Sunday, June 25, 2017

Realities of Foreign Service Life (Book Review #20 of 2017)

Realities of Foreign Service Life: an AAFSW book

This book was a great idea. It is a compilation of essays by FSOs, spouses, and children regarding specific aspects of Foreign Service life. Packing and travel, handling crises and evacuations, finding employment for trailing spouses, education challenges, dealing with depression, handling marriage and divorce, and more are covered in this quick read.

The book is rather dated (2002), the Internet was still relatively new at publishing. (There is a newer Volume 2 I will have to check out.) Some of the resources it provides are still available and applicable, but some chapters on things like communication with America are obsolete. The Foreign Service itself has changed very recently, it's harder with the current hiring freeze for trailing spouses to find Embassy than it has been in a long time. The career hiring Registers are no longer cleared and would-be careerists are now encouraged into non-career Consular service. That culture shift definitely alters decision-making and career trajectories.

A few chapters I found very relevant and helpful:
The chapters on the Yemen evacuating and Kenyan Embassy bombings.
Preparing and saving for the expensive/tricky tour(s) in DC.
Spouse struggling with depression.
The chapter dealing with the pack-out.
Chapters dealing with education.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A Week in the Fall of Jerusalem by Ben Witherington III (Book Review #19 of 2017)

A Week in the Fall of Jerusalem by Ben Witherington III

FTC fair notice: I received an advanced copy of this book on Kindle via NetGalley. This review is my own honest assessment.

This book is an attempt to interest the reader in important non-fiction elements of first century Palestinian life while weaving in a fictional story with familiar characters from the Gospels. Witherington has four different fictional storylines going while including sidebars to examine particular details that come out in his narrative. From the sidebars you can learn more about specific Greek words, geography, artifacts, see pictures, and more. Key takeaways are how houses were designed in Palestine, how we think house churches ran, how slavery and manumission worked, etc. I learned, for example, that Greeks and Romans bleached their tunics white by using urine. It was not unusual for wealthy households to have laundry people on their property washing linens in urine all day. (This will change your thinking on any "white as snow" passage you read for the rest of your life.)

The greatest bit I gleaned from the book was thinking through how fragile the knowledge and memories of Jesus were in those early days. House churches might have had access to parts of Mark's Gospel, but may also have had other Aramaic stories, or told stories from eyewitness memory. I have a greater appreciation for how difficult it was for the Gospel writers to compile their sources, complete the work, and how amazed I am at the hundreds of thousands of manuscript copies we have available today. The Church in the book also seems smaller and more fragile than one might imagine giving the large numbers of conversion given in Acts and the fact that "all of Asia" had heard the Gospel thanks to Saul/Paul.

I read non-fiction almost exclusively, so I found the fictional parts rather contrived. (The sidebars on the advanced Kindle version I received often intersected with the narrative text, so the sidebar began and ended in the middle of stories, so this was a technical flaw I hope they figure out before releasing the full version.) I recently read The World of Jesus by William H. Marty that also attempts to explain much of first century Palestinian history. I followed Witherington's work with Jerusalem's Traitor by Desmond Seward. All three works rely heavily on Josephus' works, but I find Jerusalem's Traitor does a better job of getting to the character of Josephus and actual events in Palestine than Witherington's fictional account. Perhaps Witherington assumes you have already read Josephus to have the information about armaments, battle tactics, etc. that never show up in the actual battle for Jerusalem.

The reader is also subjected to Witherington's minority positions on certain biblical events and characters without being given an alternative view or an explanation. It is not an established fact that Levi/Matthew wrote his Gospel after 70AD. For example, one argument for an earlier date is the fact that Matthew writes more about Sadducees than other Gospels, and 70AD pretty much eliminated them. Witherington assumes Matthew came after Mark and relied on other Aramaic sources as well, plausible. But most scholars reject the idea that "the beloved disciple" was Lazarus, not John. Witherington's account presents that Joanna wife of Chuza in Luke's Gospel is the same as Junia wife of Andronicus in Romans 16:7, and that she was an apostle. No sidebar is given for this justification or how it's apparently impossible for people in biblical periods to share common names, etc. In Witherington's fictional account, Chuza left her when she followed Jesus and she later met Andronicus and became an apostle. My concern is that the reader would consider this fact rather than a hypothesis.

Josephus' life is one of the storylines, but much of import is left out. For example, Witherington leaves out any personal history Josephus had as a governor in Galilee or once being a commander of troops himself. There is also very little about what happened to actual characters in Jerusalem in the fall. The reader doesn't learn that the Jewish revolt had long before brought much of the countryside into war and chaos, and perhaps this shaped life in places like Capernaum more than infighting among Christians and Pharisees. Where are the Sadducees in the fall of Jerusalem? What happens to the corporate psychology of Palestine when the temple is destroyed? It really wasn't so traumatic in the book, a few refugees and stragglers resettling but life goes on. One of the storylines also doesn't really end, I think the author had a difficult time finding a stopping point. I respect Witherington's scholarship and the prolific nature by which he writes books. I have not read his classic Week in the Life of Corinth but might in the hopes that it provides more actual insights into a week in the life of local culture than this book does.

Pros: I learned some facts from the sidebars that will help me as a Sunday school teacher. I also got a greater appreciation for the early Gospel writers and Christians striving to work hard to tell others the stories of Jesus and make sure it's recorded accurately and quickly. This book is a quick read.

Cons: I felt the fiction detracted from the non-fiction. My previous exposure to Witherington was primarily his Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor. The fiction also presented the author's minority positions on issues without stating them as such.

I recommend Jerusalem's Traitor if you really want a week in the fall of Jerusalem, or William H. Marty's book if you want broader political/historical context quickly. 3 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

I am an Institutionalist

I've been pondering Peter Beinart's good article in the April edition of The Atlantic with the bi-line of "America's Empty-Church Problem." The piece looks at survey data on the decline of church attendance and the increase of secularism, intolerance, and more pessimistic outlooks among the un-churched, on both the Left and Right. Beinart is making the point that the increase in hostile division we see has come from a decline in civil institutions. Society crumbles into tribalism when there is less to bind us together to work for the common good and get to know our neighbors.

This piece helped give me a way to describe myself that I had been searching for: an Institutionalist. This is opposed to an "insurrectionist" (as Beinart gives the definition from Chris Hayes' book). More than ever I have respect for the institutions in America and value their importance. This includes churches but also the family. It includes civic and social groups like Rotary Club, the Special Olympics, Parent-Teacher Associations, anything requiring a voluntary commitment to maintaining the service. It also includes liberty, literacy, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, due process, Congress, the Supreme Court, the State Department, etc. It includes being able to drive to work without fear of being pulled over for no reason, and going to a movie without fear of being shot.

I don't believe "we have to burn the village in order to save it," or that we need to "send someone to Washington/Frankfort to blow up the system." Some institutional traditions exist out of years of experience and adaptation. Institutional knowledge is valuable. When you put people in charge who have no institutional knowledge and have to make important decisions quickly, things go unintentionally awry. I saw this firsthand in my previous job in state government. Institutionalists believe in change and adaptation at the margins, with the basic underlying rule of law and respect for the game in place. Public servants swear an oath to protect and defend the Constitution-- it's the underlying institution that must be respected, above the leaders who appointed them. And it is good and helpful to at least learn established policy and procedures, those are often not just burdensome "red tape," and might exist for good purpose.

Recent polling by Pew shows skepticism about institutions is on the rise. "(In 2014) the vast majority (of Americans) still believed in God. But the share that rejected any religious affiliation was growing fast, rising from 6 percent in 1992 to 22 percent in 2014. Among Millennials, the figure was 35 percent." Beinart's article further demonstrates that church attendance correlates with which camp you fall into, and whether you supported Bernie and Trump or the establishment candidates.

During the primaries, Republicans who actually attended church services were much less likely to support Trump than those who didn't. But this group is less influential than in the past because, citing PRRI data, "(T)he percentage of white Republicans with no religious affiliation has nearly tripled since 1990."

The trend is even more exagerrated on the Left:
"In 1990, according to PRRI, slightly more than half of white liberals seldom or never attended religious services. Today the proportion is 73 percent. And if conservative nonattenders fueled Trump’s revolt inside the GOP, liberal nonattenders fueled Bernie Sanders’s insurgency against Hillary Clinton: While white Democrats who went to religious services at least once a week backed Clinton by 26 points, according to an April 2016 PRRI survey, white Democrats who rarely attended services backed Sanders by 13 points."

Beinart notes that two of the more controversial politically-active movements in 2016-- Black Lives Matter and the alt-right movement both reject tenets of Christianity. While the public may confuse the alt-right movement with conservative evangelicals because of support for Trump, "alt-right is ultra-conservatism for a more secular age. Its leaders like Christendom, an old-fashioned word for the West. But they’re suspicious of Christianity itself, because it crosses boundaries of blood and soil." Graeme Wood's piece from the June edition, on alt-right racist Richard Spencer, should dispel any misconceptions. Spencer is an atheist who sees Christianity as something that historically united white Europe, that's its only usefulness to his crowd.

While I find the psychoanalysis of how church attendance leads both Left and Right to be more tolerant somewhat campy, I think the basic point is close enough: Jesus taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves, pray for our enemies, and to bless those who persecute us. He set an example of opposing the Jewish hierarchy and revealing Himself to racial and political enemies--Samaritans and Greeks. You are more likely to be exposed to people from different countries, incomes, races, cities, etc. in a church. It makes it easier to love your neighbor.

But, generally speaking, the decline of civic society goes beyond church attendance. Americans are less affiliated in other ways, and this is affecting political cohesion. Ironically, Hillary Clinton made this exact point in her 1996 book It Takes a Village (my review).

Clinton lamented that people didn't join social groups like bowling leagues and civic groups like the Girl Scouts as much anymore, much less attend church. She basically advocated a stronger civil society vis-a-vis church attendance and service:
"Religion is not just about one’s relationship with God, but about what values flow out of that relationship, how we follow them in our daily lives and especially in our treatment of our neighbors next door and all over the world. Preaching is a distant second to practicing when it comes to instilling values like compassion, courage, faith, fellowship, forgiveness, love, peace, hope, wisdom, prayer, and humility."

Sports arenas are about the only wholly-accepted income and racial-stratifying places left in real life (ie: offline) adult culture. Conversely, it also helps promote the tribalism. (America still not nearly as bad as soccer fans in Turkey and elsewhere where riots over sports are frequent.) Sports also don't do much for the fan in the stands than entertain, there is not a mile of highway adopted by "UK fans" who clean it, for example.

As I observe civic institutions today, be it Boy Scouts, a school drama club, a Sunday school class, a century-old Congressional baseball game, I think "Will they still be doing this in ten years? In five? Or will they be staying home?" And I have a greater appreciation for the people who have the spirit and desire to see that unifying service or tradition continue.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Building Faith Block by Block by Michael & Christopher Ross (Book Review #18 of 2017)

Building Faith Block By Block: [An Unofficial Minecraft Guide] 60 A-to-Z (Kid Only) Survival Secrets

I'm a dad of a nine year old autistic son who loves Minecraft and spends hours each week reading books and watching videos on the game. We do devotionals with him every night and he eagerly engages in family worship, but he does not show much interest in reading Bible stories or watching faith-related videos-- and there is little out there on YouTube worth watching, unlike the endless hours of Minecraft.

So, I was VERY excited to learn about this book and check out an evaluation Kindle copy via NetGalley. It has the same type of Minecraft gameplay tips as other books my son reads, but it relates those tips to a spiritual concept. Each Minecraft concept includes a "Best Tip" for use in the game, a "Read It" passage that relates to the concept from Scripture, a "Think It" passage to challenge the child to understand the biblical lesson, and a "Live It" that applies to real life.

For example, the author talking about bedrock in the game (acquired through a command line code):
"This common mineral can withsatand creepers who attack in the night. It cannot be broken by tools, and it can't be destroyed by explosions. It's the only block that a beacon beam can shine through at night. And it's one of the materials used to create an End gateway portal when the ender dragon is killed. We need bedrocks in our lives. They're solid pieces that go unnoticed--but are so important in life-- having a strong faith, a safe home, and a family that loves us." Dragee90 gives a tip about using bedrock in the game, and then offers Matthew 7:24-25 as a Scripture reading-- building your house on the solid rock. His Think It questions ask: "What is the solid rock? How do we build our lives on it?" His Live it concludes: "There is only one rock-solid truth--one bedrock. Truth comes from God...we build on solid rock by following the teachings of Jesus."

I received a pre-release Kindle copy and the pictures are black and white and the text was organized to make it difficult. So, I'm hoping the actual Kindle version is much better. But nonetheless, I'm buying a paperback version for my son today! While the book says it's geared for 7th graders, I think it's written at a much lower reading level than most regular Minecraft books, so no problem if you have an elementary-aged child. [UPDATE 6/13] I'm very pleased with the paperback version. The pictures are black-and-white and stock photos that look like Minecraft without actually being from Minecraft. But the devotionals keep Elias' attention and make it more fun than others we've tried.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Churchill & Orwell by Thomas E. Ricks (Book Review #17 of 2017)

Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom by Thomas Ricks

This book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a review. Review and opinions within are my own.

I had previously read Ricks' Fiasco and The Generals, both of these dealt largely with specific failings of the US military and its bureaucracy. This venture is quite a departure; apparently Ricks got interested in both Churchill and Orwell while studying the Spanish Civil War, where Orwell had volunteered, and Ricks found that both men had been war correspondents like himself.

The common bonds between Churchill and Orwell were that they were both Britains who took great stands against totalitarianism. Churchill rallied his government and fellow countrymen to fight the Nazis regardless of the outcome. Orwell channeled his own first-hand observations to write how totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union were squelching dissident voices and demanding absolute loyalty. The work of both men arguably kept totalitarianism from Europe for the 20th century. Churchill's stand against the Nazis hastened their defeat. Orwell's bestsellers innoculated generations from the dangers of totalitarianism by illustrating them so vividly in the imagination.

While I finished this book, US President Donald Trump took his first overseas trip and famously asked NATO members to step up their timeline for increasing funding as a percentage of their GDP, as well as became the first President to not state the importance of Article V of mutual defense. German Chancellor Angela Merkel later gave a speech to her constituents that Europe could no longer rely on the US and Britain, stating "The times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over." Other leaders appear to be in agreement with her sentiment. The Atlantic and other journals are dismayed, writing that "the old order has passed." Ricks' book is about how that old order was built and its importance. He concludes the book with some ominous warnings in the parallels he sees between what Orwell predicted and the world we live in today. Ricks writes that "Orwell and Churchill recognized that the key question of their century to preserve liberty of the individual during an age when the state was becoming powerfully intrusive into private life" (loc. 53). "Liberty" was not a word one heard much in the 2016 US Presidential campaign. The reader is left to wonder whether, when the next totalitarian threat arises, there will be any Churchills or Orwells to rise to the occassion.

My detailed review:
Ricks has obviously dug deeply into these mens' histories, so deeply that he felt the need to include many details that he should have omitted. I learned more about the details of these mens lives and works than was necessary. Churchill and Orwell were not extraordinary men, their lives were somewhat pathetic and unenviable. Before 1939, no one would have predicted their fame, indeed Orwell was largely unmentioned in lists of British authors published at the time. Orwell was an unwealthy scholarship student at Eton College, whereas Churchill's parents were part of the elite class and he was a precocious boy of privelege. Both saw the workings of the British Empire from abroad, Churchill in India and Africa, and Orwell did service as an MP in Burma. Both had poor role models as fathers and both enjoyed literature. Both had health problems and an apparent awkwardness among women.

Unlike Churchill, Orwell (real name: Eric Blair) despised class difference and colonialism (see his essay "Shooting an Elephant"). He was a democratic socialist, volunteering on the front lines against Franco's nationalist forces in Spain. There he saw how the Soviet NKVD were co-opting the communist forces to suit their own needs, including destroying the Trotsky-sympathetic POUM Socialists that Orwell was fighting with. It was only when he returned from the front after a near-fatal wound that he saw how the Soviets were censoring the media, rounding up POUM sympathizers, and inventing problems to blame them for. He noted the Soviet use of the media and literally re-writing history to suit their needs. The Soviets had no intention of defeating Franco's forces and used the exercise simply to purge subversive threats. (The NKVD used the same propoganda techniques as seen in the recent invasion of Crimea, painting the Ukranian army as actually being Nazis, similarly to how they claimed the POUM were actually fascist Nazis as well). Orwell writes of how he and comrades would pass on the street and pretend not to know each other as everyone was trying to avoid being arrested. After being indicted for espionage and treason by Barcelona, Orwell and his wife narrowly escaped the crackdown, and he later learned a bounty was put on his head, which gave him concern for his own life after publishing Animal Farm in 1945.

During the war, Orwell volunteered for the Home Guard during the blitz and later had an uninspiring career with the BBC while continuing to write articles and books. He wrote in his diary and letters of his fondness for Churchill and how he rallied the country to fight rather than surrender to the Nazi threat. His wife's brother died early in the war and that deeply affected her and their relationship as well. Orwell's earlier works were not considered good. Animal Farm's original run was only 2,000 copies but it has been in print ever since. The book was considered such an overt attack on socialism that Orwell had difficulty trying to publish it. Ricks notes how Animal Farm has been popular all over the world, how many in Soviet countries, Middle Eastern dictatorships, and elsewhere remark of how it summed up their condition remarkably. Even though Orwell had never lived under totalitarian threat, he'd almost paid with his life for his observations of its practice in Spain. He witnessed the Communists re-writing of history to erase the memory of Stalin's previous treaty with Hitler. He interacted with left-leaning people in England who held Stalin and Communism in high esteem (it was not until after Kruschev revealed Stalin's mass-murders that the world would get a clue). He wrote in 1945 that "I belong to the Left and must work inside it, much as I hate Russian totalitarianism" (loc. 3298). 1984 was published not long before Orwell died and remains a bestseller.

Winston Churchill's political career was considered "finished" not long before he became Prime Minister. While a Torie, he had previously been with the Labour party and was trusted little by anyone. His previous Cabinet experience had been as First Lord of the Admiralty, where he organized the disastrous defeat at Gallipoli. He had made a name for himself publishing the accounts of British actions in South Asia and in the Boer War, but Ricks writes that Churchill's experiences were not that noteworthy, Churchill's ambition was to try to get famous to move up the social ladder and perhaps prove his father (who had once served in the Cabinet) wrong about his potential. Churchill championed a single cause that was considered political suicide in 1939-- he criticized Neville Chamberlain and the British Government for pursuing a policy of appeasement with the Nazis. He considered the Munich Conference to be a great disaster and correctly predicted that it would soon cost the British a great deal more to beat back the fascists than it would have if they had held firm years before.

Reading the book, I was stunned by how much we Americans take the British and then the Americans' standing up to the Nazis for granted, much less defeating them. I grew up on a steady diet of WWII documentaries and movies and was keenly aware of the crisis the British faced during the blitz, the disasters of Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, etc. But it's easy to think that there was always that resolve after 12/7/1941 to defeat the Axis powers no matter what. But the reality in 1938-1939 was quite different. England wanted peace with Hitler, gave ticker-tape parades for Chamberlain for his attempts to appease him. The King himself supported appeasement. A conservative MP formed pro-German, anti-semitic group. At least one British mayor flew a swastika flag upon the agreement at Munich. The elite and intelligentsia had many friends in the Nazi party, as well as with Mussolini, spent time in Germany and Italy and praised Hitler's character. Why was Czechoslovakia a concern for them, anyway? Everyone secretly shares his disdain for the Jews, etc. Others were Communist spies or double-agents, like British correspondent/MI-6 officer Kim Philby, eager to undermine Western democracy and hasten its demise. One of the most ardent critics of Churchill's dissent and proponents of England's surrender to the Nazis was US Ambassador to England Joseph Kennedy. After Britain declared war, Kennedy was constantly cabling Washington predicting London's imminent surrender and proposing that Roosevelt also consider making a pact with the Nazis. "Kennedy told Roosevelt that he believed that events would make it necessary for the United States to implement, 'possibly under other names, the basic features of the Fascist state: to fight totalitarianism, we would have to adopt totalitarian methods'" (loc. 1165-1167). One of the most poignant scenes in the book is when FDR throws Kennedy out of his house, removing him from his position, and basically calling him a traitor. (This bit of forgotten history helps illustrate conservatives' later ire for JFK.) FDR would later send his own man, Harry Hopkins, to evaluate Churchill and the British position for himself in order to undue the misinformation that Kennedy and others had propogated. There were plenty of other "America First" isolationists in the US like Charles Lindbergh who thought America should make friends with Hitler.

After Chamberlain resigned, Halifax, who had been head of the British Foreign Office, was expected to take up the mantle but refused, instead supporting Churchill. It was Halifax who had specifically requested Britain's soccer team give the Nazi salute when playing in Berlin in 1938. "Had Halifax been willing to take the prime mintership instead of Churchill, he very likely would have entered into peace talks with the Germans" (loc 1196). Churchill gave passionate speeches, began demanding the rusty wheels of government begin turning, and issued orders to put Britain on the offensive. When family members urged him to consider fleeing to Canada should London fall, he declined, writing that "There are too many of these exiled 'antifascists' already. Better to die if necessary" (loc. 1409). Churchill was still not always popular; many, including Orwell, thought he would have to resign after the British suffered a tremendous defeat in Singapore. But his resolve and determination, particularly against the elites who he saw as not doing their fair part, helped motivate and save the country.

Despite all the details covered, Ricks leaves out the importance of the Great Depression in the 1930s backdrop, Roosevelt's political campaign reminding America of how he kept them out of war while at the same time getting ready to enter it, all the politics and history of lend-lease, etc. (David M. Kennedy's book Freedom from Fear covers this period quite well.) He does remark from Orwell and others that Americans became less and less popular in Britain as the war went on. By D-Day, the American contingent numbered 1.6 million and England was virtually occupied. Many British who fretted about the decline of their empire resented Churchill for having traded the British Empire for a new American one. Ricks writes that the relationship between FDR and Churchill is often embellished; they appear to have had little in common other than the common cause of fighting the Nazis. As the war went on, the friendship never really deepened. Churchill, oddly, chose not to attend FDR's funeral in 1945 (perhaps because he was keenly aware of his own mortality) and LBJ reciprocated when Churchill died in 1965.

Neither Churchill nor Orwell ended well, however. Orwell's wife died unexpectedly and Orwell's respieratory problems never improved. Churchill likely had a heart attack while visiting the US in 1943 and suffered from extreme fatigue during the war. Losing the 1945 election was a major blow, and his return to the prime ministership from 1951-1955 is best left forgotten. Ricks writes that the relationship between FDR and Churchill is often embellished; they appear to have had little in common other than the common cause of fighting the Nazis. As the war went on, the friendship never really deepened. Churchill, oddly, chose not to attend FDR's funeral in 1945 (perhaps because he was keenly aware of his own mortality) and LBJ reciprocated by not attending or even sending his VP when Churchill died in 1965.

Ricks reviews all of Orwell and Churchill's works, including each of Churchill's WWII memoirs. The author closes the book with a look at modern citations of Orwell, as various political camps claim Orwell for their side, and Ricks offers opinions about whether he was "right" or "wrong" on certain issues. One takeaway is that now America home to a large intelligence state where information is easily collected and housed. We are also in a state of perpetual war, similar to Oceania. Those wars are increasingly fought by small groups of highly-trained soldiers or even remote-controlled drones in far away places. The use of indefinite detention and torture are now almost expected. Hicks interestingly notes that Churchill freed a Nazi sympathizer in 1943 and included his explanation because it was the right thing for free peoples to do in order not to turn into the totalitarian beasts they were fighting (Orwell applauded the move at the time for the same reason). Churchill stated:

"The power of the Executive to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law, and particularly to deny him judgment by his peers for an indefinite period, is in the highest degree odious, and it is the foundation of all totalitarian Governments, whether Nazi or Communist...Nothing can be more abhorrent to democracy than to imprison a person or keep him in prison because he is unpopular. This is really the test of a civilization" (p. 3043).

If you have read Guantanamo Diary, you will definitely agree with this quote.

Somehow, Ricks pulls Martin Luther King, Jr. into his train of thought and the book really concludes awkwardly.

I once lent a copy of Animal Farm to an English student in a former Soviet country where I was working. He was familiar enough with the re-writing of history in his country to appreciate the book, but I never learned if he ever read it. Animal Farm helped me understand the control of thought I saw clearly in the propoganda of Soviet and even post-Soviet textbooks. I started 1984 as a boy but I will now read it quickly and with much more appreciation. (With an understanding of Orwell's personally being plagued by a keen sense of smell and breathing problems.)

I give this book 4 stars out of 5. It is certainly well-researched, but many of the details were unnecessary. Still, these figures and this period are more essential for our time than ever.

The Lie: Evolution by Ken Ham (Book Review #16 of 2017)

The Lie: Evolution by Ken Ham
I read Ham's The Lie and (atheist) Michael Ruse's book Can a Darwinian be a Christian? consecutively. While brushing against the same topics, The Lie is a much shorter read, requires no understanding of biology or philosophy, has more pictures, and contains fewer citations. Between the two, I listened to Amir Aczel's Why Science Does Not Disprove God. All three authors disagree with the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins in different ways. The latter two don't give people like Ham much thought, or mention. For a list of other books I've reviewed on creation, evolution, and the like see the bottom of this post.

The Lie was published in 1987, written before Answers in Genesis became a known entity. Ham speaks mostly of his experience in Australia speaking at churches and schools. 20 percent of the book is Ham relaying letters and anecdotes from Christians who have been encouraged by his work. That self-validating tendency certainly detracts from the book. Ham never really engages with any arguments either in favor of or against Darwinian evolution, any textual criticisms of Genesis, etc. That lends itself to the criticism of Ruse that proponents like Ham "are not fully utilizing their mental faculties." Despite the lack of philosophy in the book, Ham does make some basic points about Darwinism and science that Ruse never really addresses:

"All the evidence a scientist has exists only in the present" (p. 16). Scientists are interpreting, and re-interpreting, what the past looked like based on how they find it. The author uses the example of fossil clusters. Scientists (or maybe museum curators) will tell a story about the animals living and dying together. Ham likes to ask students to justify these explanations based on evidence. Did these animals really interact together, did they look like the scientists have re-constructed their skeletons, including the many pieces they didn't find but guessed about, and did they really die together? Or could the strata have mixed over time? (Dinosaurs from differing eras being found in the "wrong" strata have been an issue for explanation since Darwin's The Origin of Species.) Like Azcel and Ruse, Ham is arguing for epistemological humility-- science cannot prove everything and not everything is knowable. "Neither creation nor evolution can be proven scientifically" (p. 15). "(C)reationists and evolutionists all have the same facts. Therefore, what we are really talking about are different interpretations of these same facts" (p. 16).

Ken Ham would answer Michael Ruse's question of whether a Darwinian can be a Christian with a qualified "yes," because Christianity doesn't ultimately hinge on what one believes about how we were created. It depends on belief in Jesus being God's son, dying for our sins, and being resurrected (p. 40):
"I am not saying that if you believe in evolution you are not a Christian. There are many Christians who, for varying reasons (whether it be out of ignorance of what evolution teaches, pride, or a liberal view of the Scriptures), believe in evolution. Those who do believe in evolution are being inconsistent and, in reality, are destroying the foundations of the gospel message. Therefore, I would plead with them to seriously consider the evidence against the position they hold."

What separates Ham is his choice to be certain that the biblical account of creation is literal and true. Others may not admit that they begin with the assumption that this account is metaphorical and/or false, and some other explanation is true. The author's point is that everyone begins with assumptions regardless of whether he admits it, and rarely thinks to question the paradigm he operates in (Ruse does not admit any of his own assumptions). The logical conclusions of these assumptions cause some problems that expose the adherent's cognitive biases and other dilemmas (p. 22):

"If you are not a Christian, consider these questions: Are you married? Why? Why not just live with someone without bothering to marry? Do you believe marriage is one man for one woman for life? Why not six wives? Or six husbands? What happens if your son comes home and says, 'Dad, I am going to marry Bill tomorrow.'

Would you say, 'You can't do that, son! It's just not done!'"

To the author, the earliest basis for marriage we have comes from Scripture and is found in diverse cultures, along with universal concepts such as clothing, justice, good, evil, etc. If it was simply about biological reproduction and survival, then certainly we should relax any laws or mores accordingly. He notes that anthropologists now search for other explanations for marriage and clothing and he simply finds the Genesis explanation of these the simplest and best starting point.

If an atheist like Ruse holds to a position of "right" and "wrong" on any ultimately moral issue, what is it based on? Ham carries this line of thought further, noting that plenty of atheistic evolutionists have applied theories of "social Darwinism" in methods the rest of the world needs to call evil but lacks a basis for without agreement on what morality is (p.41):
"Sir Arthur Keith, the well-known evolutionist, explains how Hitler was only being consistent in what he did to the Jews—he was applying the principles of Darwinian evolution. In Evolution and Ethics, he said: 'To see evolutionary measures and tribal morality being applied vigorously to the affairs of a great modern nation, we must turn again to Germany of 1942. We see Hitler devoutly convinced that evolution produces the only real basis for a national policy...Such conduct is highly immoral as measured by every scale of ethics, yet Germany justifies it; it is consonant with tribal or evolutionary morality. Germany has reverted to the tribal past, and is demonstrating to the world, in their naked ferocity, the methods of evolution.'”

Ham gives examples of others who have promoted racism via evolution, basically arguing that evolution itself is a racist theory whereas only the biblical account of Creation gives us a reason to respect and appreciate all races-- we're all made in God's image. Ruse would take issue with Ham's cherry-picking of Darwinists. Ruse's work acknowledges Hitler's rebuke of Christians for not acknowledging evolution and its mixed history with Marxism. But Ruse is quick to point out that there are bad-behaving Christians just as there are bad-behaving evolutionists, and one should not judge the bushel by a few bad apples. Besides, Ruse is correct to point out there is a wide spectrum of Darwinians. For Ham, however, they all lead from and to the same place:

"when man is viewed as an arbitrary by-product of Time + Matter + Chance, there is no logical reason for treating men or women as objects of dignity and respect, since in principle they are no different from the animals, trees, and rocks from which they supposedly came" (p. 42).

Ham's audience is really the Church and his ultimate intent and is to warn it against attacks on the Bible from within and without. If people are convinced Genesis is discredited, then they will have no basis for claiming morality or having dignity and respect for their fellow man and they also will misunderstand the Gospel. If you eliminate God from being in control, you eliminate miracles, the resurrection, and Christianity has no purpose (as the Apostle Paul tells you in 1 Corinthians). Critics of the Bible have the same problem as the scientists with the fossil deposits: they're interpreting the past based on the present, all current assumptions and biases included.

To a group who debated him on the issue of Genesis being purely metaphorical (p 56):
"I asked them how they determined what that theological picture was, on what basis did they decide what was the true theological picture, and how could they be sure that their approach to Scripture was the right one? From where did they obtain their authority to approach the Scripture this way? They said it was their study of history and theology over the years that enabled them to decide what was the correct way to approach Scripture and to determine what these symbolic pictures were. I then told them it sounded as though they simply held an opinion as to how to approach Scripture. How did they know it was the right opinion? This is where the conversation abruptly ended. These men want to tell God what He is saying rather than letting God tell them what the truth is. This is the position of many theological leaders."

"Those who believe that God used evolution must believe that the same processes God used in this supposed evolutionary 'creation' are going on today" (p. 65). This creates a dilemma because it still requires a supernatural inexplainable God who is active in the world and its processes, something which the theological leaders above would have a logical dilemma acknowledging.

To Ham, society's decay and the church's decline of influence comes because people have lost faith in the Bible. (He uses the word "infallible" to describe Scripture, which I noted may be a dated use of the term because most evangelicals today only use "inerrant," which is a much stricter meaning.)

Other tidbits of note: Ham holds to a tenseless theory of time, God created time along with the universe (p. 73). (Christian philosopher William Lane Craig, in contrast, argues for the plausibility of God existing with time for all time.) There is an Appendix that gives
"Twenty Reasons Why Genesis and Evolution Do Not Mix."

I grew up reading Ken Ham, hearing him speak, and watching his videos. The Ark Park is about 30 miles north of where I'm writing this. This book is the whole purpose of Answers in Genesis in a nutshell. There is little about the ark or the flood or Ham's various explanations of how events occurred. This book avoids any deep thinking on philosophy, puts forth few answers to various arguments put forth by Darwinists, and does not address details like "was arsenic and other poisonous elements present in soil before sin?" or "Was there weather before sin, and if so how did humans keep warm if they had no clothes and did not kill trees for firewood?" If you're looking for that, you'll find it lacking.

3 stars out of 5.

Other books that contributed to my understanding of this book:
Black Holes and Baby Universes (Stephen Hawking)
The Universe in a Nutshell (Hawking)
The Grand Design (Hawking)
The Hidden Reality (Brian Greene)
The Fabric of the Cosmos (Greene)
The Elegant Universe (Greene)
The God Delusion (Richard Dawkins)
Letter to a Christian Nation (Sam Harris)
Arrival of the Fittest (Andreas Wagner)
Can a Darwinian be a Christian? (Michael Ruse)
The Trouble with Physics (Lee Smolin, arguments against the cult of string theory from a quantum loop gravity physicist.)
The Accidental Universe (Alan Lightman, physicist armchair philosopher who is critical of Dawkins but has his own logical fallacies.)
Randomness in Evolution (John Tyler Bonner, slime mold biologist who argues natural selection is far less important than randomness.)
First Life (David Deamer, mix of astrophysics and biology)
Why Science Does Not Disprove God (Amir Aczel)
I Don't Believe in Atheists (Chris Hedges, also debated Hitchens and Harris; familiar with Aczel's arguments.)
The Quest for Meaning (Great Courses lectures by Dr. Robert H. Kane based on his book The Significance of Free Will. A history of philosophy that also asks what "values" are and has a response to postmodernists who argue nothing has objective value.)
The Reason for God (Tim Keller)
Reasonable Faith (William Lane Craig)

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? by Michael Ruse (Book Review #15 of 2017)

Can a Darwinian Be a Christian?  The Relationship Between Science and Religion by Michael Ruse

I have read a number of books (and listened to a large number of podcasts over the years) ranging from physics to Christian apologetics that overlap with issues in this book. I'd ask the reader not consider my review of this book without first interacting with any number of those I include on the list at the bottom of this review. I bought this for a quarter at a library discard sale.

Ruse is a philosopher who delves in biological philosophy. He got some notoriety in the early 1980s testifying against Arkansas' legislated creation science curriculum, arguing that it was not science. I had read his discussion with Gary Cutting in 2014 about whether evolution explained religious beliefs. He is polite with Richard Dawkins in this book but has been highly critical of him elsewhere.

Even though the author ultimately answers his own question with "absolutely!" the quote isn't really supported by the rest of the book where he provides plenty of qualifications to that statement. The real answer would be "It depends." It depends on what is meant by "Darwinian" and "Christian." Unfortunately, Ruse makes a critical error about Christianity that undermines the entire purpose of his book: One's beliefs on the origins of the earth and biological processes do not determine whether or not one is a Christian. Christianity hinges on the belief that Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected on the third day (Romans 10:9, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 for may be the earliest of Christian creeds). As the Apostle Paul puts it (ESV):

"13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied."

Ruse dances around the resurrection, speaking only of the belief that Jesus died for the world's sins. Everyone dies, it's a biological inevitability. But resurrection requires something that would seem biologically impossible. Once you have a resurrection, then you can begin to work backwards into examining what implications that fact has for history before it. (Plenty of philosophers over the last 2,000 years have written on the rational plausibility of a resurrection given the evidence compared to other events in recorded history we consider to have actually happened.)

Ruse seems to think that Christians believe miracles must be interventions/violations of Natural Law and that God usually leaves everything to follow a pre-designed process. This makes God the galaxy's watchmaker who sometimes intervenes to set the clock. But others of us believe God as the Bible actually describes him-- that even the "natural" processes we see are held together every minute by the Creator (see Colossians 1:17). Water retains its wetness, leaves respire, the earth rotates, because God is at every instant, in every molecule, making it so. Therefore, there are no "miracles" because it is all, at every moment, miraculous. If God can keep water wet, know every sparrow that falls, how much different is it to raise someone from the dead? So, when finches of the same species are separated on different islands and scientists observe how their beaks change over time to accomodate for their available food supply, it may not come as a surprise. Their beaks were always held together by God. When they die of some plague, we understand that that, too, is somehow held together by God in the midst of the effects of sin as a consequence of creation's rebellion against God. Why did God create man He knew would rebel? Because this is His story.

You might scoff at the above paragraph, but my point is that is basic Christian theology that Ruse seems to be unaware of, or perhaps he's confused by Plantinga's explanations of it (p. 104). If he had been, perhaps he wouldn't dismiss fundamentalists of not fulling utilizing their mental faculties, or blame 19th century American evangelicalism for believing in a God who is living and active (p. 57-58). In his book The Lie, Ken Ham (of Answers in Genesis and Ark Park fame) writes that one can be a Darwinian and a Christian, but that the position is untenable once properly examined and understood. "(C)reationists and evolutionists all have the same facts. Therefore, what we are really talking about are different interpretations of these same facts," (Ham, 16). I don't know any Christians, evangelical or otherwise, who disregard the importance of genes and heredity, who disregard that bacteria mutates and evolves such that new medicines have to be developed to kill them, etc. There have been plenty of Christian astrophysicists, biologists, anthropologists, etc. through the centuries with plenty of books written on the subject of the interaction of science with Christian belief. So, I regard Ruse's attempt to say Christians disregard the subject (p. 65-67) as a pure straw man argument.

Really, the scope of this book is too narrow. When dealing with origins you might as well begin with "Why is there something rather than nothing?" Ruse remarks that Darwin intentionally remained silent on the origin of life "And very succesful he was in his strategy" (p. 61). Dawkins and Huxley are far "less reticent" to be forthright on the issue. Having reviewed the astrobiologist David Deamer's book First Life, examining various hypotheses of how life began in the chemical pools of early earth, I am pretty certain there is not much certainty as to how life began (and Ruse acknowledges similarly on p. 64). Ruse admits that if you hold to the demands of "contemporary Darwinism" then "a Darwinian cannot be a genuine Christian" (p. 62). He later claims that "no sound argument has been mounted showing that Darwinism implies atheism," writing that it has been "smuggled in, and then given an evolutionary gloss" (p. 128). Neo-Darwinists have thus been critical of this book on this point. By not addressing the larger question of origins, Ruse's claim that Darwinism does not imply atheism is groundless.

Another example of limiting the scope are Ruse's thoughts on whether Darwinism can embrace the idea of a soul and what Darwinism and Christianity say about contingency. Ruse does some hand-waving on the soul issue (p. 81-82) because he does not want to admit it logically must be a nonsensical concept to a naturalist. Contingency is interesting because "On the Darwinian picture, there is simply no guarantee that human or humanlike createures...would evolve. Indeed, the chances seem slim indeed" (p. 84). Gould credited our existence to "our lucky stars," and Ruse restricts the discussion purely to biology and ignores that string theorists use the multiverse to get around the "lucky" part-- there are bound to be an infinite number of universes worlds with and without humans, even though we cannot test the idea scientifically (see quantum loop gravity proponent Lee Smolin's The Trouble With Physics). Ruse proposes an "Augustinian solution" that God foreknew man would evolve even though there were no guarantees of it. Ruse would adopt a B-theory of tenseless time that God operates outside of. He is really not adding much to the in-house Church debate about God's relationship to time. Again, it misses the larger question-- where did anything, including time, come from? The book refers often to "the job" of natural selection, but why does that process even exist?

Ruse only gets to the question of why anything exists in his Chapter Eight digression on extraterrestrial life. He summarizes Simpson's argument that "There is absolutely no reason to think--and many reasons not to think-- that humans will ever appear again on Earth or an any other planet," positing that the conditions for life are so "unique" as not to be found elsewhere (p. 147). But Ruse never stops to ask "Well, then, why or how do any of us exist?" After saying some Darwinists acknowledge a slim chance of some sort of (likely non-intelligent) life elsewhere, he pivots to theological implications. Again, ignorant of basic biblical theology that the universe is part of creation, is under the same curse of sin, and that all of it "cries out for salvation" because Christ died once for all (Romans 8, Hebrews 10). Hence, the digression is a distraction.

Darwinists are apparently "badly split on the question of whether or not the path of evolution is progressive" (p. 88). There really is nothing in the theory of evolution that says we have to progress. Traits that help us adapt and which survive via selection may cause us all to die when surrounding conditions change (asteroid, climate change, flood, etc.). Those traits may also be sub-optimal so as to create other restrictions on further development. "Internal constraints seem no more directed upwards than downwards" (p. 91). Ruse examines arguments about the genetic "arms race" that would push the species "upwards," but argues philosophically speaking that suggests an unwelcome purpose in developing those traits. Again, Ruse never addresses larger question. How did cells come to realize there was such a thing as sound waves and light waves and that they contained useful information such that receptors were necessary to retrieve that information? This is where Bonner (an atheist himself) would suggest that it requires much more randomness than neo-Darwinists want to admit otherwise it requires either intelligent, purposeful development.

Ruse is forthright: "I think that evolution is a fact and Darwinism rules triumphant...I think that everything applies to humans, thought and action, and that sociobiology is the the best thing to happen to the social sciences in the last century. The kindest thing that can be said for those who that they speak from ignorance."

One of Ruse's goals is to show a "Darwinian range" from Dawkins on the left, to Darwin, Thomas Huxley, Richard Spencer, Richard Lewontin, Stephen J. Gould and others who are much more humble and "deplore the excesses of ultra-Darwinians," including the "old-earth" Christian variety like Alvin Plantinga. (I find it odd that Ruse never mentions William Lane Craig, who knows Ruse and is friends with and has debated several people mentioned in the book on various philosophical issues related to time and the universe. Maybe they were not yet friends.) Each strain of Darwinism has various histories, implications, and controversies and Ruse examines these. That is the real educational value of this book.

"Darwinism" is defined by Ruse "at the most basic level obviously, one is going to accept evolution as fact...A Darwinian has to take natural selection seriously. the most important evolutionary mechanism there is" (P. 28). The author examines ideas predating Darwin and contemporary thought, particularly evolution as a causal force (p. 22-24). He notes that "Darwin did not look upon natural selection simply as a causal force for evolution...Darwin believed that the most fundamental aspect of organisms is their functional complexity. They are not simply thrown together randomly." But, their traits "could not be in any sense guided or directed to the needs of their possessors. In this sense they are 'random.'" This is interesting to me because biologist John Tyler Bonner argues in his book Randomness in Evolution that natural selection is far less important than most evolutionists give it credit for, randomness is far more important. It really is chance mutations, or else the mutations require a consciousness "directed to the needs of their possessors." Ruse does not explain very well that Darwinists admit they do not understand why or how the mutations come about. "A major problem (for Darwin) was that of heredity," until mathematically-inclined biologists showed that "(natural) selection and Mandelian genetics are complementary," thus improving Darwin's theory (p. 26).

Ruse describes the 1940s synthesis of Darwinism and Mendelian genetics. Molecular biology spurred by the discovery/theory of the double helix DNA by Watson and Crick led to even more ideas and discoveries. Follow-up studies on beak sizes in finches, etc. "Now selection pushes things one way, now another" (p. 27). But Ruse doesn't explain how a recessive gene (ex: a short beak after just one year of good rains) becomes predominant again after the environment suddenly has need of it again. Differences on the process of inheritance, apparently, give us the "range of Darwinisms and Darwinians" (ex: allometry, pleiotropy, genetic drift, etc.). Within these there are further subdivisions.

On the ultra-Darwinian/selection-is-everything side are Ronald Fisher and Richard Dawkins. Fisher (1930) "thought that upper-class humans are biologically less fit than the lower classes and that remedial action should be taken. Dawkins (1976) has a theory of 'memes,' analogous to genes, which are supposedly responsible for mental evolution" (p. 29). That certainly ought to give one pause, particularly with how influential Dawkins has become in the popular world.

Then there are those like Lewontin, Gould, and Bonner (above, not mentioned by Ruse) who argue that evolution is mostly random factors or of constraints on development (p. 30). The more ecumenical variety of Darwinist point to evidence of randomness and natural selection but are hesitant about the moral and philosophical implications of natural selection. "Since many of these people, Lewontin especially, work from a Marxist perspective, there is a reluctance to tie humans--particularly consciousness--too firmly to adaptation and selection" (p.30). Ah, so unlike ultra-Darwinists like Fisher who applied natural selection in the form of eugenics, these like Lewontin and Gould "hesitate" because it does not jive with their preferred worldview. Sounds like a paradox to me.

Indeed, in Chapter Ten Ruse explores the implications of Social Darwinism. Herbert Spencer was an Ayn Rand-style libertarian who saw natural selection as a tool to ferret out the weak. John D. Rockefeller likewise applied social Darwinism to to free market competition. Ruse acknowledges that Darwin's ideas were taken up "in Germany in particular...They provided a rationale for the militarism which led to the First World War as well as...communism and national socialism," citing Hitler as well. (Ruse notes Hitler condemned Christianity for its opposition to evolution, p. 175). Ruse displays the mixed relationship between Darwinism and Marxism. Again, Ruse notes that Huxley and others cited moral reasons for combatting such ideology without explaining on what basis those morals came from. On p. 183 he seuggests that "evolution itself gives meaning and confers value," without explaining why this is the case. Truly, evolution really is religion if that is what you believe. Ruse seems to himself assume life has value without explaining on what basis that is true and which life has value. He admits that "one cannot simply equate the natural with the good," but never explains what is "good" and why he believes it exists whereas Dawkins does not (p. 197). In the end, he just concludes that you can find bad-behaving Darwinists just as well as you can find bad-behaving Christians, so there's no need to lump Darwinists in with the Nazis (p. 181).

Consciousness also creates a problem for the Darwinian. Ruse ponders that randomness and survival/selection may explain many of our traits as we developed, but what about those which have evolved now that we're conscious of them, such as language and culture? Ruse warns that "one should not look too strongly for adaptation as the defining and controlling factor in thought and its consequent action." But why not, exactly? Ruse admits there is no good evolutionary explanation for why and how we have abstract thinking or even mathematics and says it is a "serious question" (noting it comes from Polkinghorne, 122-124). Ruse dismisses any relevance to the argument simply because he doesn't think Christians have a better one. "Why should the Darwinian not also hold that there is a world of nonphysical reality, which likewise may or may not have an ultimate explanation?" (p. 124). Well, because as Ruse wrote early on, modern Darwinists are naturalists, and therefore must logically reject "nonphysical reality."

Ruse is not the first writer to give an evolutionary anthropological reason for the rise of religion. Religion is something that helps us make sense of the world and gives us a tribe with which to survive. But the title of this book is not about religion, it's about Christianity. Other religions aren't based exclusively on the claim that a man died and rose to life again, as Christianity is. Christians would be eager to explain to Ruse how religion is about making one's self right with God, whereas Christianity teaches that it is impossible to make ourselves right with God.

Ruse's pondering of "If God is so good, then why do bad things happen?" also remind me of the Apostle Paul's illustration of the pot criticizing his creator and refusing to heed his own advice about being humble about what one knows. While he acknowledges that there is nothing that suggests evolution is progressive, he doesn't stop to acknowledge in his criticism of God that things could be so much worse. In dealing with the problem of pain and evil (p. 129), he never explains on what basis he is able to call something "evil." He correctly understands that "Dawkins's conclusion is not that there is an evil God or gods...but rather that there is all means nothing." He shares Dawkins' quote on how evil is fiction to a Darwinist (p. 131):

"In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason it it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A.E. Houseman put it:
'For Nature, heartless witless Nature
Will neither know nor care'

DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music."

Ruse is apparently unwilling to accept this but never explains why. Perhaps because it leads back to the question of how we can justify any laws in our society or judge anyones actions if there is no such thing as "right/wrong, good/evil." In a couple places in the book, Ruse hints that he has cheated on his wife sexually. This is forgiven since evolution has tilted the human species toward mass reproduction. Ruse then writes that it would be "bad" if everyone behaved this way toward every woman because it would certainly threaten peace and create general chaos. But that begs a Nietczhean response--how about if I do it and am strong enough to prevent you from also doing it? As Dawkins says "some are going to get hurt," and that isn't bad, it's just DNA. Unaddressed by Ruse is the question that if we are all just a collection of random molecules and our consciousness is an illusion created by firing synapses, then why should I be concerned if I simply scatter someone else's molecules into other uses? I'm reminded of the physicist and quasi-philosopher Alan Lightman who writes about the dilemma he faces because he loves his daughter and got emotional walking her down the aisle before remembering that she was just molecules that would one day be spread back to the galaxy. You'll find no solutions or even serious examination of this dilemma in this book. At this point, Ruse as a philosopher is quite disappointing. For starters, I recommend Robert H. Kane's The Quest for Meaning (Great Courses lectures available) as Kane offers a complete history of philosophy that asks what "values" are and has a response to postmodernists and neo-Darwinists who argue nothing has objective value. Because of this, his entire Chapter Nine on Christian Ethics is meaningless.

Ruse takes on both Alvin Plantinga and Michael Behe's arguments that naturalism is self-refuting or that Darwinism collapses on itself (p. 106). Plantinga writes that if naturalism is true, then there is no reason why our reasoning or or cogniion should lead us to truths, a concern Darwin allegedly in old age (p. 107). Ruse argues that "it was in selection's interest to make us think that causes really do exist as entities, and so we do," and that the psychological self-delusion we do document is also illustrative of mechanisms that have developed via natural selection to help us cope and survive. Similarly, design proponents argue that an eye is designed to see similarly to how a telescope is designed to see. Something cannot have a purpose unless it was designed for that purpose. Ruse refers to Dawkins' "blind watchmaker" argument which lays it out starkly: "Natural selection...has no purpose in mind" (p. 113). Dawkins, of course, demands to know who created God, rejecting Anselm's argument that God is the ultimate necessary being. At least physicists like Brian Greene seem to admit that without Anselm's argument you end up in an infinite regress.

Ruse challenges Behe's argument about "irreducible complexity," meaning that systems like eyesight are too complex to have evolved randomly by piecemeal and that eliminating or adding any single part of the system would destroy it, including any random mutations that are the driver of natural selection. Ruse uses an example from biochemistry, the Krebs cycle, to "trample" Behe's argument (p. 116-118). The Krebs cycle is the result of other independent biological processes that were eventually "co-opted for the new end." Besides pointing out some logical problems in Behe's hypothesis, Ruse challenges Behe's idea that "nearly four billion years ago the designer made the first cell, already containing all of the irreducibly complex biochemical systems" (Behe, 227). Ruse asks why, if Behe believes in some form of evolution over those millions of years, did none of those traits get eliminated over time, even by random mutation? "Why does the designer throw around such misleading clues?" (p. 119). Ruse makes an interesting point here that I need to consider further. But Ruse seems unwilling to extend to Behe the same charity he extended Darwin-- we don't judge people's hypotheses on whether all of them are proven true, but only on whether some are proven true. Ruse also examines Dembsky's "explanatory filter" as something that allows one to ascribe to natural selection all the bad things in life and to God all the good.

I found the best question Ruse asked of Christians is what exactly life was like before the Fall. Was there weather or seasons? If there were seasons, how did naked people keep warm? If they made fires, wouldn't that require dead wood and therefore death? What was in the soil? Arsenic is a poison but also an essential part of soil. Did poison like arsenic exist in soil before the fall? These are interesting challenges. I find myself thinking maybe "gap theorists" have plausible answers but those are generally rejected as heterodox.

To Ruse, the greatest advancement that evolution has given us is sociobiology--psychological explanations of why we behave the way we do, why we observe altruism, how morals evolved, etc. In his view the Ten Commandments are "commonsense" prescriptions for morality. It's interesting he omits the rest of the Law, which Jews have long held in as high esteem as the Ten Commandments. One need look only at the context of the Law versus what was practiced by Egypt and others. Burying the dead, washing when unclean, not drinking blood, etc. were radical departures from what other societies were doing and were later proven good ideas by modern science, particularly during periods such as the bubonic plague in Europe. Ruse at this point strikes me as the college sophomore in a religion class who suddenly thinks he knows everything about which he comments. In his remarking about sin, and the struggle against sin, he cites Romans 7-- Paul's struggle against his flesh. But he omits Paul's words about the Spirit. In Ruse's mind there is no SPirit, so it's simply a flesh vs. flesh value. Again, he has no understanding of what it means to be a Christian and desires not to take Paul's instructions on those points.

Ruse's concluding polite warning to modern Darwinists is to be humble:
"We do not have powers which will necessarily allow us to peer into the ultimate mysteries. If nothing else, these reflections should give us a little modesty about what we can and cannot know, and a little humility before the unknown" (p. 219). (Amir Azcel's work Why Science Does Not Disprove God echoes this point.) I give this book three stars, namely because the author gives plenty of other works to read and I learned a lot about the history of Darwinism.

Other books that contributed to my understanding of this book:
Black Holes and Baby Universes (Stephen Hawking)
The Universe in a Nutshell (Hawking)
The Grand Design (Hawking)
The Hidden Reality (Brian Greene)
The Fabric of the Cosmos (Greene)
The Elegant Universe (Greene)
The God Delusion (Richard Dawkins)
Letter to a Christian Nation (Sam Harris)
Arrival (Andreas Wagner)
The Trouble with Physics (Lee Smolin, arguments against the cult of string theory from a quantum loop gravity physicist.)
The Accidental Universe (Alan Lightman, physicist armchair philosopher who is critical of Dawkins but has his own logical fallacies.)
Randomness in Evolution (John Tyler Bonner, slime mold biologist who argues natural selection is far less important than randomness.)
First Life (David Deamer, mix of astrophysics and biology)
Why Science Does Not Disprove God (Amir Aczel)
I Don't Believe in Atheists (Chris Hedges, also debated Hitchens and Harris; familiar with Aczel's arguments.)
The Quest for Meaning (Great Courses lectures by Dr. Robert H. Kane based on his book The Significance of Free Will. A history of philosophy that also asks what "values" are and has a response to postmodernists who argue nothing has objective value.)
The Reason for God (Tim Keller)
Reasonable Faith (William Lane Craig)
The Lie (Ken Ham)

Saturday, May 27, 2017

How paper-bound books slow our productivity growth. (ie: Why I hate reading books on paper.)

My New Year's resolution for 2017 was to not buy any more books until I'd read and reviewed all of the accumulated unread hard copy books on my shelves, and keep those books at the front of the reading line. This is not an easy task, due almost entirely to the cumbersome nature of reading hard copy. Given how much more time it takes me to read a hard copy book than on an e-reading app I'm convinced that people's reluctance to move away from hard copy is slowing world productivity growth.

1. Doing anything else while reading is almost impossible with a physical book. With an e-reader, I can keep both hands free, except when I want to turn a page. I can enjoy a cup of tea, lunch, or type while I e-read. But just to keep a physical book open to free up your hands, it has to be weighted by something against the binding. Observe, I have to use chip clips and such to do this job:

When it comes time to turn the page, I have to use both hands to re-clip your place. Then, I can go back to eating and reading. 

2. Looking up references is much harder on a physical book. Kindle books are hyperlinked so you tap the citation or reference and it immediately takes you to that page, then you go back in one tap. With hard copy, you have to hold your place and find the reference, it takes ten times as long.

3. Highlighting and note-taking are much harder on a physical book than an e-reader. You just drag your finger across the screen and highlight, or type a note without having to carry a pen. Google automatically saves your notes in a Google Doc, and Amazon saves your highlights for easy reference or copying into Evernote later using a browser tool. You can easily search these by keyword, tag them, etc.

The ease of making highlights, taking notes, changing font size and color, and turning the page on an e-reader. 
With a book, if you highlight or write in it you've ruined it. Odds are extremely high you will never look at your book or highlights again, why keep the book in the first place when you can sell or donate it? Plus, you have to do the time-consuming task of finding the highlight you wanted.

This is how I have to handle note-taking in hard copy. Either by snapping a picture of the page or putting in a post-it note to mark the page, and jotting down my note on the post-it:

This takes much more than ten times as long to study and be useful as it does with an e-reader.

4. You can't adjust the font, the size, the color, or read in low light with a hard copy book. This is just a no-brainer. Why not modify the book to maximize your utility from reading it?

5. You can't easily look up a quote in a hard-copy book. It's as simple as searching on an e-reader.

6. You can't carry hundreds of books with you wherever you go. The brilliance of e-reading is that I can sit at the gate in the airport and keep reading a book on my Android phone that I started reading on my iPad at the breakfast table. If that book reminds me of a previous book, I can easily look that up on the same device.

7. You can't automatically buy an option for an audio version of a hard copy book. Many Kindle books have audio versions available for a small percentage of the purchase price. I rarely listen to a book via this route, but it's an option I like.

We're all worse off by reading physically bound books for the reasons above. Most of the books on my shelf are all unavailable in e-reader format (I've checked), and others were really cheap deals $2 at Goodwill versus $9.99 for a Kindle (and unavailable through the local library's e-reading selection). While there are a few exceptions, there are not many. What do you think? If you're one of those people who is eagerly cheering on paper books to make a comeback, why are you doing so?

Friday, May 26, 2017

Rome Enters the Greek East by Arthur M. Eckstein (Book Review #14 of 2017)

Rome Enters the Greek East: From Anarchy to Hierarchy in the Hellenistic Mediterranean 230-170 BC

The author is writing primarily for an academic audience but the book is accessible by anyone with knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome as well as anyone familiar with modern theroies on foreign relations and diplomacy. The author is attempting to use modern theories of international relations to examine this era in Greco-Roman history. Eckstein argues strongly against modern revisionist histories that take a cynical view of Rome's involvement in the Macedonian Wars. Eckstein argues that the intervention, and Roman interaction with surrounding nation-states at that time, were not with the goal of becoming a great empire. That only came later, after 170BC. As an American under 40, I thought about a parallel with America around WWI, and indeed the author explicitly mentions the parallel late in the book (he makes some statements about modern theories on whether America's influencing is declining or not as well, but modern parallels are not found throughout the book.) Eckstein's arguments are founded on the reliability of the ancient historian Polybius (~200-117 BC), and Eckstein defends Polybius from modern scholars who discard or neglect his work. I found the author's arguments and evidence to be convincing.

This is not my field of study, however. My knowledge of this period of Mediterranean history come primarily from Freeman's Egypt, Greece, and Rome; Kagan's The Peloponnesian War; Price and Thonemann's History from Troy to Augustine; Edith Hamilton's The Greek Way; Miles' Carthage Must Be Destroyed; the Bible and various books and commentaries related to its surrounding history; and travels around Rome visiting museums and such.

Modern students of history may fail to appreciate that the ancient Greek states were not united, they existed in a state of pre-diplomatic "anarchy." Mediterranean states did not communicate well with one another, had no formal embassies, and none had institutions capable of long-term planning, including the Roman Senate. But the peoples of the nations traded (the details of which the author does not delve into), often spoke the same languages and shared cultural similarities, and entered into strategic alliances upon necessity. The second Macedonian War, in particular, was a remarkable circumstance that united states in order to take on would-be conquerors aspiring to be the next Alexander the Great.

The Roman political system created an incentive for making constant war-- one could only be a Senator if he had served at least 10 years in the army or served in a certain number of campaigns. But wars were also costly, and there was much recorded debate in the Senate about Rome's ability to pay its previous war debts, much less new ones, if it entered into the Second Macedonian War. Eckstein is concerned with how Rome transformed into the dominant player in the region and how it began communicating with the Greek East, marking what the author feels is an essential part of the history of the development of formal international relations.

From 232-229, Rome felt primarily threatened by invading Celts. Occupation of territory was largely about creating a larger hedge against invasion. The Punic Wars against Carthage were fought in the period covered, but are not the focus. Eckstein examines the Ilyrian Wars of 229 and 219, arguing that Rome's primary concern was combatting piracy. Even though the Roman army ventured across the Adriatic, it did not establish permanent territories there. The author notes this constant withdrawing of forces after peace is won as evidence of Rome not harboring the ambitions that modern historians claim for it. Romany protectorates within the Ilyrian areas are "unlikely," a proper understanding of "philia," friendship, mentioned in the Roman annals does not imply protectorates. There is no formal record of a treaty alliance with the Pharians, but Rome was clear it did not want Demetrius of Pharos involved in piracy. Demetrius and Pharos were defeated by Rome in 219, but again Rome did not maintain a troop presence there.

The Macedonian encouragement of Demetrius created anxiety in Rome. In 215, Hannibal of Carthage and Philip V of Macedonia join in an alliance where Philip V will invade Rome while Rome is fighting Carthage. Rome is able to route Philip and Macedonia but still does not seem to harbor territorial ambitions, allowing Philip V to keep his place. Philip made war on the Aetolian League which was allied with Rome, having much success and forcing a peace in 206 and ending the First Macedonian War. Philip was acknowledged victor but had had to renounce alliance with Hannibal. Evidence suggests that Greece was also concerned about growing Roman power during this period. Greek states worked to end the Macedonian-Italian war before Rome could invade Greek space.

Scholars differ on the causes of the Second Macedonian War, and apparently the author's hypothesis is somewhat novel but he defends his case. The crisis of 200 BC was spurred by the collapse of the Ptolemeic dynasty in Egypt and a battle for control after the King died and left a child on the throne. Philip V and Antiochus III were eager to expand into that vaccuum. Philip V was brutal, ambitious, and treacherous. He was matched in these characteristics by Antiochus III of the Seleucid Dynasty. The author goes to great lengths to defend Polybus' record of events, including a treaty in Polybius 16.1 that was between Antiochus and Philip, which others have claimed did not exist or that Polybius was somehow confused about. Eckstein argues forcefully for the ancient record.  At this time, Rhodes was concerned about the pact and sent a delegation to the Roman Senate asking for help. Rhodes attacked Philip V while he was engaged in the Ptolemeic territories. Alexandria/the Ptolemeys and Athens also asked Rome for help. Athens declared war in 200. Rome tried but failed to get Aetolia to join the alliance.

Rome succeeded in defeating Philip's forces and the Second Macedonian War ended with a settlement in 196. Even so, the author notes, there were no Romans east of the Adriatic. The "freedom of the Greeks" was won and their territories liberated. Rome took some of Antiochus' land and held influence over other polities, but largely everything was the pre-war status quo. But the Ptolemeic Dynasty continued its decline and in 193 Aetolia sought an alliance with Antiochus against Rome. Antiochus began agitating and seeking empire again in 192, invading European Greece. The Seleucid Empire already stretched from the Adriatic to Afghanistan and Antiochus' ambitions were a major threat to Rome, along with Hannibal and Carthage. Thus the Rome-Seleucid war begain in 192. Eckstein writes that while Rome may have led the coalition, it clearly respected and relied upon other Greek states like Rhodes. When the war ended in 188, the Seleucids lost Asia Minor and faced huge sanctions and indemnity. But Rome, again, did not seize territory. While Rome got stronger, so did second-tier states.

The end of the book contains some modern ruminations on America. The US joined its allies in WWI and played an important part, but chose not to maintain military bases, never joined the League of Nations, and did not seek to maintain an empire, unlike England and France in North Africa and the Middle East. The author examines various modern theories of nation-states. Is unipolarity easy or difficult to maintain? Scholars differ. Once Rome eventually had an empire, it began to collapse. Modern scholars note that the US had a unipolar position after the collapse of the USSR, but its decline seems to have come relatively quickly as other nations (China, for example) have grown.

The point of the book is that before 150 BC, Rome's actions weren't about Empire. Evidence suggests that the Senate had no interest in taking on burdens it could not bear, Rome withdrew troops after successful battles abroad, and Rome santioned its enemies like Antiochus III but did not take much territory. It was only after 150 BC that Rome started to curb the Greek states from rising further and threatening the growing power of Rome.

I learned much about Greco-Roman history and the various wars and politics from 230-170 BC. The author defends his thesis well for a broad enough audience. 4 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Jimmie Johnson by Bill Fleischman (Book Review #13 of 2017)

Jimmie Johnson by Bill Fleischman
This small book was published in 2006 as part of the Race Car Legends series, but was mostly written in 2004 since it does not contain Jimmie's first title in 2005 (except an updated chart in the back). It is a decent summary of articles on Johnson and interviews with the author over his early NASCAR career. I started following NASCAR and became a #48 fan in the 2006 season.

The book is a good reminder that before Jimmie won his first of six consecutive titles in 2005 he finished runner-up in 2004. He was so close to having seven consecutive, and eight overall. There was information on Jimmie's early career that I didn't know much about. His parents supported his racing career, first on dirk bikes, so long as he maintained a B average. There is a story about a time in 1995 when Jimmie was competing in a 1,000 mile baja desert endurance truck race, one that could go 24-48 hours. Jimmie fell asleep at the wheel and crashed, destroyed the vehicle, and knocked his co-driver unconscious. He apparently spent a day hanging out with Spanish-speaking spectators until he could be rescued. I had not heard this story, but I found a slightly different version of it on this website that better chronicles his brief desert truck-racing career. (The website article says Jimmie was dominating the race at the time of the crash.)

I found it interesting that at some point in the 2004 season Jimmie briefly held the status of being considered a dirty driver, now he's considered all-class. Through his wreck in Baja to coming up through the ranks to seven championships and an active Iron Man/biker/skiier the book is a reminder of how much Jimmie has grown and matured. 3 stars.

Friday, May 12, 2017

How We Got the Bible by Neil Lightfoot (Book Review #12 of 2017)

How We Got the Bible: Revised and Expanded 3rd Edition

I was anticipating reading several different books covering the same topic, but this book offers such a detailed overview that I feel there is little need. I made over 300 notes and highlights, according to Google. It made me want to read other books to get the details on stories like the adventure of discovering the Siniatic codex in the 19th century, or Tyndale's martyrdom for helping make the Bible available in English. Lightfoot's work might also motivate you to learn koine Greek. I read this book as a 37 year old Christian, really I should have read it when I was 17 (although the most updated edition has the newest research). Since the Bible is of the utmost of importance to the believer, and the object that comes the most heavily under attack, this ought to be one of the first books a new Christian should read, or even a skeptical non-Christian who has misconceptions about forgeries and manuscript evidence. There is much more to this book, but here are some of my major takeaways:

Lightfoot first covers the progression of written text in the ancient world from tablets and pottery shards to papyrii, rolled forms, and codices. He explains the difference between the biblical uncials, miniscules, and papyrus fragments we have today. He gives a decent history of the most important complete manuscripts: Vatican (4th century), Siniatic, and Alexandrian (5th century), Ephraem palimpset manuscript, and Codex Bezae. He explains how they differ, how translators compare the various versions, and the intricacies of translating words that may be spelled the same in Greek or have one character difference. Many of these texts have only been made available since the late 1800s, with other fragments and papyrii discovered regularly, and Lightfoot explains how they certainly help modern translations be close to original autographs. Most fragments and manuscripts discovered can be placed in a "family tree" of manuscripts, even though no two manuscripts are exactly alike. There are still early manuscripts in Syriac, Armenian, and others being examined.

What is remarkable about the Bible, particularly the New Testament, is both the ubiquity of copies and how similar they are to one another, despite none being identical. While there may be more than 200,000 known scribal errors amongst the manuscripts and fragments, that is because there are over 20,000 such pieces including 5,300 manuscripts of a great many words and pages. There are no other works of history with nearly as many manuscript copies. That they are increasingly discovered of early dates and relatively distant places indicate the early writing of the originals. Arguments of 19th century for late dates of authorship have been undermined by the sheer number of discoveries and remarkable alikeness.

Lightfoot makes a comparison:
"The history of Thucydides, for example, which was written about 400 B.C., is available today on the basis of eight manuscripts, while the few books that remain of the Roman historian Tacitus (c. A.D. 100) have survived on the margin of two manuscripts. Copies of Thucydides are thus about 1,300 years later than the date of their original composition, yet no effort is made to discount these copies in spite of such a wide interval of time."

There is also a look at the "apocryphal" books, what they are, how they have been used in church history and more. Evidence suggests strongly that Shepherd of Hermas and other books may have been used in early church worship services while not being considered authoritative, similar to how a pastor might read portions of an extrabiblical book to assist with a sermon today.  I agree with Lightfoot that every Christian should read 1 Maccabees for help in understanding Palestinian geography and politics in Jesus' day. He explains clearly how the canon was formed and the reader can draw conclusions for himself about what did not happen, namely some group of men decided which books to keep and which to burn like skeptics might wrongly state.

The author gives a good treatment of how the Bible got to English. He details Jerome's Latin translation and its various issues and how that "official" version became the basis for other translations. How we got chapters and verses in the 12th century. How Tyndale was the first to translate the New Testament into English from available Greek manuscripts (Erasmus' third edition of the Greek). Lightfoot explains how earlier manuscript discoveries give strong evidence against the inclusion of a verse like 1 John 5:7, because only later manuscripts than ones mentioned above have that verse. Erasmus used what was available to him, as did Tyndale, as did later translators like the officially-sanctioned King James Version. Now we have even more available to us, and more non-koine Greek and Semitic-language finds and scholarship that have helped shed light on the meaning of koine-Greek words.

While I focus on the New Testament, the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint's history is also a remarkable story in itself. Lightfoot explains what we know about various schools of Jewish scribes and how they would meticulously count the letters in a manuscript copy and re-check it to count its accuracy. He demonstrates what's so great about the Dead Sea Scrolls in that they thus far show that between the thousand years of the first available Hebrew manuscript little has changed from the first century and before.

I live in a town with several King-James-Only churches. I was interested to learn of how some of the earliest Calvinist Pilgrims in America clung to the Geneval Bible rather than the King James. Lightfoot gives examples of translation problems in all of the English translations he examines, and does not single out the King James for criticism. But after reading of the methods of literary criticism and translation I am baffled at how anyone could claim a 17th century English text as the only authoritative one. Lightfoot encourages readers to check out the foreword in the KJV that is often not reprinted today, where the translators give their official statement as to why the translation was necessary and show that, logically, further updates and translations would always be necessary as languages change and more scholarship is done on more recent manuscript finds.

This is a five star book, highly recommend.