Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Science Debate

A few weeks ago I attended a debate between a local pastor and an engineer from the local "Freethinkers" organization.  The topic of the debate was  "Does Science Confirm the Bible?" but this was more strictly defined at the event as- can the biblical account of creation be supported by biological science? (in other words: evolution versus creation) I was eager to attend as both an engineer and a Christian and as a wannabe scholar who dabbles in apologetics.

I have read some books and articles trying to reconcile science and the Bible but I had never actually seen it debated in person with specific points and counterpoints, watching the debaters think on the fly versus reciting prepared statements.  And I had just finished reading Finding God in the Waves by Mike McHargue (aka Science Mike), so such questions were fresh in my mind.  I went in with the mindset of asking myself how I would answer the questions, or what my rebuttals would be.  I also wanted to have an open mind because in my limited experience atheists, agnostics, and skeptics have legitimate points of contention and their questions should be taken seriously.

The Q&A ran long so I missed the ending.  I don't know if they actually declared a 'winner' or not, but in my opinion the winner was (drumroll).... the skeptic, and it wasn't close.

My biggest issue, and this is true with many books on this subject as well, was that the paster refused to debate the Bible on science's terms.  What I mean by that is that a scientific claim is made and the Christian responds with a Bible quote.  Sure, that may win over the Christians who already have their minds made up, but there's no reason for a skeptic to buy such an argument.  And the pastor dug himself into a deeper hole by claiming as his 'science' rebuttals cherry-picked quotes from scientists.

Yes, irreducible complexity is a compelling argument.  But that's a metaphysical debate, not a scientific one, despite what proponents of Intelligent Design might claim.  And yes, there are many believers (Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project for one) who are also scientists or even experts in these fields.  But personal quotes do not prove anything other than the what the person quoted thought about something.  Scientific proofs require evidence, measurement, and observation.  And the Christian side of the debate seldom goes down that road.

But why not?  I think on one hand we're afraid of where that road may lead (see criticisms of scholars like Pete Enns for example).  But I think more importantly, we refuse to admit that the Bible is not a science book.  Our personal doctrines and theologies have elevated the Bible to "Holy" status and therefore is objectively true from a scientific, historical, archeological, biological, anthropological... you name it, perspective.  There is no lens through which to view the Bible as 'not true'.  The problem  then is how we define truth.  Is it true that the earth was created in six days, or rather does that account reveal truth about who God is? Is it true that there was a literal Adam and Eve that lived in the Garden of Eden, or does their fall reveal truth about the sin-condition of the world?

In grad school I took a class called "The Philosophy of Physics" as one of the last electives I needed to knock out before I could get my degree.  The class was essentially a quantum physics class but without the math.  We discussed the philosophical implications of string theory, the multiverse, and quantum pairing.  And believe it or not the class actually strengthened, not hurt, my faith.  There was more "truth" debated in that course than I think I'd get in any 'creation science' class.  We need to be willing to ask ourselves hard questions.

I also think Christians are afraid of admitting they don't have all the answers.  Maybe you've heard the Bible described as "Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth" as if that was its only value.  When we look at the Bible in such a way, we insist it must have all the answers to every question.  When science discovers something new, we simply don't know how to fit that new discovery into our worldview.

Because of the above reasons, Christians struggle to understand that faith and science do not have to agree.  There have been volumes written on this subject- here is just a recent example- so I won't get into this more deeply, but it is perhaps the most important point.  Today is not only Earth Day, but also the day organizers have set aside to 'March for Science'.  The driving concern of that march is that science has been politicized (it long has been) and that the current political powers have been dubbed 'anti-science' largely because of holding to biblical 'truth' over scientific truth.  Political decisions are being made under the assumption that the Bible is a science book therefore global warming can't be real, evolution is a hoax, and so on.

But the Bible stands on its own terms.  It doesn't need science to be proven.  In fact, it's not our job to prove God, he can stand on his own.  So let's stop approaching all of this with antagonism- science, politics, objective truth.  The only "proof" we need is our love for one another, "by this everyone will know" we are disciples (John 13:35)

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Two Songs, One Heart

Do you remember the movie Deep Impact?  Maybe not, but I bet you remember Armageddon.  What about Dante's Peak and Volcano?  Those aren't the only examples of very similar movies being released around the same time.  Prestige/The Illusionist, White House Down/Olympus has Fallen, The Jungle Book/Jungle Book, and so on.  It turns out this is actually relatively common.  I was surprised by the list I found on wikipedia for the "Two Film Theory".

What is more strange though is when this happens with music, call it the "Two Song Theory".  Contemporary Christian Music isn't immune to this phenomenon either.  'Grace Wins' by Matthew West and 'Flawless' by Mercy Me were both released around the same time, 'Move' by Toby Mac and 'It's Not Over Yet' by For King and Country is another example with one finding favor on some stations and the other on others (seriously, I think I've only ever heard 'Move" once on Air1 which is surprising for a Toby Mac song).

But what is jarring is hearing these songs back to back, especially when they are so similar.  A week ago, Air1 was doing their pledge drive and I have to admit I didn't want to listen to them ask for money so I was switching between them and their sister station, K-LOVE.  I've heard these songs before, but I never listened that closely to the lyrics.  But when I heard them back to back, one on Air1 and the other on K-LOVE, the lyrics jumped out at me.  Now I can't listen to one without thinking of the other.  What is remarkable is that these are essentially the same songs, just from different perspectives.  One, "I have this hope... you're with me and you won't let go".  The other, "If you could only let go your doubts... I swear that I won't let you go."

Maybe it's a double-punch to my heart, but I can't listen to either of these songs now without being moved.  Consider it two for the price of one.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Proportional Response

I was about the same age as my kids when President Reagan ordered air strikes against Libya.  I remember his national address interrupting whatever I was watching on TV and I was transfixed by the images of F-16s and explosions.  All I knew of war at the time was GI Joe (and how the blue and red lasers never actually killed anyone), but this event defined a 'real' enemy I could now include in my imaginary play.  I remember that as the news continued I would build a fort out of the cushions of a sofa where my American GI Joe soldiers gathered to plan their attack on the La-Z-Boy across the room.  Oh, to be an innocent child again.

Early in the first season of The West Wing, there is an episode called 'Proportional Response' where President Bartlet has to decide on what is an appropriate response to, ironically enough, Syria shooting down an American plane with a friend on board.  While military advisors recommend a nighttime strike against a military target to minimize casualties, the president wants to deliver a stronger message.  His emotions, in fact, drive him to want to "bomb the hell" out of Syria. (I recall a recent presidential candidate who speculated whether bombing that part of the world would make its sand glow in the dark, implying a nuclear response)  It was difficult to rationalize a response that didn't ultimately make any difference, but it was the right thing to do.

I had both experiences in my mind on Thursday when I got a message from work that we had taken military action against Syria.  My wife and I had already talked about how horrifying were the images of the chemical weapon attacks earlier in the week, wondering what could be done.

I'm not sure our proportional response will make any difference.  The politics in that region are complicated and allegiances are so intertwined that it is difficult to do anything without unintentionally angering an ally or provoking an adversary.  I can't say what we did was right or wrong but it makes sense.

From a certain point of view.

A couple of years ago, I was taking a class on Christ and Culture.  As we were talking about other global movements of Christianity, we turned to the subject of war.  In my head and in my speech I declare allegiance to a heavenly kingdom over an above any earthly rule.  But in practice...?  Once a year when we take up a special collection for world missions, I can conceptualize that foreigners and strangers are brothers and sisters in Christ.  But in my heart...?  When I realized that our national enemies may be brothers or sisters in Christ, that from an eternal perspective I have more in common with the casualties of war than the physical neighbor whose politics align with my own, my worldview was rocked to its core.  My perspective of war, geopolitics, and patriotism are forever changed.

Which makes Syria a conundrum.  Yes, the chemical attacks are gruesome and inexcusable.  And I fundamentally oppose authoritarianism because it always creates an oppressed class.  But like I said, the politics of that region is complicated, and Russia's involvement only muddies those waters.

Why does Russia care?  The obvious answer is oil, so there is an existing economic link.  Russia also has military bases there so there is a military link.  From our western perspective, we might say it's just an example of one bad guy teaming up with another so there may be a common-cause link.  But they're only bad guys from our point of view.  Like I said, it's complicated.  What has been under-reported since the Syrian civil war began is role of the Syrian Orthodox Church in all of this.  You see, the Syrian church has close ties with the Russian Orthodox Church.  So there is actually a religious link too.

What does that have to do with Bashar Al Assad, chemical weapons, and the US?  Believe it or not, the Syrian church actually enjoyed some relative freedom and protection under President Assad, which obviously would not be the case under ISIS and would be unlikely under the rule of any of the Syrian rebel groups.  So if you were a Christian in Syria, you would be grateful for Russia's involvement and would be praying that the US keeps their nose out of your business.  You would long for a return to the status quo.

So then, what do we do?  Even if we have different denominational stripes, we have to be sympathetic to the Christians suffering in the Middle East but at the same time we have to humbly recognize that we don't have all the answers.  Our proportional response must be to pray with the fervor of explosive weapons.  Pray for peace.  Pray for those suffering, Christian or not.  Pray for unification against the radicalization that ISIS represents.  Pray agains the patriotic jingoism that we are tempted to fall into.  That is the only possible proportional response.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

See Yourself on the Silver Screen

My daughter has been looking forward to seeing Beauty and the Beast since the first trailer aired.  Unfortunately, she has to wait just a little longer since she's going with her Girl Scout troop as a celebration of their cookie sales.  Many friends saw it last weekend however, and I'm told they completely loved it.  There was no mention of any "gay agenda" being forced upon them, nor was there any disgust at any explicitly homosexual scenes.  I know my daughter couldn't care less about such controversies, and I'm willing to bet that when she does see the movie she won't even notice the subplot and scene in question.  Despite calls for a boycott, the movie opened last weekend to a March-record $170 million box office and an over $350 million worldwide take.

But this isn't about the boycott.  There has been plenty written about that already, most recently at Unfundamentalist Christian.  No, this is about the silver screen itself and our desire to see ourselves reflected, or rather projected, as the heroine, the princess, or at times even the villain.

My daughter wants to see the movie because she wants to see Belle dance and sing (along with candelabras, teacups, and clocks).  She likes to watch Mulan to see the girl become the hero.  She loves Lilo and Stitch because of the rambunctious girl who always seems to get into trouble, yet always finds a way to work everything out in the end.

But not everyone can enjoy movies that same way.  As a middle-class white male, I don't have to think twice about whether or not I'm represented on screen.  And if I can't relate to a character, it is usually because of the choices he makes or the dialogue he fails to deliver convincingly.  I don't think twice about whether that character looks just like me or represents my demographic.

Having LeFou's latent homosexuality slightly more explicit than was depicted in the animated movie means a lot to homosexuals who long to see themselves depicted on the screen.  For this to be the first explicitly gay character in a Disney movie is taken by some to be groundbreaking.

But this post isn't about homosexuality either.  Because they are not the only minority group struggling to be represented in Hollywood.

I'm a comic book nerd, so I haven't been able to avoid hearing about the "whitewashing" of characters from The Ancient One in Dr Strange, to The Major in The Ghost in the Shell; or the missed opportunity to cast a minority in The Iron Fist; or split opinions over Idris Elba being cast as Roland, the Gunslinger, in The Dark Tower; or the celebration over the casting choices for The Black Panther.

These things aren't new.  It was a big deal to have a single mother portrayed in a leading role on Murphy Brown just as it was groundbreaking (much more so than any character in Beauty and the Beast) for there to be a gay lead on Will & Grace.  What is new to me is that now I notice.

I have a lot more to write about "white privilege" that will have to wait for another time.  But in this case, I wanted to call our attention to the fact that white straight Americans take for granted our position in society, as evidenced by the roles we see in movies and on television.  Black-ish has become my favorite TV show because it challenges my perceptions and assumptions.  I wouldn't call myself "woke", but I'm getting there.

As Christians, we need to have more empathy.  Period.  I'm not saying minimizing sin (if that's your conviction) for the sake of tolerance, because that just goes in line with being politically correct.  No, empathy is a heart-condition.  It is the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes and to see the world the way they do.

In the case of Beauty and the Beast, there are closeted gays who might for the first time feel accepted simply by a couple lines in a movie, who might no longer be suicidal, who might for a change have hope.  And that should be celebrated, not boycotted.