Saturday, September 14, 2019

Dr. Craig: What Views that You've Defended are You Most/Least Confident in?

It's revealing that no theological position makes the cut of positions he's most confident about.

Dumb luck

I'll respond to Jayman's comments on my post:

I don't think "luck" and "chance" are substances; they aren't things that exist in their own right. We label outcomes we can't fully explain as the result of "luck" or "chance" but we have to keep in mind these are not true causes. They are admissions of ignorance.

Take the proverbial coin toss. The coin did not land heads-up because a substance known as "luck" or "chance" caused it to land heads-up. It landed heads-up up because of a variety of factors (launch angle, spin rate, gravity) that are too complex for us to identify precisely each time a coin is tossed in the air.

Evolution did not progress because "luck" or "chance" intervened. It progressed because of specific selection pressures, specific mutations, specific acts of procreation, etc. Because we are not in the position to know all of these causes throughout history we may chalk it up to "luck" or "chance" but we have to keep in mind that we say this because we are ignorant of the precise causes, not because "luck" and "chance" are true causes.

All of this is to say that "luck" and "chance" should not be on the table as real causes for anything. The main question, I believe, is whether the causes we see operating point to a first cause or not.

Friday, September 13, 2019

The wasteful work of nature

This post is primarily about theodical challenges posed by theistic evolution, but I'll use Darwin's statement as a convenient frame of reference:

What a book a devil's chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel work of nature! 

A. Some apologists respond this type of objection by saying the atheist is illicitly assuming a God's-eye viewpoint. "If I was God, I'd do it this way instead!" 

They counter that you're not God, you're not omniscient, so you're not entitled to assume a God's-eye perspective. For all you know, God may have lots of reasons that don't occur to you. 

This response is usually deployed in response to the argument from evil. And it has a grain of truth, but it's too lax and facile to be a general principle. The danger lies in defending truth by a principle that shields falsehood from scrutiny. A Christian apologist should avoid recourse to arguments to protect Christianity that have the side-effect of protecting cults and false religions. 

For instance, suppose a Christian apologist says Joseph Smith has all the earmarks of a charlatan. Suppose a Mormon counters that for all we know, God might choose someone like Joseph Smith. 

Catholics say the church of Rome is the One True Church founded by Jesus Christ. Evangelicals looks at Rome and exclaim, "Is that the best God could do?" If that's a church which enjoys special protection from error, what does a church look like that doesn't enjoy special protection from error? 

But the Catholic counters, you're illicitly assuming a God's eye perspective! 

Suppose a Christian apologist says it would be deceptive for God to save people through divergent religions that make contradictory claims. Suppose a universalist or religious pluralist counters: How presumptuous for you to divine God's mind and speak on his behalf!  

I'll have more to say about the principle further down.

The Enfield Levitations

Levitations are a prominent part of the Enfield case, and I've discussed some of them in other posts. I've said a lot about Janet Hodgson's levitation on December 15, 1977, for example, such as here and here. In another post, I discussed the famous photographs of Janet moving through the air in her bedroom, which skeptics often dismiss as Janet jumping off her bed. And I've occasionally addressed other levitation issues. But there's a lot more that ought to be said.

As I've explained before, people often apply the language of levitation to events that some people wouldn't place under that term. Some of the events might be classified as throwing instead, for example. But since these categories are so closely related, and they're often lumped together, I'll address all of them under the banner of levitation. And my focus here is on the levitation of people, not objects.

When I refer to Maurice Grosse and Guy Playfair's Enfield tapes, I'll use "MG" to cite Grosse's tapes and "GP" to cite Playfair's. For example, MG12B is tape 12B in Grosse's collection, and GP50B is tape 50B in Playfair's.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

What's the point?

1. I'll begin with some examples:

• In How Long, O Lord, Don Carson recounts how, as a young pastor, he witnessed a neighbor accidentally run over his young son as the father backed the car out of the garage.

• Somewhere, Robert Louis Dabney writes about a young woman he knew. He was clearly smitten by her. Regarded her as the full flower of Southern Christian womanhood. But she died of cancer. Not only did she die young, but because there were no painkillers back then, she died screaming. Screaming for weeks before she died. 

• Due to brain atrophy, some people, including some elderly Christians, become senile. 

• The 2-year-old boy killed by an alligator at Disney World. 

2. An atheist might ask, what's the point? What possible purpose is served by these kinds of evils? For that matter, Christians might scratch their heads.

In some cases we can roll out a soul-building theodicy. Caring for an elderly parent who's becoming senile can foster virtues in the grown child. And it may prove to the parent that he or she is truly loved, even after they become a "burden". 

But that doesn't work in all cases. In the case of the women who had cancer, it was so shattering to watch her suffer and die in that way that it might be religiously alienating to the survivors. 

Why does God allow Christians to become senile due to brain atrophy instead of ending their life before that cruel eventuality? 

At that stage, not only are the pain receptors useless to the cancer patient, but worse than useless. Worse than the disease itself. 

I don't know what happened to the boy who was run over. Did he die? Did it leave him physically disabled? Did it leave him mentally disabled? And imagine the guilt the father suffered. Likewise, the young boy killed by the alligator, right before the eyes of his father, who was helpless to save him. 

3. But this may be the wrong way of looking at the issue. At one level, many tragedies caused by natural evils are pointless. That is to say, they may serve no purpose with regard to the victim. In no sense was the victim a beneficiary of the calamity. 

But while, at that end, a particular outcome may be pointless, the conditions that made it possible are not pointless. We live in a cause/effect world. In terms of general utility, there's value to living in a cause/effect world, but an incidental consequence of that is that some events, individually considered, may be pointless. It wasn't good for the cancer patient to suffer unbearable pain in her final weeks of life. But that doesn't mean pain receptors are worthless. In general, they are quite useful–indeed, indispensable.  

Natural forces, processes, and mechanisms, as well as predators and pathogens, play a necessary role in a world governed by second causes and ordinary providence. The natural order, consisting of blind physical factors, doesn't have the wellbeing of individuals in mind. If I get soaking wet walking home from school in driving rain, that's "gratuitous" as far as I've concerned, but it hardly follows that rain is gratuitous. If I'm stung by a honeybee, that's pointless at my end, but it doesn't make honeybees pointless. 

A lawnmower is useful for cutting grass. If you run over your bare foot with the lawnmower, while the injury serves no purpose, it doesn't follow that the lawnmower serves no purpose. Rather, that's a side-effect of mowing the lawn. A wood chipper is useful for pulverizing branches. If you fall into a wood chipper, that's a pointless way to die, but it doesn't make the wood chipper a pointless device.

Many antecedent conditions have general utility, which justifies their existence, even if they sometimes produce pointless results. Their value or justification doesn't lie in every particular outcome, but by providing a field of action which is the source of many goods. Nevertheless, it can be aggravating, agonizing, or maddening to be on the wrong end of these conditions.

4. It might be objected that even if this is true, God can intervene to prevent the tragic side-effects. Indeed, but we need to make allowance for two other considerations:

i) Just about every event triggers a chain-reaction. And if it didn't happen, there'd be a different chain-reaction. Some other precipitating event would take its place. While God can and sometimes does intervene, that must be counterbalanced by the long-range impact of divine intervention. When God intervenes, it doesn't merely change one variable, but changes successive variables. 

ii) In a fallen world, God withdraws certain providential protections which humans would otherwise enjoy. That's a cost of living in a fallen world. The world to come will restore a degree of special providence missing in a fallen world. 

iii) A clockwork universe is the default setting of the physical universe. Prayer can break through that, but many prayers go unanswered. 


Along with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens was the most prominent atheist of his generation. For me, he was an orator, bluffing his way through debates about Christianity by appeal to sentiment and zippy one-liners. 

Atheists pride themselves on their superior rationality, but human beings aren't logic boxes. Emotion and experience are powerful factors which predispose us to or against religion. Christopher had an emotionally distant relationship with his father. He was a Navy brat with a nomadic childhood. He spent more of his formative years away from home in boarding schools, where he indulged in adolescent homosexual trysts. His spirited but restless mother, whom he clearly adored, had abortions and affairs, culminating in suicide. 

From the ages of eight to eighteen I was to be away from home for most of the year and the crucial rites of passage, from the pains of sexual maturity to the acquisition of friends, enemies, and an education took place outside the bonds of family. 

And I, well, I was impatient to outgrow my family and fly the nest, and in the vacations from Oxford as well as after I graduated and moved impatiently and ambitiously to London, I didn't go home any more than I had to. 

It was also at about that time–throwing all caution, as they say, to the winds–that she told me she had had an abortion, both before my own birth, and after it.

And I still have a rather sharp pang whenever I come to that corner of Shaftesbury Avenue where I kissed her goodbye, because she had been absolutely everything to me in her way and because I was never ever going to see her again. 

…she telephoned me in London (and this is certainly the last time that I was to hear her voice)…and though I didn't know it, we bid farewell. I would give a very great deal to be able to start that conversation over again. 

…I was lying in bed one morning with a wonderful new girlfriend when the telephone rang to disclose, as I lifted the receive, the voice of an old girlfriend…Did I know where my mother was? Had I listed to that morning's BBC news? No. Well, there was a short report about a woman with my surname having been found murdered in Athens. I felt everything in me somehow flying out behind my toes. What? Perhaps no need to panic, said Melissa sweetly. Had I see that morning's London Times? No. Well, there was another brief print report about the same event. But listen, would there have been a man involved? Would this woman called Hitchens…have been traveling with anybody? Yes, I said, and gave the probable or presumable name. "Oh dear, then I'm very sorry but it probably is your mum." 

My mother had not been murdered. She had, with her lover, contracted a pact of suicide. She took an overdose of sleeping pills, perhaps washed down with a mouthful or two of alcohol…I shall never be sure what depth of misery had made this outcome seem to her the sole recourse: on the hotel's switchboard record were several attempted calls to my number in London which the operated had failed to connect. Who knows what might have changed if Yvonne could have heard my voice even in her extremity? I might have said something to cheer or even tease her: something to set against her despair and perhaps give her a momentary purchase against the death wish.

A second-to-last piece of wretchedness almost completes this episode. Whenever I hear the dull world "closure," I am made to realize that I, at least, will never achieve it. This is because the Athens police made me look at a photograph of Yvonne as she had been discovered. I will tell  you nothing about this except that the scene was decent and peaceful but that she was off the bed and on the floor, and that the bedside telephone had been dislodged from its cradle. It's impossible to "read" this bit of forensic with certainty, but I shall always have to wonder if she had briefly regained consciousness, or perhaps even belatedly regretted her choice, and tried at the very last to stay alive. 

At all events, this is how it ends. I am eventually escorted to the hotel suite where it all happened. The two bodies had had to be removed, and their coffins sealed, before I could get there. This was for the dismally sordid reason that the dead couple had taken a while to be discovered. The pain of this is so piercing and exquisite, and the scenery of the two rooms so nasty and so tawdry, and I hide my tears and my nausea by pretending to seek some air at the window. And there, for the first time, I receive a shattering, full-on view of the Acropolis…The room behind me is full of death and darkness and depression, but suddenly here again and fully present is the flash and dazzle and brilliance of the green, blue, and white of the life-giving Mediterranean air and light…I only wish I could have been clutching my mother's hand for this, too.

Yvonne, then, was the exotic and the sunlit when I could easily have had a boyhood of stern and dutiful English gray. She was the cream in the coffee, the gin in the Campari, the offer of wine or champagne instead of beer, the laugh in the face of bores and purse-mouths and skinflints… C. Hitchens, Hitch-22: A Memoir (2010). 

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Underinterpretation and overinterpretation

From Dark City to the New Jerusalem

In this post I'd like to explore two interrelated themes. Although they're not intrinsically interrelated, it's useful to compare them.

In the scifi film Dark City (1998), as I discern it, aliens have abducted a group of humans. Seems to comprise the population of a small town (hundreds or a few thousand). They've transported the humans to an experimental menagerie in outer space. The aliens are telepathic. In addition, they've constructed machines that amplify their telepathic abilities. The machines can change states of matter. Using this metamorphic technology, the aliens create and recreate cityscapes based on the garbled memories of the human captives. 

The protagonist, John Murdoch, is telepathic, too. It may be a latent ability, but his experience in the penal colony is a catalyst for his telepathy to assert itself. At the end of the film, he defeats the aliens. He is now in a position to create scenery more to his own liking. 

Watching this makes me think, if I was trapped on the penal colony in outer space with that many inmates, and I had the freedom to create an artificial setting, what would that be? What's my preference? 

Now let's segue to a parallel. In Rev 21-22, John describes a vision of the New Jerusalem. It's tricky to visualize because the description is a montage of two different motifs: the new Eden and the New Jerusalem. A park-like city. 

One question that raises is that if you were a director, filming Revelation, how would you visualize the scene? What would you show the audience? 

Another question is what the original audience was expected to imagine. On the one hand, no one in the original audience had ever seen the original Eden. What that looked like is an educated guess. If it was located in lower Mesopotamia, the garden of Eden might be on a fluvial island. If it was located in upper Mesopotamia, it might be a vale in a mountain cove. 

Whatever the original setting, it seems highly unlikely that the garden of Eden was the most beautiful place that ever existed. There's fierce competition for that distinction. There are many fabulously scenic locations around the world. And there's no one most beautiful place, because there are different kinds of scenic landscapes, towns and cities. It would be fascinating to step into a time machine and see the original Eden, but would it be your favorite place to live? 

Some of John's audience had seen Jerusalem. But with all due respect, Jerusalem is very far from being the world's most beautiful city. The religious or nostalgic appeal of Jerusalem, especially for gentile Christians, has more to do with the idea of Jerusalem rather than the reality. If the new Jerusalem actually looked like the earthly Jerusalem, that would be quite a let down. 

When we think about the world to come, what what do we envision in our mind's eye? What would be ideal? Where would you like to live in the world to come? Do you have a concrete image? A particular setting? 

Analogously, if you were Murdoch, what setting would you choose for yourself and your fellow captives? Humans wax nostalgic for a lost golden age, but what makes it golden? No war. No suffering. No mortality. But what about the setting? 

Would it be more urban or more pastoral? Like Venice? Or an Alpine meadow? Like a tropical island? Or the Redwood forest? 

A conservatory combines urban and bucolic elements. An arboretum under glass. It might include an aviary with songbirds. It might have streams and ponds. 

What about a church? What style? Byzantine? Gothic? Romanesque? 

If Gothic, English Gothic (e.g. York cathedral, King's College Chapel) or French Gothic (e.g. Amiens, Notre-Dame de Reims, Sainte-Chapelle)? 

Surely the world to come won't have less worship than in the here and now. So places of worship make sense. 

Would you simulate the four seasons? Would you simulate day and night, sunrise, sunset, a full moon, solar eclipse, lunar eclipse, the Morning/Evening star, comets, and meteors? Would you simulate rainbows and the Northern lights?  

Here's another complication: in the Dark City hypothetical, Murdoch must create a uniform setting for everyone. But there's no one-size-fits-all ideal. People like different kinds of scenery. There is no one favorite place for everyone. So what if the world to come is more customized? As I've often argued, hell may well be customized, and by the same token, the new earth may well be customized. 

Of course, we can just wait and see. But cultivating heavenly-mindedness includes reflection and self-examination on what we think is ideal. What is best for you and me? 

The reality may take us by surprise. The reality may be far better than we can hope for or imagine. But that means there's no risk of disappointment if we begin our contemplations now. If they fall short of what's to come, so much the better. 

Home rule for Narnia!

Lord Aslan,

We the people do earnestly petition thee to liberate Narnia from usurpers to the throne. Having lost the British Empire in their own world, the Crown now seeks to colonize Narnia. The Pevensie siblings are grifters and carpetbaggers. They rule over us without our advice or consent. Rather than learning the dialects of Narnia, they expect everyone to speak "the King's English". They drain our natural resources to sustain their ostentatious lifestyle at castle Cair Paravel. 

When she first arrived, Lucy was sweet and modest, but she's taken on royal airs. Fancy hairdos and evening gowns. Jewels. Pedicures and manicures. And don't let us get started on her vain gossipy sister.

"High King" Peter is drunken lout who whiles away the hours in gambling and blood sports–while his randy younger brother Edmund cavorts with the wood nymphs and water nymphs. 

We plead with Thy Divine Majesty to succor us in our distress and rid our land of English imperialism. Cast off the yoke of foreign oppression! End the occupation!

Thy royal subjects and servants,
• Badgers
• Bears
• Beavers
• Deer
• Foxes
• Hedgehogs
• Mice
• Moles
• Otters
• Rabbits
• Squirrels

To be deep into Catholicism is to cease to be Catholic

It all began with a picture

At first I had very little idea how the story would go. But then suddenly Aslan came bounding into it. I think I had been having a good many dreams of lions about that time. Apart from that, I don't know where the Lion came from or why He came. But once He was there He pulled the whole story together, and soon He puled the six other Narnian stories in after him. C. S. Lewis, "It All Began With a Picture…" Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories (Harvest Books 2002), 42.

The Chronicles of Narnia are immensely popular and immensely influential fiction for kids. And that's more significant now than it was at the time–given the increasing antipathy to the Christian faith in contemporary Western society. Mind you, it would lay a firmer foundation if kids got their theology from Bunyan (The Pilgrims Progress, The Holy War)–in contrast to the "mere Christianity" that Lewis allegorizes in The Chronicles of Narnia. Nevertheless, The Chronicles of Narnia probably expose many unchurched children to rudimentary Christian theology–planting seeds to bloom later on. 

It's interesting that the stimulus wasn't just mental images, but dreams. Given the new covenant promise in Acts 2:17-18, perhaps this was a revelatory dream. Maybe God gave Lewis that key character because the resultant novels would have a generally salubrious effect in reaching many for the Gospel, or preparing their minds. God uses vessels of clay to achieve his aims. 

Myth and magic in The Chronicles of Narnia

1. Especially with the popularity of the Harry Potter books and movies (although that fad may have waned), the role of magic in The Chronicles of Narnia is somewhat controversial. (Mind you, I haven't read the Harry Potter books.) In addition, the role of magic in The Chronicles of Narnia intersects with the role of myth. 

2. Consider stock characters from Greek mythology (e.g. satyrs, centaurs, minotaurs, dyads, naiads, Baucchus, Silenus). That's a lazy creative shortcut. These creatures belong to a different fictional world history. They are products of Greek mythology. They belong to the fictional universe of our own world. It would be preferable for Lewis to invent characters that reflect the implied world history of Narnia. 

Lewis might counter that in the world of the story, what's mythical in our world may be real in another world. In principle, that's a legitimate approach for a fantasy writer to take. Even so, there needs to be a consistent backstory to explain their existence in another world. They can't just be abducted from our world, then stuck into another world. These creatures arise in a polytheist or animist context. 

3. That said, this isn't entirely ad hoc on Lewis's part. He may well include these characters to illustrate his view that in divine providence, pagan mythology is a preparation for the Gospel. 

Of course, that sympathetic outlook is at variance with how the Bible views pagan mythology, but my immediate point is that from Lewis's perspective, this isn't just a creative shortcut but a matter of principle–even if his principle is misguided. A considered judgment on his part. 

The relation between (2)  & (3) exposes a point of tension in Lewis. He sacrifices artistic consistency at this juncture to illustrate myth becoming fact. 

4. In defense of Lewis, consider the character of Tumnus. When a satyr is the first character Lucy encounters, this shows Lucy, as well as the reader, not only that the wardrobe is a portal to another world, but a different kind of world. If what she discovered was an alternate Oxfordshire or parallel London, where everything belongs to the same kind of world, then that wouldn't have the same effect. Making Lucy meet a satyr on first contact is an economical way for Lewis to show the reader that Narnia is truly out of this world. In a way, he makes the same point with talking animals, but the satyr adds an exotic visual touch. 

5. In the world of Narnia, magic isn't equivalent to witchcraft. What is magic in our world is natural in Narnia. It's a different kind of world with different laws. 

The White Witch is no exception, because she's an intruder from another world. Her kind of magic wasn't native to Narnia. Rather, witchcraft is like an invasive species. 

And, of course, the world of Narnia has a Christian subtext lacking in the Harry Potter novels. So it's not comparable in that respect. 

6. In fairness to Lewis, we should judge the novels by the standards of children's literature. They don't have and can't have the same literary sophistication as adult novels like Until We Have Faces or Perelandra

In addition, Lewis was learning the ropes when he began the series. Honing his craft as a fiction writer. Moreover, he was breaking new ground in the genre. So they have a certain experimental charm that would be lost if he wrote them after gaining greater experience in the art and craft of fictional narration. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Christian frame tale

In this regard, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe poses a complication by virtue of being a framed story. The central action, consisting of what happens in Narnia, is set within a realistic frame of the four children's lives in the real world before and after they enter Narnia. Many stories are set within an external framework like this, and virtually all journeys into an imagery land follow this pattern. L. Ryken & M. L. Mead, A Reader's Guide Through the Wardrobe (IVP 2005), 77. 

1. The same genre is also called a frame tale or frame narration. A story within a story. Analogous plot-devices include time-travel, where an individual travels back and forth from his own time to the past or future, and the wormhole, where an individual travels back and forth from his own universe to a parallel universe. It's striking that the frame tale is so popular. That bears witness to a spiritual hunger, even among unbelievers, for a greater and better reality beyond our sublunary existence.

2. From a theological standpoint, what's interesting about this genre is that it mirrors the Christian worldview. Bible history and eschatology is like a frame tale: our universe is nested within the external reality of the heavenly realm (God, saints, angels), on the one hand, and hell, on the other hand. Outside agents enter and leave our world. The devil and demons leave hell (or the intermediate state) to enter our world. Angelic emissaries leave heaven to enter our world, then depart. And the culmination of the Christian frame tale is the Incarnation, where God leaves heaven to enter our world, then returns to heaven. The Christian worldview is the Ur-text of the frame tale genre. 

Body and soul

The hard problem of consciousness is the best-known philosophical argument for substance dualism, but here's another argument by the eminent American philosopher Roderick Chisholm:

In metaphysics, he held the view that ordinary objects (tables, chairs, etc.) are ‘logical fictions’, and that what exists “in the strict and philosophical sense” are parcels of matter. Parcels of matter cannot lose parts and continue to exist as the same things, according to Chisholm. But what we think of as ordinary objects are gaining and losing parts all the time, he noted. Some molecules that once composed the table in front of me no longer do so. They have been chipped off, and the table worn away with time. The same holds for human bodies. They gain and lose parts all the time, and thus for Chisholm, human bodies don’t persist through time “in the strict and philosophical sense.” But persons – whatever they are – do persist through changes in the matter that composes a body. Therefore, he concluded, persons are not identical with their bodies, nor with any part of the body that can undergo change.

The realism of Jesus' dialogues in John

Mormon prayer and Marian prayer

There's a striking parallel between Mormon prayer and Marian prayer. When Mormon missionaries run out of arguments, and it doesn't take long for them to bottom out, their last-ditch appeal is a challenge to pray about the truth of Mormonism:

"And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost" (Moroni 10:4).

Years ago, when I used to talk to Mormon missionaries, I'd point out that there's no reason to think the Mormon god can hear and answer prayer. In traditional Mormonism, the first god in the Mormon pantheon was a deified man. He lives on the planet Kolob. So he's a humanoid divinity who receives information through the five senses, like human beings. As such, it makes no more sense for me to pray to the Mormon god than to Zeus or Thor or Krishna. Even if they existed, they are physical beings with finite knowledge. 

Prayer has a presuppositional framework. In classical theism, God is the absolute Creator. He subsists outside of space and time. He doesn't use sensory perception as a source of information. He doesn't learn anything. Rather, he made everything–directly or indirectly. In Calvinism, God knows everything that happens because he predestines everything that happens.  

When you excise prayer from that presuppositional framework and transplant it to a pagan framework, prayer loses the metaphysical underpinnings that make it feasible. The concept of efficacious prayer doesn't exist in a metaphysical vacuum. It needs something adequate to back it up. 

Even in Catholic theology, Mary remains a human creature. It makes no more sense to direct millions of daily prayers to Mary, in scores of foreign languages, than it does to pray to Zeus, Thor, Krishna, or the Mormon god. 

Conversely, if a Catholic apologist says that despite her humanity, Mary has superhuman cognitive abilities, then why can't a Hindu or Viking or Mormon postulate the same superhuman abilities in reference to their humanoid deities? 

Abortion and the breath of life

Presidential aspirant Pete Buttboy recently said:

[Pro-life people] hold everybody in line with this one piece of doctrine about abortion, which is obviously a tough issue for a lot of people to think through morally. Then again, there’s a lot of parts of the Bible that talk about how life begins with breath. Even that is something that we can interpret differently. . . . No matter what you think about the cosmic question of how life begins, most Americans can get on board with the idea of, ‘I might draw the here. You might draw the line there.’ The most important thing is the person who should be drawing the line is the woman making the decision.

1. What are the many ("lots") of Bible passages that say life begins with breath? I'm only aware of two explicit passages:

Gen 2:7

Ezk 37:1-14

i) These aren't discussing the inception of life in general. Gen 2:7 is about the creation of Adam. But that's unique. That's hardly the norm for human beings.

ii) The Valley of Dry Bones vision is surreal. 

2. The word ruach means more than one thing: wind, breath, spirit. It's often a designation for the Spirit of God, although it trades on metaphorical associations with the breath of life. So it can denote the creative Spirit rather than "the breath of life". 

3. The Bible is addressed to a prescientific audience in which cessation of breathing is a criterion for death. And, indeed, that's still the case outside of the E.R.

4. That's a roughhewn criterion for people who are born (e.g. 1 Kgs 17:17). Prenatal life is not in view. 

5. If you wish to get technical about it, while babies in utero don't breath, they require oxygen:

6. If the absence of breathing is a justification for abortion, then by parity of argument we shouldn't attempt to resuscitate people who stop breathing as a result of drowning, cardiac arrest, &c. Likewise, we shouldn't put patients on ventilators who can't breathe on their own. 

7. It's not surprising that an active sodomite like Pete Buttboy, who's "married" to a "husband," doesn't care about babies. He's in rebellion against natural normal family life. 

Monday, September 09, 2019

Why write fiction?

I can't speak for other fiction writers, but speaking for myself:

i) I've seen or read countless stories in my lifetime. Most of them from movies or episodes in TV dramas. Former generations got stories from an oral culture, or novels and plays. But in modernity, film and television are the mass medium for stories–although there are literary types who primarily consume highbrow novels and plays. And for boys, comic books are another source. 

When you're exposed to so many stories, it makes you curious to try your own hand at the medium. If so many other people are storytellers, maybe you have a knack for it, too. Or maybe you don't. There's only one way to find out. 

ii) While it's enjoyable to read or see someone else's stories, especially if it's well-done, nevertheless, you're just a spectator. When you read their story or watch their movie, they make all the creative choice for you. Which is fine. But in addition to that, you may have a hankering to make your own creative choices rather than having it all decided by someone else. Up to a point it's fine to be the passive recipient, but there are times when you'd like to make your own creative decisions. Indeed, seeing them do it is a stimulus for you to give it a go. 

iii) Apropos (ii), sometimes, when I watch a movie or TV drama, it contains a promising idea, but after I've seen it I take it in a different direction in my imagination. I can play filmmaker in the private movie studio of my mind, and edit someone else's movie, or provide an alternate ending that's more to my liking. Maybe the film had a striking idea, an interesting dramatic premise, but I don't think it was developed to its full potential. It leaves me dissatisfied, but there's enough to it that I run with it. 

iv) In the real world, we must take reality as it comes to us–the good and the bad, interesting and boring, fulfilling and disappointing. In fiction we have the freedom to be selective. We can isolate the things we like, extend them, and reconnect them with other things we like. It's like designing your own world, where you're in control of all the variables. In the real world we have to rush when we'd rather linger and savor the moment–or, conversely, slog through the tedium to get to something enjoyable. But a fiction writer can linger over a scene he likes, as well as skipping over stuff that doesn't interest him.

Mind you, these need to be balanced. Consider the stereotype of the guy who spends all his leisure time playing video games. He needs more reality, not less. 

v) Fiction is a way to interpret experience. What makes life meaningful? What's important in life? Fiction is a sorting process. Because life is a gift, we have a duty to reflect on the value of life, not just take it for granted and fritter away the allotted time. Fiction is an effort to achieve understanding. There's experience in the raw, then there's the significance of what we experience. 

vi) Finally, when I'm out on a walk, sometimes a story idea just comes to me unbidden. I wasn't planning to write a story. I don't do it for any deeper reason than the fact that I suddenly have an idea for another story. 

Is the Bible the final authority?

Recently I was asked to comment on this:

In fact, I already did:

But since the same article was once again brought to my attention, I have a few additional observations to make:

i) Ball fails to distinguish between a final interpreter and a final authority. There's a sense in which every reader of the Bible or reader of a a Bible commentary is the ultimate interpreter for himself. That's unavoidable. He will find a particular interpretation plausible or implausible, convincing or unconvincing. But there's no reason to recast that in terms of making him "the authority". "Authority" has the connotation of having authority over another or others, not having authority over oneself. 

I suppose you could say "I'm my own authority," yet that just means no one else has authority over me in that regard. But collapsing authority into each individual isn't what we normally mean by authority, since that normally requires a distinction between the subject of authority and the object of authority. If we collapse the distinction, then the word "authority" does no work. It adds nothing to the concept. You could more accurately say "It boils down to what seems true to me". 

ii) Or we could reframe the issue by saying that I'm ultimately responsible–which is different from saying that I'm the ultimate authority

iii) In addition, the fact that every reader is the ultimate interpreter for himself doesn't mean interpretation is necessarily arbitrary. Moreover, it doesn't mean the interpretation overrides the text.

To take a comparison: suppose I live in tornado alley. If a tornado siren goes off, or if I see a news report about a tornado in my neighborhood, I have to interpret the warning, but the tornado remains sublimely independent of my interpretation. If I recklessly disregard the warning, I may pay a terrible price. In a contest between the "authority" of the tornado and the "authority" of the interpreter, guess who's going to be the "final authority"!

Likewise, although there's a sense in which every reader is the final interpreter (for himself), that doesn't make him the standard of comparison–anymore than my interpretation of the tornado siren is the standard of comparison. No, the tornado remains the standard of comparison. 

Likewise, the meteorologist must interpret information about the tornado, viz. speed, velocity, trajectory. But there's something external to the weather report, and that's the tornado itself. Does the report correspond to the behavior of the tornado? That's the test. The reporter is not the criterion. 

iv) At the end of the day, exegesis isn't autonomous. It depends on divine providence. While we might say it's up to the reader which interpretation he find persuasive, that only pushes the question back a step: why does he find that interpretation more persuasive? Sometimes because it's has more explanatory power. Sometimes because there's better evidence for that interpretation.

But in back of that is the will of God for particular individuals as well as church history in general. Every reader is at the mercy of God's benevolence and providence. God protects some readers from more error than others.  

Yet that's out of our hands, so that's not something we ought to fret over. What we think is the result of something anterior to ourselves. So our concern should be to make conscientious use of the best resources that God has put at our disposal, which varies from individual to individual. 

The seventh position

The purpose of this paper is to focus, once morel, attention on a genealogical procedure which obtained among Hebrew chronographers2. Simply stated, this paper will hold that, in some cases, minimal alterations were made in inherited lists of ancestors in order to place individuals deemed worthy of attention in the seventh, and, to a much lesser extent, fifth position of a genealogical tree. 

It has often been noted that Enosh, third in position, was considered by S as a »repeater-of-birth« (to borrow a term from Pharaonic Egypt). His name meaning »man« appeared as a synonym of »Adam«. Hence he too was, in a sense, the founder of the human race12• It may be that the mysterious statement of 4:26 »It was then that men began to invoke YHWH by name« (which is attributed to ] by some and to P by others) was intended, at least partially, to highlight the primacy of Enosh even in the cultic beginnings of mankind. Enoch stands third in position in K. But in S, he is placed seventh. This change, almost certainly must have been due to the fact that important material concerning Enoch was remembered; »Enoch walked with God 300 years ... Enoch walked with God and then he was no more, for God took him« (5:22,24). As it is, except for an insertion to explain the name of Noah, one that is usually assigned to J, no other personality in S is provided with information. In placing Enoch in 7th position, S was forced to alter the succession of ancestors from the pattern he inherited. In this, he attempted to make minimal changes. Qenan/Qayin, Yered/Irad, Metuselah/Metusa'el, Lemek, and, to a certain extent, 'Adam were kept in their proper order. By exchanging the slots reserved for Enoch and Mahalal'el (K's Mehu/iya'el), S succeeded not only in placing Enoch in a favored position in the stock-genealogy of mankind's ancestors, but also in keeping Mahalal'el in 5th position, the same as that held by Melu/iya'el in K's line.

Biblical genealogists, as is argued here, often time display a definite predeliction for placing in the seventh-position personalities of importance to them. It is likely that such a convention was but one of many employed by ancient chronographers. In order to test this hypothesis, I shall apply its tenets to three major geneological trees preserved in the MT. A. The lines of Shem. Gen 11:10-26 preserves another table of ancestors which follows the pattern of »stock-genealogy« ten numbers deep. The line of last person in this list, as usual, spreads horizontally to divide into three branches. The great patriarch Abraham is reckoned as the seventh since Eber, the tenth since Shem and the twentieth since Adam. 

Gen 46:8-25 records the number of persons that descended to Egypt along with Jacob. Scholars have rightly stressed the »artificiality« of this list whose main aim is to present, somewhat imprecisely at that, the Hebrew as a community of 70 males (d. Ex 24:1-9; Gen 10; Num 11:16; Luke 10:1-17). The use of the number seven, and multiples thereof, is not unobtrusive. Rachel's descendants (7) and those of Bilhah (14) are added up to 21 (3 X 7); while those of Leah (33) and her maid Zilpah (16) are added up to 49 (7 X 7). It is not surprising, therefore, to note that Gad, whose gematria is 7 (gimel = 3; daleth = 4) is placed in seventh position. Furthermore, he is the only one in this list who is recorded as bearing seven sons. 

Lists (b) and (e). List (b- Gen 35:23-26) also places Joseph in seventh position. This list follows a strict order in naming the issues of Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah. It is interesting that without the linguistic and numerical elaborations which characterized the work of (a) and (c), there was no need to place Gad in seventh position. Freed from this exigency, the genealogist of (b) was pleased to record the sons of Rachel and those of her handmaid Bilhah, before returning to Leah's children through Zilpah. List (e- Ex 1:2-4) depended on (b). But due to the circumstances of the narration, it was necessary to mention neither Joseph's name nor those of his sons. The genealogist of (e) simply pushed up his tree one slot. In this instance, I do not attach much significance to Benjamin's occupation of the seventh position. 

Note, however, that in both (d) and (k), Dan occupies the seventh slot. That the seventh-position is favored in (d) is fairly certain for it is highlighted by a very unusual cri-de-coeur: »For your salvation I am waiting, oh Lord« (v. 18). Jack M. Sasson, "A Genealogical 'Convention' in Biblical Chronography" (1978), ZAW 90.  

This provides further evidence that the number seve often functions as a stock number in the Pentateuch. It has a numerological significance. And that, in turn, raises the question of whether the septunarian scheme in Gen 1 uses seven as a stock number rather than an actual calendar day. 

Segmented sleep

The present study is less a suggestion of any fresh finding in biblical matters than a plea that the awareness of a detail of premodern life be brought to bear on various biblical passages, namely, the pattern of segmented sleep. It is a matter that has been forgotten by those who benefit from artificial illumination, which is to say almost everyone in the modern world. 

Current research by physiologists, anthropologists, and historians has made it clear that the pattern of human sleep in preindustrial society has been strikingly different from the one now taken for normal…[Ekirch] There is every reason to believe that segmented sleep, such as many wild animals exhibit, had long been the natural pattern of our slumber before the modern age, with a province as old as mankind. Most notable is the fact that first sleep often ends with vivid dreams…distinguished by their narrative quality.

There are two similar parables about activity at midnight, of the wise and foolish bridesmaids (Mt 25:1-3) and the master home from the wedding feast (Lk 12:36-38). Both parables describe wakefulness and the preparation of a meal in the middle of the night.

Even the monastic practice of vigils (matins, prayer at midnight), which to us might be looked upon as an extreme asceticism, is better viewed as the community use of a normal sleep pattern…Praying in the middle of the night is a convention of the Psalms (Pss 63:7; 77:7; 119:55,62,148). W. L. Holladay, "Indications of Segmented Sleep in the Bible," CBQ 69 (2007). 

That's just a sample. The entire article is informative. And it sheds further light (pardon the pun) in a particular interest of mine: the biblical symbolism of light and dark. When, for example, modern readers study the references light and darkness, day and night, dawn and dusk, sun, moon, and stars in Gen 1, there's a myopic focus on units of light as units of time. Yet this motif had a much richer range of connotations for ancient Jews. And in this particular instance, the experience of sleeping and dreaming, which–not coincidentally–is a prominent theme in Genesis. 

Paper Notice: ETS Annual Meeting - San Diego

I will be giving the following paper at the 2019 Evangelical Theological Society Annual Meeting in San Diego, CA, November 20–22. Here is the title and abstract of the paper.

 Semantic Boundary Markers in Rev 12:1—15:4 and Structural Implications
This paper analyzes Rev 12:1—15:4, which is a neglected section in the Book of Revelation with respect to semantic boundaries and the implications for the larger structure of the book. This paper encourages viewing this unit as a parenthetical section pausing the judgment narrative at the completion of the trumpets septet, in order for John to develop major participants and events in the cosmic drama. After which, John picks up once again the judgment narrative with the bowls septet in Rev 15:5—16:21. This paper will identify signaling discourse devices in this section that indicate these semantic shifts. First, it is explained why this section's demarcations have not been agreed upon by scholars. Second, the question is explored of how John uses signaling devices to introduce major participants in this apocalyptic episode. Third, the semantic boundary markers are identified establishing Rev 12:1—15:4 as a unified, cohesive section, realizing a strategic function for John’s purpose. Fourth, previous interpreters are surveyed concerning this section as it relates to the larger structure of Revelation. Fifth, a fresh proposal is offered relating the unit to its immediate co-textual units and to the larger structure of Revelation. It should go without saying that no single instance of a discourse marker should be given absolute sufficient weight. It is the cumulative evidence of discourse signals that the interpreter must consider. In addition, some signals are more significant than others so there is a cline of importance.

Samuel Rutherford

A good little biography on Samuel Rutherford. Includes photos and other images.

The broad historical backdrop is the War of the Three Kingdoms (aka the British Civil Wars) including the English Civil War. These were civil wars between the royalists ("Cavaliers") and Parliamentarians ("Roundheads"). In the end it would lead to Britain becoming a constitutional monarchy.

Other significant historical events and persons which overlapped with Rutherford's life: the persecutions of the Scottish Presbyterian Covenanters (which, after Rutherford's death, would culminate in the Killing Time), the formation of the Westminster Confession of Faith (which Rutherford also worked on), Oliver Cromwell and the Cromwellian Protectorate.

Rutherford led a difficult life with much suffering (e.g. the death of his first wife at a young age, the death of most of his children, only one of his children would survive him, he was forced to leave his pastorate, he was forced to leave teaching at the university).

Here's a taste from the biography:

Not a great deal is known of his [Rutherford's] early years, his father was a respectable farmer, and Samuel had 2 brothers, George and James. They were all sent to a school in nearby Jedburgh abbey. When Samuel was about 4 he had a very dramatic experience. When he was playing with friends on the village green, he fell into the village well. His friends ran to get help and when they arrived they found a very wet Samuel sitting on the grass. When they asked how he got out, he just said – "A bonny white man came and drew me out of the well" – No one was ever to find out who this bonny white man was, but by God’s providence Samuel’s life was spared.

Sunday, September 08, 2019

The books that didn't make the Bible

The archetypal appeal of Catholicism

1. Archetypes 

Although I've probably done hundreds of posts on Roman Catholicism, there's a significant aspect of Catholicism that I've largely neglected (with a partial exception). And that's the archetypal appeal of Catholicism. Much of the popular or enduring appeal of works like Homer, Ovid, Dante, Beowulf, Shakespeare, Milton, Bunyan, Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and Ray Bradbury (to name a few) lies in their ability to harness archetypes. And that extends to lowbrow writers like Stephen King. The role of archetypes has been explored by scholars and thinkers like Freud (e.g. The Interpretation of Dreams), Jung, Northrop Frye (mythos), Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell. The current fad for Jordan Peterson has revived popular interest in archetypes. 

2. Definitions

Archetypes are recurrent patterns in literature and in life. These patterns can be images (such as light and darkness), character types such as the hero and the trickster) or plot motifs (such as the quest and the initiation). These recurrent patterns are the building blocks of the literary imagination. Writers could not avoid using them if they tried. 

Archetypes are a universal language. We know what they mean simply by virtue of being humans in this world. We all know experiences of winter and hunger, sibling rivalry and tyrannical bullies. One scholar speaks of archetypes as "any of the immemorial patterns of response to the human situation in its most permanent aspects," L. Ryken & M. L. Mead, A Reader's Guide Through the Wardrobe (IVP 2005), 41. 

[Eliade] People want to abolish history, which reflects only appearances, to touch the underlying reality that it can only dimly manifest. By defining a sacred space or sacred acts, one can uncover or reveal the real…Sacred or liturgical calendars repeat the act of creation as the gods performed it…They are thus exemplary models, human acts through which one relives the myths that give meaning to religious life. Reliving the myth abolishes time and puts one in touch with the real; hence, it is a sacred act. Rituals, or archetypal acts, allow one periodically to deny history and change. Thus, we have myths that confer meaning on life. Ritual allows us to "contact" the reality to which the myth refers. We enact exemplary models in our archetypal acts…A sacred calendar repeats creation or the experiences of the gods. Mary Jo Meadow, "Archetypes and Patriarchy: Eliade and Jung," Journal of Religion and Health 31/3 (Fall 1992), 188. 

My point is not to endorse every detail of Eliade's analysis. He may have been influenced by the concept of maya in Indian philosophy as well as the tragic history of his native Rumania. If your native land has a tragic history, there's a yearning to escape from time. But his analysis highlights the role of ritual and religious calendars, which has direct relevance to Roman Catholicism. 

Journey out of Hell


Erik, Derek, and Kyle were college students and roommates. All three were preacher's kids who lost their faith the first year of college. There they discovered each other and moved into the same dorm room. Kyle and Erik were hedonistic atheists. They spouted atheist tropes, catchy quips, and witty one-liners. Theirs was a chic, hipster brand of atheism. 

But Derek was different. Derek was hardcore. He needed something stronger than atheism. He graduated to nihilism, but that wasn't enough. He hated everything Christianity stood for. He found that he needed something stronger than nihilism. He needed a cause. So he graduated from nihilism to Satanism and witchcraft. Unlike atheists, he didn't want God not to exist. To the contrary, he wanted God to exist. If God existed, that meant Satan existed, and Derek wanted to be on the enemy side. Kyle and Erik could never figure out the source of his pathological antipathy to the faith. 

Derek had a miniature Baphomet in their dorm room. Kyle and Erik couldn't bring themselves to take it seriously. They hung underwear and jockstraps on the Baphomet, which enraged Derek. He organized a Black Mass and invited them to attend. For them it was too extreme. Things were getting out of hand. 

Derek began casting spells. At first, Kyle and Erik thought it was a lark…until bad things happened to teachers and students Derek hexed. That's when it got scary. They wanted to break off their friendship with Derek and kick him out of their dorm room but by then they were afraid of him. He was dangerous to be with, but more dangerous to snub.