Saturday, January 31, 2015

Concerning Theologian/Scientists and Scientist/Theologians

How tempting it is to speak on subjects that we really don't understand! Especially when we know just enough about the subject to sound like we know what we're talking about. Consider the ease with which scientists slip back and forth between playing with science and playing with metaphysics. Think, for instance, of Stephen Hawking's book The Grand Design, where he argues that God's existence is not necessary and attempts to do so on scientific grounds.
Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.
Hawking does his best to give scientific-sounding arguments for this conclusion, but at the end of the day one has to ask how one could ever come to such theological conclusions from physical observations without making some sort of metaphysical assumptions at the beginning of the whole enterprise?

It isn't only scientists, however, who are guilty of moonlighting as poor theologians. Sometimes the shoe is on the other foot. Consider William Lane Craig, who almost a year ago pointed out in answer to a question on his blog that the "evidence for inflation" is confirmed by the research of the BICEP team.
The team went to great lengths to ensure that the polarization pattern detected was not due to error in instrumentation or the influence of cosmic dust or galactic factors.
Earlier that week, Craig appeared on Fox News arguing that the BICEP team's research confirms "the Christian view of the universe." He also spoke with Kerby Anderson on the subject. Inflationary expansion, of course, serves as a powerful confirmation for the cosmological argument for God's existence, which argues that if the universe had a beginning, it must have been God who was the cause of that beginning. This argument is a favorite arrow in the quiver of many Christian Apologists. This may be exciting for the moment when the news emerges, but things get less exciting when backpedalling becomes necessary.

The New York Times, in an article posted yesterday, says that things have changed since March of last year: "Now a new analysis, undertaken jointly by the Bicep group and the Planck group, has confirmed that the Bicep signal was mostly, if not all, stardust, and that there is no convincing evidence of the gravitational waves. No evidence of inflation." Is God's existence now more likely? Less likely? Has anything changed? If inflation is no longer "confirmed" does that mean Christian theologians will need to wait for further research before they can feel comfortable telling people that God exists?

As time goes on, I suspect more and more that theologians are far better off speaking of that which they know and not having an apologetic methodology that can be buttressed by one team of scientists only to be thrown into disarray the next moment when that team's flawed methodology is later exposed.

Earlier this week in one of my classes, my homiletics professor, Dr. Charlie Wingard, made an important comment in passing. He said, "In your preaching, when you give an illustration or an argument, never pretend as if you're a scientist or a doctor if that isn't your area of expertise. Inevitably someone in the audience will know better than you and you will lose your credibility."

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Some Podcast Recommendations

As a seminarian, one of the most important things I currently do is itinerant preaching. Nearly every Sunday morning I walk out to my old Toyota, kick the tires, adjust the mirror, and drive four hours round-trip to some distant part of Mississippi to minister in churches on the preaching circuit. It's a wonderful privilege, but as those who do long commutes know, your long road trips can be complete time wasters if you aren't purposeful about how you're going to use your traveling time. What I'm trying to say is that if all you do is sing Taylor Swift songs while driving to your destination, you may very well be doing what John Piper calls "Wasting Your Life."

While I like to listen to the Bible and audiobooks, one of my favorite things to do when I travel is to listen to podcasts. Anymore, I rarely listen to music. If I'm not praying or talking out loud to myself about the sermon that I'm preparing to preach, I'm listening to others talk. I also like to turn on my bluetooth speaker in the kitchen while making a meal and listen to something while I'm preparing food.

I think this is a worthwhile blog post because I know many of my classmates who don't listen to podcasts at all, and it got me thinking that there must be a lot of people out there who have never even thought of listening to podcasts before.

Since I spend so much time listening to them I figured I'm moderately qualified to make some recommendations of my favorite podcasts for others to get some ideas from. I'll list the podcast and then comment a bit about it, explaining why I like it.

Podcast App: Instacast
First of all, if you have an Apple product, I recommend you run as far away from the pre-installed, default app for podcasts, (simply titled "Podcasts"). It's horrible, it's slow, it has a bad interface. Just run for the hills. Instead, pony up $5 and get Instacast. I love it, it's easy to use, and there just is no program I'd rather use to manage my podcasts. I can't praise it highly enough.

My favorite feature isn't unique to Instacast, but I pretty much listen to every podcast that I listen to at double speed. I'm so used to hearing everyone talk quickly that I lose my mind if I hear them talk at normal speed. Because of this feature I can listen to nearly 8 hours of material every Sunday while driving to preach, which I think is a great use of my time.

Theology Podcasts:
Albert Mohler -- The Briefing
I listen to The Briefing every day. Now, I'm no transformationalist or Kuyperian. I grow frustrated with Mohler's constant hammering on worldview, and he seems to only talk about homosexuality and abortion. When I met him at RTS this past Fall I told him (half-joking) that he is the reason I had to explain what homosexuality is to my 9 year old daughter. Why do I still listen to every episode? Frankly, he's still interesting, and I don't read a ton of news or watch TV news, so he gives his take on what's the most important thing going on that day, and to me that's valuable.

James White -- The Dividing Line
Sometimes White talks about issues I'm interested in (Islam, Roman Catholicism, Calvinism), the rest of the time he talks about stuff that I've heard him hammer on a thousand times before. Nevertheless, I always find it interesting to see the sorts of theological debates that pop up around White and listening to how he deals with them.

Reformed Forum -- Christ the Center
Here at RTS we have great professors, many of whom were student at Westminster Theological Seminary. But even so, frankly, there just isn't enough Vos and Van Til in my life. Enter Christ the Center, where the crew get together usually to interview a seminary professor on a new book or on an interesting theological subject. Think of it as your weekly dose of meaty Reformed discussion. I highly, highly recommend this podcast to my fellow seminarians. These are advanced discussions going on at Christ the Center and can help you to become well informed on current topics that are worth thinking about.

Tom Rainer -- Rainer on Leadership
I graduate from seminary in a little over a year (Lord willing). This podcast gives seminarians a taste of the real life, boots on the ground struggles that pastors face. When I first got here, all I wanted to do was talk theology, but the closer I get to actually going out into the world and dealing with real people in real churches, the more I crave the practical discussions from old warhorses who have seen some stuff... the kind of stuff that turned their hair gray. Listening to this podcast will convince you that being a pastor is hard, and in ministry you will meet people who think you have the easiest job ever and will make tremendous demands on you. Rainer helps you to think through what you will say yes to, what you will say no to, how you will lead others, and how you can look after your own family in the midst of it all.

Justin Brierly (Premier Christian Radio) -- Unbelievable
I only listen to this podcast when I'm interested in the people he has on. But usually he has very interesting people in to debate both sides of the issues. This past week he has Al Mohler on to debate Chris Date on the subject of hell. A few weeks ago, Pete Enns debated David Intone-Brewer to talk about inerrancy. This is a diverse show that almost always has subjects for debate that interest me. This is another show that's highly recommended (I usually skip the last half hour after the debate is finished).

Dave Harvey -- Am I Called?
This is another one that I only listen to when I'm interested in the subject or the person he interviews. But I recommend keeping up with this one.

Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals -- The Mortification of Spin
I like listening to Carl, Todd, and Aimee do their round-table thing. It seems like they've finally stopped doing the thing where they'd insert random music clips in the middle of the show, which I'm grateful for, and they seem to be maturing into something they're comfortable with as time goes on. I am usually very interested in their discussions, though I almost listen more for the camaraderie than anything else.

News and Arts Podcasts
I don't watch TV news. Aside from the fact that I'm one of those cord-cutters who does everything online and truly has no television subscription at all, TV news can make you feel constantly panicked and send your anxiety through the roof. If you feel that way at all, try doing it like me. Get your news in bite-sized chunks, throughout the day, and let someone else filter through it for you.

NPR -- Hourly News Summary
A new episode goes up every hour, so make sure your app isn't downloading every new episode. But this is a good one just to check in on the news throughout the day without going to news websites or switching on the television. I usually listen to one in the morning and one in the mid-afternoon. If you listen at 2x, each episode only takes 2 minutes to listen to, so it's a good use of your time.

NPR -- NPR Topics: Story of the Day
These are hit or miss. Don't set them to automatically download, but check in to see if you're interested in the episodes as they go up each day.

WNYC -- Radiolab
This is very interesting, modern storytelling. If I could figure out a way to do a theology-related podcast and do it in a way that was as interesting as Radiolab, I would be on it in a heartbeat. Whenever I listen to this show, I always find myself thinking, "You know, somebody could explain the hypostatic union in a way that's as interesting as the way these guys are explaining talking to whales in today's episode."

Alec Baldwin -- Here's the Thing
Listen. Whatever you might think about Alec Baldwin, the man is a masterful interviewer. If you're the kind of person who writes blog posts littered with personal pronouns and you struggle with valuing the views of others in personal conversation, this is a great show for you. The man just knows how to get others to open up and talk about their lives. I (that dreaded personal pronoun!) once heard a great conversationalist say that there is nothing people like more than hearing the sound of their own name. Alec Baldwin completely tickles his interviewees' need to be valued and heard and models wonderfully how to take a real, (seemingly) genuine interest in others.

This American Life
The most popular podcast on the internet. Seriously, if you like storytelling, this is for you. It's also for you if you want to learn to be a storyteller (or at least somebody who wants to see clear communication done well). Ira Glass has spent 20 years learning to tell stories in a way that is gripping and now he could do it in his sleep.

It was probably Jay, okay? I'm one of the guys who thinks it was probably Jay somehow. I mean, he knew where the car was, but he couldn't keep the rest of his story square!  What's up with that? If you don't know what I'm talking about but you'd like to, start listening to Serial. It's a podcast that tells one story in detail from the first episode all the way to the last. This past season just ended.

When Alex Bloomberg left This American Life, he left with the intention of starting his own podcasting company. This show is basically him chronicling the creation of his podcast company, from his first embarrassing pitch to an investor to the struggle to find a name for his company, he brings his listeners along every step of the way as he starts up his business.

Reply All
In connection with the previous podcast mentioned above, Reply All is the first podcast launched by Bloomberg's podcast company. It's a show where they basically explore interesting things about the internet. They've done eight episodes now, and I find it very enlightening.

NPR -- Planet Money
This podcast is way more interesting than the name lets on. It basically is a show about the invisible forces that keep our society running. It's not just about money, it's about human motivations, decisions, and how to understand the stuff that connects everyone who lives in our world today. Way more interesting than I'm making it sound. And the episodes are only 20 minutes long, which is a great selling-point.

Dork Podcasts
I am a dork. I am a geek. I have a serious theologian side to me that loves to preach and loves to write, but I have another side to me that doesn't come out here at Bring the Books, and that is my video gamer/sci-fi lover side. Nearly everyone I know is into sports. They go to sporting events, they spend six hours or more a weekend watching college teams battle it out. But homie don't play that. I want to make Mario jump on bad-guys' heads and I want to listen to people talk about how much they like doing that. As such, when I want to unwind and forget about the pain of the world, I listen to these kinds of podcasts. I do think there is restorative value in entertainment and having hobbies, and frankly video games is my hobby. Here are my favorite podcasts in this area:

IGN -- Nintendo Voice Chat
Jose Otero, Brian Altano, and Peer Schneider love Nintendo as much as I do, and so I love to listen to them talk about what's going on in the world of Nintendo. They are pathetically obsessed with collecting every Amiibo (which I have no interest in doing), but hearing these guys get so OCD about collecting makes me feel better (I grade myself on the curve) about virtually every other feature of my own personality.

WIRED -- GameLife Podcast
This show is short, sweet, to the point, and is what I listen to when my other favorite shows have already been listened to. This show is interesting because it isn't specific to any one gaming system, and so listening to this show can give you an idea what's going on in the larger gaming culture.

Chris Hardwick -- The Nerdist
These guys basically interview famous people and ask them questions that people usually wonder about but are afraid to ask. I loved listening to Sam Raimi admit that Spider-Man 3 was "awful" and learning that his favorite pastime is gardening avocados. Honestly, it made me want to start growing avocados too, even though I don't eat them.

WIRED -- Geek's Guide to the Galaxy
I just mentioned this in my last blog post. Even when I disagree with the people they interview, the show is undeniably interesting. Christians can often be a cloistered people who usually only have conversations with themselves. Listening to shows like this can often give you an idea how people outside your own circles think and talk to one another. When I listen as a Christian I usually listen for the things that they take for granted in their discussions.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Geek's Guide to Being One-Sided

In the latest episode of The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy (a podcast that I normally enjoy because I'm a geek) two "experts" in the Bible (Robert Price and Richard Carrier) joined David Barr Kirtley to discuss the new Ridley Scott film Exodus: Gods and Kings. I was interested in what these "experts" (one of them a former baptist minister/member of the Jesus Seminar, and the other a humanistic expert in Roman history) would say about the movie. I shouldn't have been surprised to hear that the experts they called in were unbelievers who consider the entire Exodus narrative to be total myth.

Pick a Side!
In some places, this bias is helpful and even welcome. In particular, when it comes to discussing the film's curious relationship with rationalism, Carrier and Price observe (helpfully, I think) that Ridley Scott's decision to try to follow the narrative of the Bible, but with a naturalistic slant hurts the film's overall narrative and doesn't even end up making scientific sense. As they observe (rightly), it's better for somebody to decide whether they're going to portray the events as the text portrays them or don't portray them at all. Instead, Scott tries to do what Price and Carrier refer to as the 20th century Protestant Rationalist thing by saying that the events happened but can all be traced to naturalistic causes (49:30). As naturalists, they mock and laugh at the liberal approach that wants to offer a glib hat-tip to the Bible but also have a philosophical sophistication that will appeal to the modern scientifically minded person (liberals end up doing neither, of course).

The Gullible Ancients
If you've listened to the episode and you know me, then you will perhaps guess that I was far less impressed with the rest of the discussion. Early in the episode, Carrier talks about whether there even would have been naturalistic thinkers in 1300 BC Egypt. He presumes ancient people to be tremendously naive when he says that the average person would be prone to believe claims of people who said they spoke with God: "The average person on the street would be like, 'Oh you saw God and he spoke to you? That must be for real!' That was the order of things" (8:00-9:30). The narrative, of course, presumes that the actual people Moses is speaking to will not believe him. "But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, 'The LORD did not appear to you'" (Ex. 4:1). Why would Moses have a concern that he will be met with skepticism if the people were so naive and prone to believe anyone who claimed to have a word from God? The most obvious answer is that the people Moses was speaking to were far less naive than would serve Carrier's purposes. Richard Carrier simplifies the mindset of the ancient people turning them into a manageable caricature, but one far more gullible than Moses himself knows them to be in the context of the narrative.

Of course, the problem with Carrier is ultimately foundational. In his mind the text itself cannot be offered as evidence that the people were not gullible since only a gullible person would believe that these people were not gullible. Carrier, however, as a perfect example of gullibility himself, doesn't see anything naive in his own unprovable anti-supernaturalistic foundational assumptions which preclude the text as evidence of anything.

Constant Smug Laughter
Subjectively speaking, what really bothered me about the discussion was the smugly dismissive way that Carrier in particular laughed throughout the episode whenever Price or Kirtley would bring up those who actually believe that these events took place. Near the beginning of the episode Carrier laughs off the film as horrible history since there was no evidence that the Hebrews ever even lived in Egypt (6:50). "That's just something that was made up in Jewish literature centuries later." Later, Carrier almost seems unable to control his laughter even at the thought that somebody might actually believe the Exodus narrative to be historical. Kirtley asks if it would be possible to make a movie of the Exodus where God comes off as heroic instead of as a scary monster, which again causes Carrier to giggle extensively. Because he doesn't see God as heroic, he chooses to laugh at anybody who can see God as heroic in Exodus (36:00). His laughter reaches an almost fever pitch when they discuss why on earth people would need to place lamb's blood over the doors if God is all-powerful. Why require lamb's blood when God could just by fiat decide not to kill the Israelite children? Of course, any possible answer to this doesn't even seem cross their minds. I suspect that they know that it could conceivably make sense that God would require people to perform gestures for both didactic and symbolic reasons, but again - that isn't as funny and doesn't make them look as smart.

The Inconsistent Irrationality of Pharaoh
Price and Carrier don't use equal weights and measures in their complaints about the Exodus narrative. For instance, at one point Price complains that Pharaoh is made by God to be "irrationally stubborn" (32:40) in the Exodus narrative, but then he argues that Pharaoh's refusal to give the Israelites straw to make bricks is irrational (45:50). He offers this irrationality of refusing to help the Israelites make bricks as evidence that there is nothing remotely historical about the narrative. One wonders how it is possible for Pharaoh to be acknowledged as "irrationally stubborn" and then have his irrationality criticized as nonsensical. Price would like to have it both ways, of course: Pharaoh is irrational through and through, yet he clearly can't be real because he behaves irrationally toward the Israelites.

Listening to the Other Side?
Later in the podcast, Kirtley asks his panel members how religious believers reconcile God killing "innocent children" during the final plague against Egypt. The answers they give are all caricatures. They seem to not know how "religious people now explain it." Carrier himself admits that he has no idea how real believing interpreters deal with the text. It's at this point that I just paused the narrative and said to myself, "This is the part where they will now make up unfair, simplistic, ludicrous explanations and then attribute them to people who believe these events to be historical." (By the way, if I find the time, I may offer a post where I mention some of the views that Carrier and Price failed to consider, but that is not my purpose here.)

Carrier, to begin with suggests that some with a "medieval mindset" would see the death of the Egyptian children as just recompense for the Pharaoh's own murder of the Israelite boys in Exodus 1:22. Unable to come up with anything better, he passes the baton to Price, who admits to having "never actually heard them wrestle with it" (32:50). This is curious, of course, since Price supposedly spent years involved in apologetics and even had a degree in systematic theology. And during his "orthodox years" he never once wrestled with this question or heard anyone else wrestle with it? Rather than deal with anybody's actual approach to the narrative Price takes the opportunity to opine on the subject of hell and then talk about how the Bible's narrative doesn't make sense to him. It would be more honest for them to simply say, "I am a supposed expert in systematic theology, but I'm not open minded enough to read believing commentators on this passage, so I can't answer your question."

Concluding Thoughts: A Plea for Fairness
I definitely think that this episode of Geek's Guide to the Galaxy would have been far fairer and way more interesting to have a fair-minded Christian or Jewish theist who isn't a screaming fire breather and would be willing to offer their own side of the discussion. I can think of believing experts who are also movie lovers and would be eager to engage in such a discussion in a winsome way. Instead, GGG decided to turn the discussion over to two naturalists who see the Exodus narrative as myth and aren't even experts in the Old Testament. In the process they missed out on the chance to be exposed to the opinion of someone who approaches the Old Testament far less combatively.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Light Will Die

I love sci-fi. And for all its plot holes and logical problems, one of my favorite experiences this last year was seeing the film Interstellar. You watch the movie and you initially think you have it pegged: “This is a sci-fi adventure about a man fighting to save the human race. This is just another straightforward popcorn-munching Christopher Nolan movie.” But the film also deals with deeper religious, metaphysical, and emotional themes about fatherhood and survival that makes it about more than the raw narrative itself. There is something transcendent about the film, because the filmmaker is trying to reach beyond himself and his own life.

Throughout the film Michael Caine’s character frequently quotes Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do not go gentle into that good night” where he writes: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” I always misunderstood the poem. I guess I always thought it was a poem about living life with ferocity and strength. In either case it was a bit too melodramatic for my tastes, so I dismissed it.

I was out for a run this morning and was listening to the Interstellar Soundtrack (because I’m a truly strange person). The last track of the album is the cast of the film reading Dylan Thomas’ poem in its entirety. I don’t think I’d ever read it completely and when I heard the last line of the poem, for the first time realized this is a poem about dying. This is a poem about a man watching his father die and he’s trying to tell him that it’s right for him to fight and scrape and claw against death because death is unnatural, and what is natural is to resist the encroaching darkness. I realized that just like Thomas' poem, Interstellar is a movie about dying.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

It resonates with me. I myself sat next to my own father’s hospital bed as I watched him die. I too wrote a poem (it was awful but captured my heart) because I had no other outlet for what I was feeling. I hear in this poem the cry I wanted to let out but lacked the skill to actually pull off. The film is like sitting next to a dying mankind wishing to see it fight against a similar encroaching darkness. But in the end, Dylan Thomas' father, and my own father, both died, despite their fighting and clawing. What does that say for the human race in Interstellar?

Now, because Interstellar has this unavoidably naturalistic bent and almost begs you to think that this physical world is all there is (MINOR SPOILER: everything in the film ends up having a natural explanation), thinking about the film constantly gives me this encroaching sense that the light is dying, and there is no way, in natural terms, to stop it. We really will all die. The world will eventually fail us and we will fade like lights extinguished. We will not win the battle against the dying of the light. And even if utopia happens, and even if we find other planets to live on and create new life there, each and every one of us will die. Our light will go out. We get a finite number of years to exist, and that’s it. Even though the film tries to wax optimistic, its anti-supernatural undercurrent leaves the viewer, at the end of the day, convinced that he will not escape death and the light will not win. The film quotes Thomas' poem in an optimistic and motivating way. Maybe, perhaps there is some way that we will be able to keep the darkness of non-existence at bay, even for a day longer... but because naturalism can't answer mankind's deepest need for transcendent meaning, the optimism rings hollow.

In an odd way I am thankful for this sense of doom that comes with watching Interstellar. It gives us an existential taste of what the alternative to the message of the Gospel is. Naturalism says, "We can cheer ourselves up for the moment if we try very hard, but darkness is coming, and at the end of the day it will win. In naturalistic terms, the universe will die in the cold and the darkness, and we will all fade into non-existence." As T.S. Eliot said so well in his poem The Hollow Men:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

This is the end of naturalism. A hopeless whimper.

In the Gospel message Christ says, “Your life will end. You won’t win this fight (in this life) against the dying of the light. Not in physical terms. But believe in me, and I’ll give you new life, and you’ll find that I raged against the dying of the light so that when you lose that battle you’ll find the completion of the new life that I’ve given you fulfilled.”