Monday, March 26, 2007

Agreeing to Disagree

For several years I have subscribed to World magazine, a weekly news magazine like Time or Newsweek, but written from a Christian perspective. Normally I enjoy, or at least appreciate, their take on things. However, the current issue has an article about urban living that really made my blood boil. The author, Mindy Belz, waxes rhapsodic about urban environments and disparages the suburbs. She speaks of being “moored in tracts of pavement on an empty retail prairie, forgettable constellations of congestion and sameness.” But, hey! I like the suburbs. I like the area where I live and I don’t like highly urban areas. This article really got under my skin, and I started to wonder why. Then I realized that she was making no room for differing tastes and life experiences. The message was simply: “City good, Suburb bad.”

As I thought about it a bit more it occurred to me that this is a common mistake we make. We take preferences and turn them into moral judgments. For instance, when I was a kid a lot of adults complained about rock music. But instead of saying they didn’t care for it, they said it’s just noise, not music, and only a bunch of degenerates would listen to garbage like that. Nice conversation starter, huh?

I hate bananas. Don’t ask me why; I just do. The smell of them makes me nauseous. This has been the occasion for a lot of jokes in my family, but they realize they don’t have to “convert me” to a banana lover. And I’m not trying to talk them out of eating bananas. We can agree to disagree about the fruits we like. Why can’t we do that with the kind of neighborhoods we like or the music we listen to? Why do we have to condemn those with different tastes? There are more than enough important issues we disagree about without making up extra ones that really don’t matter.

Humans are naturally prideful and self-centered. We want to make ourselves the gold standard for everyone else. So without even realizing it we often take our personal preferences and turn them into moral standards by which we judge others. When we think about it, of course we realize this is wrong. But the opposite mistake is just as bad. We must not treat important moral issues as mere personal preferences. This is the source of much conflict in our society today. At the heart of such classic cultural battles as abortion and homosexuality is a disagreement over whether these are moral issues or mere personal preference. Take abortion, for instance. Central to the question of whether it should be illegal or not is the question of whether it is wrong. It’s amazing to me how often this fundamental question is glossed over. Too often the issue is framed merely in terms of the politics of power. I won’t go into my own position on that today. I just want to suggest that whenever we disagree on some issue, it is important to ask ourselves whether we are dealing with a moral issue or merely personal preference.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Have a Nice Day!

The other day a friend of mine posed an interesting question. Why are Americans, by and large, so much more respectful toward each other and toward public property than citizens of other countries? My friend is from South America. Her father is here visiting, and he was marveling that no one seems to litter and everyone is so nice to each other. He wanted to know, how did this come about and why isn’t it that way in his country?

I confessed I didn’t know, but I’ve been thinking about it for a few days and I’m ready to hazard a guess.
  • Americans are, by and large, tremendously proud of their country. It is so large and beautiful. We are proud of its history, proud of its freedoms, proud of its strength and proud of its wealth.
  • We truly have a sense of ownership in this country. We really believe all that stuff in the Constitution about “We the people…” If we harm this nation we are hurting ourselves and our neighbors, not just getting back at “the man”.
  • The idea of government based on the rule of law rather than the rule of men is deeply ingrained in us from childhood – we feel viscerally that “no one is above the law.”
All of these factors give us a sense of belonging. Our identity is more wrapped up in our community (city, state or nation) than our many and varied ethnic or racial backgrounds. So we are more disposed to regard our communities and our neighbors as worthy of respect.

Some people might challenge these assertions. It is certainly true that these feelings are not universal. Many do feel disenfranchised, especially among those who live in poverty and have suffered racial discrimination, but most do not. What worries me more is that our society seems to be polarizing and fragmenting over the last few decades. I hope that we don’t forget what made this a great country. Sometimes we just need a reminder. And nothing helps me put our problems in perspective like talking to a first generation American who loves this country and doesn’t take it for granted.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Roll over, Rembrandt!

Today I want to talk about modern art. Fair warning, though: I am a geek. I write computer programs for a living. I am neither schooled in art, nor an avid fan of it. My encounters with art are mostly of the casual and unplanned type. If you are an artist, consider this a dispatch from the frontiers of your world, where serious art occasionally intrudes upon the lives of the ignorant masses.

Unschooled I may be, but even the most casual observer can notice that something has happened to art in the past hundred years or so. Somehow I grew up thinking that Art (be sure to capitalize it) was about creating timeless expressions of Truth and Beauty (be sure to capitalize them, too). I was woefully behind the times. In our impoverished contemporary culture, truth and beauty have been deconstructed to the point of disappearance. What values do the artists of today hold dear? From what I have seen of their work, I would say there are only two: novelty and shock value.

For the thoroughly modern artist, novelty takes the place of beauty. This is a tremendous boon to the aspiring auteur. It takes skill to create beauty, but mere cleverness is all one needs to achieve novelty. Of course, there are only so many novel ideas out there, so when you come up with one you need to milk it for all it’s worth. In practice, this means that artists tend to come up with some gimmick and then execute endless variations on the theme. It’s as if they’re practicing to get the Motel 6 starving artist contract. So what constitutes a good gimmick? Well,
Jackson Pollock dripped paint. That was a good one. How many different gizmos can you rig up to drip paint on a canvas?

I went to MIT in the 70’s. There was an art gallery in the Humanities Building I often passed on the way to class. (Yes, at MIT they had all the Humanities in a single building. You laugh, but then how many small liberal arts colleges have one Science Building?) Anyway, I remember seeing some pretty silly exhibits in that art gallery. One guy’s gimmick was making India ink drawings of eggplants! Fat ones, skinny ones, large ones, small ones: all down the long corridor it was just one eggplant picture after another. I wonder if that guy ever came up with another gimmick, or did he just retire when all the eggplants started looking the same?

If novelty takes the place of beauty, then surely shock value has taken the place of truth. The old masters tried to create works that reflect some deep truth about life in a way that is profound and moving. The modern artist believes he is performing a great service to humanity if only he can transgress some social taboo in a way that offends the bourgeoisie. Or maybe he doesn’t really believe he’s performing a public service, but it’s a good way to generate some publicity, right? The problem with this notion is that year by year there are fewer taboos that have not been transgressed. Year by year the bourgeoisie grow accustomed to outrageous assaults on their values and respond only to more and more extreme examples. This is the trend that gave us, in the past few years,
crucifixes soaking in urine and images of the Virgin Mary adorned with elephant dung and pornographic cutouts.

Not all artists have gone down this road, but far too many have. By adopting such impoverished values, these artists have marginalized themselves to an ever increasing degree over the past few decades. When they finally have something to say that society finds worth hearing, and when they recover the ability to express themselves in an appealing aesthetic, they might just regain an audience for their work. In the meantime we’ll just keep watching TV.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

The Jesus Family Tomb?

Recently the news, er, publicity broke that James Cameron (of Titanic fame) has made a documentary for Discovery Channel called The Lost Tomb of Jesus, presenting conclusive proof that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. No, it turns out he married Mary Magdalene, raised a family, and was buried in a large upper class family tomb in Jerusalem. When they opened it up in 1980, his bones were still in the box – right where he had left them.

The filmmakers express surprise that this might be a controversial claim. Why are Christians so up in arms? Well, let me quickly say that I think many Christians just need to calm down when stories like this hit the media. It’s no secret that the vast majority of the entertainment and media elites are not Christians – that many are in fact militantly anti-Christian. So should we be surprised or upset if they use their access to the mass media outlets for evangelizing their point of view? Mel Gibson did the same, and did it brilliantly, with his The Passion of the Christ. Whatever you think about the merits of his movie, per se, it generated a huge amount of publicity which he leveraged to promote his beliefs.

But, then, I am up in arms about The Lost Tomb of Jesus, at least a little bit. For one thing, it is hard not to be cynical about their intentions with this. Controversy means publicity, and publicity generates an audience, and large audiences mean big bucks for those involved. And nothing will stir up controversy like a story about the world’s biggest religion being a hoax. One suspects that they must have latched onto this project, at least in part, because of how lucrative they thought it would be. In contrast, Mel Gibson has a long established, passionate commitment to his Catholic faith, so I am prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt about his motives.

Another reason to be up in arms is the flimsy nature of the evidence given for such a spectacular claim. This is not just a partisan Christian criticism. There is good reason why the great majority of reputable archaeologists are repudiating the Jesus Tomb theory. It accords with basically nothing we know historically about Jesus of Nazareth. The tomb is in Jerusalem; his family was in Nazareth. Only the well-to-do could afford such a tomb; his family was poor. There is no contemporaneous or near-contemporaneous evidence that Jesus was married, or had children. All historical accounts agree that he was executed by the Romans. He did not live to a ripe old age to be buried surrounded by his extended family. The names on the ossuaries were all quite common in first century Israel. There is nothing remarkable about such a collection of names within one family. The connection with the alleged James ossuary is, to put it politely, tenuous at best. The “patina fingerprinting” test was invented for this project, strictly for the purpose of corroborating a conclusion reached without any other evidence.

Please notice that at no point do any of these arguments appeal to faith or any doctrinal argument. They are accepted by most mainstream archaeologists and historians. Those who dispute such statements generally have an ideological axe to grind. It’s typically theologians and philosophers, not historians, who dispute the basic outline of Jesus’ life as contained in the Gospels: a famous Nazarene whose brief public ministry as an itinerant rabbi was cut short by a brutal public execution. (The miracles, of course, are questioned by unbelievers. After all, people who become convinced of the historicity of the Gospel miracles almost always become Christians.)

On this last point, I must say a further word about the historicity of the New Testament. As I have examined all the arguments against accepting the New Testament as a reliable historical source, I have become convinced that they are all ultimately rooted in one core presupposition: the impossibility of miracles. The unspoken starting place of each analysis is this simple syllogism: “The New Testament contains miracle stories. Miracles stories cannot possibly be true. Therefore the New Testament cannot possibly be true.” Of course I oversimplify the argument by treating the New Testament as a single, monolithic entity. But you get the picture, I think. Now each of us is entitled to our presuppositions, but we shouldn’t try to misrepresent them. You are entitled to say the Gospels are a fairy tale. (You would be wrong, of course!) But if you claim to have proven they are a fairy tale and your argument depends on a presupposition against miracles, then you are guilty of circular reasoning.

Getting back to The Lost Tomb of Jesus, let me summarize by saying this show is simply another attempt to sensationalize a dubious attack on the legitimacy of Christianity. These attacks come with such frequency and regularity that I am disappointed they still gain so much attention for the perpetrators. Haven’t we just been through the Judas Gospel and the Da Vinci Code? The word for believers and unbelievers alike is: don’t put much stock in these latest claims. They’re just a way to sell air time on Discovery Channel.

Introducing - Me

Welcome to Believer’s Brain. Let’s get the demographics out of the way, first. I am a middle-aged, happily married man. We have two teenage sons and live in the western suburbs of Houston, Texas. We generally vote Republican and we’re active members of a Southern Baptist church in the area. This means we’re just like about a half million other people who live within 25 miles of here. (Well, I’m exaggerating; some of them are Methodist.) So now you can activate all your preconceptions and be prepared to either love or hate everything I say in this blog. Just do me the favor of reading what I say before you decide to love it or hate it!

Every blog reflects the interests of its author. I am a Christian and to me that means more than where you’ll find me on Sunday mornings. I believe we cannot make sense of ourselves and the world around us unless our thinking is grounded in the Truth which God has revealed to us in his written Word, the Bible, and in the Living Word, Jesus Christ. Although I might write about science or art or philosophy or politics or culture, I always strive to do so from a biblically informed viewpoint.

Technorati claims that, as of a few months ago, there were 57 million blogs in existence. So how could anyone possibly believe the world needs one more blog? The truth is, it probably doesn’t. But I believe the blogging impulse comes from the human desire for self-expression. So there it is. I’m writing more for me than for you. Of course, I do hope that along the way a few people will read these posts and get something out of them. Let me know if that ever happens, will you?