many more genes than that!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

On the Fourth Day, Part 1: Brother Sun, Sister Moon

The hero (who looks a lot like a certain governor of California) is trapped in an elevator. Outside hovers a menacing helicopter full of bad guys, with a big Gatling gun on the left side and two small guns on the right side. Change to a close-up of the hero in the elevator. Switch back to the helicopter, still outside hovering ... but wait a second, the big Gatling gun is now on the right side? It's too fast, we're back in the elevator and the hero's planning his escape. Now cut back to the helicopter again, and ... the Gatling gun is back on the left. What's going on here?

The movie I'm remembering is the mid-90's The Last Action Hero. In the tradition of other movies such as The Purple Rose of Cairo, this is a movie about movies: characters step into and out of movies thanks to some "magic" device. To help promote the sense that you're "in a movie," the director deliberately introduced continuity errors like that flipping Gatling gun.

I mention this because sometimes errors have a purpose. (It's debatable whether they accomplished that purpose in The Last Action Hero, since it never caught on with audiences and is not one of the highlights of that actor-politician's career, who shall remain unnamed. However, I've talked with film students who waxed eloquent about the depth of the artistry and irony set up in that movie -- but I never detected it. That's why they're the art students.) It is certain that there was at least an intended deeper meaning to the apparent error.

So to the 21st century scientifically literate reader, Day 4 induces a similar sense of whiplash (and the end of Day 3 did as well). Let's read the passage and then discuss the alternatives.

Then God said, “Let there be lights / in the firmament of the heavens / to divide / the day from the night / and let them be for signs and seasons / and for days and years / and let them be for lights / in the firmament of the heavens / to give light on the earth" / and it was so / Then God made two great lights / the greater light to rule the day / and the lesser light to rule the night / He made the stars also / God set them in the firmament of the heavens to give light on the earth / and to rule over the day and over the night / and to divide the light from the darkness / And God saw that it was good / So the evening and the morning were the fourth day.

So in Day 3 I mentioned that flowering plants are a "flash-forward" of sorts in the Genesis account. Day 4 might be a "flash-back" and/or something else is going on here.

1.) Literary rearrangement. This is one way to take the passage. The Bible says the sun was made after the earth in Day 4, and therefore the material must have been rearranged, because our best physics tells us the sun was made before the earth even cooled. This doesn't bother many theologians, who say it's not intended to be a sequence, but an example of Jehovah's dominion over other gods. Adding to this theory, Days 1-3 have significant parallels to Days 4-6, so it looks like material was rearranged to give it a three-day parallel structure.

Ok, so far, but I think this sells short the parallels between the Biblical account and the scientific account that we've seen to this point. The exact sequence is at least possible to align with the scientific account, as long as you start from the science and work from that to understand how the Bible fits into that. This is fair to do because God gave us reason and experimental ability to test and figure out the order of the world's creation, and gave us just a little detail in Genesis about the visual order of the process, with some rearrangement for literary purposes. Personally, I see more parallels than rearrangement, as should be clear from my discussion so far, and I'll bet there's a reason for every rearrangement. So to remain consistent with my interpretation for pretty much everything else in this series, I'll try to find some way the scientific account can fit with the main account. Maybe it's stretching a bit, but if the glove fits nine fingers and leaves a little wiggle room for the tenth, it's still a functional glove, especially compared to the alternatives.

So what could fit with this? What if, as I mentioned before, these are visions given to the author about the creation of the universe? If so, they would have to be visual, and they would be anthropocentric -- that is, they'd be from the perspective of man, the end point in creation. So they would be from the perspective of the surface of the newborn earth, which gives us a second theory:

2.) Atmospheric unveiling. Do you remember how the stromatolites were spitting out oxygen and changing the composition of the atmosphere in Day 3? At some point in this conversion, scientists think the atmosphere transformed from an opaque, cloudy mess to one that was finally transparent to sunlight. The earth's surface felt the kiss of direct sun for the first time. Someone "watching" from the primordial oceans would see the sun come out (no need to bet your bottom dollar), and the moon. This is about the right timing for this transition, and the Venus-like veil of clouds would be lifted to reveal the sun and moon.

If this were multiple choice, I'd like to take none of the above. I'm not certain in my advocacy of option #2. But I feel that option #1 is unnecessarily extreme in divorcing the Biblical account from the scientific. There's too many points that I can put together (primacy of light, separation of "waters" by gravity, etc.). If I'm uneasy about number 2, it's because I feel I have to stretch the text, which says "made" right there, into "appeared." A part of my dramatic nature does like the idea of the "ta-da" moment, and it fits with the idea of 7 days, 7 visions. I just don't want to rest my faith on the opacity of the atmosphere 2 billion years ago, so for the record, either option is fine with me, depending on future developments in the exciting field of ancient atmosphere opacity. I won't lose my faith if I'm wrong about this.
One more option remains, that I don't even list; that somehow the science is badly misguided and the sun really was made after flowering plants. Unfortunately, this involves ignoring the evidence I mentioned previously (and will mention in the future). This requires a God who hides truth so deeply that no one can know it without revelation (contrast this to Paul's description of natural theology in Romans 1). That simply will not do, because I worship a God of the truth, and although man is sinful, I can't invoke a worldwide conspiracy theory that would involve hundreds of faked papers a year from every continent on earth just to fit my specific interpretation of the first page of the Bible. So I try to bring the two together, and I keep my mind open to options #1 and 2.
I also note, speaking of metaphors, that the unveiling of the sun and moon fits with a biological insight that comes from what happened in the development of life at about this time -- something too small to see, but of great import and similar to the demarcation of the sun, moon, and stars. More on that later.
Now that I've established my agnosticism about when this day took place, I can ask, why was God doing that? What's the point? There's a deep parallel. Let's read the text without trying to prove it, and ask "why would God do this?" So scroll back and re-read it.

No, really, you go ahead. I'll wait here. I'm not going anywhere.

Ok, now that you read it again, the question is, what does it mean? God carves up light like he carved up planets with gravity. He reveals the source of light, the great glowing ball of gas that is his servant, and He also reveals the "perfect" sphere of rock that mirrors that light. Before this point, the earth was alone and shrouded. Afterwards, it had two lanterns in the sky for company, and all the starry host. This set up a relationship between the earth and the sun and moon, and two other relationships: the sun + the day, the moon + the night. Two other "powers" in the sky, countless smaller stars, with God above and beyond them all. The sun is below God but above us.
I was just walking through my darkened house last night and looked out through the window. The moon is nearly full now and the sky was clear (which doesn't happen often around here in Seattle). I gave a bit of a start when I looked out the window because it was so bright. By the moon's blue light, I could see the blades of grass, the (finally) trimmed bushes, the toys tumbled across the lawn ... and it was all thanks to the moon, a reflective dirt mirror, placed just far enough away that it looks the same size to us as the sun, much bigger but also much farther. The moon was ruling the night.
I think Francis of Assisi wrote about these relationships in his Canticle to Brother Sun:
All praise be yours, my Lord, through all that you have made /And first my lord Brother Sun, Who brings the day / and light you give to us through him / How beautiful is he, how radiant in all his splendor! / Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Moon and Stars / In the heavens you have made them, bright / And precious and fair.
The sun and moon are part of our family, siblings under a powerful and loving Creator. The earth first "saw" them on Day 4.
Let me sum this up in my over-analytical way = God : sun :: sun : moon. God gives the sun light as the sun gives us light, and so God gives us light through brother Sun. Stop me before I start speculating on the fact that earth + sun + moon = 3, which happens to be one of God's favorite numbers ...
The sun is a sign of God's power and faithfulness. It puts out more energy than we could ever use, and much of it speeds away, untouched, into space. If we could just capture a fraction of merely what hits the earth we'd solve all sorts of energy problems. The sun is a prodigal brother, like God is a prodigal father.
In the Israel of the psalms, the nations around them worshiped the sun, but the Israelites worshiped the invisible God who made the sun. Consider how the gift of the sun was praised and connected to God's general faithfulness:
Psalm 89: I will sing of the mercies of the LORD forever / With my mouth will I make known Your faithfulness to all generations / For I have said, “Mercy shall be built up forever / Your faithfulness You shall establish in the very heavens / I have made a covenant with My chosen, I have sworn to My servant David / ‘Your seed I will establish forever / And build up your throne to all generations.’” / (Selah) / And the heavens will praise Your wonders, O LORD / Your faithfulness also in the assembly of the saints.
Psalm 85: Mercy and truth have met together / Righteousness and peace have kissed. / Truth shall spring out of the earth / And righteousness shall look down from heaven / Yes, the LORD will give what is good / And our land will yield its increase.
It all ties together, the earth, sun and moon, faithfulness and righteousness, the rains on the just and unjust. God flings his word out like seed, and he accomplishes his purpose, the creation and re-creation of people to know and love Him.
That's just on the surface. Pan down again: In the churning of the waves a bunch of little blobs of life were about to take another step and set up a new relationship that would change everything, and harness the power of the sun. Without this, the earth could not respond to its Brother Sun. It was too small to see, but it changed the history of life, and it, too, was all about setting up a relationship that wasn't there before. More about that ... in part 2.

Friday, October 19, 2007

James Watson Does It Again

James Watson was one of the people (I was about to say two people, but it was at least four and really more than that) who figured out the structure of DNA. He did this as a brash young scientist, and doing Nobel-Prize-winning work when you're barely out of high school transformed him into a brash old scientist. Personally, I think his colleague, Francis Crick, handled the transition with a bit more grace, but it is both a blessing and a curse to be a famous scientist. Watson always has seemed to enjoy it, and he's always been ready with a quick, sharp quote.

Recently, Watson's been in the news more for his talk than his walk. For instance, fellow scientists chose to sequence his entire genome to demonstrate new DNA sequencing technology. That's very cool, but he didn't do much beyond the donation process. Yet he got in the news for it. Watson's never shied away from the spotlight. But today's headlines tell a story of how he went too far, gave quotes that were too quick, and too sharp, and hurt a lot of people for no reason at all.

I won't repeat them here, but the executive summary is that Watson's 1.) worried that Africa will never catch up because blacks have less inherent intelligence; 2.) says that anyone who's ever worked with a black knows they're less intelligent on the whole; 3.) implies through all this that intelligence is genetically based and that the intelligent have more value than the unintelligent.

Where do you start to respond to that? Again, I will let the others more qualified than myself deal with the scientific refutation of these arguments, while commenting on the irony that in holding himself out to be an authority on intelligence, Watson has shown very little of that same quality in his comments. Just like with the baseball pitcher John Rocker a whle ago, a love for the spotlight kept Watson thinking that the more outrageous the comments, the wider the coverage. Like Rocker, he stepped way over the line and is feeling the repercussions (he has been suspended from his leadership role at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, for one).

What I think about when I hear such easily refutable and reductionistic comments is, where does this stuff come from? We seem to have created a class of scientific provocateurs who are happy to hurt entire classes of people for a quote. You start off making straw men of theists, you end up making straw men of African-Americans. I have always wondered about the neo-atheist writers, what they do with the Christian nature of African-American (and continental African) communities. Their arguments that Christians are dumb feed right into this racism, because many Christians are poor, and many Christians are black or Latino or "other." The general intellectual strategy that Dawkins/Hitchens/Harris/etc. follow is to make caricatures of Christians. This same "oh, look, how outrageous!" strategy led to Watson's comments.

Francis Collins, evangelical Christian scientist (look, I just typed those three words together!!), is a friend of Watson's and was quoted in the article I read, with him stating how Watson's comments were "hurtful" to a large group of people. At first I thought that was just too simple, but stepping back I think that's the best word to use to characterize Watson's speech and to point out a huge rhetorical flaw in the entire public face of science. It's hurtful.

Let's set some Robert Fulghrum-style ground rules here. It's not OK to hurt other people. It's not OK to suggest genetic superiority of the people who are like you. It worries me that these naturalists can't seem to stay away from an implicit social Darwinism. But then again, when you worship the intellect, you denigrate the other aspects of life, and you lose the complexity of what humans really are.

I don't know what really motivates Watson, what was a slip of the tongue and what was a deliberately outrageous comment. I do know that in the intense pressure cooker of academic science, reviewers are encouraged to be hurtful with reason, and that has a place. But it doesn't have a place outside the system of peer review, and it doesn't have a place when dealing with real people. I constantly worry about idolatry with scientists, idolatry of reason and the intellect. I don't know exactly how that applies here, but I take it as cautionary, because saying something that's not just wrong, but hurtful and wrong, is not the way to win any arguments.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Marmite Chemistry

You never know what new chemical experiment you'll find on the web. Here is Exhibit A:

What this shows is that if you hit a blob of Marmite for half an hour, it will turn white. Or whitish.

And you know what? Part of me wants to find out why (maybe a little gas chromatography/mass spec). On the other hand, I probably have to prioritize this project really low. Unless the Marmite-making company has money for this. Let me know if it does, and I'll be there with my Marmite and a ball-peen hammer.

As Neil Gaiman's blog points out (where I got this), what kind of person does it take to discover this effect in the first place??

If you don't know what Marmite is, apparently some benighted cultures consider it food. I have tasted it myself and don't think it's edible. But it apparently is good for batting practice. Learn something new every day.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Congratulations Parents With Flat Hats!

My friend and fellow blogger, Girl With Flat Hat, finally has her Baby With Flat Hat (aka Auletta, which I like because as a chemist it reminds me of gold = "Au"), and somehow got a picture that's cuter than any of our early baby pictures:


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

First-Century Purity and Twenty-First Century Health

I'm reading Rabbi Jesus by Bruce Chilton right now, which is a fascinating book because I don't think I've ever gotten quite so much out of a book that I've disagreed with so often. The book puts together what we know from history with what we read in the Gospels. Much of the historical and political reconstruction of the world around Jesus is fascinating, such as Caiaphas' complex relationship with Pilate and his innovation to sell sacrifices outside the south court of the Temple. I never thought about this before, but the Sanhedrin was kind of like the church council!

The biggest problem with the book is that Chilton reconstructs Jesus' ministry according to a very specific timeline based on very little evidence. I'd just like to know where he's basing some of his assumptions on in many cases, because often I'll find assertions that I just don't buy -- sometimes a small phrase can support a whole theory of his, while other times an entire section of the Gospel must be thrown out or severely modified to fit his theory.

Nonetheless, it's worth it to think about the politics behind Jesus' ministry, and what his group would have looked like to the powers that be. Chilton points out that Jesus associated with all sorts of people because he understood purity to be contagious: his purity would overcome their uncleanness. Chilton states, and I think rightly so, that Jesus was actually very concerned with purity and the Temple, but that he had some radical (yet Scripturally based) interpretations for it. Once again, that funny little book Zechariah shows up as central to his ministry.

So I started thinking, what would the church look like if we thought of purity the way Jesus thought of purity? How would things change? I fall into Pharasaical patterns of thinking myself. When the Tabitha homeless ministry started in the church basement, right next to the nursery, I actually caught myself worrying once about the possibility of disease getting to our vulnerable kids. Then I realized this was classic clean/unclean thinking in a modern guise, and that Jesus wouldn't worry about it at all.

Yet, in continuing to think about it, I started thinking about Paul's letters. I think Paul's attitude toward purity is one of the reasons people say "You can take the boy out of the Pharisees, but you can't take the Pharisee out of the boy" for Paul. It seems that this powerful purity, contagious holiness that Jesus lived out was not the same for Paul. Or was it?

Consider 1 Corinthians 7, where the wife can "sanctify" the unbelieving husband, and the children are precisely described as "clean." How baptism and purity go together in Paul's thinking. And yet, in 1 Corinthians 5, the man living with his mother-in-law (wink wink nudge nudge) is commanded to be put out of the church because a little leaven leaveneth the whole loaf. And yet again, in the early part of 2 Cornithians he pleads with the church to take back a repentant, exiled member -- is this the same man?

Jesus' phrase from John 8: "Go and sin no more" echoes here. He says something much the same to the "sinner" who washes his feet with her tears, something along the lines of "Proceed, for your faith has cleansed you."

We don't think as much in terms of cleanness and purity anymore, except when we're telling teenagers to control their sex drives. It's that and more, because it has to do with a whole-body healthiness. And since we're so obsessed with health as a nation, is this a way to talk about the Gospel?

Lots to think about, and few answers, but in the past I have found that apparent differences between Jesus and Paul start to fall away when they're put into context. I think I'll have a lot to think about as I finish this book.

If these thoughts jar any questions or answers or comments loose in your head, that's what comments are for!

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Perfect Checkers

Science marches on. First the computers solved Connect Four, now they have solved checkers. Here is the full, and very readable, abstract from a paper titled "Checkers is Solved" from Science:

"The game of checkers has roughly 500 billion billion possible positions (5 × 10^20). The task of solving the game, determining the final result in a game with no mistakes made by either player, is daunting. Since 1989, almost continuously, dozens of computers have been working on solving
checkers, applying state-of-the-art artificial intelligence techniques to the proving process. This paper announces that checkers is now solved: Perfect play by both sides leads to a draw. This is the most challenging popular game to be solved to date, roughly one million times as complex as Connect Four. Artificial intelligence technology has been used to generate strong heuristic-based game-playing programs, such as Deep Blue for chess. Solving a game takes this to the next level by replacing the heuristics with perfection."

As someone who never was a big fan of checkers, I am most impressed by the sheer effort put into exploring the computational space for this game, and I am also impressed by the clarity of the writing for this paper. They even translate the scientific notion into more colloquial terms ("billion billion", sounding like Carl Sagan on "repeat"). Also note the way "perfect" is used. It carries the connotation of "complete," just like in the Sermon on the Mount ("be ye perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect").

Of course, the ultimate question always is: I wonder where you get grant money for things like this? (The answer is to move to Canada: Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), Alberta’s Informatics Circle of Research Excellence (iCORE), and the Canada Foundation for Innovation funded this study.)

And how long until we solve perfect chess?

Monday, October 1, 2007

One More Post About Scott

I was asked to speak at Scott's Seattle memorial service on Saturday. I'd like to post what I said here so that those of you far away who weren't able to come, but knew Scott, can read it.

It's funny how important that ceremony was, and just how appropriate. I was at the library book sale yesterday and I picked up a copy of "The Gospel According to the Simpsons" because it reminded me of him!

Here's the text of my speech:

I’d like to talk about Scott’s gift for equipping. Teaching is not a sufficient word: what Scott did was “equipping.” Our fellowship group, Poiema, would meet at a house shared by four women that Dwayne called the “she-Castle.” Scott offered to lead us in once-a-week Bible study in about 1997. The topic was Romans. I inwardly groaned because I thought of Romans as a dense book that I’d already been exposed to 15 times over. But Scott brought out the book as I had never known it before. Each week I left with a head swimming from new ideas that tied familiar phrases into a coherent story. I also finally understood that chapters 9-11 is not an aside, but a climax.

Some time later, Scott approached me and asked me to teach a Sunday morning Bible study on the Psalms. I told him a.) I didn’t know what I was doing and b.) I’m a chemist, not a theologian. I ended up teaching that class anyway. Scott took care of my objections (a and b) by just making me do it, persuasion so effective that to this day I don’t remember exactly how he did it. After that, he made sure neither objections a nor b could be raised again. Scott started a short “equipping class” where our group would get together for dinner and drinks, discussing theology from Stanley Hauerwas through Karl Barth (although I still don’t understand him). This wasn’t class, it was dinner. Although the reading was the most difficult I had ever encountered (and this includes the Journal of Biological Chemistry), the learning was effortless.

I spent 5 years in graduate school, 2 years as a post-doc, and 4 years ongoing as a biochemistry professor. Funny, that teaching thing Scott threw me into without my precise consent happens to be what I do for a living now. He equipped me for Sunday morning teaching that ultimately taught me more about being a professor than my academic study. Even the Journal of Biological Chemistry comes more easily now, because anything’s easy after Karl Barth.

Scott eventually continued his education and could have become a professor (I was already trying to recruit him for SPU). But he was already successfully “professing” here at Bethany. He equipped me to read history as a story, and there’s one such story I’d like to close with. Appropriately enough, it’s about the letter to the Romans. Romans was written when Paul was laying the groundwork for a mission to Spain. The letter to the Romans is such an amazing and complete capsule of Paul’s theology precisely because he was trying to prepare them to be a new “Antioch” for him, a home base for missions further west.

Paul dreamt of preaching in Spain. But as far as we can tell, he never got there. Imperial Rome, on the other hand, became Christian Rome. God thwarted Paul’s travel plans, but he used Paul’s letter to give new life to Rome in 60 A.D., new life to Wittenburg in 1517, and new life to the “She-Castle” in 1997. Likewise, Scott didn’t reach all his goals before the cancer came, but God used him for greater ends. The people Scott met along the way give testament to his faithfulness, and God will use Scott’s unfinished work to accomplish more than we can imagine.

Paul wrote these words to the Romans, and Scott echoed them: chapter 8 verses 18-23 “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body.”

So Scott continues to teach, equip, and profess, a very hard lesson. We now have another reason to wait for restoration. We are equipped with the hope that someday Scott’s body and ours will be redeemed. Today he is free from the tumors that invaded his body; he rests from his labors; and he is with Jesus.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

On the Third Day, Part 2: Fencing a Fluid, Sowing a Seed

Have you heard the story of King Canute? About a thousand years ago he ruled Denmark, Scandinavia and England for about twenty years, and his reign sounds like it was relatively stable and just. He's famous for holding court on the beach one day, staring out at the waves and commanding them to retreat. They didn't retreat -- as powerful as he was, he couldn't mold the wind and waves with his word. That may have surprised his courtiers, but it didn't surprise him in the least. That's why he dragged all of them down to the beach, for that precise object lesson, that as powerful as King Canute was, and as large as his kingdom was, he couldn't turn back the waves from their borders, so don't expect too much from him. It wasn't an ego-centric display (if it was, all he had to do was make sure he held court when the tide was going out, right?). It was always intended to be a statement of his own limitations, and of what true power entailed.
The limits of the ocean were set earlier in this day, according to Genesis. This was a powerful act in the ancient world, where the sea was the embodiment of danger and capriciousness, something that could hide monsters, destroy ships, drown sailors. Appreciating the power it takes to corral the sea requires a full appreciation of the power of water. I think of it (naturally!) on the atomic scale. Water is unusually powerful because it's small but also very unbalanced: its two hydrogens are in a constant tug of water with its oxygen, and the result is a molecule that sticks together extraordinarily well despite its compact nature, so that it can sit in a glass as a liquid instead of spreading out like a gas. A single water molecule can be a chemically powerful tool with two "sharp ends" that can do chemistry; a mass of them forms the oceans, which we still haven't explored; the expansion and contraction of water can crack concrete or ruin a house; a frozen mass of water can gouge out valleys, leaving gigantic skid marks behind. Water can do a lot of things, and it doesn't care what you say to it. According to Day 3, it does care what God says to it.
So this is where life came about, first in this ocean and then on dry land. To do so it had to perform its own microscopic version of King Canute's proclamation: it needed to have boundaries set within this huge mass of water so that its chemical reactions wouldn't float away and disappear into the far reaches of the sea. This is the knife-edge that life has to walk: we need water for its chemical power, but its chemical power can break us down. Sam, about a month ago you insisted on getting some sugar in a cup, adding water, and watching it disappear. Congratulations on your first chemistry experiment, that sugar dissolves. And that's what water does to most everything, it disperses it and breaks it up. Now, there's certain advantages to the breaking up, because fluids have certain advantages. For example, it's very easy to send sugar from your stomach to your muscles through the blood. Also, once you have one little living chemical factory set up, you can make another one fairly easily. The trick is setting up the factory in the first place, like trying to pitch a tent in a driving thunderstorm.

What's also remarkable is that we keep finding evidence that as soon as the earth cooled enough, some kind of life popped into being. In the 1950s, we had rocks with 600 million-year-old life. In the 1970s, there was evidence for 2.5 billion-year-old life. Recently, there's been several lines of evidence for 3.85 billion-year-old life. To quote Bill Bryson, "Earth's surface didn't become SOLID until about 3.9 billion years ago. 'We can only infer from this rapidity that it is not "difficult" for life of bacterial grade to evolve on planets under appropriate conditions,' Stephen Jay Gould observed in the New York Times in 1996. Or, as he put it elsewhere, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that 'life, arising as soon as it could, was chemically destined to be.'" Let me put it another way: the seed of life came about on Day 3, just as the oceans reached their current size, just as the sea and dry land were formed.
Life was springing up like flowers in a field as soon as the earth cooled, and the key act was building the wall needed to enclose it. That wall is the cell membrane, which you've likely seen in biology class. Cell membranes are made up of oily molecules that look a little like soap and act a little like water: they are unbalanced too, but they are very long and skinny, and they line up automatically like slats in a fence, with an "outside" and an "inside," just like bubbles. Aidan's favorite thing right now is hunting down bubbles, so you boys already know how soap forms bubbles in air: this isn't too different from that, just in water. You enjoy bubbles because you can run around and smash them with the slightest touch. A finger might be able to do that, giving you a sense of power as a three-year-old ("Did I ever tell you that you are very strong?"), but atoms are so small that to them, the "cell bubble" is hard as iron. So oil makes a great fence, but also notice how it is still a fluid fence, how one oil puddle can merge with another. Bubbles can bump together and join, and they can split apart too. Everything's doused in water and can float around on the scale of the simplest life forms.

Some creation event happened, and just had to happen once, to make life in a soapy bubble. You need a way to burn energy and to maintain yourself, inside a fence, and you have life. Because cells are like bubbles, once one was established and chugging along, consuming energy and maintaining its insides, all it had to do was make two of everything it needed (like a tiny Noah's Ark? the metaphor breaks down!) and it could blow another bubble from inside it. Voila: you had a father cell and a son cell. I'm sure the son took after his father, or to put it another way, was of the same "kind" as his Dad, just like each of you looks like me (and even more so as you age, I'm afraid). Good thing you look like your mom, too.

Wait a second. Aren't you raising your hand yet? You should have the urge to stop me here, because I've just glossed over a major point. How did all these chemical reactions get put into a single bubble? To keep the chemistry going, some chemicals had to cross that iron fence of a membrane, so how did they do that? What kinds of reactions were these? All I can say is that I have the same questions you do. The initial formation of life is, like I said, a case of walking a knife-edge, and how all that complexity got into one place we honestly have no idea. Maybe this is a secret God's keeping to himself. Maybe he intervened with a miracle there, because life certainly qualifies as a miracle. On the other hand, maybe he caused life to spring out of the mix of elements naturally, so that life was set up at the beginning and didn't require any tweaking to result. If that latter case is true, then maybe he'll let us figure out how he did that trick. It's still amazing, to live in a universe that begets life so easily, in that case. I do know he set a lot of other stuff up beforehand, so I wouldn't be surprised if he set this up too. On the OTHER other hand, we don't have any evidence for other life yet. I'd say that's for him to know and us to find out.

Let me quote a physics friend of mine: "Either there's life somewhere else in the universe, or there's not. Either way, it blows your mind."

What I know is that we have evidence for very, very old life that must have been complex enough to eat, move, and reproduce, right away. That's the same image you get from the latter part (the afternoon?) of day 3:

Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth grass / the herb that yields seed / and the fruit tree that yields fruit according to its kind / whose seed is in itself on the earth” / and it was so / And the earth brought forth grass / the herb that yields seed according to its kind / and the tree that yields fruit / whose seed is in itself according to its kind / And God saw that it was good / So the evening and the morning were the third day.
We haven't got to grass, herbs and flowers yet, but this tiny bubble of life is definitely a seed. There are some differences in order between Genesis and the scientific consensus. Those don't bother me. The point I'm trying to make here is that you can use the days in Genesis, in order, to talk about the scientific side of creation, and it tells a true story. More about this in Day 4, because if you think you have issues now ... but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Let's talk about the seeds in this passage, seeds that lead to life and allow it to keep on keepin' on. For all the fluidity to life, there's also a remarkable stability. You can live on hamburgers or on lettuce, and your body pretty much stays the same (if you find a minimal amount of essential vitamins somehow!). You are recognizably "you," but you're also always growing and changing. So life is defined by fluidity on the one hand, and stability on the other. Something that mutates your DNA is a dangerous thing because you need your DNA to stay the same, to stay stable: it is the essential component in both telling your cells what to do and in passing on these instructions to your kids. So don't mess with it unless you have to!
The most important scientific observation of stability, which we get from this passage as "reproduction of kind after kind" was made by a monk, Gregor Mendel. He was a gardener, so he bred plants, and systematically noticed what happened when he bred different plants. Each of these produced "after their own kind": peas made peas, flowers made flowers, of course. What Mendel's eyes caught was that some traits got passed down in different amounts, some traits would always dominate over other traits, some traits couldn't be seen but then would show up in the offspring of two particular plants. In short, Mendel saw some of the details in how plants made other plants "after their own kind," and he worked out some rules that provide "stability" within the "fluidity" of these changing traits. He got some attention but had to wait for twentieth century for this work to find its true importance. What he was seeing was the interplay of two sources of DNA, and that DNA splicing and recombining in predictable and powerful ways. To talk about how exactly, you need a genetics class, but the point for now is the stability of predictable rules of heredity, along with the stability of the message that DNA: the pea plant's essence, down to the traits.
But obviously some things change with DNA and heredity. You boys may look like me but you are most assuredly not me. Sam looks like equal parts mom + dad, and Aidan looks like neither (although he has a striking resemblance to his mom's family). Some things change from generation to generation: You need to change, and you need to move. So DNA is very stable and can carry changes from generation to generation, but when you look at it close up, you see "islands" of stability and also a surprising amount of fluidity. For example, some DNA looks just like an old, broken-down virus. In fact, there is more DNA in your cells that looks like an old, broken-down virus than there is that looks like typical, useful genes. It looks like viruses have been integrating themselves into our genomes, like little meteorites hitting a planet and leaving tiny craters behind. You can find these yourself with a DNA sequencer. (I've got one in my lab, by the way, for trying stuff like this if we can work out the safety issues!) That's a change, and it's a pretty big one. More than just a letter or two here or there, it's whole paragraphs of change.
Looking at the tiny bacteria that are the simplest form of life, you see that DNA itself is a fluid molecule, in that it physically flows around inside the cell. It is a long string of information that floats around in the bacterium. If you collect the DNA in biochemistry lab and accidentally shake the tube too hard, you can shear the DNA into bits, so be careful. Bacteria actually send messages to one another using circular snippets of DNA, like little frisbees of genetic info they cut out and toss back and forth. This is how resistance spreads in hospitals if one doctor gets a little too loose with antibiotics: once one bacterium figures out how to survive, it "emails" all its friends with the "cheat code" and then you have antibiotic-resistant infections. Bacterial DNA is so fluid that essentially bacteria share one big gene pool. "It's rather as if a human could go to an insect to get the necessary genetic coding to sprout wings or to walk on ceilings." (Bill Bryson, p. 304) There are even some processes in our own immune cells that shuffle DNA around in big chunks, a bit like these bacterial frisbees. Not to mention, HIV works by shoehorning its own viral DNA into yours, and then using that cell to make more baby viruses. If that's not violation, I don't know what is. But the main point here is that DNA is fluid enough to allow all this chemical traffic.

So you've got the stability of heredity, but also the fluidity of traits that can change, or "hide out" for generations. You've got the stability of DNA that makes a son like his father, but also the fluidity of viruses that have sidled up to our genomes and slipped in a big chunk of DNA to hijack our cells, more times than you can imagine. Compare this to the first half of Day 3: the earth is stable, as stable as the ground we stand on, yet there is a fluidity underneath it all, a fluidity that tells of the creator's energy and dynamic nature, and one that shapes our world.

Even the earth is fluid. If that's so, then it's reasonable to see that life, and its chemical foundation DNA, is decidedly more fluid than the earth. Don't think of DNA as a rock, it's more like a river.

For a long time, the earth was dominated by bacteria. Most bacteria kept the same DNA and kept reproducing after their kind. Once in a while the fluidity in DNA would result in a bacterium that did things differently, maybe a little differently, maybe a lot. Eventually, some bacterium got a protein that would change when light shone on it, and this change could be put to use in making a molecule that couldn't be made otherwise. This allowed the bacterium to "eat" light and live off the sun (photosynthesis), and to spit out this unusual molecule. Because these bacteria could grab energy from the sun, they could live off of carbon dioxide and spit out carbohydrates and oxygen, even though they're spitting out something more reactive* than they're taking in. With photosynthesis, light energy could be stored as matter.

As the oxygen bubbled into the atmosphere, it didn't stay there for long. First it combined with excess iron to form orange rust, which sank to the bottom of the sea. You can find these deposits by digging down, as great brownish bands of iron oxide, which you can refine and put to use. These are evidence that the earth slowly rusted for millions of years.

After the iron deposits, we begin to find interesting fossils: large flowery mattress-type things called stromatolites, after the Greek word for "mattress." The bacteria started to make surfaces that would stick together. When sand got caught in the stickiness, it would harden into something a lot like concrete, and colonies of these bacteria would form the weird, artsy fossil structures we find today. These were thought to be lost forever till 1961, where people began to find living stromatolites in remote corners of Australia, then Mexico. They're easy to miss because they just look like rocks:

But these rocks spit out oxygen bubbles (it's alive!!). For a long time, perhaps 2 billion years, this process was the most important thing happening on this planet. Stromatolites releasing tiny bubbles of oxygen. (Maybe Don Ho was onto something.) Slowly, eventually, this tiny action completely changed our atmosphere and charged it with oxygen. Oxygen was a chemical gift just waiting to be opened, because independent life can be built around using that one molecule, including, obviously, ours. There was so much oxygen that more complex life could use it to grow, and didn't need to be fixed onto the sun like the photosynthetic organisms. So stromatolites ultimately made it possible for college professors to be able to survive holed up out of the sun in a dark office, typing about stromatolites. Hooray for stromatolites.
There's an interesting word chemists use when gas bubbles out of a liquid. I guess "bubbles" doesn't sound impressive enough, so we say the gas "evolves" out of the solution. If gas evolved from the stromatolites, then the atmosphere evolved, too, although I'd have to use "evolution" in the sense of "change" for that. Both of these uses are probably not what you first think when you hear the word "evolution," but they're both correct uses of the word. More on the rest of it later.

Since we're putting all these processes somewhere between the poles of "stability" and "fluidity," I think it's important to point out that science itself is inherently fluid, but also stable. Science, especially at first, is fickle and will change its mind back and forth. Plate techtonics was still mocked in textbooks in the 1950s. The exact date of the cooling of the earth is still up for grabs in terms of millions of years, but not in terms of billions of years. Don't let the incidental "fluidity" fool you, because these debates take place around established points that are very stable. Even though it's only a hundred-year-old theory, I don't expect the Big Bang to change anytime soon, in part thanks to the background radiation observation in Day 1. Remember, I think that's a good point for theists. I also don't expect to be find out that the earth is young, because there's just too many different experiments that make it look old, mentioned in Day 2. One experiment is a debating point; 100 experiments make a theory that can stand the test of time, if interpreted properly. And there's the really fun part, the offspeed pitches of science (in baseball language), the issue of interpreting results. Don't be afraid to debate anything, but do be aware if there's 100 experiments that point in a certain direction, you're going to have to have a similar amount of evidence pointing the other way to convince most scientists -- or something truly special about your explanation. It had better cure cancer or something!

The amazing thing to me is that this evidence I've been running on about for three days now, this evidence can be fit with Scripture. Some interpretations have to fall away as a result, but the essence remains and it assembles into a "true story." This is powerfully deep to me. Even when what you thought was stable falls away, God will remain your stability. His reality is stable even when the continents shift:

God is our refuge and strength / A very present help in trouble / Therefore we will not fear / even though the earth be removed / And though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea

If you have faith as a mustard seed / you will say to this mountain / 'Move from here to there' / and it will move

The fact that God is the creator of all is what Genesis says. I'm trying to fill out the details with my crayons, although I must warn you that, like you, Sam, I've never been too good at coloring within the lines. But I'm telling you, if you want a stable, simple text that will stand the test of time, read Genesis, and know those words by heart, just be open (fluid!) in your interpretation of the words. If you want to delve into more than that, then keep reading my letters, and use them as your own starting point, as you wish. The real stability is found in the words of Genesis, not my words. The real rock is the truth that God made all this, and it was very good.

So continents crashed, mountains shifted, oceans formed, bubbles replicated, oxygen bubbled, and the atmosphere evolved. I'd call that a day, and God did too. It was evening, and it was morning. The third day was done.

* Technically, this should be "oxidative" rather than "reactive" to point out what kind of reaction we're talking about, but I believe that's a technical point. I thought about leaving it in just to see if I'd get any indignant chemists, but that would be tricksy of me. Besides, there's already enough indignant chemists in the world!