Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Excellent Essay on Solitude and Leadership

I'll have to thank David Brooks for his "Sidney Awards" in the New York Times for this essay and the previously posted one. This is a speech given to West Point cadets on leadership and the importance of solitude. Important for teachers and learners of all stripes. I'm reminded of Jesus going away early to pray -- that's a piece I fit into the silences in this article.

Excellent Essay on Churchill

I got more out of this essay on Churchill than from a biography I read about 10 years ago that was hundreds of times as long.

One of my favorite paragraphs:

Churchill’s real legacy lies elsewhere. He is, with de Gaulle, the greatest instance in modern times of the romantic-conservative temperament in power. The curious thing is that this temperament can at moments be more practical than its liberal opposite, or than its pragmatic-conservative twin, since it rightly concedes the primacy of ideas and passions, rather than interests and practicalities, in men’s minds. Churchill was a student of history, but one whose reading allowed him to grasp when a new thing in history happened.

Is that why the "What's Wrong with Kansas" crowd are mistaken -- that ideas and passions more primary than interests and practicalities?

Read more at http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2010/08/30/100830crat_atlarge_gopnik#ixzz19RGS8N5B

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Van Gogh Island

This picture, from Nature's Images of the Year, reminds me of a song about a starry, starry night:

EARTH AS ART Greenish phytoplankton swirl in the water around Gotland, a Swedish island in the Baltic Sea. Originally taken in 2005 by the Landsat 7 satellite, this picture was recoloured by the US Geological Survey for its ‘Earth as art’ online exhibition this year.

Book Review: Shadowheart

I love it when a four-book series comes together.

Of course, with Tad Williams, there's rarely any doubt that it will come together in the end, just like there shouldn't be any doubt that the "third and final" book will grow so huge it'll spawn a fourth book. Williams always seems to have a good germ of an idea driving each of his big series that you don't really expect. He's matured in his craft with this series, although I still feel like many plot points are made just to tweak the legacy of Tolkien in certain areas: for example, all families are dysfunctional in some way so let's make the central family dysfunctional in some 21st-century way. In many cases it's a nice chance of pace but sometimes it just seems gratuitous, change for change's sake. But really, every author in this genre is forced to keep some orthdoxies while choosing certain heterodoxies, and which should be which is ultimately a matter of taste.

The one thing that bugs me about the series is its theology. It's a polytheistic universe with at least three major cultures. In fact, one of the most confusing things about the series is that the gods all have three different names and the myths are all slightly different, so it's very hard to keep track of when all you have are fragments in the first place. I like the concept and find it an interesting take on our three faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Unfortunately, the underlying reality of it all reads as poorly thought out. Williams seems interested only in the question of whether the gods are, or are not. Not to spoil too much, but it turns out the gods are (in a 21st-century kind of way, but really, they are). And pretty much this is the extent at which you're left at the end of the book (with some hints as to how gods, ahem, resolve conflicts, that is, fight). Only one god really speaks, although there are hints of others, and those hints may be my favorite part of the series, especially near the end. You know, if you're gonna be polytheistic, go and be polytheistic and show us what it's like and how it works. In this sense American Gods by Neil Gaiman still wins my award for "excellence in polytheology." Williams just isn't interested in that aspect of his universe, although it drives everything else, or maybe it got edited out.

Despite this, Williams puts on a writing clinic showing how to juggle at least a dozen different major characters and plotlines, and how to shift scenes and (mostly) keep the story moving. He introduces some good ambuguity and true tragedy into a genre that desperately needs it. This is undoubtedly the best-written of all his books, and it's as well-plotted as any.

I suppose it ends up a bit like LOST for me: excellent at juggling multiple lines and telling a story, but what story is being told ends up not being fleshed out as much as you want. Regardless, I'll happily take it.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Book Review: The Ghosts of Cannae

Military history always seems like it will be much more interesting than it turns out to be. This book by Robert L. O'Connell is better than average on those counts in that is was very interesting throughout. The topic is Hannibal and the battle of Cannae two centuries BC, and how it fits into the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage. Cannae itself is roughly at the center of the narrative and the author does a good job of covering most topics succinctly and going back far enough to show where the wars came from. (I had previously only read about the darkness of the Carthaginian religion from G.K. Chesterton, and I assumed he was exaggerating a bit, but no, he was spot on, maybe even a little understated given the recent evidence of infant sacrifice ... yikes.) Cannae itself is described excellently -- you can see not only why Hannibal was so smart but also why the Romans walked right into his trap, it's not just that they were stupid! The drawbacks are common to much popular history: there's a few sections where the history gets so complicated that it reads more like a list than a narrative; as a non-specialist I need either more storytelling or less detail. Also, the epilogue at the end about the future impact of Cannae is way too short. I'd like something along the lines of the ending to The Ghost Map in which the lessons are made immediate and relevant, but instead we just have six pages, most of which tell us how Cannae does not apply when people have said it does! Overall it's a good example of the genre and an excellent reminder of how history is done. I can't help but think there's a few more details about characters like Hannibal and Scipio Africanus that would tell the story that much better, details like Malcolm Gladwell might ferret out, but that's just saying it's a good book not a great one. Well worth the time.

In Memory of Herb Haugo: Math is Not Linear

Since my father-in-law (who recently passed on) was a math teacher, I thought of him when I saw this great presentation. I don't think he'd agree with everything in it, but it would definitely interest him, and it makes good use of the Prezi presentation platform for zooming in and out.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Eulogy for Herb Haugo

My father-in-law passed away on the first of the month. At his service I gave a short eulogy based on this text here:

Lilly Ann asked me to comment on Psalms 121 to 134, which were important to her and Herb in the last weeks of his life. These are the “Psalms of Ascent,” short poems that the Judaeans would sing as they took the long, hard pilgrimage to worship at the Temple on Mount Moriah. The first Psalm of Ascent begins by looking at the countryside that Herb loves so much and calling on the creator of the hills to be our personal help: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence comes my help. My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” (Psalms 121:1-2)

Herb was not walking to mount Moriah, but he was ascending to heaven. One of the main points of the book of Hebrews is that an earthly temple is no longer our destination; instead, God has better things waiting in heaven for us. This was Herb’s ascent. In Hebrews, our pilgrimage is to “a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made of hands … “ (Hebrews 9:11). The earthly Temple, the most beautiful building in the world, was but a “shadow of heavenly things” (Hebrews 8:5) and “a shadow of good things to come. “ (Hebrews 10:1) Herb had the faith to know he was on the road to the heavenly temple and his new heavenly body. Herb knows that the God of creation is the God of his help, the God of the new creation to come.

Paul also knew this. In 2 Corinthians, he encouraged a group of confused, sad, and imperfect Christians, reminding them that the power that created the world and raised Jesus from the dead is at work even in suffering, even as bodies and minds fall apart:

“For God, who commanded the light to shine out of the darkness, has shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; … Knowing that he which raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise UP US also by Jesus, and shall present us with you.” (2 Cor 4:6-8)

“For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, works for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal. For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. … For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality may be swallowed up of life.” (2 Cor 4:17-18; 5:1, 4)

Herb’s body in his casket was a shadow of his former self, but that is not him. Herb’s resurrection body will be so vivid and real that we will say Herb in his earthly prime was just a shadow of his true self. Herb knew this and I have to think that’s why the Psalms of Ascent spoke so clearly, describing the mountains and valleys of life, from the joy of family to the pain and fear of a broken world.

(We saw this combination of joy and sadness at work when, just a week ago Friday, we were able to bring Herb’s 12th grandchild and 7th grandson, Benjamin Arthur McFarland, just three days old, to spend a few short minutes in Herb’s arms before Herb continued upward.)

After surveying all of life, The Psalms of Ascent end with worship in Psalm 134: “Lift up your hands in the sanctuary, and bless the Lord.” (134:2) After 45 years worshiping with the choir here, Herb has climbed the mountain to the better tabernacle not made with hands, and now he is worshiping in a light that will never fade, the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Let us persevere as he did until we meet again.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Two Stories I Don't Want to Forget

1.) I had a student tell me that a biochem homework question -- about why emulsifiers are required to make mayonnaise that doesn't separate out -- actually helped him reason through why a peanut sauce he had made was separated out, and then he solved it by using biochemistry to add a little egg yolk as an emulsifier. Biochemistry is useful! (For peanut sauces at least.)

2.) The same student told me his dad was sitting on a plane next to a medical student from a big state university in the midwest, and they started talking about how his son was taking biochemistry, and the med student mentioned he was listening to some biochem lectures from iTunesU ... and turns out the med student was listening to my lectures! A good reminder that I have no idea what work the iTunesU lectures are doing while I'm otherwise occupied.

Now, I don't think this particular student who told me these stories was angling for a better grade on the final that I'm going to start grading any minute now ... but you gotta admit these are some good stories!

Book Review: The Best of Star Trek (Graphic Novel)

You know, this wasn't half bad. Since I don't have time to read entire Star Trek novels anymore, why not read the best of Star Trek comic books? (It helps that many of the same writers write for both.) The plot of a 2- or 3-book series is similar to the plot of a TV episode or novel, and sometimes just as creative. This graphic novel was as worth the time as a TV episode would have been, so I'd have to say it's all right. The thing is, only one of the stories was able to be read by my son who's been asking me for Star Trek stories, because the others were either too self-referential or too theological, perhaps better to say anti-theological, building too much on Arthur C. Clarke's "sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic" dictum/hokum. (Is that materialist holy scripture then?) In any case, it was diverting enough. High praise indeed.

Book Review: Christians Are Hate-filled Hypocrites-- and Other Lies You've Been Told

(You can tell my ambivalence from the frequency of "however"s below!)

The title of the book says it all. The thing is, the first chapter quotes Rodney Stark extensively and I kept thinking throughout that Stark would've done it better. However, I welcome actual data applied to actual problems however I can get it. I'm glad it's out there because many of the things the author discusses are cases where the media has distorted some sociological data. However, it just doesn't do enough to avoid being a disappointment. My favorite part of the book was actually a chart from a blog that shows conversion rates from one denomination to another, which tells me that 75% of evangelical youth remain evangelical when they grow up. If that stat surprises you (because many people who have youth-group seminars to sell trumpet stats that are much lower than that, probably to sell tickets to their seminars) then you may want to check out this book.

It also doesn't help that, you know, everyone's a hypocrite in one way or another, so the accusation that Christians are hypocrites doesn't surprise or shock me, or even strike me as needing defending. However, some of the other assertions -- like that church doesn't affect divore rate -- are rightly put to rest in this book. I just wish there had been more of a focus on that, rather than measuring "warmth of feeling" toward other groups in the last half, which I don't find particularly helpful. Oh well.

Book Review: Towers of Midnight

Robert Jordan started writing a gargantuan fantasy epic when I was in high school. Throughout college, graduate school, and academia, Jordan gave me 11 1000-page books taking place in his world. He promised he'd finish it all up with a twelth, and then he died. Humph.

However, Jordan prepared for this possibility by keeping copious notes and eventually his estate gave the project to another fantasy author, Brandon Sanderson, who promptly promised that there was no way all that plot could be fit into 1 book and that he would instead write 3 books to finish the series. Towers of Midnight is the second of the jointly authored trilogy, meaning there better actually be just one book left. The good news is all the threads seem to be weaving together and there very well may be an end to the story in sight.

Towers of Midnight moves along at a positively sprightly pace relative to some of the mid-to-late Jordan-written titles, although even so the beginning of the book felt a little padded. Many times character progressions are told to the reader rather than shown, and I have to think Jordan wouldn't have been quite so forthcoming -- it reads more like Jordan's notes than Jordan's writing sometime. However, my major reaction is a sigh of relief that this saga is finally wrapping up and Jordan's plans are being revealed. Sanderson is competent and that's all I need from this series right now.

In fact, there are a few scenes that are beyond competent and are some of my favorites of the series. For one, there's a place about two-thirds of the way through where three or four conflicts come to climactic fights all at once, and actually overlap and intersect. This is brilliant and one of the things that only a series of this complexity could do. There's another scene in which a magical artifact is used to look forward in time rather than backward, and it shows some very unhappy endings, with some of the most poignant and affecting writing in the series, even presented in a creative narrative fashion. Finally, there's a climactic scene that you know is coming through the whole book because it's on the cover (and it's been coming for about six books now, fer-petes-sake), and it is pretty much what I hoped for, with a very clever twist at the very end that everyone should have seen but no one did (kind of like LOST Season 6). Overall, as a fan but not a super-fan of the series, I'm glad it's continuing the way it is and am looking forward to more of this in book fourteen. Including the words "The End" at the end -- right?

Book Reviews: Best Gospel of John Commentaries

I have a pattern for teaching Sunday School classes now:
1.) Check out about 7 or 8 commentaries from the SPU library.
2.) Read/skim the first section of the most recent ones.
3.) Keep using the ones I find useful; don't use the ones I don't.

In this manner the 7 or 8 become 3 pretty fast, and that's usually more than enough information for each Sunday class. I taught a Gospel of John class from September to November this year and the winning commentaries were (in order in which I'd read them):

1.) N.T. Wright's John for Everyone (200something)
2.) G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson's Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (2007)
3.) Craig S. Keener's The Gospel of John: A Commentary (2003)
4.) D.A. Carsons's The Gospel According to John (1990)

With the exception being that often Keener would quote Carson and put him into context, so often I could stop with Keener, while agreeing with much of Carson's work.

I especially want to point out how great Keener's work was. Its deliberate focus was on the social and historical context of the Gospel of John, which means he would talk about how that language or official position or whatever was used in Greek and Roman contexts, as well as Second-Temple Jewish contexts, and even the post-biblical Rabbinic literature. For the historical perspective alone this was far and away the most comprehensive, and Keener had welcome pastoral and theological insights as well. I am thinking I may move on to the Gospel of Matthew just because Keener has written a commentary for that too!

The Abandoned Blog No Longer Abandoned

Sorry I've been gone so long. First it was the class on the Gospel of John I taught that took up all my reading time, then it was the birth of my 4th son, Benjamin Arthur McFarland, on November 23, and then the death of Benjamin's grandfather (my father-in-law) on December 1. All events that take precedence over blog maintenance. However, I just gave my biochem final today and that means the schedule has cleared up considerably. I'm going to post some quick book reviews and soon we should be back to regularly intermittent posting.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Abandoned Subway Stop

Deep under New York there is a beautifully preserved, abandoned subway stop for City Hall. I can't believe the pictures found here. (I think I'll have to have a category for "Modern Ruins" soon ... )

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Gamma-Ray Bubbles at the Center of the Galaxy

The universe is a surprising place. A new gamma-ray observatory has found these sharply defined bubbles of gamma rays to appear to be blown out from each end of the center of the galaxy. We're pretty sure what they're NOT -- dark matter -- but we don't really know what they ARE. Is this part of the reason why the rest of the galaxy might not be so habitable? Too many gamma rays? And we KNOW gamma rays turn mild-mannered Bruce Banner into the Hulk.

At the very least, it's a beautiful picture, and a reminder that even with the best observatories we only see through a glass darkly -- even if what we see is dark matter!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Richard Hays speaks to Students and Faculty

This little message is definitely the first one in which a Tom Petty quote actually brought a tear to my eye. It's Richard B. Hays, Biblical scholar, speaking to students and faculty at Duke on a passage from Luke, but really, it's for everyone. Read it when you have the chance here.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Baseball: The Game of Inches

The reaction of the batter is also classic.

And the Giants win again!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Can you tell what this is?

Well, it's National Geographic's picture of the day. But to describe it completely: it's a bufferfly egg on a spiral leaf. More info at the original link here. [Thanks to Jeff Overstreet for the original heads up.]

Monday, October 25, 2010

Book Review: Absence of Mind

Frequently readers of this blog will know I have a keen affection for Home and Gilead, the novels of Marilynne Robinson. I'd caught rumors that her philosophical writings were very good but it didn't seem possible that this empathetic and subtle novelist was also an intellectual. Turns out she is. In Absence of Mind, Marilynne Robinson steps into the religion-science debates with a unique and I think powerful entry. This is a dense work that requires slow reading because it is an artfully shaped product of the human mind -- and that is part of the point. Robinson points out that for all the success of scientific endeavor, the parascientific writers who explain the science to the masses are often crude in their understanding of philosophical issues or even the simple mysteries of the human mind interacting with its environment, the universal gift of consciousness. For all her contradicting writers such as Dawkins and Dennett, Robinson does not present a theological counterpoint based on God, but rather a humanist counterpoint based on the subjectivity and yet inescapability of the mind itself. God still haunts the book, don't get me wrong.

I personally was slightly disappointed as the book wore on and Robinson's main target turned out to be Freud. To each her own, I suppose, but I would prefer that we have arguments against the new parascientific writers because those are the ones that are truly continuing. Freud's influence is complex and problematic, and it seems all too easy for defenders of Freud to jettison one beleaguered part of his work while keeping the rest. Regardless, Robinson's arugments are gems, even if they have been fundamentally stated before and will be stated again, they are polished to a sheen by her lapidary prose. Her insights are profound and the book itself is really a sliver of words relative to the torrent in general on the topic. They're all the more powerful for being so distilled.

Ultimately, this book may be difficult but it's worth it, and it's very enjoyable to catch the thousands of tiny allusions Robinson makes with a well-placed word or phrase. The footnotes are sparse and don't tell the half of what she's actually rebutting. I've definitely never encountered anything else quite like this book.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Art and the Church

We were just talking about this the other night: the role of art in the church. Here's what an artist has to say about it. Spot on. I love how EVERY different kind of person is addressed in that short letter.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Another Summer Lecture Link

Here's another link to the ASA lecture (see about 5 or 6 posts back for info). Should be a slightly cleaner file this time. Not that the other one was unclean or anything ...

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Book Review: Hear No Evil

Matthew Paul Turner grew up in an ultra-conservative Baptist church and eventually became an editor of CCM, the "Contemporary Christian Music" magazine, and this is a book about that. More accurately, it's a collection of vignettes arranged chronologically that are well-written but don't quite cohere -- perhaps coherence is overrated? In any case, I found I had to finish it once I started, and (although I'm biased because of my own background) I found Turner to be much better at the apt turn of phrase and general likability than Steve Almond (author of Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life). However, I want more. This book goes out of its way to detail a terrible incident in which the publisher of CCM forced Turner to interrogate Amy Grant about her divorce and not to leave till he extracted an "apology." The thing is, that's about the only story about Turner being an editor. That incident can't be entirely typical -- if it was, I have a hard time understanding why he was even in that job for any period of time and also how he could survive with his faith intact in any form. His faith is intact at the end of the book, although changed to be sure -- but the book never gets deep enough to let us see what and why. There's moments of deliberate vulnerability that make this book special, but I still feel like I have no idea why Turner lives life the way he does, and what the whole CCM thing means to him, if there's anything good in that industry at all. Another area is the whole way youth groups talk about abstinence and CCM singers are almost forced to be white-washed tombs by the system. That's fascinating and tragic, but the alternative system offered by the mainstream media doesn't seem to be more successful. The thing is, the warts-and-all Christianity you have here is funny and right-on with its depiction, but the alternatives are not put to the same test. I'm sure Turner has this in him, it's just the book seems like it was forced to be "funny vignettes like Blue Like Jazz" and it does not feel complete. Well, Turner has other books out there and I will be reading them -- he has a gift as an author. I just think it's better to think of this book as a long magazine article than as anything approaching a "real" book. It's a blog post, not a manifesto or complete philosophy. I'd just like to know, how DO you put it all together then?

Oh, and Turner's blog "Jesus Needs New PR" is great too, possibly suffering from the same incompleteness, but I don't expect completeness from a blog.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Sigmar Polke's Agate Windows


Just found these windows designed by Sigmar Polke for Zurich's Grossmunster cathedral. They are made from slices of agates arranged in the window. The colors, the biological fecundity of the agates, pulsing like bacteria growing with life, or stars forming in nebulae, a transcept of creation ... I am blown away.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Instant Easter Eggs

(Idea from Harold B. White published in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education Vol 28 No 1 pp 35-36, 2010.)

If you put eggs under a UV light they will glow scarlet. The same pigment is what makes earthworms purplish, and it is very light sensitive, meaning it's why earthworms fry in the sunlight (say, after a good rain when they come out).

More at this link. I sense a future biochemistry demo!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Book Reviews: Magician's Nephew and Last Battle

Just finished up reading Books 6 and 7 of Narnia aloud to Sam. Just some quick observations:

-- The Magician's Nephew is surprisingly funny.
-- The Last Battle is ... not.
-- There's a point where an animal dies during the Last Battle that is just so sad that it snuck up on me and choked me up. Lewis was walking quite a line here, in that he was writing about death for kids. I tend to therefore give him a break when my own 21st-century sensibilities think he went a little too far one way or another. One thing about the story is that it certainly moves right along, too.
-- Speaking of balance, you shouldn't mention the depiction of Emeth without the depiction of Tash, nor the depiction of Tash without the depiction of Emeth. Either character by itself is incomplete, you need both, and be skeptical of any critic or pastor who quotes one without the other.
-- The Last Battle becomes a lot better of a book if you don't take it as allegory, but if you take it like Lewis insisted you should take it, as a story of God at work in a different world in a different way. In a world in which God's son is manifest as a lion and physically present, then a deception can be built on that manifestation to destroy and corrupt. Interesting to think about what that means for why God seems so invisible/distant (to modernists, at least).

Better Science Through Beauty

I reviewed The Book Nobody Read a little while ago, but there's a point in there that I want to publicize in whatever small way. Gingerich describes the Epicycle Myth and debunks it. The Epicycle Myth is a modern scientific myth that the movement of the planets had, by the time of Copernicus, gotten convoluted and weighed down so that, to match observations, the astronomers had to add little "circles within circles," or epicycles, to their circular depictions of the orbits of the planets. Copernius, so the myth goes, devised a model with the sun at the center that did away with all the extra epicycles. Well, to quote George Gershwin, "It ain't necessarily so"! Turns out there's no evidence for proliferation of epicycles right before Copernicus, and when Copernicus proposed his model, it accounted for data about the same as the old model. So at first there was no immediate gain of simplicity or "better fit" to the data. However, Copernicus had the one advantage that it was a beautiful theory. As Gingerich puts it, "Copernicus' achievement was not something forced by fresh observations, but rather was a triumph of the mind in envisioning what was essentially a more beautiful arrangement of the planets." In this case, truth was beauty was truth and Copernicus was right, but that was only evident after the fact. At the time, all you had to go on is that Copernicus gave you a more beautiful universe to live in. The more beautiful universe was the true universe. That tells me that science, as much as it describes the universe as it truly is, is a beautiful thing.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Book Review: The Science of Cooking

Peter Barham, a physics instructor and food science lecturer, describes his hobby of combining cooking with science in this book. It explained quite a few things I did not know, and I've been teaching biochemistry for almost a decade. On top of that, it gave me test questions and an idea for a new lower-division course about biochemistry with labs in the kitchen. The book is straightforwardly written and generally does a good job simplifying complex situations. I especially like the way Barham describes the trade-offs that make certain kinds of cooking (puff pastry, souffles, etc.) so tricky, and then he describes how to avoid those trade-offs. An easy souffle? I think I'll have to try that one myself.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

ASA Lecture Audio: "The Chemicals Pour Forth Speech"

Here is a link to the audio of the presentation I did in Washington DC about a month ago at the ASA (American Scientific Affiliation) meeting: "The Chemicals Pour Forth Speech: Teaching Origins with a Biogeochemical Narrative." (I've really got to make some shorter titles ... ) The actual talk starts at the 3-minute mark. Let me know what you think!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Marilynne Robinson is My New Favorite Writer

What I love about Marilynne Robinson is she is capable of writing the most nuanced, delicate, beautiful stories about complicating and interesting human beings, and then she's able to turn around and be all intellectual. Check out this interview in Christianity Today in which she castigates the new breed of atheist Science Writers.

Favorite quote:

"Christianity has abandoned its intellectual traditions, ceding that ground to anybody in a white coat. Where it has tried to muster courage, it has too often tended to become irrational and shrill. Meanwhile, a great age in true science, an absolute catalog of wonders, passes by unnoticed."

She lists some wonders in the last question and mentions cosmology and the microbiology of gut bacteria. I agree!

Friday, September 10, 2010

More Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis has now traveled to Greece to report on the economic crisis there. This has more to it than just credit default swaps and questionable profits, because the center of the scandal is a monastery that is a center of Greek Orthodox spiritual life. Instead of interviewing "suits," Lewis interviews "robes." Underneath it all is a spiritual question of why these monks do what they do, and Lewis never quite gets down to his own beliefs beyond his atheism (leading to duplicity needed to enter the holy mountain, but the monks don't really care and seem strikingly hospitable). It appears the monks are using the real-estate windfall they concocted to benefit their monastery and community, not the "elite" monks at the top. The question remains, isn't that a form of selfishness too? What is going on with Greece here? Any American who made money in any way on the real estate bubble (and that includes me) is fundamentally no different than these monks. And why is it the American investment bankers who are EVERYWHERE promoting the irresponsible finances of the last decade? Michael Lewis opens the door on this situation but by no means are all or even most of the questions answered. Something to chew on.

Here's a great quote:

The tsunami of cheap credit that rolled across the planet between 2002 and 2007 has just now created a new opportunity for travel: financial-disaster tourism. The credit wasn’t just money, it was temptation. It offered entire societies the chance to reveal aspects of their characters they could not normally afford to indulge. Entire countries were told, “The lights are out, you can do whatever you want to do and no one will ever know.” What they wanted to do with money in the dark varied. Americans wanted to own homes far larger than they could afford, and to allow the strong to exploit the weak. Icelanders wanted to stop fishing and become investment bankers, and to allow their alpha males to reveal a theretofore suppressed megalomania. The Germans wanted to be even more German; the Irish wanted to stop being Irish. All these different societies were touched by the same event, but each responded to it in its own peculiar way. No response was as peculiar as the Greeks’, however: anyone who had spent even a few days talking to people in charge of the place could see that. But to see just how peculiar it was, you had to come to this monastery.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Book Review: Great Poems of the Bible

What is fascinating about this book is what I was reading it alongside: Chaim Potok's In the Beginning, a novel in which is formed the kind of Torah scholarship directly evinced in Great Poems of the Bible. In fact, I looked up info on James Kugel to see if he could have inspired Potok in any way, or vice versa, but it's possible the parallels come from both authors simply reflecting reality. Kugel vividly describes the "different way of seeing" offered by the Hebrew Bible and gives his own translation of many poetic passages. I cannot judge the academic quality of these translations but, especially in the cases of Ecclesiastes and Deborah's Song from Judges, the translations make sense of phrases that have previously felt wrong, so I'm inclined to trust his work and keep this book on hand for translation reference. It also gives a clear picture of just what it means to be a faithful Jewish scholar in the late twentieth century, and it's valuable just for that.

In particular, Kugel brings out the A-B sentence form of Biblical poetry, and brings out some of the signficance of this particular form. This surprised me in that it has deep ramifications even for the natural theology that's always on the back burner in my reading. Also, I never realized just how deep "wisdom" literature is, which also has impacts on my writing ideas. So, I'll just say "more to come."

Book Review: Tall Tales

From Chaim Potok to Jeff Smith ... this is a collection of deliberately silly stories set in Smith's Bone universe. The stories are literally told around a campfire and sprinkled throughout with jokes my 8-year-old thought were hilarious. There's a place for that. Unfortunately, I couldn't detect any particular reason to read this unless you've read the entire Bone series and want a little more. It's almost at the level of fan fiction. Not that there's anything wrong with fan fiction.

Book Review: In the Beginning

Only Chaim Potok can take what is essentially an academic and theological interior journey and make it thrilling and meaningful. I don't know how Potok makes his characters so real, especially considering their frequently superhuman intellectual abilities. For a summer thriller, I actually found this more absorbing than Crichton or ... name your novelist here (just don't mention Dan Brown, please, they don't even belong in the same universe). The metaphor near the end about roots is a beautiful, natural symbol for the choice the main character makes. I don't want to review it completely, but I want to note that In the Beginning is an excellent book.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Book Review: A Distant Mirror

This was a new experience: listening to a 600-page (small-type!) book about the 14th century in Europe (authored by Barbara W. Tuchman) as an audiobook for, oh, about 30 hours total. France was dominant during that century, and I must be too English at a biological level, because something about the French proper names in every other sentence just slides by my ears. Even with this minor aural impediment this book is a classic example of what history should do; it should show us another time and let us see ourselves in it.

The thing is, the fourteenth century may qualify for the "Worst. Century. Ever." award. The Black Death hit in the middle of the century, the Hundred Years' War was going on, and a whole bunch of kings were in power that quite frankly didn't know what they were doing. The Church was no help, having long since ossified into just another power structure in most places, and splitting into two rival "universal" churches in the Great Schism, each with its own pope. As a Christian I find this history unsettling but also very important -- if the Church made those mistakes then, how do we keep from repeating them?

Tuchman is an expert's expert and one of the best teachers I've come across. If this were a complete review I could go on for paragraphs about what she did right in this book. All the glowing comments made online about this book are true and I can't add much to them. But I'm going to talk about the one thing she missed. In the middle of the book she describes in detail a story related by a 14th-century writer named La Tour Landry about a husband whose wife was mistreated and killed by strangers, and the husband cuts up her body into twelve pieces and sends them to his friends to call them to come and attack the strangers. Tuchman uses this story to typify the 14th century -- and she is right that it tells us a lot about the 14th century -- but the story doesn't come from the 14th century. Its details (down to the twelve pieces) are taken from the story of the Levite's concubine at the end of the book of Judges, and the 14th century author must have derived them from that text, which apparently he knew better than us (I only know it thanks to Frank Spina's Weter lecture about that story a few years back!). The story is wholly appropriate to the societal breakdown and rampant evil in the 14th century -- but it was also appropriate to the time of ancient Israel before the kings, when "every man did what was right in his own eyes." Tuchman doesn't show any sign of recognizing this obscure and violent story as originally scriptural. I just wonder what happens if we realize that the 14th century is a distant mirror of the time of Israel's judges as well as our own time. It actually makes the story of the Levite's concubine make more sense to me, if there are times, awful times, in history when society really gets to that point, and if the 14th century was not entirely unique.

It's not that this book is lacking in those kind of connections, because there simply isn't room for them. This book is an incredible example of how to write history and it's the reader's job to make connections with other centuries. But this story and this type of century was already old when Jesus walked the earth, and I have to think that his life can offer us solution and salvation to even the darkest centuries that humans can devise. So in the end, this gruesome story, because it is retold in the 14th century, paradoxically gives me hope, hope that the horrible things that happen are not new under the sun, and that God is not surprised by man's depravity -- and that somehow these old, old stories and sayings can reshape us into a people who are shaped by that same God and called out from the messes we keep getting into on our own.

The book review is: excellent work of history, and the connection I made to the book of Judges is only possible because Tuchman did such a good job.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Book Review: Pulpit Science Fiction

I got this book straight from the author at the ASA meeting. George L. Murphy is a frequent author and speaker at ASA, and he mentioned he wrote a book of science fiction sermons so I bought it from him (no middleman). More than just science fiction, these are quick stories, only about 5 pages each, but each with a kernel of an interesting idea. My favorite ones involve common cliches enlivened by the thrilling possibility that God might be real. De facto atheism is such a common sci-fi assumption that the genre is enlivened by even the hint of theology. My favorite may be the one where the space aliens read Ephesians ... but I won't ruin it. Thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking as well.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Book Review: The Book Nobody Read


The first clue that this book would be better than expected is the opening scene. The Book Nobody Read is a story about an academic's work compiling a census of all first and second editions of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus, the book that proposed that it's the earth that moves around the sun despite appearances and scriptures to the contrary. Unexpectedly, it opens in trial like a Law and Order episode in which Gingerich must testify about whether a copy of De Revolutionibus was stolen or not. The epilogue ends the book with a visit from the FBI, also about stolen books. Gingerich is a professor of the history of science, and here he tells the story of compiling his census from the early 70s to the turn of the century. His several visits behind the Iron Curtain add a bit of Cold War history to the 16th-century history of the census and its annotations. Who knew that marginal notes could be so illuminating? From time to time the book veers into the realm of too much detail for someone outside of the field, but on the whole Gingerish expertly weaves the narrative of history with the narrative of the academic's search for truth. More scientists should write books like this, because behind every bit of science or history there is a story of how that science or history was found out. This book is exhibit A in my contention that the best way to teach science is through story. Recommended.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Tattoos and College Professors

Perceptions of a tattooed college instructor.

Wiseman DB.Psychol Rep. 2010 Jun;106(3):845-50.


128 undergraduates' perceptions of tattoos on a model described as a college instructor were assessed. They viewed one of four photographs of a tattooed or nontattooed female model. Students rated her on nine teaching-related characteristics. Analyses indicated that the presence of tattoos was associated with some positive changes in ratings: students' motivation, being imaginative about assignments, and how likely students were to recommend her as an instructor.

Apparently I should get a tattoo to bolster my student evaluations.

I got the story from:


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Correction Bee and the Correction Lemur

The Saint John's Bible is a new, hand-written illustrated manuscript finishing up production now. Because every page is hand-inked, mistakes happen, such as whole lines being left out here and there. So what to do when you've finished a beautiful page and realize later you left out a verse? Do what the monks did: add a correction in the margin. Just putting in a carat and a line to the correct insertion is boring. Rather, the illuminators of the Saint John's Bible put in little animals "pulling" the missing verses to the right places. Below is a lemur and a bee shown in the act of such corrections. I could even pull some significance out of this but I'll let a picture be a thousand words here:

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Book Review: The Complete Maus

Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer-prize-winning graphic novel (the term may have been invented for this book) is a retelling of his relationship with his father, who survived the worst of the Holocaust, with anthromorphized animals as the characters. Jews are mice, Germans are cats, etc. (still trying to figure out who the fish are). I read this in high school and now returned to it thanks to it costing a dollar at the library book sale. If anything, it's more powerful now, because 1.) I'm now a parent and the scenes with family are familiar from the other side and 2.) I've visited Europe and know it's real, that this nightmare really happened. It's like the Good Will Hunting line when Robin Williams tells Matt Damon that to be in the Sistene Chapel is different than knowing about the Sistene Chapel. Spiegelman's graphic novel is harrowing and unsentimental, and it's a necessary part of the literary edifice to bring this down to our kids and let them know, this really happened and never again.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Book Review: Galileo's Finger

In Galileo's Finger, Peter Atkins tries to write for a general audience. Atkins has authored a large majority of the physical chemistry textbooks in existence, so that most chemistry majors had an encounter with Atkins in their senior year, and I'll leave it up to them to decide if it was a pleasant one. Here the subject is promising -- ten scientific ideas that changed the world -- but ultimately it doesn't live up to the blurb on the back from Richard Dawkins suggesting that the Nobel Prize in Literature (!) be given to Atkins. Every time you pick up the book that blurb is staring back at you in large type from the back cover, and it's an unfortunate case of the oversell.

Ignoring that hyperbole, how good is the book? Atkins's perspective as a physical chemist is unique, and when he's called upon to explain thermodynamics or other chemical subjects he does an admirable job as should be expected. He also throws in the occasional lapidary vocabulary word to remind the reader that he is A Writer of Great Renown (in case you forgot the blurb), and more often than not you can find a well-turned phrase that works in context on each page. It is well written. The problem with this book is in its organization. It starts with evolution and works backward to mathematics. Clearly Atkins wants to avoid the typical "unfolding of the universe" ordering of the book and there are advantages to his arrangement, but it ultimately doesn't make sense to the reader because ... I'm not sure why he has the chapters in that particular order, and often he has to foreshadow that "we'll talk about that in a later chapter." Without an overarching narrative it seems a collection of essays, or textbook chapters, and not the kind of thing the general reader would stick with. Also, much of the explanation is too dense and not lively enough for the general reader. As a teacher of physical chemistry I got several ideas and examples (and noticed several repeated from his textbook!), but I don't see how a general reader could plow through the complicated molecular biology as explained by a chemist in the first chapter. Often the technically accurate term would be used when what the reader needs is a metaphor.

Another aspect underlying the book is Atkins's general philosophy of materialism and naturalism, a faith which he shares with Dawkins. Thankfully he's more about the science than the "scientific" moralizing, and so there's only a few preachy passages, but in my opinion Atkins is a better writer and clearer thinker than Dawkins, so his critiques of any attitude other than scientific materialism are more on-point. Not that I think he's right or that he surprised me out of my theism with any of his asides, in fact, when he comes to the fine-tuning of the universe and the inadequacy of the multiverse to explain it, he comes right up to the point of acknowledging the limits of his philosophy and then changes the subject.

I can see why this book (published in 2003) hasn't seemed to enter the popular lexicon when a more focused, better organized, more entertaining book like Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe is better known. Sometimes the sales figures (and the Nobel Prize award patterns) actually do reflect reality.

Book Review: The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple

This is a collection of Richard Bauckham's essays on the gospel of John. At times it is tendentious, but overall it adds up to point out some very provocative details that always tugged on the corner of this reader's consciousness but never really gelled till Bauckham pointed them out. I'm not certain I buy his identification of the author of the gospel as John the Elder rather than John of Zebedee, but he points out that along with the famous seven "I am _____" statements and the famous seven signs in the gospel, there's also seven "I am" statements without a subject that stand out because they're rather difficult to translate. The other "groups of seven" are clearly there, and I can get behind the idea of there being a third group, because John is clearly a highly structured and ordered gospel. Some of the historical ideas are plausible: that Nicodemus was part of a rich Jerusalem family found in Josephus and other sources. Some of the historical ideas are built on what seems sketchy evidence, but I'd prefer to hear arguments that take risks like Bauckham's than to sit through another even sketchier reconstruction of the "Johannine community." The irony is, as sketchy as Bauckham's ideas sometimes are, they're most often firmer than a lot of the speculative reconstructions of the ancient communities. I'm intrigued by the possibility that John was written for a broad/Gentile audience, because that is the way it works today, and also that it may be the one that took cares to get the historiography right, with its specific dates, places, and names. Overall, this book makes me want to return to John in detail and think about what it has to say, because the historical Jesus field focuses so much on the Synoptics that I have the feeling there's a lot in this other "mountain range" (to use N.T. Wright's term) that's being missed.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Book Review: The Call of Stories

This is a book from the late 80s/early 90s about a psychiatrist who uses novels and short stories to teach medical students, and argues that ethics are best taught this way. True to its central argument, much of the book relates other people's stories, whether pages of block quotes from students or long plot summaries from Flannery O'Connor or Walker Percy or John Cheever. On one level, it's a very simple book, and any professor could do this for any well-taught class. I can see how the author, Robert Coles, can write so many books if this is what he does! But there is value to taking what is normal in a discussion of 10-20 students and putting it into book form so anyone can read it anytime. It's worth a diversion, and it's a rather fast read. I got some ideas for teaching from it, although not quite so many as I expected. The unexpected part was around the middle-end, when Coles presses home his point about the moral aspect of stories, and touches on the subject of pride and doctor-worship and the fact that many of those who teach morals aren't all that moral. It was a well-timed read for me at least, because I was going from one conference to another, and it's so easy to put on airs with people you only meet for a few minutes and want to impress. Coles punctured that at least a bit, and for that I'm grateful. A good reminder that we are all only human, after all.

Footprints of Nonsentient Design?

This past May the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science published "Footprints of nonsentient design inside the human genome" by John C. Avise, consisting of a long list of genetic-based diseases and suffering, inelegant designs, in the words of the author, "gross imperfection." The article ends with a suggestion that evolutionary theory corresponds more closely with theology on this account because it allows one to blame evolution for the suffering and imperfections, rather than some Designer of it all. On both scientific and theological grounds this article falls short. The argument is the evil twin of Dr. Pangloss: that things are so bad we must be living in one of the worst of all possible worlds. How this arugment can be reconciled with the orthodox theology that this is a "good" creation is not thought through, and so it can be easily deflected by those prone to deflect.

There are two possible audiences for this article: preaching to the choir of fellow scientists convinced of the evolutionary mechanism, and convincing those who may be open to intelligent design and faith (two different things, mind you!). The science is not strong enough to convince someone who's open to an intelligent designer. On this count, Francis Collins's example of how the vitamin-C-making enzyme is messed up in the human genome is much more convincing than a laundry list of maladies caused by genetic mistakes. Avise's argument often seems to be "things aren't perfect and therefore they can't have been designed." But theology has always known that the world isn't perfectly functional, and any design must have been messed up at some point. In fact, you can't get through the third chapter in Genesis without finding some hint of this. Any ID proponent would just lay the blame for imperfection at some other point, probably the Fall. Imperfection is not an argument against design, because "only God is perfect."

Occasionally there's an interesting bit of data buried in the irrelevant catalog of disease, especially in the citation of a paper showing that as human gene complexity (measured as number of introns) goes up, likelihood of that gene causing a disease also goes up. This is the dark side of Behe's "black box": complexity has a cost. How much, where, how? This is the point to emphasize, not the fact that disease can happen. Everyone knows disease can happen, but saying disease MUST happen because of complexity, that's an interesting point.

One of the other points that follows is that cancer may be a direct consequence of complexity. After all, slime molds don't get tumors, and as complexity builds, so does cancer. (By the way, sharks do get cancer, so don't go for all those shark anti-cancer claims; but I wonder if they get cancer less than humans, and if so, if cancer susceptibility may be correlated with biological complexity. Just a thought.) If biological complexity causes imperfection then that fact should be talked about in light of theological doctrines like the Fall.

The underlying point of this article is subjective, and ID proponents will be all over that subjectivity. It's not that there are flaws, according to Avise, it's that there are "so many" flaws. Yet there's few enough flaws that humans continue to survive, live, love, etc. How many is "so many"? Is the genomic glass half-empty or half-full? "Approximately 0.1% of humans who survive to birth carry a duplicon-related disability," writes Avise, but that doesn't sound like a debilitating, unexplainable imperfection. It sounds like common experience, or actually a bit better than common experience.

The similarity of bacteria to mitochondria is hit upon late in the article. I think that's a much stronger point but it's submerged beneath the easily deflected points. That point gets its strength from the fact that God is not deceptive, and that's an excellent point to make. It convinces me. The main point Avise makes is much weaker: that God made some things that aren't perfect, and, well, that should be kind of obvious to anyone and therefore it will not change anyone's mind.

The big underlying problem with this article is its definition of health. Apparently any disease, suffering, or imperfection is an argument against God, and wouldn't it be nice if we could blame evolution instead? This is the modern cop-out; instead of "the devil made me do it," it's "I'm a victim of chance." Christians who worship a God who came to Earth in order to suffer in this imperfect world have a ready-made defense for this, that imperfect is solved not only by us "fixing" it to make it perfect, but also, even moreso, by compassion, with its root of "passion"/pain, feeling the pain with the other, not eliminating imperfection but somehow participating in it as you're praying against it. Sickness is evil and when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away, but in the meantime, we're in a clearly imperfect world. Avise offers to solve that imperfection by pushing God out of the system, replacing Him with a cosmic casino of blind chance, and that will not fly with either Christians or ID proponents (again, not necessarily one and the same!).

The article ends with a proposal to "return religion to its rightful realm," just another in a long string of "get off my lawn!" comments by scientists who claim to be accommodating faith while arguing that it doesn't really matter. Stephen Jay Gould's non-overlapping magisteria live.

To be clear, I am intrigued by the hints of new scientific arguments in this article. If it can be shown that complexity necessarily correlates with disease (especially a horrible disease like cancer), then that has a real contribution to make to this discussion. But such strong points are too submerged beneath an exterior that appears conciliatory but is actually theologically unsophisticated and a case of deism in sheep's clothing. Come on, fellow scientists, we've got to do better than this.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Washington DC Thoughts

If the last post was about "I must decrease, He must increase," this post is about a town where the opposite's true, where power hangs in the sky like smog and scandal is a matter not of "if" but of "when."
Washington DC is a city of new gods. In places it's almost exactly what a Greek citizen would see in Athens, what Paul gestured to on Mars Hill. The random larger-than-life statues of liberators and generals that cars speed past all look the same except to historians. And I was wondering, now that the WWII memorial is complete, will we ever be able to build white marble monuments again, or will every new war monument have to be like the Vietnam and Korean War Memorials, black and reflective?

As an aside about the WWII memorial, it is incoherent and jumbled, but I think that just makes the architecture of the moment more suitable for a truly global conflict. I don't think it throws off the emptiness of the Mall. The Mall's still really big. (Rule for DC: Always allow 15 extra minutes for walking anywhere.)

Perhaps it was the original Washington Monument on display in the Museum of American History that sums up this visit to DC. My first reaction is that it was a statue of Zeus, but when I got around to the front, it was George himself looking back at me. At first I'd had enough of all the neo-classical new empire symbolism, but then looking closer, the way he holds his lightning bolt, er, sword, stood out. The sword is backwards, Washington stepping down and handing power back to the people after two terms. I can get behind that (actually, that was my first viewpoint!).
And then there's the Lincoln memorial, perhaps the most like a Greek temple in style and form but the least like one inside. I mean on the inside walls, not the Zeus-like statue of Lincoln. On the walls are two of the most sublime collections of words in the English language: the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address. I am going to make a tradition now, anytime I'm in DC, of stopping by the Lincoln Memorial and reading the Second Inaugural aloud (under my breath, I'm not THAT kind of tourist). It is an amazing political document and poem. As a theological document, the basic idea is the kind any follower of Jesus should adopt after immersing oneself in the Gospels. But the truly theologically amazing part of it is how it puts that solid theology into practice in few enough words to fit on a wall. Not since MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN has the writing on the wall been so significant and succinct. Everyone should read it.
So in this city of white marble and sharp-edged grassy fields trampled and wilted, there are monuments to empire, as in every empire's capital. But some of those monuments are to something more, to handing back power and to the humility of forgiving even the worst of human nature after the worst of wars. Those make me proud of my country.
[Reference song: "Our Song" by Joe Henry off the Citizens album.]

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Gospel of the Second-Person Pronoun

The Gospel of John is obviously different from the Synoptic Gospels, written as if the others were already known to the reader, with long discourses and detailed dialogues. A lot of scholars of the historical Jesus variety are skeptical of John in particular as a result, but I'm reading a book by Richard Bauckham now that turns such thinking on its head. He points out that John is the only gospel that contains direct eyewitness claims by the author. It's also the only gospel with a prominent anonymous disciple, the disciple who Jesus loved, who is pretty clearly the author. One of Bauckham's claims is that the John who wrote this gospel was actually John the Elder, not John son of Zebedee, and I'll review that argument when I finish the book. But the striking thing that deserves its own blog post is Bauckham's point that, if anything, John makes more claims to eyewitness account than the supposedly more historical gospels, and beyond that, at two crucial points, the author steps out and directly addresses the reader, both at the crucifixion and near the end of the book:

34 But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. 35 And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you may believe. (John 19)

30 And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name. (John 20)

Compare this anonymous author directly addressing the reader in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter, and note how different it feels:

"Now it was the final day of the Unleavened Bread; and many went out returning to their home since the feast was over. [59] But we twelve disciples of the Lord were weeping and sorrowful; and each one, sorrowful because of what had come to pass, departed to his home. [60] But I, Simon Peter, and my brother Andrew, having taken our nets, went off to the sea. And there was with us Levi of Alphaeus whom the Lord ... " [Raymond Brown's translation]

One of the questions is, whichever John wrote this book, why did he keep himself anonymous if speaking as an eyewitness was so important to him?

(And it was important, consider John 1: 14, "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth." and 1 John 1:1 "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, concerning the Word of life." From a certain angle, these verses reflect a historian's and scientist's desire for touching and knowing directly. It is integral to the message of the gospel and can’t be explained as a superficial apologetic maneuver.)

The anonymity of the author seems to be the only way to show how he was there without drawing attention away from Jesus. “He must increase, I must decrease,” put into action in the very writing of the gospel. At two crucial points John steps out and (still anonymously) emphasizes his role as witness – not to magnify himself as author, but to put the question to YOU, the reader. John is saying “He is why I'm doing this and you are why I’m doing this” without using the I (like I so clumsily did just now!). Maybe the pale-imitation gnostic gospels can get away with using “I” and “me,” but the author who wants to say “It’s all about Jesus, not me,” does so most effectively by avoiding the first person (except in plural at the beginning and end of John) and, sparingly but effectively, employing the second person to say, this is about you and Jesus. It’s not about me.

And now I will use the first person too much again.

It’s very easy as a blog post to put myself into it. After all, these are personal reflections, and it goes along with the genre to do so. There’s possibly nothing inherently wrong with that. I just want to note that it’s very easy to make it “all about me” and perhaps that is the greatest temptation of the author.

It’s not just the gospel of John. The other gospels are third person, and most of the stories in the Bible are third person. Off the top of my head, I think of prominent first-person usage (outside of quoted dialogue) in poetry (the Psalms, the Song of Solomon), and in the letters (Paul’s and others’, although I’ll have to think about 1-3 John in this light and the beginning of Revelation). First person is OK, but sometimes there’s a point to be made by avoiding it.

It looks like John did just that, and very effectively so. It’s all about Jesus, not John. “If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow Me.”

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Fruit MRI

So simple yet so amazing. This site posts the results of what happens when fruits are put into an MRI. The resulting animations are flat slices through the middle of the fruits, as if you have Superman's X-ray vision at a produce stand. Check it out!

Thanks to Francis Lam for the heads up.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Book Review: Fabricating Jesus

Fabricating Jesus by Craig A. Evans is an interesting book that tries to take on too much. Evans is a Biblical scholar who tries to counter the recent scholarship of the "alternate gospels" variety. This is the first time I've seen The Gospel of Thomas, Peter, Mary, and others in one place, side-by-side, and it was good to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge. The book is written well, it's just trying to do too much at once. The arguments against specific scholars or ideas come down to a page or two, usually, and although I think Evans is usually right, there's no way to be sure other than to decide which way your trust goes. I'd say read this book for a good systematic example of how scholarship can be skeptical, just of the novel theories rather than the orthodox ones, but the topic's just too big for this book to convince you if you're doubtful about where Evans is coming from.

(Interesting PS: What do we do WHEN a topic gets to big for one person, or at least one book, to handle? How do we have a fair debate in that case?)

Let me reiterate: I think Evans is right. It's just that I think he's right from what others have written more than what's in this particular book.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Book Review: Moving Pictures

This graphic novel by Kathryn and Stuart Immonen is a diverting hour. It's about a Canadian woman working as a Louvre curator in WWII France and a German she meets. It works well as a graphic novel. There are some great snippets of dialogue and nice visual transitions in some points, and I like it when the medium is used for an understated story like this. However, I can't help but feel like it doesn't quite come together because in some parts it's too understated. Still worth a check-out from the library.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Power of Entropy

Fascinating article at the New York Times about a physicist who claims gravity doesn't exist. Ok, that's really just the sensational way to put it in a headline. What he really seems to be saying is that gravity is really entropy dressed up in a particular way, in a sense, that entropy is the fundamental force of which gravity is a manifestation.

The newspaper-article level is about the level at which I can understand this, or understand enough to know I don't understand it. It's not a mathematically rigorous theory, which bugs me. But there's one reason I'm interested. According to my recent reading including RJP Williams, the Second Law of Thermodynamics (entropy!) drives the development of life of earth. If I am intrigued by that idea, I'm also open to the idea that entropy drives gravity as well.

Here's my question: how does "spreading out" bring things together? Isn't gravity "negative entropy"?

Obviously this is still on the level of physics, but when it can be discussed on the level of physical chemistry I could be very interested. I may start poking around the literature on this.

Book Review: The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City is an incredible, intense book. It's the story of the 1893 Chicago "World's Fair" (the actual name's too long!), which survives today only as the Museum of Science and Industry in Jackson Park, and of a serial murderer who built a hotel to help him kill unattached women who came to the fair. Seattle author Erik Larson balances the two stories effectively; whenever the "building the fair" story gets too political or frustrating, the author shifts his focus to the Jack-the-Ripper hotelier down the street. Larson's also a master at witholding just enough information that you're guessing what happens next or what the significance of this or that detail is. As a result, you have a history book that reads like a thriller, combining Chicago, one of my favorite cities, with elements of building a giant theme park a century before EPCOT, a criminal mastermind who eludes the law, the giant engineering project that was the largest building in the country plus the original Ferris Wheel, the politics of Gilded-Age Chicago, appearances by everyone from Buffalo Bill Cody to Mark Twain, and the literally diabolical architecture of the serial killer's hotel.

You have to pinch yourself every few pages to remind yourself that this really happened. You couldn't make this stuff up. The serial killer is truly frightening and if you're bothered by real crime novels, YOU WILL BE BOTHERED by this.

On a side note, I really wonder what is the point of the cultural fascination with the serial killer. When you look close enough at one to figure out how he ticks, you find a blank abyss looking back at you. You find evil. For all this book's detail, I still don't feel like I know what made the killer tick, why he did things, expect perhaps as a very base form of idolatry. It didn't provide many new insights on evil, except to remind that it is very, very real.

The shortcoming of this book is that, at 400 pages, it still feels short. Larson wrote it just right, but I want to know more about what it was like at the fair. More pictures, more on the exhibits!

If you can take the description of pure evil, this book has unique rewards and the Museum of Science and Industry will never look the same to me again.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Book Review: Raven's Ladder

Book 3 of 4 in The Auralia Thread is good. Really good. The one thing about Book 2 is that you could sort of expect a lot of what would happen, because that's what happens when you deal with an archtypical story like beauty and the beast. Raven's Ladder, on the other hand, has surprises and twists that I'd love to talk about but instead want people to discover them on their own. I am really looking forward to Book 4, which I know Jeffrey is writing right now.

There are four houses and each of the books so far has focused on one of them: this one focuses on House Bel Amica (which has some uncanny resemblances to Seattle itself). Before we had glimpsed some of the belief-system of this house and it struck me as absurd yet appropriate, a social critique on a level you don't ever find in this genre. Now that we see all the aspects of House Bel Amica, the people in charge have become quite a bit scarier. There's one particular dark scene ("Auralia's Followers") that takes the experience to a whole new level. The amazing thing is with all this going on, the people of Bel Amica are never exactly demonized, they remain tangible and nuanced throughout. Now, as for those mysterious string-pullers and scientists in charge ... well, we're just starting to see what kind of no good they're up to.

More than anything, I like what Jeffrey does with the expectations of the reader in this one, and that's why it's so hard to write about, because if I tell you your expectations will be challenged and possibly overturned, you'll be wondering how. One thing I can tell you: you'll be kicking yourself for not catching the clues. And that's all I'm saying.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Jonah and Creation

Jonah is famous for running the other way when God tells him to go to Ninevah. (He's also a famous bit of fish food but that's another post for another day.) One of the things I realized when reading Frank Spina's The Faith of the Outsider is that Jonah only turns back to the right direction after he makes a basic theological connection, possibly for the first time. The key is the act of running away. We know it's laughable to try to run from YHWH by getting on a ship, but in the context, it's a very reasonable move to make to get away from garden-variety gods. You don't like what the god of Israel says? Get away from Israel. Problem solved, right?

Jonah's problem is his picture of YHWH is too typical; he thinks that by getting outside of YHWH's jurisdiction he can dodge the sentence. Since he's asleep when the storm comes, we get to see him the moment that he realizes that YHWH is still there (even in international waters). What does he say?

“I am a Hebrew; and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.

I think that Jonah realizes at just this point that the message he's been preaching all his life is true. As a prophet of YHWH he undoubtedly teaches that YHWH made everything. At this moment he unpacks that abstract theology to find the practical upshot inside: if YHWH made everything, he is in charge of everything too, and he is everywhere. And it's kind of stupid to try to get away from the creator of everything on a little ship.

At this moment we see Jonah make the move from creation to omnipresence (and omnipotence). He moves to a position of absurd trust, telling the sailors to toss him overboard, which seems like a death sentence. Who knows whether he expects to be saved or not at this point? He trusts that God made the sea, certainly, and he probably just wants to get away from the sailors so they aren't collateral damage when he's taken out. I have to wonder if there's a glimmer of possibility in his mind, if he's wondering whether he'll be saved to fulfill his calling somehow. One thing's for sure -- I'll bet he doesn't expect a fish. (No one expects a fish. Or a talking donkey. But again, that's another story.)

This practical change of direction is what a doctrine of creation is for. Not to prove God's existence by prefiguring a physical correlate of the ancient Hebrew story, but to provide a foundation from which the rest of theology logically follows, from the "omni" words all the way to the specific person of the Messiah. Not to give you something to argue about while others yawn -- something to make you realize that you're wasting your time if you try to run away from YHWH's call. This YHWH is no provincial god. The proof that he is creator of all is not buried in the rocks, it's evident in the events of your life, through which he will pursue you until you make the choice to trust that He will save you, whatever your circumstances.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Book Review: The Faith of the Outsider

One of my colleagues, Frank Spina, wrote this book and I got a copy free by attending a workshop a week ago. I only had to read the first two chapters, but I kept going, because what I found was original analysis that brought new light to old stories, with a common theme: how many times in the Bible God brings an "outsider" in and an "insider" out. The outsiders are Esau, Tamar, Rahab, the sailors and the Assyrians (in Jonah), Naaman, Ruth, and the woman at the well. In each instance I learned something new and illuminating, especially when I thought I already knew the story. This is what scholarship is for -- and what a Sabbath is for, in fact, this kind of accessible study that subverts some of the things you thought you knew, and in the end, supports the important things.

The treatment of Rahab in particular, when contrasted with the insider Achan, helps the whole book of Joshua to make sense to me. It's all too easy to caricature Joshua as a military, genocidal book, when the focus on Rahab and Achan shows that Israel isn't about race or ethnicity. Spina brought Joshua back to me. (By the way, his Weter Lecture from a few years back is an excellent and absorbing treatment of "the war of the concubine" at the end of Judges. Most people don't even know about that story because it's one of the darkest in the canon. But Spina shows what that story does in his talk.)

I'm genuinely surprised to see some bad reviews for this book out there, like on the Publisher's Weekly blurb. It is so obviously a good book to me that all I can say is, those reviewers must've had some bone to pick. Most of the reviews are good, and most of the reviews are right.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Sunrise Over Titan

This is a picture of sunlight glinting off the liquid surface of Titan. Titan is one of Saturn's moons and the only other place in the universe that we are SURE has oceans on its surface. They're hydrocarbon oceans, and they're very very cold, but they're liquid alright.

Anybody want to go there? I'd love for a biochemist to travel to Titan, it would only take a few years. Ok, maybe a decade. And there would be no feasible way to return. If life could happen that looks very different from water-based life on earth, it still almost certainly would have to take place in a liquid environment, and Titan provides that. My hunch is that even simple life could not exist on Titan, but I'm not sure. Who wants to go take a look?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Every Scientist's Faith

I have an essay somewhere that I wrote when I came to SPU seven years ago for "New Faculty Seminar." At the time I had submitted several grant applications but had not heard back. I had an echoing, empty lab room next year and no idea what was going to happen. At the time I wrote about the faith I had to have that my project would work.

Then the grant came in, and we started to work on the project, and ... it didn't work. What was supposed to be working was just giving us more of the same. The second summer of research, I spent about half of it puzzling over strange results of things that would work for other, novel reasons, until we figured out we were stupidly using spoiled antibiotics. Entirely my fault, too.

At points like this you have to have faith that something will work out eventually. The zeitgeist would say "you have to have faith in yourself." But that's not really a scientist's faith. Sure, you can make some brilliant connection, maybe, and you can work hard and get successful results, usually, but a scientist does not have faith in the self. Having faith in myself would have meant that I kept using spoiled antibiotics over and over again. Rather, the scientist has faith that at some level, the world is an ordered place. The faith I'm talking about is faith that what's wrong with the situation is not nature but the experiment.

On the surface, experiments mess up all the time. Undergraduate research is an exercise in frustration, because by definition you are doing something new and so when something goes wrong, is it because of your technique or the controls or the fact that you're doing something new? The scientist sticks with it at that point and trusts that there is an order to find and that the right experiment done well will reveal that order.

This is why monotheism led to science. The polytheistic world was unpredictable and chaotic, rolls of the dice and competing gods determining whether your family would have food or whether you'd win in battle. But one God who made everything in six orderly days meant that nature obeyed God when he spoke. If God gave humans some of that authority, then we humans could also interrogate nature and eventually get an ordered, sensible answer back. And that's worked out pretty well for us as far as iPods and polio vaccines go. On the other hand, thermonuclear war. But I digress.

Scientists sometimes pretend it's easy, as if it's our unparalleled brilliance that squeezes the answers out of nature. But if nature didn't have an underlying order in the first place, organized experiments could never get consistent answers, and we'd be better off figuring out which powerful being was ticked off today and bribing that god with a sacrifice. In fact, that exact polytheistic system developed many times over.

The scientist's livelihood depends on an ordered, responsive, knowable universe. Every scientist knows that most experiments don't work, but that's not that universe's fault. It's ours. And then, once in a while, you figure out the order of the universe, and then you can do whatever you figured out seven hundred times and you'll get the same result. I don't know about you, but I'd look at that fact and call it good.