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Monday, August 31, 2009

St. Paul: Multitasker?

Wired reports on a study that indicates that habitual multitasking hinders concentration, even when you are only doing one thing.

Was Paul a multi-tasker? If he were in the twenty-first century, would he have kept up with the latest RSS feeds from the Jerusalem Council, text-messaged Luke about his health problems, e-mailed Timothy, tweeted about the food available to him, posted photos of new converts on Facebook, phoned Lydia about the church in Macedonia, and listened to the radio, all while discussing theology and tent-making with Priscilla and Aquila? The obvious answer, of course, is that we don't know.

Multi-tasking is dangerous, at least sometimes. It's a very bad idea to be texting while driving, for example.

We do have a couple of indications about Paul. One of them is that he didn't write most of his letters himself -- he dictated them. It would be possible to dictate tweets and e-mails, but very few people do that. (We have a four-year-old grandson who does it occasionally.) So maybe Paul wasn't concerned about font size, style, and color, just about the message. Perhaps this indicates that he wasn't a multi-tasker. (I know -- maybe he was doing something else while his scribe was writing what he had dictated, and he was a multi-tasker.)

There's another indication, more to the point for you and me. In Philippians 3:8-11, Paul sets forth his one single goal -- to know Christ:
8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (ESV, as are any other scripture quotations in this post.)
Everything else is as dead as last month's tweets.

He goes on: 13b But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Emphasis added)

I'm not saying that it's wrong to grade papers during faculty meeting, or text someone during church board meeting, or read the paper while your spouse is talking, but there are dangers in trying to do more than one thing at a time, and they aren't all about losing control of an automobile. May I have one goal in mind -- to know Christ, and follow his call.

See here for a related post.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

What the Kingdom of Heaven is like

Matthew 13:31 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. (It grows)

Matthew 13:33 He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” (It spreads -- leaven is live yeast organisms)
Matthew 13:44-50 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, 46 who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it. (It's valuable, and findable)
47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. 48 When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. 49 So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (It will be sorted out at the end.)
Matthew 20:1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. (All effort for the kingdom gets paid equally)

Matthew 25:1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. (Be ready)
A few verses from Matthew on this subject, and my simplistic take on what Jesus was saying. All scripture is ESV, which allows quoting on a blog, if proper attribution is given. Some verses include the beginning of a statement by Jesus, but not the end, hence there is no closing quotation mark given.

Friday, August 28, 2009

God's complexity

Isaiah 55:8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (All scripture quotations are from the ESV, which allows such use, if properly credited.)

I have recently posted on simplicity, and also on childlikeness, and children, in the Bible.

Let me now muse about the opposite idea -- complexity. We don't have to understand a lot to have our sins forgiven, and become a believer. It's simple. But, for those who are capable of such things, there are more complex matters to consider. God is complex, complicated, and detailed.

There are things that only mature Christians can know.
Hebrews indicates this:
Hebrews 5:12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. This implies that there are stages in Christian knowledge, and presumably thinking on a more complex level is possible.

We must be careful here. In the first place, mature Christians should not look down on new Christians, or be proud. The admonition here is to Christians who should have been more mature than they were, apparently not new Christians.
Second, we must not succumb to the temptation of thinking that we need some sort of special knowledge for our salvation. We don't. We just need to accept Christ's sacrifice for our sins, and live with Him as Lord of our lives. A child, or a person who is intellectually challenged, can be a Christian just as I can be, and for the same reasons.

There are deep things for a mature Christian to learn, about herself, about the Bible, about God. That's part of God's complexity.

Another part of God's complexity is His amazing creation.
Zophar challenged Job, in Job 11:7 “Can you find out the deep things of God?
Can you find out the limit of the Almighty?

There's more about this subject in Job. Beginning with Job 38, God asks Job to explain the phenomena of nature. This goes on, until, Job confesses his profound ignorance
Job 42:2 “I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
3 ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.

Job didn't know very much about how nature works. He didn't understand the weather, astronomy, or animal diversity and behavior. We don't, either.

Let me deal only with astronomy here.

The ancients could see stars. They didn't understand the nature of what they were seeing, or comprehend the vastness of space. We now believe that some of the "stars" we see are actually galaxies -- vast collections of stars, so far away that they look like stars to us. We now understand that some other stars, probably a lot of them, have their own planets. (For a graphic portrayal of the vastness of space, see this video, a little over four minutes in length.)

We now believe that our sun, and other stars, are visible, not because they are burning, but because they are giant thermonuclear reactors, giving off tremendous amounts of energy -- so much so that, even though we are over 90,000,000 miles from the sun, we receive enough energy to keep us warm and lighted, and to fuel photosynthesis. Our own sun loses over 4 billion kilograms of mass each second, converted to energy by its fusion reactions.

There are galaxies very far away, and, as far as we can tell, the size of the universe is vast beyond all comprehension, and it may be infinite in size.

We believe that there are black holes, objects so dense that their gravity bends space so that light from these objects cannot escape.

I have previously mused about the possibility of intelligent life on other worlds, and its theological implications.

With all of this size, the possibility of other planets, some with their own life forms, surely there are many phenomena, perhaps even types of astronomical objects, that we have never yet encountered, and can't even imagine. The universe is exceedingly complex.

Weather, and the states of matter, or the diversity of the animals on the earth, and their behavior, are equally complex, and, in their own way, incomprehensible.

Job 5:8 “As for me, I would seek God,
and to God would I commit my cause,
9 who does great things and unsearchable,
marvelous things without number:

Thank God for His marvelous creation!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

How to be saved

This post was viewed over 300 times, for which I am grateful.

However, in March, 2013, I decided to update it. The new post, much like the old one, is here.

Thanks for web surfing. Read the new post.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Sunspots 225


Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:

Humor:

Science:
(
And Sports) A blog post from the BBC on how the gender of an athlete is determined. (It isn't always easy.)

A physicist (and science-fiction lover) looks at time traveling, as in the current movie, The Time Traveler's Wife.

Sports:
Wired reports that an analysis of the Los Angeles Lakers indicates that their offense might be more potent without Kobe Bryant. Hmmm. Maybe so, but this analysis was done by a physicist, and weren't physicists working in the financial industry responsible for the theory behind the instruments that led to the recent crash?

Christianity:
Kerry I Am defines success.


Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Children and childlikeness in the Bible

I recently posted on the concept of simplicity. Today, I am musing about a related concept, childlikeness, or just plain being a child, as the New Testament treats it.

Matthew 18:1-6 is a key passage:

18:1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3 and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

5 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, 6 but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. (All scripture quotations from the ESV)

I take this to mean that being a Christian requires a childlike faith -- I must trust Christ to be able to forgive my sins, and trust him as my Lord. I can't atone for my own sins, and I can't reliably guide myself, no matter how intelligent or educated I might be.

Childlikeness, not childishness, is God's ideal for our behavior:
1 Corinthians 13:11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.

and Ephesians 4:11-16
11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

In fact, we are expected to become more mature:
Hebrews 5:12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

Children, not just a childlike attitude, are important to Christ:
Mark 10:13 And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. 14 But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 15 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” 16 And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.

See also the first quotation above, which shows their importance.

Thanks for reading! Have a childlike faith, but grow up.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Simplicity: a decision point

There is no article on "Simple," by and of itself, in the Wikipedia. Perhaps it's too simple? Dictionary.com, on the contrary, has no less than 24 meanings for the word. I'm going to continue, simply, if you please, as if meaning 13 is the only one. That meaning is "unlearned; ignorant."

Simplicity, in this sense, although perhaps not exactly a virtue in the Bible, may at least be a launching pad for maturity and wisdom.

The English Standard Version (All Bible quotations in this post are from that version.) has 20 verses containing the word, "simple." One of them is in Job, three are in Psalms, and the other sixteen are in Proverbs.

Psalm 116:6
indicates that God takes special care of the simple: "The Lord preserves the simple;
when I was brought low, he saved me."

Psalm 19:7
and Psalm 119:30 indicate that God provides ways for the simple to be made wise.

Proverbs 9 sets out a picture of a contrast. God invites the simple to partake of His wisdom, but the enemy invites them to partake of his folly.

If you are intelligent enough to read and understand the words of this post, you (and I) are intelligent enough to seek wisdom, not ignorance. We don't need to remain simple.

I posted later on what the New Testament says about this topic.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

How we, too often, do Biblical study and interpretation

From an article in First Things on the Green Bible:

The Green Bible presents us with a curious kind of natural theology: We start with things we know to be true from trusted sources—Al Gore, perhaps?—and then we turn to Scripture to measure it against those preexisting and reliable authorities. And what a relief to discover that God is green. Because we already know that it's good to be green—what we didn't know is whether God measures up to that standard. Alan Jacobs, "Blessed are the Green of Heart," First Things, May, 2009.

I haven't seen the Green Bible. I don't know whether Jacobs' criticism is fair or not. (He indicates, in the article, that he is doing his part to take care of the environment himself, and there is a comment to the article that he was not being fair.) I do know myself, and how I sometimes act. How often do I do that sort of Biblical study and interpretation? Doing it in reverse, that is -- starting out with a preconceived view and searching the Bible until I find justification for it?

God help me.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Global Warming and natural selection

Karl Zimmer has written an article for a publication of Yale University, wherein he presents evidence that climate change, within our lifetime, has led to measurable selection for change in some of the species around us.

Interesting.

Friday, August 21, 2009

How many people perished in Noah's flood?

In the first place, it was God's flood, not Noah's.

I was studying for my Sunday School lesson, some time ago, and was amazed to read that some people think that there may have been as many as 3,000,000,000 people on earth at the time of the Flood, who were, presumably, drowned. Where did this figure come from, I wondered? What is the evidence for it?

Well, of course, there isn't any evidence for it, but, with the right assumptions, human population growth would have accomplished this.

This figure may have come from a book by Henry Morris, which is excerpted here. If so, that's interesting, because that isn't what Morris actually wrote, according to the excerpt. What he was actually writing about was the human population after the flood, which, he said, could have expanded to billions from the time of the flood to the time he wrote.

This web page simply asserts that the population at the time of Noah "probably numbered at least several billion persons!" So does this one. Neither gives reasons, or documentation, for the assertion.

This page says that there were enough generations (up to 15) from Adam to Noah, which would have been enough time to produce up to a billion people.

All of these are speculation. We just don't know how many people perished in the Flood.

See here for more questions about Noah's flood.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Dialog on the existence of God

I recently posted on an apparent change in the Discovery Institute's policies.

A commenter took the opportunity to fume about the Discovery Institute, me, and Christians in general. I quote his entire comment, and my response. I made a mistake, repeating a word, in my response, and have corrected that. Otherwise, this is reproduced exactly, including a pretty awkward sentence of mine. The quotations in bobxxxx's comment are from my post.

bobxxxx said...

"I believe that, as Hebrews 11:3 indicates, acceptance of God's designing is a matter of faith."

Acceptance of your god fairy's magic (which you dishonestly call "design") is also a matter of insanity.

"Although I don't see anything wrong with mentioning, in such a classroom, that there are people who believe that significant features of existing organisms are the result of design,"

Well, I suppose a biology teacher could tell her students that there are people stupid enough to believe in magical creation (what you call design as if that makes it less childish), but what would be the point of wasting class time talking about that? Biology classes are for biology. Biology classes are not for discussions of what insane people think.

"I recently discovered that the Discovery Institute (DI), the organization leading the Intelligent Design (ID) movement,"

Normal people call it the MAGIC movement. Intelligent design = magic. Calling magic by another name is dishonest and calling magic by another name doesn't make it any less idiotic.

You should know that the Discovery Institute is a Christian creationist organization that pretends it isn't a Christian creationist organization. The retards who work there know nothing about science, they are compulsive liars, and of course they have never discovered anything.

Martin LaBar said...

"Discussions of what insane people think" might be important in biology classes. For example, some people -- insane is not the word I would use, but I think that good evidence shows that they are wrong -- sincerely believe that vaccinations are harmful, and some believe that there is no such thing as global warming. Discussion of both views, without agreeing with them, would seem to be appropriate, and avoiding them in biology classes might even be considered negligence.

I don't know anyone who works at the Discovery Institute. I agree that some of their tactics seem to be deceptive, and that they have not produced any credible scientific evidence that proves Intelligent Design. But calling them retards and compulsive liars seems to be going pretty far.

There are important scientists who believe in the existence of a powerful God, who was involved the the beginning of the universe, and in the way things are now, but who have done credible scientific work. Francis Collins, director of NIH: Francis Collins, and Owen Gingerich, noted astronomer, are two such. (I don't believe that either of them is a fan of the Intelligent Design movement.)

Great scientists of the past believed in God, such as Newton -- I make no claim to understand Newton's beliefs, but it seems clear that he believed in a transcendent God. Even Einstein believed in God, to some extent. Perhaps these, and many others, were deluded, and believed in fairies or magic. But I believe that they were on to something.

I don't believe that any experiment has proved unquestionably that there is a God, nor that any such experiment will ever be done. But, conversely, can you cite any experiment that proves that God does not exist? I don't think so.

What ever the Discovery Institute's failings, combating them with ad hominem invective, such as you have used, doesn't seem wise, fair, or warranted, and you seem to have as much scorn for creationists of all stripes (there are many kinds) which is at least as bad as, unfortunately, some of them have for atheists.

Thank you for your comment.

Thanks for reading.

So far, bobxxxx has not responded to my response.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Sunspots 224

Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:



Science:
A case study of how the media distort scientific findings, mostly, maybe entirely, unintentionally.

Sports:
(sort of) Sports Illustrated reports that Rick Pitino, successful basketball coach (He was probably the first big-college men's coach to hire a woman as an assistant) had an affair, probably a single incident, several years ago. SI says that Pitino is a "staunch Roman Catholic whose contract includes dishonesty and moral depravity as grounds for firing."

Computing:
An installation hall of shame -- list of programs that install things you probably didn't know that they were going to install, and that you didn't want.

Wired observes the anniversary (Aug. 17, 2000) of the date when 50% of the US had access to the Internet -- it's now 75% or more -- and remarks that this stupendous growth, from when Internet access first became available to the general public, has taken place within the lifetime of a high school sophomore!



Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Spirit Ring, by Lois McMaster Bujold: A Christian Novel?

The Spirit Ring is a fantasy novel, by Lois McMaster Bujold, set in Italy during the Middle Ages. The book was a Locus Fantasy Award nominee. (See previous post for a plot summary.)

Before I discuss this book, let me mention two other important works of fantastic literature, both also partly set in the Middle Ages. Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn, was a nominee for the Hugo Award in 2007. It supposed that aliens came to earth in Germany, and considered, among other things, the possibility of aliens becoming converts to Christianity. It was possible. The other book is the Doomsday Book, which won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. In this book, a time traveler goes from England's near future to study the Middle Ages. She finds, among other things, a true believer, a good man, an unlettered, but devout and unselfish priest. Both books also consider the important question of where God is when things hurt us badly. I don't seem to have ever posted on Doomsday Book, a serious omission, considering the stated subject matter of this blog. Sometime, maybe.

One of my most important posts is "What must be Christian about a Christian novel?" In that post, I set forth six important criteria, which help me to answer that question, not always to my own satisfaction. That post has links to other posts, related to books by Elizabeth Moon, J. K. Rowling, and others, considering whether some of their works should be considered to be Christian novels. I have also considered that question twice, in relation to books by Bujold, here and here. I couldn't convince myself that either of the works in question were fully Christian, by my criteria. I believe that The Spirit Ring is, in fact, such a novel, and it is by a major author of fantastic literature, who has won Hugo, Nebula, and Mythopoeic awards -- so far, no other author has done so -- and has written both science fiction and fantasy.

Why do I say that The Spirit Ring is, in some sense, a Christian novel? (Lest there be any doubt, it is not "faith fiction," a form of literature which is Christian in world-view, but one aimed at a niche market, Christians. Bujold writes, and her publishers market, to those interested in fantastic literature.) Here's why I believe it to be a Christian novel:

1) Is there a Christ-figure? That is, does someone offer his or her own life for someone else, and, in some sense, to redeem that person? I would have to say no to this question. There are people who sacrifice themselves for the good of others, especially Thur Ochs, a miner turned metal worker who agrees to enter the castle controlled by Ferrante, an evil man, as a spy, for the sake of his brother, Uri, who, Thur believes, may be a prisoner there.

2) Is there belief in orthodox Christian doctrine? Definitely. Abbot (and also Bishop) Monreale is clearly a character who believes in the ability of God to redeem others. In spite of obstacles, he offers the spirit of Jacopo Sprenger, an evil wizard, a chance to repent while that spirit still has the power to choose:
"Jacopo Sprenger. Though your spirit is parted from your body, you still partially exist in the world of will. While your will is free, you may yet effectively repent, confess your sins and profess your faith; I swear to you God is greater than any evil you can encompass. Stop. Stop now, and turn your face around!" Monreale's voice was anguished in its sincerity.
He had ridden through the night not to destroy Vitelli, but to save him, Fiametta realized. (Lois McMaster Bujold, The Spirit Ring. Riverdale, New York: Baen, 1992, p. 341)

Monreale also offers the spirit of Uri Ochs absolution, and Uri confesses his sins, and his confession is accepted by Monreale, just before his spirit ceases to manifest itself in this world.

3) Is there monotheistic prayer to a Divine being? Fiametta, a young woman, is the heroine of the book. She is able to do some magic herself (so is Monreale). Both she and Monreale believe in the power of prayer, another orthodox Christian doctrine. With Fiametta, it seems to be prayer in emergencies. Monreale also prays in emergencies, but Bujold gives the impression that he is not only a cleric with some ecclesiastical power, but a devout man, and one who habitually prays. He is described as being on his knees more than once, and on at least one occasion, he believes that he has received guidance from God, in answer to prayer. It wasn't the answer that he wanted.

4) Does an important character express a relationship with the God of Christianity as Lord? Monreale doesn't say that, but he is portrayed as living in that way.

5) Is there consciousness of supernatural guidance? See item 3, above.

Fiametta and Thur attempt to temporarily place the spirit of Uri, Thur's dead brother, in a statue made using Uri as a model. Fiametta prays more than once during the process. Bujold doesn't explicitly say that their work is divinely guided, but there are several developments that are close to miracles, if not actual miracles, and Thur makes some wise decisions, in carrying out this task. They succeed, and their success leads directly to the defeat of Ferrante and Vitelli. Neither Fiametta or Thur have ever done anything like this before -- they needed wisdom beyond themselves.

6) Is there explicit rejection of evil, or turning away from evil acts by a character? Clearly, Monreale, Fiametta, Thur, and others, have rejected the evil of Ferrante and Vitelli, and Monreale seems to have a lifelong history of seeking good.

As indicated under point 2, an evil character is offered a chance to reject evil, which he does not take.

I wouldn't say that this is an overwhelming case for The Spirit Ring as a Christian novel, but it's close enough for me. I have never read anything by or about Bujold that gives a clear indication that she is, or is not, a Christian.

Lest there be any doubt, I do not believe that Christians should practice magic, even if they pray devoutly before they do so. Nor do I believe that the soul, or spirit, stays around for a while after death. Neither of these is orthodox Christian doctrine. And, as far as that goes, as a Protestant, I don't believe that it is necessary to gain absolution from a priest to have one's sins forgiven. That is orthodox Roman Catholic doctrine, but not mine, and the Bible seems to agree with Protestants on this, according to 1 Timothy 2:5. All of these are features of Bujold's sub-creation. The third item, absolution by a priest, was orthodox in the time in which the book takes place, and it would have been strange to have left out that part of medieval Christianity.

So why don't the other two features mentioned in the previous paragraph make this a non-Christian novel? Because, in my mind, they do not negate the basic world-view of The Spirit Ring. In The Shack, widely (although not universally) accepted as a Christian novel, the three persons of the Trinity appear as three separate and distinct human beings, or at least as three persons who seem to be human -- they eat, for one thing. That is not orthodox Christian doctrine, but it doesn't mean that the book is not fundamentally Christian. Both The Shack and The Spirit Ring have fantastic elements, and are fictional, and anyone trying to use any such book as their foundation for doctrine is making a serious error.

My criterion is not that there is no unorthodox doctrine, Christian, or not, in a book, but that there is some orthodox Christian doctrine held by one or more important characters.

Thanks for reading.

On August 19th, 2009, I did a small amount of editorial work on this post.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Spirit Ring, by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Spirit Ring is a fantasy novel, by Lois McMaster Bujold, set in Italy during the Middle Ages. The book was a Locus Fantasy Award nominee.

In this post, I intend to summarize the plot of this novel. For another summary, see the first link in this post.

The book is fantasy literature, in that some people have abilities that go beyond the normal senses, and the normal ability to manipulate objects. These people, in this book, are portrayed as magicians.

There are three main characters, and many characters which appear less often. Fiametta is a young woman. In addition to wishing for a good and loving husband, and some security in her life, she also wishes to be respected for her ability to practice magic. Her father, Prospero Beneforte, is such a magician. He is also a metalworker. With some help from Fiametta, he has created some amazing works of art on commission for Duke Sandrino, ruler of their city-state, Montefoglia. (Montefoglia is fictional. There are references to other, real, cities.) He could use some help in his metal work. One of the objects he is working on is a large statue, to be made of bronze. Uri Ochs, captain of Sandrino's guard, was the model for a clay statue, that is being used to make a mold for pouring the bronze for a metal statue.

Thur Ochs, Uri's brother, is a young man, a miner, living a few days' journey from the city. He is mostly ordinary, but does have the ability to find things. He knows, because of this special sense, where there are seams of metal ore in the mines. Thur is more tolerant of kobolds, small, nearly human-shaped creatures that live in the substance of the rocks, than most people. He advocates leaving milk for them to drink -- they can come out of rocks, and go into them -- and believes that they should be let alone. His brother, Uri, has been asking Thur to come to the city. The collapse of part of a mine, which nearly kills some of Thur's fellow miners, combined with the state of the mine -- it is almost mined out (although, if those in charge would listen to Thur, he could have found more ore) -- lead Thur to follow his brother's advice.

One aspect of Bujold's sub-creation is that the spirits of the dead can remain active, and interacting with normal, living people, for some time after death, if they have not received last rites, and their bodies are preserved. Such spirits can be useful to magicians, although doing so is dangerous, and a form of black magic, forbidden by the church. Beneforte has been working on the theory of such magic.

Beneforte and Fiametta are invited to a banquet at the palace. The occasion is the visit of Ferrante, a nearby ruler, who wants to marry Sandrino's daughter. But the occasion is disastrous. Ferrante kills Sandrino, and makes known that he plans to rule his own duchy, and also Montefoglia. Uri is also killed. Fiametta sees that Ferrante has a dead baby, kept in salt, with him in a box, undoubtedly used in black magic. She and her father escape to the countryside, but her father dies of a heart attack. Some of Ferrante's men take her father's body from her possession. She meets Thur, who is coming to the city with a pack train.

Fiametta has a magic ring -- not the spirit ring of the title -- that indicates that Thur Ochs is the man she should marry. At first, she rejects that idea, because of Thur's station in life -- a poor miner. As the book progresses, and she sees his bravery and intelligence, she changes her mind.

Fiametta, Thur, and others, go back to the city. They decide to enter the monastery, directed by Bishop and Abbot Monreale, and besieged by Ferrante's soldiers. (Monreale is the third main character.) The Abbot, a devout man, but with some knowledge of magic, and ability to perform some, is praying about whether to accept a truce with Ferrante. When Fiametta tells him about that man's use of a dead baby, in magic, Monreale sees that Ferrante cannot be trusted, and takes that knowledge as an answer to his prayer. He sends Thur into the city, and the castle, as a spy, with certain magic items to help him communicate what is happening back to Monreale. Thur goes, principally because he wants to find out what has happened to his brother.

In the castle, Thur is put to work as a metal worker. He learns that Ferrante has an aide, Vitelli, an evil man, expert in black magic. Vitelli wants to use the spirit of Fiametta's father in his evil work. He hopes to capture that spirit in a ring. He also wants to discover any notes that Beneforte had on the subject. Thur finds that his brother was killed, and that his body, like Beneforte's, is being preserved.

Thur is discovered. When he is, Monreale and Fiamette know of this, because of the magic communication devices Thur took to the castle. Vitelli destroys all of them, so Monreale can't find out any more about what is going on there. Fiametta feels that she must go to the city to help Thur. She ends up going into the city, but stays at her own house.

Thur, with some assistance from kobolds, is able to escape, and to bring his brother's body with him. He, guided by his ability to find, goes to Fiametta's house, with the body. Fiametta decides to undertake, with Thur's help, a difficult task, namely to invest the bronze statue with Uri's spirit. They hope that such a statue, which, if she is successful, should be animated for a short time, will be able to defeat Ferrante. Defeating Ferrante is crucial, because Vitelli is trying to use Fiametta's father's spirit to gain the power of a spirit ring, and, if he were to succeed, this would give Ferrante great evil power. Fiametta has never done anything like this, and Thur has never cast a statue. He is not sure that there are enough supplies available to do what needs to be done. Fiametta prays, asking God's help, and they proceed. Kobolds bring Thur metal from the castle, and help with the casting.

They are successful, and Uri inhabits the statue long enough that he leads an army of citizens to defeat and kill Ferrante. Vitelli, too, is killed. Monreale appears, having come from the abbey. He is there principally to offer the spirit of Vitelli an opportunity to repent, which opportunity is refused. Uri's spirit does repent.

Bujold's books are usually love stories, and this one is no exception. Fiametta realizes that she loves Thur, and they are married. Monreale not only marries them, but obtains a license for Fiametta to perform magic -- not evil magic, but magic for good.

I often don't summarize the plot of novels I post on, so as not to spoil the reading of them. The exception in this case is because, God willing, my next post will be on the question of whether or not The Spirit Ring is a Christian novel, and I need to set forth the proper background.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Stewardship in Ezra

Ezra 8:24 Then I set apart twelve of the leading priests: Sherebiah, Hashabiah, and ten of their kinsmen with them. 25 And I weighed out to them the silver and the gold and the vessels, the offering for the house of our God that the king and his counselors and his lords and all Israel there present had offered. 26 I weighed out into their hand 650 talents of silver, and silver vessels worth 200 talents, and 100 talents of gold, 27 20 bowls of gold worth 1,000 darics and two vessels of fine bright bronze as precious as gold. 28 And I said to them, “You are holy to the Lord, and the vessels are holy, and the silver and the gold are a freewill offering to the Lord, the God of your fathers. 29 Guard them and keep them until you weigh them before the chief priests and the Levites and the heads of fathers' houses in Israel at Jerusalem, within the chambers of the house of the Lord.” 30 So the priests and the Levites took over the weight of the silver and the gold and the vessels, to bring them to Jerusalem, to the house of our God. (ESV, emphasis added.)

Ezra doesn't exactly say so, but it seems that the implication is clear -- these priests had been given something to care for, and at the end of their journey, when the treasure they had been entrusted with would be turned over to others, there would be a reckoning. Had they taken any of the metal for themselves? Any talents, or, perhaps, any shavings off of the gold bowls?

God wants me to be responsible for what I've been entrusted with, too.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Julie & Julia: my take on the movie

No car chases, no one gets killed (or even dies), no aliens, just French cooking. Julie & Julia was hilarious! (The link is to the review on the Christianity Today movies web site. There's a real ampersand in the title. Blogger won't allow me to use one in the labels of this post. Oh, well.)

Amazing for 2009, the movie features two married couples who love each other, in all senses of the term. The story is about the wives, but the husbands are acted well, and written as supportive to the point of being saintly.

Meryl Streep was Julia Child. Amy Adams seems to have been sanitized as Julie Powell, the 2002 young married with a hopeless job who starts blogging through Child's book, but Amy Adams is cute, and the movie shows lots of (probably realistic, and really amusing, so long as you are watching someone else) frustration with the cooking. It also shows Powell realizing that she had gotten pretty self-centered. Not much of Child on TV, although there is some.

A plus for me is that Powell's blog is a major part of the movie. It's a real blog. The posts for August, 2009, are found here. (She gets a lot more comments than I do!) Powell's first post is here. (She switched hosts a few years ago.)

For those concerned about such things, both the married couples are shown having some implied sexual activity, there's a little language that I would not use, and Child and her husband (and most of the other people in the 1950s) are both shown as smokers, which they most likely were.

No one prays, or goes to church, or worships anyone but themselves, their goals, or food cooked in lots of butter, but it was an uplifting movie. It showed two women pursuing their dreams, and loving, intelligent, and supportive husbands.

I recommend Julie & Julia to you.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Cybele's Secret by Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier is a self-proclaimed follower of the druid religion. In spite of that, as I have indicated in previous posts, here and here, she has written sympathetically, and with seeming understanding, about Christianity and Christians.

Cybele's Secret (Knopf, Borzoi Books, 2008) is the latest book in which Marillier has touched on religion. In this book, set in Europe centuries ago, the main character is a practicing Christian, although seemingly only in the way many so-called Christians are, namely that they call upon God to help them when they are in deep trouble, but otherwise don't have much to do with Him. There is some mention of Islam, and of a pagan religion, perhaps similar to that of the Druids.

Since the Wikipedia does not yet have an article on this book, I will depart from my usual practice, and set forth a summary.

The book is a sequel to Wildwood Dancing, and, like that book, was written for young people. Paula, the main character in Cybele's Secret, was a minor character in Wildwood Dancing, a younger sister, of the main characters. The entire book is told from Paula's point of view.

Paula and her father have heard that an ancient idol, Cybele's Secret, which was involved in a female-centered religion a long time before the time of the book, may be available for purchase. The father is a trader, and has a buyer. He takes Paula with him to Istanbul, to attempt to purchase the object. Paula, although still a teenager, is scholarly. Istanbul is ruled by Muslims, although non-Muslims are welcome in the city, and there are many of them. However, women are not treated as equal to men.

Before entering the city, the ship that Paula and her father are traveling on meets the ship of a man named Duarte, a reputed pirate. When they arrive, one necessary procedure is to obtain the services of a guard for Paula. She selects a tall, muscular, good-looking man named Stoyan.

Paula helps her father with some of his trading, and even does a little herself, when her father is otherwise occupied. But she finds that she hungers for books, scrolls, and other items to read. Irene, the wife of a high official, has an excellent library, and Paula is allowed to use her library. Irene claims to revere Cybele's secret, and the religion it was part of. During Paula's use of the library, she finds two manuscripts that seem to be about Cybele's Secret, and has some mysterious visits from a woman in a black robe. Paula and Stoyan study the manuscripts, trying to figure out exactly what they mean. Paula comes to believe that this person is her sister Tati, who left the family to go into the realm of faerie with her lover, in the first book. Irene seems to be a good friend, although quite a bit older.

The potential buyers of Cybele's secret, including Paula and her father, and Duarte, with Irene serving as chaperone for Paula, are invited to see the object. It turns out that the object is a fragment -- a large fragment, but not the entire object, just the head and the upper body. Paula's father and Duarte seem to be the most likely buyers. Paula's father is waylaid, and beaten, on the way to a possible purchase, and Duarte buys the object. Paula and Stoyan manage to get on Duarte's ship. At first Duarte is antagonistic to Paula and Stoyan, and they reciprocate. However, another ship puts out from the harbor, chasing Duarte's ship, and Paula gradually comes to see that Duarte is no pirate, but an honorable man, and one who promised to return the statue of Cybele to its place of origin. He seems to be in love with Paula.

The three, using Paula and Stoyan's knowledge of the manuscripts, enter a cave. They are pursued by people from the other vessel, one of whom turns out to be Irene, supposedly Paula's friend, but obviously not really one. The cave is part of fairyland. Paula succeeds in doing several tasks, which means that she, Duarte and Stoyan are given the other part of Cybele's secret. During the time underground, it is revealed that Irene only wants the entire object so that she can set herself up as head of a religion for women in Istanbul. She does not believe in the religion of the Cybele cult.

Paula, Stoyan, and Duarte are allowed to leave the cave. Irene dies there. The three of them come out near an isolated village, which believes that Cybele's Secret will come to them, just as they bring it out. They leave the object there, for the villagers to revere. Their worship seems to be earth-worship, with no human sacrifices.

Paula would evidently have considered herself a Christian. She prays to the Christian God a few times, asking for His help, but does otherwise show any evidence of a deep faith.

The book ends with Paula planning to marry Stoyan, her former guard.

It was an exciting book. Marillier is a good writer. The issues treated, dangers faced, the moral choices, the practice of religion, pagan, Muslim, and Christian, are not as intense as in her books for adults, which, I suppose, is appropriate to the intended audience.

Marillier has been diagnosed with breast cancer, and is receiving treatment. I wish the best for her. The best would be that she not only be sympathetic to Christianity, but that she trust in the Christ of Christianity.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

I recently read Kathi Appelt's The Underneath, a first novel with cats, snakes, mythological beings, a bad man, and an alligator, all capable of thought. The book was good enough to win a Newbery Honor medal (not the top award, but a high honor). It also won other awards. The book was published in 2008 by Atheneum (New York).

What made this a good book?

The point of view was one notable feature. That shifts between characters, and parts of the book are told from the point of view of at least eight of them, including the trees. The number of chapters is also remarkable -- there are 123 of them, averaging less than 3 pages per chapter. One reason for that is to make changes of point of view. There are good illustrations.

The setting is unusual. It is the swampy area between Texas and Lousiana. So is the time frame, which is a thousand years, more or less. Some of Appelt's trees live that long. So does a very large (a hundred feet) alligator. So does a being who is a lamia, who can appear as a very large water moccasin, or as a human being. The Caddo Indians, who lived in the area long ago, play a part.

I was pleased with the surprise ending. Let me leave it as a surprise, except to say that unselfish love triumphs in the end, and comes from an unexpected source.

The story has its dark moments, including deaths of some of the characters. But it also has cute kittens and a faithful hound. Here's Appelt on purring:
Purring is not so different from praying. To a tree, a cat's purr is one of the purest of all prayers, for in it lies a whole mixture of gratitude and longing, the twin ingredients of every prayer. (201)

Thanks for reading. Read Appelt.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Sunspots 223


Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:


Humor:
(or something) Jan links to reports that men spend more time ogling women than women do getting themselves ready.

Science:
CNN reports on a large patch of garbage in the Pacific Ocean.

Wired reports that we have learned more about an extra-solar planet, thanks to a new orbiting instrument, and that it's unlike any planet in our solar system, in several ways. CNN also reports on this .

The Smithsonian Institution has a splendid exhibit on ants, including a photo gallery .

Christianity:
An article in Christianity Today claims that most marriages should be taking place earlier than they do: "Most young Americans no longer think of marriage as a formative institution, but rather as the institution they enter once they think they are fully formed. Increasing numbers of young evangelicals think likewise . . ." One result is way too much pre-marital sex.


Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Discovery Institute's Science Education Policy

I recently discovered that the Discovery Institute (DI), the organization leading the Intelligent Design (ID) movement, published its "Science Education Policy" in June, 2008. (Clearly, I don't keep up with the DI very well.)

In this document, the DI explicitly states that it "opposes any effort require the teaching of intelligent design by school districts or state boards of education." (Emphasis in original.) This is commendable, and a change of thrust. Not too long ago, the DI was pushing exactly that effort. Probably as a result of court losses, that seems to have changed.

The document, however, also explicitly states its belief in a "
scientific theory of design," and that there is a "scientific debate over design." The DI believes that discussion of this aspect, related to origins, is legitimate in public school science classrooms.

I differ. Although I don't see anything wrong with mentioning, in such a classroom, that there are people who believe that significant features of existing organisms are the result of design, I don't see that, at least currently, there is any "scientific debate" possible over design. There is no significant scientific evidence for it, and, even though I personally believe that God is a designer, I don't think such scientific evidence will ever turn up. I believe that, as Hebrews 11:3 indicates, acceptance of God's designing is a matter of faith.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Thoughts on Health Care in the US



Graphic from Johnny Crow's Garden, 1903, by Leslie Brooke. Public Domain.


There's a lot of concern about possible changes to the US healthcare system. I don't have the answers, and I don't know what, if anything, Congress will come up with.

Are there problems with healthcare in the US? Yes.
There certainly are problems with the US healthcare "system." What are they? Here are some of them:
1) About 1 in 10 of us don't have health insurance. Such people usually get health care, but it's not done efficiently. They use emergency rooms, which is an expensive type of care, and makes it more difficult for emergency rooms to handle real emergencies. It also means that such people usually don't visit health professionals for preventive care, which would save money, as well as keeping people without insurance from having some of the worst problems. It is likely that about two-thirds as many people die in the US each month, because they don't have health insurance, than were killed on September 11, 2001. (See here.)
2) Healthcare costs are rising quite a bit faster than national income or production. If this continues, we will be spending all of our money on healthcare. Obviously, that's impossible.
What causes this? Part of it is that the medical establishment is afraid of being sued, so they order tests and treatments that don't really help, but cost money and other resources. Most or all of the items in this list contribute to cost increase.
3) We have come to put more value on life than we really ought to. Is anybody really better off when a person who is really dying, and dying soon, is given yet another treatment, just to buy a few more hours or days? We are all going to die, and sometimes we just need to accept that. Unfortunately, some people don't. The culture of the medical establishment is to keep alive no matter what. That doesn't always make sense.
4) The way most of us get health insurance causes serious distortions in other things.
US manufacturers must include health insurance for their employees in their costs. Manufacturers from other countries don't have this expense, at least not directly. So US manufacturers have a competitive disadvantage.
Small businesses often feel they can't afford health insurance, which means that it's harder to get and keep good employees.
There is a big incentive to keep people from working full-time, because hiring them full-time often means the added expense of health insurance. Employers and employees would often both be better off if more employees were hired for full-time work.
Losing your job means that you not only lose a pay check, but, often, your health insurance, too, and, perhaps, your family's health insurance. Getting a divorce may mean that you lose health insurance.
5) The current private insurance system creates a private bureaucracy of its own, plus the additional help (bureacracy) that doctors and hospitals have to hire to file claims, or, in all too many cases, to re-file them, because the insurance company has "lost" the first one.
Private insurers do not have healthcare as their primary goal -- it's profit. That means that they often do everything they can to avoid paying for legitimate treatment, even to the point of sometimes denying it. They are reluctant to cover people with pre-existing conditions, or people in certain hazardous occupations. In other words, they want to cover well people, not sick ones.
6) The current fee-for-service arrangement is an incentive for healthcare providers to recommend more expensive treatment. Just as selling a big SUV means more profit for auto companies than selling a compact car, selling coronary by-pass surgery means more income for healthcare providers than recommending exercise or other preventive care.
This type of payment plan is also an incentive for doctors to become specialists, as opposed to practicing family care, child care, or care for the aged. Cardiac surgeons make more money than family doctors. So generalists are rarer. This means that it is harder for isolated communities to get doctors, and that most people have several doctors, who probably aren't communicating very well with each other.
7) We aren't doing much, as a nation, to encourage good habits, such as exercise and getting enough sleep, and to discourage bad habits, such as excess alcohol consumption, excess exposure to the sun or use of tanning beds, eating too much of the wrong foods, and smoking.

Doesn't the US have the best healthcare in the world? Not really.
To hear some politicians talk, we do. But:
1) The US life expectancy is 45th best in the world. Canadians live an average of over two years longer than we do, and Japanese live over four years longer.
2) The US has the 33rd best infant mortality rate in the world, which means that Brunei, Cuba, Slovenia, and 29 other countries, have a lower infant death rate. Iceland and Singapore have less than half our infant death rate. The infant death rate in Canada is about 76% of ours, which means that for every three babies dying in Canada, we have almost four. (Added September 1, 2009: A friend sent me a link to an Associated Press article which gives further indication that US care for infants, and pre-school children, is not well at all.)
3) As a nation, we are paying almost twice as much per person on healthcare as Canada does.
4) I don't know how these statistics compare to other countries, but a recent report by CNN says that nearly 100,000 people a year die from medical errors while they are hospitalized, and nearly 100,000 additional people die from infections caught while they were in the hospital, in the US. The same report also says that 1 in 15 hospitalized children is harmed by medical errors.
5) I love our country, with all of its faults. If I moved to another country, and kept my US citizenship, the most important reason I did would not be that I didn't want to lose my right to the US healthcare "system," or because I love Blue Cross, or Aetna. I have known Canadians living in the US for which that did seem to be a main reason for keeping their Canadian citizenship -- they didn't want to lose their right to the Canadian healthcare system.

Note, added December 14, 2012: This post was, in part, written as a comment on "Obamacare," which became law on June 8, 2010, although many of the provisions have not yet gone into effect. I haven't changed the post, other than to add this note. The material above is still mostly pertinent on this date. Here's the Wikipedia article on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Shouldn't we avoid socializing medicine, or preventing government bureaucrats from determining who gets what care?
There may be some dangers here, but they don't seem to be nearly as great as we are often told.
We now have insurance company bureaucrats determining who gets what care. It is not at all clear that "government bureaucrats" would do any worse. Based on the experience of almost every other industrialized country in the world, including our neighbors to the North, health care would be better under a national government payer (i. e., socialized medicine), at least by the important measures given in the previous section.
Most of the health care that I currently receive is through a government-run system, namely Medicare. I have had no problems with it. Granted, the expense of Medicare is ballooning, and there will be problems down the road, if something isn't done, but this isn't because of who is running it, it's because more people are coming under Medicare. The overhead cost of Medicare is said to be considerably lower than that of private insurance companies.

This paragraph added on Aug 14, 2009. I listened to President Obama at a "town meeting" on this subject, in Montana. He expanded my understanding of this issue. Canada and the United Kingdom have socialized medicine, in the sense that their governments not only pay for healthcare expenses, but also run the hospitals and other medical facilities, and hire the medical personnel. He said that there are other options, and mentioned the system of the Netherlands, where apparently there are privately owned medical facilities, and where doctors can decide to go into practice without being hired by the government. The government does pay the bills. That system would be less socialistic than the Canadian system. No doubt there are other possibilities.

President Obama has never proposed doing away with the current insurance-based system, although there are other politicians who want to do away with it. It appears unlikely that that will happen any time soon, if ever, in spite of its faults.

Under the healthcare plan currently proposed, disasters X, Y, and Z will come upon us.
(Whatever X, Y and Z are, such as government access to our financial data, doing away with medicare, or government promotion of euthanasia.) Maybe such disasters will come, if there are changes in healthcare. But most likely not. These, and other serious problems, are mostly scare tactics by people with a vested interest in the system the way it is, or a vested interest in fighting Democrats. (This is not the same thing as principled, civil opposition to change in healthcare, or even to Democrats. But no one should call people who are trying to fix the problems Nazis, even if they don't like the proposals.)
I wouldn't worry too much about these supposed coming disasters. In the first place, vested interests (such as the insurance companies and others) are doing everything they can to discourage change, including lobbying on a massive scale, and putting out information, or misinformation.
In the second place, at this point, we have no idea what sort of plan, if any, will be adopted by Congress. The House has adopted a plan, but the Senate isn't going to do so until September, at the earliest, and almost certainly there will be big differences between the two, which will require lots of conference committee work. And, as I say, it is possible that there will not even be a new health care plan adopted by Congress during this session.
In the third place, although our Congress is not the most popular institution in the US, it does have some sense, and even if it did want to do away with medicare, it knows full well that there would be a massive outcry, perhaps even a revolt. The same response would be expected with the other disasters mentioned at the beginning of this section. They aren't going to happen.

What about the cost?
Aye, there's the rub. We seem unlikely to change much from our private insurance-based "system." Although there are some who want to do so, President Obama has not advocated that, instead, he seems to be favoring providing more people with access to private insurance, but with a public insurance option. One way in which this might be done would be to subsidize small businesses, so that they could afford to offer health plans for employees.

Providing health insurance for the many millions that don't have it now will be expensive, indeed. No wonder some in Congress are balking.

What's the solution? I don't see one. We lack political will to change from private insurance to public, in spite of the generally good experience of other countries. Keeping the "system" we have now won't stop escalating costs. They are going to continue to go up. As with financial institutions, and auto makers, we have decided, in effect, that private health insurance companies are too big to fail.

If a new plan is adopted, it doesn't seem that it will attack any of the problems listed in the first section, except the first one, and maybe a small part of the fourth. The most promising way to deal with all of those problems would seem to be if a public option were included, did well enough, and was allowed to grow at the expense of private health insurance, over several years. We'll see.

I offer, only half in jest, my plan.

Thanks for reading.

Graphic added on Aug 11, 2009. Note added above, December 14, 2012.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Serious Whistle-blowing in the Bible

A whistleblower is someone who lets outsiders know that there is something wrong inside her own institution, be it governmental agency or business. Sometimes the whistleblower gets into trouble.

It recently occurred to me that there were whistleblowers in the Old Testament, and that they often paid the ultimate penalty. Who am I talking about? Here's an example:

2 Chronicles 33:21 Amon was twenty-two years old when he began to reign, and he reigned two years in Jerusalem. 22 And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, as Manasseh his father had done. Amon sacrificed to all the images that Manasseh his father had made, and served them. 23 And he did not humble himself before the Lord, as Manasseh his father had humbled himself, but this Amon incurred guilt more and more. 24 And his servants conspired against him and put him to death in his house. 25 But the people of the land struck down all those who had conspired against King Amon. And the people of the land made Josiah his son king in his place. (ESV)

These unnamed servants knew that the king was evil. King Amon was following in the worst ways of his father, Manasseh, not his best ways, and was leading Judah in the wrong direction. The servants had no one to whistleblow to -- the king had supreme authority -- so they took matters into their own hands. They may have expected the result -- their own death -- because such things had happened in the past.

In 2 Samuel 1:1-16, an Amalekite claimed to have killed King Saul, David's good king-turned bad king predecessor. David had him killed.

In 2 Samuel 4:5-12, David had the murderers of Saul's son, Ish-Bosheth, who had claimed the kingship, killed.

In 2 Kings 12:19-20, King Joash was killed by his own servants. In 2 Kings 14:5-7, his son, King Amaziah, had the assassins that killed his father killed.

There were attempts to assassinate Adolf Hitler, dictator of Germany. Julius Caesar of Rome was assassinated.

Besides the earthly consequences of assassinating a ruler, The Bible's Ten Commandments include a prohibition against murder. Are there occasions when, in spite of this, assassination of a ruler is justified? (And when there is no recourse to a body like the Congress to remove a powerful, corrupt leader.) I'm not sure. I am sure that I hope I am never part of any such plot, as either a conspirator, or the intended victim. I hope that, if God clearly directed me to assassinate a President, I would do so. But it is extremely unlikely that He would do so. God tells us that our rulers are ordained by God, at least as a general principle, and perhaps always. (Romans 13:1-7)

Thanks for reading. Blow the whistle in your company, your government institution, even your church, if it is really appropriate. But don't expect instant gratitude from everybody. You might even be put to death.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

The Sharing Knife books: finding lessons there

My apologies to Lois McMaster Bujold, but I spent quite a bit of time reading her four Sharing Knife novels, which aren't short, and I'd like to muse some more about them.

The theme of the books is reconciliation. Here's Paul on that subject:
1 Corinthians 12:13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. (All scripture quotations from the ESV.)

There is reconciliation even more important than two groups of people becoming reconciled to each other, though:
2 Corinthians 5:20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

Getting your priorities right is illustrated.
In the fourth book, a wagon train is about to be attacked by a powerful malice, with its slaves. The Lakewalkers tell the farmers with them to run for cover. But some of them don't want to go.
"The wagons are all we have!" cried Grouse.
"You can't stop to defend things." (The Sharing Knife, Volume Four: Horizon. (New York: Eos, HarperCollins, 2009, p. 209. Grouse is a minor character. Dag is the one who answers him.)
Another man, a smith, is asked if he would rather save his wife or his anvil.

Mark 8:
37 For what can a man give in return for his soul?
Luke 12:
20 But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’

There is love and fidelity in marriage.
There are a number of happy married couples in the book, including the main characters, Dag and Fawn, but many others, some who have been married for a long time, like Fawn's parents, or Mari and Cattagus, are examples of long-term commitment, and unselfish love for another. (Mari is Dag's aunt, and, until he stopped patrolling, his most recent patrol captain.)

At one point, Dag is approached by a woman, who asks him to be unfaithful to Fawn. He doesn't even consider this, but refuses immediately. Cattagus is disabled, and unable to go on patrol when his wife does, but he and Mari are obviously in a mature spousal love relationship. Dag and Fawn have a number of conversations, throughout the four books. Except when Dag doesn't tell Fawn that he knows she is pregnant right away, there is no hint of dishonesty between them.
The Bible is full of admonitions and examples about this.

There are several examples of moral choices. Some characters make the right choice, some do not.

There is love for the natural world, without worshiping it. Dag shows Fawn his favorite place, a spot on the lake where there are lots of waterlilies. Fawn tells him that she loves milkweed flowers. These plants become part of their wedding cords, objects worn for the duration of a marriage by Lakewalkers.

I believe that stewardship of the natural world is part of God's plan for humans.

There is unselfish service to others. The Lakewalkers, who patrol their own lands, and those of the farmers, for malices, are usually considered to be some sort of freaks, cannibals, and the like by the farmers. The farmers are seldom grateful for this service, and many of them don't even believe it is necessary.

Dag, and other Lakewalkers with healing ability, often give of their time and energy, even putting their lives at immediate risk of being groundlocked, to fix injuries and diseases. Dag and Arkady do this not only for Lakewalkers, but for farmers.

There is a conflict between good and evil.
The evil beings, malices, attack at unexpected times and places, and in unexpected ways. They are able to subvert farmers, even Lakewalkers, to be their slaves, aiding their evil purpose, which is to destroy all that is alive and good. They use their slaves, without regard for their safety, or even their lives. This is much the way that the devil operates, according to the Bible.
As Paul put it:
Ephesians 6:10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.

And, of course, the most important lesson: Freedom from evil comes only at the cost of a life.
There is no analogy worthy of comparison to the death and resurrection of Christ, the perfect sacrifice for sin, certainly not anything in these books that is so worthy. And there is no hint of a resurrection in them. However, the books do put forth a system wherein the only way to kill a malice is for part of a dying human's ground to be placed into a sharing knife, and that knife be used on the malice.

Thanks for reading. Read the Bible!

The post introducing these books is here. This post is on the theme of the books. This post is on ground, a unique aspect of Bujold's subcreation. A post, on religion in the books, is here.

Friday, August 07, 2009

The Sharing Knife, Religious Aspects

I do not know what Lois McMaster Bujold's religious beliefs might be. In an earlier post, I pointed out that one of her characters, in the Vorkosigan saga, seems to have been a Christian, and in another post, I have argued that Cazaril, in her The Curse of Chalion, is in some respects a Christ-figure. But I do not know for sure what Bujold thinks. My guess is that she is at least sympathetic to orthodox Christianity. In an interview, she said, in response to a question suggesting that fantasy and science fiction might be inherently antithetical to Christianity, ". . . religion or its absence is a matter of the writer’s world view, and will vary with the writer, not with the genre." She went on to say that she was opposed to fundamentalism, and, from the context, she probably meant fundamentalism associated with Young-earth Creationist beliefs.

In Bujold's Sharing Knife novels, there are some important religious aspects. I would like to discuss these works under a rubric established previously. In that post, I discussed some traits that might be used to determine whether or not a novel is a Christian novel.

1) Is there a Christ-figure? The Sharing Knife books have a number of Lakewalkers who might be considered Christ-figures, in that they allow their lives to be taken, so that sharing knives, to kill their greatest enemy, the malices, might be prepared. I have difficulty accepting this aspect of the book as showing a genuine Christ-figure, for two reasons. One, this is quite common among Lakewalkers. Bujold doesn't explicitly say so, but the books seem to indicate that this is the normal mode of death for Lakewalkers. Secondly, sometimes, a Lakewalker kills herself to prime a sharing knife. I have difficulty accepting that a sacrifice, even unto death, carried about by the person who dies, is like what Christ did. He did die so that others might live, as Lakewalkers do, but not by his own hand, and only one sacrifice, not many, was necessary.

2) Belief in orthodox Christian doctrine, such as belief in the Trinity. I didn't find this in the books. In fact, most or all of the Lakewalkers seem not to believe in any gods at all, except in "absent gods," a frequent expression of Dag, and others. Fawn does find that some Lakewalker music is hymn-like, but what that means to her is not explained. There is little or no explanation of farmer religious beliefs.

3) Prayer to a monotheistic god. There is a little mention of Lakewalkers praying, or wishing that they could pray, but no real prayer in any of the four books. If there was, presumably it would have been to the "absent gods," not to a single supreme god. It is as if Bujold has constructed a world in which the inhabitants wish that they could believe in a supernatural God, or gods, but don't really do so.

4) No one in the novels under consideration expresses a relationship with the God of Christianity, or with any other deity.

5) There is no acknowledgment of supernatural guidance in the books. However, the mission of Dag and Fawn, to begin to bridge the gap between Lakewalkers and farmers, sometimes goes so well (by no means always) and by such unexpected means, that it seems like it might well have been explained by providential guidance and assistance.

6) There is deliberate rejection of evil. Better put, there are some clear moral choices to be made by the characters. Some of both Fawn's and Dag's families cannot put aside their prejudices. Fawn's brothers participated in a scheme which, had it gone the way it was planned, might well have killed Dag on the night before his wedding to Fawn.

Crane, the renegade Lakewalker turned river bandit captain, has clearly made some very wrong choices. Dag and the farmer and Lakewalker group that ends the robberies and murders of Crane and his followers believe that the farmers who have chosen to follow Crane did not have to do so. Alder, who had been betrothed to Berry, but wound up as one of Crane's bandits, is told exactly that. Some farmers tried to escape Crane, but were killed in doing so. Alder didn't try.

Dag, while training with Arkady to be a healer, agrees that he will not treat farmers, because doing so might overwhelm the Lakewalkers with requests for their services as healers. But a farmer asks that he come treat a young relative, and he agrees to do so, knowing that he is breaking his word, but considering that it would be wrong to let a boy die a horrible death.

Neeta, a young Lakewalker woman, becomes infatuated with Dag, and tells him that he would be welcome in her bed, and that Fawn would never know. Dag refuses, and doesn't really consider the offer. Later, Neeta makes a very bad choice. Fawn is lying in a coma-like state, in the group of farmers who are attacked by a very dangerous malice (all the Lakewalkers in the group are trying to kill the malice) and Neeta directs that Fawn be buried, knowing that she is alive.

Barr, a young male Lakewalker, appears in the third volume, a self-centered, careless person. By the time the last book is ending, Barr has seen that he should take responsibility for his actions, in particular his brief affair with a farmer woman, which, he discovers, has resulted in a daughter.

These characters have clear moral choices to face. Some choose good, some choose evil. Barr, for one, changes from a person who doesn't care about the rights and wrongs of what he does, but about how it makes him feel, to a moral individual.

I wouldn't say that the Sharing Knife books are Christian novels. I would say that they do present clear moral choices, and characters who are both evil and good.

Thanks for reading. The post introducing these books is here. This post is on the theme of the books. This post is on ground, a unique aspect of Bujold's subcreation. The final post in the series, on how I found illustrations of important Christian ideas in the books, whether Bujold intended them or not, is here.