Friday, January 30, 2004

Through Liberia by Lady Dorothy Mills

When I went to the library to find Land of the Magic Soldiers another title jumped out at me from a frail volume: Through Liberia by Lady Dorothy Mills. From its publication date of 1926 you can guess how patronizing Lady Mills could be. Her trip (Monrovia to Saniquelle to Sinoe) was at the time when the government was starting to coordinate a crackdown on Leopard Societies, and cannibalism wound up as a major theme of the book; with the Mano and Gio tribes indicted. (I remember Harley writing that each tribe accused its neighbors of it, but said their tribe never indulged--or at least not since very long ago.)

Her journey was without roads and without much in the way of maps, and her relations with the ever-changing roster of bearers ranged from the amusing to the vexed. Because the government would requisition unpaid labor for various projects, villagers tended to take to the bush when word came of somebody needing bearers--unless they had solid assurance of getting paid.

If you can get past some of the cringe-making generalizations (about coarseness or musical talent) it is an interesting snapshot of an era. It looks like the claim that Masonic and Poro mysteries are similar must come from before 1926. I remember that the Masons were big in Liberia, and The Mask of Anarchy claimed that many AmericoLiberian bigwigs also ranked high in the Poro. I wonder if they really are similar, and if that made it easier for the "civilized" bigwigs to join the Poro.

I'd not heard before of the old Departmental Regulations that allowed pawning relatives but not selling them as slaves. The distinction revolved around the presence or absence of a special token of jewelry or some such item of domestic value.

A pity her camera didn't work on closeups--or perhaps she always wanted to put her subjects within a setting. I'd have liked to see the people a little closer.

You probably won't be able to find this book, but it is interesting.

Silicon Valley vs NASA

Dennis Wingo writes in SpaceRef that in his judgment we can go to the moon with better and cheaper systems than before: calling the previous hardware "stone knives and bearskins." As examples he mentions the far faster and smaller computers available now, the much better alignment and positioning and inertial guidance systems.

All true. But he forgets four big problems.

  1. Reliability. Just because a computer works fine here on earth doesn't mean it is radiation-hard enough to work in space. How do you know if it works in space? You have to test it. Testing takes time and lots of money. Dennis says "1969 the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) sported the most advanced and compact computer built up to that time. " I'll bet it didn't--in fact I've heard the exact opposite. It was undoubtedly the best when it was built, but by the time the testing was done, the hardware would be behind the curve. Thing is, it was known to work, and the bleeding edge stuff wasn't.

    At some point the ever-smaller size of transistor gates starts to make them very sensitive to transitions or damage due to cosmic rays. (Our atmosphere blocks a lot of that.) If you want to use them in space you have to design for redundancy or for error checking to a degree not required for earthbound consumer electronics.

  2. Systems engineering. OK, you've got the parts. They have to fit together. If you get a newer/faster/cheaper part, it doesn't save you anything if you can't fit it in the old position. If chip A doesn't fit anymore, you've got a redesign problem on hand: maybe a big expensive one.
  3. Spare parts. Oops, maybe you don't have the parts. By the time you're done with systems engineering and testing, a few years have gone by. Where are you in the life cycle of the product? We've several boards we can't find components for anymore--and they're not very old... There are new products out there that do almost the same job, but their characteristics are slightly different, and they won't work.
  4. Where's the beef? Ok, so you can save a few hundred pounds in designing a new Apollo capsule. Very good, you can use that capacity for lofting the tools you need for digging a moon shelter. But how does the decrease in the price of an Ethernet card change the price of a rocket motor, or the price of the liquid oxygen tank? Some things are still quite expensive: engineering, testing, and the beef needed to put the gadgets in orbit.

Sure, I'd like to go to the moon. But I think Dennis is overoptimistic about the cost.

Monday, January 26, 2004

In the Land of Magic Soldiers by Daniel Bergner

My mother recommended this to me. Bergner tells the stories of several people, white and black, who love Sierra Leone and stayed with it through the horrors of the civil war. The Kortenhovens came to Foria from Grand Rapids as missionaries of the Christian Reformed Church. Neall came as a mercenary from South Africa ("He's a bit of a nutter," Captain Smith, the British spokesman said, . . . "But he single-handedly saved Freetown.") Lamin Jusu Jarka saw friends burned alive by RUF fighters, and C.O. Cut Hands chopped off Lamin's hands. Michael Josiah studied medicine at what was left of the national university, learned microbiology and physiology and wears a magic bullet-repelling belt from a Kamajor priest: his goal is to unite modern medicine with traditional magic and make Sierra Leone a center of healing for the world.

Race matters here. Many Sierra Leoneans wanted the British to recolonize them. But even the proud Lamin, eager to see the British gone and natives ruling themselves again answered "what made you fall in love with your wife?" with

"Well," he said, sounding almost surprised that I should need to ask, "you can see her color. She resembles as if she is a white woman. So I love her for that."

And yet race isn't really the issue. Bergner gets all the pieces together, but doesn't make the connection. On the one hand you have the discouraged British officers, whose initial enthusiasm eroded to almost racist defeatism ("They have the attention span of goldfish." "I'm not saying they're subhuman, but . . . "). On the other you have devotion to family, and the amazing way Joseph was able to rebuild a wreck into a school in three months.

The difference isn't racial, but cultural. To make Western machinery work you need a hierarchy of obedience. (To put down a prison uprising, the commander calls on a local officer to go get gas masks and other gear from storage. He goes off, finds a project more important to him, and never comes back.) You need a kind of abstract group-think, in which principles are more important than comfort.

The tribal attitudes are different, and in some ways more individualistic. The net of group obligations is different, more "personal." Magic and the spirits of things play a very large role as well. I am not expert enough to give a complete explanation, or to tell an accurate enough story; but if your life centers around placation of unknowable powers you won't ask a lot of questions or even assume you'll completely understand when faced with apparently unknowable powers centered in human beings: white men.

He spotted the 14.5 and 12.7 machine guns on trucks along the road. "Target visual," he told his crew. He rolled tight, banked hard, dived down, dozens of rebel soldiers running, scattering, looking from the air like "long swastikas," he thought, one arm and one leg bent and raised. He touched the black button. The gunship trembled, volcanic. Shrapnel dropped bodies without drama; the soldiers appeared simply to fall, as if tripped. "It's actually a bit of an anti-climax," Neall explained. He destroyed the trucks with their mounted guns. "It's not like the movies. When the rocket hits the vehicle there's no flash or cloud of smoke. Nothing shoots hundreds of feet into the air. I suppose if you hit the petrol tank it would be quite nice, but I've never had that privilege. You get a slight fire because there is some fuel around. And pieces start falling off the vehicle."

"If you can't take a joke," Neall muttered triumphantly in the cockpit, veering away from the rebel maimed, the rebel dead, "don't join the army."

And there's Komba:

Komba didn't show a great deal of remorse with me. He told me of a raid he and his boys had carried out for food-finding. There had been a man caring for a small child, and Komba had spared him, setting him free from the line of villagers who would be marched away at gunpoint, bearing looted goods to the West Side Boys' encampment. Later Komba and his crew had raided the same village. The man had launched himself at Komba, trying to wrestle away his gun. This Komba felt as a betrayal. When his boys finally pinned the man down, Komba told them not to shoot. "I operate on him with me ax," recalled the opening, the eating, as vindication.

. . . . (half the book later)

But now, if you needed your car fixed in the King Tom area of Freetown, you might easily have turned into a particular garage, and seen Komba leaning under a hood.

You couldn't have seen anything of his past. You wouldn't have seen anything out of the ordinary, only a young man, perhaps nineteen, among six or seven other apprentices, without tools, gazing longingly at engine parts, wishing they had the equipment and knowledge to fix them. The garage boss had little incentive to train them. . . . But the boss offered his teaching, and the chance to practice with his wrenches, at rare intervals. The education had the pace of a spiritual journey, led by a charlatan. Once each month, maybe, he imparted the workings of a single component. At this rate, Komba could declare himself a mechanic in about a decade. So far, he was sticking with it. More than a year had passed, and most days I went to look for him, he was there, waiting to learn.

Frustration, determination, and horror. This isn't a book for everybody.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004


Thanks to a battery check all the radio settings in my car are gone, so I tuned in a station I don't generally listen to. A woman who just wrote an article for The Nation (didn't catch the name) was answering softball questions about the No Child Left Behind act and its effects.

Claim: The act asserts that every child will be reading at grade level by 2014, regardless of recent immigration status or handicap. Ummm. Not a good way to start an argument.

Claim: The act requires the use of a Reading First curriculum, which scripts what a teacher is required to say. Umm. This sounds like overstatement, but isn't beyond the realm of possibility. One size fits all is bad. Very bad.

Claim: The act is a one-size fits all. I can believe bureaucrats can be that dumb. Not individually (usually), but certainly collectively.

Claim: The act "cannot be blamed on Texas and the Republicans," because it was created by a corporate/political committee in 1989 by Bush 1 and Arkansas governor Clinton. And everyone knows that Republicans are demons and Texas is hell :-)

Claim: One bad thing about the act is that Corporations (TM) supported it to make schools look bad so they could use vouchers and private schools and tutoring services to make lots of money. Even worse, by making people feel bad about themselves and their education, they won't complain as much when you ship their jobs overseas.

No, this wasn't Scrapleface; she meant it. Corporations to her are a magic monolith, all run from the same boardroom. That all the corporations I've heard of are desperate for well-educated workers means nothing to her; "Corporations" have a wicked agenda by definition, and what any good particular instance of a corporation may do doesn't matter--it must be a coverup.

Well, this is Madison.

Some wonderful ideas

India is sponsoring a foundation for innovations--the "small" inventions that don't get a lot of press but often get a lot of use. Hurray for the hackers!

Monday, January 19, 2004

Safety kills Hubble?

NASA claims that safety concerns mean no new Hubble missions. It sounds more like budget hardball: If you cut our shuttle funds, we'll kill the Hubble.

Saturday, January 17, 2004

Hidden Gospels How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way by Philip Jenkins

Has anybody not heard of the Gospel of Thomas? Or Q?

Q is for Quelle, the hypothetical collection of sayings of Jesus from which Matthew, Mark, and Luke drew much of their common material. Maybe it was a document or set of documents, maybe a set of oral traditions, or maybe Q is one of the existing gospels (just my wild idea).

A warning first: I found Jenkins' writing style a bit heavy. The way he organizes material doesn't always make it clear who the speaker is: whether it is him or one of the various groups of scholars he references.

That said, this book is badly needed. Reporters and publishers are more interested in novelty and shock and the resulting sales than they are in boring old accuracy. The Jesus Seminar is quite good at getting press coverage, despite their tiny numbers and extreme positions. This book helps show up the lies.

An example of how the Jesus Seminar works: to find out which sayings of Jesus are authentic, first they chucked anything supernatural. Then they chucked anything Jewish, on the grounds that these were background material, and not new--and Jesus would only be saying new things. Never mind that Jesus was a Jew, and almost every one of his listeners were Jews, so you'd expect Jewish ideas and idioms. As a result, they deprecated everything Jesus said in the Gospel of John, and almost everything in the other gospels as well. But they love Thomas . . .

Early church writers commented at length on various heresies they disputed with, so scholars have known all along that there were numerous documents which purported to be alternative gospels, and even had quotations from some of them. Most of these were written by one faction or another of the Gnostic movements.

Gnosticism apparently derived from mystical traditions of the Greeks and Egyptians, which were blended with Christian ideas to form Christian Gnosticisms. Their common central notion is that the world is evil, the soul is at least potentially pure, and can be liberated from bondage to the evil world and illusion by secret and sacred knowledge (gnosis, hence the name). They concocted chains of created creators to explain how an evil world could be created, and corresponding realms of existence and secret passwords to enter them. Because the world is evil, sex and childbearing were deprecated. They insisted on mystical interpretations of Jesus' life and sayings, rejecting a real crucifixion. They appeared rather late, with Gnostic schools flourishing from about 135 AD and later. Some sects were more successful than others--Valentinus' followers were still around at about 300 AD. Because they insisted on mystical interpretations, they had no compunctions about writing their own gospels--which they meant to be mystically true, albeit not literally true.

Discoveries over the past 150 years have recovered many of these documents. The largest of these seems to be that at Nag Hammadi. Not all of the documents are necessarily from Christian Gnosticism--"some have no words or names even loosely associated with Christianity," and there's part of Plato's Republic as well. Other texts include a Gospel of Mary, Thunder Perfect Mind, a Gospel of Philip, Pista Sophia [found and published a hundred years ago], and so on. Twenty of these are collected in The Complete Gospels.

The most famous of these 'gospels' is the Gospel of Thomas, known by fragments until its discovery sixty years ago. The Gospel of Thomas opens with the words "These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down." The obvious implication of the very first sentence is that the reader already knows of public sayings and stories of Jesus. Hence Thomas cannot be earlier than Q (in whatever form Q may have been). Thomas is a "sayings" book, and contains no history. It combines versions of known statements by Jesus (presumed to be from Q), statements that Jesus could have made consistently with orthodoxy, and gnostic parables and philosophy that are not only distinctly non-orthodox, but are plainly quite late--dating from at least AD 135 and probably much later. It has dialogs including Mary Magdalen or Salome, characteristic of "Gnostic texts of the late second and third centuries."

Yet the Jesus Seminar folks want it dated 50-70 AD and treated as an independent source, equal to Q (which nobody has seen, by the way) and superior to the canonical gospels. Somebody has an agenda here. They profess to discern "levels" in Q, some earlier or perhaps due to different witnesses.

I'd like to see their methods for unraveling the contributions to a text made by different writers at different dates tested in a double blind experiment. The fact that they often disagree with each other is strong evidence that textual criticism at that level is better classified as amusement than either art or science, but I'm willing to give them another chance. I can well believe that Thomas had several writers tinker with it, but that's a pretty dramatic case.

The Jesus Seminar group try to shoehorn various hypothetical gospels (Gospel of Signs) and fictional gospels (Gospel of Peter) and Gnostic gospels (Gospel of Thomas) into the first century, and push back the canonical ones as far (and farther) than they can--to give their pet theories about Christianity priority. And the theories they like say that early Christianity was non-doctrinal, non-liturgical, non-hierarchical, and woman-affirming. All but the last are known to be quite false.

The Nag Hammadi texts that caused such a great stir turn out, as Jenkins points out, to convey nothing revolutionary at all--merely more documents of types and nature already known. The speculative claims dressed up as scholarship about "many Christianities" and "egalitarian Christianities" are the same ones trotted out at the beginning of the last century. The newspapers and magazines cheerfully publicize noisy claims, but have no skill (or apparent interest) in putting them into scholarly context, or reporting when the claims are refuted. Old knowledge isn't news--fresh lies are. And so we have popularizations (From Jesus to Christ, The Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls, The Search for Jesus), all professing to be the voice of scholarship discovering a woman-centered Christianity with no hierarchy and no difficult doctrines or rules; but these popularizations actually represent the far fringes.

A sample: It is difficult to convey just how arcane the Gnostic scriptures are without quoting documents in full, particularly since they require knowledge of a whole mythological vocabulary, but here is a typical example from one of the Nag Hammadi texts, the Letter of Peter to Philip. The dialog begins when "the apostles answered and said, 'Lord, we would like to know the deficiency of the aeons and their pleroma.'" And: "How are we detained in this dwelling place?" Jesus replies,

First of all concerning the deficiency of the aeons, this is the deficiency, when the disobedience and the foolishness of the mother appeared without the commandment of the majesty of the Father. She wanted to raise up aeons. And when she spoke, the Arrogant One followed. And when she left behind a part, the Arrogant One laid hold of it, and it became a deficiency. This is the deficiency of the aeons. Now when the Arrogant One had taken a part, he sowed it. And he placed powers over it and authorities. And he enclosed it in the aeons which are dead. And all the powers of the world rejoiced that they had been begotten.

Yes, I've read the Gospel of Thomas. I've read the canonical four. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are tied to places and times. Thomas sails off into fantasy land. It doesn't take a genius to tell which is more reliable.

If you've been looking at some of these "alternative" gospels, or have friends who have, then get ahold of Hidden Gospels and find out some of the facts around the hype. If not: the executive summary is that the latest finds tell us a little more about second and third century Gnosticism, but nothing about first century Christianity--claims to the contrary notwithstanding.

UPDATE: The Jesus Seminar is run by an avowed atheist.

Friday, January 16, 2004

Signs of winning or losing

In Winds of Change Katzman asks for possible indicators that the WOT is going well, or going badly.

To clarify: When I refer to the War On Terror I mean the war against the AlQaida and allied groups with Salafi/Wahhabi goals. There are other terrorist groups and ideologies; and there are groups which could join forces with the Salafis against us, notably the Shiites. Recall that the current suicide bomber cult had its origins in Khomeini's Shiite theology. While it is true that the Wahhabis hate the Shiites, they both agree that we're infidels.

So, indicators that things are going well could include:

  • Somebody comes up with an elegant reply to Qutb. (This is a big deal. Qutb is the theorist for the jihad-ites, and his influence seems to be substantial. Somebody is going to have to put together and publicise, under Muslim auspices {they'll not listen to infidels} a thorough rebuttal and alternative view of Islam in the world. Since Qutb seems to have been a good writer this may be hard. But it is critical.)
  • More or less stable government in Kabul continuing to suppress Taleban forces. (I expect the occasional threat to secede, but so long as it doesn't last above a week or two it'll just be bluster for effect and not genuine revolt.)
  • Unarmed Iraqi citizens voting in town meetings.
  • A second set of national Iraqi elections without US oversight. (The first will be OK. After people have gotten together and done some serious arguing for a few years, we'll find out if they can actually get along.)
  • Change in mullah's role in Iran: from oversight to advisory only. (I have no idea how likely this is. I suspect media reports have systematic bias.)
  • Serious cooperation from the Saudis in tracing money flows. (Fat chance.)
  • A systematic change in the theology of the people the Saudis finance and hire to spread Islam: away from Wahhabi and towards a "moderate" Islam; preferably firing the existing imams. (Snowball's chance in hell.)
  • The Saudis disband and prosecute the muttawaa. (Back off from using religious police--a tangible moderation. If the royal family can agree that the clerics are too dangerous to support any longer, we might be able to make some long term peace with them.)
  • The Saudis make royal money matters public.
  • The Saudis official theological position asserts the nobility/sanctity of ordinary work. (If they can get ordinary Saudis to take entry level jobs, they can cut unemployment, and get rid of a lot of the foreign workers. This gives Saudi men something to look forward to besides 72 virgins, or perhaps a more peaceful way of arriving at those 72.)
  • Syria implementing a phased withdrawal from Lebanon.
  • A bloody civil war among Palestinian groups after Arafat's death. (Exhaust the proponents of the death cults and leave the average Palestinian tired of hateful and eager for some real builders.)
  • Successful civil war in Saudi Arabia prosecuted by Shiites supported by Iraq (and the US) against the Wahhabis. (Preferred outcome is a quick war depriving the Wahhabis of the oil revenue they use to spread jihadism. Stripping the Wahhabis of control of the holy cities also strips them of clout around the world. Better if the Hashemites get control back...?)
  • Local Muslim governments take up the slack for the madrassas which now lack funding from the Saudis; taking up oversight of the curiculum as well. (One hopes they'd add some non-religious courses, and cut out the jihadist elements.)
  • Democrat party adapts a non-appeasement plank. (From the looks of things for this election, they will field a non-WOT candidate. If so, and if they lose big in November, they may decide that patriotism is a better plank, and we could have some continuity over the next 20 years.)

On the other hand, we'll know things are going badly if
  • We continue to have no consistent philosophical opposition to Qutb. (Implicit materialism doesn't count--Qutb already addressed that.)
  • Afganistan partitions, and the Pashtun section of PackAfgan has the Taleban running things again.
  • The Iraqi Shiites want a mullah-ocracy like the Iranians.
  • The triple "I divorce you" is legal in Iraq.
  • The Saudis don't change anything substantial in their support for the ultra-hardline clerics.
  • The Jordanian government is overthrown by Palestianian groups.
  • Multiple coups in Egypt. (Chance of Muslim Brotherhood gaining power--very bad news.)
  • A bloody civil war among Palestinian groups after Arafat's death. (Each group tries to prove its legitimacy by being more anti-Jew and anti-American than the rest. Factions supported by different countries mean proxy wars.) Yes, I know this indicator appears in both lists!
  • Canada allows parallel sharia family courts for Muslims.
  • The US continues to allow Muslim recruiting in prisons.
  • The US allows Saudi money to fund Muslim enterprises of any kind in our borders.
  • The Democrat party maintains an anti-war stance. (If we lose continuity in fighting the war, we can lose big. And I don't trust a single party to stay honest without a little competition.)
  • American people start to lose focus on the war and its goals, and look only at casualties and costs. (We lose.)
  • Pakistan has a civil war. (They lose absolute control of their nukes that way. Some of their factions are very bad news.)
  • Nuclear war between India and Pakistan. (Chaos, precedent for using nukes on infidels, loss of allies in Pakistan.)
  • Russian mafia successfully market leftover nukes.
  • Non-Arab Muslim states start to supply more of the jihadis. (If we have the whole Muslim world against us, we have a very big problem.)
  • Home-grown jihadis kill more than a hundred people one year. (Raises deep questions about the limits of freedom of religion. There is precedent for banning certain religions.)
  • We lose a city to a nuke or bioweapon or shipload of ammonium nitrate (that's happened before). (In once sense that would be an obvious setback. But I worry that we'd go postal, and lose our souls the same way the Palestinians have.)

I could go on, but life is short.

For the Glory of God by Rodney Stark

In this (second volume of a set) book Stark (who also wrote The Rise of Christianity) sets forth the claim that it was largely impetus from devout Christians trying to do God's work that caused the rise of science in the West, witch burning, and the abolition of slavery.

The skeptical Encylopediasts of the Enlightenment thought quite highly of themselves, but the bulk of the scientific work was done by others, in a natural progression from medieval theology. A great deal of historical and polemical revisionism obscured this--most people have the wrong idea of what Galileo's offenses were, for instance; or buy into the polemical lie that people believed the Earth was flat before Columbus. (It seems the clerical advisers objected {correctly} that Columbus estimate for the Earth's radius was too small.)

Why witch-hunts? Wherever people believe in witches, witches are killed, but only in Europe were there hunts. Why? If the only sources of power are God or the Satan, and some people have supernatural power that isn't from God, what other choice could there be? The earlier Church was wiser, and held both witchcraft and believing in witchcraft to be offenses (making accusations a bit hard to manage). The infamous Spanish Inquisition turns out to have been far more interested in reconciling witches than burning them (very few died), and he finds most of the witch crazes happened in regions with little central political or religious control.

Some of those same supporters of witchcraft=Satanism were also devoted to the abolition of slavery. The vast majority of opponents to slavery were Christian, and opposed it on Christian theological grounds. Various popes issued bulls against it for centuries. Stark endeavors to show that slavery was less oppressive in Catholic America than Protestant America, but I'm afraid the numbers say otherwise. Only in the Protestant Southern USA did slaves actually multiply: everywhere else (including the Protestant British Caribbean) their numbers had to be maintained by continued importation. Islam did not, and could not, develop an anti-slavery theology--Muhammad owned slaves himself.

In an amusing note on a section about the effects of different religions on attitudes, he points to a study finding a positive correlation between frequency of prayer and personal ethics--except among Japanese or Chinese, who often expect tangible good luck from prayers. Some Chinese have been known to whip idols which failed to deliver on the prayed-for results.

The book was on hold for someone else, so I can't supply nice quotes. Stark shows what different philosophies can mean in terms of society and science, and documents a great deal of misinformation about the history of science. Read it.

Soul Survivor by Phillip Yancy How Thirteen Unlikely Mentors Helped My Faith Survive the Church

"I have spent most of my life in recovery from the Church" says Yancey. His home church he describes as racist, "fundamentalist," and contentious, and at the "burial" of his home church (disbanding because of falling membership in a changing neighborhood), he visualized against the crowd of alumni a "procession of those not present, people like my brother, who had turned away from God in large part because of this church."

Yet despite the failings (evils) of his home church, there was still something there. And despite the failings of the thirteen men who became his "mentors," he found evidence of God's grace in all. He eventually could forgive his church--and even himself.

If you recognize all the names in his chapters you're doing better than I, although I'd heard of the work of a few whose names I didn't know.

  • Martin Luther King, Jr. A Long Night's Journey into Day
  • G.K. Chesterton Relics Along the Seashore
  • Dr. Paul Brand Detours to Happiness (He found effective treatments for leprosy)
  • Dr. Robert Coles Tender Lives and the Assaults of the Universe (He wrote Children of Crisis documenting the life of the poor and rich in America) -
  • Leo Tolstoy and Feodor Dostoevsky Chasing Grace
  • Mahatma Gandhi Echoes in a Strange Land
  • Dr. C. Everett Koop Serpents and Doves in the Public Square
  • John Donne As He Lay Dying
  • Annie Dillard The Splendor of the Ordinary (a writer and poet)
  • Fredrick Buechner Whispers from the Wings (a preacher and writer)
  • Shusaku Endo A Place for Traitors (a Japanese writer, whose novels center on the betrayals during the time the Shoguns stamped out Christianity in Japan)
  • Henri Nouwen The Wounded Healer (a priest and writer who left writing to work with the handicapped)

For those who know Yancey's work, one common theme is what sense to make of pain, failure, and our own betrayals of what we ought to know and refuse to obey. Over and over again, despite the curses of oppression or poverty or disease, you can hear "Blessed are the poor." The Protestant circles I generally travel in don't talk much about the redemptive power of suffering. It seems odd that a curse we're called on to alleviate could also be a blessing: but then that's God for you--always able to outmaneuver circumstances.

Each of these "mentors" addressed something in Yancey's life. King's devotion to Christian nonviolence was eye-opening to Yancey, as he saw an "inferior" so clearly superior and prophetic. That King wasn't perfect doesn't mean he could not be a prophetic voice for our time--the Bible is full of imperfect servants of God.

From Chesterton he relearned joy.

It struck me, after reading my umpteenth book on the problem of pain, that I have never even seen a book on "the problem of pleasure." Nor have I met a philosopher who goes around shaking his or her head in perplexity over the question of why we experience pleasure. Yet it looms as a huge question: the philosophical equivalent, for atheists, to the problem of pain for Christians.
(And I can't resist including this famous quote from Chesterton:)
"To complain that I could only be married once was like complaining that I had only been born once. It was incommensurate with the terrible excitement of which one was talking. It showed, not an exaggerated sensibility to sex, but a curious insensibility to it . . . Polygamy is a lack of the realization of sex: it is like a man plucking five pears in a mere absence of mind."

From the chapter on Dr. Robert Coles:

What transformed a physician and social scientist into a devotee of literature? Coles answers, "A man like Tolstoy knew more psychology than the whole twentieth-century social scene will ever know. All this stuff about the stages of dying coming out now--why not just go back and read The Death of Ivan Ilyich? It said everything. And who has added any wisdom to the field of marital problems since Anna Karenina? And Dickens, oh my, what Dickens knew about human nature! I simply wander around from one place to the next, teaching these novels and trying to, in a way, undo the devil in the medical school, law school, and business school."

Gandhi was, of course, no Christian, but he tried to apply some of Jesus' precepts, putting his own life on the line. The world knows most of that story. And Gandhi serves as an indictment to the "name it and claim it" Christian worshipers of self-fulfillment, and a demonstration of what power there is in obeying even a little of God's commands.

With Brand, "for the first time in my life, I encountered genuine humility." A missionary surgeon; the man who discovered how leprosy really destroyed (and how to stop it); a man who dedicated years of his life to finding ways to repair damaged hands and feet; and more.

I can't do justice to this book in a few paragraphs. Since I got it for Christmas I've tried to get 4 or 5 other people to read it. You read it too. That's Soul Survivor by Yancey.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark

How the obscure, marginal Jesus movement became the dominant religious force in the Western world in a few centuries.

OK, I'll confess that I never expected a sociologist to be a good literary stylist. Perhaps I'm just not well enough read in the field, but the others I've read have been mediocre at best. Rodney Stark is a sociologist turned historian who tries to use the analytical techniques of his field in history. His method is explicitly reductionist: can the rise of Christianity be understood non-miraculously?; or perhaps better ask can we understand the mechanism of the rise of Christianity?, ignoring the question of whether the mechanism was Divinely guided or not.

The book seems largely assembled from individual papers, each of which attempts to quantify growth rates and influences--and a number of his conclusions contradict the received wisdom.

The first chapter is dedicated to demonstrating that a growth rate of 40% (known to be achievable--see the Mormons) is adequate to explain the estimates of a majority of Christians in the Empire by 350 AD. Obviously the rate wouldn't be steady, and his initial estimates of the number of Christians conflicts with that in Acts. Mass conversions are not necessary to explain the growth, and known principles of networking (some of which he researched) can explain the conversion rate. His research studying Moonies and Moonies-to-be found that the group of Moonies converted friends, and not strangers; and the friends converted when their network of friends became predominantly Moonie. Converts were mainly "from the ranks of the religiously inactive and discontented and those affiliated with the most accommodated (worldly) religious communities." He demonstrates how these features pertain to the Roman Empire through the book.

He goes on to gleefully shred some of the sociologists who use metaphor as models ("Durkheim's 'discovery' that religion is society worshiping itself . . . How would one falsify that statement, or assertions to the effect that religion is a neurotic illusion or the poetry of the soul?")

In "The Class Basis of Early Christianity" he explains his distinction between a sect and a cult and their social differences. A sect is a schism in an existing "religious body when persons desiring a more otherworldly version of the faith break away to 'restore' the religion to a higher level of tension with its environment." A cult is a new faith (at least new in that society). Cults tend to attract better educated/upper class members dissatisfied with the existing religions. New age religions and offshoots are more common among the better educated than the less so. Sects tend to attract the less privileged. Examples: in a 1977 poll 17% of those with college experience were attracted to Zen, compared with 5% who had none; while 6% of those in college had been involved in faith healing while 11% of those with only grade school had been: cult vs sect. Early Christianity, though Roman officials at first thought it a sect of Judaism, was a cult in this sense of the word--a new religion. And lo and behold, Christianity seems to have attracted quite a number of high status converts, as he expects a cult to do.

Then he addresses "The Mission to the Jews: Why it Probably Succeeded." He compares the Hellenized Jews (the majority) and "God-Fearers" to the marginalized Jews of Europe who developed Reform Judaism. The Marcion affair indicates to him that Jewish Christianity was dominant in the middle of the second century. Marcion tried to simplify some issues with the Old and New Testaments by claiming that the Old Testament God wasn't the same as the New Testament's, so we should drop the Old and strip out OT references from the New. This is what you'd expect of a Gentile group, and the heresy was promptly stepped on; which is what you'd expect of a largely Jewish group.

I can't summarize easily his analysis of women in the church, and why it was a far more welcoming environment than the pagan world surrounding it. Suffice it to say that a baby girl in a Christian family was far more likely to survive than one born to a pagan Roman one. Some parts of this chapter need a strong stomach.

Go read the book. I have to give it back to the library, but The Rise of Christianity is now on my "Buy Myself A Copy" list.

Saturday, January 10, 2004

Marching Band Effect

On a related note (:-)), you've undoubtedly noticed that bands marching in a parade invariably sound ragged, or not quite professional. Sometimes this is because they haven't practiced enough yet, but even the best ones suffer from being spread out along the street. If they all hit the beat at exactly the same time, a listener at the rear of the procession will hear the drums from the rear immediately, but those from the front a fraction of a second later. The bigger the group the worse the effect. Notice how closely packed the players in an orchestra are?

Opera and clarity

Friday's paper carried an AP story about researchers who found that opera singers, and especially sopranos, mangled the pronunciation of words in the effort to hit the notes. This comes as no surprise to most of us, and in fact you can show that there's bound to be a conflict between making the note pure and making the pronunciation clear.

Look at the Fourier transform of a vowel sound. Each has a distinctive shape; but the thing to notice is that none of them are a single frequency. A pure note is a single frequency. When a singer sings the vowel U at some note it sounds like that note because the bulk of that aforementioned shape centers around the pitch desired--but it isn't a pure note. It can't be, and still have the recognizable structure of a vowel.

Most of the time we don't care--unless the singer is at some extreme. Singing extremely high or low notes, or extremely loud ones, make it very hard to keep the vowel structure clear--by the definition of extreme. Unfortunately, opera singers have to sing loudly, and often with quite a range . . .

Schrodinger's cat

My high-school daughter learned about Schrodinger's cat and the Copenhagen interpretation this week, and was having a lot of fun arguing it with a friend at school. I hated to rain on her parade, but . . . Schrodinger's cat is an observer too.

Friday, January 02, 2004

Boondock medicine

Our friend Bekah spent the summer in a remote area of Baja California, working in a public health clinic as a summer intern. While introducing Bekah to a friend, I explained that Bekah had spent her summer in "the boondocks" in Mexico. Bekah said the area was so remote, there wasn't a boondock to be found!

By the way, "Boondocks" comes from a Tagalog word, Bundag, meaning jungle. US soldiers stationed in the Phillippines must have brought the word home.

We gave Bekah a copy of Victor Heiser's "An American Doctor's Odyssey," published in 1936. Dig this out of your library stacks and read it. Heiser, then 16, survived the Johnstown Flood of 1889 by burling on his floating barn until it came to rest near a house with 21 other people marooned in the attic. Heiser worked his way through medical school and joined the Marines Medical Corps in the mid 1890s. He became interested in preventing disease, and was one of the pioneers of Public Health in the US and world wide--including preventing cholera in the Filipino boondocks.

Notable moments: *How a Chinese national eating a durian in a railway carriage responded to Heiser and his friend's eating a ham sandwich; *The explanation of the transmission of Hookworm disease, in Pidgin English; and the Anti-hookworm campaign in the southern US; *The development of, and the reasons for, the notorious Trachoma exam at Ellis Island (Fiorello LaGuardia, while he was US Consul at Fiume, hit upon the very simple idea of having people tested for Trachoma BEFORE they left for the US).

If you can't stomach the phrase, "White Man's Burden," this book is not for you. But it you want to read an excellent story of a man who helped make your life and millions of other people's lives safer and cleaner, check it out.--Mrs. James