POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

The Works of Candice Millard

Over the years I have grown to appreciate reading history from various eras and epochs. I have deeply enjoyed the works of Roger Crowley and his treatment of the Mediterranean world in the middle ages. I have loved the American narrative history of David McCullough. The telling of the stories of various spies is in World War II by Ben McIntyre have fascinated and the historical intrigue of the works of Erik Larson I have found thrilling. Over the last few years I have grown a deep appreciation for another historical author and her works. Namely, Candice Millard.

The first book I read from her was entitled "Destiny of the Republic" and is a wonderful look at the life, assassination and medical treatment of President James A. Garfield. She introduced me to a time in history I knew little about and a president whose tenure was shortened by a bullet, or more accurately, an infection from a minor bullet wound. She also featured the technological innovations of Alexander Graham Bell and how certain technologies and medical knowledge could have easily saved this president if just a few years later in history. Recently, I took up her new work on the young years of one Winston Churchill

Her newest book entitled "Hero of the Empire" features happenings leading up to and during the Boer Wars between the British Empire and various republics in South Africa. I learned much about young Churchill, how leaders are formed and shaped as well as some early history and precursors to one of the more racist regimes in world history. 

I cannot recommend the works of Millard enough and all three of her published books get two thumbs up from me. Enjoy any of the following...

 The River of Doubt - Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey

The River of Doubt - Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey

 Destiny of the Republic - A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President

Destiny of the Republic - A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President

 Hero of the Empire - The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill

Hero of the Empire - The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill

In

Guardians of the Galaxy and a Mirror to our World

This review and commentary first appeared in the November 2014 issue of Well Thought. The thought journal of Jacob's Well in North Brunswick, NJ. It was a collaborative writing project between myself and the inimitable Simon P. Clark

This summer, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy became a box office smash, grossing more than $650 million worldwide as of September 2014 – and all this despite the relatively obscure fictional universe that Guardian of the Galaxy is based on. While DC Comics’ Batman and Superman are household names and Marvel’s string of Avengers movies brings together a string of already beloved heroes, Guardians of the Galaxy is, for all intents and purposes, an enigma. How did a movie with no widely established international fan base, whose heroes include a genetically modified talking raccoon and a tree get so big so quickly? The answer may lie in what it says about our own culture, rather than those of other worlds.

First, let’s make one thing clear – we are both huge fans of this movie (and Reid can boast that he was a fan of the comics long before the leap to screen). It’s a space epic that relies just as much on witty and engaging characters as it does on a complex, high-stakes plot. It’s also a movie that, despite being based on comic books  (or perhaps because of it) deals with some decidedly PG-13 stuff. Guardians of the Galaxy has it all: explosions, danger, snappy dialogue and relatable characters. More than anything, it’s a movie that speaks about one thing: being human.

Guardians of Humanity

Who doesn’t want to be a hero? We all dream, as kids and as adults, of being special, being placed in a situation that demands something extra and stepping up to save the day. This isn’t anything new. What do Star Wars, Star Trek, Spider-Man, Iron Man – in fact most action movies – have in common? Family and friends are in danger, there is fracture and loss, a mission to overcome a threat, and the promise of a newer, safer community as a reward. Guardians gives us all of this while managing never to lose the characters’ individual human touches – something with which many great movies struggle. Groot, a sentient tree, has time to give a single flower to a child as a simple act of kindness in a world that’s falling into chaos. Gamora, adopted daughter of Thanos (which is, let’s not forget, Greek for ‘death’), turns her back on a life of cruelty and subjugation in search of freedom and heroism. They may be aliens, but they’re aliens that audiences can relate to and root for. It’s this relation – between audiences and the characters of Guardians – that’s the true secret to the movie’s phenomenal success. Guardians’ heroes, you see, are far from perfect. Instead, they’re just what people want most in the 21st Century: murderers, assassins, thieves, and bandits ... with good, even noble, hearts.

Guardians of the West

‘Be good ... but not too good’ is, arguably, one of the most prevalent messages in our culture today. The rebel with a cause – the gentleman thief – seems to speak to something in modern Western civilization that’s never quite been here before. When did it become a bad thing to be too good? At Guardian’s heart is its protagonist, Star-Lord – a thief with a conscience, who has no problem breaking rules. That’s why Guardians works: it’s managed to present its main character in the perfect sweet spot between do gooders and baddies. We’re told increasingly by society that the best place to be, morally, legally, and even spiritually, is in the middle: rebels who act nicely, but are happy to break the law. We’re told to be our own persons, as long as we temper our bad sides with a little charity every now and then. Guardians exemplifies and glorifies this world view (and does a fantastic job of it). The movie ends with perhaps the most succinct summation of this philosophy: Star-Lord defending himself in the face of his obvious flaws, explains that while he “may be” difficult, he’s “not 100%” selfish. Well, he uses some language that is a bit more salty than this. Is that a good thing? Is it better to openly be a bit of both, good and bad, than to strive to follow a path that is good, right and true? In the Guardians universe, the answer’s a resounding yes. In our universe, things aren’t so clear.

Conclusion

Towards the end of the film, after clear acts of heroism and virtue, some of Guardians main characters engage in some witty and fun dialogue. Speaking to a police officer-type, Rocket Raccoon asks about a new moral dilemma he faces: "If I see something someone else has, and I want it really bad, can I just take it?" The cop, of course, answers that no, that would be stealing. Rocket, stuck on this line of thought alone, goes further: "But what if I want it really bad and much more than them?"

Similarly, Drax – one of the more muscled fighters of the Guardians – asks: "If someone says something irksome, can I rip out his spine?" The answer? "No, that would be … murder." It's all goes to show us that now that the characters are good, they really don't want to be that good.

Years ago, the French philosopher Simone Weil made an astute observation. In her book Gravity and Grace she wrote the following:

Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.”

                                                                                                         ― Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, 120.

What she wants us to see is that while evil in the fictional world can be exciting and fun, in the real world it is terrible and inhumane. Too much goodness in our books and movies gets boring, while our world is greatly starved of bold, courageous virtue.

Guardians of the Galaxy is just a movie, of course, so we don’t have to worry about the victims of the thieves and the assassins we’re told to love. There’s nothing wrong with that, either. You can love Indiana Jones without worrying that he doesn’t follow international treaties for the removal of antiquities. You can love this movie without worrying that it glorifies violence and law breaking. It’s worth thinking about, though, how different things in the real world might be if, in place of self-justifying rebellion, sacrificial love were the basis for community. This is what we strive for in the church: clear and compelling love and an embrace of truth and goodness. In fact, this sort of sacrificial love and goodness is what forms our rebellious guardians into an actual family on a mission.

We see Drax thanking his friends for forgiving him his many blunders. We see Groot have his only line in the film, "I am Groot," turn into "we are Groot” precisely at the moment where he is giving up his life for his friends. In Guardians of the Galaxy we see a group of misfits and losers formed into a new family -  one that lives out a bold mission. How does this happen? It is not through selfish, rebellious and evil-doing behavior. It is sacrificial love that forms their community.

One of the rallying scenes towards the end of the film shows the Guardians coming together to undertake an impossible task: deciding why they should give their lives to save the universe. Star-Lord, going beyond his earlier reasoning that they should save the galaxy because they are part of it, says this: “I look around and see losers. Life has given us a chance to give a #^&*...” His friends know that his call to action may very well mean a call to die. Drax’s reply is simple: "You are asking us to die? I would gladly die among my friends.”

Such sacrificial love, and real communities of friends built upon it, aren’t hard to find in this world. Jesus himself said there was no greater love than to lay life down for his friends. In Jesus we see exciting goodness, clear truth and compelling beauty. In his leadership and sacrificial love, we see a new community emerge with a glorious mission and hope.  Jesus’ call to us is to die to ourselves as we live out his mission among friends. In fact, he already died for his friends and showed himself to be the greatest leader this world has known.

We have been called to be guardians of the galaxy, in a sense, because we have indeed received good news. No misfit is too far away or too far gone to receive forgiveness and grace from God. The good news is that Jesus takes a bunch of screw ups, puts them together as a new family, calls them to give their lives for others so that many will be saved and join the team of redemption throughout the world.

In our world today following after God in true righteousness might just be the greatest rebellion there can be. Is it possible that we can be bold and bad by truly joining a revolution for good? The late British journalist and literary critic GK Chesterton says this so well:

In the upper world hell once rebelled against heaven. But in this world heaven is rebelling against hell. For the Orthodox there can always be a revolution; for a revolution is a restoration.

The Guardians of the Galaxy, a rabble band of misfits from various backgrounds, stories, skin colors, sizes and shapes sought to restore peace to a war-troubled universe. We bring a higher call to the table as we seek to see people restored to peace with God and one another. This is the precise reason that Jesus has a people.

What might God say to the IRON MAN?

Confession: I loved comic books growing up. Not simply an awareness of them but collecting them, bagging them, boarding them, knowing their value in various conditions, reading various strength levels and super powers in Marvel Universe almanacs etc. Not sure how that happened but I still have a box of them in my attic. I think I enjoyed them because they develop interesting characters; characters you follow and watch develop over many issues and many years. In light of this I have been a full supporter of the comicbookization of Hollywood.  Seeing the Marvel Universe come to the big screens has been more than a little fun for me.  Not sure if my old favorites Powerman and Iron Fist are ever going to make it to the 3D screen, but who knows.

I say all of this to comment briefly on a scene from Marvel’s new movie The Avengers.  Now, before you judge this film, you should see it.  Sometimes a movie everyone likes is good and everyone likes it because it is good. That is for my film snob friends reading.  I saw the Avengers twice in its opening weekend. Why? For the children of course. I had to see it with my wife on Friday (my day off) to grasp why it had its PG-13 rating to decide whether my daughters could see the film.  After we determined the girls could go, Sunday night we hit the show on a Daddy date.  Tommy would be freaked out and afraid of the Hulk so he is not seeing it any time soon.

One scene that got quite a bit of traction in the trailer and is important to two of the main characters flows as follows.  For Avengers newbies, Tony Stark is Iron Man and Steve Rogers is Captain America.  Stark is a spooky smart guy who has invented some killer high tech weaponry and has a history of womanizing. Rogers is a super soldier from the early 20th century who got frozen in ice. His values are old school. Here is the short dialogue:

  • Steve Rogers: Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?
  • Tony Stark: Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.
  • Steve Rogers: I know guys with none of that worth ten of you

So after thinking for a moment about this intense exchange between super heroes, I paused and asked what God might have to say to the IRON MAN:

  • Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them. Ecclesiastes 9:11-12 ESV
  • And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Luke 12:15 ESV
  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matthew 5:27-28 ESV
  • “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:1-4 ESV

Is there something deeper that Captain America is getting at? Is there something bigger, more important going on in life that our “external suit”, our abilities, what we have and do? Jesus asked the following questions and I think asking them today would be good for you:

For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?

One of the great story-lines in the Avengers film is what takes place in the relationship between Cap and Iron Man…this dialogue isn’t the end of it so I recommend the movie to watch the rest of that story unfold.

New Biography on GK Chesterton

Many people may be unfamiliar with one of the foremost British authors of the earliest 20th century so I am thankful for a new biography which might introduce Gilbert Keith Chesterton to a new generation of readers. I was introduced to Chesterton through the work of Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias several years ago and have been bettered as a result. In fact, Chesterton’s works were influential on many in the English speaking world with many apologists for the Christian faith finding rich soils in Chestertonian writings. Both CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien were influenced by Chesterton who preceded them in the British literary world.

I have read (and reread) Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy to the point where I have many sections of it put to memory. I also deeply enjoyed his short biographies on St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas the latter having the delightful subtitle “The Dumb Ox.” I know these works well but was somewhat ignorant as to the scope of this literary giants work. I am finishing a new biography entitled Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life and Impact of GK Chesterton which has been of great help to me in expanding my knowledge of Chesterton and his thought.The work is by Kevin Belmonte who has done Chesterton studies a great favor with this book.

Belmonte’s biography begins with the typical early life information one expects with books of this kind but then he takes you on a fascinating journey throughout the rest of the book. As Chesterton was a man of letters, Belmonte’s work proceeds by unfolding the biography along the lines of his major works. Each chapter is focused on one of Chesterton’s literary achievements and then covers life details which surrounded the production of that work. So this book is not only a good introduction to Chesterton the man, it is also a well suited orientation to each of his major works. Each chapter gives us the background to what was happening in the thought world of Chesterton’s day, his interlocutors and the major thrust of his book, poem or collection of essays. I particularly enjoyed the interactions which Chesterton had with his ideological opponents George Bernard Shaw and HG Wells. You can learn much about a man in how he treats his friends. Even more how he treats friends whose ideas he most vigorously opposes.

The only drawback I found in the work is that due to the aforementioned strength I wish I knew a little more of the man apart from his letters. Yes, there is mention of his marriage to Frances but I found myself wanting to hear more about his family life and what made him tick. Yet as I am sure Belmonte would say, to know the man we must look to his writings. 

Chesterton has indeed left a profound literary legacy in our world and I can only commend his work to you even more after reading Defiant Joy. My own journey into his books has just begun as I soon while dive in to his The Everlasting Man, a book once commended by CS Lewis as the best popular apologetic to the Christian faith he knew of.

With the proliferation of electronic books it is amazing to see just how much of Chesterton is available free of charge for the Kindle and other ebook formats. If you must begin anywhere with Chesterton I recommend Orthodoxy as it lays forth his wonder filled view of mere Christianity in strident colors. One warning if you love quotations and reading a book with a highlighter. You may soon find yourself highlighting so much that the effort may leave little uncovered print. My hard copy of Orthodoxy is well worn, marked up with many colors of pen and ink.  One caveat as you begin to read GK. He is a master of paradox and turning of a phrase. Many of my friends “get him” right away while others have to read each paragraph really slowly to follow his creative dance of thought.  Whether you find reading him easy or slow going, I promise you the work is well worth your time.

You can grab Defiant Joy here

A few weeks with Colonel Roosevelt

 

Over the last few weeks I have been joyfully wandering through Edmund Morris’ new book “Colonel Roosevelt” which covers the final period of the life of one of America’s most interesting and influential presidents. The book is the third in a trilogy of works by Morris which have been published over the last few decades. The first work was the Pulitzer prize winning “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” and the second, covering his almost eight years as president, was aptly entitled “Theodore Rex

Colonel Roosevelt begins with the African Safari Roosevelt took after stepping away from the presidency in immense popularity concluding his second term in 1908.  The book covers the later years of a career that saw Roosevelt as nature enthusiast, adventurer, international statesmen, author, public intellectual, politician, 3rd party presidential candidate, advocate for WWI preparedness, father/family man and finally a dying icon on the American scene.  

Beginning this book I felt I knew very little about Theodore Roosevelt beyond some very small details picked up along the way in the educational process. After reading this work I very much look forward to reading Morris’ first two installments on the life of this man.  Certainly Roosevelt was a man of his times; some of his time was in need of transformation. At the same time I felt that much of what this man exemplified has been lost in our day.  An advocate for progressive reform in politics, but also not afraid to fight for honor and truth.  A man who despised passive, emasculated manhood, yet was a loving husband and father. A man who would chase down lions in the wilderness and get down on the floor to play with the kids.  As a Harvard graduate who was fluent in multiple languages, he was a scholar and perhaps one of the best and widest read presidents we have had. At the same time he was also man who would have loved MMA (he had a love for boxing and apparently had lessons in jiu-jitsu and a brown belt in judo - or as he wrote to his sons…he liked “manly sports”)

To put it plainly, Theodore Roosevelt was a dude.  A person who would have exemplified the quality that Harvard professor Harvey C. Mansfield recently called Manliness.  Yes, he thought a bit much of himself. Yes, he was never lacking words and always spoke his mind somewhat loudly. Yes, he thought war could be virtuous and called pacifists “aunties” and “sublimated sweetbreads.” Perfect man, no way. One of the more interesting people I have ever encountered? Indeed.

I found myself with real tears in the eyes as the story of his death was told in this book. I felt a sense of loss that such a figure would be consumed by that great enemy of the grave. I then remembered the words of Ecclesiastes which say “No man has power to retain the spirit, or power over the day of death.” The great ones all come and go the same way and some inspire others along the way.

Teddy Roosevelt is now a new friend - an enigmatic one.  One who was at home in a bar fight and in the courts of European royalty. In short, Roosevelt was not simply a man, he was a dude…one who believed in virtue, adventure, nobility and masculine strength aimed at proper ends.  As such, I am all the better for having read this book and anticipate the journey into the earlier books of the trilogy.

Note: For those with commutes or enjoy audio books, Colonel Roosevelt as read by Mark Deakins was a delightful listen with the readers “Roosevelt” voice for each of his quotations a stunning joy which brought me many laugh out loud moments. 

Surprised by History

 

This summer I have been a bit into some reading of history. For some time I have loved the history of ideas and how these flow from people in various political, social and economic contexts.  Good history is also something done by good story tellers - I have been blessed by both of late.  

Here are a few titles which have occupied my mind a bit over the last several months. I also have become somewhat addicted to the audio book reading of John Lee - very intoxicating.

Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century by Michael Hiltzik - this book was a fascinating look at the history of southwestern United States, water rights, the entrepreneurs and engineers who put blood, sweat, tears and political wrangling into the project to bring electrical power and water to the arid dessert.  Very good read that covers a broad history and range of subject.  Book and Audiobook

Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World by Roger Crowley - A wonderful read that focuses on the 16th century battles between the great Mediterranean sea powers of the Spanish and Ottomon Empires. The story of the Battle of Malta was unfamiliar to me and I am thankful that this deficit has now been remedied.  Book and Audiobook

Worlds At War: The 2,500-Year Struggle Between East and West by Anthony Pagden - Though a bit tainted by the author’s massive secular bias, this book nonetheless succeeds at covering a massive swath of history. It truly does traverse the entire 2500 years.  I really felt like the author had a naive and ignorant view of religion and the conclusion of the book was just weak and demonstrative of the lack of any real vision secularism offers today. It was worth the time to read; I particularly enjoyed the early histories involving Alexander the Great and the Persian empires. This book is also very long. Book and Audiobook

Lee: A Life of Virtue (The Generals) by John Perry - A short treatment of the life of Robert E. Lee with emphasis on his character and virtue as a leader.  This was my first book on Lee and I found it interesting and compelling enough for me to add two very long movies to our Netflix Queue :-) Book and Audiobook

The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade bySusan Wise Bauer - I enjoyed this much more than Pagden’s work as it did not carry the anti-religious baggage along the journey.  Bauer covers not only the typical western far but also the histories of Islamic empires and those ruling the lands of China, India and Japan.  Though the western histories are a bit more robust the breadth of the treatment of the time period was much appreciated.  Bauer is an English prof at the college of William and Mary and appears to be married to a minister. This showed in both her writing and lack of derogatory tone towards religious views. Also very long. Book and Audiobook

OK, that’s all for now - I’m off in search for my next read in history - love medieval and late medieval periods so I may land there.  

Any suggestions?

 

A few thoughts on Avatar...

There are many times I walk into a movie theater uncertain whether or not the film before me will be enjoyable, cause meditation of gospel and human themes and be worth the time to hear the story be told. There are other times when I simply know I will like the movie ahead of time.  Avatar was one such movie. I knew the combination of consciousness transfer, technologically animated bodies, strange creatures on strange worlds and a huge SciFi mega battle would be right in the range of awesome for me.  What I did not expect was the visual spectacle that is Avatar.  What follows is not a formal film review, but simply some thoughts which left the theater with me on opening night.  Yes, I saw it opening night, it is what I wanted to do for my birthday. :)

From the outset let me say this.  Movie theaters are one of the venues that our culture does its story telling and many times heavy doses of proselytizing and preaching ideas.  I participate not as a convert who lives his life through the movies or worships the next creation of an established or up and coming film making. I participate to learn, enjoy and think about who we are and what we are saying to ourselves today as a people.  My definition and narrative that I live is the one lived out on earth, inspired by the creator God, culminating in Jesus the unique God incarnate and the savior of the human race.  It is precisely because I find the gospel true that I care about modern pulpits like the movies; there are other gospels being compellingly preached all the time to those in stadium seating across our country.  Just as any person bringing the gospel to a people with a different religion and world view should care to understand the beliefs of a people, so we should care about the stories our friends live by…many times at the movies.  With that said, I really enjoyed Avatar and had some deep questions about its message.  Let me share why.

Loved the Spectacle that is Avatar

I cannot say this enough, Avatar is a stunningly visual movie.  The world created by the Cameron and his cohorts cannot even be described fully; it must be seen.  The makers of Avatar crafted an entire alien world that seamlessly blends together creatures, deadly monsters, a unique natural world, humans, some mind blowing technology and machines of war.  The film is a constant blend of CGI and human performances presented in a wonderful display of real 3D technology.  From the beginning until the end I was riveted by the creative imagination being displayed floating before us.  To be honest, I will likely see Avatar again (maybe in IMAX) as it reflects much of what I enjoy in the science fiction genre. 

The storyline and screenplay are not award worthy, but it is a story that moves, draws you in and culminates simply.  The plot is easy to predict but this does not detract from the story.  It is definitely not as thoughtful/cerebral as I would like as it doesn’t require much wrestling with ideas. There is of course some techo nature worshiping, goddess centered pantheism (more on this in a bit) but it was assumed with tribal simplicity and not wrestled with seriously.  For those new to the Avatar world, here is a synopsis from 20th Century Fox:

Avatar is the story of an ex-Marine who finds himself thrust into hostilities on an alien planet filled with exotic life forms. As an Avatar, a human mind in an alien body, he finds himself torn between two worlds, in a desperate fight for his own survival and that of the indigenous people. More than ten years in the making, Avatar marks Cameron’s return to feature directing since helming 1997’s Titanic, the highest grossing film of all time and winner of eleven Oscars® including Best Picture. WETA Digital, renowned for its work in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and King Kong, will incorporate new intuitive CGI technologies to transform the environments and characters into photorealistic 3D imagery that will transport the audience into the alien world rich with imaginative vistas, creatures and characters. —© 20th Century Fox

For a more thorough summary of the plot let imdb be your friend

The film is longish but certainly does not feel so.  There was not one part in the movie when I felt the story or the action was dragging.  Granted, it is not simply a techno shoot em up as there is some character development along the way.  The performance turned in by Zoe Saldana as the princess of the Na’vi is excellent and in my opinion overshadows everyone else.  Of course, a hat tip to the computer animators as they made the 10 foot tall blue chick to go along with Saldana’s performance. 

In summary, I really liked Avatar.  It was fun, had the most mind blowing worlds on screen and hits basic themes that human beings like.  The underdog wins, the oppressor is vanquished, there is the hero/redeemer that is selected by some sort of divinity, there is a love story, a coming of age story, belonging to a family, betrayal, redemption and the like.  Come to think of it Avatar is one big cliche dressed up all fancy in another fantastical world; a masterfully created spectacle of a world at that.  

My Questions with Avatar

Though I really enjoyed Avatar some of its content was a bit sophomoric when you think about it for more than a few seconds.  Though it is not a film that I would mock in any way, there are some preachy moments that came off a bit silly to me. Some of are themes deeply woven into the plot, others were lines of dialog that were so transparently jabs at certain points of view that it was hard to take serious. I wish I had more to interact with philosophically from Avatar, but here are a few thoughts I did take away from the messages being proclaimed. 

Is Technology Good or Bad?

One thing I liked about Avatar was some thought about the virtues and use of technology. Though it was not as nuanced a discussion as one might want, the film does cause some reflection about the importance and centrality of technology. First, the humans are using sophisticated technology while the native Na’vi are much more simple people tied to their natural world.  Of course, the humans think that they are primitive savages but what you learn in the film is that a harmonious relationship with nature exists with the Na’vi while the humans are just raping the land for a valuable mineral using technology. The way of life of the Na’vi is seen as spiritual, respectful of nature and they are just a perfect happy Utopian sort of people (more on this late). 

Though the human technology is superior it is used for destruction and shows no respect for “mother” nature. To be honest, it is all a bit preachy and you get the feeling that we would be better off if we were all running around in a perfect forest like the natives of Pandora. Of course, this world is not real. Ironically, it is a human, using sophisticated technology who saves the people but afterwards he is converted to be one of the Na’vi (called “The People”) in both body and consciousness.  The message seems to be nature over the creations of men, which is being presented to humans watching the creation of high tech film makers wearing 3D glasses in indoor theaters. Irony.

Now the Na’vi also have some interesting spiritual biotechnology in that the trees and animals all can interface/network with one another through interfaces akin to a biological USB cable.  In fact, the Navi’s long hair serves as a sort of USB dongle so that they can control six legged horses, flying reptiles and the like.  Who created this network and interrelationship is unclear, but one thing is.  This “nature” is the goddess mother in Avatar.  So rather than a pro science, con spirituality view, Avatar provides a naturotechnological mystical science that is so much better than you. 

Nature Worship, Gaia and the Goddess Mother

Avatar is also a movie steeped in religion and it is an exercise in preaching. The message is not even subtle or hidden but couched in the spirit of the age in such a way that audiences will likely not mind too much.  Western culture stands at an interesting epoch of its history.  It evolved from a people who were primarily farmers who believed in one creator God to a industrial people building all matter of stuff all over the planet in the name of “science and progress.”  Humans, through engineering and industry would create a Utopian existence and we would all sing to ourselves of our greatness.  Sadly, this did not occur.  Many today have grown skeptical about our ability to transform the world through building things and have realized how separated we have become from the natural environment which God created.  So today we have those who think industry and technology simple destroy the planet, pollute the world and ruin our lives.  The human creations that were reveled in during the 19th and 20th century have now become green house gas creating enemies for the green avant garde to rail against. Bad humans. This is undercurrent for the worldview of Avatar.

In addition to this, a simple people, dependent upon and in harmony with mother earth (or Mom Pandora) are seen as an almost perfect people.  Every time they kill a deer they snuggle up to it, thank it and almost regretfully eat it. They are mystics that consult Eywa, their God which is pretty much everything that exists and encompasses all. For those unaware of what pantheism is, God is all and all is God, go see Avatar, it is preached everywhere.

The Na’vi certainly are presented in the way some historians love to present native Americans.  They are peaceful, nature loving folks just being oppressed by the Europeans or the “sky people” in the case of Avatar.  Never mind, the warrior culture, warring clans, territorial battles and all that - the message you should get is “technological sky people = always bad” and “nature worship environmental loving people = good.”  No need for any sort of contoured reality, just fundamentalist and ideological proclamation. Those who have commented that Avatar is like “Dances With Wolves” in a galaxy far, far away seem pretty accurate in this observation.

I could get into some of the pantheistic philosophy of the movie but that would be a bit of a long journey.  I will mention I found it silly how Eywa is said not pick sides in wars, she just keeps “balance” of all things. Whatever balance happens to mean. I guess pantheists like having a balance of evil around to keep your honest or something.  Or we could then ask why this non side taking deity actually takes sides like a medieval deity and to win the war for those who hug her trees.

The religion of Avatar is a rehashing of the Gaia hypothesis mingled with pantheism. A whole world is divine and one big symbiotic organism.  The philosophical problem of individuation (or the one and the many) is obliterated with such views, where all are seen as one whole organism rather than individual beings in harmony with a creator that is not creation. 

In my mind, a more balanced view of nature is needed in our day, particularly in the West.  We need a view that advocates neither raping creation nor worshiping it as a goddess.  Rather, we need to see ourselves as responsible for caring for creation and utilizing our world for good.  Such responsibility has been uniquely given to human beings for the creation.  We are made in the image of God and called to cultivate and care for the world.  However, we are to worship the Creator, not the creation, and so use all things that have been made for the glory of God and the good of others.  

I always find it odd that those who think we are just specified apes and then think we have a moral duty to the environment in a way that is “different” than other animals.  Don’t get me wrong, I believe we do have a different responsibility than the beasts of the fields, I just don’t find such a duty deriving from naturalistic worldviews.  In theism, we have this moral responsibility and duty to God…we call it stewardship.

Surprisingly Human Story, which does not contain any of us

As mentioned earlier, there are so many human aspects that we love in a story contained in Avatar that are almost cliche. Yet one of the things I found a little frustrating with Avatar is how hard it is to find a real, contoured human character in the movie. The characters are either clearly wrong headed and wicked (see the white guys running both the corporation and the military) or they are simply the good team who seems to lack any tragic flaws.  Grace, Sigourney Weaver’s scientist character, is just learning…just learning away and would never harm a fly.  Well, maybe she would harm those evil white guys running things.  Jake Sully, the paralyzed marine and future hero/redeemer of the Na’vi, could be more interesting, but he goes from being seen as innocent to being Pandora’s Jesus Christ. Perhaps his dual loyalties to the sky people and the Na’vi could have revealed a human Sully, but you never believe in the movie that he is going to stay a marine, he is Na’vi from the time he puts on his 10 foot tall blue man suit.  I suppose when a movie just wants to preach, it does not need characters that are like us; simply characters that we wish we could be. 

I think you are left with the feeling from Avatar that we should all be like the Na’vi, especially if we could have cool technology that somehow mother earth just gave to us.  My problem is that the Na’vi are not real, they do not exist.  I do not mean to say that 10 foot tall blue people on Pandor do not exist, that is a given.  What I do mean is that people are truly innocent, untainted by sin, are not real.  We need redemption because we are deeply flawed, not because we just need to learn to be more like some phantasm of our minds.  Utopian visions of peoples or societies always let us down when we realize that we are human.  We know we belong in the clouds but yet are so much a part of earth.  This is precisely why I love the views of Jesus. He taught us that we are both more valuable than we can imagine, very much like God.  Yet he taught us that we are deeply wicked and in need of forgiveness and change that comes from outside of ourselves. 

So I find Avatar to have deep human themes in the story, but had very few humans living them out.  The story was incomplete in that sin lived only in “certain types” of people while others are presented as righteous altogether.  This is actually troubling to me as self-righteous people may watch this film and feel very good about themselves.  We are good, tree and nature loving people.  We are not like those warring people who like “terror against terror” and “shock and awe” (yes, there are clear and silly statements like this in the dialogue).  The ideologues of Hollywood love to declare their ideas and views to be good and those of others (usually libertarians or conservatives) to be eeeevil.  Avatar certainly, and in sophomoric fashion, goes after this shtick.  I was surprised their was not a call for government provided universal health care for the forest trees and some evil person saying NO! so he could be rich.

Conclusion

Overall, I loved the grandeur and visual spectacle of Avatar.  As a fan of sci fi movies I was thrilled to go, came out with sense of wonder at what I just watched. It is a movie unlike any I have ever seen and simply must be watched in 3D.  I will likely see it again because it was a pleasure to watch and experience and the story does have its redemptive elements.  The fact that some hero must indeed come and save us is a truth about the universe that we can never escape. Yet, in the midst of the spectacle there was so much preaching that I recommend people watch with a discerning mind.  Avatar represents the ideas of our age and not the truth about ourselves or about God.  Avatar contains false teaching and religion hidding behind every fluorescent Pandoran tree; be not deceived as it seems the makers of Avatar would like to remake you into their image. 

One final warning: if you see Avatar with a anti-war, tree hugging, mother goddess worshipping, hate George Bush, shock and awe hater, the terrorists are just misunderstood, I hate Obama now too for sending more troops, America is the evil empire type friend…beware, they are going to feel really good about themselves and will likely be ready to preach when you pass out beneath the exit signs.  It is probably a good time to go get coffee or a beer and chat a bit about Jesus.  If you see it with a Canadian…just kidding, we all love Canadians.

A few interesting books...

Recently I have been reading some sociological books on young people and young dudes in particular. It has been a good study and I thought I would recommend them for those hanging with the peoples born after 1970 (and yes, I barely make it into that club by 2 years)

And a few pleasure reads - on audio book…

  • Googled: The End of the World As We Know It by Ken Auletta- Another book about the history of Google but this one has some really interesting stuff about the affect of Google and the Internet on other major media companies, older paradigns. I enjoyed Auletta’s book on Microsoft and this one is great so far. I am a sucker for tech history books.
  • Soren Kierkegaard - The Giants of Philosophy by John j. Stuhr - A very simple audio book on the late Danish philosopher.  For those new to philosophy these little vignettes are pretty good. I bought this one on iTunes and it is read by Charlton Heston…which is cool.
Also reading a bunch of commentaries on the gospel of Luke for our Let Jesus Speak series at the JDub.  Darryl Book and Leon Morris have been friends.  Most recent message can be found here.
Back to tending to the kiddos.
In

Over the Grave Vol 1

Let me first say that I love music, but am no music snob. I don’t know what bands are it and what bands are poo-poo.  I am also not a musician and know more about choking someone out with certain wrestling holds than I do about the fret of a musical instrument. Yet I am a human being…and I do like music.

I have to say I love the new album from our friends at Sojourn Community in Louisville. I am not going to review the album, I’ll let the experts do all that schmack talking…what I will say about the new album - Over the Grave - The Hymns of Issac Watts Vol 1 is this: Get it now...

The good people over at Sojourn Music have taken the excellent poetry and lyrical hymn writing and mixed it up a bit.  Well, strike that - they have writtent their own music, arranged and dropped killer tracks with these killer words. If you are new to Sojourn - their Before the Throne is very good as well.

Brooks Ritter just kills it on the track “Living Faith” - it also vibed awesomely with a message I am working on for this weekend. 

Enjoy

 

Book Review - Unfashionable

 

 Unfashionable: Making a Difference in the World by Being Different
by Tullian Tchividjian (Author), Timothy Keller (Foreword)

When another new book came out talking about the issue of "Christians and Culture" I first wanted to yawn.  I read in this area quite a bit and did not think someone could improve on the good work being done by the likes of Os Guinness, Tim Keller, DA Carson, Nancy Pearcy, Cornelius Plantinga and even popular level authors like Mark Driscoll, Andy Crouch and Dick Staub. Being somewhat of a junkie in this area of study I went ahead and clicked the Amazon.com buttons and had Amazon Prime send Tullian Tchividjian's Unfashionable my way. I have been pleasantly surprised.

In many ways Tchividjian says little that is new in this discussion but what he does give us is a book that can be read by anyone.  So often Christ/Culture treatments can get lost in theory, making more arm chair quarterbacks than missional practitioners.  Tchividjian is a pastor, a guy who is shaping these ideas in a real community and it comes through loud and clear in this volume. 

The subtitle of the work gives his thesis right away: making a difference in the world by being different. Tchividjian's goal is both critical and constructive in this book.  He realizes that there are great perils for the church that chooses to mimic the world to the point that it simply IS the world.  He also realizes that the church must understand and know culture in order to be a resistance community within it.  Too often the church falls off a cliff in one direction or another becoming either worldly or absent among the people she is called to connect with the gospel. On page 81 he sums up well the difficulties of living as God's people in a world that is in rebellion with its maker:

We've found it easy, as Andy Crouch points out in his book Culture Making to condemn culture, critique culture and consume culture. All too often we are guilty of cocooning, combating or conforming.

Tchividjian seems to strive for the right balance. He advocates walking in the world as a peculiar, unfashionable people who are set apart as different even as we live among the various tribes of culture. 

Strengths

I found several things to my liking in reading Tchividjian's work.  First, it is very approachable and could be read by scholar, pastor or layperson. Furthermore, the book's division is very helpful and drew me into the work. He begins with a section entitled "The Call" which chronicles God's call on Christians to be different in the world.  He begins with his personal story of being a prodigal from a godly home who left the church for the party life on South Beach. His return was not because church was cool, but it was so different as to be compelling and attractive.  This brought me right into the work.  Following the autobiographical discussion was a treatment on how we need not to clamor to be so cool that we are no longer salt and light in the world.  His focus on this generations desire for transcendent reality and connecting with something bigger than the normal was helpful for me as we are forming a culture in the early days of a church plant.

The second part of the work, "The Commission", is also the most meaty and perhaps most controversial.  In this section Tchividjian, following many other thinkers, sees God's work through the church as comprising more than simply saving souls for heaven, but taking part in manifesting the Kingdom on earth. We sojourn to God's final consummating of all things building kingdom culture along the way. We are to participate in the cultural mandate to steward and rule creation and to manifest a Kingdom culture in the here and now. In no way does he mute a conversionist gospel that calls individual sinners to repent and find salvation in Jesus Christ. What he does advocate is calling the church, made up of these saved souls, to create and redeem culture in the time appointed for us. Some may find this difficult to see in the Bible (case in point is Tim Challies review of the same work) but I find it very much the story of the Bible.

  1. God creates and give man stewardship and vice regency with him on the earth.  We are to populate and cultivate (See Genesis 1-2)
  2. Our sin and rebellion brings curse on creation and the work of our hands...yet we are called to populate and create even after the fall, after the flood (See Genesis 9)
  3. God's decree to redeem a people comes through his covenant promises, is culminated with Jesus and extends through his people bringing the gospel
  4. God's church is a community that represents the good news of the Kingdom in space and time - it is to multiply and teach what Jesus taught to others - this includes working jobs, loving people, making babies and building new communities as God saves new people.
  5. God will make all things new through Jesus in the end - the culmination of creation is a new heavens and new earth.

So I guess I am unsure of what Mr. Challies and others are objecting to when they say that creating culture or a cultural commission is lacking in the Bible. I don't see how Christianity can be lived otherwise. 

One note of warning. Though Tchividjian warns against it (see pages 62, 63) there are others in his tradition that have advocated, using some of the same Kingdom Now thinking, for theonomy. I am thankful that he actually deemphasises politics and only calls for cultural renewal through persuasion and never compulsion.  My fear is that sometimes the "bringing the Kingdom to earth" sort of thinking ends up relying on the work of woman and men rather than the final coming of Jesus.

Part 3 of the book that is simple entitle "The Community" and is a discussion of what a counter cultural community looks like. Drawing on Paul's letter to the Ephesians Tchividjian lays out how we are called to a different sort of life now.  We are teaching through Ephesians right now at our church and when we get to the second half of that book I will be rereading Tullian's observations and application of this epistle. 

Finally, Tchividjian provides a great bibliography/reading list for those interested in the discussion of Christ and Culture. All the usual suspects are there but having these in one place is a great blessing.  Furthermore, he cites works from diverse theological perspectives which is always a plus in this discussion. Case in point is that you find Timothy Keller and Stanley Hauerwas on the same list.  Now on to a very small weaknesses observed.

Weaknesses

To be honest, I liked the book and only noted one minor annoyance for me. On several occasions Tchividjian refers to the Bible as "a manual for life." Now I understand him to mean that the Scripture has guidance for everyday living but this metaphor can be a bit misleading to some and can lead to misuses of the Bible. The Bible is primarily a revelation of Jesus Christ, God's character and his work in redeeming all things. I have avoided "the Bible as manual" and "the Bible as playbook" in the past several years as it leads to Christians seeing it as a "how to book" rather than a book that reveals God, brings life and then calls us to live in wisdom in light of its teaching. My issue is with the choice of metaphor more so than how Tchividjian handles the Bible. 

Conclusion

Tullian Tchividjian has written a book that strikes a needed balance between punking out to being the "cool church" in the world and being an irrelevant enclave speaking to no-one but those within its own walls.  The book is not only a balanced treatment of Christians relating to culture, it will also be accessible to a broad audience. Though there are more meaty and scholarly treatments around, this volume is one I would hand to people in my church to see the holistic calling God has on our community.  We are to preach the gospel that saves sinners and then live as an inbreaking of a new Kingdom in the here and now.  This affects how we live, eat, work, play, study, think, recreate and create. The mandate God has on us is to make disciples - converts to Jesus Christ who learn from him and then participate in God's work until he comes again.  This means keeping the two hands of gospel proclamation (atoning work of Jesus that saves from sin, death and hell) and Kingdom demonstration (including shaping culture) alive and well in our midst.

Recommended...

Book Review - Sammy and His Shepherd

 

I have just about finished reading and discussing the book Sammy and His Shepherd with my two oldest kids.  The book by Susan Hunt is an explanation of Psalm 23 by using a story about Sammy, who is a sheep, and his shepherd.  The story also includes another sheep who begins the story without a name but is simply called "My Friend" by Sammy. 

The book contains eleven chapters each treating a small portion of the classic Psalm.  The narrative unfolds as My Friend understands and experiences the leading of Sammy's shepherd.  The illustrations are modern and gritty which I really enjoyed.  Furthermore the illustrations are not tame and really give some contour to the story.  They are also friendly to all cultures as the shepherd is not presented as having blond hair and blue eyes.

Each chapter is paired with a discussion section which is found at the end fo the book.  The section has Scripture readings, reading comprehension questions and thoughts for living in light of what has been discussed.  This is a great addition to the narrative and my kids like the discussion aspect of the book more than anything.

Overall, I found this a welcome addition to our childrens library which addresses a wonderful Scripture in a way that is very contoured and real.  Popular Bible verses sometimes make it on to coffee cups and thereby loose their intended meaning - this is not so with Sammy and His Shepherd.  Remember, the valley of the shadow of death is not a happy place.  One final note, the book uses the ESV translation - always a plus for me.

Recommended...

Brains and Technology - Two Mini-Reviews

I have just finished listening to two interesting books in the last week.  One is about our brains and their function the other is about the brains behind Google and their plans to "organize all the worlds information."  Both deal with the future extensively in different ways.  The first speculates and wrestles with technology that will be created to make intelligent machines, the second looks at one ambitious company and its plans to make all information (yes, all) indexed and searchable for the common man.  I'll cover each only briefly and in turn.

On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins and Sandra Blakeslee, 2004 Times Books

Some people will find the name Jeff Hawkins familiar.  He was the inventor behind the first Palm Handheld computers in the mid 1990s, went on to found HandSpring and its modular handhelds and Treo smartphones and finally came back home to Palm to extend and kick start the smartphone category in the market for cell phones.  What many do not know is that Hawkins is extremely interested in human brains and has written a book about.

On Intelligence is Hawkins discussion and framework for how the brain works and how insights into brain algorithms might help us create intelligent machines.  Like the terminator...just kidding, not exactly like that.  Hawkins book begins with his frustrations with what he considers the misguided thesis of strong AI (artificial intelligence).  Strong AI considers your brain to be a computer and that when we have enough computing power in computers we simply arrive at intelligence or consciousness.  Hawkins discusses this primarily through the failures of strong AI both in its brute force and neural network flavors.  He also delves into the philosophy of consciousness by highlighting one of my favorite philosophical illustrations - John Searle's Chinese Room.  I won't get into that sort of discussion here, that is found elsewhere on the POCBlog.  Hawkins then goes into his own (or rather a commentary on the scientific work of others - particularly Mountcastle) theory of intelligence as it relates to the cortex and its functioning. What is found is fascinating writing on memory systems and prediction as the key to intelligence.

The book offers some facinating discussion about how our brains work as a wonderful processor of patterns by what he refers to as a broad neocortical algorithm.  There was one glaring drawback for me in reading Hawkin's work - he is a physicalist who does not speak like one.  Now, I do not hold this against Hawkins as I believe it impossible to explain human consciousness in physicalist (you are your brain, matter is all there is) terms.  Our language will not even permit it.  For instance the book is filled with discussions about how sensory signals enter various portions of our cortex and then give "you" an experience of sight, hearing etc.  The brain is there, but even in talking about this Hawkins maintains a "you" as well.  Perhaps our brains cannot talk about themselves in a way that is consident with there being "nobody in there." Of course it is a philosophical and religious matter to state you are only a brain and nothing more.  But it seems to me that my brain processes and presents "to me" sights, sounds, etc. Also how "new thoughts" emerge from Hawkins empirical physicalism remains a mystery to me as it seems he is reduced to a framework where no thought can be thought of as such.

With that said, Hawkins book was a fascinating read that I greatly enjoyed.  It seems that Hawkins is passionately interested in the subject and has even founded a company to research application of these ideas. He believes that within our life time (if we give up on the dead end of AI) we may just create intelligent machines that are aware and thinking in the sensory environment of the world.  Or...perhaps a large network of computers simply "becomes" aware on a certain date...like SkyNet of Terminator lore. Or perhaps such a network of computers is already in place organizing all of the world's information.  Or maybe there is just Google - the company that "does no evil" but seems happy for its computers to know everything about all of us. 

Planet Google - One Companies Audacious Plans to Organize Everything we Know by Randall Stross, 2008 Free Press.

Planet Google is a recent book written by author and New York Times journalist Randall Stross.  There are several books about Google which have been written.  Some works, like The Google Story, focused on the founding and expansion of Google from the early days of Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Standford University.  Stross' book takes a more recent tact focusing primarily on Google's forays toward its goals of organizing all the worlds information. I really enjoy technology and reading about the companies which create it.  This book was no exception. 

Particularly enjoyable was the treatment of Google's moves into new territory such as book scanning and video.  The chapter on video is interesting for its history on YouTube which was going to become a very famous Google acquisition. I also enjoyed discussion of Google's move from search Goliath into a company which desires to usher in a new era of cloud computing whereby you allow Google to host all your e-mail, documents and digital history on its computers rather than your own.  

Finally, the brief and non technical view of Google data centers (dark, mostly unmanned and automated rooms full of pulsating computers and voracious appetite for electricity) was quite interesting indeed.  How many Google computers does it take to organize the world's information?  Many more than the amount of pro wrestlers needed to change a light bulb.  Will Google become "the man" or "big brother"?  Time will tell I suppose...but I for one do not trust a company whose motta is "do no evil" yet is run by mere human beings.  Afterall, when the chief executive googler, Eric Schmidt, was asked what was "evil" the reply was simply: Whatever Sergey says is evil.  (see 2003 Wired Mag piece Google vs. Evil) Unless Sergey=God...which I am pretty sure that equation is false...I am just going to be crazy and guess that Google may be doing some evil along way. 

Great book though - recommended.

In

Book Review - There is a God by Anthony Flew and Roy Varghese

Book Review - Anthony Flew, There is No/A God - How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, (New York: HarperOne, 2007) 222 pp.

People love testimonies; we also love reading biography.  Particularly we really love stories of how someone’s life or ideas radically change from their previous orientation.  For those who have been interested in the analytic philosophy of religion over certainly had their eyebrows raised when Anthony Flew, one of the prominent anti-theistic philosophers of the last half century, announced in 2004 that he had changed his mind on a very important issue.  He had come to believe in God.

There is No/A God - How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind is the recounting of the life and intellectual journey of Anthony Flew, written in a rather autobiographical manner by the man himself.  The book has a great introduction where Flew lays out the content of the book and the journey it will entail.  Part I is comprised of three chapters chronicling his experience growing up in the house of his Father, a thoughtful Methodist minister and biblical scholar.  It traces his growing interest in critical thinking and following a method put forth in the writing of Plato; like Socrates, he would be dedicated to following the evidence in life wherever it leads.  His development as a student, his growth as a philosopher and his profound and influential contributions to the philosophy of religion are all covered in this section.  It is not an understatement to say that Flew’s work literally set the stage for the last 60 years of discussion from the point of view of those who disbelieved in God.   

Part II of the book covers several lines of evidence, mainly located in the new discoveries of modern science, which brought him to his new conclusion that God exists.  The book concludes with two useful appendices, one on existential reasons for belief in a divine mind by Roy Abraham Varghese and the second a treatment by NT Wright on the historical Christian view of God revealing himself in Jesus Christ.  In this review I will cover some strengths of the book categorizing them under the headers of Biography, History, Philosophy and Science.  I will then cover a few small weakness I found with this volume and then give some concluding thoughts on the helpfulness (or lack thereof) of a book of this sort.

One more issue needs to be addressed before launching into the review.  As one can imagine the book has been surrounded by some vitriol and controversy.  On the atheistic side you read a recounting of a senile old man being duped by eager evangelicals to see things their way (See Mark Oppenheimer’s lengthy treatment in the New York Times Magazine for a good look at this).  On the theistic side you see a heartfelt narrative of friendship and the honest intellectual journey (see Christian philosopher Gary Habermas’ thoughts in his book review here) of an intellectually honest scholar and gentlemen.  What is the truth of the matter?  One is hard pressed to know.  The book’s publisher, HarperOne, is standing fully behind the book and that Flew, although assisted in its writing, stood fully behind it content.  The bottom line is that Anthony Flew’s journey is now deeply affected by dementia - in his last years his mind is fading.  So we have two sides to this story and many have much to gain from it.  The truth of all matters may not be known but clearly Anthony Flew did indeed change his mind and it is a process that began decades ago.  I’ll let the reader sort through the realities of this controversy - but as always, there are two sides to every story and these two sides are philosophers debating God - a virtual bee hive of passion, erudition and arrogance.  The full truth about the story of Anthony Flew may only be known in the Divine Mind, yet the book is out in the world with his name fully behind it.  So on to the review.

Strengths of the Book

Biography

Some of the most pleasant portions of the book were the human contours on display of Flew’s own life and intellectual journey.  The beginning pages feature Flew as a young boarding school student using the intellectual tools given to him by his critical thinking Christian father.  He clearly said the tools which his father gave him were those which turned him away from his father’s faith.   He is very clear that by the time he left boarding school he had left belief in God behind.  He attempted to keep it on the down low for several years and seemed to succeed but by the time his parents were aware of the change he was far down an anti-theistic road.  One story that really grabbed me was his experience in pre World War II Europe and his witness of harsh Antisemitism and the rise of totalitarianism; two things which were the object of his disdain.  Rightly so.   Overall, I enjoyed reading his story as life and philosophical career unfolded.  It is quite a who’s who in 20th century philosophy and that history seemed alive to me and leads me to the second strength I enjoyed in the book.

History

For those interested in the history of 20th century philosophy will not find a historical introduction or tour de force in this volume.  Yet those who are acquainted with the history of philosophy will love the narrative found in Part I of the book.  From his membership and participation in CS Lewis’ Socratic club (22-24) at Oxford where theist and atheist would enter into cage matches together to his publishing of his early paper Theology and Falsification which would set the tone of late 20th century debates in analytic philosophy of religion.  Wittgenstein, AJ Ayer and logical positivism, Bertrand Russell, Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga and many others are discussed in the narrative.  Those uninitiated with philosophical schools and ideas may feel a bit left out but those familiar will find much in the narrative to wax nostalgic about.  There is even Flew’s recounting of several debates over the decades with various theists even one that is positioned as a team debate showdown at the OK Corral (69, 70)

Philosophy

Now this book is written at a popular and not a technical level of philosophy. Yet the volume still affords some helpful insights which are found more fully in other works.  For instance, the discussion on the burden of proof in the question of God (who has to prove her claims, the theist or the agnostic?) is helpful.  Flew is well known for placing the burden of proof on the one who believes in God in the mid 20th century. This provoked some really excellent scholarship and discussion about who must prove what in order to be rational.  The work of Alvin Plantinga, in his discussions of Warrant and Proper Function, come to mind.  Plantinga argues that it is completely rational and basic to believe in God without proof save that the person is willing to address rational challenges to faith (defeater beliefs).  There is also a great quote summarizing the work of Anthony Kenny which puts the agnostic back in the debate to argue FOR something and not just put the burden on the theist. 

But he said this does not let agnostics off the hook; a candidate for an examination may be able to justify the claim that he or she does not know the answer to one of the questions, but this does not enable the person to pass the examination. (54, emphasis mine)

So the agnostic must also argue his case and attempt to show reasons why he knows that others do not know about the issue of God.  I have always been amazed by people who confidently think that others do not know about God, while claiming they do not personally know either.

There is also a discussion of Hume that philosophically minded people will enjoy even if you do not agree with the conclusions made.  I tend to agree with the book that Hume’s skepticism about causation, the reality of the external world and the persistent self are all unlivable intellectual games that Hume himself did not adhere.

Science

The final strength I found in the book was the basic and popular treatment of some scientific developments of the 20th century.  Schroeder’s refutation of the popular illustration that “if you give monkeys a typewriter and enough time they will eventually bang out the works of Shakespeare” to be wonderfully persuasive (see pages 74-78). Additionally, Chapter 7’s treatment of codes, DNA information transfer and mapping was very engaging.  The treatment of self directed, self replicating and encoded biological systems does seem to create massive problems if it is only the work of mindless matter. 

While I really enjoyed the book there were a few drawbacks which did seem to leer out at me as well.  I’ll cover them briefly in this order. First, the denseness of some philosophical ideas was not ameliorated for the popular level reader. Second, his distinction between physical and human causes in wrestling with determinism brought up some serious problems for me.  Third, a few chapters in the latter part of the book were just anemic and underdeveloped.  I’ll cover each in turn.

A Few Weaknesses

The Philosophical Shroud

As a book written for a popular audience I found a few times some dense stuff that philosophers enjoy left dangling before the reader in a rather obfuscated manner.  One quick beauty from Richard Swinburne will illustrate nicely why freshman in college can end up hating philosophy (or loving it - smile)

He reasoned that the fact that only O’s we have ever seen are X does not simply imply that it is not coherent to suppose that there are O’s that are not X.  He said that no one has any business arguing that, just because all so-and-so’s with which they happen themselves to have been acquainted were such-and-such, therefore such-and-suchness must be an essential characteristic of anything that is to be properly related to a so-and-so. (51)

Yeah, sometimes philosophy rolls that way…and it is a good point if you take the time to think it through…but most folks will read that and become cross-eyed and wonder what is the point.

Causality Confusion

A second area of weakness was his bifurcation of causes presented in his wrestling with the idea of free-will and determinism.  A little background.  Most all atheists are determinists.  They see the world as a closed system of cause and effect which is the result of matter operating according to natural law.  All things we see are the result of matter interacting.  This includes human actions, thoughts, decisions etc. Therefore free-will, in this view, is an illusion for it is just the bumping of matter in specialized patterns in your brain.  Of course this is very counter intuitive as we make a myriad of choices every day whereby we can “choose” action A or B.  Flew’s solution was to make a distinction between physical causes and human causes.  Physical causes are those that must happen according to natural laws and physics and human choices are a different sort of agent caused events which do not necessitate A or B but rather incline a person towards a choice (see 60,61)

Now, I have no problem in distinguishing causes this way but one who rejects a spiritual view of persons, that we are only one substance/matter, have a hard time finding where to get such “agents” from.  If there is nothing but a body/brain, then there is nothing else happening.  There is no metaphysical “YOU” who can make choices (whether free choices or those compatible with other factors).  Later in the book he indeed repudiates the type of mind/body anthropology which would make his cause distinction possible (see 150).  So I found his rejection of materialistic determinism to be weak in light of his physicalist anthropology.  Now for those who maintain a psychosomatic soul-body dualism do have a embodied person who can make choices.  For those who do not hold this view, such causal distinctions are nonsense and determinism seems to hold.

Less than Strong Chapters

Finally, I found chapter 6 of the anthropic principle to be underdeveloped and chapter 9 on how a incorporeal spirit can act in the world unsatisfying. The latter would have been greatly aided by a discussion of speech acts, how an agent actually accomplishes things by speaking and decreeing which to me seems to be how God immediately acts within space time.  Speech Act theory is of great interest as we see it in human affairs in the act of declaring a party guilty or pronouncing a couple husband and wife.  Though God’s speech acts are of a different species in that they actually do things that are “godlike” create matter, raise the dead etc. studies in speech act theory give us an understanding how God might accomplish things by his Word.

Concluding Thoughts

In conclusion I will say only a few things.  First, I really enjoyed the subject matter, history and discussions found in There is a God.  Second, my question is whether the controversy surrounding the volume make it useful as an apologetic for God with the general public.  My answer is yes and no.  Those who are from the camp of philosophical atheism, those who read Skeptic magazine and have read Flew’s previous works as gospel, will be unmoved by this book.  Yet for those who do not believe “the old senile Flew was duped by theists” story the volume is very helpful in showing that some people do change their minds and find good reasons to do so.  So with that in mind I do recommend There is a God for use with those who are wrestling with the question of God. Recommended.

Death by Love

ReLit/Crossway will be publishing a second book from Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears.  The book is titled Death by Love and is a treatment of the scope and breadth of Christ's work on the cross for us.  ReLit just launched a new web site to feature the book and it is extremely well done.  There is a fantastic video (see embed below, or larger video on their site) some sick graphic art to download, a sample chapter in a nice flash reader, as well as a page on Facebook

This book will be a work in theology and practical ministry as it focuses on various aspects of Jesus death on the cross applied practically to the stories of real people.  I look forward to having this one on our book table once we get launched out with Jacob's Well next year.

In

The Devil's Delusion - A Refreshing and Witty Polemic


David Berlinski, The Devil's Delusion - Atheism and Its Scientific Pretentions (New York: Crown Forum, 2008)

Introduction

Every now and again I come across books which do two things.  They provide great food for thought and they make me laugh out loud.  It is a very rare convergence of events but nonetheless there are some authors out there which succeed at uniting the horns of thought and humor in my life. This summer I just finished reading one such book, one The Devils Delusion - Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions by David Berlinski.  For those of you who are not familiar with him Berlinski is a sort of rogue academic who is involved with the work of the Discovery Institute (shhh...they are involved with intelligent design...shhh). Slate recently did an interesting piece on him if you want some background on the man described in that article as "a critic, a contrarian, and—by his own admission—a crank"

He holds a PhD in Philosophy from Princeton has taught at numerous institutions of higher learning and has published books on Mathematics and the history of science.  He is a bit of a rogue because he is a skeptical secular Jew who most recently has been writing against the overconfident reach of the the Darwinian establishment.  He also is an American academic who lives in Paris...which seems to point to "rogue."  I don't think he is too much of a troublemaker but he is a bit punchy and mischievous in his writings.

The book is another work which addresses the arguments of militant (perhaps obnoxious?) atheists such as Sam Harris, Daniel Dennet and the now infamous Richard Dawkins (aka Dick to the Dawk). This book, however, has a particular idea in its cross hairs; the idea that only atheism can lay claim to being "scientific" as well as some of the more ridiculous things atheistic thinkers claim in the "name of science." It seems that the likes of the new atheist posse have big love for him as well.  From Slate:

The atheists, meanwhile, can't stand him: According to Daniel Dennett, Berlinski exudes a "rich comic patina of smug miseducation"; Richard Dawkins implies that he may be wicked to the core; and blogger-ringleader P.Z. Myers has called him a "pompous pimple" and a "supercilious snot." 

How nice of these fellows! In reading this book I can see why they might find Berlinski a bit maddening.  For one, he is spooky smart, erudite, irreverent towards their cause and quite pithy in his deconstruction of their cherished religion of scientism. Quite frankly, I have found Berlinski to be quite adept at the lost art of polemics.  With a society that is either too squeamish to oppose any ideas or is so ridiculously uncivil in dealing with opponents, a nice intelligent polemicist is a treat to read. 

In this review I will summarize the book's argument using many of Berlinski's own words.  I will then share some of the things I enjoyed in Berlinski's book as well as few times where I felt him just a little bit unfair - well, ok, maybe only one time.  I also have a few questions for Dr. Berlinski which I will ask here in closing.

Summary

In beginning his book, Berlinski provides a great preface that summarizes succinctly his aims in writing.  He quite frankly wants to call the scientific hegemony on its bluff - that it, and it alone can answer all of life's questions...if given enough time of course. In addition, he wants to dismantle the belief that religion is bankrupt as a system of understanding things which science seems hopelessly empty in addressing.  In his own words:

No scientific theory touches on the mysteries that the religious tradition addresses.  A man asking why his days are short is not disposed to turn to algebraic quantum field theory for the answer.  The answers that prominent scientific figures have offered are remarkable in their shallowness.  The hypothesis that we are nothing more than cosmic accidents has been widely accepted by the scientific community.  Figures as diverse as Bertrand Russell, Jacques Monod, Steven Weinberg, and Richard Dawkins have said it is so.  It is an article of their faith, one advanced with the confidence of men convinced that nature has equipped them to face realities the rest of us cannot bear to contemplate.  There is not the slightest reason to think this so.

While science has nothing of value to say on the great and aching questions of life, death, love, and meaning, what the religious traditions of mankind have said forms a coherant body of thought. The yearnings of the human soul are not in vain.  There is a system of belief adequate to the complexity of experience.  There is recompense for suffering.  A principle beyond selfishness is at work in the cosmos.  All will be well.

I do not know whether any of this is true.  I am certain that the scientific community does not know that it is false. (Berlinski, xiv)

So Berlinski's task is simple - show that science is full of itself and overstates its case against religion all the while making some pretty impressive leaps of faith of its own.  The book covers a diverse range of topics from philosophical arguments for God from Thomas Aquinas and others, to a rebuttal of Richard Dawkins' sophomoric argument against God's existence related to "complex entities", to some dense chapters on the standard model of quantum physics and the infinitely inventive purveyors of string theory.

I found Berlinski to be quite well read on the subjects he treats and seemed to skip around within them with both a feeling of delight and ironic skepticism.  Now on to a few things that I really found enjoyable in the book.

Enjoyable

I found many things enjoyable in The Devil's Delusion the first being his calling the almost infinite arrogance of certain thinkers to account. In recounting the words of chemist Peter Atkins, Berlinski exposes this posture: 

Peter Atkins is a professor of physical chemistry at Oxford, and he, too, is ardent in his atheism. In the course of an essay denouncing not only theology but poetry and philosophy as well, he observes favorably of himself that scientists "are the summit of knowledge, beacons of rationality, and intellectually honest." It goes without saying, Atkins adds, that "there is no reason to suppose that science cannot deal with every aspect of existence." Science is, after all, "the apotheosis of the intellect and the consummation of the Renaissance." (7)

So much for that old fashioned human virtue known as humility. Additionally, he exposes the way that some scientists (after all, Berlinski is quite the fan of science) present their views as the only admissible discussion in any human affairs.  What Berlinski has found in reading the literature of science is that some men have created a new religion and one that demands all people submit to its tenants of the faith.  Again and again he shows that many times science has attempted to flee from certain ideas (such as design, God, morality, human uniqueness in the universe, big bang cosmology, etc) by cooking up strange explanations to avoid the obvious.

The second enjoyable aspect of the book is that it is extremely funny.  Now, I will say that you might need a bit of a background in the sciences to understand just how funny some of his prose actually is...but nonetheless the humor is transparent enough in most places for even the uninitiated reader.  Let me just drop some of his lines in for your enjoyment as well...

On the fact that "religion is the source of all violence and carnage" Berlinski has this to say:

It is religion, Christopher Hitchens claims, that is dangerous, because it is "the cause of dangerous sexual repression." Short of gender insensitivity, what could be more dangerous than sexual repression? (18)

In the same chapter, he brings one of the more blunt uses of humor when speaking of the heinous atrocities invented by atheistic thinkers and certain creations of modern scientific understanding. This was in some commentary he made on the words of physicist Steven Weinberg:

"Religion," he affirmed, "is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things.  But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion (italics added by Berlinski) In speaking thus, Weinburg was warmly applauded, not one member of his audience asking the question one might have thought pertinent: Just who has imposed on the suffering of the human race poison gas, barbed wire, high explosives, experiments in eugenics, the forumula for Zyklon B, heavy artillary, pseudo-scientific justification for mass murder, cluster bombs, attack submarines, napalm, intercontinental ballistic missiles, military space platforms, and nuclear weapons? If memory serves, it was not the Vatican. (21)

Touche! If you are interested in a few more pithy quotes click the "continue reading" link at the end of this review. So let me move on to my final enjoyable aspect of the book; his exposing of the naive positions of the likes of one Sam Harris.

Harris has the habit of reducing things to simple rants and platitudes.  A quick reading of his "letter to a Christian nation" will suffice to show that he does not treat serious subjects with much rigor.  Perhaps he is just writing out of field and we need to show him charity.  Yet Berlinski is right to call him on much hot air.  One example is the atheistic treatment of human sin and behavior.  It is quite common for Harris and the like to present smart people as good people and that if we only could get rid of religion all people would live in perfect harmony.  Here is Berlinski calling them on this nonsense:

I am under most circumstances the last person on earth to think Richard Dawkins a Pollyanna, but in this case I defer to his description.  Why should people remain good when unobserved and unpoliced by God? Do people remain good when unpoliced by the police? If Dawkins believes that they do, he must explain the existence of the criminal law, and if he believes that they do not, then he must explain why moral enforcement is not needed at the place where law enforcement ends.

To the scientific atheists, the ancient idea that homo homini lupus--man is a wolf to man--leaves them shaking their heads in poodle-like perplexity.  Sam Harris has no anxieties whatsoever about presenting his own views on human morality with the enviable confidence of a man who feels that he has reached the epistemological bottom.  "Everything about human experienc," he writes, "suggests that love is more conductive to human happiness than hate is." It goes without saying, of course, that Harris believes that this is an objective claim about the human mind.  

If this is so, it is astonishing with what eagerness men have traditionally fled happiness. (34, emphasis in original)

Yes, human beings are more complicated than simply thinking we will all do right and good with one another once we have studied brain and biology. Some of the smugness and confidence of these men is amazing in light of the 20th century carnage brought about by atheistic regines (Stalin, Mao, Khamir Rouge).  It needs to be called out.

One finanl chapter is worthy of note. Chapter 8 - Our Inner Ape, a Darling and the Human Mind does a masterful job and explaining and demonstrating the actual difference between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom.  The chapter is worth the price of admission and is a needed argument in light of the atheistic mantra than human beings are nothing special in the universe.  I tell my own kids that you don't see alligators, or chimps for that matter, launching a mission to Mars.  The difference between man and ape is massive and Berlinski gives a great treatment of this subject.

Questions

Now, there are a few problems with the book and a puzzle I find in Berlinski himself.  First, there are a few places that he seems a bit unfair to his opponents.  Now, I know, Sam Harris is a big boy and can take it but it does seem he gets thrown into a bit of a guilt by association argument in aligning him with holocaust denying David Irving. Though Harris' views that the Jewish people's beliefs and actions could have brought on their suffering, making him an ally of source with Irving seemed a bit unfair (see Berlinski, 28). 

Finally I have one question for Dr. Berlinski.  Why don't you go ahead and leave the skeptical place in your views about God and come on over to the team.  He defends theism masterfully, seems to understand the biblical message and spent quite a bit of time in the book making a pretty good case for the theistic arguments.  There is a place for skepticism, in seeing through things.  But as CS Lewis once said, if you see through everything you lose your ability to see.  So I hope Dr. Berlinski would accept that which he seems to have some good knowledge thereof.  That there is a God, who created us in his image, who orders the moral universe and to whom we will give an account. 

Conclusion

Overall, I enjoyed this book quite a bit.  I particularly enjoyed the discussions of various scientific theories as I still remain a huge fan of the scientific enterprise.  This is no anti-science book, but rather a book which will not allow the smuggling of atheistic philosophy into the room by putting a lab coat on its back.  Science is the empirical study of repeatable causes, it is not the sum of all knowledge and human experience.  All of us have some sort of faith commitment from which they launch into daily life. Some trust in the creator, others trust that they themselves will solve every problem and explain away all spiritual reality and every mystery when science is given enough time.  I find such an existence absurd and quite boring.  Science from a theistic perspective is quite fascinating and I commend the young minds of the world to take up science and give glory to God.

 ----------------------------------------------------------------------

Appendix - A few More Berlinski Zingers.

In speaking of the confidence some have in certain quantum mechanical theories, Berlinski again is a bit of a meddler:

It has not, however, explained the connection between the quantum realm and the classical realm. "So long as the wave packet reduction is an essential component [of quantum mechanics]," the physicist John Bell observed, "and so long as we do not know when and how it takes over from the Schrodinger equation, we do not have an exact and unambiguous formulation of our most fundamental physical theory."

If this is so, why is our most fundamental theory fundamental? I'm just asking. (94)

In sticking with the "science functioning for some as a religion" Berlinski actually produces a "Catechism of Quantum Cosmology" which I found ridiculous and wonderful.  Just so you can catechize your own children (found on pp 104, 105)

Q: From what did our universe evolve?
A: Our universe evolved from a much smaller, much emptier, mini-universe. You may think of it as an egg

Q: What was the smaller, emptier universe like?
A: It was a four-dimensional sphere with nothing much inside it. You may think of that as weird

Q: How can a sphere have four dimensions?
A: Asphere may have four dimensions if it has one more dimension than a three-dimensional sphere.  You may think of that as obvious

Q: Does the smaller, emptier universe have a name?
A: The smaller, emptier universe is called a de Sitter universe. You may think of that as about time some one paid attention to de Sitter.

Q: Is there anything else I should know about the smaller, emptier universe?
A: Yes. It represents a solution to Einstein's field equations. You may think of that as a good thing.

Q: Where was the smaller, emptier universe or egg?
A: It was in the place where space as we know it did not exists. You may think of it as a sac.

Q: When was it there?
A: It was there at the time when time as we know it did not exist. You may think of it as a mystery

Q: Where di teh egg come from?
A: The egg did not actually come from anywhere. You may think of this as astonishing.

Q: If the egg did not come from anywhere, how did it get there?
A: The egg got there because the wave function of the universe said it was probable.  You may think of this as a done deal.

Q: How did our universe evolve from the egg?
A: It evolved by inflating itself up from its sac to become the universe in which we now find ourselves.  You may think of that as just one of those things.

Now you are ready to sing the hymns of the new world order and your kids can report for confirmation.  He is not trying to make light of the hard work of theoretical physicists, bu the is saying that they appear to be saying a bit of nothing disguised in mathematical flair that has no experimental connection to the observational world...and it is funny.  Let me close this section with his quote about the continued and multiplied musings of string theory.

In the end, string theorists argued that the extra dimensions of their theory were buried somewhere. At each point in space and time, they conjectured, there one would find a tiny geometrical object know as a Calabi-Yau manifold, and curled up within, there one would find the extra dimensions of string theory itself.  It was an idea that possessed every advantage except clarity, elegance, and a demonstrated connection to reality. (119, empahis in original)

Ok, I must have a weird sense of humor because once again I had a chuckle at those lines.

According to Plan - Gold from Graeme Goldsworthy

There are very few books that I recommend that everyone who is a follower of Christ read.  I am particularly careful in how I go about recommending books that have "Theology" written somewhere on the cover.  I found out after moving to Nashville that the word "Theology" can cause some church folk to twitch in fear that you are about to split hairs about some meaningless thick book you have read. I think many times theology is just not presented well to normal folks and I find this tragic.  So today I want to recommend According to Plan - The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible - An Introductory Biblical Theology by Graeme Goldsworthy.

I remember one of the challenges I faced as a young Christian was looking at the big book called the Bible and knowing how it all fits together...understanding what the whole book was about. I could read various books in the canon but I needed a big picture view of how the many parts made up the unified whole.  Goldsworthy's book does just that - it gives a unified thematic view of the Scriptures centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ. 

Biblical Theology

One the strong points of this book is that it succeeds greatly in its goal to introduce the reader to Biblical Theology. In differentiating this form of theology Goldsworthy does the reader a great service in chapter 2 by introducing the various forms of Christian theological inquiry.  I'll summarize some of this here (and add my own take) for the readers of the POCBlog

Systematic Theology

"Systematic Theology asks: What should Christians believe now about any aspect of Christianity.  Its results: Christian Doctrine" (Goldsworthy, 30).

Systematic theology takes up the task of seeing what every relevant passage of Scripture teaches on a various topic.  It looks at all the passages in order to form a clear and succinct statement of Christian teaching. Any time a church or a Christian person says anything about God it is an exercise in systematic theology.  Mistakes can often be made by not looking at ALL the texts relevant to a topic and thereby teaching a reductionist view of a subject.

Historical Theology

"Historical Theology asks: What have Christians believed about their faith at any given time?  Its results: A record of the development of Christian doctrine." (31)

Historical Theology is looking at what various Christian people and traditions have taught at various times in Church history.  Historical Theology is helpful in that it assists us in our understanding of the faith as we look at what others who have gone before us.  It is not authoritative, but helps us see the truths and errors of the past.

Pastoral Theology

"Pastoral Theology asks: How Should Christians minister to one another so that they grow to maturity in Christian living? Its results: Care and growth in the local church." (31)

Pastoral theological is the application of biblical truth and the study of how the gospel shapes and changes people's lives.  It focuses on the importance of a theology of ministry and how we rightly relate to God in shaping one another's lives.

Exegetical Theology 

"Biblical Exegesis asks: What was the text intended to convey to those for whom it was originally written? Its results: Understanding the intended meaning of the text." (34)

Exegesis is the unpacking and explaining of particular passages of Scripture in their original historical, grammatical and literary contexts. 

Biblical Theology

"Biblical Theology asks: By What Process has God revealed himself to mankind? Its results: The relating of the whole Bible to our Christian life now" (32)

Biblical theology looks at large themes in various sections of Scripture.  It treats major themes in the Old Testament, the New Testament or the major sections of the biblical corpus.  I find the best way to understand the subjects treated by biblical theology is by example.  The following I hope you find helpful as well:

  • What is the focus of sacrifice in the Pentateuch?
  • What is Paul's theology of Grace?
  • What do the Gospels teach about the Kingdom of God?
  • What is the central theme of the entire Bible?

Whereas systematic theology is concerned with Christian Doctrine treating all passages relevant to a topic and teaching it for today, biblical theology brings to us the major themes of Scripture seeing its subject as a unified whole. Systematics break down the teaching of Scriptures into its parts to unify doctrine, whereas biblical theology steps out to see the big picture.  One makes sure you do not miss some of the trees that are actually in the forest (Systematics) the other makes sure we don't miss the forest from closely examining the trees (biblical theology). Both are extremely valuable and important to the church and the believer.

Goldsworthy does a fantastic job introducing the discipline of biblical theology but also convincingly laying out the central theme of the Christian Scriptures...namely, the person and work of Jesus who is called the Christ.

Central Theme of The Bible - Jesus Christ

Many times Christians have been so exposed to systematic theology that they can recite certain doctrines or somethign learned in Sunday school, but find it difficult to see how the whole Bible is relevant to the faith.  What does a man cutting off the foreskins of his son have to do with me?  Biblical theology explains just how integrated Scripture is and the unique unfolding of God's purposes throughout redemptive history.  Just what does circumcision mean? Why was this given?  How does it relate to God's ways of dealing with people?  How does this continue today? Or does it? 

Biblical Theology sees a beautiful line of continuity in God's revelation in Scripture which reaches its zenith in Jesus Christ and then sees our life as the church as his sent community continuing his mission until this age comes to a close.  If you ever wondered how the big Old Testament narratives reveal God's purposes in Jesus Christ I cannot recommend this volume enough.

Book Structure

Another strength of According to Plan is the way in which the material is structured and laid out.  After each major idea or paragraph the author porvides a succinct summary of the major point.  These are so well done that you could get the entire thrust of the book by just reading these summaries.  Now I did read the book and did not attempt said path, but I will say that after reading a section and then the summary I continually thought - what a great way to review this book.  Additionally each chapter has a summary, listing of main themes, keywords and a preview of what is ahead. Also each chapter includes a study guide at the end for further discussion.  Finally, the book also has several helpful illustrations and diagrams though you need to follow how the diagrams "build" up throughout the book.  Overall, the structure of the book makes it very helpful for learning and review; the author goes to great length to help a more popular audience find traction in biblical theology. 

Conclusion

In conclusion I want to commend this book to anyone who wants to investigate the theological teaching of the Scriptures as a whole.  Read it slowly, enjoy it greatly and see what the Bible is really about. His name is Jesus.  If you have ever been bogged down by what seems like the excessive minutia of Systematic Theology (let alone speculative theology) then take biblical theology a spin. Rather than a naive trust in Scripture, the discipline of biblical theology gives a robust and deep faith in the wonderful message of the Holy Bible. There were and are not accidental stories in redemptive history, they all have a purpose in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God.  This book has helped me marvel at the unity and glory of the story of God...and it has helped me love him more deeply.  For this I thank God and give According to Plan a hearty POCBlog recommendation.

 

On Truth...No BS


Harry G. Frankfurt, On Truth, Knopf, 2006.

[Disclaimer - this review features discussion of a book entitled "On Bullshit" and its companion volume "On Truth" - I realize this word is offensive to some and want to let you know up front that it is coming.  Hopefully the review is not in this category.  Thanks]

A few short years ago I ran across a book with a somewhat odd title which was written by a Princeton philosopher (emeritus) named Harry G. Frankfurt.  At the time was climbing the Amazon.com best seller lists and creating some pretty big buzz.  The book was titled On Bullshit and I clicked my friendly Amazon "add to cart" button and wanted to learn what the philosopher had to say.  Much to my delight (and to the chagrin of others) the book was an actual philosophical essay which was seeking to develop a theory of BS - just WHAT it is and WHY it is so harmful to truthful discourse...even more harmful than lying.  Let me let Frankfurt describe it in his own words from the introduction

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern. We have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, as Harry Frankfurt writes, "we have no theory."

As far as the person engaged in the activity of BS his description about it being worse than lying is quite compelling:

For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose...

Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

On Bullshit, 56, 60-61

So I ordered 10 more copies and sent them to friends and kept some in the office as gifts. I think it may be that I am a closet philosophy geek that I found it somewhat hilarious...and truthful. So that book took up the task to give the world of theory of what our world of spin, media, pandering, politicking and profiteering has come to know; our world is full of it.   

What Frankfurt failed to anticipate is that people may not feel why truth is so important to a culture at all.  Maybe there are so many people among us spouting BS because we do not see the importance of truth for our lives together in our society.  So a sequel was in order and that sequel has arrived in the form of a shiny little gold volume in the same diminutive 154x106mm hardback. In this installment Frankfurt goes back to lay some ground work to bolster his bullshit argument in the previous volume.  In On Truth, his goal is to explore just why truth is so important to a society.  Let me allow him to explain his purposes.

At the time (of writing On BS), that seemed like enough.  I realized later, however, that I had paid no attention at all in my book to an issue with which any adequate discussion of bullshit must certainly deal.  I had made an important assumption, which I had offhandedly supposed most of my readers would share: viz., being indifferent to truth is an undesirable or even reprehensible characteristic, and bullshitting is therefore to be avoided and condemned. 

On Truth, 5.

Dr. Frankfurt, boy were you wrong...welcome to my generation.  You ever watch Big Brother or the Real World?  Not too much truth loving my friend. 

The book does a good job in exploring the issue of why truthfulness is so important while calming down the postmodernist and the truth deconstructors along the way.  Some unfamiliar to philosophical essays may struggle with why he takes so long to state the obvious, but hey, this is actually fun stuff to many of us.  About a third of the way through the book, Frankfurt does a good job at summarizing his conclusion.  It reads as follows:

For these reasons, no society can afford to despise or to disrespect the truth.  It is not enough, hwoever, for a society to merely acknowledge that truth and falsity are, when all is said and done, legitimate and significant concepts.  In addition, the society  must not neglect to provide encouragement and support for capable individuals who devote themselves to acquiring and to exploiting significant truths.  Moreover, whatever benefits and rewards it may sometimes be possible to obtain by bullshitting [like winning big brother], by dissembling, or through sheer mendacity, societies cannot afford to tolerate anyone or anything that fosters a slovenly indifference to the distinction between true and false. Much less can they indulge in shabby, narcissistic pretense that being true to the facts is less important that being "true to oneself." If there is any attitude that is inherently antithetical to a decent and orderly social life, that is it.

On Truth, 33.

Pairing this with his explanation of what bullshit is in the first volume and why it is injurious to truth, we now know once again that we should cut the BS and as Jan Hus, my old dead friend from Bohemia, once said "search for Truth, hear Truth, learn Truth, love Truth, speak the Truth, hold the Truth, and defend the Truth til Death." 

Amen!?

Interestingly enough Frankfurt, while beginning with a rather consequentialist view of truth, does attempt to move past this to penetrate the concept of Truth and why it brings such utility to life.  In a great pass at boldness he seeks to call us all into the light of truth:

The problem with ignorance and error is, of course, that they leave us in the dark. Lacking the truths we require, we have nothing to guide us but our own feckless speculations or fantasies and the importunate and unreliable advice of others.  As we plan our conduct, we can therefore do no better than to spin out uninformed guesses and, shakily, to hope for the best.  We do not know where we are. We are flying blind.  We can proceed only very tentatively, feeling our way.

On Truth, 60-61

This reminds me of the words of the word who is called Truth "Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit" and again "So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

For those who know the names, there are treatments of some philosophers in the work.  Kant is featured of course, what modern philosopher can't mention the patron saint.  Aristotle, as in most works of philosophy, gets a little guest appearance in a discussion of why lying is hurtful. Strange enough there is an odd little chapter on Baruch Spinoza's view of joy, love and their relationship to truth. Interesting enough, but to be honest I find Augustine's meditation on the supreme good of human beings to be a much better treatment on these subjects than Spinoza.  But I digress.

So in the tradition of On Bullshit, I found Frankfurt's companion essay On Truth to be both helpful and hilarious.  Though when it gets right down to it he and I might find one another's major views and positions on life and reality...well, quite full of it.  He and I both seem to be the children of western thought - with the understanding that reality and truth is "out there to be discovered" not simply who I am or what I wish the world to be.  The Secret is not dominated and domesticated by us; it is found elsewhere and must be found.  Or it might just find us.  In this we discover who we really are and what we are here for. 

So let me say that though I enjoyed these two essays and find some common ground with them I do find one major issue with Frankfurt.  He is caught in a world of facts, truth, bullshit and "society."  For him truth has value to the person and to the society as it allows us to live in reality and pursue what we are.  Yet I feel he does not go far enough, for truth is more than simply "reality" - it is the reality as seen and known by the one who is the Truth.  The rabbit hole is much deeper than he thinks for truth is lived not only in relationship to facts or bullshit, but in relationship with the one in whom there is nothing false...and if you give me the liberty to say so, no bullshit either.  In him we move past truth living into worshiping the one who is the Truth.  It is here that our eyes are opened, the chains fall off, and we are set free.  So, as a third volume I suggest to my readers "On Jesus" which is the subject of another set of books, the ancient Scriptures.  This book, I suggest we all read.  John's writing on the life and meaning of Jesus is a good place to begin.  

 

 

WALL-E Review

 

Every now again I go out on a date with two ladies instead of one.  Yesterday I had the privilege to have Kayla (almost 7) and Kylene (4.5) with me on each arm for a fun, but expensive, time at the movies.  Apart from the amount of money that movies, drinks and popcorn bleed out of a father's wallet we had a delightful time with a little robot named WALL*E.  To be quite honest we usually enjoy the Pixar fare and this film did not disappoint.  In fact, without being preachy, it explored some very interesting facets of being a human being on planet earth; quite surprising for a computer animated eye feast taking place for the most part in the far reaches of space.

Plot Summary  (Warning - spoiler here)

The film begins with a desolate earth cityscape which for some strange reason reminded me of the abandoned Manhattan of the recent I AM LEGEND flick.  This futuristic world is overrun with garbage with the human beings long gone and apparently did not do a good job with waste management.  What the humans did do before  launching off into space on a luxury cruise liner was leave robots with the acronym WALL*E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class) on the ground to compact and take out the trash.  After 700 years one of the bots was still ticking and pursuing his objective of making small cubes of trash and stacking them in an orderly fashion.  Having such a long time for the job this last little WALL*E has literally made sky-scrapers of the mountains of trash. His best friend is a little cock roach named who I believe is named HAL.  Their friendship was quite funny.

During our last days on earth a large corporation has taken over (with the ironic name "Big and Large") and sought to satisfy every consumer delight we could ever imagine.  The end game of all this consumption was a trashed planet earth and an escape to a luxury cruise ship in space known as the "Axiom" while WALL*Es work to de-trash the wasted planet.  On the Axiom human life is reduced to lounging on floating couches, eating shakes flavored like all sorts of foods and being idiotized by holographic TV screens all day long.  The human beings have been reduced to a vegetative like state where humans loose their bone density and get enormously chunky. 

Every so often the Axiom sends out EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) modules to see if new life can be found on the earth.  Apparently all the EVEs always came back empty as the Axiomites seem to have no hope of earth's rejuvenation.  However, WALL*E has found a little seedling growing in the tarnished terra nova of the trashed earth.  Interestingly, WALL*E falls for EVE and they have a nice little budding friendship when he gives her the plant as a gift.  At this point she grabs it, places it in her belly and goes into sleep mode.  To make a long story short, the probe ship returns, grabs EVE and WALL*E hitches a ride through the cosmos back to the AXIOM.

On the AXIOM the two rouge robots work with the humans to re-grasp hope and purpose in order to head back to earth as stewards to re-populate the earth.  Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth...rule over it and subdue - Part 2 if you will.  This time as stewards of the land rather than rapers thereof. 

I found the story fun and compelling and a bit surprising.  Rather than being a space age sci-fi flick it is a very human and earthy affair dealing with interesting philosophical issues - much like the new Battlestar Gallactica...yet rated G.  In what follows is a few of the things we enjoyed following the little square through the galaxies. 

Bright Points in WALL*E

Critique of Lazy Consumption

In the story human beings sink to quite a low.  Instead of Homo Sapiens (thinking beings) the human beings in WALL*E have been Homo Consumptorus, creatures that take in and produce trash without regard for the planet. Additionally, they love being pampered in five star luxury so much that not a one of them works or thinks or learns.  They are simply lobotomized by service robots doing everything for them and constant blathering media numbing their minds.  Now it is a bit ironic to get this message at "a movie" but it comes through powerfully nonetheless. 

Hard work, moderation, learning and relationships with human beings are put forth as a remedy to laziness, excess, passive minds and individual isolation.  I was refreshed by this and found my kids very teachable - I now have a new illustration to use when I joke around with them about their minds turning to mush from watching too many cartoons.  We are not Luddites in our family, nor do we avoid all media, but we do want to read, think, pray and worship as a family and not become people on floating Axiom lounge chairs.  Kayla and Ky got a kick out of getting that message from a place other than Dad - thank you Pixar.

When things start to change, the captain of the Axiom chooses active learning over lounging around and discovers that the earth and all that is there is quite glorious, full of a wonder and majesty.  He realizes he needs to get back and get to work - to learn and live rather than survive in a robot pampered "paradise."

Creation Stewardship, Not Creation Worship

If you miss the environmental message of this movie you are simple asleep or perhaps have been on the Axiom too long yourself.  WALL*E is mercilessly green in its message but surprising at the same time.  Most green visions are political and preachy and can at times make a god out of mother nature.  Additionally, some green ideas teach that human beings are not special in nature and are just a part of the big biosphere like barnacles and bacteria.  You will not find such fare in WALL*E.  In this vision both humans and creation have their place and the view here is quite biblical. 

In Scripture human beings are called by God to rule and care for the created order; it has been made for them and they are to be good stewards of the earth.  There is a fascinating scene in WALL*E when the captain of the Axiom holds the little seedling and says - you are going to be alright fella, you just needed someone to take care of you.  It is obvious that he means the earth as well as the little green sprig before him.  In this film, Humans are specially called to care for the earth - this view is not consistent in worldviews which do not have man as a special creation of God.

One other facet of WALL*E I found very interesting.  In most stories involving a post apocalyptic earth and humans escaping to the stars the idea is to flee from earth and find a new home among the galaxies.  In this film, earth was and remains the home for human life - our station in space is only temporary - we need the earth to survive.  I thought it was a nice touch to see humans go home rather than leave it.  The credits even show a "new history" unfold after the Axiom returns - quite creative.  

Existential Struggles

So much of secular modern discourse explains all of life in terms of "survival." Why do we do what we do?  So our genes will pass on and we will survive as a species!  We have to evolve, we are just a part of nature, we will do anything to live and mate just to do that over and over and over again.  It is no wonder why human beings find such "truth" to be unlivable.  All manner of thinkers have desired to avoid the conclusion of secular/non theistic thought. 

The atheist attempts to be brave and bold in the embrace of the empty meaninglessness of life.  The new atheists try to be brave, bold and rude - isn't that special. The existentialists looked at nihilism - that life has no ultimate meaning - and said "we will irrationally choose to create our own meaning in the act of choosing" - those wild and crazy guys. 

Yet there is another view of life - that of LIVING and not just surviving.  That of seeing that life has ultimate meaning and value rather than trying to create it on our own.  In WALL*E there is a line, I think it was from the Captain, that lights up the dark night.  The robots want to keep the humans from going back to earth in the name of "survival" and the captain shouts out "I don’t want to survive I want to live."  I think humans will always feel this way.  There is a greater search in life than merely keeping a float the existence and propagation of human DNA. Long ago Blaise Pascal wrestled with the dilemma we faces before an immense universe.

I see the terrifying immensity of the universe which surrounds me, and find myself limited to one corner of this vast expanse, without knowing why I am set down here rather than elsewhere, nor why the brief period appointed for my life is assigned to me at this moment rather than another in all the eternity that has gone before and will come after me. On all sides I behold nothing but infinity, in which I am a mere atom, a mere passing shadow that returns no more. All I know is that Imust soon die, but what I understand least of all is this very death which I cannot escape.As I know not whence I come, so I know not whither I go. I only know that on leaving this world I fall for ever into nothingness or into the hands of a wrathful God, without knowing to which of these two states I shall be everlastingly consigned. Such is my condition, full of weakness and uncertainty. From all this I conclude that I ought to spend every day of my life without seeking to know my fate. I might perhaps be able to find a solution to my doubts; but I cannot be bothered to do so, I will not take one step towards its discovery.

The captain of the Axiom found the search worthwhile and overturned the robots and turned the ship towards earth.  Indeed, the soul itself longs for LIFE and a home...and is restless until it finds it. Two voices from our past come to mind.

Thou movest us to delight in praising Thee; for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee?  - Augustine's Confessions

I came that they may have life and have it abundantly - Jesus, The Gospel of John chapter 10

Love and Relationship a New Directive

Finally, I enjoyed the humanity of the robots in WALL*E.  These robots were personified yet not turned into humans.  They took on human traits to teach us about being human, they were not in the universe to replace us as is common in other robot fare.  Each robot has a "directive" a purpose for which it was made.  The robot does what it was made to do and nothing else - yet there is an interesting aspect that peeks out in the film.  The directive that ends up over-riding all others was that of love and friendship. 

Some may wonder why yet another film is put forth with a future where God and religion are simply not present.  Many times sci-fi writers present a godless future because this is their hope and expectation - that worship will some day be quenched like a flickering flame.  I get frustrated at how often the futures presented by Hollywood have no mention of spiritual life and reality.  Some may be tempted to see WALL*E as another such film.  I did not see this one that way - just as in the biblical book of Esther, where God is not named, his fingerprints seemed evident to me in this story.  Whether people would acknowledge it or not, I found the worldview of WALL*E to be quite biblical...I don't know that its hopes, its stewardship, its low and high view of humanity could be found anywhere else.

I liked WALL*E and I liked WALL*E the little robot - he is funny, he is cute, he is caring, he is daring, he is hopeful and he loved what is good...I think we all could use a little more of him in each of us - perhaps this was the hope of the minds behind the film.  In reality, all echoes of goodness must find their source and such is not in social contracts, the will of men or our DNA.  There is no one good but God and we are but mere reflections of that image - we are capable of Axiom-like existences or seeing redemption come to us from the working power of God.

Thankfully our redemption comes through the incarnate God, Jesus Christ, not a cute little robot. Yet that little robot reminded me of important truth - we do need a Savior and he has appeared and calls us forward today.  To be good stewards of creation, to love him and our neighbors and to live his mission right here on the earth.  His mission is different than the savior cruise ship - he is the ark that saves us and brings us the hope of a Kingdom without death, disease, dying or being over run by trash.  His future for us begins today and will be consummated in eternity.  He does more than bring us back to earth - he forgives sinners by grace through the work of Jesus on the cross and then brings them to an eternal home with a new heavens and new earth.  Such is a blessed hope beyond what is found at the Movies.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away."
Revelation 21:1-4 ESV
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