Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg (Book Review #79 of 2015)

When reading through books and podcasts I keep a chart in my mind of the books most oft-cited which I have not yet read. This one has been in the #1 spot, cited as a must-read by a wide range of people I've heard in the past year from pastors to Silicon Valley types on Tim Ferriss' show to body builders. I have already read a lot of Dan Arielly and other behavioral economics works that overlap quite a bit with this one, and there are countless articles out there examining the same type of brain research that Duhig highlights in this work. Perhaps the over-saturation of that field in the media makes this book unremarkable, it's probably the lowest-rated book that is the most widely-read. Nonetheless, you can learn things a lot in this book, find promises that you can overcome any habit, and ask some deep questions about how culpable we are if our brains have predisposed us to bad habits.

Every habit has a cue and a reward, chemical or otherwise. To change a habit, recognize the cue/trigger and the underlying reasons for how it makes you feel. Identify the reward, what is it that makes it attractive? Whether habitually eating or biting fingernails or compulsive gambling, it all works essentially the same neurologically. Another key ingredient is either optimism--the belief, religious or otherwise, that things will get better and that you can succeed or the fear or knowledge that if you don't change, there may be irreparable harm. You have to identify the various feedback loops of your behavior first.

Change happens in groups, you need to be a part of a community of like-minded people to encourage you, challenge you, and hold you accountable. (There are obvious church membership lessons here, more later). Even social networks help, a lot of "weak ties" are shown to have more influence than a few "strong ties." So, posting your fitness result pictures on Facebook for all to like or comment on is good motivation to change. Exercise itself is a "keystone habit" that has spillovers to other parts of life. Studies have found that those who build an exercise habit have an easier time making changes in other areas as well-- budgeting, eating, sleeping, saving money, etc. All habits have spillover effects-- developing a positive habit in one area helps you establish more in others. The "willpower workout" in building one habit helps you build/break others.

Besides community there are other helps, like building structures to help maintain a habit. Writing out a plan for how you're going to work out and what you're going to do every day instead of getting the mocha latte. You have to have a plan to "get over the hump," the pain that is change. You need to focus on small wins, don't suffer from learned helplessness.

Duhig tells a series of stories in this book, the first of which deal with research involving brain injury patients. Even when patients' working memories were damaged to not being able to retain anything for more than a few minutes, they still contained their habits and responded to cues. One fascinating story of a hospital patient who repeatedly ripped out his IVs upon waking up involved nurses praising him for sitting still and his habitual response to positive reinforcement.

There are plenty of corporate stories from marketing Pepsodent and Febreze. Pepsodent became a worldwide brand by essentially selling that tingly feeling you feel in your mouth after you brush-- that's what makes you think it's clean, even though it has nothing to do with it. Soon, all other brands added similar chemicals to their toothpastes to create that same sensation. The cue is the film you feel on your teeth (which everyone has all the time anyway) and the reward is the tingly sensation. Think about how you judge how well you've brushed your teeth-- it's that feeling, whether or not you've missed most of your teeth or not. Similarly, Febreze is selling you the smell of a a clean room or clothes, not necessarily clean clothes. Duhigg writes that companies are now experimenting similarly with sensations of sunscreen.

Another story Duhigg tells is that of Alcoa under Paul O'Neill, who was singularly focused on safety. As the emphasis was pushed, accidents fell, morale grew while the bottom line improved. O'Neill suffered a couple times under government, where change is hard and institutional routines have set in and people behave like mindless drones. Institutional habits help curb rivalries and maintain the status quo, but to stay sane the people inside the bureacracy build their own habits and communication networks to help them survive. I know this all too well...

Starbucks helps employees train by training employees to have a plan for what they will do when faced with stressful situations or customers. The story of one addict whose life was changed by working at Starbucks is highlighted. Music companies expoit our brains by concocting songs with beats that conform to what other hits have sounded like, allowing algorithms to predict the success of a song. Then, the companies work to make it go "viral" by guaranteeing airplay at certain key times. The "stickiness" factor of songs is interesting. Target's data scientists are interviewed about how they famously know when someone is pregnant, etc.

In sports, Duhigg tells the tale of Tony Dungy, who Duhigg holds to have revolutionized coaching by having players use the same cues and same rewards but establish new habits. Dungy turned Tampa Bay into winners but was fired after the team lost close playoff games, after which he won a Super Bowl with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. Dungy's players "broke down" in high-pressure moments and the book never explains the "why" other than the team not maintaining a belief that things would get better--crucial to maintaining a habit. After the tragic loss of his son, the mentality of his Colts team changed and they seemed to rally around their coach and his own belief, on to a Super Bowl.

Duhigg also highlights Rick Warren's Saddleback Church, interviewing him on how he got started. Warren looked at starting a church in one of the fastest-growing areas of the country where the biggest complaint seemed to be that there were "no churches large enough" to accomodate the demand; I suspect most were small and could not benefit from the economies of scale of large churches. Warren focused on groups and not individuals, if you are able to convert a group you'll have those weak-tie network effects-- eventually Saddleback became the church everyone wanted to be. Warren battled depression and eventually focused on discipleship, teaching "habits of faith" so that church members could grow in the Word and hold each other accountable. Hence he started small groups in home which helped reach the greater community. He developed curriculum to help the small groups study the Bible instead of just spending 10 minutes on the Bible and prayer and another hour chatting. Duhigg holds Warren up as someone who is interested at changing the habits of "societies," large groups of people by focusing on smaller groups.

The last chapters of the book again look at brain research and raise some important ethical and legal considerations. Electronic devices shorting out signals from the basal ganglia in the brain have shown to help alcoholics develop new habits, particularly if they build up other structures like group therapy. Should we fault the addict who lacks access to these resources? The brains of those with Parkinson's who can't control their tremors look the same in scans as those of a compulsive gambler. When we see a Parkinson's patient we say "He can't help it," but to the gambler we say "It's all her fault." A person suffering night terrors cannot remember what happened, and some people suffer from this and sleepwalking their entire lives; Duhigg tells of one person acquitted of murder due to his accidental killing of his wife during one such episode.

"If you believe in change then your habit becomes what you choose for it to be." I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. There is interesting information here, some of which you have probably read elsewhere. But if not, definitely pick the book up.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Exegetical Fallacies by D.A. Carson (Book Review #78 of 2015)

Exegetical Fallacies
I didn't learn to read my Bible until late in life, and I'm convinced most Christians in "Bible-believing" churches do not because they are not taught how to. Everyone tends to believe that their "doctrine" is correct, or the true doctrine. Where another's disagrees, he must be wrong. When we adhere to "doctrine," it gets replicated and multiplied and no one thinks critically about what awe believe and adhere to. This was made depressingly clear to me in a recent book I read about a former pastor who became an atheist in part because he realized no one around him, himself included, actually knew what the Bible was.

As Carson writes (p. 11):

    "It is all too easy to read the traditional interpretations we have received from others into the text of Scripture. Then we may unwittingly transfer the authority of Scripture to our traditional interpretations and invest them with a false, even an idolatrous, degree of certainty. Because traditions are reshaped as they are passed on, after a while we may drift far from God's Word while still insisting all our theological opinions are 'biblical' and therefore true."

Southern Baptist churches in particular err in teaching the Bible through Sunday school lessons that break up the text and tell the reader what it means rather than have the reader ask questions of the text himself. I've lost count of seminary students I know who were amazed that when they learned how to study the text, they suddenly realized they'd misunderstood or wrongly believed a meaning of a particular text all these years. Alas, very few of them teach their congregation other than demonstrating proper exegesis from the pulpit. But Exegetical Fallacies has to be a humbling read for even the most well-trained, because so many of the scholars Carson is critiquing are career professionals in biblical study. He notes fallacies that his own seminary professors made.

This is not the first book I would recommend to one who wants to learn how to read the Bible (See Fee and Stuart's How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, for starters). Carson's work is a seminary-level text for which some knowledge of Greek is expected and biblical interpretation is already a habit. I have neither formal training nor do I know Greek. The value of this book to me is inoculation against against the common forms of poor exegesis or logical fallacies that those writing various books and commentaries make frequently. I can now read more skeptically various commentaries and Sunday school lessons that I look to for insight. I can also hold the Word of God more delicately, humbled at how hard it is to truly understand meaning through the distance of time, language, and culture. But I can also be more confident as Carson critiques the logical fallacies that post-modern "new" interpreters make in saying the meaning of a text cannot be known because of the personal lens I look through to see it.

"The sensitive student may ask, 'If there are so many exegetical traps, so many hermeneutical pitfalls, how can I ever be confident that I am rightly interpreting and preaching the Scriptures? How can I avoid the dreadful burden of teaching untruth, of laying on the consciences of Christ's people things Christ does not himself impose, or removing what he insists should be borne? How much damage might I do by my ignorance and exegetical clumsiness?'

To such students, I can only say that you will make more mistakes if you fail to embark on such a study as this than you will if you face the tough questions and improve your skills" (p. 14).

The book is a hodgepodge, with some topics given lengthy treatment and others only mentioned or glossed over. Some of the gems are where Carson outlines his own arguments against someone else's exegesis, making his argument. It is filled with dry wit. You might open it to the Index first, and be amazed at the wide range of biblical passages, authors, and topics addressed in such a short book. I gleaned bits about specific topics, texts, and just a greater overall appreciation for Biblical translation than I had prior to reading it.

Some of my highlights. First, Carson's motivation (p. 11):

The fact remains that among those who believe the canonical sixty-six books are nothing less than the Word of God written there is a disturbing array of mutually incompatible theological opinions. Robert K. Johnston has a point when he writes:
'[That] evangelicals, all claiming a Biblical norm, are reaching contradictory theological formulations on many of the major issues they are addressing suggests the problematic nature of their present understanding of theological interpretation. To argue that the Bible is authoritative, but to be unable to come to anything like agreement on what it says (even with those who share an evangelical commitment), is self-defeating.'"

The world is skeptical about the Bible because they see mutually exclusive claims to truth on basic tenets of those who supposedly see it as the inerrant word of God.

The difference between exegesis and hermeneutics (p. 15):

(E)xegesis is concerned with actually interpreting the text, whereas hermeneutics is concerned with the nature of the interpretative process. Exegesis concludes by saying, This passage means such and such"; hermeneutics ends by saying, 'This interpretative process is constituted by the following techniques and preunderstandings.' Hermeneutics is an important discipline in its own right, ideally it is never an end in itself: it serves exegesis."

The challenge of distanciation (p. 15):
"Whenever we try to understand the thought of a text (or of another person, for that matter), if we are to understand it critically-that is, not in some arbitrary fashion, but with sound reasons, and as the author meant it in the first place-we must first of all grasp the nature and degree of the differences that separate our understanding from the understanding of the text
Failure to go through the distanciation before the fusion usually means there has been no real fusion: the interpreter thinks he knows what the text means, but all too often he or she has simply imposed his own thoughts onto the text."
Picked up again on p. 60:
"Unless we recognize the 'distance' that separates us from the text being studied, we will overlook differences of outlook, vocabulary, interest; and quite unwittingly we will read our mental baggage into the text without pausing to ask if that is appropriate.
This does not mean real knowledge is impossible. Rather, it means that real knowledge is close to impossible if we fail to recognize our own assumptions, questions, interests, and biases; but if we recognize them and, in dialogue with the text, seek to make allowances for them, we will be better able to avoid confusing our own world-views with those of the biblical writers." 

What, then, of the post-modern "new hermeneutic" who argue it's impossible for any of us to interpret a text due to our "baggage?" (p.72-73, emphasis mine):
"The new hermeneutic breaks down the strong subject/object disjunction characteristic of older hermeneutical theory. The interpreter who approaches a text, it is argued, already brings along a certain amount of cultural, linguistic, and ethical baggage. Even the questions the interpreter tries to ask (or fails to ask) of the text reflect the limitations imposed by that baggage; they will in some measure shape the kind of "responses" that can come back from the text and the interpreter's understanding of them.
But these responses thereby shape the mental baggage the interpreter is carrying, so that in the next round the kinds of questions addressed to the text will be slightly different, and will therefore generate a fresh series of responses-and so on, and so on. Thus, a "hermeneutical circle" is set up.
Such absolute relativism is not only unnecessary, but also self-contradictory; for the authors of such views expect us to understand the meaning of their articles! Whatever the problems raised by the new hermeneutic, we have learned much from these developments. In particular, we have been forced to recognize that distanciation is an important part of coming to grips with any text: the interpreter must "distance" his or her own horizon of understanding from that of the text. When the differences are more clearly perceived, then it becomes possible to approach the text with greater sensitivity than would otherwise be the case."
What is the solution to the apparent paradox? First, have humility about what we actually know or can know. Second is to do the best you can using historical sources (p. 74):

"But if we sometimes read our own theology into the text, the solution is not to retreat to an attempted neutrality, to try to make one's mind a tabula rasa so we may listen to the text without bias. It cannot be done, and it is a fallacy to think it can be. We must rather discern what our prejudices are and make allowances for them; and meanwhile we should learn all the historical theology we can."

I'm not certain which seminary Carson is criticizing here, but I can guess:
"One well-known seminary insists that proper exegetical method will guarantee such a high quality of exegesis that historical theology may be safely ignored."

There are good examples of how Carson deals with difficult passages regarding polity. There is a good section on logical fallacies and a few on common specific errors that people make regarding the Greek. I enjoyed this book, it gave me a greater appreciation of biblical scholarship. I do not know if he dealt with all topics properly or if he should have paid more attention to certain issues. I learned a lot and the more I learn the more I will return to this book. 4.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Does Prayer Change Things? by R.C. Sproul (Book Review #77 of 2015)

Does Prayer Change Things? (Crucial Questions Series)

This is a great, short book that I would recommend to anyone asking "Why do we pray? What's the point if God is omniscient? How do we pray?" Ligonier has made this and others free for Kindle, so I highly recommend adding it to your library today.

Sproul writes (spoiler alert):
"Things change, and they change according to His sovereign will, which He exercises through secondary means and secondary activities. The prayer of His people is one of the means He uses to bring things to pass in this world. So if you ask me whether prayer changes things, I answer with an unhesitating 'Yes!'" (Loc. 100)

"Prayer, like everything else in the Christian life, is for God's glory and for our benefit, in that order" (Loc. 64). Prayer reminds us that God is in control, we are not, and He is sovereign over every circumstance of the universe as it unfolds.

"If I thought even for one moment that a single molecule were running loose in the universe outside the control and domain of almighty God, I wouldn't sleep tonight" (Loc. 44)...God's sovereignty casts no shadow over the prayer of adoration. God's foreknowledge or determinate counsel does not negate the prayer of praise" (Loc. 73). 

Prayer intrinsically changes us and our attitudes.
"What prayer most often changes is the wickedness and the hardness of our own hearts. That alone would be reason enough to pray, even if none of the other reasons were valid or true" (Loc. 119).
"Prayer prompts and nurtures obedience, putting the heart into the proper 'frame of mind' to desire obedience" (Loc. 15).
"Peter did not pray, and as a result he fell into temptation. What is true of Peter is true of all of us...we fall in private before we ever fall in public" (Loc. 37).

When we pray we acknowledge that God gave us a way to Him through Jesus and that we are loved and accepted and forgiven because of Christ:
"When God promises us that He will forgive us, we insult His integrity when we refuse to accept it. To forgive ourselves after God has forgiven us is a duty as well as a privilege" (Loc. 291). 

But if God is omniscient and knows what I need before I ask, why bother praying? Foremost, because God commands us to:
"Regardless of whether prayer does any good, if God commands us to pray, we must pray" (Loc. 50). Prayer is about maintaining a relationship with someone who we are to love more than any other:
"Spurgeon said that 'the proud sinner wants Christ, and his own parties; Christ, and his own lusts; Christ, and his own waywardness. The one who is truly poor in spirit wants only Christ'" (Loc. 519).

(Perhaps my favorite quote:)
"Yes, He knows what is in my mind, but I still have the privilege of articulating to Him what is there (Loc. 70)...If God knows what I'm going to say before I say it, His knowledge, rather than limiting my prayer, enhances the beauty of my praise (Loc. 75)...I may not understand the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, but I do realize that what stems from the wickedness of my own heart may not be assigned to the will of God...There will always be a conflict between divine sovereignty and human autonomy. There is never a conflict between divine sovereignty and human freedom (Loc. 110).

Sproul recommends the ACTS acronym of prayer, Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication, and unpacks each biblically. Ultimately, we become better at prayer only by praying: "To become accomplished in anything, we must practice. If we want to learn how to pray, then we must pray-and continue to pray" (Loc. 632).

One seeming contradiction is Sproul's earlier mention that Jesus modeled for his disciples praying to God as "Daddy" in Aramaic, which would have been shocking and heretical. But that's the relationship we have now through Christ. However, Sproul returns later and scolds those who "would speak (to God) as if to a friend at a baseball game" (Loc. 369). "We should not come rushing into God's presence arrogantly, assaulting Him with our petty requests, forgetting whom we are addressing" (Loc. 235).

Even with that minor point I would not hesitate to give this book to anyone; it'd be the first I'd recommend on the subject. I would like to read Tim Keller's recent book on prayer before the year is up. Unfortunately, my time reading is often time spent not praying, and that is something I have struggled with. Prayer is one of the hardest things for me to do. 4.5 stars out of 5. 

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Hope After Faith: An Atheist Pastor's Journey by Jerry DeWitt (Book Review #76 of 2015)


Hope After Faith: An Atheist's Pastor Journey from Belief to Atheism



If you're looking for a book by a Christian pastor who researched all the arguments for Christianity and atheism, delved deep into science and philosophy, consulted with experts in biblical interpretation, and reached a rational conclusion that Christianity can't be true-- this book is NOT it. In fact, I'm skeptical Jerry DeWitt will remain an atheist just because he's been so gullible to change by a range of charlatans and seems to embrace the beliefs found in whatever book he happens to open. The lack of logic, introspection, and research in this book is truly frustrating. Richard Dawkins and others endorsing Jerry as some sort of hero for atheism is pretty sad because anyone reading this book should be repelled by his ignorance both about his prior faith and his current atheism.

The book is really no more interesting than if it had been a former professing Christian atheist engineer or accountant or politician who became the atheist-- and those happen every day. But attach the title "pastor" and I guess it sells the book. Really, DeWitt was only a "pastor" late in his career after he'd already decided the Bible was mostly mythical. Previously, he had been an "evangelist," a traveling itinerant preacher or a fill-in, hoping eventually to have his own church. There is very little "pastoring" in the book. My previous book review was for a book on biblical qualifications for the title of elder/pastor; DeWitt is lacking many, which is an indictment of the groups who thrust him into the pulpit.

Several other reviewers nailed it: it's hard to like a book that is so self-centered and lacked a decent editor to remove the mundane details like breakfast foods and DeWitt's first airplane ride (as an adult). This book is all about Jerry. Jerry gets mad at God for not answering prayers as Jerry wants. He gets frustrated with God not being who he thought he was-- rarely consulting with anyone else about his concerns. He's self-centered in how he describes the churches he preached at, criticizing the manners of those he encounters, criticizing every kind act anyone made toward him, the architecture of the buildings, how little they put in the offering plate, etc. In the end, when his wife has had enough of the drop-everything-on-a-whim life he lets her leave because "it was best for me." We're supposed to feel sorry for him in the end because his community won't accept him as an atheist. He never stops to realize that it's precisely because he spent years preaching at them not to trust or have anything to do with godless atheists. They're behaving exactly as he told them they should. Yet, he seems to completely lack any social thinking skills-- it's all about him-- so he sees this as unfair.

The danger of this book is that it paints a stereotype of the Christian church that atheists may love to believe but is far from the reality. There are no benevolence ministries, clothes closets, counseling services, soup kitchens, foreign aid, schools, small-group studies, or universities built in this book-- which leaves out a huge amount of what the Church has done for the last 2,000 years. Churches in Jerry's world are apparently places people go to get something in return for giving money or trying hard to live a "pure" life and never become biblically literate (more on that below). God is some sort of piggy bank that will dispense what you're looking for if you just shake hard enough-- sort of like a Green Lantern approach to faith and foreign either to the Bible or historical orthodox Christianity.

Jerry DeWitt's biggest error is that he is too self-centered to seek help from friends or potential mentors in this book, and that leads to even greater hardship and frustration. He's thrust into the limelight at age 17 and never gets any training. He just assumes he must be right, and when he makes contradictory decisions on his journey he doesn't understand why people don't follow. He wrote a piece for the Huffington Post about his "five step" journey from minister to atheist that makes no sense to anyone because the sources he cites are so obscure. Most people reading this have never heard of William Branham or the Branhamite cult, for example; most Christians are waiting for Jesus to return, not Bill Branham, David Koresh, or some other dead American who claimed to be a prophet. DeWitt comes across such random sources, believes them to be true, and embraces them until he exhausts any rationality and then abruptly moves on to something else. Also, the idea that every Christian exploring science and logic will abandon religion is also nonsense, as shown by the odd course that DeWitt lays out. Contrast this with Mike McHargue of the podcast "Ask Science Mike," whose story you can read here: http://kernelmag.dailydot.com/issue-s...
Or with former atheist philosopher Anthony Flew, or C.S. Lewis, or a variety of PhD physicists and philosophers who still subscribe to Christianity, etc.

DeWitt admits he never learned how to read a Bible, only becoming "painfully aware" late in his life that it didn't just "drop from the sky" and actually "was written by human authors." This should not come as a surprise to anyone who claims to be a teacher of the Bible and it creates frustration for the reader as Jerry talks like he is among an elite few who have made this "discovery." When he gives up his faith in the Bible he points to one alleged contradiction-- the number of the stalls of Solomon's horses between 1 Kings 4:26 (40,000) and 2 Chron. 9:25 (4,000). There are a lot of easy explanations for this ranging from copyist error (the books were written at different times) to 4,000 stalls having chambers holding 10 horses each, etc. But my first response is "really?" Of all the things about the Bible he might have raised, this is it? Some detail that has no bearing on the meaning of the text at hand? And he never wants consults any of the volumes written on apologetics, I doubt he could explain the difference between a paradox and a contradiction. He has never learned Greek, Hebrew, history, philosophy, or any of the staples of the Western canon and orthodox Christianity that should be a staple of a pastor. He never seems to ask why the King James Version is the "only" version of his reading. Read some G.K. Chesterton, or C.S. Lewis, or N.T. Wright or William Lane Craig someone--anyone-- other than blindly follow a cult leader who claims Ephesians 2:20 is about him, for crying out loud. It's remarkable to me that DeWitt has the issue with Solomon's chariots but never examines there are a multitude of errors and logical contradictions in his new favorite books- including God is Not Great (which I have also read and reviewed).

“Skepticism is my nature;
Freethought is my methodology;
Agnosticism is my conclusion;
Atheism is my opinion;
Humanism is my motivation."
- Jerry DeWitt

There are contradictions in the above that speak for themselves, nonsense that he thinks sounds good.

I know of no biblical church that tries to hide behind history, and plenty of Christians are well read in the history of how the Bible was written and trained in exegesis and hermeneutics-- two words I think DeWitt doesn't know. If anything, this book is a scary reminder that there are groups claiming to be "churches" out there where errors have multiplied themselves tenfold precisely because they make some kid their leader based on his charismatic ability to speak. To DeWitt's credit, he avoids using the word "Christian" and uses "Pentecostal" instead, hinting that he'd agree with me that his experience is nothing like biblical Christianity. But he uses "mainstream Christianity believes..." in too many sentences before following with something orthodox Christianity does not teach (and no one I know adheres to or claims the Bible includes) for me to give him a pass.

I think DeWitt hides some ethical problems in this memoir. Towards the end, he takes on a pastoral role of a Korean Presbyterian church at the same time reading Joseph Miller has convinced him Christianity is mythology. Presbyterian churches require pastors to affirm the creeds of the church, which DeWitt-- if he was honest-- would not be able to do. Maybe he wanted to believe those things, but never did, so he likely lied in order to obtain and keep the position. He considers himself more enlightened than the congregation and continues the charade in order to "encourage" them.

Sadly, he doesn't discover "grace" until the end of the book and actually considers himself heterodox for embracing it. "The Gospel" is not a phrase you will read in this book. The gospel tells us that no amount of our own attempts to be holy earn us any favor with God; we can know God only because His son died for our sins and was resurrected (Jerry never investigates how the resurrection has held up under great historical scrutiny over the centuries). We are chosen by God not because of anything He has done, and He works things for His glory-- not our wishes. But perhaps because this grace is so contrary to the Pentacostalism he was raised with, he feels he has no choice but to leave. (If anything, this book will turn you off to anything with the word Pentacostal in it).

So, I took notes on the entire book but this review is long enough and I will simply save the details for myself. I give this book one star out of five. Poorly written, badly edited, self-centered, and not much you can learn from. If anything, you may find yourself yelling at the author to get an education; that may sound mean, but that's what it boiled down to for me. 1 star.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons by Thabiti Anyabwile (Book Review #75 of 2015)

Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons (9Marks)

I read this little book as part of a men's leadership retreat at my church where the pastor was working to get everyone on the same page in regards to appointing elders and deacons. Anyabwile gets major points for succinctness. Each chapter is short and to-the-point. He goes verse-by-verse in the relevant sections of 1 Timothy and Titus making points and closing each chapter with a set of questions that are useful for evaluating someone for these offices. 

Thousands of little books and tracts on this subject have been written over the centuries, but this one wins serious points for staying on-point with the biblical text, not drifting too far into what the Bible doesn't say, and being easy to read. Anyabwile isn't writing this book out of 30+ years of pastoral experience, much of it comes from his time under Mark Dever and other elders at Capitol Hill Baptist. 

I felt there was some weakness in looking at the roles and actions Stephen and Philip in Acts who clearly were able to teach and evangelize despite maybe being considered a type of deacon but do not appear to have been elders or apostles. Anyabwile also leaves out examples of various' churches nuanced approach to deacons and the various titles. For example, Capitol Hill has titled "deacon" and "deaconess" people who may just be called "librarian" or "treasurer" or "ministry leader" in other churches. Anyabwile doesn't mention that, I think it would be interesting to much of his readership (who I assume to be mostly traditional Southern Baptists with different polity than is suggested in this text). 

Essential to the IX Marks library for your church. 4.5 stars.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Clinton Cash by Peter Schweizer (Book Review #74 of 2015)


Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich
I finished Clinton Inc. by Daniel Halper before starting Clinton Cash by Peter Schweizer. I found Clinton Cash to be much more succinct, intelligent, and factually accurate as the author investigates financial records and the timing of Sen. Clinton's meetings, votes, and policy changes when she was at the State Department. Clinton, Inc. is a much longer view of the lives of the Clintons, is less precise in its focus, and definitely biased in its commentary. The author focuses less on their actual income and business dealings than Clinton Cash does so the title is sort of a misnomer. I recommend the latter highly over the former. (I have also read Hillary's previous two memoirs and two other books written about her, so I'm not approaching these books ignorantly.) It has influenced how I may vote.

Schweizer opens the book with a disclaimer: just as insider trading on Wall Street is difficult to prove, so is proving the timing of political donations with political decisions, events, and voting records. Correlation does not equal causality, but if one lays out the facts a particular pattern may emerge. Schweizer detects suspicious behavior while looking at Hillary Clinton's public schedule as a Senator and Secretary of State to that of Bill Clinton as he traveled the world giving speeches and arranging various business deals and donations for his charity. There are times where Clinton is being paid large speaking fees in a country at the exact instant that the Secretary of State is meeting with someone influential in bringing him to that country. You can argue with the analysis but it's harder to argue with the facts as they're laid out.

The major question the book raises is: Why doesn't the Clintons' foundation just forswear foreign donations or disband its operations while Hillary was Secretary of State or running for President? That would seem to eliminate any conflict of interests and the possibility of foreign money being seen as influencing political decisions. Since it didn't, the paper trail suggests that billions of dollars flowing in from foreigners indeed affected U.S. policymaking through Hillary (both in the Senate and the Cabinet) whose family's livelihood outside of office is maintained by the income they receive from the charity. If Saudis, Russians, etc. want to fund relief or other chartieis why don't they just give money directly to their own charities or directly to the foundations on the ground instead of using CGI as a middleman? It certainly would be more efficient...

Similarly, the Clintons earn income from this charity, which anyone can donate to. How is this not a way to circumvent campaign finance rules in the U.S.-- anyone can donate as much as they want as a tax write-off?  Schweizer notes a correlation between the reported inflow of donations from the U.S. and abroad just as Hillary makes the announcement she's running for President.

Another important question is: Why is no one calling the Clintons on the carpet about not upholding the Memorandum of Understanding to disclose all foreign donations to the Clinton charity while Hillary was Secretary of State? Schweizer gives plenty of alarming evidence of laxness in this area.

Schweizer begins with Clinton leaving office in 2001, when he issued a last-minute pardon for Mark Rich immediately after Rich and his wife made huge donations to Hillary's campaign, the Democratic Party, and the Clinton Foundation/library. This stunned and outraged even staunch Clinton supporters at the time but seems forgotten today. Clinton later wrote an op-ed in the NY Times explaining the pardon only to have the NY Times publish several corrections of factual innaccuracies of the piece the next day.

Rich continued to benefit via the Clinton Global Initiative. Glencore, his commodities and mining company, had interests in Kazakhstan along with Bill Clinton's CGI partner Frank Giustra. Giustra, looking to seal a deal in Kazakhstan takes Clinton there to meet President Nazarbayev, who gives his blessing for Giustra to acquire a stake in a state-run mining company, which makes him much richer, for which he rewards Clinton with a huge donation. Clinton later sends a congratulatory letter to the dictator Nazarbayev for a rigged 91% election victory. Sen. Hillary Clinton, previously critical of Nazarbayev, is suddenly absent for a hearing on which she was to help decide whether Kazakhstan could join the OSCE, something Nazarbayev had strongly desired. Bill Clinton later has a mysterious business meeting with a member of the Kazakh mining outfit that he and Giustra deny until the press get clear pictures and the cover is blown. Here's a timeline of some of these events.
http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2015/04/25/timeline-timeline-bill-clintons-trip-to-kazakhstan-followed-by-windfall-for-clinton-foundation/

What gets shadier is when a Russian oligarch moves to buy a majority stake in the outfit, which Guistra sold to a South African firm, while simultaneously making large donations to the Clinton charity. Hillary is by then Secretary of State, and the State Department has the authority to approve or deny the deal on national security grounds, since the consortium would own shares in uranium mines in the U.S. and could supply that uranium to China or elsewhere that the U.S. may not be comfortable with. Bill Clinton makes expensive speeches in Moscow in June 2010 sponsored by an investment bank that had an interest in the deal just before the State Department, as part of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US, signs off on the acquisition. Investors in that company gave the Clinton Foundation $145 million. Just a coincidence, really? Here's an NY Times timeline of the above as well: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/04/23/us/clinton-foundation-donations-uranium-investors.html?_r=0

Borrowing from this website: http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2015/04/23/clinton-cash-more-names-revealed-of-foundation-donors-who-benefited-from-hillarys-state-department/
In addition to Giustra, Clinton Cash reveals—and the New York Times confirms—a host of Clinton Foundation donors were connected to the uranium deal, including:
Frank Holmes, a shareholder in the deal who donated between $250,000 and $500,000 (the Clinton Foundation doesn’t report exact amounts, only in ranges) and is a Clinton Foundation adviser
Neil Woodyer, Frank Giustra’s colleague who founded Endeavor Financial and pledged $500,000 as well as promises of “ongoing financial support”
Robert Disbrow, a Haywood Securities broker, the firm that provided “$58 million in capital to float shares of UrAsia’s private placement,” gave the Clinton’s family foundation between $1 and $5 million, according to Clinton Cash
Paul Reynolds, a Canaccord Capital Inc., executive who donated between $1 million and $5 million. “The UrAsia deal was the largest in Canaccord’s history,” reports Schweizer
GMP Securities Ltd., a UrAsia Energy shareholder that pledged to donate a portion of its profits to the Clinton Foundation
Robert Cross, a major shareholder who serves as UrAsia Energy Director who pledged portions of his future income to the Clinton Foundation
Egizio Blanchini, “the Capital Markets vice chair and Global cohead of BMO’s Global Metals and Mining group, had also been an underwriter on the mining deals. BMO paid $600,000 for two tables at the CGS-GI’s March 2008 benefit”
Sergei Kurzin, the Russian rainmaker involved in the Kazakhstan uranium deal and a shareholder in UrAsia Energy, also pledged $1 million to the Foundation
Uranium One chairman Ian Telfer committed $2.35 million



CGI has also collected millions in donations from India and Indian-American entrepreneurs, many of which the Clintons failed to disclose. 75% of donations to CGI are over $1 million and most come from abroad. Schweizer walks through some of those Indian connections in detail, coinciding with the same time that Hillary reverses her position on India's nuclear program.

In Hillary's memoir, she writes of expanding USAID and partnering with the Clinton Foundation to help sponsor entrepreneurship abroad. That is laudable, but Schweizer notes several Clinton cronies and friends who were given positions in USAID that they may not have been qualified for.

There are also chapters on Africa and South America that outline the murky trails of money and dictators. The State Department began loosening its classification of Nigerian corruption at the same time other international indices showed corruption worsening, all while Nigerian barons were making large donations to the Clinton Foundation. Hillary opposed the Columbian Free Trade Agreement until Bill began to get big fees there. Hillary never completely reversed on the deal during the 2008 presidential campaign but Columbia chose to criticize Obama's position instead of Hillary's.

Perhaps the Clinton Global Initiative's work in Haiti has come under the most media scrutiny. Schweizer notes various Freedom of Information requests that eventually pried open the deals sealed with agencies rebuilding infrastructure, many were paid prices well above market rates an in a very untransparent manner. The worst is the exclusive mining permit issued to a company that put Hillary's brother on its board apparently just to get the deal, something that the Clintons were less-than-forthright about. This politico piece has a summary including investigating some aspects reported by Clinton Cash that is worth reading: http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/05/clinton-foundation-haiti-117368

It's troubling that the Clintons have not fully managed the above, but most of the news spin is now focused on Hillary's private email server. That seems trivial compared to the billions in "donations" that Clinton Inc. traces. I give this book 4.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Clinton, Inc. by Daniel Halper (Book Review #73 of 2015)

Clinton, Inc.: The Audacious Rebuilding of a Political Machine
I worked through Clinton Inc. by Daniel Halper and Clinton Cash by Peter Schweizer subsequently. I found Clinton Cash to be much more intelligent and factually accurate, the author investigates financial records and the timing of Sen. Clinton's meetings, votes, and policy changes when she was at the State Department. Clinton, Inc. is a much longer view of the lives of the Clintons, is less precise in its focus, and definitely biased in its commentary. The author focuses less on their actual income and business dealings than Clinton Cash does so the title is sort of a misnomer. I recommend the latter highly over the former. (I have also read Hillary's previous two memoirs and two other books written about her, so I'm not approaching these books ignorantly.)

Clinton, Inc. opens with an apt quote from The Great Gatsby:
"They were careless people, Tom and Daisy--they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back to their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."

This book actually reminded me more of Michael Lazenby's acclaimed biography of Michael Jordan, as the author mainly just compiles 30 years of other people's articles and books on various Clinton controversies. Similarly, Daniel Halper did not interview the Clintons but interviewed everyone else remotely connected to them that would grant him time. He writes that he was contacted by Clinton handlers like James Carville to find out what he was writing about and warned repeatedly.

It is not a balanced view, there are too many times when Halper inserts opinion as fact. When Hillary cries, the tears are "prepared," without citing a source saying as such. There is too much armchair psychiatry-- is Bill Clinton subconsciously trying to wreck his wife's campaigns because the scrutiny and security details he would face if she is President would hamper his lavish lifestyle and numerous mistresses? (Halper provides documents and interview sources for both of those).

There are the reminders of what was publicly criticized about Bill Clinton's presidency:
The last-minute pardon of Mark Rich that stunned Carville and other long-time friends and made a "lifelong enemy" of future Obama AG Eric Holder. Rich was pardoned after he and his wife made lavish donations to Clinton's library, Hillary's Senate campaign, and the DNC.
After the bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, Bill Clinton gave no help to Louis Freeh who was investigating and needed cooperation from the Saudis. Clinton met with Saudi leadership but came away with over $10 million in donations to his library and Freeh's investigation was never brought up.
While Governor of Arkansas and running for re-election as President, Bill Clinton (and the DNC) illegally took Chinese money for his legal defense fund or campaign and later had to give it back.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1996_United_States_campaign_finance_controversy
Similarly, Hillary Clinton's first presidential campaign and the Clinton Global Initiative saw an inflow of donations and speaking fees (for Bill) from India and Indian ex-pats, something the Obama campaign pointed out and later apologized for. Both campaigns had donations where it appeared the money was coming from foreigners funneled by U.S. proxies.
The Clinton Global Initiative has similarly taken millions in foreign donations that it has not been as transparent about as promised under its Memorandum of Understanding with the White House when Hillary became Secretary of State. The timing of many of these donations and "speaking fees" for Bill coincide either with key votes and hearings in the Senate or policy decisions while Hillary was Secretary of State.
The Clintons have always had multiple staffers getting multiple salaries from both government agencies, the Clintons' foundation, and other private sources creating a complex web of interest conflicts. Just this past week, it was revealed that  Huma Abedin, Hillary's "second daughter," was investigated for playing fast-and-loose with her time sheet and compensation while at the State Department.
http://www.politico.com/story/2015/09/huma-abedin-criminal-probe-state-inspector-general-213520
Likewise, the man who supposedly maintained Hillary's private email server did not disclose his multiple income sources to the State Department and could be in trouble. Abedin, according to Halper, was intent on having her own career outside Hillaryland until her husband Anthony Weiner resigned his congressional seat in disgrace and suddenly she needed income and away back in. Now, she's active on the presidential campaign for "rehabilitation."

Then there is the not-illegal-but-disgusting aspects of Clinton World:
Bill Clinton's playboy lifestyle. Halper cites many "anonymous" insiders on the exploits of Clinton and his Global Initiative business partners and what they do on their private jets and offices. The guy who plays President Bartlett's "body man" in The West Wing said he had modeled himself after Clinton's own body man, Doug Band, whom he had spent a lot of time with. Band knows Bill "better than anyone" and has profited off it. Here is one New Republic article if you want a criticism from the Left: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/114790/how-doug-band-drove-wedge-through-clinton-dynasty
Bill Clinton's mistress on the 2008 campaign trail was an open secret. Israeli intelligence supposedly had recordings of Clinton's phone sex conversations with Lewinsky and used it for blackmail, the Russians seem to also have had some intel on his exploits.

Hillary became the first Secretary of State to have a spokesperson for her personal affairs and office rather than one which represented the State Department as a whole. Halper writes that it was the Clinton campaign that started the Obama "birther" rumors in 2007 that the Republicans have since been blamed for. There is Media Matters and other pro-Clinton outfits that try to manipulate or intimidate the media into favoring Hillary, these got ugly during the 2007 campaign as many in the Democratic establishment (such as the Kennedys) began to favor Obama, who Bill Clinton was famously reluctant to support. Halper interviews John McCain who reveals that Bill Clinton and he conversed frequently throughout the campaign, Clinton advising the opponent of his own party.

The Clintons, particularly Bill, have a way of charming their enemies and Halper devotes much of the book to this aspect. Halper quotes former enemies such as Trent Lott, Ken Starr, Newt Gingrich, and the Bush family as praising and defending Bill Clinton after he repeatedly reached out to them over the years, sometimes sending a note of condolence after tragedy or inviting them to meetings where he'd be quite personable. People who have lent rooms to Clinton only to see him trash them in his escapades still get calls from Bill in which he again endears himself to them and they remain loyal.

But what can be said about Hillary's improprieties? Clinton, Inc. contains much less damning evidence than Clinton Cash. She was a true "team player" in Obama's cabinet. She got along with Bob Gates and other cabinet members, and earned the respect of John McCain and others when she was Senator. But Halper spares no punches in discussing Bhengazi, writing that Clinton "did not lift a finger" to offer any aid to the beseiged consulate, make phone calls to the White House or the Defense Department, or seem to even be getting updates as it was going on. He quotes her Senate testimony as simply avoiding the questions. It is clear Halper has convicted Hillary on these points in his own mind. Halper relies heavily on previous muck-raking books regarding Hillary's relationship with Vince Foster and the mysteriousness of his death.

Contrary to other journalists, Halper takes the Obama-Clinton joint appearance on 60 Minutes as an overt endorsement of Clinton for President, even though Halper writes often that Team Obama "despises" the Clintons and see Bill as "overrated." Here is where I see one potential inaccuracy of Halper's reporting: he writes that Obama "disdains" Joe Biden, hence the endorsement of Hillary. This is the opposite of what Ed Klein has written, that the Clintons were irked by what they perceived as reneging on the deal made during the re-election campaign-- Bill Clinton would campaign hard for Obama and do his magical speech at the DNC in return for Obama's endorsement of Hillary. Ed Klein wrote that the 60 Minutes bit was not an overt endorsement of Clinton because Obama liked Joe Biden and thought he should also consider running. I have read Bob Gates and Leon Panetta's memoirs, as well as the Broadwell biography of David Petraeus, and all  write about how Biden is the last person in the room with Obama on major decisions and meetings. They certainly seem to have a chummy relationship, even though Obama obviously struggled with Biden's gaffes. This contrasts with the "insider" portrait of Obama hating his "non-person" VP, and I don't buy it.

I give this book 2.5 stars. If you're looking for a summary of all that has been written about Clinton scandals through the years, this book will save you the time of reading the previous ones. If you're looking for original thoughts or research, there is not many. I find it amusing that several of the 1-star reviews for this book state that it was too favorable and didn't go far enough, as it leaves out some of the more incredible conspiracy theories about the Clintons.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Sermon of the Week (9/6 - 9/12, 2015) Russell Moore "God and Country Crucified"

I'm late in posting this. 
Russell Moore preached a guest sermon at The Village Church in Denton, TX on 8/2/2015. (Watch or download it at the link.) He preaches on the fallacy of trying to get America in line with the Church (which was the focus of much of the evangelical community has been) and advocates instead for getting the Church out of line with America. This is a good sermon that focuses on the importance of taking Scripture like 2 Chronicles 7:14 in context. I liked much of this sermon, enjoy it yourself.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God by Greta Christina (Book Review #72 of 2015)


Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God
I read this book about mourning in an attempt to compare an atheist philosophy on death and mourning with a Christian philosophy/theology of mourning as found in C.S. Lewis' A Grief Observed, which I read together with Greta Christina's work. This review and my review of Lewis' book should be read in parallel.

The author has two missions with this book, the first is to put forth an atheist philosophy on death and grief and to be critical of Christian approaches to death and Christian disrespect toward atheists who are mourning. She definitely has an axe to grind as far as Christians are concerned. I think the book is shallow on the philosophy side because the author never bothers to engage with the vast amount that has been written by philosophers over the ages. Wouldn't one want to quote Aristotle, Aquinas, anybody? But she does little of this, reasoning on her own and making logical errors along the way. At least show your manuscript to someone with a degree in philosophy for editing...

Christina writes that loss and death mark the passing of time, they're necessary for progress. If things stayed as they were then we would have no new technology, no new points of view. Death, then, is essentially the opposite side of the coin of progress. We want a progressive world that changes, and death is what makes it possible.

There is "no meaning" to death, and the atheist can "take comfort" in this. To an atheist there is no objective meaning to life-- we are all just a collection of molecules which will one day be spread about the universe. There is no soul, no afterlife, no eternity that we'll consciously be a part of. She writes that "We create our own meaning for life." A glaring weakness of the book is that she does not deal with the logical conclusion from that statement-- why, then, does anyone have a right or a purpose to live? Maybe I think your meaning for life is incorrect, when we all create our own "meaning" then there is no objective measure. Why do we bother trying to rescue or resuscitate someone we've found in a suicide attempt? To follow Christina's logic, the proper thing to do would be to allow that person to assign their own value and meaning to life and allow them to die since they obviously assigned less value to living than they did dying.

Similarly, perhaps I have power and deem you to be a threat to my value of life, your molecules are not as good as mine. Then why shouldn't I simply scatter your molecules abroad without consequence? Atheist physicist/philosopher Alan Lightman at least presents this contradiction in his book The Accidental Universe-- he wants to believe that his daughter's life is precious and means something, but then remembers that she came from random molecules and will return to scattered molecules-- nothing more. Christina does not seem that well-read or have had a course on logic, she doesn't understand that not all ideas are equally valid. She, like Lightman, writes that "life is precious" but does not explain why-- if life and death have no absolute meaning then how can she call it "precious?" That's illogical. (She mentions Christian philosopher William Lane Craig but appears not to have read him.)

Yet, somehow for the author the "finality of death gives meaning and motivation to life." I suppose this means you are living to die? Is the goal to mark as much off your "bucket list" as possible? But again, life is absurd if we're simply a random collection of molecules who happen to exist in a state we consider "consciousness" for a brief moment of time. Why obey anyone's laws if I think I know better than they do? What right do you have to tell me otherwise? If I truly have no fear of the consequences of my actions because there is no eternity to deal with them, then I am likely to take actions that Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins argue radical Christians and Muslims take in the name of religion.

Christina is correct to point out that Christians seem logically inconsistent in their grieving, which is one reason I wanted to explore a theology of mourning (and found C.S. Lewis' book rather satisfying). Why do Christians mourn the loss of fellow Christians if they think they're in a heavenly paradise? Why do they take such extreme measures to keep people like Terry Schiavo alive? In some cases, the author suffers from fundamental attribution error-- the sample of Christians she has seen may not be representative of the whole. Christians know that we do not mourn as those who have no hope (1 Cor. 13), and that we have a promise of a better future. We can grieve because we see daily reminders of the consequence of sin-- that is why death exists in the first place. But we ultimately embrace the promises of Romans 8, that God is working everything for His glory, our good, and that He knows best. But she cites an interesting study suggesting a negative correlation between after-life belief and end-of-life medical expenditures, wills, and living wills. If true, it suggests hypocrisy among believers, a callousness toward the costs their deaths will impose on loved ones.

The author ultimately errs, like many Americans, in making her starting point theologically to be herself. "If God loves us, how can he do ______, because _____ hurts me." They cannot reconcile why "bad things happen," and reject or become angry with God. The Bible that Christians read says that God does things to bring glory to Himself and that man exists to glorify God and(by) enjoy(ing) Him forever. The starting point our theology should be God and not ourself. The author clearly errs and accuses God of being a "cosmic jerk," to put it mildly-- she's pretty profane in her accusations. This extends to her understanding of the Christian afterlife, she agrees with Christopher Hitchens that heaven "sounds like North Korea," where people must be brainwashed to be ignorant or unmindful of their loved ones who supposedly are burning in hell for eternity. This, again, makes our comfort and happiness above that of God's. It is difficult to comprehend, I agree, but the Bible shows us that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him. Our love for Him and satisfaction in His glory, is such as to outweigh the pain we might feel-- here in this life or there. God wipes away every tear (Rev 21). (There is also much written about eternally learning and exploring the new earth, it's not like we're not still growing holistically after we die).

The author fully acknowledges the fear of death by atheists as "natural," it's biological instinct towards self-preservation. But atheists ultimately have it easier, death is just death and there are no consequences to think about. But she rejects her understanding of the Christian view of the afterlife. She cites many examples of Christians who were callous towards atheists who had died, ignoring their explicit written wishes not to be eulogized by a pastor, for example. She does show a misunderstanding of the Gospel, that we do nothing to merit God's grace and our sins are forgiven because of Christ's death, burial, and resurrection. He has conquered death, so it has no "sting" (1 Cor. 15:55). So, in many areas she is attacking a straw man of a false gospel.

Paul wrote in Romans 1, and Christians therefore believe, that creation is evidence of God's power and provision for all, so that no man has an excuse for not believing in God. Christina admonishes the Christian that this simply isn't true-- the "no atheists in foxholes" bit is a lie. When she is grieving the loss of someone, she simply does not want some rude Christian to tell her what he thinks she's actually thinking. I respect her statement, my own youthful callousness comes to mind. As C.S. Lewis writes, grief is not a state but a process, and that process deserves respect and not a sermon. But I have to side with Romans 1, ultimately. If your statement that "life is precious" logically contradicts your statement that life has no objective meaning or value and therefore "death has no meaning," then I think you are ignoring the contradictions-- suppressing truth.

In all, I give this book 2 stars out of 5. I might give it to someone to illustrate an example of shallow and incomplete philosophy with logical contradictions and whose conclusions are unsatisfying to me. It doesn't matter if it comes from a physicist with a PhD or a well-meaning woman who makes valid points about the logically inconsistent behavior within the sample of religious people she has encountered. I'd love to invite her to experience life for a while with those who believe they have found it more abundantly (John 10:10).

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis (Book Review #71 of 2015)

A Grief Observed
I read this famous book about mourning in an attempt to find a Christian theology of mourning. Given the expectation of heaven, should Christians mourn? If so, what and how?  I followed it with what is essentially the atheist's version of this book - Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God by Greta Christina in order to explore the atheist's philosophy of death. The two reviews should be read in parallel.

A prerequisite for this book has to be watching The Shadowlands, for which Anthony Hopkins should have won an Oscar for his outstanding portrayal of Lewis. The movie shows the bittersweet romance between Lewis and Joy Gresham (played by Debra Winger). The details of Lewis' life and the conflict he faced falling in love with, marrying, and then losing Gresham to cancer are quite moving. I had always wondered "What happened next?" How did Lewis get along with his stepson? How did they mourn together (or separately)? This book gives the answer.

The second foreword was written by Douglas Gresham which outlines his perspective and the difficulty he and Lewis had in dealing with the loss together, both were left to mourn differently and separately. Lewis initially published the book under a pseudonym, but it was too easy to discern his writing. He gives insight into his parents that is great.

One takeaway from this book is what not to say to a grieving person. There is a time to remind them of theological truths but in the moment it's insensitive. "Sorrow is not a state but a process," and it's important to remember this. (Perhaps every Christian should read On Death and Dying?). Even worse are the unbiblical things people say (and sing in hymns) like "we'll meet again on that golden shore." Where is the "golden shore" in Scripture? A person sharing these common statements thus errs twice. Lewis does focus on what is in Scripture, the promises of God, and how He works.

He rails against those of weak faith, or no faith, who think God cannot possibly wish them to feel pain. "How could God do this if he loved me?" Lewis responds by asking "Have none of them ever been to a dentist?" Don't fall into the error of putting our desires ahead of God-- God does things for His glory. Romans 8:28 tells us that He is working all things for His glory and our good (if we are His) but he is King and knows what that "good" for us is.

Nonetheless, Lewis has a strong desire for assurance that his wife is in heaven. He knows the promise of Scripture but has no way of knowing whether she is truly there and he wish he had some. I have observed this to be universal among people I've observed mourning.

As vividly portrayed in The Shadowlands, "we don't want grief but we want that love which it stems from and necessitates." It is impossible to have the love without the grief, loving someone means being vulnerable to hurt by that person. All of us are here temporarily, loving someone or something means you have to eventually let it go.

Lewis echoes the psalmists in holding up praise for God as a possible solution to the sorrow. Remembering the goodness of God and the he loves us and focusing on His promises in Scripture and being thankful for the good gifts he gives seems to be the biblical prescription.

A very good statement: "Approaching Christ as a means and not the end is not to approach him at all." Saving faith is that which comes to Jesus for who He is and not what He does for us (I'm paraphrasing both Lewis and John Piper here). The communion wafer is a poor representation of what we want to be unified with, just as in all things in the Christian life we see Christ through a glass, darkly (1 Cor. 13:12). But Christians alone can mourn with hope (1 Thess. 4:13).

There are also a few apologetics toward those who do not believe in an afterlife. Lewis was extremely well-read in multiple languages and his wife was quite astute in literary knowledge as well. It's a good reminder that C.S. Lewis had countered plenty of atheistic arguments with pure logic, and it's sad that many of the "new atheists" have not read them. His faith survived, and was perhaps strengthened, by what he learned through this "process" of mourning.

I give this book 5 stars out of 5. It is written as an overflow from the heart but with a discipline of mind and a focus on right, biblical truth.  It is not a complete theology of mourning, but it is amazingly heartfelt and real. I would give it to any Christian in mourning.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

First Life by David Deamer (Book Review #70 of 2015)

First Life: Discovering the Connections between Stars, Cells, and How Life Began
**I read Andreas Wagner's Arrival, John Tyler Bonner's Randomness in Evolution, and David Deamer's First Life: Discovering the Connections between Stars, Cells, and How Life Began subsequently, so my review is meant to be read relative to the other two as all three overlap in subject matter. (This paragraph appears in all three reviews). I am reading these books after reading several on cosmology.* I wanted to move beyond what cosmologists say (with disagreement) about the formation of the universe to see how it could be compatible with what chemists and biologists say about the beginning of life. Alan Lightman writes in the Accidental Universe that "Science can never know how universe was created," and I find that to be echoed in these books -- science can never know or prove how exactly life began (Deamer states this outright). Exactly what chemicals were available on earth to mix in what quantities to randomly create a reaction between molecules that led bonds to form, information to be transmitted, and growth to begin? All of the hypotheses presented in the books require certain laws of physics and nature to hold but I have not found any who attempts to explain how those laws arose in the first place. Why are these laws what they are? Call this the Paul Davies critique.
Deamer acknowledges that it's possible a creator put those laws into existence, but the other two avoid the subject. None of the three seem to recognize that chance is not a causal force, so time + chance cannot explain anything.
Where did light come from and how did it contain information? How did cells know that it contained information and figure out a way to receive and decode it? How do "regulator cells" operate according to these laws? What is consciousness and at what point is life "life" such that it has "value?" All three of the authors reach the same conclusion as the cosmologists above-- we are a random collection of atoms that will one day be scattered, nothing more nothing less. Life has no meaning outside of a debatable definition regarding complex molecular processes, and any sentiment we attach to it is illogical-- there is no soul in science. I do not, therefore, understand how Lightman, Hawking, Richard Dawkins, etc. can argue that scattering people's atoms is "wrong," or where they get ethics. We're not special, only lucky in the sense of randomness.

These three biochemist authors, however, engage in less armchair philosophy than Hawking et al, and (unlike string theorists Hawking and Green) argue that science requires testable hypotheses and that the universe had a beginning. Each of these books have a good look at what actual laboratory research looks like. These are not just men working equations at a desk all day, although there is some of that. They're often out traveling the world in search of mineral samples and in the laboratory mixing chemicals in the search for the genesis of life. My next set of books will be on the scientific understanding of consciousness-- something these books do not address.**

Deamer is a biochemist/astrobiologist whose "primary research area concerns the manner in which linear macromolecules traverse nanoscopic channels...A second line of research concerns molecular self-assembly processes related to the structure and function of biological membranes, and particularly the origin and evolution of membrane structure" (from his UCSC profile).  Astrobiology was fueled partly by NASA's discovery in 1996 that the Allan Hills asteroid from Mars contained fossils of bacteria-like lifeforms. Other meteorites having contained amino acids, suggesting that the basic building blocks of life could have arrived to earth from outer space some 4.35-4.7 billion years ago.

But can biological life arise from non-biological processes? Can the right combination of chemicals, heat, electricity, etc. generate reactions where molecules bond, feed off available food sources, reproduce themselves, and form complex structures that eventually develop into "life?" That is the key question, and Deamer is betting on "yes," without asking where these basic building blocks and the laws of physics that formed them came from. (He admits in the epilogue that the laws of the universe could have been put in place by a "creator"). But the book does a great job showing what biochemists do. If I knew someone who was thinking about majoring in chemistry or biology, I would give them this book. Deamer travels the globe collecting samples, runs tests in labs, analyzes others' discoveries, and hypothesizes what resources would be needed for the next breakthroughs in this field. I found it thoroughly enjoyable as a layman who had only read other similar books (see above). There is much tedious chemistry in the book, with precise chains given. That makes it a bit tough for the layreader, but I appreciated Deamer's thoroughness.

"Emergence" is the complexity that arises over time it cannot be predicted or explained. Life is not a universally-defined term, so in order to create artificial "life" you have to first have a definition they do have some agreement on what is required for life-- for Deamer this appears to be metabolic processes occuring in cells with polymers. Life is based on six elements. Deamer states outright that science can never prove how life began since it would be impossible to know or simulate the exact conditions that occurred on earth. We're only now learning what materials were available, and multiple hypotheses abound. One criticism Deamer has of modern research is that too much emphasis is put on isolated experiments using very few chemicals in highly-controlled environments, something that definitely would not have been earth 4+ billion years ago. But Deamer fails to address more serious criticisms of chemical evolution, even from biologists like Bonner who argue that short shrift is given to randomness.See the list on Discovery.org of the Top Ten Scientific Problems with biological and Chemical Evolution.

The accepted age for the universe is 13.7 billion years ago, which means we are just now seeing stars reach the end of their life and go supernova. Our solar system is about 13.2 billion years old, and planet earth is supposedly 4.5 billion years old. Samples of zircon have tested older than 4.4 billion years old, with some (debated) tests interpreted to show that there was already water on the earth at that time. It's at around 4.35 billion years that the environmental conditions necessary for life to begin are believed to have first existed, but life "can't be older than 3.8 billion years" and is "improbable" before 3.5 billion years ago according to Deamer, which is the age of the earliest fossils. It's possible that life existed prior to that time but a "late bombardment period" of asteroids about 4 billion years ago could have killed whatever life had existed, and changed the mix of chemicals and conditions present.

10% of the water in oceans is believed to come from asteroids, which could also have brought cosmic space dust containing amino acids and other building block-like materials along with comets that brought organic carbon in some amount. Deamer writes that Miller's experiments in 1953 found that amino acids themselves can be synthesized by non-biological processes, while also noting the conditions they used likely did not occur on earth at the time. Was the "site of origin" hot or icy? Deamer examines hypotheses for both, along with various hypotheses that have been disproven or still hold up over years of experimenting, like the Schauzer hypothesis about arsenic. Deamer often invokes Occam's razor, the simplest solution is assumed to be the likely one, and often times that solution is "chance."

Evolution had to occur before life-- molecules had to develop in such a way to bond better and reproduce. Hydrogen bonding is fundamental to life, but how did this happen spontaneously? What energy is needed to cause chemical compounds to change over time? Deamer writes that opposite of the law of entropy, chemical reactions always move from disequilibrium to equilibrium. This gets back to the Bonner book on randomness in evolution-- chance interactions and mutations occur, and no one stops to ask how all of these building blocks came to exist in the first place.

One breakthrough for Deamer was the discovery that long chemical chains were not required for stable membranes. Life on the early earth was less tidy than a sterilized laboratory, so there had to be some way for chemicals to mix relatively protected. He presents the "Bubble Model" that membranes could have formed protective boundaries in which chemicals could mix, the same function test tubes perform today.  There is a helpful summary of multiple variations on the bubble theory in a 1993 NY Times piece by John Wilford. These are "only guesses" according to Deamer. 

Eventually complex chains were formed, which begs the question of the minimum complexity needed to call it "life." There are plenty of unanswered questions, the joy of science. Deamer explains the importance of the double helix and how it was hypothesized (never proven, but it fits in models well). The double helix is the only known way for a molecule to transmit a copy of itself. The author addresses several hypotheses regarding RNA and an "RNA World," which seems "too complex" to have been the first catalyst for life, it needs help. From here, Deamer delves more into biology.

Darwin and others have proposed various "trees of evolution," which have now grown so complex as to be only readily organized by a computer. One important discovery in biology has been that of horizontal gene transfer (HGT), where a gene can be transmitted across organisms and not just vertically through offspring. This is an important factor in evolution and has led to a variety of experiments in genetic engineering to fight cancer and other diseases. Deamer cites a 1993 experiment involving RNA, random mutation, and natural selection that I have tried to read but not completely understand its implications.

Chapter 14 rounds the book out with summaries on life-- all life is celluloid. Polymers are primary, and must exist before life. RNA does not have enough explanatory power, more prebiotic experiments are needed, etc. He proposes and calculates the cost for a simulator and dedicated laboratory to running the types of experiments he thinks are really necessary for breakthroughs within 5 years. (It seems relatively inexpensive compared to what we spend on everything else, perhaps someone in Silicon Valley would fund it.) Deamer believes that scientists will be able to fabricate artificial cells "in the next decade." 

The epilogue focuses on the intelligent design movement, stating his priors up front: Anthropology explains religion as evolving from the tribes relying on shared religious beliefs to have unity and survive. He does talk of the "flawed" and "illogical" nature of Behe's irreducible complexity argument but does not explain how it's illogical for the reader. He does somewhat address the improbable nature of the "cosmic soup" hypotheses and writes that the "soap bubble theory" of membraneous compartments increase the likelihood of the viability of chemical reactions. He cites a study that 36% of scientists believe in God and over half are "spiritual." Deamer actually agrees that the laws of nature and the universe could have been put in place by a creator. But notes that disagreements among biologists related to evolution are the mechanisms relating to "how," not "whether."

I learned a great deal from this book and would love to read a critique of it. I would recommend it to anyone interested in chemical biology. It's a bit difficult to get through if you're not. 4 stars out of 5.

Randomness in Evolution by John T. Bonner (Book Review #69 of 2015)


Randomness in Evolution

**I read Andreas Wagner's Arrival, John Tyler Bonner's Randomness in Evolution, and David Deamer's First Life: Discovering the Connections between Stars, Cells, and How Life Began subsequently, so my review is meant to be read relative to the other two as all three overlap in subject matter. (This paragraph appears in all three reviews). I am reading these books after reading several on cosmology.* I wanted to move beyond what cosmologists say (with disagreement) about the formation of the universe to see how it could be compatible with what chemists and biologists say about the beginning of life. Alan Lightman writes in the Accidental Universe that "Science can never know how universe was created," and I find that to be echoed in these books -- science can never know or prove how exactly life began (Deamer states this outright). Exactly what chemicals were available on earth to mix in what quantities to randomly create a reaction between molecules that led bonds to form, information to be transmitted, and growth to begin? All of the hypotheses presented in the books require certain laws of physics and nature to hold but I have not found any who attempts to explain how those laws arose in the first place. Why are these laws what they are? Call this the Paul Davies critique.

Deamer acknowledges that it's possible a creator put those laws into existence, but the other two avoid the subject. None of the three seem to recognize that chance is not a causal force, so time + chance cannot explain anything. Where did light come from and how did it contain information? How did cells know that it contained information and figure out a way to receive and decode it? How do "regulator cells" operate according to these laws? What is consciousness and at what point is life "life" such that it has "value?" All three of the authors reach the same conclusion as the cosmologists above-- we are a random collection of atoms that will one day be scattered, nothing more nothing less. Life has no meaning outside of a debatable definition regarding complex molecular processes, and any sentiment we attach to it is illogical-- there is no soul in science. I do not, therefore, understand how Lightman, Hawking, Richard Dawkins, etc. can argue that scattering people's atoms is "wrong," or where they get ethics. We're not special, only lucky in the sense of randomness.

These three biochemist authors, however, engage in less armchair philosophy than Hawking et al, and (unlike string theorists Hawking and Green) argue that science requires testable hypotheses and that the universe had a beginning. Each of these books have a good look at what actual laboratory research looks like. These are not just men working equations at a desk all day, although there is some of that. They're often out traveling the world in search of mineral samples and in the laboratory mixing chemicals in the search for the genesis of life. My next set of books will be on the scientific understanding of consciousness-- something these books do not address.**

There are essentially two premises in this book:
1. Randomness explains more of the variety of the life we see today than natural selection.
2. The effect of randomness varies depending on the size of the organism-- the larger the organism, the less variety of morphology can be expressed.

As a student of Daniel Kahneman and Nicholas Nassim Taleb, I enjoyed the same critique applied to the evolution of species that these apply to the wizards of wall street-- success is determined more by randomness, but our hindsight bias makes us think we see skill. Bonner argues that randomness is more important than adaptation/natural selection, in which certain traits evolve somehow to give the organism an adaptation it did not previously have. Randomness has to happen before natural selection can happen,  "there can be no natural selection without randomness." So randomness is the "skeleton in the closet," that most "naturalists" would rather not think about. But he doesn't "throw Darwin out with the bathwater," these processes work together. "All of evolutionary change is built on a foundation of randomness. It provides the necessary material for natural selection which then does indeed bring forth the order our inner mind so actively craves." Natural selection by itself tends to ask for an intelligent designer because how else would a cell know what information to pass down, or how would "regulator cells" need to know what cells to form next? Bonner immediately discards creationists as fools. But I imagine some of these fools would be quick to point out that chance itself is not a causal force-- time + chance cannot produce something ex nihilo. Something isn't "caused" by chance, and to his credit Bonner is careful not to state it this way.

How do you know if something is an adaptation or randomness? So many times we consider an adaptation to be an adaptation because of hindsight bias when actually it was random mutation that just worked. Our biosphere today is the result of 14 billion years of these compounded mutations. Likewise, the maximum possible size of organisms increase over the millenia. Bonner describes the difference between prokaryotes and eukaryotes, from Nature.com: "In prokaryote cell organization there is a nucleoid containing genomic DNA but it is not surrounded by membranes such as what defines the eukaryote nucleus (Martin & Koonin 2006). Eukaryotes such as fungi, protozoa, plants, and animals, and thus we humans, have cells with complex structure with internal membranes and membrane-bounded organelles."

He discusses morphology and neutralism. He seems to answer the layman's question as to why we don't see more variety of species that have been around for millions of years.  Even if morphology changes very little, an organisms biochemistry can change much. Whereas Wagner (Arrival of the Fittest) seems to argue "junk genes" and traits with no purpose are evidence of a previous purpose in an ancient environment, Bonner seems to argue that these were random mutations that did not really make a difference to an organism's survival, so they were not weeded out. Bonner's focus on research are slime molds.

I think one weakness of the book is in the discussion on how organisms evolve from single-cell to multicell. Bonner cites division of labor in developed organisms in nature and relates it back to multicell organisms. Bonner does a good job supporting his hypothesis about how processes differ in small organisms and larger organisms. Size matters just as randomness matters.

I give it 3.5 stars. It definitely earns points for its concise nature, this is the shortest of the three books. It is written a bit more toward the layperson than Andreas Wagner's Arrival. I would like to read counterarguments.