Friday, April 28, 2006

I'm O.K., You're Biased - New York Times

We might think we are able to be objective -- especially when we are trying hard to be. But it ain't necessarily so! Daniel Gilbert, writing in the New York Times, summarises research evidence that shows, no matter how much we try, bias is going to affect our decisions. You can read his article, I'm O.K., You're Biased - New York Times.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Book Review: The Blessed

The Blessed: a sinner reflects on living the Christian life is a beautiful, poetic series of meditations on what it means to live as a Christian in the messiness of life with Jesus' Beatitudes as the springboard for reflection. It's the sort of book that you can open at random and any paragraph on which your eye alights is filled with profoundly simple insights expressed in language that penetrates to the heart. The author, Sharon McMahon Moffitt, has lived a down-to-earth life and it shines through in her writing. Here's just one paragraph from the book:
I've done my level best to keep my physical and spiritual lives seperate, to pursue God with my spiritual heart and ignore the fact that my hysical heart pumps real blood through a very real body. I have tried to deny the fact that I actually get hungry despite being overweight, that I am a sexual being who needs to be touched and held despite the plethora of fat jokes suggesting I should crawl under a porch somewhere until I can shed those ugly pounds (and maybe do something about unsightly facial hair while I'm under there). The whole thing is utterly humiliating. And messy. As I once expressed in a poem of my own titled "Bodies and Blood," "it's hard to treat them sacramentally, these / frail, failing malodorous bags of ourselves," and though there may still exist some believers who take issue with this, I believe we must somehow effect a reconciliation between our bodies and our spirits if we hope to fully appreciate the inheritance we are promised. It was, after all, Jesus' body that was broken, his blood that was shed. There was nothing tidy about the crucifixion. To strive for integrity means striving for wholeness; in fact the word is rooted in mathematics, where we learn that an integer is a whole number. To be integrated is to have all the fragmented pieces of ourselves come together to make a whole. It is a good thing, a righteous thing, to make peace with our bodies. To come before God whole.
It's wonderful stuff. Fresh, creative, earthy, inspiring, humourous, and honest. A book worth chewing over for a long time. Related Links

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Movie Review: Tsotsi

Tsotsi is a deeply moving human drama. Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) is a young gang leader in Johannesburg who lives a life of poverty in the townships. He is a nasty piece of work with a very big "chip" on his shoulder. In the beginning of the film we see him and his gang go for forays into the white middle-class areas of the city. But his anger and violence are not reserved for them alone - he has no qualms about hurting his own people as well. Then, one night, he steals a car, shooting a woman in the process, and everything changes. After driving out of town, he hears a cry from the back seat and discovers a baby. What is he to do? He decides to keep the baby, puts it into a shopping bag, and takes it home. As the simple story progresses, we see the heart of Tsotsi exposed. Totsi is a deeply moving, sensitive, profound drama about class, culture, love, choices, and the way circumstances can sometimes push people to do things they thought they might never do, and that change them forever. Tsotsi won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film this year - and deservedly so. The acting from Chweneyagae is excellent, underplayed, and sensitive. A movie with deep compassion for the plight of so many living in the townships of South Africa. My Rating: **** (out of 5) Positive Review 'What a simple and yet profound story this is.' - Roger Ebert/Chicago Sun-Times Negative Review 'More calculated than a Starbucks sampler CD, the picture could win the up-from-hardship award.' - Lisa Schwarzbaum/Entertainment Weekly Content Warning Language and some strong violent content

Monday, April 17, 2006

Book Review: The Science of Good & Evil

One of the most significant arguments from conservative religious believers is that, without God, there is no basis for morality. In The Science of Good & Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule, skeptic Michael Shermer attempts to construct a morality without God. There are 8 essential premises to his argument: 1. Moral naturalism: Shermer's starting premise is that God is irrelevant to a scientific theory of morality. Shermer is a self-confessed agnostic so doesn't see his scientific project as negating the possibility of the existence of God -- just that, in a scientific enterprise, it is appropriate (indeed necessary) to proceed without God as a postulate. 2. An evolved moral sense: Shermer believes that the human moral sense has evolved through the process of natural selection. More specifically, by group natural selection (a controversial theory) where some groups derive an advantage over other groups from practicing various moral principles. 3. An evolved moral society: For Shermer, evolution has proceeded from individual survival towards a more hierarchical social structure. According to Shermer, 'the most basic human needs and moral feelings are largely under biological control , whereas the more social and cultural human needs and moral feelings are largely under cultural control.' (p. 20) 4. The nature of moral nature: Shermer understands humans to be 'moral and immoral, good and evil, altruistic and selfish, cooperative and competitive, peaceful and bellicose, virtuous and nonvirtuous.' (p. 20) As far as he is concerned, 'most people most of the time in most circumstances are good and do the right thing for themselves and for others. But some people some of the time in some circumstances are bad and do the worng thing for themselves and for others.' (p. 20) 5. Provisional morality: Shermer has constructed what he calls a provisional morality which is neither absolute nor relative. It consists of four principles: the ask-first principle, the happiness principle, the liberty principle, and the moderation principle. It is worth quoting these principles in full (emphasis in original): 'The ask-first principle states: to find out whether an action is right or wrong, ask first. The happiness principle states: it is a higher moral principle to always seek happiness with someone else's happiness in mind, and never seek happiness when it leads to someone else's unhappiness. The liberty principle states: it is a higher moral principle to always seek liberty with someone else's liberty in mind, and never seek liberty when it leads to someon else's loss of liberty. To implement social change, the moderation principle states: when innocent people die, extremism in the defense of anything is no virtue, and moderation in the protection of everything is no vice.' (pp. 20-21) 7. Provisional justice: Shermer believes in personal responsibility and culpability. He, obviously, rejects any notion of an ultimate Judge who will mete out rewards and punishments at some cosmic judgment. 8. Ennobling evolutionary ethics: Shermer believes that, because evolution has produced a moral sense along with a provisional morality that transcends individuals that evolution has had an ennobling effect on humanity. In this sense, moral principles are understood to exist outside of us but are 'the products of impersonal forces of evolution, history, and culture.' (p. 21) Well... it is all very nice. There is no doubt that Shermer is an engaging author but there are a number of problems with his approach. Firstly, the title of the book (The Science of Good & Evil) highlights the fact that Shermer does not distinguish between two different types of ethical study: descriptive ethics and prescriptive ethics. Descriptive ethics is a science in the broadest sense of the word - prescriptive ethics, at the very least, is philosophical. Descriptive ethics describes what individuals, groups, and cultures believe; prescriptive ethics deals with what we should believe. What Shermer does is attempt to construct a scientific hypothesis of how the moral sense arose in humans on the assumption that it has evolved from what is considered to be natural processes. In that sense, I suppose, he does a reasonable job, although I am no specialist in the theories he proposes and will leave its evaluation to others. In addition, I am not sure how you would prove such a hypothesis correct. But, even if Shermer is right about the way moral sensibility arose in humans, it doesn't provide a way to decide what humans should do in any situation. If morality is merely the result of 'impersonal forces of evolution, history, and culture' there is nothing inherently good or evil about any particular action or choice. Secondly, it is highly debatable whether humans have actually improved in their morality of history. Are we any more loving now than before? Are we really more tolerant as a society? Are there less wars now than previously? Shermer makes a huge assumption in accepting the progressive morality of society. Thirdly, what would happen if another group decided that, for example, the ask-first principle didn't suit the survival of their group? On what basis could it be argued that the group should ask first. At most, Shermer's evolutionary theory may account for the development of feelings of right and wrong in an individual. But what about the morality of the content of those feelings? If evolution, history and culture have produced certain feelings of right and wrong, why can't these feelings be consciously extinguished by someone to their own ends? Why should individuals follow Shermer's provisional morality if they don't want to? This is the age-old problem articulated by Hume - how do we go from is to ought? Finally, for many people, including Christians, reducing morality to science is an inadequate basis for morality. This could be seen as a form of scientism rather than science. It is, perhaps, hard to see how a person who has genuinely suffered and experienced the full force of evil will accept that it is all really just a product of evolution, history and culture. The question is really whether Shermer's construction of morality is really big enough to cater for the depths of evil experienced by humans. For most Christians, at least, the only way of explaining the evil of evil is to appeal to something way beyond natural causes. And, for most Christians, the resolution of evil is going to require something way beyond humanity's own capacities - it is going to need the intervention of God - an intervention that has already begun in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Related Links

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Book Review: The Tenth Circle

Dante's Inferno is a fictional story of his tour through the nine circles of hell. Each circle is reserved for people who indulged in various sins, each one catering for increasingly worse sinners until he reaches the ninth circle reserved for traitors. This circle includes a zone for Satan and his angels. Jodi Picoult's new novel, The Tenth Circle, uses the framework of Dante's Inferno as the backbone of her story. But as the story is told, it becomes clear that a tenth circle is needed for a sin that Dante overlooked. As usual, Jodi Picoult's story is rich in intrigue and authentically informed. This time, it is about the relationship between a father and a daughter which is strained to breaking point. In the middle of Daniel and Laura's marital crisis, their daugher, Trixie, is raped by her ex-boyfriend - at least, that is her claim. The consequences are profound and Daniel, who has a hidden past, risks everything to protect his daughter. There are some intriguing aspects of Picoult's novel. Firstly, there is literary structure around Dante's circles of hell. Secondly, Daniel is a graphic novel artist and, throughout the story, Daniel illustrates the journey of his alter-ego through the circles. On the way, the complexities of people grappling with betrayal in various forms are explored. It's a gripping, disturbing story which explores the depths of human nature - and one with a surprising twist at the end. Picoult is in fine form. If you have read any of her other books, you will want to rush out and get this one. If you haven't, then don't waste another minute!

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Movie Review: Ice Age: The Meltdown

Manny, Sid and Diego are back in the second instalment of Ice Age: The Meltdown. Like the first movie, it starts with the inimitable Scrat who, once again, risks everything to take possession of a nut. He's a character in the tradition of the Road Runner who will not give up in pursuit of a goal despite all the odds. And in the case of Ice Age: The Meltdown Scrat provides the best, most hilarious entertainment of the movie. In fact, without Scrat beginning and ending the movie, The Meltdown would be pretty mediocre. Global warming is bringing the ice age to an end and Manny, Sid and Diego must warn everyone and run to safety. There are some cute characters in a fairly predictable story with moments of genuine humour here and there. But it is patchy and, in a few places, drags a bit. But it is worth waiting for the ultimate irony at the end when the fortunes of Scrat seemed to have turned for the better. And I love the two possums, Crash and Eddie -- I will just have to buy them when they turn up at my local fast food joint! Overall, Ice Age: The Meltdown is an innocuous 91 minutes to take the kids along to, relax, and learn of the importance of facing our fears. My Rating: *** (out of 5) Positive Review 'Ice Age: The Meltdown blithely looks on the bright side of life, amassing a screen full of vultures to sing and dance ''Food Glorious Food'' and daring us not to get happy.' - Lisa Schwarzbaum/Entertainment Weekly Negative Review 'Much of the original film's geniality – and all of its pro-environment stumping – has gone missing; what we have instead is a watered-down likeness that curiously turns disaster flick in its too-scary third act.' - Kimberley Jones/Austin Chronicle Content Warning Some mild language and innuendo

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Book Review: A New Kind of Christian

A New Kind of Christian is a breath of fresh air and is, in one word, brilliant! The author, Brian McLaren, offers a fresh view of what Christianity needs to be in a postmodern context. Picking up on the postmodern fondness for story, McLaren presents his ideas in a fictional dialogue between a burnt out pastor and his daughter's science teacher (an ex-pastor). Through their dialogue, they explore many of the pressing contemporary issues and perceived problems with Christianity - oppressive organisational structures; rigid systematic theologies; narrow exclusivism; mechanical approaches to spirituality; rule-based faith; biblical literalism; and many more. Judging from the list of issues above, you may think the content of the story rather dry and intellectual. Far from it. Although McLaren is no literary writer (he admits as much), the dialogue between the two protagonists will resonate with those who are feeling fed up with institutionalised Christianity and are yearning for an authentic relationship with God that is consonant with the real world we live in. Essentially, McLaren's point is that, if Christianity wants to survive, it has to change and, in many ways, get back to the original intent of the Christian story - a real relationship with God and with each other. Like all books worth reading, there is something to offend everyone - conservative and liberal - as McLaren argues that it is time to get over these black-and-white dichotomies. Any book that starts with:
Sometime in 1994, at the age of thirty-eight, I got sick of being a pastor. Frankly, I was almost sick of being a Christian.
has to be read! If you only read one book this year, make it this one. It's a refreshing drink in a dry desert.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Health Benefits of Moderate Drinking May Be Statistical Haze - CME Teaching Brief - MedPage Today

There has been a considerable amount of literature and media promotion of the idea that drinking alcohol has significant health benefits. These benefits have been supported by research. Or have they? A new meta-analysis of 54 studies has brought to light an error that has been overlooked in this research. The Teaching Brief on MedPage Today advises health professionals to 'Explain to patients that this meta-analysis questions the proposed health benefits of light drinking and that more detailed, prospective studies may be necessary to resolve the matter.' It is an excellent example of the need to think critically when exploiting the conclusions of research. You can read a review of this meta-analysis here.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Movie Review: V for Vendetta

If V for Vendetta is indicative of the quality of movies we are going to see in 2006 then it is going to be a good year (we probably can't conclude that, though!) It is the near future in Britain (around 2020) and the government has become extremely oppressive, controlling the populace by fear. The government's message is, 'You need us; you will not survive without us.' And on that basis, society has become controlled by a government that justifies its undermining of citizens' rights to freedom and privacy by claiming it is protecting them from various threats - physical and moral (sound familiar?). The people are fed government propaganda via a government-controlled TV station that distorts and discards the truth for its own agenda. One night, Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) is on her way to visit someone and finds herself in a dark street after the official curfew. Three men accost her and, when she discovers they are actually secret police, they begin to attack her and rape her. Just as it looks as though she will lose her life, a larger-than-life shadowy figure appears in the night and rapidly disposes of Evey's assailants. He is V (Hugh Weaving), a masked man who, as is eventually revealed, is plotting to bring down the tyrannical regime using terrorist tactics and persuading the people to rise up to bring about a revolution. Evey becomes a cautious ally of V while a cop, working for the government, begins to uncover a dark secret that explains the origins of V's desire for vengeance. In the process, Evey discovers a great deal about herself and her family. V for Vendetta is action, science fiction, mystery, thriller, drama, and philosophical argument all rolled into one incredible movie based on a graphic novel written in the 1980s by Alan Moore (who has, apparently, disowned the movie). It raises all sorts of questions about freedom, government, terrorism, privacy, truth-telling and lies, and the media. The cinematography is stunning and every cast member puts in an excellent performance, especially Weaving and Portman, who n this film does her best work so far. The only thing that disappointed me was the violence which was occasionally excessive in my view. V for Vendetta is movie-making at its best -- entertaining and making us think. It has something to say with its "prophecy" of the future that could result from Britain and America's recent policymaking. It's controversial ideology should provoke a rich discussion in our society and make us ask some pretty difficult questions about policies that are being made by our own leaders -- in the best interest of the people, of course!! My Rating: ****1/2 (out of 5) Positive Review 'Richly satisfying entertainment the way movies are at their best, when they prod you to think.' - Ruthe Stein/San Francisco Chronicle Negative Review 'A piece of pulp claptrap; it has no insights whatsoever into totalitarian psychology and always settles for the cheesiest kinds of demagoguery and harangue as its emblems of evil. They say they want a revolution? Then give us a revolution, one that's believable, frightening, heroic, coherent and not a teenagers' freaky power trip.' - Stephen Hunter/Washington Post Content Warning Strong violence and some language Related Links