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Friday, October 30, 2009

no pain, no happiness

According to a recent study:

People who work hard at improving a skill or ability, such as mastering a math problem or learning to drive, may experience stress in the moment, but experience greater happiness on a daily basis and longer term…

See the full story.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

missions and culture

Eddie Arthur points to a post by Karl and Sun Dahlfred, asking whether long-term missionaries are obsolete.

The post was spurred by a conversation Dahlfred had with a U.S.-based pastor who believes that sending someone to live in another country is just not strategic or cost effective.

This pastor and his church conduct many short-term training events and seminars throughout the world, gathering together a large group of local leaders and teaching them in an intensive course. When the course is done, the pastor and his team go back to the USA and the local leaders go back to their homes and churches, presumably to put into practice what they have learned.…It is his belief that Western churches can have a much bigger global impact for the Gospel by doing missions through this type of short-term leadership training rather than paying for long-term foreign missionaries (I am defining “missionary” as one who intentionally crosses barriers of language and culture to share the Gospel with those who would normally not have the opportunity to hear the Gospel within their cultural and/or linguistic context).

Dahlfred presents three reasons why long-term missionaries are still needed in some areas. A brief summary:

  1. The Numbers Argument: Some countries just don't have enough local Christian presence to make a difference

  2. The Cultural Contextualization Argument: You can't send prepackaged Bible study materials written from a Western perspective and expect them to be relevant to people living in other cultures.

  3. The Incarnation Argument: Jesus himself set the example by coming to earth to interact with people liviing in a specific time and place.

Dahlfred says much more about each of these — read the whole post — but I want to focus on the second argument, cultural contextualization. Dahlfred says:

In cross-cultural teaching and discipleship, it is necessary to understand where people are coming from in order to most effectively help them to understand and apply the Bible accurately. Prepackaged Bible teaching from a Western perspective, addressing the issues of the Western church, and geared towards listeners from a Western background is going to be limited in its effectiveness because it fails to address many of the challenges and issues that Christians in other parts of the world are facing. I am not saying that such teaching is completely ineffective but merely that it is often limited in its effectiveness and is likely not as effective as its teachers believe it to be. Such training by short-term foreign missionaries can be helpful but it is short-sighted to see such training courses as the only necessary strategy in foreign missions today. Because of cultural differences, Bible teaching needs to be contextualized in order to have a long term impact for a healthy indigenous church and not a Western looking church whose growth will be stunted in local soil. The way to contextualize your teaching for greatest effectiveness is to live with the people you are teaching, to learn their language, to learn their culture, to learn the barriers to the Gospel in that culture, and the particular challenges to discipleship in that culture that may be different than those of another culture. [Emphasis in the original]

Sending and supporting long-term missionaries might also help Western churches see beyond their own cultural biases, to realize that strategery and cost effectiveness might not be God's priorities.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

the difference

“I don’t go to church, Parson. I’m a bit turned off with the church. I’m not a Christian. I’m just a follower of Jesus.”

See the whole story from the Questing Parson.

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

church history in 4 minutes

…to the tune of We Didn't Start the Fire.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

the skill of luck

Some people just have all the luck. But according to psychologist Richard Wiseman, there is more to luck than mere chance:

I gave both lucky and unlucky people a newspaper, and asked them to look through it and tell me how many photographs were inside. On average, the unlucky people took about two minutes to count the photographs, whereas the lucky people took just seconds. Why? Because the second page of the newspaper contained the message: "Stop counting. There are 43 photographs in this newspaper." This message took up half of the page and was written in type that was more than 2in high. It was staring everyone straight in the face, but the unlucky people tended to miss it and the lucky people tended to spot it.

There's more:

For fun, I placed a second large message halfway through the newspaper: "Stop counting. Tell the experimenter you have seen this and win £250." Again, the unlucky people missed the opportunity because they were still too busy looking for photographs.

So is luck simply a matter of making the most of our opportunities? Wiseman seems to think it is:

My research revealed that lucky people generate good fortune via four basic principles. They are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities, make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition, create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations, and adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.

Remarkable. I've had plenty of bad luck over the years. But is it really within my power to turn it all around?

Wiseman offers three strategies for being more lucky:

  1. Follow your intuition

  2. Introduce variety into your life

  3. Look at the positive side

Seems like good advice, but is luck really nothing more than seeking opportunities when they present themselves?

I don't want to be a Debbie Downer, but these strategies aren't going to do anything to stop life's major bad luck events, like whose house gets struck by a tornado, or who is struck with a crippling genetic illness, or whose bank account number is stolen and used for fraudulent transactions, or who is born into deep poverty. Wiseman's ideas may help a person become more resilient and possibly make someone feel more lucky — and those are good things — but the reality is, this game of life is not played on a level field. Some people really are more lucky than others, and no amount of positive thinking will change that.

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Monday, October 12, 2009

on challenges to creationism

Michael Spencer has travelled a road many of us have travelled. He grew up accepting young earth creationism and hearing horror stories about evolution. Then he went to college:

My views on the relationship of scripture and science were more affected by my college Bible classes than my science classes. I learned that scripture must be rightly interpreted. It must be understood within its world, and interpreted rightly in mine. If I came away with any suspicions that the young earth creationists might be wrong, it came from my developing an appreciation for Biblical interpretation, not from the Biology lab. Secular science didn’t turn my head. I learned that the people waving the Bible around weren’t necessarily treating it with the respect it deserved.

Seminary only increased the divide:

My Bible instructors taught me to respect the Biblical text by not imposing my interpretations and favorite hobby horses on the scriptures. What became clearer to me over my seminary career was that many of my evangelical and fundamentalist brethren were not willing to let the scriptures be what they were or to let them speak their own language.

And what is the language of Genesis? Not the language of scientific hypothesis:

Does it match up with scientific evidence? Who cares? Here I differ with Hugh Ross and the CRI writers. I do not believe science, history or archaeology of any kind establishes the truthfulness of the scripture in any way.

In my view, both the scientific establishment’s claims to debunk Genesis and the creationists claims to have established Genesis by way of relating the text to science are worthless. Utterly and completely worthless and I will freely admit to being bored the more I hear about it.

Spencer asks:

Does the Bible need to be authorized by scientists or current events to be true? What view of inspiration is it that puts the Bible on trial before the current scientific and historical models? Has anyone noticed what this obsession with literality does to the Bible itself?

Part of the problem, I think, is that we live in a vastly different world from that of the Bible writers. Modern science has become such an integral part of our everyday lives that it is hard to imagine a culture that wasn't concerned about how well the biblical text fit with astronomical observations and fossil excavations. But if we are even going to attempt to understand what these stories meant to their first hearers, we need to separate ourselves from our own cultural prejudices. It won't be an easy task, but we'll never understand the Bible if we don't.

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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

reading genesis 3 literally

A website that calls itself "The Truth Problem" looks at what it would mean to take the Garden of Eden stories literally, and concludes that no Christian actually does.

Evidence tells us that in the early Christian Church, most theologians and leaders believed that the Creation account was at least partially, if not wholly symbolic. Many modern Christians, however, especially in America, say that this account must be read literally. They feel it is dangerous to treat portions of the Bible metaphorically when they are not explicitly stated to be metaphorical.

But here's the rub. Even those who say we should read these chapters literally do not, themselves, read them literally.

The Truth Problem demonstrates this by looking at Genesis 3, the story of the serpent and the tree. Under a strictly literal interpretation:

  1. The serpent is a talking animal

  2. The serpent deceived the humans

  3. The serpent was cursed above all other animals

  4. The serpent's punishment is to crawl on its belly

  5. The serpent will bite humans' heels

  6. The serpent will be crushed by humans

Under the traditional Christian interpretation of Genesis 3, these six statements are all understood metaphorically. They are understood to mean:

  1. The serpent represents Satan

  2. Satan is the deceiver of humanity

  3. Satan is cursed above all created things

  4. Satan's power is diminished

  5. Satan will attack the Messiah

  6. The Messiah will triumph

Why is it that so many Christians who have no problem reading Genesis 3 metaphorically, can't do the same with Genesis 1 and 2?

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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

shane claiborne speaks at duke university chapel

This guy really understands what it means to put his faith into practice.

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Sunday, October 04, 2009

why we believe everything we read

From PsyBlog:

What is the mind's default position: are we naturally critical or naturally gullible? As a species do we have a tendency to behave like Agent Mulder from the X-Files who always wanted to believe in mythical monsters and alien abductions? Or are we like his partner Agent Scully who was the critical scientist, generating alternative explanations, trying to understand and evaluate the strange occurrences they encountered rationally?

This is not a new question. Four centuries ago, René Descartes and Baruch Spinoza disagreed about whether we can understand anything without believing it first. Descartes argued that as we take in information we evaluate its truthfulness. Spinoza claimed that we believe what we hear or see, and are only able to re-evaluate afterward.

PsyBlog notes that most people prefer Descartes' model:

Descartes' view is intuitively attractive and seems to accord with the way our minds work, or at least the way we would like our minds to work.

Spinoza's approach is unappealing because it suggests we have to waste our energy rooting out falsities that other people have randomly sprayed in our direction, whether by word of mouth, TV, the internet or any other medium of communication.

But the important question is not which view is more appealing; it's which view is right. An experiment in the early 1990s set out to test them.

Daniel Gilbert and colleagues put these two theories head-to-head in a series of experiments to test whether understanding and belief operate together or whether belief (or disbelief) comes later (Gilbert et al., 1993).

In their classic social psychology experiment seventy-one participants read statements about two robberies then gave the robber a jail sentence. Some of the statements were designed to make the crime seem worse, for example the robber had a gun, and others to make it look less serious, for example the robber had starving children to feed.

The twist was that only some of the statements were true, while others were false. Participants were told that all the statements that were true would be displayed in green type, while the false statement would be in red. Here's the clever bit: half the participants where purposefully distracted while they were reading the false statements while the other half weren't.

The idea was that people who are distracted don't have as much time to evaluate the statements. If, as Descartes suggested, we automatically evaluate as we read, the distractions shouldn't affect the participants' perceptions of the crime. False statements, written in red, would be automatically discarded. But if Spinoza was right, the distractions would interfere with the processing of the statements. The participants might not have time to evaluate the truthfulness based on the color of the text, and simply believe everything they read.

The results showed that when the false statements made the crime seem much worse rather than less serious, the participants who were interrupted gave the criminals almost twice as long in jail, up from about 6 years to around 11 years.

By contrast the group in which participants hadn't been interrupted managed to ignore the false statements. Consequently there was no significant difference between jail terms depending on whether false statements made the crime seem worse or less serious.

This meant that only when given time to think about it did people behave as though the false statements were actually false. On the other hand, without time for reflection, people simply believed what they read.

Spinoza was right. We are all Agent Mulder.

But that's not necessarily bad, claims Gilbert. There are some good reasons for defaulting to belief rather than skepticism:

The problem is that a lot of the information we are exposed to is actually true, and some of it is vital for our survival. If we had to go around checking our beliefs all the time, we'd never get anything done and miss out on some great opportunities.

Minds that work on a Spinozan model, however, can happily believe as a general rule of thumb, then check out anything that seems dodgy later. Yes, they will often believe things that aren't true, but it's better to believe too much and be caught out once in a while than be too cynical and fail to capitalise on the useful and beneficial information that is actually true.

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Thursday, October 01, 2009

the prisoner's dilemma

When is our own self-interest best served by going against what reason tells us is our own self-interest?

The two teens were caught red-handed, literally. Officer Kotcha just happened to be driving by as the teens launched the brick through the window of the jewelry store. Kotcha's heart rate accelerated as he realized these might be the perpetrators of a string of break-ins in the city. The boys were taken to the station for questioning. The officers took them to separate rooms and offered each of them the same deal:

"We've already got you on the destruction of property, and you'll get a three-month jail term for that. We're ready to charge you with five counts of burglary, which will get you a year each. If you'll confess and plead guilty to the burglaries, we'll make the jail terms concurrent rather than consecutive, so you'll just serve a year. And if you testify against your partner in court, we'll drop all charges against you."

This scenario is known as the prisoner's dilemma. Each partner in the crime must decide whether to plead guilty or to keep silent, and this decision must be made without knowing the other's choice.

If both partners plead guilty, they don't get the benefit of testifying at the other's trial, because the guilty plea waves the right to a trial. But they still get the benefit of concurrent sentences, which reduces a five-year prison term to one year. On the other hand, if neither confesses to the burglaries, the only charge against them is the property damage, and for that they will only get three months.

The best case for the individual is to confess when the partner does not. In that case, the partner serves the maximum jail time, while the one who confessed is released.

But, not knowing what choice the partner has made, it's still possible to make a rational decision. If your partner has confessed, you'll get five years if you keep quiet, or one year if you plead guilty. On the other hand, if your partner has not confessed, you'll get three months if you keep quiet, or you can get out of jail free if you squawk. Either way, confession is good for the soul, or something like that.

A rational person, faced with these options, will confess to the burglaries and walk out of jail sooner. The result, if both parners confess, is that they spend a year in jail. But here's the paradoxical twist to this scenario: Had they both kept quiet, thus going against their own self-interest, they would have cut their jail time by 75%.

This paradox is at the heart of the prisoner's dilemma. Each prisoner wants to minimize his/her own jail time, and the options allow each prisoner a rational option to do so regardless of what the other chooses. The true win-win strategy, though, is for both to decide against the rational choice.

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