Wednesday, November 26, 2008

What Does Acts Say About How to 'Do Church'?

Not much time for details, but if I'm thinking about something I find it helpful to blog about it.

Acts 6 tells us even the early church had fissures in its community. The fissures broke along "language lines": in that time, did you speak Greek or did you speak Aramaic? Some reflection of this is in the "language denominations" and it makes sense: one should be able to hear the gospel in one's native tongue (else what's a Pentecost for?). But today the fissures can be along the lines of personal languages, what "speaks" to you personally: do you listen to the words of the song and the words of the preacher? Or does the music speak to you in a way that neither of those can? I think we have native "music" speakers and native "non-music" speakers, and fissures can ... and have ... formed between those people. One of the things I appreciate about my home church is that there is a strong music ministry that speaks lots of "dialects" of "music-ese" to lots of different people. But for others, music in general, or maybe some music in specific, simply doesn't speak to them. To which I say: that's where fissures can form. We've got to get along with each other, allow for both languages in our love for each other.

Acts 5, Acts 11, and Acts 15 actually combine in a weird sort of way to make a related argument about "what is the church supposed to DO?" In short, the question is wrong: the question should be, "what is God doing?" Peter reframed his experience in God terms: God did this, then God did that, and God's doing this thing so let's stop "testing" him. The church is supposed to look for God, see where God's working, and go along with that. I lose sight of this all the time. I lost sight of it when I was on council. It's always easier to talk about numbers rather than the movement of the spirit. But when the spirit goes, you follow. And the important thing about the spirit (shown in Acts 15 in particular) is that this spirit is consistent over time, which means the spirit works in parallel with the scriptures and old words, and also the spirit prepares you for the work you're called to do. So if you look around you see, hey, I've got this unused basement in my church and this calling to serve the homeless, you open up a homeless shelter. When I said to myself, you know, I'm really interested in the speeches of Acts for some reason and I think the church needs a Sunday School class on this, I went and did it, based on this sense of preparedness, and also, it wasn't really my thing so if it failed miserably it'd be God's fault. Or if you've got staff and people with musical skills, and a mixed congregation that wants to listen to those, you've got yourself a direction for your music ministry. What it does not mean is that you hold an American Idol-like audition to determine the content of that music ministry. You do what you're called to, all of you, staff, congregation, choir, all together listening to each other, being challenged, and deciding where to go as a community.

Deciding where to go involves money. In the New Testament, money is a big deal, not so much in somebody central allocating it according to a budget, but in the churches or groups within churches giving it to each other. Look at Paul's collections, it was one of the main modes of communication from church to church. This is one of the ways you talk, you put your money where your mouth is. If you want to promote unity between groups offer the chance for them to give to each other. God actually works through that. This is one of the reasons why love of money may be the root of all evil, but money in love can be a great good.

Mostly, I want to think about these passages but I have to be careful how I present them to others, lest I use them as a club. I've been known to do so. So I'll throw together these interim thoughts on my blog and let it sit. Let those with ears to hear listen. And I promise I'll blog more about science in the future (although did I tell you how Acts relates to the current science-religion debates? [ducking thrown tomatoes])...

Book Not Reviews: Acts Reading

So I've tried to at least put up a paragraph or two for every book I've read, mostly for myself, to keep a record of what I read over the year (and out of curiousity to go back sometime and count up how many and what kind of books I read!).

With this Acts class I've been reading out of several books, and I'm just going to put them down without review to say, these books were read. Consider this the class bibliography!

The Acts of the Apostles, by I.H. Marshall
Called to be Church: The Book of Acts for a New Day, by Anthony B. Robinson and Robert W. Wall
The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary on Acts by Rob Wall
Acts for Everyone by N.T. Wright, Parts 1 and 2

Other books were valuble references, but these 5 were the ones I read pretty much cover to cover, so I can add them to my year-end books-read tally!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Book Review: Unholy Business

The author, Nina Burleigh, of this book sounded familiar when I checked this book out but I didn't place her until, a few pages in, she had the chance to drop an event-name: Napoleon's ill-fated excursion into the Egyptian desert. That reminded me of her other book I read earlier, Mirage, about this excursion. This book's about like that book. Events told briskly with a journalistic bent -- in this case it works better because it actually is present-day journalism, but it works worse because it is painfully obvious we're only getting half of the story.

The good news is the half of the story we're getting is still good. The James Ossuary found in the early part of this decade does appear to be a hoax. This book is the story of how it's a hoax ... or at least the official Israeli Antiquities Agency's version of the story. The characters are drawn so 2-dimensionally it's hard to believe this is all there is to it.

In this case, what's here is damning. But when every supporter is painted as a buffoon and every prosecutor is presented as an enlightened crusader against forgery, even before the case is finished (it's still under deliberation!), it's hard to feel like you have the complete story. Let me be clear, I think the thing was faked. But this is such a one-sided argument for the prosecution I actually wonder why it sounds so defeated in the final chapters, essentially conceding that the trial will find that it's not necessarily a fake after all because of the slick legal defense and the inherent incompatability of science and law.

The thing that bothers me most is that the religious people who are interested in whether this ossuary is real or not are conflated without discrimination with the slimy people who make the hoaxes and collect them illegally in their apartments. The book purports to be about people "who want to believe" and are fooled, but then it's all about the people who are doing the fooling and the police and scientists who catch them. The collectors and hoaxers are clearly shown by their own statements to be agnostic or atheistic, and more interested in Israel the country than Israel the people of YHWH. There's something interesting there in how these collectors are substituting faith for pieces of rock. They come out and say it -- their lives revolve around these little idols, that have become literal idols again for them. And yet Burleigh misses the point because she's so convinced this is about faith vs. reason. (The blurb by Christopher Hitchens assuming the same thing on the back cover was my first indication something was lopsided about this story.)

Just like with the Da Vinci Code, strangely bad copyediting mistakes accompany the deeper problems. Did you know Jesus died for you on "Calgary"? Or one of my favorite verses is quoted from Zechariah 22 ... but Zechariah only has 12 chapters. Burleigh misquotes a guide saying theives broke Jesus' legs on the cross (maybe the guide got it wrong but I doubt it).

Again near the end of the book, one of the characters remarks that Jerusalem is a unique city, that "the air is different here." There's hints of more going on outside the pages of this book throughout the story. Then the air is cut off again: "All good things come by chance" remarks a head policeman regarding one of the big breaks in the case. That appears to reflect the author's bias as well, placing her firmly in the Greek philosophy camp of Epicureanism. Unfortunately that philosophy pulls a shroud over most of the motivations of the characters in this story. I wish this book was written better, because if the ossuary is the hoax I suspect it is, it needs to be denounced with more rigor than this.

PS: The "Jesus Tomb" figures in this story and is presented with appropriate skepticism. James Tabor (along with James Cameron and that Canadian guy with the hard to spell name) is behind "much of the current crop of Biblical hype." Hmmm... Where have I heard that before?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

So I'm Only 2/3 Male? uses AI to guess whether a blog is written by a man or a woman. Here's the results for this blog:
We think is written by a man (64%).

And for Deanna's Corner:
We think is written by a man (69%).

Um... so I guess I have to challenge Deanna to an arm-wrestle or something.

My friend Eric's (Deanna's husband) blog:
We think is written by a man (75%).

My friend Juliet's blog:
We guess is written by a man (54%), however it's quite gender neutral.

My pastor Richard's blog:
We guess is written by a woman (58%), however it's quite gender neutral.

Ok, we're 2 for 5 (really 2 for 3 with 2 abstentions). I'll quit while I'm ahead. Or behind.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

CD = M.D.?

So they're making a disc that can fit in your CD player and will run medical tests for you. The key is to have antibodies bound to gold nanoparticles (see above) that scatter the laser light enough for a CD player to detect. From what I understand there's still a lot to do to fit all the microfluidics on there and make it robust enough, but this demonstration of possibility means someday you could run a test on a CD, put the CD into your CD-ROM drive, and have your computer tell you if you've got a disease or condition or something.
Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, "Invest in CD's", doesn't it?

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Liar's Poker Author Takes on the Current Financial Crisis

I haven't had time to read this in detail but I've read enough to think this guy's onto something about how we got where we are today, financially:
[NOTE: Rated TV-M for coarse language and financial carnage]

The author of this piece is Michael Lewis, who penned Liar's Poker in 1989 at the end of the Gordon Gekko 80's. He's got the "science writer's" flair, as in he can summarize well, although whether he's right or wrong is harder to judge (as in the writing of the late Michael Crichton). Lewis talks about how he sees this crisis as being an extension of those policies, with a sentence I know I can agree with:

"[After the 80's ...] The changes were camouflage. They helped distract outsiders from the truly profane event: the growing misalignment of interests between the people who trafficked in financial risk and the wider culture."

Notably missing: What to do about it apart from a massive societal attitude adjustment. As Suzie Orman says, we're moving from a credit society to a pay-as-you-go society. Which is why, as in my previous post about these things, I doubt that the market will rebound quickly, and think a philosophical shift may be in order. But what happens then?

Dangit Jim, I'm a biochemist, not a banker ...

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Phil Vischer, co-creator of VeggieTales (and author of a very good memoir), has started something new: JellyTelly. It's an all-internet "TV channel" that offers about 20 minutes of new programming a day. The strategy is to use puppets a lot and combine it with cheap (but nice-looking!) computer/traditional animation. There's hits and misses so far but I hope this will become something, and my kids are watching it and getting into it. No advertising, $2.99/month subscription, first month trial for free.

I also enjoy watching it to see how they're putting together a nice-looking and unique show "on the cheap" in some ways: American history doesn't require royalties, for instance. It's very clever underneath in that way, as well as on the surface. It's really for 5+ years old so far, from the kind of kids I've seen show interest.

It's still in "beta," but looking back to the first few episodes of the Muppet Show, I see similarities, and I think this just might be able to pull it off. My kids are watching it, that's for sure.

Here's Phil Vischer's thoughts from his blog on why he's doing it:

The problem with kids media today isn't that it is evil, it is that it is vapid. Empty. Pointless. It is empty calories. Frosting. Creme filling. Glaze. It has nothing to say to our kids about life on this earth or the God that made them special and loves them very much. And our kids consume it endlessly, on average, three hours per day.

We can do better.

Kids media can inform and shape while it entertains. Heck, Sesame Street figured that out. Mr. Rogers figured that out. But that was forty years ago. Kids media today lacks the will to teach kids anything. Yes, the shows on Nick and Disney are racially diverse. The characters recycle. But beyond that, they are mute.

We can do better. We can show kids the real world - a world where God exists and has something to say to us, if we will just stop and listen. A world where amazing people commit their lives to the work of the church and the benefit of others. A world where celebrity pales in comparison to generosity.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Acts Class Week 5 Overheads

Here are the overheads I put up in class this morning covering Acts 9-11. They're scans but I think they're readable. I can also put up my notes (like I did for Week 2) and/or the pictures (the one of Joppa's harbor and the painting of Peter's vision). Let me know -- it will help me meet my personally imposed post quota for the month! Also, if anyone has any follow-up thoughts or comments on the topic of "going beyond tolerance" or other things we talked about, please comment below.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Against Temples Made By Hands

Last week in Acts class, we covered chapter 7, Stephen's court defense that led to his martyrdom. It's really an amazing speech, that shows precisely why he was so hard to argue against, because he brought up foundational events from Israel's history that showed when God had sent someone to save or deliver Israel, and that person had been rejected. Then he went about talking about how God's holy ground moved around a lot, and implied that the tabernacle was a better and older picture of God's presence than a Temple built by human hands. He drew out the constant temptation to idolatry that plagued Israel throughout its history, implied that it had taken place even in the tabernacle times, and then told them it was still happening that very day, with the Temple made by human hands taking the place of the calf made by human hands.

They weren't too happy with that conclusion (although the real capital charge came a little later, when he saw the heavens opened and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he told everyone about it. Then he finally was really convicted of blasphemy).

It's easy to push that Temple worship issue off on someone else, just like it's all too easy to consider idolatry as something that we've gotten over. But if Israel had an idolatry problem with the Temple, even when the Temple was good and a place where God met people, then really, anything "made by hands" can be an idol. And that should bother us, because that means idols surround us and we just plain don't see it. It means our new church building could be an idol. Or our music program. Or Sunday School.

I hope when I talk about present-day idolatry that I don't sound too much like an old-timey preacher. This is something I struggle with identifying, and realize that anything, even the process of identifying idols, may become an idol. I think about it not because it's other people's problem, but because it is my own.

What structures "made by hands" do we worship? Ideologies are an easy target (again, very easy to identify in others!), in which a set of assumptions gets built up politically and then you conclude that the standard-bearer of that set of assumptions is either the Messiah (if you agree) or the Antichrist (if you don't). The Romans deified their Emperors, and you can still detect in current political discourse the same tendency to worship power, just a little less overtly. Think of the focus on the Supreme Court justices before the election on the right, an emphasis that implied that because justices hold so much power you should never elect someone from the left who will nominate a different kind of justice. Never mind that the two oldest justices are already the most liberal, or that the right-wing justices are the youngest and numerous... because that position carries great power it should be protected at all costs.

What about something that hits a little closer to home for me? Stephen quoted a passage from Amos in which it was implied that Israel fell into idolatry even during the "Tabernacle Days," and identifies the gods they worshipped: one of which was an Akkadian God that we now know as the planet Saturn. No one worships Saturn today, right? I read in my research that part of the pattern of star-god worship was to carefully measure and calculate the path of the planet-god. So star-god priests were the first astronomers (think of the calculations needed to get up, say, Stonehenge), and science may have been tied up in of the first idolatries.

As someone who juggles the demands of various "good things" that are "made by hands" (teaching, research, service, politics, theology, yes, theology), I'm struck by the fact that working for a job that demands so much of your time that you might as well be worshiping it ... that's not a new thing.

This has more implications I'll have to think about as study continues.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

We Are None of Us Scientists

Listening to a talk on the way in by Bill Newsome from the ASA meeting this Spring. You can find the talk itself on the ASA website if you wish: Newsome is a Stanford neurobiologist who talks about the questions people have brought to him about his faith. (And in the question and answer session, part 2, he recommends an essay by my friend and colleague Rick Steele from our School of Theology!)

In any case, what really struck me was his response to his post-doc, who was flabbergasted that this same professor who was so tough on published papers in lab meetings could believe in this Christianity stuff. The post-doc asked how the same person who was so skeptical of papers and insistent on running controls could believe in God, purpose, meaning, Jesus, etc.

Newsome's response was that actually, the most important decisions any of us make are actually not scientific, and never can be. (He went so far as to say the more important the question, the less scientific it must be.) He used the example of taking a new job. When is it worth it to accept a new position, with all the uncertainties at the new location, and the known costs of having to uproot your family, take your kids out of school, learn a new area, etc.? You don't really know, and you can't run a replicable experiment for it. Life has no controls. Also, the question, should I marry this person or not is also in this category.

So leaps of faith are pretty common for all of us because we're limited by our lives embedded in time. This doesn't mean we can't or don't think about which way we should go or weigh our options. We use our minds even more for those decisions. But we can't run an experiment on the big questions.

This has implications for history and theology, but let me just mention one right now: the story of Abraham, the father of faith, is the mother of all "job relocation" decisions. All we're told is God told him to move away from his land and take his family with him. He did so by faith. Everyone makes decisions like that; the question is why do you do it, and what's your faith in?So believing is kind of like taking a new job, or marrying someone. You've only got one life and you decide with the way you spend it.

Seriously, go listen to the talk, both parts, it's good stuff.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Book Review: The Shack

I will try to write this review without giving too much away about this book. Tons of people have read it already. It's about a family tragedy that happens to a father who's a Christian but has trouble with "God questions." He receives a note in his mailbox that appears to be from God and responds by going to a shack in the wilderness, associated with that tragedy. There he meets God in surprising forms and has lots of long conversations. Suffice it to say he learns something about how to get past tragedy, I hope you can see that coming from the cover (or the type of store it's sold in).

It was good. I found the occasional paragraph to be very well put, and for a book that's basically all talk, Will Young finds ways to keep it moving and vary the setting from chapter to chapter. This book isn't big on nuance. The tragedy is something that is so stark and black-and-white that even Lifetime wouldn't build a movie around it. Also, the father's family history is similarly just a bit too over the top. I'm ambivalent about whether the author should have "toned down" the evil. On the one hand, he's making a point about true evil in the face of innocence. On the other hand, it is drawn so starkly that I had trouble relating to it -- it always seemed just this side of a "this is evil" kind of conversation. But by the end of the book, when he demonstrates how to deal with that evil, I think I return to his side of things, and like Stephen King he knows how to pull heartstrings.

Yes, I typed that correctly. Young has the same easy way with prose and fast-reading, clear style that bestselling authors like Stephen King has.

Now, some of the theological points he makes with that easy, fast prose are debatable, and theo-blogs get up in arms over parts of them, as if it's not clear from the start that this is fiction and one man's perspective. Debate if you must, but I'd prefer that you answer in kind, with your own talky story, not with a point by point blog post. I find his vivid characterization to be more important than the fine points of his theology of the Fall.

Actually, the points that bother me the most aren't theological so much as philosophical. In particular, rules and hierarchies in general get condemned. I'm ambivalent about that as well. I think some of what he says in this regard makes it a lot easier to "get" Jesus (and therefore to "get" God). Bully for him on that count. But I don't think God eliminates hierarchies as much as he turns them upside down. See the Magnificat. Also he doesn't eliminate rules, he enlivens and uses them. I think Young's actually a little too traditional in his take on Paul and the epistle to the Romans and all that: the Law is good and bad, not just bad (to put it WAY too simplistically). If Rules aren't what it's all about why did Jesus make a point of fulfilling the Law? Rules are something ... we just get what they are wrong. Maybe there's a "flipping over" to be done with those as well. (If rules and hierarchy are so out of order what does that say about the mechanism of justice depicted in this book?)

So some of those points come off as typically Northwest Emergent-Church Theology gone a little too far. But they're not the point. The point is talking to God and seeing him as surprising and loving characters. The point of this book is to write the Trinity on your heart in images, and to give images of forgiveness and the beauty of what looks like a mess (without explaining it away). This book succeeds admirably at that.

Eugene Peterson's cover blurb compares this to Pilgrim's Progress. As someone who's never read Pilgrim's Progress I'm inclined to agree. There's schematic tendencies to the plot and over-talkiness and probably theology that will look dated in 20 years in both of the books, and God speaks through both of them. I'm more inclined to compare it to Perelandra by CS Lewis, another talky but interesting book. Either way, it's worth a read.