Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Book Review: The Invention of Air

Steven Johnson's previous book, The Ghost Map, has found a permanent home in my spring biochem seminar, and if a book's good enough to assign in a biochem class you better believe it's good. (It's all about the cholera epidemics in London and how a scientist and a pastor solved the problem of cholera.) Johnson's latest book is about Joseph Preistley, best known as the chemist who discovered oxygen. It's a fine enough story, and well told, but it's not good enough to replace The Ghost Map in my curriculum for the simple reason that Johnson does not practice what he preaches as the very backbone of the book.

Priestley wasn't just a chemist: he was also a good friend to Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, and was therefore caught up in the political debates of the American Revolution. On top of that, he was a pastor of a small congregation (it's how he had time to do experiments in the first place), and therefore an author of sermons and theological thinker. So, chemist, politician (or at least political theorist), and pastor. Johnson's big argument is that Priestley and co. didn't see walls between their disciplines and therefore we should take the big picture too. Ok as far as it goes (although it doesn't say anything about how separation of church and state, one of the big ideas of this time, is one big ol' conceptual wall).

The big problem is that Johnson spends all sorts of time on Priestley's science and how his work brings scientific fields together (laboriously so, in fact), and all sorts of time on Priestley's politics and political friendships, but only a few paragraphs here and there about his faith. If the thesis of the book is seamless integration then you've only got 2/3 of the total integrated there. Personally, I wanted to know a lot more about Priestley's faith, but it seems Johnson simply isn't qualified to judge it and/or make syntheses of it with the rest of his life. There is a big ol' conceptual wall in this book that the author claims should be knocked down.

What is there about Priestley's faith is intriguing. He was clearly interested in blowing up all the tradition and getting back to "just Jesus." (Funny how everyone wants to get rid of Paul on the way to getting back to Jesus, as if we can know more about Jesus than Paul did. I find putting up a wall between Paul and Jesus to be a lot harder than it appears at a superficial glace once you really study Paul and the rest of the New Testament.) I do know that Preistley denied the divinity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity, which often happens when you depend on science as the only way of knowing and feel you have to understand everything for it to be true. (But I don't know that is really why he denied those things, because Johnson doesn't bother to detail his reasoning like he does for his scientific reasoning.) Then again, Priestley interpreted current events such as the French revolution in the light of the book of Revelation, and when facing death had the serene courage of genuine faith, so it's not like he was just some big talker when it comes to faith. He's a complex character with a complex (and like everyone, a somewhat wrong) theology, and it was a huge part of his life. Johnson can come to all sorts of judgments about his science (carbon cycle = good; phlogiston theory = clearly wrong), so why not at least write about his faith and let us see the conflicts there? Is his faith like the carbon cycle, or like phlogiston? The ball is totally dropped on this account.

One of the things I like about NT Wright is that he really does integrate politics with faith, and has a bit of science and art in there once in a while. Steven Johnson's got science and politics, but without an ability to say anything about faith, his picture of Priestley is ultimately two-dimensional.

All that's to say, if you just don't expect too much from the faith side, this is a fine book that filled in a lot of gaps to my understanding about Priestley. Just don't expect too much!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Problems of Analyzing Literature via Darwin

I'm always interested in a good description of the limits of science, and here's a great one:
(Yes, it's from The Nation, and I intend to balance it with a different essay from the National Review very soon! I'm nothing if not fair and balanced!)

To summarize, this article is about the new English-department profs who try to apply Darwinian theory and evolutionary psychology to literature. Basically, they try to find a reason rooted in survival in the Pleistocene Era that would explain any work of fiction, whether the Odyssey or Sense and Sensibility. This essay's author does a good job of criticizing the approach fairly (while also criticizing the Theory-based "cul-de-sac" that post-modern literary analysis has been stalled in), bringing out some ways in which Darwinian analysis reinforces the value of art, but many other ways in which it plain has nothing to say. Two quotes summarize this well:

"I have read any number of Darwinian essays about Pride and Prejudice (one critic calls it their "fruit fly"), but I have yet to read one that told me anything interesting. The idea that the novel is about mate selection does not count as an original contribution."

"That so many of the greatest works of literary art--the Iliad, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, Hamlet, King Lear, Paradise Lost, Faust, Moby-Dick, the novels of Dostoyevsky, Joyce, Woolf and Coetzee--are ultimately concerned not with mate selection or status competition, however seriously they might consider such matters, but with the human place in the cosmos; that such a commitment is precisely what begins to distinguish these works from the kinds of things that are better studied with polling data and cheek swabs; that the finest books demand a criticism that attends to what makes them unique, not what makes them typical: these are not possibilities that literary Darwinism envisions."

Monday, May 25, 2009

Quote from The Lost History of Christianity

I wasn't expecting to find a quote that summed up my personal challenges -- as a Christian who interprets science for a living -- in a book about medieval history, but here it is:

"Historically, Christians faced the issue of whether to speak and think in the language of their anti-Christian rulers. If they refused to accommodate, they were accepting utter marginality…Yet accepting the dominant language and culture accelerated the already strong tendency to assimilate to the ruling culture, even if the process took generations. Although a comparable linguistic gulf does not separate modern Western churches from the secular world, Christians still face the dilemma of speaking the languages of power, of presenting their ideas in the conceptual framework of modern physics and biology, of social and behavioral science. To take one example, when churches view sin as dysfunction, an issue for therapy rather than prayer, Christians are indeed able to participate in national discourse, but they do not necessarily have anything to offer that is distinctive. Nor is there any obvious reason why believers should retain their attachment to a religious body that in its language and thought differs not at all from the secular mainstream. Too little adaption means irrelevance; too much leads to assimilation and, often, disappearance."

I think I need to put this up on my wall. For now my blog is just as good. :)

Book Review: The Lost History of Christianity

I find books fall into three (increasingly rare) categories: those that I read at a normal rate, those that I read quickly because they're so good, and those that I force myself to read slowly because they're so incredibly good and full of stuff that changes the way I see other things. Guess which one this is? Yep, it's the last. If you have any interest in the lessons of history for the church, you need to read this book. It's that simple.
This book is a history of Eastern Christianity, branches of which include the Nestorian, Jacobite, Coptic, Assyrian, and Chinese churches roughly in the time period 200-1500AD. You may have never heard of some of these churches, because (with the exception of Coptic) they have literally gone extinct. The thing is, during the 500-1200AD period, there were probably more Christians in these churches than there were in Europe. They were minority presences in Persian, Chinese, African and later Islamic empires, but they were great in number, and now they are gone. All that remains are the ruins of old cathedrals and hints of great libraries lost. In this sense as I was reading this book, with its bizarre names and tragic endings, I realized that I was reading a real-life Silmarillion (J.R.R. Tolkien's compendium of Middle-Earth history). (For some people that may be an insult but for me it's a high compliment.)
The thing is, where did all these Christians go? It's a complex and violent tale of waves of persecution, and some bad choices made by the churches involved. But there is a legacy that remains: for instance, everyone talks about how the Arabs saved much of Aristotle and other Greek thinkers for the Renaissance to re-discover, but no one in my memory has mentioned that it was Christians in Syria who saved Aristotle for the Arabs!
The biggest mistake that the church made that I can easily and naively identify is that they allied themselves with the Mongols. Mongols were not themselves Christians but often married Christian women, who had some influence and definitely caused the Muslims who were conquered by the Mongols to identify them with Christianity. The Mongols utterly destroyed much of the Far East (in fact, they swept as far West as Vienna). Baghdad in particular was so decimated that many historians say the current defensive, reactionary attitude among many Muslims can be traced to their painful memory of that part of history. Christians enjoyed a brief flourishing under Mongol rule as the favored minority, true. But then two things happened: 1.) Egyptian Muslims actually turned back the Mongols and 2.) All the Mongols returned to Mongolia when their leader died to decide who would be the next leader ... and they never came back, leaving a swath of scorched earth. The Muslims came back to rule and their relationship with the Christians was never the same again. Note that it wasn't the Eastern Christians who conquered all of Asia, but it was those Christian communities who remained when the Mongols left. Some astonishing massacres happened sporadically as a result, so that over the next 500 years or so even the memory of Christianity was lost. In retrospect Mongols weren't the best friends to have -- though it must have made a lot of military sense at the time.
Some of these massacres are surprisingly recent: just about 100 years ago, perhaps 1.5 million Christians were systematically killed in Armenia, aided in part by the new railroads in the area that carried soliders from place to place, "cleansing" it of Christians. In fact, it was these atrocities that made those who described them grope for a new word to describe the vast nature of the murder going on. The word they came up for it? Genocide. Genocide has Christian roots, with Christians being the victims.
I am still assimilating the amazing history of this book. For the most part it's written at a fast clip, and the extra details I wished for occasionally may not even exist, so can't complain about that. The final three chapters are interpretive and vary in quality: Chapter 7 in my opinion is straightforward and not really nuanced at all, but Chapters 8 and 9 do a great job of pulling it all together and making it relevant. Pointing out that entire continents have been left out of history is a big job, and as usual Jenkins pulls it off very well. Count me impressed -- and changed.
If you're debating getting this book at all by this point, let me make it easy for you: do it. Read this book and see what it changes for how you view history. (And let me know what you think!)

Friday, May 22, 2009


Thank you for your prayers, we're home from surgery and everything seems to be just fine. Now we just have to keep Aidan from picking at it.

I read somewhere this week that certain adversity is not as hard to take as uncertainty about adversity. I guess that's true -- the hardest part is the waiting for the (always a little late) surgery appointment to come around. I brought some reading but I couldn't do any heavy lifting mentally, even though this is a small deal medically. Letting him go to walk down the hall in that little green gown wasn't easy. When Aidan gets nervous, he gets real quiet, solemn and focused (a bit like me I guess). He focused on his VeggieTales videos that we scrounged up from across all the waiting rooms. The funny thing? This isn't the first time that one of the VeggieTales songs actually gave me a bit of comfort for grown-up problems (it's the one Larry the Cucumber hears when he's waiting in the Lion's Den if you're keeping score).

The most amazing thing? We saw two friends who work there while we were there and one family we know from church. One of the friends who work there we knew we would see, but I ran into her literally two steps into the building, and she was even able to show me where to check in. But the other friend was totally fluky. She's teaching at SPU now, and she only works at the hospital 4 hours a month, yet those were the four hours we were there for. On top of that? She was a nurse in our area, posted right outside our door. So we felt surrounded with friends. That's a good surprise.

Robobama at Disney World

Now I'm going to actually want to go to the Hall of Haunted Presidents* next time I go to Disney World, and not just for a nap:

(* As actually called by some confused tourists.)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Must Be Seen to Be Believed

You know, I know the Mariners have lost, like, 15 of their last 10 games (yes you read that right), but there's got to be a better way to get people to come to the ballpark than this:

On the other hand, I will never get tired of watching that "cat in the Kingdome" video.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


So a situation is coming up Friday that by any rational measure I have no reason to worry about at all, yet my mind is not entirely rational and I'd like prayer for that situation. The thing is, Aidan was just signed up for very very minor surgery Friday to sew up his herniated umbilical (a BIG outie belly button). The thing I didn't know was that this requires general anesthesia. Having been through it myself and being familiar with the astronomically high odds of nothing going "wrong", I shouldn't have a problem with it at all, but there's this little part of me that is the same part that always says a little prayer during airplane takeoffs and landings, this part of me that knows that I'll be praying on Friday for Aidan and I'd like others to be praying too.

The point is, his herniated umbilical could get twisted some day and I worry about that, too, because that's bad news. So this is necessary, minor, quick, and routine. Regardless, I'd still like prayer. Thanks!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Star Trek and Destiny

I saw the new Star Trek film last night (a "reboot" of the franchise) and about halfway through the movie, when I finally had the chance to catch my breath, I realized just what I was afraid this movie might do: I was worried that I was watching Alien 3.

For those who have had the good fortune not to see it, Alien 3 had the bad luck to follow Aliens, one of the few sequels to be better than the original movie (granted, they're both good and totally different movies, but I gotta give Bill Paxton the edge in this one). The thing is, Aliens is all about saving this one little girl, Newt. The entire end of the movie is predicated on Ripley's determination to save her. Spoiler alert: She does, and they go into hibernation sleep for the long journey home, fade to black. When Alien 3 starts, Ripley wakes up ... but Newt's hibernation chamber has malfunctioned and she's dead. Which completely obliterates the entire reason for Aliens. Now, stuff like that happens in the world, but when you put it into a story, it ruins the story. Not to mention you know they did it just because they couldn't work the Newt character into the third story in the first place. It doesn't matter what else happens in Alien 3, by destroying the reason for the previous movie it destroys itself.

So I realized the danger with the new Star Trek movie is, by basically having characters go into the past and change it to allow for new stories with the original characters, they effectively erase all of Star Trek lore, from that point on, which is, well, pretty much everything. They "kill" all the future characters and erase the mythology which is detailed in tons of books and stories. And the question is, for what?

Well, by the end of the movie I bought it. I want to see more stories with the original crew, and I can handle two timelines so to speak. And the big reason is because this new version of Star Trek believes in destiny, a very unscientific concept that saves the whole thing.

The thing is, in this reboot, you have a character going back in time and destroying people ... LOTS of people ... before their time. You do have major changes to the Trek chronology. But the cool thing about the movie is with all this evil messing stuff up, the story works out so that most things end up like they were before. There's redemption despite the messing-up effects of evil, giving the sense that there's a storytelling purpose to it all. I don't think that's a major spoiler: you end up with Captain Kirk commanding the Enterprise, First Officer Spock, everyone else at their proper station. How they get there is different, but they are in the same seats, the places where they should be, by the end of the movie. They are where they belong, and that just plain feels right, unlike the Newt thing, which felt so very wrong. You even have the first Captain of the Enterprise being Christopher Pike. The basic structure of the Star Trek universe has been respected, and now the possibility for a new set of stories is opened up. Quite frankly, the Trek universe had been pretty much filled up and exhausted by the time we got to the end of Voyager. It ended up domesticated and settled down, like America after the disappearance of the frontier. Here we get the frontier back again, sort of a counterfactual history, and I'm interested to see what they do with it.

There's also lots of references to the previous Trek movies, even a point where a character knocks his head like Scotty in Star Trek V. (If they're respecting Star Trek V then they are better men than I.) You see the Kobayashi Maru from Star Trek II, there's a plot point that works exactly like a great scene from Star Trek IV, the Vulcan training is just like Star Trek IV, and I'm looking forward to all the references I missed. Seeing those made me accept this as an "alternate universe" Trek, where all the old stuff still had meaning but new stuff could happen.

The one thing that gives me pause is the fact that this is a movie franchise, while the "frontier" exploration bit works better for a TV show. This shows in the fact that it's hard to make all the characters on the bridge important to the plot for a two-hour movie. For one-hour TV episodes you can focus on a few and focus on the others next week. But in a movie it often seems strained to get "everyone in" the plot. The screenwriters for this new Trek actually do a good job of that in this one, much better than most of the other movies, but I wish this was TV instead of movies. But once that genie's out of the bottle I don't think there's any going back. I want to see what else they do with this: the bottom line is it works to have a good, fun story and if I have to have two Trek timelines in my head to enjoy these new stories, I can handle that. I don't sense any erasing -- I sense new possibilities and fresh air.

PS: Maybe this is partly because I love counterfactual history, the type in the What If? books. If you haven't read those ... man, you should!

PPS: I loved the very first scenes of the movie. Watch those and tell me if you think the Trek universe is messed up (even as an evil guy is messing it up). It actually brought a tear to my eye and helped me buy everything from that point on. Granted, there are some plot holes that even I caught on the way through, and some sloppy exposition, but what matters to me is the fundamental story, and you know, it's a good one.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Book Review: The Open Secret

I went to Oxford last summer for a conference and now I realize this book was what kicked that conference off. I didn't know that till I got there and heard speakers keep referencing this book, which is kind of unfair because it wasn't published till 2008 and I hadn't read it! But in any case, reading through this book I remembered parts of the conference where I thought "why are they mentioning that person or that idea" and its turns out it's because they were interacting with this book.

Most of my review is that I really like McGrath's writing for how "brisk" it is, to borrow a word from one of the blurbs on the back of the book. He doesn't slow down to engage every argument, but that makes it possible for a busy scientist to actually read this and engage with his argument. So I'm not sure what others in the theology field think of this, but as an out-of-fielder it gave me ideas and, I agree with McGrath and the blurbs, it laid a foundation for a new rethinking of natural theology. Natural theology has always been an interest of mine -- after all, if I spend my time in the lab tinkering with nature and then part of my time in the church, I should be able to bring the two together -- but it's been confined by a nineteenth-century straightjacket in which everyone expects it to provide proofs that God exists. Well, if that's not strictly speaking possible, what's a scientist to do? McGrath gives me ideas, and I'm working on a proposal that incorporates precisely those ideas.

The main points for this new natural theology is that it's humble: it's about resonance, not proof (I've always liked the word resonance as a chemist and music-interested person); it's about the big picture, not the "gaps" of creation (and therefore lends itself well to story-telling); and it's about the suggestive power of things like the anthropic principle, things that could make sense without God, but seem to make more sense with God. It's about Jesus' parables and "I am" sayings, and the call of Samuel (I knew there was a reason I named my first son that ...). It's a gentle theology, but also one grounded in cold hard observation, yet going beyond it. Sign me up.

I'll post my abstract for my proposed lecture later, we'll see if anything comes of it, but I'm pretty sure I'll be writing more about this book's ideas very soon.

Book Review: 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus

Just polished off another of those NT Wright "For Everyone" commentaries. NT Wright doesn't spend too much time on the academic questions, although he does point out a few passages with the gloriously mixed metaphors that are so indicative of Paul's writing -- who else could put together a string like that? Because it's hard to place these in the timeline of Paul's life, there's just not too much to be said about them, but I think I have unconsciously neglected them as a result of their position in the canon and the "easy way out" of thinking of them as somehow secondary to the undebatedly Pauline letters. Another thing: it had never occurred to me that when Paul was referring to the "all Cretans are liars" quote that he may have been making a little joke, but it sure makes sense to me to look at it that way now.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

N.T. Wright Quote of the Day

"So much in Western churches in the last 200 years has just assumed that beauty is the pretty bit around the border that isn't actually the central heart of everything and you can just sort of dispense with it if you need to. I mean, you can see it in the education system. In my world, you have schools where the music is all taught by peripatetic teachers who go from school to school to school because no one school wants to spend a whole salary on them. And then when times are hard and the money is tight, well, we don't actually need that stuff, and we can axe the music, we can stop having a choir, and we don't need someone teaching art, because it's all rather flaky and we can't evaluate it and it's not going to be useful anyway ... and in fact, what we're doing is colluding with this flatlanded world where the glory has been squeezed out. So, I really want to say, bring art, music, etc. back into the middle. Not that artists are somehow more divinely inspired than anyone else, but we need that because God made a wonderful, beautiful world and he made us to be co-creators within it." -- NT Wright, Feb. 28, 2009.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Words Left Unsung

Yesterday we sang a nice little number called "Shout for Joy to the Lord," which was adapted from Psalm 95. As usual I was so focused on the music that I didn't stop to look at the text for the words until the Sunday we sang it. I was surprised: it turns out this was one of my favorite Psalms, at least recently, Psalms that shocked me with a great punch-line at the end. And the reason why I didn't recognize one of my recent favorite Psalms is that the writer had left out the punch-line.

Here's the last 2/3 of Psalm 98:
4 Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music;
5 make music to the LORD with the harp, with the harp and the sound of singing,
6 with trumpets and the blast of the ram's horn—shout for joy before the LORD, the King.
7 Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.
8 Let the rivers clap their hands, Let the mountains sing together for joy;

9 let them sing before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity.

We basically did all that and then stopped at the end of verse 8. In doing so we covered the rejoicing of creation but never WHY the creation was rejoicing. It wasn't just the joy of existing -- it was the joy of looking forward to a future visit by the judge!

Now, that's pretty weird stuff to those of us when "Here Comes the Judge" brings the automatic implication of "let's go and hide" (much like two people in a garden long ago). But this judge came already, and who did he look like? An itenerant Jew who accepted death on a cross. When this judge returns, he will fix the groanings of creation with transformation and liberation. He will be fair to all people, and He will make everything what it was meant to be. That is something big enough to make the rivers clap.

I don't blame the songwriter for cutting the text off early. Not to do so would be to fight centuries of misapplication and apprehension about God's role as judge. And there's a little healthy fear that should be there, too. But I want to make it clear that the original text is richer, fuller, and more provocative. And the original text has the more positive view of creation: it isn't just about us getting right, it's about the trees and fields getting right too. Therefore we should anticipate the future and treat the rivers and mountains right in the present, to the best of our abilities. (I think that's Parable of Talents material there.)

The version we sang was dilute. Sometimes you have to be dilute ... just for the sake of rhyming! But I'd love to find a current songwriter who can make the hope of ancient Israel for the coming of truly righteous Judge, to make that hope come alive for us in the present, in anticipation of the future.