Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Book Review: Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart

The self-help shelves in bookshops are choking on superficial drivel that is making more money for the authors than actually helping anyone. At times, though, amongst all the rubble, you can find a pearl that has grown from adversity and that has some substantial insights on the human condition. Gordon Livingston has been listening to people's problems for more than thirty years as a psychiatrist. He has experienced adversity himself, losing both of his sons in one thirteen-month period -- one to leukemia and one to suicide. Out of this wealth of experience has come his little book of wisdom, Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now. In brief chapters that get straight to the point, he discusses what turn out to be "obvious" truths. Here are a few:
  • If the map doesn't agree with the ground, the map is wrong.
  • We are what we do.
  • It is difficult to remove by logic an idea not placed there by logic in the first place.
  • The statute of limitations has expired on most of our childhood traumas.
  • Any relationship is under the control of the person who cares the least.
  • Feelings follow behavior.
  • The perfect is the enemy of the good.
  • The most secure prisons are those we construct for ourselves.
  • Happiness is the ultimate risk.
  • And many more...

Listing them like this might give the impression that they are witty platitudes. Far from it. Reading this book is like listening to a wise mentor who understands life and its ups and downs and who has insights that speaks so often to the realities of life. A gentle, insightful read that will inspire some real change in the way you view your approach to living.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Darwin Online

This is no debate about the significance of Charles Darwin and his impact on our culture. Now you can read anything that Darwin wrote online and check what he actually said. You can find the whole library available here.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Genesis - literal or symbolic?

On a discussion forum, a poster recently wrote (in part):

If you choose to disregard the first two chapters of the bible in Genesis that specifically state that God rested the 7th day of creation and want to interpret it in a way that you see fit by your own reasoning that is your choice.

I cannot in good conscience - in full assurance of God's grace and acknowledgement of His Sovereignty in creation - forgo His stated word in scripture against the claims" of science. We either are or are not his created beings... sorta kinda maybe doesnt work for me.'

People who criticise those who wish to read Genesis 1 and 2 as symbolic/metaphorical constantly imply that they are rejecting what Scripture says. This is an incorrect assertion. Those who wish to read Genesis in this manner are not suggesting that we disregard the first two chapters of the bible -- the point is that we need to interpret it correctly. These interpreters may be wrong about their interpretation -- but it is important to recognise that they are just as concerned to respond to the authority of Scripture as the literal readers are. (In any case, to describe people as literal or metaphorical interpreters is too simplistic). Augustine once pitted the claims of science that there were humans living in the Antipodes against Scripture. He said it was absurd and impossible that this was so because Scripture didn't teach it. Science proved his interpretation of Scripture wrong. Scripture didn't teach what he thought it did. There was nothing wrong with science in this case. There was nothing wrong with Scripture, either. The problem was Augustine and his interpretation. Too many people only see two components in the alleged warfare between science and Scripture:
Scripture ---------------- Science
They argue that if science says something and Scripture says something different, then Scripture must be right and Science wrong. The problem is that there is a third component that many are unwilling to consider -- the interpreter:
Science -------------- Interpreter --------------Scripture
The issue is not whether Scripture is right about science or not. And it is not about whether science is right about Scripture or not. Scripture and Science are concerned with different issues. The question is whether the interpreter is right about science and Scripture. Science deals primarily in observations of empirical data which must be interpreted to arrive at conclusions -- it's a tentative, dynamic, ever-improving process of understanding. Scripture deals with ultimate concerns and must be interpreted for Christians to come to conclusions. It, too, is a tentative, dynamic, ever-improving process of inquiry. There are two possible issues to consider:
  1. The scientist may interpret the empirical data incorrectly.
  2. The Bible student may interpret the biblical data incorrectly.
Far too many Christians assume that their interpretation of Scripture is correct and if any scientific statement disagrees with their interpretation of Scripture then science must be wrong. There are two potential problems that need to be corrected:
  1. A naive understanding of science.
  2. A naive understanding of Scripture.
Both of these problems reside in the interpreter. Here's my approach: I am not a scientist so am unqualified to pass judgment on many scientific findings. Despite the fact that I may understand some aspects of science, I have to admit to not being expert enough to follow some of the complicated reasoning around scientific theories of origin. I have made it my business, however, to study the nature of science (the philosophy of science). In fact, a significant part of my responsibilities as a supervisor of higher degree students is to understand the nature of scientific inquiry. In my view, many of the statements about science made by many, many Christians show a complete lack of understanding about what science actually is and how it actually works. As a Christian, I have been studying the Bible all my life and, as part of that process, have studied the process of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) and so, in comparison, know much more about the Bible than I do about science (I'd like to know a whole lot more!). Scientists need to make sure that they get their side of the story right. Christians need to make sure that they get their side of the story right. Scientists may be wrong in their conclusions. Christians may be wrong in their conclusions. OUR job as Christians is to get our conclusions about Scripture correct. Some Christians need to stop suggesting that, because a fellow Christian says (or implies) that Christians need to make sure our interpretation of Genesis is correct it means they are denying the reliability of Scripture. The implication that interpreting Genesis in any other way than a literalistic, scientific, historical account of origins (in the way 21st century people understand science and history) is somehow being untrue to Scripture is a false implication. In all biblical interpretation, what is important to consider is:
  1. the original authorial intent - the purpose of the text.
  2. the original historical and cultural context -- understanding the text as the original readers would have.
  3. the genre of the text (poetry? history? narrative? etc?)

Open up at least three commentaries (preferably from different perspectives) and have a look at the sections on authorship, genre, culture, and history of Genesis. Discover that these questions are not as simple as we sometimes try to make them appear to be!

Genesis 1-3 contains incredible truth such as (adapted from Waltke):

  1. God is the reason and power behind the whole mysterious universe.
  2. Human society is in a mess because people have left God out of their reckoning.
  3. God is patient and forgiving, but God is also Judge of all disobedience.
  4. Fallible human beings can be used to achieve God's purposes.
  5. Faith means trusting God alone and following God even when doing so seems crazy.

You don't need to read Genesis as science to believe these important truths.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

A Review of Dawkins' 'The God Delusion'

I haven't read Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion yet so can't directly comment on it. However, Terry Eagleton has. Check out Eagleton's review here which, as far as I am concerned, accurately depicts Dawkins' approach to religion judging by what I have heard and seen of Dawkins' at other times. I'll have to read Dawkins' book to see whether Eagleton has accurately reviewed it; but what Eagleton says describes Dawkins down to a 't'!

Literal and Symbolic Truths

So many people argue over whether we should read Genesis, particularly Genesis 1-3, as literal or symbolic. Have a listen to this interesting series of video clips suggesting that if we don't read Genesis 1 (in particular) as symbolic/metaphorical, we are actually missing out on the very thing that it all means.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Movie Review: The Departed

When Hollywood remakes foreign films it doesn't often do a good job. But in the case of The Departed, we have a movie worthy of the original Hong Kong movie, Infernal Affairs, on which it is based. Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) wants to be a police officer but, because of a lapse in self-control which results in him losing his badge, is pressured into becoming an undercover agent in the Irish Mafia in order to bring down Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), a notorious gangster who perpetrates violence and bloodshed with disdain for the law. Billy has to penetrate into the deepest level of organised crime over a number of years as he transforms himself into the "genuine" article to get close to Costello. At the same time, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is undercover in the Boston State Police Force for Frank Costello and provides inside information to "Father" so that Frank can avoid being caught when engaging in his criminal activity. Costigan and Sullivan are not aware of each other but their paths inevitably cross in a dangerous game of cat and mouse. The Departed is directed by Martin Scorcese and is an in-your-face action-packed, intricate, gritty crime drama/thriller. When I saw Infernal Affairs in Hong Kong I really enjoyed it -- lots of action and a plot line that required enormous concentration -- especially reading subtitles! The Departed is equally enjoyable but more character driven than the Hong Kong version, making it a greater movie in some ways. Nicholson, Damon, and DiCaprio are all excellent in their roles (although Nicholson is sometimes a little too self-indulgent in his portrayal of Costello). The plot twists and turns without letting up and the dialogue is brilliant. It's hard-hitting and gritty as the protagonists are required to struggle with the ethics of deliberate deception along with other crimes than prey on their consciences. The Departed is extremely and explicitly violent and there is lots of bad language-- so it will not suit everyone. But there are obviously people who live in the world that the movie portrays. And not everything is black and white -- to a great extent, the characters are the product of their environments and upbringing and, despite the opposite sides of the fence from which they come, end up having to struggle with their consciences, issues of loyalty, and profound loneliness. The Departed is an incredible, exciting, confronting movie that bursts on the screen with incredible power. Not for the faint-hearted! But definitely for those who want to see what will be a classic piece of cinema in years to come. My Rating: **** (out of 5) Positive Review 'The Departed is Scorsese's most purely enjoyable movie in years. But it's not for the faint of heart. It's rude, bleak, violent and defiantly un-PC. But if you doubt that it's also OK to laugh throughout this rat's nest of paranoia, deceit and bloodshed, keep your eyes on the final frames. Scorsese's parting shot is an uncharacteristic, but well-earned, wink.' - David Ansen/Newsweek Negative Review 'Scorsese in his prime might've made better use of this hamming, but this picture feels like an exercise by a Scorsese clone who has tackled the master's themes - without his energy and economy of style.' - Lawrence Toppmann/Charlotte Observer Content Warning (take this seriously!) strong brutal violence, pervasive language, some strong sexual content and drug material AUS: MA15+ USA: R

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Book Review: The Rough Guide to The Da Vinci Code

The Da Vinci Code movie has been released on DVD this month and it is probably timely to offer another guide to the book and movie. The Rough Guide to The Da Vinci Code is an engaging, well-illustrated, straightforward read providing excellent background to the novel and movie while honestly and directly exposing the errors and distortions of the alleged "facts" embedded in the plot. Another nice thing about this guide is that it has no obvious agenda other than to explain the history, art, and culture behind Dan Brown's vivid imagination. Michael and Veronica Haag, the authors of this rough guide, are experts in literature, history, and art. It is refreshing to read an informative book that does not have an evangelistic layer wrapped around it. If Brown had promoted his book as nothing but fiction, it would not be a problem. The author of The Da Vinci Code is on record, however, as believing the conspiracy theory over the bloodline of Christ and the legend of the Holy Grail! The novel even begins with a statement that '[a]ll the descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.' Each section of the book is boldy introduced with a FACT. Well ... some of it might be, but a good deal is not and a lot of literature can be found that reiterates these alleged facts. By all means, enjoy the book and/or the movie. Then go grab The Rough Guide to The Da Vinci Code and be informed! Related Links

Monday, October 16, 2006

'Natural' doesn't always mean 'safe'

Many people today use the internet to find information on health related matters. And many Christians are interested in alternative medicine. A great deal of care needs to be taken in using this information. Here is an example of one man who died as a result of using information he found and is a warning that 'natural' does not necessarily mean "safe'. Read the whole article here.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Moving Past Creationist Roots (Geotimes)

Many Christians adopt a warfare model of the relationship between Genesis 1 and science. Stephen Godfrey, curator of paleontology at the Calvert Marine Museum, has written an interesting personal perspective on this issue in his article for Geotimes, Moving past Creationist Roots. He argues that,
In the end, religion and science do not represent universal opposites. To quote Proverbs 25:2: “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; it is the glory of kings to search out a matter.” And from King Solomon: “God has hidden countless fascinating and wonderful things in his creation, and he wants us to delight in discovering them.” So, all those who are called to scientific enterprise should pursue that calling without fear or doubt, but rather with joy and enthusiasm. There is no script that you need to follow, no predetermined conclusion with which your results need to square. If there were, God would not really have “hidden” these treasures for us to find. They’re out there — go get them!
You can read the whole article here.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Movie Review: Little Miss Sunshine

Families make excellent source material for interesting movies. And the Hoover family are particularly interesting. There's Richard (Greg Kinnear), a failing motivational speaker who has an extremely strained relationship with his wife, Sheryl (Toni Collette) who has a smoking addiction she denies and does what she can to hold the family together; Dwayne (Paul Dano), the teenage son who is obsessed with Nietszche, has taken a vow of silence until he gets into the airforce to learn to fly and has gone 10 months without speaking; and the "free-thinking" Grandpa Edwin (Alan Arkin) who has been kicked out of his retirement home for sniffing cocaine; Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), a self-proclaimed Proust scholar who has attempted suicide after experiencing unrequited love with one of his students and been sent to live with the family because his medical insurance is inadequate to cover hospitalisation; and finally, there's the seven-year-old Olive (Abigail Bresnen) - a bit on the plump side with big glasses. Olive has won a spot in the finals of a kids' beauty pageant in distant California due to a freak accident involving another contestant. She has dreamed of this day for months -- it's the one thing she really, really wants to do. But how to get her there? The family is financially destitute so they can't afford to fly; and they can't leave Dwayne home with Uncle Frank -- he might attempt suicide again! There's only one thing left to do -- the whole family has to jump in the beat-up VW van and travel to the pageant. We are then taken on a wonderful road trip with a difference. Little Miss Sunshine combines quirky characters, black humour, tragedy, scintillating dialogue, and a truly surprising twist at the end of the story. It's one of the most delightful movies I've seen for a long time with a wonderful message about what it means to belong to a family -- even if it is dysfunctional. It is genuinely funny and moving. Whatever you do, don't miss this one! My Rating: **** (out of 5) Positive Review 'What makes husband-and-wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' hilarious debut such a great family film isn't that it's suitable for the whole family (it's not), but that it speaks a simple truth about what it means to be part of one.' - Ken Fox/TV Guide Negative Review 'Like the shambling VW van its hapless characters steer from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach, Little Miss Sunshine is a rickety vehicle that travels mostly downhill.' - Jim Ridley/Village Voice Content Warning language, some sex and drug content Aus: M USA: R

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Book Review: Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church

The so-called Emerging Church is a controversial, loosely structured movement which claims to respond to the needs of post-modern people who don't appreciate the traditional approaches to Christianity and denominational structures. One of the most articulate authors/speakers of the movement is Brian McClaren who has published a number of books promoting the emergent approach to Christianity. I have previously reviewed his A Generous Orthodoxy and A New Kind of Christian. A number of significant criticisms have been raised in relation to this movement. One of the most recent is D A Carson's Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications. Carson is a very careful thinker and his critique is rigorous and well-informed. Carson begins by presenting a profile of the Emerging Church -- a difficult task because of its diversity and resistance to any consolidation of belief. Carson is careful to point out the strengths of the movement, particulary in "reading the times" and its desire to respond to contemporary needs. The Emergent Church movement is particularly concerned to provide an analysis of contemporary culture, which it loosely defines as postmodern. Carson provides a telling critique of the Emergent Church's understanding of postmodernism, a term which, Carson argues, is outmoded and out of date. One of the biggest problems with the leaders of the Emergent Movement's approach is that their understanding of postmodernism is simplistic and reductionistic -- a problem they often criticise the traditional churches for being! Another problem is that the Emergent Church's criticisms of traditional Christianity are often reductionistic, overly-generalised, and distortions of the reality. Carson carefully provides the reader with an understanding of what is meant by postmodernism -- it's contributions and challenges -- and then explores and critiques the Emergent Church's critique of postmodernism. He then turns to two representative and significant books that have come out of the movement -- Brian McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy (American) and Steve Chalke's The Lost Message of Jesus (British). When it is all boiled down, Carson's primary complaint about the movement is its handling of the concept of truth. The Emergent Church has a characteristically postmodern view of truth -- resistant to "meta-narrative"; truth as a product of consensus rather than the possibility of absolutes derived from revelation. Carson's critique is potent. He shows how the ideology underlying the movment actually turns back on itself and undermines its own position. The problems he points out in the fundamental thinking of the movement are significant and often difficult to appreciate because of the seductive language in which ideas are packaged and its sensitivity to real needs experienced by contemporary people. I have read McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy which was helpful as I read Carson's critique of the book. Carson clearly has a capacity to genuinely listen to views that oppose his (he is very fair in his descriptions -- and very hontest about his assessment) and his evaluation is an important one that should be carefully read by anyone considering the ideas and teachings of the Emergent Church movement. Related Links

Monday, October 02, 2006

Movie Review: The Devil Wears Prada

The temptation to a materialism which makes us forget who we really are is at the heart of The Devil Wears Prada. Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) arrives in New York looking for a job as a journalist. Not able to get what she wants, she successfully applies for a job at Runway, a top fashion magazine whose editor, Miranda (Meryl Streep) has the reputation of being absolutely ruthless and cynical. As the story develops, Andy is seduced into a world that doesn't, deep down, satisfy her needs or fit with who she is. It disrupts her relationships with those who care about her until she is forced to take a hard look at where she has ended up. Without Meryl Streep and Emily Blunt, this would be a completely boring movie. Streep is brilliant in her role as the malevolent chief editor and Hathaway is moderately successful as the intelligent but naive new employee who is challenged by this new world she has entered. Apart from Streep, Emily (Emily Blunt), the recently promoted assistant to Miranda whose second assistant shoes Andy is filling, provided the most interesting character -- she is wonderfully, blisteringly caustic. The Devil Wears Prada is cliche-ridden, predictable, superficial, but enjoyable at times. The camera gives a good deal of screen time over to scrutinizing the fashions hanging from ever-diminishing sized models -- and even occasionally pokes fun at them. It's a feel-good movie that doesn't always feel good -- much could have been done to make it a razor-sharp satire on the whole fashion industry. But, clearly, it was never meant to be that serious. If you like a simple story line, lots of eye-candy, Meryl Streep, Ann Hathaway, solid performances, the sarcastic one-liner, and a hint of message, then go and enjoy. My Rating: *** (out of 5) Positive Review 'Effortless fun: It plays like a giddy horror movie with its laughs wrapped in couture gowns.' - Shawn Levy/Portland Oregonian Negative Review 'If you shut down your brain and simply take in the wardrobe and performances by Streep and Blunt you'll have a swell time, like aimlessly flipping the pages of a fashion magazine.' - Marjorie Baumgarten/Austin Chronicle Content Warning Some sensuality AUS: PG US: PG-13

Dawkins Needs to Show Some Doubt (Guardian)

Richard Dawkins shows all the characteristics of being a fundamentalist -- on the opposite side to fundamentalist creationists and Intelligent Design proponents. One of those characteristics is described by Stephen Unwin in his Guardian article on Dawkins -- absolute certainty on matters where this is not possible. There is nothing (or, at the least, very little) for which humans can be absolutely certain in a truly epistemological sense (I suppose we can't even be certain of that!). One of those is the existence of God. Experientially, Christians may express certainty that God exists (which I would rather call 'confidence'). But, in actual fact, there is no way of proving that God absolutely, definitely exists -- not if proof is understood in its technical sense. But Richard Dawkins is guilty of just the opposite -- he expresses absolute certainty that God doesn't exist. In doing so, he falls into the same error of which he accuses his opponents. As Unwin argues, Dawkins needs to return to one of the central tenets of sciences -- an intellectual humility that recognises the limits of human capacity to know absolutely. In a lovely piece of irony, Unwin considers the possibility that Dawkins has been infected by 'the certainty meme'! You can read the whole article here.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Movie Review: An Inconvenient Truth

Truth is often inconvenient, particularly if it requires changes in our behaviour. And the inconvenient truth offered in Al Gore's documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, will certainly require changes in our lifestyles if we are to heed the urgent warning it gives. The truth is simple -- earth is rapidly warming as a result of human activity. If we don't do something about this problem now we and future generations will not have a place to live as we know it now. You might think that a 90-minute PowerPoint presentation by Al Gore would be boring. Far from it. The movie is essentially a public lecture given by Gore which, until now, has only been heard in auditoriums and schools. Bringing it to the big screen broadens the audience to all of us -- and you must see it. Using images of places like Mt Kilimanjaro and the Himalayan mountains or footage of polar bears desperately trying to find an ice block to scramble on, Gore mounts evidence upon evidence to show that we are facing the most significant environmental crisis in human history that we can avoid if we do something about it now. Despite the fact that most scientists support the conclusions in the film, little is being done by the general community (that's us!) to avert the disaster. Some governments are responding by legislating relevant changes -- America and Australia being the two that seem to be avoiding confronting the issue head on. An Inconvenient Truth is a truly frightening movie which calmly and doggedly drives home the reality of global warming and its consequences. But Al Gore's message is one that is far from depressing -- provided we do something about it. The movie invites us to log on to http://www.climatecrisis.net to learn more about the issues raised in the presentation and what each one of us can do to reduce greenhouse emissions. As Al Gore says, the issue of global warming and its consequences is not a political issue -- it is an ethical issue. And as thinking Christians, we need to engage with this issue and participate in doing what we can to respond to it in an ethical manner. Don't neglect seeing An Inconvenient Truth no matter how inconvenient it might be to make the effort to go see it. My Rating: ***1/2 (out of 5) Positive Review 'Virtually everyone who sees this movie will be galvanized to do something about global warming -- and everyone should see this movie.' - Mick LaSalle/San Francisco Chronicle Negative Review 'An Inconvenient Truth is something you rarely see in movies today: a blatant intellectual fraud. Shame on all of the people involved in this travesty.' - Phil Hall/Film Threat Content Warning Mild thematic elements Related Links