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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Why Christians shouldn't feel threatened by the Big Bang theory

Relevant has a solid article with the same title as this post. Among other things, it points out that Christian astronomers were important in establishing the idea of a Big Bang.

I have blogged on this subject previously. My post is complementary to the Relevant article. It indicates some reasons why Christians often have felt threatened.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Sunspots 506

Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:
Christianity: Speculative Faith has a blog post about The Walking Dead, and how we deal with death generally. The author closes by saying: ". . . the reality is the absence of sex, gore, cussing, and violence doesn’t make a book Christian-compatible. How it handles death, however, determines how in sync with the Gospel a book is."

Speculative Faith also has a blog post by E. Stephen Burnett, which discusses six myths about heaven, which are common among believers, and others.
Relevant names the most important idol worshiped by Christians.

Humor: The funniest video I've ever seen on TV that didn't star an animal or a baby -- a 5+ minute interview of Anne Hathaway, by Jon Stewart, on the Daily Show. They crack each other up, uncontrollably, and apparently without really meaning to, about 2 minutes in, and never fully recover. The live audience was definitely amused. (Unlike some Daily Show scenes, there was no reason to bleep anything out, and there was no mention of politics of any kind.)
Science:  A 2 minute plus YouTube video on how large astronomical objects are (and how small the earth is!).
Wired reports on the Rosetta spacecraft's exploration of a comet.

FiveThirtyEight analyzes recent snowstorms in New York city, and finds that it doesn't snow as often now as it used to, but, when it does, it snows more.

Sports: Congratulations to the Gasol brothers, from Spain, who are the first brothers ever selected as NBA all-stars. (They will be on opposing teams.) Congratulations to their parents, too, I guess.
Image source (public domain)

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Excerpts from Orthodoxy, by Gilbert K. Chesterton, 6

Spiritual doctrines do not actually limit the mind as do materialistic denials. Even if I believe in immortality I need not think about it. But if I disbelieve in immortality I must not think about it. In the first case the road is open and I can go as far as I like; in the second the road is shut. But the case is even stronger, and the parallel with madness is yet more strange. For it was our case against the exhaustive and logical theory of the lunatic that, right or wrong, it gradually destroyed his humanity. Now it is the charge against the main deductions of the materialist that, right or wrong, they gradually destroy his humanity; I do not mean only kindness, I mean hope, courage, poetry, initiative, all that is human. For instance, when materialism leads men to complete fatalism (as it generally does), it is quite idle to pretend that it is in any sense a liberating force. It is absurd to say that you are especially advancing freedom when you only use free thought to destroy free will. The determinists come to bind, not loose. They may well call their law the “chain” of causation. It is the worst chain that ever fettered a human being. You may use the language of liberty, if you like, about materialistic teaching, but it is obvious that this is just as inapplicable to it as a whole as the same language when applied to a man locked up in a madhouse. You may say, if you like, that the man is free to think himself a poached egg. But it is surely a more massive and important fact that if he is a poached egg he is not free to eat, drink, sleep, walk, or smoke a cigarette. Similarly you may say, if you like, that the bold determinist speculator is free to disbelieve in the reality of the will. But it is a much more massive and important fact that he is not free to raise, to curse, to thank, to justify, to urge, to punish, to resist temptations, to incite mobs, to make New Year resolutions, to pardon sinners, to rebuke tyrants, or even to say “thank you” for the mustard.

Orthodoxy, first published in 1908, by G. K. Chesterton, is in the public domain, and available from Project Gutenberg. The previous post in this series is here.  Thanks for reading! Read Chesterton.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Sunspots 505

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

The Arts: Relevant has an opinion piece that says that Christians should care more about design -- in music, and in other arts, including book covers. There's a link to a compiled list of the worst Christian book covers of 2014, and yes, most of them are really awful.

Christianity: Relevant on "4 Ways the Modern Church Looks Nothing Like the Early Church." Pretty important ways, too.
Computing: Gizmo's Freeware reports on a free Windows program to list all your drivers, and their properties.
Health: National Public Radio reports on how difficult it is for veterans to get benefits. Shameful.
Politics: National Public Radio reports that the South Carolina Poet Laureate's poem was not read at the inauguration of Governor Nikki Haley, last week. The poem is included in the report.
Science: National Public Radio reports on the question of how humans come to like foods (like hot spices and coffee) that they didn't like when they were small children.
Wired tells us why squinting helps us see better.

Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

1 Timothy 6:17 poster

1 Timothy 6:17 God gives pleasure 
An attempt to illustrate 1 Timothy 6:17, which, in the World English Bible, says "Charge those who are rich in this present world that they not be arrogant, nor have their hope set on the uncertainty of riches, but on the living God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy."

God is not a cosmic bully. He does provide for our needs, as He knows them, not necessarily as we do. It's a good thing He doesn't provide for them as we think of them -- some of them wouldn't be good for us. But He also provides for some of our wants, and, sometimes, surprises us with unexpected and unanticipated pleasures.

Thanks for reading and looking!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Washington Post columnist on the question of whether God began the universe

Its not often that you can read a column, on the editorial page of a newspaper, about scientific evidence for God's activity in creation. But Michael Gerson, of the Washington Post (his column is syndicated, and our local daily newspaper, the Greenville News, prints some of his columns) has done just that. 

Gerson points out that there are a number of physical constants and properties that are just right -- The Goldilocks effect -- if they werent what they are, or very close to that, life, perhaps even atoms, would be impossible. This could be an amazing coincidence, but that seems to be a serious stretch.

Does this absolutely prove that there is a God? No. See the verse at the top of this web page. It takes faith to believe that the universe was planned by a Divine Creator, and people without such faith are not likely to be convinced. If one doesn't believe in God at all, one isn't going to believe that He had anything to do with the way things began. One alternative explanation for our existence is that there are many universes -- so-called multiverses. We are in one of these universes where the conditions are right for life. There may be an infinite variety of universes where life, even matter, would not be possible. Theres no proof of that, and not even any evidence for it. (It’s hard for me to imagine how we could get such evidence!)

For more information on the Goldilocks effect, see here. There is a Wikipedia article on the Anthropic Principle, which exists in more than one form, but is about how conditions in the universe are compatible with our existence. Heres my evaluation of the position of Richard Dawkins, the most prominent atheistic scientist of our time, on the question.

Gerson quotes Max Tegmark, a scientist who believes that there are multiverses: “To me, an unexplained coincidence can be a telltale sign of a gap in our scientific understanding. Dismissing it by saying, ‘We got lucky — now stop looking for an explanation!’ is not only unsatisfactory, but also tantamount to ignoring a potentially crucial clue.”

Indeed. Thanks for reading.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Excerpts from Orthodoxy, by Gilbert K. Chesterton, 5

The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason. The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable; this may be observed specially in the two or three commonest kinds of madness. If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours. Or if a man says that he is the rightful King of England, it is no complete answer to say that the existing authorities call him mad; for if he were King of England that might be the wisest thing for the existing authorities to do. Or if a man says that he is Jesus Christ, it is no answer to tell him that the world denies his divinity; for the world denied Christ’s. Nevertheless he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed. Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large.

A Christian is only restricted in the same sense that an atheist is restricted. He cannot think Christianity false and continue to be a Christian; and the atheist cannot think atheism false and continue to be an atheist. But as it happens, there is a very special sense in which materialism has more restrictions than spiritualism. Mr. McCabe thinks me a slave because I am not allowed to believe in determinism. I think Mr. McCabe a slave because he is not allowed to believe in fairies. But if we examine the two vetoes we shall see that his is really much more of a pure veto than mine. The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe. But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle.

Orthodoxy, first published in 1908, by G. K. Chesterton, is in the public domain, and available from Project Gutenberg. The previous post in this series is here.  Thanks for reading! Read Chesterton.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

2014 was the hottest year on record

Fox News (and many other news outlets) recently reported that 2014 was the warmest year on record. Records go back to 1880.

Wired has published more detail from the report by NASA and NOAA. Among other things, the report indicates that a large part of the US was not warmer than usual, although the world as a whole was, indeed, warmer than it has ever been. The Wired report includes some helpful charts.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Sunspots 504

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

Christianity: Relevant tells us the real reasons why we don't invite others to church.
Relevant also has a fine article on the so-called Culture Wars. Christians shouldn't be fighting them.

Computing: Relevant says that we can now play MS-DOS games, such as Oregon Trail. I was able to get that game visible on our system, but couldn't get it to play, probably because we don't have a game controller.
National Public Radio says that Americans aren't getting the best smartphones, at the best prices.

Wired tells us why we don't usually like photos of ourselves very much.

Sports: A fantastic buzzer-beating basketball shot -- so fantastic that the shooter didn't think it had a chance. Brief video. The buzzer was the shot clock, not the game or half-time clock.

 Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Jesus, light of the world -- John 8:12, quoting Isaiah 60:1

Jesus, light of the World dogwood 
An attempt to portray John 8:12, which says "Again, therefore, Jesus spoke to them, saying, 'I am the light of the world. He who follows me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the light of life." (World English Bible, public domain. Jesus was quoting from Isaiah 60:1.) The pink material on the left is bracts from one of our dogwoods. (The leaves and stems are beautiful, too!)

Thanks for looking! Isn't God a great artist?

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Excerpts from Orthodoxy, by Gilbert K. Chesteron, 4

In this remarkable situation it is plainly not now possible (with any hope of a universal appeal) to start, as our father did, with the fact of sin. This very fact which was to them (and is to me) as plain as a pikestaff, is the very fact that has been specially diluted or denied. But though moderns deny the existence of sin, I do not think that they have yet denied the existence of a lunatic asylum. We all agree still that there is a collapse of the intellect as unmistakable as a falling house. Men deny hell, but not, as yet, Hanwell. [Hanwell was a lunatic asylum.] For the purpose of our primary argument the one may very well stand where the other stood. I mean that as all thoughts and theories were once judged by whether they tended to make a man lose his soul, so for our present purpose all modern thoughts and theories may be judged by whether they tend to make a man lose his wits. It is true that some speak lightly and loosely of insanity as in itself attractive. But a moment’s thought will show that if disease is beautiful, it is generally some one else’s disease. A blind man may be picturesque; but it requires two eyes to see the picture. And similarly even the wildest poetry of insanity can only be enjoyed by the sane. To the insane man his insanity is quite prosaic, because it is quite true. A man who thinks himself a chicken is to himself as ordinary as a chicken. A man who thinks he is a bit of glass is to himself as dull as a bit of glass. It is the homogeneity of his mind which makes him dull, and which makes him mad. It is only because we see the irony of his idea that we think him even amusing; it is only because he does not see the irony of his idea that he is put in Hanwell at all. In short, oddities only strike ordinary people. Oddities do not strike odd people. This is why ordinary people have a much more exciting time; while odd people are always complaining of the dullness of life. This is also why the new novels die so quickly, and why the old fairy tales endure for ever. The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling; they startle him because he is normal. But in the modern psychological novel the hero is abnormal; the center is not central. Hence the fiercest adventures fail to affect him adequately, and the book is monotonous. You can make a story out of a hero among dragons; but not out of a dragon among dragons. The fairy tale discusses what a sane man will do in a mad world. The sober realistic novel of today discusses what an essential lunatic will do in a dull world.

Orthodoxy, first published in 1908, by G. K. Chesterton, is in the public domain, and available from Project Gutenberg. The previous post in this series is here.  Thanks for reading! Read Chesterton.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

The Harry Potter series, revisited.

I recently re-read all seven of the Harry Potter books, by J. K. Rowling. I enjoyed reading them, and wish to give some reactions. Since Rowling exerted firm control over the movies, I'm not considering them, as such. They are mostly like the books. There are probably some spoilers in this post. Sorry.

1) There is a clear conflict between good, represented by Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, and evil, represented by Voldemort. Some of the magical people in the books are steadfastly good, some steadfastly evil. Some of them change camps. Harry, and others, are tempted to join the evil side. Harry's father apparently was a real rascal, and a bully, when he was in Hogwarts, the school for wizards, but he did stand up for good before he died. (Harry's parents died while he was still a baby, killed by Voldemort.)

Percy Weasley seeks power, and, because he does, rejects his parents and siblings, in order to curry favor with people in the Ministry of Magic. But he finally repents. Severus Snape seems to be an evil character through almost all seven of the books, but, in the end, Harry understands that he really was on the side of good all along.

There is some scripture, and some indications that some of the witches and wizards pray, in the book.

As of January 9, 2015, the Wikipedia article on the last book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, has a section on "Christian Allegories."

2) Rowling doesn't seem to like bureaucracies very much. Although there are good people who work in the Ministry of Magic, there are also a lot of bad ones.

3) Rowling is usually very good at naming. Dumbledore, Voldemort, and Snape are names that are perfect for their characters. Hogwarts, and the four Hogwarts Houses, Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin, are well named. Nearly Headless Nick is an inspired name (for a ghost). I think Rowling could have done a better job with the Deathly Hallows. The word Hallow has, for me at least, the connotation of holiness, and that isn't really what the Hallows were about. Pensieve also doesn't quite ring true, for me.

4) Rowling has a great imagination. The train to Hogwarts, Hogwarts itself, with its several classes on the practice of magic, the Sorting Hat, the ghosts, and the game of Quidditch, played on brooms, are some of the evidence for that. The entire wizard/witch culture, living in the midst of non-magical people, is also evidence. She is good on setting, plot, characterization and dialog. The plot can be especially intricate, but the reader doesn't have to understand the ins and outs of wand possession to grasp who is on the side of Voldemort, and who isn't.

The point of view seldom shifts. Most of the time, it's on Harry. If you end a chapter, usually the next one takes up where the previous one left off.

5) One of the attractions of the books, for young people, is that Harry, Hermione and Ron (and other Hogwarts students) do a lot of staying up after they should have been in bed. They also do a lot of exploring into places where they aren't supposed to go. They copy each other's schoolwork. Sometimes, they get punished for staying up too long, or trespassing, but mostly they don't. Some of the destruction of evil in the books would not have been possible without this sort of behavior.

6) For some reason, none of the many professors at Hogwarts seem to be married. Although the leading character, Harry, is male, there are many important female characters, such as Hermione Granger, Professor McGonagal, Dolores Umbridge, Luna Lovegood and Ginny Weasley and her mother, Molly. Not all of them are good. All of them are well developed.

7) The great moral questions in the books revolve around power, and its importance, and death, and its importance. At least four characters willingly enter situations where they are in danger of death, to advance the cause of good, and two of them die in these situations. Voldemort, the archvillian, has done everything that he can to keep from dying.
“There is nothing worse than death, Dumbledore!” snarled Voldemort. “You are quite wrong,” said Dumbledore . . . - Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. 1 Corinthians 15:26, that says that the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death, is on a tombstone, and Harry and Hermione reflect on it.

8) Although Harry can be proud, cheeky, devious, revenges some bad things done to him, and can question Dumbledore's judgment, he has his really good points. One of them is that he saves the lives of two contemporaries who have been really nasty to him. Those are Draco Malfoy and Dudley Dursley, his non-magical cousin. He stands up for Hagrid, the not-so-competent professor.

A few years ago, I posted my reactions to the books, in a comment on an interview of the author, J. K. Rowling, with Katie Couric. In that interview, Rowling said that her books were very moral, and not designed to encourage devil worship, black magic, and the like. In another post, I compiled a number of reactions, by Christians, to the books and movies. That post, "Is Harry Potter a bad influence, ii," is here. It has links to a couple of dozen sources. Some of them, especially those to Christianity Today, are, no doubt, now dead.

I agree with Rowling, mostly. (But see point 5, above.) The books are not designed to teach love of devil worship, black magic, and the like. They are coming of age novels, set in the environment of a wizard/witch subculture, mostly in the United Kingdom. The coming of age is more important than the magic that the young wizards and witches are taught at Hogwarts. (Wizards are male, witches female.)

The Wikipedia has extensive coverage of the books, and the movies. This article is probably the best place to start.

See Speculative Faith, which has some good posts on the matter of magic and Christianity. They include "The Christian Problem with Magic, 1," and the second part. Also "Deuteronomy 18 Witchcraft," which, among other things, points out that Elsa, from Frozen, is a witch, and a post that claims -- read it -- that some Christian parents practice white magic, especially near Halloween.

If you haven't read these books, you should. Thanks for reading this.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Sunspots 503

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

The Arts: A man with cerebral palsy creates artwork with a typewriter. Amazing. The Mind Unleashed includes a video, less than 5 minutes, of the man and his work.

Christianity: From The Daily Beast: Rap artists using their music for Christianity.
Computing: (and maybe Politics) The National Security Agency released a report on December 24th -- the release date, by itself, suggests that there were things to try to hide -- on how data collected on US citizens has been misused, and how it hasn't helped catch terrorists, according to a report by Bloomberg News.

Science:  Wired has an article on the most amazing discoveries about microbes, in 2014. There were a lot of them.
National Public Radio reports that scientists are making progress on producing artificial organs (which include cultured human cells) as a way of looking for cures for various disease conditions, where mice are not a good model of human physiology.

Sports: Michael Jordan, arguably the best basketball player ever, turned 50 last year, not too happily.

 Image source (public domain)

Monday, January 05, 2015

Cosmopolitan Ethics

Some time ago, I read World Ethics and Climate Change: From International to Global Justice, by Paul Harris. (Edinburgh University Press, 2009. Here is Columbia University Press's page on the book.) 

The book is pretty well summarized by its title.

A concept that I was not familiar with is cosmopolitan ethics.

Harris says, correctly, that so far, international efforts (if that's the word) to stop climate change have been feeble, at best. One reason is that developed countries, such as the US, don't want to take the brunt of efforts to bring emission of greenhouse gases down. Another is that developing countries, such as China, don't want to stop development, and wish to go down the same road as the developed countries, becoming, if anything, even worse polluters than we are. And then there are the undeveloped countries, who wish to join the developing and developed countries. There are other reasons, of course. It's a complex issue, requiring unprecedented international cooperation.

Cosmopolitan ethics is a scheme that would hold individuals, as well as countries, responsible for their actions. Harris says that there are hundreds of millions of people, all over the world, who are as affluent, as polluting, as upper middle-class and wealthy people living in North America. Why should they be allowed to go on living as they are, with no immediate consequences to their actions? On the other hand, why should poor North Americans be penalized for actions that they haven't taken?

The idea seems fair enough. Harris also claims that adopting it would allow a re-thinking of attempts to limit the emission of greenhouse gases, so that countries could come to enforceable, effective agreements. Maybe so. I don't have a lot of hope. As I say, it's a complex issue.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Excerpts from Orthodoxy, by Gilbert K. Chesteron, 3

But I think this book may well start where our argument started—in the neighbourhood of the madhouse. Modern masters of science are much impressed with the need of beginning all inquiry with a fact. The ancient masters of religion were quite equally impressed with that necessity. They began with the fact of sin—a fact as practical as potatoes. Whether or no man could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing. But certain religious leaders in London, not mere materialists, have begun in our day not to deny the highly disputable water, but to deny the indisputable dirt. Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved. Some followers of the Reverend R. J. Campbell, in their almost too fastidious spirituality, admit divine sinlessness, which they cannot see even in their dreams. But they essentially deny human sin, which they can see in the street. The strongest saints and the strongest skeptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.

Orthodoxy, first published in 1908, by G. K. Chesterton, is in the public domain, and available from Project Gutenberg. The previous post in this series is here. 
Thanks for reading! Read Chesterton.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Praying for my church

My pastor has recently asked us to pray for our church, on Thursday evenings, at a time of our choosing. What he really means is that he hopes that we will pray more than we have been -- I hope most of us were already doing so. It's a good idea, and I have begun to do this. I am grateful for his leadership.

I believe that the main emphasis in such prayer should be ministry, and ministers

What is meant by ministry? The following, and perhaps more:
+ visiting other members, or prospective members, for encouragement
+ inviting others to attendance, or to salvation
+ caring for the sick and shut-in, and providing relief to caregivers
+ welcoming, including greeting those who attend, and making them feel at home, serving refreshments, passing out bulletins
+teaching and otherwise leading small groups, including leading them in ministry, and caring for spiritual and other needs in the group
+ providing food for the hungry, and clothing and shelter for those lacking such
+ prison ministry
+ caring for children, youth and others with special need
+ raising children lovingly, teaching them the Bible, and what's right and wrong
+ testifying to others about what God has done
+ preaching
+ presenting music and A/V materials
+ administering sacraments
+ leading worship by means other than music and preaching, such as presenting drama, reading scripture or leading responsive reading
+ explaining and/or proclaiming the gospel publicly, as by example, word of mouth, by phone, letter, blogging or social media

People who do these things, and perhaps others that I have not included, are, for this purpose, ministers. Perhaps I have left out some categories. Feel free to remind me of any others that should have been included.

Giving and prayer are also ministry, I suppose, but should be part of the work of all believers, except for those unable to give.

Yes, there are sick and unredeemed people, and financial needs, and it's not wrong for Christians to pray for these. But the New Testament church emphasized prayer for ministry and ministers, with almost no record of prayer for the sick or unsaved, or for financial needs. That is probably because, if ministers are empowered and enabled to minister, the sick, unredeemed, and even financial needs, will be met.

Thanks for reading! Pray for your ministers.