Saturday, April 16, 2011

Risk factors in suicide

1. The common purpose of suicide is to seek a solution: A suicidal person is seeking a 
solution to a problem that is "generating intense suffering" within him or her. 

2. The common goal of suicide is cessation of consciousness: The anguished mind of 
a suicidal person interprets the end of consciousness as the only way to end the 

3. The common stimulus of suicide is psychological pain: Shneidman calls it 
"psychache," by which he means "intolerable emotion, unbearable pain, 
unacceptable anguish." 

4. The common stressor in suicide is frustrated psychological needs: A suicidal 
person feels pushed toward self-destruction by psychological needs that are not 
being met (for example, the need for achievement, for nurturance or for 

5. The common emotion in suicide is hopelessness-helplessness: A suicidal person 
feels despondent, utterly unsalvageable. 

6. The common cognitive state of suicide is ambivalence: Suicidal people, Shneidman 
says, "wish to die and they simultaneously wish to be rescued." 

7. The common perceptual state in suicide is constriction: The mind of a suicidal 
person is constricted in its ability to perceive options, and, in fact, mistakenly sees 
only two choices—either continue suffering or die. 

8. The common action in suicide is escape: Shneidman calls it "the ultimate egression 
(another word for escape) besides which running away from home, quitting a job, 
deserting an army, or leaving a spouse ... pale in comparison." 

9. The common interpersonal act in suicide is communication of intention: "Many 
individuals intent on committing suicide ... emit clues of intention, signals of 
distress, whimpers of helplessness, or pleas for intervention." 

10. The common pattern in suicide is consistent with life-long styles of coping: A 
person's past tendency for black-and-white thinking, escapism, control, capitulation 
and the like could serve as a clue to how he or she might deal with a present crisis.

Hoping and coping

How should Christians deal with a major loss in life? There are two opposite extremes to be avoided.

1. One type of advice frames the issue in terms of a grieving-process that runs through a cycle, after which you “recover” from your loss.

On this view, it’s important not to “dwell” on the past, or “live.” You need to achieve “closure.” Move on.

2. This approach is often in reaction to mourners or depressed patients who are stuck in past. They cling to the past in the sense that they can’t really function in the present. They are too wounded. Too hopeless. They “brood” about the past.

3. However, there are problems with (1).

i) There’s the question of whether it’s even realistic to put a major loss “behind” us. What if that’s something central and irreplaceable?

ii) In addition there’s the question of whether it’s appropriate to make a clean break with the past. Will you ever be the same? No. Not in this life. But why should you be the same?

For instance, should we treat relationships as bridges? Once we cross the bridge, we don’t need it any longer. No need to look back. Just press forward.

But surely we shouldn’t treat everything and everyone in that disposable fashion. And it’s not necessarily enough that I made it across the bridge. What about those left behind?

iii) Of course, if something has truly come to an end, then we need to adjust to that the finality of that outcome. But that, itself, may be an open question. In a fallen world, we must often say good-bye to people and things we love. But when we say good-bye, is that good-bye for now, or is that good-bye for good?

Suppose I put my pet dog to sleep. If I’m an atheist, then that’s the end. I’ll never see my dog again.

But if I’m a Christian, I know that God has the power to restore my pet to life in the world to come. I don’t know whether he will do so. But there’s a possibility from a Christian standpoint that’s not a possibility from a secular standpoint. As an atheist, the situation is hopeless. As a Christian, the situation is hopeful. It’s not something I can count on. But it’s something I can pray for.

4. In my opinion, we should generally deal with a major loss in life in terms of hoping and coping rather than closure or recovery. Striking a compromise.

“Recovery” or “closure” suggests an illness or injury. To make a full recovery is to feel the way you did before you were got sick. Before you were injured. You’re back to normal. Back to the way things were before the illness or injury.

But in case of major losses in life, that’s not possible. You suffered an irreparable loss. You can’t go back to the way you were. You can’t go back at all, for there’s no “back” to return to. It’s gone. No longer a part of your life. But by the same token, you can’t go back to the feelings you had before it happened.

Back to the illustration of the dog. Suppose the dog enriched my life. If I never had the dog, I wouldn’t miss the dog. I wouldn’t know what I was missing by not having the dog, then losing the dog. So I can’t just go back to the way I felt before I had the dog.

The dog created a space in my heart that wasn’t there before. When the dog is gone, the space remains. It doesn’t automatically contract. Not automatically filled by something else. Having the dog permanently changed me in certain ways.

Mind you, there can be compensatory experiences. There’s a sense in which children are a compensation for lost parents and grandparents. But it’s not as if they simply take their place.

For different types of relationships are unique. Parents and grandparents. Friends. Siblings. A spouse. Children. Each contributes something the other does not.

That can also apply to certain places, or certain phases in life. 

5. I think the proper response is to strike a balance between the past, present, and future. God has given us the capacity to be aware of past, present, and future. We ought to live mentally and emotionally in all three timeframes. The problem is when these fall out of balance. When we overemphasize one timeframe to the detriment of another, or others.

Each timeframe needs the other two. We literally live in the present. (At the moment I’m dealing with the phenomenology of time, not the ontology of time.) So we do need to function in the present.

But our present perspective should be partly informed by the past. By our memories. For God has given us our past. That’s part of the life he gave us. That part of his story for our lives. The story he wrote to us, for us, about us.

That shapes us. That can teach us. That’s something for which we should be thankful.

And our present perspective should be partly informed by the future. By hope. By reaching for the goal.

Depending on where we are in the lifecycle, the emphasis will shift. The young have less past and more future–in this life. The old have more past and less future–in this life.

Living with a view to the future involves two futures: (i) our future in this life, and (ii) our future in the afterlife.

Beyond a certain age a Christian may not have much to live for in this life. But he still has everything to live for in the next life.

So it’s natural for an elderly Christian to think more about the past and the far future, while it’s natural for a young Christian to think more about the present and the near future.

6. We should also come to terms with the fact that an undertone of sadness is inevitable in a fallen word. That’s to be expected. Ultimately, we can only hope for emotional healing in the world to come. Restoration awaits the world to come. The intermediate state and the final state.

In this life we will never be whole again because we were never whole to begin with. We’re like someone born with a congenital illness. Due to our birth defect, we don’t know what it feels like to be normal. In fact, a person can have an undiagnosed birth defect. He thinks he’s normal. This is all he’s ever known. He doesn’t know what he’s missing.

If he’s diagnosed, and cured, then the moment he awakens it’s like a new birth. He sees the world with new eyes. For the first time in life he says to himself, “So this is what it’s supposed to be like!”

7. It’s also important to prioritize our losses. Some of my regrets may be vain regrets. Maybe I didn’t achieve my goal, but on reflection, my goal wasn’t all that great.

Life is a winnowing process. It’s tempting to focus on the things we miss. But we need to counterbalance that temptation with the awareness of all the things we’re glad to put behind us. It’s often a relief to be able to say, “I never have to do that again!” 

Friday, April 15, 2011

Biblical Greek in New Orleans

I'm blessed to be teaching Biblical Greek in connection with Jesus Bible Institute this summer. If there is anyone near the New Orleans area interested, I would love to have you for this course! For more information and registration, see the page here as well as the course orientation sheet.

Unexpected Miracles

Yesterday, I linked to a discussion between two New Testament scholars about the historicity of miracles. Some of the cases they discussed involve people who weren't expecting to witness a miracle or were even predisposed to not see one occur. Those cases are significant in light of the common skeptical objection that prior expectation makes people more likely to think something happened that didn't actually happen. The objection is framed differently in different contexts. Sometimes it will be expressed in terms of bias. Biased witnesses are less reliable. Or the objection is raised in the context of hallucinations. People hallucinate what they expect to see. Whatever form the objection takes, arguments like those are common. And some of the cases Michael Licona and Craig Keener address in the interview I discussed yesterday are insusceptible to that objection to some extent.

Two of the most prominent leaders of early Christianity, James and Paul, seem to have been unbelievers when they purportedly saw the risen Jesus. (On James, see here. On Paul, see here.) For that and many other reasons, the skeptical objection I've referred to above doesn't carry much weight as an argument against Christianity.

Concerning the paranormal in general, not just in the context of Christianity, here are some other examples:

"Those séances [involving Eusapia Palladino] led to the publication of a massive, graphically detailed account of eleven sessions with Eusapia, conducted by three very experienced researchers. That report describes, play by play, what happened during the séances, and perhaps most important, it documents how the investigators were all reluctantly converted to a belief in the genuineness of Eusapia's phenomena….Since the earliest days of the British SPR [Society for Psychical Research], many of its influential members had been reluctant to deal seriously with the physical phenomena of spiritualism….Eventually, the SPR felt pressured to respond, and so they assembled a team of their most experienced, highly skilled, and skeptical investigators to study Eusapia one more time, apparently with the aim of justifying the Society's negative assessment of the medium. Indeed, it seems that the SPR officers and investigators all expected to find nothing but fraud when they tested Eusapia. The members of this team were the Hon. Everard Feilding, Hereward Carrington, and W.W. Baggally. Feilding had already detected numerous fraudulent mediums and claimed to be a complete skeptic. Carrington was an amateur magician who had recently published a book, three-fourths of which was devoted to the analysis of fraudulent mediumship. And Baggally was a skilled conjuror who 'claimed to have investigated almost every medium in Britain since Home without finding one who was genuine.'…Despite the rigid controls and good light, many impressive phenomena occurred during the eleven séances. In fact, the table levitated completely so many times that the experimenters eventually tired of that effect and asked Eusapia to produce something else. Moreover, many impressive things happened even while experimenters virtually draped themselves all over Eusapia….After the séances had ended, Baggally itemized and counted all the phenomena reported. He concluded, 'Eusapia was not detected in fraud in any one of the 470 phenomena that took place at the eleven séances.'…Far more riveting, however, are the reflections of the investigators written after each session with Eusapia. They document, with great candor, the intellectual struggle each investigator experienced as he reluctantly came to believe that Eusapia's phenomena were genuine. Skeptical accusations of favorable experimenter bias in this case would be outrageous." (Stephen Braude, The Gold Leaf Lady [Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 2007], pp. 47-49, 51)

Braude goes into much more detail in the book, if anybody is interested. I've left out a lot. See, also, Michael Sudduth's summary of the Leonora Piper case in his PowerPoint presentation under section IV here.

In another context:

"In response to one critic's assertion these scientists [who have researched near-death experiences] are biased and that near-death research has been influenced by the researchers' beliefs, [Bruce] Greyson [one of the leading near-death researchers] retorted that 'he has it backwards: the researchers' beliefs have been influenced by their consistent research findings. Most near-death researchers did not go into their investigations with a belief in mind-body separation, but came to that hypothesis based on what their research found.' In fact, one researcher, Michael Sabom [who later affirmed the veridicality of near-death experiences], entered the field of NDE [near-death experience] research specifically to debunk reports of the NDE." (Chris Carter, Science And The Near-Death Experience [Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2010], p. 200)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

What if God saved everybody?

HOWEVER…What I would like to ask people who get so worked up about universalism is this: What difference would it make in your life if suddenly God revealed to you in a way you couldn’t deny that he is going to save everyone?

i) One difficulty with answering his question is that we don’t come to that hypothetical as a blank slate. So it generates something of a dilemma. Normally we answer hypotheticals based on what we actually believe to be true. That’s our reference point. We extrapolate from what we know or believe to be the case.

If I know that God is not going to save everyone, then that alone tells me something else: God is wise and good not to save everyone.

And it goes beyond that. Scripture also gives us some specific reasons for why he won’t save everyone. And if Scripture is the word of God, then those are good reasons.

Therefore, this hypothetical calls into question what we already know about God. Calls into question the wisdom of God. For if God is wise and good not to save everyone, if God has good reasons not to save everyone, then you suddenly tell me that, notwithstanding all of that, God is going to save everyone, that raises the question of whether the alternative isn’t less wise, less good, than the status quo ante.

ii) In one respect it doesn’t affect me. It would affect the lost.

iii) But in another respect, to know that nothing I do makes a dime’s worth of difference in the long run would, itself, make a difference in how I live. If there are no long term consequences for what I do or fail to do, if it all comes up roses in the end, then that might, indeed, have a dramatic effect on how I live my life.

iv) Can someone who’s everyone’s friend be anyone’s friend? If someone is your friend, then you mean more to him than someone who is not his friend. You hold a special place in his heart. If you went missing, he’d feel the absence more deeply than for someone who is not his friend.

And that’s true in relationships generally. We care more about some people than others. And that’s part of what it means to love someone, or be loved by another. We're not interchangeable with someone else. We're not a set of identical, replaceable parts.

Of course, we have to make some adjustments when speaking of God. But for now I’m making a general point: Arminians like Olson act as if there’s something self-evidently wrong with “favoritism.” As if it’s inherently unloving not to love everyone.

And I’m making the point that indiscriminate love hardly qualifies as love at all. Is love detached? Is love anonymous–like a generic valentine card? A mass produced valentine. Written to no one in particular, for no one in particular.

BTW, I don’t object to greeting cards. What personalizes the card is who sent it. And the fact that he didn’t send it to every girl in the phonebook, but only to his sweetheart.

v) Finally, Derek Ashton also left a perceptive comment:

UNCG Outreach Report 4-13-2011

INTRODUCTION:  Yesterday's outreach lasted almost six hours and included dozens of conversations with a variety of unbelievers.  I encountered Muslims, atheists, agnostics, and Moralistic Therapeutic Deists.  I'll review a few of the interactions below.

Question of the Day"In your opinion, what do you believe it takes for a person to go to heaven?"

Though the above question is quite simple,  I like to use it because it allows the person being questioned to feel as though they can offer their thoughts freely without consequences.  For my benefit as the evangelist/apologist, it allows me to get an idea on what a person believes and then use follow-up questions to determine more information about their particular worldview.

"My friend recently committed suicide . . ."

My first notable conversation was with a pleasant and cordial young lady that seemed a little distracted at first because someone was texting her.  Once I got to issues of eternity she started listening intently.  After giving her a full gospel presentation, she asked what happens to people that commit suicide.  She seemed like she wanted to tear up a little bit while telling me that her best friend recently committed suicide.  She noted that she had contacted the UNCG associated campus ministry and I lovingly cautioned her about who she talks to in that building as I cannot guarantee that all of them can offer her hope in Christ since their building displays varieties of banners from denominations that are theologically liberal to non-Christian religions.  I wanted to hug her as if she was my own daughter and I grieved for her as she obviously was hurting and looking for comfort.  I told her that suicide is essentially self-murder and that those who commit suicide in their right mind give evidence that they have no hope in Christ; i.e., they are lost.  I explained that the taking of one's life is God's prerogative alone, and to arrogate that authority to oneself is to assume a right that only God has.  I also told her that my view is that it may be possible for a true believer to commit suicide if they aren't in their right minds due to the negative influences of medication, mental states caused by biological problems, etc., but that in general, Christians cherish life as a gift from God and that because of this, they don't take their own lives or the lives of others.  I then told her that genuine Christians have different views on the issue of what happens to professing believers who commit suicide and then focused on the fact that she is still alive, has just heard the gospel from me, and that she needs to repent and believe while there is still yet time.  

"We're atheists . . ."

These two young ladies weren't in the slightest bit interested in having a conversation after I introduced myself and asked the question of the day.  They responded to the question by saying ". . . we're atheists".  I then asked them if they believed in absolute truth and one of them stated, "no" and I immediately responded, "Is that true?"  Then I pointed out that she made a self-defeating statement and it was then that she seemed to get flustered.  I then asked, "So, you've realized that you have to affirm absolute truth in order to deny it; so where does it come from?"  At this point, they both looked very uncomfortable and their body language seemed to be saying, "Leave us alone, we think you're a crank, so take off."  After picking up on that I cut right to the chase by asking, "If the God of the Bible exists offers salvation through Jesus Christ, would you want to know how you could be reconciled to Him and have peace with Him?"  They both adamantly said "NO".  I then thanked them for their time, attempted a somewhat failed handshake since they reluctantly reciprocated, and was on my way.  The entire encounter took less than three minutes.  I spoke to another evangelist-apologist friend about this encounter and he suggested asking next time, "If I could prove to you that God exists, would you worship Him?"  That's a great question indeed, and I'm sure these young ladies would've given the same response.

An Interaction with an Atheistic Ehrmanite

The next notable conversation was with an atheistic young man that had a Catholic school background and had read Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus.  He was conversant enough with Ehrman's claims such that after I demonstrated the vacuous nature of his atheism, he essentially argued that I'm no better off since, according to Ehrman, they have been changed, copied, re-copied, changed, and re-copied so much that we can't know what the originals said.  It was at this point that I took the time to discuss the issue of textual criticism and gave some facts about the manuscript evidence for the New Testament.  He then noted that he had never heard this before, and I said, "I know, that's why I come out here every Wednesday."  I then told him, "Ehrman has given you some information about textual criticism that conservative, Bible-believing, evangelical scholars have known about for over a hundred years.  What he doesn't tell you, is that out of the near 400,000 variants in the manuscripts, the largest variant is what is known as a 'moveable nu' and of the remaining variants, none of them affects any cardinal doctrine of Christianity . . . none of them."  I then gave some of the following facts re: the textual integrity of the Bible in general:
  • Scholars possess Dead Sea Scrolls with the earliest extant copies of O.T. books dating from 50-150 B.C. Two copies of the book of Isaiah were recovered from that find that read almost exactly word-for-word as the Hebrew Leningrad codex that was produced in the 9th-10 century A.D.
  • Scholars use the Septuagint (OT Greek translation) with extant manuscripts dating from 50 B.C. to 150 A.D.
  • Scholars work with 5700+ Greek NT manuscripts with near complete N.T. books dating from @ 180-200 A.D. and fragments from 115-125 A.D.
  • The writings of the Early Church Fathers that have been translated quote the N.T. over a million times and the entire N.T. could be reproduced with the same accuracy as our current critical Greek texts from their quotations alone except about a half a dozen verses out of 3rd John.
  • Thousands of copies of translations of N.T. manuscripts into other ancient languages exist dating from the 3rd to 7th centuries. Old Latin N.T. manuscripts number to 10,000+ copies. Hundreds of copies also exist in other ancient languages such as Coptic, Ethiopian, Georgian, Slavonic, and Armenian dating from the 2nd to the 5th centuries A.D.
Based upon the Greek manuscript evidence alone, unbelieving, secular scholars have concluded that the N.T. manuscript tradition is 99+% textually pure. In other words, what we have now, is what they wrote then. As noted NT scholar Craig Evans said in a June 20, 2010 radio discussion on the White Horse Inn, "out of the 20,000 lines of the NT, only 40 lines are in serious doubt. This equals about 400 words and none of them affects orthodoxy."  If you want more information, you can listen to this short presentation from N.T. Greek scholar and textual critic Dr. Daniel B. Wallace:  

I then noted that given his naturalistic materialism, he can't even account for his demand for reliable N.T. manuscript evidence in the first place, since the concept of evidence presuppposes the validity of the senses, the inductive principle, that the laws of logic necessarily hold, that I have a moral obligation to be rational, and that there is a general uniformity to experience.  I then explained that the reason he rejects the teaching of the New Testament isn't because he doesn't have enough evidence but its because he really doesn't want it to be true.  I discussed the gospel with him and though he was reticent to listen, I had earned enough respect during our conversation that he listened anyways.  We shook hands, parted company, and I was off to speak with the next person.

IN CONCLUSION, being ready to give an answer for the hope that lies within you requires more than quoting Scripture and having a canned response to every answer.  It requires patiently, respectfully, and genuinely listening to people so that you can intelligently and strategically interact with what they are saying and when you do that, most reasonable people are willing to listen even though they strongly disagree with you.

Dust motes from heaven

Since I’ve been questioned on what I think of the original novel, I’ll make a few more observations about VDT.

1. I’ll expand on one technical criticism I have of VDT. Since I’m a fiction writer myself, albeit an amateur, I do take a personal interest in literary craftsmanship. Now, as I pointed out, Lewis depicts the Narnian world as a flat world, but I find it hard to “see” how the various pieces fit together. There are two problems with this:

i) The basic appeal of fiction is to explore the possible. You’re not bound by the actual. You can make the rules for your fictitious world. Indeed, you have to. In many cases you may choose to borrow the rules from the real world. But that’s your prerogative. You can also do it from scratch. Or borrow from the conventions of some literary genre.

But a fictitious world should be self-consistent. It may be unrealistic by the standards of our world, but it ought to play by its own rules, whatever the rules it has set for itself (or, more properly, the author). After all, it’s his world.

It may be an illusion, but it better be a consistent illusion to maintain the illusion. Ironically, reality can afford the appearance of inconsistency, forgiven reality, we discount the seeming inconsistency as an illusion. By contrast, given an illusory scenario, an inconsistent illusion is really inconsistent.

This is especially true in the fantasy genre, where the author has pretty much carte blanche to set the parameters. As such, an author should never find his fictitious world backing him into a corner. That reflects lack of patience and planning.

Part of the fun in writing about a fantasy world is the chance to engineer your own world. Let your imagination take flight.

Writers like Dante, Tolkien, and even Frank Herbert are more attentive than Lewis to the nitty-gritty details of their fictitious worlds.

ii) This problem is intensified by the fact that Lewis is such a visually oriented writer, and that’s a large part of what makes VDT so appealing. Imagine yourself on the ship at sea. What do you see? Imagine yourself on the islands. What do you see?

The point is to be caught up in his vision. See what he sees in his mind’s eye. Imagine what he imagined. So it’s a mistake to let the imagery break down.

2. Some folks who liked the film version of VDT justified the editorial omissions, consolidations, and reshuffling on the grounds that the structure of VDT is rather loose or episodic. But I think that criticism is fundamentally misguided:

i) The journey itself supplies the unifying principle. That’s one of the advantages of the quest genre. The journey is the structuring device. It imposes outward unity on events by giving them a degree of dynamic, spatial contiguity and continuity.

ii) In addition, you want variety. That’s what makes an adventure adventurous. So you want each island to be distinctive.

iii) VDT isn’t equally interesting from start to finish, but that, too, is a virtue in the quest genre. Lewis deliberately arranged the events in a lesser to greater sequence. The journey keeps getting better. Not merely onward, but onward and upward. That’s what makes the final two chapters such a payoff.

There’s a reason the Island of the Star comes after the Dark Island, but before the penultimate chapters. Rearranging the sequence destroys the progressivity of the narrative arc.

3. I think the final chapters of VDT are, in part, Lewis’s challenge to Dante’s Paradiso (especially the Primum Mobile and the Empyrean). This is Lewis’s beatific vision.

Although Dante is a greater writer than Lewis, I think Lewis is more successful at this point–“successful” in the sense that his vision is more attractive. That’s because Dante’s vision is so abstractly figurative. A literary and theological construct that doesn’t feel like a real place. It deliberately eschews physicality. And it lacks visual cohesion.

4. At the same time, this raises the question of how Christian fiction should attempt to depict heaven. There are various options:

i) A depiction drawn from artistic, literary, and theological traditions in Christian art and history.

ii) A generic heaven.

That’s what Lewis does. A verdant mountain range with rivers and waterfalls. Like a glorified national park.

The advantage of this approach is that heaven is supposed to be universally appealing to all believers. Likewise, fiction is a public art form. So it’s logical to select some stereotypically paradisean scenes.

iii) A designer heaven

However, one can take the opposite approach. A generic heaven might be a nice place to visit, but would you want to live there? Does it feel like coming home?

An alternative is a variegated heaven that’s adapted to what each saint finds individually fulfilling or meaningful. Person-variable.

iv) A gestalt heaven

Sometimes what we find mundane or heavenly is perceptual. It involves, not so much a change in our surroundings, but a change in us; a change in how we view our surroundings. To take one example:
One mid-afternoon when I was twenty-four years old, I walked by my apartment window, which framed a garden in the cemetery next door. I notice that the scene, which I had looked at often enough to pay no more attention, was somehow magically transfigured. Everything was self-shining as my eyes saw not the surface of things but through them. The trees and tulips were colored jewels, the air a clear crystal, the boulders (in the words of Ezekiel) stones of fire. The whole multicolored bliss was a sea of glass, each object a strained-glass window. A preternatural brilliance, a slowly breathing radiance, intense yet painless, the essence of beauty, suffused everything; and a thought arose in my mind: the expulsion from Eden was only a dimming of vision; we are even yet in paradise.
D. Allison, The Luminous Dusk, 49. 

Michael Licona And Craig Keener On The Historicity Of Miracles

Brian Auten has linked to an interview Michael Licona conducted with Craig Keener on the historicity of miracles. Both men are New Testament scholars who have studied the historicity of miracles in Biblical and post-Biblical times. Keener recently completed a book on the subject that's more than a thousand pages long. They mostly discuss miracle accounts from this generation, but also some from earlier post-Biblical generations. The accounts of modern miracles that they discuss include resurrections and nature miracles and some miracles they witnessed. They address some of David Hume's objections and discuss some of their interactions with scholars who are skeptical of miracles. They also discuss why miracles don't happen in some situations.

The book that would understand me

From Emile Cailliet (in Eternity Magazine, July 1974):
I was born in a small village of France and received an education that was naturalistic to the core. This could possibly have had a great deal to do with the fact that I did not even see a Bible before I reached the age of twenty-three.

To say that this naturalistically inspired education proved of little help through front-line experiences as a lad of twenty in World War I would amount to quite an understatement. When your own buddy - at the time speaking to you of his mother - dies standing in front of you, a bullet in his chest, what use is the sophistry of naturalism? Was there a meaning to it all?

One night a bullet got me, too. An American field ambulance crew saved my life and later the use of a badly shattered arm was restored. After a nine-month stay at the hospital, I was discharged and resumed graduate work.

During my stay at the American hospital, I had married a Scotch-Irish girl whom I had met in Germany on Christmas Eve the year before the war had broken out. She was, and has always remained, a deeply evangelical person. I am ashamed to confess that she must have been hurt to the very core of her being as I made it clear that religion would be taboo in our home. Little did I realize at the time that a militant attitude often betrays an inner turmoil.

I had returned to my books, but they were no longer the same books. Neither was my motivation the same motivation. Reading in literature and philosophy, I found myself probing in depth for meaning. During long night watches in the foxholes, I had in a strange way been longing - I must say it, however queer it may sound - for a book that would understand me.

But I knew of no such book. Now I would in secret prepare one for my own private use. And so, as I went on reading for my courses I would file passages that would speak to my condition, then carefully copy them in a leatherbound pocket book I would always carry with me. The quotations, which I numbered in red ink for easier reference, would mead me as it were from fear and anguish, through a variety of intervening stages, to supreme utterances of release and jubilation.

The day came when I put the finishing touch to "the book that would understand me," speak to my condition, and help me through life's happenings. A beautiful, sunny day it was. I went out, sat under a tree, and opened my precious anthology. As I went on reading, however, a growing disappointment came over me. Instead of speaking to my condition, the various passages reminded me of their context, of the circumstances of my labor over their selection.

Then I knew that the whole undertaking would not work, simply because it was of my own making. It carried no strength of persuasion. In a dejected mood, I put the little book back in my pocket.

At that very moment, my wife - who, incidentally, knew nothing of the project on which I had been working - appeared at the gate of the garden, pushing the baby carriage.

It had been a hot afternoon. She had followed the main boulevard only to find it too crowded. So she had turned to a side street which she could not name because we had only recently arrived in town. The cobblestones had shaken the carriage so badly that she had pondered what to do. Whereupon, having spotted a patch of grass beyond a small archway, she had gone in with the baby for a period of rest.

It turned out that the patch of grass led to an outside stone staircase which she had climbed without quite realizing what she was doing. At the top, she had seen a long room, door wide open. So she entered.

At the further end, a white-haired gentleman worked at a desk. He had not become aware of her presence. Looking around, she noticed the carving of a cross. Thus she suddenly realized that this office was a part of a church building - of a Huguenot church edifice hidden away as they all are, even long after the danger of persecution has passed. The venerable-looking gentleman was the pastor.

She walked to his desk and heard herself say, "Have you a Bible in French?"

He smiled and handed over to her a copy, which she eagerly took from his hand; then she walked out with a mixed feeling of both joy and guilt.

As she now stood in front of me, she meant to apologize, but I was no longer listening to her.

"A Bible, you say? Where is it? Show me. I have never seen one before!"

She complied. I literally grabbed the book and rush to my study with it. I opened and "chanced" upon the Beatitudes! I read, and read, and read - now aloud with an indescribable warmth surging within. I could not find words to express my awe and wonder. And suddenly the realization dawned upon me: this was the book that would understand me!

I continued to read deeply into the night, mostly from the Gospels. And lo and behold, as I looked through them, the One of whom they spoke, the One who spoke and acted in them became alive to me.

The providential circumstances amid which the book had found me now made it clear that while it seemed absurd to speak of a book understanding a man, this could be said of the Bible because its pages were animated by the presence of the living God and the power of his mighty acts. To this God I prayed that night, and the God who answered was the same God of whom it was spoken in the book.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Public-Employee Unions

Thank God They're Wrong

Enjoyable EP:

Not to mention that it is my wife singing with her cousin!

[/service announcement]

Dawn Treader

I got around to watching Dawn Treader last night. Reviews led me to believe that while the film was not a fully successful adaptation of the novel, that it was a great improvement over the second installment, and a reasonably faithful adaptation of the original. However, I pretty thoroughly dislike the film.

But before commenting on the film, I’ll say a couple of things about the novel. A children’s novel is a bit of a paradox. A children’s novel is ostensibly told from a child’s viewpoint. It operates at a child’s level. But, of course, most children’s stories are written for children, not by children. At best, this reflects the attempt of an adult author to project himself into the mindset of a child. The adult may be drawing on memories of his own childhood. And the adult may have kids of his own who enable him to rediscover his own childhood. But there’s still a sense in which a children’s novel is really written from the perspective of an adult.

There’s also a point of tension in the original novel. On the one hand, the primary appeal of the novel lies in the plot device of a journey. The literal motion of the journey creates dramatic momentum and linear continuity. Discovering strange new worlds in the enchanted land of Narnia and beyond. This is augmented by the oceanic cruise. So you have that wide-open feeling, with the sun, sky, wind, and waves. Very bracing and liberating.

On the other hand, Lewis wanted to work into this plot device a redemptive subplot involving Eustace. But while that might be admirable in its own right, it distracts and detracts from the primal appeal of the oceanic voyage.

The only good things about the film are the dragonesque ship and the computer enhanced seascape, with its Turneresque sunsets. Well, there’s also a picturesque scene involving magical snow.

The role of Aslan is pared down from the original. In the film, he’s a Yoda-like figure, spouting Kung-Fu aphorisms. Mind you, I never cared that much for the character of Aslan. A talking lion isn’t the way I relate to Christ.

The restoration of Eustace is glossed over in the film. Here I can’t blame the filmmakers. In a kid flick, I wouldn’t expect them to depict Aslan skinning the dragon alive, then tossing a naked boy into a healing pool. That’s one of those things that works better on paper. The less you see the better.

In the novel, Lucy has a chance, using the Book of Spells, to overhear what a classmate said about her. Lewis uses this to expound on the dangers of gossip.

In the film, this is changed. Lucy now wants to look like her pretty, popular, older sister Susan.

I think that’s a psychologically valid alternative to Lewis, but it’s no improvement over Lewis. And it suffers from two additional liabilities:

Who’s the target audience for the film? Much of the film operates at the level of a Disney kid flick. But if that’s the target audience, then intruding the notion of sex appeal is off-the-mark. Is this a kid flick or a teen drama? It can’t be both.

Moreover, Lucy’s desire to be appealing to boys is treated as a wicked transgression. But surely that’s a natural, normal hankering for a girl her age.

This in turn leads to a jarring scene where Lucy walks straight out of the world of Narnia into the “real world,” where she’s dressed like a movie star from the 40s, with Swing music in the background.

But it’s hard for the viewer to mentally readjust to the world of Narnia after that meticulously fostered cinematic illusion was just exploded. The reentry is too abrupt.

The novel does more with the evocative notion of live, meteoric stars. That’s given short shrift in the film.

The film interpolates the notion that Jadis is still a temptress to Edmund. But that’s both dramatically gratuitous and dramatically implausible.

There’s also a subplot about restoring lost slaves, with the ubiquitous tearful reunion. This clutters the emotional rhythm of the original story, where fulfillment is structured into the physical quest for the “utter East.” The landscape does the work.  

Then there’s the Dark Island. In Lewis, this is a living nightmare. Where dreams come true. That’s something you can’t control. Once you’re sucked into that world, you can’t retrace your steps. You never find the way back to reality. You just go from one scene to another in your episodic nightmare.

In the novel, the ship tries to paddle away, but it’s overtaken by the delusive power the Dark Island. Each sailor is about to be enveloped by his private dreamscape, which isolates him from every other sailor. Unless Aslan intervenes, they will be lost in the labyrinth of their own fervid minds.

But in this film this is eclipsed by a battle with a sea monster. Here the novel was far superior.

Yet the worst is yet to come. Lewis clearly put a lot of thought and effort into the final two chapters of the novel. It’s carefully, steadily paced to build to a sublime conclusion. The rising sun is larger and brighter every day. The seawater becomes liquid sunshine, restoring one’s youth. There’s a mood of stillness and solemnity. Tremulous anticipation. You also have the scented water lilies. Songbirds with human voices.  And the musical breeze. It’s my impression that the final chapter also contains an allusion to the epilogue of John’s Gospel.

Lewis is striving to create a cumulative effect by many brushstrokes. For the film to have the same impact, it has to reproduce, as much as possible, as best as possible, the totality.

As I visualize his geography, the Silver Sea terminates in a standing wave. That’s the last wave.

Normally, there is no last wave. You have a succession of waves breaking on the shore. But Lewis wants to explore the paradox of a last wave.

Over the last wave, as I visualize his geography, is a narrow coastal plain, wedged between the standing wave and the edge of the sky.

Behind the sky, beyond the world of Narnia, is Aslan’s country. A high mountain chain.

Somewhere in-between is where the sun rises. This is one point where the novel’s logistics are fuzzy, or perhaps incoherent. Is the sun in front of the sky? In that case it would rise and set on the coastal plain behind the wave.

But that doesn’t quite work, for in that event the sun wouldn’t rise in the East everyday. Rather, it would alternate from East to West, and vice versa.

So perhaps the sun is behind the sky, and passes under the flat earth during the night. Yet the sky seems to form the barrier between the Narnian world and Aslan’s country, which lies outside the world of Narnia. But the sun is part of the Narnian world. So the sun ought to be inside the glass dome, not outside the glass dome. Within Narnia, not between Narnia and Aslan’s country.

I also assume that, in the novel, it’s not possible to walk straight into Aslan’s country from Narnia. For the glassy sky forms a wall. There would have to be a door, maybe with a sentinel or porter, to guard the entrance and allow qualified wayfarers to pass through.

From what I can tell, Lewis is having to fudge the details of his flat-earth cosmography. And I can understand if that created a problem for the director.

Still, the final chapters were quite important to Lewis. I think it represents his effort to depict sehnsucht.

In the novel, you can see the sun through the wave at dawn. And due to the lighting conditions at dawn, you can see past the sun into Aslan’s land. After the sun has risen, the world behind the world fades from view.

It’s certainly possible for CGI to capture this effect. And it represents a serious artistic failure on the part of the director not to honor the vision of Lewis at this climatic juncture. It weakens the dramatic impact of the film. An epic adventure with an anticlimactic ending. 

In the film, we don’t have a final wave that comes to a halt at the shoreline. Instead, you have a narrow beach, with the sea on one side, and the standing wave on the other. This makes no sense, even in terms of Narnian cosmography. And in the film, they never get a glimpse of Aslan’s country.

Then, in the novel, after Reepicheep goes over the wave, Lucy and Edmund walk along the shallows until they reach a strip of beach, with a narrow coastal plane between the beach and the end of the world, where the sky comes down to ground level.

Once again, I think the directions are vague and probably incoherent at this point. I don’t visualize how Lewis can simultaneously make Lucy and Edmund walk away from the wave, walk to the beach, then walk to the edge of the world–above the beach. Seems to be it would all be connected. The standing wave would be conterminous with the coastline. And you’d have the same coastal plain behind the wave. So I suspect this is another point at which Lewis is fudging on the logistics of his world.

Nevertheless, he wants to have fun with the notion of what it might be like if the world were flat, so that you could walk to the edge of the world. The optics of a flat-earth cosmography.

And it’s a pity that the director can’t bring himself to play along with the imaginative experiment. For the moviegoer would also enjoy that illusion.

What the movie gives us, instead, is a rushed, butchered version of the novel’s culminating scenes. That’s a lost opportunity. A botched opportunity. They had the chance to do something truly great, but settled for so much less.

What in Lewis is unforgettable is scarcely even memorable in the film. However, you can always read the novel.