Monday, July 30, 2007

Two Stupid Product Slogans

  1. Running late? Run a red light!
  2. Hard liquor: for when tough guys feel like drinking out of dainty glasses

Thursday, July 26, 2007


With the Web 2.0 and the tubes and all, and IP addresses, you might not have seen commercials on TV lately. Here are things I learned from commercials tonight.

  • Cal Ripkin's induction to the hall of fame is news
  • A sandwich commerating Cal Ripkin's induction to the hall of fame is news
  • Lotteries have a positive expected payoff
  • Everyone likes horseracing, and you should, too
  • The Nissan bottom line is the cheapest price you will pay
  • Herbs and fruit have something to do with making you have pretty hair with which to impress an ENTIRE MOTORCYCLE GANG
  • People will argue violently over the type of pizza they will consume
  • A crowd of people will follow you about, if you pick the right cell phone network, impressing mobsters that were about to bring you harm
  • Target supports teachers (if you give them key personal information and customer loyalty, in the form of a Target credit card)
  • This car will keep your child from wetting his pants
  • This will make you have pretty skin
  • This is a call on your iPhone
  • Amstel Light beer will make you as cultured as a craftsman of musical instruments
Now you know everything that is true. Ever.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Transformers Personality Test

What type of Transformer are you? Take this test to find out! You can play along at home, by keeping track of your answers to each question.

Question 1:
Which do you prefer:
a Helping people
b Blowing stuff up

The End

If you picked a for Q1, you are an Autobot. If you picked b, you are Decepticon.

The medium is the message

Once, some time ago, I had a friend who was in a rather committed relationship. His girlfriend then abruptly broke up with him using a text message. I know nothing of the content of the message, but what seemed to be very difficult for my friend was the coldness with which he was dumped.

A few years ago, I was working in a lab. One of the janitors, Derrick, befriended me. Derrick never struck me as the sharpest nail in the bucket. One time, we were talking:

D: What kind of degree are you working on?
A: I'm getting a Ph.D.
D: So in a few years, you'll be Dr. Alex?
A: Yup!
D: Will you have patients?
A: What do you mean?
D: When people get sick, will they come to you?
A: No, I won't be that kind of doctor. I think I'd like to be a professor, maybe in Australia.
D: You know what they have in Australia? Crocodiles.
A: That's true, but I probably won't-
D: I hope you don't get eaten by a crocodile.
A: Thanks, Derrick. I'll be careful.

Now, I didn't get very much useful information from Derrick. I'm pretty sure, though, that "I hope you don't get eaten by a crocodile" means "You're important to me"; Derrick helped me have a good day when my boss was being a pooter. Confused as he was, Derrick had loving people down pat.

This idea, that the medium is a weighty chunk of the message, has important implications for our understanding of what revelation is and what it could mean. Revelation ought to mirror redemption.

If God is a loving father, well, I don't know my dad by reading a book that he wrote. I don't know my dad by obeying a government structure, or by coming to a consensus with my brothers and sister as to who our dad is. I emphatically don't know my Dad through babbling incomprehensibly. I certainly don't think of what I wished my dad was like, and then say that's what he is.

Redemption is simple enough that a child can get it, and it's the most difficult thing in the world, not difficult like studying calculus or digging a ditch, but difficult like saying I'm sorry or listening to Grandma tell a mundane story, only more difficult than that.

I've heard of a professor who, when asked a question in one of his quantum mechanics classes, would write Schrödinger's equation up on the board, saying, "That's all we know, and that's all we need to know" and then proceed to work out the answer from there. I think revelation is like Schrödinger's equation, simple, knowable, reliable, but difficult and confusing.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Why arguing for creationism is, in my opinion, ill-advised

Some time ago, I explained why I think that arguing in favor of Intelligent Design is almost completely misguided; rather than suggesting that ID is false, I said that only a very few people are even qualified to have such a discussion. In response, crooked deep down wrote
However, wouldn't you say that, for some people, what they perceive to be incontrovertible scientific evidence against the Bible is a fence that keeps them from loving Jesus, and we can help them along in their journey if we can knock a hole in that fence?
It's important to remember that crooked is a young earth creationist, so the discussion is completely re-framed, we need to distinguish between three positions:
  1. Young earth creationism
  2. Theistic evolution (ID)
  3. Atheistic evolution
This astute reader observed that there are really two reasons to talk about theory of origin:
  1. To convince somebody to accept Jesus
  2. To reassure yourself that the Bible isn't inauthentic
One of the hiccups with ID is that it attempts 1, but not 2. That is, ID points us to an unnamed creator, but it doesn't make it any easier to read Genesis 1-3 as basically historical.

Young earth creationism attempts both, but fails altogether, because it is deeply incongruous with astronomy, geology, paleontology, paleoanthropology, and archeology, even when just considering the contention that the earth is 6,000 years old (or so). The FAQ is the best place to start that I've found.

As far as the science of it is considered, I think creationism is pretty dumb, but I prefer not to think ill of creationists (exception: Kent Hovind). For the most part, creationism makes sense, if you've mostly been exposed to creationist literature. I think of creationism like I think of urban legends, people believe because people they trust believe, and that's completely reasonable, most of the time.

I don't think that belief in YEC is neutral; I think that it is destructive because of how it misrepresents nature and falsely engenders distrust in the scientific process. One example of how YEC harbors misinformation is in crooked's response:
For example, we might say that much-touted radiometric dating relies on a lot of assumptions that might not be true, or the whole thing with the decay of the earth's magnetic field being seemingly incongruous with an Earth much older than 10,000 years.
Again, I don't suspect any malice or evil on the part of crooked, or on the part of whoever told him that, but this is a good example of how YEC, like an urban legend or conspiracy theory, shows part of the information to produce misunderstanding of the whole.

Yes, the earth's magnetic field is currently weakening. This is normal. The contention that the earth can't be much older than 10,000 years depends on the assumption that that the magnetic field has been weakening monotonically, that is, that it has always been weakening. This is simply a very bad assumption; we know that the magnetic field, rather than decreasing steadily, fluctuates periodically, this is called geomagnetic reversal.

We know that geomagnetic reversals have taken place, many times, from several pieces of evidence, namely variation in magnetic polarity in adjacent rock layers. For example, at places where new rock forms continuously, like at the mid-Atlantic ridge, the magnetic polarity of a bit of the rock is like a snapshot of the earth's magnetic field from when that bit of rock was formed. Measurements like this actually confirm the geomagnetic reversal theory, and emphatically point to an old age for the earth.

If I had a friend who was considering becoming a Christian, but felt as if the Genesis account of creation didn't match with science, rather than teach him YEC, I'd instead tell him that Genesis 1-3 was actually written to be understood as myth. George E. Mendenhall's article, "The Shady Side of Wisdom" provides a good explanation of this. (This article is very difficult to find; if you want a copy, ask me.)

Mendenhall demonstrated from linguistic analysis that the text had a late date of authorship, based on the use of certain words that are relatively new. This, alone, doesn't take away from the understanding of the Genesis account as inspired, we just need to read it as an inspired myth that tells us much about who we are and who God is, but not so much about actual history. This isn't even a new idea, Augustine, among others, thought of Genesis 1-3 as basically mythical.

This is what I'd tell a friend considering becoming a Christian.

I hope that I walked the line between calling YEC the way I see it, but not being mean to my creationist readers. If you want to talk, well, origins, check the FAQ first, then drop a comment.

Monday, July 23, 2007

What is Christian agnosticism?

I am a Christian agnostic. I need to explain what I mean by that, because I'm not aware of anyone famous who means by that what I do. One of my friends has told me that in talking with me, he needs to remember that I truly mean both words; not a compromise or a middle ground between both viewpoints, I genuinely mean both things.

I was pretty happy as an evangelical Christian, but I doubted a lot, especially over the course of the past year or so, and I couldn't find many plain answers, so that landed me in agnosticism. I am not trying to persuade my Christian friends to change their beliefs or actions in any way, except to recognize that many of the evidences for the truth claims they make are not as solid as they might think; doubters and nonbelievers ought not be dismissed saying, "They don't believe because they don't want to", belief in God ought not be considered obvious.

In particular, the Christian agnostic label falls strangely on evangelical ears, and understandably so, because of the evangelical emphasis on salvation through personal faith in Christ. While I might use those words to describe what I think, I mean something a little bit different by "faith" and "Christ", and I want to be careful not to play a linguistic shell-game -- I do believe something different from evangelical Christians. I'll talk a little more about Christian agnostic soteriology later, but I do want to describe what I mean by "faith" and "Christ".

When I say that I have faith in Christ, I don't mean that I make any particular truth-claim assertions about the existence of God, the historicity of Jesus, or the inspiration, authenticity, or inerrancy of the scriptures. Instead, I mean only two things:

  1. Living like the Bible says that Jesus lived is the best way to live.
  2. I am not Jesus.
Point 1 seems to me to be reasonable. I need a compass for my life. Some people think that the best way to pose this compass is in terms of values, like courage or honesty or respect, or in terms of a goal, like financial success, world peace, an end to poverty, or having a family. I think that it's more powerful to have a person as a compass. We never see big, abstract goals come to fruition, and values are ambiguous, but I come face-to-face with people who cook my lunch, play croquet with me, who give me hugs, or tell me jokes. The ineffability of God, the unfathomable beauty of compassion, self-sacrifice, and courage, I can only apprehend when wrapped up in a person.

Point 2 is more subtle, and you can tell, by seeing what people in our culture think. There seems to be an understanding that "good people" deserve to go to heaven, regardless of how they relate to God. There is a general agreement that Jesus things like loving people and listening are good things. What is missed, though, is that I'm not the main character in the story of my life, and that if I was, my story would be a very sad and boring one.

Dan Liebert, Verbal Cartoonist, wrote:
If they ever make a musical about my life, there will probably be a lot of songs about jacking off and pizza.
One of the funny things about The Onion is its stories about Don Turnbee, describing the challenges he faces in fast food restaurants (in one, he isn't sure what to do with extra ketchup packets, so he stockpiles them). The joke, as I understand it, is that The Onion reports on life not based on what is really important, but on what Don Turnbee, for instance, would think is important.

Don Turnbee is lame, and I don't want to be lame.

There was a guy I knew once, I took classes with him. He's a very good person, an excellent student, and a good friend to have. He was just stunningly lame. He was the reincarnation of Marty McFly's dad from Back to the Future, with bonus lameness for looking like he accidentally stepped into the wrong decade. He wore coke-bottle glasses and velcro shoes and a Mister Rogers sweater. You could ask him about President number, say, 23, and he'd tell you more than you ever wanted to know about Benjamin Harrison -- when and where he was born, when he took office, his family members' names, his cabinet... I had to check Wikipedia to know that we ever had a president named Benjamin Harrison. Every day, at noon, he'd say, "High noon, time for lunch".

The thing that I always wondered about this fellow was whether he was aware that he was lame. I think that if you're lame, and don't know it, that's bonus lame points.

I very much like the Jesus Prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
I think that the theology behind that prayer is the best lens through which I can see the world. The repentance in the Jesus Prayer is my antidote for lameness, found by my embracing my lameness.

The purpose of this world view is up in the air. At the least, it can function as a layover on a spiritual journey. It's nice, because it insulates living a good life and having a wise direction from doubt in the goodness of God. That is, if I can find God to be real, and basically congruent with who the Bible describes Jesus to be, I can find inspiration and hope from that, but, if not, I still have some idea of what the right thing to do is.

One major problem with Christian agnosticism is that it doesn't give me much hope. I don't know that God will make everything turn out well in the end, and I would like to be able to have that hope. I don't necessarily think that Christian agnosticism is a good idea, but it's what I've got to deal with right now. One of the good things about Christian agnosticism is that if there's anything at all to the Christian claims in the existence and goodness of God, and the historicity and divinity of Jesus, I'll find them to be true, eventually, by God's grace.
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." -- Matthew 5:8

Awesome Scott Adams quote

Another reason why Scott Adams will be canonized in the First Church of the Christian Existentialist:

You need a healthy ego to endure the abuse that comes with any sort of success. The trick is to think of your ego as your goofy best friend who lends moral support but doesn’t know shit.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A prayer book that ought to be written

I have an Orthodox prayer book, and it's pretty cool. The daily prayers in it I've found to be enriching and challenging. Prayer books are nice, because sometimes I'm not on great terms with God; just like you put stakes in the ground and tie a sapling to them, to help the sapling grow straight, prayer books help me learn how to pray straight. Still, I feel like there are some situations that aren't covered. In the prayer book I have, there are prayers like these:
  • For the Priesthood
  • At the Table
  • For Repentence
  • Before Commencing any Task
  • Of Single Persons
  • Before a Journey
  • For the Sick
and so on. I guess it would be helpful to me to have a prayer book with prayers with titles like these:
  • When I Don't Like Jesus
  • For a Homeless Person that I Meet on the Street
  • When my Computer Crashes
  • When Nothing Makes Sense
  • When I Get Cut Off in Traffic
  • When Someone Needs a Friend, and I Don't Want to be That Person's Friend
  • For a Blown Test that I Didn't Study Enough For Because I'm a Slacker
I've looked hard on Amazon for a prayer book like that, and I'm pretty sure it doesn't exist, one that confronts mundane, everyday situations that suck with an understanding of God as holy, other, supernatural, and beautiful; either the realness of my situation or the holiness of God is compromised.

Here's a pretty cool prayer by Philaret, Patriarch of Moscow:

My Lord, I know not what I ought to ask of Thee.
Thou and Thou alone knowest my needs.
Thou lovest me more than I am able to love Thee.
O Father, grant unto me, Thy servant, all which I cannot ask.
For a cross I dare not ask, nor for consolation;
I dare only to stand in Thy presence.
My heart is open to Thee.
Thou seest my needs of which I myself am unaware.
Behold and lift me up!
In Thy presence I stand,
awed and silenced by Thy will and Thy judgments,
into which my mind cannot penetrate.
To Thee I offer myself as a sacrifice.
No other desire is mine but to fulfill Thy will.
Teach me how to pray.
Do Thyself pray within me.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

A story about a monk and Satan

This is a story I read in a book of quirky Orthodox stories.

One time, Satan disguised himself as a beautiful angel, and went to visit a monk, to tempt him. He came to visit this monk during his evening prayers, who looked up at the apparition, and said, "Oh, you must have made a mistake. I'm not holy enough to be visited by an angel. Perhaps you should try the next cell over." And Satan's plan was thwarted.

The Job who was never rich

I write this from Alabama. Alabama is a strange, strange place. Stores have names like Winn Dixie or Piggly Wiggly, people eat at Twix 'N Tween, there are towns with names like Six Mile, Tuscaloosa, and Remlap (so named to spite the Palmer family). The people talk funny, over-stressing their vowels (Winn of Winn Dixie can be stretched into three syllables: we-ya-inn). Everyone has a truck. The nearest tofu is half an hour away.

On Friday, we visited with some old family friends. I don't pay much attention to what other people say when we pray, I don't know why, I just have trouble focusing. Don's blessing over lunch on Friday is still messing with me, though.

When Don prayed, he thanked God for good friends and good food, as clear signs of God's Goodness. Don has a deep and sound acceptance that God is in control, so we can sleep soundly at night.

Don is dying of cancer. He has 10 kids. He's never really had a well-paying job. His hair is falling out.

I'm 22. I'm a graduate student. I am happy and healthy. I have amazing hair.

From where I'm standing, it seems that God is doing his best to look like a happy delusion, if he's there, at all. If God's so good, what's he doing about poverty, hunger, or disease? And if people believing in God is so important to God, then why hasn't he made it a little easier for the other 4 billion of us that aren't convinced?

Don's idea of who God is messes with me. Some people have very good lives, and credit God with providing them with their blessings, so their thinking that God is good and sovereign seems reasonable, but their proof of God can be written off as confirmation bias. On the other hand, while everything is falling apart for Don, he still loves God and thinks God is good. Don doesn't seem to be believing out of desperation, he's not stupid, he's not naive. What has Don seen that I haven't, that he considers God being a good god a tangible reality?