Friday, December 30, 2005

The Philosophy of Elves and Dragons

I've been reading Christopher Paolini's Eldest, the second massive volume in his fantasy dragons-and-wizards trilogy begun with Eragon.

Reading their thoughts, I've come to the conclusion that despite their reputation for wisdom, you shouldn't put much stock in the philosophy of elves and dragons.

For example, on page 542 (hardback), Eragon is talking with the elf Oromis about elvish beliefs and the elf says, "I can tell you that in the millennia we elves have studied nature, we have never witnessed an instance where the rules that govern the world have been broken. That is, we have never seen a miracle. Many events have defied our ability to explain, but we are convinced that we failed because we are still woefully ignorant about the universe and not because a diety altered the workings of nature."

So, Oromis says the elves have witnessed events that "have defied our ability to explain," but nevertheless he is quite certain that those events are not miracles. And why couldn't those unexplained events be miracles?

Well, Oromis explains, the elves believe these events can't be miracles because the elves are still very ignorant of how the universe works. Hmmm... So elves don't believe a diety might work miracles because they're ignorant. Sorry, Oromis, the logic escapes me.

Then, to make it sillier, on the next page Oromis critisizes dwarfs for sometimes relying upon faith rather than reason. Methinks, Oromis, that if you want an example of faith, you should look in a mirror.

Oromis follows up by saying that if the gods exist, "have they been good custodians?" He then cites death, sickness, poverty, tyranny and other miseries.

But perhaps Oromis should consider the possibility that the inhabitants of the land may be at fault, and if the diety were to shackle the hands and feet and minds of people (and elves and dwarfs) to prevent them from committing evil, wouldn't Oromis complain that the diety is a tyrant, and that he enslaves his subjects? I think you might, Oromis.

Finally, Oromis says this athiestic view makes for "a better world" because "we are responsible for our own actions."

Oh, Oromis! The existance of God does not in the slightest take away our responsibility for our actions. If I steal from my employer does that mean I'm not responsible because my employer exists? Please don't talk nonsense, Oromis.

And then there's Eragon's dragon Saphira.

Eragon asks about her beliefs and Saphira replies, "Dragons have never believed in higher powers. Why should we when deer and other prey consider us to be a higher power?"

Uhh... I don't think Saphira had her coffee before replying. Let's just flip it around:

"Dragons have always believed in higher powers. Why shouldn't we when deer and other prey consider us to be a higher power?"

In other words, if Saphira is a higher power to the deer, why can't there be a higher power to Saphira?

Well, actually there is, and because writing the next 600-page book will no doubt take a while, author Christopher Paolini has plenty of time to get his subjects thinking straight. After all, he is a higher power to both Oromis and Saphira.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Amish Entrepreneurs

I recently finished a book about how the Amish are leaving the farm because of the high cost of farmlan, and are starting businesses, and how, despite having less than a high school education, with little experience in business, with very little familiarity with technology and, of course, with limits on how they can use technology, they are doing better at it than a lot of non-Amish.

I was particularly struck by this statistic, at the start of chapter 12 of Amish Enterprise, by Donald Kraybill and Steven Nolt:
The story of Amish enterprise is largely a story of success, with only scattered tarnishes of failure. The default rate among small business in general is rather sobering, however. Nearly one-quarter of new American firms fold within two years, and some 63 percent close their doors within six years. During the 1980s, the rate of business failure nearly matched that of the Great Depression. The Amish launched more than 40 percent of their business ventures in the 1980s, but surprisingly, fewer than 5 percent of the Amish operations failed.

Wow! How do they do it?

Well, the authors don't lump all the reasons for their success in one place, so I'll miss some, but here are the reasons I remember:

- They start small, often in their homes or in outbuildings near their home.

- They start (and stay) simple, which keeps their costs down. Their culture frowns on luxuries and showing off, either for them personally or in their businesses. So their overhead is low. They're not big on splashy advertising, either, so they - to some extent - avoid one of the big costs of business - marketing. (I guess when you avoid self-promotion, you really have to rely on word of mouth.)

- They don't mind hard work (they're coming from a farming background, remember) and are willing to work long hours. What's interesting is that they don't regard work and family as separate and competing. They try (not always successfully) to make it a family activity. Mom and Dad run the business and the kids sweep up or do other chores.

- They are scrupulously honest. People like doing business with people they trust. Duh!

- They focus on high quality.

- They live simply, which means "cheaply," so they can charge less and still make a profit, and since they're not spending the money on indulgences, much of the money they make goes back into building their businesses.

- They help each other. If a business is having trouble, other Amish business people help out.

There are other things, like - well - just being Amish, which attracts customers because of its novelty, but the other things I can think of aren't transferable. If you pick up the book, by the way, it's a sociological study, not really a business book

This also reminds me of a most excellent business book, called Good to Great (Jim Collins), which I read a while ago. The one thing I remember without reviewing is what the author regards as the main reason why some companies that are just chugging along in their industry suddenly (apparently suddenly) break out of the pack and become excellent and remain so for at least 15 years. It's not what you think. It's not a great plan; it's not a brilliant CEO; it's not clever financing or deal making; it's not a revolutionary product, it's not "getting control of the purse strings" - it's a humble but determined CEO. He (or she) is determined to make the company successful, but figures he doesn't have the skills to do it himself, so he humbly hires the best possible people.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Rockefeller's Philanthropy

A while ago I finished Titan, about the curious life of John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil. Author Ron Chernow paints a picture of a contradictory and confusing but fascinating man, on the one side a hard-edged businessman who would cross over into illegal and immoral practices in his quest to succeed, but on the other side, a man who was actually quite generous and fair in his business practices and - far more interesting - a man who did amazing things with his money.

To say all I can on Rockefeller's positive side, he thought he was doing good - all the time. He thought cooperation in the oil industry was better than competition, so he tried to create a monopoly (he never quite succeeded). He actually overpaid for oil refineries and people sometimes started refineries just so Standard Oil would buy them - at inflated prices. Rockefeller was scrupulous in paying his debts, he never took on the trappings of nobility, as did some of his rich contemporaries, he always attended a simple Baptist church rather than moving up to some socially more acceptable church, and he tried to provide fuel to the world at cheap prices. And, as I mentioned, he gave generously, and when he did he seldom put his name on things ("Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing"), as did Andrew Carnegie.

On the negative side, if companies refused to deal with him he tried to drive them out of business, and in doing that he bribed public officials, tried (and failed) to block a competitor's pipeline by buying up land in its path, manipulated railroad prices, tactically undersold competitors to drive them out of business, and so forth. When the federal government wanted to regulate the new post-Civil War interstate commerce, Rockefeller had provided them with a handy list of what to legislate against.

How Rockefeller internally reconciled some of his practices to his Christian faith, I have no idea. Chernow certainly doesn't seem to have figured that out either.

Anyway, his philanthropies were amazing! There his Christianity shone.

Hookworm, once a debilitating problem in the Southern US states, is no longer a big problem. Why? Because Dr. Charles Stiles discovered it could be cured with some cheap medicine, and though his discovery was met with ridicule, Rockefeller believed, and basically paid to erradicate the problem. Rockefeller also started a public-private partnership to build thousands of schools across the South. He founded the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, the first medical research lab in the country, whose discoveries have saved thousands if not tens of thousands of lives. He was also the money behind the founding of the University of Chicago. Lots of other stuff, too.

What strikes me about his giving was that it was thoughtful and focused and for the most part the results of his giving could be fairly precisely measured.

It occurs to me that there are problems - such as the ones Rockefeller focused on - that can pretty much be solved once and for all, but there are other kinds of problems ("the poor you will have with you always") that are less amenable to a one-time solution. Necessary as it may be to give to charities addressing the less solvable problems, I suspect that the better an organization can define a problem and measure success in combating it, the easier it will be to persuade people to contribute.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Freddy the Pig

I enjoy reading to my son a bit every night. He especially likes talking-animal books, so we started off with C.S. Lewis's Narnia Chronicles (awesome!), then we read several of Brian Jacques' Redwall series (quite good). We tackled Robin Hood, King Arthur, Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Jeanne Duprau's City of Ember (excellent!) and The People of Sparks (very good), Eragon, Booth Tarkington's Penrod and Penrod and Sam (old and excellent but with some racist - though not intentionally malicious - overtones), Despereaux (okay), Time Stops for No Mouse (good) and The Sands of Time (good), by Michael Hoeye, Ken Oppel's Silverwing (okay), Sunwing (okay), and Firewing (weird), A Cricket in Times Square, and we just finished Lloyd Alexander's series, The Book of Three (first book, fair, others, excellent). But now, what to read? What to read?

Well, for some reason I thought of a series I loved as a child, Walter Brooks Freddy the Pig books. I thought these 26-or-so books were long out of print, but - as I discovered in perusing Amazon - they have been brought back. Happy day! All's right with the world! We picked up Freddy the Cowboy at the library and are reading and enjoying it. I'd have preferred to start with Freddy the Detective, but you start where you can.

Here's a silly snippet. Freddy the pig is asking Quik (a mouse) if Howard (another mouse) can come for a visit:
"I suppose it'll be all right," he [Quik] said. "If he doesn't eat us out of house and home. I never knew a field mouse yet who didn't eat like a pi- I mean, like a pinguin," he said hurriedly.

"What's a pinguin?" Jinx [the cat] asked, and Howard said: "I think he means a penguin. They're very greedy creatures, though seldom seen in this neighborhood."

Quik grinned at him gratefully, but Freddy said: "Penguin nothing! He started to say 'pig' and then couldn't change it to anything that made sense."

My son likes it and so do I, so I think we have reading material to keep us busy for a long time.

Anyway, help revive the Freddy books! There's probably one or two of them left in your public library. Try one, and if your kids (or you) like it, the whole set is available on Amazon.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Gouge Out Your Eye

And if your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out, and cast it from you: for it is better for you that one of your members should perish, than that your whole body should be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off, and cast it from you: for it is better for you that one of your members should perish, than that your whole body should be cast into hell. - Matthew 5:29-30

When Jesus said, "If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out" he was - I've heard - speaking metaphorically. Well... maybe. But maybe not. Perhaps instead he was giving a literal reply to a bad excuse he'd heard once too often.

I think Jesus was responding to the whine - probably as prevalent then as it is now - that goes like this: "Well, I just can't help it, I've got a wandering eye." Or, in the case of the hand, "I can't help it. I just have sticky fingers."

Okay, Jesus says, sighing a bit, I imagine, if it is really your eye that is dragging you into sin, then you really better gouge it out.

I can hear the whiner responding, "Uhhh, well, um, okay. I didn't literally mean my eye causes me to sin. My eye only does what I tell it to do."


And this, I think, is just what Jesus is trying to communicate. Don't blame your hand or eye. The sin comes from your heart, and you know it, and that is what needs to change.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Communism That Works

I've never been a communist, never wanted to be one, and never thought communism worked. But on that last point, while I'm confident I'm generally right, there's a group that proves me partially wrong.

I just finished a book on quite an interesting group of people, called the Hutterites, an Anabaptist Protestant group who date back to the Reformation. The Hutterites came to the conclusion that they should live communally, and have been doing so almost without interruption since the 1500s. Because of persecution they left Moravia (in what is now the Czech Republic) for the Ukraine, then moved to North America in the 1870s, and now they live in Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan in Canada and in Montana and the Dakotas in the United States.

That a group has managed to live for such a long time communally strikes me as quite amazing since so many other communal groups have utterly failed. Here are a few of my thoughts about why they have survived:

  • Far from being atheistic - as was Russian communism - the Hutterites are deeply religious. They believe their reward is in heaven, and so they don't feel much need to "succeed" - in a financial sense - here on earth.

  • They're under no silly illusion that communal living is a utopia. They believe people have sinful tendencies, even in their "colonies," as they call their communes, so nobody is disillusioned when someone does something unchristian.

  • Their colonies are relatively small, numbering about 80 to 150. It seems to me that a smaller group like this can maintain a family feeling whereas a larger group cannot. In fact, the book, Hutterite Society (by John A Hostetler), makes this point, that the larger groups become prone to factions. To deal with that, the Hutterites intentionally split the colonies and create daughter colonies when they become too big.

  • They maintain a cultural distance from their neighbors. Their colonies are in isolated locations, the people don't mix much with non-Hutterites, they dress differently, they speak German as a first language (though they also learn English). I suspect this cultural distance makes colony members feel less at home outside the colony and thus makes it harder for colony members to leave, but at the same time I'd guess it probably annoys their neighbors, whom I suspect may feel looked-down-upon by the Hutterites.

  • They strongly teach their traditions but de-emphasize higher education, which they feel isn't useful for farm life and leads to independent thinking (they're probably right) and thus to a breakdown of communal life.

    Although the Hutterites have not only survived, but grown dramatically in numbers, one thing that strikes me about their growth is that it is almost entirely by having children. Very few non-Hutterites ever become Hutterites.

    I suspect this is because of the cultural distance I mentioned. I have a theory that for churches to grow by attracting new members, there is a sweet spot in cultural positioning. If the church is too far removed from society (as are the Hutterites and the Amish), growth by conversion drops to just about nothing. On the other hand, churches that simply reflect society have nothing to offer the seeker. If the church is just the same as the everyday world, why bother going?

    I think that sweet spot for most churches is just to obey Christ. For me, that is adequately removed from everyday society. If you go a lot further, into cultural isolation, as do the Hutterites and Amish, I think you can minimize people defecting from Christ to the world, but the cost will be to minimize defections from the world to Christ.
  • Tuesday, June 28, 2005

    Visiting Saddleback Church

    I've heard about Saddleback Church for years, so finally, last Sunday, my wife and I went, just to see what it is like. If you are not familiar with Saddleback, it is the church pastored by Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life.

    The church is in Lake Forest, California, an Orange County town I'd never heard of except in connection with the church. The town is located somewhat inland, in a developing area that is still largely open. Huge tracts of land are still undeveloped. Also, while I'm sure the locals know how to avoid them, the main highways that take you to Lake Forest are toll roads, which are quite rare in California.

    I'm certain Saddleback draws people who live far from Lake Forest, and I'd guess that many of those people have to pay the road toll to get there. That they're willing to do so is impressive.

    The "driveway" to Saddleback, if you can call it that, is enormous. It is actually a road, Saddleback Parkway, which has its own traffic light at the main drag. It resembles the entrance to a mall, complete with a large but understated sign on a wall on the side of a berm.

    As we drove in, the long driveway reminded us a bit of Legoland, with signs along the road welcoming us, and a very proficient staff that guided us to a parking spot. It was easy in and easy out, with the same roadside signs on the way out, this time thanking us for visiting.

    The church campus reminded me of something between a park and an outdoor mall. In front of the main sanctuary (or whatever they call it) are some large, permanent plastic-walled tents. In each of them is an alternative service. The music is apparently different in each one, but the preaching - piped in by video from the sanctuary - is the same.

    You approach the main building through a park-like mall area, with a stream, grassy hillock and various out-buildings, such as a coffee cafe. Then you climb some broad stairs, with a waterfall gurgling down the middle, and get to the sanctuary, which is modern and attractive but actually rather understated. I get the feeling they hired a mall architect and an amusement park architect and said, "Give it a mall-amusement park feeling and efficiency, but tone it down so it's not glitzy."

    We were welcomed as we approached the sanctuary by greeters. Immediately inside, but outside the main meeting area, was an area apparently for parents with fussy kids. There was a video feed so they could participate in the service. We went in and were shown our seats by ushers who knew exactly where the few remaining empty seats were.

    It appears the sanctuary is a multi-purpose room. Chairs on the floor appeared to be movable, and the seating in the back appeared to be on some sort of telescoping structure that would allow it all to be shoved back against the wall. Where we sat it was all stadium seating.

    We got in a bit late and missed most of the music, but it seemed to be mostly praise songs. The front of the sanctuary was a low stage, with a simple metal podium for the speaker surrounded by colored bottles, which, it turned out, were to illustrate the biblical story of the widow who filled many bottles with a single small bottle of oil. Everything was expertly choreographed.

    Behind and above the stage and running across the front of the sanctuary was - rather oddly - sort of a woodland scene, with trees and stuff. Curious.

    The left and right walls of the sanctuary were made of clear glass, and on one side I could see people seated outside, some under patio umbrellas, but looking in. I imagine there were speakers so these sun-lovers could hear the service while watching it through the windows. The congregation was mostly white, with Asians and some Blacks and Hispanics.

    The sermon was biblical, skillful and cheerful. The pastor (not Rick Warren today) was dressed casually, as was most of the congregation. The podium was flanked on either side by two giant video screens, showing the pastor close up, or switching to a slide to illustrate one of his points. Bible verses were chosen from various translations (I actually prefer sticking to one good translation). To illustrate one of his points, he brought out a woman from the congregation who described how God had used the death of her daughter to help her minister to other people.

    In the bulletin (a four-color and very professional publication) was a note saying that visitors shouldn't feel obliged to give, that giving is for those who call Saddleback their church home. Cool! I was actually a bit surprised when they passed the plate. It was during the closing moments of the service and there wasn't a word said about it. The plate was just there all of a sudden. No announcement that it was coming; no pleading to give; nothing. I found this understated approach quite refreshing, and judging from the grounds, it apparently works.

    After the service we wandered through an outdoor book store in front of the sanctuary, looked over some of the outlying buildings, and headed out.

    A few thoughts:

    While adopting modern marketing, it seems Saddleback has taken care not to become crass or commercial, though I think that with a moment's inattention it could go over the edge into glitz and self-indulgence. I think it should be very careful to avoid that.

    Also, I think other churches shouldn't emulate Saddleback blindly, but should pick and choose what to implement. For example, it won't be possible for most churches in a city to have a walking mall and a huge parking lot. Land is too expensive, and besides, there also need to be neighborhood churches, which this definitely is not.

    Finally, I think that a lot of what I have described is of secondary or tertiary importance. No matter how well organized or attractive or artistically choreographed, I don't think Saddleback would work without good, accessible and biblically focused teaching. Take that away and I think it would stagnate and die just like any other church that loses its way.

    Overall, despite the long drive, it was well worth the visit. Blessings on you, Saddleback!

    Sunday, June 05, 2005

    Giving Back to the Community

    Every once in a while I'll hear someone say that companies should "give back to their communities."

    In a strict sense, I think this is nonsense.

    When someone talks about giving back, he or she is essentially saying the company took something from the community that needs to be repaid.

    But if I have a business that sells, say, shoes, how am I taking from the community? I'm providing shoes to my customers and my customers are providing money to me. When the shoes sell, the transaction is complete and nobody owes anybody anything else. Everybody is benefitted.

    However, in many cases, companies go beyond that. They pay various local fees and taxes, they provide employment, and their employees go out and spend the money they earn throughout the community, benefiting even more people. So I'd argue that companies are already giving to the community.

    None of this is to argue that giving to the community is wrong. I think giving - by companies or individuals - is a kind thing to do, that it can make the community a more closely knit and pleasant place to live, and it's great PR. But to suggest as any sort of general rule that businesses are somehow soaking something out of the community that needs to be repaid does not impress me in the slightest.

    Friday, June 03, 2005

    CompUSA's Inconvenient Warranty

    A while ago I bought a Sony laptop at CompUSA. I was talked into the extended warranty because they said they would fix my computer if anything goes wrong with it and I knew they did repairs on the premises. It'll make everything convenient, I was told. No worries.

    Well, something did go wrong. The power plug is loose in the socket so it doesn't charge reliably. Trivial, right? Should take an hour to fix.

    Not even! Alhough they say they do computer repairs on the premises, they wanted to send the laptop off to Sony, and, they said, that'll take about two weeks.

    Convenient? Not within a hundred miles of being convenient. I'm supposed to be without my computer for two weeks because of a silly plug? You're packing my computer off to who knows where with all my data on it? I don't think so! If all the big retailers offer as rotten a service as CompUSA, then there's a competitive opening as big as a locomotive for a computer sales company that offers good local service.

    Sunday, May 29, 2005

    Topical Bible Study Idea

    I recently had an idea that might be good for Bible study groups. I haven't tried it so I don't know how well it would work, but here it is:

    To study a book in the Bible is fairly straightforward for a small group. Either a leader goes through it, or group members rotate in leading the study, but in either case the study proceeds sequentially, from beginning to end.

    But to study a topic is harder to do because you need to know what the whole Bible or the whole New Testament or Old Testament says about the topic. I've seen some pretty poor topical teaching done as a result. Often such teaching misses important Bible passages about the topic.

    So what if a study group divided the Bible into chapters, and each member of the group was responsible for learning what a set of chapters has to say about the topic. By dividing the task it becomes easier for everybody and you get to see what the Bible really says, rather than relying on secondary sources.

    The New Testament has 260 chapters, so a 10-person Bible study group could study a New Testament topic in six sessions (260/10/6) if everybody is willing to cover a little more than four chapters between each session.

    The whole Bible has 1,189 chapters, so the same study group could study a Bible topic in 12 sessions if everybody is willing to do about 10 chapters between each session.

    I don't know how well this would work, but if anybody wants to give it a try I'd love to hear about it.

    Friday, May 20, 2005

    Star-Wars: Excellent!

    I just saw the latest Star Wars movie and it was amazing! I'm not a Star-Wars fanatic, but I thought it did a great job of tying the lose ends together and believably showing the turn of Anakin to the "dark side."

    Which leads me to do a little philosophizing...

    I wouldn't attend this movie looking for bulletproof philosophy. The notion that if "the Force" is "in balance" the universe would be at peace is just silly; as if having half the people be power-hungry murderers and the other half be peace-lovers would somehow provide a necessary balance to our world. Goofy. And then Obi Wan saying that "only the Sith speak of absolutes." Sigh. What is Obi Wan doing? Well, he's speaking an absolute. Obi, its not absolutes that get you into trouble, it's what absolutes you subscribe to.

    But this whole Force thing is just a mandatory patina of Eastern philosophy over the very old fashioned - and very well told - tale of good vs. evil.

    When you see it, notice the subtlety of evil. The confusion of Anakin. How difficult it is to see evil in ourselves. The appeal by the evil Chancellor to broad mindedness. How what is right and what is expedient get mixed. How it can sometimes be unclear what is the right thing to do, especially when there are conflicting accounts and interpretations and desires. How evil promises wonderful things but fails to keep its word.

    Well worth the price of admission.

    Saturday, May 07, 2005

    Religious Politicking for Me, Not For Thee

    I was both amused and annoyed at some of the junk that came out of a recent conference at the City University of New York to, ostensibly, expose "the real agenda of the religious far right."

    First, this snip from the article referenced above:
    The Rev. Bob Edgar, a former Democratic congressman and general secretary of the National Council of Churches, strongly favors religious politicking but said in an interview that he draws the line when groups say "we are right and everyone else is evil" or claim that "another point of view is illegitimate."

    Hello? Talk about calling other people evil and other points of view illegitimate! Here's what they said about conservative Christians at the same conference:
    Although one speaker lamented Roman Catholicism's new "fundamentalist pope," the chief targets were evangelical Protestants -- whose tactics were compared with those of Machiavelli, Hitler, Stalin and Jim Jones of mass-suicide infamy.

    Charles Strozier, director of a CUNY terrorism center, said the religious right, "emboldened in ways never seen before in American history," is promoting the "basically neo-Fascist schemes of the new Republicans."

    Okay, setting aside the gratuitous rudeness, the casual reader might - just might - be led to assume that these folks were condemning Machiavelli, Hitler, Stalin, Jim Jones and neo fascism, saying, in other words, that people who believe like them are evil and their viewpoints are illegitimate.

    So, calling conservative Christians evil and their viewpoints illegitimate is okay, but if Edgar ran the country he wouldn't let conservative Christians do the same thing.

    Edgar, you have totalitarian tendencies of precisely the same type you condemn.

    Second point: The examples used at the conference of Christian intolerance were taken from the fringiest of fringe groups, who would like to re-institute the Old Testament law. You could live your entire Christian life without ever hearing of these groups or hearing their beliefs espoused. I've heard them discussed maybe three times in my fairly long Christian life.

    But I'm afraid that some people may think that the difference between conservative Christianity and a belief that we should impose the Old Testament law is just a matter of degree, that the more biblically conservative you become, the closer you are to wanting to impose Old Testament law.

    This is simply wrong. There are distinct theological differences here. Almost all Christian groups believe that while the law may give us glimpses into God's thinking, sort of as a shadow of a person gives an idea of what that person looks like, the law itself - except where it is reiterated in the New Testament - is over and done with and should never be brought back.

    Saturday, April 30, 2005

    Nothing to Explain

    I've been reading Bram Stoker's Dracula and happened upon a couple great quotes.

    Dr. Abraham Van Helsing is about to explain about the supernatural. He says:
    Ah, it is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all; and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain.

    And, immediately following:
    But yet we see around us every day the growth of new beliefs, which think themselves new; and which are yet but the old, which pretend to be young - like the fine ladies at the opera.

    Oh, so true. So true.

    Sunday, April 24, 2005

    Martin Luther on Serving God

    I've been reading some sermons by Martin Luther (The House Postils, Volume 3, Klug), and was struck by his commentary on Matthew 22:34-36 (love the Lord first, then love your neighbor as yourself).

    Luther says that in his day, people who wanted to serve God would attempt it by methods of their own devising: pilgimages, entering monestaries, by fasting and by vigils and singing. No! He says, that's not it.

    He writes:

    "Serving is doing what God commands.... How could God make serving Him any plainer and explain it any more simply? In other words, if you want so serve Me, pay attention to me and I'll tell you all you need to know; just listen to what I said and do it; love me and your neighbor."

    And later...

    "Is it serving God when you crawl into a corner [as a monk] where you help and bring solace to no one? What need does our Lord God have of the service you perform in a corner? The one who wants to serve God should not crawl into an isolated cell but remain among people and serve them, where he can rest assured that thereby he is serving God."

    "If, when we serve our neighbor, each one would consider it as being done to God, the whole world would be filled with God-pleasing service."

    I'm not quite this down on taking a break from the company of others (after all, Jesus did it for forty days, and Paul spent three years in the desert), but in neither case was that break permanent (and I think this was Luther's point); Jesus and Paul ended their isolation and went out to bless other people.

    Also, this commentary makes me wonder if there are ways that we, today, have unconsiously come up with for "serving God" that God never commanded or intended.

    Saturday, April 16, 2005

    Scraps - A Few Random Thoughts

  • Prophecy ~ There's a prophesy in 2 Sam. 7:12-16 that David's son would build a temple for God. In a sense it sounds as if it is describing Solomon and in a sense it sounds as if it is describing Jesus, and sometimes it sounds as if it is talking about both. Did Solomon build a temple for God? Yup. But then it promises the throne of his kingdom will be forever. Last time I checked there is no earthly king descended from Solomon on the throne of Israel, but Christ is king and he is of the line of Solomon, and his rule is eternal. Then it says , "When he does wrong." Did Christ do wrong? Nope. Did Solomon? Yup. And the punishment is "floggings inflicted by men." Did Solomon endure floggings? Not to my knowledge. Did Christ? Yup. Like so many prophesies, the immediate and the distant mingle. In the midst of the here-and-now is a glimpse of eternity.

  • Litigious ~ If you've ever doubted that the United States is overly litigious, try buying a mountain bike. I bought a nice Cannondale a week ago and found 68 warning messages in a 116-page manual, and virtually every one of them threatens death. The author started off warning of "serious injury or death" and then apparently got into the spirit of the thing, changing the phrase to "serious injury, paralysis, or death." Many of the warnings were blazingly obvious (For instance I was told that I'm not surrounded by a metal shell, as in a car. Duh.) It went from that through dozens of others to a warning against painting your bike, with the standard threat of injury and death. I don't blame Cannondale for this. I'm sure it's just covering its butt from people who want transfer the monetary conequences of random events or their own stupidity onto someone else. Do accidents always have to be somebody's fault? Also, it seems that by having so many warnings you devalue the warnings about things that are really likely to happen.

  • Ressurection ~ apparently believes in the resurrection. I recently ordered copies of Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and Cervantes' Don Quixote from Amazon. I had to laugh when I came to the check-out page. Amazon was pushing it's Amazon Alerts. It said...

    "Sign up to be e-mailed when new products from your favorite artists are released.

    "Books by Mark Twain

    Yes indeed. I'm looking forward to Mark Twain's next novel.

  • Non Words ~ For some reason it occurred to me that a lot of "speech" is wordless and occurs through the nose. Examples:

    Yes: Um-hm
    No: Uh-uh
    I don't know: Mmm-mmm. (High on the first mmm, low on the second mmm)
    What? - Hmm?
    I'm thinking about it. - Hmmm...
    Oh. Uh.
    Tasty, sexy: MMMM-mm!
    Well, how about that! Hmm!
  • Saturday, March 19, 2005

    Shield Laws - Hmmm

    I just saw an editorial by Steve Forbes in Forbes magazine about the need for a national shield law to protect reporters from having to reveal their sources.

    I generally agree with Forbes, but I'm not at all sure about this.

    As I recall from my journalism days, the argument for such laws, which many states have, is that people may decide not to talk to reporters if they think they won't remain anonymous.

    To take an extreme example, if a reporter gets an interview with an organized crime boss, who details how his organization works, should the reporter be forced by the courts to reveal his source?

    If the reporter is forced to reveal the crime boss's name, then it's reasonable to assume no criminal (except stupid ones) will ever talk to a reporter again. So what? Well, think of the potential value of the information the reporter was allowed to reveal. That in itself could be very valuable to police and governing bodies, and it wouldn't be wise to cut off some information by demanding all information.

    And if someone should ask, "Well, who is a reporter? Does the state decide who a reporter is?" The answer would always be: "No! We absolutely don't want the state deciding who a reporter is. Anybody who publishes or broadcasts is a reporter."

    Okay, that's the argument, and I always bought it. But that was then and this is now. Then, the very nature of printing and broadcasting limited the number of people to whom the shield laws applied, but now, with blogs, everybody can be a reporter - for free - and this presents difficulties.

    Do shield laws now apply to everybody?

    If they do, it seems all anyone would have to do to avoid testifying would be to start a blog and reveal some information about a criminal event, and that would immunize him or her from having to give any additional information.

    The way to avoid that, of course, would be to have the government decide which people are reporters. Ouch! I'd rather have the first problem. Giving the government the right to decide who is a reporter gives the government the right throttle free speech.

    So, loophole for criminals or the government's fat foot in the door of regulating the press. I'm not suggesting a solution here, but just pointing out that Congress has a tough problem.

    Friday, March 18, 2005

    Make: Magazine

    Someone at our office who went to the TED conference came back with the premier issue of the new magazine, Make: (yeah, it has a colon at the end). I borrowed it and spent most of last night reading it.

    This is going to be hot! Maybe not as hot as Wired, but very toasty.

    It is about the size of National Geographic, on good, stiff paper, and is full of great stuff, from a kid-level motor project comprised of a battery, some saftey pins, a battery, and wire, to a computerized light stick that draws patterns in the dark air. The feature article is about building a simple device to take aerial photos from kites.

    This has the feeling of what Popular Mechanix had way back in - I dunno - maybe the 40s and 50s. Actual projects for tech-heads. It also feels like Lego instructions. You know; so beautifully illustrated and logical that it is really hard to go wrong. It's one of those magazines you don't throw out but put on a bookshelf when you've read it.

    So anyway, I loved it.

    This was the premier issue, so I'm sure O'Reilly went all out in producing it, but if it's like this on a regular basis, I'm going to subscribe. Actually, I think I will now.

    Saturday, February 26, 2005

    Christian Revival in France

    Well! This is very encouraging. France, which I've always thought of as one of the most secular of European countries, is apparently expriencing something of a revival of interest in Christianity.

    First, an excellent article in Christianity Today. It is well worth reading in its entirety. Here's a quote: "An evangelical congregation has been born here every 11 days in the last 35 years."

    Then, this general story of spirituality in Europe ABC News Here's a snip: "That [ignoring Catholic teaching] would seem to continue a secularist trend visible in Europe for several decades. That trend is offset, however, by a growing awareness that European secularism is an aberration in a world where religion is largely on the rise."

    And finally, an article in Slate. And a couple quotes: "While the flocks drawn to the famous basilica these days are mainly tourists ogling the stained-glass rosettes, this Pentecostal church draws more than 400 worshippers every Sunday to premises that couldn't be more different. Stark white on the inside, the church occupies the ground floor of a plain brick apartment block."

    And, "Pentecostalism is growing in France, too, turning Protestantism, historically the embattled religion in a Catholic society, into a burgeoning faith."

    Friday, February 25, 2005

    Rebuking David

    I just finished reading about the life of David in the Bible, and I kind of wondered how David could commit such heinous crimes and get such a mild rebuke from God, but then have God absolutely blast him for something that seems totally innocent.

    I will grant that David had a good side, but in a lot of ways David was a wretched man. He killed towns full of men, women and children and betrayed one of his most faithful followers, Uriah, having him murdered after committing adultery with his wife. David was a rotten father. He would have slaughtered a ranch full of people because of a rude reply had not Abigail made amends. And despite God's explicit warnings against idolatry, David let his wife Michal have idols hanging around the house. Even on his deathbed David busies himself telling his son to exact vengeance.

    It seems that God would grab David by the throat and yell into his face that he was committing awful sins. While on one occasion (the Bathsheba affair) God did rebuke David, what about all the rest of his bloodshed?

    Well, David does get rebuked, but it seems awfully mild and rather distant in time from when David committed his crimes. For instance, when David was running away from his son Absalom, Shimai curses him for shedding the blood of Saul's family, and for a while David thought maybe there was some merit to Shimai's criticism. Then, in 1 Chronicles 22:7-8, David tells his son Solomon that God wouldn't let him to build the temple because of all the blood he'd shed. But overall, I think it is fair to say that if you are looking for an in-your-face smackdown by God for the bloodshed David committed, it isn't there, and I find this odd in light of God's explicit command in the Ten Commandments not to murder.

    So, on the one hand I notice the mildness of God's rebuke (if you can call it that) for some really heinous crimes, but on the other hand I see God's fierce anger for something that seems totally innocent - commissioning a census.

    For some reason (some have suggested that it showed David wasn't trusting God) God was extremely angry about David taking a census. A census? What's wrong with a census? Jesus' parents took part in a census and there are countings of people all through the Old Testament. I'm not aware of any commands in the Bible against having a census. But for one reason or another, people - even David's ruthlessly practical army commander, Joab - felt David had committed a grievous sin by taking a census. And after he'd committed a census, even David himself felt guilty.

    What's going on here?

    Well, I think what is going on is actually something quite amazing. I think God was - temporarily - compromising.

    Consider Jesus' reply to those who asked why the law of Moses permitted divorce. Jesus said Moses permitted divorce because men's hearts were hard. In other words, God temporarily lowered his standards to match hard human hearts.

    I think also of the Apostle Paul's comment that if you believe something is a sin, for you it's a sin. And, presumably, the flip side is true: If you think something is okay, God won't punish you for doing it.

    So when people in David's era believed some things were bad and other things were acceptable (regardless of whether they really were), God held them responsible according to their own standards.

    Therefore, when David was being murderous but apparently didn't think he was doing anything very wrong, God's rebuke is mild; and when David and his contemporaries thought he was committing a horrible sin by conducting a census, God treats it as a horrible sin.

    Anyway, what I'm seeing in all this is two things. First, this shows me how important it is to understand (and communicate to our children) what real right and wrong are. We don't want to wander off into David-like morality through ignorance. Second, I see that God truly does judge the heart. Regardless of how vile our actions, if they are done in ignorance of their true depravity, God does not rebuke us as vehemently as he rebukes actions that may be far less serious but are done in knowing defiance of God.

    Sunday, February 13, 2005

    Hugh Hewitt's Blog Book

    I was just reading Hugh Hewitt's complaint about an LA Times review of his new book Blog and thought, "Come on, Hugh, you gotta be able to take a bit of legitimate criticism." So I read the review and, whew! What a stinker. The reviewer's main point seems to be that Hewitt is a conservative. My, my. What will they discover next? Okay, Hugh, if that's the worst they can find to say about your book, I guess I better break down and order a copy.

    Monday, February 07, 2005

    The Visitor

    I am not a fiction writer, but every once in a decade or so I feel compelled to inflict something awful upon innocent civilians. Following is such a case. (Many thanks to Chris, my editor buddy, whose suggestions have hopefully made it tolerable.) Incongruously, I wrote this modern story in what I imagine to be a Victorian style, for no better reason than that I once enjoyed the Sherlock Holmes stories. - Brad

    It was a cold, overcast November day, the day after Thanksgiving, and having the Friday off hung heavily upon me, for I am accustomed to working on weekdays. I had lit a fire which I was trying to enjoy, had listlessly flipped through the channels, but gave up and flicked off the television. The ticking of the clock only emphasized the monotony.

    As I sat blankly staring out the window, I heard a knock upon the door. As I do not have an electric door chime, but a simple metal plate knocker, the loud noise startled and annoyed me, especially as my visitor knocked not just once, but persisted in knocking, rapidly and with great force.

    It was, consequently, with little grace that I moved quickly toward the door to send this salesman upon his way, for I was expecting nobody, and those infrequent times when neighbors came to call, they had the kindness not to pummel my door.

    To my surprise, it was not a salesman, but a small and distressed man in ministerial garb.

    "I beg your pardon for bursting in like this," he said, "but I need your assistance immediately."

    Somewhat taken aback, I asked the Rev. John McElsey - for that was the name by which he introduced himself - to come in and to have a seat beside the fire, an offer which he accepted gratefully, wiping his moist brow with his shirtsleeve, although the temperature, even in my sitting room, was hardly conducive to perspiration. Then, again he apologized for his intrusion.

    "Well. What can I do for you?" I asked, at once impatient about his interuption of my monotony and curious about his visit.

    "I am looking for a Mr. James Babcock." he said anxiously.

    "I am he."

    "I'm afraid I'm looking for someone quite older. Someone who served in World War Two.

    "That would be Mr. James Babcock Senior," I said. "I'm his son."

    "Oh dear. Can you direct me to where I might find your father?"

    "I'm afraid I cannot. My father lived with me for several years, but he just died a week ago."

    "Oh dear! Oh dear!" he said. Forgive me," he said, "but I wish to be quite certain I have the right James Babcock. Did your father receive a Purple Heart for an injury he suffered at the battle of Tarawa during the Second World War?"

    I stared at the man, startled, for as far as I knew, my father had never mentioned the medal to anyone, for his experiences in the war were something he kept to himself, and, in fact, I had not known about the medal myself until just recently, when I discovered it and the accompanying documentation among his effects.

    "How did you know that?" I demanded.

    "Oh my God, my God, my God," he said, burying his face in his hands and pulling at his hair.

    I stood up. "What the hell are you talking about?" I asked.

    Finally he lifted his head.

    "Please let me explain from the beginning," he said.

    "Please do!"

    "I am the minister of St. James Church, where I have served for about eight years. I am fairly well known about town, he said, with what I took to be a flutter of pride, but it is unlikely you also know that I am - or perhaps I should say, 'was' - rather forward looking in my social and theological views. I am afraid that perhaps I was more progressive in my outlook on what conservative members of the clergy would consider 'sin' and 'theology' than was - in light of what has happened - entirely wise."

    "Look," I said, "I really don't see what your views about God have to do with me, and I'd rather not be all day about this."

    "Yes. Yes. I quite understand your impatience, but I promise I will tie all this together as quickly as possible."

    "Thank you."

    "My theology, I'm afraid, has very much to do with this. To put it simply, I believed in God no more than I believed in the Easter Bunny. And I tell you this simply because I want you to believe I am not accustomed to ... uh ... making claims about matters of ... well ... an extraordinary nature."

    "Go on," I said.

    "A little more than a week ago," he continued, "I was in my study trying to read, but wholly without success, for earlier in the day I had been approached by a young man on the street who said to me, 'He who has the Son has the life. He who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.' I had, of course, encountered such people before, for my stands on various issues have not been well received by the more conservative Christian community, and I have at times encountered those who have expressed their feelings to me using Biblical allusions. But it was different this time. There was ... and I find this hard to express ... something kind yet painfully intense in this young man's demeanor.

    "So, as I sat trying to read, my mind was distressed. I tried to thrust away his words, but like one of those rubber balls attached to a paddle by a string of elastic, it kept bouncing back at me. Did I have the son? Did I have the life? I gave up trying to ignore the thought and tried instead to look it in the face and acknowledge it so I could get on with my reading. But far from leaving me be, it grew upon me, and finally, in frustration and anger, and despite my disbelief, I cried aloud: 'God! Go away!'

    "It was in this state of mind - which I fear will lead you to believe that I am in need of a psychiatrist - that the desk and lamp before me began to move away. The room with its windows and the sofa and the very book in my hands and my hands themselves began pulling back from me. All reality, and... I can say it now... God himself, seemed to be drawing away from me.

    "I can barely express how frightened I was at the thought of being left alone, and I cried out, 'No, God, come back!' And as I spoke those words the room settled back into its normal appearance, and I was left in this frightened state with the uncomfortable thought that I'd been speaking to God though I didn't believe in God. I believed in Life and the Universe and the Web of Existence, but I didn't believe in someone you could talk to. But apparently I did believe in God... more than I was hitherto willing to admit - even to myself.

    "I had by this time given up my attempt at reading, and was simply sitting, shaken, at my desk. Now, despite the glow of the lamp on my desk, which continued undiminished, the room grew black and three lights appeared directly above me, and from one of them a drop fell and splashed on my head. I wiped my hand against my face and pulled it away, and discovered to my horror that my hand was covered with blood.

    "'You shall be my servant,' came a voice that was both a statement and a question. It was a beautiful but frightening voice, and quite distinct to me, though it seemed inaudible to my cat, which lay upon the sofa quite untroubled, though I must say that it was not until after recovering from the shock of this message that I noticed either the cat or anything else.

    "'Yes, Lord,' I said, although it seemed as if I had no choice in the matter. But on the other hand, it seems I threw my heart into the decision with a wild joy. As I did so a delerium of ecstasy rolled over me. My simple study took on a radiance. Each color emitted a vivid hue, and the stars I could see from the window shone with a purity and clarity I'd never noticed before.

    "And then, after an hour or several, I don't know which, it was over. I need hardly tell you that my outlook on life changed, not to mention my theology. But in any case, a few nights later a most frightening apparition manifested itself before me in my room. I don't mean to say it was repulsive or wicked, in fact I can only describe it as beautiful and pure, to such a degree that it was painful to my eyes.

    "It, or rather, 'he,' said, 'I am Michael. You shall go to James Babcock and tell him: "Prepare your heart, for you shall not live out this week."' That my message might be believed, he told me of your father's Purple Heart.

    "You will scarcely credit it, recalling what I had just been through, but I'm afraid I wasn't as obedient as I should have been. On various days I started out the door, at least three times, then my steps would falter, and I would return home, feeling torn. How could I tell your father, someone I had never met, this crazy and frightening prediction? And what if it wasn't true. And now I have delayed too long and your father is gone. Oh God! Oh God!" he wailed.

    "This is preposterous!" I cried. "I barely know you and I certainly don't know your crazy god. You have indeed convinced me you need a psychiatrist. Kindly leave my house at once!"

    And he did, full of apologies for intruding, but moaning his "Oh Gods!" as he walked down the front path.

    I slammed the door, simmering with anger, returned to my seat and stared blankly at the now-dying fire.

    How did that old fool know about my father's medal? Perhaps he got it from military records and then decided to play on my father's fears.

    I thought back on my father's death. In his final days, drugged to take the edge off his pain, he babbled happily but incoherently about Jesus, and about a man he barely knew who told him to repent. He was out of his mind with the illness and drugs.

    Ah! Why bother thinking about this? I told myself. That reverend was a fool! If God existed, why would he send such a message to my father, who already - if you could believe his ramblings - believed in him?

    Satisfied, I got up and put another log on the fire, then settled back in my chair with a contented sigh.

    Suddenly my face went cold and my heart shrank.

    Who was it exactly that the angel told McElsey to warn? It was James Babcock Senior... wasn't it?

    Sunday, January 30, 2005

    Christians at Work in North Korea

    A fascinating article in The London Times about the slow implosion of North Korea's cruel regime, and the part Christians are playing in it. I hope we're all ready to help when the collapse comes. Here are some clips from the story, but read the whole thing.

    "Word has spread like wildfire [in North Korea] of the Christian underground that helps fugitives to reach South Korea. People who lived in silent fear now dare to speak about escape."


    "North Koreans confirmed that they knew that escapers to China should look for buildings displaying a Christian cross and should ask among Korean speakers for people who knew the word of Jesus."


    "Here in the north of the country, faith, crime and sheer cold are eroding the regime's grip at a speed that may surprise the CIA's analysts."


    "The secret police cannot staunch the word of the gospel. Two of our party turned out to be Christian businessmen who had come from China carrying wads of cash. Korean-language Bibles have been smuggled in by the hundreds."

    Saturday, January 08, 2005

    Missionaries to the Future

    For a long time I thought that if there was one commandment that we had obeyed, it was the Genesis command to populate the world. I thought we had, in fact, overdone it. Mabye I was wrong or maybe I was right, but either way, that time is long past.

    The Western world, which means that part of the world containing most of the Christians, is not only no longer populating the world, it is depopulating it. My understanding is that in many places, our birth rate is below replacement levels. If it continues in this way, Christianity will increasingly be a fading factor on the world stage, while Islam, whose adherents are having children, will grow increasingly strong.

    With that in mind, I think we need to think differently of children. Not only are they a personal blessing, but they are also a blessing to the world. They are, if I can coin a phrase, missionaries to the future.

    Is what we believe important only for us? Don't future generations need to hear the gospel? Since we won't be here to share it, who will share it if not our children?