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Monday, November 30, 2009

Some caution about global warming

I have taken the view, over the years, that there really is such a thing as global warming, and that human activity is at least partly responsible for that. I am not, by any means, an expert on climatology, but I believe that the scientific consensus is strongly in favor of this view, based on good data.

There is a considerable amount of anecdotal photographic evidence, including changes in the polar ice caps, which is the main reason that I continue to hold to that view. But, out of fairness, I point out that some recently released e-mail exchanges between climate scientists seem to indicate that there has been some fudging to strengthen the case for data supporting global warming. If true, this is a shame. Science should be objective. It probably never has been entirely so, but, for the most part, the system has worked.

National Public Radio has a report, both textual and audio, about these e-mails, and provides an analysis of their significance.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Glory to God, Whose Sovereign Grace

Glory to God, whose sovereign grace
Hath animated senseless stones;
Called us to stand before His face,
And raised us into Abraham’s sons!

The people that in darkness lay,
In sin and error’s deadly shade,
Have seen a glorious gospel day,
In Jesus’ lovely face displayed.

Thou only, Lord, the work hast done,
And bared Thine arm in all our sight;
Hast made the reprobates Thine own,
And claimed the outcasts as Thy right.

Thy single arm, almighty Lord,
To us the great salvation brought,
Thy Word, Thy all-creating Word,
That spake at first the world from naught.

For this the saints lift up their voice,
And ceaseless praise to Thee is giv’n;
For this the hosts above rejoice,
We raise the happiness of Heav’n.

For this, no longer sons of night,
To Thee our thankful hearts we give;
To Thee, who called us into light,
To Thee we die, to Thee we live.

Suffice that for the season past
Hell’s horrid language filled our tongues,
We all Thy words behind us cast,
And lewdly sang the drunkard’s songs.

But, O the power of grace divine!
In hymns we now our voices raise,
Loudly in strange hosannas join,
And blasphemies are turned to praise!

This is one of over 250 of Charles Wesley's hymns, found on his page at Nethymnal. I've never heard it, but it has some words appropriate for the season.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

An example of scripture where concordism doesn't fit

Psalm 119:89 Forever, O Lord, your word
is firmly fixed in the heavens.
90 Your faithfulness endures to all generations;
you have established the earth, and it stands fast. (ESV. See here for ESV copyright information. See here for the Blueletter Bible's display of how other versions treat verse 90.)

(See yesterday's post for a discussion of concordism.)

Few people would say that this passage means that the earth doesn't rotate on its axis, or revolve about the sun, or that the sun itself doesn't move as the galaxy rotates, in spite of the literal interpretation of verse 90, which seems to say all of those things. Presumably, the Psalmist wrote in accord with the science of the time, which didn't know as much about astronomy as we think we know now. The passage is poetic, not scientific, and it still speaks to us about God's sustaining power. God established the earth, and preserves it, wherever it may go through space.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Concordism, a barrier to Christian acceptance of science

Steve Martin writes an important blog, entitled "An Evangelical Dialogue on Evolution." A recent post, by guest writer Jordan Mallon, strikes me as particularly important.

In this post, Mallon considers the idea of what he calls concordism, namely that "God revealed to the authors of Scripture scientific facts about the universe that could not otherwise have been known to them at the time." Mallon does not believe this, although he says it is an unexamined presupposition of many conservative Christians. Instead, he believes that the writers of the Bible were limited to their own knowledge, the scientific knowledge of the time, when writing. Why does Mallon think this? His main evidence is the question of geocentrism, the idea that the earth is the center of the universe. This was the common belief for centuries, perhaps millenia, until the 16th century. One reason that it was believed, beside the fact that the earth does appear to be fixed, and other things, such as the sun and moon, revolving around it, is scripture. Mallon lists 11 passages, all from the Old Testament, that appear to have been written by persons who believed in geocentrism.

Perhaps the most frequently discussed of those passages is one from Joshua, wherein Joshua is said to have commanded the sun and moon to stand still. I don't know what happened then. Whatever it was, it was a miracle. As the link in the first sentence of this paragraph will show, no less than Answers in Genesis, an organization that is often accused of taking the Bible too literally, does not believe that this passage teaches geocentrism. (I have posted here on the unfortunate false rumor that NASA has proved the story in Joshua is true. The fact that NASA hasn't proved it doesn't mean that it didn't happen.) Mallon's point, of course, is that the ancient writers did not write as if they had been given special scientific knowledge. As he says, "we now appreciate that God sometimes accommodates His message to the limitations of human understanding." He calls this accomodation.

Mallon draws a conclusion, namely that the first part of Genesis may also be coming to us through the filter of the scientific knowledge of the writer, and the the knowledge available to the hearers or listeners that Genesis was first presented to, and, therefore, a belief in speciation by natural selection, and perhaps even the origin of larger groups of organisms by this mechanism, may not really conflict with scripture at all.

The post by Mallon covers two other topics, almost as important. I suggest that you read his post. Thanks for reading this one.

See my next post, for a concrete Biblical example.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Have you been thankful for your existence?

Here's a fundamental thing that perhaps you have never explicitly thanked God for -- your existence!

You exist, or you wouldn't be reading this. I exist, or at least I did on November 22nd, or it wouldn't have been written. Existence is such a fundamental fact that we seldom consider it enough to be grateful for it.

Thank you, God, that I had the chance to exist!

There's a Wikipedia article on Existence, and, trust me, it bristles with philosophical concepts.

I know that some people wish that they had never existed, and perhaps that's a legitimate wish for some people, but most of them aren't serious, or, if they are, they aren't sane. God help them. (See Job. God did help him.)

Thanks for reading! Thank God that you exist!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Sunspots 236

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

The Boston Globe has assembled a fabulous array of photos of Mars, close-up.

Microbial Art is a web site devoted to presenting art from microbial growth.

The Associated Press reports on a statistical study that indicates that major college men's basketball referees tend to act in ways that keep the scores close. And, yes, they do favor the home team.

A relatively short, but important, post, entitled "Clarifying Concepts in the Creation-Evolution Dialogue." I would say that this is must reading for Christians interested in science and in origins. God willing, I will post on this article later.

Image source (public domain)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Queen of the Orcs: King's Property by Morgan Howell

I recently read Queen of the Orcs: King's Property, the first book in a trilogy, by Morgan Howell. (Howell is a pseudonym.) Here's the Amazon page on the book.

Orc is a term used most prominently by J.R.R. Tolkien. As the Wikipedia article on the term indicates, the word pre-dates Tolkien.

There are significant differences between Tolkien's orcs and those of Howell. Tolkien's orcs seem to have been about human size, or smaller. Tolkien didn't have any female orc characters. Tolkien's orcs were treacherous, devious, and seemingly given over entirely to evil. Howell's orcs seem to be somewhat larger than humans. Although there are no female orc characters in this book of the trilogy, the orcs hold their females in great reverence, and live in a matriarchal society. The orcs in this book are all serving as soldiers for a human king, under what they think are orders from their queen. They serve in an army that includes both human and orc units. As to devious character traits, the orcs are honorable to a fault, and, if fighting by themselves against humans, can often be beaten, even if they seem to have a superior force, because they are not only honorable, but cannot imagine dishonorable behavior well enough to imagine possible treacherous, or even deceptive, behavior by humans.

The protagonist of the book is Dar, a human woman, probably in her twenties, whose father and stepmother give her to the king's army. Like the other women accompanying the army, she serves as a slave -- she is branded as the property of the king. She works as a cook and scullery maid. Most of the book is told from her perspective.

One of the duties of the women is to serve meals to the orcs. The orcs have a strong religious, or cultural, belief that all good things, including food, come from a Mother, and accept food only from a human woman, there being no orc women in the army. Dar is sent to serve them, because she is a newcomer. However, she gradually learns to respect the orcs, learn some of their language, and, most important, eventually convinces a special orc friend that she, as a female, should be taken seriously, even listened to.

Another thing that the women do is serve some of the soldiers sexually. Dar never does this, but a couple of the officers lust after her, and, when she refuses to cooperate, plan vengeance. Since orcs are protecting her, the vengeance involves letting the orcs be destroyed by an enemy army. The book closes with Dar escaping from the battle, and the army, as leader to five orc soldiers, including her special friend, Kovak-mah.

There are some religious aspects to the book. Both the orcs, and the humans, have pagan religious beliefs. There is magic, or the supernatural, in at least two ways. Dar discovers that she sometimes sees visions, which turn out to come true. The king has a sorcerer, who goes into a trance, using blood from a newly sacrificed human boy each time he enters one, and, upon coming out of the trance, has learned something about the future.

Tolkien was accused of writing his famous Lord of the Rings trilogy to flesh out his made-up languages, and there may have been some truth in the accusation. Howell hasn't gone nearly as far, but there is, at least, an appendix of about a dozen pages, giving some vocabulary and grammar from the orc's language.

There are certainly some bad guys in the book, but Dar, and Kovak-mah, are honorable, and try to help others unselfishly. Dar is a strong character, hard-working, with high ideals, and a good mind, in spite of the handicap of her background as a peasant woman rejected by her own family. I expect to read the other two books in this trilogy.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

O, My God, how Your Salvation

O, My God, how Your salvation
Fills my soul with peace and joy,
Patience gives, and consolation
Which the world cannot destroy!
Praise to God, the glorious Giver,
Christ, the Savior of the lost,
And the Comforter forever,
Father, Son and Holy Ghost!

For that love whose tender mercies
Purest joys do daily bring,
I will all my life confess You
With my mouth Your praises sing!
Praise to God, the glorious Giver,
Christ, the Savior of the lost,
And the Comforter forever,
Father, Son and Holy Ghost!

May be sung to "Hyfrydol," "All the Way My Savior Leads Me," or other tunes.

Author: John S. B. Monsell, 1811-1875 (for a time, he was chaplain to Queen Victoria), author. Found in a Hymnal of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Cincinnati: Hitchcock and Walden, 1878, which book has no musical scores, only the lyrics. Public Domain. Someone thought I should have it, as we were going through my late mother's house.

I changed some second person pronouns to "you" or "your."

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Did Adam have a belly button?

The answer, of course, is that we don't know.

I just read a photo (on Facebook) of what appears to be a pamphlet or magazine article, claiming that Adam and Eve didn't have navels, because they didn't go through embryonic development. (The navel, or belly button, of course, is where the umbilical cord is attached.) Perhaps they didn't. On the other hand, perhaps they did.

Even if Adam and Eve were created as mature adults, they might have had navels. Presumably, they began life as able to converse in whatever language they used. (NOT English, I think!) If they began life as mature adults, with language skills, they must have had all the neural connections necessary for these skills, even though they didn't experience the language learning through which the rest of us set up those connections, which enable us to speak and understand language. So, just as their brains were created as if they had gone through normal development, their abdomens might have also been created in that way, with navels. (Innies? outies?)

See here for Wikipedia article on neuroplasticity. The notion that neural connections are formed, or altered, by learning, is, as I understand it, firmly believed by almost all neuroscientists, but is not backed up by a tremendous amount of experimental evidence. Experimental work of this type is very difficult to do, as it would mean working, on a biochemical and/or microscopic level, in a living brain, and it wouldn't be ethical to do such research in humans at all. Here's a report on some actual experimental evidence for the idea. It is hard to imagine that learning would take place without altering the physical and chemical structure of the brain.

Thanks for reading. Check your navel.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Christ-figure in Watership Down, by Richard Adams?

I have previously posted a few times on Watership Down, by Richard Adams. (See here for the last of these posts.)

I have also considered the question of what makes a novel a Christian novel, and considered the question of whether or not several works of fantastic literature are, indeed, Christian. That post is here, and has links to posts which examine various pieces of literature. Although it is one of my favorite books, I have never done this sort of analysis on Watership Down.

If you are not familiar with the book, the plot is summarized in the Wikipedia article on the book.

I have recently re-read the book, and believe that, in some ways, El-ahriarah, the rabbit's mythical hero, is a Christ-figure. Why do I say that?

I say that because of the following passage:
"The Black Rabbit spoke with the voice of water that falls into pools in echoing places in the dark.
"'El-ahrairah, why have you come here?'
"'I have come for my people,' whispered El-ahrairah. - Richard Adams, Watership Down. New York: Avon Books, 1972. p. 283.
From the chapter, "El-ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inlé," which chapter is named for its content, which is a story that Dandelion, the rabbit story-teller, tells, on request from Bigwig. (Bigwig is, himself, about to enter into a dangerous mission, which could well cost him his life.) In the story, El-ahrairah has come for his people, who are oppressed by an enemy, King Darzin. They can scarcely leave their burrows. Rabbits go to the Black Rabbit when they are about to die. El-ahrairah tries to beat the Black Rabbit in various contests of skill and wit, but can't. He wagers his ears, his whiskers, and his tail, and loses all of these. He gets Rabscuttle, his constant companion, to get dock leaves to stick on his head in the place of ears. Finally, in desperation, he rushes into the pit of rabbit diseases, hoping to catch the white blindness, so as to infect the animals that are oppressing the rabbits. He knows that, if he gets this disease, he will die soon.

El-ahrairah's attempted self-sacrifice doesn't work, because the white blindness is carried by fleas in rabbits ears, and he has no ears, and no fleas. But the Black Rabbit says that he, himself, will rescue El-ahrairah's people, and he does. When El-ahrairah returns, he discovers that a few years have passed since he left. No one remembers him. Lord Frith, the sun-god of the rabbits, appears to El-ahrairah, and gives him new ears, with starlight in them, and a new body to match.

At the end of the book, Hazel, the leader of the rabbits of Watership Down, dies, but as he does, El-ahrairah appears to him, indicating that El-ahrairah has become immortal.

El-ahrairah, then, attempts to give his own life for the lives of others, and is resurrected as an eternal hero-figure. That certainly parallels Christ.

I would not say that Watership Down is a Christian novel, in spite of having a figure in it that is like Christ in some ways. As I said above, there is a sun-god in it, for one thing. It's really, I guess, a pagan novel. (See here for a little of what C. S. Lewis had to say about the relationship between paganism and Christianity.)

Thanks for reading. Read Watership Down.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Another thought about politics from the Old Testament

I recently paid attention to Proverbs 24:21 My son, fear the Lord and the king,
and do not join with those who do otherwise, (ESV. See here for the ESV policy on on-line usage.).

Does this apply in our time? If we live in the US, should we fear the President? I think so, based on what the New Testament also says about this matter. Perhaps "honor" or "respect" are also involved in that fear.

I have posted previously on a similar topic.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sunspots 235

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

Olivia Judson tells us that happiness, and other good things, can be contagious -- there have been scientific studies on this.

Wired reports the appearance of a new species of Galapagos finches, one which has been reproductively isolated from similar birds for three generations. 

(Sort of) The government made 98 billion dollars worth of improper payments in 2009, it said, according to CNN. Let's hope that we get a handle on this.

Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Using light to control single brain cells (and thanks to a gene from algae)

Wired has posted an amazing report on how it is possible to control a single neuron in a mouse brain, by zapping it with light. The reason this works is because researchers have also inserted a gene for light sensitivity into the mouse, so the mouse is a mouse-algal hybrid. (Not really -- it's a mouse with one algal gene.) You've got to have a means of getting the light to trigger a single neuron, of course.

This is potentially of great importance, because drugs and electrical stimulation tend to be messy -- affect more than one neuron, or even lots of them. This is an invasive technique, but so are some others that we take for granted. It seems possible to do a great deal of good with this, perhaps curing, say, Parkinson's. In fact, the researchers are working on Parkinson-like mice. It's also possible, of course, that a great deal of harm might be done, but the same thing was, and is, true of techniques less high-tech, such as surgery.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Religion in Elizabeth Moon's Familias Regnant novels.

Elizabeth Moon has written a variety of fantastic literature. Her Nebula award-winning The Speed of Dark is set on earth, in a time not far into the future. Her Paksenarrion and Gird novels are set on some unknown planet, or perhaps an alternate earth, and are fantasy. Her Vatta's War and Familias Regnant novels are both set in the far future, when humans have expanded into many other solar systems. These two groups of books have been called, with some justice, space opera.

In this post, I wish to consider the religious aspects of the Familias Regnant novels. The books are not so much about religion as the Paksenarrion and Gird books, but religion is certainly mentioned.

The Familias Regnant worlds, a large collection of habitable planets, linked together by commerce, culture, and government, don't have a single religion:
"The Familias legal codes -- and those of the Regular Space Service -- allow freedom of belief, and freedom of religious practices which are not directly harmful to others. Because of the wide variety of beliefs, many held strongly, we do not generally discuss religion with those we do not know." (Elizabeth Moon, Change of Command. New York, New York: Baen Books, 1999, p. 151.) A minor character is explaining the way things are to a visitor from another culture. Note that the question of what religion is practiced is important to the visitor.

I found no Christ-figure in these books. Not only that, none of the main characters expressed any firm religious belief. Once in a while, when under stress, they wished that they had a religion, or attempted to pray, but religion wasn't important to any of them.

There were religions in some of the other cultures, and they seem to have been some version of Christianity, from the USA, extrapolated into the future. The results were usually (but not always) male-dominated, and based on deeds -- eternal rewards and temporal blessings were not gifts, but earned, by right behavior. Several peripheral characters were clearly dominated by their religious beliefs.

I have posted here and here about the religious aspects of the Paksenarrion novels, and here about the Gird novels. Moon does not ignore religion, even in the future, even if it doesn't play a dominant role for the main characters in these books.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Romans 1:20b poster: God's revelation through nature

Romans 1:20 poster

This is an attempt to illustrate Romans 1:20b (ESV), wherein God indicates that He reveals Himself to us through nature.

That's not the only way God is revealed. I would say that Christ, Himself, is the most important way, and that the Holy Spirit, the Bible, our conscience, and the church, are other ways that God is revealed.

The original photo is on our Flickr photostream. ESV copyright information is here.

I have previously blogged about this verse. One such attempt is here. In that post, I argue that, if God reveals Himself through nature, it is important that we keep nature as beautiful and diverse as possible, because, if we don't, we are making it more difficult for God to reveal Himself to us.

Thanks for reading, and looking.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Emergent processes

Jeremiah 1:4 Now the word of the Lord came to me, saying,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (ESV. For information on copyright and usage policies of the ESV, see here.)

This passage is often taken as support for opposition to abortion, and that may be a legitimate use. I quote it here because it may be supporting another idea, that of emergent processes.

Young-earth creationists believe that the earth, and the universe, are no more than a few thousand years old. They believe that, although there may have been some changes in the appearance of living things, and even in humans, these are minor, because there hasn't been time for major changes. As a consequence, they believe that the creative processes described in Genesis 1 were instantaneous, or nearly so. I believe that those who believe in Young-earth creationism would say (if they thought about this specific example) that the lichens were created by the command, or commands (possibly one for each type of lichen) of God, on the third day, and that they would have been much like the lichens of today. This view may be correct.

But young-earth creationists, though they don't often say this, seem to go further in their thinking. They assume that only an instantaneous creative act shows the power of God.

Other Christians, believing that a proper interpretation of Genesis 1 does not demand that the earth is only a few thousand years old, probably haven't thought about this specific example very much either, but would suppose that the algae and the fungi found in lichens both evolved, over long periods of time, and that, also during long periods of time, the mutualistic association of fungi and algae that makes lichens also developed. Not only that, but not all the lichens necessarily originated at the same time. Some kinds of them are probably older than others. These other Christians would also say that God's preparation, His planning, and the various processes, including natural selection, that He put into play also show the power of God, just as much, if not more, than an instantaneous creative act would show it.

Jeremiah 1:4-5 refers to the process of formation in the womb, an emergent process. Newborn Jeremiah was not created instantly at the instant of his birth. He had gone through nine months of development. The fertilized egg that he came from contained complete instructions for, say, producing a circulatory system, over the course of these nine month. Jeremiah, and you and I, came about through emergent processes. These emergent processes, although unfortunately taken too much for granted, show the power of God as much, if not more so, than as if Jeremiah had been created instantly, from nothing, as a baby.

God's use of emergent processes doesn't seem to be limited to embryonic development. It seems that God's work, through Noah, Abraham, Moses, the prophets, and finally through Christ, was also an emergent process. Couldn't God also have used emergent processes to bring about the universe, the earth, and living things?

Every view of origins has problems. There is no argument for any of them so convincing as to demolish all opposing views.

See here and here for previous posts on the idea of emergent processes, or emergent creation.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Mistborn: The Final Empire, by Brandon Sanderson

I was looking for a new fantasy author to read, and decided to try a book by Brandon Sanderson. His official website is here, and the Wikipedia article on him is here. I read his Mistborn: The Final Empire (Tor, 2008), and I'm glad that I did. The link in the previous sentence is to the Wikipedia article on the book. This is the book's web page on the author's web site. Clearly, I'm not the only fan of this book, or the series of three books that it is part of. There is a Mistborn Wiki, with a number of articles on various aspects of the book(s).

I generally try to avoid giving away the plots of books that I read, and I will try to give away as little as possible in this post. I have three points to make.

First, there are interesting characters in the book. These characters have feelings, and flaws, and most of them are trying to do good. The good that they are trying to do is to overthrow the Lord Ruler, and the nobility, who hold most of the population, the skaa, of the unnamed planet (continent?) that is the setting in slavery. The leading character is a teenage girl, Vin. Most of the story is told from her standpoint. She has magical ability, and her mother was skaa. She decides to join Kelsier, an inspiring, if unpredictable leader, who also has magical ability, in his plot to overthrow the Lord Ruler.

Second, the nature of the magic in the book is intriguing, and, as far as I'm aware, unlike the magical powers of any other sub-creation. There are actually three kinds of magic in the book. The main kind is Allomancy, a hereditary gift that must be awakened, usually by a traumatic event. Most people aren't Allomancers at all. Some are Mistings -- they are able to somehow internally consume a particular metal or alloy, and, when they do, have temporary powers of one sort or another. There are several types of Mistings. There are also Mistborn, people like Vin and Kelsier, who can use several kinds of metals or alloys, and have all the powers. Such powers include heightened senses, increased strength, the ability to influence the emotions of others, or to hide from enemies using Allomancy, and the ability to move things rapidly against gravity, including the Allomancer herself. In other words, Mistborn are able to move rapidly like the characters in some recent Chinese Martial Arts movies, such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. There is another kind of magic, Ferruchemy, which a particular race, small in number, the Terris, can practice. There is a third kind of magic, practiced by a few powerful servants of the Lord Ruler. All three of these forms of magic utilize metals, by ingestion and burning (Oxidation?), or by physical contact.

The third aspect of the book that I wish to muse on is going to give away major portions of the plot.

Religion is mentioned several times. One of the characters, Sazed, is a Terris. He is able to access and retain information on many kinds of religions, using special memory storage provided through Ferruchemy. Occasionally, Sazed mentions some obscure, or at least extinct religion. He doesn't give much detail, but none of the religions he mentions seem to be closely related to any religion currently practiced in real life.

I was not clear on whether or not the skaa, or the other inhabitants of the land that the book is set in, have a religion. If they do, it seems to be worship of the Lord Ruler, who, himself, has powerful magical abilities, as he uses both Allomancy and Ferruchemy, and is, apparently, immortal. He says that he is, and even those who want to overthrow him believe that he is immortal.

Whether anyone else pays attention or not, one of the things I have tried to do, at least for my own satisfaction, in this blog is to consider questions of religion in fantastic literature. If you wish to know more about this, I recommend my "What Must Be Christian About a Christian Novel?" and "Paganism and Christianity in Juliet Marillier's Fiction." Both of these have links to related posts.

I was a little surprised to find, near the end of Mistborn, that there is a Christ-figure in the book. By this, I mean that there is a character who has some of the attributes of Jesus Christ, who suffered for the sins of others, died as a sacrifice for those sins, and rose again to prove His power. The character is Kelsier. Kelsier decides, when the rebellion looks like it won't actually succeed, to sabotage the only mine where the rarest of the metals used by Mistborn is found. The Lord Ruler, and the nobles, as well as other mistborn, like Kelsier and Vin, depend on this metal. His sabotage is successful. In retaliation, the Lord Ruler orders the execution of hundreds of skaa, who, of course, had nothing to do with the sabotage. Kelsier decides that he cannot allow this to happen. He begins freeing the prisoners, knowing that this will make the Lord Ruler, himself, act to try to stop Kelsier. The Lord Ruler does this. He kills Kelsier, in a public place, where many skaa, and many of the Lord Ruler's servants, as well as Vin, are witnesses. Kelsier's close associates, including Vin, discover that Kelsier planned to give himself up -- he knew that he would be killed.

A non-human creature, who has been successfully masquerading as a nobleman, apparently known to be an non-human only by himself and Kelsier, assumes Kelsier's bodily form, and appears, in this way, to some skaa, and this, as well as the revulsion caused by the death of Kelsier on their behalf, leads the skaa to overthrow the nobility. Eventually, they begin a religion, with Kelsier as its deity.

Thus, Kelsier sacrifices himself for others, and, in a sense, rises from the dead, which, as I see it, makes him a Christ-figure.

May I be clear -- this is not exactly a Christian book. It does reflect Christ, although fictionally and not completely.

Vin and Sazed are able to kill the Lord Ruler at the end. I expect to read the remaining books in this series, and will be interested to see where Sanderson takes Vin and the other characters. I'd also like to know why there are mists, why ash is continually falling from the sky, why Vin has difficulty imagining green-colored vegetation, and, as a biologist, how the people (and animals) get food, if there aren't any green-colored plants.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Sunspots 234

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

In case you didn't know it, many human DNA sequences are patented, in spite of the fact that we've all got them, or have something much like the patented sequence. Wired says that a federal judge has allowed a lawsuit that would undo such patents to proceed.

Olivia Judson doesn't think that science is, or should be taught as, facts, facts, facts. There's a lot we don't know, and we know less all the time.

The BBC has posted a video of the courtship dance of the weedy sea dragon, a type of seahorse.

(more or less) Wired has posted some fantastic photos of islands, taken from satellites.

Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Heartbeat at 18 days?

While on a recent trip to Florida, I saw a number of billboards, saying that an embryo had a heart at 18 days of age.

I could not find this ad campaign on the Internet, but I found a web page, which makes this claim, among others: "18 days after conception the baby's heart is beating." The organization's web site indicates that this is an Irish pro-life organization. (By September 28, 2013, this web page had been removed, which is hardly surprising, considering the nearly four years since I saw it.)
Both the web site and the billboard campaign show a picture of a fetus, not an embryo. (The human becomes a fetus at eight weeks of pregnancy.) So does the heart really beat at 18 days?

The Wikipedia article on prenatal development is a good source for answering this question. It's a little confusing, because it gives both the age of the embryo/fetus and the gestational age, which is the time since the last menstruation.

According to that source, "Primitive heart tube is forming. Vasculature begins to develop in embryonic disc." at 20 days after fertilization, not 18 days. (Vasculature means the blood vessels needed for circulation.) The heart begins to beat between 22 and 28 days after fertilization. However, the first sign of a working circulatory system is later than that, at between days 29 and 35.

The billboard campaign, and the web page, seem to be wrong. The heart doesn't begin to beat until later than 18 days after fertilization, and it doesn't really start to function until even later than that. Besides, the graphic in both the web page and the billboard show a fetus, probably at least 12 weeks old, not an embryo at all.

There are reasons for arguing that unborn human entities should be protected, and I won't consider the validity of those reasons here. But, even if those reasons were completely uncontroversial arguments, that would not excuse the use of distortion in support of protecting embryos or fetuses, and that, unfortunately, is what the pro-life community has done, in the two instances described, and, I'm afraid, in other cases.

Thanks for reading. See here for a more comprehensive view of my thoughts on abortion.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Did it rain before the Flood?

These passages are the first mention of rain in the Bible:
Genesis 2:5 When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, and a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. (All Bible quotation from the ESV, unless otherwise noted. ESV copyright and usage information, see here.)

Genesis 7:For in seven days I will send rain on the earth forty days and forty nights, and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground.”
11 In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. 12 And rain fell upon the earth forty days and forty nights.

Is, then, Genesis 7:12 the first rainfall in the history of the earth? The passage doesn't say that. However, it may imply that. And, of course, Genesis 2:5 says that it hadn't rained yet, at the time Genesis 2 is describing. But I don't think that the rain that fell in Noah's time was the first rain ever, and, as you'll see if you read on, I'm in good company.

First, a little bit on the words used. The word for rain, in Hebrew, in Genesis 2:5 (see here) is a verb. It is used at least as often when God sends something besides water from the sky, as it is for what we commonly think of as rain. The same word is used in Genesis 7:4. Genesis 7:12 uses a different word, a noun. (See here.)

Now, to public domain commentaries, written by renowned Bible scholars. John Calvin does not consider the question of whether the rain that fell in Genesis 7 was the first rain that ever fell. Neither does John Wesley, not Matthew Henry, nor the commentary of Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown.

Matthew Henry does not consider the question of whether there had been a rainbow before the flood. (Genesis 9) Wesley believes that there had been: "The rainbow, 'tis likely was seen in the clouds before, but was never a seal of the covenant 'till now." The Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown commentary seems to agree with Wesley: "This common and familiar phenomenon being made the pledge of peace, its appearance when showers began to fall would be welcomed with the liveliest feelings of joy." Calvin not only agrees, but ridicules those who have claimed that there were no rainbows before the Flood: "From these words certain eminent theologians have been induced to deny, that there was any rainbow before the deluge: which is frivolous. For the words of Moses do not signify, that a bow was then formed which did not previously exist; but that a mark was engraven upon it, which should give a sign of the divine favor towards men."

Thus, even though these four commentaries are silent on the direct question of whether the rain that came in the time of Noah was the first rain, three of them answer it indirectly -- the rainbow mentioned as the pledge of God's promise not to destroy the earth by a flood was not the first rainbow, in their opinion. And, since a rainbow requires rain, a belief that it had rained before the time of Noah is at least respectable.

See here for a previous post on the title question, dealing with different evidence from the Bible, which also suggests that it rained before the Flood. See here for consideration of other questions related to the flood.

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Jesus Lives, and So Shall I

Jesus lives, and so shall I

Jesus lives, and so shall I.
Death! thy sting is gone forever:
He, who deigned for me to die,
Lives, the bands of death to sever.
He shall raise me with the just;
Jesus is my Hope and Trust.

Jesus lives and reigns supreme;
And, his kingdom still remaining
I shall also be with Him,
Ever living, ever reigning.
God has promised; be it must:
Jesus is my Hope and Trust.

Jesus lives, and God extends
Grace to each returning sinner;
Rebels He receives as friends,
And exalts to highest honor.
God is True as He is Just;
Jesus is my Hope and Trust.

Jesus lives, and by His grace,
Victory o'er my passions giving,
I will cleanse my heart and ways,
Ever to His glory living.
The weak He raises from the dust;
Jesus is my Hope and Trust.

Jesus lives, and I am sure
Naught shall e'er from Jesus sever,
Satan's wiles, and Satan's power,
Pain or pleasure-- ye shall never!
Christian armor cannot rust;
Jesus is my Hope and Trust.

Jesus lives, and death is now
But my entrance into glory
Courage! then, my soul, for thou
Hast a crown of life before thee;
Thou shalt find thy hopes were just--
Jesus is the Christian's Trust.

Christian F. Gellert, 1715-1769, translated by Philip Schaff, 1819-1893, public domain.

Friday, November 06, 2009

God does not like human death

The Bible makes it pretty clear that God is not pleased by death.

As Ezekiel 18:23 puts it: Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? (All scripture quotations from the ESV. See here for copyright policy.) See also Ezekiel 18:32 and 33:11. God is not pleased even at the death of wicked, sinful people, even though He ordered the death of such people over and over again in the Old Testament.

The shortest verse in the Bible has a point. Jesus was grieved at the death of his friend, Lazarus, even though He knew that He was about to raise him back from the dead.

Death is described as the last enemy, in 1 Corinthians 15:26.

Revelation 21:4 tells us that death will be gone from the final home of the redeemed.

So God does not like human death, and does not merely say this, but sent Himself to experience it and defeat it.

What about animal death?

Humans and animals are not the same, although humans may be said to be a kind of animal. Genesis 1, especially verse 26-28, describes our creation in more detail than for the animals, and it is possible that it is also describing a different kind of creation. The passage indicates that God treats us differently than He does the animals -- we are in God's image, and we have dominion over the rest of creation. Not in Genesis, but most important, God came to earth in human form. So we aren't the same as animals.

I'm not sure that God is so grieved about the death of animals. (Or plants, although I won't say more about that.) Besides the different status of humans, in relation to animals, why do I say this? For several reasons:
1) God prepared garments made from animal skins for Adam and Eve when they realized that they were naked. Presumably, God Himself killed some animals in the process of preparing the skins.
2) God was pleased by the animal sacrifice made by Abel, and throughout the Old Testament, accepted, and required, animal sacrifice.
3) The Flood apparently destroyed all but a few of the animals. It was not the animals that were being punished for sin, it was the wicked people of Noah's day. They had done something to deserve their punishment, but the animals hadn't. But almost all of the animals are said to have perished. God's concern seemed to be for the preservation of types of animals, not for their individual lives. (See here for some of my questions about the flood.)
4) God has allowed, or ordered, predation, which means that many kinds of animals are going to die, to feed others.
5) Jesus tells us that God knows about each sparrow that falls (Luke 12:6-7). It doesn't say that He does anything to prevent them from falling.
6) The chosen people ate meat. This practice was apparently continued through the time of Christ, and, according to Luke 22:7-13, Jesus, Himself, ate part of the Passover Lamb.
7) The disciples fished, and Jesus helped them do it. In one case, He ordered that Peter catch a fish, and may have even fished, Himself, after He was resurrected. (See John 21:6, John 21:9, Matthew 17:27, Luke 5:4 and Luke 24:36-43)
8) God has created, or allowed, the process of natural selection, whereby, say, an oyster may lay millions of eggs, but, on the average, only one of these will reach maturity. The others die, because they are not as fit, or because of various chance processes that eliminate them.

It seems difficult to argue that God is greatly grieved, or grieved at all, by the death of non-human creatures.

Natural selection is a process associated not only with the survival of the fittest, but with the non-survival of those who are not fit. Although much of this non-survival is simply a failure to produce offspring, some of it is individual non-survival -- death. At least after the Fall, natural selection has undoubtedly operated. It is possible to doubt that it operated before the Fall -- there are many who do doubt this, but it is also possible that natural selection, a messy process, resulting in vast amounts of non-survival, is a process that God has used, even before the Fall, to shape and develop non-human life. After all, He used a messy process, resulting, or at least allowing, vast amounts of human death, to bring mankind along until the covenant with Abraham, the Mosaic Law, and then more mess, up until the establishment of Himself as savior, redeemer, and Lord, by Christ.

I have previously posted about the question of death before the Fall of humans, here, here and here.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Connie Willis on how we feel about death

“Death is a subject Americans don’t like to talk about. I guess nobody does, but our American culture is especially in denial about death. If they do want to think about it, it’s in non-threatening Hallmark terms. Polls show these people don’t go to church, they don’t have any organized religion, but they all somehow think they’re going to heaven. They are in love with happy thoughts about death and at the same time they’re very frightened about death. You can see it in the culture everywhere - the way people jog frenetically, not to feel better or to be healthy but to be immortal. I’ve been on some convention panels where the overriding topic has been immortality: ‘The last person to die has already been born and the next generation will live forever.’ This is actually religion masquerading as science, and it speaks to how terrified people are about death.”

Connie Willis, interviewed by Locus, January, 2003. Willis is an award-winning author of fantastic literature.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Sunspots 233

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

Wired reports on some of the best photomicrography, including images. They are fabulous!

Slate on whether we can predict criminal behavior from what a face looks like .

(or Science) Wired reports that the way people attempting to kick field goals perceive the size and position of the goalposts is actually changed if they don't succeed.

ZDNet has an article on how to take photos of fall foliage.

A recent survey indicates that perhaps as many as "46% of evangelical theologians . . . accept that God created through the process of evolution."

He Lives on why apologetics is important. He's right.

Image source (public domain)

Monday, November 02, 2009

Life is short

James 4:14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. (ESV. See here for ESV copyright information.)

My mother lived over 99 years. But that was a short time, measured against eternity.

I have mused a lot on many things in the past couple of weeks. One of those things is the passing of time. One of our nephews, and his wife, put together a slide show, which was available to visitors at the funeral home. It's a good job, and I'm glad they put it together. But it shows that time passes, and we can't bring it back. There were photos of ancestors of mine that died before I was born. I never knew them.

One photo that particularly interested me was one of the brother next in age to me, with me, messing around on the rocks in a stream near where we once lived. I don't remember the occasion, and I doubt if my brother does, either. But it looks like we were having fun, and I'm sure that we were, some six plus decades ago. I can't go back there. I'm not sure I can find the place, I can't play on rocks quite as well as I used to, and if I do find it and go back, most likely my brother won't be there with me. That experience is gone.

There was a lot of stuff in the old house. We took some of it, and others did, too. That's fine. Some of these things are nice to have, some may be valuable, some bring back memories. But none of that really matters. Sooner or later it will all be forgotten and worthless, or just lost. Things don't last, any more than experiences do. A lot of that stuff is gone, and the rest will be, eventually.

I was happy that a friend of ours came to the funeral. I hadn't seen her for fifteen years, since my Dad's funeral. Being able to talk with her reminded me that relationships are very important, more important than experiences. I should have gone to the funerals of her parents. My relationships with my extended family, with friends, and, above all, with Christ, are the only things that really matter.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Is Christ in bodily form now?

Many people think that, once he was incarnated as a human, Christ has remained in a human body, even after His resurrection. I didn't realize, until recently, that there was scripture to back that up. Here it is:

Colossians 2:9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, (ESV).

I checked several other translations, and they agree. This verse, of course, was written by Paul, quite a few years after Christ's death and resurrection. It's always dangerous to base a doctrine on a single verse, but this one is at least evidence for the belief that Christ continues to have a physical body.

Thanks for reading.