March 13, 2008

OK State Representative Sally Kerns

Filed under: Church,Politics — Bob Gifford @ 10:51 am

These days I try not to pay too much attention to the religious right — it’s just so soul-crushing to hear their hatred spewed under the banner of Christianity. But every once in a while it’s good to check in and see what they’re up to. And this one is a doozy:

Excuse me, I have to go indoctrinate some two year-olds.

January 9, 2008

The Three Trees

Filed under: Church — Bob Gifford @ 9:11 pm

For your viewing pleasure, here is the Christmas program put together by the Sunday School kids at my church (directed by Lynne DeYoung with editing assistance from Pastor Tony Auer). Here’s part one:

And here is Part 2 and Part 3.

January 1, 2008

Mark Hanson, Passionate Doubter

Filed under: Church,Culture and Media — Bob Gifford @ 1:35 pm

I watched “In God’s Name” back before Christmas, and enjoyed it quite a bit, although running commercials every 12 minutes kind of destroys the thread of a documentary considering the ultimate truths of the world’s major religions. All of the 12 religious leaders highlighted in the film came off sympathetically for the most part (it touched on a few controversial topics such as the middle east and “spiritual warfare” that had me rolling my eyes a few times).

But of course I was paying particular attention to the profile of Mark Hanson, the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA and the President of the Lutheran World Federation. Before seeing this, he was just a name to me, so it was nice to learn something of his background. I can see why he was elected Presiding Bishop. One quote of his had me smiling in particular:

I’m known as a passionate doubter, but who never ever loses his faith.


Nice to know I’m in the right denomination.

December 18, 2007

Haught vs. Pharyngula

Filed under: Church,Philosophy — Bob Gifford @ 8:07 pm has an interview of John Haught, Catholic theologian, devout Darwinian and author of books such as God After Darwin. It is very Polkinghorne-esque.

Haught covers topics such as: the shallow grasp of Christianity by the New Atheists, the compatibility of Evolution and Christianity, the false teleology of scientific materialism, his dissatisfaction with Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria, the correctness but incompleteness of scientific truth, the bankruptcy of the “God of the Gaps”, the inanity of intelligent design and the downright scariness of Mike Huckabee. He touches on some of my favorite authors like Paul Tillich, and some I’m totally unfamiliar with like Teilhard de Chardin and Camus. I found myself nodding in agreement throughout (except for the camera-at-the-resurrection part — I’m still mulling that over).

In short, it’s crack for anyone interested in the intersection of science and theology.

But the really interesting part is the reaction Haught provoked by one of the New Atheists. Pharyngula, aka PZ Myers, has a rather, um, uncharitable post in reply.

[I don’t know] why we still have universities with theology departments, and haven’t razed them to the ground and sent the few remaining rational people in them off to sociology and anthropology departments where their work might actually have some relevance. It’s terribly uncharitable of me, but after reading this interview with John Haught, a Georgetown University theologian, I’m convinced that the discipline is the domain of vapid hacks stuffed full of antiquated delusions.


Every time I read something by one of these credulous apologists for religion, I am further convinced that they are just making stuff up.


This guy is completely batty. If this is an example of theological thinking, I’m entirely justified in dismissing this entire academic discipline — these guys are the equivalent of astrologers, still lurking in the spider-webbed corners of our universities.

I don’t think he likes Haught much.

After reading Haught’s thoughtful, reasoned interview, I was struck by how little Myers actually engages with his arguments. He just kind of dismisses him and the entire field of theology. He counters Haught’s logic with invective and hand-waving, which is odd since Myers is defending the exclusive use of logic against any kind of religious belief. For example:

[From the interview:]

The new atheists don’t want to think out the implications of a complete absence of deity. Nietzsche, as well as Sartre and Camus, all expressed it quite correctly. The implications should be nihilism.

Here we have yet another believer trying to tell us what the logical conclusion of atheism should be: in this case, nihilism. Doesn’t the fact that none of the New Atheists that I know of are nihilists matter? I guess if you’re willing to abandon any requirement for evidence, you can also ignore any evidence that counters your opinion.

So…why aren’t Nietzche and Camus correct that atheism leads to nihilism? Myers doesn’t say.

But Myers really pisses me off when he says this:

I consider the feeble gullibility of, for instance, the average Lutheran church member to be the real problem — that our country and our culture as a whole endorses institutions that encourage credulity in the face of religious baloney. Even if the radical fringe weren’t throwing bombs, I’d still be asking people why the heck they believe in such patent nonsense. [emphasis mine]

Because, of course, I’m one of those average Lutheran church members. For Myers to accuse me of being gullible, after the years I’ve spent thinking, reading, challenging, doubting and rethinking, is incredibly insulting. When Myers accuses me of gullibility, he speaks of that which he does not know. He demonstrates that he is the one unwilling to consider evidence that runs counter to his opinion.

I would be totally fine with atheists and their dismissal of religious belief, except for the underlying authoritarian strain — not only are those religious people horribly wrong, but we have to do something about them! As I quoted above:

we still have universities with theology departments, and haven’t razed them to the ground and sent the few remaining rational people in them off to sociology and anthropology departments where their work might actually have some relevance.

Myers, and the Four Horseman of Atheism (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens) not only disagree with people of faith, they want to eradicate religion as though it were a virus. By all means, disagree with my beliefs, but when you want to impose your beliefs on me, by force if necessary, you’re just another authoritarian. And we already have enough of those on the religious right.

December 11, 2007

Romney and Lutherans Continued

Filed under: Church,Politics — Bob Gifford @ 11:45 am

Apparently I’m not the only one who doesn’t understand Romney’s comments about Lutherans in his religion speech (h/t Kevin Drum).

December 9, 2007

The Golden Compass, Donohue, and God

Filed under: Church,Culture and Media — Bob Gifford @ 9:59 pm

I’m going to go see The Golden Compass. What’s more, I’m going to buy the entire Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman (The Golden Compass is the first book). And I have Bill Donohue of the Catholic League to thank.

In Christian ethics, there are two seemingly contradictory strands of thought regarding criticizing others. First is the “judge not”, be charitable, if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all, strand. Second is the prophetic strand, wherein prophecy doesn’t mean fortune-telling, but telling truth to power. So while this is rather uncharitable, I say it prophetically: Bill Donohue is an asshole. He is a bully, an idiot and a self-promoting asshole.

So when I heard he was advocating a boycott of The Golden Compass, my first thought was “that’s the movie for me!” After all, the most wonderfully inspiring Christian movie I’ve ever seen was The Last Temptation of Christ, which was loudly criticized by many (conservative) Christian groups as anti-Christian propaganda.

After reading this article by Donna Freitas, Phillip Pullman fan and faithful Catholic, I am convinced of it. She is a professor of Religion at Boston University, and she writes:

I recently published (with Jason King) a book called “Killing the Imposter God: Philip Pullman’s Spiritual Imagination in His Dark Materials.” I wrote this book, which portrays Pullman as a theologian rather than an atheist, and a rather Christian theologian at that, because I love “His Dark Materials.” And because I am a Catholic. I don’t see any contradiction between the two.


I don’t see any contradiction between loving God (whoever S/He may be) and loving a good story, even a challenging one, like Pullman’s, that has the power to transport us from here and now to another place and time, to forget time altogether as we journey into another world with a young girl (Lyra) and boy (Will) on a fantastic adventure. God is big enough, I think, to coexist with Will and Lyra. It is the critics of Pullman’s novels who are trying to make Her small.

Criticizing the church is not the same as criticizing God. The church is a human institution, and as Martin Luther and other reformers demonstrated, it deserves a good smack upside the head from time to time. It is particularly when the church attempts to quell dissent that dissent is most needed. As I understand it, Pullman’s bad guys are a metaphor for the church, not God.

But I also understand the books in Pullman’s trilogy go after God as well. Good. Abraham Jacob wrestled with God all night long. Job humbly but persistently challenged God. I am sure God would much rather have us argue with God than treat God with indifference and apathy. Fighting with God means we’re engaged. The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference.

Apparently Pullman is an agnostic, not an atheist. And from what I hear, his books are good (the movie may be another matter). I never would have heard about them if not for Bill Donohue. Thanks Bill!

December 8, 2007

Romney and Lutherans

Filed under: Church,Politics — Bob Gifford @ 10:47 pm

As we’ve all heard by now, last week Mitt Romney gave his JFK speech, attempting to make conservative Evangelical voters comfortable with his Mormon religion. There have been many excellent commentaries on the absurdity of his “freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom” statement, but I noticed another statement in the speech:

I believe that every faith I have encountered draws its adherents closer to God. And in every faith I have come to know, there are features I wish were in my own: I love the profound ceremony of the Catholic Mass, the approachability of God in the prayers of the Evangelicals, the tenderness of spirit among the Pentecostals, the confident independence of the Lutherans, the ancient traditions of the Jews, unchanged through the ages, and the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims.

Hmm. Confident independence of the Lutherans. Confident independence of the Lutherans? Sorry, but as a life-long Lutheran, I’m just not getting it. I never would have used that phrase to describe my denomination, the ELCA, the largest Lutheran denomination in the US. I would mention our emphasis on justification by grace, which after all is what got Luther excommunicated from the Catholic church and started this whole Protestant thing in the first place. But independence? The ELCA has entered into ecumenical agreements with the mainline Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Reformed, Methodist and UCC denominations, and even signed a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification with the Roman Catholics, essentially putting to rest the dispute that began the Protestant Reformation. Hardly steps that assert our independence.

Romney must have been referring to the other US Lutheran denominations, the conservative LCMS and the arch-conservative WELS. Both have condemned the ELCA for its ecumenism, and have created a fundamentalist Lutheran doctrine Martin Luther wouldn’t recognize. The LCMS goes so far as to forbid their pastors from praying, even in a civic memorial, with non-LCMS pastors. Indpendence indeed.

While they represent a minority of Lutherans in the US, as conservatives, they are the ones likely to vote for Romney. So I don’t know if it was a deliberate nod to the conservative minority Lutherans, or if they are the only ones Romney, or his speechwriters, are familiar with. Either way, he certainly wasn’t talking about me or the people I go to church with.

November 11, 2007

Black Snake Moan

Filed under: Church,Culture and Media,Music — Bob Gifford @ 7:39 pm

I broke with my recent exploration of old science fiction movies and watched Black Snake Moan. Excellent, excellent movie. It doesn’t have a single space alien, marauding robot or spaceship, but it does have two things even better: a tale of redemption (actually two of them), and the Blues.

Black Snake Moan poses the question: can freedom be found by being chained to a radiator? The answer, of course, is yes. This is one of the great paradoxes of Christianity and many other religions — freedom as surrender.

Rae (Christina Ricci), a rather screwed up young woman who has been using sex to quiet the demons in her head, is found unconscious in the road by Lazarus (Samuel Jackson), a rather screwed up older ex-blues-musician. He takes her into his house, and when she starts wandering around in her delirium, he chains her up. When she gains consciousness, she is less than enthusiastic about this arrangement. But Lazarus tells her “God seen fit to put you in my path, and I aim to cure you of your wickedness!” to which Rae replies “What are you, some kind of pervert? Or a f**king Jesus freak?”. Both reasonable conclusions from Rae’s persective. But in what I found to be the most compelling scene of the movie, that night Rae is restless, unable to sleep on the couch in Laz’s house. So she wraps the slack in her chain around her body like a blanket, after which she visibly relaxes and immediately falls to sleep.

I know it sounds misogynistic, but it’s really not. It’s a fable about setting boundaries as an act of love, something Rae’s parents most decidedly did not do (her father abused her and her mother rejects her in a scene difficult to watch). Rae, for the first time, feels safe, and her fears begin to recede. The chain (which soon comes off, by the way) becomes a symbol of safety, of security, of being tied to someone forever in an entirely non-sexual way. The chain is her redemption.

And of course the redeemer (Laz) becomes the redeemed as he begins to play the Blues again. The movie takes place in rural Tennessee, so the Blues are true to the setting, but they fit in another way as well. The Blues is an extremely simple, and constraining, musical form. The twelve bar Blues and its handful of variations is always the same. Once you know the simple rules, you can jump in and jam with anyone on a blues song you’ve never heard before. The Blues is like being chained to a radiator.

But it’s a chain that frees us. Through the constraints of the Blues form, incredible heights of improvisation and emotion are made possible. The Blues is about being set free to communicate musically that which can’t be communicated through complex melodies, intricate harmonies or big orchestras. It’s about expressing the pain in our souls, and through its expression, overcoming it. It fits the movie like a glove.

True to its tales of redemption, religion is always just below the surface of the movie, and at times breaks above it. Laz’s preacher friend tells Rae (and I’m doing this from memory, so don’t quote me):

I think people talk too much about heaven. People think heaven is like an all-you-can eat buffet, so they do what they need to on earth so when they die they can eat whatever they want to in heaven. But for me, it’s about the present. When I have no one else to talk to, I talk to God.

Some great homespun theologizing. This movie works on many levels — highly recommended.

November 3, 2007

Lisa’s Science Project

Filed under: Church,Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 7:09 pm

My favorite Simpsons clip of all time:

October 20, 2007

God and the Cambrian Explosion

Filed under: Church — Bob Gifford @ 1:23 pm

Heracletus sent me this interview of Dr. Paul Chien, a professor of Biology at the University of San Franciso and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute. It’s undated, but appears to be from 2002 or earlier. Chien raises objections to the theory of evolution. The gist:

A simple way of putting it is that currently we have about 38 phyla of different groups of animals, but the total number of phyla discovered during [the Cambrian explosion] adds up to over 50 phyla. That means [there are] more phyla in the very, very beginning, where we found the first fossils [of animal life], than exist now.

Stephen J. Gould, [a Harvard University evolutionary biologist], has referred to this as the reverse cone of diversity. The theory of evolution implies that things get more and more complex and get more and more diverse from one single origin. But the whole thing turns out to be reversed – we have more diverse groups in the very beginning, and in fact more and more of them die off over time, and we have less and less now.

Chien’s belief that evolution implies an ever-increasing diversity as measured by the number of phyla is intuitively appealing, but if I learned nothing else from studying Quantum Mechanics, it’s that intuition is not a reliable guide to scientific truth. And in fact, in his book At Home in the Universe, Stanley Kauffman describes mathematical models of evolution which, when tested via computer simulations, show results exactly like the Cambrian explosion and subsequent pruning of the evolutionary tree.

While it’s the math and the research that provides the scientific proof, he provides an analogy that makes it easier to visualize: technical innovation.

I have already mentioned…the diversity of early bicycles in the nineteenth century: some with no handle-bars, then forms with little back wheels and big front wheels, or equal size wheels, or more than two wheels in a line, the early dominant Pennyfarthing branching further. The plethora of the class Bicycle (members of the phylum Wheeled Wonders) eventually settled to the two or three forms dominant today: street, racing and mountain bike. Or think of the highly diverse forms of steam and gasoline flivvers early in the twentieth century as the automobile took form. Or of early aircraft design, helicopter design, or motorcycle design.

To these examples, I’d add e-business. In the nineties, every kind of e-commerce business model was proposed, funded and launched. Following the e-business bust of 2000, we are left with just four phyla, as represented by Amazon, Google, Yahoo and eBay.

In the same way, when the biochemical mechanisms required for complex multi-cellular organisms emerged, these new forms of life faced a world with virtually no competition. Everything was possible, every biological niche had to be filled, and so everything was tried. But since this explosion, evolution has weeded out all but those forms best able to compete in an ecosphere with more cut-throat (literally) competition. So the rapid emergence of 50+ phyla, gradually reduced to the current 38, makes perfect sense.

Chien and others in the Intelligent Design community set up a false dichotomy between evolution-believing atheists and evolution-rejecting Christians. But the leadership of the mainline Protestant, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches all see no conflict between evolution and Christianity. This isn’t a disagreement between Christians and unbelievers, but a disagreement within Christianity itself, with the evolution-accepting side in the majority.

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