Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Winning the War by being better

Gene Veith writes some interesting thoughts in this weeks World . His thesis is that the war on terror is won not so much by bombs and bullets but by ideas and ideals:

The Washington Post's Phillip H. Gordon recognizes that the conflict with radical Islam is an ideological war, like the struggle of the free, capitalist West against communism. He points out, however, that victory in the Cold War came not from armed warfare but from winning the ideological argument. He says that instead of using military might against Islamists, we should be demonstrating to the Muslim world the superiority of Western ideas
Veith goes on in the article to question whether America has the stomach to enter into an ideological war ... have we become such a pluralist society that we have nothing to offer but a meek shrug to those who call us the great Satan?

Interestingly, The Economist this week features an analysis of eroding civil liberties during the current war on terror. They too use the Cold War analogy to the War on Terror -- but apply it in a different, though not contradictory, way (as in this quote):

A hot, total war like the second world war could not last for decades, so the curtailment of domestic liberties was short-lived. But because nobody knew whether the cold war would ever end (it lasted some 40 years), the democracies chose by and large not to let it change the sort of societies they wanted to be. This was a wise choice not only because of the freedom it bestowed on people in the West during those decades, but also because the West's freedoms became one of the most potent weapons in its struggle against its totalitarian foes.

If the war against terrorism is a war at all, it is like the cold war—one that will last for decades. Although a real threat exists, to let security trump liberty in every case would corrode the civilised world's sense of what it is and wants to be.

When liberals put the case for civil liberties, they sometimes claim that obnoxious measures do not help the fight against terrorism anyway. The Economist is liberal but disagrees. We accept that letting secret policemen spy on citizens, detain them without trial and use torture to extract information makes it easier to foil terrorist plots. To eschew such tools is to fight terrorism with one hand tied behind your back. But that—with one hand tied behind their back—is precisely how democracies ought to fight terrorism.

The point of both articles being this...there is much more at stake here than simply security from future terrorist attacks. What is at stake is what kind of society we ought to be. What is it that we stand for as a people.

Now please, don't think that I'm advocating an uncritical look at our society...we have our problems and our dysfunctions. Every society does. The social prophets out there who look upon pain and suffering need not think I'm telling them to pack their suitcases and head to Canada. We need self examination so we can be stronger.

But for Pete's sake, if we're to prevail against a growing tide of angry radicals, then we need to do more than beat our chests and say how great America is (or analyze our decline -- see this interesting and provocative discussion between Rod Dreher and Cullen Murphy).

We need to demonstrate the greatness of our society. This goes back to the principle of being builders (see also these posts) Where are the areas where individuals and private organizations can demonstrate truth, beauty, and goodness on such a scale that the rest of the world marvels. How can we build local institutions, customs, businesses, and neighborhoods that are so strong that the radicals will come and know that they haven't a chance? The parable for our age is World War Z (see my review of this great book).

So your thoughts... how do we as a society not succumb to the cynicism of despair, but rather build in hope?

Sola Gratia.... Sola Gratia

Monday, September 24, 2007

More on Union In Christ by Purves and Achtemeier

Other Posts in the series:
Union In Christ: We're on a Mission from God
Introduction to Union in Christ

Sobering words here for any preacher: “Not everyone who hears the gospel of Christ – however skillfully proclaimed – recognizes Christ as the Word of God and believes. It is not enough just to hear about Jesus or, even like those first witnesses, to see him face to face. Something extra is required for us to recognize and respond to him as the Son of God. That ‘extra’ is the work of the Holy Spirit.” (19-20). Scary because it reaffirms the truth that we’re not in control. We may be able to wheedle and manipulate, but without the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit working in the lives of the congregation, there is no real effective change.

Congregations ought to take note as well. Perhaps such a realization would keep people from placing ministers on too high of a pedestal. Ministers are vessels, yes. They may be powerfully used by God…but they are not God. Churches need to transcend the personality of individual ministers to live into the truth that it is the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit alone who calls the body together, strengthens the body, and empowers the body for ministry.

Purves and Achtemeier then stress the “ordinary means of grace” – the Word preached and the Sacraments observed. This emphasis is not to take away from God’s extraordinary means of grace; God continues to work in a myriad of different ways to reach hearts. Rather, this emphasis is to help us keep from majoring in the minors. Extraordinary means of grace can raise our awareness and appreciation; the ordinary means of grace deepen our understanding and conviction. The extraordinary means that God works through should always lead us back to the ordinary means of grace of Word and Sacrament.

Thus Purves and Achtemeier talk of the ministry of the word. Here I would have liked a little more clarity on the difference between Jesus as the living Word and scripture as God’s authoritative word to his creatures. The authors rightly talk about the call to obedience; they rightly talk about God’s transformational and creative power. However, I would have liked to have seen something that clearly spoke to the authority of scripture as a guide and rule for life. Don’t get me wrong – the section on the Word is good. But it lacks a certain clarity that would have been more comfortable to me.

The section on Baptism follows. The authors give a good explanation of the reformed understanding of Baptism as more than simply a sign. They wrestle with the challenging issue of the baptized who later fall away. In this section they cling closely to Calvin and various confessions of the faith. They also bring out the nuance that not only does baptism unite us to Christ, but it unites us to one another as his body. Finally, they address the issue of Baptism into Christ as an exclusive claim of Christ’s lordship. Overall, they give a good discussion that conveys the sense of what the sacrament means in the Presbyterian church.

The Lord’s Supper gets much shorter shrift – having already laid the groundwork of understanding it as a sign and seal of the covenant. It is a comparatively light treatment that avoids the controversies of the various denominations over how exactly the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ. This is likely a helpful discussion to avoid because their point is to stress how the Lord’s supper does signify our union with Christ and our enjoyment of that Union together with the whole body of Christ.

More to come (I hope).
Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Calling to be builders

John Daly put up this interesting video and asked for comment. The thesis of the video is that there are 7 spheres of influence that Christians are called to take part in so as to shape culture.

Now, being a good Calvinist, I believe that the Bible teaches that part of the calling on our lives is to build godly culture. And this includes good government, fair and honest business, excellent public institutions (like libraries, schools, and non-profits), biblically faithful churches, strong families, and an interest in excellence in the arts and media. Abraham Kuyper talks about the same kind of thing in his Lectures on Calvinism, in which he posits that Christ is the soveriegn over all these "spheres" of life. That doesn't mean the church is sovereign -- the church is one sphere with a distinct set of principles and a distinct mission. Meanwhile the arts, for example, have a different set of principles and a different mission in God's economy, yet according to Kuyper, the arts are still under the sovereign reign of the Living Lord Jesus Christ. The same would hold for business, science, government, the family, etc -- all having distinct principles and mission -- and all under the soveriegn rule of Christ.

Thus, Calvinism, taught rightly, ought to produce the best most engaged citizens out there. People who are involved in the community, working in the schools, investing in the public institutions. Simply put, we as Christians ought to be builders. (Yes, I'm well aware that there are diseased and unhealthy institutions and organizations in society that are beyond repair -- a part of healthy building is selective pruning out of what isn't working).

Contrast that with the ethos of destruction. This is the ethos of "I'm going to have mine, and the rest of you can play with a rusty chainsaw, for all I care." This is the ethos that spawns the latest crop of "torture chic" films (like Saw, Hostel, The Hills Have Eyes, etc). This is the ethos that turns a diverting video game like Second Life into a den of depravity, exploitation, and selfishness (see the article in this week's World Magazine).

And sadly, this is the ethos that drives the purges of atheistic regimes. When God is taken out of the picture, we have very little to build for. Consider the great purges done by Stalin, Mao, The Khymer Rouge, the French Revolution. All the rhetoric about the Crusades and the Salem Witch Trials pales in the face of the millions upon millions who have been systematically slaughtered by atheistic regimes.

And one telling feature -- part of these purges was an intentional targeting of the tastemakers. The intellectuals, writers, politicians, religious leaders, scientists ... anyone who might be a threat to the control of those in power. Basically, these regimes wanted to seize control of the major spheres of influence for themselves. And all of these regimes failed.

So we look at Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and shiver -- he is seizing control of all the spheres of influence. Schools. The Government. The Media. even time will be subject to his whims. All the while he and his cronies live it up on the backs of the poor. How long, I wonder, before the bloodletting begins. Even so -- he too will pass, for he is not sovereign. Christ and Christ alone is sovereign over the spheres of influence.

And, Lord willing, Christians will move to the rubble and build anew....

Soli Deo Gloria

Bits and Pieces september 18

Checking out Lifehacker this evening -- some very cool websites:

For you World is Flat types who are embracing globalization, check out the new language learning website Mango -- it's free to learn conversational Spanish, French, Russian, Chineese -- pick your lingo (and some extensive lessons too -- around 100 for Spanish).

And here is a great article suggesting that when things break, rather than send them to the landfill, we try sending them back to the company -- just to see what they might do (like replace it for free!)

And finally -- check out the RottenNeighbor website -- to make sure that your neighbors aren't going nuts about you!


The End of Intuition?? Oh really?

This week's Economist features a book review of Super Crunchers. The book purports to explore how massive data banks automate decision making in such a way that the human element will become less important.

EVERY time a world-class chess player loses to a computer, humans die a little. In this book Ian Ayres, a professor of law and management at Yale University, explains how in many less high-profile endeavours, human intuition and flair are more easily beaten. The sheer quantity of data and the computer power now available make it possible for automated processes to surpass human experts in fields as diverse as rating wines, writing film dialogue and choosing titles for books.

The author originally intended to call his book “The end of intuition”. He changed his mind after a Google AdWords campaign which randomly chose which of two advertisements for the book to display: “Super Crunchers” garnered 63% more clicks than his original choice. He tells of credit card companies that are using similar randomised trials to see which combination of offers and advertising make for the most successful mailshots.

And so begin the wild predictions that doctors will cease to be needed for their diagnoses, teachers for their teaching. The world will go the way of the automaton. We'll all be plugged in and data slaves.


Pardon my skepticism here. Technologists have been playing this game for quite some time. But data, no matter how crunched and sliced and diced, is only as good as the use it is put to. One of my Rotary colleagues says "Information without action is wasted" I might modify that in this scenario "Good information without right application is wasted."

Take for instance, the above scenario. The title "Super Crunchers" got 63% more clicks. And it is likely that google was even able to give some demographic data about those clickers: income, interests, etc (all of course anonomized to protect individual identity). That's nice. However, what if it still turns a bunch of people off (frankly, I would have preferred "The End of Intuition" as a more interesting title. Super Crunchers sounds like a new brand of potato chip). What if the people it turns off are really the types of people who the author wants to reach?

More to the point, can we really automate teaching or doctors visits? We may be able to design a general program that works very well for the broad populace, but what about children who are exceptions. Our oldest spent Kindergarden in a Montessori School and now she is in a Classical Christian School -- two opposite models, both of which claim to be tested and superior to all comers. In my experience and observation, I can say that each model works for some kids and not for others. Each model also produces very different end results, and part of the choice lies in what end results parents want from their children's education. I don't think parents want an algorithm deciding for them the ultimate purpose of education.

Neither does this take into account people's adaptability (most models never do). Banner ads were ubiquitous, until people simply started to disregard them. The big wave in advertising now is "product placement" -- every time you see a Pepsi or an Apple computer in a movie, you can bet that some cash was exchanged to make sure that it was a Pepsi, not an RC cola. However, once consumers become aware of it, they become partly innoculated, and it becomes something of a joke.

Maybe I just need to read the book to get it, but I'm so turned off by the title....

From a more positive angle, another quote from the article:

Even the occasional government is accepting that properly analysed data trump ideological conviction. Mr Ayres sings the praises of Mexico's Progresa/ Oportunidades programme, which gave assistance to poor people only if their children attended health clinics and schools. It was tried out on 506 randomly selected villages. The results were so convincing that the programme was expanded 100-fold despite a change of government.

Here we see a good use of data. Rather than breathlessly extolling how data will make human decisionmaking obsolote, here we have data that actually improves human decisionmaking. That's where we will be going. Access to crunched data will not diminish humanity, it will however become a powerful tool in the hands of decision makers.

What they do with that data will make all the difference. And let us remember that decision makers are sinners like the rest of us. Once again, we're back to the orientation of the human heart. Good data in the hands of Stalin is frightening. It all boils back to Sin and Redemption.

And now we're back on the theologians turf...

Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Tips for improving life

More catching up from a backlog of blogs I follow:

This time from PSFK Trendwatching blog -- a link to the Behance webpage's 100 tips to improve your life.

This is an interesting site. Designed by Creative Professionals for Creative Professionals, the site's goal is summarized in their "philosophy" statement:
Great ideas are conceived and subsequently lost in the hands of creative geniuses, everyday. Frustration, rationalization, and despondence loom as creative people jump from idea, to idea, to idea... and fall short of actually making ideas happen. It is a shame that most creative breakthroughs never materialize.

The Behance team studies exceptionally productive people and teams working in the creative fields. We document the methods and resources that productive creative professionals use to push their ideas forward.

Our inventory of knowledge, products, and services is carefully curated according to our philosophy, "Productive Creativity."

I'd be interested in the community's thoughts on this....


Sunday, September 16, 2007

Allan Trafford on Cultural Amnesia

In tonight's "get through the blogging backlog", I came across Alan Trafford's fine little post about Clive James talking about his book Cultural Amnesia. James used the interview on the Bill Moyers show to defend our need to preserve our cultural heritage, but then he takes pot-shots at the idea that faith in a living God has any part of the heritage that needs to be preserved. Alan writes:

What surprised me about Clive James was the arrogance of his laughter. To be fair, Bill Moyer did not invite him to debate. James was never challenged. It was not put to him that his position is as much an act of faith as is that of the theist. The difference is, of course, that James has faith in his own mental faculties, not in God. He does not see that "the fallenness of humanity," one of the key ingredients of Christian anthropology, has warped him, just as it made a demon out of Adolf Hitler.

James fails to grasp that Western Civilisation requires Augustine, not just Aristotle. Culture, we are told, depends upon a humanist intellectual inheritance, derived from Enlightenment thinkers from Rousseau to Voltaire. In one sense, this is true. The seeds of optimistic modernism have blossomed, but they have become the poisoned plant of postmodernity. Instead of Diderot we are left with Derrida. Yet the culture that gave birth to Erasmus also produced Martin Luther. We cannot lament the loss of cultural icons without recognising the part played by the Christian faith.

That's why James' laughter is dangerous. He, and many like him, already have selective cultural amnesia.

Wow! Alan packs a punch in his posts. Thanks for a real winner.

Soli Deo Gloria

New Blog Posts from Chaplain Tim Fary in Iraq

Finally catching up on many of the online blogs/journals that I follow. Saw that my friend Tim Fary has put up another post about his service in Iraq. (see my previous post on miltary chaplains for links to his other posts) An excerpt:

One of the soldiers in my unit (we’ll call him Joe) had approached me before we left the states to let me know that he was a Buddhist and would not be needing the services of a Christian Chaplain. I told him since he didn’t need a Chaplain, I suggested that he and I be friends. As I got to know him a little better it became pretty clear to me that his Buddhism had little to do with Buddha, but more with sticking it to his strict fundamentalist parents. He was looking to make his mother mad, and had met with a large amount of success. I had the privilege of meeting her before we left, and she expressed her concern about her son’s choice of religion.

Joe was out on a patrol when a sandstorm hit. It was a pretty rough one, and they only had vehicles for shelter. We had been allowed 3 duffel bags and were told to pack all our gear and anything we might need in those three bags. Joe had decided to use some of his packing space for a Coleman hammock. That night he had strung his hammock up in the back of one of our 5 Ton Trucks. The force of the winds was so strong that the soldiers were sitting between the slats trying to brace the cover of the back of the truck. They were unsuccessful. I was told later that the truck had moved in excess of 15 feet sideways in the sand. During this time, my battalion's only Buddhist got spun up like Frodo Baggins. I guess Buddhism doesn’t give you someone to rescue you when you’re in a bind, because Joe cut a deal with Jesus.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Strange Maps -- an adventure into seeing the world differently

I have some time this afternoon and I'm going through old magazines before taking them to the YMCA (I cut out the address labels and leave my World mazazines in the workout room...a subtle means of evangelism?)

Thus I came across an article I had flagged for blogging, but never did anything with it -- it talks about the weblog

What are some of the maps that are featured on the weblog? How about The Nine Nations of North America, a map that calls into question the whole Red State/Blue State divide. Akin to it is the Ex Unum Pluribus map suggesting the division of the US into about 10 different nations (which very nicely features Cincinnati as the capital of the nation of "West Kendiano")

As a former Florida resident, I certainly enjoyed the United States of Florida map.

There's also the GDP map of the USA, which renames each state with a nation that has a similar sized GDP (Gross Domestic Product -- a measure of economic output) to that of the state. Ohio residents will be glad to know that our economic output is akin to that of Australia, Floridians match that of the Korean Republic. North Carolina is paired with Sweeden. But dear old South Carolina is matched up with Singapore (could be worse -- Alabama is comparable to Iran)

There's also the map from Jesus trip to India -- I guess I missed that part of the Bible. Guess that explains why there's a Jesus Tomb in Kashmir (and one in Japan as well).

There are also military maps, maps of fantastical places, historical maps, editorial cartoon maps. This collection is interesting and pretty fun. Joel Belz in his World review writes "What's more fascinating about is its call to try a new perspective and a different frame of reference. Jesus did htat in His teaching. 'You have heard...,' he often said -- 'but I say to you...', to be sure, doesn't come with biblical warrant. It may prompt you to remember, though, that a 'God's eye view of things' is usually not the traditional one. In that sense, a fresh perspective can be a very good thing." (from World Magazine, Aug 4, 2007).

Soli Deo Gloria