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Monday, December 29, 2008

monday music: busindre reel

When four-year-old José Ángel Hevia Velasco saw a bagpipe player in a procession, the unity between the player and his instrument seemed to have a magical quality. Since then Hevia has spent a lifetime mastering this instrument, teaching others to play it, and managing a factory where the instruments are made.

Here he creates his own bagpipe magic in his best-known composition, Busindre Reel.

Note: Publication of this post was delayed due to a family emergency, but I've kept the Monday 12:01 date/time for the sake of consistency.


Friday, December 26, 2008

do we have free will?

Tom Siegfried says no in this month's Science News. Recent scientific studies have focused on the parts of the brain that are activated during decision making, particulary the habenula, a mass of cells located near the pineal gland. Humans share the habenula with almost all vertibrate animals.

What does the habenula do? For one thing, it appears to reduce the possibility of making bad choices:

When a monkey is faced with a nonrewarding choice, neurons in the lateral part of the habenula fire their signals rapidly, Hikosaka and Masayuki Matsumoto reported in Nature last year. When the habenula neurons fire, dopamine neurons slow down. Apparently the habenula warns against bad choices by suppressing dopamine activity, either directly or perhaps via intermediary neurons.

But that's not all! You also get this at no extra charge:

Habenula activity has been implicated in everything from stress and anxiety to psychiatric disorders and sleep. Besides influencing dopamine cells, for example, signals from the habenula suppress neurons that make serotonin, the brain chemical famous for its effects on mood. Mirrione and her collaborators at Brookhaven have shown a link between elevated habenula activity and symptoms of depression in rats.

If elevated habenula activity is linked to depression, then perhaps medications that reduce habenula activity might relieve depression in people who do not respond to other drugs.

Depressed people typically forgo pleasurable activities that would ordinarily elicit “go” signals from dopamine neurons. An overactive habenula, by damping dopamine, could drive depression by denying the brain the power to choose pleasure. Many popular antidepressants work by elevating the brain’s serotonin levels, perhaps countering the habenula signals that suppress serotonin production. But such antidepressants don’t always work. Direct intervention in the habenula might offer an alternative, Mirrione says.

And speaking of drugs:

Other studies hint that the habenula plays a role in nicotine withdrawal behaviors, with implications for helping people to quit smoking. Behavior underlying other drug addictions might also be disrupted by intercession in the habenula, Israeli scientists reported at the neuroscience meeting. Their study found that deep brain stimulation of the habenula influenced the desire of addicted rats to self-administer cocaine.

So it looks like habenula research has opened a number of paths for further study. If even one of these leads to new treatments that can help people through their struggles, that's good news.

But what does this have to do with free will? Siegfried concludes:

Asking whether humans have free will is like asking which came first, chicken or egg. It’s not a meaningful question. … For free will, the issue is understanding the complex circulation of molecular information that is massaged and manipulated at various stations by neural systems tuned to multiple decision-making considerations. That process is free will, even if it isn’t really free.

Now maybe my habenula is preventing me from understanding, or maybe I'm just dense, but it looks to me like Siegfried is merely introducing "free will" undefined at the end of the article, solely to dismiss it.

Granted, scientists are learning more about how the brain chemicals affect our behavior. In some cases, it appears that these chemicals prevent us from doing things we otherwise might want to do. So does that mean our will can't be free? Honestly, I don't see the connection.

Quite apart from brain chemicals, there are a number of factors that might reduce our ability to make choices: physical ailments, economic hardships, and oppressive governments, to name a few. These things have all been known to exist since before the free will debate began, yet we don't see anyone claiming, "Influenza is free will, even if it is not really free."

Now I'll admit that our own brain processes are much more intimately involved in our day-to-day behavior than is the occasional viral infection. However, when Siegfried makes the leap to, "brain states dictate the behaviors that masquerade as free choices," I'm baffled. Is he saying this is an either/or proposition? The implication seems to be that in a world where we had free will, brain states would not be involved in our behaviors.

I might suggest that a healthy, politically and economically free person might possess a will which is somehow able at a pre-conscious level to adjust brain states to aid in decision making. But in doing so, I'd be leaving the land of science. After all, where would we locate this will? How could we study its effects? What kind of experiment could either confirm or falsify this hypothesis?

So scientists don't bother with questions about free will. That's understandable. What's not understandable — not even tolerable — is the idea that therefore such questions are not meaningful. Each of us has our own way of finding meaning in life; it's even possible that the decision about what is meaningful is an exercise in free will.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

monday music: silent night / 7 o'clock news

This brilliant juxtaposition of the serene Christmas anthem with the headlines of the day shows how wide is the gap between the Kingdom of God and the world in which we live. The song was recorded in 1966, before music videos, but several YouTube members have provided their own video interpretations. This one, which uses magazine covers from then till now, shows that the more things change, the more they stay the same.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

the usa is number one

... in child poverty, that is. And it's not even close.

Image source: Think Progress

Here in the land of the free and the home of the brave, it's easy to blame the victims. It's not so easy to acknowledge that we are not all created equal. We are born helpless, wholly dependent on others to take care of our every need. Our lives and our values are shaped extensively by the family and the the community into which we are born. Children born into poverty don't have the same opportunities as children of more privileged families, thus increasing the risk that their own children will be born into poverty. And so we've reached the point where, in the wealthiest nation ever to exist, one out of five children are born into poverty.

Can the cycle be stopped? Probably not entirely, but the experience of other industrial nations shows that the poverty rate can at least be reduced. The only thing missing in the United States is the will to do it.

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christian carnival cclv

The 255th Christian Carnival is up at Parableman. There's lots of thought-provoking stuff there, so take a look!


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

the tree of happiness

Steve Hayes has tagged me with the "Tree of Happiness" award — no, make that the Tree of Happiness "award".

First, the rules of the award:

  • Link to the person who gave the award to you.
  • Post the rules on your blog.
  • List six things that make you happy.
  • Tag six people at the end of your post and link to them.
  • Let each person know they’ve been tagged and leave a comment on their blog
  • Let the person who awarded you know when your entry is up.

So, six things that make me happy:

  1. Listening to my son tell me what he's learning in kindergarten
  2. Hiking on a nature trail
  3. Planting my vegetable garden in the spring
  4. Looking at the night sky away from the lights of the city
  5. Reading a good book
  6. Travelling outside the U.S.

Now for the hard part: I'm not sure there are six people who a) read my blog and b) participate in memes. Heck, I'm not sure there are six people who read my blog. But I'm going to tag Blog Meridian, Questing Parson, Art Ruch, Gavin Richardson, Henry Neufeld, and Mark Eades.


Monday, December 15, 2008

monday music: hurt

The late, great Johnny Cash took this Nine Inch Nails song and made it his own. Cash filled the lyrics with a new meaning.

Upon seeing this video Trent Reznor said, "Wow. I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn't mine anymore."


Friday, December 12, 2008

dating the gospels: does it matter?

Weekend Fisher has begun a series of posts on dating the gospels at her blog Heart, Mind, Soul, and Strength. Her first post looks at Jesus' prediction of the destruction of the Temple, comparing and contrasting it with other prophecies of Jesus in the same gospel.

By looking at the differences in how Mark handles Jesus' predictions of his death and Jesus' predictions of the Temple's destruction, Weekend Fisher tries to make the case that this gospel was written before the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD. I'm not fully convinced — though I'm not fully convinced it was written after 70 AD either.

I'm not going to address the pros and cons of the various dating hypotheses (not today, anyway). What I want to consider for the moment is whether we really gain anything from looking at the gospels this way.

I'll start by admitting that I'm fascinated by critical biblical scholarship. I find it very satisfying intellectually not just to read what a scholar has to say, but to evaluate his or her positions — examine the texts cited and decide: Do I agree with the conclusions, or is this scholar full of crap?

But whether or not it is intellectually stimulating, the question arises whether critical scholarship is edifying. Does it promote a healthier faith?

This is a more complicated question. It's certainly possible by looking at the Bible through the lens of scholarship, to gradually (or even suddenly) drift away from the faith. Bart Ehrman is the obvious example here. It's also possible to withdraw so completely in the ivory tower of academia as to lose touch with the practical application of the gospel message.

On the other hand, one of the reasons I find critical scholarship fascinating is because of the questions it raises, the evidence used to resolve these questions, and the further questions raised as a result. For example, we have four gospels. How long after Jesus' death were they written? Which gospel was written first? Were the gospels written independently of each other, or did the later writers know of, and have access to, the earlier gospels? And how could we tell?

One of the ways scholars try to answer these questions is by comparing how two gospels describe the same event. For example, this is how Matthew describes the baptism of Jesus:
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." (Matthew 3:13-17)

Here is Mark's account of the same event:
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." (Mark 1:9-11)

Luke's account:
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." (Luke 3:21-22)

And John's:
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, "After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.' I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel." And John testified, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, "He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God." (John 1:29-34)

There is only one element (other than the presence of Jesus) common to all four accounts: The Spirit descending like a dove. Neither John the Baptist nor the baptism itself is mentioned explicitly in all four gospels. Why not? And what does it mean?

Mark's account is the simplest: Jesus goes to the Jordan River and gets baptized by John. Jesus receives a private revelation, he sees the Spirit descend like a dove, and he hears a voice say, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." In this account, nobody else saw or heard the revelation.

Matthew's account differs in a few respects: In this account, John initially doesn't want to baptize Jesus, and Jesus has to talk him into it. Also, the voice from heaven says, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." This seems to indicate that it was a public revelation rather than a private one. On the other hand, Matthew uses the phrase "the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending…". So in Matthew it's not entirely clear whether this is a public or a private revelation, or maybe a mixture.

Luke's account differs even more. First we are told just prior to this that Herod has had John the Baptist arrested (v. 20). Luke thus does not mention John's presence at Jesus' baptism. Like Matthew's account, the public or private nature of the revelation is ambiguous. On the one hand, "the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove," but on the other hand, the voice says, as in Mark, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

John's account is perhaps the most radical departure from the others: In this account, John the Baptist is the one who sees the Spirit descending like a dove. And did you notice? This gospel does not actually say that John baptized Jesus.

How does all this help us date the gospels? Let's assume for a minute that the simplest account was the first to be written. This is a reasonable assumption because it makes more sense for a later author to add explanatory material than to remove explanatory material.

So, on this assumption, the gospel of Mark was the first to be written. To put it another way, at one time this was the church's only written account of the baptism of Jesus. He went to to Jordan river and was baptized by John. But wait! Wasn't John "proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins," (Mark 1:4)? And wasn't Jesus sinless? So why would he have needed to be baptized at all?

The other three gospels all differ from Mark on precisely this point. Matthew says John wants Jesus to baptize him. Luke changes the order of events to separate John and Jesus. And the gospel of John has John the Baptist give testimony about Jesus in lieu of baptizing him.

We can see a clear development of the gospel message from Mark to Matthew to Luke to John. Mark comments on the historical event without explanation. Matthew gives a vague explanation about "fulfilling all righteousness." Luke downplays the baptism, recognizing that the Spirit's descent is the important element of the story. And John eliminates the baptism entirely. This trajectory can give us a good working hypothesis about the order in which the gospels were written. From here, we can examine other parallel passages to see if the same pattern holds.

But — to get back to the question I'm trying to explore in this post — can this type of study enrich our faith?

For myself, the answer is an unequivocal yes. For one thing, I see the same type of theological development in my own faith journey. When I first started taking my faith seriously at age 17, my beliefs were rather simple. Subsequently I've had lots of questions that have deepened my faith — even as I've sought better explanations to replace tentative answers that have not been ultimately satisfying.

Additionally, looking at the gospels in parallel has underlined the themes unique to each one that are not always obvious reading them separately. These themes raise further questions for study: Why is Mark so obsessed with secrecy about Jesus' identity? Why is Matthew so obsessed with fulfillment of prophecy? What message is Luke sending by so frequently pairing stories of Jesus' encounters with Jews and Gentiles, with men and women? What is the importance of the seven signs or the seven "I am" statements in John's gospel?

Finally, my faith has grown with each new unanswered question. That may sound counter-intuitive, but the reality for me is that in a universe which could be easily understood, I would have a hard time believing in a God who transcends our knowledge. The real universe, where every answer yields new questions, is a good metaphor for a God who is ultimately beyond human understanding.

But that's just my answer. It's not for everybody. I can see how someone could get so caught up in the academic questions that they forget what the gospels are all about. I can also see how some people might get lost in the details and not get anything out of it. God loves and blesses those with a simple faith. But for chronic questioners like me, God provides a way to channel that curiosity to enrich our faith.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

56-5 book meme

via Art's Strange World

(o) 13 ... g6 14 c4 BG7 15 c5 Nh5 16 a4 dxc5 17 axb5 left Black with an ugly position in Fischer-Wade, Buenos Aires 1960. - Modern Chess Openings 13th Edition, edited by Nick DeFirmian and Walter Korn.

* Get the book nearest to you. Right now.
* Go to page 56.
* Find the 5th sentence.
* Write this sentence on your blog.
* Copy these instructions as commentary of your sentence.
* Don’t look for your favorite book or your coolest but really the nearest.

If you'd like to participate, consider yourself tagged.

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in which i agree wholeheartedly with george w. bush

From The Raw Story:

"I think that God created the Earth, created the world; I think the creation of the world is so mysterious it requires something as large as an almighty and I don't think it's incompatible with the scientific proof that there is evolution," he told ABC television.

Asked whether the Bible was literally true, Bush replied: "Probably not. No, I'm not a literalist, but I think you can learn a lot from it."

"The important lesson is 'God sent a son,'" he said.


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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

new testament use of the old testament

I'm not sure how accurate this is. Not being an evangelical, I'm not particularly fond of the grammatical-historical method of Bible study. Still, it's an interesting quiz.

Hat tip: Peter Kirk

NT Use of the OT -- Test Your View!
Fuller Meaning, Single Goal view You seem to be most closely aligned with the Fuller Meaning, Single Goal view, a view defended by Peter Enns in the book “Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament” (edited by Kenneth Berding and Jonathan Lunde, Nov. 2008). Since the NT writers held a single-minded conviction that the Scriptures point to and are fulfilled in Christ, this view suggests that the NT writers perceive this meaning in OT texts, even when their OT authors did not have that meaning in mind when they wrote. It should be noted, however, that advocates of this view are careful not to deny the importance of the grammatical-historical study of the OT text so as to understand the OT authors on their own terms. For more info, see the book, or attend a special session devoted to the topic at the ETS Annual Meeting in Providence, RI (Nov. 2008); Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Darrell L. Bock, and Peter Enns will all present their views.
Fun quizzes, surveys & blog quizzes by Quibblo

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Monday, December 08, 2008

monday music: one more parade

This is an anti-war song by folksinger Phil Ochs, whose genius was never fully appreciated during his tragically short life.


Saturday, December 06, 2008

the bible from a new immigrant's eye

Reginald Mortha is a third generation Lutheran pastor from India, who recently immigrated to the United States. Having lived now in two cultures, he is perhaps more aware than most of us how the culture in which we live affects our reading of the Bible.

Yet the use of Scripture in the Christian tradition in India has been enriched by the influence of Hindu ideas of the sacred. For the Western church of the modern world, the idea of the sacred has become an optional spirituality.

As strangers in a new land, new immigrants may have something to teach us about fellowship, too.

I often attend an Indian immigrant church that worships on Sunday afternoons. They are a faithful and loving congregation. They are a mix of families, friends, distant relations, and strangers. They come from Wesleyan, Lutheran, Baptist, and Charismatic Christian traditions. They look after their own, no matter what their situation. They have a insatiable thirst to be the church.

Furthermore, in most third world countries, the Bible's stories are not so foreign as they are to those of us living in Western democracies:

For me, the world the Bible describes is so close to where I come from — a familiar world of pressing problems, famine and poverty, powerful landlords, and imperial forces. For most new immigrants, the poverty of Lazarus eating the crumbs fallen from the rich man's table is not just a story but an experiential and existential reality.

Read the whole article

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

jonah the false prophet

A little over a month ago, Henry Neufeld had a post titled The Advantages of Stoning False Prophets. Just prior to the U.S. election, he heard a woman on the radio explain how she decided who to vote for:

She hadn’t been sure, and she had been inclined differently herself, but the good Lord told her to vote for Obama, and she trusted God above all, so that’s what she was going to do.

God said it; I believe it; that settles it. Right?

It should shock nobody that it only took a song and a commercial break for another caller to inform the host that she had heard from God as well, who had told her to vote for McCain.

It turns out God was an undecided voter. Or maybe he was just hedging his bets.

Henry make a great point about hearing from God:
[Our] tendency when someone claims they heard from God is to focus on the word “God.” God is omniscient and won’t lie, though one should remember that he might send a strong delusion (2 Thessalonians 2:11). So what we hear must be true, right?

Hardly! Even if one admits, as I do, that God speaks, there is always the listener.

I'm reminded of everyone's favorite false prophet: Jonah.

The biblical story of Jonah is one of my favorites. Every time I read it I find something new.

In summary, the story of Jonah (in case there's anyone out there who hasn't heard it) is this:

God calls Jonah to deliver a message of rebuke to the city of Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, and was located across the river from the present-day city of Mosul in Iraq. So Jonah buys a ticket for a boat to Tarshish, or as the Good News Bible translates it, Spain. That's a few miles in the wrong direction.

So God sends a storm, which frightens everyone on the boat. They cast lots; Jonah loses, and is thrown overboard. A big fish swallows Jonah, and three days later spits him up on a beach near Nineveh. Jonah goes to Nineveh and spends a day walking through the city telling the people they are doomed because of their wickedness. The people repent, and God changes his mind and decides not to destroy the city.

Now I've read probably ten or more versions of this story to my 5-year-old, and nearly all of them end the story at this point. And that's a shame, because this is where the drama really begins.

Jonah is angry at God. He goes outside the city and builds a booth. God makes a plant grow to provide shade for Jonah. Jonah is appeased temporarily, but the next morning God makes a worm to eat the plant. Once more Jonah is angry, "angry enough to die".

But God says to Jonah:

You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?

It's a serious indictment: How can Jonah be upset about the death of a plant and yet not care about the lives of so many people who simply didn't know any better? And also many animals?

And yet, I think Jonah has a good point. He may have resisted — who among us hasn't? — but he did stick out his neck for God. He went into hostile territory and said something that was bound to be unpopular. He risked his life to deliver God's message, and then … God backed down. What's up with that? Jonah heard from God, and faithfully repeated the message. In this case it was God who didn't follow through.

To be sure, God's decision not to destroy Nineveh was much more compassionate than the original decision to destroy it. But hadn't he at least considered the possibility that the Ninevites would repent, before he told Jonah to proclaim a message of destruction?

Now on the one hand, as an Arminian I like this because it shows that God doesn't have every little detail planned out from the beginning of time as the Calvinists claim. People really are free to respond to God's call. On the other hand, I'd like to believe God at least makes contingency plans based on a few likely outcomes.

So what's the answer? I really don't know. I've been wrestling a lot with God lately, not just over this but about many things. And frankly, I find a lot of comfort in stories like Jonah's. Many of the heroes and the writers of the Jewish Bible — Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Job, Jeremiah, Koheleth, the Psalmist — either questioned God or outright argued with him. I think that's something Christians ought to do more often.

What do you think?

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blog comment day

December 3 is Blog Comment Day. To participate, all you need to do is

  • Comment on five blogs today,

  • Including two where you have not previously commented.

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Monday, December 01, 2008

monday music: pescador de hombres

This Central American hymn is also known as "Tú Has Venido a la Orilla" (or in English as "Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore"). In February 2000 I was in the Ixil village of San Juan Cotzal, in the Guatemalan highlands, working with a team of Volunteers In Mission to help rebuild a church that had been destroyed in that country's civil war. On Thursday evening of that week, we attended a worship service in the partially-built church, and we sang this song. The VIM team began in English, and as the locals recognized the melody they joined us, singing in Spanish and Ixil. That worship service gave me one of the most profound experiences of the presence of God that I've ever had.

Here's the song done all formal and proper:

Here's a rock version:

And the English translation of the lyrics:

1. Lord, you have come to the lakeshore
looking neither for wealthy nor wise ones.
You only asked me to follow humbly.

Refrain: O Lord, with your eyes you have searched me,
and while smiling, have spoken my name.
Now my boat's left on the shoreline behind me;
by your side I will seek other seas.

2. You know so well my possessions;
my boat carries no gold and no weapons;
But nets and fishes -- my daily labor.

3. You need my hands, full of caring,
through my labors to give others rest,
and constant love that keeps on loving.

4. You, who have fished other oceans
ever longed-for by souls who are waiting,
my loving friend, as thus you call me.