Thursday, June 26, 2008


I've been experimenting with Wordle, which makes word patterns that are pretty interesting. Here's the first example that I decided to save (lclick on images for full-size view):

And here is another:

Wordles are certainly eye catching. One more:

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Science and John's Gospel converge?

Discover magazine online reports on a cosmologist who says that the universe is actually made of math.
Cosmologists are not your run-of-the-mill thinkers, and [M.I.T Professor] Max Tegmark is not your run-of-the-mill cosmologist. Throughout his career, Tegmark has made important contributions to problems such as measuring dark matter in the cosmos and understanding how light from the early universe informs models of the Big Bang. But unlike most other physicists, who stay within the confines of the latest theories and measurements, the Swedish-born Tegmark has a night job. In a series of papers that have caught the attention of physicists and philosophers around the world, he explores not what the laws of nature say but why there are any laws at all.

According to Tegmark, “there is only mathematics; that is all that exists.” In his theory, the mathematical universe hypothesis, he updates quantum physics and cosmology with the concept of many parallel universes inhabiting multiple levels of space and time. By posing his hypothesis at the crossroads of philosophy and physics, Tegmark is harking back to the ancient Greeks with the oldest of the old questions: What is real?
If you read the whole interview, you might discern that Tegmark's hypothesis is not far from the theory of the logos in ancient Greek philosophy. The logos was thought to be the ordering structure of the universe, so first described by Heraclitus.The Stoics later picked up the concept, associating it with reason and that which gave animation to the universe.

The author of the Gospel of John used the concept of logos to describe the place of Christ in the creation and ordering of the universe, and to explain how the logos had become human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel opens,
In the beginning was the Word [logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
Now, Prof. Tegmark certainly did not set out to show that a theory of the universe, founded in 21st-century science, was only an elaboration of early Christian theology or ancient Greek philosophy. But it's kind of interesting that there is a philosophical convergence between them.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The problem of evil

Compendium of home-video from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami

I think that the most vexing obstacle in bringing the Gospel to people is the problem of evil. Classically stated, the problem of evil is this:
  • God is omnibenevolent, that is, wholly good.
  • God is omnipotent, that is, of unlimited power.
  • God is omniscient, that is, he knows everything past, present and future.
  • But evil exists in the world, both the evil that human beings do to one another and the tragedies that befall us because of the natural world, which is God's own creation.

So if God is as the premises of the problem describe him, than how can either kind of evil exist? This problem is one of the most-frequently cited reasons that people say they can't accept Christian teaching. (The theological name of this problem is theodicy, derived from the Greek for the "justice of God.")

I will start a sermon series on this problem on July 27. As well, beginning July 15 I'll lead a daytime Bible study called, "Job, Jonah, Jesus and the Problem of Good and Evil," that will meet at 9 a.m.

Folks, pat answers don't work for this problem. It's a hard one.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Was Jesus anti-Jewish?

Prof. Amy-Jill Levine is a Jewish woman who attends an orthodox synagogue in Nashville and who occupies an endowed chair of New Testament studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School. If you make a habit of watching the various Jesus TV shows that appear around Christmastime and Easter, you've probably seen her on camera. A-J, as her students call her (I was her student, and still consider myself such) is an engaging lecturer with an appealing sense of humor and a simply awesome command of the various themes, facts and passages of the New Testament. And she treats the New Testament a lot better than many Christian professors, clergy and laity treat the Old Testament.

Which brings me to her latest book, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. It is precisely, I think, because of A-J's deep appreciation of Jesus as a specifically Jewish man, and the plainly Jewish character of the New Testament, that leads her to describe and rebut Christians' historic and ongoing habit of thinking of Jesus as some kind of "counter-Jew" who sought to radically change his own religious traditions and teachings or even overturn them. Even worse has been the use of the New Testament by Christians to justify anti-Judaism, which is a very short step from anti-Jew; neither position is simply tenable with the identity and life of Jesus.

This book is not another bewailing of how Christian Germany came to commit the Holocaust. In fact, the Shoah gets only a very brief mention in her book. A-J isn't writing to point the finger at Christians for our sins. She simply wishes to introduce the reader to the Jewish ordinariness of Jesus himself and of his place and time. Just as importantly, A-J explains simply and thoroughly the errors of both the Church and the Academy in drawing conclusions about presumed monolithic Judaism; both blocs have generally supposed that whatever Jesus seemed to oppose must have been normative in Judaism of his day. That is, clergy and scholars alike haven't studied Judaica to speak of, but nonetheless think that the New Testament describes Judaism both accurately and exhaustively. It just is not so.

As well, A-J exposes how modern theological fads (liberationism, feminism and many others), have so idealized Jesus away from his personal Jewishness that he becomes a heroic figure exemplifying whatever the faddists a priori wish him to be. Jesus' own people then become the paradigm for whomever the faddists wish to oppose in the present day, and the dysfunctions and injustices of today - whether patriarchy, colonialism, or various exploitations - are retrojected as the norm of first-century Judaism. Jews are then portrayed, sometimes explicitly, as domineering oppressors of class, gender, the outcast and the marginalized. Hence, in seeking to identify Jesus with the Palestinian cause today, one liberationist makes explicit an identity across two millennia between the Israeli "occupiers" of the West Bank and the Jews who (presumably) killed Jesus.

Finally, the book appeals to Jews not dismiss the Christian testament as wholly antithetical to Judaism's history and current practice. A-J explains, for example, how the Lord's Prayer (called, the "Our Father" in Catholicism) is a Jewish prayer through and through. (I remember this explanation from my first New Testament class with her, too.) Noting that after two thousand years of history it is too much to expect that Jews today will feel comfortable in praying it, she uses it to point out how Christian faith and practice is still pervaded by Jewish traditions and that there are many positive points of contact that adherents of either faith would be better off to appreciate.

I recommend the book without reservation. It's the best religious-topic book I have read in several years.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Sunni sheik says pray less, work more


For Egyptian-born Muslim cleric and television host, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, there is a simple answer to Egypt's productivity problem -- pray less, work more.

"Praying is a good thing ... 10 minutes should be enough," Al-Jazeera television personality Qaradawi says in a religious edict, or fatwa, published on his website.


"He's right. I cannot say the contrary. One must not waste time at work and use prayer as the pretext," Sheikh Fawzi al-Zifzaf, of the centre of Islamic studies at Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's main seat of learning, told AFP.

As for Mohammed al-Shahhat al-Gendi, secretary general of the Council of Supreme Islamic affairs, "10 minutes are absolutely suitable for one prayer."

"Improving productivity is not at all contrary to Islam," he told AFP.

So the Sunni authorities want Muslims to limit their prayers to 10 minutes each, at least for the two mandatory daily prayers that occur during the workday. Meanwhile, back in the USA, Christian ministers wish their people would pray for 10 minutes once per day.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The awful stakes of D-Day

The alternate history of June 6, 1944 is too terrible to contemplate

There is an old preacher story, so old it is a cliche of bad sermons now, that goes like this: An angel awoke who had slept through the first two centuries after Jesus had gone down to earth and ascended back to heaven. The angel went to the Lord and asked, “Where did you go?”

Jesus replied, “I've been down on earth.”

The angel asked, "How did it go?"

Jesus said, "They crucified me."

The angel protested, "You must have had a wide influence."

Jesus said, "I had twelve followers, and one betrayed me to my death."

The angel asked, "What will become of your work?"

Jesus said, "I left it in the hands of my friends."

"And if they fail?" asked the angel.

Jesus said, "I have no other plans."

That punchline, I think, is why D-Day remains so compelling. The specter of defeat on June 6, 1944 was overwhelmingly dreadful. The Allies had no other plans. There was no Plan B in case the landings were repulsed.

There are many "pivot" days in human history, when the course of human events swung in a new direction because of discrete actions. It is hard to find another moment in all history when so much rested on an outcome of one day as rested on the success of the Allies' landings on Normandy.

The Soviets, pushing toward Nazi Germany from the east in 1944, had clamored for years for America and Britain to open a second front against Germany from the west. A second front would compel Germany to draw soldiers and materiel away from the Russian front. Allied claims that operations in North Africa, southern Europe and indeed, the UK-US bombing campaign constituted a second front were scorned by Stalin.

Placating Stalin was one reason the Allies had to invade Germany through France. All the military and political leaders remembered early 1918, when the newly-in-power Soviet government under Lenin had made a separate peace with Imperial Germany. Even though all the Allies had agreed early in WW II that no separate peace agreements would be made, the nag was always there.

Moreover, neither Roosevelt nor Churchill had any desire at all to see all Germany overrun from the east and fall under the hammer and sickle. The only way to prevent that was to place American and British soldiers on the ground inside Germany.

Invasion through northern Europe was the only way to do that (Churchill's claim that an invasion from the south, through Europe's "soft underbelly," proved fantastical in rolling up the Italian peninsula. Whatever Europe's underbelly was, it wasn't soft.)

Omaha Beach, Normandy, 6 June 1944
The Allies could afford to succeed by a mere whisker on the Normandy beaches. Indeed, the planned American and British timetable for operations commencing June 7 proved wildly optimistic. But they did succeed, rather handily most places, as it turned out, and that was enough.

But any failure could have been only catastrophic. As in all major military operations, logistics was the central issue. The moon and tide conditions were acceptable on only some days in May, June and July; in fact, May 19 was seriously discussed as the invasion date for some time. But the Allies' supreme commander, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, postponed the invasion to June 5 because doing so would yield him an additional 100 landing craft, mostly LSTs, used to land tracked and wheeled vehicles directly onto the beach. (Bad weather caused the invasion to be postponed again until June 6.)

A little-known fact is that America was continually shuttling landing craft, both for vehicles and personnel, back and forth from Europe to the Pacific. The availability of landing craft was almost always the key point in setting landing dates for both areas.

A German victory at Normandy would probably have destroyed stocks of American landing craft by two or three years production. Not only could there not possibly been another landing even attempted in Europe for a very long time, Pacific operations would have been dramatically slowed. America was set to take the Philippines back from the Japanese beginning in October 1944. The invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, both in the first half of 1945, were to follow. Significant loss of landing craft at Normandy would have thrown that timetable badly off.

Allied failure on the French coast would have meant enormous American and British casualties. Both the 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions would have been entirely destroyed because they could not have been relieved, having dropped inland. All their soldiers would have been killed or captured. The loss of life that defeat on the beaches would have entailed would have degraded the Allies' capability to try again soon almost as much as the loss of landing craft.

The Soviets certainly would not have slacked their offensives had Normandy failed. If anything, they would have pressed all the harder, but would have pressed equally hard for a much larger share of American war production, insisting that they were making better use of it than we were. As they would have been the only dog in the fight, the demands would have been hard for Roosevelt to resist. Not only would all Germany have become communist, so would France, whose communist cells were very active and which would have benefited greatly from having the Soviet army literally next door. Imagine the Iron Curtain falling at the English Channel. The Soviet bear would have easily swallowed countries like Denmark, The Netherlands and Belgium. Likewise, Greece's postwar communist insurgency would have succeeded. Italy might easily have turned communist also.

(Alternatively, the Nazis might well have shifted hundreds of thousands of soldiers from France to the eastern front. If so, they almost certainly would have shredded Soviet formations because, battalion for battalion, the German army was greatly superior and better led. The Soviets would still have won out, but it would have taken longer and at much greater cost all around.)

European Jews, of course, would have been wiped out since the "final solution" would have proceeded apace. Israel would not exist today. The Soviet Union might have become dominant in the Middle East and there's no point in even trying to speculate on what the next decades would have held for the Arabs (or Persians, since the Russians had long cast a covetous eye on Iran's year-round warm-water ports).

Roosevelt, of course, would not have been reelected that fall. He certainly would have sacked Eisenhower and Eisenhower's boss, Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall. (Eisenhower would certainly have tendered his resignation. Marshall had survived the post-Pearl Harbor headrolling, but could not have survived failure at Normandy.) There's no point speculating what Republican President Thomas E. Dewey would have done with the office, but it is fair to say he would not have pushed for the creation of the United Nations, which was mainly Roosevelt's brainchild (for good or ill, take your pick), nor would there have been any reason for Stalin to cooperate with its formation, anyway.

Britain's people were incredibly war weary by mid-1944. Success in Normandy emboldened them to see the war to its bitter, bloody end. They remembered all too well the defeat of Dunkirk, when the British army had been evacuated from the French coast at the war's beginning, leaving behind its dead, almost all its vehicles and most of its weapons. Failure at Normandy would have caused Prime Minister Churchill's unemployment faster than Roosevelt's.

I have little doubt that some form of British peace party would have gained the Parliamentary majority and the PM's office. Might the Brits have sued Hitler for a separate peace? Maybe. Already strongly tended toward socialism, it's not hard reasonably to imagine that the UK itself would have turned communist by the 1950s had the Soviets dominated all western Europe.

Without Britain (and I'm treading very speculative ground here, I admit), America could not have continued to oppose Hitler, nor have offered any resistance to Soviet dominion of practically all Europe after they had cleaned up the Nazis. We would have continued to make war against Japan, of course. But consider that with sea-land operations slowed greatly by loss of materiel at Normandy, Japan would probably have been bombed into true oblivion; the Pacific War's end would have been greatly postponed at terrible cost of human life - American, Japanese and persons under Japanese occupation, who were dying in 1945 at the rate of 500,000 per month. Whatever Japan's postwar history would have been, it would not have resembled what it actually was.

All these things lay in the hands of fewer than 200,000 American, Canadian and British soldiers stepping onto French soil on one day. It was a burden that we should pray will never rest on human shoulders again.

End note: What of the atom bomb? It was originally envisioned for use against Nazi Germany, but Germany surrendered before the bomb was ready. With a lengthened war in Europe, could the atom bomb have restored US-UK fortunes there? I would argue that an expanded use the A-bomb from the two that actually were used is no victory. However it might have reestablished US power on the continent, such cannot be considered positively by any stretch of the imagination.

Update: Another look: "What if D-Day Had Failed?"

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Politics and redemption

Wherever politics tries to be redemptive, it is promising too much. Where it wishes to do the work of God, it becomes, not divine, but demonic. - Pope Benedict XVI, Truth and Tolerance; p. 116.

Hat tip: Kyle-Anne Shiver.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Landing in Honduras

Rescue workers surround a passenger plane which skidded off a runway at Tegucigalpa airport in Honduras, May 30, 2008.

I've landed a few times at Tegucigalpa, Honduras' airport, and let me tell, you, it can be a hairy ride. There is one runway. From the south, Runway 20, the front end of the runway sits atop a high, steep bluff. It's like landing an airliner on an aircraft carrier, minus the arresting cables. Undershoot and you hit the mountain. Overshoot, and you hit the mountain at the other end of the runway. Approaching from that direction means your glide path pretty much has to match the descending slope of the mountains as you approach on final, like this:


I made that approach in a Tennessee Air Guard C-130, having hitched a ride from Panama to return to Joint Task Force Bravo, based in Honduras' Comayagua Valley, in 1989. Since I was a native Nashvillian, I was invited to make the whole flight sitting atop an upturned tool box on the flight deck.

The pilots, two airline captains back in the States, had decided to tease the air defense batteries of then-Communist Nicaragua by flying three miles plus one hundred yards off its west coast. "There's another one," one would say whenever the panel warning light lit to signify that yet another missile-targeting radar had illuminated the plane. Didn't seem to bother them much, but I spent several minutes peering out the right window, looking for rocket contrails.

Over Tiger Island, at the juncture of Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador, we banked into a very steep right turn to avoid overflying either of the other two countries. We spent several minutes trying to find a gap in the cloud deck below us. But the deck was solid, so "into the weather" we went. The cloud was thick. We didn't drop below it until we were already on long final to Teguc ("tuh-goose" as we called it). I was looking at the dense gray inside of clouds one moment, and the next I was staring at treetops just a couple of hundred feet below. We tracked the mountainside all the way down, descending probably 3,000 feet while remaining only a couple of hundred feet above the ground all the while.

Last Friday, five were killed when an El Salvador airliner, pictured above, skidded off the runway in bad weather. The wonder is not that crashes happen there, but that so few happen. No doubt the airports' reputation "as one of the most treacherous airports in Latin America due to a difficult approach" puts pilots on the keen, making them treat the landing as less routine than elsewhere. Sort of like the airport at St. Maarten, which ends barely off the beach.

Sunday, June 1, 2008


"They can figure out how to smuggle anti-aircraft missiles and hand grenades into Gaza, but not sugar and flour. Some 'blockade.'"

Rethinking Marriage

What the Christian religion has to do with marriage is a huge subject, so at best this is an overview. I call it Rethinking Marriage becaus...