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Monday, March 30, 2009

Faith masquerading as science

The Cosmos series, starring Carl Sagan, originally a 1980 PBS series, is now available on Hulu. (I believe that a free Hulu membership is required.) In the first episode, Sagan began by saying that "The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be." That episode is here.

Please note that that was not a scientific statement. It was a faith statement! How could Sagan have known that? (Or falsified it?) I'm not accusing the late Sagan, a great communicator who did a lot for science education, of deliberately trying to foist an atheistic faith upon millions of impressionable minds. (Cosmos remains the most watched PBS series ever. It was shown to classrooms across the US.) Perhaps he (and his co-writers) was just trying to be poetic. But the fact remains -- that is and was and always will be a scientifically unprovable statement. It is and was a statement of belief.

Genesis begins with a different presupposition: 1:1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. (ESV)

God, a being outside the heavens and the earth, and existing before they came to be, created. Genesis 1:1 doesn't say when, how, or why, but it does claim that there is a Who outside the cosmos. The cosmos isn't all that is, or ever was, or ever will be. Amen. Can I prove that, or could Sagan, were he still alive, disprove it? I don't think so. Why? Because God is outside the realm of science. Also, because the Bible says:
By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. (Hebrews 11:3, ESV, emphasis added.) By faith, not by laboratory experiment.

Cosmos was, and is, an interesting program, very well done, showing a lot of good science in an interesting way. But part of it is a particular faith masquerading as science. Thanks for reading.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

God can, even when we doubt

Numbers 11:18 And say to the people, ‘Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, and you shall eat meat, for you have wept in the hearing of the Lord, saying, “Who will give us meat to eat? For it was better for us in Egypt.” Therefore the Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat. 19 You shall not eat just one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, 20 but a whole month, until it comes out at your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you, because you have rejected the Lord who is among you and have wept before him, saying, “Why did we come out of Egypt?”’” 21 But Moses said, “The people among whom I am number six hundred thousand on foot, and you have said, ‘I will give them meat, that they may eat a whole month!’ 22 Shall flocks and herds be slaughtered for them, and be enough for them? Or shall all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, and be enough for them?” 23 And the Lord said to Moses, “Is the Lord's hand shortened? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not.” (ESV)

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Homosexuality and illegal aliens

This is not original with me. I'm taking off on a post by Henry Neufeld.

One of the anti-homosexuality arguments often used is Leviticus 18:22. Neufeld points out that many of those who use this verse as a scriptural argument do not apply Leviticus 19:33-34, which seems to be part of the same discourse by Moses. Here's what it says:
Leviticus 19:33 “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 34 You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (ESV)

As Neufeld says, all too often, what scripture we think applies to our daily lives is selected on the basis of what we like and don't like, which doesn't work as a good way to live out what the Bible says.


Thanks for reading.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Westmark trilogy, by Lloyd Alexander

The late Lloyd Alexander was notable for a goodly number of books, with his first offering, the Prydain books, probably being the best known. I have read them several times. I had never read the three books of the Westmark trilogy. I have now read them. They are good, and like the Prydain books in a few ways. One of them is that a boy's friends are important. Another is that there is a princess. However, they are unlike the five Prydain books in some important ways. All of the characters seem morally ambiguous -- no one is just plain good. I guess that's more like real life than the Prydain books, and many other books. (There are some characters who seem just plain evil.) There is no magic, either. No pig telling fortunes from sticks, no black caldron.

Q: Why do you write fantasy? A: Because, paradoxically, fantasy is a good way to show the world as it is. Fantasy can show us the truth about human relationships and moral dilemmas because it works on our emotions on a deeper, symbolic level than realistic fiction. - Alexander, being interviewed by Leonard S. Marcus, in Marcus's The Wand in the Wind: Conversations with Writers of Fantasy. (Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2006) Interview is on pages 5-17. Quote is from page 13.

By the end of the first book, Westmark, Theo, the main character, has come to count Mickle, an apparent guttersnipe, as his best friend. They are taken to the palace, because Cabbarus, the chief minister, wants to deceive the king, having the ghost of the king's dead daughter tell the king to resign the throne and give it to him. (Cabbarus, in addition to deceiving the king, and trying to keep him powerless by maintaining him sickened and physically weakened, has had the court physician assassinated, and the printer who had taken Theo as an apprentice killed. The assassination didn't work, but that wasn't Cabbarus's fault.)

Mickle, when brought to Cabbarus's room for instruction, suddenly remembers that Cabbarus had tried to kill her, too, by throwing her down a chute into a river.

Theo knows all of this about the man, but he keeps him from falling to his death, and asks the king to exile him, rather than killing him. Perhaps Theo realizes that all of us have done, or could have done, some very bad things.

What bad things did Theo do? He came upon companions who cheerfully went about the country, selling dirty water as medicine, making people believe that they were seeing ghosts, and skipping out on debts. He actually encouraged them, and suggested ways to fool others for profit. Theo also took part in an uprising that saw several people killed on both sides. He considers himself to be morally ambiguous, and sees others in the same way.

Where is Westmark? It seems to be somewhere in Europe, perhaps during the late Middle Ages. There are kings, and dukes. No surprise there. But there are also printing presses and guns, even a cannon. I found no evidence of religion, or belief in a god or gods, by any of the characters.

The second and third books continue the themes, and make Alexander's case stronger -- war, and power, are terrible things. People, especially people in leadership, make some bad decisions, and compromise their own moral principles, to win victories of various kinds. Lest there be any doubt, Alexander was not writing veiled criticism of the Bush administration and the War on Terror -- the third of these books was published in 1984.

"Kestrel's dead," Theo flung back. "He died in the war, from the stink of too much blood. Yes, I was as much of a butcher as Justin. Worse. Because Justin never pretended he was anything else. I won't do it again. You want Marianstat. I'll help you take it, but not as a leader." "Do you want to see Cabbarus in power?" "No, of course not." Florian gave him a half-smile. "Then I don't see that you have any choice." (The Beggar Queen. New York: Dutton, 1984, p. 92) Theo was the Kestrel, a war leader, in The Kestrel (New York: Dutton, 1982) Florian was also a war leader, trying to overthrow any monarchies, on principle.

Alexander has done a good job with this book. It is written for young people -- they play the major roles in the book, being rulers, battle captains, propagandists, and other things. The adults are almost all incidental to them.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

I guess this applies to texting, e-mailing, social networking, and blogging

Proverbs 10:19 When words are many, transgression is not lacking,
but whoever restrains his lips is prudent. (ESV)

Enough said.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Sunspots 204

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

(This doesn't effect me . . .) NPR reports that some people's hair changes from curly to straight, or the reverse, on its own.

(or maybe science) Wired has a group of articles on how to fix our power infrastructure. Here's one of them. There are links to the others, which include better batteries, ways to store energy for peak use, etc.

A formula that lets you know when a basketball game is out of reach of the losers, from Slate.

From Christianity Today, on how the scandal of the AIG bonuses applies to us. Whoops . . .

To toot my own horn more (I hope) than usual, I have also written about AIG and me.

On a personal note: this morning, I seem to be totally pain-free, thank God. I had continued to have some pain in the lower right leg, starting soon after back surgery on the 16th. It seemed to disappear by last evening. It was never the main problem, just a minor annoyance, but I'm glad it's gone.

Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Last Juror by John Grisham

I recently read The Last Juror, by John Grisham. It's a good read, hardly a surprise, considering the author. I won't give away much of the plot -- see the first link in this post, which is to the Wikipedia article on the book, if you want more information on that.

Let me muse about two aspects of the novel.

The protagonist, Willie Traynor, is white, and not a Christian. The most important relationship he develops, upon purchasing the local newspaper in a small Mississippi town, is with Callie Ruffin, a black woman who is old enough to be his mother. Traynor works toward integrating his adopted town. (The book is set in the 1970s.) Indirectly, he makes it possible for Mrs. Ruffin to become the first black juror in a trial with a white defendant in the county.

It is clear that Mrs. Ruffin is a serious Christian -- she believes in sin, salvation, and redemption through belief in Christ's power. Although Traynor never becomes a believer himself, the book is sympathetic to evangelical Christianity. Mrs. Ruffin, and the churches of Traynor's fictional town, are presented in a positive light. For example, she prays, and believes that her prayers are heard.

Thanks for reading. Grisham is worth reading, and entertaining, as well.

Monday, March 23, 2009

You aren't the same as you were yesterday . . .

. . . but you think you are.

Cells are dying all the time in your body -- and most of them are being replaced at a tremendous clip. (Even brain cells turn out to regenerate themselves far into adulthood.) And yet somehow, despite that enormous cellular turnover, you still feel like yourself week to week and year to year. How is this possible?
(Steven Johnson, Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. New York: Scribner, 2001, p. 83)

I don't really know the answer to that one. Sorry. But part, maybe all, of the answer, may be that our self, whatever that is, is not wholly material. It depends on something besides our neurons.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

. . . right away

I'm sure that I am not the first to notice how often Mark uses the word, immediately. But I thought I would document his uses. I believe there are 31 such, in what is below, which is a compilation of all the verses in Mark which have that word in them, with some surrounding material added for context. (All scripture is from the English Standard Version of the Bible.)

Mark 1:9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
12 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.
17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 And immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him.
21 And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching. 22 And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes. 23 And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, 24 “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.”
29 And immediately he left the synagogue and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon's mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and immediately they told him about her
40 And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” 41 Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” 42 And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.

2:8 And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? 9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? 10 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— 11 “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” 12 And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”

3:5 And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

4:5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil.
15 And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them.16 And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy.

5:2 And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit.
28 For she said, “If I touch even his garments, I will be made well.” 29 And immediately the flow of blood dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30 And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone out from him, immediately turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my garments?”
41 Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Talitha cumi,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” 42 And immediately the girl got up and began walking (for she was twelve years of age), and they were immediately overcome with amazement.

6:25 And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26 And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. 27 And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John's head.
49 but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, 50 for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”
54 And when they got out of the boat, the people immediately recognized him 55 and ran about the whole region and began to bring the sick people on their beds to wherever they heard he was.

8:6 And he directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. And he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd. 7 And they had a few small fish. And having blessed them, he said that these also should be set before them. 8 And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. 9 And there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. 10 And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha.

9:14 And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. 15 And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. 16 And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” 17 And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. 18 And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” 19 And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” 20 And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood.

10:46 And they came to Jericho. And as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside. 47 And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 And Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart. Get up; he is calling you.” 50 And throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 And Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the blind man said to him, “Rabbi, let me recover my sight.” 52 And Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him on the way.

11:1 Now when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples 2 and said to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it. 3
If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.’”

43 And immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders.
71 But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.”
72 And immediately the rooster crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him,
“Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.

Perhaps Mark just liked that word. It seems that it is used in connection with a number of different types of people, even of a rooster. One comforting idea about this is that God acts when He needs to, in our behalf, and this includes "immediately."

Thanks for reading. Read Mark.

Friday, March 20, 2009

AIG and me

Let's see, now. What's everybody so mad at?

They're mad at a company that risked its future on unreliable and ephemeral investments, then, when those investments proved to be worthless, asked for help, and then used some of that help to reward those who made the mistakes in the first place. No wonder it's called Arrogant, Incompetent, and Greedy.

OK. Has such a thing ever happened before? Hmmm. . .

Well, I risked my eternal future on my own accomplishments. They were worthless. I asked for help, and then, when the help came, I patted myself on the back instead of praising God for His redeeming grace. To top it off, I keep trying to re-install myself as CEO, instead of Christ. That seems to be another, even more serious case of Arrogant, Incompetent, and Greedy.


The inspiration for this came mostly from an article in Christianity Today.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Why worry about origins?

With the anniversary of Darwin's publication of Origin of Species . . . the topic of evolution is again being pushed to the forefront of public thought. It deserves to be asked why this topic should be of concern to evangelical readers. After all, people have been finding salvation in Christ for two millenia without needing to have a perfect understanding of the process of origins. Why should readers put time and effort into trying to disentangle this issue? Bethany Sollereder, "God and Evolution: A Review of Four Contemporary Books," Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 61:40-48, March, 2009. Quote is from p. 40.

Why, indeed? Sollreder might equally have said that we don't need a perfect understanding of quantum mechanics, or eschatology, the Trinity, or a lot of other things, to make it to heaven, and it's a good thing that we don't. In fact, we finite humans probably don't have a "perfect understanding" of anything.

But we are created in God's image. Things that that seems to include are the ability to think, and some curiosity. (As well as some other properties, probably more important than these two. We can form relationships, communicate verbally, and make moral choices, among other likely attributes of being in God's image.) So reasoning, curious creatures are probably going to try to figure out how things got started. A long time ago, some scientists used to say, when they were learning how things worked, that they were "thinking God's thoughts after Him." Maybe they were. Maybe scientists of our day sometimes are, too.

Not only do we try to find out things because we are in God's image, but we are supposed to be stewards of God's creation. To be a good steward is to be an informed steward. Study of how things came to be as they are should help us to understand better how to take care of the living things that are still in existence.

As you can see from the reference above, Sollereder's review goes on for nine pages. Clearly, the editor of Perspectives, and, presumably, Sollereder, thought there was some importance in describing four books on reconciling scientific data about origins, God's revelation in nature, with God's revelation through the Bible. I agree. Suffice it to say that Sollereder believes that Kenneth R. Miller's Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul, and Denis Lamoureaux's Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution, are valuable books, for persons who read them carefully.

Can I prove that reading one of these books is as important as, say, reading a book about how to raise a Christian family? No. But, for some Christians, Christian stewardship of God's creation, and learning as much as possible about God's activity in the natural world, seems to be part of their calling. If that is true, they need to follow that call, which may include learning, and receiving training, in areas such as origins.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sunspots 203

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

The Onion reports that a man cannot quote properly from The Princess Bride. Horrors!

Slate warns us to be careful about claims of fiber content in food.

William Saletan, who does not believe embryos are morally equivalent to children, is disturbed by the prospect of using embryos in research. He is even more disturbed by the prospect of harvesting fetuses .

Christianity Today on what John Calvin would have thought of former Vice President Cheney's views of the Presidency and the rule of law. (Or, presumably, what he would have thought about what Nixon said, in the trailers from the recent movie.)

Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Medical report

Thank you for your prayers, and concern, expressed or not.

My surgery seems to have been successful, thank God. I remain on limited blogging for now.

My wife has an extra burden. I'm not to lift anything "heavier than a teacup" for four weeks, and can't drive for over a week yet. So she's even more of a servant than usual. God bless her.

Thanks again.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Memorial stones

There are several examples of stones used as memorials of God's work, or as promises to follow God, in the Old Testament. Here are some of them:

Genesis 27:22 and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God's house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.” (All scripture is ESV. Jacob is speaking in this verse.)

Genesis 31:
45 So Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar.

Genesis 35:14 And Jacob set up a pillar in the place where he had spoken with him, a pillar of stone. He poured out a drink offering on it and poured oil on it.

Exodus 28:
12 And you shall set the two stones on the shoulder pieces of the ephod, as stones of remembrance for the sons of Israel. And Aaron shall bear their names before the Lord on his two shoulders for remembrance.

Joshua 4 includes the story of how the Israelites brought twelve stones from the bottom of the Jordan River, and also set up twelve stones on the river bottom.

In Joshua 24, Joshua re-establishes the covenant with the Israelites, and sets up a stone as a memorial.

1 Samuel 7:12 Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, “Till now the Lord has helped us.”

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


God willing, I shall be undergoing surgery in a few days. God willing, I shall recover, but, if not, it's in His hands.

I will be posting only occasionally for the next several days.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Sunspots 202

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

NPR reports on the most recently discovered of Saturn's 60-odd moons -- this one is in one of the rings.

Slate argues that claims that Democrats are going to bleed the rich into poverty are wildly exaggerated. Raising taxes a little on people making over $250,000 probably wouldn't be necessary if it were not for some wild spending, and lack of regulation, during the previous eight years.

Don't expect Leonard Pitts to Twitter us. As he says:" . . .every new advance in communications from telegraphs to Twitter has been sold as a means of perfecting human relationships, allowing us to interact more easily, understand one another more readily. But it hasn't happened yet."

Henry Neufeld on what Old Testament passages we think apply today, and why. For example, did you know that Leviticus says that aliens living in the land should be well-treated? He's really writing about application of the Bible to our lives, and he continues here .

Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Stem Cells, again

Yesterday, March 9, 2009, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order that would expand federally-funded embryonic stem cell research in the United States. (Michigan, Missouri, and California had already passed laws allowing state funding of this kind.)

President Bush had allowed such research, but only on a limited number of stem cell lines, that were already in existence when he signed his Executive Order, in 2001. Additional stem cell lines now in existence seem to include some that would be superior for this type of research.

Executive Orders are binding on the Federal Government, but may be overturned by a succeeding Executive Order, by the same, or a different president. Such an order normally does not try to undo acts by Congress. Acts of Congress can only be overturned by the Supreme Court, declaring that a law is unconstitutional, or by a subsequent Act by Congress.

Two recent articles, written for non-scientists and non-lawyers, are an introduction to stem cells, in Newsday, and a discussion of the likely effects of President Obama's action, in the Los Angeles Times. I'm guessing that neither of these articles will be available for more than a few weeks, as is typically true of newspaper articles, on any subject. The Wikipedia article on the subject is here.

There are those who object to the use of embryonic stem cells, because they believe that an early embryo is the moral equivalent of a baby, or an adult human being. Most people who oppose abortion also oppose stem cell research, for much the same reasons. Utah Senator Orrin Hatch is one person who opposes abortion, but favors embryonic stem cell research. He believes that the potential benefits of human embryonic stem cell research make support for such research a pro-life issue.

The new Executive Order does not allow creation of a new embryonic stem cell line from an embryo, using Federal research money. That is prohibited by law. President Obama says that he opposes human cloning, the production of a human being by taking DNA from an existing person, and inserting such DNA into an embryonic cell, after removing the DNA from that cell. (We are not certain if human cloning, all the way to birth, is even possible.) That is also prohibited by law.

The new Order does make it possible to do research on many embryonic stem cell lines that weren't available when President Bush signed his Executive Order in 2001.

We allow the production of embryos, for in vitro fertilization, in the US. (Not everyone believes that we should allow this.) A great many such embryos are never used for this purpose, and are either discarded, or frozen. Many people believe that, since these embryos are never going to be implanted, and allowed to develop, that there is nothing immoral in using them in research that will potentially help others. Many other people believe that using such embryos is immoral, and equivalent to murder. The Bible does not speak directly to this issue, although there are many people who are convinced that the Bible makes embryos the moral equivalent of adults. (There are a few other Bible-believing Christians who are not so convinced*, or who believe that use of embryos that are not going to be implanted is a moral act.) The Catholic Church, as a whole, is opposed to abortion, and to embryonic stem cell research, as I understand it.
*Exodus 21 may support the idea that an embryo is not morally equivalent to a baby, or an adult, but that interpretation is controversial. See footnote to verse 22.

There are persons who believe that research should be conducted on no humans but adults not under coercion, who can give informed consent to the use of their body in research, and that even medical research on children, unless it is designed to help a condition that a particular child has, and that could lead to treatment that could help that child, is immoral. These thinkers are not necessarily against abortion. Such persons would be against any research on human embryos, unless designed to help that particular embryo. Not everyone agrees.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Corporate prayer in Acts

One of the reasons that the early church grew, in spite of persecution, of having to learn to communicate across cultures, and of other obstacles, was that they prayed together.

It wasn't the only reason, of course. Also, I do not wish to downplay the role of private prayer, which is also important, probably more important than group prayer.

I attempted to find all of the cases where the early church prayed as a group, in Acts. I may have missed some, and some of the cases I found are questionable, but here goes. I shall list the reference, with a link to the ESV, and give some idea of the occasion.

1:13-14 The first recorded action of the early church was corporate prayer, apparently repeated often.

1:15-26 When Judas was replaced.

2:1 At Pentecost. (The Bible doesn't say that they were praying, merely that they were gathered together, but perhaps they were praying, as evidenced by the first reference above.)

2:42 One of the four activities of the early church mentioned in this verse is corporate prayer.

4:23-26 After the release of Peter and John.

6:6 After the selection and commissioning of the first deacons. (I found no record of group prayer before they were selected. It may have happened, and not been mentioned.)

12:5-16 When Peter was arrested.

13:2-3 At the commissioning of Paul and Barnabas. Verse 2 says that they were "worshiping the Lord and fasting" when these men were selected (before they were commissioned) probably including prayer, but it doesn't say so specifically.

16:13-14 Paul and his team went to a place that they supposed was used for Sabbath morning group prayer. The Bible doesn't explicitly say that they prayed there, or even that they went there for the purpose of praying. Maybe, maybe not.

16:16 The team was going to the place of prayer, perhaps for the purpose of praying, although we can't be certain of that.

16:25 Paul and Silas prayed together in jail. This is the smallest group possible, and was not a congregation, but I mention it for completeness.

20:36 Paul prayed with the Ephesian elders.

That's eight sure examples of group prayer in Acts, and four more that are possible examples.

I have previously posted on "Prayer in the New Testament," a post not about who the early church prayed with, but what they prayed for. In it, I conclude, and quote scripture to prove it, that the most important thing that the early church prayed for was for each other.

Thanks for reading. God forgive me for not praying more, in groups, and by myself.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Blood in the New Testament

I a post a few years ago, I mused on why the Bible demands a blood sacrifice for sin. I don't know all the answers, but speculated about some of them, based on some of the science of blood. I also quoted an important passage on the subject from Hebrews, and quoted a relevant fictional passage by C. S. Lewis. Here are some more New Testament passages on blood, all using the ESV. They shed more light on what the shedding of the perfect God-man's blood makes possible in us. (The very word, Testament, is related to blood in Hebrews 9, although called a Covenant there.)

Romans 3:23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25a whom God put forward as a propitiation* by his blood , . . .

Ephesians 2:13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

1 John 1:7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

Revelation 5:9 And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, 10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”

Revelation 12:10 And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. 11 And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.

*Propitiation has to do with appeasing, satisfying a strong claim. God's strong claim on us is that death is the punishment for sin, and we are all sinners.

"Let us say I have forgotten it," answered Aslan gravely. "Tell us of this Deep Magic."
"Tell you?" said the Witch, her voice growing suddenly shriller. "Tell you what is written on that very Table of Stone which stands beside us? Tell you what is written in letters deep as a spear is long on the trunk of the World Ash Tree? Tell you what is engraved on the sceptre of the Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea? You at least know the magic which the Emperor put into Narnia at the very beginning. You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill."
. . . "And so," continued the Witch, "that human creature is mine. His life is forfeit to me. His blood is my property." (C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; A Story for Children. New York: Macmillan, 1961. p. 114)

At last they heard Aslan's voice. "You can all come back," he said. "I have settled the matter. She has renounced the claim on your brother's blood." (p. 115) [The settlement was that Aslan, the great lion, and Christ-figure, agreed to take the place of Edmund, the traitor, thus becoming a propitiation for his traitorous behavior.]

"And now, who has won? Fool, did you think that by all this you would save the human traitor? Now I will kill you instead of him as our pact was and so the Deep Magic will be appeased. . ." (p. 125)

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

The First Fourteen Days of Human Life

An article, of the same title as this post, by Patrick Lee and Robert P. George, was published in the Summer, 2006 issue of The New Atlantis. These gentlemen are professors of bioethics and jurisprudence, respectively.

They begin by arguing against Senator Orrin Hatch, and others, who claim that human life begins at implantation, which would mean that using an embryo produced in vitro could legitimately be used in stem cell research, before it reaches implantation, and human life. They contradict this argument, using evidence from embryology, and discuss this in some detail in the article. They indicate that this evidence shows that no maternal signal, following implantation, is necessary for development, and that the polar axes of the embryo are probably determined at fertilization. They also say that some development takes place before implantation -- there is more than one cell at that time.

The authors also reject arguments from twinning, which can take place up to fourteen days after fertilization. Fusion of two embryos into one can also occur up to fourteen days. These facts, which they do not dispute, are often used to support arguments that an embryo before 14 days isn't the complete moral equivalent of, say, a second trimester embryo. They claim that these arguments are not convincing.

I did not find their arguments convincing, for two reasons. First, they are conflating human genetic individuality with "human life." These two concepts may be identical, in God's mind, but I don't think we can know that. As the authors say about some of the arguments they oppose, this is an assertion on their part, not an air-tight argument.

As I have argued here, the biblical evidence is not absolutely clear about when an embryo or fetus becomes morally equivalent to a child. There is some chance, based on the Bible itself, that an unborn fetus, let alone an early embryo, is not the moral equivalent of a baby. The chance is small, but it is there, as I see it. This possibility does not give license to mistreat human fetuses, nor, probably, even human embryos. A human who is dead by all the criteria used to declare such a death is not, in scripture, specified to be the moral equivalent of an adult, but this does not give license to feed a dead carcass to a flock of chickens, say.

I found the article interesting and informative. See also this previous post, and this one, for further discussion of human embryonic development.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Michael Shermer's _Why Darwin Matters_

I recently read Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design, by Michael Shermer. (New York: Holt, 2006). Since I knew that, as the Wikipedia article on Shermer puts it, he is ". . . founder of The Skeptics Society, and editor of its magazine Skeptic, which is largely devoted to investigating and debunking pseudoscientific and supernatural claims," I expected an anti-Christian tract. Shermer is no Christian, but his book shows considerable respect for the place of religion.

For example, Shermer says:
Thus, the most logically coherent argument for theists is that God is outside time and space; that is, God is beyond nature -- super nature, or supernatural -- and therefore cannot be explained by natural causes. God is beyond the dominion of science, and science is outside the realm of God. (p. 125) That could well have been written by many Christian theologians. Shermer's 7th chapter is entitled "Why Science Cannot Contradict Religion."

His basic thesis is three-fold. First, evolution* is a fact, and it is proved by a number of independent lines of evidence, such as fossils, DNA, behaviour, comparative anatomy, population genetics, and others. Although, for example, the fossil record does not show complete sequences of evolutionary change, the acceptance of evolution by the majority of scientists does not rest on the fossil record by and of itself. Second, there should not be a conflict between Christians and scientists. Third, the Intelligent Design movement is a religious and political movement, not a scientific one, and it usually attempts to pretend that the opposite is true.
*Unfortunately, Shermer, like many others, does not exactly define the word, which has several possible meanings. See here and here for two attempts to specify different meanings of the word.

I agree with Shermer's basic thesis, but I don't accept everything Shermer says, or, even if I did, many Christians would not. Shermer writes:
Evolution provides a scientific foundation for the core values shared by most Christians and conservatives, and by accepting -- and embracing -- the theory of evolution, Christians and conservatives strengthen their religion, their politics, and science itself. The conflict between science and religion is senseless. It is based on fears and misunderstandings rather than on facts and moral wisdom. (138) He is referring to the free market, sexual fidelity and honesty, and claims that all of these can be explained as the products of selective forces. I find it impossible to imagine my pastor, or any evangelical pastor I have ever known, preaching about honesty, and using natural selection as part of his basis for admonishing me to be honest. (Shermer doesn't suggest that the free market is part of Christianity. It is, as he says, often espoused by those who call themselves political conservatives.)

Shermer knows his material. He is particularly good at attacking the Intelligent Design movement. For example, on pages 18-19, he lists 10 features of humans that are difficult to explain as the result of design. They are nipples and a vestigial uterus (which, he says, is attached to the prostate) in males; a thirteenth pair of ribs in about one in every 12 humans -- chimpanzees and gorillas normally have thirteen pairs; the human tailbone; wisdom teeth; the appendix; body hair; "goose bumps"; ear muscles (in some humans) that enable us to wiggle our ears; and the vestigial nictitating membrane of our eyes. Shermer believes that it is much easier to accept that these features are found in some or all humans because of our ancestry, not because they were designed to make us more efficient.

Shermer attacks, point for point, the Icons of Evolution presented by Jonathan Wells.

Over and over, he presents evidence that the Intelligent Design movement is religiously motivated, not scientifically.

Shermer spends some time on the political action of the Intelligent Design movement, in particular on the Kitzmiller case.
Here is a quotation from the ruling of Judge Jones -- a church-going Bush appointee:
. . . we do not question that many of the leading advocates of ID have bona fide and deeply held beliefs which drive their scholarly endeavors. Nor do we controvert that ID should continue to be studied, debated, and discussed. As stated, our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom. Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.

On pages 166-167, Shermer lists eight different views that different Christians take about origins. (His source appears to be here.) One of the weaknesses of the book is that Shermer seems to lump all these views into a single one, and attack it. Nonetheless, the book is well worth reading. It is short (less than 200 pages, and the dimensions are smaller than those of many books) and well written.

Thanks for reading.

* * * * * *

I have personally argued (I am by no means alone) that the Bible itself teaches us that scientific findings are part of God's revelation to humans, and that Shermer is largely correct about the Intelligent Design movement. For more on my own opinions on these matters, see this post, and this one.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Spiritual experiences would be expected to have some physical effects

He replied that as a medical man he was at a loss to explain these events, and he had to think of them in "spiritual" terms now. I countered that, with no disrespect to the spiritual, I felt that even the most exalted states of mind, the most astounding transformations, must have some physical basis, or at least some physiological correlate in neural activity. Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. New York: Knopf, 2007, p. 12. "He" is a doctor who was struck by lightning. As a result, he developed a love, even a craving, for classical piano music, and started to become a piano performer. He also had ". . . both a near-death experience and an out-of-body experience . . ." (pp. 12-13) caused by the lightning strike.

Sacks has some knowledge of research into near-death and out-of-body experiences. He does not reject their existence out of hand. And, most likely, he is right. When Jesus turned water into wine, the wedding guests drunk it. When Moses raised his rod over the Red Sea, the sea parted. These were two physical manifestations of miracles. Many others could be listed. So why not expect that, say, a revelation from God, as many of the prophets had, or a vision, or dream, or some sort of ecstatic experience, would also have physical effects, at least temporary ones, on the brains of the people that are experiencing them, just as we may be able to measure brain cell activity when other events are taking place? Surely, when we have any sort of experience, something (probably temporary, perhaps not) must be happening to at least a few of our brain cells?

Here's a recent report of some interesting research involving measurement of brain activity in response to beautiful images (No images of humans were included.)

This relates to what has been called the mind-body problem.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Sunspots 201

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

Wired reports that men and women perceive beauty differently (the researchers did not use images of people in their experiments).

Slate tells us that chimpanzees aren't that much stronger than humans , contrary to what you may have heard.

Wired reports that scientists are "Rewiring the Brain" (of mice, so far, but the report also discusses how it is possible to influence your brain from outside your head without surgery). Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here . Says one of the scientists: "Not only do we not have a model for how our brains do complex tasks, we can't even imagine one." Refreshing humility!

(Or maybe Christianity) In Sports Illustrated, an article about Tanner Smith, freshman Clemson men's basketball player, who dreamed of starting a charity "to make kids with cancer laugh," at age 9, and, with the help of his parents (his dad has had cancer, or some bad results from having it, for 15 years) have made it a reality.

Turn yourself into a Superhero.

Happy birthday, Vivaldi!

Henry starts out by giving advice on what to do if you have trouble with the music at your church, and, somehow, ends up with the relationship between the Christian life and sexual activity. Really.

Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

For Freedom: The Story of a French Spy by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

I have previously read a couple of books by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Both were aimed at young people, probably more at girls than boys, and well written and interesting. The first one I read, Leap of Faith, as the title suggests, was about a girl finding faith in God, in spite of her parents.

For Freedom: The Story of a French Spy (New York: Delacorte Press, 2003) is the apparently true story of a girl, entering her teens, in France, as World War II develops. The girl's name was Suzanne David. (Wikipedia has a very brief article on her, which seems to be based on the book, not on any external source.)

Suzanne's goal is to become an opera singer, and she achieves that, singing lead roles with the local opera society of Cherbourg, France, before she is sixteen. But her world is collapsing around her. Suzanne and her best friend are at the harbor when the first attack by the Germans strikes their city, and their consciousness. The air bombardment damages buildings, kills people, including a pregnant woman that the two girls knew, and were talking to, who dies in front of them. The best friend draws into some sort of shell -- she never speaks again, throughout the rest of the book, in spite of efforts by doctors, her mother, and Suzanne, to bring her back to normalcy.

The Germans take over Suzanne's house, kicking them out into the street with almost no notice, and little opportunity to remove their belongings. But they, and apparently most of the city, have a strong Catholic faith, which shows in various ways throughout the book. Her father tells her:
". . . our lives belong to the Lord. The Nazis have not taken our work, Suzanne. They have not taken your voice. They have not taken our courage or our faith. We haven't lost anything of value." (p. 46)

Suzanne is recruited by the local doctor, who, it turns out, is in the French Resistance. She carries coded messages to various members of a Resistance cell, never knowing their names, nor they hers, for many months. Finally, she is caught, but, at just that time, the Germans leave for Normandy, to try to repel an anticipated Allied invasion. They have not obtained any information from Suzanne, in spite of over a day of non-violent interrogation. She, and others in the prison, simply walk out, with nothing to prevent them.

The book tells how Suzanne has a problem with her voice, while singing in Paris, before she is arrested by the Germans. She never sings in an opera again. It also says that Suzanne fell in love with an American soldier, and left France to live in Tennessee, where she was living at the time of the writing of the book.

An inspiring story. It should remind those of us who now live in comparative safety and security that these conditions are not guaranteed to be permanent, and we may have to decide what to give up, or whether we should be committed to a fight against some powerful enemy. It is no wonder that this book was named a 2005-6 Junior Book Award winner.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

Gilead is a fine novel, a Christian novel. It is not a Christian novel in the sense that it was written and marketed to the (almost all woman) Christian fiction niche market. It is a Christian novel in the sense that there are Christian characters, and that the novel has a Christian world view. Gilead was published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, and won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It was written, and marketed, for the mainstream reader, and, of course, for Christians and other non-mainstream persons who choose to read it.

You can refer to the link at the beginning of this post for the Wikipedia article, which gives a plot summary, and more, about this book.

I want to say just a little about it.

Robinson's characters are mostly preachers. Believing preachers -- they believe in the supernatural power of God. Things often don't go the way they would want them too, however. In the end, Gilead is a story of redemption -- the main character, Ames, finally comes to understand and forgive the son of his best friend.

A quote:
Boughton says he has more ideas about heaven every day. He said, "Mainly I just think about the splendors of the world and multiply by two. I'd multiply by ten or twelve if I had the energy. But two is much more than sufficient for my purposes." (p. 147. Boughton is an old pastor who is a lifelong friend of Ames.)

The book is suffused with grace, and well written. I recommend it.

Sunday, March 01, 2009


Rebekah's reputation isn't the best. After all, she is the one who seems responsible for deceiving her husband, Isaac, so that the blind old man blessed her favorite son, Jacob, instead of his favorite son, Esau.

The Bible doesn't tell us a great deal about Rebekah, but there are a few hints of her personality and character. She wasn't just a scheming cheater and a mother who played favorites.

For one thing, when Abraham sent out his servant, to find a wife for his son, Isaac, Rebekah was eager to become his wife. That's remarkable! She was willing to leave her family, her neighborhood, and her friends, permanently, to marry a man she had never seen, and knew almost nothing about. He was probably at least twice her age. Genesis 24 tells us that part of Rebekah's story:
55 Her brother and her mother said, “Let the young woman remain with us a while, at least ten days; after that she may go.” 56 But he said to them, “Do not delay me, since the Lord has prospered my way. Send me away that I may go to my master.” 57 They said, “Let us call the young woman and ask her.” 58 And they called Rebekah and said to her, “Will you go with this man?” She said, “I will go.” (All scripture quotations from the ESV.)

She meant immediately. They left the next morning, Rebekah, and some of Abraham's servants, for the journey back to where Isaac lived. Most likely, Rebekah could have had other prospects. Verse 16 says that she was "very attractive."

Chapter 25 continues the story. It tells us that Rebekah was a woman who could communicate with God, and get answers from Him. Rebekah wondered what was going on with her pregnancy, and asked God about it. God told her that she would have twins, and also told her that the older would serve the younger. So when Rebekah made Jacob her favorite, she had at least one good reason for doing so. (That would not seem to excuse her for bad judgment in favoring one child over another, which Isaac also did, in favoring Esau over Jacob. They don't seem to have been a family to emulate, as far as their relationships went.)

Esau wasn't perfect, for sure. Genesis 26:34-5 tells us that he made two bad choices in marriage:
34 When Esau was forty years old, he took Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite to be his wife, and Basemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite, 35 and they made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah.

So a case could be made that Rebekah, in helping Jacob deceive Isaac, and in sending Jacob away, was not primarily a bad mother to Esau, and a bad wife to Isaac, but was a woman of character, helping to carry out God's will, in spite of the customs of the time, which favored older sons.

I have previously posted character studies of two other women of the Bible, namely Abishag and Ruth.

For more on Rebekah, see this post from Grace for Women.

Thanks for reading.