Saturday, December 29, 2007

Bursting Bubbles

I am more than halfway through reading Letter from a Christian Citizen, by Douglas Wilson -- a point-by-point rebuttal of Sam Harris' atheist manifesto, Letter to a Christian Nation.

So far, Wilson is mopping the floor with Harris.

Wilson also mopped the floor with Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything earlier this year in an online debate (in six installments).

The tactical problem Messrs. Harris and Hitchens ran into with Wilson, a Reformed theologian who is pastor at the Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, and a member of the faculty at New St. Andrews College, is that Wilson happens to be a classically-educated scholar who is well-versed in philosophy and familiar with the arguments that have been put forth by atheists from day one. In other words, he knows sophistry when it poses as argument. One gets the impression, so sloppy were many of Harris's arguments, that he didn't think there would be any Christians who were capable of understanding them and hitting back effectively with logic and reason.

However, the even worse strategic blunder made by both Harris and Hitchens is that their rhetoric betrays a strong sense of "ought". They appear genuinely outraged at what they perceive to be injustice in several of its forms. Yet, as Wilson patiently (and entertainingly) points out, moral indignation does not follow from the premises of atheism. Wilson is not saying that an atheist is necessarily less moral than a Christian; he cheerfully concedes there are moral atheists. What Wilson is saying is that atheists, if they are consistent with their beliefs, have no compelling reason to behave morally, or to believe in morality at all.

For morality to be compelling, it must be transcendent -- it must somehow be greater than man. But how can it be greater than man if it was invented by man? It follows from atheism that all things that exist must have had causes that were strictly material. This means that what you and I may exalt as "ideals", "thoughts", "feelings", and "moral values" are nothing more than chemical and electrical impulses in the little cauldrons of protoplasm which we refer to as "brains". If true, this renders morality into nothing more than an illusion, a conceit. It is easy enough to posit that these conceits must have arisen through evolutionary mechanisms -- that somehow, meaningless though they may be in any transcendent sense, the illusion itself may have contributed to the survival of the human species. But once we see the illusion for what it is -- once Oz is spotted hiding behind the curtain -- it loses its ability to command our allegiance and respect. If morality is an illusion, nothing more than bubbles in a brainpan, we must acknowledge it is not greater than we are; on the contrary, we are, if anything, greater than it. The consistent atheist must face the inevitable conclusion, based on his own premises, that morals are nothing more than agreed-upon preferences.

So what do we say to those who don't agree with them? It follows that there can only be practical reasons for compliance. If I were to reject the consensus, I might, for example, still decide I should not rob a bank, not because it's wrong to steal (what does 'wrong' mean in a materialist world?) but because I'm afraid I'll be caught and spend the next twenty years in jail. Or I might simply have an aversion to physical danger. Or I might still harbor within me the wholly irrational detritus of a Christian upbringing and carry a mistaken but nevertheless ingrained sense that it is "wrong" -- at least, for me. But all of these are mere preferences. I would have nothing morally compelling to say to another man who is skilled at robbing banks, has no fear of being caught, and feels no inappropriate loyalty to notions of morality. For such a fellow, there would be no right or wrong to consider, only a cold assessment of the rewards of success vs. the risks of failure, within the context of his own preferences.

This is where atheism leads us. But it is not where Harris and Hitchens wish to take us. Their rhetoric is marbled with an aggrieved and inflamed sense of justice. E.g., Harris writes, "The truth is that many who claim to be transformed by Christ's love are deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism." That sounds like an accusation. By what moral standard is intolerance or murder wrong? A Christian who is true to his faith might be embarrassed to see such hypocrisy in some of his fellow Christians, but all an atheist ought to see are blobs of protoplasm gurgling in reaction to the gurgling emanating from another blob of protoplasm that we know as Harris. Why ought we to honor Harris' indignation?

E.g., Harris: "An atheist is a person who believes that the murder of a single little girl -- even once in a million years -- casts doubt on the ideal of a benevolent God." I'll let Wilson field this one: "Atheism not only casts doubt upon the idea of a benevolent God (which it certainly does), but it also destroys the very concept of benevolence itself. Benevolence is simply a chemical reaction that some organisms experience in their bone box. Other organisms (like the criminal organism that rapes and kills the little girl organism) don't have very much of it. But this is all just time and chance acting on matter. When you reject the triune God (in the name of benevolence!) I want to know what this all-authoritative benevolence actually is, on your accounting.... There is no soundtrack to consistent atheism. No swelling violins in the background but rather stark, everlasting silence."

In other words, for atheists to denounce anything from a moral perspective, they have to borrow from the theistic worldview. They have to pretend, at least for the duration of their dudgeon, that morality is real and has some sort of authority over human actions. When atheists wax indignant, it is like the mistletoe you see clinging to trees in the winter time. It may look like part of the tree, but it is only a parasite, feeding on nourishment provided by the tree. You can kiss under it all day long if like, but it has no roots, and can only project vicariously any authority possessed by its imposing host.

Incidentally, not all atheists are such pushovers. Wilson cites Oliver Wendell Holmes as someone willing to go where Harris and Hitchens fear to tread. In the world according to Holmes, moral preferences are "more or less arbitrary." "Do you like sugar in your coffee, or don't you?.... So as to truth." Truth itself is "the majority view of the nation that can lick all the others." And civil rights? "What a given crowd will fight for." And this gem: "I wonder if cosmically an idea is any more important than the bowels." The Christian might think to inquire of Holmes, "Including the idea you just expressed?" An atheist who clings to illusions of morality, on the other hand, is left with the task of explaining why bubbles in the brain have greater moral weight than bubbles in the bowels.

Christians are barraged in the media and academia with propaganda that tries to convince them their ideas are antiquated and based on fairy tales. This is one of the reasons it's such a pleasure to watch a Christian who is well-educated and skilled in argument dismantle the rationalists on their own terms. I recommend Wilson's book and also his web site, BLOG andMABLOG.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas 2007

Merry Christmas 2007 from the Reformed Trombonist

While Al Gore is off in Europe collecting his Nobel Prize money, we have been left on our own to anticipate the tell-tale signs of global warming. As our house is situated only two hundred yards north of the Great Pungo Swamp, as the mosquito flies, one has to admit that the horseflies and water moccasins seem a little peppier than normal for December. Rainfall has been a bit below normal the entire year, and default mode for the local journalists is to fret about the harm done to the tourist trade by all the sandstorms and Gila monsters brought here by the drought. Seems a little silly to me. Virginia Beach is one of the wettest places this side of Bangla Desh, and designed to stay that way. If the Allegheny Mountains were a toilet, Virginia Beach would be the drain. That’s actually closer to the truth than one would like to think, and hits close to home -- or floats languorously nearby.

One of the highlights for this past year was attending the Eastern Trombone Workshop in March, at Fort Myer in Arlington, VA -- the U.S. Army Band hosts the workshop every year. The Philadelphia Orchestra’s low brass section was there, with their newest addition -- a twenty-year-old girl who is their new tuba player, a petite, slender, wholesome-looking blonde. When you’ve been hanging around the trombone world for thirty-five years, it seems sacrilegious to meet a tuba player who is not an overweight, beer-swilling man, who also serves as an encyclopedia of classic bathroom humor. The decline of Western civilization continues apace. Also, the Penn State Trombone Choir performed – sometime since I left Penn State (in 1975), their trombone players have gotten good. I’m not sure how much more of this I can take. It was good to see my old high school band buddy Kurt, his father Merle, and son Danny, who just happened to be sight-seeing in D.C. that week. Danny is majoring in music as a freshman in college this year, and I got to hear some of the music compositions he has been working on.

Also, in another music-related road trip, I accompanied our French horn-playing buddy Ray (from South Carolina) on a little trip to Boston. Like most of us, Ray is looking for the perfect horn -- in this case, something called a Schmid. (Slogan: “Schmid! It’s more than just a pretty name!”) We left Virginia Beach at 1 PM on a Sunday afternoon, and within twelve hours discovered that the favorite pastime in New Jersey is to drive one’s car to I-95 and then park it. We ate genuine Irish food at a genuine Irish pub in South Boston, served by a genuine Irish waitress named Caitlin, and at the last minute thought better of raising our beer mugs to toast the Queen. Ray decided not to buy the Schmid, even though it was a relative bargain at (gulp!) $8 grand. If that sounds expensive to you, then you must play trombone, too. The trombone attracts the world’s cheapest musicians. Thousands for beer, but not one penny for a trill key.

We had to say goodbye to a friend this year. In March of 2005, we had acquired a Siamese male cat to be a companion to our Siamese female, Gabby. Debbie named him Gizmo, but we should have named him Niles, or Barney -- picture a dainty little guy with a piercing voice and lots of male bravado, far more than his scrawny musculature could support, or Gabby would respect. Not much of an “alpha male” -- more like a post card -- but each altercation with the eighteen-pound Nymph of Naptime would only demonstrate that sumo always beats karate. Gizmo would stand over her and pop her a few times, finally provoking her enough to accomplish the improbable and get her to actually stand up. And as that usually took, all the way from planning to execution, roughly five minutes to accomplish, Gizmo would have plenty of time to beat feet in retreat. Truth is, he loved Gabby and worshiped the rug she slept on, while she ignored him and only had eyes for her beloved Purina. You could tell he had been mistreated in a previous life, because he would always flinch when you reached out to pet him. But he loved us, Debbie most of all, and was always around whenever there was a warm lap to occupy. He got sick last March, and lost a lot of weight he couldn’t afford to lose. It hasn’t been the same around here, and I still see a shadow of him once in a while, rubbing up against the wall, waiting for one of us to offer him a lap.

Debbie is now a six-year survivor of cancer, and her surgeon tells her he no longer needs to see her. She teaches strings this year at four different elementary schools, and is even now deep into the Christmas concert season. She’s also still the music director at our church, displaying organizational skills I can only marvel at. (I can almost manage to bring gin and vermouth together without spilling half of it, and if you insist on an olive, all bets are off.) She arranges all of the church music and somehow finds the time to take piano lessons. When she’s not working in music, she is dabbling at home improvement. She managed to sneak an entire bathroom remodeling behind my back. I just came home from work one day and walked into someone else’s bathroom. I was almost afraid to look in the shower.

Wasn’t a great year for traveling together, but we did see some of the local sights, e.g., an instructive trip to a local winery. As it turns out, I had already sampled their wares earlier this year, when we happened to be visiting our good friends Sam and Aileen (Sam is our broker and they belong to our church). Sam -- a connoisseur of good wine – had a sly grin on his face and said, “I have something you need to try.” He brought back a glass of muscatel, accent on “musk,” which combined the delicate bouquet of a New Orleans back street with the subtle tanginess of Georgia turpentine. Try to hide tasting all that behind a neutral, appreciative facial expression. Sam oozed, “What do you think?” It’s so hard to communicate, “That’s awful, but in a really interesting way.” Then he busted out laughing. Good to find out he’s sane -- this guy’s handling my retirement. Well, our little winery sold this stuff with a perfectly straight face for about $12 a bottle. We know soil and climate is important to wine-making – Sam and I also wondered about the contribution of dead fiddler crabs and assorted sea gull residues.

Debbie and I have been fortunate to belong to a church that is dedicated to helping us grow spiritually, and it’s impossible now for us to look at our lives and think to ourselves, “We are the ones who made all these great things happen.” Life gets better and better, but every bit of that is a blessing from the One who is the architect of all blessings. He can bless us, because two thousand years ago a child was born. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Lyle M. Smith -- A Tribute

We were the Warwick High School Farmers -- I know, not much of a school moniker. Pirates carry a sword and glare at you with their one good eye. Lions, Tigers, or Bears can eat you. But a Farmer chews a piece of grass and leans on his hoe. That was our school mascot. Our school symbol was a plow. The official school pie was cow. Just kidding about that last bit.

But the band was not the "Marching Farmers." We were the Grenadier Band -- guys and girls in tall black fur hats and red coats having no apparent relation to that kadiddlehopper with the straw in his hair. This was the vision of the band director, a man named Lyle M. Smith, who had a profound fondness for all things British, and at some point in his career decided to emulate the great British military band tradition.

He could have picked a worse tradition. British military bands are among the finest bands in the world. British orchestral and band music is some of the greatest music of all time, and their band repertoire is peerless. Plus, the uniforms were cool. Whenever our band marched onto the football field, the opposing school's band would make those "OH-EEE-OH! EE-OOOOHHHH-UMM!" sounds from the Wicked Witch of the West's marching goons in the "Wizard of Oz".  They were just jealous.

Basically, Mr. Smith was a caster of fine pearls, and we, the students, by and large were the swine being pelted with them. Most of us, self included, did not appreciate how good our repertoire was. In fact, if you had spent a month following our band around, you would probably have found very few clues that we cared at all about music, one way or the other. What did we care about? Avoiding the bullying upperclassmen was number one on my agenda. Some preferred nice cars. Or dating. In any event, I highly doubt that appreciating the bucolic charm of Ralph Vaughan Williams' "English Folk Song Suite" was high up on the list for too many of us.

Unlike a lot of successful conductors, Mr. Smith wasn't a wildly charismatic sort of guy.  He was neither a great inspiration like a Frederick Fennell, nor an absolute tyrant like a William Revelli.  But he was the kind of teacher who had loads of sincerity and what they call gravitas -- we were proud to play for him.  He did seem to be pretty much in his own little world, hardly noticing the students at all. Well, okay, he did yell a lot when we cut up or marched poorly; but given what he had to work with, I suppose it's a wonder he wasn't a poster child for apoplexy. He had a big megaphone with which he would chase us around on the football field, and if you went up to him and asked him a question, he would aim the megaphone at you and yell into it even though you were only two feet away.  He was a tireless worker, and had us playing for every parade in Virginia (it was years later in the military that I finally decided the only good parade is a dead parade).  I think he really dug being a band conductor.  That's important.  I've had quite a number of band conductors who didn't.

The one area I think he could have been more involved in was discipline. All kids need discipline. Mr. Smith allowed the upperclassmen to handle it -- with predicatable results. P. J. O'Rourke once remarked that giving money and power to politicians is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys. Something else you don't want to give teenage boys is power over other teenage boys. By the time I was fifteen, I had already met the most pernicious bullies I would ever meet. The band had initiation rituals which during time of war are generally referred to as "atrocities." Yet Mr. Smith did not seem even dimly aware of what was going on. That would be in character for him -- as long as things ran smoothly in rehearsal, he didn't seem to take much notice of what was going on under his nose. I prefer to think that, had he been aware, he would have been interested in putting a stop to it.

But Mr. Smith loved good music, and to me that was his legacy. Our band wasn't always great when I was in it (the initiations had chased away a lot of students), but we played -- or rather, played at -- some great stuff. Not that we necessarily appreciated it at the time.  I remember how much we hated trying to play "English Dances" by Malcolm Arnold -- but it really is a delightful piece, just very ambitious for a high school band, way over our heads. We played Vaughan Williams, and Gustav Holst, and hosts of those glorious British regimental marches. Each year we put on a British-style military "Tattoo", and really, it was quite a splendid production. I grew up in a household musically dominated by Hank Williams and Montana Slim. Much of what I know about great music was a result of Mr. Smith having piqued my interest.  When he found out that I liked listening to Wagner and Rimsky-Korsakov, he took an interest and recommended a lot of composers that got me hooked on attempting a career in music.

I don't know much about his personal life. He was close to retirement age when I was in high school, and I think he retired the year after I graduated high school in 1972. I seem to recall that he was a Michigan State grad -- one of the better music schools in the country -- and had studied with Leonard Falcone. I wish I could remember for sure.  He conducted the Newport News Municipal Band for many years. Away from his day gig, he was a cordial man, very pleasant, and I remember he drove a Mercedes diesel years before it became cool. I heard that he passed away sometime in the mid-1990s. I never saw him again after I graduated.

Thank you, Mr. Smith, for introducing me to the great music that has been my companion all these years. May you rest in peace

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Being Cautious

Jonah Goldberg over at National Review posted an email from a reader regarding a comment made by atheist author and champion Sam Harris, as quoted by Theodore Dalrymple in an article for City Journal. Harris' comment is a bit, well, breathtaking. Here is Dalrymple's take on it:

"Harris tells us, for example, that 'we must find our way to a time when faith, without evidence, disgraces anyone who would claim it. Given the present state of the world, there appears to be no other future worth wanting.' I am glad that I am old enough that I shall not see the future of reason as laid down by Harris; but I am puzzled by the status of the compulsion in the first sentence that I have quoted. Is Harris writing of a historical inevitability? Of a categorical imperative? Or is he merely making a legislative proposal? This is who-will-rid-me-of-this-troublesome-priest language, ambiguous no doubt, but not open to a generous interpretation.

"It becomes even more sinister when considered in conjunction with the following sentences, quite possibly the most disgraceful that I have read in a book by a man posing as a rationalist: “The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live.”

Harris' book, The End of Faith, was on the NY Times Best Seller list for 33 weeks, according to Wikipedia. Somewhat ironically, Wikipedia says,
"After coming under intense criticism in response to his attacks on dogmatic religious belief, Harris is cautious about revealing details of his personal life and history ."
This is ironic because I have yet to read or hear about any Christian hinting in a best-seller that it may be ethical to kill atheists for their beliefs. If Harris' ideas catch on, religious believers may be the ones who need to exhibit caution. (And by the way, those who believe Wikipedia is without bias may want to explain the presence of the adjective "dogmatic" in the above quote.)

Atheists like to pretend that Christians are scary. Come back to me about the scariness of Christians when a best-selling Christian author writes that it may be ethical to kill people over what they believe. How do you think atheist or liberal circles would respond if Pat Robertson or James Dobson were to make identical remarks?

Harris responded to Dalymple, here. Harris says Dalrymple was dishonest and ripped his words out of context. Perhaps this is worth a future post, but at the moment it's hard to imagine a context in which his remarks seem normal and wholesome. Dalrymple gets the last word:

"Finally, with regard to Mr. Harris's statement that it may be ethical to kill people with certain (unspecified) ideas: for myself, I fear the likelihood of mission creep. I cannot help recalling the wise words of a great British judge, Lord Mansfield, who said in the eighteenth century that so long as an act remains in bare intention alone it is not punishable by our law. Killing people for their thoughts alone is not a recipe for anything except bloody disaster."

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Mormonism, Round Two

(I sent a letter to a conservative journal of opinion in response to a charge of bigotry leveled by one of their other correspondents toward those who do not consider Mormonism to be Christian. Some of it is a rehash of what I have already posted. They published it, and I will post any responses and attempt to answer them. -- Lee)

Does theology matter in a political campaign? I ask anyone who thinks it doesn't: would you vote for a Satanist? No? Not even if otherwise he were the perfect candidate, the second coming of Ronald Reagan himself?

If you would, then please disregard the rest of this letter, because you and I have nothing in common. But if you would not, then congratulations, we have just demonstrated that a candidate's theology is important. Now, it's only a question of where to draw the line. Regarding Mr. Romney specifically, the question becomes, is he on our side of the line, or not?

I disagree with your correspondent K. that it's an easy question to answer. He answered it by labeling the proposition that Mormonism is not Christian as an "ignorant, bigoted lie." Well, K., you are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts. Whatever one thinks about the wisdom of voting for a Mormon, the fact remains that Christianity and Mormonism are two distinct religions.

There is more to being a Christian than sharing the nomenclature. What unites every Christian denomination, from high Roman Catholic to humble backwater Baptist, is a belief in the Holy Trinity -- One God in Three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Heresy, on the other hand, always reveals itself by denying the Trinity; Mormons simply do not believe in it (though they are not forthcoming about that fact). They believe God the Father and Jesus the Son are distinct and separate beings. Furthermore, Mormons believe there are many gods, perhaps millions of them -- every faithful Mormon some day hopes to become a God of his own world. Mormons teach, "As man is, God once was; as God is, man shall become." In the Mormon cosmos, our own local holder of the "God franchise" originated as a mortal man whose faithfulness was rewarded as he became lord of this planet. This contradicts not only the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, but also the Judeo-Christian concept that God is eternal and unchanging.

What all this means is that when Mormons say they believe in God and in Jesus, they mean something completely different than what Christians mean.

Believe me, Mormons perceive the gulf between the two religions -- but it's generally considered rude when Christians notice the same thing. Well. If you think Christians are sometimes harsh toward Mormonism, you ought to read what Mormons think of Christianity. Please follow the link and read for yourself a passage from Joseph Smith's own writings, posted at the LDS website. Smith communicates quite clearly that all the other Christian sects are an "abomination," and that all those involved in preaching it are corrupt. Like K., they are certainly entitled to their opinion. But if Mormons think Christianity is an abomination, why can't Christians at least think Mormonism is mistaken? Is the distance between A and B somehow greater than the distance between B and A?

Religious conservatives like me aren't looking for an excuse to vote against Romney. It's the other way around; we're trying to figure out how we can vote for Romney, and we have to work this out. But don't bother coming at us and calling us names because we seem reluctant to park our consciences outside the voting booth. Conservative Christians have been more faithful to conservative policies and values than an awful lot of Republicans, including one George W. Bush -- who even now is concocting a harebrained scheme for ruining the mortgage market, in a move worthy to be included in any list of worst stupid liberal tricks.

The bottom line is that God is in charge, and the Republicans only want to be. The Old Testament makes it clear that the kings of Israel and Judea who pleased God were successful, while those who worshiped false gods brought curses upon their people. If we are faithful to God, He will not fail His people. Republicans, even the non-Mormon ones, have been known to do just that.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

A Failed God

Why do liberals love government, but hate the government, so much, and at the same time?

It's because government is the god of liberalism. It may be a failed god, but it's all they have.

The worship of government is nothing new. In the ancient world, worshiping the emperor, or the pharoah, or the king, as an actual god was commonplace. During the middle ages, however, Christianity had reduced such worship to something called "divine right of kings" -- the king was revered because he was God's chosen leader, but he was no longer worshiped. This was progress.

However, the dictatorships of the 20th century pulled state worship out of history's dustbin and turned it into a fierce pageantry on a world-wide scope. Catch some of the films of parades in the old Soviet Union, with the belligerent likenesses of Lenin and Stalin hanging from every building; see the body of Lenin, preserved still, in a glass case. (He still looks good enough to share a stage with Joseph Biden.) Also: the Mao parades in China, the interminable Castro speeches in Cuba, and so on. There is something about government that titillates the fever swamps, particularly but not exclusively on the left, to a degree that is inexplicable as anything other than a manifestation of religious fervor. Such is its pull that it even turns rich liberal Americans into drooling sycophants. Examples abound. E.g., lefty journalists like John Reed (paid homage by Warren Beatty's in his movie, "Reds"), and Lincoln Steffens (who proclaimed, "I have seen the future and it works!"). E.g., Walter Duranty, the Pulizter Prize-winning New York Times reporter who helped the Soviets cover up Stalin's program of Ukrainian genocide. E.g., every Castro interview ever conducted by an American journalist. E.g., Ho Chi Minh posters in the 1970s. E.g., Che! T-shirts. Every left-wing dictator is some liberal's icon. They should make trading cards.

Why? Part of this is the problem of rejecting religion in the first place, or claiming it has no place in the public sphere. Nonsense. It will always be in the public sphere, the only choice we have is which form it takes. Human beings don't quit worshiping because they quit worshiping God. They will worship something -- if not brutal dictators, then their own wisdom, and politics is just the stage upon which vanity and egomania are played out on a large scale. Thomas Sowell often refers to these highly motivated busybodies as "the Anointed", a self-selecting class of folks who see it as their divine commission in life to bless the lives of the rest of us, a.k.a. "the Benighted", with their wisdom.

Just because the Anointed may not believe in Heaven doesn't mean they don't yearn for it. Such yearning takes the form of trying to create Heaven here on Earth -- to "immanentize the eschaton", in Eric Voegelin's eloquent phrase. The problem with making Heaven is that it requires superhuman wisdom and power. We must settle for Republicans and Democrats. Heaven help us.

But that doesn't stop the Anointed from trying. Problem is, there are too many institutions in the U.S. that stand in their way. The democracies in Europe have fewer checks and balances than our Constitution provides, and so the socialist agenda has been easier to implement over there. Our institutions are never so flawed as when they allow conservatives to be elected, or even to speak their minds. Hence, the hatred.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Mormonism Hits the Hustings

With Mitt Romney in the news, Mormonism is one of the hot topics. Accusations are flying that their natural political allies, namely evangelical Christians, will refuse to support Romney because they are prejudiced against Mormons.

That, and many other curious charges, will be explored in upcoming posts.

Many folks think that Mormonism is just another form of Christianity -- a notion that Mormons don't try to discourage. And let's stipulate at least this much: it is the fervent hope of this writer that it is possible to disapprove of Mormonism without disapproving of Mormons. I have Mormon friends and I value their friendship, but that does not mean that I am willing to give their theology a free ride. Experience suggests that Mormons know there are significant differences between their religion and Christianity, but for practical reasons pretend that there aren't. Only Mormons are allowed to be aware of the differences. It's impolite for Christians to notice.

But let's concede that at least Mormons have a theology, which is more than can be said for many of the liberal Protestant denominations these days. For just one appalling example, a woman Bishop in the Episcopal Church claims also to be a practicing Muslim, and claims not to see a theological contradiction. Even worse, the Episcopal Church apparently has no plans to excommunicate her. Folks, you can't make this stuff up.

Let's begin the festivities by exploring the notion that God was once a man. I don't mean that a man named Jesus was the eternal God the Son made flesh. Forget the Trinity. I mean that God was once an ordinary man, born of a woman, who managed somehow to become good enough to earn godhood. As the Mormons put it, "As man is, God once was; and as God is, man shall become."

It follows from this belief that God was born into a world He did not make. In Mormon theology, this is quite feasible. There are millions of gods, each with his own planet, and no word about who created the very first one. So then, we do not pray to the Creator of All Things, but only to one god of many, a celestial bureaucrat who has been assigned to regulate this planet. Not God at all, as Christians think of Him, but just the local sheriff.

But let's forget all that for just a minute and (as Alfred Drake implored in the song, "Rahadlakum!") discuss the nature of virtue. Christianity holds that morality is part of God's nature, and with Him always. Morality is absolute and has authority because God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Otherwise, moral values would not be absolute and neither would be God.

However, if God is as the Mormons claim, having had a finite beginning to his life, then it follows that morality must not have originated with him, and is therefore not intrinsic to his character. It may be something he acquired, but that would imply some period of time during which he was without it. Or perhaps, God invented morality -- but then what about the period of time before that? How did he come to see the need for it, given that he was promoted to God beforehand?

Perhaps morality was something God was completely imbued with at birth -- but then that too would imply morality somehow predates God, and that someone or something else originated it. Whatever that someone or something was, that would be the real God, wouldn't it? The local constabulary would just be posturing.

And finally, if morality did not originate with God, by what authority could it compel anyone's allegiance? It would be just an aspect of nature, no different than a cloud or a particle of rock. Terrific, if you liked it; unnecessary, if you didn't. For morality to compel, it must be transcendent. How does morality transcend when God doesn't?

Mormonism shares with Christianity its nomenclature, and little else. It is not enough just to claim that one worships God the Father and Jesus, his son; it also matters who you think they are. If I were, for example, to create two golden calves, name one of them "Father God" and the other "Jesus the Son", and then worship them, I would still be guilty of worshipping false gods. Clearly, nomenclature is not enough.

Say It Isn't So

Prominent evangelical conservative Pat Robertson has endorsed Rudy Giuliani's presidential bid.

Erstwhile conservative magazines such as National Review and the American Spectator have been cautiously testing the waters for Giuliani support for a while already. Which is to say, winning elections is becoming more important than certain principles, such as opposing abortion.

That professional policy wonks lose sight of principles in the heat of a campaign is understandable. Regrettable, but understandable.

That a man of the cloth would do the same is just, well, depressing.

Someone please wake me from this horrible nightmare.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Strong-arming For Charity

It's time for the yearly intimidation-fest at the workplace.

You know the drill. I've seen it at every job I have worked since 1980. It's time for the United Way drive. Time to pony up your "fair share". And if you don't know what your fair share is, they'll be happy to tell you.

What makes me characterize the drive as "strong-arming"?

Simple: they enlist the active, and at times fervent, support of your employer. Most of us need our jobs, and therefore, when your bosses "encourage" you to contribute, it is by definition intimidating.

And it doesn't stop there.

Where I work, a notice is passed out to all employees, with a deadline: "Please respond by November 1". Now, if you had already planned to risk your bosses' disapproval by not participating, does that let you off the hook? Sorry, no, you're not getting away that easily. The notice continues, "If you're not planning on giving, mark zero in the amount box and return."

So, instead of being allowed to quietly not give, you are forced to call attention to that fact.

That's an attempt to intimidate, with a side order of humiliation.

So I ask the designated collector: "Why do we have to return the form with zero on it if we're not participating? They get the same amount of money from me, either way."

The reply: "United Way wants to be assured that everyone was contacted."

Now, for all I know, this wasn't United Way's idea at all, but rather the employer's innovation. However, from my perspective, the principles are still the same. My invariable response is: "What entitles anyone to know whether I was contacted? Isn't that an invasion of privacy?"

And about this time, the collector -- a fellow employee -- starts taking it personally, and gives me that little look that says, "Grinch."

Fine. Let's concede for the sake of argument that I ought to be forced to wear the Scarlet G. Does that mean anyone has a right to demand that I respond to a solicitation for money?

So I did a Google on "united way tactics", wondering if I'm a Grinch Army of One. Apparently not. I was struck by the number of posts from folks who, apparently, feel the same way I do.

Let's stipulate that United Way does some good work. There are certainly enough charities under their umbrella that it would be hard for them not to do some good. I found an online brochure from a Virginia branch of United Way, and its roster includes such worthies as the Salvation Army, the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association. However, Planned Parenthood and the Abortion Access Project are also on the same roster, so depending on your view of abortion, your contribution might have the precise opposite effect of whatever you intended. Magnanimously, United Way permits you to specify the charities to whom they will remit your contributions, but now you have to trust their bookkeeping -- which, judging from this Wikipedia article, hasn't always been a sure bet.

But the larger issue is, why would I want to contribute money to people who make money, in part, by contributing to Planned Parenthood? Personally, I don't want those folks even within smelling distance of my money.

I'd rather give to my own church, or to the Salvation Army. I could choose to support the SA through the United Way, but, sorry, I don't need a middleman, and I'd be more comfortable if United Way were to ring bells at the local department store and leave my employer out of it.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Reformation Sunday

Reformed churches all over the world have been celebrating the Reformation this past week, As a Baptist for most of my life, I am relatively new to its significance, but significant it was, indeed.

The timeframe was early in the 16th century. The Roman Catholic Church was pretty much the Christian church. Most of its competition (e.g., the churches in Alexandria and Antioch) had been swallowed up by Islam hundreds of years earlier; this process was finally completed with the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Ottoman Turks in the mid-15th century. (The Eastern Orthodox Church today is a remnant of the Byzantine Church.) The Roman church was also significant as a political power -- there was no "separation of church and state" in 16th century Europe. Politics is corrupting, and corrupt people often decide that a practice is ethical just by checking to see whether it is productive of revenue.

Two practices that were very productive of revenue for the Church were the selling of relics, and the selling of indulgences. The relics were items claimed by religious hucksters to have special significance with respect to Christ or his disciples -- e.g., pieces of his cross, bones from a disciple, and so forth. The indulgences were "guarantees" from the Church of forgiveness for a particular sin, whether for oneself or for a loved one suffering in Purgatory -- "As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs."

Even more disturbing, however, was the shameful suppression of the Bible by the Church hierarchy. At various times in Church history, it has been against the law, and punishable by death, to possess a Bible, or one that had been translated into one's own language. It would appear that the Church wanted a monopoly on theological thought, and would dispense the Lord's wisdom, or their own wisdom relabeled using the Lord's brand name, as they saw fit.

A handful of men led the rebellion against such corruption. Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin changed the world profoundly, and not merely in theological terms. Until the Reformation, the centers of Western Civilization had always been Italy, Spain, and France; soon, they were to be rivaled by Protestant Holland, Switzerland, various German states, and the emerging economic dynamo that was England. In these countries, the Bible replaced the Pope as the ultimate religious authority. Martin Luther's German translation of the Bible, followed by the Geneva Bible, and (soon after that) the King James Bible put the word of God directly into the hands of Christians, and in their own language. We see the Bible today everywhere we go, even in hotel rooms (thanks to the Gideons), and we take that for granted today, but it took about fifteen centuries, and a lot of martyrs, to make that happen.

It was a tragedy, of course, that Christianity became split, and we take it on faith that someday we shall be united again. However, relics are meaningless, and the Lord alone can forgive sin -- and He can do so without the help of a middleman. Originally a response to corruption within the Church, the Reformation provided a much-needed reinvigoration of theology simply by restoring the authority of God's own word. Ideas have consequences, to borrow Richard Weaver's signature phrase, and this reinvigoration played a huge role in shaping the world we know today.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Great Divide

Some guys are Ford guys; others are Chevy guys.

Some trombone players are Conn guys; others are Bach guys. I'm a Conn guy, even though I play Edwards trombones nowadays. It's more about the ideal of the tone quality than about who made the trombone. Conn trombones (particularly the older ones from the 1950s and 1960s) have a lively, rich, interesting tone quality, while the word that applies to a Bach is stentorian -- they are big and bold.

In Ireland, there are Catholic guys, and there are Protestant guys -- which has been the basis for a lot of, er, disagreement. William F. Buckley, Jr. once asked an Irish acquaintance, "Aren't there any atheists in Ireland?" The reply was telling: "Of course, but you see, there are Catholic atheists and Protestant atheists."

Some guys go for Ginger; others for Mary Ann. Tall, seductive, red-headed, and unobtainable, vs. perky brunette girl next door. (Don't expect complete honesty on this one. Most guys are Ginger guys, but their wives might somehow acquire the impression they prefer Mary Ann.)

Dogs vs. cats. Boxers vs. briefs. Blondes vs. brunettes. PC vs. Mac. Lowes vs. Home Depot. Life is full of dichomoties, with partisans who line up on both sides. It is the rare independent individual who can always remain truly ecumenical.

But the most important of all divides is, indisputably, this:

Beefeater vs. Bombay Sapphire.

It's Friday night after work. You come home and want the pause that refreshes, and nothing does that like a good martini. Put some ice in a shaker. Add dry vermouth, shake it until your hands are cold, pour it out into the sink -- the vermouth that sticks to the ice is all the vermouth we need. Add two shots of gin, shake until your hands are too cold to keep going, pour into a chilled martini glass, add a lemon twist. Voila. Liquid paradise.

Have one. Have two. But this is very important: do not drive anywhere. Martinis are the original velvet sledgehammer.

One of my Omaha buddies, Jay, taught me how to make martinis. Jay is also a Conn guy, having been a symphony musician for twenty years. The key is the brand of gin, Jay emphasized. So what are the good gins? Beefeater and Bombay Sapphire. Jay served Beefeater.

Later, making them on my own, I decided to try Bombay Sapphire. After two of them, I called Jay and got his answering machine. I told his machine that it was my considered opinion that Bombay Sapphire made an inferior martini. A week or so later, Jay and I played a gig together. He told me, "I wish I had saved that message you sent; I could make a million dollars with it."

"Why?" I asked.

Putting on his best drunk impression, Jay replied, "Jay, thish is Lee. It ish my conshiderd oh pinion that Bomb Bay. Safff Ffire. Makesss an inff ffferior martt. Hiccup. Tini."

That was ten years and another life ago, but Beefeater is still the one.

Enjoy, but enjoy cautiously.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Men and Women

I work on the second floor, and the coffee room is on the first floor, so it makes good sense to stop by the coffee room first thing when I get to work, and grab the cup of coffee that will last until 10 AM. And that's when I might run into some ladies in the coffee room.

If there are no ladies there, it takes about ten seconds to get coffee. Grab a cup. Put the cream in the cup. Pour in the coffee. No need to stir if you put the cream in first -- physics does it for you. You're done.

If ladies are there, it's going to take at least a minute, maybe two or three. They pour the coffee first. Then over to the creamers. Set the coffee down. Open the creamer, pour it in, take a stirrer, stir. Need more cream? Pick up the creamer, pour it in, take a stirrer, stir. If any other ladies have arrived, turn, smile, and engage in conversation, stirring half-heartedly now. Be sure to loiter around the coffee pot or creamer in such a way as to take up as much space as your 130-pound body will permit. Make someone say "Excuse me" to reach around to grab what they need. Multiply by the number of ladies getting coffee.

Sorry if that sounds mysogynistic. It's what I see every morning, Monday through Friday. Truth is, it fascinates me.

Men and women are the same species, but different creatures. I see women as being process-oriented, and men as being results-oriented. With men, there is an objective to be accomplished: get the morning coffee. Get in and get out as quickly and politely as possible, with the objective accomplished. You put the cream in first because it saves at least five seconds. You don't want to get in anyone's way because you were trained years ago by the tough guys in high school, who would beat you up after school if you annoyed them.

With women, however, nothing is ever as simple as just getting what you want. There are rituals and protocols that must be observed at all times. If you're a woman, you pour the coffee before you add the creamer, necessitating the stirring, because that's the process you were taught by your mother, and if it can be done more efficiently, so what? If you're standing in someone's way, well, others can wait because you're talking with someone, and you won't be long. There's a process here: get the coffee, exchange pleasantries, never look rushed, always be feminine. There is a right way to get coffee, and you're going to do it the right way.

I'm sure there is more to it than that, but that's my best shot at explaining what I see. One perspective isn't better than the other, necessarily. If you have a problem that can easily and quickly be solved by decisive and efficient action, you should probably think like a man. And if you have a problem that is complex enough to require a more involved process, you should probably think like a woman.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Managerial Moves

Any football fan understands there are some grey areas regarding the rules, a notorious one being the difference between an incomplete pass and a completed pass followed by a fumble. There is a nebulous period between the time a receiver touches the ball, and when he gains possession. If the receiver takes a hit after catching but then drops the ball, it is ruled an incomplete pass. However, if the receiver has caught the ball and gained possession, but then takes a hit and drops the ball, it is ruled a fumble, with potentially disastrous consequences. A lot can be riding on whether the receiver has been awarded possession.

So, how do the refs decide whether to award possession? This is the grey area. Certainly the amount of elapsed time between catching and dropping the ball plays a role in deciding. How much the receiver may have juggled the ball is also taken into account. But a generally accepted guideline is, for possession to occur, the receiver must catch the ball and then make something called a "football move" -- which is still somewhat nebulous but at a more granular level. Sometimes, a football move occurs when the receiver has the ball and takes two steps; sometimes, it's when he tucks the ball under his arm and shifts his feet. Whatever the specifics, the idea is that the receiver must exhibit some palpable sign of controlling the ball.

It is similar, in other words, to the concept I will designate as the "managerial move".

This phenomenon is most often observable at the lower managerial rungs, with junior or rookie managers. It happens a lot when command and control within an organization are ill-defined regardless of what hierarchy chart might say -- at least for the purposes of a given project. Most junior managers are unsure of themselves (which is understandable) and greet each and every opportunity to appear managerial as if every meeting is the Super Bowl and they are Tom Brady. If you tell them to manage a fire hydrant, you will soon spot one standing over the hydrant with a clipboard and a pencil, wearing an intent look. Eventually, the hydrant will gain a reputation for having a bad attitude.

Like the football move, the managerial move is designed to make the player look like he's in control. And like the football move, it is hard to specify exactly what it is. However, like Supreme Court Justice Stewart said about pornography: it can't be easily defined, but we know it when we see it.

Example? A junior manager has emailed the big boss with a proposal to proceed directly with a technical solution, recommended by a vendor, involving massive and expensive changes to the server configuration. You were not copied on the email -- perhaps because you, as a high-level techie, have raised unwelcome questions about other solutions the vendor has proposed. But the big boss performs due diligence and forwards you the proposal, asking for your opinion. So, you work two hours late and respond by raising some questions, which prompts the boss to direct you to arrange a phone conference with the vendor. Only then do you get an email from Junior (your boss is cc'ed), stipulating that you need to invite "all of the players" to the phone conference -- because he doesn't "want a breakdown in communication on such an important issue". Never mind that the communication had already broken down in the first place when Junior bypassed you on the original email. You busted his play, and his reaction was to deny that a play had been attempted -- and not incidentally to hint ever so gently that you are the rogue and require some level of adult supervision. In short, this is a classic managerial move.

To provide assistance to a certain species of junior manager is to discover that the harder you work, the more bullets find their way onto his resume. This is probably why most of the senior techies you know are grumpy, terse, and matter of fact. Ronald Reagan once said you'd be surprised at what you can accomplish, if you don't care who gets the credit. And maybe the President of the United States can afford such a magnanimous attitude. The rest of us may occasionally need to point to an accomplishment or two without someone else hogging all the credit.

I'm not completely without compassion. The life of a junior manager can be unpleasant and uncertain, or so it appears to this techie. And many junior managers eventually get promoted and become good bosses, and what would we do without them? But just keep all this in mind the next time a junior manager for whom you don't work starts following you around with a clipboard.

Monday, October 8, 2007

2010 A Space Idiocy

My wife is a dedicated "space opera" freak, and dearly loves any movies involving flight, space travel, or time travel. She knows every Star Trek episode -- the original plus every spin-off -- by heart, watches decade-old videos of Babylon 5, and is now in the process of memorizing the Stargate series -- the original plus every spin-off. I've always figured that if Captain Kirk isn't somehow involved, I don't need to watch. His approach to foreign policy -- "We come in peace. Shoot to kill!" -- is as timely then as now.

Tonight, the wife popped in one of my least favorite movies -- "2010", the cinematic realization of Arthur C. Clarke's best-selling book and sequel to the vastly overrated "2001 A Space Odyssey". If you like your sci-fi done up pretentiously superior and sanctimoniously obscure, with a side of "we the puny humans stand in awe of a vast intelligence", 2001 is for you. Some folks thought this was refreshing, after a decade of movies in which humanity was always under attack by hideous aliens, who were ultimately vanquished in the Captain Kirk tradition -- namely, we killed them. These folks are also the same ones who draw horrified parallels between "evil aliens" movies and the "paranoid" McCarthy era -- "paranoid", as if having to cope with a superpower with nukes who infiltrated our government with spies and moles was no worse than listening to an insurance salesman. Like a good neighbor, Khruschev is there -- assuming your good neighbor doesn't mind lending you his T-94 super tank when your riding mower breaks down.

Clarke gave us a kinder, gentler sci-fi where aliens were distant and, at most, interested but detached. We were not the center of their evil machinations, just specimens in a petri dish. They might destroy us, of course, but it certainly wouldn't be personal. We're not important enough for that. This is a common theme in liberalism: humanity is nothing special -- as with most things liberal, the precise opposite of Biblical truth. Also, you get the idea that these unseen aliens were somehow our creators, which is interesting in light of the modern debate between Darwinists and proponents of Intelligent Design: we were designed, which meets the ID folks' requirement; and God was not involved, which meets the Darwinists' requirement. Something for everybody. Aliens are not just an excuse for driving off the road or explaining that drunken weekend in a Tijiana hotel anymore; they're also here to rescue our teleological debates. Sort of "The Aliens Ate My Homework" school of philosophy.

Anyhow, Clarke was never my favorite sci-fi guy -- drier than a good martini, but without the refreshing zip. I always preferred Robert Heinlein, who was a story-teller first and a sci-fi guy second. Not to mention, he was also a right-winger like me, as best as I can tell.

The next time someone in the liberal media or academia talks as if the disintegration of the Soviet Union was obvious and inevitable, one thing is for sure: it wasn't obvious to liberals before the fact. Clarke was a big-time liberal, and here, you'll find not a hint that the whole rotten house of potatoes was about to collapse. The movie 2010 was released in 1984 and thus probably written a couple of years earlier than that. Yet Clarke writes not only as if the Soviet Union was going to survive into the next millenia, but that it would rival and perhaps outstrip the United States in power and technology.

The story's backdrop: a world-threatening conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union is brewing over a crisis in Honduras. And get this: America's political leaders are depicted as dangerous, trigger-happy "reactionaries" -- that's liberalese and Hollywoodese for anyone who stands in the way of communist expansion. I.e., "conservatives". With the Soviets turning Honduras into a client state, presumably after having been successful in Cuba, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, why, it's hard to imagine what a bunch of right-wing cowboys could possibly be upset about, isn't it? The Evil Empire's expansion into our hemisphere is just fine, but it's going too far to defend ourselves. Go figure.

The movie has an excellent cast -- Roy Scheider, Helen Mirren, John Lithgow, Bob Balaban, and a too-brief part by the absolutely stunning Madolyn Smith (as Scheider's suffering wife). For 1984, the special effects (which we take for granted even in B movies today) were quite good. At least 2010 has an actual plot in something more than trace amounts, which is more than can be said for 2001. In short, if you find late 20th century liberal thinking to be profound on an intellectual and especially a spiritual basis, then I can recommend this movie to you -- but I'll add that you really need to get out more.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Tomlin Makes a Statement

It has been fun watching the Steelers get off to a 4-1 start. Today, they dismantled one of the NFC's finest teams, the Seattle Seahawks, and made it look easy. Even without their two starting wide receivers (Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes) and their two biggest impact players (pun intended) on defense (safety Troy Polamalu and the gargantuan nosetackle Casey Hampton), they overcame a slow start on offense and methodically ground the Seahawks into cat food.

How many new head coaches can boast such a wonderful start? I was sad to see Coach Cowher move on, and hoped that the new coach, Mike Tomlin, could fill those large shoes. So far, he's doing a masterful job.

Western Pantheism

It has been several years since I lived in Omaha, which had a hopping music scene. As a trombone player, I was a medium fish in a small but lively pond, and spent many of my evenings driving around Omaha and Lincoln playing for this church, that wedding, or the other concert. Since moving to Virginia Beach, however, the pond got slightly bigger, but my talents got a lot smaller. There are four times as many good players, but maybe no more than twice the opportunities.

I'm simply not competitive at the highest levels of the trombone profession; I figure at least six hundred trombone players worldwide would have to misplace their lips for me even to have a shot at playing in the New York Philharmonic. But it's something I like to do, and every once in a while, I get a good opportunity. I had one such an opportunity this week with a local chamber orchestra, playing in a good trombone section including one fellow from Australia who studied with Chicago Symphony players, and another who studied in New York with New York Philharmonic players. On the one hand, I hate being the weak link in a section; on the other hand, it's always a great way to learn more about the craft.

Tonight's concert was an assortment of "Americana", never a recipe for a great program -- music by John Williams and Louis Gottschalk and assorted others, and thank goodness no Charles Ives or Aaron Copland. I'd rather pluck a hangnail with a pair of pliers than play Ives. And while most of my musician friends don't share my dislike of Copland, to me it's like he goes out of his way to make simple sounding music so hard to play.

Anyhow, tonight we were treated to a modern piece that featured narrations by Native American poets and primitive flute. The piece was not out-and-out lousy; musically, it had its moments. But I couldn't help noticing the solemn, almost sanctimonious, lecturing tone -- like a bad sermon. Actually, that seems to be pretty much what the piece was: an overly earnest eco-conscious stemwinder. Before I quit listening, I heard phrases such as, "My mother taught me to worship every thing of nature, to worship the grass, the pine needles..." and etc. Well, why stop at pine needles? Why don't we worship lawn clippings? Corn cobs? It's one thing to recognize God's handiwork; it's another to mistake it for God himself. Someone who is deeply moved by literature might have a deep and abiding love, say, for A Farewell To Arms, but who would idolize a book without acknowledging its author? There once lived a man named Hemingway, and he wrote that book. If you love the book, might it make sense at some point to try to understand who he was? Pantheists find wonder in nature, but they stop short at wondering who created it, or what He might be thinking.

In Omaha, I once played at the dedication of an AIDS hospice which was blessed in prayer by various squishy denominations. If good theology is needed anywhere, it is where someone goes who is about to die. Yet, the speeches were decorated with the softest of liberal Catholic and Protestant platitudes, joining hands athwart tradition in an ecumenical rejection of a more substantive theology. The icing on the rice cake was the participation of a solemn old Buddhist who sang nursery rhymes, while his young acolyte swung pots of burning incense around the interior of the building -- guaranteeing I had taken my last good breath of air for playing trombone. It isn't nice, but I'll say it: the acolyte looked like an abused organ grinder monkey. That whole experience was much less dignified than listening to the marvelous speaking voice of the Indian chief, but I nevertheless felt like I had been here before.

Western culture, until very recently, was never particularly hospitable to pantheism. I wonder who else saw the irony of a chamber orchestra -- one of the hallmarks of Western culture -- being employed in the promotion of non-Western religious blather. Meanwhile, I celebrated the end of this evening's diversity training by drinking a beer -- not exactly worshipping every molecule of hops and barley that went down, but certainly thinking very highly of them.

The part about nature that pantheists miss is its purpose: it was made for you and me.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Pi Eyed

Does the Bible claim that pi is 3?

I Kings 7:23 states the following:

"The sea was then cast; it was made with a circular rim, and measured ten cubits across, five in height, and thirty in circumference."

Apparently, critics of the Bible and any claims to its infallibility love using this passage. They point out that these proportions imply pi equals 3, when its value (according to Wikipedia) is really closer to 3.14159. That is, if the width were really ten cubits, the circumference should be, not thirty cubits. but closer to 31.4159 cubits.

None of these critics are more gleeful than Jason, the proprietor of Follow the link for his detailed analysis, but here's what caught my eye:

"Now, as it happens I don't think it is unreasonable to conclude that the writers were simply giving round, ballpark numbers. But I'm not the one claiming that every word in the Bible is divinely inspired and infallible. Please don't tell me that on the one hand the Bible is reliable in everything it says, but on the other I have to first learn math and science from some independent source before I can know how to interpret it properly.

"There is no reason, outside independent knowledge that pi, in fact, is not three, to interpret those measurements as approximations. And even if you do interpret them as approximations, you're still left with the fact that the plain meaning of the Biblical text can lead you astray on matters of math and science."

This breathless passage sent me back to check the words of the passage again. Here's what I don't see:

"The sea was then cast; it was made with a very precisely circular rim, and measured 10.00 cubits across, 5.00 in height, and 30.00 in circumference."

If this were how the passage was presented in the Bible, I think Jason might have had a point. However, the Biblical passage does not seem to be pretending to a high degree of precision -- ten, five, and thirty seem like nice round numbers. Nor do we know how perfectly circular the "circular rim" was. We often describe the earth as a sphere, but in fact it is an oblate spheroid -- does that mean that if you use the term sphere, you're being fallible?

No, you're being imprecise. It seems clear that Jason is conflating imprecision with fallibility.

  • Pi does equal 3, if you're rounding to the nearest integer.
  • Pi equals 3.1, if you're rounding to the nearest tenth.
  • Pi equals 3.14, if you're rounding to the nearest hundredth.

And so on. You can carry this out to as many decimal places as you like, but there is some specification at which pi will always be an approximation. Wikipedia carries it out to five decimal places, and still characterizes that as an "approximation". Pi generally equals 3.14 in grade school math, but NASA would probably require a little more precision. A shepherd culture, circa 800 B.C., might be forgiven a little imprecision.

Postscript: There is an excellent discussion from a physics web page of the concept of significant digits. The basic rule is that no calculation can be considered as more precise than the least precise number used to calculate it. The numbers given in I Kings 7:23 -- "five", "ten", "thirty" -- each contain only one significant digit. Therefore, even if we were to assume pi = 3.14, then (3.14)(10) = 30, because the operand 10 has only one significant digit.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Sinking Sand

I remember my first Sunday school class very well. I must have been very young, because I distinctly remember a girl sitting next to me who told me she was six years old. I thought, "Wow! She's old!" I can still remember the songs they taught me, most notably the one that goes like this:

On Christ the solid rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand.

Children's song or not, this is a message of theological importance. There is no greater peace than the peace Jesus gives. It explains how men like Paul and Peter could be contented even in the very worst of circumstances, while others cannot be consoled no matter how well things are going their way. When our lives are not centered on Christ, we flail and flounder around for something that seems solid, permanent, dependable. Being fallen creatures, we will tend to settle for the first thing that tickles our fancy. For some it's money -- these folks worry about not having it, or acquiring it, or keeping it. For some it's their good looks or their intellects. But good looks are rented, not owned, and must sooner or later be returned to dust. A stroke, or a head trauma, or old age, or disease can take away a good mind. And even when otherwise healthy, a good mind can be captured by a false ideology and kept enslaved by vanity.

There is no gift of this world that will not someday be taken away. Only God can give the gifts that cannot be taken away.

But all this talk about God is just not trendy. Within the past 150 years or so, Freude, as in joy, has been more or less supplanted by Freud, as in Sigmund. Not theology, but therapy. The way to happiness is not understanding the Lord, but in understanding ourselves. We used to say, "He is able -- Amen!" Now we say, "Here's my navel -- ommmm!"

The opposite of the wisdom of the ages is the fad of the moment, and today the deep thinkers have decided that our problem is that we simply do not enjoy sufficient amounts of self-esteem. So we went on a national self-esteem binge. We decided it's something that should be taught at home, at school, and as the moral of any story or situation. Of course, it has found a home in the popular culture. Almost no one has given the cult of self-esteem a better, more earnest presentation than the singing group known as the Roches -- one of my favorites.

Everyone is Good

I would like to be a person
who does not judge,
Free to be me whatever that might be,
I don't want to hold a position, don't want to hold a grudge,
'Cause it seems to be the cause of a lot of misunderstanding
Heartbreak, misery

It's really a sadly beautiful song. On the recording, Terre Roche sings it, and she has a lovely voice, and a lovely face, and it really hurts to disagree with her. But sorry, Terre, you're not making any sense. What you're saying here, "I don't want to hold a position," is holding a position. You say it's the cause of a lot of misunderstanding? That's a judgment.

Everyone is not good, not even by the low standards we like to set for ourselves. We have cheaters. We have thieves. We have murderers, and torturers, you name it. We have Josef Stalin, and Pol Pot. We have the Enron executives, and the Ku Klux Klan, and Satan worshippers, and serial rapists.

One could even hope that people like this ought to have less self-esteem than they already do -- which in most cases is a whole outrageous lot. Yet, oddly enough, the truly unrepentant evil man is seldom plagued with the doubts that torture the rest of us. Pol Pot, shortly before he died, told an interviewer that he still believed in his cause, which required murdering a million of his fellow Cambodians. Hitler, likewise, thought that history would someday honor him for his contributions. What you and I see as a Holocaust, he saw as a cleansing -- getting rid of a scourge. Hitler had his faults, but the evidence would suggest he thought highly of himself.

But, gee, we shouldn't take a position. We shouldn't hold a grudge. World War II -- what a misunderstanding that was!

The more bad news is that we are doing a better job of teaching self-esteem than reading, writing, or arithmetic. Japanese students perform better at math than American students, but American students rate their own math skills highly, while Japanese students do not have a high opinion of their own knowledge. My musician friends tell me that young students nowadays do not want to hear any criticism; they only want to be told how good they are. Even when they're not. Especially when they're not.

Well, don't we all want to hear how good we are? Fine, but it sort of misses the point of music lessons. I have spent thousands of dollars on trombone lessons in my life, and I would have been shortchanged if every teacher I'd ever had only wanted to tell me how good I was. (Fortunately, that was never a problem!) Here's a promise: you can't get better at playing an instrument if you cannot withstand criticism. You are paying your teachers to criticize you. You can't progress unless you know where you're at, and you can't know where you're at by kidding yourself.

And kidding yourself is what the self-esteem movement is all about.

Here's a better approach. Think of it like this: Everyone is bad. As my pastor, Wally, likes to say, "Cheer up! You're worse than you think." You're a wretched sinner, and have no reason to feel good about yourself. Same as me. Same as Pastor Wally, or the Pope. Same as everyone except Jesus. All of our righteousness is only as filthy rags, which in Bible-speak means no cleaner than your dirty underwear -- and that's our righteous works. (Imagine how He must view our unrighteous works.) But fortunately, we can wear His righteousness and be secure in the knowledge that He will change us.

The self-esteem bromide then becomes unnecessary. The Lord thinks you're a sinner, and that's already the worst thing anyone can call you. Nobody else's opinion of you matters. But He also sent his Son to die for you, to redeem you. Now, that's a liberating feeling. When you are ready to give up on yourself, you can finally acquire some real help. He who would save his life will lose it.

Self-esteem, material well-being, human accomplishment, psychoanalysis, touchy-feely New Age nonsense -- all are sinking sand. They're nothing upon which to base a joyful life, or an eternity. Stand on the firm foundation, the solid rock.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Bully for You

There is nothing more detestable than a bully.

That's pretty much true at every level. It's true when SS goons are rounding up unarmed, defenseless Jews for their final and fatal endurance test of degradation and brutalization. And it's true when the big, tough kid in school forces the smaller, weaker kids to submit to lesser but still painful humiliations. The best that can be hoped is that the fledgling bully has not yet grown into the morality which hopefully he will yet achieve. The worst to be feared is that he will become a seasoned Nazi and lacks only the experience and opportunity.

Whatever the setting or circumstances, bullying is the hallmark of the fallen state of man. Bullying is our own little piece of Hell. It is what provides Hell with its hellishness.

Does this not make it incumbent upon all good men of morality and faith to stand up to bullies? To defend the weak?

If you agree, then congratulations, you now understand the moral basis for war, and for fighting in general.

Why are some people so resistant to this logic?

Sally Field has always been an attractive and appealing actress, and yes, we really, really, like her. Which is why it's so terribly disappointing that she just doesn't get it. While receiving an Emmy award, she had this to say:

> "If mothers... ruled the world, there would be no god-damned wars in the first place...."

If you grew up as a boy in public schools, you have dealt with such logic before. You have been picked on and humiliated by some other boy for weeks, and finally decide to stand up for yourself. You hit back. And then you get sent to the principal's office along with the bully, and punished alongside the bully as if you shared equally in the blame. Because, "fighting is wrong." "It doesn't matter who started it." You can fool yourself all you like with such talk, but you won't fool a kid. They already know that smashing a bully in the mouth is one of the best things in the world, and you might as well save your breath and quit denying the obvious.

To anyone who would tell kids such a thing, I would say: okay, what if you're walking down the street, and a thug snatches your purse, and then on second thought, decides you look good enough to rape. So he starts dragging you toward the nearest alley. Now, here comes another man. This may be your last chance. So what do you say to him?

a) "Please, help me, this man is trying to rape me!"
b) "Run along, now, I know you're thinking of helping me, but fighting is wrong."

And if you do beg him for help, what then should he reply?

a) "Unhand that woman, or I'll clobber you!"
b) "Sorry, but it doesn't matter who started it."

It's so easy to figure these things out when you put yourself in the victim's shoes, isn't it?

If you answered "b" to either question, then congratulations, you just won the "No Balls" Peace Prize, in moral obtuseness.

Terrorism is simply bullying on a larger scale. How we react to bullies, to terrorists, to terrorist states defines who we are, spiritually and morally. If we are too squeamish, or too morally unsure of ourselves, to kill terrorists, then what good are we?

The idea that all violence is morally equivalent is essentially a denial that morality even exists. Defending the weak sometimes requires raising a fist, shooting a gun, or dropping a bomb.

Sally, trust me, you wouldn't like living in the world that al-Qaida has in mind for you. Be aware that, to preserve your right to dress up nicely and morally preen before a fawning Hollywood audience, someone, somewhere, has to be willing to fight a "god-damned war."

The least you could do is show some appreciation. If you can't, then you've done it hundreds of times as "The Flying Nun", but please go take another flying leap.

Thursday, September 20, 2007


I'm not really a fan of the "Cathy" comic strip (by Cathy Guisewite), but she published a strip once that was one of the best comics ever. Playing on the tension that existed between cartoon Cathy and her controlling mother, it showed the difference between the 1950s kitchen and the "modern" kitchen (I think the strip was from the 1980s). On the left, here is the 1950s kitchen -- just a range/oven, a sink, a cast iron skillet, and a refrigerator. On the right, here is the modern kitchen, containing every gadget imaginable -- blender, Cuisinart, automatic mixer, microwave, fancy Teflon-coated cookware, freezer, you name it. Then, on the left, here is the 1950s meal -- turkey, ham, soup, homemade biscuits, scalloped potatoes, pie. And on the right, the modern meal -- a microwavable TV dinner and a Diet Coke. Somehow, less is more.

Though now a Presbyterian, I was raised Baptist, so I learned all the good old Gospel hymns growing up, and loved them all. Well, all except "Just As I Am", which was the altar-call hymn. (If Preacher Hall was wrapping up a real stemwinder, we would sing every verse twice through, waiting, in what seemed like an infinite loop, for more people to come forward and be saved.)

The "Jesus Freak" movement of the early 1970s -- sort of a "Hippies for Jesus" thing -- came in right about the time I was discovering a world outside of the religion of my youth. So, I sort of missed out on the whole Campus Crusade/InterVarsity thing. As a freshman at Penn State, I did go to an InterVarsity meeting once with a very nice girl named Karen, a French horn player, and a junior. I was very, very uncool and certainly not what she was looking for in a boyfriend. But she was kind enough to take me to InterVarsity, which is the first time I ever heard the folksy bleating soon to be incorporated in what we now refer to as "praise music".

I hated it.

Cloying, treacly, overly sentimental. Ycch. The femininization of Christian music. Definitely not Men's Town. My buddy Ray came up with the perfect word for capturing its essence: Jee-zak.

That style is still with us today, more or less. Sometimes it's still in plaintive post-hippie time capsule form; other times, it's an overblown orchestral production number, complete with chorus, soloists, and everything but the dancing girls. And sometimes, even the dancing girls -- just not at the Baptist churches.

For all I know, the Lord loves modern praise music. I can't speak for Him. He says, "Make a joyful noise unto the Lord," and perhaps noise is good enough for His purposes. It might therefore be a sin for me to dislike it as much as I do. But I can't help myself. Every time I hear modern praise music, I feel another chunk of aesthetic sensitivity break off and head south, like an iceberg looking for the Titanic, like panicked brain cells grabbing their luggage and fleeing the Keith Olbermann show.

Turns out, however, I'm not the only church-goer who feels this way. Lawrence Henry, in the American Spectator, took praise music to task earlier this summer. Follow the link, and don't miss the feedback in the Letters sections, here and here.

Of course, what I think we're really seeing is just the general dumbing down of musical taste in our culture. Listening to the dreary, whiny sounds of electronic post-rock, it's hard to imagine that our tastes, as a culture, were once refined enough to appreciate George Gershwin and Cole Porter, let alone Beethoven and Verdi. These days, music is less an art form than it is a sensation. Craft takes a back seat to attitude.

We live in a very small age. Small, in the sense that our culture does not prepare us well to exalt anything bigger or more magnificent than we are. (Most modern music exalts sex; heck, snails can have sex.) We have every technical gadget and gizmo in the world, music composition tools that would have made Mozart weep for joy, recording devices, modern microphones and acoustic science and vast numbers of people who can play some sort of an instrument -- and the music we produce with all that paraphernalia sounds like it was written either by the four-year-old Neil Sedaka at one extreme, or a love-crazed salvage yard car-crushing machine at the other.

A hundred years ago, a couple of guys with nothing more than a piano wrote the incomparable "It is Well With My Soul".

Somehow, less is more.

Rather Fun

Michelle Malkin reports that Dan "The Wan" Rather is suing his ex-employer CBS over specific decisions made in the wake of the discredited "60 Minutes" story about Bush and his Air National Guard stint -- the story that gave birth to the characterization, "fake but accurate."

If life is nothing else, it is often entertaining. The only thing more fun than watching Dan Rather splatter dirty diaper filling all over himself and CBS News is watching it twice.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Whose Worst Nightmare?

Word out of the Rudy Giuliani camp is that he is being touted as the Republican Who Can Beat Hillary. He is the Democrats' "worst nightmare".

Last I heard, Rudy thinks it's okay to abort babies. He is actively pro-gun control. He is in favor of the restrictions on the First Amendment known as the McCain-Feingold campaign finance "reform".

I think that makes him my worst nightmare, too.

It's going to be interesting to see how many conservatives show up at the polls if Rudy, or John McCain for that matter, wins the Republican nominaton. There will be at least one less than there would otherwise be.

In about four hundred years, the Hebrew Kingdom fell from its zenith under David and Solomon, to its destruction and ruin -- first breaking apart first into two smaller and weaker states, then followed by the enslavement of the northern kingdon by Assyria, and finally by the captivity of the Jews by Babylon. God had promised the Hebrews that they would become a great nation, if they followed his laws. They didn't, and paid the consequences.

I don't know that we are in any better position to feel smug about our wealth and power than Solomon's contemporaries may have felt. To quote my buddy Ray from South Carolina, we may not be on our final decline, but if we are, the last thirty years or so is what it would look like. How do we get back on the right track as a nation? It's hard to say, but it's pretty easy to say that we won't start our long climb back by murdering babies, or by supporting presidential candidates who don't mind.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Patriot Games

Upon being fined by the NFL for using electronic surveillance of opponents' hand signals, Coach Bellichick of the New England Patriots apologized for his "mistake".

I think he needs to try again. A mistake is something you make when you add up a column of numbers incorrectly. A mistake is something a kid makes when he doesn't quite get to the bathroom on time. A mistake is something your waitress makes when she brings you a foo-foo drink with an umbrella in it, instead of that shot and a beer you ordered.

When you are caught filming the hand signals of opposing teams, against NFL regulations, that is not a mistake. The word for which you are grasping, Coach, is "cheating".

A real apology is so rare these days. It consists of three parts:

1. An acknowledgement of wrongdoing.
2. An expression of contrition and humble sorrow. And
3, A promise never to do it again, and to make amends if that's possible.

Acknowledging a mistake is not the same as admitting wrongdoing. Coach, you did it. Own it.

Predatory World

It has been a great summer for bug watching. Watching predatory behavior is fun, but I empathize a little too much with higher animals who are being attacked and eaten. That goes for the films on Animal Planet and National Geographic about crocodiles eating zebras, or lions eating wildebeasts, or hawks eating rabbits. Surely the prey animals must feel something akin to pain, if not despair. It's the natural order of things, and the way God designed it. Maybe animals have to suffer alongside mankind because Adam fell from grace. Well, I don't have to watch it. But I do, occasionally, because predatory behavior is fascinating.

That's why I like documentaries about insects. It's hard to empathize with insects -- though watching mud daubers roll spiders up into little balls for feeding to their larva even tests that proposition. The mystery is why the spiders don't even fight back. Apparently it has been known for some time that any other insect invading a wolf spider's lair will be attacked and dispatched. But send a wasp down there, and the spider's attitude changes from opportunistic predator to cringing prey from the instant the wasp's attennae touch her. It doesn't even try to fight; it wraps its legs around itself and waits for the sting.

Darwinists like to talk about evolved behaviors and survival of the fittest. How do they explain a prey species evolving a behavior that benefits its predator? Where does that fit into the Darwinist rubric?

Last weekend, I saw a very impressive wasp digging a hole in my backyard. Very large, very active. She seemed aware of my presence, but mostly ignored me, as she disappeared over and over again into the hole, and pulled out some dirt. I looked up wasps on the web and discovered she was a digger wasp. I'm not very familiar with the species, and understand that they're somewhat rare in these parts.

She looked formidable. I don't know what poor insect is her preferred prey, but whatever it is, I feel sorry for it.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Managerial Food Chain

It took years, but I finally figured out that I'm a giraffe.

I work as a database administrator for a fairly large organization with lots of informational technology needs. A DBA position is almost as high as a technical person who doesn't manage anyone (besides himself) can hope to climb within an IT organization. If you happen, as I do, to see the workplace as a food chain, it helps to see managers as the stealthy carnivores, which means that everyone else is a cud-chewing, befuddled herbivore. DBAs correspond most closely to giraffes -- we're not big enough to affect a lot of destinies, but we're too big to be casually messed with. It's a good place to be. We're not interested in devouring our weaker colleagues. Instead, we eat lots of green stuff (the more, the better) and watch, from a safe, high place, the smaller herbivores being made miserable by the lesser carnivores, who, nasty as they may be, are generally too small to hurt us.

Every once in a while, we run into a lower-level manager who hasn't yet figured that out.

There are actually two types of managers. The best type is the former techie turned manager. He has done the job and thus has an idea about particulars, and what needs to be done, and how many people it will take, and helps you in any way he can, and takes heat for you if something goes wrong. I don't want to say much about these guys, they're way too useful to slander. It may not sound flattering, but in the world of carnivores, these are the birds that pick the ticks and other bloodsucking parasites off of our backsides, where we can't reach. It's necessary and even helpful. You get the job done, and it helps them get fed.

The rest of this post talks about the other type of manager.

Where you or I might look at a techie and see a techie, such managers look at anyone and everything as a prop for projecting a managerial image. They will manage a fire hydrant if it stands there looking stupid long enough. ("Useful for putting out fires, but prone to feel under pressure," might be the first line in the yearly review.) No one really knows what a manager does, but our big mistake is assuming that managers do know. And the knowledge it takes to become a manager is practically unquantifiable. But it's okay. No one knows what it means to be managerial, but everyone knows what it means to look and act managerial. That's why every manager needs props. A small laptop with Blue Tooth is nice, but a techie asking him questions is the best. It doesn't really matter if all the questions take the form, "Huh?"

I've been working with one such MOTM -- manager on the make -- for the past week or so. You know the type: chirpy, cheerful, well-dressed, lots of energy, and brimming with the burning desire to say something memorable and intelligent at a meeting. Even if you do not work directly for him, he will assume that, since you are the one doing the technical work, he is therefore obviously the one in charge. Simple Boolean logic. If you email a vendor and don't cc him, you will receive an email chiding you, in cordial but firm tones, that you should "keep the communication channels open" and "keep him in the loop". Somewhere, nearby, a smiley face will pop out at you.

You will also discover sooner or later that what you're saying to him gets spun slightly by the time it hits the boss's ears. Not changed, really, but with a certain emphasis added that you did not intend -- or if you did intend, was not emphasized.

Unless you're Michelangelo or Shakespeare, chances are that the work you do today will not live on for hundreds of years. I can't remember the last time I moved a database from Prod to Dev for testing, and received a Nobel Prize or a Tony Award for my efforts. Immortality is probably not in the cards for us. However, doing your work for the MOTM is like finding that elusive fountain of middle age. The work that you do for him today, far from being soon forgotten, is destined to live on for years as a line on his resume. The harder you work, the better his next job.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Shaking A Fist at God

A very close friend of mine, I've known him all my life, went to the same church I did as a child, and we've kept in touch these many years. Like everyone, he's had his ups and downs through life, but he seems sometimes not so much unable to roll with the punches, as unwilling. He has hardened into the last rugged individual, convinced he must go through life on his own, figuring things out on his own, dealing with problems and setbacks on his own. He is very resistant to the idea of turning his life over to the Lord and letting Him be in charge. I have tried many times to talk him into coming to church with me, and he's not rude, but he always asserts his independence.

If God is pursuing someone, however, He seems to have a way of tightening the screws in someone's life to the place where there is no alternative but to submit to His will. This is what the Calvinists call "irresistable grace". As the Borg might say, "Resistance is futile."

To me, the interesting thing is how we have changed places since we were young. As a teenager, he was popular and outgoing, always laughing, always the social butterfly. On the other hand, I was a trombone-playing bookworm, not popular at all, and not very joyful. Today, he is grim and taciturn, seemingly angry about his place in the world and resentful of many of the changes he has seen and experienced. And while I'm not exactly Mr. Popularity at work, I have a cadre of close friends who seem to enjoy my company, and I theirs, and I'm having the best time of my life.

There are so many rules to follow in Christianity, it's easy to mislead oneself into believing that the Lord wants us to be miserable. He throws our sins in our face, tells us we're not worthy, and exhorts us to behave contrary to our nature. And the penalty for failure is eternity in Hell.

This joyless theology may be why so many have turned away. If the Lord can't give them peace and happiness, they'll achieve it on their own terms, thank you.

And that is the path to true misery. As C.S. Lewis observed, the problem is not that we want so much out of life, but that we are willing to settle for so little.

It's the other way around. The Lord wants us to be joyful in His presence. Basically, He wants to party with us for all eternity. And sometimes, He has to disabuse us of our own fixations, to pull us away, gently or not, but firmly, from the things we desperately hope will bring us happiness, but which were always destined to fail us.

Anyhow, my friend called yesterday to tell me about a lawsuit that he just lost, that has cost him thousands and may cost even more. He opened up by saying, "Well, some people believe God allows bad things to happen in order to send a message, and it that's the case, then I guess I'm just going to have to get used to getting screwed." About two or three more minutes on that theme. The frustration in his voice was as thick as brick wall.

I expressed my sorrow for his misfortune, and offered to have my pastor call him. "No, no," he begged off. "I don't like to tell other people my problems, I'm just going to have to deal with it."

Usually I'm not so bold, but something got a hold on me. I said, "Hey bud, look: you've been shaking your fist at God, so don't you think you ought to hear His side?"

Though he denied doing that, it was clear that he still prefers his own home-cooked misery to God's happiness. But we all shake our fist at God sometimes. He has designs for our lives that don't necessarily fit with our own plans. The more we struggle against them, the worse our circumstances are liable to get. He remakes us in His image, and sometimes that takes a lot of re-arranging. And it hurts. And the prospect of it is daunting.

(This has nothing to do, by the way, with being "holier than thou." Any Christian who harbors such feelings is doing something wrong. The closer you get to the Lord, the more you should realize how great your sin is, and it should make you even more grateful for what He'll do for you, and has already done. No human being has cause to boast. Christians have no excuse for not being even more aware of this than anyone.)

My friend's great theme is that the world is full of injustice and that he gets more than he deserves. But if anyone deserved to be treated well, it was Jesus, and look at what we did to Him. If He wasn't treated well, we certainly don't deserve to be, either.

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