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Monday, April 28, 2008

Free Will

I've been reading Scott Adams' book called Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain!: Cartoonist Ignores Helpful Advice, and although I have trouble recommending it (it's hysterically funny in places, but it's pretty full of profanity and sexual/scatalogical humor... not particularly edifying reading) something in it caught my attention. Scott Adams does not believe in free will; he believes in what he calls "pleasure units." Basically, his theory goes, everyone has a minimum number of "pleasure units" that they need to obtain to be happy with their life. Some have more and some have less, but everyone is driven to do whatever it takes to get the pleasure units they need, thus "free will" is an illusion. If you'd like to read the shorter version of the book chapter that previously appeared on Scott's blog, someone has reproduced it here.

The theory does make some sense. We all try to do things that make us feel happy. We try to avoid things that make us uncomfortable or unhappy, unless by enduring those things we achieve something that ultimately makes us feel happy. Scott is basically saying that those kinds of reasons are why we do every single thing we do in life.

I don't know if he's right or not, and I'm not totally sure that Christianity actually fully explores the nooks and crannies of this kind of thought satisfactorily. But this morning something struck me. Does it really matter if free will "really" exists or not? It seems to us to exist, we act as though it exists, and so whether it is an illusion or not, we can at least consider it a useful concept and leave it at that. It's like... do we really "think" or do our brain cells just have chemical and electrical responses to stimuli? Well... does it matter? It SEEMS LIKE we're thinking. And it seems like we have free will, so for all intents and purposes, we do.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Chickens Out Of Control

This morning in church my pastor was mentioning prices of things getting higher. "Milk's out of control," he said. "Gasoline's out of control, beef's out of control," he continued, "chicken's out of control..." Good thing he stopped right there, because I came down with a terrible case of the giggles at that point. All I could think of was a bunch of chickens just going totally out of control. Like a feather-strewn deleted scene from Beauty and the Beast or an especially wacky episode of The Muppet Show.

What do you mean, did I get enough sleep last night? I didn't, you are correct, but I'm not sure what you're implying.

Friday, April 25, 2008


On a recent Sunday at my church, we sang a series of songs containing the following lyrics:
"I surrender it all for the love of my King."

"I'm surrendering my all;
I surrender to the King"

"All of my ambitions, hopes and plans
I surrender these into Your hands."
It started to sound kind of sad to me, actually, all the talk about not being able to have autonomy in what you did. I mean, what if I want to climb a mountain and God wants me in a ship on the ocean? I would have to go my whole life knowing I would never get to climb that mountain. Wouldn't that be a kind of personal tragedy? There are definitely things I've wanted to do in my life that haven't happened. Do I have to wipe those things clean, clear them out of my mind, surrender them to Jesus like I was giving up my pistol to the arresting officer?

Of course not.

I realized that that's not what those lines mean at all. When we give "our plans" to God, God will either reveal to us how silly they are, or (more likely) make them come to pass... and when He makes them come to pass, they happen at the best possible time and in the best possible way.
Delight yourself in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart. -Psalm 37:4
God creates us specifically for certain things. If I could create something out of nothing and I needed to cut something, I would probably create a knife or scissors. If the thing I created was going to have consciousness, I would create it so that it was the happiest when it was cutting something that I needed cut. God's not me, of course, but I think God creates us predisposed to the task He has in mind for us. If it's a desire you have deep inside of you, there's a better than average chance that it has something to do with the call of God for your life.

I think when we surrender our plans to God, we don't surrender in the sense of giving them up. We surrender in the sense that we don't force them to happen in our own timing. We surrender to God's wise timing, and we know that when He makes it happen, He'll make it happen right!
Commit your work to the Lord,
and your plans will be established. -Proverbs 16:3

Monday, April 21, 2008

Are you sure?

Early on in the book of Mark, Jesus' listeners notice something unusual about Him:
And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes. - Mark 1:22
When Jesus spoke, His words had power to them. He clearly knew what He was talking about, and everybody could tell. Also, the regular teachers at the synagogue clearly lacked this authority, although presumably they were were well-trained in the Scriptures. It makes me think of some of the Christian writers I have read lately... they seem to have no real answers, although they are very open to listen to and engage questions. It's important to be open-minded, but where is the credibility that Jesus had?

Then I think of my own life, which seems sometimes to be riddled with uncertainty. A good bit of the time I feel like I'm muddling through things without really knowing what's going on or what the best course of action would be. Sometimes when I'm getting ready to pray for something, I have no idea what to say after "Lord..." So where is the authority in my own life? Where is the certainty?

I've come to realize that uncertainty is completely natural in the Christian life. In fact, you might even consider it essential to a healthy Christian life. If I always knew everything and had complete understanding of every situation, where would faith in God come in? After all, faith is all about knowing that things you can't see exist. But apart from faith, I have no assurance, no confidence, no evidence of those things. Faith is the key, and it needs to be central to our lives.

Faith is not "blind," though, despite what popular sayings may lead you to believe. Faith has something as its basis: the Word of Christ. If you know what the Word of God says about something, you can bank on that thing... even if everyone else is a liar, God is truthful. So I guess the key is to know what the Bible says about something, go in prayer to God and get revelation about it if you need more detail, and then with great humility knowing that we are imperfect creatures who don't see things clearly and we often do not fully understand even what we do know, we should act confidently, knowing that if we are messing up because of a lack of understanding, the Holy Spirit will guide us to that understanding and will not leave us hanging.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Lost Ark = Found?

The Lost Ark of the Covenant: Solving the 2,500 Year Old Mystery of the Fabled Biblical Ark by Tudor Parfitt is an extremely entertaining book. Mr. Parfitt's storytelling style is immediate and entertaining, and the adventure takes him across a number of continents and into contact with any number of fascinating people over the course of 20 years. It is Raiders of the Lost Ark in real life (and without the Nazis). There are things that bother me about the book... not the least of these being the conclusion. But we'll get there in a minute.

A number of things in the narrative strike me as factual errors. For example, speaking of the Ark, on page 14 Mr. Parfitt writes that the stories say that "Anyone who as much as looked at it would be blasted by its awesome power." Throughout his research Mr. Parfitt consults not only Biblical texts but also extracanonical historical material, so there may well be some source he is referring to that I am not familiar with, but the Bible does not, to my knowledge, say that anyone was punished by God or the Ark for looking at it. Touching it, yes. Possessing it if you were not God's chosen people, yes. Innocently looking at it, no.

On page 30 it says that the Ark "...was said to have generated some kind of energy that blasted a dry path across the River Jordan." I don't see anything about a blast of energy in the account of this in the book of Joshua. (Apparently this statement came from some oral traditions that I was not aware of before now.)

In another place, he ends a chapter by describing a time he dreamed about "A bellicose Moses [who] was dreaming of bloody revolt and war." This seems to me to be a misinterpretation of the character of Moses, who unless I am mistaken only killed with his own hands once, to protect his kinspeople, and who far from being quarrelsome was initially intimidated to even enter the presence of the Pharoah, in whose house he had been raised as a grandson. Another place where I think Parfitt misunderstands a Bible character is the section where he characterizes King David as doing a lewd dance holding the Ark, actually thrusting into the ark as he danced, which seems like an odd thing to do to an object of such holiness that you can't even "look at it" (according to Parfitt) without being blasted to smithereens (Biblical account is here). I guess looking at something is what, less holy that placing one's sexual organs into it? King David was clearly no choirboy, but I do think he had more reverence for God than that.

I did enjoy some of the stabs at humor in the story. There is a chapter that refers to an Indiana Jones-esque fear of snakes, and I loved this line, spoken to Parfitt by his native host: "'Nothing will get into your room. Except possibly...' his voice trailed off." A few times, however, what seems to be intended as humor struck me as borderline offensive, particularly his use of the word "Copt" as almost a derogatory term. He explains early in chapter 4 that a "Copt" is an Egyptian of particular racial and religious derivative, but then he constantly uses the term for his friend Daud only in derogatory statements, such as "you excitable little Copt," "you ineffably daft Copt," "You loathsome little Copt," "you dirty-minded Copt." It's almost as though he has turned the innocent word into a racial slur... it began to annoy me every time the word turned up on the page. Probably intended as humor, and usually I "get" the British sense of humor just fine (Parfitt is British), but in this case it seems to my American ears to fall flat.

I was also uncomfortable with the use several times of the word "cult" for religions that the text implies might be forms of Judaism. What is the difference between a "religion" and a "cult?" As best I can tell, the difference is that a "religion" is considered acceptable by the person using the word, and a "cult" is not. I imagine that to some people, my own religious beliefs would be considered a "cult." To me, it doesn't seem particularly scholarly to repeatedly use a word with negative connotations when perfectly good language without those connotations is available.

Before I give you my objections to Parfitt's conclusions, I'd better include a

***** SPOILER ALERT *****

This book is in large part a detective story. If you read the next few paragraphs, you'll know whodunnit. You have been warned; stop here if you don't want to know the ending!

Now that that's out of the way... in the course of Parfitt's research, he thinks over several things. One is that there were at least two Arks of the Covenant. The textual basis for this claim is that in one place it says that Moses made a wooden ark to contain the tablets that God gave him, and in another place it says that a craftsman named Bezalel made a more ornate ark which is described like we generally picture the ark today (the "Moses ark" is not actually described at all, except that it is made of wood). This is a view held by more historians than just Parfitt, but I'm not really sure if this constitutes indisputable evidence; just because something is not described in detail in one place and then it is described in detail somewhere else does not mean that it is not the same thing. And saying in one spot that Bezalel made it and in another spot that Moses made it doesn't to me rule out the two incidents being one and the same. If I hire a contractor to build a house and then tell a friend about it, don't I say "I'm building a house" even though I probably won't nail a single nail with my own hands?

But then Parfitt goes on to theorize that there may have been dozens of arks, and that scribes went back later and cleaned up the text so that it didn't show that, forgetting that one inconsistency. I can't imagine why scribes who would leave in things like their most celebrated king, an ancestor of their promised messiah, forcing sex on the wife of one of his officers and then having the officer killed in battle to cover it up, but then turn around and change the text over a gold box. It doesn't make any sense to me. It makes sense to Parfitt.

He also seems to believe that the whole idea for the ark was borrowed from similar religious relics already being used by the surrounding ethnic groups (for example, ark-like relics found in King Tut's tomb) and that this somehow gives less validity to the Ark's divine origins. I would counter with the idea that God speaks to people of individual times in terms that they can understand. Jesus' parables are not about jet airplanes... most of them are agricultural or just about plain people. I think it is highly likely that God had His people build a gold box for Him because they were aware that other religions had gold boxes for their own gods. The big difference is that where other boxes of the kind had a statue of the god himself sitting between two creatures, the Israelite ark had two creatures and between them was... an empty seat. Which would say something about that particular god to whoever saw it. Is this god so mysterious that they don't know what he looks like? Is he too holy to be personally rendered in gold? Since we're not ancient Arabs we probably will never know, but just because other religions may have boxes on poles among their relics does not invalidate this one.

Finally, Parfitt concludes that the ark was (the arks were?) a bowl-shaped drum called a "ngoma" which was used to create music, to carry objects, and which was loaded with primitive gunpowder and ignited to create flashes of fire and great noises. The enemies of the Israelites, he postulates, may have been given some mild poison to weaken their hearts, and then when the ngoma was ignited, the loud unexpected sound would have been enough to overtax their hearts and kill them. He believes that he has found the "original" Ark/ngoma in a museum in Zimbabwe... at least as original as it gets, since the Ark of Biblical times has since been destroyed and this one was built using the remains.

It's an interesting idea, but I don't buy it. To go that way you first have to assume that the Scriptures were intentionally altered to make a round drum look like a rectangular Egyptian box, and then you have to assume that it was not the holy power of a holy god that emanated from the Ark, but the ordinary power of low-grade gunpowder. Basically, you have to ignore the written canon of Scripture and substitute ideas gleaned from oral traditions, texts rejected centuries ago as inaccurate and inauthentic, and half-forgotten rumors. I am of the camp that chooses to assume that Scripture basically means what it says, and I don't really see a compelling reason to assume that just because we haven't found a gold-inlayed wooden box with metal rings on it that it doesn't exist somewhere, or at least didn't exist somewhere at some point in history. It makes for fun reading, but the ending didn't strike me as conclusive.

If you like Harrison Ford movies, by all means, read the book. It's fun to think about. I would caution you, though, to not easily abandon faith in Scripture, whether you are a Christian or a Jew, for something that calls itself scholarship. If Tudor Parfitt convinces you, that's fine. Maybe I'm wrong, but he didn't convince me.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

First Adam

For some reason, this morning I've been thinking about Adam. You know, the Adam. The First Adam. I won't tell you exactly where I was when I first started to think of Adam this morning, but I was wondering if Adam ever had to... you know, CLEAN himself. Like, if his body fully processed every part of his food and thus there was never a not-fresh moment for Adam before the fall. Presumably God created Adam and Eve perfect; if Jesus' resurrection body was basically a return to Adam's pre-fall state... but we don't really know for sure from the Word if Jesus' resurrection body needed food (although we know He could and did eat, we don't know if He had to) and likewise we don't know for sure whether Adam's pre-fall body needed food, although clearly he was able to eat. Maybe eating was for enjoyment only. At any rate, even if he had to eat, maybe the pre-fall body was so efficient and/or the food was so pure that there was no waste product.

The reason I was wondering this was because if that indeed was the case... if the pre-fall body did not produce waste... then either God gave us those body parts that expel waste afterward, or God in His mercy thought ahead and gave us the proper plumbing before we need it. Wouldn't that be just like the love and grace and care of God for us?

But on to my second musing about Adam, which occurred in a less sensitive location (whew!). I was thinking about things that make me feel sad... loss of loved ones, social injustices that occur daily across the globe, children being abused and taken advantage of. All those terrible things that we all know about but try not to think about very often because if we do, we make ourselves miserable. And it occurred to me how true it was that Adam's sin would bring death on mankind. Although Adam kept breathing and walking around, in truth he had experienced a death. And a tinge of that death touches each of us every time we encounter tragedy or evil. Thank God that Jesus has brought LIFE back for us! Just like that first Adam's heart was still beating even though death was present, those who have accepted the free gift of the Second Adam still live in a world being consumed by death even though the life of God is present inside of them. It doesn't make it easier to experience those things that were born when sin entered the world, but it does mean that we can rise above death and experience life in the middle of it!

Monday, April 14, 2008


I love Spongebob Squarepants. It's a silly cartoon that doesn't ever get too gross, although I admit lots of times they push the envelope. Well, at Christmas my son got a Spongebob music CD called The Best Day Ever. It has lots of fun and funny songs on it, and he (and his parents!) really enjoy it! But today one of the songs came up in my random playlist and it gave me pause:

We all know that the alphabet has 26 letters... count 'em!
You can mix and match to make many nouns and verbs
But if you say the wrong one to your mama, it may upset her
So in Bikini Bottom, we have a word that's preferred

We just say "barnacles"
It's a word that's okay to scream
When you want to let off some steam
And say what you really mean
We just yell "barnacles"
And go on our merry way
Barnacles is the way we say what they say we can't say.
A cute lyric, isn't it? The music is cute, too... click here to listen to a clip. The only problem is that Jesus made it clear that evil comes from the inside, and although it may be displayed on the outside, the evil is really in the heart. I don't actually see anyplace in the Word where it specifically says that some words are evil, but I do see that it says anger (which is not of the "righteous" kind) is evil. So if I shout "barnacles!" in anger, is that any better than shouting "s**t!"? Sure, the word "barnacles" is less likely to offend those around me, but if the anger is there, the anger is there... and that's where the sin lies.

The reason that the song gave me pause today is that it struck me as a good way to teach children to swear at an early age. Once you are used to releasing your anger through speech, it's that much easier to start doing it with real profanity later. I won't take away my son's CD... I don't think it's inherently malevolent (well, except for Plankton, but that's his job!) , but it's one more thing that as parents we might have to deal with later. Thank you too much, Nickelodeon.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Laughing in the Dark

Not too long ago, after a series of financial challenges, I realized that I was suffering from a pretty severe depression. I looked up "clinical depression" on Wikipedia and a few other sites, and discovered that I was experiencing all of the classic signs of clinical depression with the exception that I was not gaining or losing weight, and I did not want to kill myself (I honestly wonder if the latter was the grace of God sparing me that turmoil). I immediately began to make plans to see my doctor, and then I promoted a book from my "read-it-someday" list to my "read it NOW" list: Laughing in the Dark: A Comedian's Journey through Depression by Chonda Pierce. I had watched one of Chonda's comedy DVDs a few months before, and I don't remember where I first heard that she had gone through a period of depression and written a book about it, but it may have been that DVD.

Anyway, my episode of serious depression ended abruptly one Sunday during worship time at my church. I consider it a miracle healing; I was seriously depressed in a way I have never been before. There is being depressed, and there is clinical depression, and they are similar in name only... clinical depression is far beyond just being unhappy. But even though I believed I had received healing from the Lord (and I still do believe that and I still feel OK!) I went ahead and read the book anyway, and I was not disappointed. Chonda is open and honest about her experience, which was much worse than mine (she had physical symptoms that resembled a heart attack, and was medicated for many months afterward), but in every chapter she is able to add just enough humor to keep things light without becoming flippant. Every chapter focuses on something that was a major stage in her recovery... getting the diagnosis right, getting the medication right, getting back to work (as a depressed comedienne!), getting off her meds too early, and on and on. Each chapter ends with an email sent to Chonda by a fan who heard her talk about her ordeal from the stage, and then a few pages of more detailed information related to the chapter from a psychotherapist. I enjoyed all of the book, but I have two favorite parts. One of my two favorite parts is a section where Chonda learns that just like a sunset is still beautiful whether it affects you emotionally or not, God is still there whether you feel His presence or not (it's the last 8 pages of chapter 4). My other favorite part is a quote from a master of dry humor. This is the quote, which is the lead-in to chapter 8:

I've had a wonderful time, but this wasn't it.
—Groucho Marx

I found the book enlightening, informative, encouraging, and enjoyable. (And every word in that list started with a vowel and the letter "n" woo-hoo!) I was able to identify with all but the worst of her symptoms, and I believe I have a much better understanding of serious depression than I ever had before, after experiencing my own short battle with it and reading about Chonda's longer battle.

I want to add a message to anyone reading this who has been in a depressed fog for more than a week or two. Don't wait to go see your doctor. If you have been depressed every day for all or most of the day for more than a couple of weeks, call right now and make an appointment. Don't be embarrassed, don't be nervous, and don't let yourself feel stigmatized. And don't put it off because you think you can handle it on your own. In recent years I have known two people who fell into the dark pit that had opened up inside of them and took their own lives, rocking the lives of their family and friends and, in one case, apparently inspiring the suicide of a loved one. Clinical depression is very treatable, either via counseling or medication or both, but if you don't see a professional you won't get the care you need. Don't play with your life; get help from someone. I know if I ever enter the fog again, I'll call my doctor right away. If you think you might be there but aren't sure, pick up a copy of Chonda's book. Her prologue description of the gray hotel with the "talking light" may help you get your mind around your own feelings and help you make the decision whether you need to seek treatment, or just a little bit of sunshine and your favorite song on the headphones.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


From this article at ABC News (emphasis mine):
This evidence of an innate revulsion toward incest, coupled with the general avoidance of incest in most cultures around the world, suggests that the taboo may be nature's way of helping us avoid the multitude of problems that come with inbreeding -- which include rare genetic diseases and defects.
Question #1: When did "nature" become a personality that could have a "way?"
Question #2: Doesn't the sentence make just at much sense if you replace the word "nature's" with the word "God's?"
Question #3: When did nature become God, anyway?

Saturday, April 5, 2008


Lately I've been thinking about two dichotomies.

In Sunday School we've been reading and discussing a book called When Heaven Invades Earth. One of the main ideas of the book is that the supernatural move of God in miracles is absolutely essential for a complete Christian life. I've also been studying the Gospels, particularly John and Matthew, and it seems like a major theme in Jesus' earthly ministry was manifesting miraculous "signs" so that people would know He was the Son of God. But then at the very end of the book of John, Jesus turns around 180 degrees and says "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." So: if signs are necessary for belief, how can the ones that believe without seeing be more blessed than those that believe after seeing? Is faith based on experiencing the supernatural inferior to faith that arrives some other way? And, what else do we have that can generate faith other than experience (if not physical experience, then emotional experiences or at least intellectual stimulation)?

If a healthy tree bears good fruit and cannot bear bad fruit, and if a fig tree can't bear olives/a grapevine can't produce figs/a salt pond can't yield fresh water, how is it that Christians are perfectly able to sin (and most of us do on a daily basis)?

I'm sure these two topics are being hotly debated in a seminary classroom as we speak. Please discuss and elucidate.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Oprah: New Age Enthusiast

A friend sent me a link to this video. Take a look, understanding that I don't know anything about the book advertised and I am generally quite leery of that sort of fringe-published stuff:

I'd say that just shows to go ya what happens when you take ignorance, and add to it more ignorance. Oprah apparently didn't bother to find out what God being a "jealous God" means... not that he wants something that Oprah has but He wants Oprah. He jealously guards His people. Because she lacked understanding, she decided to try and figure things out another way. Paradoxically, she realized that she couldn't figure out the God that was being preached, so she decided to figure out some other god, and discovered that the other god is not figure-outable either. Apparently that didn't bother her at all. <sigh>

I read some of the YouTube comments too... someone tried to smooth things over by saying that maybe the pastor said God is a "zealous God." Only problem is... the Bible doesn't seem to say that. Although it does say He is a "jealous God" in at least a half-dozen places, including the Ten Freakin' Commandments!

When we reject the real God because there are things about Him that we can't understand, and then we embrace a god that is so nebulous that there is nothing to understand, that's just stupid. "Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things." (Rom. 1:22-23) Oprah doesn't even apparently have the sense to worship a bird... just a beam of light.

Too bad masses of people appear to be doing it right along with her.