Archive for July, 2006

Billboard Heckler – You’ve got to be kidding

This one really gets up my nose. From the Castle Hill Christadelphian Church:

Middle East crisis will only be solved by Christ's return. Zech 14

The first thing that got me about this billboard was the sheer arrogance of it. It seems to say to people walking past, “our solution to the world’s problems is better than anything you’ll ever come up with.” I realise that this is hardly news, because the core message of Christianity is basically the same.

It’s also an attitude that says “don’t even bother trying to fix it – the only thing that will solve this problem is a man coming out of the sky, so it would be futile to try to do anything about it ourselves.” It’s disappointing to think that people would get the idea into their heads that God will settle all their problems, so they don’t need to make any effort themselves. This is especially true of people who abandon long-term thinking altogether with the idea that Christ will be returning soon. (An early example of this is probably Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, e.g. 2:1-2 and 3:6-12. A more recent one is the Great Disappointment of 1844.)

But there’s something much more sinister and ironic behind this billboard. Now, my understanding of modern history is a bit hazy, but there doesn’t seem to be any doubt that the United States’ ongoing support of Israel is one of the big reasons that the US has such a bad name in the area, at least from the point of view of their opponents. And there’s at least a suggestion that one reason behind this support, and the reason that Britain and the US pushed for the 1948 creation of the state of Israel in the first place, is the dispensationalist belief that the Jewish people would have to be established as a nation before the Second Coming. (See, for example, articles by Gary North and Mark Wingfield.)

In other words, the Middle East crisis is partially caused by belief in Christ’s return.

Now, I’m not saying that Israel don’t have a right to be there or that the United States’ involvement is necessarily wrong. But under the circumstances, I think appealing to Jesus’ return as the only possible solution is a bit back to front. Sure, God showing obvious alignment with one religion in the Middle East would settle a lot of arguments; but I think it should be clear from the events of the last three or so thousand years that he is not going to do that.
If the Middle East ever sees anything even remotely resembling stability, it’ll be in spite of religion, not because of it. Constantly appealing to religion is quite clearly making things worse.

On the positive side, Zechariah 14 is at least a verifiable prophecy. If I notice a day anytime soon when there’s no daytime or nighttime and the Mount of Olives splits in two, then I’ll be willing to reconsider my position on a few things.

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Our greatest natural resource

Just to give you an idea of the calibre of conversation we tend to have at work… today we had a discussion about how to harness the great reserves of stupidity in the world, and put it to good use.

Here’s my take on it. Put a lever in a public place, with a sign next to it that says “Do not pull this lever.” Attach the lever to a generator.

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12 Things I Find Strange About Hotels

Things like this leave me in a slightly confused state.

Hotel bathroom freebies
On the first day in the hotel, I had the instinctive happiness that you get from being given free stuff. By the sixth day, I start to feel like they’re watching me. I have this feeling that my character will be somehow judged by which combination of bathroom products I use. So I can’t bring myself to use any of them, unless I somehow use all of them up in equal quantities.

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Maka-Diyos, Makatao, Makakalikasan, at Makabansa

I’ll be in Manila for a week for work. Depending on how things go, I’ll either have no time or lots of time to post.

A concerned colleague lent me a couple of books – 20 Compelling Evidences That God Exists and, a bit more out of left field, Lights in the Sky a Little Green Men. I’m planning to read the first on the plane. Review to come.

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Billboard Heckler – Esaeir tahn who tnhiks?

Next in the Billboard Heckler series. Again, this was seen at the Epping Gospel Chapel, among other places:

Uedsratnindg the blbie is esaeir tahn you tnhik. Matthew 11:15

To start with, the bible itself does not share their optimistic appraisal of the situation.

So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. (2 Peter 3:15-16, NRSV)

Maybe I misinterpreted what Peter is saying here. But that would mean that understanding the bible, or at least this passage, is harder than I think. Sigh.

There’s a book called Hard Sayings of the Bible; I was going to buy it myself at one stage, but never got around to it. I read a few random sections from a friend’s copy of it though. The book can best be described as a tome – 808 pages, according to Amazon. It goes to extraordinary lengths to provide explanations for some of the Bible’s harder-to-understand topics. And yet, it’s considered an introductory text. Consider this review from Amazon:

Helpful introductory textThe short answer: Helpful answers to the most commonly asked questions about difficult texts of Scripture. Only Brauch’s section on Paul is occasionally unsatisfactory.

It may not be a tome of resolutions for those with the a priori commitment to the Bible being inaccurate, but it is helpful in presenting feasible answers to many misunderstood texts of Scripture.

Also helpful is the notion that the Bible is largely written to Hebrews and not to linear-reasoned Greco-Roman philosophers. It just doesn’t fit many folks grids because it is not necessarily written to the atomistic thinker (i.e., it’s not a text on science).

All in all, this text is an easy to use reference to commonly misunderstood texts of Scripture.

“It just doesn’t fit on many folks grids”? Is this what we would expect for a book that is supposed to clearly lay out the one true path to salvation, that is upheld as humanity’s greatest and most universal moral guide? Mind you, this does fit with Jesus’ approach during his ministry:

When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that
 ”they may indeed look, but not perceive,
   and may indeed listen, but not understand;
 so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.”‘ (Mark 4:10-12, NRSV)

Apparently, some people just aren’t worth the effort to speak clearly.

A couple of classic examples of biblical obscurity come to mind; there are many more, but these are a couple that have stuck in my memory. There are the two well-known consecutive pieces of wisdom in Proverbs:

Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.
(Proverbs 26:4-5, NRSV)

So which is it? Do you answer a fool or not? Most attempts that I’ve heard to explain this say that the contradiction is so obvious, the verses being one after the other and all, that it can’t have been a contradiction, but it must be some kind of literary device. Fine, I can sort of accept that. But I still don’t know what it’s telling me. Amusingly, I’ve heard people use both of these verses (at separate times, of course) to explain why they’re either going to answer or not answer a question.

I’ve talked about the fun surrounding baptism in an earlier post, but for sheer confusion value you can’t go past the controversial “baptism for the dead” passage:

Otherwise, what will those people do who receive baptism on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf? (1 Corinthians 15:29, NRSV)

Nothing along the lines of “baptism on behalf of the dead” is mentioned anywhere else in the bible. The Mormons are the only major group who practice the (arguably) obvious interpretation of this passage, and baptise living people in order to save by proxy people who have already died. The vast majority of Christians see this (quite rightly) as illogical; but in that case, what does the verse mean? One interpretation is that this passage is a difficult-to-translate reference to normal baptism; another is that Paul was referring to an unorthodox practice of the Corinthian church that he himself doesn’t necessarily support (but doesn’t choose this moment, the one that will last to enlighten later generations, to clear up the matter); yet another is that Paul is for some reason using a pagan practice to argue that resurrection exists in Christianity. I’m sure all of these arguments have their merits, but I’d hardly call it “esaeir tahn you tnhik”.

Of course, it’s possible that the point the sign was trying to make was that the important bits of the bible are easy to understand. (That would also fit their use of typoglycemia nicely.) But I find this hard to accept, because there is very little agreement between Christians about what parts of the bible are important. My general experience with churches has been that they tend to put their pet doctrines into the “obvious and crucial” category, and other issues into the “confusing but unimportant” category. Other people and groups who don’t take as hard a line on their pet issues are accused of watering down God’s message, while anyone who turns that accusation back on them is nitpicking about some peripheral theological detail. Yes, I’m generalising, but I don’t think anyone who’s ever been involved in a dispute between Christian denominations would disagree with this. (The bible has examples of this as well – Hosea 6:6, Matthew 12:1-4, Matthew 15:1-11, Matthew 23:23-24 come to mind.)

So what’s the verdict? I guess that understanding the bible might be easier than you think, but only if you originally thought it would be really, really hard. Otherwise, I suggest you prepare for some serious head-scratching.

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Azzurri take out the World Cup

Italy beat France in a penalty shootout to win the World Cup. I was undecided who to go for in this; was sort of leaning towards Italy, but that was dampened a bit by them having knocked Australia out.

This isn’t exactly an original thought, but I have difficulty really getting into a game that seems to be dominated by borderline referee decisions and general randomness, especially when many matches end up being decided by what is essentially an elaborate guessing game. I reckon the keepers should just come out to the middle of the field and play rock-paper-scissors, best of five.

Now only one question remains: what the shazbot was Zidane thinking?

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God’s Debris

I have a vague recollection of hearing about God’s Debris some time ago, but I only found out a couple of days ago that Scott Adams makes it available as a free download. I recommend reading it in one sitting – it only takes a few hours. Big print, you see.

Scott Adams is one of those people who is willing to say absurd things on the basis that the attempt to drag it back to reality will either show you something about that reality, or lead somewhere completely unexpected. That sounds like a total pre-packaged blurb but I mean every word of it. People who are willing to entertain ridiculous ideas are, I think, far more likely to discover bits of truth along the way, often in places completely unrelated to the original idea. (Is it consistent for me to say that, and still be an atheist? You be the judge.)

God’s Debris is a self-described “thought experiment wrapped in a fictional story”. It’s a fairly liberal collection of the following: things that I agree with completely; things that are demonstrably untrue (only a couple of them); things that are untrue but require some intriguing mental work to unravel to see exactly why they’re untrue (many more of these); and things that he obviously pulled out of his arse, but would be very cool if they were true. There might be another category, something along the lines of “things that are true from a certain perspective, where the perspective may or may not have any bearing on reality”. Adams challenges the reader in the introduction to, essentially, distinguish between these categories. I’m not sure yet whether trying to do so would miss the point. Ack, my brain hurts.

Does anyone know whether Scott Adams is any relation to Douglas Adams? They seem to have a lot of thought patterns in common. (That being, as we all know, the clearest indicator of physical relatedness. Not.)

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No link between prayer and recovery

From a Scientific American article:

The three-year Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP), published in the April 4 American Heart Journal, was the largest-ever attempt to apply scientific methods to measure the influence of prayer on the well-being of another. It examined 1,800 patients undergoing heart-bypass surgery. On the eve of the operations, church groups began two weeks of praying for one set of patients. Each recipient had a praying contingent of about 70, none of whom knew the patient personally. The study found no differences in survival or complication rates compared with those who did not receive prayers.

An interesting quote:

Dean Marek, chief chaplain at the Mayo Clinic, saw the problem as a possible flaw in the study design: “The sense of community was not there. You could call it impersonal prayer rather than intercessory prayer.”

Stopping short of suggesting that the healing power of prayers by friends and family might reside in the personal connections rather than in the prayers, the authors stated that they have no plans for a follow-up study. This one, sponsored largely by the John Templeton Foundation, cost $2.4 million.

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The Dilbert Blog

I just noticed the other day that Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame, has a blog. This has been sucking a lot of productivity, but it’s worth it. Particularly amusing is the fact that his posts on Intelligent Design cause the number of comments to quadruple. (A horde of people arguing about evolution is the only known force more powerful than a Slashdotting.)

Also interesting, Scott Adams’ top two favourite TV shows coincide with my own – 24 and House. Mmmmm, validation.

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