Wednesday, September 28, 2005

An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural (James Randi)

You have probably heard of James Randi. He is a professional magician who spends his time uncovering hoaxes, frauds, and various claims made regarding the supernatural and the occult. He has put the full text of his book An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural on the web free for all. For example, there is an entry on psychic surgery (the sort practiced in the Phillipines) carried out by people, some of whom charge $US100 a minute! They are frauds and Randi exposes these and many others in his encyclopedia. Randi does not, however, always speak on topics he is an expert in. For example, in a section on end-time prophecies which have failed, he writes:

B.C.-A.D. According to the New Testament, The End should have occurred before the death of the last Apostle. In Matthew 16:28, it says:

Verily, I say unto you, there be some standing here which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.

One by one, all the apostles died. And the world rolled on for everyone else. . . .

That's it! Theologians have been arguing about this passage for years and many have offered quite reasonable suggestions on its meaning. One of which was that the coming of the Son of Man in to his kingdom may refer to his transfiguration. Randi, however, gives no indication of actually studying the issues surrounding this text and, therefore, provides a very simplistic response to it. So read the encyclopedia critically!

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Book Review: A Scientific Theology: Nature Vol 1

Alister McGrath's Nature, the first volume in his A Scientific Theology trilogy is a brilliant, dense, but readable discussion of the way in which the natural sciences can be critically used as a resource for theology. I have read this book, but I can't do better than to quote the publisher's blurb on this one:

This groundbreaking three-volume work by one of the world's best-known theologians is the most extended and systematic exploration of the relation between theology and science ever undertaken. Drawing on both his firsthand experience of scientific research and his vast knowledge of the Christian tradition, Alister McGrath explores how the natural sciences can be used by the Christian faith.

This first volume sets out a vision for a "scientific theology" in which the working assumptions of the natural sciences are critically appropriated as a theological resource. It then deals at length with the important status of nature, a concept that has rarely been given the serious consideration it deserves. Responding to the view that the term "nature" is merely a social construct, McGrath gives the concept a proper grounding in the Christian doctrine of creation, exploring in the process the use of natural theology in contemporary Christian thought. A Scientific Theology is certain to become one of the most controversial and exciting theological publications of the decade.

A must-read book for those interested in the relationship between science and theology! Subject Areas
  • Science and religion
  • Nature and theology

Related Links

Faith No More? - BookForum

According to Alister McGrath, we are living in the twilight of atheism. This article Faith No More? reviews McGrath's book  The Twilight of Atheism and describes how a number of atheists are responding to the challenge to rejuvenate atheism for the modern world.

By proclaiming that atheism is on its last legs, McGrath turns one of the most burning questions in American culture on its head. When everyone is asking about the growing strength of religion and its political ramifications, we might instead ask, Why is disbelief on the wane? Today's commonsense answer is that atheists, agnostics, and secularists are less and less relevant to the needs of Americans (and, McGrath adds, the rest of the world). Whether true or not, this is an amazing commentary on the self-confidence that once made atheism the modern creed, which McGrath summarizes as "the religion of the autonomous and rational human being, who believes that reason is able to uncover and express the deepest truths of the universe, from the mechanics of the rising of the sun to the nature and final destiny of humanity." Why, after predictions that religion had fallen into irreversible decline (in 19Ö;; Time magazine famously asked, "Is God dead?"), does a recent Newsweek poll indicate that 64 percent of Americans call themselves religious and an equal number pray daily?

Read the whole article for a critical review of McGrath's book and six books written by atheists responding to the challenge to make atheism relevant for today.

Key Words

secular, religion, McGrath, god, atheism

Challenged by Creationists, Museums Answer Back - New York Times

Some museums are taking steps to deal with bothersome creationists who visit. Read the story here.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Book Review: The Skeptic's Dictionary

The Skeptic's Dictionary: A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions & Dangerous Delusions is a wonderful compendium of around 400 definitions, arguments, and essays on topics from acupuncture to zombies. Robert Carroll is the Chairman of the Philosophy Department at Sacramento City College in California. He has a web site, which receives more than half a million hits every month. It is absolutely incredible what people will believe -- and this even includes some Christians. This book is a necessary reference in a day and age when more and more bizarre beliefs seem to appear on the horizon. If you want up-to-date information and evaluation of things such as alternative medicine; extraterrestrials and UFOs; frauds and hoaxes; junk science; logic and perception; New Age energy; and the psychic then you couldn't do better than to have this book in your library. Make sure, of course, that you think critically about what you read in this dictionary, too! Related Links

Friday, September 23, 2005

258 Theology Questions and Answers (

2Ö; Theology Questions and Answers is an incredible list of just that -- theology questions and answers! Organised in a classical systematic theology structure, you will find answers to questions like:

  • What is theology?
  • What is the modern view of truth?
  • Is the Bible along the only the only infallible source for authority?
  • How do we know the Bible is inspired?
  • What is a worldview?
  • An evaluation of Openness Theology
  • Why did God create man?
  • Is there such a thing as free will?
  • What is the process of salvation?
  • What is eschatology?
  • Questions about heaven and hell

... and many more! It's a useful resource. Please note, however, that my recommendation of this site does not imply agreement with all the answers! Be a thinking Christian!

Monday, September 19, 2005

Book Review: Bible Translation Differences

There are an incredible number of Bible versions available today. Everytime a new version comes onto the market there is debate about its quality and methods of translation. The latest version to hit the market is the Today's New International Version. Leland Ryken has written a short tract on Bible Translation Differences describing the difference between word-for-word and thought-for-thought translations. He argues that the only reliable translations are word-for-word. The theory of translation behind thought-for-thought translations is called dynamic equivalence which is 'based on the premise that whenever something in the original text is foreign or unclear to a contemporary English reader, the original text should be translated in terms of equivalence rather than literally.' Ryken goes on to say that, 'In actual practice, dynamic equivalence goes far beyond this by frequently making integrity decisions for the reader and adding commentary to the text.' (p. 7) The author suggests five negative effects of dynamic equivalence translation. First, he claims that they take liberties in translation. Second, dynamic equivalence translation leads to a destabilisation of the text. By this he means that there are a proliferation of variant translations of many Bible passages, many of which, stray significantly from the words of the original. Thirdly, Ryken draws a distinction between what the Bible "means" versus what the Bible says. He argues that 'When dynamic equivalence translations remove what the original says from sight, they short-circuit the process of biblical interpretation.' (p. 16) In other words, by translating the original language into contemporary English concepts, the translation has done the task of interpretation that the reader should be permitted to do themselves. When reading a dynamic equivalent translation it is difficult to know whether one is reading an accurate rendition of the original and how far removed the final product is from that original. Fourthly, Ryken believes that the dynamic equivalent translation 'falls short of what the Bible reading public should rightfully expect.' Finally, the author suggests that the very task of dynamic equivalent translations is a 'logical and linguistic impossibility'. He argues that all the translator has available are the words of the author and that the idea of translating the thought of the author cannot be done without the words. So to claim that these translators are actually translating thought and somehow bypassing the words doesn't make logical or linguistic sense. Following this critique, Ryken provides 10 reasons he believes that we can trust essentially literal translations of the Bible:
  1. they are transparent to the original, i.e., we can see the original text via the translation except for places '... where it completely literal translation would have been unintelligible to an English reader...';
  2. they keep to the essential task of translation;
  3. they preserve the full interpretive potential of the original;
  4. they do not mix commentary with translation;
  5. they preserve theological precision;
  6. preachers do not need to correct the translation when they use them in preaching;
  7. they preserve what the biblical writers actually wrote;
  8. they preserve the literary qualities of the Bible;
  9. they preserve the dignity and beauty of the Bible;
  10. they are consistent with the doctrine of inspiration.

In his conclusion, Ryken suggests that 'English Bible translation stands at a watershed moment. For half a century, dynamic equivalence has been the guiding translation philosophy behind most new translations. Each successive wave of these translations has tended to be increasingly bold in departing from the words of the original text. Stated another way, we can trace an arc of increasingly aggressive changing, adding too, and subtracting from the words that the biblical authors wrote. The issues that are at stake in the current debate about Bible translations are immense.'

What should we make of this claim? In my view, Ryken overstates the case against dynamic equivalent translations. His point of view is largely determined by the beginning assumptions he makes about the nature of inspiration. Ryken believes in plenary verbal inspiration -- the idea that the very words of the Bible were inspired by God and should not be altered anyway. I do not hold to his view of inspiration. In my view, God inspired the ideas in Scripture but left it to the authors to work out the best way of describing those ideas.

Ryken also ignores the positive aspects of dynamic equivalent translation. Nor does he deal with the problems of literal word-for-word translation -- and there are some. And some of his reasons for supporting literal translations are quite subjective. For example, suggesting that literal translations preserve the dignity and beauty of the Bible completely ignores the fact that New Testament Greek was written in the common language of the day for ordinary people. Not only that, The King James Version was written in the English of the common person and contains street colloquialisms of the day. And yet people constantly point to the King James Version as being a translation of great beauty and dignity. Notions of dignity and beauty are subjective ones and are hardly any reason to reject a particular translation of the Bible.

Ryken also seems to ignore the role of interpretation even in literal translations of the Bible (although he does provide implicit hints of these). All translation involves interpretation and can even be seen in the most literal of translations.

Ryken also completely ignores the incredible benefit of having so many translations of the Bible available, both literal, dynamically equivalent, and paraphrased (strictly, not a translation). Instead of trying to convince people to reject certain types of translations, we need to be educating people in the different types -- their purposes, advantages and disadvantages, and how to use them effectively. The main piece of advice we need to be telling people is not to restrict reading or study to just one translation. All translation have their problems and the only safeguard is to read more than one and compare them. By doing so, it will raise questions of translation where they disagree. This should lead a person to resources that will take them behind the text and the discussions about what constitutes better or worse translations of particular passages Scripture.

Overall, then, Ryken's book is a one-sided argument in favour of his point of view. He does not engage with the actual arguments of proponents of dynamic equivalence, nor does he acknowledge the very definite advantages that Christians now possess as a result of a vast array of translations available. The book is worth reading to understand Ryken's point of view. But for a broad introduction to the issues related to translation of the Bible one will need to look elsewhere.

Related Links

Sunday, September 18, 2005

The Church's Way of Speaking (First Things)

According to Robert Wilkin, 'The Church's way of life is being chewed up and spit out by the omnivorous secular society that surrounds us.' In his article The Church's Way of Speaking Wilkin discusses the relationship between the Christian church and culture. He argues that '... the task of handing on the faith is not primarily a question of how "Christ" relates to "culture" but of how the Christian culture is to be sustained and deepened in the face of another culture that is increasingly alien and hostile.' According to Wilkin, secular culture has been allowed to become the 'arbiter' of meaning and, instead of the church defining its own language and culture and presenting itself, as itself, to the public arena, it has adopted the habit of translating its language to that of secular society and losing its identity. He admits that translation is inevitable. However, 'There must be translation into the Lord's style of language, bringing alien language into the orbit of Christian belief and practice and giving it a different meaning.' It's a fascinating, well-articulated article. Although Wilkin obviously comes from a Catholic background, what he says in principle should be of interest to all Christians. Read the whole article here.
According to Robert Wilkin, 'The Church's way of life is being chewed up and spit out by the omnivorous secular society that surrounds us.' In his article The Church's Way of Speaking Wilkin discusses the relationship between the Christian church and culture. He argues that '... the task of handing on the faith is not primarily a question of how "Christ" relates to "culture" but of how the Christian culture is to be sustained and deepened in the face of another culture that is increasingly alien and hostile.' According to Wilkin, secular culture has been allowed to become the 'arbiter' of meaning and, instead of the church defining its own language and culture and presenting itself, as itself, to the public arena, it has adopted the habit of translating its language to that of secular society and losing its identity. He admits that translation is inevitable. However, 'There must be translation into the Lord's style of language, bringing alien language into the orbit of Christian belief and practice and giving it a different meaning.' It's a fascinating, well-articulated article. Although Wilkin obviously comes from a Catholic background, what he says in principle should be of interest to all Christians. Read the whole article here.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Fakers and Innocents (Skeptical Inquirer)

James Randi describes some of the difficult, innocent, and impossible people who apply to be tested for his foundation’s $1 million challenge for evidence of paranormal powers. It's a fascinating story! Read it here.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Impractical Christianity (Christianity Today Magazine)

Modern Christianity, despite its talk of grace, seems obsessed with works. Go to any Christian bookstore and look at the row upon row of 'how to' books that claim to make everything better if you just put the effort in. Peter Nelson provides a telling critique of this obsession in his article Impractical Christianity arguing that '[f]aith really begins to make a difference when it stops 'working.''

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Book Review: Prey

Michael Crichton begins his novel Prey with two quotes:

Within fifty to a hundred years, a new class of organisms is likely to emerge. These organisms will be artificial in the sense that they were originally be designed by humans. However, they will reproduce, and will "evolve" into something other than their original form; they will be "alive" under any reasonable definition of the word. These organisms were involved in fundamentally different manner.... The pace ... will be extremely rapid.... The impact on humanity and the biosphere could be enormous, larger than the industrial revolution, nuclear weapons, or environmental pollution. We must take steps now to shape the emergence of artificial organisms.... -- Doyne Farmer and Aletta Bellin, 1992.

There are many people, including myself, who are quite queasy about the consequences of this technology for the future. -- K Eric Drexler, 1992.

Nanotechnology is a real field and is making real advances in these areas. But what would happen if something went wrong? What would happen if these minute machines develop the ability to be self-sustaining, self-reproducing, and capable of learning from experience? Might they become a danger to humans? The possible answer to these questions forms the basis of Prey. Michael Crichton demonstrates his seriousness about these technologies with a forward explaining some of the issues. Prey is a science-fiction thriller that will have you turning the pages. A handful of scientists have developed a swarm of micro-robots that have gone out of control and turned into predators that need to survive by absorbing energy from living things. The actual scenario that Crichton stretches our credibility. That aside, the superficial story gives us pause and provokes us to ask whether or not we have thought adequately about some of the inventions in our near future. If you like a page turner then this is for you -- just remember to ask the question! Related Links

More Katrina Theodicy

Here are some more articles, from various perspectives, on the relationship of God to the Katrina disaster:

Fatal mumbo-jumbo (The Observer)

Bogus health treatments and interventions seem to be increasingly accepted by the general population. Nick Cohen has written a scathing piece in The Observer critiquing moves by Prince Charles to have the British government include more alternative therapies on the National Health Service. Read the whole article here.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Different views on Katrina

Here are two stories in response to the Katrina disaster -- one on each end of the spectrum. The first, from a Christian who believes that Katrina was sent by God; and the second, from a person who believes it proves that God does not exist. Which one sounds most reasonable to you? Have your say by clicking on the comments link below.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Movie Review: Vera Drake

The controversy over abortion has been around for centuries and is easy to discuss in the abstract. The movie Vera Drake, however, is the heartrending story of a woman who puts her life on the line for young girls who need her help in dealing with unwanted pregnancy. Vera (Imelda Staunton) is a devoted wife and mother living in 1950s England. Unbeknowst to her family, she has been helping young women terminate their pregnancies for approximately 20 years when she is finally arrested and her whole world falls apart. It's a stunning story of what happens when the actions of a person's conscience are in conflict with social mores. The good thing about this movie is it is morally complex rather than presenting a black and white view of the issues. Rather than being a "message film" it is a straightforward portrait of ordinary people dealing with the circumstances that confront them and attempting to be compassionate in their responses. It is impossible to respond to the film dogmatically. Real-life consists of shades of grey and as we watch the events unfolding we also experience the tension of not being able to easily categorise the characters into neat little boxes. The acting is excellent -- Imelda Staunton was nominated for an Oscar as best actress. The movie was also nominated for best director and best original screenplay. This is a straightforward drama without the over-the-top special effects that so many movies seem to need to have to get a significant audience. The characters and story are what are important. Don't expect the addictive action of the latest Hollywood fluff. You will need to be patient as the painful experiences of each person, especially Vera Blake, unfolds. This is a truly great movie and not to be missed. My Rating: **** (out of 5) Positive Review 'Vera Drake puts the passion in compassion. Building up to a shattering conclusion, Leigh's movie is both outrageously schematic and powerfully humanist.' - J Hoberman/Village Voice Negative Review 'As a character study Vera Drake is coarsely drawn, and as pro-choice polemic, it’s both a blunt instrument and a red herring. Which may be why, among all the moviegoers who staggered from the theater wielding soaked tissues, I was among the few who remained dry of eye, and raised of brow.' - Ella Taylor/LA Weekly Content Warning depiction of strong thematic material Related Links

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Book Review: The Cambridge Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning

The Cambridge Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning is a massive tome (872 large pages) containing articles by various experts on all aspects of thinking and reasoning. It isn't really a book that you would read from cover to cover. Instead, it is designed for people who wish to get a quick update on the latest research and understandings in the areas of cognitive psychology, cognitive science, and cognitive neuroscience. Each chapter summarises the major topic, sketches its history, and suggests where future directions in research may take us. Not really for the casual reader but for those who have a professional interest in the area.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Movie Review: Birth

I am a fan of Nicole Kidman. I think she is a great actor and has done some excellent movies. But her film Birth must signify a low point in her career. The problem is not the cinematography nor the acting. The problem is the plot and some of the subject matter. Anna (Nicole Kidman) is a grieving widow of 10 years who has resisted the invitations of Joseph (Danny Huston) to marry him. Finally, she accepts. As preparations for the marriage take place a ten-year old boy (Cameron Bright) appears and claims to be the reincarnation of Anna's deceased husband. At first, Anna refuses to believe that this boy is Sean but he demonstrates a knowledge of intimate details that only her dead husband could have known. Finally, she agrees to be with him but things do not go as expected and the movie finishes on a heart rending note. As I said, some of the cinematography is beautiful and haunting. The movie opens with a very long shot of Anna's husband running in the early hours of the morning along a snow-covered road where he finally collapses with a heart attack and dies. Then there is the scene at the opera where the camera is filled with Nicole Kidman's face as she goes through a range of emotions reflecting the turmoil and pain in her heart and she tries to come to terms with the confusion she is experiencing. The movie is often gentle, languishing, haunting, and sensual. But the plot is weak and the subject matter becomes distasteful and may border on child exploitation. Sean is supposed to know intimate details of his relationship with Anna and thus demonstrate his authenticity. But Sean was supposed to be a physicist who would have understood concepts that Sean, as a ten-year old, would never have been able to grasp. And yet no one thinks to ask him any questions about physics. And what a coincidence it is that Sean happens to live in the same apartment complex as Anna -- that is just too much. The more likely explanation for the goings-on is that he has a crush on Anna. And what a coincidence it is that he just happens to observe Clara (Anne Hesch) going off to bury the box of letters she planned to give as a gift to Anna but, at the last minute, decides to go and buy something else? It is all too contrived and unbelievable. Then there are the controversial scenes of Anna and Sean in the bath. Anna is in the bath when ten-year-old Sean enters, gets undressed, and gets in the bath gazing longingly at "his wife". Apparently, when the movie was made, at no time were Cameron Bright and Nicole Kidman ever together both naked. But that is not the point. When we watch the movie we are meant to understand that this is the situation. The scene is dripping with sensuality if not actual sex. There is no actual physical contact between the two. But Sean is claiming to be Anna's husband -- and so we have an adult-adult relationship being played by an adult and child. These scenes are obviously meant to be disturbing otherwise they would not be in the movie. We wouldn't be anywhere near as disturbed if there were two adults naked in the bath together. And Anna, at one point, is clearly thinking of sleeping with her boyfriend because she is warned by her mother and sister that it would be illegal. In a day and age when child exploitation and abuse is so rampant and such a problem one has to question the advisability of constructing scenes such as these. I am not saying there is actual child abuse in the movie -- there is not (except, perhaps, for the spanking Sean gets from Joseph). However, I think it is difficult to avoid the fact that these scenes are charged with erotic tension, involving an adult and a child, and that there must have been alternative creative ways of representing the disturbing nature of the experiences of Anna was having. Birth should be given a wide berth and I look forward to Nicole Kidman returning to her former high ground. My Rating: * (out of 5) Content Warning Sexuality Positive Review 'An effective thriller precisely because it is true to the way sophisticated people might behave in this situation. Its characters are not movie creatures, gullible, emotional and quickly moved to tears. They're realists, rich, a little jaded.' - Roger Ebert/Chicago Sun-Times Negative Review 'Too highbrow for the multiplex and too literal for the hipsters, it's unsatisfying both as gothic camp and serious cinema.' - Michael O'Sullivan/Washington Post Related Links

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Believing vs. Knowing (Geotimes)

Here is an interesting article, written by Lee Suttner, a geologist, about the role of faith in the evolution debate. He draws a distinction between believing and knowing. He argues that science is about the pursuit of knowledge and religion is about faith and believing. He suggests that those who wish to include creationism/intelligent design in the classroom are actually demonstrating a lack of faith in God to 'manifest without empirical proof'. Read the whole article here.