Saturday, December 31, 2011

From the Marshalls

In China this fall, I often stayed at a new chain called "Like Home" hotels. I joked that one way they reminded me of home, was that I sometimes had to chase young men working there off the computer provided for guests, where they had been playing video games, to access the Internet. Now I'm back at my real home, chasing my own boys away from the computer, instead!

John is busy with the real world right now, though. He's begun sending out applications to universities. He woke Mayumi up in the middle of the night when I was still deep in jet-lag, to announce top scores on "subject tests" for SAT physics and advanced math -- he's interested in a scientific or engineering course of study, something to do with airplanes. I've also begun to take him out to practice for driving: so far nothing interesting to report, like the young man who took the gas for the brake, and put a hole in the post office across the street from our house, a few months ago.

James is also studying well, his first year in high school. He's good at reading and writing, but his favorite class is PE. Unlike John, who often waits until the deadline nears to bare down, James usually takes care of his homework as soon as he comes in the door.

We're also playing a lot of ping-pong on the table the boys got for Christmas: it's true winter in Seattle, with the dark and the rain outside, and now people are regretfully taking Christmas lights down.  Why does Christmas only last one month? 

Mayumi is still working at Bellevue Children's Academy. The school is a few blocks from the Microsoft campus --just over the civic frontier in Redmond. Mayumi and the boys enjoyed their trip back to Tokyo and Nagasaki again this summer, visiting hot springs with relatives, museums in Tokyo. Like Christmas, the annual visit to Japan involves a bit of a ritual: they would be sorry to miss anything on the list of things to do, people to visit.

For me, it's been a long, sometimes difficult, year of writing -- sowing, in the biblical metaphor, with the sometimes frustrating hope of doing some reaping before too long.

Mainly I've been writing my dissertation, which is now almost complete. I believe this work may change how people see the world. Studying the history of Christianity in Asia, the lives and thoughts of great missionaries, and how the Gospel touches the deepest parts of "alien" cultures, it has been a great adventure to knit these threads together into an explanation of how Christianity relates to other religions.

We've also almost completed my next book, Faith Seeking Understanding, expected to come out next September, published by William Carey library, and written in honor of Dr. Paul Brand and Dr. Ralph Winter. Since I'm the book's editor, but author of just one chapter, I can boast more shamelessly than usual about how wonderful I think it's going to be. Contributors include Philip Yancey, Oxford historian of science Allan Chapman, Miriam Adeney, Earl Palmer, Yuan Zhiming, and interviews with Rodney Stark and Don Richardson -- along with other wonderful writers.

The Truth Behind the New Atheism came out in Spanish this year, and I've been working on other exciting book projects.
Do have a wonderful New Year.

David Marshall

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Twelfth Book of Christmas: "In God's Underground"

Twelve Books that show how Christmas changed the world.

On the twelfth day of Christmas, our True Love gave the world: liberation in the communist bloc.

Sometimes we may be too close to history to see it.  For example, we often hear skeptics talk about the Inquisition, which killed a few thousand innocent people thousands of years ago, and completely forget about the tens of millions of victims of communist inquisitions.  We hear the cries of the few who suffered a millennia ago, and they drown out far greater horrors practically next door. 

We also fail to hear the thankful cries of millions from our own generation, as Chesterton wrote of the liberation of an earlier gang of freed captives:

"Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds,
Thronging of the thousands up that labour under sea
White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty.
"Vivat Hispania!
Domino Gloria!
Don John of Austria
Has set his people free!"

The Gospel has, as this series shows, done civilization many services.  One we often forget because it is too close: Christianity undermined Big Brother in his many guises, especially throughout that third of the world that was communist.  Marxist brainwashing was relentless: attacks on "enemies of the state," and lying flattery of despots and thugs, assailed citizens in school, newspapers, on television, walls, over loudspeakers, through history and science texts, even on maps and history books.  The Church gave people a break from the propaganda.  In place of hate, believers praised God and shared one another's burdens.  In place of the grey monotony of social-realist architecture and "art," the Church provided beautiful, uplifting music, incense and colorful processions, beautiful ancient architecture (when it wasn't blown up by the communists), comfort, cheer, and hope. 

Christianity also aided in the overthrow of both Naziism and Communism. 

This story is told in many books.  I choose In God's Underground, by the Romanian pastor Richard Wurmbrand, as just one of many good selections.  See below for other choices.

Mystic. Philosopher. Loving husband. Worried father. Proud member of the Jewish race. Creature with nerve ending that ache when you hit them and who hungers when you starve him. Social being who hallucinates apart from human voices, and hungers for sex and companionship as well as food. Martyr who stands up to tyrants and warns them to repent. Lutheran pastor with a weakness for jokes. Richard Wurmbrand may have been a 'voice of the martyrs,' but after reading this sensitive, deeply honest autobiography, what impresses me the most is the degree to which his voice is also the voice of humanity. I found it challenging to see how, as a well-read Christian in tough times who faces all the temptations I do, he integrated the various facets of his humanity with his faith.

In a literal sense, faith made Wurmbrand a free-thinker. Embracing a religion that fits the full complexity of life, miracles as well as madness, and sharing a broad and often painful experience with a knowledge of several spiritual traditions, he was free to think on many questions and come to unexpected conclusions both whimsical and sober. There are many modern names that could be added to the list of heroes of the faith of Hebrews 11. Wurmbrand tells some of their stories, including his own.

Other books: Alexander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Gulag Archpelago.  Sergei Kourdakov, The Persecutor.  Brother Andrew, God's Smuggler.  George Weigel, The Final Revolution.  Richard Wurmbrand, Tortured for Christ.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Eleventh Book of Christmas: "Timothy Richard of China"

Twelve Books that show how Christmas changed the world.

On the eleventh day of Christmas, our True Love gave the world: reform in East Asia.

William Soothill, "Timothy Richard of China, seer, statesman, missionary & the most disinterested adviser the Chinese ever had."

A book called Five Foreigners who Influenced China was published in Taiwan.  Of the five men highlighted in the book, the longest chapter was dedicated to a Baptist missionary named Timothy Richard.  In fact, Richard's chapter was more than twice as long as the next longest. 

Richard was a remarkable person.  He began his career preaching in the villages of Shandong Province.  Having read Mateo Ricci and James Legge, he was unusually friendly towards other religions.  In fact, the famous "Nevius Plan" for an independent, self-perpetuating local church, free of foreign control, was first developed by Richard on the model of local Chinese sects.  (John Nevius visited his mission station, and borrowed his method, then developed and popularized it.)

When famine struck the province, Richard and other missionaries set about trying to help the hungry, mostly by giving them money to buy food.  When a far worse famine struck Shanxi Province, he and David Hill attempted to apply the same methods to relieve mass starvation there.  But he soon realized that the problem was transportation: food had to reach the province over mountain ranges, which were only traversed by mules, which couldn't carry much of a load.  So he argued that China needed a system of railroads to carry heavier freight.  (Superstitious Chinese opposed trains because they disrupted Feng Shui.)  He also argued for a network of state universities. 

One of the media through which Richard preached reform was a publication called Wan Guo Gong Bao, in Engish Review of the Times.  Kang Youwei converted to the cause of reform through reading the writings of Richard and Allen in this magazine.  Kang's attempt to reform China, with Richard's (in this case somewhat dubious) help, was ultimately thwarted by the Empress Dowager. 

Some of Richard's indigenizing innovations may have been adopted in Korea (via the ‘Nevius Plan’), Wenzhou, and, indirectly, Henan (Goforth: 1943, 77), among the most successful outreaches to Confucian societies. His famine relief efforts and support for economic development and universities served as national models. His writings and advice deeply influenced the Hundred Days Reform, though his naive idea of ceding governing power to foreign tutelary advisors may have undermined its success.

Naiveté was also the charge against Richard's approach to non-Christian religions laid by his usually generous biographer, William Soothill. Harsher critics, like Hudson Taylor, suspected heresy. Richard's willingness to look for the best in every religion seemed to derive in roughly equal parts from personal kindliness and theological agreement with Legge and the Jesuits.

In 1878, the little band of Shanxi missionaries sponsored an essay contest on (in part) inquiring into the ‘decrees of Heaven.'  This led to the conversion of Pastor Xu, who helped many of his countrymen recover from opium addiction.

A statue of Timothy Richard can be seen on the campus of Shanxi University, which was established (at his insistence) with indemnity money after the Boxer Rebellion, and which he initially led.  A photo of Richard also hangs in the student cafeteria.  This is a little ironic, since students who meet for Christian fellowship on campus are persecuted.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Tenth Book of Christmas: Jesus and the Religions of Man

Twelve Books that show how Christmas changed the world.

On the tenth day of Christmas, our True Love gave the world: fulfillment of ancient hopes.

This book, my longest so far, is an attempt to show empirically that looking at world religions, Jesus really is "the Way, the Truth, and the Life."  The longest section of this book argues that Jesus is "the Way" in the sense described in most of the other books in this series: his life has inspired change for the better in this world.  So one thing Jesus and the Religions of Man does, is summarize the history given in these other books.  It shows, in relation to other traditions, how the Gospel has inspired needed reform around the world. 

But I'd like to focus on the question of "truth" here, and how Christianity relates to other religions. 

Just  yesterday a skeptic told me:

"Now, christianity happens to be the 'true' one, and also the one you were born into, of all of the thousands of faiths you yourself said are praticed by man. A little convenient don’t you think?"

The implication is, that if Christianity is true, all other religions must be simply or mainly "false." 

But pick up a Bible, and you know that can't be right.  Christians have included the holy Scriptures of another religion -- the Bible -- as the biggest part of their own holy book! 

And you don't have to read very far in the New Testament to see that Christians do not mainly repudiate Jewish tradition -- though neither do they accept it in exactly the same form.  The key word is "fulfillment."  The life of Jesus is the central story in the history of Israel.  He is the greatest prophet, the Son of David, the Lamb in the thicket, the Suffering Servant.  All the Old Testament is rechanneled, refocused, and renewed in the life of the Son of God. 

Paul Tillich claimed something similiar about how Christianity has related to other religions.  The Gospel becomes:

"A crystalization for all positive religious elements after they have been subjected to the criteria involved in this centre." 

The "centre," of course, being the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. 

This is the perspective from which I describe world religions (including secular religions, like communism) in Jesus and the Religions of Man

Why do I include my own book in this list?  Of course, because I think it adds something valuable to the list. 

Looking back at it eleven years later, I see some serious deficiences in Jesus and the Religions of Man.  A year before 9/11, there is no chapter just on Islam.  Some may wonder why I write a chapter about Marxism, instead.  (Aside from the fact that I knew more about it -- but even then, it seemed to have been consigned to the "dustheap of history.") 

Reviewers, however, have often said very nice things about this book:

Frederica Matthewes-Green: "David Marshall takes cultural analysis several levels deeper, and in prose that is several levels higher, than we've come to expect. The result is not only enlightening but also a great deal of fun to read."

David Leshana: "Very well done . . . This book should be read by all who . . . are preparing for ministry in an increasingly multicultural world."

Leslie Keylock: "Carefully reasoned and beautifully written by a man who has read widely . . . One of the finest books on world religions I have read in a long time."

The book takes some patience to read.  But I think most readers will find it substantative, and ultimately rewarding. 

Other Books: On fulfillment, I have so many recommendations, it's hard to know where to start.  See Richardson's books, described earlier in this series.  C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton were great fulfillment thinkers: Chesterton's Everlasting Man and Orthodoxy crystallize his thinking here.  (Lewis' thoughts on the subject are scattered all through his works, including in personal letters.)  J. R. R. Tolkien's "On Fairy-Stories" is a profound essay with elements of fulfillment, and shows where Lewis' idea about religions came from.

But perhaps the ambitious might like to start at the beginning, with Matthew, St. Paul (Acts 15 & 17), Justin, Clement of Alexandria (Stromata), and Augustine (City of God).   Then plunge into Roberto De Nobili, Mateo Ricci and his Chinese disciples, and Alexander De Rhodes (see post earlier this year).  Read 19th Century Protestants, John Farquhar and James Legge.  (Lots of reading in this latter -- he has two main fulfillment texts, though, which are shorter.)  Read my True Son of Heaven: How Jesus fulfills the Chinese Culture, or else Lin Yutang's beautiful From Pagan to Christian.  And DO NOT neglect Don Richardson's Eternity in Their Hearts

That'll keep most readers occupied for a while.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Ninth Book of Christmas: "Chasing the Dragon"

Twelve Books that show how Christmas changed the world.

On the ninth day of Christmas, our True Love gave the world: liberation for drug addicts and prostitutes.
Jackie Pullinger, Chasing the Dragon
Chasing the Dragon is well-written and fast-paced, and offers a little of everything: cops, robbers, farce, trajedy, an argument or two, and most of all, lives changed by the Gospel. Jackie has led a remarkable life, but wears her experience lightly, with a sense of humor. Having lived in Hong Kong, visited her church and known people who worked with her or become Christians through her ministry, the book was especially interesting to me.
Jackie is not alone in doing this sort of ministry.  She is one of hundreds who have reached out to those addicted to drugs, or forced into the sex trade, in East Asia alone. 

Since I took this picture, in
the late 1980s, Snake Alley
in Taiwan has become just a
tad less overtly seedy -- fewer
underage girls, it seems.   OMF
missionaries continue to reach
out to them.   
I once traveled around Asia to do research on forced prostitution and AIDs. There is a great need, as drugs and the sex trade ruin hundreds of thousands of lives. Many of the most successful Asian evangelists I have met were once drug addicts or criminals. This book might also be a good book to give to a non-Christian friend or to a Christian police officer who has become cynical and forgotten how God can change lives.  The miracles Pullinger and Quicke recount are sometimes pretty amazing.  But perhaps an even more important theme of the book is the perception, echoed by criminals as well as a pastor, that "You really care." 

Readers should beware of a "one-size-fits-all" attempts to emulate the exact ways in which God's spirit works.  (I knew a Christian in Taiwan who became frustrated, after reading Pullinger's books, because his own apparently quite successful ministry to drug addicts did not seem as spectacular in terms of miracles as the story in this book -- though he saw some pretty amazing things, too.)  Jesus should be the pattern for all of us. But like he said, "The fields are ripe to the harvest. Pray the Lord of the Harvest to send out workers."

This book is also part of the larger story of how the Gospel has affected China.

Other books:  Pastor Hsi tells the remarkable story of a Confucian scholar in late 19th Century northern China, who had been an opium addict, and then converted and helped other Chinese escape addiction.  Most general histories of Christianity in China seem to emphasize the tremendous reform the Gospel brought and inspired in East Asia, but some of the best of these (for instance, by 顾卫民,林志平 and 远志明) have not, I think, been translated.  Latournette and Broomhall's general histories, and Aikman's Jesus in Beijing, touch on some of this, as does my True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture.  It's also interesting to read Matteo Ricci's journal from this perspective, or the biography of many later missionaries (Nevius, Ross, Taylor, Mackay, etc.)   

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Eighth Book of Christmas: "Mary Slessor of Calabar"

Twelve Books that show how Christmas changed the world.

On the eighth day of Christmas, our True Love gave the world: resurrection for Africa.

Recently, a terrible phenomena has come to light in Nigeria.  Christian pastors, or perhaps shamans playing the role of Christian pastors, have taken to accusing young children of being witches, or possessed by the devil.  Many have been tortured, even killed, based on such accusations. 

Skeptics readily assume Christianity is to blame for these truly diabolical actions.  "Look what fundamentist Christianity brought to Africa!"  I have heard several say recently.   

It is awful when children are harmed by those who ought to safeguard them, especially in Jesus' name -- who warned of God's judgement against those who do such acts.  But it is not true that the Gospel brought that mentality to West Africa, or anywhere else.  In fact, in some areas, it had long been the custom that whenever a chief would die, or a prominent person fall ill, innocent people would be rounded up and murdered with him.  Illness or misfortune were thought to be caused by witchcraft, so victims were again sought.  Twins were assumed to be demons, and put out in the forest to die. 

Mary Slessor was the best-known and one of boldest and most successful missionaries to fight on behalf of the innocent in West Africa.  From a lower-class family in Scotland, this Mary was the true "Queen of Scots," if royalty is measured by courage.  Mary would boldly rush into a melay between factions, unarmed, and force both sides to end battles.  She would stand powerful chiefs down when they wanted to sacrifice human beings.  She would rescue abandoned children and oppressed concubines.  Her force of personality, and the Holy Spirit working through her, brought peace to a large part of southern Nigeria. 

Mary Slessor of Calabar is one of a few biographies of the woman, and it's a good read: a nice antidote to Heart of Darkness. 

But the human heart remains dark, and the fight must go on. 

Other Books:  Slessor was not, of course, the only missionary to help the African peoples in the wake of the slave trades and the wars they spawned, and native oppression.  Tommy Titcombe's Tread Upon the Lion is an equally rousing adventure story, and describes Titcombe's struggle against village murder and human sacrifice in Nigeria. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Seventh Book of Christmas: "Peace Child" and "Lords of the Earth"

Twelve Books that show how Christmas changed the world.

On the seventh day of Christmas, our True Love gave the world: life to the tribes.

"Peace Child" and "Lords of the Earth," Don Richardson

How do you preach a Gospel of peace to a people who idealize betrayal? Cannibals and headhunters, the Sawi of New Guinea little fit the old image of "noble savages." At the same time, Richardson describes them not merely as savages, noble or otherwise, but as individuals whom he invites us to know and recognize as fellow human beings. He gives a picture of them not only as headhunters, but also as naturalists, linguists, and myth-makers.

Richardson is an excellent story-teller. In this story, he is also one of the protagonists. He and his wife believed themselves called to bring the Gospel to the Sawi people. Richardson is an actor in this drama, potential recipient of the action of crocodiles, tropical disease, and natives, and also (he believes) an agent of God's grace. No second-hand outline of history, here we can read the spiritual story of one of the thousands of tongues and tribes and races of man, as it happens.

One of the central questions of our time is how universal truth relates to the heritage of each culture. No evangelical has done more to help Christians understand the Biblical answer than Don Richardson. Richardson introduces the concept of "redemptive analogies" in this book. This is the idea that God has prepared the cultures of the world for the Gospel by planting seeds of truth in them. (A concept developed by John and Paul, Clement, Augustine, G.K.Chesterton, and C.S.Lewis.) He tells the story of how the Gospel changed the Sawi culture from within. Peace Child is thus both a wonderful true story, and also introduces a paradigm-shifting mind-blowing concept of the first order. This is a great "missions" book, but I also recommend it to non-Christians who are trying to understand how the Christian revelation relates to other cultures. (And also those who just want to understand tribal cultures.)

What did change bring to the Sawi people?  The hope that men might be able to trust one another.  Less warfare.  Less murder.  Fishing hooks.  Education.  A connection to the outside world.  The hope of living as equal citizens in an Indonesia that was going to swallow them, anyway.  (Don talks about this in an interview in our upcoming book, Faith Seeking Understanding.) 

Other books: Don Richardson discusses redemptive analogies in passing again in his even more thrilling story, Lords of the Earth. That book also tells how the work of gutsy missionaries like Stan Dale utterly transformed, and immeasurably improved, the lives of the fierce Yali people in the highlands of New Guinea.  Then he extends his argument, and story, to the redemptive work God does from within cultures around the world, by means of the transformative message of Jesus, in Eternity in Their Hearts.

Another fascinating book that covers some of the same ground, only in South America, among the famously violent Yanomamo Indians, is Spirit of the Rainforest.  Warning: it's even more graphic than Peace Child.   

Monday, December 19, 2011

6th Book of Christmas: "The Book that Made Your World."

Twelve Books that show how Christmas changed the world.
On the fifth day of Christmas, our True Love gave the world: Renaissance in India.

"The Book that Made Your World," Vishal Mangalwadi

I have to confess something about this book: unlike all the others in this series, I'm not entirely sure I've read it.  The reason I'm uncertain has not, I hope, to do with any premature senility.  Rather, I've read seven or eight books by Vishal, one of which he sent me not long ago in pre-publication form.  Since I didn't see the cover, and didn't look at the title every time I read the thing (and maybe helped edit it a little), I am not sure this is the book I read.  

However, this is the recent, well-deserved "break-out" book for Vishal, and it probably the best place to begin exploring his detailed and powerful argument for the revolutionary charcter of the Bible. 

Vishal was born in India, and in most of his books, argues primarily from that perspective.  He is a particular fan of the great Baptist shoemaker William Carey, whom he and his wife Ruth have argued launched a sweeping revolution in Indian history.  Vishal argues that ideas really matter, and that the ideas in the Bible are the ones that have ennobled the human race more than any other.  Several of his books describe in detail the effect those ideas had on the great Indian renaissance that began in the late 18th and 19th Centuries. 

We westerners have all heard of Mahandas Gandhi.  Some of us know that Gandhi was influenced not only by the Bible directly, but also by Western thinkers, like Tolstoy, who were themselves deeply influenced by the words of Jesus.  Mangalwadi reminds us, in effect, that a long history of reform had already taken place long before Gandhi even rose to prominence, and that the teachings of Jesus, and the example and reformist work of great missionaries, spurred that reform. 

But this book is not, I believe, primarily about India, and Vishal is not just an Indian philosopher.  Mangalwadi argues that the Bible is the source of reform in the Western world. 

Sometimes Mangalwadi may overplay his cards.  But it's a good hand: the historical facts of how the Gospel transformed India are remarkable enough.  His arguments deserve to be taken seriously, and the truths he describes need to be taken into account by secular and Christian thinkers.  These facts have the capacity to dramatically change how the world reads history. 

Other books: I recommend all of Mangalwadi's books: Truth and Transformation, The Legacy of William Carey, Missionary Conspiracy, When the New Age Gets Old, World of the Gurus.  His arguments are not the full story or the last word, but they tell an important part of history and deserve to be read.  J. N. Farquhar's books, The Crown of Hinduism, and Modern Religious Movements in India, tell more of the story, in a tone that is somewhat more positive about Indian religions. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Fifth Book of Christmas: Pain, the Gift No One Wants

Twelve Books that show how Christmas changed the world.

On the fifth day of Christmas, our True Love gave the world: physical healing.

"The Gift of Pain," by Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey.

This books feels like several books combined, but the constituent elements are woven together into a coherent and fascinating whole. 

The book begins with a forward by C. Everett Koop, who pays Dr. Brand the extravagent compliment of saying that when Koop thinks whose life he would like to live, were he to be someone else, the first name on his list is that of Paul Brand. 

The first thread in the tapestry is Dr. Brand's autobiography.  Brand was born in the "Hills of Death" in southern India, to missionary parents.  These old-style missionaries were often headstrong, enormously courageous, and a  bit eccentric, and Paul paints a loving portrait of parents who lived life in full.  Apparently he derived his interest in Nature and Science from his father, who was always poking into ant hills and peering at plants, when he wasn't improving his corner of the world with new crops and healing sometimes hostile villagers.  But tragically, his father died while Paul was being schooled in England.  Having gotten his baptism of fire in surgery during the Blitz, Paul returned to India with his wife Margaret, an eye surgeon, where they worked for almost two decades in healing lepers and the blind of India.  Paul then headed America's only center for the study and rehabilitation of Hansen's disease in Lousianna, where he broadened his study to the effects of pain loss from diabetes, which afflicts millions of people. 

Pain then becomes a scientific adventure story.  It tells how Paul and his staff in India discovered the means by which the lepresy virus ruins bodies, starting with the extremities, and therefore began to develop a lifestyle program for preverving quality of life for those afflicted.

One can also find elements of a love story, a spiritual biography, a bit of philosophy and some thoughts about ecology, in the book. 

So why do I include it as one of the Twelve Books of Christmas?  It represents the work of men and women called to heal, as followers of Jesus.  Missionary doctors started thousands of hospitals on every inhabited continent, often reaching out to the poorest of the poor.  (Though, as Brand points out in an interview in the upcoming Faith Seeking Understanding, some of these healing centers succomb to a "missions creep" similiar to what eventually afflicted Harvard.)  Work with lepers was part of the Christian tradition already in the Middle Ages.  And even in Greco-Roman times, Stark argues, care for the sick was one reason why the Church grew, both through higher survival rates, and because kindness attracted newcomers.   

Billions of the sick have been treated, healed or had babies delivered, by those who follow in the steps of Jesus, the healer.  Dr. Brand shows the connection between model (Jesus) and those who follow him, particularly clearly, because like Jesus, he "touched the untouchable," lepers who were stigmatized in India as they were in ancient Israel.  And as with Jesus, he recognzed that human touch was important in the healing process, because we are more than our bodies: full healing is healing of the spirit.

Other good books: George MacKay, From Far Formosa, tells the "typical" story of a missionary in Taiwan, who did medicine (on thousands of patients!) in his "spare time."  Perhaps the most prominent hospital in modern Taiwan is called the MacKay Memorial Hospital, in the center of Taipei: it's a landmark everyone knows.  Many other missionaries, whether Hudson Taylor or Gladys Aylward in China, Mary Slessor in Nigeria,  or the missionaries I've met in Asia today, include healing as a part of their ministry. 

Hannam's book also shows how medical science also advanced in tandem with the healing arts. 

Day Six

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Fourth Book of Christmas: "Genesis of Science."

Twelve Books that show how Christmas changed the world.

On the fourth day of Christmas, our True Love gave the world: modern science.
"The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution," by James Hannam.

You might read the subtitle of this book and fear or hope for a sharp polemical argument. The Genesis of Science is, in fact, an informed, pretty mellow, and easily read explanation of "how the Christian Middle Ages launched the Scientific Revolution." There is some stress on the word "Christian." But while Hannam does argue that Christianity played an important role in the birth of modern science, he recognizes that the story is complex, with many actors, and most actors playing ambivalent roles. Hannam brings this complexity to life well, while his rehabilitation of Medieval civilization lends the story continuity.

In some ways, Hannam's thesis might be defined by half a sentence in the second-to-last paragraph of the book:

"You could call any century from the twelfth to the twentieth a revolution in science . . . "

Actually, Hannam begins in earnest with the 11th Century, which he shows set the intellectual stage for what was to come. This was as soon as one could hope for: Europe had spend half a millennia fitfully recovering from a long series of invasions, and had never been the economic heart of Western civilization, anyway.  Hannam mostly ends with Galileo and the first half of the 17th Century. But each century between these bookends gets a fair amount of attention, with many unknown characters, and stars, traipsing across the book's pages.

Among other things, I found Hannam's discussion of Humanism interesting. He argues that "humanism almost managed to destroy 300 years of progress in natural philosophy," by encouraging intellectuals to scoff at Medieval attainments. C. S. Lewis makes the same point about literature in his magisterial English Literature in the 16th Century: he shows that the humanists also scorned, and largely lost, the literary attainments of the Middle Ages. Many modern skeptics delude themselves into thinking the Enlightenment gave Western culture everything of value, even (I have heard them!) modern science. I appreciate those like Hannam and Lewis (Confucius is another) who help us remember and better appreciate our roots.

Another topic Hannam does not much touch on, but that came to mind when I interviewed Allan Chapman, historian of science at Oxford's Wadham College, where the Royal Society partly began, was the fact that Europe, while one civilization, was divided into many competing states. As it happens, so was ancient Greece, and the almost equally creative "Spring and Autumn / Warring States" period in Chinese history. (All of which, in addition, were theistic.) This E Pluribus Unum thing seems to work well, along with this "one civilization under God" idea

Other good sources: Please do listen to my interview of Allan Chapman at  He's quite a character, with a sweeping and enthusiastic knowledge of the subject.  And as the interview takes place at his home, his clock collection chimes in, as well.  Also interesting: Charles Thaxton and Nancy Pearson, The Soul of Science; Stephen Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith; and for different perspectives, David Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations; and, for an opposing explanation that is depressing but formidably argued, Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Back to Book 1. 

Forward to Book 5

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Third Book of Christmas: "Atheist Delusions"

Twelve Books that show how Christmas changed the world.

On the third day of Christmas, our True Love gave the world: revitalized Greco-Roman thought and morals.
David Hart is as urbane, pugnatious, witty, combatative, meandering, and dangerously informed as a writer as you want to enjoy on a long Sunday afternoon, with lazy dragonflies flitting past in the sunshine. In some ways this works best for an essay: one wants to come to a conclusion, and digest the ideas for a while before you take another bite.
This book is NOT a response (in a very recognizable form) to the New Atheists.  It is a book about how Christianity shaped and shaped up western civilization, especially in the Greek and Roman world of late Antiquity, with a few words about Dawkins & Co added at the beginning and end after Hart got jabbed in the ribs by his editor.
One thing Hart attempts is to set a context for what Christianity accomplished in the ancient world:
"Pagan cult was never more tolerant than it is tolerance -- without any qualms of conscience -- of poverty, disease, starvation, and homelessness; of gladiatorial spectacle, crucifixion, the exposure of unwanted infants, or the public slaughter of war captives or criminals on festive occasions; of, indeed, almost every imaginable form of tyranny, injustice, depravity, or cruelty."

How long would it take to properly digest those two sentences -- or even to spit them out?  One does slowly develop the feeling, though, that Hart knows what he's talking about, and that the picture he paints of the ancient world, and how the Gospel began (sometimes quickly, but often over long centuries) to transform it, may be the central story of human history.  This is one literary, pugnatious, and dogmatic bookend to that story. 

Related books:
The Durants' Christ and Caesar confirms many of the points Hart makes, though in fairly brief clips.  Charles Williams' Descent of the Dove offers a very different kind of overview.  Stark helps with concrete data from antiquity.  

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Christmas List from John Loftus

The atheist writer John Loftus has just posted a list of intellectual demands from God.  These are six things he think God should do, or should have done, to prove His reality to John, and by implication perhaps to other skeptics. 

When I saw John's list, I immediately thought of the door to our boy's bedroom. 

My boys write something very like this list at Christmas, only they’re more modest. They tape six or seven “demands” to the door. Things like joysticks for a flight simulator, airsoft guns, books on subjects that interest them, even foods they like. Only not only do they ask for smaller presents, they give their parents an “opt-out” on less urgent requests. They might write something like "non-essential" next to one or more item.  And they don’t really seem to think fulfilling their requests is absolutely obligatory.

As a matter of fact, I think God has given us at least two of the items on John's Christmas list.  (My kids don't usually expect more than that!)

But more to the point, my kids recognize that gift's come at the gift-giver's discretion.  They seem to understand that their parents love them, but that gift-giving decisions are also subject to constraints of which we might still have, in some ways, a better understanding than they do. 

They also know to expect the unexpected.  We are human, and limited in imagination, but what would Christmas be without happy surprises!  

Personally, I think the intellectual presents God has actually given, are more interesting than the ones John is asking for.  (Many of which I've touched on in various blogs over the past year, including "The Twelve Books of Christmas" series, which I interrupt to post this gut response to John . . . ) 

Reading over Philip Yancey's contribution to our new book yesterday, it also occurs to me that (as Dr. Brand explained) the very nature of a fixed reality forces constraints even on God. 

Isn't that the way it would be, if God is God, which is something more than a parent?  Wouldn't God's understanding of what we really need, in the way of "reasons to believe," be more than we kids can think up to tape on our bedroom door? 

For example, there's this item:

“There would not be so much religious diversity around the globe if there is a God who wants us to believe in him. The probability that the Christian God exists is reduced in direct proportion by the amount of religious diversity that exists, and there is way too much of it to suppose that he does.”

I’ve answered this argument two or three times, in response to John's “Outsider Test.” I maintain, on the contrary, that the actual data of world religions tremendously confirms the Christian faith, often in fantastic and undreamed of ways. And unlike John (we all have our life journeys), I've in non-Christian cultures, and studying non-Christian religions, for many decades.  World religions is my primary area of academic expertise. 

John has read those posts.  His “response” so far has been along the lines of, “That’s interesting, maybe I should respond some time.”

Until he does, maybe he should past another request on the bedroom door.  Last Christmas he asked for a tricycle, and got a mountain bike, instead. 

Which brings up that age-old, Willy Wonka question: "Can a child enjoy Christmas, with the wrong attitude?"

The Second Book of Christmas: "Jesus Through the Centuries"

Twelve Books that show how Christmas changed the world.

On the second day of Christmas, our True Love gave the world: a new and transformative human model.

"Jesus Through the Centuries," Jaroslav Pelikan (For book 1, click here.) 

This is not a devotional work, it is an insightful and valuable slice of intellectual history. Pelikan is a Christian, but distances himself from his subjects. The combination of sympathy and critical distance may help the reader begin his own conversation with the persons described. Of course, Pelikan bites off more than he can chew. How can there be room in one readable, coherent and reasonably short book for Augustine and Blake, Renan and Ricci, Constantine and Gandhi? But Pelikan pulls it off pretty well, summarizing the history with interesting anecdotes, and making reasonable comments. Not all of which I think are correct, though.

"It is not sameness but kaleidescope variety that is its most conspicuous feature." Pelikan includes a great deal of evidence for both. Early Christians attempted to translate Jesus as "logos" to relate to Greek thinking. Modern Christians in India and China undertook a similar task of describing Jesus as the fulfillment of the deepest truths in those great cultures. (Work I have studied for many years.)
I gave the book five stars on Amazon, because it is brilliant, fascinating and informative. Nevertheless, Pelikan's position sometimes seems to soak up a bit of the subjectivm he chronicles.

It is important to distinguish between images that are arbitrary, and those that depend on a reality that can be referred to. One could write a book called "The Moon through the Centuries." But that would be a different kind of book from "Martians through the Centuries," because in the first case, we just need to look up to correct our impressions. Pelikan does not take sufficient account of the fact that getting to know Jesus is more like looking at the moon than speculating about Martians. Kaleidescope is a mosaic of splintered reflections. But the image whom these reflections reflected, like the moon, is still before us, in the gospels. Pelikan tells us we are "dependant" on "oral tradition" that was "eventually deposited" in the gospels, but in fact they were written within the lifetimes of the first Christians. Rather than "tradition," they could have relied on memory.

Pelikan does not distinguish between birds that settle in the nest as they find it, and birds that steal twigs to built their own. He weakly justifies the fantastic subjectivism that goes into revisionist historical Jesus studies. Pelikan is a conscientious objector from the argument over what really happened. In a preface to a recent edition he admits, a bit coyly, that he doesn't buy the arguments of the "historical Jesus" crowd. Well and good: but this excellent book might be even better if the fascinating and fruitful subjectivism he chronicles were balanced with an occasional reminder that in the end, portraits are not about those who take the picture, but him whose portrait is taken.

Still, a deserved classic, and a wonderful way to begin looking at the influence Jesus has had from Antiquity on. I recommend this book not because it makes the full argument that the series as a whole will give, but because in it, one may catch a overall outline of Jesus in his variagated reflections in human culture, and grasp the general significance of Christmas for the world. 

Other books in the series will focus on the influence Jesus has had on particular peoples, and that take a less subjective approach, so I'll leave more book recommendations for later. 

Book 3.  

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The First Book of Christmas: "Rise of Christianity"

Twelve Books that show how Christmas changed the world. 

On the first day of Christmas, our True Love gave the world: a transformative social vision. 

Day 1:  Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity

How did Christianity spread in the Roman Empire?  By force?  By burning down libraries and blowing up pagan temples?  By oppressing women? 

Hardly.  As Dr. Stark, one of the world's leading sociologists of religion, shows in this landmark study, the Gospel spread because Greeks and Romans found it attractive for good reasons.  Christians aided the poor and sick, even at the risk of their own lives -- leading to higher survival rates, overall.  Women were given a higher status in the early church than in society as a whole. 

When I first read this book, I found myself agreeing with the points both those who liked the book and those who didn't like it made.  (This was the first of Stark's volume's I'd read; I've since read many more.) The man clearly made many good ideas. His discussion of how the Gospel transformed the role of women is itself worth the price of the book, debunking errors about Christianity and women that are ubiquitous among American intellectuals.  His insights about the courage believers showed during epidemics and martyrdom is also helpful. But, at the same time, the hubris of social science, a reliance on theories which are most persuasive within the framework in which most of Stark's direct research appeared to have been conducted, sometimes, I thought, caused him to overreach.

He argues, for example, that we do not "need" miracles or mass conversions to explain the growth of the church. Finding a growth rate over three centuries close to the 43% that Mormonism has maintained for the last century, he seemed to suppose he had discovered a scientific principle, which negates the need for "exceptional explanations."

Those who do not with to believe in miracles may find comfort in this explanation, and it is often cited by skeptics.  For example, in The End of Christianity, Richard Carrier ham-handedly borrows the argument (without citing Stark, whom he has dismissed elsewhere as an historian), in a chapter pointedly called "Christianity's Success was not Incredible:"

"A full analysis of all the reliable evidence available indicates the rate of growth of Christianity as a whole, from its very beginning and throughout its entire history, was less than 4 percent a year, the same as that of any other aggressively evengalistic religion (such as the Mormon Church) . . . Its rate of development and success was entirely natural/  Since that rate was natural, we should expect its cause was natural, which alone closes the book on Christianity having any supernatural evidence or guidance."

This is, of course, an absurd argument, as Stark himself (in effect) admitted in an interview I conducted a year or so ago.  The fact that Christianity grew no more quickly than Mormonism, under entirely different circumstances (persecution, higher overall death rate, no requirement that all young men serve in missions), does nothing at all to undermine reports that that growth included miracles. 

When I first read the book, furthermore, I had just returned from a small town in China which, before the revolution, had about 20 Christians, but now had over a thousand. This is a 110% growth rate per decade. For most of that time, preaching was dangerous, and martyrs were seldom allowed to be treated as public heros as Stark described them. Yet this growth rate has been typical in many parts of China. In Anhui province, the church grew about a hundred times (not percent) in just two decades!  In practice miracles, mass conversions, and the supernatural preparation of Chinese culture for the Gospel (as Paul and Augustine found in Greco-Roman culture) seem to be playing a tremendous role in these events. I have met people involved in mass conversions and miracles myself.

But as Stark shows, the message of Christmas spread mainly because early Christians did good works, and people found the Gospel attractive. 

When I first took a social science course at the University of Washington where Stark teaches 30+ years ago, my immediate reaction was, "What this man is teaching, when translated into ordinary English, seems to reduce to either to common sense or to nonsense." Stark's ideas do not need translating, his style is lively and his thoughts clear. Better yet, his "discoveries" are much more of the first than the second. But most of them are not really surprising, on careful reading of the Bible. And a few may be mistaken.

As Stark told me, this and other books ultimately proved to be stepping stones on his own journey to Christian faith.  "It all came to make sense." 

Walking that journey with Dr. Stark will change how you see history.  His works have immeasurably deepened my own appreciation of how the birth of Jesus has changed the world: how the Gospel improved the status of women, taught people to care for the sick and dying more deeply, and (in later books) invented science and liberated slaves. 

Other books by StarkFor the Glory of God is indispensable, as is The Discovery of God.  One True God, God's Battalions, and his book on Roman cities are all very worth reading.  The gist of his sociological theories, which are very enlightening, can be found in these historical books, or read directly in Acts of Faith.  Also look for Stark's article in Sociology of Religion, "Secularization, RIP."  It will change how you see the Middle Ages.

Link to Second Day

(Note: most reviews in this series will be partially adapted from those I posted on, with many corrections and additions, as in this case, and book suggestions at the end.)

Monday, December 12, 2011

What is a Miracle?

Why believe in God?  Maybe the best reason is miracles.  Debates about the truth of Christianity often revolve around the reality of the most famous miracle in human history, the resurrection of Jesus.  In this era in which Christianity has spread rapidly beyond its old borders, Christians around the world also often explain their conversion by some event in which God seemed to step into their lives in an amazing way.  Two chapters of my new book, Faith Seeking Understanding, tell such stories. 

But this brings up a lot of questions.  Wwhat is a miracle?  Are miracles possible?  Does science disprove them?  If Christians believe the resurrection, does that oblige us to admit Joseph Smith really received the Book of Mormon from the angel Moroni, or that Mohammed rode a white horse to heaven?  Do miracles provide good evidence for Christianity? 

I think they do.  But we can't tackle all these questions in one post, so let's start with the first, which is foundational to all the others. 

The word "miracle" is given at least three different meanings:

(1) People often use the word to refer to "an amazing event."  "We have all benefited from the miracle of science."  "We'll be telling our grandkids about that miraculous fourth-quarter comback!" "I held her hand as the baby emerged, and witnessed the miracle of new life."

Language is a set of mostly arbitrary signs that we use to communicate.  So there is nothing "wrong" about using the word miracle this, or any other, way.  If you like, you define "rose" as "a large mammal that lives in the swamps on Yoda's home planet."  You can write a science-fiction novel using the word that way, and your readers will get used to the term quickly enough.  But then if your neighbor tells you, "I'm putting in roses in my yard next spring," don't criticize him for harboring dangerous animals: his use of the word is more in agreement with convention, than your own.   

So there is nothing "wrong" with using "miracle" to mean "an amazing event."  But it is irrelevant to the debate between skeptics and theists, and its frequent use tends to confuse that issue.  An atheist can see miracles around him all day long, in this sense, without upsetting his atheism.  So let us bracket this common meaning of the word "miracle." 

(2) Miracle is also commonly taken to mean, "An event in the material world that violates the laws of Nature."  In a post article at The Secular Outpost, the philosopher  Brad Owen argued, "In order for an event to be a miracle, it must satisfy at least the following two conditions:  1. The event must involve the violation of a law of nature. 2. The event must be brought about by God."

The first part of this definition seems to have been popularized by 17th Century Scottish philosopher, David Hume:

"A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature." 

Hume went on to explain:

"Sometimes an event may not, in itself, seem to be contrary to the laws of nature, and yet, if it were real, it might, by reason of some circumstances, be denominated a miracle; because, in fact, it is contrary to these laws.  Thus if a person, claiming a divine authority, should command a sick person to be well, a healthful man to fall down dead, the clouds to pour rain, the winds to follow upon his command; these may justly be esteemed miracles . . . " 

I responded to the word "violation" that both Owen and Hume use, as follows:

"One reason I object to the word 'violation,' is that it seems to imply a discontinuity between the 'laws' of nature and miracles. But there is actually a deeper continuity. Miracles are not like random street noise that interrupts a concert (magic). They are like the symbols that dramatically break up the horn soliquy with a sudden 'crash,' but were written into the music by the composer to climax the piece."

C. S. Lewis offers a similar explanation in his book, Miracles
Brad responded by citing the Christian historian Gary Habermas, and softening his language, to say miracles must involve a "suspension" of natural law. 

That helps, but I also see two larger problems with this assumption. 
First, what are miracles like, in the Bible, or as people experience them today?

Some do seem to involve suspension of natural law.  For example, the first "sign" John reports, is when Jesus changes water into wine at a wedding feast in the lakeside village of Cana.  This is a chemically impossible reaction: alcohol contains carbon, for instance, while water does not. Nor does Jesus appear to have acted on the water to stimulate any kind of reaction. 

On the other hand, a few chapters later, mere words at a well in Samaria, and then in a village nearby, convince some Samaritans that Jesus is "the Savior of the world."  No laws of physics or chemistry are obviously "suspended" in the process.  But the people are convinced, and the reasons are good.  

The same is often true of "miracles," today.  I have never seen the laws of physics suspended or violated.  But several times, I have seen what looked like "miraculous" answers to prayer.

Once when I was working as a missionary in Taiwan, I ran out of money.  I went to a park in Taipei and prayed, "God, why don't I just go home!  I don't even have enough money to buy a hamburger!  The hymn says, 'Great is thy faithfulness,' but I just don't see that faithfulness!"

On my way out of the park, I stopped to talk with a Chinese girl reading an English newspaper.  (The paper was an excuse.  "At least she answers!"  I told God.)  As I was getting up to leave, the girl asked me my name.  "Ma De Wei," I said.  "Ma Dewei?  You're Ma Dewei!  Really?"

I soon learned why she was so surprised.  Years before, I had found a wallet some miles away, and taken it to the Taiwan University Lost and Found.  I put my Chinese name in the wallet, and wrote, "God loves you."  In a city of four million, this girl turned out to be the owner of that wallet.

She took me to McDonalds for lunch.  Eating a cheeseburger, I remembered the jibe about money for hamburgers.  

My other needs were met in almost equally surprising ways.

None, however, involved the suspension of any natural laws.  But they did give me reason to think God had not forgotten me. 

An opposite phenomena from the one Hume mentioned is often cited by modern skeptics: when a natural explanation (either "folk" or "scientific") is later found for events that at first seem supernatural.  Maybe Jesus was a "psychic," in other words exploited some little-known physical powers to read the Samaritan woman's mind.  Maybe his disciples did good research on her.  Either way, the "sign," while compelling to those who converted, need not involve God (skeptics may reply), nor need it clearly violate known laws of science. 

Some miracles in the gospels are like that: Peter's catch of the fish with the gold coin in its mouth, the disciples' big catches of fish under Jesus' instruction, occasions when Jesus seemed to know things without being told.  Some of his healing might be explained away as psychosomatic. 

Even the toughest miracles might, in theory, be explained in terms of quantum physics.  The philosopher Michael Martin, for example, suggests that even the resurrection might theoretically be explained by a random quantum fluctuation.  So might Jesus walking on water, or multiplying the loaves and fishes, or healing anyone of anything. 

So there are two problems with the definition Brad Owen and David Hume (among others, both skeptics and Christians) use. 

First, the Bible uses another term, "sign," which seems to put the stress on the probative value of the event in persuading those who experience it to trust God, and act on that trust.  Some "signs" seem to involve what we would ordinarily call "violations of natural law," others do not.

Second, given quantum physics and modern technology, it is increasingly difficult to absolutely differentiate between what physical laws do or do not allow.  One might also explain Jesus' healings, for instance, as those of a medical doctor from an advanced extraterrestrial civilization, Dr. McCoy in Palestine. 

Of course there are all kinds of problems with these counter-claims.  The odds such an enormous quantum flux, for example, are greater than the number of fundamental particles in a universe the size ours would be, if every particle in it became a universe of its own.  But it has become more difficult, now, to draw a clear line between the "improbable" and what is genuinely impossible in the course of nature. 

It seems, then, that we need a definition of "miracle" that includes both how the Bible actually uses the word, the root meaning of the word, and in terms of probilities rather than mere possibilities. 

So here's the definition I prefer:

(3)  "A miracle is an event in the natural world that points probatively to God's work, and gives us compelling reasons to trust Him." 

The most common Greek word is σημειoν, or sign, the root for semiotics. A miracle does not need to violate a law of nature, but should give good reasons for faith.

In Jesus and the Religions of Man, chapter 10 and 11, I give an in-depth description of what a miracle in this sense involves, and compare miracles to magic.  Briefly, miracles in the biblical sense tend to share five characteristics (one of which Brad Owen has already mentioned):

(1) "Miracles ask to be verified; magic insults the intelligence."  This is related to their root meaning of "signs," and to their purpose in guiding us to God.   

(2) "Miracles tend to be practical; magic is often showy." 

(3) "Miracles enhance human dignity; magic makes us more or less than human."

(4) "Miracles point to God; magic points elsewhere." 

(5) "Miracles come in response to requests; magic to demands."  One consequence of this quality is that it is often difficult to test miracles scientifically, but may be possible to check them historically.  God, being our Lord, not our servant, will act when and where, and in whatever way, He chooses.  Therefore miracles are not "repeatable," but they can be rationally deduced.

These five qualities not only help define Christian miracles, they also help differentiate true miracles from faked or even demonic supernatural acts.  That's what I'm doing in Jesus and the Religions of Man. 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Alaskans on Mars!

Comet West apparently
broke into four fragments
in 1976.
My aim in this blog is to "map the universe, one blog at a time."  But so far, my blogs have been a tad parochial -- about events on that one planet that most of my readers seem to inhabit.  (And yes, there are readers, and their numbers appear to be increasing.) 

So let me take a first, tentative, if nascently imperial, step beyond our world. 

How about turning Mars into a summer home for Alaskans?

Here is how we would do it.  First, develop one of the larger spacecraft considered for "Project Orion," which use nuclear bombs as propulsion.

Second, capture several dozen large comets with a lot of ice, and force them to crash on the surface of Mars.  (The mass of Earth's oceans is about 5 million times the mass of Halley's comet, which is a small comet.  We would need at least 1/500th as much water to make a viable ocean on Mars, whose surface area is one third that of Earth -- a thousand feet deep might be a good start.)

Third, if needed, add a smaller, more salt-rich comet or two.  Shake well to mix. 

Fourth, wait for the energy of the crash to melt the ice -- this might take some careful calibration, we'll put our best Chinese and Indian engineers on the job.  Before the oceans evaporate into space, they should provide an atmosphere for a few thousand years, which we can tweak, once we have enough practice with our own.  (Perhaps tax credits for Humvees on the Red Planet?) 

Fifth, stock the new oceans with halibut, king crab and the better species of salmon. 

Then open Mars up as a winter resort for Alaskans who can't book a flight to Hawaii, or in case we have to sell Hawaii to China to pay off our debt.

The sun does not shine very brightly on Mars, admittedly.  But Alaskans are used to that.  And it's sunny every day.  We could, perhaps, also import a few seals, polar bears, and other animals that enjoy that sort of weather, once we've got the planetary thermostat down.  There's a fair amount of CO2 in the Martian atmosphere already, so that should warm things up. 

If Sarah Palin buys a summer home on Mars, she can reign as governor, if not goddess of the sea (a position that may not tax her powers of patience for too long.)  Then, as Earth increasingly resembles its greenhouse-gas befogged sunward neighbor, the saying will come true, "Republicans are from Mars, Democrats are from Venus."
Fish the Red Planet!

And if we mess up our own planet badly enough, we'll have some off-world relatives to get things going, again.  (Since chat lines will take at least 16 minutes for communication at the speed of light, this may also bring back some of the old romance of letter-writing.  Imagine what it will do for stories of tragic lost love, as well.)

Thursday, December 08, 2011

A Lao Zi impersonator turns up.

Lao Zi literally means "old master," a name or title usually applied to the author of the great Chinese classic, Dao Dejing.  Our new book (see last blog) is a tribute to two "old masters" whom I have had the privilege of knowing a little, Dr. Paul Brand and Dr. Ralph Winter.  I'm also a big fan of THE Lao Zi.

So imagine my curiosity to find someone on who calls himself "Lao Tzu" (using the old Wade-Giles spelling; I use the newer pinyin -- either way the second part is pronounced something like "zeh.")

This copy-cat Lao Zi invited Christians to dialogue, respectfully and rationally (he said), about the effectiveness of what he called "standard Christian arguments:"

"Christians get so excited when they read 'The Case for Christ' or 'Mere Christianity' and think they have the slam dunk argument to beat the infidels. Not only have these arguments been thoroughly refuted, it was done LONG AGO. The Christians need to become more aware of these arguments that have been made. The reason they are not, is because they always read books 'in the fold' never from someone outside the faith, so they are helpless in the face of those arguments. I want to list the standard Christian arguments and answer them briefly."

The list Lao Zi then provided was standard, alright -- as a caricature. Lao Zi put their titles in block letters:





He then gave what he saw as the gist of each argument. 

Lao Zi stressed that he wanted fair and rational discussion -- sure that a little clear reasoning would put Christians right.  He didn't mind "poisoning the well" a bit, though, tossing off such claims as, "Christians make a fetish of ignorance," want to "shut down rational inquiry," and are "helpless" dealing with rational argument.  He also defined the Christian understanding of "faith" typical of skeptics, but in a way almost  no Christian historian or theologian would agree with:

"Faith is the belief in something in the absense of evidence."

I proceeded to explain why these assumptions were wrong.  I concentrated on Lao Zi's assumptions about what Christians mean by "faith," pointing him to historical research I've done on the topic, and to defending Lewis and Pascal. 

But Lao Zi turned out to be one of those disputants who ask for calm reason, then when contradicted, call down fire and brimstone, and paint cartoon devil's horns on the top of your head.

Why am I reporting my conversation with this "old master?"  I'm engaged in a debate on another forum with an atheist philosopher who seems thoughtful, careful, and critical towards his own arguments.  Perhaps it would be kinder to the atheist cause to report that conversation, instead.  I also plan soon to post a dialogue with a famous, and more sympathetic, writer (still a theist and a fan of Jesus) who has recently turned angrily against the Christian faith. 

But Lao Zi represents a more common variety of Internet atheist.  Perhaps you've met a few, yourself. And I have to admit I rather enjoyed Lao Zi's climactic tirade against myself, and against American Christians, generally.  People often reveal interesting things when they get angry.  Another reason I share his claims is, of course, is to answer them (which he claims I've never done).  Also, this is the first time I've "met" a Lao Zi impersonator. 

* * * * * * * *  * * * * * *  *

Lao Zi: I had a bit of a revelation, if you will forgive the word, given recent discussions.

The only way to influence the thoughts and actions of others are through reason and violence. Consider lying to someone as an indirect form of violence.

Hmmn.  Is it true that "reason" and "violence" are the "only way to influence the thoughts and actions of others?" 

Can't one also influence someone by bribing him?  (Witness Blagoyavich's sentencing a few days ago.)  How about kissing her on the cheek?  Wagging your tail?  Offering your yellow lab a doggy snack?    

Second, it is true that lying is a "form of violence?"  Lying means to consciously tell someone what is not true in order to deceive them.  (If one tells falsehoods as a joke, that is not a lie, because you want your audience to recognize the incongruity and laugh.) 

Violence means using physical force, to compel someone to do something against their will.  (Or just to get them out of the way.) 

Obviously, lying is not a "form of violence."  Both lying and violence may be forms of some larger category, say, "immoral means to ends."   

Why does Lao Zi confuse these categories?  (Especially since the target of his criticism, myself, has neither told lies nor committed violence?)  This seems to be another indirect way of "poisoning the well:" the allegations are in the water, like bate for a fish to bite on, yet are deniable, since Lao Zi does not specify who is committing what alleged lies or violence. 

"SOME Christian posters have shunned reason through evasion of the points made by others. I always thought some would yield to some facts if they were spoken in a non-aggravating fashion, but I have a clear experience here that this does not hold true."

The key word here seems to be "yield."  Lao Zi began the thread with great bombast but (I argued) a poor grasp of key facts.  He seemed to think if he repeated the word "reason" several times, even while accusing his opponents of thought crimes (see below), they were morally bound to "yield" to his powerful arguments.  If they did not, that demonstrated their moral culpability, and they therefore deserved, not violence, but harsher methods of persuasion.   

"The Enlightenment brought us values not held in the bible - individual rights, free speech, the right to property, democracy, the right to be tried by a jury of your peers, no unreasonable search and seizure, the right to face your accuser, and many others. "

Again, we must ask, are these claims true? 

In Freedom, a History, Donald Treadgold, head of the History Department at the University of Washington, argued that Israel was the ONLY nation in the ancient Near East that "avoided the institutions and practices of despotism." 

Of course Israel was not a modern, secular democracy.  But it clearly was a state in which the "right to property" was held important:

Commandment 8: "Thou shalt not steal."

Commandment 10: "Thou shalt not covet your neighbor's house . . . wife . . . servant . . . ox . . . donkey . . . or anything that belongs to your neighbor." 

Be that as it may, Lao Zi's logic seems to be as follows.  The Bible does not delineate rights recognized in modern society as clearly as, say, the US Constitution does.  Christians believe the Bible.  Therefore, no Christian can possibly believe in modern rights, which are not given in the Bible.  Therefore David, being a Christian, cannot really believe in modern rights.  Therefore any affectation on his part to do so, should he make such a pretense, must be false.  Therefore, we are all in danger. 

If you're an atheist of a certain kind, I guess you may find this argument persuasive.  It would be an understatement to say I see a few holes in it -- were Robinson Crusoe so holy, he could have walked off his island on top of the water. 

First, the Bible does assume and assure at least some of the rights Lao Zi denies in it, as explained briefly above.  (Of course we could give more detail.) 

Second, yes Christians believe "the Bible," but few of us read it so simply as Lao Zi seems to think we should.  For one thing, the second half of the Bible is about a person named Jesus, who, Paul tells us (in that same Bible) radically changed how the Law applies -- especially to Gentiles, which most modern Christians are.  

Third, as an empirical fact, most modern Christians do believe in democracy, free speech, jury trial, and the rest.  In fact, most successful modern democracies happen to thrive in territory where the Bible has been especially influential.  Not every historian sees that as a coincidence. 

Fourth, another empirical fact, yes Marshall does believe in democracy, rule of law, etc.  (But wait!  Lao Zi will explain why this does not matter!) 

Fifth, yet another troublesome fact, many of the people who established modern freedoms were pious Christians -- John Bunyan, William Penn, John Locke, Edmund Burke, etc.  Some of them lived before the supposed Enlightenment.  So where did they get their values from?  Or is it possible that some of the influence flowed in the opposite direction? 

Sixth, even if you want to give as little credit as possible to Christianity for modern freedoms, it is way too simple to credit "the Enlightenment" for them.  Most have roots in ancient Greece and Rome; institutions of freedom in Europe also developed over many centuries during the Middle Ages. One good resource on this subject is Brian Tierney's The Crisis of Church and State, 1050-1300. With Selected Documents.

"Now by abandoning reason, David Marshall and others like him have not embraced violence... but what other options are available to them?"

Again, both premises and conclusion are false.  You may dislike my reasoning, but it is reasoning, good or bad. 

And obviously, as above, there are many ways to persuade people besides reason or violence, should I ever tire of the former, and for some reason escew the latter. 

"The decision to not listen and rationally examine the claims of others is the first step on the road to violence. This is why Jefferson realized the Establishment Clause was so important. This is exactly what David Marshall does."

Some readers may, again wonder why I am spending so time doing what Lao Zi claims I do not do -- "rationally examine" such silly claims. 

But for once, Lao Zi is right.  I feel the "first steps of violence" patterning across my diaphram, a deep rumbling.  I shake uncontrollably.  I feel a sudden  urge to lash out with my arms, and pound the desk, stomp my feet, let out a roar, even roll on the carpet and give the floor a mild pounding.  

Shibber me timbers!  I think I'm under control again, now. 

I pick myself up after the outburst of violence, and continue reading. 

"Imagine a whole community of David Marshalls."

Oh, please, God, no.

"Let's say they want to make illegal women 'dressing provocatively' because it is an offense to God, or establish the ten commandments as the basis for law, such that graven images are punishable by death."

I had a hard time making this out at first.  I want to make illegal women -- what, furtive immigrants from Mexico? -- dress provocatively?  All right, I can picture that, especially since the rest of the country now consists only of males named David Marshall.  I picture the girls as looking like the bossomy lead actress in the movie The Three Amigos.  Yes, we will have to do something for fun, and if the ladies are willing to dress like that, we will allow the show to go on.   

But apparently all these David Marshall are exactly like me, except that they want to stone infidels to death.  Whereas I interview infidels, and write books about them.  Well, sometimes debate them. 

Is that the only detail in which the inhabitants of Lao Zi's land of theocratic horror differ from this David Marshall, who happens to be the real David Marshall?  (That's an almost direct quote from The Three Amigos.  I begin to feel like I'm being sucked into movie-land, like Dorothy into Oz.  The rumbling in the diaphram begins again.  Please, no more violence!) 

"Now imagine we lived in a country without any constitutional protections. What options does the non-reasoning person have when the world is not doing as they wish, except to ultimately unleash that angry beast that lurks in the subconcious of us all? They would pseudo-reason that 'killing them would be a much more efficient method of shutting up the atheists.'  Such decisions were make all the time, in pre-enlightenment cultures. All you have to do is use the label 'heretic' and you can do as you will."

Here I spy another historical problem. 

How many atheists were killed for their disbelief before the so-called Enlightenment?  

Some three thousand innocent people were killed by the Spanish Inquisition, but they were mostly Jews or unorthodox Christians.  Others were killed in Goa, also Jews, Christians, and Hindus. 

Maybe atheists were killed en masse some time in Christian history -- it would be nice if Lao Zi or someone could furnish some credible statistics, to accompany such generalizations.   

But how many Christians were murdered after the Enlightenment, by atheists who disliked Christianity, and supposed themselves to be following Enlightenment principles? 

The number is probably in the millions. 

So why does Lao Zi bring up this question?  "The real" David Marshall is not an inquisitor.  He has never asked for an inquisition.  In fact, he objected vocally to the last and greatest inquisition -- run by atheists.  The first thing he voluntarily submitted to be published, at 15 years of age, was a letter to the editor of an Alaskan newspaper objecting to media praise for that killer, Chairman Mao, at his death. 

Why do so many skeptics bring knives to a gun fight?  Why complain about a hose running next door, when the Niagara Falls is flooding your basement? 

"And the only response of the rationalists to irrational violence would be violence in turn. What other choice would they have?"

I am not sure what "rationalists" Lao Zi has in mind, here.  I shudder to think he is speaking of himself. 

"I for one am glad we have the Enlightenment to leash people like David Marshall. I wonder how many rational Christians would yearn for a theocracy, if they found to their dismay, they did not have the 'right' brand of religion, and were persecuted."

What evidence is there that many Christians yearn for theocracy now?  Preparing to write The Truth Behind the New Atheism, I surveyed many conservative Christians, and found almost no trace of a desire for anything that could reasonably be called theocracy.

Also, I wonder what the communists would have done were they not "leashed" by the so-called "Enlightenment?"  Or the Nazis, whom some historians argue were also profoundly influenced by Enlightenment ideas?  One shudders to think how much worse both movements might have been without this restraining influence! 

"BTW - I don't care if David says 'I am for freedom of expression.' That is not a biblical idea. And, it does not address my point that religion is the first step on the road to violence. Watch for him to ignore that point, as he does all the others made here."

Actually, this claim, too, is false.  I did not "ignore" Lao Zi, though maybe I should have.  I did violence against my floor.  I show why his claims were wrong. 

And now, I have responded (no doubt foolishly) to almost his entire, silly attack. 

Finally, what about the claim that "Religion is the first step on the road to violence?" 
再见, old friend.

According to evolutionary biologists, violence occurred on this planet for billions of years before human beings started praying to God. 

How could the first step come billions of years AFTER the last step to which it allegedly leads? 

This is a mystery, which perhaps not even the real Lao Zi (for whom I weep, as he rides his ox off into the western sunset), could have solved. 

Which reminds me of another interesting contradiction between the modern Lao Tzu and his ancient mentor.

The really Old Master claimed to disdain wisdom:

"Those in ancient times who had the Dao, used it not to teach, but to keep people in ignorance."

Even while disdaining wisdom, the historical Lao Zi was one of the wisest and most rational thinkers of ancient times.   

His modern impersonator, by contrast, claims to write on behalf of reason and wisdom -- and in their name, unleashes a long series of skeptical platitudes, slurs, and half-baked historical cliches masquerading as wisdom.

I do hope the Elvis impersonator is better.