Thursday, January 29, 2009

Francis Collins rocks

Who is Francis Collins? Oh, only the premier geneticist in the nation. Only the man who headed the mapping of the human genome --the most incredible scientific discovery of our age.

And, he rocks, see below:

During a debate with Richard Dawkins, Collins stated that God is the object of the unanswered questions about the universe that science does not ask, and that God himself does not need an explanation since he is beyond the universe. Dawkins called this "the mother and father of all cop-outs" and "an incredible evasion of the responsibility to explain", to which Collins responded "I do object to the assumption that anything that might be outside of nature is ruled out of the conversation. That's an impoverished view of the kinds of questions we humans can ask, such as "Why am I here?", "What happens after we die?" If you refuse to acknowledge their appropriateness, you end up with a zero probability of God after examining the natural world because it doesn't convince you on a proof basis. But if your mind is open about whether God might exist, you can point to aspects of the universe that are consistent with that conclusion.[11]

John Updike, RIP or "I'm Just Sayin'"

John Updike could be profane. But, he could also be profound. And, he had a lifelong intrigue with orthodox Christianity. I don't presume to judge him. I only hope he really knew what he described in these words:

Seven Stanzas at Easter

Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell's dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
Eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh; ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck's quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Four (or so) things me must make sense of

1.) Who or what God is and how do we know?
2.) Who man is, and how he relates to #1. (I like the ungrateful bi-ped of Dostoevsky)
3.) How do we account for evil (man-made) and suffering (non man-made)?
4.) The question of eternity.

Those are my four big ones. Anybody got any thoughts?

Going Against the Tribe, or How Not to Be Popular at Dinner Parties

It seems to me that whenever two or more people gather to do business, or to congregate around an idea, a stifling GroupThink sets in. Any deviation from the norm, or anything that questions the fundamental paradigm or Unquestionable Presupposition makes people distinctly uncomfortable.

This makes reasonable discourse nearly impossible. There are ways of dismissing almost every idea with the wave of a hand, or a sit down and shut up.

This can even be true (maybe especially true), when the questioner shares the basic core commitments of the others of the group. Yet, asking, "Is this really a given?" will make one distinctly unpopular.

I see this in my own line of work a lot. I pastor in an evangelical church, connected together for accountability and oversight with other churches. A church that desires to take the Bible seriously is a good thing. But, a church that comes to view policies and procedures, originally intended to further that mission, as important in and of themselves, has lost sight of the Primary Thing.

Unquestioned assumptions, it seems to me, of all churches these days are these:

  • Big churches are the best of all, and growth is always desirable. (nevermind that Jesus turned some willing disciples away).
  • A church must have a Grand Building, with all the accouterments, to be effective.
  • We plant churches where the people are who can afford to support them.
  • Most of our money should be spent on OUR program, not the needs of others.

Challenging those fundamental assumptions is a recipe for alienation and loneliness.

And, one has to be very careful of his own motivations. Simply being the fly in the ointment, and then being shut out because of that, is an invitation to pride --doing the right deed, but for the wrong reason is truly the greatest treason, as Eliot said.

Yet, one must constantly challenge his own presuppositions, and the presuppositions of whatever tribes with which he associates himself: political orientation, religious affiliation, national citizenship. The cold light of truth needs to be shined upon all things.

But, it also needs to be noted that diagnosing a problem is very easy: Health care is too expensive and should cost less! Yes!! Energy production is filthy and fuel is scarce --we need a clean abundant alternative, yes!!! Positive and workable solutions are far more difficult.

I have boundless respect for my mentor in the ministry. He is one of the greatest minds I have ever known --not just in theology, but of wide-ranging interest. A man of bedrock convictions, he lunched regularly with several other theological luminaries in Grand Rapids, one of whom was the legendary outspoken atheistic pastor of the self-proclaimed liberal church. That friendship raised quite a few eyebrows, in our church and others, to be sure.

I once had the temerity to ask him why he did what he did. His answer has shaped me. He said, "He keeps me honest." In other words, we need people to challenge our set patterns of thinking. And, we, who are on the inside of any given group, need to help the group see where its unquestionables may, in point of fact, be questionable indeed.

In the current political climate, I am grateful for liberals who have the temerity to question their own movement. I may disagree with them greatly on political matters, but it is refreshing to have some thinkers who do not march lock step with their own tribe. I would single out for mention NPR's Juan Williams, the always-readable, sometimes-infuriating Camille Paglia, and Jacob Weisberg of Slate magazine.

These people are not easy to live with. My Classical Greek prof in college said you would not want to invite Socrates over for pizza for this reason. We take great comfort in the things we take for granted. But, nothing ought to be taken for granted --we are test all things and hold fast to what is good.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Nurse Ratched, the Gentle Stalinist

Nurse Ratched: You know Billy, what worries me is how your mother is going to take this.
Billy: Um, um, well, y-y-y-you d-d-d-don't have to t-t-t-tell her, Miss Ratched.
Nurse Ratched: I don't have to tell her? Your mother and I are old friends. You know that.

I sincerely hope I am wrong about this, especially in my profession. But, I am chilled to the bone by what I see happening to dialogue in the West. In the past, unwelcome ideas were shouted down, and their proponents jailed or killed.

In today's PC world, ideas that don't fit the prevailing view are not shouted down so much as they are shushed. Their proponents are derided as silly . If you make the argument, it is petty, partisan blather. But, if I make the argument, then it is well-reasoned and important.

You can see this in many places. Conservative ideas are regarded as childish or stupid, and therefore not to be answered. This was on full display in Ben Stein's Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. The constant refrain was that, if a scientist happened to breathe the suggestion that a living cell evidenced any design that the person was not just mistaken, with attached reasons as to why he was wrong, but simply stupid and to be dismissed.

Now, a person may be stupid, and his arguments may be stupid. But, it s altogether another thing to simply dismiss inconvenient arguments as stupid, irrelevant, or, gasp, not furthering the conversation.

Which brings us to Mildred Ratched. Milos Foreman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is not for the faint of heart, but it is an important, tragic movie. A convict is placed in a mental institution for acting insane. When there, he begins to realize the humanity of other patients, and encourages them to assert their humanity --their rights.

Overseeing the ward is Mildred Ratched --an attractive (in the movie), soft-spoken, motherly nurse who controls every detail of her patient's lives without ever raising her voice (at least till McMurphy arrives!). And, she does this by quiet, gentle emotional manipulation. She does not shout down; she merely informs the patients that they are being impertinent. Simple requests for snacks and television are off limits. Anything that asserts their basic humanity is belittled, derided or manipulated.

This is the brave new world people, and we had better get used to it. Independent thought, much less Christian conviction, is about to be marginalized. Holding alternate opinions will likely have one branded a troublemaker, at odds with society and progress, impertinent, and slow of wit. Ideas will never be engaged; just dismissed.

Remember this, though. John Adams said that facts are stubborn things. The truth will win out. How often has the establishment been wrong, especially when it expected and enforced lock-step conformity with its worldview. Such a position belies its own weakness --if ideas are true and right, they need not be enforced by thought police. They can stand the scrutiny of the free market of ideas. They can be assailed and countervailed and still emerge and triumph. We may be in for a rough road --God only knows. But ideas that must win by either the blunt force of a Che Guevara, or the gentle Stalinism of Mildred Ratched, are not good ideas. They will perish, eventually.

The Demise of the African-American Sitcom is the Demise of Entertainment

I read a story today about the sad demise of the African-American sitcom. There are only two left, and both are on the little-watched CW. One of those "Everybody Hates Chris," based on the boyhood of Chris Rock, was brilliant and inspiring, but had the Wonder Years curse of a once-cute, now gangly teen star.

The gist of the story was that the absence of African-American sitcoms was some sort of racism on behalf of Hollywood. While not unthinkable, it strikes me as unlikely. The African-American sitcom was once a staple of American television, enjoyed by black and white alike. Norman Lear, the liberal genius with a gift for bringing a social message wrapped in a funny package, was responsible for both Good Times --about a struggling but intact black family in the projects, and The Jeffersons --a black urban family that had far exceeded the achievements of their racist white neighbor, Archie Bunker. One can add to that number What's Happenin', Different Strokes, The Cosby Show, A Different World, and the cleaned-up comedic talents of Red Foxx via Sanford and Son.

I could not speak to how authentic such shows were to the black audience, but there is no question that they, to a greater or lesser extent, were cleverly-written, well-acted, and captured a wide market share.

So, why would Hollywood turn away from them? It seems more likely that what is involved is the soft racism of perceived economics. Hollywood aims at the coveted 18-35 majority bracket. This gives us coarse comedy for males (I dare not say men) and Desperate Housewives for women. The problem is not that Hollywood is racist, it is because they have forgotten that the chief criterion of a sitcom is that the show ought to be funny --that humor has a way of unifying people regardless of race. A white man can enjoy The Barbershop, and be moved by the strong picture of community it portrays, even as he laughs along with the main characters.

Today's shows are not funny, with rare exception. Not one current show, with perhaps the exception of The Office, will occupy anyone's humor pantheon. We have no equivalent of Mash or Seinfeld or I Love Lucy or Dick Van Dyke or All in the Family. And, I humbly submit that this is not a function of anything to do with race. It has to do with focus groups. The focus group is writing by committee. It militates against the success of the one comedic genius: the Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball or Bill Cosby.

The focus group fails the sitcom for the same reason a committee could not write a novel. In trying to be all things to all men, it misses all. Humor happens. It can't be scientifically studied. It is the product of individual genius flourishing. I predict that, not only will we not see another well-done black sitcom, we will likely never see another smartly-written comedy like Frasier. The Office, itself, almost did not survive a focus group. Arrested Development, the most clever and original comedy since Seinfeld, if not Mash, was tossed about, mistreated, and finally canned after 3 truncated seasons.

We see a similar phenomenon at the movies, though, thankfully, the diversity of movies does allow for a breakthrough independently produced movie like Juno to capture an audience.

Most sitcoms today, like most comedy movies, simply are not funny. I trust this is not simply old coot talk. Just like most pop and country music, most comedy has a manufactured feel. The only lasting category of humor appears to be gutter humor, but even this must exhaust its run when all has been said that can be said --nothing will shock any more.

Humor has a great power to reach across generations, cultural gaps, political divisions, and certainly the racial divide. It is a tragedy we don't have more of it.

Standing askance history yelling "halt."

A place to vent. That's what this is. Quietly and politely, perhaps.

Coming topics:
The demise of the African-American sitcom a mark of the demise of entertainment.
Nurse Ratched --the gentle Stalinist.
Important voices from the left growing fewer and farther between.
Utopian dreams and pragmatic realities.
Four (or so) great questions of which we all must make sense.