Alibris Secondhand Books Standard

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

equal time

In my previous post, one commenter thought I was critiquing conservative Christianity. In truth, I was critiquing an assumption of our age, an assumption not limited to conservatives. Take, for example, this quote from a well-known liberal bishop:

Sometimes the dead wood of the past must be cleared out so that new life has a chance to grow. With regard to the Jesus story, that step becomes vital and urgent. Not every image used to explain Jesus is worthy of survival. The most obvious candidate for dismissal in my mind is also perhaps the oldest of all the interpretations of Jesus. I refer to that image of Jesus as "the divine rescuer."

- John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, Chapter 6

Though on the surface this has little to do with climbing mountains in Iran, Spong is commiting the same error as Bob Cornuke. Spong explains his provocative statement by noting that the Jesus as rescuer doctrine is rooted in the story of Adam, Eve, and the serpent -- commonly known as the fall. He then argues that modern science has disproved the idea of the fall:

To ascribe goodness to creation implies that the work of creation is complete. Darwin, however, made us aware that the creation even now is not finished. Galaxies are still being formed. Human life is also still evolving. Suddenly the whole mythological framework in which and by which the Christ figure had been captured came tumbling down. What is sin? It is not and never can be alienation from the perfection for which God in the act of creation had intended us, for there is no such thing as a perfect creation.

So Spong uses modern science to judge the truth of Genesis. This is a category mistake. It's also bad theology.

Despite Spong's claim elsewhere that "no modern person can accept the literal truth of the Bible," here Spong relies on a hyper-literal reading of Genesis 2:2, "And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done," to oppose Gensis to Darwin. Then he uses a very loose interpretation of the word "good" which appears throughout Genesis 1, arguing that it means "perfect," to claim that it is no longer relevant because Darwin says otherwise.

We live in an age of science. Many people, with the best of intentions, fall into the trap of worshipping this god of our age. But whether it is by climbing mountains in Iran to prove the truth of Genesis, or by invoking Charles Darwin to deny the truth of Genesis, it still involves a distortion of faith. The modern mind wants to filter everything through the lens of science, which centers around cause and effect, observation and hypothesis.

The irony is that, though science might at first appear to be a more solid foundation than faith, science has its limits. There are some things we will never know through observation (ancient history, for example). What's more, the modernist framework that spawned the scientific method is itself on the way out, even now. We are entering what has been dubbed the postmodern era. A lot of ink has been spilled trying to define the new era, but the one thing everyone agrees on is that it will be different from what came before. So ultimately, there's nothing to gain by trying to squeeze God into a modern framework. Modernism, like all other -isms, is headed for the garbage dump of history. (For that matter, postmodernism will eventually follow it there, so there's nothing to gain by squeezing God into a postmodern framework either.)

So what are we left with? Perhaps just this: a God who is greater than all our attempts to define, systematize, shrink-wrap, or squeeze into a box. Now that is a God worthy of our faith.


Thursday, June 22, 2006

another noah's ark found

Bob Cornuke has recently returned from Iran, where he led an expedition of "business, law, and ministry leaders" on a search for the fabled Noah's Ark. In an article for Worldview Weekend, Brannon Howse describes an object discovered about 13,000 feet up a mountain slope, made of basalt or possibly wood.

Ed Brayton has provided a critique of Howse's article at Dispatches from the Culture Wars. Brayton focuses on the lack of scientific credibility: no archaelogists or geologists were included in the expedition, and no supporting lab work is referenced in the article.

But completely apart from questions of scientific rigor, I see serious problems with this expedition. Not this expedition in particular, but with all searches for Noah's Ark or the Garden of Eden or the Holy Grail. Such quests are always rooted in a certain set of assumptions, and among these is the assumption that there is value in the historical verification of biblical stories.

This assumption is a product of the modern world. We live in an age of science, where facts are equated with truth. Scientists understand the past by making observations about the present. If it doesn't happen today, it couldn't have happened in the past. Science is the study of natural processes, and everything in nature is assumed to have a natural cause. Supernatural explanations are tossed aside as irrelevant.

The consequence of such an assumption is that many of the early Bible stories are no longer seen as true: There's no archaeological evidence of such a large-scale migration as described in Exodus, so it didn't happen. The sun can't stand still as described in Joshua, so it didn't happen. It can't rain fast enough to flood the earth as described in Genesis, so it didn't happen.

Oddly, many literalist Christians have adopted this same assumption, but with the twist that if they can just find some proof that this happened in the past, they can prove modern science wrong and score a victory for God.

So self-styled explorers like the late Ron Wyatt and now Bob Cornuke have dedicated their lives to hunting down artifacts that can prove the truth of the Bible.

The problem with this approach, theologically, is that by adopting the modernist assumption that truth = facts, they have lost sight of deeper truth. In trying to turn the Bible into a history book, they have limited its relevance. If the Bible is meaningful only as a story about the past, then we might as well be atheists.

What modernists don't understand is that the truth of a story is often much deeper than the bare facts. That's why Jesus taught in parables. But imagine if a modern investigative reporter were able to travel through time and interview Jesus about his teachings. What might some of the questions be?

  • "What is the name of the man the good Samaritan helped? I'd like to hear the story from his perspective."
  • "Who was the foreign farmer the prodigal son worked for? Did he realize that asking a Jew to work with pigs is demeaning?"
  • "When the sower sowed his seeds on the path, the rocky soil, and the weeds, did he understand what the consequences would be? If he did, wouldn't you agree that he wasted the seeds?"

In our culture, we are conditioned to ask empirical questions to get to the truth of the matter. The problem is, many of those questions don't get to the truth of the matter. Jesus taught in parables because some truths can't be explained directly. To look only at the bare facts of the parables is to miss the point.

Those who trek through Middle Eastern mountains looking for Noah's ark are making the same mistake. Anything Bob Cornuke and his group might have found will not add one iota to the truth of the Bible. To put it another way, the Bible is no less true if it isn't backed by archaeology.

The Bible cannot be reduced to a mere record of the past; it is a book of timeless truths about the human condition and about God's unconditional, redemptive love. That kind of love will never be found in wooden objects buried in the ground.

Labels: ,

Sunday, June 18, 2006

why don't they just get a job?

Previously, I mentioned my work with AECH, a faith-based group dedicated to ending chronic homelessness in Wichita.

One of the criticisms that AECH members frequently hear is that people wouldn't be homeless if they would just get a job. In reality, most homeless people want to work, but for one reason or another -- or for a combination of reasons -- they have been unable to hold steady employment.

What are some of these reasons?

  • Lack of education or transferable skills
  • Mental illness
  • Inability to adjust to civilian life after serving in a war
  • Drug abuse or alcoholism
  • Past criminal record

These and many other factors can keep a person from holding a steady job. Becoming homeless only exacerbates the problem. If you're homeless...

  • You don't have a bathroom. You can't shower or groom for an interview.
  • You don't have an address. Employers can't contact you to set up an interview.
  • People don't know where to find you. They can't help you get the skills you need.

Why don't they just get a job? The answers are varied, as varied as the individuals who find themselves with no place to lay their heads. Their situations are as unique as each individual is. But the reality is that in a nation where one out of every seven people lives in poverty, it is inevitable that some people won't be able to keep the bills paid, won't be able to keep a roof over their heads.

If the answer were as easy as creating enough jobs to keep everyone fully employed, that's what we would do. But it's not as simple as that. There's no magic cure. If people are going to move from chronic homelessness to steady employment, they will need help getting there. That's why AECH has proposed to build a 24/7 transitional center with support services available. The first step in solving the problem is understanding the problem to be solved.

Why don't they just get a job? This facility is the first step toward helping them do just that.


Sunday, June 11, 2006


Artificial intelligence has come a long way. Forty years ago, Joseph Weizenbaum gave us ELIZA, the artificial intelligence program that parodied a Rogerian psychotherapist by restating the user's statements as questions. At the time, ELIZA was considered very advanced because it could swap the words "I" and "you" as appropriate.

Today there is iGod, an entertaining AI program that can converse on many topics. iGod may not be omniscient, but it has definite opinions about certain topics.


Wednesday, June 07, 2006

the good samaritan

This parable, found in Luke 10:25-37, is one of Jesus's best known parables:

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

Multiple choice question. Select the best answer:
"The one who..."

  1. could read biblical Hebrew.
  2. sang in the choir.
  3. had the most Scripture verses memorized.
  4. opposed gay marriages.
  5. spoke in tongues.
  6. attended Bible studies twice a week.
  7. was the star of the church basketball league.
  8. had the coolest testimony.
  9. picketed funerals of soldiers and AIDS victims.
  10. had a fish logo on his car.
  11. could fully explain the doctrine of the Trinity.
  12. protested outside abortion clinics.
  13. never missed church.
  14. read a lot of books on theology.
  15. voted Republican.
  16. showed him mercy.

Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."


Monday, June 05, 2006

congressional stuff

Senator Sam Brownback has succeeded in adding a provision to the Senate's immigration bill, to bring more nurses to the U.S. This will have a negative effect on health care in the poorer countries that have educated and trained these nurses. The New York Times has the story (registration required).

It's a case of seeking the easy solution to a complex problem. The United States has a shortage of nurses, the Senate is discussing immigration policy, so Senator Brownback finds a quick fix. The problem is, this does not eliminate the shortage. It just moves it out of our sight -- and places it squarely in the worst possible location. The places that are most desperately in need of health care workers will now suffer even more. A better solution, it seems to me, would be to train more nurses. Provide funding to schools that want to expand their nursing programs, or to create new ones. As the population ages, this is one profession that will only increase in demand in the coming years. We shouldn't have to steal from other countries to make up for our shortsightedness.

* * *

Meanwhile, President Bush is urging Congress to pass a Constitutional Amendment to ban same-sex marriages. See the story at To amend the Constitution requires support from 2/3 of the members of both houses of Congress. This amendment appears headed for defeat: The Senate does not even have a simple majority in favor.

Bush's attempt to pander to his base will likely end up hurting him. This maneuver shows his lack of leadership ability and his misunderstanding of the role of the federal government. Even some who oppose same-sex marriage are nervous about rewriting the Constitution over it. Those who know their history will recall that the last time the Constitution was amended to outlaw a specific behavior of citizens -- the 18th Amendment, banning the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcohol -- was a dismal failure. Alcohol consumption rates may have dropped, but some people still found ways to get it, and those who broke the law to supply it became much more sophisticated in their efforts to evade prosecution. One unintended side effect of prohibition was the rise of organized crime. It would have been better to let Uncle Fred have his beer after dinner than to provide Al Capone with an additional source of income.

A same-sex marriage prohibition probably wouldn't have quite so dire consequences, but haven't we learned the lesson that the federal government isn't up to the task of overseeing our morality?

Personally, I think the government should get out of the marriage business altogether. When states are given the right to say who should be married and who should not, they can easily abuse their power. The wave of no-fault divorce laws that have swept the United States since the 1970s have probably done more to destroy the American family than any other factor. After the states introduced this innovation, churches have learned to accept it. How can they do otherwise, when half of all marriages now end in divorce?

Same-sex marriage wouldn't have nearly the impact that no-fault divorce has had; the number of people affected would be much smaller. And taking it out of the states' hands wouldn't end the controversy; many churches are wrestling with this issue as well. But they should have the freedom to wrestle and to come to their conclusions, without being forced to follow the dictates of the state. That's why this country's founders proposed to separate church and state in the first place.

* * *

Hat tips to Seth at Samaritanity for the first article, and to Eddie(F) at Edge of Faith for the second.

Labels: ,

Sunday, June 04, 2006

how long is temporary?

Since April, I've been working with a group of people who want to make a change here in Wichita. On an average night, Wichita has about 700 homeless people. All the shelters in the city have a total of about 350 beds, leaving another 350 people to sleep under bridges, over grates, in dark alleys, or wherever they can find a place for the night. The city has had a plan in place since 1991 to provide temporary shelters on the coldest nights, so that nobody has to freeze to death.

But our little group, the Advocates to End Chronic Homelessness (AECH), think that 15 years of temporary shelters is too long. We have a vision to build a transitional facility with support services, to help homeless people get back on their feet. The facility will be open 24/7 and will be available to all who need what it can provide.

Some people have objected that the shelter is not needed because Wichita does not really have a homeless problem. By the numbers, less than 1/4 of 1% of Wichita residents are homeless, and half of those can already find shelter on a given night. Statistically speaking, this is not a significant problem. But we are not talking about statistics. These are human beings, created in the image of God. They are not just "a problem" that we can simply sweep under the rug. Every homeless person is someone's brother or sister, someone's daughter or son, someone's friend.

They became homeless in a variety of ways. Some lost their jobs when their jobs were outsourced overseas. Some struggle with addiction to drugs or alcohol. Some could not transition back to civilian life after serving in combat in the military. Some have mental illnesses. Some are unable to function independently after growing up in a series of foster homes. Some have left an abusive marriage. Some have a past criminal record that hinders their job prospects even if they have turned their lives around. Some don't have the education or the skills to make themeselves useful in today's economy.

Some are battling more than one of these factors.

Most homeless people would rather not be homeless, but many of them lack the resources to make a change on their own. That's where the transitional facility comes in.

The plan is to not just provide more beds, but to make the resources available to help people take the necessary steps to improve their lives. AECH includes a number of both former and current homeless people who have provided valuable insights about what homeless people truly need.

None of the members of our group are naive enough to think that we will eliminate homelessness simply by building a new facility. But we recognize that our city has people whose basic needs are not being met. If we keep on doing what we've been doing for 15 years, things will never change. It's time to find new solutions.