The pastor of the church I attend said the virgin birth was the greatest miracle of all time. Oh really? You wouldn't get that impression from the Bible. It's only mentioned in two of the four Gospels -- OK, it's important enough that God gave it two witnesses [see Gen.41:32, Deut.19:15], but nothing more. The Disciples never breathed a word about it in evangelizing the early church; Paul never mentioned it in all his theological epistles; even the prophets gave only one cryptic and easily misunderstood reference to it. If it's so important, why is there no church service to celebrate it today? 20 years ago I was a member of a church that actually held services on Christmas day, but most churches do not. Actions speak louder than words.
If not the virgin birth, if not Christmas, then what is the most important miracle of all time?
Scientifically, I would argue for Creation Week, when God created the universe out of nothing, placed the celestial bodies into space, built the DNA of life -- those are things for which we have no scientific explanation at all; all the atheists can do is push the time back and hope that time + chance + random events might have done what their own theories cannot. A virgin birth? I suspect that scientists using today's technology could pull that off today.
The early church seemed to think the Resurrection was pretty important. It got a lot of treatment in all four gospels and was prominently featured in the preaching and teaching of the Apostles, including the epistles of Paul. There are a number of prophetic Old Testament references to it. Scientifically, we have a number of minor medical resurrections today (none on the third day yet), and the skeptics are particularly fond of swoon theories.
Theologically, I think the really greatest miracle of all time was the Atonement. Even the non-Christian religions understand karma, the moral fact that people should pay for their own sins. Post-modern no-fault, no right or wrong, no-guilt westernism has not eradicated the deep belief that when I am injured, "somebody must pay!" Somehow, God put the blame on Jesus Christ on the cross. He who knew no sin became sin for us, that we might have the righteousness of God. That's pretty amazing. The Resurrection merely proves that God accepted the sacrifice.
So what's the big deal over Christmas?
I think there is a simple answer to that question: It's "safe". The Atonement makes demands on our lives; a helpless baby in a manger does not. Oh, you have to be Nice (notice the capitalization) for a few days each year (a feat most church members have already mastered for a couple hours on Sunday morning every week), and spend a bunch of money keeping the economy going by buying worthless junk to wrap and give to people -- but you get that back, because these are not really gifts (for which you receive nothing in return), but a barter system where everybody is careful to give equal value for what they receive.
A few Christmas cards with pretty pictures and maybe -- just rarely -- a Scripture reference that nobody reads anyway, a month of inconsequential sermons about making room for Jesus (remember, the helpless safe baby in the manger), these are the things that warm the cockles of your heart on a cold winter night, all without requiring anybody to actually be Holy as God is Holy...
Me, I'd rather make a Big Deal out of the Resurrection. Today I'm a humbugger.
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All this week long I have been depressed. Sick too, but I think that is a result of the depression, not a cause.
I have always known I'm different from other people. When I was a kid, I figured it's because I grew up in a foreign country, and revelled in the extra insight that gave me in languages and logical thinking. When I was in college, well, I didn't have much time to think about it. For 20 years writing software for a living, I was different from my peers not so much by how I thought as by the fact I called myself a Christian. They all knew religion is for people who cannot think clearly; I don't know what they made of me, since they respected my clear thinking (and bought my software :-)
In church I attributed the difference to social ineptness: everything Robert Fulghum needed to know he learned in kindergarten, and I didn't go to kindergarten, so that must be why I didn't know those things. My father taught me math and science; my mother (or probably, both parents) taught me to read and trust God's Word. I don't see much of either quality in the church. The scientists stay home, and the people who go to church mostly don't read their Bibles, or if they do, they try not to make it too relevant in their lives. In adult Sunday School the guys talk about sports and cars and house repairs and (here in Missouri) tractors and fishing. The Bible lesson is always very abstract and distant, not real people solving real problems God's way. So I'm still different.
Five years ago I picked up a new book that explained those differences in a different light: I really am different! The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) identifies four pairs of polarities, for a total of sixteen different personality types. One of those polarities has a statistically significant gender difference: men tend to be Thinkers, women are more often Feelers. This is not a "value judgment," it's just the way God made us. The book did not say, but I began to notice, that the same polarity correlates even more profoundly with church membership and attendance. There are no Thinkers in church, or if there are, they sit uncomfortably with their Feeler wives and leave quickly.
The evangelical church in America is run exclusively by Feelers for Feelers; Thinkers are not welcomed as Thinkers. They are nominally invited, but they are expected to check their brains and their God-given personality types at the door and become Feelers while inside. All evangelistic materials are designed to appeal to Feelers and turn off Thinkers. Even the so-called "Men's Movement" started in PromiseKeepers is largely aimed at making men into Feelers, and thus largely misses its intended target. I know of only one other Thinker in the whole USA, unashamedly Christian and not in denial about his personality. It's a big country, there must be others, just not many and not vocal.
Because Thinkers value truth and logic above feeling good about yourself, I expected to find Thinkers in a Christian university -- or at least in the computer science department, where without truth and logic the software won't even work. I was wrong. Worse than that, honesty and integrity are actively discouraged. I was told (with pride!) that hearsay and innuendo (he used euphemisms, not those words directly) were the preferred means of getting an uncomplimentary message to somebody who needed to hear it. I have seen a lot of this in the church, too. It must be a Feeler thing.
Ladies and gentlemen, doing that is not even Christian!
This is certainly a hostile environment to a Thinker like me. I started to collect my thoughts and feelings into an essay for my "Revolving Church Door" debate topics series, but it was censored (read it here). The Feelers really don't want us. We make them uncomfortable, which is a denial of their own highest value. [Just reading this blog entry will tend to make Feelers (but not Thinkers) uncomfortable; whichever you are, you might try getting into dialog with one of the others.]
The Bible is not a Feeler book, it is really pretty balanced. But you would never hear that in church in America. I guess you would never know it in a Christian college or university, either. And you certainly won't hear it in the secular universities! The church has nothing at all to offer to us Thinkers.
I'm still a Christian. I came here to teach and to support the SBU Mission Statement (scroll to bottom of SBU home page), which I still believe is a good one. It is not made worthwhile if everybody smiles and tells me what a Nice guy I am and gives me "pretty good" evaluations uniformly across all criteria no matter whether I did good, bad, or awful. It will be worthwhile if the product I am working to help create (educated students who know how to write good software) actually get out there and become "servant-leaders in a global society." It's nice to be liked, but I'm not here to be liked. Athletes know, "No pain, no gain." That's true everywhere. Pain is a God-given part of growth. My last performance evaluation tried to take that away.
In a world where Tolerance is the crowning virtue, the one thing they cannot be tolerant of is an honest person.
I feel so alone.
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Assuming there are no outright lies in the film (I doubt they could get away with that), it's pretty obvious that Lee Harvey Oswald could not have shot and killed the President from the book depository. The home movie of Kennedy getting hit showed his head getting knocked back, but the depository was behind him, not in front. Somebody else, positioned in front of the President's car fired that fatal shot. If the Warren Commission did not bring that out, then there was some hanky-panky going on. Whether it was the "Military-Industrial Complex" as the film suggested, or some other other conspiracy, I cannot say, but it does look bad when all the witnesses die a premature death. They say all the witnesses to Clinton's shenanigans also met early deaths. Hmmm.
Conspiracy theories are fun, and they help deflect attention away from our own failings and culpability, but are they credible? After hearing Chuck Colson's favorite Easter message on Breakpoint some 20 years ago (also reprinted recently in Christianity Today), I no longer believe them. If the ten most powerful men in the world cannot keep a cover-up secret for three weeks when their jobs and reputation depended on keeping it, how can a dozen rag-tag peasants keep a cover-up secret for the rest of their lives -- when their lives would be saved by spilling the beans? Costner made the same point in the movie. Well, in the case of JFK, the truth is out: Oswald didn't do it, and he was killed to prevent that from coming out. Maybe killing potential witnesses will help keep a secret, but the Eleven Disciples were not being killed to keep them from telling what they knew, they were being killed because they had nothing else to say.
A more modern conspiracy theory is broiling over the James ossuary, the bone box inscribed with the Aramaic label "Jacob [James], son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." The box and lettering are in the 1st century style, and most ossuaries do not mention the deceased's brother unless the brother was significantly more important than the deceased himself. There were lots of Jacobs, Josephs and Jesuses in the 1st century, but only one Jesus a lot more famous than his brother James, and that James did happen to be the son of Joseph. The Israeli Antiquities Authority wants to make the lettering out to be a hoax, but they are unwilling to expose their analyses to public scrutiny, nor even to appear on a scientific panel in which the opposition is present. If anything is a hoax, it's the IAA's smear job.
Closer to home, one of my relatives is getting on in years, and her children are trying to enable her to live out the rest of her life in comfort and safety without overly imposing on her freedom. She sees it as a conspiracy. There is no conspiracy, but sooner or later we all will reach the point where we do not have full control of our faculties, and somebody else will make those decisions for us. And because we are (by then) non compos mentis, we won't agree with the decisions being made on our behalf. Is that a conspiracy? Maybe. Or maybe it's just people trying to do the right thing when the beneficiary of their actions cannot fully understand what is going on. I myself don't believe this woman has reached that point, but some of her children are convinced she's already over the edge. When I get to be that old, I hope people will tell me honestly -- but somehow I doubt they will. When I get to be that old, I hope I have the grace to accept what they are doing to me. sigh
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But the essence of great fiction is to explore who we are and what stuff we are made of. It does this by positing a moral dilemma which requires courage or some other virtue, then watching a credible person master (or fail) the test. Science fiction in particular gets to play with the laws of physics, to tweak the rules of the game and see what happens. But it works because we can imagine ourselves in the heroic role, and say "Would I do that? Would I make that mistake or show that virtue?" They are still real humans in those key positions. The captain of the Enterprise in Star Trek was the fully human Kirk, not the half-Vulcan Spock, whose presence offered Kirk every opportunity to show what it means to be "human" (which often meant being not quite "logical"). Superman only works as fiction because he is vulnerable, so that we can empathize with his own ethical dilemmas; Superman with no kryptonite is not interesting.
But in the Matrix, the whole premise for the story is that the Matrix is pure fiction. Its citizens only imagine that they are there. In reality (so the story goes), they are sitting in some life-support pod plugged into this giant computer simulation designed to keep them happy and producing life force to power the machines. Never mind that if there is not enough solar energy making it through the nuclear winter to power the machines, where does the energy come from that keeps the humans alive? Every one of us lives on solar power, chemically converted to sugars and fats by the plants, and then converted back to energy (at a considerable loss) by the metabolic processes in our cells.
So if it's all a computer simulation with no reality, where's the moral challenge? Where's the kryptonite? What is there to imagine ourselves in? Mr.Smith is a self-replicating program (essentially a computer virus) with great fighting skills, perhaps greater than Neo, so there's the thrill of combat, human against program? They never quite explained why it's bad to die inside the matrix; why not just come back in another life, like the computer games of today? But since it's all fiction (inside the fiction which is the movie), the programmer can make the program do anything he wants: leap through the air, stop and/or dodge bullets, oh yes, and skillfully fight conventional martial arts without using any of the magic tricks that stop bullets and enable the players to fly through the air (why? Perhaps it's cool).
Ultimately, the programmer is God (he even says so in the movie), able to make any rules he likes. Except of course when a rogue virus like Mr.Smith gets in and runs amuck. A couple decades ago there was a popular game among computer programmers called "Core Wars." The idea was to give each programmer a place in memory to put their starting code, and the last program still running won. Essentially you programmed your code to smash holes in your opponents' programs, so they halted. It turned out the winning strategy was to replicate your program all over memory, and the smallest most nimble program won. Then it became uninteresting. The Matrix is Core Wars writ large.
But we viewers are not participants, we are not programmers in the contest, we are only passive, waiting to see if our hero Neo is smarter or "stronger" or faster than the enemy program. At least in football, the guys in the bleachers know how to play the game, and they can imagine and empathize with the physical effort being played out in the field. I'm a programmer, and even I don't have any way to imagine myself in the shoes of the Matrix protagonists. That must be why they kept the martial arts without magical helps (except maybe a little unreal leaping); at least we can imagine ourselves able to do that.
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Actually we had very little to do except keep each other honest. Whoever did the judging software put a lot of work into making it easy to use, almost as easy as an optimal GUI (graphical User Interface) could have been. However, it was command-line oriented, so there were a few otherwise unnecessary gotchas. Command lines are like that. Yes, that is a judgmental remark. It's also true.
Anyway, because the software was so complete, we (judges) mostly had nothing to do but sit around and talk. One of the submitted problem solutions created an empty output file, and the judge responsible for running that problem wondered if there was a problem with the judging software, so he spent some time fiddling with the submitted code and with the tools. I looked at what was happening and concluded immediately that the judging program was correct and the submitted program was in error. I said so, but he wanted to fiddle with it anyway. Me, I'm inclined to trust my tools to do their job; if you have to fight your tools all the time, you shouldn't be using them. Write tools that work properly. This particular guy was used to working command lines; maybe he's also used to being forced to work with buggy tools. A few years ago (I wish I'd kept the quote) somebody remarked that "Everybody knows unix programs crash all the time." It's still true. I'm used to 15 years of working on a Mac, where the software did not crash all the time. It just worked. Those days are gone.
When lunch came, one of the judges announced that he could not eat. It seems that Ramadan had just started earlier in the week and he was observant. He knew exactly when sunset occurs locally, so he could begin eating again. He had also gotten up early before daybreak, so to be able to eat before it became forbidden. Some of the Muslim distinctives became part of the conversation to follow. We had ordered pizza for super, and yes, he could eat pizza -- but not pepperoni (which is made from pork). Some of his Muslim students, fresh from the Middle East, did not know about pepperoni and had to be told that it's not dried tomato.
Ramadan apparently has a whole bunch of little rules to deal with the inevitable hard cases: if you are on a trip or certifiably sick, you can go ahead and eat, but you have to make it up later, day for day. But if you don't have a good excuse, then you have to make it up for 60 days. That reminded me of the approved Muslim punishment for stealing. In order to not appear too judgmental (after all, I had to work with these guys for the rest of the afternoon), I tried an oblique comment with no explicit mention of amputation or even theft, "The USA follows English Common Law in the essentially Christian notion of having the punishment fit the crime, so we don't have such draconian penalties." I guess he gets a lot of criticism about that, because he understood the implications immediately and began justifying the Muslim law, which he said "does not apply to people who steal bread because they are hungry, but if they take something they don't need..."
I'm willing to give the Muslim lawyers the benefit of the doubt (see my essay on Islam vs Us: Seeing it Differently), but here we have a fundamental difference between the Christian and Muslim ethics: both the Christian God and the Muslim Allah are held by their adherents to be merciful, but the Christian God does not take away a man's means of living in punishment for an infraction, not even a serious one. The Bible teaches that thief must pay back (possibly as much as five-fold [Ex.22:1]) anything he stole, while the Muslim thief has his ability to pay it back taken away from him. Perhaps that is just, but it is not merciful. The Biblical God would not even allow lenders to take away their borrower's means of income nor garment to sleep in [Dt.24:13]. My God is more merciful than Allah.
Maybe I'm being judgmental, but I was a "judge" that day.
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When it came time for Anthony and Danny to be assigned major advisors, I asked for them. They were both in my MachineOrg class this semester, vying for top of the class. They were roommates. They both had 4.0 grades. The two of them (as freshmen) pulled two top prizes in an ACM-sponsored regional web programming contest. We still did some fun things after hours this year, like pizza and a movie. We did that last Friday. It was the last I saw Anthony.
At his funeral, I began to appreciate how much bigger Anthony was than my puny perception. I knew he was in his own rock band. I knew he played french horn last year. I'm not much into rock music, but french horn is is an orchestral instrument; this guy was versatile. I did not know how much he was into the other students' lives. OK, he was a little crazy, but good crazy.
Less than three months ago I went to my
father's funeral. It was fake. Anthony's was different. Instead of
syruppy music, they played rock (I assume from his band). Sure, everybody
said what a great guy Anthony was, but it had the ring of truth. There
were a lot of tears around me. And because of that, from me. Afterwards
one of the other faculty there commented on the need to "weep with those
who weep." He had a dry face, but I couldn't. I think that's what Jesus
did at the grave of Lazarus. Anthony didn't need my tears. I never saw
him unhappy. But the people he befriended here, they were the losers. I
wept for them and with them.
But if you want to talk about "thwarting the democratic process," tell me how a small number of senators filibustering to prevent the rest of the duly elected senators from voting on judge appointments as called for in the Constitution is not thwarting the democratic process. Tell me how a bunch of legislators illegally scampering across the state line to prevent the rest of the duly elected Texas state legislators from attaining a quorum to vote on redistricting is not thwarting the democratic process. Recall that the same politicians are happy enough to vote for redistricting when their own party has the votes to benefit. Tell me how running off to an unelected judge or judges to get a law properly voted and passed by the people or by their duly elected legislators thrown out on the basis of presumed and unproven (but nonetheless perfectly legal and valid, even if they were true) motives in the voters is not thwarting the democratic process. Tell me how it's not thwarting the democratic process to try to get a state supreme court to nullify the properly voted Presidential election; recall that when they finally counted the ballots, the state court was found to be wrong, and the actual results was what that one party was trying to get nullified. President Bush was properly elected by the people by a valid democratic and Constitutional process, and the Federal Court only hastened (but did not reverse) the process.
It's always that one political party that is actually thwarting the democratic process by subverting the will of the people as expressed directly or by their duly elected representatives. When that party has the votes to get their agenda passed, it becomes the law of the land; that's the democratic process. When that party is out of touch with the will of the people and lacks the votes to get their agenda passed, they go to the courts to effect their agenda. That is not the democratic process, nevermind the name of their party. It never happens the other way around, folks.
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This semester I'm teaching two unix-based courses; next semester it will be another two, one of them about how it works. It's a great system for geeks and gamers. If you're being attacked by orcs, you have to know which of the weapons in your arsenal to shoot at them. Most of us don't, so we try the flame-throwing crossbow -- nope; OK, try the laser defragger -- nope again; what about...? When nothing works, get on the internet and download the cheats. Aha, it was the magic potion I neglected to pick up on Level 3 that I need to use on these orcs. On Level 5 the orcs are different, and the defragger works. If you're a gamer, figuring out these puzzles is fun; if you have a job to do, it's a pain in the wrong place.
In 1984 the Macintosh was a compelling system choice for my personal requirements, for these reasons:
a. It was new, and I could get ahead of the pack as a supplier of software.Last year Apple killed the "aging" 18-year-old MacOS and replaced it with a "modern" 35-year-old system. How well does this new system meet my requirements? Let's see:
b. It was small and learnable.
c. It was a radical change in technology, the harbinger of things to come.
d. It was incredibly easy to use, no arcane command line to learn.
e. Everything I wanted the computer to do, it already did, and did well.
a. Most of the unix programmers have a 10-year lead on learning it over me. I have a lot of catching up to do.I really wanted to make the switch. For ten years my primary system was MacOS/6.5, a speedy little system that made the Mac IIci run circles around later Apple systems. I had a G4 running MacOS/9.1 that was slower in every way -- except running long compute-bound jobs, which were about 3 orders of magnitude faster. I need to use the newer hardware, but I don't like fighting the system to do it. After spending 20 years avoiding unix (and failing often enough to remind me why it's a good thing to avoid), I either had to switch to it, or participate in enabling a convicted criminal corporation to profit from the fruits of their crime. For three years I diligently tried to get a unix -- any unix -- system to survive the first reboot. I succeeded only when I got here and had access to wizards who have been using the system far longer than I. The MacOS required about 1% of a guru's time to fix the occasional problems (I was that guru for most of the users I knew); the PC requires closer to 5% or 10% of a guru's time to keep it up and healthy, but unix -- ALL flavors of unix -- need something like 50% guru time. The CTO at a large technology company IS that guru; unix is a natural choice for him and his shop. The receptionist in his front office is not a guru, and she doesn't want to become one; neither does his mother. Most computer users just want to get their work done; they don't want to fiddle around trying to get the computer to behave predictably.
b. It's huge, too big for any one person to understand.
c. It's 30-year-old technology, not event-driven at all.
d. The command line is everything.
e. What it does it does poorly, and most of what I want it to do, it cannot.
Personally, I hope Apple succeeds, but I'm afraid they are moving in the wrong direction. The 21st century is event-driven and graphical, not file-based with a clumsy GUI thrown on top as another "user". Fifteen years ago I used to say that Apple was like the USA government: way out ahead of whatever was in second place, but all parties were desperately trying to close the gap. Now, the federal government has changed direction, and is once again trying (feebly) to preserve the distinctives of what it means to be American, but Apple actually succeeded in passing up and trading places with the second-place runner. In terms of ease of use, WindowsXP, bad as it is, beats OSX. sigh
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So here goes...
I woke up this morning thinking about the date -- that's pretty easy, since I always read a Psalm or Proverb keyed to the date: today it was Psalm 41 (the 11th day in the second cycle of 30). It occurred to me this morning that I experienced my own little catastrophe almost exactly six months after the twin towers event, when the person I previously thought to be my best friend (Ps.41:9) flew his fellow board members into my towering Bible translation project, sending it crumbling into a pile of rubble. Of course Rodney is not greater than God Himself, and I took the event to be God's way of telling me to do something else for a while -- so here I am. The Lord doth provide.
In more ways than one. It rained today, and not being overly fond of
getting rained on, I chose what I thought to be an extended lull in the
downpour to walk to the grocery for some bread. When I came back out, it
was raining again. Fortunately and by God's grace, I had brought an umbrella.
It was only a couple or three blocks, but two different total strangers
drove up to offer me a ride. Maybe they knew me, but I didn't recognize
them. It got me to thinking: they are not all friends who say they are,
but who do for you what you need. In California it's generally considered
rude and intrusive to speak to a stranger on the street, but here in Missouri
everybody does it. Wal-Mart even has a written rule for their employees:
"If they are within ten feet, greet them by name" (I suspect it helps that
their colleagues all wear name tags). It took me the longest time to get
used to that. These people who neither know nor care about you ask "How
are you doing?" I know they don't care, because they don't even break stride
to hear a reply. But here today, at a time when it really does matter,
two different people went out of their way to offer a ride. I only had
a couple blocks to go and it wasn't raining all that hard, but their sincere
offers really touched me. What a fitting rebuke to the terrorists who made
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