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Monday, April 30, 2007

Buds: a promise of new things, part 2

Blueberry bud
The photo above is of buds on a blueberry bush, in our back yard. The photo, itself, should serve as a link to larger versions of the same photo, if you care to look.

In the first part, I quoted all the scripture passages that mention buds. In this one, I shall muse a little about the botany of buds. Here's the Wikipedia article on buds, which probably tells you more about buds than you want to know.

A bud is growth tissue that hasn't grown yet, so it is a promise of new things. Woody plants, especially, do not grow like we do. A human (and vertebrate animals in general) more or less just expands in size as it grows. (The proportions aren't quite exact -- babies have bigger heads, and smaller legs and feet, than an adult, proportionally speaking.) But a tree or a bush doesn't do that. There is a special type of tissue, called meristematic tissue, which accomplishes the creation of new cells for such a plant. Meristematic tissue is localized, not distributed evenly. As a result, most of the growth of a twig is in length, as the meristematic tissue in the terminal bud keeps making new cells, and moving on out as it does. There is some growth in thickness, due to other sets of meristematic cells, but most of the growth is upwards. If you pound a nail in a tree in 2007, and come back in 2010, the nail will be the same distance from the ground, because the tree grows in length at its extremities, rather than simply expanding.

Buds have meristematic tissue in them. When they add new cells, and these cells enlarge and mature, they can become more twig, a leaf, or a flower. The buds in the photo produced blueberry flowers, which reproduced and developed into blueberries. They were good! But they weren't there when the photo was taken.

All of the Biblical references to buds refer, in some way, to new growth. I hope that I am still growing, spiritually and emotionally, if not physically. Perhaps I am a soul in bud.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

John Bunyan: even a little saving faith may save us

{317} HOPE. Why art thou so tart, my brother? Esau sold his birthright, and that for a mess of pottage, and that birthright was his greatest jewel; and if he, why might not Little-faith do so too? [Heb. 12:16]

CHR. Esau did sell his birthright indeed, and so do many besides, and by so doing exclude themselves from the chief blessing, as also that caitiff did; but you must put a difference betwixt Esau and Little-faith, and also betwixt their estates. Esau's birthright was typical, but Little-faith's jewels were not so; Esau's belly was his god, but Little-faith's belly was not so; Esau's want lay in his fleshly appetite, Little-faith's did not so. Besides, Esau could see no further than to the fulfilling of his lusts; "Behold, I am at the point to die, (said he), and what profit shall this birthright do me?" [Gen. 25:32] But Little-faith, though it was his lot to have but a little faith, was by his little faith kept from such extravagances, and made to see and prize his jewels more than to sell them, as Esau did his birthright. You read not anywhere that Esau had faith, no, not so much as a little; therefore, no marvel if, where the flesh only bears sway, (as it will in that man where no faith is to resist), if he sells his birthright, and his soul and all, and that to the devil of hell; for it is with such, as it is with the ass, who in her occasions cannot be turned away. [Jer. 2:24] When their minds are set upon their lusts, they will have them whatever they cost. But Little-faith was of another temper, his mind was on things divine; his livelihood was upon things that were spiritual, and from above; therefore, to what end should he that is of such a temper sell his jewels (had there been any that would have bought them) to fill his mind with empty things? Will a man give a penny to fill his belly with hay; or can you persuade the turtle-dove to live upon carrion like the crow? Though faithless ones can, for carnal lusts, pawn, or mortgage, or sell what they have, and themselves outright to boot; yet they that have faith, saving faith, though but a little of it, cannot do so. Here, therefore, my brother, is thy mistake.

This is an extract from Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan (1678, public domain. One version gives paragraph numbers.) Bunyan included the scriptural references in the book. Pilgrim's Progress, though little read now, was important enough to have been considered, for a century or two, the most important writing in English, except for the Bible.

HOPE. is Hopeful, Christian's companion, and CHR. is Christian, the main character of this book, on his way from the City of Destruction to the Heavenly City.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Buds: a promise of new things, part 1

The word, bud, including variations, occurs 11 times in the King James Version of the Bible. In the English Standard Version, it occurs in 8 verses, but the search I used returned only bud, not budded, or other variants.

Here are all of these passages, combined, as they are in the ESV:
Genesis 40:9 So the chief cupbearer told his dream to Joseph and said to him, “In my dream there was a vine before me, 10 and on the vine there were three branches. As soon as it budded, its blossoms shot forth, and the clusters ripened into grapes. 11 Pharaoh's cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes and pressed them into Pharaoh's cup and placed the cup in Pharaoh's hand.”

Exodus 9:29 Moses said to him, “As soon as I have gone out of the city, I will stretch out my hands to the Lord. The thunder will cease, and there will be no more hail, so that you may know that the earth is the Lord's. 30 But as for you and your servants, I know that you do not yet fear the Lord God.” 31 (The flax and the barley were struck down, for the barley was in the ear and the flax was in bud.

Numbers 17:6 Moses spoke to the people of Israel. And all their chiefs gave him staffs, one for each chief, according to their fathers' houses, twelve staffs. And the staff of Aaron was among their staffs. 7 And Moses deposited the staffs before the Lord in the tent of the testimony.
On the next day Moses went into the tent of the testimony, and behold, the staff of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted and put forth buds and produced blossoms, and it bore ripe almonds.

Job 14:7 “For there is hope for a tree,
if it be cut down, that it will sprout again,
and that its shoots will not cease.
8 Though its root grow old in the earth,
and its stump die in the soil,
9 yet at the scent of water it will bud
and put out branches like a young plant.

Job 38:25 “Who has cleft a channel for the torrents of rain
and a way for the thunderbolt,
26 to bring rain on a land where no man is,
on the desert in which there is no man,
27 to satisfy the waste and desolate land,
and to make the ground sprout with grass? [The NIV also uses sprout. The KJV uses bud. Where the ESV and the KJV use the same word, I didn't check the NIV.]

Psalm 132:13 For the Lord has chosen Zion;
he has desired it for his dwelling place:
14 “This is my resting place forever;
here I will dwell, for I have desired it.
15 I will abundantly bless her provisions;
I will satisfy her poor with bread.
16 Her priests I will clothe with salvation,
and her saints will shout for joy.
17 There I will make a horn to sprout for David;
I have prepared a lamp for my anointed. [The NIV uses grow. The KJV uses bud.]

Song of Solomon 6:11 I went down to the nut orchard
to look at the blossoms of the valley,
to see whether the vines had budded,
whether the pomegranates were in bloom.

Song of Solomon 7:12 let us go out early to the vineyards
and see whether the vines have budded,
whether the grape blossoms have opened
and the pomegranates are in bloom.
There I will give you my love.

Isaiah 55:10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. [The NIV uses bud, as does the KJV.]

Isaiah 61:11 For as the earth brings forth its sprouts,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to sprout up before all the nations. [The NIV uses bud, as does the KJV.]

Ezekiel 7:10 “Behold, the day! Behold, it comes! Your doom has come; the rod has blossomed; pride has budded.

Ezekiel 16:7 I made you flourish like a plant of the field. And you grew up and became tall and arrived at full adornment. Your breasts were formed, and your hair had grown; yet you were naked and bare. [The NIV also uses plant. The KJV uses bud.]

Ezekiel 29:21 “On that day I will cause a horn to spring up for the house of Israel, and I will open your lips among them. Then they will know that I am the Lord.” [The NIV also uses horn. The KJV uses bud.]

Hosea 8:7 For they sow the wind,
and they shall reap the whirlwind.
The standing grain has no heads;
it shall yield no flour;
if it were to yield,
strangers would devour it. [The NIV uses head. The KJV uses buds.]

Hebrews 9:3 Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, 4 having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron's staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant. 5 Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.

There are, thus, at least 15 such passages.

A later post deals with the botany of buds.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Sunspots 105

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

Google Maps is usually unhumorous, although useful. But try asking it for directions from an East Coast city to one in Europe, say from Miami to Copenhagen. (This doesn't seem to work for West Coast cities to Asia.)

Henry Neufeld skewers Richard Dawkins. Of course, Dawkins isn't listening.

Neufeld has also written a FAQ on Theistic Evolution.

The National Cancer Institute has a Breast Cancer Risk Evaluation tool, which will calculate your risk of breast cancer.

Jan on how males and females find directions differently (in monkeys, too.)

CNN reports on a possible earth-like planet, found orbiting another star.

The text of the second amendment to the US Constitution, which is as follows:
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. [emphasis added]

Henry Neufeld on the shootings at Virginia Tech .

Bonnie argues for more appreciation of good music in church, and by churches. She's right.

On why a blogger "hates Christian SF."

There is a Christian Carnival this week! For information on these Carnivals, go here .

Thanks for reading! Keep clicking away.

Image source (public domain)

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

What is a church, and what should members do?

A must read post (not by me) on the nature of the church, and the role of the Christian. For more on these matters, see here.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Kant, Mill and brain damage

A recent article by Slate's "Human Nature" columnist discusses (and broadens) findings from a research article in Nature. (Most of Nature is not available freely over the web, although members of university constituencies should have access to it. It is the most important science periodical published in the United Kingdom, and, arguably, in English. The abstract of the article is available.)

William Saletan, the columnist, also discusses an earlier research article by a different group, but on a similar topic, which is freely available.

Both of these research studies involved measurement of neuron responses when the human subjects were presented with ethical dilemmas.

As the second article says, there is a long-standing debate in philosophy/ethics between advocates of consequentialism (way too simply, the end justifies the means -- utilitarianism is closely related to consequentialism) and deontologists (who argue that some things are right regardless of the consequences) or, as the article also puts it, Immanuel Kant versus John Stuart Mill.

To illustrate these two theories of right and wrong, some people argue that embryonic stem cell research is wrong, at least so long as any human embryos are destroyed to make it possible, regardless of the possible benefits. This is a deontological argument. Others argue that the possible benefits are so good that they outweigh the destruction of human embryos. This is a consequentialist argument. President Bush attempted to satisfy both sides, by authorizing federal funding of embryonic stem cell lines already in existence on August 9, 2001, but prohibiting the use of such funding for development of additional lines. This, of course, has not stopped calls for more such lines. When he made this important speech, I expected some significant condemnation of the President for allowing the lines already in existence to be used, but have seen no such.

The second article says that ". . . we speculate that the controversy surrounding utilitarian moral philosophy reflects an underlying tension between competing subsystems in the brain." (p. 389) They also conclude by saying that "We emphasize that this cognitive account of the Kant versus Mill problem in ethics is speculative." (p. 398)

Saletan says that the authors of the first study say that humans are not wired in a way that makes strict utilitarian thinking possible. He makes a bold statement: "In other words, brain science has discredited religion and philosophy . . ." Oh? We are wired for a lot of things, most of which we don't understand, but moral people, religious or not, can override their wiring, whatever it may be, and make moral choices, based on what they perceive as standards of absolute right and wrong (such as the prohibition against murder in the Ten Commandments) or on the supposed consequences of their actions (some people, of course, claim that Christians act and believe as they do in an attempt to evade eternal punishment, a most serious consequence).

The fundamental ethical standard of Christianity, the so-called Golden Rule of Matthew 7:12, it seems to me, is not exactly consequentialist or deontological, but requires thinking of both types.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

John Bunyan on God's care for His children

{296} SHEP. These mountains are Immanuel's Land, and they are within sight of his city; and the sheep also are his, and he laid down his life for them. [John 10:11]

CHR. Is this the way to the Celestial City?

SHEP. You are just in your way.

CHR. How far is it thither?

SHEP. Too far for any but those that shall get thither indeed.

CHR. Is the way safe or dangerous?

SHEP. Safe for those for whom it is to be safe; but the transgressors shall fall therein. [Hos. 14:9]

CHR. Is there, in this place, any relief for pilgrims that are weary and faint in the way?

SHEP. The Lord of these mountains hath given us a charge not to be forgetful to entertain strangers, therefore the good of the place is before you. [Heb. 13:1-2]

This is an extract from Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan (1678, public domain. One version gives paragraph numbers.) Bunyan included the scriptural references in the book. Pilgrim's Progress, though little read now, was important enough to have been considered, for a century or two, the most important writing in English, except for the Bible.

CHR. is Christian, the main character of the book, who is nearly at the end of his life journey from the City of Destruction to the Heavenly City. SHEP. is a shepherd, in the land near to Heaven.

Thanks for reading.

P. S. I know that this is Earth Day. See this post for material relevant to that concern.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Language of God, Chapter 11 and Appendix

This is the final post in a series on The Language of God, by Francis Collins. Here's the previous post.

In Chapter 11, Francis Collins gives some personal history not found in the first part of the book, about how his faith was tested and renewed as a doctor visiting an impoverished hospital in Africa. He closes by calling again for Concordism -- faith in God's revelation through the evidence of science, and His revelation through scripture.

In a lengthy appendix, Collins considers a number of bioethical (by which he means medical ethical -- unfortunately, but understandably, he doesn't consider environmental problems) dilemmas. These include moral and ethical questions raised by DNA testing, by cloning, and by the possibility of "enhancement" of human capabilities by some form of genetic engineering, or other techniques. He has no easy answers, but he understands the questions, and knows that God has answers.

All in all, a splendid book. I am sorry to have to return it to the local library, where someone else has already requested it.

Thanks for reading.

* * * * *

I corrected two typos on July 11, 2008.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Sunspots 104

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

Science: A proposed experiment to see if quantum indeterminacy applies to objects larger than the sub-atomic.

There is at least one double asteroid -- two bodies, one in orbit around the other, as they orbit the sun.

On why New York City is the most environment-friendly place in the US. Really.

Cellphone radiation may be interfering with the lives of bees.

Politics: "Even the highest morale is eventually undermined by back-to-back deployments...Something has to give and it's giving. Resources are overstretched. Frustration is up, as families are separated and strained. Morale is down. Recruitment is more difficult. And many of our best people in the military are headed for civilian life."*

(or maybe Science)
A US government study on the effect of government-sponsored programs using encouragement of sexual abstinence as a deterrent to teen pregnancy, etc. Here's a quote from .PDF page 17 (not the report's page number, but the number as counted in the file): Findings indicate that youth in the program group were no more likely than control group youth to have abstained from sex and, among those who reported having had sex, they had similar numbers of sexual partners and had initiated sex at the same mean age. . . . however, program group youth were no more likely to have engaged in unprotected sex than control group youth. In other words, such programs didn't help, but they didn't hurt, either.

The German government has studied the so-called "Mozart effect."

Catez Stevens has awarded this blog a Thinking Blogger award. Thanks!

This is two years' worth of the Sunspots part of this blog, and I enjoy doing it, and the blog as a whole. It helps me think.

Literature: A brief, but on-the-mark, essay on "Conflicts in Out of the Silent Planet."

There is a Christian Carnival this week! You can submit an entry yourself, for the next couple of days. For information on these Carnivals, go here.

Thanks for reading! Keep clicking away.

Image source (public domain)

*According to USA Today, this statement was made by President George W. Bush in 1999, when he was a candidate for President.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Language of God, Chapters 7-10

This is my next to last post on The Language of God, by Francis Collins. (previous post)

The titles of these four chapters of Collins' book tell their story. They are:
"Option 1: Atheism and Agnosticism (When Science Trumps Faith)"
"Option 2: Creationism (When Faith Trumps Science)"
"Option 3: Intelligent Design (When Science Needs Divine Help)"
"Option 4: BioLogos (Science and Faith in Harmony)"

From these titles alone, you should be able to deduce that Francis Collins is a Concordist. That is, he believes that, properly understood, science and scripture are both part of God's revelation, and they don't contradict each other.

He has some particularly important words for the Intelligent Design movement:
So, scientifically, ID fails to hold up, providing neither an opportunity for experimental validation nor a robust foundation for its primary claim of irreducible complexity. More than that, however, ID also fails in a way that should be more of a concern to the believer than to the hard-nosed scientist. ID is a "God of the gaps" theory, inserting a supposition of the need for supernatural intervention in places that its proponents claim science cannot explain. . . . Ultimately a "God of the gaps" religion runs a huge risk of simply discrediting faith. (p. 193)

The sincerity of the proponents of Intelligent Design can hardly be questioned. The warm embrace of ID by believers, particularly by evangelical Christians, is completely understandable, given the way in which Darwin's theory has been portrayed by some outspoken evolutionists as demanding atheism. But this ship is not headed to the promised land; it is headed instead to the bottom of the ocean. If believers have attached their last vestiges of hope that God could find a place in human existence through ID theory, and that theory collapses, what then happens to faith? (p. 195)

As far as I know, Collins invented the term, BioLogos. As he says, it is a combination of Greek words meaning life and word, and he refers to John 1:1, where logos occurs three times in the original, referring, at least in part, to Christ's creative work. As Collins puts it:
BioLogos doesn't try to wedge God into gaps in our understanding of the natural world; it proposes God as the answer to questions science was never intended to address, such as "How did the universe get here?" "What is the meaning of life?" "What happens to us after we die?" Unlike Intelligent Design, BioLogos is not intended as a scientific theory. Its truth can be tested only by the spiritual logic of the heart, the mind, and the soul. (p. 204)

This is a link to the next, and last, post on this book.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, April 16, 2007

What was God doing before the Big Bang, and St. Augustine

A common statement about what God was doing before the Big Bang goes like this:

He was preparing Hell for people who ask such questions.

For example, the last page (before the Epilogue) of Simon Singh's Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe (New York: Harper Collins, 2004) says this, and attributes the origin to St. Augustine. (Singh acknowledges, of course, that Augustine didn't know anything about the Big Bang, and that he wrote about the origin of the universe more generally.) Singh is not the first person to say this.

Unfortunately, this is a misreading of Augustine. Here's what he really said:
Lo, are they not full of their old leaven, who say to us, "What was God doing before He made heaven and earth? For if (say they) He were unemployed and wrought not, why does He not also henceforth, and for ever, as He did heretofore? For did any new motion arise in God, and a new will to make a creature, which He had never before made, how then would that be a true eternity, where there ariseth a will, which was not? For the will of God is not a creature, but before the creature; seeing nothing could be created, unless the will of the Creator had preceded. The will of God then belongeth to His very Substance. And if aught have arisen in God's Substance, which before was not, that Substance cannot be truly called eternal. But if the will of God has been from eternity that the creature should be, why was not the creature also from eternity?" (Confessions, public domain, Book XI) Augustine, as I understand him, saw such a question as an attack on God's omnipotence and eternity, and argued, in the last part of his Confessions, not just in the paragraph quoted above, that God is outside time, so the question has no meaning.

If you do a search on the phrase "
What was God doing before He made heaven and earth" you will see that the misreading is widespread.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

John Bunyan on the importance of Christian confidence

{284} Now, Giant Despair had a wife, and her name was Diffidence.

[Noun 1. diffidence - lack of self-confidence -- source]

Despair and Diffidence caught, and imprisoned, Christian, and his companion, Hopeful, until he recovered his belief in what God could do for them.

The first paragraph is an extract from Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan (1678, public domain. One version gives paragraph numbers.) Bunyan included the scriptural references in the book. Pilgrim's Progress, though little read now, was important enough to have been considered, for a century or two, the most important writing in English, except for the Bible.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Joe Haldeman, God, and physics

Joe Haldeman is an honored science fiction writer. His The Forever War, about a meaningless, destructive war fought over several centuries in the future, and the human cost of that war, won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, which seldom happens.

I recently read his Forever Free (New York: Ace, 1999), which, says Haldeman, is a sequel.

I usually try not to give away the plot of literature I mention here, but in this case, I will summarize. William and Marygay Mandella, veterans of the Forever War, have been shunted off to an out-of-the-way planet, after peace has been made with the Taurans. They decide that they want to escape their situation (which includes being dependent, and in communication, with an undesirable society on earth) and escape in time, as well as space, hoping to return after millenia have passed behind them, with, perhaps improvements in the situations they want to leave behind. So they, with help, capture a ship that has the capacity to go nearly as fast as light, hoping to come back, after many years, to see what has happened to humans on their planet, and also to humans on earth.

They don't get far. Suddenly, the anti-matter that powers their ship disappears. They escape back to the planet they left, only to find that no one is alive there. Clothes and other artifacts have been left behind, as if everyone was suddenly vaporized, or something. The Mandellas, and others, go back to earth, to find the same situation. Some of them are beginning to think that perhaps their attempted journey caused the disappearances. OK, so far, but I was surprised by the resolution.

It seems that a god, or gods, had been doing an experiment on our galaxy for millenia, but, when these particular "rats" decided to escape, prevented it, and terminated the experiment. However, a representative god appears to tell the Mandellas about this, and agrees to bring everybody back. (All the people on earth were put in suspended animation in Carlsbad Caverns, and those on other planets are in similar situations.)

William Mandella has been a physics teacher, and he, and others, decide, as the book ends, that they should check out basic physics, and physical constants, because at least some of these are part of the experiment, and not really natural. They find that some of these are, indeed, not the same as they were before.

(In case you don't know it, some physical properties of the universe appear to have been fine-tuned, such that, if they were only slightly different, we wouldn't be here.)

My opinion is that Haldeman should have stuck to science fiction, and left theology out of it, but I'm not a famous writer. Thanks for reading.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Language of God, Chapter 6

In chapter 6 of his The Language of God, "Genesis, Galileo, and Darwin," Francis Collins reflects on the Galileo controversy and the Genesis controversy. Why, when the evidence for evolution by descent is so compelling, do so many reject it, in the name of their faith? (Here's a link to my previous post on this important book.)

As Collins says, probably the main reason is that the Bible seems to contradict an ancient earth (and if the earth is only a few thousand years old, clearly evolution can't have had a lot to do with the current state of living things) and any development of complexity in living things. However, as he says, this is just one way to interpret the Bible, and careful interpreters, who hold scripture in high regard, and believe it to be inspired, have and do interpret it in other ways.

Here's part of what he writes about interpreting Genesis in other ways:
. . . in Genesis 1 vegetation appears three days before humans are created, whereas in Genesis 2 it seems that God creates Adam from the dust of the earth before any shrub or plant had yet appeared. In Genesis 2:7, it is interesting to note, the Hebrew phrase that we translate "living being" is applied to Adam in exactly the same way it was previously applied to fish, birds, and land animals in Genesis 1:20 and 1:24. (p. 150-151)

Collins is not the first to say these things, of course. But the fact that they have been said often, independently, makes them even more important.

Why Galileo? Galileo proposed, perhaps a bit prematurely, but correctly, that the earth might not be fixed at the center of the universe. Some of the leaders of the church of his time believed that this was contrary to scripture. Finally, almost a century after his death, he was officially rehabilitated by the Roman Catholic Church, and, during the twentieth century, Pope John Paul II stated that the church had been mistaken in its handling of Galileo. Perhaps future generations of conservative protestant church leaders will come to accept evolution as a God-designed mechanism. (Both Pope John Paul II and Pius XII, speaking officially, have already said that evolution is not contrary to the faith for Catholics. As Collins points out, some conservative protestant church leaders of the past did the same.)

Thanks for reading. Here's a link to the next post in the series.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Sunspots 103

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

Humor: Prilosec (used for acid reflux, or other severe cases of stomach acid) says on the package that it is proud to be a partner to NASCAR.

Science: A man has had pig cells in his body, producing insulin, which he needs, for 10 years.

A report of new experiments, designed to replicate the possible production of molecules needed for life from the "primordial soup."

Some interesting findings about brain cells involved in vision -- they can modify their responses, depending on anticipated rewards to the person.

Politics: The U.S. Senate is to consider two bills on supporting embryonic stem cell research, one of them designed to allay fears of those who want no part of killing any human embryo under any circumstances.

An Easter article with President Bush as the Roman Emperor, and Christ as an effective antiterrorist.

A high school teacher in Oregon has been fired for teaching Young-Earth Creationism.

Slate article on Monica Goodling, aide to Alberto Gonzalez. She resigned on Friday. Dahlia Lithwick, the author (who is, I believe, Jewish) says that the problem isn't Christians working in public office, but: ". . . the real concern here is that Goodling and her ilk somehow began to conflate God's work with the president's." Lithwick ends by quoting Psalm 146:3, which, in the ESV, says "Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation." How true, whether their name is Bush, McCain, Thompson, Giulani, Romney, Reagan, Clinton, Kennedy, Roosevelt, Obama, Edwards, Biden, Sharpton, or something else.

Computing: Speculation about what has happened to the Christian Carnival, which didn't show up last week.

Thanks for reading! Keep clicking away.

Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Two books by Karen Cushman

Karen Cushman won the Newbery award for her The Midwife's Apprentice, and she deserved the award. I recently read this book, and her The Ballad of Lucy Whipple, and found them splendid works.

Both books are written about girls growing up, and begin when their protagonists are in their early teens, or a little earlier. Midwife's Apprentice is about a homeless girl who becomes a midwife's apprentice, sometime in the Middle Ages. Lucy Whipple is about a girl with a mother and siblings (but who has lost her father) in a small California town during gold rush days.

Cushman does her historical homework. These books are full of the gritty details of living under the circumstances described, without very much of the world's goods, and often not knowing where your next meal might come from. However, both are optimistic, and Lucy Whipple, especially, can be hilarious.

There is some acknowledgment of God and Christianity, not as much in Midwife's Apprentice, but more in Lucy Whipple, and there is a major character who is a believing preacher. He has flaws, but is clearly a sympathetic character. I plan to read more of Cushman's works.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, April 09, 2007

The Language of God, Chapters 4 and 5, by Francis Collins

A previous post gives the contents of Chapter 1, and the bibliographic and author information for The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, one of the most important books on science and Christianity, and additional posts describe Chapter 2, and Chapter 3.

Chapter 4 discusses the origin of life on earth. How did this happen, from a scientific standpoint? Collins says that we don't know. But he does not claim that complexity proves design. He summarizes Paley's argument from design thus:
1. A watch is complex.
2. A watch has an intelligent designer.
3. Life is complex.
4. Therefore, life also has an intelligent designer. (p. 87)
But he points out that there is a flaw. Collins shows this flaw with a similar argument: electric current comes from the power company, and is a flow of electrons, but that doesn't mean that every flow of electrons comes from the power company. (86-7)

Then Collins addresses the question of how, if processes set in motion by God brought about life, and each living thing, rather than the different kinds of things having been made by separate creative acts, we can see God in the result:
No doubt many readers have reasoned for themselves, or been taught in various religious settings, that the glorious beauty of a flower or the flight of an eagle could come about only as the consequence of a supernatural intelligence that appreciated complexity, diversity, and beauty. But now that molecular mechanisms, genetic pathways, and natural selection are being put forward to explain all this, you might be tempted to cry out, "Enough! Your naturalistic explanations are taking all the divine mystery out of the world!"
Do not fear, there is plenty of divine mystery left. Many people who have considered all the scientific and spiritual evidence still see God's creative and guiding hand at work. For me, there is not a shred of disappointment in these discoveries about the nature of life -- quite the contrary! Now marvelous and intricate life turns out to be! how deeply satisfying is the digital elegance of DNA! How aesthetically appealing and artistically sublime are the components of living things . . . Evolution, as a mechanism, can and must be true. But that says nothing about the nature of its author. For those who believe in God, there are reasons now to be more in awe, not less. (pp. 106-7)

I'll say little about Chapter 5, because it really needs to be read, and is hard to summarize. Let's just put it this way. The title is "Deciphering God's Instruction Book: The Lessons of the Human Genome." I will give away one detail, which is that Collins believes that he was divinely called to his work on the Human Genome Project, and says that he didn't accept the position until he had spent considerable time praying about it. (pp. 118-9) I will quote one passage, which relates to the title of the book:
For me as a believer, the uncovering of the human genome sequence held additional significance. This book was written in the DNA language by which God spoke life into being. I felt an overwhelming sense of awe in surveying this most significant of all biological texts. pp. 123-4.

Here's a link to my post on Chapter 6 of this book.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

John Bunyan on how God may allow martyrdom, but also prevent it

{241} They therefore brought him out, to do with him according to their law; and, first, they scourged him, then they buffeted him, then they lanced his flesh with knives; after that, they stoned him with stones, then pricked him with their swords; and, last of all, they burned him to ashes at the stake. Thus came Faithful to his end.

{242} Now I saw that there stood behind the multitude a chariot and a couple of horses, waiting for Faithful, who (so soon as his adversaries had despatched him) was taken up into it, and straightway was carried up through the clouds, with sound of trumpet, the nearest way to the Celestial Gate.

Brave FAITHFUL, bravely done in word and deed; Judge, witnesses, and jury have, instead Of overcoming thee, but shown their rage: When they are dead, thou'lt live from age to age*.

*In the New Heaven and New Earth. {footnote from one edition}

{243} But as for Christian, he had some respite, and was remanded back to prison. So he there remained for a space; but He that overrules all things, having the power of their rage in his own hand, so wrought it about, that Christian for that time escaped them, and went his way. And as he went, he sang, saying --

Well, Faithful, thou hast faithfully profest Unto thy Lord; with whom thou shalt be blest, When faithless ones, with all their vain delights, Are crying out under their hellish plights: Sing, Faithful, sing, and let thy name survive; For though they kill'd thee, thou art yet alive!

This is an extract from Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan (1678, public domain. One version gives paragraph numbers.) Bunyan included the scriptural references in the book. Pilgrim's Progress, though little read now, was important enough to have been considered, for a century or two, the most important writing in English, except for the Bible.

Faithful was the companion of Christian for much of his journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Sunspots 102

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

Slate article on "Why We Sleep."

The Panda's Thumb has a post on Jonathan Wells, prominent spokesman for Intelligent Design. It should be required reading for anyone who has been influenced by Wells (Author of Icons of Evolution). The main point is that Wells has claimed not to have a religion-driven agenda, but he clearly has one. He has written that his anti-evolution agenda is driven by loyalty to the Unification Church (aka "The Moonies"). So he's not a good example of a truth-teller. Here's another complaint about Wells, from a related blog, about a specific instance of mis-interpreting the scientific literature.

The Weather Channel has a blog. The only item I have seen is a report on this week's Supreme Court decision that says the Environmental Protection Agency does have power to regulate Carbon Dioxide emissions. (The Bush administration had argued that it did not.)

In First Things, "The Problem With Conservatism" and "The Problem With Liberalism ."

Slate article, pointing out that the CD is not dead yet.

ESPN article on the disparity between the number of African-American women basketball players and the number of female African-American coaches (Only 4 of the 64 teams in the NCAA tournament were coached by African-American females. Rutgers, one of these, was defeated by Tennessee in the championship game.)

A. A. Katz' splendid chapter on Macro and Close-up Photography. He is writing for the Sony DSC H-5 series of cameras, but most of what he says applies broadly. He can also be almost lyrical: "Why are photographers endlessly fascinated with capturing close-up and macro images? The answer is simple: the camera lets us go places we can't normally go and see things we can't normally see without it."

E. Stephen Burnett on the religion, or lack thereof, in "Star Trek."

Bonnie continues her latest series on sexuality, with parts IV (creativity -- you'll have to read the post to understand what she means by that) and V (which I also won't try to summarize here). The comments to both posts are worth reading, too.

This week's Christian Carnival is here . (I know -- that isn't a link. I have not found this week's Christian Carnival. Perhaps it's on Holy Week hiatus. If I locate it, I'll add the link. For information on locating these Carnivals, see here.)

When I don't tell where I found an item above, I either found it directly, or was probably pointed to it by the Librarian's Internet Index, SciTech Daily, or Arts and Letters Daily. All of these sources are great.

Thanks for reading! Keep clicking away.

Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Christian themes in Patricia A. McKillip's Riddle-Master Trilogy

I should begin with two acknowledgments:
1) I am grateful to Patricia A. McKillip, who has written a body of work that I have enjoyed. Sometimes I've had trouble understanding what was going on, which was probably my fault, but I've never had trouble understanding that I'm in a world of fantastic fiction, where things don't work quite as they do here in the real world.
2) I'm grateful to Elliot, of the Claw of the Conciliator blog, for posting an annotated list of important authors of fantastic literature that show evidence of a Christian world-view in their work. I commented on this, and suggested, based especially on her use of the theme of turning away from vengeance, that McKillip might belong on his list. Then, I decided to go further, examining McKillip's longest work, the Riddle-Master trilogy, for Christian themes. I'm not sure that I would have ever done this if I hadn't read Elliot's post.

I now add a disclaimer. I have never read anything suggesting that McKillip is a Christian, other than her novels. A list of "Famous Science Fiction/Fantasy Authors," written in 1999, and updated in 2006, which gives the religious affiliation of all of these authors, does not mention her. This implies that the person who prepared this list did not consider that McKillip belonged on it, in spite of the awards she has won, and the value of her body of work, and really says nothing about her religious affiliation.

Now, to Christian themes in the Riddle-Master trilogy. (See previous post for my plot summary, and bibliographic information.) Here are some of the ones I have found.

Rejection of vengeance. Deth led Morgon to Ghisteslwchlohm, without warning him that he would be subjected to months of mental torture, or that Ghisteslwchlohm was not the High One, when he understood both of these full well. So Morgon had motivation to kill Deth. In fact, he followed him through An, wanting to take vengeance on him. However, when he finally caught up with Deth, he did not kill him. Here's an exchange between Morgon's sister, Tristan, and his companion, Raederle:
"He's changed. Once he was the land-ruler of Hed, and he would rather have killed himself than someone else Now --"
"Tristan, he has been hurt, probably more deeply than any of us could know . . ."
She nodded a little jerkily. "I can understand that with my head. People have killed other people in Hed, out of anger or jealousy, but not -- not like that. Not tracking someone like a hunter, driving him to one certain place to be killed. It's -- what someone else would do. But not Morgon. And if -- if it happens, and afterwards he goes back to Hed, how will we recognize each other any more?" p. 301. Ellipsis in original.

Morgon finally realizes that Deth is the High One, and marvels that he did not destroy Ghisteslwchlohm. He had reason to, and could have.

See Romans 12:
19: Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (ESV)

A fuller treatment of this them in McKillip's writing is here.

Redemption through death. The core story of the trilogy is that the High One, the supernatural ruler of the realm, needs to die, so that evil, in the person of the shape-changers, can be conquered. Deth, the High One, willingly dies, allowing himself to be killed, so that this may be accomplished. (His heir, Morgon, will be able to conquer the shape-changers, but couldn't, of course, be his heir as long as the former High One was still alive.)

See Colossians 1:19-22, and other passages:
19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. 21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, (ESV)

Unselfish love. This, of course, is epitomized in 1 Corinthians 13. I wouldn't say that such agape love is a main theme of this trilogy, but it is at least an underlying one. Deth says that he didn't expect to love Morgon, and Morgon certainly didn't expect to come to love Deth, even though Deth betrayed him to Ghisteslwchlohm. There seems, also, to be affection amounting to unselfish love, for Morgon, from two of the land-rulers, Har of Osterland and Danan of Isig Mountain.

Forgiveness. (See Matthew 6:7-15) At least one example, of course, is that Morgon forgave Deth for betraying him. This took some time -- he pursued Deth in order to kill him, first -- and wasn't easy.

Maintenance of the material world. Colossians 1:16-17 says this:
16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (ESV) While McKillip's land-law does not seem to include creation of rocks, soil, water and organisms, it does have aspects of control, knowledge, and maintenance:
The High One, from the beginning, had let men free to find their own destinies. His sole law was land-law, the law that passed like a breath of life from land-heir to land-heir; if the High One died, or withdrew his immense and intricate power, he could turn his realm into a wasteland. (p. 109)
"Eliard was out in the fields when it happened. He just said he felt that suddenly everything -- the leaves and animals, the rivers, the seedlings -- everything suddenly made sense. He knew what they were and why they did what they did. He tried to explain it to me. I said everything must have made sense before, most things do anyway, but he said it was different. He could see everything very clearly, and what he couldn't see he felt. He couldn't explain it very well."
p. 262. Tristan of Hed, Morgon's sister, explaining the passing of land-law from Morgon to her brother Eliard.
The High One knows the land of the entire realm. The six land-rulers (see previous post) are responsible for the land-rule of their own kingdoms. Different land-rulers seem to have somewhat different powers. For example, there is no mention that the land-ruler of Hed controls anything (although the books don't say that he or she doesn't).

See the first three principles in this page for more on this topic.

Control of natural forces. This could be considered as part of the land-law, but I prefer to mention it separately. Jesus is called the master of wind and wave in Matthew 8:23-27, and parallel passages. In the Trilogy, Morgon becomes the master of the winds, so as to use them to control the shape-changers.

God appearing among humans. Christ was incarnated as a human being, and lived as one until He died, and there are a few instances in the Old Testament which may also be examples of this. In the Trilogy, the High One masquerades as Deth, the High One's harpist, a human servant, for centuries, and shows no evidence of supernatural powers to those who know him.

Powerful supernatural beings making a choice. The Bible doesn't say much about it, but many believe that the angels had a choice, long ago, perhaps even before the material universe was created. Some of them rebelled to follow Satan, but a majority didn't. In McKillip's trilogy, the Earth-masters and the Shape-changers were apparently one and the same kind of being, until the High One decided to take care of the earth and its creatures, while the Shape-changers decided to use it for their own ends. Not much is said about this division. (See Wikipedia article on Evil Angels, or this web page on Angels.)

This story, of course, is not a perfect parallel to the gospels. For example, Deth, the old High One, doesn't resurrect himself. There are other differences, but that is the main one. Nonetheless, I submit that there are important Christian themes in this trilogy. Does that make it Christian fiction? That depends, of course, on your definition of Christian fiction.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Patricia A. McKillip's Riddle-Master Trilogy

Patricia A. McKillip is one of the masters of fantasy literature (see here for Wikipedia article) and has been for over three decades. She was fifth in a list of "Great" female fantasy writers. She has won more Mythopoeic Awards than any other author. Here's my web page (not blog) on McKillip, mostly on one aspect of her fiction, namely the rejection of revenge by important characters in her works.

Most of my posts on fantastic literature attempt to steer away from giving away the plot. However, I will attempt to outline the plot of her longest work in this post.

The Riddle-Master trilogy consists of The Riddle-Master of Hed (New York: Ballantine, 1976), Heir of Sea and Fire (New York: Ballantine, 1977), and Harpist in the Wind (New York: Ballantine, 1979). The trilogy has been re-published as Riddle-Master (New York: Ace, 1999), with a new introduction by McKillip.

The best reviews/summaries of these books that I have seen are by Geoffrey Prewett. These may be found here, here, and here.

So how to summarize this trilogy? Here's a fairly short version:
Morgon is the heir of Hed, a small island close to other more important parts of the realm of the High One. He was born with three stars on his forehead. He has been to the School for Riddle-Masters, the only scholar ever to go there from Hed. Ohm is one of the masters of this school. Morgon meets the High One's harpist, Deth, and gradually develops a deep friendship with him, and also learns more and more about him, as the trilogy progresses.

A central feature of the trilogy is land-law. Each of the six main parts of the realm, Hed, An, Ymris, Osterland, Herun, and Isig Mountain, is ruled by a person who is deeply concerned about the care of their land, and the people and organisms that live there, and has intimate knowledge of all of these. A land-ruler is somehow aware of each leaf, each insect, each stone. Each of them has a land-heir, who will suddenly acquire this same intimate knowledge upon the death of a land-ruler. The system was developed, and presumably made possible, by the High One, who supposedly lives in the realm, but outside of the six areas named above (I'll call them kingdoms, although that's too simple) in Erlenstar Mountain.

"Eliard was out in the fields when it happened. He just said he felt that suddenly everything -- the leaves and animals, the rivers, the seedlings -- everything suddenly made sense. He knew what they were and why they did what they did. He tried to explain it to me. I said everything must have made sense before, most things do anyway, but he said it was different. He could see everything very clearly, and what he couldn't see he felt. He couldn't explain it very well." p. 262 (from Heir of Sea and Fire) Tristan of Hed, explaining the passing of land-law from Morgon to Eliard, to Raederle, Who is supposed to marry Morgon.

Morgon eventually learns that the High One was one of a race of Earth-Masters, beings with great power, who were capable of changing and destroying the land, and the organisms and people on it, almost without limits. The High One had allies from among the Earth-Masters, but also had a group of powerful opponents from among them, the shape-changers. The Earth-Masters are a very long-lived race, and the system of land-rule has been in place for at least several centuries. He also learns that another set of powerful entities, the wizards, humans with great powers, appeared some time after the kingdoms were established. A great wizard, Ghisteslwchlohm, founded a School for Wizards at Lungold, in the realm, but outside of the six kingdoms. There he taught the other Wizards, but, Morgon learns, he also limited their powers, and learned how to control them.

Morgon goes to see the High One, at the urging of Deth, the High One's harpist, who supposedly has no special powers of his own, but acts as the emissary of the High One throughout the realm. When he gets there, he discovers that Ghisteslwchlohm has taken the place of the High One, and that he is also Ohm, from the school for Riddle-Masters. Ghisteslwchlohm holds Morgon captive for months, probing his mind for a secret. Morgon learns later that the secret he is trying to find is the identity and location of the High One. During this time, Deth plays his harp, and Morgon comes to hate this harping, and the harpist who has betrayed him.

The second book develops the character and role of Raederle, daughter of the ruler of An, who is promised as bride to Morgon. She, it turns out, is part shape-changer, and has their abilities.

Deth allowed Morgon to be captured by Ghisteslwchlohm because it would strengthen Morgon. The mind-link that the wizard forged was two-way. It eventually gave Morgon enough knowledge of the wizard that Morgon broke his control and escaped, and, in doing so, set the other wizards free.

The High One, it develops, is Deth himself, and, at the end of the trilogy, he tells Morgon, who has forgiven him, and loves him (although he doesn't understand why) that Morgon is land-heir to the High One, and will take over the land-rule of the entire realm when he, Deth, is dead. Deth has hidden because he was not able to stand against his old enemies, the shape-changers, but Morgon, with Raederle, will be able to do so. At the end, Deth allows himself to be killed by Ghisteslwchlohm and the shape-changers, but this sacrifice destroys Ghisteslwchlohm, and gives Morgon the power of the High One, which allows him to isolate the shape-changers in Erlenstar Mountain, where they cannot affect the rest of the realm.

There is more. Morgon's family, the various land-rulers and their land-heirs, and the wizards, are all characters with personalities, well-drawn by McKillip. There are fine descriptions of various kinds of crafts, of commerce, and of the land and the living things upon it. There are many turns of plot that I have not included in the summary above. McKillip has some gift for naming, and there are many well-chosen names for her places and characters (A couple of them are quite long. Besides Ghisteslwchlohm, there is El Elrhiarhodan*, the Morgol, female land-ruler of Herun. Most of McKillip's names are shorter.) She says that she was influenced by Tolkien, and some of that shows through, but the trilogy is certainly much more than a shadow of The Lord of the Rings. It holds up well on its own.

My next post considers biblical themes in this trilogy.

Thanks for reading.

*This name reminds me of that of El-ahrairah, the Prince with a Thousand Enemies, from Richard Adams' great Watership Down.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

John Bunyan on how our own mind can deceive us

{162} One thing I would not let slip. I took notice that now poor Christian was so confounded, that he did not know his own voice; and thus I perceived it. Just when he was come over against the mouth of the burning pit, one of the wicked ones got behind him, and stepped up softly to him, and whisperingly suggested many grievous blasphemies to him, which he verily thought had proceeded from his own mind. This put Christian more to it than anything that he met with before, even to think that he should now blaspheme him that he loved so much before; yet, if he could have helped it, he would not have done it; but he had not the discretion either to stop his ears, or to know from whence these blasphemies came.

This is an extract from Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan (1678, public domain. One version gives paragraph numbers.) Bunyan included the scriptural references in the book. Pilgrim's Progress, though little read now, was important enough to have been considered, for a century or two, the most important writing in English, except for the Bible.

This is not meant as an April Fool's joke, although it shows how Satan can deceive us, even through our own minds, if Bunyan is correct on this matter (and I believe that he is).

Thanks for reading.