Monday, December 23, 2013

Learn to Read

I talk with a lot of atheists online. In a recent conversation one young man brought up three troubling observations he reportedly made while reading through the Bible. Now, reading through the Bible is a major accomplishment that quite a few Christians have not done. They often get bogged down in Leviticus or 1st Chronicles and go back to familiar territory in the New Testament. So this young man's effort was laudatory. I wish, however, he and other atheists who read the Bible would bring to their reading some basic reading principles they should have learned in high school.

The first principle, one that should be a no-brainer, is to consider the context. Here's an example from my online friend. In Exodus 21 there is a passage that gives instructions regarding slavery. In verse 7 there are instructions regarding the selling of a daughter into slavery. That sounded to my friend like this God endorsed something like sex trafficking. Now, I have to admit that verse alone without the context to provide meaning sounds pretty bad to our 21st century ears. But that is a misunderstanding.

The passage on slavery begins with verse 1. In what follows God gives instructions that forbade holding a man as a slave beyond seven years, unless he chooses to remain as a servant. That establishes that the slavery in view here was more like indentured servitude. The instructions rather than endorsing slavery in any sense that we know it actually provide protection to indentured servants.

However, the instructions for a daughter who is sold into slavery is different. In this case, to prevent the very thing that my friend assumed, sex trafficking, the instructions are that she shall not be set free at the end of seven years. Why? Because a woman is to be considered more like a wife than a slave. As a wife, she could not be simply used and discarded. If there was something that displeased her husband/master, then rules similar to the rules of divorce came into play. She could be bought back by her father or close family, but she could not be sold to the highest bidder. The rules provided protection.

Still, it is described as slavery. That alone seems reprehensible. So that brings me to the second reading principle: consider the times and culture.

For people in 15th century B.C., slavery was sometimes the only way to avoid starving to death. There was no welfare. There was no government to take care of the poor. So for a man who had lost everything there was God's provision of selling yourself into slavery. It provided payment for a debt, and it provided a job, food, and a roof over your and your family's head. In seven years the debt was paid and you could go free. It was part of God's welfare system.

Compared to the conditions among other peoples, compared to some conditions today, the system God gave ancient Israel was humane, providing both protection and hope. It was the best rather than the worst of all possible worlds in 1400 B.C. That was true for a daughter who might be sold into slavery. She was protected from abuse. She was provided with a stable home and a status close to that of a wife.

The world today is, of course, different. Most governments do have some welfare system. There is no need for a man to sell himself into slavery or to sell his daughter just to survive. So this all seems cruel. Seen in context, however, it was not. It was the opposite of cruel; it was kind. It was good. And it was the very opposite of what my friend assumed. BTW he was able to see the sense in it when we discussed it. Give him credit.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Gobekli Tepe

Unless you are a follower of archaeology, you have probably never heard of Gobekli Tepe. That's too bad because it is perhaps the most significant and amazing archaeological discovery in modern time. And it has fascinating implications for anyone interested in the Bible and human history.

The Bible in Genesis 1 and 2 describes the beginning of humanity and the place where man first lived. In summary, man was created by God. His creation was relatively recent, in contrast to the usual evolutionary scenario of a gradual rise to humanness that compasses 100,000 years or more. Man was created unique. He was a creature with a spirit and great capacities, a being created in the image of God. And he first lived in a place describe as a garden east of Eden.

That biblical description becomes particularly interesting when we come to Gobekli Tepe.

Gobekli Tepe is a hill in southern Turkey where in 1991 a spectacular discovery was made. It was the discovery of an large and extremely ancient building whose purpose most likely was as a place of worship. It is magnificent in construction and the detail of the artwork carved into the stone pillars. And it has been dated using several different methods at 9,000 to 12,000 years ago. That is as much as 6,000 years earlier than the ruins of the Sumerian civilization in Mesopotamia. And it is as much as 7500 years earlier than the writing of the book of Genesis.

So, how are Gobekli Tepe and the Bible connected? First, Gobekli Tepe and the locations of the Garden of Eden are very close to one another. It may be that they are a mere several hundred miles apart. Both are closely connected to the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Second,the dates are very close. The Bible records a genealogy for Adam that, allowing for gaps, can be stretched only to about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Third, early man is described in the Bible as having built cities, developed tools, created musical instruments, and as having an organized religion. It is the last that is most interesting.

Klaus Schmidt,the archaeologist who has done the most work at Gobekli Tepe, made the statement that our whole idea of how civilization developed has been set on its head by this discovery. It now appears that religion was the driving force of civilization, not agriculture. That fits perfectly with the Bible because the first activity besides food gathering recorded there (in chapter 4 of Genesis) was worship.

Of course, the worship at Gobekli Tepe can not be described as the worship of the God of the Bible. Rather it appears by the pictures and sculptures to have been animistic. Yet, that too correlates with the Bible's story, for the Bible tells us that men early corrupted the worship of the one true God and began to worship other things. Ultimately by chapter 6 in Genesis, worship focused on men of renown. And perhaps that correlates with the last mystery of Gobekli Tepe.

Strangely, the site declined. Over several centuries new temples were build on top of the original. But they were inferior in size and detail and artwork. Finally, the entire site was intentionally entombed - not destroyed, but entombed in rubble and sand. It was as if this civilization moved on from animism or something like that to the worship of other things. Yet, with a respect for the past that caused them to expend much hard labor and time in preserving it.

The work uncovering the mystery of Gobekli Tepe has only just begun. Schmidt expects it will take another fifty years to do the digging. And that may not uncover all the secrets. But so far this has proven to be the most exciting find for students of the Bible and archaeology in a long time. And again it seems, science is catching up to the Bible.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Is America Exceptional?

A recent comment by President Obama and reply by Russian President Putin brought to the fore the question whether America is exceptional. CNN followed the exchange with several opinion pieces. This one American 'Exceptionalism:' Who are they kidding? argued that there is nothing exceptional about America - at least, any more. That agrees with most of the posters on social media and Internet forums.

It appears that today thinking of America as exceptional is positively un-American. (See the comments on this CNN site "Despite fights about its merits, idea of American exceptionalism a powerful force through history."

Of course, "exceptional" is a slippery term. What did President Obama mean by it? What did Putin mean? And what do the posters on the various social media sites mean? It is hard to tell, though it appears everyone has an opinion. Nevertheless, despite the muddiness of the issue, I'd like to argue that America not only was exceptional but remains exceptional.

Let's begin at the beginning. Alexis de Tocqueville came to America in 1831 just a few decades after America became a nation. Though those who today reference and quote de Tocqueville and his book Democracy in America seem to mine the negatives, a reading of the book seems to me to clearly reveal de Tocqueville's admiration for America and his conviction that, at least in his day, America was exceptional. But in what way?

First, America was exceptional in the independence of her people. De Tocqueville writes: "Americans are taught from birth that they must overcome life’s woes and impediments on their own. Social authority makes them mistrustful and anxious, and they rely upon its power only when they cannot do without it." That is what made us and continues to make us pioneers. It makes America a seedbed of entrepreneurs and inventors. Though we created an industrial society in the 1800s and early 1900s that was the greatest any the world had seen, our strength always has been in the individual and in his or her ingenuity and drive.

Things have changed a bit lately, as most reading this will note. Since the 1930s we have created a welfare society that may itself be exceptional, though not admirable. That welfare mentality has undermined the individualism that made America great. But it remains that many of the most successful entrepreneurs are Americans.

A second way America was exceptional was in our government. De Tocqueville writes: "As the first people to face the redoubtable alternative I have just described, the Anglo-Americans were fortunate enough to escape from absolute power. 'Their circumstances, background, enlightenment, and, most of all, mores enabled them to establish and maintain the sovereignty of the people.'" Of course, in de Tocqueville's time most other nations were monarchies; so when Americans chose, in contrast, to organize our government on the principles of democracy, we were exceptional in the world. Since then that model of government has proved attractive to many other peoples, so that today other nations have followed our example - a tacit recognition by those nations of the admirable and exceptional nature of America.

For us, the legacy of our nation's fathers remains in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And that legacy continues to mark America as exceptional in the protections accorded to our citizens. It is for that reason that Americans who value the principles passed on to us guard our constitutional rights energetically.

That brings me to the third way America is exceptional. The freedoms our constitution guarantees us have been a lure to people from around the world who, experiencing oppression and hopelessness abroad, have sought the sanctuary and freedom and opportunity of America. Between 1836 and the First World War more than 30 million Europeans immigrated to the United States. Among them were my great great grandparents, and probably yours.

But Europe was not the only source of immigrants. Take a drive around any American city and you will find Chinatowns, Little Italys, Latino, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, and Middle Eastern neighborhoods - complete with shops, restaurants, and places of worship peculiar to the immigrants' ethnic origins. We are a nation of immigrants who came to America because of the freedom and opportunity and safety we believed we would find here. And most found what they sought. It is true that many other countries have welcomed immigrants, especially of late, but few have been so remarkably embracing as the United States.

Finally, America is exceptional in the character of our people. Part of that is certainly a product of our faith. Christianity built into us the virtue of personal responsibility and generosity. (Compare the nations that do not have that heritage. Few come close to the generosity of those nations whose culture is Christian.) Americans more than any other people give of our money and our selves to help others. We go to Africa to dig wells. We spend out lives in Asia to provide medical care where there is none. We built schools. We deliver disaster aid. We open our pocketbooks when there is a need here at home. We run missions in every city of America. And it goes on. Others are, of course, generous. But by most measures we are still the leaders, and not only the leaders but the example others have followed. In that I think we are genuinely exceptional.

The naysayers point to our failures. We still fail to provide health care to all equally. We still lag in some areas of education. We have poverty, though our poor are by most measures rich compared to the poor of many countries. We throw our weight around and make plenty of mistakes, Vietnam and, some say, Iraq among them. And we have often acted as a nation with only our own interests a heart - never mind that we rescued Europe and China from despots in the 1940s at great expense to American lives and material. But those are either continuing challenges that we are addressing or limited missteps that do not reflect the character of our people. Step back from these for a wider view, and America looks far different from the picture the naysayers paint.

America is good. America remains a land of freedom and opportunity. Americans are still people of character. America is, yes it is, exceptional.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

When Foundations Crumble

"If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?" (Psalm 11)

I have often returned to this Psalm and pondered the wisdom and instruction there. I returned again today thinking of the crumbling foundations in my own nation and wondering about the future.

Never in my lifetime have I seen the prospects of this nation teetering so precariously. My ancestors came here from Ireland and Scotland and Switzerland seeking opportunity and relief from oppression and fear in the liberty the United States promised. I have friends who are more recent immigrants and who have sought the same in this land that has for 200 years been a beacon of freedom. I have encouraged them believing in the future of America. But no longer.

No nation can continue strong built on lies and self-serving political wrangling. Such a nation has turned from the truth, and a nation that turns from the truth has no foundation. It holds out no promise that can be counted on.

Apart from a thorough cleaning of house, we can look forward to decline and insignificance in the world - because we offer nothing different from any other nation. Or to civil war.

I weigh those words carefully. I am not advocating civil war. I fear it. But we will have civil war if there is not a serious and dramatic change in direction. I know of people already who are building bunkers and stock piling food and weapons. I was in a large shop this summer where there were racks upon racks of military-like "assault rifles" for sale. And the only thing slowing their sale was the shortage of ammunition for those weapons. There are a lot of people out there who believe it will come to that. God help us.

But this blog is not intended to foment insurrection. It is a reflection upon current events in light of a Christian worldview. So, what should the righteous do?

The most obvious is that we should trust God. He is always in control of the events of this world. "He is in his Holy Temple. . . he observes everyone on earth; his eyes examine them." I can rest in his control. Nations may crumble. Many have. This nation may crumble; it has no guarantee of safety. But I am secure in God's care.

"On the wicked he will rain fiery coals and burning sulfur; a burning wind will be their lot." No one gets away with evil. No nation survives that embraces evil. God will certainly judge, as he has throughout history. I do not need to take that into my hand. In fact, history demonstrates that as often as not, nations are destroyed from within, from the weight of their own failure to do what God has called nations to do - to uphold justice and to do right.

"For the Lord is righteous, he loves justice; the upright will see his face." True justice and righteousness will prevail, though the whole world fall, as the Bible foretells is will. Whatever happens in the meantime I can bear, for God will be the victor.

But there is more. The rhetorical question at the beginning begs a response: "How then can you say to me: 'Flee like a bird to your mountain. For look, the wicked bend their bows; they set their arrows against the strings to shoot from the shadows at the upright in heart. When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?'” What, indeed, can the righteous do? The question expects this answer: Stand firm. Do right. Trust God. Do not run.

And so I call every Christian who finds his way to this blog to do that. Do not let the specter of a dark future for America turn you aside from doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with your God.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Christian Patriot

Can a Christian be a patriot? Some Christians would unhesitatingly answer in the affirmative. They can't understand how I can be a Christian and not be a patriot. But I'll be honest with you; I have struggled with that question for a lot of years.

I came of age during the Vietnam War. I watched the war unfold on TV. I saw some of the atrocities committed by a few, a very few, American soldiers, and I was repulsed by them. I thought the domino doctrine of our government stupid. And I became quietly anti-war and anti-government. Of course, attending Portland State University, the Berkelely of the North, probably influenced my youthful opinions. Several years into the war, however, I met some Montagnards who found refuge here as the war threatened their villages and their entire culture. They were Christians and an ethnic minority in danger of suffering genocide at the hands of the Communists, and I began to recognize that this war, no matter the rational of our government, was protecting innocent people. So I volunteered for the Marines.

God and the Marines felt I was unsuited. The Marines didn't think my eyesight was up to par. I'm not sure what God thought, but my guess is that he knew I could not kill anyone, even an enemy. The point is that I did a flip-flop and have been doing so ever since.

Can a Christian be a patriot? As a Christian I have allegiance to the King of kings. In a very real sense, I am a citizen of the kingdom of heaven and only a sojourner in the nation of my birth. In practice, throughout the history of Christianity, Christians have regularly had to choose God's moral rule over the dictates of human rulers. For that reason we have usually been suspected and often accused of being rebels and dissidents and dangerous. Often we have been - and are still - hunted by our governments, arrested, imprisoned and executed. Can a Christian swear allegiance to a government that could do that? I thought not. I am a Christian.

But what is a patriot? Here are the definitions: 1.a person who loves, supports, and defends his or her country and its interests with devotion. (classic) 2.a person who regards himself or herself as a defender, especially of individual rights, against presumed interference by the federal government. (American) My father-in-law, who was a Christian and and a patriot and who served in the Navy during WWII, believed that it meant his country right or wrong. We had our debates over that. I can not as a Christian and in good conscience be a patriot in that sense.

I would prefer to define patriot in the second sense. In the beginning of our nation, of course, those two definitions were not in conflict. Our founding fathers, who were many of them Christians, could love, support, and defend the United States of America with devotion because the United States of America was founded upon the principles of individual rights (freedom) and non-interference by the federal government. In this sense, I am a patriot.

I am a patriot. I believe God has, as the Declaration of Independence declares, created all men equal and has endowed them with the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In so far as this government or any government affirms that truth and allows those rights, I can and will love, support and defend it. I am a patriot.

In so far as my government does not affirm and allow those rights, I will oppose it because I am a patriot.

Of course, no country perfectly represents those values in practice. The United States allowed slavery for more than eighty years. Some of the founding fathers owned slaves at the same time they signed their names to the Declaration of Independence. That was truly insane.

Many Christians patriots, however, opposed slavery both in the North and the South. They argued against it. They wrote against it. They demonstrated against it. They disobeyed the laws of the land that protected slavery in order to assist slaves in their journey north to freedom. They fought a war. Some paid for their patriotism with their substance and their lives. I have stood before their graves. They were patriots.

That they succeeded was in great measure due to the wisdom of our imperfect founding fathers who recognized a truth they were not living. The documents created by these founding fathers continue to be the guide for our nation directing us toward the defense and implementation in our society of those God given rights. And they affirm the right of free men and women to argue against, write against, demonstrate against, and disobey the laws of this land when the practice of freedom falls short of the ideal. I am such a patriot.

That does not mean I am going to resist, or believe I can resist, to the point of taking up arms, though some think it could come to that for patriots in the days to come. It has in the past. In any case that would be pretty ineffectual. I have only one gun that shoots, a hunting rifle I haven't fired in fourteen years. It's under my bed if anyone comes looking.(Oh yes, I do have a pocket knife with a blade longer than three inches.) And I am old. Armed resistance is out of the question. Totally silly. And I have serious reservations about it being ever right. Passive resistance is another thing.

But I am a patriot. I will defend this nation and the principles of freedom it was founded upon. I will argue. I will write. And I will disobey those laws that deny and limit the freedoms won and defended by the lives and blood of millions of patriots past and present, yes, and those who are now serving in Afghanistan and serve in our military in other places defending the freedom we enjoy. I honor you. Thank you.

No nation lasts forever. Every nation will ultimately be judged by the only wise and righteous judge. This nation will be judged. As a Christian, I am absolutely convinced of that. But I believe I too will be judged, and in part that judgment will be based on how I stood for truth and righteousness. I find at this juncture of history I must declare with a Christian of the past who was faced with similar infringements of truth and righteousness: Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. I am a Christian patriot.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

I have had a bit of fun today satirically poking fun at some of the conspiracy theories I've mined from the Internet. But there is a serious side to all this. Though most conspiracies are probably phony, not all are. The most obvious of the real conspiracies we face is the plot of our government to gather information about every aspect of our daily lives. (Is it too strong to call it a plot?)

I will go on, but I first want to say that ninety-nine percent of the people who serve us in the military and public services, like the police, are great patriots whom I would trust my life to. In fact, I do trust my life to them every day. Many are my friends, and I do not mean anything that follows to impugn their character or the service their render to us. It is the system I have little confidence in, not the boots on the ground.

What do I mean then? I mean that we have created in the last few years the technology to spy on ourselves - and apparently have the will to do so - unknown in any society including the paranoid societies of the old Soviet Union and present day China. And we are doing just that. We are doing just that largely without question and are being told it is for our own good.

Here are some of the facts. The NSA is recording our email activity and can at any moment search every email we send or receive. They may not be doing so, but they can. They can also record and search the data records for every phone call we make. Are they doing so? Probably not. That would be mindlesss. But they can. The technology is there. But isn't that information secure? Sure it is; just ask Edward Snowden, though Snowden is the least of our concerns. It appears more and more likely that it is our own government that we need fear because it is our government that has the power.

In addition to that data, our government and private corporations are capable of tracking our every move. The gps chips in our smart phones can be read. We know that. We already use that for good purposes as we track down lost or stolen phones. But the technology is in place to do far more. Is it being used? Yes, some stores track shoppers in their stories to find out where they go and where they stop. The cash registers, of course, track our purchases. Oh yes, we get rewards for allowing the tracking. But the technology is there to do far more. And our credit card use is in data files accessible to the government, if it should wish to have it. And since 9/11 we have laws in place that allow the government that power.

How about not signing up for rewards programs or how about paying with cash instead of credit? Sorry, it won't work. The government has the technology to track us via the security cams scattered around our cities using face-recognition technology. Or the government can follow our movements using cameras that scan the license plates of cars parked in parking lots or parked along the street. And government agencies are using that technology. We are told it is for our good, of course. It will locate stolen cars and track criminals. We may be thankful for that. But the technology can do far more than find criminals.

So what about buying online? Forget about it. Our credit cards are tracked, and even our Internet usage is tracked. Look at the ads on the side bar of your Facebook page or the pop-ups on various sites. Those ads are specifically selected for you based on the record of the sites you've visited. I, for example, check out new cameras now and then. So, on my Facebook page I get ads for cameras and photography courses. And you get ads for the things the Internet site's algorithms determine are your interests. That is all done automatically by the computer, but the technology allows far more.

It may be the Internet knows more about you than you know about yourself. Take time to study the ads that pop up on pages you visit. That is who you are, you know.

Is all this the inevitable result of the technologies that are being developed? Is this invasion something we should just get used to and hope it is relatively benign? History has proven that such confidence in government is dangerous. But isn't our government different? I'll leave you to decide.

My purpose in this blog is not to be inflammatory or cause anxiety. It is also not to endorse fears about black ops helicopters and internment camps. It is simply to point out the obvious - and to relate it to Christian worldview.

Most Christians are aware of the predictions (prophecies) about the end of this age that are found in our Bible. If you are not I recommend reading Matthew 24 and the book of Revelation. (If you are not a Christian, you might think this is all really stupid, akin to the Mayan calendar and the Y2K scare, but still it might be worth

considering.) At no time in history have these things seemed more realistically possible than right now. Understand, I have never been prone to prophecy scares. I think they are more often than not designed to serve the ends of the organizations that promote them (forgive me if I am wrong)and have often resulted in extreme craziness like Branch Davidian. But it would take a particularly obtuse individual reader to miss the correlation between the clear words of the Bible and the events unfolding today.

That said, what shall we do? Jesus seems clear on that point. 1) Go on doing what he has given us all to do. That is to proclaim the mercy of God available to all who would hear and trust in him. 2) Be ready. We can neither forestall nor hasten the end of this age. But we can be prepared.

Being prepared does not mean to hunker down in our bunkers. It does not mean to put up a supply of arms and ammunition, or at least I can not find that idea in what Jesus said. It means to be spiritually ready, for the Lord could return at any moment. It also means to be prepared for the possibility of very hard times ahead.

I know that for some Christians the theology they hold to tells them that God will take them out of the world before the difficult times called the Great Tribulation. I hope they are right, but I am not counting on it. Christians around the world today are experiencing difficult times, even suffering death for their faith. Why should I think I will escape? Be ready, Jesus says. Be ready to trust God whatever the days ahead bring. Be ready to stand true for him through anything. Be ready to suffer for his sake, for he has warned us that we likely will.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Was there a Source?

In my research for my book The Story of Jesus According to Matthew, it soon became obvious that there was considerable debate on the source Matthew used and whether Matthew was dependent upon the gospel of Mark (which would imply that he was not an eyewitness). I found that the view of the ante-Nicene fathers, in particular Papias, that the Apostle Matthew wrote first and Mark later was the most reasonable. But several questions remained to be answered.

The first question was why there was so much similarity between Matthew and Mark and Luke. Though there is no consensus, the majority opinion of scholars is that Matthew and Luke used Mark as their source for many of the narratives contained in the their gospels. (Small narratives contained in a larger story are called pericopae, meaning a set of verses that form a unit or, in other words, a chunk.)That made sense for several reasons.

    Mark is grammatically and syntactically rougher than either Matthew or Luke. This can be seen in the English translations, where many of Mark's transitions are made with the simple word "immediately," but is even more obvious in the Greek text. It is supposed that the latter writers improved the literary quality of Mark as they borrowed from it. The opposite - Mark's use of Matthew, for example, but making the story rougher - seems unlikely.
    And many of the pericopae found in Mark and in one or both of the other gospels are shorter in Mark. In other words, Matthew and Luke tend to add information to what is supposed by many scholars to be the original source. Their conclusion that Mark is the first rests upon the text critical principle that the shorter version is more likely the original.

The second question is what was the source. It seems clear that there was a source that Matthew and the writers of Mark and Luke drew from. The similarities among these gospels are just too striking in too many places for there not to have been a common source. Not only so, but that source had to have been a document (or oral tradition) in the Greek language; the Greek texts of these shared narratives are simply too close to allow for each author translating from Aramaic.

It is also clear that the source (unless there were multiple sources) was used by all three authors but selectively. That is, in some instances Matthew and Mark include a particular pericope such as the calling of Peter and Andrew in Matthew 4:18-22 and Mark 1:16-20 - which are virtually word for word the same in the Greek - but Luke does not. In other instances, Matthew and Luke share a piece, such as the details of the temptations in Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13, that is completely absent from Mark.

That similarity between Matthew and Luke has led some Bible scholars to hypothesize a two document source, Mark plus a document which is no longer extant called Q. (Q means source.)

In either case, Mark is regarded as prior in time to Matthew. I've come to a different conclusion. I believe that Matthew was the first of the four accounts of Jesus' life (including John) contained in the New Testament. I recognize that there is a common source, of course, but I've come to the conclusion that source was the "teaching of the Apostles" which is mentioned in Acts 2:42, "All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals, and to prayer."

The teaching of the Apostles must have been oral at first. It must have included the things that Jesus said and did. It likely was in Aramaic, for that was the common language of the Jews in Jerusalem gathering as believers in Jesus in those early days. But as the group of believers grew, and especially as it began to include believers who were not Aramaic speakers but Greek speakers, the teaching of the Apostles would have had at least a second version in Greek. It is likely, also, that as time went on this oral narrative would have been written down, thus making it more or less settled in form and accounting for the similarities in the three gospel quotes from that source.

That accounts most logically and biblically for the source of all three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It also accounts for the rougher literary quality of Mark, since these "sayings" were probably not polished pieces of writing and not yet connected in a larger narrative such as the gospels.

There is one more puzzle, however. Papias wrote that Matthew originally wrote in Hebrew (perhaps he meant Aramaic). If that were so and if the Gospel of Matthew is a translation into Greek (by Matthew or by someone else) why are there no indications in the text of translation? Translation is a creative process. No two translations of the same text by different translators will be the same. Certainly, the similarities among the three gospels are such to preclude that Matthew is a translation. They all must be using the same source, and that source must have been in Greek.

The solution is Matthew. Matthew was at least bi-lingual and probably tri-lingual. He was a tax collector. He would have spoken and written well in Greek and Aramaic. And he was a Levite, evidenced by the name which Mark and Luke use for him of Levi. That implies he was well acquainted with the Hebrew Scriptures and able to both read and write in Hebrew, for that was the education of the Levites.

It is likely that Papias was right: Matthew did write his gospel narrative first in Hebrew. In that case, he had available to him the Aramaic version of the teaching of the Apostles - which he would have had a part in compiling since he was present and was one of the twelve. But his second, the Greek text we have, was not a translation. It was a rewritten version, composed in Greek using the Greek version of the teaching of the Apostles - which the other two writers, Mark and Luke, also used.

This logical and biblical approach to the Gospel of Matthew enables us to see the gospel as the work of an eyewitness to Jesus' life and to the priority which the earliest Christian writers affirmed.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Myth or More

What about the part of Genesis 1 that says there was light on earth before the creation of the sun? That was the question a thoughtful student had for me this week. He has been interested in Christianity and has been doing some reading both in the Bible and on the Internet. And he was having having trouble reconciling Genesis 1 verse 3 and verse 14.

As this student was reading it, verse 3 says that God created light on day one and verse 14 says God created the sun and moon and stars on day four. He wondered if the Bible could possibly be true if there was such a glaring inconsistency in this the first chapter.

I love those kinds of questions. They challenge me to think and research. And they always result in greater understanding of our world.

My research on this topic resulted in my coming to see a remarkable correlation between the narrative of origins we hear from science and the narrative of the Bible. The bottom line is that when we put the narratives side by side. The correlation is virtually one to one.

This was not a new idea. I've read about attempts to reconcile science and the Bible for a number of years. I've just never looked into myself.

First, some preliminary words both for my skeptic friends and my believing friends: I have come over a number of years to the conviction that the Bible does not require the interpretation of the creation narrative as a recent event that took place in a series of six days. Nor does the Bible require a priori the rejection of evolution as a natural process that had some part in creation. That will trouble some of my believer friends.

On the other hand, I have come to see Genesis 1 as a very sober, straightforward, and accurate account of the origin of the universe. It is not myth. It is not metaphorical. That will likely not be received well by my skeptic friends who have relegated Genesis 1 to the dustbin of ancient myth.

A preliminary word about biblical interpretation: One of the principles of good interpretation is the book must have made sense to the original recipients. In this case, I understand the original recipients to be Israelites who have recently been freed from their sojourn and slavery in Egypt and are needing to discover their identity and purpose. Genesis is, therefore, a book to tell them of their origins, who they are in God's sight, and what God's purpose for them is.

That means the creation narrative must by understood in a mid-second millennium B.C. context. It is not a scientific description. That would not make sense to anyone. If we insist in forcing it into the genre of scientific description, we will be disappointed.

But if it is not scientific, neither is it myth. C.S. Lewis, who was an eminent professor of ancient literature, wrote that those who call this story or the story of Jesus myth have never read a myth. Put the Genesis narrative side by side with the Babylonian creation myth and the difference is striking. The Babylonian myth is peopled by gods who cavort like humans run amuck and by monsters and fantastical creatures with no reality. Check out the Babylonian myth at the Grand Valley State University site.

What is the Genesis creation narrative? It is a straight forward story of creation told in language and terms understandable to mid-second millennium people.

Oh, yes. What about the conundrum my student called attention to? In the scientific narrative of earth history, there would have been a time early on when the earth was just beginning to cool and volcanoes and volcanic activity was constant. At that time the surface of the earth may well have been as dark as when Mt Saint Helens erupted and darkened eastern Washington at noon. Later as the earth continued to cool,smoke and steam would have obscured the sun, but there still would have been light. There still would have been day and night. Just as the Bible says. Later the atmosphere cleared. At that point the sun and moon and stars would have been visible in the sky. Just as the Bible describes. No problem. If you look closely, no creation of the sun or moon is mentioned in either of the verses. Both describe conditions while a sun already exists. When was the sun created? In verse 1.

The results of my research can seen here Creation and Science.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Matthew 5

Still working on the paraphrase of Matthew. Here's chapter 5, verses 1-16.
Mount of Beatitudes with the Sea of Galilee in the distance.

1-2. When Jesus saw the crowds that had followed him, he climbed a hill and sat down with His followers next to him, and he began to teach them. He said,

3. “Happy [1] are those who know their spiritual poverty, for they are the ones who are true citizens of God’s kingdom.

4. “Happy are those who now are filled with sadness over sin, for God himself will comfort them.

5. “Happy are those who are humble, for they will gain the world God has promised to his people.

6. “Happy are those who long to see the right prevail, for they will see their longings satisfied.

7. “Happy are those who show kindness to the downtrodden, for they will themselves receive mercy.

8. “Happy are those whose hearts are pure, for they are God’s children.

9. “Happy are those who work for peace, for they will be regarded as the children of God.

10. “Happy are those who are mistreated because they do right, for they will enjoy the kingdom of heaven.

11-12. “Happy are you when people hate you and mistreat you and falsely accuse you of all kinds of evil just because you belong to me. Yes, be glad, for this is what people did to the prophets who lived before you.

13. “You of whom these things are true, you are the salt that preserves this world. But take care. If salt loses its taste, it is of no value. It is of no more value than sand. It will be thrown out and walked on like dirt.

14-16. “You are the light that illuminates this dark world. Just as a city on a hill cannot be hidden, your light will provide light for all. Men do not hide a lamp under a basket. No, they put it out where it can give light to the entire house. In the same way, let your good lives shine before all. Let all see your how you live that they may give honor to God, your Father in heaven.

Footnotes

[1] Happy does not adequately capture the sense of the Greek word makarios. But blessed, used in older translations, makes little sense to us today. The idea of the word is one who has received the favor of someone richer. In the Bible it usually means one who has been particularly favored by God.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Matthew Chapter 2

A Tumultuous Beginning

A new paraphrase.

1-2. Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the Jewish region of Judea while Herod the Great was King. After his birth, astrologers, who are called Magi, [1] came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star and have come to worship him.”

3-4. Herod was disturbed when he heard this and all the people of Jerusalem with him. When he had gathered all the chief priests and Jewish Bible scholars, he asked them where this “Christ” was supposed to be born.

4-6. They told him that he would be born in Bethlehem of Judea because that is what the prophet wrote: “Bethlehem in the land of Judah, you are in no way the least among the cities of Judah. From you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” [2]

Streets of Bethlehem in 1880. Things have changed since Joseph and Mary walked this way. Yet, in many villages of the Middle East some things never change. This street scene might not be too different from the streets of first century Bethlehem.

7-8. Herod called the Magi to meet with him, but he did this secretly without the knowledge of the priests or scholars. Herod wanted to find out when they had first seen the star. Then he sent them to Bethlehem. He commanded, “Go and find the child, and then come back and tell me, so I too can go and worship him.”

9-12. The Magi listened to Herod and went to Bethlehem. The star they had seen while they had been in the East showed them the way and finally came to rest above the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. They entered the house and saw the child with his mother Mary, and having found the child they knelt down and worshiped him. They opened the gifts they had brought – gold and frankincense and myrrh. But having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their own country avoiding Jerusalem.

13-15. After the Magi left Mary and the child, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him, “Get up. Take the child and Mary and leave right away for Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” Joseph immediately got up and took the child and Mary that night and left for Egypt. He stayed there until Herod died. This fulfilled the prophet’s words: “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” [3]

16. When Herod realized he had been tricked by the Magi, he was very angry. He ordered that all the boys who were two years old and younger in Bethlehem and in the whole region around Bethlehem be killed. He decided on that age because of what the Magi had told him about the first appearing of the star.

17-18. That fulfilled the words of the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice could be heard in Ramah, crying with loud wails of grief, Rachel crying for her children; and she would not be comforted because her children were dead.” [4]

19-23. After several years, however, Herod died, and an angel came again to Joseph in a dream. The angel told Joseph, “Take the child and Mary and return to the land of Israel. Those who tried to kill the child are dead.” So Joseph did what the angel said, returning with the child and Mary to Israel. But when they arrived he heard that Archelaus, Herod’s son, was king in Judea, and Joseph was afraid. However, he was directed in a dream to find a home in the region of Galilee, and he took the child and Mary there to a small village called Nazareth. This fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophets that the Messiah would be a Nazarene. [5]

Footnotes

[1] Magi were professional astrologers or astronomers who were part of a priestly class in Persia. The wise men who advised Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel were probably of this class. Daniel may have been considered among the Magi, and it may have been through Daniel that these Magi in Matthew came to know of the star that was to come out of Judah. See Numbers 24:17.

[2] Micah 5:2, 4

[3] Jeremiah 31:15

[4] Hosea 11:1

[5] There is no direct quote in the Old Testament for this reference. Some think that Matthew is making a play on words, something like what we would call a pun, since Nazarene is close to the word Nazirite. A Nazirite was a person dedicated to God. Samson, for example, was a man dedicated from birth to God. See Judges 13:7.

Matthew

Matthew the author.

In our hurry to get into the book itself, we often overlook the author. That is a mistake. Knowing the author and his purpose in writing is important to our understanding of any piece of writing and certainly to our understanding of this gospel. In fact, as we better understand the man called Matthew and his passion for the Messiah and for his own Jewish people, what he wrote of Jesus takes on greater significance and deeper meaning.

Who was Matthew? The answer that immediately rolls off our tongue is that he is the Matthew who was the disciple and Apostle of that name, called by Jesus to become one of the twelve disciples. But in recent years that assumption has been challenged. The author does not sign his name to the manuscript. He includes no first person “we” memories of Jesus or first person recollections of what would have been his shared experiences with the other disciples. He even seems to use long passages from a previously existing source rather than personal eyewitness testimony - which the author must have had if he were the disciple Matthew. So, were we mistaken? I do not think so.

Who was Matthew? If you were to ask him he would tell you, as he does in his gospel, that he was just a man, a sinner, who followed Jesus. He would happily leave it at that and change the discussion to what was really his passion, the Messiah.

But of course, Matthew’s brief, humble reply would be only part of the story. History tells us that he was more than a humble follower of Jesus. He was also an Apostle to his people and the author of the book called by his name.

There are two lines of evidence, I believe, for Matthew’s authorship of the gospel that lead us back to what the church has for eighteen centuries accepted as true. The first is the conviction of the early church father Papias. Writing in the early part of the second century, Papias identified the author of the book as the disciple Matthew. Papias also tells us that Matthew wrote for Jewish Christians and perhaps wrote in the Hebrew or Aramaic language. To take the word of someone who lived as little as one generation distant from the author of the book seems reasonable. He certainly knew the events that surrounded the beginning of the church far better than we can know them from a distance of almost two thousand years.

The second line of evidence is a manual for conduct and practice in the early church called the Didache. It is dated to the late first or early second century (100-130 A.D.) and was considered the teachings of the Apostles. The Didache contains the Lord’s Prayer just as it appears in the gospel of Matthew as well as the Trinitarian baptismal formula as it is found in chapter 28 of the gospel. Along with these longer quotes, the Didache also uses many brief clips from Matthew’s gospel, words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount that are not found in the other gospels. The heavy dependence of the Didache on Matthew would indicate both the early and apostolic origin of the gospel of Matthew and the gospel's importance to the early church.

However, it is not the historical evidence for authorship that is most significant for our understanding of his message. It is the portrait of Matthew that emerges from the book itself.

Matthew clearly was a literate and knowledgeable reader of the Hebrew Scriptures. He quotes extensively from those scriptures, more than any of the other three gospel writers. And it was a knowledge that is understandable when we see in the gospels of Mark and Luke that Matthew was also known as Levi. That name identifies Matthew as a man belonging to the clan assigned to serve in temple ministry, a man who would have been well schooled in the scriptures of Israel.

Yet when we are introduced to him in the gospels he was a man who was working at the most despised of professions, a tax collector for the Romans, and consorting with sinners. How had he fallen? Why?

Perhaps Matthew’s personal experience of the “religion” of Israel is the answer.

Matthew would have grown up in a family intimately associated with religion. He would have seen personally the corruption and political compromise and deadness (the very things that Jesus confronted and that Matthew reported at length in the gospel). If he had been a young man serious about God, dead religion up close and personal must have been a terrible, disturbing disappointment. Like many young people today who become disillusioned by the emptiness of the religion they see in their churches, the only option seemed to be to walk away from it all. He didn’t end up serving drinks in a sleazy back street bar, but his job as tax collector and partier with sinners was not much different. It was as far away from the religion of his youth as he could get. Yet there smoldered in Matthew a hope. It was a passion that is evident in his frequent references to the prophet Isaiah.

Isaiah, more than any other prophet, weeps in pain at the moral and spiritual decline of Israel. Yet this same Isaiah deeply hopes in the Messiah - whose portrait he so wonderfully draws in the powerful 53rd chapter of his message - the Servant of God who would take away the sin of his people. These were a people whom Isaiah pictures as an “afflicted city” (Isaiah 54:11), a people who were waiting in “darkness” (Isaiah 61:1). And that was Matthew. He was a pile of kindling waiting for a flame. Jesus was that flame.

It is not surprising after hearing Jesus preaching that the kingdom of God was present, after seeing the genuineness of Jesus’ character and seeing the power of his compassion, that Matthew would at Jesus’ word leave the tax booth to follow this incredible man. Jesus, he felt deep down and without question, was the hope of Israel. This man was his hope. This man was Messiah. Matthew could do no less than follow.

Matthew’s passionate surrender to the one he knew to be Messiah left him forever humbled. It is not insignificant that Matthew alone of the three gospel writers who tell of the Lord’s calling uses the name Matthew and not the name Levi. (In fact, he goes further. He calls himself simply “a man.”) The name Levi carried far more status than Matthew wished now to bear.

Nor is it insignificant that in the list of the twelve disciples included in all three gospels, Matthew alone would add to his name, “the publican.” (He might as well have written Matthew the sinner, for that is what he meant.) Yes, Matthew’s encounter with Messiah left him deeply and profoundly humbled, but it also left him with a burden.

Matthew’s passionate surrender to Messiah would turn him to his people with the message of the Servant Savior. He saw his people as the people described by Isaiah: “Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like people without eyes. At midday we stumble as if it were twilight; among the strong, we are like the dead” (Isaiah 59:10). Upon them the light had now dawned. And with the burden of a prophet, Matthew would spend the rest of his life speaking the message of Messiah Jesus, the Light. He would bear that burden to his people in Judea and then across western Asia. Out of that passion flow the words of the book we know now as the Gospel of Matthew.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

DNA, Computer Programs, and God

Is life designed? Or is it the product of chance and natural processes? That is the topic of this blog.

The motivation for writing is to sharpen the idea I introduced in a previous blog, which went viral with more than 15 page views (some of which, I admit, may have been mine).

That question was can random addition of information (which is the premise of evolution) ever result in an improved version. My premise was that it would not. I used as an example the addition of random letters to a book. In my test of the proposition, no useful information was added. My conclusion was that no matter how many times the process is attempted no new useful information would be added. That seems an intuitive conclusion. But a friend pointed out that I had stacked the deck. I had created a strawman argument. And he was right; I had oversimplified. This blog is an attempt to test my premise a little more realistically.

First, it is important to understand what means and processes drive evolution. They are mutation, random genetic drift, and gene flow [1]. There is, however, the probability that additional forces and processes play a part[2]. Natural selection then acts upon any newly expressed features, selecting out those organisms less viable or less able to pass on their genes to the next generation.

In simple terms (if this isn't already too simple) any new feature, such as eye color, arising in an individual by mutation must be passed on to the next generation if it is to become part of the population and result in any change in the succeeding generations. This is actually unlikely to happen because the cell has a self-correcting mechanism that usually eliminates mutation. One self-correcting process is called recombination. Recombination assists in DNA repair writes Suzanne Clancy, Ph.D on this Nature.com page [3]. But let's imagine that the mutation is passed on.

For example, by a genetic mutation a single plant may have curled leaves. That gene might be passed on to the next generation of that plant. [A].

If the new feature is passed on, curled leaves may give that second generation plant a selective advantage, meaning the curled leaves enable the new curled leaf plant to survive and reproduce better than the plants without curled leaves. That is evolution in the most limited sense. Or curled leaves may give the second generation plant a selective disadvantage. In that case, the new feature and the mutated gene that caused it will pass out of the population, and no evolutionary changes occurs.

Fundamental to all of this is DNA. DNA is the information (instruction book) that drives the development of every living organism [4]. DNA is is every cell, including those cells which will be part of the reproduction of another organism.

Now, is there anything like DNA with which we might compare and test the processes of evolution? It turns out there is. A computer program is very much like DNA. If I may quote Bill Gates, "DNA is like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software ever created" (The Road Ahead, p. 228). But many others have noted the similarity as well. This article [5] on Discovery.org quotes biologist Leroy Hood and biotech guru David Galas and MIT Professor of Mechanical Engineering Seth Lloyd.

If DNA is very much like the digital code of a computer program, does it function in the cells as a program? Yes, says Bill Gates, among many others including Glyn Moody in Digital Code of Life, p. 4,5. Then the question is can a computer program differentiate (change) by the same means suggested for living organisms, that is by random unguided processes. That would seem to be an interesting test of the theory of evolution.

Now, programs can be exceedingly simple or exceptionally complex. My first attempt at programming at Codeacademy.com was >alert ("This is my first program."). It created a box with the message in it. But obviously most programs are a bit more complex. For example, the code for a simple E-coli bacterium contains 1.5MB of information. The human genome contains 1.5GB + of information. The program for E-coli is small as programs go. The program for humans is rather large.

So, could a computer program function if something like a point mutation occurred? A point mutation would be a change in one letter of a line of code. If that letter or symbol were the > in my small program, the program would not work. If that letter were a letter in the message, only the message would be changed, and then only by a very small amount. My brother-in-law, an experienced programmer, told me of another example.

I once troubleshot a problem when an inadvertent energy pulse would take command of an address/data bus and zero out the information contained on the bus at that instant. The resulting set of zeros became a hex command (00) and a data byte (0000) which translated into a program that reset the 'seconds' register in the real time clock. This 'mutation' is a perfect example of either a random functional change to an existing software organism or a simple random 'standalone', ' functional' software organism.
So, it is possible for a point mutation in a computer program to create functional change. How about in a living organism?

In a program the size of the genome of E-Coli bacteria, 1.5MB, it is unlikely but possible that a point mutation would cause a serious problem. But it is also unlikely that a point mutation would change any functionality or result in a new (novel) feature in the program, one that would separate the program with no mutation from the program with the mutation. My brother-in-law's example is, I think, rare and noticed only when it does create a problem or by computer programmers, whose job it is to maintain the functionality of the program. Most of us with computers live with various problems due to mutated programs without serious complaint. There is some similarity to living things.

In living things a point mutation is rare, particularly in the reproductive cells, which is the only place it would matter in evolution; and it is most often neutral in effect. It is silent, meaning it causes no change in the features of the organism.[6] Sometimes, however a point mutation results in the death of the organism's offspring. Much more rarely (to the point of being exceedingly rare) is there any result that is beneficial to the organism, and often those mutations simply "allow genetic diversity to exist within a population, increasing the range of alleles."[7]. Alleles are alternative forms of a gene. One allele will produce blue eyes, another brown. A population, such as the population of all humans, is made more resilient when there are more alleles. So in this way a population is benefited. But point mutations do not result in evolution in the larger sense of speciation [B] or the addition of information to the genome.

A frame-shift mutation has a greater effect and usually makes the DNA sequence meaningless [8]. Because there is redundancy in the genome, a frame shift mutation may not result in the death of the the offspring, though often it does; but it does not result in improved functionality either because it subtracts useful information. I repeat, most mutations are neutral in the effects they have on the organism [9]. In a computer program a frame-shift mutation would be similar to the scrambling of line of code. Depending on how crucial that line is to the program's function the scrambling of a line of code may mean nothing, or it may crash the program. It will never improve functionality.

Another class of mutation is gene duplication. In a computer program that would be the duplication of a line of code. That does usually have an effect on the functionality of the program, according to my programmer daughter, but it probably won't crash the program, though it could. Usually it duplicates a function. What it does not do, unless it is purposely done by the programmer, is create new and beneficial functionality in the program. (Has anyone reading this ever turned on their computer in the morning and found that any program has become more functional overnight by a random "update?")

In living things the results are similar, though duplicating a function in living things often causes weird additions that make the organism non-viable. Lab experiments have caused these kinds of mutations in organisms such as fruit flies. The result may be another set of wings or eyes. Usually these duplicate features are useless, however. And useless features are deleted out of the population by natural selection.

My conclusion regarding the possibility of random mutations providing new information and thereby increasing the functionality of either a computer program or an organism is that the possibility is so rare as to be non-existent, though there is actually more chance of this happening in living things than in a computer program. Those mutations, however, are not evolution. They create diversity, but diversity does not necessarily result in new species.[10]. In the programmer's world a new species is always the result of purpose and design. Is it also so in the natural world?

But what about genetic drift? Could it provide the means of natural unguided evolution?

Genetic drift is the random change in the frequency in which any one allele (a gene for one variation of a feature, such as blue eyes) is found in the next generation of a population. If in one generation there are ten blue eyed people and ten brown eyed people and in the next there are four blue eyed individuals and six brown eyed individuals, genetic drift has occurred. The result over time may be that brown eyed individuals continue to increase in frequency. Eventually, there may be no blue eyed individuals. Evolution has occurred, according to the broadest definition of the term. But notice that no new feature has arisen from genetic change, only the frequency of already existing traits. And no additional information has been added to the genome.

In computer programs that may be the equivalent of waking up in the morning, turning on your computer, and finding that the theme on your browser was different. You had a theme on the browser when you turned off the computer. Now it is different, but it is not a novel feature and it provides no more functionality that the older version.

Finally, there is gene flow. Gene flow is a lot like genetic drift. It changes the frequency of one variation or another in a population. It does so by mixing individuals from one population with another. In biology gene flow actually works against evolution by reducing the amount of differences between one sub-population and another.

In computer programs it might be the equivalent of in open source program such as the browser I use, SeaMonkey, where a programmer may add a variation, such as the theme color of the browser. The variations may keep users entertained enough by the browser to keep us from changing to Chrome, but in this analogy, no additional information is added. The only thing that has happened is that the information in one line of code is changed. Perhaps in time one color theme dominates and another color is discontinued. But again, no additional information is added.

Programmers, forgive me. My understanding of programming is limited. However, the real issue is biology not programming.

The bottom line is that most of the means and processes that are suggested as the drivers of evolution do not - by themselves - any more than random mutations, or the frequency of variations in a computer program change a program in any significant way, especially in any beneficial way.

That begs the question why so many biologists, who know in far greater detail the limits of these means and processes than I, believe that evolution (in the larger sense of the word) is a purposeless natural process. It seems so unlikely. I venture to guess. First, there is no other competing "scientific" theory. Now, I can understand believing that change over time is self-evident. I do not understand why that would lead to the conclusion that change is mindless. Remember, the genome has increased from 1.5MB or 1.5GB. That is big. Virtually all the information in the human genome is vital to the functioning of our bodies. Evolution must account for the increase. I don't think it does.

The second is that for some, adding a director violates Occam's Razor. Occam's Razor is the principle in logic that the simpler explanation is better unless the more complex explanation has greater ability to explain the phenomena observed. But the fact is, natural unguided evolution does not explain the phenomenon of the diversity in living things we observe. Adding an intelligent director does.

Finally, it is possible that the issue is metaphysical rather than scientific, or perhaps in modern parlance, a matter of worldview. A worldview is what we believe to be true. Though a worldview is developed over time, it is largely the result not of facts but of suppositions acquired from our culture and family. My worldview includes a Creator. Another person's worldview might be wholly materialistic allowing no room for a Creator. My default conclusion is that the facts add up to the need of a Director. A materialist's default conclusion is that the facts add up to no need of a Director.

In my opinion, if the issues are science and logic, the reasonable conclusion is that the natural world and the change that has occurred over time argues for the need of a Director just as a new version of a computer program argues for a programmer. If the issue is worldview,however, facts and logic don't persuade - and that is true for me as much as it is for the materialist. I do not believe anyone is neutral here. The argument that I trust only the facts is specious. Everyone interprets the facts, and interpretation is done in the context of worldview.

For my part, I find science and logic support my conviction that the living world must have a Director/Designer. If I look beyond the living world to the cosmos, the subject of the next blog, my conviction only grows stronger.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Evolution in the Dock

Most scientists think evolution is the most powerful theory in biology. I would agree entirely. Scientists have used the understanding they have gained from the theory of evolution to create new medicines and develop new strains of crops among many other things. Together these two broad advances have made our lives immeasurably better.

However, as an explanation for diversification and speciation it has some serious problems. Now, I don't mean to say that evolution has not occurred. That would be another discussion. What I mean is that evolution as a wholly natural and unguided process accounting for the tremendous diversity of life on earth is highly improbable. Let's take a look.

Fundamental to all living things is DNA. DNA is the most complex and organized thing we know of in the universe. Your DNA and mine instructs our cells to grow into the highly specialized organs that make up our bodies. It tells my eyes to be blue and yours to be brown. It determines whether I will lose my hair as I get older or just turn gray.

The information stored in every single human cells' DNA is estimated to be about 1.5 gigabytes. That doesn't sound like much today. (There is a bit of debate about that. Some describe that 1.5 GB as a "zipped file" in which a great deal more information is stored than 1.5 GB.) The computer I am writing on would store that easily. But compared to something I can visualize, 1 GB in printed books could fill a pickup truck. How many bytes for?.

A bacterium, which is somewhat similar to the presumed first living thing, has about 0.1 % of a human's DNA. Genomes of Bacteria. Put in terms I can understand, that would be one book compared to 1000. Now, the problem comes when I try to understand how the information in the bacterium could increase to the information in the human cell.

Roughly, this is how evolution is supposed to work. Mutations provide new information. That is a random process. Natural selection eliminates information that doesn't work, leaving information that in some way benefits the organism. (I know this is extremely simplified.)

So I start with a book full of information. Four billion years later I have a truck load. Let's see how that might work.

Pick any book on your shelf. Start with an encyclopedia, if you like. Find the last word in the book and add one random letter. Add another and another until you have, maybe, a dozen random letters following the last word in the book. Now, cross out all the letters that don't add up to a new word.

I'll do that with a book titled To Change the World (seems appropriate for our purpose). The last word is better. I'll add a dozen random letters: ejoyclthmapl. If I now cross out the letters that don't make sense, I am left with joy and map. I should note that I've been unusually lucky. Having two words in the first twelve random letters is a far larger percentage than anyone would expect in the process of mutation and natural selection. The fact is, only a very small percentage of mutations provide useful additional information. But even so, do the two words look to you as though they could become the first two words in another page of the book (or any book)? I doubt it.

However, if a purely mindless evolution is to create 1000 books from 1 book, that is what must have happened thousands and thousands and thousands of times over. Does anyone believe that could happen? I doubt it.

So since evolutionary scientists tell us that it did happen, I have to ask how? How could the extraordinarily improbable (on the order of being statistically impossible) have happened?

The only way that I can imagine that happening is if there were an author. If there were an author, the impossible becomes perfectly possible, even expected.

My conclusion is that if mutation and natural selection is the process by which the human genome came to be, an extraordinarily intelligent author had to have directed the process. My evolutionist friends will, of course, ask me how that presumed author might have done this, and I have no answer to that. But I don't need to be able to answer the question how. (Actually, evolutionists cannot answer that how question either.) I only have to know that there is no other logical answer than an author ordered it. I am happy to call that author God.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Reason and Mystery

One of the oft-heard complaints against the Bible is that it defies reason and demands faith. That, according to the critics, is damning. We live by reason today, they say, not by faith.

Many Christians would agree, though from the opposite side of the table: We "live by faith and not by sight." But does that mean belief in God is unreasonable?

That, in fact, was the topic of a debate I recently watched between Drs. William Lane Craig and Alex Rosenberg. If you'd like to watch the debate it is here on YouTube.

Dr. Craig did a good job of laying out the reasonable basis for faith in God. The arguments were not new, but they were cogently expressed. Dr. Rosenberg's arguments against the reasonableness of belief in God seemed inadequate, even carping. I wish the format of the debate had been different. Maybe Dr. Rosenberg could then have argued in a positive way for disbelief in God or for his own position as a Materialist. Short of that, I find the purely materialistic cosmos Dr. Rosenberg believes in to be no better than believing in fairies; there is less evidence and reason for materialism than theism by far. It would seem to me that if reason was, in fact, the bottom line for the skeptic, a reasonable person would believe. But many don't. Why?

It was by a serendipitous juxtaposition of events that just the day after watching the debate my pastor spoke about one of the mysteries of our faith, the incarnation of God in Jesus. As I listened it occurred to me that this is the sticking point for many reasonable people, the mysteries. And clearly there are mysteries that defy reason. By mystery I mean that they are not knowable by reason; they are known by revelation. That is how the Bible uses the word. I do not mean they are illogical.

The great mysteries of the Christian faith are the triune nature of God, the incarnation of God in Jesus, and the mystery of salvation and God's plan for the ages (Romans 16:25 and 1 Corinthians 2:6-13) et al. These mysteries must be received by faith. Reason can not reach them. And I understand that is hard for many. But it is not impossible.

I respect honest doubt. And Jesus did too, by the way. That is the reason he responded so gently to John the Baptist's doubt in Matthew 11. He knew that it was honest doubt. And he knew that honest doubt is satisfied by the facts. I am confident that John found the facts sufficient.

That is not to say that faith is easy. It is not. It is hard. And sometimes it is harder than others. But the alternative is insane. Choose sanity.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

What if I am Wrong?

I sat with my old friend sipping coffee on an afternoon, he an avowed lifelong atheist, I a Christian for nearly 50 years.

"Why do you believe in God?" my friend asked.

I rose from my easy chair to stand at the glass slider that opened to my friend's patio. A stack of wood stood in the back corner of his yard, the benefits of which we were enjoying that chilly winter afternoon. Beyond the wood, Grays Harbor lay quietly at high tide. In the distance ringing the bay, wooded mountains, mountains we both loved, and in the far distance, Mt. Rainier rose barely visible against a slatey sky.

"All this?" I nodded toward the mountains. "From nothing? By itself?"

He was quiet. Then after a bit my friend continued, "You are a Christian. Why do you believe your god is God?"

I picked up a volume of history my friend had been reading when I arrived. "Do you believe that every event in history had a cause?" I knew he did.

He agreed.

"In 1958 I was a young teen. A preacher had come to my school to speak about Jesus. He spoke of the forgiveness we could experience if we would but receive it, God's forgiveness available because of Jesus' death for me upon a cross and confirmed by Jesus' rising from the dead."

"Yes. I know the story," he said, maybe a little impatiently.

His wife refreshed our coffee as I continued. "I believed what that man said and became a follower of Jesus, and. to be honest, my life was changed. At some time in that man's past, someone had likewise spoken to him, and he had become a believer."

"That chain of events and causes, one person telling the story and another believing, stretches back to the first telling sometime in the early first century."

"But why would anyone tell the story for the first time? There was no benefit to him for the telling. Almost to a man, those who first told the message, and many who followed, died for the telling. Why?

"The only adequate answer is that they truly believed that Jesus had risen from the dead. And who would have known most surely than these men, the first apostles? They saw him crucified. They saw him buried. They saw him alive a few days later. That was their testimony, and they held to it, everyone of them."

"If Jesus actually did rise from the dead, it is the most incredible event in history."

I raised the book of history as emphasis, "It is the pivotal moment in history. It confirmed all Jesus had said about himself, about God's love for us, about the possibility of return to friendship with God, about eternal life. Is the God I believe in God? Yes, I think so.

"But what if you are wrong?" my friend asked.

I had never considered that before. I paused, then continued. "I have enjoyed my life. I have a wonderful wife who has been a companion and my love for over forty years. I have two children and their families of whom I am immensely proud."

"Over my life, though I have done some things of which I am not proud, I have not defrauded anyone I know of. I have fed the hungry here in Aberdeen and Ocean Shores, built homes for the homeless in Mexico, helped provide water wells for villagers in northern Africa, and given aid to those who are rescuing trafficked children in India. I have tried to live simply and yet have had enough to give of my things to those in need."

"I have stood by the bedside of friends in their last hour. I have cared for my family, giving up my own ambitions for their sake."

"When I come to the end of my life, if I am wrong, I will go to my rest satisfied that I have lived well and have left the world in some small way a better place."

My friend was silent.

I let him think, then continued, "You have asked interesting questions, but you have not asked the most serious question."

"And what is that?" he asked.

"What if I am right?" I replied.

This conversation took place almost seven years ago now. My friend is now dead. I pray that he gave careful thought to what we spoke of that day.