Sunday, November 16, 2008

Black Power for Real

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around what it must feel like to be an African-American contemplating the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. I think I would be almost giddy. I know at least one friend from church who said she was up partying all night after the election. You might think that I would be dismayed to find Obama supporters of any color at my conservative Southern Baptist church, but I think I understand. Even some black conservatives, knowing that Obama’s politics are well to the left of their own, could not resist the allure of voting for the first black President. I can imagine how they probably felt: How could I live with myself if I let this opportunity pass? How long would I have to wait for a major party to nominate an African-American again? It might not happen again in my lifetime!

As much as I disagree with his politics, Obama’s election is a true testament to the greatness of our democracy. As many have noted, fifty years ago Barack Obama couldn’t even have sat at Woolworth’s lunch counter. I was born in 1956, so I barely remember segregation. I certainly wasn’t conscious of it at the time. Looking back, however, I have a vivid memory of visiting the courthouse downtown and seeing the separate water fountains and bathrooms labeled Colored. It seemed strange but I didn’t understand what it meant. How different my memories would be if I were black!

Just because we have reached this milestone does not mean that racism is a thing of the past. Its power is broken, but it still persists to cause trouble for those whose skin is not the color of the majority. This, too, I have tried to wrap my head around. I think we can be very proud of the progress we have made. But if you are white, think about this. Even if 95% of all white people are not even slightly racist, that would still leave 5% who are. That’s more than enough to be a problem. Sometimes it will be an overt act or comment that reminds you of the prejudice you face. Other times nothing is said, but you wonder what they might be thinking. Such experiences cannot help but affect your frame of mind and must require strength of character to overcome.

The best thing about having an African-American President is the message it sends to young people of every color: You, too, can grow up to be President. Anything is possible in this great country of ours. Every young generation needs hope. This country was founded and built on hope – hope for a better future for ourselves and our children. The engine of our progress is a firm conviction that if you work hard and make the right choices you can succeed. Upward mobility is in our DNA. Belief in the possibility of advancement is how we have avoided the destructive class conflicts of other countries. We believe that All Men Are Created Equal. There it is, right on the first page of the document that began this great nation. We have not always lived up to that ideal, but in every generation we draw closer to it. And that’s something we all can celebrate.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Prayer for Barack Obama

Lord, last night our nation chose a new President: Barack Obama. This morning he woke up to that exhilarating and doubtless sobering reality. I pray that he would turn to you in humility for the wisdom that he will need in the days to come. Give him the energy and determination to execute his duties to the utmost of his abilities. May he govern this nation with great honor and integrity. When temptations come to abuse his power and position, as surely they must to anyone who holds such an office, I pray that he will turn to you for the strength of character to resist. May he seek comfort, wisdom and guidance from your holy Word.

Lord, I pray that President Obama will surround himself with wise counselors and listen carefully to their advice. Help him use his quick mind and deep intellect to find the very best solutions to our nation’s problems. Help him use his great skill as a communicator to bring together Democrats and Republicans alike to make those solutions a reality. I pray that he will be a trustworthy leader, and so earn the trust of all the people.

Lord, how marvelous it is that in our day we have come so far as to see an African-American elected President of the United States! May he govern us so well that never again is skin color even an issue in our politics. May we finally put the last vestiges of racism behind us. We are all your creatures: men and women whom you loved so much that you were willing to die for us on the cross. Teach us all to know you, to love you and to serve you, for your honor and your glory forever.


Sunday, November 2, 2008

My Take on the Election

If you’ve read anything I’ve written over the last couple of years it will come as no surprise to you that I’m voting for John McCain for President on Tuesday. I am a conservative, and while I don’t think McCain is the ideal candidate, in my view he is definitely preferable to Barack Obama. In the area of character and patriotism John McCain clearly shines. He has devoted his entire adult life to serving his country with honor and distinction. In contrast, Barack Obama’s past raises many more questions. I do believe that associations matter. You can explain away some things, but the cumulative pattern of Jeremiah Wright, Michael Pfleger, Bill Ayers, Bernadine Dohrn, Tony Rezko, Rashid Khalidi and Edward Said indicate a man who has circulated for years in the radical left fringes of American politics. Although Obama presents himself in this campaign as a left-center moderate, his voting record and his past associations strongly indicate otherwise.

Now let’s look at some specific policy issues.

Economic Recovery
Neither candidate inspires much confidence here. Both seem to have only a tenuous grasp of economic principles. McCain talks about cracking down on Wall Street greed and corruption. Obama talks about the problem being lax regulation. Both are somewhat wide of the mark. The mortgage crisis which spawned the recent market collapse is the result of banks making risky loans to people who shouldn’t have been borrowing. Both parties are culpable – it takes two to tango. So how do you convince people to be prudent in their personal financial decisions? Unfortunately, that’s not something the government can do. Wisdom is learned from parents and churches, not government agencies.

The more peculiar thing about the recent crisis is why anyone in their right mind would loan money to someone who probably can’t pay it back, or buy such a loan from the bank that made it. If normal economic incentives were operating no rational investor would do that. Here is where government intrusion into the market distorted the normal economic incentives that guide business policies. The very existence of quasi-governmental institutions like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac implied some level of government guarantee for these loans. On top of that was misguided social engineering in the form of Congressional pressure to encourage minority home ownership by relaxing lending rules.

I’m not against government ever intervening in the economy. Some rules are clearly necessary, but they should generally focus on promoting honesty, transparency and accountability between the private parties doing business with each other. When government tries to engineer a particular outcome by heavy-handed pressure on the market, the Law of Unintended Consequences virtually guarantees an unpleasant outcome.

Health Care
Again, in my view neither candidate is being realistic about the health care situation in this country. However, I strongly prefer McCain on this topic because I believe Obama’s plan will be ruinously expensive in the long run. I fundamentally disagree with the notion that the government can or should guarantee universal access to health care in this country. Obama’s plan doesn’t go that far, but he envisions more tax credits, more coercive government regulations and generally greater government involvement in health care than today. McCain also proposes a tax credit, but his overall program is directed at greater individual control over health care choices and insurance.

Unfortunately, neither candidate seems to recognize and address the structural issues that are driving health care costs higher. Fundamentally, costs are rising because of the availability of ever more powerful and ever more expensive treatments. It is the advance of technology. If everything your doctor could do for you could still be carried to your house in a little black bag, I guarantee you there would be no crisis in health care costs. It’s the development of new drugs, new diagnostic tests, new medical devices, new surgical techniques and the like that makes health care cost more. An ideal health care policy would focus on harnessing market incentives to drive health care technology toward greater cost efficiency, while not shutting down the technological progress to ever more effective treatments. I don’t know exactly what that policy might look like, but I don’t see it in either candidate’s proposal. McCain comes closer by putting more emphasis on competition.

National Security
Hands down it’s McCain on this one. Obama is naïve about the value of negotiating with evil regimes and about the consequences of a rapid pullout from Iraq. He is far too concerned about what the Europeans think about us instead of what is best for America. McCain is much more knowledgeable about foreign affairs and military strategy. Furthermore, I don’t believe the accusations that McCain is trigger happy. I will rest far sounder at night with McCain as Commander-in-Chief than Obama.

On environment, both candidates take positions I’m not too happy about. I oppose a cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gases, which both candidates support. The massive reductions in greenhouse gases necessary to have a significant impact on the climate will cost a significant percentage of the world GNP. We must be very, very sure that the benefits outweigh the costs before we undertake a program of the scale that would be necessary. To be effective, any such program will also have to include the rapidly growing economies of developing nations such as China and India. Half measures enacted individually by the developed nations will cost huge amounts of money and will be unlikely to affect the global climate significantly.

I like McCain on this issue. Of course, everyone’s for increasing domestic energy supplies. These days it’s like being for Mom and apple pie. The question is how you go about it. I believe that the government can and should fund research into a wide variety of alternate energy sources. But it is a mistake to enact subsidies for those energy sources. In the long run it is an unsustainable drag on the economy. McCain understands this and famously opposed ethanol subsidies even while campaigning in Iowa during the primaries. Obama wants to treat alternative energy like a jobs program. McCain is for offshore drilling, but alas not in ANWR. Obama supports some offshore drilling, but he wants to put a lot of restrictions on the oil companies that will not encourage utilization of these resources.

Again, advantage McCain. I really don’t think the Federal government should be directly involved in education at all. Education is fundamentally a parental responsibility. Government policies should encourage local control and parental choice in education.

Social Issues
The headliner here is abortion. Obama could not be more pro-abortion than he is. McCain has been consistently pro-life. As a Christian, I strongly believe in the sanctity of human life, including the life of unborn children, so I favor McCain on this issue.

There are so many other issues I don’t have time to cover, but to me the verdict is clear: John McCain should be the next President of the United States.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Perfect McCain Platform

Bill Whittle wrote an article for National Review last week summarizing the appeal of McCain and Palin's well received acceptance speeches. I think Whittle is spot on. If McCain and Palin can bottle that stuff the election is theirs. You can take what Whittle wrote and distill it down to a simple campaign strategy for Sen. McCain:
  • To those who worry about your age...remind them your mother is 96.
  • Use the story of your family's tradition of military service to remind people that some things are more important than politics.
  • Remind us that it's a dangerous world out there, and you have the experience and the good judgment to be commander-in-chief.
  • Admit that we Republicans lost the confidence of the people because we weren't true to our principles: personal integrity, fiscal responsibility and individual liberty.
  • Commit to returning Washington to these principles and remind everyone that you and Gov. Palin have a track record of reform and independent thinking.
  • Let Gov. Palin continue to demonstrate that she understands the lives of ordinary Americans because she is one of them.
  • Be humble.
  • Be hopeful.
  • Be patriotic.
  • Remind us that we live in the greatest country in the world, prosperous and strong, a defender of freedom and justice, a bulwark against tyranny and oppression.

I don't think the Democrats help their cause by always talking about how terrible things are and how bad the United States is. Most Americans are patriots. We don't like it when the Europeans criticize and belittle and scold us. Obama and Biden need to avoid that Euro-tone of elitist condescension like the plague. McCain and Palin can capitalize on the Democratic tendency by being unabashedly patriotic. "Sure there are some problems and when we're elected we're going to tackle them head on. But this is still the greatest country in the history of the world, and we are proud to be Americans!"

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Community Organizers

For a while now I've been wondering what a "community organizer" is. Obama's official bio on his website doesn't explain it very well. I found a long article on Wikipedia, but I was still a bit confused. It seems to be some form of liberal political activism, but I couldn't quite get a good picture in my mind of what it would look like as a day to day activity. Luckily Iowahawk (via Transterrestrial Musings) has come to the rescue. Here, finally, is a detailed list of duties for a community organizer:
  • reach out and work with communities in various ways.
  • liaison with, and for, community agencies for service within affected areas.
  • fight to make a difference.
  • raise awareness.
  • deal with community issues.
  • raise awareness in the community of how we are making differences about undealt-with issues.
  • when necessary, refer inquiries to outreach coordinators.
  • help coordination agency administrators identify and address outreach opportunities.
  • model timetables and conceptualize benchmarks.
  • issue guidelines for poster contests and interpretive dance festivals.
  • gather voter registrations, win valuable prizes.
Clear now? :-)

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Letter to the Candidates

Dear Senator Obama and Senator McCain:

Ok, the conventions are over and the election is finally in sight. I’m listening now. Unlike you, I haven’t been eating, breathing and sleeping this campaign for a year and a half. So if there’s anything you really want me to hear you will probably want to repeat it. Oh, I tuned in briefly six months ago to vote in the primary, but now I’m back. The first time I listened to either of you at length was the Saddleback forum a couple of weeks ago. I also made it a point to hear your acceptance speeches. I’ll be looking at your web sites, and I’ll start reading more news articles about you and your campaigns. One thing I won’t be doing is watching much TV. I hardly ever watch TV. So don’t bother with those expensive TV ads on my account. But then, you aren’t particularly targeting the middle-aged evangelical geek vote, are you? I didn’t think so!

Let me tell you what I care about, anyway. I’m looking for substance. I dislike partisan attacks that misrepresent your opponent. Character and integrity are important. I will scrutinize what you say and do, looking for clues that you are not who you present yourself to be. I will look for things that illuminate your worldview, by which I mean your underlying values and assumptions. I’m interested in your policy proposals, yes, but I’m more interested in your philosophy of government, because that tells me more about what you will say and do in the future.

Please don’t promise things you can’t deliver. Please don’t treat us like children. Please don’t say one thing to one group and another thing to another group. And never, ever lie to us. In four months one of you will be the most powerful man in the world. Show us you deserve it.

Bill Hensley

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Vera Hensley, 1926-2008

Vera and Bill Hensley

Each of us knew Vera Hensley in different ways: mother, sister, aunt, friend, neighbor, long-time church member. Some of us knew her very well indeed, while others were only acquaintances. But everyone who met her was quick to realize what a special person she was. Many of you have shared your personal recollections about her with my sister Betty and me. Your kind words about her have filled our hearts with pride. You have told us that Vera Hensley was gracious, elegant, beautiful, kind, intelligent and compassionate. She had a fine appreciation for beauty, which was expressed in her love of antiques, painting, flower arranging, and home decorating. Not to mention her tasteful and elegant wardrobe!

Yes, Vera Hensley was a fine person who was widely admired. But to Betty and me she was so much more. She was our Mom. She brought us into this world through the pains of childbirth, and for her trouble spent the next twenty years or so bathing us, feeding us, clothing us, disciplining us, teaching us, encouraging us, nagging us, and carting us around to school, church, doctors, stores, swimming pools, summer camps and even job interviews. Yes, I did say “nagging”. We needed quite a bit of it and she was up to the task. Mom definitely bore the brunt of the parenting load. Dad’s job at NASA required that he travel a great deal, and he often worked late into the night even when he was in town. (They were sending rockets to the Moon, after all!) And through it all she never complained.

After twenty-something years we may have gotten married and moved out, but Mom never stopped mothering. That’s just what mothers do. I warn my sons about it now. I tell them, “Once a mother, always a mother. Don’t think that just because you grow up and move out your mother stops being your mother!” My Mom epitomized that saying. When I was well into my forties she was still telling me when she thought I needed a haircut. And she never did give up asking me to shave my beard.

Mom was more organized than anyone else I know, and she was a doer! She kept a mental to-do list at all times and she could never rest until every item had been checked off. She used to get her Christmas shopping done by September. She was half an hour early to her appointments. Her house was immaculate. Dinner was at 5:30 p.m. sharp every day.

I’ve always said Mom was a woman ahead of her time. She was very intelligent and had a head for business. If she’d been born a generation later she might have been the CEO of a major corporation. Instead, she went to Massey Business College after high school. She took bookkeeping classes and learned how to use the latest business machines (which at the time were mechanical adding machines and the like). She got a job at the Rupley Brake Company as a bookkeeping assistant where she met my Dad, who was working for his uncle Bob Rupley. It took him quite some time to convince her to marry him, but once they were married she quit her job and dutifully fulfilled the role of full time wife and mother to the best of her ability. Nevertheless, when Mom and Dad later invested in some real estate, Mom was a full partner with Dad in handling their rental properties. When Betty and I were older she was able to get her real estate license, too.

She applied herself with the same energy to her hobbies. Whether it was gardening, painting, flower arranging or antiquing, she took courses, bought books and studied to make herself an expert. She could recognize the different styles and periods in furniture, crystal, glassware and silver. She could turn over a piece and by recognizing the manufacturer’s mark tell you immediately where it was made, when and by whom. She had a fine eye for aesthetics and our home was always beautifully decorated.

Jesus said, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant.” Mom defined herself in terms of her service to others. She was a devoted mother, wife, daughter and friend. For most of the years we were growing up she was the primary caregiver for my paternal grandfather, who had Alzheimer’s. At first she would go over to his house in West University several times a week. Later he lived with us for a while. When he finally moved to a nursing home she went there every day to see that he was well cared for. If he needed to go to a doctor Mom took him. If he wandered off from the nursing home it was Mom they called. This went on all the way through my college years. Granddaddy’s funeral was on the same day as my college graduation.

By this time she was devoting more time to helping her own parents. With the help of her sisters, she handled their finances, their shopping, their doctor visits and their household affairs. Once again, she was spending many hours a week driving across town to their house attending to their needs. In the course of time each of them also needed nursing home care, and Mom faithfully oversaw the care they received. I don’t think she expected any special recognition for her efforts. To her, this is just what children do for their parents. She couldn’t imagine not being there for them in their time of need. Mom was truly servant-hearted.

When our time came to help Mom over the past several years, Betty and I had a very high standard to live up to. I’m sure we were not as devoted and attentive as she would have been. But she never ceased to be grateful for the help we gave her. She was always gracious, reluctant to impose, and never demanding.

As the visits to internists, cardiologists and neurologists multiplied, Mom never lost her sense of humor. She loved to repeat the joke that my uncle Eddie Youngblood used to tell. He would say, “I need to find a new doctor. This fellow I’m going to now doesn’t even know who the President of the United States is!” In the last several years, Mom saw many doctors who asked her to name the President of the United States. As many little strokes slowly took their toll on her memory and reasoning, she worked hard to compensate. Always an organized person, she redoubled her efforts to maintain a detailed calendar and write extensive notes. When she visited the neurologists they were often surprised at how sharp she seemed to be. She could tell them the date of her last check-up, the names and doses of all her medications, and when the last change had been made to the dosage. We had to assure them that she really was having memory troubles. Mom would compensate by keeping three ring binders full of notes, prescriptions, lab results and drug brochures. She studied her notes for hours and hours before each doctor visit, like she was cramming for a test.

It was difficult for us to watch as Mom’s health problems accumulated over the past few years. Knowing she had always been so sharp and on top of things, it was painful to see her struggling to compensate for her impairment. Eventually, all her compensation strategies began to fail her. For one who had always been in control of every situation, she was frustrated to find herself slipping so badly. The stroke that finally took her life was even more devastating, leaving her for over two weeks unable to move or speak. But God has a purpose in every difficulty he allows into our lives. He molds and shapes us into the person he wants us to be. You see, Mom was a Christian. I’ve described Mom as gracious, kind, compassionate and servant-hearted, which is true. But under all those qualities lay her faith in Christ.

Mom understood at an early age that we are all sinners in need of the salvation that only Christ can offer us through his death on the cross. She accepted Christ as her Savior at age seven, was baptized and attended Broadway Baptist Church until she got married. Later she and Dad joined the Presbyterian Church. When we moved to this area in the early sixties we joined St. John’s, and this is where Betty and I were raised. Even though Mom couldn’t get out much in recent years, this continued to be her church home for the rest of her life. Yet what counts is not the longevity of our church membership, it is the quality of our relationship with God. I saw Mom seek God all the years I knew her, and I saw her continue to grow spiritually to the very end of her life.

The Bible says that if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation. Indeed, there is a transformation that occurs in our hearts the moment we are reborn, but the process of being conformed to his image takes a lifetime. The last Sunday of her life Mom and I listened to a sermon on TV from South Main Baptist Church. I don’t know if she could actually hear what was said, but it was the perfect message for that time and place. The text of the sermon was Philippians 1:6. “...being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” I am deeply gratified to report to you that God, as he promised in his Word, completed his work in Mom’s life.

Mom was not the sort of person who could see a task that needed doing and then sit by doing nothing. She felt as though she carried the burden of success in every situation, and so she drove herself as hard as she could. In the Bible story of Mary and Martha, Mom came down on the side of Martha. You can imagine how frustrated she was as she began to be slowed down by her impairments. This woman who had been so strong for everyone around her for so long now found herself increasingly dependent on others. Unaccustomed to being the one served rather than the servant, she learned to let God be in control of her life.

I cannot count how many times Mom told Betty and me in the past two or three years, “I just pray that I can fulfill all God’s purposes for my life. I am ready to go home whenever he calls me, but I just want to do God’s will.” She could not understand why God kept her here on Earth, but he used these years to finish the work in her that he began. Galatians 5:22-23 says, “...the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” For Mom, the last piece of the puzzle to fall into place was patience.

Many have endured far worse trials than what Mom endured in her last few years. Yet I would not wish her troubles on anyone. What redeems them is the way God used them. Like the sculptor who chips away every flake of marble that is not part of the emerging masterpiece, God chips away all our flaws and rough edges, if only we let him. He uses each hardship for our benefit and his glory. Mom’s life is a testament to his saving grace and transforming power.

As wonderful as that is, it gets even better. For all who put their faith in Christ, this life on Earth is just a passing moment compared to the glorious life to come. Because Jesus died and rose again, the power and sting of death are broken. At this very moment Mom is standing in the presence of God, rejoicing with all the host of heaven. That is why, even though I love her dearly and miss her very much, I can still rejoice. I would like to close with a passage from Second Corinthians which has sustained us in the past few weeks.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

This service is titled, “A Service of Witness to the Resurrection.” I stand here in witness to that truth. For I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth. And so will she. And so shall I, and all who are in Christ. Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Panspermia Expelled

If you saw the movie Expelled you will remember that Ben Stein had some fun at Richard Dawkins’ expense when Dawkins brought up the theory of panspermia. Stein took him to mean that aliens might be responsible for the origin of life on Earth and played it for a laugh. The theater audience at the screening I attended obligingly snickered and poked each other in the ribs. But panspermia is a serious scientific theory, although it has the misfortune to carry a name which evokes middle school giggles. I would suggest that if you don’t want people to giggle at your theories (e.g., intelligent design) then it is bad form to giggle at their theories. The irony is that advocates of panspermia, while admittedly few, are actually allies of a sort with creationists and others who doubt the plausibility of traditional evolutionary theories. This is one reason why panspermia is often greeted with derision by mainstream scientists. To admit this theory has any reason to exist is to admit there are doubts about evolution as normally understood. So let us examine briefly what panspermia is all about.

First let’s review a little background on the theory of evolution. It is important to realize that evolution is not actually a theory about the origin of life but the origin of species. It states that natural selection operating on random genetic variation will produce, over time, new species better adapted to their environment than previously existing species. This process requires self-replicating organisms on which to operate, so it cannot explain how life began. You need another theory for that. The first organisms would have been much simpler than current life forms. Exactly how simple is a matter of some debate, but they couldn’t be too simple because they would need some sort of genetic code and the ability to both replicate and mutate.

Since no one knows how simple a self-replicating organism can be, no one knows how long you might have to wait for one to form by spontaneous chemical reactions in the presumed primordial soup. And no one knows how many mutations would be required for it to evolve into the simplest single-celled creatures we observe today. Therefore, no one knows the time required for such a chain of events to occur by random processes. It seems undeniable, however, that it would take a very, very long time. It is therefore convenient that modern scientists believe the Earth is very ancient indeed – about 4.5 billion years old. Of course, if you believe in a young Earth based on Genesis there’s no time for anything but a miracle. But for the sake of argument, let’s accept the old Earth chronology since we are seeking to understand competing naturalistic theories of origin.

Geologists have discovered fossilized cyanobacteria in rocks which they estimate are 3.5 billion years old. This gives a window of about a billion years for the origin of life. However, it is thought that due to heavy meteor bombardment in the early years the Earth might not have been habitable until about 3.9 billion years ago. The very oldest sedimentary rocks also contain some chemical evidence of photosynthetic life forms existing about 3.8 billion years ago. This narrows the window considerably, to as little as 100 million years. That’s still a very, very long time, but it seems uncomfortably short when you contemplate how many improbable steps might be required to produce cyanobacteria. These bacteria are the simplest life forms in existence today, but they are still exceedingly complicated.

There are three possible responses to such a short window. You can either 1) take it as evidence that life spontaneously develops quickly and easily given the right conditions, 2) assume we got really, really lucky, or 3) start casting about for another theory. Most mainstream scientists accept some form of 1) or 2). Advocates of panspermia take the third position. They ask, “What if life originated elsewhere in the universe and was seeded here on Earth?” These scientists still believe in a naturalistic origin of life occurring somewhere in the universe. They just think the odds are low it happened here in only 100 million years. The universe is estimated to be about 13 billion years old. If life originated elsewhere then the window opens back up to almost 10 billion years. This hypothesis bolsters the plausibility of natural origins in two ways. First, it considerably increases the time available for life to originate, because there are presumably many solar systems in the universe which are billions of years older than ours. Second, it means that life only needed to develop on one planet out of millions or billions. Then it could spread to all the others.

Contrary to Ben Stein’s humorous questions, panspermia doesn’t imply intelligent aliens arriving in flying saucers to farm the ancient Earth. Rather, it hypothesizes that some forms of microscopic life were hardy enough to hitch a ride on meteors and cosmic dust. They survived for many millions of years before falling by chance to the Earth and finding here a hospitable environment in which to reproduce. This strikes most scientists as very far-fetched, but not quite as far-fetched as you might think. There is evidence that dormant bacteria and spores can survive incredibly harsh conditions for thousands of years. There is also evidence that rocks blasted from the surface of Mars and the Moon by meteor strikes have landed on the Earth as meteorites. However, it seems much less likely such material would wind up on Earth from a distant solar system, or that even a hardy spore could survive such a long trip. The times and distances are a million times greater.

So in the competition between origin theories, scientists have to decide whether it is more plausible that life originated and evolved on Earth in 100 million years, or that organisms traveled interstellar distances and survived millions of years. Most hold the former position. You can see now why panspermia proponents are in a strange way allies with creationists. They do repudiate the divine origin of life, but they also challenge the plausibility of the traditional evolutionary timeline, and on the latter point I am in complete agreement. At the present state of knowledge it is impossible to put evolution on a quantitative basis. A very large, unknown sequence of improbable events had to occur to produce complex life forms. Proponents of evolution are reduced to little more than hand waving when it comes to justifying the assumption that all these unknown events could reasonably have occurred by chance in the time available, or even in 10 billion years on one in a billion planets.

In the face of such uncertainty we must fall back on our presuppositions. If you are philosophically convinced that life must have naturalistic origins you say to yourself, “Gee, I don’t know the mechanism and I can’t calculate the probability, but it must have happened or we wouldn’t be here, right?” On the other hand if you are a Christian like me you have another alternative. I believe that God created life and created us. I’m not sure exactly how he did it but I know he wasn’t limited to naturalistic processes. So I can look at the postulated sequence of improbable events and comfortably conclude it is more plausible to believe in miracles.

[Update - July 4, 2008] This recent article reports the discovery of chemical evidence for life on earth as early as 4.25 billion years ago. Mineralogists have discovered ancient rocks in Australia which contain an anomalously high ratio of carbon-12 to carbon-13, normally considered an indicator of organic matter. If true (and it's really only suggestive) this puts an even greater squeeze on the time available for life to have evolved on Earth.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


We went to see the movie Expelled this weekend. I enjoyed it. In fact, I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Sometimes this sort of thing is too polemical for my taste, even though I might agree with the premise. I had read several reviews from the evolutionist perspective that were complaining about several aspects of the film. For one thing, some of the evolutionists who were interviewed in the film complained that the nature of the project was misrepresented and that they were quoted out of context. Well, I don’t know whether they were lied to or not, but perhaps if they had understood that this movie was going to be strongly pro-Intelligent Design they might have declined. On the other hand, from what I have read of their positions I don’t think their views were distorted at all or taken out of context. I can see they might be mad because interviewer Ben Stein sometimes tried to make them look a bit foolish, but nowhere near as bad as what you see every week on 60 Minutes.

Another complaint I read was about interspersing the interviews with old film clips. I was prepared to cringe at this, but I discovered that mostly it was done for humorous effect and so was not as annoying as I expected. The one exception was Stein’s use of the debating H-bomb: comparing your opponent to Hitler. The reviewers complained that being an evolutionist doesn’t make you a Nazi. And while that’s true, it is also true that evolution was the inspiration for the eugenics movement, which Hitler followed to its chillingly logical conclusion. Stein’s tour of the Nazi death camps and his interview with the curator at Hadamar were sobering. While the evolutionists are right to point out that the eugenics movement does not logically constitute a disproof of evolution, it is nevertheless a testament to the evil influence a bad idea can have.

I had also read a complaint that the film never even defines the terms evolution and intelligent design, much less musters any evidence for or against them. Actually, in the course of the film a pretty good one sentence definition of each term is given, but they are correct that no evidence is offered. However, that wasn’t the point of the movie. It specifically attempts to show that anyone who speaks favorably of intelligent design in the sciences is systematically denied tenure or even employment. Now you can debate the particulars of each case, but I doubt that evolutionists really want to be defending the right of intelligent design supporters to be tenured science professors. I’m fully prepared to believe that making statements in favor of intelligent design will engender a strong prejudice from most tenure committees. How could it not? They have defined intelligent design as “non-science” - or maybe “nonsense.” Why not let them study it? Why not let them try to get papers published about it? It rings hollow to complain there’s no peer-reviewed literature on it and then fire anybody who tries.

There is one event surrounding the release of this movie which was very poorly handled. One of the scientists interviewed in the movie, PZ Meyers, was not allowed to attend a pre-release screening of the movie. I don’t think it matters whether he was invited or not, or whether it was supposed to be a private screening or not. This was a really rude and stupid thing to do. Throwing him and his family out of the theater was against the very point of the documentary, not to mention lacking in Christian hospitality. Predictably, the evolutionist blogs have been having a field day with this event. I hope that somebody connected with the film will try to contact Dr. Meyers and apologize. It won’t undo the public relations fallout, but it’s the right thing to do.

I doubt this movie will contribute much in the long run to resolving the debate over intelligent design. It probably has about as much chance of changing the minds of university faculties as a Michael Moore film has of turning Republicans into Democrats. This is not a debate between theories, but a debate between worldviews. Such issues do not get resolved by scientific evidence.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Light into Darkness

Today is a special day for me. Of course it is Good Friday, which is special because on this day we commemorate Christ’s death for us on the cross. But for me, personally, March 21 is special for a different reason. This is the day when I remember God’s amazing grace that he showed in rescuing me, a scoffer and a blasphemer, from the path of destruction. This is the day when I was born again.

I was fourteen, which might seem a tender age to be considered a scoffer and a blasphemer. What can I say? In this respect I was quite precocious. I had always been interested in science. From the time I learned to read I devoured every science book and magazine I could get my hands on. I watched science TV shows, and whenever I had the chance went to science museums. When I attained the age of reason, which for me was about age twelve, I began to question the Christian upbringing my parents had given me. At that age, in seventh grade, I also came under the influence of a young and energetic science teacher. In my sheltered Bible Belt childhood, he was the first adult I ever met who freely admitted he didn’t believe in God.

Under these influences I decided I didn’t believe in God either. I became an agnostic. I wasn’t actually willing to state that God did not exist; I simply believed that it was impossible to know whether or not he exists. I had decided that I would only believe what could be scientifically proven. It seemed to me that if God exists he is by definition supernatural, so it is impossible by natural means to discover any evidence of his existence. You can’t see him. He doesn’t register on any scientific instruments. His existence is effectively undiscoverable. And though I didn’t say it explicitly, by implication his existence is irrelevant. What I did say, explicitly, is that anyone who does believe in God is a fool or an idiot.

My parents still made me go to church and Sunday School, although I argued with them about it. I also argued with my Sunday School teachers. Later, while sitting in the church service, I would occupy myself by looking around scornfully at all the foolish, and hypocritical, people around me in the pews. You probably have a pretty good picture by now that besides being an agnostic I was also an arrogant little twerp. It was a wonder I had any friends at all, but I travelled in a circle of friends who thought and acted just about the same way I did.

In ninth grade I had two godly women as Sunday School teachers. I was very rude to them. I told them I wouldn't believe in God without hard evidence. I ridiculed their faith, but they were very patient and loving. Their heart's desire was to lead each of us into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. One week they invited the class to attend a youth evangelistic service at another church. I only went because a couple of cute girls in the class asked me to.

At the service I saw hundreds of teenagers excited about Christ. The speaker presented the Gospel in a clear and moving way. He kept saying to give God a chance. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite. I despised hypocrites. So I quietly prayed, “God if you’re real, show me.” At that moment I felt an incredible rush of joy and ecstasy flow through my body. I was amazed. I realized that God had answered my prayer. Yet I began immediately to rationalize what had happened. I must be doing that to myself, I thought. It must be some sort of subconscious wish fulfillment. But the experience was so real and so obviously from outside of me that I could not easily dismiss it. So I prayed the same prayer again and it happened a second time – less intense, but accompanied by an absolute conviction that God is real, that everything the preacher had said about Jesus was true, and that my whole life had just changed. I was thunderstruck. I knew immediately that the foundations of my worldview had been overturned, not leaving a single stone on top of another. It was Sunday, March 21, 1971 at about 8:00 pm.

Tonight I remember that moment thirty-seven years ago, when the boundless grace of God miraculously rescued another miserable sinner, whom he loved even when I was unlovable.

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:6-8 NIV)

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Real Problem in Education

The real problem with public schools is not poor funding. It’s not obstructive teachers unions. It’s not an overemphasis on standardized testing. It’s not a lack of innovative programs. Helpful changes could be made in all these areas, but we would just be dancing around the edges. The real problem in education is the social chaos created by two generations of disintegrating families, entitlement attitudes, failed discipline and misguided attempts to use public schools for social engineering. The failings of our schools reflect deep dysfunction in our society.

My wife began teaching in public schools over 25 years ago. She has taught at both the middle school and high school levels. The district she taught in for most of that time transitioned from a middle class suburban community to a poor, high-crime, heavily minority community. Gangs, drugs and teen pregnancy are significant problems, even among seventh and eighth graders.

Teaching in this environment is not for the faint of heart. Mustering the optimism, the energy and the courage to face the daily challenge for the 4000th time requires more dedication and fortitude than the average person possesses. It is, as Samuel Johnson once said about remarriage, “the triumph of hope over experience.” It’s true that many burned out teachers stay a few more years just to finish out the years of service needed for retirement. But most are still committed to doing what they can to make a difference. They press on, hoping to make an emotional connection with another hurting student, buoyed by the spark of learning in the eyes of the ones who rise above their environment.

The deck is stacked against success. Easily a third of classroom time, sometimes more than half, is devoted to dealing with discipline problems. It’s no wonder the school districts keep trying to add extra class time for remedial work on the basics like reading. But they’re trying to fill a leaky bucket because every year sees fewer classroom minutes spent on instruction.

What kind of discipline problems? Students put their heads down on their desks and sleep. Students get up out of their seats and wander around the room to talk to their friends. Students cheat on tests, vandalize books and equipment, steal supplies, get in fist fights, shout at the teacher and make threats. Most of the troublemakers have no interest in learning and they make sure no one else can, either. They are failing all their classes but they simply don’t care so they don’t try. They are angry, disillusioned and hurting. Sometimes an empathetic teacher can make a connection, but most of the time they can’t.

How did we get into this mess? First and foremost is the disintegration of the family. Most of these students either have no father in the home, or they have a stepfather with whom they have a strained relationship. This affects boys and girls in different ways. The moms lament that they can’t control their sons. Many of the boys join gangs. The girls are often sexually promiscuous. They want to have a baby as soon as possible because they feel that’s what makes you a real woman. In this they have their own mothers as role models.

Today’s students are now the grandchildren of the boomers. They are the third generation of those who made rebellion against authority their defining issue. Parents no longer support the schools on discipline issues. It never occurs to them that their child might be lying or might actually be in the wrong. They leap to their child’s defense and the children learn to have an adversarial attitude toward teachers and administrators. The schools, for their part, are afraid of being sued. They abandoned corporal punishment long ago and will even back down on something as simple as issuing detention if the parent complains.

Overwhelmed administrators dictate elaborate discipline processes teachers must follow before they can send a disruptive student to the principal’s office. Instead of getting the source of disruption out of the classroom as soon as possible so instruction can resume, teachers are giving repeated warnings, documenting misbehavior in writing, taking students aside for verbal correction and phoning their parents, all while the rest of the class waits.

In the name of inclusiveness schools try to “mainstream” special education students as much as possible rather than segregating them in special classes. While this is a laudable goal, when those students are disruptive it is not fair to the other students. Many students are designated special ed not because of learning disabilities but because of behavior problems. Every year my wife sees more special ed students in her classroom. She has had classes in which as many as a third of the students were in this category. When the number of special ed students is high enough a teacher’s aide is supposed to be assigned to the classroom, but due to resource limitations this does not always happen.

The cult of self esteem is so strong in our society that we have raised our children to expect they will always be successful, whether they try their best or not. Students are unwilling to work hard, and they feel victimized if the result is a low grade. They feel victimized if their misbehavior results in negative consequences, like being disqualified to play sports. Instead of understanding that they are being held accountable for their behavior, they imagine that their teachers are “out to get them.”

I don’t know how to solve all these problems. They reflect deeper societal problems that go beyond anything under the control of the schools. What the schools should do, I submit, is focus on educating the educatable. We need to recover the idea that a free public education is a privilege and not a right. We need to clearly articulate to students and their parents what the rules and expectations are for those who want to take advantage of this privilege. Students who cannot sit in a classroom without being disruptive need therapy more than they need instruction. School isn’t going to do them any good until they are sufficiently in control of themselves to listen and learn.

As individuals, we must teach our children the importance of marriage, the need to respect authority and the value of hard work. There is nothing new in that. But too many of us have lost sight of these core values. We thought there might be a shortcut, but it turns out we were wrong.

It’s not enough just to get our own houses in order, either. As Christians we need to be reaching out to the hurting people in our communities. We need to be coming alongside single parents whose kids need positive role models. We need to help families who struggle to feed and clothe their children. We shouldn’t expect the government to step in with billions of dollars and solve all of society’s problems. The biggest problems aren’t solved with money. They are matters of the heart.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Lessons from Lost

I hope you literary types don’t laugh at this post. I was a junior in college before I took a literature class that made sense to me. I think people who like to read novels and look for deep meaning and symbolism just have a completely different way of thinking than engineers do. You pretty much need to spell it out for us, and nobody ever did till that professor I had in my junior year. We engineers are kind of dense in that way, I suppose.

Anyway, I had a profound insight watching Lost last week. (Ok, I am definitely starting to hear some snickering now. Please bear with me.) Like about a hundred million other people I’ve spent the last couple of years trying to figure out what the heck is going on in that show. How can you explain all the weird things that happen on that island, and what is the smoke monster? Maybe there are aliens with advanced technology on the island. Maybe the place is haunted. Maybe the island itself is sentient. How can you decide? The interesting thing is that each of those answers is plausible within a different worldview. If you are a techno-geek who doesn’t believe in the supernatural you might go for the alien technology explanation. If you are superstitious you might believe it’s haunted. If you are a new age Gaia type you might decide the island itself is alive.

When thinking about Lost I realized a long time ago that to guess the right answer you have to guess the writers’ worldview. Or at least you have to guess what type of reality they decided to portray in their fictional world. I’ve been leaning toward the sentient island hypothesis for quite a while, and one big reason is that a lot of Hollywood seems to be pretty taken with new age thinking. So this would be the most “plausible” or satisfying explanation from their perspective.

Then last week we saw the character Miles do some sort of ghost-busting séance thing with the murdered kid and then with Naomi’s body. This was presented totally straight, as though we are expected to believe that people can really do such things. It was jarring to me. For one thing, I don’t believe that’s possible. For another, it didn’t jibe with my guess about the writers’ worldview. And that got me thinking. Actually, all of the explanations I mentioned above belong to worldviews I don’t share. I’m so used to that I don’t even notice. There are almost zero movies and TV shows that present a reality consistent with the Christian worldview. Why is that?

As I reflected on that, I started thinking about my ninth grade English class. No kidding. I wrote a short story that year which contained a pretty explicit moral. It was about the survivors of a plane crash in the remote jungles of Guatemala. (I shall await my royalty check from J.J. Abrams.) In my story, the characters who decided to “trust God” and wait to be found were rescued. The ones who took matters into their own hands and tried to hike out were never found. My English teacher took me aside and explained that whenever one dealt with religion in literature, it is important to not be too explicit or heavy-handed. In real literature the ending has to be ambiguous enough to support an alternate, nonreligious explanation. Otherwise it is a “mere religious tract”, which is how he described my short story. He reminded me of a novel we had read that year, The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, the ending of which was admirably ambiguous. I recall we also read Barabbas by Par Lägerkvist, at the end of which the title character might or might not have been redeemed.

My teacher meant well and I took his criticism to heart, resolving not to be a “mere tract writer” again. But why, exactly, was what I did wrong? Just who gets to decide what worldview is appropriate for serious literature? The question is whether the audience is willing to enter into the reality that the author creates. In the case of a Christian reality, the answer is that the self-appointed guardians of serious literature are not willing to enter in. That’s a pity when almost every other sort of worldview is accepted without a whimper. I think if I ever write a short story again, I will not worry about it being a “mere religious tract.”