Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Scientific American: Exploding the Self-Esteem Myth

Self-esteem has been an obsession of the West for decades and many decisions regarding education, social policy, and interpersonal advice have focused on raising people's self-esteem. But it is becoming increasingly obvious that a many of our beliefs regarding self-esteem are just not supported by the research. The authors of the Scientific American magazine in the article, Exploding the Self-Esteem Myth describe the findings of their examination of the research literature on self-esteem and conclude that 'Boosting people's sense of self-worth ... [is] of little value in fostering academic progress or preventing undesirable behavior'. Read the full article here.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Book Review: "The Divine Conspiracy"

The topic of discipleship has been examined and re-examined for centuries. But Dallas Willard brings a fresh perspective to this topic and shows the practical relevance of following Christ by being part of the 'Divine Conspiracy' - God's plan to undermine evil with good. Meatiness and depth mark this book. It is essentially an applied exposition of Christ's Sermon on the Mount. The chapter on the Beatitudes is brilliant and worth the price of the book on its own. Be prepared for a radical shift in your understanding of them. In a couple of places the book gets a bit too mystical for me and his discussion of the nature of death is dualistic (but there are some valuable points). Overall, a practical and richly nuanced view of the life of following Christ. The challenge, of course, is to put it into practice!

The Physics of Santa Claus

Check out this delightful debate on the existence of Santa Claus and the possibility of doing what he is claimed to do each Christmas: The Physics of Santa Claus.

A Letter from 200 Clergy on Evolution, Creation, and Curriculum

Here's the text of a letter by 200 clergy from different denominations in Wisconsin (USA). They sent this letter to school officials who approved a curriculum which would include Intelligent Design as a model for understanding origins. It shows that not all Christians believe the same thing about Genesis 1 and can still remain Christians.

Within the community of Christian believers there are areas of dispute and disagreement, including the proper way to interpret Holy Scripture. While virtually all Christians take the Bible seriously and hold it to be authoritative in matters of faith and practice, the overwhelming majority do not read the Bible literally, as they would a science textbook. Many of the beloved stories found in the Bible — the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark — convey timeless truths about God, human beings, and the proper relationship between Creator and creation expressed in the only form capable of transmitting these truths from generation to generation. Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey information but to transform hearts.

We the undersigned, Christian clergy from many different traditions, believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist. We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rest. To reject this truth or to treat it as 'one theory among others' is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. We believe that among God's good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator. To argue that God's loving plan of salvation for humanity precludes the full employment of the God-given faculty of reason is to attempt to limit God, an act of hubris. We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.

Source: The Church of Critical Thinking

Saturday, December 25, 2004

'When Backward Is Forward' (Christianity Today Magazine)

'Christmas may be the best argument against genetic enhancement' according to Andy Crouch of Christianity Today Magazine. Bringing together the latest reality TV show in America, which placed five Amish youth in a Beverley Hills mansion with five city kids, and the latest gene technology which may provide the opportunity to enhance humanity, he asks whether we want the fully human life modelled by Christ or 'technology's alluring facsimile'. When, as Crouch reports, there are already parents who want to hormone boost their kids who are a bit shorter than "normal" it is time to ask ourselves just where genetic technology is taking us. You can read Crouch's full article here:When Backward Is Forward.

Friday, December 24, 2004

'Ten myths about assisted suicide' (Spiked)

A lot of the arguments against euthanasia (assisted suicide) are presented by religious groups including many Christians. Here's an interesting article that offers an analysis of ten myths about assisted suicide that are 'non-religious'. They include such 'myths' as:
  • It is just about individual autonomy
  • We all need the 'right to die'
  • The central issue is pain

and others. The author (Kevin Yuill) finishes the article with a compelling question of alternatives:

So shall we project our own cramped and gloomy worldview on to those who are most sensitive to counsels of despair? Or shall we continue to view all human life as valuable, doctors as curers of physical disease (rather than prescribers of death for therapeutic reasons), and life as worth living?

You can read the full article here: Ten myths about assisted suicide.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Movie Review: Shall We Dance?

Shall We Dance? Director: Peter Chelsom If you are looking for a nice feel-good movie then Shall We Dance? should fit the bill. A bored, overworked Estate lawyer (Richard Gere) travels home on the train every night and catches sight of a beautiful woman (Jennifer Lopez) gazing out of a ballroom dance studio window. He signs up for dancing classes without telling his family. It’s a pleasant romantic comedy that capitalises on the current interest in ballroom dancing. Don’t expect anything profound or deep -- it’s an enjoyable bit of fluff. My Rating *** (out of 5) Best Review ‘Gere is a pleasure, smiling and spinning and high-fiving his two classmates -- played by Bobby Cannavale and Omar Miller -- and the movie is happy and extremely likable (sic)’. Wesley Morris -- Boston Globe Worst Review ‘Miscast, misguided and woefully misbegotten, this clumsy American remake of the deftly delicate 1996 sleeper hit from Japan is too blah to bludgeon.’ Peter Travis -- Rolling Stone

Monday, December 20, 2004

'A Fallacy Files Christmas'

Back in 1897 an 8-year old child called Virginia wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Sun asking whether Santa Claus was real. She had been told by some of her friends that Santa didn't exist. Her father told her to write to The New York Sun because, according to him, if it appeared in the newspaper then it must be true. She wrote to the paper and received a reply, which was published, arguing that Santa Clause was, indeed, real. There was also a follow-up editorial critiquing the first one. You can read both of the letters here: Fallacy Watch: A Fallacy Files Christmas. There are also some links to the fallacies that appear in the letters.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Would you like to be known as 'smart'?

You may aspire to being someone who is known as a smart person. But Jeffrey Williams, in his incisive article, Here's the Problem With Being So 'Smart', explains how being smart has come to replace such things as soundness and rigour. For Williams, it is about the market rathern than scholarship.
The promise of smart is that it purports to be a way to talk about quality in a sea of quantity. But the problem is that it internalizes the competitive ethos of the university, aiming not for the cultivation of intelligence but for individual success in the academic market. It functions something like the old shibboleth 'quality of mind,' which claimed to be a pure standard but frequently became a shorthand for membership in the old boys' network. It was the self-confirming taste of those who talked and thought in similar ways. The danger of smart is that it confirms the moves and mannerisms of a new and perhaps equally closed network.
I guess we'd better rethink our desire to be smart!

More on Antony Flew's beliefs in relation to God

I previously referred you to some information about the famous atheist, Antony Flew, and his alleged movement towards a belief in God. I thought you might be interested in this article by Richard Carrier on The Secular Web. Richard has actually spoken personally to Flew and reports on his conversation. You can also read an exclusive transcript of an interview between Flew and Gary Habermas, a philosopher and historian who has debated with Flew on a number of occasions.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

'Professor demystifies urban legends at philosophy talk'

I'm sure you have heard at least one urban legend. For example, about the rat found in KFC takeaway. Or the hitchiker that gets picked up and tells the car occupants that the end of the world is coming and then disappears. There are literally thousands of urban legends and it is surprising how many Christians I have come across who believe at least some of them! The Vista Online reports on the visit of Dr Mark Webb, a philosophy professor at Texas Tech University who started off his talk with the question, When should I believe the story I've been told? This would be a great question for all Christians to ask and think about carefully. One of the most significant pieces of advice is to never trust the friend of a friend. Stories that get handed around are, even if they contain a kernel of truth, so distorted as to make them untrue. Read the whole story here. There are a number of websites that deal with urban legends. One, referred to by Professor Webb in the article, is the Urban Legends Reference Pages. So next time you hear a story that you feel compelled to pass on to your friends, check it out first!

'Law to safeguard religion is no joke, warns Blackadder' (Guardian)

I believe, wholeheartedly, that tolerance is an absolutely essential attitude for us to have in this day and age. But just what tolerance means and what it should cover is a controversial issue. The Guardian recently reported on a proposed law in Britian that seeks to protect Muslims from religious hatred. But many, including Rowan Atkinson, believes that the law attacks a fundamental right of free speech -- particularly the right to criticise religion (as opposed to persons). You can read the story here along with quotes from Rowan Atkinson's criticisms of the proposal. At the end of the story there are a number of humourous quotations to consider by asking whether they are 'offensive... Or just plain funny'. You can read more of the text of Rowan Atkinson's speech here.

Angels photographed over Washington DC?

See the blue shape in the top right hand side of the photograph? Carrie Devorah, the photographer, rhetorically wonders whether she has inadvertently captured angels flying over Washington DC when she got home and looked at her photo. You can read the whole story here and make up your own mind!

Sunday, December 12, 2004

'A Nation of Wimps'

I attended a graduation recently at a private school. Overall, it was a great graduation. But one event in the program was absolutely bizarre: Every student in the school got an award trophy! These awards were given out for such things as excellence in sport or a study area; but also for things like being helpful and being a good friend. But it seems to me that giving every single student an award completely undermines the meaning of an award. There are people who stand out as excellent in some sphere of activity and should be awarded in recognition of their achievements. But what value are those awards if we feel the need to give everyone an award? What's behind this? As far as I can tell it has something to do with the belief that we need to bolster the self-esteem of children by rewarding them for everything and anything positive they might do. Or, maybe, if a child sees someone getting an award and they don't that, somehow, it might damage their self-esteem. It so happens I came across this disturbing article in Psychology Today magazine called A Nation of Wimps which describes the way in which 'parents are going to ludicrous lengths to take the bumps out of life for their children'. The author warns, however, that 'parental hyperconcern has the net effect of making kids more fragile; that may be why they're breaking down in record numbers.' This article is must reading for all parents. Imagine one of these children at the graduation who, all through their schooling, has always received an award for even the most trivial good behaviour. Then they move out into the 'real world' and, say, become a movie actor. Imagine that, at the next AFI awards, they are not nominated as best actor. How will they feel? Given the accumulating evidence, it would not be surprising if this person developed a major depression or even became suicidal. I started thinking about the way in which Christian youth are often 'protected' from negative experiences from which they may learn. It is very rare, for example, to hear youth, in the church, express doubts or struggles about their faith. And how many times have you heard a testimony that is about God not answering prayer or a person not being healed? Surely telling only 'positive' stories of faith sets up an expectation in the listeners that, if they only have enough faith - only pray enough - that they can be healed or reassured or comforted without experiencing the distress and pain of not having a prayer answered the way we might expect. Too often we try to protect our children and youth from the messy questions - the difficult experiences - the grey areas of life. We try to answer all their questions for them instead of allowing them to find their own answers. Marano, the author of the article I have referred to, cites Portman who warns that
Parents need to abandon the idea of perfection and give up some of the invasive control they've maintained over their children. The goal of parenting ... is to raise an independent human being.
Surely that, too, is the aim of Christian education in home, church, and school. It reminds me of the phrase in Hebrews (5:13, NLT): 'a person who is living on milk isn’t very far along in the Christian life'.

'Famous Atheist Now Believes in God'

We often hear stories of Christians giving up their faith and turning to atheism. Here's an interesting story of the opposite. Antony Flew has been described as 'one of the most renowned atheists of the 20th century'. I have a book in my library entitled Does God Exist? A Believer and an Atheist Debate. The atheist is Antony Flew. Yahoo! News has just reported that Flew now believes in God. A new video is about to be released where Flew explores the question, Has Science Discovered God? It is important to recognise, however, that the God that Flew now considers a possibility is not the God of evangelical Christianity. Rather, it is a deistic god -- one which has power and intelligence but does not interact with creation. Yahoo! News reports Flew, in the video, as saying:
biologists' investigation of DNA "has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce (life), that intelligence must have been involved"

Apparently, Flew's reasons for changing is mind about the possible existence of God is similar to the Intelligent Design (ID) movement's which argues that the complexity of nature requires an intelligence behind it. You can read the whole story here.

You might also like to read the press release from the Institute for Metascientific Research who ran the symposium at which Flew revealed his change of mind. Another interesting site on Flew is here where you can read past writings and comments regarding Flew.

All in all, quite a remarkable event.

'Season's readings'

The holidays are here (for some of us at least!) and you may be looking for some good reading while you laze on the beach or languish under the shade of a tree. If so then check out Guardian Unlimited's Season's Reading where 'Writers and guest critics recommend their favourites, from bestsellers to the undeservedly obscure.'

'God is in the plot details'

I guess those of us who love the movies realise by now that many of them have religious themes running through them -- not always obvious. In a highly cynical article, Kim Lenekin lists the religious themes in movies of 2004 by religion. There's Christianity - ancient and modern; Islam; Judaism; Buddhism; Shyamalanism; and Atheism (interesting that atheism is considered a religion by this author). It's difficult to know what the point of this article is -- but I guess one conclusion is that religion -- in distorted form -- seems to have been the flavour of the year. But where is a realistic, serious, positive portrayal of religion? I don't know of a movie that I have seen this year that suggests that religion might be a good thing? Is that because there aren't any models of positive, life-enhancing religion? I find it hard to believe that. But it is scary that they're not obvious!

Friday, December 10, 2004

Euthanasia debate in Europe focuses on children

For many years, anti-euthanasia groups have argued that, if voluntary euthanasia of consenting adults was legalised, it wouldn't be long before other groups of people may be involuntarily euthanased. According to this article in GrandForkHerald.com, Dutch doctors have euthanased four newborns in recent months believing that they were terminally ill. These actions were taken under the Groningen protocol.
Under the Groningen protocol, if doctors at the hospital think a child is suffering unbearably from a terminal condition, they have the authority to end the child's life. The protocol is likely to be used primarily for newborns, but it covers any child up to age 12.

You can read the whole news story here.

Bible.org Toolbar (Beta)

Bible.org is a site where you can find all sorts of Bible study resources including the NET Bible, an online theology course, sermon illustrations, study tools, and more. But a site like this needs a quick way to find things. Bible.org have released a dedicated toolbar that installs itself in your internet browser (in the same way that, say, the Google toolbar does). You can quickly type in a topic and hit the search key and it will return results from the Bible.org site. You can download it here. It's FREE and very useful.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Rorschach Icons

Some time ago I posted a blog about an image of the Virgin Mary appearing in a piece of toast. The phenomenon of images "miraculously" appearing in all sorts of places is actually quite common. Click here for an article describing some of these and the explanation for them.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Polemic against Singer

Peter Singer is a highly controversial ethicist whose views have been widely disseminated and hotly debated. The conservative World Magazine Online has an article by Marvin Olasky that pointedly critiques Singer's approach to ethics. I have seen a documentary on ABC TV here in Australia on Peter Singer and his work at Princeton University. He comes across as very rational and, when allowed to speak for himself, I am not convinced that some of the criticisms of him are fair. But, from a Christian point of view, leaving God completely out of the equation of ethics is most certainly a step backward. However, keeping God in the ethics equation doesn't always make everything black and white. I think the value of people like Singer is that they manage to convey the "messiness" of so much everyday life. Sometimes Christians can have very simplistic answers to ethical dilemmas and we need, at the very least, to dialogue with people like Peter Singer to sharpen our views and face the challenges that non-Christian perspectives provide us. If you'd like to read more about Peter Singer's views you can check out the following websites:
  • The World Magazine article can be read here.
  • Peter Singer's own website can be found here.
  • The Wikipedia has an article on Peter Singer including links to anti-Singer sites here.
  • You can find the transcript of a conversation with Peter Singer here.
  • Julian Baggini, one of the editors of The Philosopher's Magazine reports on an interview with Peter Singer here.

Please note that, by providing these resources to Peter Singer, I am not condoning his beliefs or approach to ethics. I believe, however, that Christians need to know about one of the most influential ethicists of our time.

Christian Prayer and Eastern Mediation

On the provocation (positive) of one of the readers of these blogs, I had a reread of the article I posted entitled Dangerous Meditations. On a second look, it might seem to imply that all meditation is unbiblical. This is not true, however. There is a long tradition of meditation within various segments of Christianity. There are differences, though, between Eastern meditation and Christian meditation. I thought I'd post this essay by Gailyn Van Rheenen entitled Christian Prayer and Eastern Mediation for you to read. It explores similar themes to the Christianity Today article but in more depth, breadth, and rigour. The author also draws on the book Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth by Richard Foster, one of the most prominent authors in Christianity on spiritual disciplines, including meditation. I hope you find the article informative and rewarding in affirming that Christians, too, have an important form of meditation to aid our spiritual growth.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Power words

Power words: "There are words that are hardly noticed. There are words that stand out. And there are words which stand out so much they almost seem to have some kind of special power. If you know these words and know how to use them, then you, too, can wield this power." An interesting survey of the different ways that words work in our discourses.

Freedom from religion

Click here for a provocative, ironic out-take on freedom from religion.

Conversational Terrorism

Whoever composed the ditty Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me didn't know what they were talking about. Sticks and stones may break bones but they usually heal pretty quickly. But words can permanently destroy people. Language is a very powerful weapon. In the article Conversational Terrorism: How NOT to Talk! you can read a catalogue of the sorts of things people say that are evidence of illogical thinking or just plain hurtful. Read them carefully and make a commitment not to be a conversational terrorist!

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Personality Plus

I can remember some years ago a period of time when churches jumped on the personality typing bandwagon. As part of identifying spiritual gifts churches were taken through a program of personality testing. One of the most popular of these is the Myers-Briggs personality profiling test. Personality testing is big business but how much can they really tell us? The September issue of Annals of Psychology has an article exploring this question called Personality Plus. Malcolm Gladwell, the author of the article, explores some of the problems and pitfalls of personality profiling. He concludes that the problems don't mean we should stop searching for ways to profile personality. But, in the end, to really know someone, we need to actually live with them in the most challenging moments of life. You can read the full article here.

Dangerous Meditations

Meditation has always been a part of many religious traditions including Christianity. But not all meditation is safe. In Christianity Today's article Dangerous Meditations, Douglas Groothuis asks the question: "What harm is there in achieving a higher state of consciousness through meditation?" If you are considering taking up such practices as Yoga then this article, by an expert in the New Age worldview, is important reading.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Between God and Gibson

Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ has been welcomed with open arms by much of the Christian evangelical community. Some churches have hired out entire cinemas and gone to see the film. Others have capitalised on the film for evangelistic purposes. And there has been a spate of books on the passion of Christ that have benefited from the momentum of interest in the film. But the movie may not be as biblical as some Christians seem to think. Andrew Weeks's article, Between God and Gibson, explores the unacknowledged source from which Gibson borrowed material in making the movie. The book is Anna Katharina Emmerich's (1774-1824) The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Weeks does more than describe the literary dependency of Gibson -- he also provides an interesting and important analysis of the trend in Christianity to be
content to affix its logos to the arena and insinuate its insipid prayers into the ritual of saluting the emperor as a sanctimonious prelude to the fun of watching the killing. With private altars in every household, the Cineplex has shown that it can rival the churches as the place to experience what passes for sacred mystery.
The article is a demanding but worthwhile read.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

"Meet the hacker who makes your home appliances right with God."

Here's a fascinating insight into Sabbath-keeping from a Jewish perspective. The author of Wired 12.11: The Geek Guide to Kosher Machines talks with Orthodox Jew, Jonah Ottensoser, about his work on making Sabbath-keeping appliances. I'm very glad that, from a Christian point of view, the Mosaic law has been superceded by the law of Christ. The writer of Hebrews says that:
When God speaks of a new covenant, it means he has made the first one obsolete. It is now out of date and ready to be put aside. (Heb 8:13) The old system in the law of Moses was only a shadow of the things to come, not the reality of the good things Christ has done for us. (Heb 10:1)

Hebrews 3 and 4 tell us that Jesus is greater than Moses and that now, in Christ, we can enter the rest that the Sabbath pointed to. The burden of the Mosaic legal code with all its regulations about Sabbath keeping has gone. So we don't have to worry about our appliances keeping the Sabbath!

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense

One of the features of our modern era seems to be the proliferation of fashionable nonsense. The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense is a wonderfully ironic dictionary which pokes fun at just about every fashionable idea you can imagine, eg Feng Shui, pilates, Naomi Campbell, Pop Idol, chaos theory, and postmodernism. The list is endless. Here's the definition of opinion: Everything. Often confused, by pre-postmodern people, with entities like truth, reality, the world. 'That's just your opinion,' is the approved rebuke in such cases.

And here is the entry for fanatic: Someone who strongly believes something I don't believe.

If you'd like a "serious" laugh with a bit of meat then this book could be for you.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Thinking vs dying

Firstly, I'd like to share this wonderful quote with you from Bertrand Russell:

Many people would sooner die than think. In fact they do. (Bertrand Russell--Quoted in Antony Flew's Thinking About Thinking)
Secondly, I've started the Thinking Christian website again from scratch. You can click here to take a look. There isn't much there yet but I intend to use it primarily as an archive of links, resources, and other bits and pieces that I mention here in the blog.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Thinking Christians have always been interested in ideas and history. They are brought together in the online version of the Dictionary of the History of Ideas. This book was originally published in 1973-1974 in English, Chinese, and Japanese. However, it has been out of print for many years. It is, however now available online in digitised form. The information can be browsed alphabetically by topic, by subject, or by author. Advanced text searching is also available. There are seven idea areas covered by the dictionary:
  • NATURE: The history of ideas about the external order of nature studies by the physical and biological sciences, ideas also present in common usage, imaginative literature, myths about nature, metaphysical speculation.
  • HUMANITY: The history of ideas about human nature in anthropology, psychology, religion, and philosophy as well as in literature and common sense.
  • ART: The history of ideas in literature and the arts in aesthetic theory and literary criticism.
  • HISTORY: The history of ideas about or attitudes to history, historiography, and historical criticism.
  • POLITICS: The historical development of economic, legal, and political ideas and institutions, ideologies and movements.
  • RELIG. & PHIL: The history of religious and philosophical ideas.
  • MATH & LOGIC: The history of formal mathematical, logical, linguistic and methodological ideas.

As you can see there is a vast range of information on all sorts of ideas. Well worth a look.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Further on Fundamentalism

One of my friends recently directed me to Rachael Kohn's fascinating speech entitled Who is a Fundamentalist? And why does it Matter? It is interesting for two reasons: Firstly, Rachael explores the nature of fundamentalism and some of its implications; secondly, she analyses Mel Gibson's recent film The Passion of the Christ and argues that it is fundamentalist through and through. If you are interested in reading her talk click here for a PDF version.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Beyond the Battle...

Ivan Blazen, in his excellent article, Getting at What Genesis 1 is Getting At, suggests we do an injustice to Genesis 1 when we make it central to '"the battle between science and religion"'. Instead, 'it calls [us] to faith in the God who, because he brought order out of chaos in creation, can do the same in our concrete lives as we face the powers and problems of human existence.'

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

TAYLOR: Death is result of debate about God

Check out this sensational story in Community Free Press: Death is result of debate about God. Notice the heading? It implies that a debate about God was the cause of the victim's death. In fact, on The Church of Critical Thinking blog site a contributor made the comment that "It's another example of why we should ALL be afraid of people with strong religious convictions." This, of course, is nonsense. I would suggest that the perpetrator is probably mentally ill. There are millions of people who have strong religious convictions who do not go around killing people. And I am sure that many people who commit violent acts, including murder, are not religious in the general sense of the word. The heading Death is result of debate about God is nothing more than sensationalism. Wouldn't the title be better as Death is the result of mental illness or something similar? In any case, to conclude that we should fear anyone who has strong religious convictions means we would be responding in much the same way as the perpetrator of this crime -- acting on fear is likely to lead to uncritical actions in order to "protect" ourselves. There's a long history of people mindlessly destroying what they fear. What an irony!

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Fundamentalism in Action

I had the opportunity, yesterday, of leading a discussion with a group of Christians on the subject of the age of the earth. A couple of months ago, we had a representative of a creationist organisation visit our church who, amongst other claims, strongly asserted that the Bible teaches that the earth is 6,000-10,000 years old. Following his sermon I took the opportunity of having a conversation with him. During our conversation, he made the statement that anyone who didn't believe in what the Bible taught on the subject of the age of the earth and creation was fighting against God. It quickly became obvious that what the Bible taught was equivalent to his understanding of what the Bible taught. There was no room, as far as he was concerned, for Christians to disagree on the way they interpreted Genesis. This conversation led to the decision to hold a discussion about the age of the earth entitled How to Think About the Age of the Earth. The purpose was to, as fairly as possible, present two views of the age of the earth that are held by many Christians. The presentation outlined how those who held to an old-earth model or a young-earth model related to Scripture, the sort of empirical evidence they offered in support of their model, and the way they interpreted the days of Genesis 1. Following the presentation of these two views, the plan was to have about an hour of discussion where those in attendance could make comments, ask questions, and discuss differences of opinion in an open and safe environment free of judgmentalism. A reading list was distributed with recommendations of Christian books on both sides of the issue. The overall aim was to inform those present of the current thinking of Christians on the age of the earth question so that they could make up their own mind on the subject (with further study if necessary). Until the last 30 minutes, all was fine. There was intelligent, respectful discussion. Near the end of the discussion, however, two participants hijacked the discussion by dogmatically and agressively stating that discussing such matters (especially in a church) was a deception of Satan and that it was nothing more than introducing confusion and error into the minds of those who were participating. As far as they were concerned, the Bible was absolutely clear on the matter and we had no right to even suggest that there might be alternative ways that some Christians understood the issue. We acknowledged that they had a right to their point of view and that they had had the opportunity of expressing it but that others disagreed with it. This was not adequate for them. They were angry (although one said they were merely 'impassioned'), judgmental, and were 'standing up for the Lord'; implying, of course, that no one else there was. Apart from the incredibly unChristian attitude and behaviour of these two people, a stunning statement was made by one of them during the course of their tirade. This participant said that 'there is no need to interpret the Bible; you just have to read what is there.' In my view, this statement illustrates what is at the very heart of the worst forms of fundamentalism -- the assumption that what a person thinks the Bible says is equatable with what the Bible actually says and, thus, with what God says. In other words, if I read the Bible, the understanding I have in my mind when I do so constitutes the very word of God. To put it bluntly, 'My thoughts are God's thoughts.' This notion has a number of serious consequences. If I equate my thinking with God's thinking then:
  1. Anyone who disagrees with me must be disagreeing with God.
  2. I am able to determine who is a true Christian and who isn't.
  3. I am inclined to be arrogant and dogmatic about my beliefs in comparison with others.
  4. I am inclined to consider myself more spiritual than those who 'obviously' don't understand the Bible correctly.
  5. I will be unwilling to listen to any point of view that does not agree with my own.

I could go on... I think you get the idea. If I believe that my understanding is identical to God's understanding then I can speak on behalf of God. There is an important intellectual trait that needs to be developed by all of us who call ourselves Christians -- intellectual humility. Intellectual humility is

Having a consciousness of the limits of one's knowledge, including a sensitivity to circumstances in which one's native egocentrism is likely to function self-deceptively; sensitivity to bias, prejudice and limitations of one's viewpoint. Intellectual humility depends on recognizing that one should not claim more than one actually knows. It does not imply spinelessness or submissiveness. It implies the lack of intellectual pretentiousness, boastfulness, or conceit, combined with insight into the logical foundations, or lack of such foundations, of one's beliefs. (Anon)

Essential to developing this trait is a recognition that all reading of Scripture is an act of interpretation. Whenever we read the Bible, we do so from our own frame of reference which filters what we read. This is why so much work has been done by scholars in developing rules of interpretation (hermeneutics). For example, we need to understand the historical context of a passage of Scripture; who the passage was written to; what the intention of the writer was; what type of literature it is; and so on.

It is naive to believe that we can just come to the Bible (or anything we read) with a clean slate -- with no preconceptions or prejudices -- and just absorb the truth of the Bible with 100% accuracy. This naivety is what I saw during the discussion I described above. The sad thing is not so much the fact that a person has this point of view and may be missing out on the opportunity to grow in understanding; it is, rather, that operating from this position seems to lead to attitudes which are destructive and which hurt other people. Those who subscribe to this view seem very afraid that open discussion and consideration of perspectives other than our own will lead to the undermining of faith. From what I have observed, however, the 'fundamentalist' attitude described, if it manifests itself in the sort of behaviour we experienced, will do more to undermine and damage someone's faith than any honest examination of ideas will ever do.


Anon. Valuable Intellectual Traits. Retrieved 31 October, 2004, from http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/intraits.html

Recommended Reading

Boone, K. C. (1989). The Bible Tells Them So: The Discourse of Protestant Fundamentalism: State University of New York Press.

Help Me With Bible Study: http://www.helpmewithbiblestudy.org/index.html

The Columbia University 'Miracle' Study: Flawed and Fraud (Skeptical Inquirer September 2004)

There have been a number of attempts to demonstrate the efficacy of prayer through scientific research. Here's a fascinating case study of one such attempt -- an apparently rigorous controlled experiment showing miraculous improvement in an IVF program as a result of prayer. However, Bruce Flamm, the author of the above article, reveals some disturbing features of this study and concludes that:
The much-hyped Columbia University prayer study was flawed and suspicious from the start but now has been fatally tainted with fraud. The first-named author doesn't respond to inquiries. The 'lead' author said he didn't learn of the study until months after it was completed. And now the mysterious third author, indicted by a federal grand jury, has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud. All his previous studies must now be questioned.

You can read the fascinating expose here.

Friday, October 29, 2004

'Plain Truth' by Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult would have to be on my Top 3 list of best authors. Her themes are contemporary, characters well-developed, plots engaging and suspenseful, and reading her always leaves me with something to think about. Her 'Plain Truth' is no different. Set in an Amish community in the US, a dead baby is found in a barn and a teenage girl is accused of its murder following giving birth. Ellie Hathaway decides to defend her and is required, because of the bail conditions, to go and live within the Amish community. She has to come to grips with a completely different culture to what she knows -- one which has different understandings of morality, justice, and community. It's a gripping read -- psychological thriller and court room drama. It provoked me to think about the way that we all come from our own unique frames of reference and the potential to misjudge and misinterpret the intentions and behaviours of others. Highly recommended! Jodie Picoult has her own website here.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

The Church of Critical Thinking - Flu vaccine alternative? What a croc.

It is absolutely beyond belief how stupid and gullible we humans can be sometimes. And there are people "out there" who will capitalise on this gullibility whenever they can. For a recent example of this, check out The Church of Critical Thinking website for the latest scam associated with flu vaccine alternatives. It's a good lesson in thinking critically. (Warning: There is one incidence of coarse language.) Click here: The Church of Critical Thinking - Flu vaccine alternative? What a croc.

Sunday, October 24, 2004


Download here Father and son, Jef Clark and Theo Clark, have written a delightfully entertaining guide to 'spotting fallacies in thinking.' Only 39 pages long, each page contains a description of a fallacy, an example of the fallacy, a comment explaining the example, and a cartoon illustrating some aspect of the fallacy. There are, of course, many more fallacies of thinking than are contained in this book, but those included give an excellent introduction to some of the more common fallacies of thinking. The book is in pdf format and you can download it free of charge by clicking on the link above or here. Highly recommended! Here's a sample: the description of the fallacy of 'browbeating':
This flaw usually occurs in face-to-face discussion. A discussion in which this flaw occurs is likely to be heated and aggressive in tone. The advocate is loud, threatening and voluble. He or she doesn't allow the opponent an opportunity to make his or her argument. When the opponent seeks to make a point, he or she is cut off abruptly and not allowed to finish. The speech rate of the advocate is rapid with minimal pauses. The flaw of browbeating can also occur in print, but the histrionics characteristic of browbeating are limited by the mode of communication... browbeating when expressed in print or writing is better described as polemics.

Human stem cell research: all viewpoints

Read it here Human stell research is a highly contentious issue. The website above provides a useful resource because it describes the varying viewpoints on this topic in a direct, neutral way. As in the case of abortion, the issue of stem cell research revolves around the question of when a fetus becomes a person. If you don't know much about the issue or you want a one-stop shop of views on stem cell research then this is a good place to start.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Remaining faithful by parting ways

I came across this little gem in an article on Derrida by James Smith: Derrida apparently believed that "remaining faithful to a thinker will require a certain break; being an authentic 'follower' will require that one part ways at some point, in the name of fidelity." This is beautifully ironic. To remain faithful you need to break away? To remain faithful you need to part ways? What does this mean? I think it means that a person who breaks new ground -- who sees the world differently -- who shifts our perceptions and moves our understanding forward and who genuinely is pushing us forward, does not want us to stand still. He or she would want their followers to continue on from the point where they have arrived and can go no further. Imagine, for example, if followers of Luther just stopped at the point where Luther had arrived in his thinking. Surely, Luther would have wanted those who followed him to push on into new territory, reformulating, discovering, questioning. If any of you have had the privilege of teaching others, you will know that one of the greatest pleasures is when a student has learned what they can from you and then pushes forward beyond where you have arrived. This is the greatest of honours -- that a student surpasses their teacher. Often, though, disciples freeze the teaching of their leaders into rigid dogma and start judging others on the basis of their 'orthodoxy'. Tradition takes over and prevents any new understandings. Truth becomes concretised and, because things change, may ultimately become 'untruth'. The Wikipedia defindes fundamentalism as 'a movement to return to more strict adherence to founding principles, usually in religion.' Fundamentalists, of any stripe, always want to insist that we return to a previous understanding or time -- usually defined by their understanding of the founding principles! But if we are to remain faithful to the great thinkers, we need to realise that we will always have more to learn (and unlearn). Our understanding of truth will always be growing and maturing. There will never come a time when we can stop and say I have made it; I know all there is to know. For Christians, to be a true follower of Christ, means we are not content to rest on tradition or orthodoxy. We must always be examining our beliefs in the light of new evidence, of new circumstances. This is one of the things that makes the journey of faith exciting and rewarding. It is not a matter of thinking for the sake of thinking. It is, instead, one of the ways we bring honour to the one we follow.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Pocket e-Sword for your Pocket PC

Pocket e-Sword Home - the best free Bible study software for the Pocket PC Now you can have your Bible on your Pocket PC for absolutely no cost!! Rick Meyers quotes Matthew 10:8 (ISV) on the home page for E-Sword: "Without payment you have received; without payment you are to give." Judging from this product, Rick must have been richly blessed (and says so on the site). Even though E-Sword is free it is certainly not "cheap". You can consult multiple Bibles, commentaries, dictionaries, and search, compare, add notes, and much more. There is a rich range of resources available from the site including daily devotional and Bible reading tools and Strong's concordance which can display the Greek and Hebrew words with meanings. I haven't actually used this particular product (I use another more expensive one) but from what I can see on the site it looks excellent at a wonderful 'price'! I find it amazing that someone can produce something like this and give it away. So if you have a Pocket PC and you want to carry a library of Bibles and supporting books around in your hand, click here now!

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Deconstructing Jacques

Deconstructing Jacques You may or may not be aware that Jacques Derrida died recently. Many Christians may not have even heard of him! But he is an important 20th century philosopher who developed the philosophy of deconstructionism. If you're not sure what deconstructionism is, then you are not alone. Check out the link above to read one various thinkers have to say about Derrida. As you will note, he's obviously a controversial figure and one whom even professional philosophers admit to not really understanding. Are the ideas of 'deconstructionism' important for Christians to understand? Deconstructionism, according to the American Heritage Dictionary is:
A philosophical movement and theory of literary criticism that questions traditional assumptions about certainty, identity, and truth; asserts that words can only refer to other words; and attempts to demonstrate how statements about any text subvert their own meanings: “In deconstruction, the critic claims there is no meaning to be found in the actual text, but only in the various, often mutually irreconcilable, ‘virtual texts’ constructed by readers in their search for meaning” (Rebecca Goldstein).
Of course, issues of certainty, identity, and truth are important considerations for any thinking Christian. We have struggled with these ideas for centuries. The really controversial assertion, of course, is that 'there is no meaning to be found in the actual text, but only in the various, often mutually irreconcilable, ‘virtual texts’ constructed by readers in their search for meaning.' Christians claim to interpret the Bible and derive from that interpretation truth claims about what God has said to humanity. If it is true that the only meaning of a text is whatever the reader(s) construct and that there is no objective meaning in the text itself, it would appear to suddenly sweep away the whole basis for finding truth in Scripture. The problem, of course, with the deconstructionist claim is that, applied to itself, the deconstructionist claim has no objective truth value -- the only 'truth' the claim holds is that which is constructed in the reader(s). I have never read Derrida (I tried once and found it too hard!). But if the Heritage Dictionary quote accurately represents the essential claim of deconstructionism, then what is the point of a Christian trying to understand the 'truth' of Scripture? A better way of proceeding, in my view, is to recognise the valuable 'truth' in deconstructionism that all our interpretations of a text occur from a particular point of view and are naturally biased toward our own subjective, egocentric, ethnocentric presuppositions and assumptions. Recognising that truth is an essential beginning for correctly interpreting a text. If this inherent bias is honestly acknowledged then we can take steps to counteract that tendency. This is why, over the years, important principles of interpretation (hermeneutics) have been developed for studying the Bible. A thinking Christian who wants to be responsible in reading Scripture should make a study of hermeneutics. If you want to do this, you might like to start here.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Should the Chuch Teach Tithing?

I grew up in a church which taught that tithing was required by God and that not to do so was an act of disobedience to God. All sorts of stories were told about miraculous blessings which came to those who tithed (usually to do with locusts or unexpected bread deliveries). I think this view is completely unbiblical. The tithe laws of the Old Testament were part of the old covenant which ceased at the time of Christ's death. There is no command anywhere in the New Testament for Christians to pay a tithe. Instead, the new covenant invites Christians to give generously what they are able. Recently, I came across Russell Kelly's incredible comprehensive, detailed examination of tithe in the Bible. Should the Church Teach Tithing: A Theologian's Conclusions about a Taboo Doctrine is a brilliant and exhaustive exploration of every passage in the Bible related to tithing. The book is completely free to download and is the second edition of the full book. This is a must read for every Christian who believes they are under obligation to tithe. It is a serious, theological treatment of the subject so it is hard going at times. But the effort is worth it. Download the book here.

Bible.org : Why I Do Not Think the King James Bible Is the Best Translation Available Today

Bible.org : Why I Do Not Think the King James Bible Is the Best Translation Available Today In my view, the more translations of the Bible that are available the better. For those of us not trained in Hebrew or Greek, comparing translations and noticing important variations directs our attention to potential ambiguities in the original languages. I take these variations as a clue that I should check out a few commentaries on the passage under consideration to see what the arguments for and against certain translations are so that I can make up my own mind which translation I think is best. However, there are some people who get pretty upset by any translation other than the King James Version (KJV). They believe that the KJV is unsurpassed in its accuracy. But is it? Daniel B Wallace has written this short article explaining why he believes the KJV is not the best translation available today. He also includes an addendum critiquing recent books 'vilifying modern translations.' The point of critiquing the KJV-only view is not to defend other translations as superior per se. Instead, it is meant to liberate us to explore the incredible richness of varying translations which aid in deepening our appreciation of God's revelation of love to humanity.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Henry's Religion Links Page

Henry's Religion Links Page Here's an excellent resource for thinking Christians. Henry Neufeld was once a Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) who became an atheist and then returned to Christian faith as a Methodist (an interesting journey!). A thinking Christian is interested in looking at different viewpoints on issues and Neufeld's resource provides a way to do just that. For example, one of the issues discussed by Christians in recent years is that of so-called bible codes. Neufeld provides a table with two columns entitled "Con" and "Pro" and lists links to sites on the web that argue these points of view. Another example: the section on evolution vs creationism briefly summarises key terms then there's a table with links to the views of evolution (general), evolution (theistic), creation (OEC), and creation (YEC). This is a truly useful site as you have the opportunity to hear what actual proponents of these various views say about their own positions rather than hearing them filtered through someone else who may disagree with them. Definitely worth a look!

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Free Bible Software

For those of you who would like to have some Bible software on your computer but can't afford to pay for some of the more expensive ones available, you might like to look at Bible Seeker which is totally FREE! Click on the link below to read more about it and download a copy for yourself. Bible Seeker - Bible, Dictionary, Commentary Software: "Bible Seeker is a Freeware Bible Reader integrated with a dictionary, commentaries, and full text searching. Resources included: KJV Bible, Easton's Bible Dictionary, Matthew Henry's Concise Commentary. Also available as an free add-on components are: Bibles ASV Bible Darby Bible Updated KJV Bible World English Bible (WEB) Young's Literal Translation ....More to Come... Commentaries Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Commentary Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible" Posted by Hello

Friday, October 15, 2004

Book Review: "In, But Not Of"

I've just finished reading Hugh Hewitt's book In, But Not Of: A Guide to Christian Ambition and the Desire to Influence the World. Ambition is not usually something usually associated with Christianity. A Moravian prayer in Charles Cowman's Springs in the Valley said, 'From the desire of being great, good Lord deliver us!' And an anonymous pastor once said, 'I was never of any use until I found out that God did not intend to make me to be a great man.' William Shakespeare wrote,
Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition; By that sin fell the angels. How can man then, The image of his maker, hope to win by it?
It was somewhat of a surprise, then, when I came across Hewitt's book in my local Christian bookstore. The author clearly believes that some Christians will feel called to move in powerful circles in the world influencing it for God. This is obviously a dangerous enterprise for a Christian given that much of the world of power operates on questionable principles from a Christian point of view. Hewitt recognises this danger and his book is full of advice on how to influence the world while remaining true to Christian principles. Most of the advice is common sense and is not specifically Christian -- where to live, what to avoid (eg tatoos), appropriate dress, making good friends, being humble, how to converse, handling money, and so on. In fact, as I read it, I almost forgot it was specifically written for Christians except for the occasional reminder of the Great Commission or some other reference to Christian morality or perspective. This means that the book could be read by just about anyone wanting practical advice on managing a career along with a desire to influence the world. Overall, the book is down-to-earth, simple to read, and practical. In some places, the Christian perspective could, perhaps, have been more clearly distinguished from others. But read critically, it provides some helpful guidance for those who are starting out on their careers or along the road. You can read more about this book or purchase it here.