Tom Pittman's WebLog

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2016 June 27 -- The Bible and Religious Violence

I'm a couple months behind reading BAR, but Ronald Hendel's opinion piece in the half-aptly named "Biblical Views" (it's not very Biblical, see "Pascal and Reason" and "Biblical Criticism") page he typically frequents once every year or so, deprived me of last night's sleep. I want to ask him: "Who are you to pontificate on what some other person's god does or does not want or require? The most you can say with any confidence is what your own god requires."

The Christian God, which (judging from his writings this year and previously) Hendel does not accept as his own, teaches the primacy of the Golden Rule, which inherently forbids not only cherem* genocide but also both shooting abortionists and abortionists killing babies, and even Texas drivers following ten feet behind another car at highway speeds (which statistically is the same thing).

The authority of the Christian God's morals over Islamic fighters committing cherem on "infidels" today is implicitly acknowledged by those terrorists themselves when they hide their faces in shame as they commit shameful acts in the name of their god. Whether in shame or in pride, whether their nominal co-religionists approve or disapprove, they (not Hendel) still have the last word on what their god requires of them. If their murders are sufficiently offensive to the other deities (and non-deities ;-) competing for supremacy in today's world, "survival of the fittest" is a reasonably good way for the rest of us to know which god is indeed greatest. Hitler's (atheistic) god is dead with him. Stalin is dead with his non-god. Judging from the flow of people escaping their domain, ISIS may not be far behind them. The Christian God (so far) has the best survival rate (see also "Man vs the Bible").

As for the Christian God commanding cherem on people and cities more than 3000 years ago, I do not have enough information to adequately evaluate His purposes within its religious and cultural context, and (again from his writings in BAR) it would seem that Professor Hendel understands even less. We (he and I both) do understand the religious and cultural context today. Whether Hendel's god (or himself, which is probably the same thing) denies cherem against ancient Canaanites or against non-Muslims in Paris today, while permitting it against unborn babies and against safe drivers, or not, is for him to say, not I. At least the orthodox classic Christian God I claim as my own is well-defined in a document open to public inspection (although not many actually do). Private ("separation of church and state") religions or "non-religions" (same thing, but without acknowledging the supernatural) are not open to inspection and thus cannot be criticized nor redefined by persons outside that particular faith.

The only protection innocent citizens have from cherem* perpetrated by private religions is the destruction of Jefferson's "wall of separation between church and state," where the government overrides the religious practices of those people not aligned with the state religion. When that happens, some religions (in the USA that would be atheism and LGBTQ) are "more equal" than others (Muslims and classic Christians and unborn children of color). The USA is still way ahead of whoever is in second place, just not as far as it was 100 years ago.

* Cherem (pronounced like "harem") is what God told Israel to do to Jericho: destroy everything and kill every man, woman, and child, and every animal. It is what Samuel told King Saul to do to Amalek. Those were specific commands given to Israel thousands of years ago, in circumstances we don't know very much about, except that is no conflict with the Commandment "Thou shalt not murder" (which is a different verb). Jesus told us Christians to "love your enemies." Our Christian cherem is coming (some time in the future) but our God is greater than Allah (also greater than the non-god of the atheists), and He can fight His own battles without our help. We get to watch and cheer, but not actually get blood on our hands.


2016 June 25 -- The Sin of Witchcraft

I'm noticing a great proliferation of faux-supernatural flicks in the library. I guess they must be cheap to make, so they are cheap to sell, therefore within the limited budget of a rinky-dink small-town library. Like I said not quite two weeks ago, the genre is predictable, the screenwriter doesn't need to get very creative, just dress people up in ugly costumes, do a lot of screaming and throwing things with flames and flying critters on dark and stormy nights, then the Good Guy smashes the head off the Bad Guy (who promptly turns to dust before your eyes -- in this one they turned to butterflies, same thing but more animated) and everybody lives happily ever after.

I say "faux-supernatural" because nobody believes that stuff, it's just an excuse to do incredible violence to people like they do in Saturday morning children's cartoons, with nobody actually getting hurt. Maybe I mentioned that a while back, I don't remember. Because nobody believes it, they can do anything they like, as that one screenwriter said of sci-fi, "it's sci-fi, it's make-believe, you can do whatever you want, because who's to say it can't work?" I guess that's why I generally avoid vampire and zombie flicks. Dunno what I was thinking when I picked this one up, maybe that Vin Diesel could redeem it (not).

It occurred to me as I watched it, that magic is the same kind of unChristian evil that MBTI Judgers -- bullies all of them (see "Personality & Biblical Values" and its links last year) -- perpetrate on their surroundings: basically the witch or sorcerer uses magic to impose their will on people who would not choose that outcome of their own free will. It's a violation of The Second Great Commandment, and therefore unChristian. That's why God told us not to do it. It is not better to practice "white magic" (frex, against demons and Bad Guys), because that's what the Jihadists do -- well, not magic, but they certainly impose their will on other people they deem to be morally inferior -- and the rest of us don't like to be on the receiving end of it.

Living the Golden Rule is hard. It can be done, it's just really really hard. It's much more fun to imagine that it's unnecessary, whence the popularity of magic in flicks.

2016 June 21 -- The Elephant in the Room

It was like a novel, several apparently unconnected threads suddenly coming together in unexpected ways. That happens all the time in modern novels, so I need to stumble halfway through them in confusion before I can figure out how the novelist sees them as related. Snow Crash (mentioned last week) was no exception, only in my real-life case it was one of the threads. Actually the connection is most likely a recent announcement and demonstration by Microsoft of their latest virtual reality goggles, which looks like one of the few times they actually got out in front of the curve. Everybody seems to think so, so all the media is in a buzz -- even if they don't mention the product directly.

Four months ago it was self-driving cars, and you may recall my take on the self-serving lawyer arguing for reduced liability for the manufacturers. It must have stirred up a hornets nest, because the same rag now did a full-issue, multi-article feature titled "Can We Trust Robots?" The authors went to a lot more effort to give due consideration to all facets of the question -- except to address the title question! Now you need to understand that the IEEE is a professional organization, meaning they are an organization of people, not corporations. At least that's what they want you to believe, and they probably believe it themselves.

I'm still a member, and I was active in their standards-making activities for a decade or more. My complaint then -- and the situation obviously has not improved -- is that the engineers (one of the "E"s in "IEEE") cannot escape the corporate control of the companies that pay their salaries, sometimes to the detriment of the public good. One committee I was on consistently met in the San Francisco Bay Area. There were good reasons for that: two of the leading technical experts were at Berkeley, one as faculty, the other as one of his grad students. Educators and especially their students do not have money to go gallivanting across the country and across the seas to distant lands every month. Although it was not public knowledge, I also was a grad student at the same time. Another committee I was on, I got myself named head of the USA delegation, and the IEEE picked up the travel tab to Europe where most of the meetings were held every six months or so. But one of the corporate interests represented at the Floating Point standards committee could see that if Professor Kahan's designs became the standard, it would cost them dearly to build hardware to conform, and their delegates -- all there as "individual professionals, not representing any corporate interests" -- swarmed to the meeting in vast numbers from Massachusetts, all at company expense, hoping to overwhelm those of us convinced by the Professor's sound logic. Fortunately, there were enough of us locals (often no more than one from each silicon foundry, and many of the companies unrepresented at all, but Silicon Valley is so named because there are a lot of them) to keep the venue stable. One of that company's tactics was to claim -- plausibly, but disingenuously -- that the stable venue was a burden on East-coast parties, and yes, I suppose that would be true if they were paying their own way. Rotating it around the countryside would have meant that only employees of large corporations could afford to be present at every meeting, and the smart phone you hold in your hand today would not have been as smart. Meaning: the Good Guys won.

They are still at it. The current issue of IEEE Spectrum clearly and blatantly favors the robots. Duh. These are Electronic (another one of those "E"s in the name) engineers, they are paid to make electronic stuff that the public will buy. They even credibly address the ethical issues in designing cars and weapons that act autonomously and may accidentally (or in the case of weapons, intentionally) kill people.

But they studiously avoid any mention of the elephant in the room, like it isn't there. Stephenson had the same problem in Snow Crash, although more obliquely. The elephant is religion.

The problem is that computers operate by working through a set of rules (called a "program" or "computer code"). Artificially Intelligent computer programs have a very large number of rules, most these days programmed not explicitly line by line, but implicitly by giving the computer explicit rules (code) for deciding which rules to give priority based on working through a bunch of experiences that either get rewarded or punished. So (except for the core code) the rules are implicitly programmed by the choice of experiences and the quality of reward. We do that to children, but the built-in "code" in children is far more complex than anything we have yet been able to design into our robots. The programmers -- optimists, all of us -- think we are getting close, but they haven't got a clue.

The IEEE authors are at least honest enough to describe their problem in terms of "code" rather than "experiences," but they recognize that ethical decisions don't count as "ethical" if they fit the code the programmers imagined and predicted and programmed for. Here comes the elephant: Religion solves this problem with a different kind of rule -- it's still a "rule" but at a totally different level -- the Golden Rule (GR) invites each participant to imagine themselves in the other person's situation, and then to choose an outcome that you'd want if you were them. Not many of us do that, but even the atheists know about it. The trouble is, it's a religious rule. Because it is central to the teaching of Jesus (who got it right out of the middle of the Torah, [Lev.19]), and because Christianity has invaded the entire western half of the globe, our half of the globe is incredibly wealthy. The rest of the world sees that wealth, and sometimes tries to play catch-up by stealing the values without really understanding where they came from, and they fail. Christianity took over Russia a thousand years ago, but it became a formality, not a way of life as Jesus taught it, so people forgot the value system. Russia is now a third-world country with a fading memory of greatness. It's worse in "NAMEStan" (North Africa, Middle East, and a bunch of 'Stans), because Christianity was pushed out a few centuries earlier, and the replacement religion does not make the GR central in their teaching.

Why does this matter? Because the GR invites us to empathize with the other persons involved. How can a computer empathize with a person? It is not a person, it has never experienced the pain of failure nor the joy of success and approval. People can empathize with their pets, because dogs and cats show almost-human emotions, they get hungry and angry, and even seem ashamed when caught in the act of what is forbidden. We have done those things, and maybe the pet doesn't think exactly like a human, but it looks a lot more like it than the robot only following rules. The robot cannot think for itself until it has a "self" to think for. Nevermind what the atheists claim, God gave us that "self" and we are the robot's god. The robot will never think as clearly and deeply as we do, any more than we can be expected to think God's thoughts. I get a tiny hint of it when I program, but oh so tiny (see my "Me & My Computer" video).

Neal Stephenson is a programmer -- not hard-core like me, but he understands how it works. Like (almost) all geeks, he does not understand religion, so he invented this virus metaphor to explain why people are attracted to what he sees as fraud. It's a cute idea, but it basically ignores the elephant in the room. So the world he imagines is dystopic, "red in tooth and claw" -- oh wait, that's a Darwinist line, in Stephenson's mind but not in his book. The hero (unimaginatively named "Hiro," a Japanese name that sounds the same) is stranded in a raft in the middle of the ocean, having been rescued from a boat that the Bad Guys blew up and sank. His rescuer offered no altruism, he was hoping to do a hostage swap. Ships and boats sail by, see that there is nothing to steal, and keep on going. Stephenson has Hiro wishing those passing lookers would do a GR kind of thing, but Stephenson does not even have the vocabulary to describe it in those terms. The elephant is as invisible as Hiro is able to make himself in his virtual world (because he's a hacker = programmer, and can do those kinds of things).

Stephenson clearly understands what kind of world we would live in with no religious GR, he just doesn't understand why what we live in today is not that. The IEEE authors do not understand why American -- even Texas -- drivers are more polite than they are in South America or the Middle East. We have 300+ years of "Christian" values -- basically the GR -- saturating the culture. The gas tank is empty and we're running on the fumes, but it's still sooo much better than those other parts of the world where nobody has seen Christian virtue next door and across the street in a thousand years.


2016 June 20 -- Liars

Speaking of liars, an important component of my "BS Detector" is the fact that known liars cannot be trusted to tell the truth. This has severe ramifications when the known liars are in positions of Christian authority -- and God holds them to a far stricter standard than the rest of us [James 3:1]. So I'm sitting in church yesterday, and the guy up front issued another one of his "this doesn't mean what it says" proclamations. If it weren't so sad, it might even be funny: the verse was about liars.

Paul is giving Titus instructions for overseeing the churches in Crete -- yes, this is an episcopal model of church hierarchy, not congregational, but that's another point, another day (see "Models of Church Government") -- and he is warning him against the very troublesome people there in Crete (including "deceivers" which is another word meaning liars) who must be silenced in the churches. Then Paul (sort of) quotes a Greek (Cretan) philosopher, Epimenides, who made a paradox (a puzzle or joke) out of the Cretan reputation for dishonesty: "All Cretans are liars. I am a Cretan." The joke is that if I am lying when I tell you I am lying, then I'm not lying. Both cannot be true. Paul brushes all that away by affirming only the first sentence in the paradox (see my longer explanation in "Living in Crete" posted nine years ago).

So this guy is trying to rescue the reputation of the Cretans -- he even said so -- by denying the plain sense of the text. Paul said "This testimony is true," and there is only one person in that whole context making any kind of claim that Paul might credibly affirm as true, and that is Epimenides himself. There is no rumor going around about what Epimenides may or may not have said, Paul himself tells us (without naming him) what he said. Paul clearly teaches Titus that Epimenides was right to claim that "Cretans are always liars," but modern Relationshipists seem to think that looks bad for whatever Christians might be in the churches in Crete at that time. Were there some who were not liars? Probably not. After almost 2000 years of Christian teaching about truth, it is nevertheless still true that (almost) all Americans are liars -- especially including those in the Christian churches, many of whom openly admit to it. Strictly speaking, I think Paul misquoted Epimenides, because Paul didn't say "all Cretans are liars" (which is necessary for the paradox to work) but rather that "Cretans [are] always liars." That leaves room for a tiny minority of Cretans who are not liars at any particular time, without the need to resort to hyperbole (although Biblical authors often do, and we need to allow them that figure of speech).

The problem for me is that this guy has misrepresented the Biblical text. He didn't even need to do it for his own stated reasons (although that doesn't make a big difference), but it means he has failed my BS Detector, and I cannot trust anything he ever says, I must verify everything. OK, maybe I should do that anyway, but I worry for the other people there who don't have the tools I have. Apparently God is a lot more tolerant of error in the churches than I am -- or maybe everybody ("7000" excepted) will be damned to Hell. One bizarre implication of this kind of dishonesty in a church denomination that prides itself on being the only true "Church of Christ" is that it effectively cuts the feet off their claim. They teach erroneous dogmas just like all the other denoms they deride, and the only difference is which errors a believer is willing to tolerate in the church they choose to associate with -- and it really is a matter of choice in the USA, because pretty much everywhere in the country, if you don't like this one, there's another church, a different denomination, two or three blocks away (perhaps a little farther in the particularly wicked cities like New York and San Francisco, but still a lot of them within easy driving distance).

The bottom line is that he has invited me to disengage when he is preaching. I do not listen passively, I think I said something to that effect a couple years ago, but not clearly. If the guy taught only true Scripture without error, then my engagement would discover that, end of story. But only Scripture is without error, as I believe he and I agree. If he taught with humility -- "I think this is what it means, but I could be wrong" -- then I could disagree and he could refuse to be persuaded, and we would then both accept that it's a difference of opinion. But no preacher ever wants to undermine his own authority and right to control other people by such a show of weakness (see "Personality & Biblical Values" last year, and related links), and it is my God-given obligation not to fight the church leadership in his own church, so I just need to disengage. His problem, not mine (nothing in the Bible requires me to listen to the sermon, but it does require him to teach carefully). If I were planning to stay in the area very long, I probably would look for a different church without all that history -- I did that in Bolivar shortly before leaving -- but all pastors have the same flaw, it's in their personality. God willing, it won't be that long, so I can ride it out passively.

2016 June 17 -- Neal Stephenson and Religion

Some eight years ago I had reason to read Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon with mixed results. Last month a magazine article recommended his earlier (1992) Snow Crash as the definitive work on virtual reality. It's less than half as long, and is every bit as geeky, and it still suffers from vulgar language and some technical flaws of the kind that "Those who can do, and those who cannot, teach," that is, only write about. But that's not my point.

Instead I am still annoyed by his cavalier handling of religion. I guess he's exposing to his readers the mind of geeks ("hackers") who program the virtual universe that is the alternate playground of his main characters. Without exception (other than myself) in my experience nobody understands both technology and religion. The techies have all bought into the Darwinian lie -- which is tacitly, but incorrectly, affirmed by the religionists -- that "science" contradicts religion. When you dig down and examine the primary data (see "Biological Evolution: Did It Happen?") it turns out the Darwinists are merely promoting another religion (defined as "believing what you know ain't so").

Anyway, he has his Librarian bot explaining the atheist perspective (but of course he doesn't call it that, it's just the "facts") on the rise of religions like Judaism, and because I care about Truth, I need to investigate the claims. Especially considering that the proportion of liars I have found inside the churches is not substantially lower than outside. The professionals feel the need to protect their jobs, preachers and Darwinists alike, and truth is less important than money in most people's thinking. Not being one of them is a large part of why I have had no significant gainful employment for the last 12 years.

As far as I know, we do not have any written copies of the Old Testament physically older than the Dead Sea scrolls (earliest maybe a hundred years "BCE" meaning "Before the Christ Event" although the atheists prefer different words for the initials, so to deprecate specifically the Christianity religion -- they don't rename the Roman and Norse and pagan god-names in our calendar, only the Christian). Anyway, the point is, we do not have any physical evidence that the Old Testament was written by the named authors. The New Testament is a different story, we have fragments of copies less than a half century after the Apostles gave it their blessing, and those copies came from distant locations, with no evidence of tampering. Considering those epistles even the atheists do not challenge as evidence, the Resurrection was affirmed in writing (which we have good copies of) less than a couple decades after the event -- certainly not enough time for the alleged alterations cited in Stephenson's story. Those early New Testament records quote Jesus as giving absolute authority (and thus also authenticity) to the Old Testament. Given also his Resurrection, he has the right to make such claims, and that is why I can accept it. It all stands or falls with the person of Jesus Christ: in the words of C.S.Lewis, he had to be either a Liar, a Lunatic, or Lord of the universe.

Maybe some day God will allow us to find an early copy or fragment of Genesis or Deuteronomy. Until then we need to be content with the fact that no parts of Scripture have ever been found inconsistent with what the scientists and the archeologists turn up -- except the dates, but would you trust pottery styles? It's probably the same circular reasoning that plagues the Darwinists. No criticism of the Bible ever survives more than a hundred years, they all get demolished by better science and then replaced by new ignorant criticisms.

OK, I gave it due diligence, and the Christian religion still stands.


2016 June 13 -- (Not) Being Afraid of the Dark

Friday the 13th came on Monday this month. American Christmas movies, as y'all know, all have the same story line: everybody makes an impossible (or at least improbable) wish, then at the end everybody (Bad Guys, if any, excepted) get their wishes. Halloween movies seem to have the same boring similarity: Something Bad happens -- usually supernatural (or apparently so), and always on "a dark and stormy night" -- then at the end the Good Guys bring in a "good" sorcerer to solve the problem and they get their missing child back, but only after a lot of screaming and throwing things around. With "ghost" in the title, this is obviously a true-genre Halloween flick, and Nicolas Cage has a marvelous sad-sack face to play the distraught victim of the supernatural villain.

But that's not what I'm here for. I read somewhere that few marriages survive the loss of a child, and this story is no exception: she wants to blame him for not protecting the kid. That may be the appropriate Mama Bear response, but it's unChristian. The guy's an absent-minded professsor type; she hassled him to spend some time with the kid, and when he did, he told the kid to stay close, but he disappeared anyway. Like all American wives everywhere, she is asking more of him than God gave him the resources to be. Nobody -- not even Rambo, not even the mother herself -- is strong enough and fast enough and alert enough to outsmart a child, and especially not a determined child-snatcher. You will lose the kid (at least the first time) because nobody is prepared for the worst the Devil can throw at us. We lost the World Trade Center and Pearl Harbor and VietNam and all those soldiers in Iraq -- and now we are about to lose the Presidency (Hillary or Trump, I don't know which one will take it down faster)... oh wait, we had our wake-up call and he's still in the White House -- and nobody was ready. Bad Things Happen.

I probably would make a lousy father -- good thing I'm not one, eh? -- because (at least today) I (mostly) refuse to get all tied up in a knot over things I cannot change. How does that prayer go? "God, give me the strength to change the things I can change, the humility to accept the things I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference." Or something like that. I'm better at it now than I was at usual fathering age, but my personality type is like that professor guy in the movie: the things I can change are a lot fewer than the things I cannot, and I mostly know the difference. She threw him out of the house: that was something he couldn't change, so they didn't waste much screen time on him trying to get her back. Maybe he couldn't find the kid either, but a year later he's still trying and finally turns up a lead (no spoiler, it's the genre) and it's supernatural. His wife sees he's actually doing more to get the kid back than she was, so she invites him back into the house. Score one for Good.

Which brings me to the point of today's post, the unique exclusion of marriage law from the Constitutional protection of Due Process. In all other situations, you damage another person, you are liable for it -- even the government itself is (mostly) accountable to the people they mistreat, but not a spouse. Marriage (defined by the Creator as a man-woman union) ceased to be a legal entity in this country not last year when King SCOTUS abolished it, but 50 years ago when California became the first state (not counting Nevada) to remove it from Constitutional protection.

21 years ago I met a guy who wanted to be my friend -- and we were! Last year he changed his mind and wanted out of the relationship. No big deal, (unlike marriage) we had no contract, no promises against which the other person might make investments -- OK, a few, but not many -- so if he wants out, he's out. That's the way marriage works everywhere, too. I think Christians should boycott state-sponsored "marriage" and let the queers have it. We can have "religious man-woman union ceremonies" and if the bigots and the queers want to buy our cakes that say "man-woman union" on them, let them. But that's another story. Unfortunately, like the bigots suing the bakers and photographers who are too slow to recognize that we've already lost "marriage," my erstwhile friend was not satisfied with walking away from me, he absented himself from the Christian faith too. Or at least he did a good imitation of it. For the longest time I wondered what happened, like the parent of the lost child, what I could have done to prevent it. Then it hit me last week: If God wanted me to know, then I would know. If God wants the parent to protect his child, then (unless he does something stupid like getting drunk or stoned or going awhoring or driving on Texas highways) he will protect the child. And when it's time for the child to go, nothing you can do will prevent it. You give it your best shot, and at the end of the day, you gave it your best shot. I did that too. And God did want me to know, and I do know what happened. I knew within a week of when it went down. It's just so ugly I didn't want to believe it. Bad Things Happen, but God is Good. Children get lost, but God is Good. Halloween movies don't scare me. Texas drivers still scare me, but mostly I stay off the freeways. I can do that, because God is Good.

2016 June 11 -- Moby Dick

I think I lost my sense of mission some six or seven years ago, the belief that what I was doing is important, that people depend on me. I'd hoped coming to Texas might revive it but that was a mistake. God said "Don't trust people," and well, they aren't worthy of trust. Whatever. Anyway, that sense of mission kept me working long hours, and when I got too tired to read the screen in front of me, I went to bed and slept. When it started to seem futile, I got tired sooner, too soon to fall asleep, so I read all my backlog of magazines, then started in on library books. Y'all probably noticed the ones I commented on.

Here in the State of Taxes, the local library occupies a recycled church building with not a lot of floor space and not enough patrons to justify more shelves, so they throw away everything older than ten years. That means more and more movies simply won't play (they put up the "blue screen of death" and hang, or else the DVD reader cannot even read them: "ahugha, ahugha, ahugha..." as it keeps trying to re-seek to get on track); Disney flicks and DVD-BluRay combos are the worst offenders. Novels have the same problem: The popular authors tend to forget what sold their books, and they succumb to Political Correctness in place of realism. Some authors simply sell out, leaving their name on the cover in large print, the books are written by boring ghostwriter hacks (with a smaller credit line). Even the authors who don't sell their souls keep writing tiresome sequels that lean heavily on previous novels in the series that began before the turn of the century, so those early books have already been purged from the local library. I can send out for them on Inter-Library Loan, but they have a 5-book-per-month limit.

This week I finished all I had brought home to read before my next scheduled trip to the library, but I have over a thousand books in boxes that I have been carrying around as I move from state to state, most of which I bought when I was a young bibliophile -- I once had a professor who defined "bibliophile" as a person who has two of the same book in his library and doesn't even know it. Yup, that's me, several times over. For a while I had a friend who wanted to pick over my library when I'm gone, but he now seems to have more important things on his mind than that, like cussing me out. Whatever. Not my problem. Anyway, among the books is a set of "Great Books" -- I think I mentioned reading Dostoyevsky three years ago -- so now I'm reading Moby Dick. Like  Brothers Karamazov, Moby is heavy reading, not a page-turner like the thrillers I get from the library.

Also like  Brothers Karamazov, Moby was written at a time when, and by an author for whom, Christianity (not atheism) was the dominant religion. Our hero Ishmael acknowledges the sovereignty of God, and early in the book several chapters are devoted to going to church on Sunday morning -- one whole chapter on the sermon alone. Church was a given, not an option. Even his pagan roommate in the boarding house where he was staying went to church. That evening, as they prepared to get into their shared bed, the pagan is doing his evening prayers to his little wooden idol, and invites Ishmael to join him. Writing in the first person, Ishmael proceeds with a most curious syllogism to decide what to do, something like I have from time to time done myself, but I have never seen nor heard of anybody else doing it: he evaluates his course of action based on what God wants him to do. Well, sort of. He applies the Golden Rule, explicitly knowing that God commands us all to follow it. He wants the pagan to pray to his God, so therefore he should pray to the pagan's god. But he made an important error. The Golden Rule is the Second Great Commandment. The First Great Commandment, which takes precedence in any conflict, is to "Love the LORD your God with all your heart, mind, and soul." Praying to the idol violated that command. But you gotta give him credit, he's a lot closer to God than 99% of the people I know. It remains to be seen where Melville goes with this. It may take me a while to find out: when I'm too tired to focus on work, I'm also too tired to wrestle with the deep ideas in a 170-year-old novel, so I'll probably intersperse some more contemporary stuff.

But that one chapter reminded me that I need to keep the Two Great Commandments -- I call it "1+2C" -- at the front of my decision process. I went to Misery for 2C reasons. I was factually wrong, but I did the best I could on the information I had. It wasn't Bad (God works things for Good), just not what I expected. I came to Taxes for 2C reasons. Again I was factually wrong (Texans are egotistical bigots who don't want serious Christians around them making them look bad), but I did the best I could on the information I had. When it becomes time to leave here (I hope soon), I need to do so on 2C grounds, even if my facts are wrong a third time. I almost missed that. God is Good, He can override bad facts to turn things to Good for those who love God. I don't know where that is yet, but at the time it will appear Good. I just need to be watching for it.

2016 June 9 -- Cashless

Two articles showed up back-to-back in last month's WIRED. They'd be scary enough individually, but together... Well, WIRED isn't known for their scientific accuracy, perhaps (hopefully) economic prognostication might qualify under the same caveat, at least I hope so.

The first -- in order that you should read them, it's actually after the other one in print -- "The Bjorn Ultimatum" (no link: WIRED has joined the lemmings in encrypting their website, so it's inaccessible to the public) tells about Sweden's bold experiment in being cashless. What that means is you can't buy anything on the street in Sweden. There's no money in any banks, only electronic transfers. The banks won't take cash deposits, either. Even the bums on the street take electronic transfers (or starve). It's a conspriacy by the banks. Cash costs them time (and salaries) to handle, but electronic transfers they can charge you. You knew that, didn't you? If you pay with a debit card, the bank charges you a transaction fee (it ain't cheap); if you pay with a credit card, the vendor pays the fee (and raises prices to cover it, so you still pay for it). In California I used to buy gas for cash, because it costs less: the vendors are passing on to the customers who deserve it the discount they get for cash. There's no privacy, everything you buy, everywhere you go, goes into a database somewhere for the liars and thieves to steal and to bombard you with targeted ads. The Swedish promoters claim it's supposed to prevent crime, but as the article points out, Sweden has replaced muggings for cash with muggings for electronic transfers. If somebody steals your identity in the USA, at least you can still buy food and gas for cash; in Sweden you have nothing. It's the Mark of the Beast: the number "666" appears in the Old Testament as the number of talents of gold that came into Solomon's kingdom in one year, the number prepresents commerce, and -- today in Sweden, tomorrow the world -- you can't buy or sell without their say-so. That's already true in Muslim-dominated countries, but they must enforce it by walking around and catching you at it, but after everything is electronic, they just tell the computer to drain your cards and accounts, and to prevent any transfers, and you have nothing. But the government can prevent that, right? Remember Rising Sun? What happens when Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or ISIS or the Chinese government is the government? If they don't like what somebody in China is doing, they bulldoze their house and/or church and throw them in jail -- and that's without electronic control. The Chinese already own large chunks of the American economy, all they need to do is exercise their ownership rights, and it can start happening here too.

The other article "Double Cross" tells us how we don't need a corrupt government to attack our electronic security, there are hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of Russian (probably right behind them, Indian and Chinese) hackers already eager and able to hack into electronic databases and steal your identity (and cash). This article points to millions of stolen card numbers, repeatedly. The hackers can hack into government servers -- remember Hillary's email server? Compromised! -- nothing on-line is safe.

The good news is, it's only Sweden -- today. The lack of privacy will probably keep the nerds from endorsing cashlessness in the USA for at least a couple decades: the criminals don't have very many votes, but the NRA militia types do, and they don't want the government tracing their guns. Half the country hates the current sitting President, and they don't want him peering into their financial transactions -- remember the scandal when the IRS was auditing conservative groups? Those people vote. The other half of the country hated his predecessor, with the same fears about government intrusion. Those people also vote. Whoever wins in November, the other two-thirds of the country will be scared to death. The USA won't be cashless for at least a couple decades. But until then, Sweden is probably a lousy place to visit -- along with Iraq and half the countries in Africa.

2016 June 8 -- Cessationism

It was weird, the Bible study leader was arguing that Rom.8:23 distinguishes the Apostles ("we ourselves") from all the rest of the believers ("you in Rome"), but when I looked at my Bible, I saw no hint that "we" is exclusive and not the same "we" as in all the verses back to 8:15, where the teacher himself admitted that both "you" (twice) and "we" (all in the same verse) included all Christians; and also there was no mention of "Apostles" at all as a separate category anywhere in the whole chapter -- the word occurs in the plural as a category only in 16:7, where two guys (neither of them among the Twelve) are named as among them. The problem he apparently hoped to solve by this semantic legerdemain was the "first-fruits of the Spirit," which I guess he supposed referred to the miraculous gifts conferred on the Church at Pentecost. Perhaps Gal.5:22 ("The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, ...") is not in his Bible; everybody else I know of seems to think those fruits are for all Christians. "First fruits" is generally understood to be the first of the fruits, when the tree starts to produce and you actually see apples or oranges or whatever on it, ready to pick and eat. In the Law of Moses, the first picking was God's. So we Christians (all of us, not just the Apostles) hope to produce all the fruit of the Spirit, but until we succeed, while we only have the first glimmering of what is coming, life sometimes sucks. That seems to me to be the point of what Paul is saying there in Romans 8. Four chapters later, he tells us to offer those beginning fruits -- our whole lives so far -- to God as a sacrifice, which is consistent both with the "first fruits" metaphor and as such also with the Law of Moses. Some people -- this guy (or his teachers) apparently included -- prefer to "nail to the cross" everything in the Old Testament they find disagreeable, and not merely the ceremonial parts of it. Instructed by 2Tim 3:16, I doubt God is so wasteful.

Anyway, suppose we take the guy at his supposition that the "first-fruits" refer to the miraculous gifts. What then? The Pentecostals, bless their hearts, want all those Spiritual gifts today. Everybody else tries to tell us that it doesn't happen that way. They are called "Cessationists" because they claim to believe that the Spiritual gifts listed in 1Corinthians and Romans and elsewhere have ceased, that is, God does not act to alter the positions of the molecules on the face of the earth at this time. In other words, a Cessationist is in effect a practicing Deist who believes that God wound up the clock that is His universe, then let it go wherever it goes, no (more) miracles needed nor possible. A Cessationist is not a complete anti-supernaturalist, but rather they believe that the miracles stopped before the end of the first century. They cannot find anything in Scripture to prove their point, because the inspiration of Scripture itself was the last of their approved miracles.

Me, I'm disinclined to tell God what He can or cannot do. Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, there we must also remain silent. But it's an interesting question, because it came up again incidental to another point the teacher made the previous couple of weeks, when he argued that John 3:16 needs the word "begotten" in it. For my complete analysis of that question, see my essay "The Only Begotten Son," but part of this guy's claim that "begotten" is a necessary translation of the Greek 'monogenes' is that the church always believed it. I disputed that point, because I am unable to find any hint of that idea prior to the Nicene Creed (as translated into Latin after 325AD; the original Greek text does not equate 'monogenes' with "begotten" as the Latin does). He mentioned Irenaeus, but Irenaeus wrote in Greek and we have no Latin copies of his works preceding the Creed. I said so, and he said something to the effect that Tertullian quoted Irenaeus around 200. I do not have access to all this information sitting in church on Sunday morning, so I went home and looked up Tertullian. In particular, I could not find anywhere that he directly quotes Irenaeus, and the only place where he even mentioned him, all his references to 'monogenes' were transcribed (not translated), so effectively he proves nothing. But in looking, I happened to notice that Tertullian was not canonized because of his association with the Montanists who taught that the Holy Spirit can still speak directly to people. So this guy, a hard-core Cessationist, is citing as an authority a Montanist anti-Cessationist? That kind of contradictory argumentation is a sure sign of a hidden agenda, that you shouldn't trust anythinghe says (see my "BS Detector").

The handout in church a month ago attempted to answer the question "Does God speak directly to man today?" They only need a half sheet to carry all the local announcements, so they fill up the rest of the handout with puzzles and homilies, this one dated 2002. Some of the people in this congregation point to 1Cor.13:10 as proof that God is silent today, but they didn't get it from this homily, which points instead to the Scriptures where Jesus himself (and a few others) taught the primacy of Scripture. That's good stuff, but it does not prove that God cannot do anything He wants to, only that we should not expect nor depend on new revelation. However, if God starts communicating directly with His people, it deprives the church leadership of control (see "Personality & Biblical Values") so whatever their theology might otherwise be, Cessationism fits their personality type: it is important to them to believe -- and to persuade the rest of us -- that the Gifts have ceased. You might call it "job security" but it's more than that.

Before I noticed that the handout did not mention 1Cor.13:10, I started to think about what the "perfect" in that verse refers to. It's an adjective with no attached noun. Paul apparently thought it obvious, and the only reason it seems confusing to us today is that more than 4000 words in the English language have changed meaning in the last 400 years. "Perfect" in 1611 English probably meant the same thing as 'teleios' did in the Greek way back when, and it has nothing to do with absence of flaws (today's meaning), but rather refers to maturity or adulthood, which you can see by searching out the other 18 uses of that adjective in the Bible. Most of them are necessarily translated as "adult" or "mature" -- for example, as contrasted with childhood, like the other two uses in 1Corinthians. Paul is telling the church in Corinth that they are being childish, that this whole fixation on Spiritual gifts is childish, and when they grow up, the gifts will become irrelevant, and only love remains. James used the same adjective in his epistle five times. You can read all five as "adult" in a metaphorical sense, but one of them refers to "the perfect law of liberty" [Jas.1:25, KJV] and if we are to answer the Cessationists who want to claim that 1Cor.13:10 refers to the perfection of Scripture, we need to address this, the only other place where the adjective is applied to Scripture. Me, I think "the perfect law of liberty" cannot be referring to the Mosaic Law, which offered only restrictions and not "liberty" at all, but rather the "grown-up" version of the Law that Paul calls the Golden Rule several times. So then "charity" (a better translation than the modern sentimental word "love") is the grown-up thing we do when we realize how childish all this fixation on miracles really is.

Your milage may vary. If you don't want God doing wonderful things in your life, don't ask for it. But even if you do, most of the time you will have a hard time proving it was a miracle and not coincidence or wishful thinking. That's what faith is for. You should not be trying to force God to do your miracles, but rather expect Him to work things out the way they are. That's what He gave you to work with, and by faith you can do that, just like all the hero people in Hebrews 11. In my humble opinion.

2016 June 4 -- Rising Sun

I thought I'd already read all the Michael Crichton novels, but this library gets rid of anything over ten years old, and there it was on their give-away table, a title I didn't recognize. Unlike the first of his novels I read, this was not for me a page-turner. I was mostly annoyed at the dishonesty of the Japanese, which his heroic character dismissed as "another culture," but I guess it was Crichton's intention to make his readers angry at what the USA is encouraging the Japanese to do to us, and he succeeded. I disliked it so much, I did not even recognize it was the second time I read this story (I seem to wash dislikable stories from my memory faster than usual), but there the review was in 2008. That story was set 20 years ago, now it's the Chinese doing it to us. No wonder the USA is not a super-power when God rolls up history. I read the last chapter, and we're not there in the story. Not my problem, I sold product to Japan (it paid for a shiny new Japanese car), but not national assets, and when the End comes, I'm outa here. At my age, I almost already am.

2016 June 1 -- Warm Fuzzies

Y'all know about Christmas movies: everybody makes an impossible wish, then everybody gets their wish at the end. That's American Christmas movies; I saw a Finnish version, which was nothing more than a made-up (fictitious, unrelated to the real historical person) story to explain who Saint Nicholas was. But Americans are into wish fulfillment and feeling good. American students test dead-last among industrial nations in math and science, but first in the world on self-esteem. Probably only Americans even care about it. Anyway, so this was one of those feel-good American Christmas movies, a little low-key -- the wishes and/or their fulfillments were hinted, but not stated clearly (except the Bad Guy vice-principal didn't get his lascivious wish).

An important function of "family" flicks in the last 20 or so years is to denigrate families and to justify their destruction, and this one takes its duty seriously. We never see the divorced father in a distant city, not even as a faceless voice, and the kids who were bummed by his departure at the beginning are all OK with it by the end. Even the mom is starting to look favorably on the eligible bachelor by the end. Gotta teach the kids and parents that divorce is OK, a little unpleasant, but you get over it. Yuck. Of course King Scotus has already determined that "marriage" is irrelevant in the USA, if not today, then as soon as it takes the atheists to deliver the coup de grace, maybe within five or ten years. Yuck.

Anyway, so I got to thinking that we American "Christians" are largely to blame for this disaster. Relationshipism (the theology of love and affirmation) is an American invention, caused by a faulty translation of "love" in the Bible. We have been preaching "God's unconditional Love" (which is nowhere taught in the Bible) so long that people expect to be affirmed in church, that's what they go for, their weekly dose of the warm fuzzy feeling they get when the preacher says "God loves you," and when they sing songs about themselves. Count the pronouns, "I" and "me" and "my" dominate in all the popular "worship" songs you hear on the radio. I call them "I worship me" songs.

I chose the church I presently attend because that denomination is basically not Relationshipistic, and I was tired of being screwed by the Relationshipists (it happens). This denom requires repentance (which is Biblical, and a lot of other things, not all entirely Biblical) to be saved. The preacher quotes a lot of Scripture in his sermons. That's not a Bad Thing. In the last month or two I'm hearing more about God's love in that church. OK, it's in the Bible, just not as prominent as the Relationshipists want you to believe. But the Relationshipists control the airwaves, and these people listen to the same CCM radio stations as everybody else. It's easy to get infected. The members study their Bibles diligently and memorize verses, at least the verses the denom tells them to learn, certainly not the verses the Calvinists get their "5 Points" from, but that's another story.

Last month it began to look like the preacher is vulnerable to the same weakness, that of seeking warm fuzzies, or at least restricting his study to the approved denominational dogma. He announced his intention to do a study on "the Only Begotten Son." This denom preaches from the King James, and most people who do that (including other denominations) cling rather tenaciously to it, inventing if necessary pseudo-scholarly proofs of its authority. Which is sort of comical, given that the KJV-Only crowd are virulently anti-Catholic, yet the KJV came from the Catholic "Textus Receptus" Greek text and, as I learned in my recent research, follows the Catholic Creeds in retaining "Only Begotten" as the only valid translation of the Greek word that means "unique." Either this preacher (or, I suppose more likely) his denominational leaders grew up on the sonorous but unintelligible words of the KJV, and they are not willing to give up those warm fuzzies for the truth.

Seriously now, "begotten" is not a modern American English word, and no Bible is an "accurate" translation that includes that word. So I asked the guy, "What modern American English word would you use here?" He had no answer. He doesn't even want it to mean "born" as the word used to mean more than 400 years ago when the KJV was translated -- "born" is actually used in the KJV in many places for the same Greek word elsewhere (still correctly, if archaicly even then) translated "begotten". He had a 2+hour lecture on the uniqueness of Jesus Christ that he hoped would obscure the fact that it's a bad translation. If anything, the logical conclusion from his lecture is that "unique" is the correct translation. But "unique" is not warm and fuzzy.

The bottom line is that, bad as it is, I would rather that people read the King James Bible and understand only a quarter or tenth of what they read, than that they read no Bible at all and understand all of what they read. God in His Wisdom and Providence can make believers even in very bad circumstances. Maybe that's why God allows so many weeds in His wheatfields, so that if some of them get saved, it's His doing, not ours. I think the Bible even says something like that. Go figure.

2016 May 31 -- Anger

Reading novels is an awesome porthole into human nature. These are not "Christian" authors (which suffer from what I call "The 4 P's"), but rather neo-pagans, people who have no god but themselves. And as the True God once pointed out [Prov.16:26] "The laborer's appetite works for him; his hunger drives him on," these guys write good fiction because good fiction sells and lousy fiction does not, and because money buys a lot of nice stuff.

So here I am reading this story about a cop being advised to not show anger in a particular situation, and he blows up anyway. People get angry in fiction all the time. I suspect it is because people get angry in real life all the time. I've been mostly isolated from it, because my "Christian" friends and acquaintances know about [James 1:20] "Man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires." So they control it. You can do that, if you want to.

Maybe I'm lucky. I think so slowly, that most of the time it takes me longer to realize I should be angry than it does to realize how foolish that would be. But I did train myself. One day (I guess I was in what they now call middle school), after school something happened, and I got so angry I stormed into my room and threw my books onto my bed -- and broke a piece of glassware that I prized. Right then I resolved never to do that again. I slipped a couple times, but not often.

I once had a friend who told me about another guy with an anger problem, but he wanted to come in as a roommate. The first guy told him that he had to control his temper, if he did not, he was out. And he controlled it! I later was visiting this second guy (now in his own home), and we were playing Monopoly and he was losing, and he got so mad he threw the table over. He no longer felt the need to control it. Why do we do that? Anger never makes things better.

Some people mask their anger by silence. They are still angry, but they try not to show it. My friend (the first guy above) got mad at me and woke me up early one morning to tell me about it. I couldn't figure out what his problem was -- I did tell you I think slowly -- and I was trying to figure out what the deal was, and he accused me of being angry because I wasn't saying anything. Not at all, I was still too confused. I learned a lot from that encounter, notably that when somebody accuses me of some fault that is not true, they are actually projecting their own feelings. It's an awesome insight, very liberating.

That was 30 years ago. I'm still getting the silent treatment from people, but at least now I know what it means. I'm not projecting, because when I get angry, it is never in silence.

I'm starting to see that anger is the frequent resort of MBTI Judgers. Maybe other people get angry too, but "J"s consider it their God-given destiny to be the shot-callers -- only we cannot have more chiefs than indians, so most of them are doomed to failure and disappointment and anger, far more than the opposite personality type, which are inherently content to let other people make (most of) the decisions. These people giving me the silent treatment are all "J"s. They thought they could control me, but neglected to take into consideration that I am first a Christian, nobody can take the Truth away from me. They can make decisions for me, but only after God gets first shot. That makes them very angry. Whatever, it's not my problem.

Anyway, it seems we have a lot of euphemisms for anger: like annoyance and disappointment and frustration, which are in reality low-grade anger. We get angry when our rights have been violated. Once we recognize that we have no rights -- everything we have is a gift from God, and He can take it away any time He wants to, then there is nothing to be angry about, only blessings to be joyful over. We in America do have a lot of blessings, far more than most people in the world.

Do not make friends with a hot-tempered man, do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn his ways and get yourself ensnared. Prov.22:24,25 (oNIV)

2016 May 26 -- "The End of Code"

As usual, WIRED magazine's breathless cover feature is somewhat over-hyped. The basic science they built it on is true and good, but they essentially made the same mistake that Behavioral Psychology made a hundred years ago, in supposing that all mental activity can be understood as conditioned response. They actually mentioned how that got replaced before the middle of the century by cognitive psychology, which assumes that logic drives mental processes, but in gloating over the return of the pendulum, WIRED failed to account for the reason that Behaviorism failed in the first place.

The difference between now and a century ago is that now we have computers modelling conditioned response, and doing it so well that it beats humans in tough "intuitive" activities like the game of Go. Intuition, however, is not the top cognitive activity, logic is, and logic is very different from conditioned response. That's why Behaviorism failed, and it's why it will fail again in AI research. You can train game-playing robots to play good games, but they cannot think their way out of a box that they were not trained for. You can train robot cars to drive by the rules, but you cannot train them to deal with unforseen circumstances. You also can't train human drivers to do it, which is why they fare so poorly on the highways. They need to think about their driving situation. That's different from responding as trained. In the 5-game competition, the computer lost when its human opponent played a bizarre move it was not trained for. Humans can do that. The computer needs to be reprogrammed to recover from that, which Kasparov complained was happening in his chess match. Curiously, this article mentioned that reporters were excluded from the computer control room for the fifth game, when the computer almost lost a second time, but surprisingly recovered. How did it recover? Probably by cheating the same way Deep Blue cheated against Kasparov: the programmers tweaked something mid-game. That's why they didn't want the reporters looking. Lee Sedol was not playing against a computer, he was playing against a computer plus the expert Go players who programmed it. That's not playing the game.

But the flagship human cognitive activity that author Jason Tanz has in view is programming a computer. He thinks programmers are obsolete, that AI (Artificial Intelligence) will make it possible to merely train robots. He obviously doesn't know much about teaching computer science to human students. I've done some of that, and it's not like teaching them how to balance their checkbooks. Or maybe that is how some teachers teach it -- I no longer teach at one of those schools -- but we can teach computers how to do that much (those programs are called "compilers" and I did my PhD dissertation on the topic 30 years ago, and it wasn't new then), and we had been doing it for decades before AI came up to bat.

The human mind is not a zillion randomly interconnected neurons that experience (possibly directed) reality for a few years and then magically know how to do things.  There are cognitive abilities hard-wired into the human brain. The ability to play Go was hard-wired into the program that beat world champion Lee Sedol. Not all the best moves, but certainly a bunch of things to look for. For example, how long its opponent took to make his move probably was not wired into the program's decision tree, nor how carefully the pieces were placed on the board, nor which direction the board was lighted from. Who knew to exclude those factors? Should they be excluded? Somebody who actually knows Go needs to program the computer to ignore those factors. It must be hard-wired into the code. Natural Selection is an awesome idea, except that it doesn't work on the large scale the Darwinists give it credit for, real design intelligence is needed to make the big decisions.

A year or two ago WIRED magazine ran an article about people who cannot recognize faces. It turns out facial recognition is hard-wired into the human brain, and if a person has a defect in that part of their brain, they cannot recognize a person's face. With a lot of effort they can train themselves to key on visual details, which sort of works, but not very well. Computer software used by the police agencies for facial recognition has those kinds of factors wired in, so it knows what to look for. Humans can be fooled by disguises, but the cops want their robots to not be fooled, so their hard-wired feature extraction is different from what we humans are born with, but it's there.

The ability to think logically is hard-wired into the human mind, and it works differently from conditioned response -- recall, the Behaviorists lost that competition in the universities. I think that getting everything to play together as well as a human does requires a Designer who is smarter than the mind He is designing, and I believe the Laws of Thermodynamics force that constraint. Maybe in 50 or another hundred years the academics will come around to realize it. I consider it unlikely that they will be forced to become Christians by this realization, more likely they will acknowledge the other end of the Supernatural spectrum and usher in Armageddon, perhaps Satan masquerading as an Alien. But I'll be gone by then. Or maybe the Second Coming will happen sooner, for other reasons. God only knows (literally ;-)

In the meanwhile, competent computer programmers will not be obsolete. See also my essay "The Problem with 21st Century AI".

2016 May 18 -- Public Utilities

I used to think the Public Utilities Commission (or whatever they call it in the different states) existed to keep the consumers from being defrauded by Big Bad Companies who by the very nature of their business, the public cannot express their displeasure by patronizing the competition. Maybe that's the way it was in California where I spent most of my life, but California is a "blue state" and everybody there knows that it's the government job to oppress the corporations and serve the public. Not that it actually works that way -- the public is not served when the tax system drives jobs out to other states, but most people don't think that deeply -- so public officials (even appointed positions) tend to be consumer-friendly.

The State of Misery and the State of Taxes are "red states" which means everybody knows it's the government job to oppress the poor people and serve the rich corporate owners. Again, it doesn't actually work that way, but people think so, including especially government employees. So after I moved out of Misery, and after I had the plumbing "winterized" so the pipes wouldn't freeze, I called and asked the electric company to turn off the power. They refused without that I give them some private information that I never give to anybody over the phone. They claimed it was to prove who I am, but if they know the correct answer to the question they asked, then they got it from somebody else, which proves that anybody could call and give that information (obtained from the same public source), which does not prove it's me on the phone. Anyway, it seemed like a reasonable restriction, so I asked for a mailing address to send a certified letter to, which she gave me, and I sent certified mail to both the power company and the city utilities. The city turned off the water, but the electric company refused, said I had to call and "identify" myself. We'd already been down that path, so I paid up my account through the date they got the certified mail, then started refusing ("Return to Sender") their unpaid bills, and asked a friend to make sure the power was turned off at the meter. I figured they might turn it off for non-payment.

Five months later, I'm still getting bills. So I emailed the Missouri Public Service Commission to complain, giving all the details, and they filed an "informal complaint." Apparently a "formal complaint" is like a court case, with lawyers and all. And I got a letter back from them, which basically said that the electric company followed all the rules, so the case is closed.

It seems to me that something was unreasonable here, so I invited somebody in a third state to call the electric company and (other than the account number) I gave her only public information, and I specifically did not give the answer to the question they were asking (so she could answer it only from other public sources, if at all), figuring I would then have grounds for filing a complaint that they turned off the power without properly identifying the caller. After calling, she informed me that the power company agent said it was already turned off.

Near as I can figure, a call from the state gets routed to a decision-maker high enough up the corporate ladder who can make reasonable decisions, and they did not want to pay a lawyer $500/hour to go to a formal complaint hearing for $50 in unpaid electric bills, and they couldn't send it up for collection because I had proof that they were timely notified to turn it off. Or maybe they figured that my signature on the certified mail and the fact that it came from the same address they were sending the bills to, was identity enough -- or at least the judge might think so if it went to court (judges are elected by people, not corporations, and they know who butters their bread) -- so they decided to cut their losses.

The Missouri Public Service Commission failed to do the job that citizens have a reasonable right to expect them to do, which is to make sure the monoploy utilities are not screwing the customers. This isn't the first time I crossed swords with the Misery government. As a good Christian, I pay my taxes in full and on time, often in excess to cover mistakes and unclear law, then I request the excess be transferred to the following year. The IRS and California tax collectors cope with extra money correctly, but Misery government employees are untrained or something, so they sent the money to some out of state government from which I was unable to recover it. It would cost me more than the $710 I lost to go get it in person. A few years later I noticed that my home insurance was billing me for insuring $30,000 in property that does not exist. I complained, and the agent said it was the minimum they could write it for. I went to a different company and got the same answer. I tried to contact the Missouri state insurance commission, and got only a run-around. I pay half as much insurance here in Texas and a comparable premium in Iowa for property I actually own. My best guess is that the insurance companies prevailed on the ("red state") Missouri state officials to set the minimum artificially high, so they have free profit collecting premiums insuring property that does not exist so they never have to pay out claims on it. I'm sure glad I moved out of there. The only trouble is, nobody wants to go there, so I can't sell the house except at a 30% loss. sigh Oh well, it's still cheaper than rent would have been.

Maybe the whole country has gone to Hades in a handbasket in the last 15 years, Misery no more than everybody else, but I wasn't looking at the other places. In times like these I often think of that Sunday School song, "This world is not my home, I'm just a-passing through..." Even so come, Lord Jesus.

2016 May 16 -- Movie Insights

Neither of them deserves a whole blog post on its own, but a couple of my Sunday afternoon flicks triggered some interesting thoughts. The first imagined what things would be like if a virulent virus started replicating in a large metro area like LosAngeles. The important insight there is that the government already has procedures in place to contain the infection and prevent its universal contagion, but in the movie they credibly didn't work. Why is that? In modern American culture we teach impressionable young children that authority is wrong, that everybody should "do their own thing." The MBTI Judger type is already psychologically inclined in that direction, and there are a lot of people like that. It only takes one person successfully doing it to completely nullify the efforts of the government to contain a pandemic virus.

God made Judgers, and they have a place in the world. We need that kind of personality type to effectively and efficiently run large organizations. It doesn't take very many of them -- there are far more job slots for "Indians" than for "chiefs" -- but we need a large pool of runner-ups so that the leaders will be the best for the job, not merely the only ones available. Those also-rans are the trouble-makers. The movie didn't make that point, but it was there for the eyes that could see. It's also true of Judgers in the real world I live in, as y'all already know from my blog posts in the months since September.

The second flick offered a "Christianity-lite" theology of good works without total commitment and without any kind of God to make it possible. Don't get me wrong, "Pay It Forward" is essentially a Christian idea, embodied in Eph.4:32, "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you," and in the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant [Matt.18:21-35]. We should treat other people kindly because God did that for us, and there's no way we can pay God back, so we should pay it forward. The problem is, people are not naturally inclined to do that, not in real life, and not actually in the flick either. It ended with a huge crowd of people who had bought into the program, coming to pay their respects to the death of the Founder (with candles, a very intentional slap at Christianity), but most of the examples they portrayed in the flick failed, and the kid is repeatedly shown crossing them off his list. Christianity only works because what we got far exceeds anything we can do, and because the Golden Rule is an undeniable moral absolute. They couldn't say that in the flick, because it's not true of the pale imitation.

2016 May 14 -- Neither Arminian nor Calvinist

When I was younger I spent a lot of time in churches that preached hard-core Calvinism. I couldn't quite fit it with the whole of Scripture, so I sometimes referred to myself as a "2.5-point Calvinist" (see "Nullifying God's Word" last month). Neglecting a brief interlude in a church that had other problems, most of the last couple years I parked my fanny in a hard-core Arminian church. I always wondered what they taught and how it was different from the Calvinists. Now I know. The preachers in this denomination cite a lot of Scripture -- more than any other denomination I have experienced or heard of -- but they also say "This doesn't mean what it says" (or words to that effect) a lot more often than anybody else I ever heard. I have a problem with that, like I have with preachers who say "The Bible says ___" when it says no such thing (I heard that a lot in the other churches, including the church I briefly experienced last year). I don't know which is worse. I doubt I will ever find a church that fudges neither way. Long ago I knew a Lutheran pastor who fudged Scripture less often than most people, but he still did it sometimes. sigh

Anyway, here I am reading through the whole Bible in the original Hebrew and Greek (I started several years ago, see "In Hebrew") and I'm currently working my way through Romans. It's a lot slower than reading it in English -- even Elizabethan English (I got my start in the King James, but soon replaced it with the more scholarly ASV, which preserves the same ancient language style) -- but being slower has its advantages: I spend more time thinking about each verse, which gives me a whole new perspective. Like I said, I'm in Romans today, and it's easy to see where the Calvinists get their theology. I don't know how anybody can claim to read and believe "the whole Bible" and not be at least a tiny bit Calvinist. "Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden" [Rom.9:19] really doesn't leave a lot of wiggle room, other than flat-out denial "This doesn't mean what it says." Earlier in the same book, the great Apostle said it better: "Let God be true, but every man a liar" [Rom.3:4]. God said it, and God cannot lie, so therefore it must be true. If I cannot figure it out, maybe it's because I'm not as smart as God.

If I were as smart as God, then I would be a god. If the whole Bible were filled with contradictions, then the Christian religion would be a lie, but neither alternative is true. The number of places that seem contradictory is very small -- usually involving philosophical paradoxes, which we can't figure out without God either, so I'm not worried. Anyway, so I'm still a 3/4-point Calvinist, and maybe about the same Arminian. Let God be true, and every man a liar. Preachers don't like to be told they got it wrong (even, or maybe especially when they did) so I need to shut up and sit quietly in church. There are a lot of weeds in God's wheat field [Matt.13:38], and I need to just let them be. Jesus said so. Every denomination, including this one. Good theology does not buy a ticket to Heaven, Jesus did that on the Cross. Good theology only means you make fewer mistakes -- which is a good thing, so I will still try to get my theology right.

2016 May 13 -- Being a Hero

I love Charlie Chan movies because his stunt gymnastics are fantastic. I'm not much into martial arts, but Charlie makes it look awesome. Anyway, the latest one I saw, he had a friend who was not the same caliber -- like if Charlie was a 10 or 11, this guy (I forgot his name) was maybe a 5, a credible fighter, but not at the same level -- and at one point in the flick Charlie has come to rescue him and the girl, and he whines about Charlie always being the hero, and why can't *I* be the hero? So Charlie makes an executive decision: "OK, I'll take the girl to safety and you can get out on your own." It's a perfectly fitting response: to be a hero, you need to do something heroic. He got a terrified look and backed down immediately. He knew he was not hero material, but like Politically Correct grade-school sports, he wanted the rewards anyway without earning it.

I knew somebody like that: He wanted to be known for his honesty -- "Truthfulness is a given. I'm committed to the truth and openness," he once told me -- without actually telling the truth nor openly addressing troublesome issues. He was "hiding" (his word, see "It Takes One to Know One") from the truth. I guess I don't have a lot of patience for that kind of fraud. Jesus didn't either, he called the religious leaders "hypocrites" when they did it, and he even once called Peter "Satan" (it means "adversary" in a Semitic language like Hebrew or Arabic). He wasn't being mean, just honest. I don't know many people like Jesus. When I try to be, I get into a heap of trouble. This world cannot handle Truth. "Many are called," Jesus said, "but few are chosen." It's the Truth. Political Correctness is not Truth.

2016 May 11 -- I Wish I knew, But I Don't

Some things I might in a moment of weakness wish I knew, like whether the price of gold or some stock on the market is going up or down, but it doesn't take much additional thought to realize that profiting from inside knowledge like that can only make me richer at the expense of somebody else, who (if they knew the same thing) would prefer to be the one getting richer instead of me. That is a violation of the Second Great Commandment (2C, also known as the Golden Rule), therefore forbidden by God and not a Nice thing to do. I do not wish for that, never more than a fleeting second or two, and hopefully never long enough to profit from it.

Other times I find myself in a situation where a win-win transaction seems feasible, but I don't have a clue how to bring it about. I have a computer program (BibleTrans) that could benefit millions of people, but it needs a team of people to make it happen, and God did not give me the skills to assemble and motivate such a team, and I cannot find anybody else willing to step up to the challenge. If God wanted me to know how to do that, I guess He could make that information available to me, but He did not. He is God, and I am not, therefore He gets to make that decision, not me. sigh

On a smaller scale, if somebody goes through the motions of trying to communicate with me, it stands to reason that he considers it beneficial if he succeeds. So (still following 2C), I try to understand what it is he is trying to communicate to me. If -- maybe I should say when -- I fail, I ask for a retransmission. Case in point, I tried that for seven long months, and nothing ever made sense. His "definition" of insanity is repeating the same behavior and expecting different results. He repeated the same message over and over, and I explained to him why it didn't make any sense, and he didn't change it hardly a word. Is he insane? Maybe, but I don't think so. So I have to assume that my confusion is what he was hoping for. I do not understand why somebody would repeat over and over again, without change for seven months, something known to confuse the other party -- and want that result. It makes no sense. Unless he is evil and takes pleasure in sowing confusion ("FUD" = fear, uncertainty and doubt) in other people. That is certainly a violation of 2C and therefore evil, but some people are like that. I read about them in novels, and see them in movies, both fiction of course, but real people like that exist -- in ISIS and cities controlled by the Mafia if nowhere else. Sometimes I see them in my rear-view mirror on Texas highways. This guy possibly (I hope and wish not) excepted, I normally don't meet them face-to-face.

I try not to watch zombie movies, they aren't real. But I could be wrong. Maybe this guy is a zombie, incapable of moral reasoning on his own, and only able to twitch at his master's command. That absolves him of all guilt and transfers it to his master. But I don't know. I wish I did. Or maybe God does not want me going into battle against Spiritual Darkness, He has other things for me to know and do, Good things that benefit people and make them better citizens of Heaven and here.

So maybe knowing what that was all about is like knowing that the price of gold will double next month: it might be fun, but doing anything with it could be Wrong. God has rightly protected me from that dangerous knowledge, and I need to get with the program.

OK, I'm doing that. God is Good.

2016 May 9 -- One Woman At a Time

Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you. -- Deut.4:2
See that you do all I command you; do not add to it or take away from it. -- Deut.12:32

Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar. -- Prov.30:5,6

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. -- Rev.22:18,19 (all oNIV)

This is a strange church. They refuse to celebrate the quintessential Christian holiday, nor the one with "Christ" in its name, but have no problem promoting a pagan celebration of motherhood. Whatever. I think I'm like Paul in Php.1:18, I'm happy that Christ is preached either way. The classic Churchianity Mother's Day sermon hunts around in the Bible for women to speak highly of, and this guy was no different.

It did seem a little odd, however, when he included 1Tim.3:2 in his collection of verses about women, and even more bizarre when he misquoted it: "A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, at a time..." [KJV, emphasis shows the words he added]. There is no "at a time" in that verse, not in any English translation I am aware of, and certainly not in the KJV this guy reads from at the pulpit, nor the ASV he often cites as authoritative, nor the Greek I was looking at when he said it; this guy added it, both times he read the verse.

The original Greek has only three words in that phrase, not the five in the KJV, and not the eight words this preacher spoke to us from the pulpit. Literally, the Greek means "a one-woman guy," which is much closer to the kind of "blameless" behavior Paul is telling Timothy that a church leader should be. When you add the words "at a time," it completely destroys the meaning of the text. Even a Mormon with five wives enjoys them only "one wife at a time." Guys are not biologically suited for more than one at a time. The way I hear it, the dissident polygamist Mormons, the wives usually maintain separate houses -- certainly separate bedrooms -- and the guy rotates between them.

More significantly, the word "blameless" earlier in the verse rules out serial polygamy as practiced everywhere in this country, in the churches no less than the population at large. Jesus said that if you divorce your wife and marry somebody else, you are committing adultery. If the other person divorced you against your wishes, and then you marry somebody else, you are still committing adultery. The pagan American culture fully understands that, and fiction is full of stories where the divorced person resents the fact that their ex got remarried. We have a whole pop-psychology to urge the cast-aways to "move on," because doing so isn't natural, let alone Godly. Paul is advising Timothy to select church leaders who are "blameless" at the very least by pagan standards.

I don't know why this guy would throw those three words in where they do not belong. Maybe he's trying to make excuses for his own past moral failings -- I wouldn't know, nobody ever said anything in my hearing, but I do know that people preparing for ministry often have marital problems too, and I personally know two of them who had to give up the career they prepared for, because their denomination is more strict in the interpretation of Scripture than this guy is. Or maybe he's worried about widowers who remarry, but that's essentially a non-problem, because nobody -- not the Apostle Paul [Rom.7:3], and not the culture at large, has any blame for it.

Even if other Scripture clearly taught the acceptability of serial polygamy (which it does not, but supposing it did), he has no right to import that interpretation into his reading of this verse. We must make a distinction between God's Word Written (the text of Scripture), and our interpretation and inferences drawn from it when comparing it with other texts. This preacher himself understands the difference, because somewhat later the same day, he condemned Jews who gave moral authority to their own Targum (interpretations) over against Scripture.

2016 May 7 -- Fischer

Chess is the only competetive "sport" I ever did reasonably well at, and I thought the movie would be about chess, but it's not. I guess not very many football movies are about football, either, nor the other sports-themed flicks. My father was one of the better chess players in his high school (I think that's what he said), although probably not master (if he told me, I don't remember). He had too many intellectual interests to devote enough time to being really good at one of them.

Anyway, this flick portrays Bobby Fischer as an egotistical paranoid spoiled brat, ever making more demands and then refusing to play. The guy in the film needs to be told: "If you can't play under adverse circumstances, then you are not as good as the guy who can, no matter what you think of yourself." More importantly, "The money and the perqs do not come because you think you are good, they come because other people think you are good, that is, you win games. Refusing to play doesn't win games."

So the flick was a disappointment. I think stories about people who are good enough to overcome obstacles are more entertaining than stories about jerks and bullies. Throwing a tantrum is just another way to be a bully, and I've had it up to here in bullies this last year.

Eventually he redeems himself and beats Spassky, and his ravings are shown to be a mental illness, apparently an affliction of the very brilliant. Sometimes I remind myself that we are all born with the same number of brain cells; if one of us excells in some area, it is only because we have diverted our mental capacities from other, more important things like soap operas and sports statistics -- and the ordinary social contract.

2016 May 5 -- Historical Fiction

I think historical fiction must be the hardest kind to do right. Good sci-fi needs to get the science right, but there are a lot of experts to help out with that. Usually it's good enough to have paid attention in high school science class -- obviously not many people do, or the USA wouldn't rank dead last in industrial nations, but we are still talking millions, not hundreds. "Sci-fi" that violates physics is called "fantasy" and it's really easy to write, because as that one TV writer said, "That's one of the wonderful things about sci-fi [fantasy] is that there are no guidelines, or like structures that you get stuck into, it's sci-fi, it's make-believe, you can do whatever you want, because who's to say it can't work?"

The problem is much worse with historical fiction, because there are so few people who know anything about what the past was like, or even care. So lazy writers invent things that could not have happened and call it "alternative history."

So here I am working my way through the list of "sci-fi + thriller" books at the local library, skipping over the Juvies which I already learned are too junenile (duh), and the women authors (which lean toward fantasy, see "Chick Lit" last year), and the serials which I haven't read the prequels -- I guess that's another way for an author to be lazy: they don't need to invent new characters and situations, just rewarm the previous episode in the series. Sometimes with an author I haven't read, the library list will mention a late number in the series, but they have the earlier episodes, so I start there.

This was one of them. I didn't know it was historical fiction until I started reading (I flipped to the back, and the date on the chapter head was a year after the first chapter), but the author obviously put a lot of effort into getting his history and context correct. I found it quite delightful, at least the first half of the book, before it got over-sexed. Modern people do not understand how badly over-sexed modern western culture is, so they cannot imagine a culture in which that is restrained. It seems to me, however, that the author made a big deal (in the hero's mind) about the honor of the "Virgin Princess" (and her family), and with "Honor" being a prominent part of the title and story line, that his hero should have done the honorable thing about her, or at least expressed some remorse. It's not in the modern mind, even though it certainly was 70 years ago (and the author clearly knew it). It's an unforgivable anachronism.

This book had less gutter language than some of the other books I have been wading through, and the author has a marvelous sense of humor, which he expressed by showing the juxtaposition (in italics) of what the character was thinking, over against what he actually said. First-person novels do this a lot for their hero, but this guy does it for all his major characters. This (and the Spanish and German dialog, always translated, but often also untranslated) made the book a lot more fun than most of what I have been reading. The sex in the last half is the only thing that killed an unqualified approval.

His hero is sent as a novice spy to Argentina during WWII, and I am sufficiently familiar with that culture to know that the author did his homework. I don't think he knows Spanish very well, because of a couple slip-ups. Maybe Argentina is different from the other side of the continent, but I doubt it. Where I grew up (including in California, which has a substantial Mexican subculture) the Spanish spelling/pronunciation for the name "Henry" is "Enrique" ("En-reek-ay") but in this book his Henry character is "Enrico". It could be a local dialect. Less likely is the name "Jorge" (from "George" but pronounced "hor-hay") which is ridiculed in the story as "hor-gay"). Considering that the Texan who did this got the rest of the guy's long name more or less correct except for the exaggeration, and that he could not have done so unless he'd heard it spoken, there's no way he could have heard the hard "g" from a Spanish speaker, it was just a mistake in the author's research. The letter "g" followed by an "e" or "i" in all modern Romance languages I know of is pronounced the same as "j" in that language (they insert a "u" to harden "g" and replace "c" with "qu" when they want to harden it in front of "e" or "i").

Anyway, I guess I'll try #2 in the series. It looks like the hero is getting married, so maybe his libido will be less pronounced. If not, well, I might stop there. sigh

2016 April 27 -- Inventing Fiction

It's the nature of creativity to invent things, and when your creativity is written, that's where it happens. I did some myself, not always legitimate. When I was in college, I was on staff (one term as editor) of the California Engineer, the engineering student magazine at Berkeley. I never thought of myself as an "engineer" (I only took one engineering course, and then only because I was sampling almost everything), but you know the saying, "Those who can, do; those who can't, (teach, or) write about it." I think my first staff position was to put together the monthly puzzle page, and one of the puzzles I came up with (probably saw it somewhere) posed a glass of water nearly full with ice cubes floating it in. Measurements were given so the reader could calculate how much more ice was above the brim of the glass than there was air space below it, and thereby to figure out how long before it ran over. At least that's the problem I thought I was posing. The trouble is, I invented the measurements out of thin air: ice doesn't float as high above water as I claimed for this problem, but no matter, the student who sent in the winning solution explained the difference as "air trapped in the ice." But I sure felt foolish.

Programmers get to invent things contrary to physics all the time, all we need to do is write a program that does it that way -- except when we can't. Some years after the incident in Berkeley I was in grad school (at a different University of California campus), and the professor was explaining something that computers cannot do, and I allowed as I thought I could do that (and said so, right there in the classroom). The prof looked at me and said "Tom, it's a theorem!" Theorems are the mathematical proofs that the whole of computer science is built on, things like not being able to know if an arbitrary program will finish or get stuck, or finding all possible connections in a group of objects is exceedingly hard, stuff like that. I spent my whole career doing things that can't be done -- but never did I ever succeed in violating a mathematical proof or the laws of physics. I got around those problems, not through them.

I mention this because I'm not the only one inventing things that ain't so. Twice now (two different authors) the novel I'm reading at the time mentioned a sliver moon "rising" in the evening sky. It sounds all poetic and not-quite-romanitc, but it can't happen that way, it's contrary to physics. You get a sliver of a moon only when the moon is very close to the sun in the sky, typically visible right near sunrise or sunset. In the evening sky, the sun has just set, and the moon is following it down, not "rising." It can only be rising in the pre-dawn morning, just before the sun comes up (or else just after sunrise, but hard to see in the morning glare). A full (or nearly full) moon would be rising in the night sky opposite the sunset. The lit side of the moon always faces the sun, so if only a sliver is visible, that sliver is closest to the sun and going up or down with it; the full moon is always on the opposite side of the earth from the sun, and (because rising and setting are functions of the rotation of the earth) rising when the sun sets and vice-versa. Obviously nobody cares, you read a novel to escape reality, not find it. But little things like that affect verisimilitude, the suspension of disbelief necessary for a novel -- even fantasy, but on a broader scale -- to work properly.

Anyway, I'm reading this spy novel, I think the fourth in the series featuring an Israeli spy whose cover is as an art restorer. Mostly it's really good stuff, little or no sex and gutter talk, just a hero who is moderately good at his spycraft. But this one has another problem (besides the "rising" sliver moon), a problem shared by many novelists who try to include religious themes in their stories (see frex "Hyperion" a couple months ago). This author may be Jewish or atheist (or both), but he has no love for the Christians, especially Catholics, and it shows. I recognize that there are selfish, power-hungry politicians in every organization -- including the churches, and I've met some of them, not that long ago -- but many atheists (including this author, even if he actually believes in God) they assume there's nothing but evil at the top levels. That's a fiction invented by people who never met anybody up there.

It comes down to this: research shows that about one-third of the population will always act selfishly, another third tend to be altruistic (that is, they Do The Right Thing, even at personal expense), and the remaining third choose how to act depending on whether they think somebody is looking (or they will get caught). This seems to be true across the board, including atheists and believers alike, although I would prefer to believe (against the evidence) that Christians should more likely be altruistic, and the atheists often claim there is no such thing as altruism. Nevertheless, pretty much everybody knows (or knows of) "good" people and "evil" people. The atheists (including closet atheists, like the so-called "nones") never met (nor want to meet) honest religious people, so even if they admit that "good" people exist, they are convinced that none of them populate religious institutions.

If there is such a thing as a God Who Cares about His universe and the people in it, or even if there only exist people who really believe it, then at the very least those people will be predominently "good" not "evil." That's not to say they never act selfishly, but when they do their conscience urges them never to do it again. And mostly they don't. And the people around them know it. Ask anybody, they can tell you who among their acquaintances are good or evil. This author has "good" people in convents protecting Jews from the Germans. He knows they exist. His spy-hero only wants to kill known Bad People. The villains in his stories kill Good People, usually without passion nor regret. It matters, even to the atheists. If and to the extent that Good People exist, when they get into a position of power, they will want to surround themselves with other Good People. Religions are about How to Be Good, so it follows they will attract Good People. Therefore religious institutions -- if they are truly about Being Good, which (especially if there is a God Who Cares, but probably anyway) at least one of them will be -- at least that one will not have fewer Good People as a percentage, than the population as a whole. Furthermore, institutional selfishness is self-destructive, so if the percentage of Bad People gets too high, the whole institution disappears, like the (former) Soviet Union and Nazi Germany and the "robber barons" in this country a hundred years ago and Enron more recently. The Roman Catholic Church cannot have survived for centuries by being totally evil. Conspiracies don't work that way. "The Pole" (as he is referred to derisively in this story) was not a Bad Pope. There were Bad Popes in history, but there were enough "good" cardinals to keep them from destroying the Church. If they were Bad People only, they would suck the wealth out of the Church and into their own bank accounts, and the Church would disappear in less than one generation. Evil does not create wealth, people living the Golden Rule (that is, Good People) create wealth. Evil only destroys wealth. The Church in Rome is wealthy because it is supported by a very large number of Good People, and for no other reason. Even Evil People at the top prefer Good People as underlings, so much of the hierarchy is also Good, and that percolates up.

I'm no Catholic, but for theological reasons. This last month I realized that the church where I currently park my fanny on Sundays is probably not all that much better theologically than the Catholics (just different errors); the church I attended briefly last year is not significantly better, but they have a moral problem that is not yet ripe (for self-destruction). However, the fictional Vatican murders are at a different level of evil from what I saw happening (Jesus used the word "better" in Luke 17 to distinguish the two). The bottom line is that there are far more weeds in God's wheatfield than I ever realized. Fortunately, good theology and being in a perfect church are not what God uses to decide who gets into Heaven, but rather, Are you a Good Person? What drives your life, selfish ambition, or the Golden Rule? Jesus said so [Matt.25:31-36]. That's good enough for me, and reason enough to stay where I am. Anything else is an invented fiction.

I'm finding this novel more readable by mentally substituting for the Vatican somebody like Obama and Janet Reno (because Obama's appointees don't have the competence of the fictional villains in the story).

2016 April 25 -- Nowhere in Africa

The flick grabbed me in several different ways. The main story was about a Jewish family escaping pre-War Germany by emigrating to Kenya, and although I kept repeating to myself the phrase "light and momentary troubles" from 2Cor.4:17, I felt a lot of empathy. I still think of California as home. When I left there in 2002 because I ran out of money and the work I had been doing fell apart, at least I had a job to move to, with the support group implied by the work environment. That went away in a couple years, but by then my finances were in better shape and I had (unpaid, but apparently useful) work to do. The "useful" part seems to have dissipated since then, and without it I cannot remain in compliance with The Second Great Commandment, which makes it hard to keep working on it. There was nothing here in Texas to move to except for the hope of rekindling that "useful" thing, but the guy I was hoping to help do that had other plans. Maybe there was nothing for me in this move but a deep appreciation for Luke 16:10 and total empathy for people far away from home -- Christians escaping ISIS come readily to mind, along with the recognition that my "light and momentary troubles" are nothing like what they must live through every day.

On a totally different level, I got a new insight on the world's perspective on the modern (unBiblical) gospel of "love". You may recall that I had seen in novels and guy flicks how men understand that word as selfish, seeking only to emasculate the target of that "love" to serve one's own selfish ends. This movie was German, not American, but the writer/director was a woman, and a lot of the emotional interplay had the same focus, except that it was the woman giving up her identity for her husband's "love." My earlier comments always distinguished my insights as relating to "American" culture, and it is obvious to me now that was a good caveat, yet so far from nullifying my conclusion, I am even more convinced that "love" is a lousy gospel, and God wisely did not teach it in the Bible, nevermind what American preachers try to tell you.

Like I said, the movie was German, and except for a few scenes involving the British overlords in Kenya, all the dialog was in German and some unidentified African language, perhaps Swahili or Kikuyu (the "Making Of" documentary said they used Kikuyu tribespeople for the African characters in the film). I took a couple years of German in each of high school and college, but ("use it or lose it") I have forgotten more than I remember. I still could follow along most of the German dialog by reading the subtitles (see "Accurate Translation"), and it was easy to tell when they were speaking Swahili (or whatever it was) because I didn't recognize any words I was hearing -- except the word "safari" turned up several times, and more often than not got translated as "journey," which I thought was interesting.

2016 April 18 -- Nullifying God's Word

Real-time speech is probably the worst of all possible ways to communicate something important to me, but that seems to be the preferred method used by preachers. When I taught college, I tried to give the students their choice, my lectures (auditory, with visual aids on the board) or the textbook (reading) and/or their homework (doing), whatever worked best for each one individually. The preacher at this church didn't get the message, so he hands out blank paper and expects us to get everything in real time.

This week he seemed to be saying that the idea of "the Holy Spirit indwelling us" is heresy. I guess John 14:17 isn't in his Bible, nor 1Co.1:22. He means well, but his teachers did not teach him how to read and understand what he is reading, only how to memorize what they told him it says.

It was weird. The announced topic for the hour was the Virgin Birth, but he spent most of his time blaming the Calvinists and the doctrine of Original Sin for disbelief in the Virgin Birth. What nonsense! The people who believe and teach Original Sin, and all sincere Calvinists, they all believe and teach also the Virgin Birth. Only those who substitute the teachings of men (Darwinists and atheists and non-Christian religions) deny it. But this denomination is hard-core Arminian, and they seem to believe the Calvinists are the Devil Incarnate. I have sat under numerous Calvinist preachers, and they tend to ignore those parts of Scripture that disagree with their teachings, just as this guy does. So I told people "I'm a 2.5-point Calvinist" (out of five, see TULIP). That eventually shrank to 1.5 and currently hovers somewhere around three quarters of a point. I believe wholeheartedly and without reservation the Scriptures they base those points on, but not to the exclusion of the Scriptures the Arminians refute them from. My current stated policy is that "All man-made systematic doctrines are wrong." If we could understand everything God has written for us, He wouldn't be God.

This denomination claims to have no creed but Scripture, but that's a lie, just as it was in the denom I grew up in. You can tell they have a creed when different preachers in different states use exactly the same (unBiblical) phrases to teach their doctrines. They don't hand out a piece of paper to the public with these phrases printed on it, but the paper exists somewhere. The habit of substituting the teachings of men for Scripture is not new -- Jesus condemned them in Mark 7:6-13, citing Isaiah 29:13 -- only the particularities are new each age. The mark of substitution is when the guy says "it's not logical." This guy said that a lot.

It wasn't a Christian who said "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," but the truth is so big, it's hard to miss all of it. The great Apostle said it better: "Let God be true, but every man a liar" [Rom.3:4]. One of the founders (Thomas Campbell, see history here) of this denomination had a memorable line that I rather liked long before I knew where it came from: "Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent." The problem comes when our "little minds" see what appear to be contradictions. The atheists claim that as disproof of Divine authorship. I prefer to see those places as in "dynamic tension" exposing two or more facets of a truth that is too complex in its whole for me to fully understand, like quantum physics.

I would prefer it if their own hermeneutics were more consistent when they want to argue strongly for their particular creedal version. Otherwise maybe they should adopt Campbell's aphorism. Every week during communion, the guy up front says "this represents the body/blood of Christ." The Bible says no such thing. Jesus clearly and without equivocation said "This is my body, ... this is my blood..." The Catholics teach that as taught in the Bible, that the elements become the body and blood of Christ. We modern humans see it still looks and tastes like wheat and grape products, and see a contradiction. Lutherans take a middle ground, that we receive the true body and blood "in, with and under" the elements. Everybody else substitutes the word "represents" for "is". It is a substitution, the same as most Protestant denominations also substitute the same word into their Baptismal teaching, that the water "represents" an unseen spiritual truth. Why does this denomination teach the one and not the other? The Lutherans and the Catholics and the Presbyterians and the Baptists are at least consistent, either preserving the actual teachings of Scripture in both places, or else replacing both with symbolism. The inconsistency is more troubling to me.

Sitting in this church has given me a new perspective on the Parable of the Tares [Matt.13:30]. There is a lot of garbage that passes for Christianity, each denomination with their own flavor, but on Judgment Day it will not be those who got the theology right who make it into Heaven, but rather those who do what Jesus commands, specifically the "Love your Neighbor" command [Matt.25:31-36]. It seems to me a lot more difficult to obey Jesus when you openly deny what Jesus taught, so I will continue park my fanny in a church that at least tries to accept Scripture as 100% authoritative. This is one of them. Because I think slowly, not in real time, (spoken) sermons are a rotten way to teach me anything, so when the preacher spouts off nonsense like this week, or tries to tell us "it doesn't mean what it says," my excuse will probably be something like, "Eh? Did you say something?" In other words, I can praise God for the communicative futility of sermons ;-)

2016 April 12 -- PC-ness

There are a number of movie genres that I just pass over in the library: teeny-bopper (usually too stupid for words), musical (likewise, but sung), fantasy & horror (too far from reality), romantic comedy (sex but no humor), and anything Disney (used to be too many commercials to click through, now they all die on the "blue screen of death"). This one would have been left on the shelf (teeny-bopper "comedy") but the back-story in the blurb told of a home-schooled kid being dropped into the deep end of public high school, and since I lived that experience, I wondered what they'd do with it. I should have passed it up, which I knew in the first couple minutes when they ridiculed religious home-schoolers. It was also soon obvious that it was written by a woman. The story was not overly funny but halfway credible, up to the last scene, when everybody cheerfully abandonned all their hostilities and dropped into a third-grade-track-meet "everybody is a winner" mantra. No wonder we have so much teen suicide, with such garbage being spoon-fed to them. sigh

2016 April 7 -- Lettuce Prey

Because it's fiction, I'm easily frustrated with the contrary-to-factness of most authors, so I rotate between different authors for my bedtime brain-switched-off reading, so not to let any one style get to me too bad. I'm partway through several sequel series -- different authors each typically do one each year, which I might read in a week or so, maybe faster as age makes me less functional in the evening and at the same time less sleepy -- so I'm leisurely working through the list of "thrillers & sci-fi" I mentioned scraping from the library web catalog last year. Last week I came to a John Sandford "Something Prey" novel, and did not find it on the shelf, but there were a zillion other novels with essentially the same title (different words substituted for the placeholder "Something"). One big fat volume was a collection of his first three in the series. Today I finished the first of the three. I plan to read the other two after rotating it out with a couple other series authors. [Postscript: there was too much sex and bad language, so I returned it without reading the rest].

I wouldn't mention it, except this detective seems to follow the more modern "flawed hero" theme affected by several of these authors. He doesn't make as many mistakes as some of them, but in this story, when he finally encounters the killer, both he and the criminal -- and the reader, all -- know that the American justice system will not give him the punishment he deserves. The villain says so with a smirk, but the novel has been repeating this game theme, and our hero designs role-playing games in his off time, so it ends with a masterful "coup de maitre" to give the Bad Guy the justice he deserves. I won't spoil it for you more than that (which is not much, because halfway through the hero is already setting stuff like that up), but I want to think about the morality behind what he did, from a Christian perspective.

I do not condone it, it's a lie. I can probably count on the fingers of one hand all the people I know who never lie, but it's forbidden of Christians -- no liars will be admitted to Heaven! -- yet (almost) everybody does it shamelessly, even the so-called "Christians". I was utterly dumbfounded a few years ago when a pastor's wife said in my hearing "I lied a lot" without remorse in connection with an upcoming church event. Several years later a policeman in a SundaySchool class questioned the necessity in his job to lie. I don't think so, but I'm sure glad I don't have his job. During the VietNam war I got a job at a Navy research lab, and was therefore exempt from the draft. If I had not been so lucky, I guess I would have accepted my duty, but I was not about to shoot anybody. The draft board went around and around with the Navy on that: they could not imagine somebody working for the military while conscientiously objecting to pulling the trigger. I do not deny the government's moral right to "bear the sword" [Rom.13:4].

Which is the point of my remarks today. Justice is a moral absolute. When well-meaning but wrong-headed bleeding heart do-gooders abolish the death penalty for egregious crimes like murder, they do so in name only. The people whose job it is to get the Bad Guys off the street and to protect innocent citizens, they begin to see it as part of their calling to evade the porous justice system. It only means that the criminal is deprived of his day in court. Not just this novel, I see a lot of it. If the readers were offended, the authors wouldn't write it. "God is not mocked," and if the government is too screwed up to do Justice right, then it will happen wrong, but mostly it will happen. I don't condone it, but God can -- and often does, even in the Bible! -- use wicked people to work His Righteous ends.

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