Archive for May, 2006

Links

Ebon Musings is a collection of atheist essays; came across this a couple of months ago, and it’s one of the best such collections I’ve seen.

And a link that I found today from one of those essays, A Brief History of the Apocalypse, is a catalogue of predictions of the end of the world. Mark 13:32 is open to interpretation, apparently.

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Self-awareness

This post has a few points. Firstly, I’m still here. The site hasn’t fallen into disuse just yet. (Of course, at the moment I think there are approximately two people for whom the response is other than “I didn’t know you were here”; but I suspect that to stop posting now is not a logical way to change that situation.)

Secondly, and somewhat related, I guess there comes a point in the existence of a blog when you realise that real, physical people are actually looking at it and reading what you write. Not many, but some. And a subset of those are people you know personally. (Particularly if you get a plug from a friend’s site, and you know quite a few of the same people.) There’s nothing deeply surprising about this; I don’t know all that many people without regular easy access to this cyber-interweb thingy. But it makes you stop and think about the actual purpose of broadcasting your thoughts to the world. Especially if major things have happened recently in your life that not everyone knows. (Like, say, becoming an atheist.)

I’m not really trying to make any kind of concrete point out of this; but I’m curious whether it is actually a common thing that happens to everyone who starts up a personal blog.

This has been an indulgent navel-gazing session. Thank you for reading.

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Billboard Heckler – Consider Baptism

I’ve been thinking about making this (the billboard commentary, that is, not burning down Barney’s) a regular thing. This was on the billboard of the Castle Hill Christadelphian Church yesterday (I went back for a photo but they’d changed it by then):

CONSIDER…
BAPTISM REALLY MATTERS
MATTHEW 28:19-20

Never one to shy away from a challenge, I considered whether baptism really matters.

Christadelphians believe, among other things, that baptism by full immersion in water is an essential part of salvation. It’s a topic of great interest to me, because the International Churches of Christ, to which I used to belong, believe much the same thing. This was probably the single biggest cause of doctrinal disputes with other Christian denominations. (As opposed to accusations of authoritarian and insular cult-like behaviour, which weren’t so much criticisms of core beliefs, and which the church has at any rate grown out of in the last few years, to some degree.)

You could be forgiven for wondering how something that amounts to not much more than a quick dip in the pool could become a core doctrinal focus. The short answer is that those who insist it is essential to salvation necessarily imply that anyone who doesn’t practice baptism is on their way to hell. Add to this the disagreement over whether it is a sprinkling, a pouring or full immersion, and whether it should be done at infancy or at a later age when the person can make an informed decision, and the result is plenty of opportunity for Christian infighting.

But what does the bible, the rock-solid standard of Christian beliefs, say about baptism? As mentioned on the billboard, the case for the support of baptism starts with Matthew 28:19-20 – baptism is mentioned as part of Jesus’ “Great Commission”. The next step chronologically is Acts 2:37-41, where Peter lists baptism as one of the two requirements to join the new movement that accepts Jesus as the Messiah. Baptism is defined as dunking in water by reference to the Greek word which literally means “to immerse”, with support from Acts 8:36-39. Acts 22:16 links baptism with cleansing sins, and finally 2 Peter 3:20-21 says outright that baptism saves you.

The argument that baptism isn’t necessary comes from a few different angles. Acts 8:15-16 suggests that people had been baptised (or baptized – American readers must forgive my spelling) without having received the Holy Spirit, which is clearly linked to salvation elsewhere. Acts 10:47 makes the opposite point, that the Holy Spirit can be received without baptism. Matthew 3:11 seems to say that the baptism Jesus taught would not involve water, but would be a direct intervention by the Holy Spirit – and (so the argument goes) this spiritual baptism is what 1 Peter 3:20-21 refers to, “not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God.” Salvation can not be based on your actions, according to Ephesians 2:8-9. If water baptism is required for salvation, what happened to the criminal who was crucified next to Jesus in Luke 23:40-43? How could he have been baptised on a cross? Finally, the argument appeals simply to the absurdity of someone reaching the gates of heaven, having devoted their life to Jesus, only to be turned back because they hadn’t had a bath. And fair enough.

Similar arguments could also be outlined for infant baptism, the concept of an “outward sign of inward grace”, Pentecostal “baptism of the Holy Spirit” leading to miraculous signs such as speaking in tongues, and so on. And an apologist for any one of these positions would be able to make a case against any of the others. My point is not to deny that a coherent interpretation exists. Rather, my point is that there are multiple coherent interpretations. Each of them relies on a specific interpretation of certain key verses and some assumptions about the context of other verses. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. But if you were to get two apologists for two different positions and lock them in a room until they come to a consensus, the odds are high that they would both starve to death.

I would like to propose an idea that could settle this once and for all. Under this new proposition, all of the aforementioned verses can be taken at face value. I believe it has the potential to unite all of the varied opinions about biblical baptism, and put an end to the spilling of massive amounts of ink (and quite possibly blood) over this debate. And I’m going to reveal it here, on this blog. Are you ready? Here it is.

The bible simply isn’t clear on the subject.

The New Testament was written by various people over the course of at least forty years, and it’s not totally surprising that on some of the finer details, they didn’t quite get their story straight. I propose that we don’t need to do their work for them. The writer of 1 Peter believed that baptism, in some form, saves you; the writer of Galatians said that no work can be the basis of salvation; the writer of Acts either changed what he believed over time, or referred to different types of baptism in different places without making it clear which is which. Possibly none of them thought that it mattered much – no one would be pedantic enough to have to debate the fine underlying details of a ritual that was well-accepted at the time, especially coming out of the smorgasboard of God-pleasing rituals that was Judaism. I think this is a much better fit for the message that we have actually been given.

Of course, the issue with this is that it doesn’t fit well with the bible being God’s perfectly inspired message to mankind. I think this is the fundamental source of the problem. Christians demand consistency from a book that is not consistent, and the result is an array of denominations that differ on more or less every point of doctrine. I’ve tried to make this point using the example of baptism; the same could be done with Jesus’ divinity, whether salvation is by faith or works, predestination, the duration of hell, whether God is loving or vengeful, the time and nature of Jesus’ return, the structure of church leadership, and even what it means for scripture to be “inspired”. (I reserve the right to do so in future.)

I’m convinced that the only way to fulfil Christians’ preconception that the bible is without error is with methods of interpretation so loose that a passage can be found to support any opinion, and therefore it might as well support none.

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Sudoku hits

For anyone who’s looking for my online sudoku solver, it’s here.

To anyone who got here from the sudoku solver… well, hi. :)

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X-Men: The Last Stand

See it. Don’t argue, just see it. It’s gratuitous, over-the-top, absurd and everything else a comic book adaptation should be.

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Happy birthday to me

I was baptised in the name of Jesus Christ on the 26th of May, 1999. That would make today my seventh spiritual birthday.

For those who are new here (which would be most people – this site has only been up for a couple of weeks), I stopped believing in God sometime last year. Needless to say, today doesn’t hold the kind of significance it used to. But it’s as good an opportunity as any to reflect on the things that I’ve learnt in the last seven years. So here we go.

  • There is a Bible verse that can be used to make any point you could ever want to make, and another verse (often from the same book) to make the opposite point.
  • From Monday to Saturday, people say that the Sunday service should be a time of worship, to have fellowship with God, and to get their joy and inspiration from Him, not from the words of mere men. On Sunday, the buck stops with the preacher and songleaders.
  • Hearing or reading a convincing argument against what you believe is very stressful. Christians tend to avoid this by reading only Christian books.
  • If someone has an idea of what they’re supposed to want in order to appear spiritual, they’ll pray for it. If someone actually wants something to happen, they’ll do it themselves and pray for God to bless it.
  • Any outcome can be interpreted as an answered prayer.
  • The human mind is capable of believing almost anything.

This is just a random selection of thoughts; it’s not intended to be a well-reasoned argument. I might try to expand of some of this more coherently at some time in the future. But for now, you’ll just have to deal with wild unsubstantiated statements; after all, it’s my birthday.

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Aussie Aussie Aussie

Just got home for the last ten minutes of the Austrlia v Greece friendly leading up to the World Cup. Australia 1-0. I, for one, am surprised. But in a good way.

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Losing Faith in Faith

Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist is pretty much what the subtitle suggests – Dan Barker, a Christian evangelist for 19 years, did some study with the intention of deepening his faith and came to the conclusion that there was nothing there. The book is a collection of articles he wrote, mostly as Public Relations Director of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (of which he is now co-president), interspersed with lyrics of songs he has written.

I’ll say up front that I loved it. But any book like this has two completely different audiences: those who agree with its conclusions, and those who don’t. Many apologetics-style books (I’m mainly thinking of Christian apologetics, but it applies to all sides) do a good job of propping up the faith (or lack thereof) of a reader who already agrees with the author, but offer nothing to a reader who disagrees. A really successful book should maintain the reader’s interest and offer a robust argument even when the reader and author believe diametrically opposite things. This is a big challenge, and one that many authors avoid by assuming (often correctly) that someone who disagrees with them is unlikely to pick up the book in the first place.

The reason I’m talking about this is that a few people (Amazon reviews and the like) have recommended this as a book to suggest to Christians as a solid case against religion (as opposed to a resource to digest but not actually pass on in its entirety). It would certainly be interesting to see how a Christian would respond to it. However, I’m not sure that the format of the book is tight enough to present a strong, coherent argument when read on its own.

The first two sections, “Losing Faith” and “Finding Freethought”, cover the story of Barker’s Christian ministry and deconversion, the responses from people who knew him, anecdotes about his interactions with various people, and some mild attacks on the sillier parts of religion and guidelines for arguing against it. I was fascinated by this part of the book, because so much of it meshed with my own experience. However, it’s fairly light on actual reasoned argument, and a Christian reading it could easily get the impression that the whole book is going to be a content-free mockery of religion. The song lyrics scattered throughout the book don’t do much to help this impression.

Having said that, the book does gradually settle into the meat of the discussion, and the third and fourth sections in particular level some very solid attacks against the Bible and Christian doctrines. It does suffer a bit from being a collection of self-contained articles rather than a coherent whole – in particular it mentions the same material quite frequently (I lost count of the number of references to 2 Kings 2:23-24). But that also makes it possible to open the book to any chapter and start reading.

To any non-Christian looking for a source of material to use in religious discussions, or just wanting to hear a genuinely interesting story about someone who got out of the deepest grip and highest rank of Christianity, I would recommend this book without hesitation. To a Christian, I would still recommend it (if you’re willing to have your beliefs come under fire), but take the first couple of sections with a grain of salt. Maybe read chapters 1 and 2, then skip to the third section (chapter 21) for some real meat.

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Go the Blues

NSW wins State of Origin 1 17-16. Just had to mention it.

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Lovedale Long Lunch

Tina and I have a tradition of going to the Lovedale Long Lunch in the Hunter Valley. (That is to say, we went for the second time this year. How many times do you have to do something to make it a tradition?) Basically you buy a wine glass, and at each of seven participating wineries you can buy your choice of two meals and get your glass filled up. Or you can get dessert, or you can just do some wine tasting and listen to the entertainment that most of the wineries provide for the day. To be honest, the queues are long, the meals are expensive, and you struggle to find somewhere to sit; but there’s something indulgent about it that makes it worthwhile. And if you’re driving (as I was), you have to take your time and stay at each place for an hour or so just to be able to get around legally.

We just went up for the Saturday, and more or less made up our route as we went.

Capercaillie

Not actually one of the participating wineries, but Tina loves their Dessert Style Gewurztraminer, a very light lychee-like affair. We got four bottles of that and a 2004 Ceilidh Shiraz.

Allandale

The same place we started last year. We both had the “Persian style lamb shank, on caramelised onion and potato mash” – normally we try to do the couple thing of getting different meals and sharing, but this was too much for either of us to resist. This went with their 2003 Shiraz, which I scribbled down as “coffee, dark berries, white pepper”.

Wandin Valley

I doubt anyone who grew up with Australian television manages to resist humming the theme to A Country Practice when visiting Wandin Valley Estate. We were originally going to try to get some profiteroles, but the food queue was too long so we just did some tastings, and bought a bottle of their Muscat.

Emma’s Cottage

I was massively torn between the two meals here – “Steaming noodle bowl with sticky BBQ pork, prawn meat and poached chicken, Asian leaves, chilli jam and crisp shallot”, and “Twice cooked lamb shank char-grilled with African spices on slow cooked ragout of tomatoes, chickpeas, dressed with lemon labna and pappadam flakes”. Eventually I settled on the lamb, despite the similarity to Allandale. Tina had a dessert, a “Three cheese Pashka with toasted lavosh and candied fruits”. The 1997 Shiraz was definitely showing its age, and tasted mouldy. We tasted a few of the other wines but nothing really stood out.

Cooper

By the time we got to Cooper it was starting to rain. Finding a dry seat while keeping the umbrella over both of us was an exercise in relationship dynamics. We got some desserts, a “Chocolate, caramello cheescake with vanilla bean creme anglaise” and “Jindi brie, crusty bread, tomato and fig relish and crackers”. Both were good, but between the previous meals and trying to balance the umbrella we didn’t finish either of them. It’s a bit of a shame, we finished at Cooper last year as well, and you don’t really appreciate the last stop as much. Maybe we’ll try it first next year.

Stay tuned for the Queen’s Birthday long weekend trip to the Barossa…

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