Thursday, June 28, 2018

Book Review: That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis

This book is unwieldy and frustrating at times and challenging and troubling and ultimately wondrous. I don't think it quite comes together. How can it bridge Arthurian legend with modern academic politics and a critique of technocracy, medieval god-planet-angels, gender psychology, and the Tower of Babel? But I like books that burst at the seams and that I want to argue with, so, yeah, I really liked this book. The Fisher King's advice on marriage is not complete ... but I'll maintain that it's not entirely wrong either. I took the whole book too seriously in the past, but this time I took it as satire, which made the academic committee meetings funny and horrifying, as funny in this vein as Jane Smiley's Moo. But how can you help but take a story this dark seriously? What's particularly thrilling is to see the ideas of the other Inklings in the mix: Barfield is name-dropped specifically, Tolkien's Numenor is part of the story, and the whole things has that awkward not-quite-real mystical quality of Williams. It doesn't quite work but it's a glorious, provocative mess. It's five-star parts mixed with three-star parts, so I end up giving it four.

Book Review: The Seven Pillars of Creation by William P. Brown

I almost didn't read this book. In fact, I got it from the library and returned it previously, because I didn't want to read yet another book about Genesis 1-3. That was a mistake. This book starts with Genesis but its focus is spread throughout the canon. The whole point of the book is that there are five other accounts of creation beyond the two at the beginning of Genesis, and we need to read them all together. The other five are Job, Psalms (104 in particular), Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and 2nd Isaiah. Brown's book stands out for several reasons beyond just its canonical breadth: he writes fluidly and poetically about both Scripture and science, mixing them expertly so that you not only think but feel that these are two sides of the same story. Brown is also content to let the accounts clash, and in the last chapter when he brings the seven accounts together the sparks fly. My favorite chapters are on Job and 2nd Isaiah, but the main point is that all these are more than the sum of their parts, and there's no better way to show how big the theology of creation is than to actually step beyond the first three chapters of the Bible.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

All Life Starts with Light

All Life Starts with Light

It’s always a little startling when the pastor turns to you in the middle of the sermon and asks a question. When 500 people are attending the service, it gains even more of an edge.

That’s what I get for coming late and sitting in the front row today.

So, when Richard turned to me from the pulpit, in the middle of his discourse on the book of Ephesians, and said, “Ben, isn’t that right?,” at least I was paying attention. I tried to respond with a gesture that conveyed the nuance of the situation, nodding mostly yes, shaking a little no, but overall confirming that it’s the right idea, with a stately and contained mien. My wife says I quivered and grimaced, but I know what I meant.

Everyone else moved on at that point, but since I have a blog, I have unlimited verbal bandwidth to expand my expression with too many words. Here it is.

Before fixing me with his gaze, Richard had said that “All life starts with light.” He’s completely right, then he’s a little wrong, then where it matters most he’s right again. I’ll explain in three parts:

1.)    Yes, every thing started with light: When the universe was created, everything was packed into the space smaller than the size of a city block. And here, “everything” means each and every thing, atoms and energy, from neutrinos to neutron stars. Packed into such a small space, it was so hot that nothing held together and matter itself was melted. Instead, everything was photons and neutrino radiation. Only after space itself expanded could these waves of light cool down and condense into particles. Every bit of matter in you and around you right now was originally light.

That was the first event in the universe, when light was allowed to be light.*

2.)    But at first life got by without light: All this matter took an unimaginably long time to form anything that we could call “life.” Once it was created, life spread through the ancient waters and skies as tiny microbes that Moses never named. The oldest forms of life we can find didn’t live off sunlight, but squeezed energy out of various chemicals lying around the planet. They ate the earth, not the sun. These chemicals only gave energy for a meager existence, but it was all the microbes needed. But without an external source of energy, the earth would slowly run out of juice. Photosynthesis changed all this. Once life started to pull down energy from sunlight, it flourished in new ways and began to change the world (or at least its chemistry).

Even today, whole ecosystems can survive without light. Deep-sea vents give food and energy to weird red and white worms, crabs, and fish far from the reach of the sun. Near these vents, the creatures that are big enough for us to see must have drifted down from above and taken up residence by the dark, bubbling waters, eventually transforming from ordinary creatures into sub-oceanic bottom-dwellers, like Gollum wasting away under the mountains until even the memory of the sun is forgotten. Still, they have their own hidden glory and can eat and make chemicals beyond any human skill. They are so wonderfully weird that they would fit in well to a modern retelling of Job 38-42.

3.)    Complex life starts with light: It took a billion years for the gift of photosynthesis to be fully realized, and another two and a half billion years for it to have its full effect. The net effect of photosynthesis is a trick verging on alchemy: it turns sunlight, water, and exhaust (CO2) into fresh air (oxygen) and sugar. From our human perspective, oxygen and sugar are definitely part of the good life. Our bodies and brains require huge amounts of each in order to think these thoughts and speak these words. Nothing else on the periodic table can do what oxygen does for us each day. Every breath you take and each bite you eat, something good in it comes from the sunlight pouring over our planet. This torrent of free light energy has persisted day in and day out for an unimaginable length of years. All of this is grace.

So, yes, Richard, the energy of life starts with the energy of light. Now we can even build small devices that, at the far extent of our effort and knowledge, might mimic the light-catching and energy-giving life of the everyday leaf. When we do this we’re still depending on the live-giving gift of light.

 When Paul says to live in the light, and when John says that light was the life of men, those connections are the same as before. Jesus is the light of the world. He made the sunlight and plants to give sugar and life to our bodies. He gave words of life that give sweetness and growth to our souls. There is not a firm line of distinction between the two modes of grace, and each reinforces the other.

Therefore, when the pastor asks you to confirm in front of everyone that all life starts with light, you can nod your head with confidence. Each muscle movement, however awkward, is fueled by the light.

(*By the way, don’t take this too far. This doesn’t mean that if you read the Bible carefully enough that you would come up with the Big Bang model for the creation of the universe. Rather, this means that we can work out each account on its own terms and then juxtapose them. When I set the Big Bang next to the Biblical account, the accounts make sense together and clash in interesting ways. It’s like playing two chords together on a piano to make an unresolved harmony pushing forward through time.)

Friday, June 8, 2018

Book Review: Artemis by Andy Weir

I always appreciate sci-fi with a strong chemistry component, and this has chemistry in spades. As a sequel it's primarily more of the same rather than new ground. Weir's biggest mistake is to try to write a protagonist that he doesn't really understand, and to make that protagonist make choices early on that most reasonable people wouldn't make. There's a gift one character makes to another early on that I thought, "surely that will be used later on in the book," but it's actually just a weird gift. Not sure if I wanted it to be the clich├ęd item that would save someone's life or not, but there's some sort of missed opportunity there. There's also an undercurrent of reducing humans to just one more complex organism that runs throughout sci-fi, but again, that's par for the course. Mostly, you visit Weir's moon colony as a tourist, and it's a fascinating place, but it runs no deeper than that.