Monthly Archives: March 2011

New archeological discovery for scholars interested in early Christianity

(Did I post this before Kendall posted it on his blog?!?? Ha ha ha.)

British archaeologists are seeking to authenticate what could be a landmark discovery in the documentation of early Christianity: a trove of 70 lead codices that appear to date from the 1st century CE, which may include key clues to the last days of Jesus’ life. As UK Daily Mail reporter Fiona Macrae writes, some researchers are suggesting this could be the most significant find in Christian archeology since the Dead Sea scrolls in 1947.

Read the full article.

Chesterton: Ritual, simple and wild

I saw The Philadelphia Story at CCU last night; it was fun and funny. When I read the below quotation from G.K. Chesterton this morning, I was reminded that ancient Greek drama had its roots in Dionysian worship, and in pre-Christian England, pagan religious rituals involved dramatic, theatrical elements.

For some reason, humans always have desired to worship, and desired to express that worship with their bodies, through dance, repeated stories, and rituals.

“Ritual is really much older than thought; it is much simpler and wilder than thought. A feeling touching the nature of things does not only make men feel that there are certain proper things to say; it makes them feel that there are certain proper things to do. The more agreeable of these consist of dancing, building temples, and shouting very loud; the less agreeable, of wearing green carnations and burning other philosophers alive. But everywhere the religious dance came before the religious hymn, and man was a ritualist before he could speak.” — G.K. Chesterton, Heretics

It’s time for you to love Open Culture – free films, free university courses, free …

I promise this is not an ad.

Open Culture is a massive online portal to just about everything.

Take a look at the site’s links to 340 films available online for free (scroll past the Netflix ad and take a look).

If you come up for air, take a look at Open Culture’s list of free academic courses from major universities.

Navigate the site and keep an eye on its blog. Amazing stuff!

Brain research and your spiritual life; of bad habits and religious rituals

Bad habits tend to involve things we do with our bodies, but spiritual and religious cures tend to involve intangible, unseen things like prayers, beliefs, and will-power.

Habits are developed, maintained, and broken in the brain, according to this research from MIT.

The spiritual and religious cures that deal exclusively with intangible, unseen things ignore the full picture of human nature.

The spiritual and religious cures seem to be dualistic, making the body like oil on top of the mind’s or spirit’s water.

The assumption is if the mind or spirit gets right, the body will get right, too.

Is this dualistic view orthodox? Difficult to answer. In Christianity, the believer is promised a resurrected body.

Can we really overcome a bad neural pathway in the brain without directly engaging the brain? Tough question. God does seem to empower some people to overcome temptations.

No matter how you answer those questions, consider this: if our bodies engage with material things for bad habits, our bodies should also engage with material things for good habits.

Good rituals, and habitual engagement with good symbols, might not replace a bad habit, but rituals with good symbols would be better than no bodily engagement at all. (Along those lines, see my argument in favor of Montessori-based Christian education here.)

What starved senses in a man who can only think of his body as engaged in the bad, and only think of some intangible part of himself as engaged with the good.

How does this non-material, non-biological view of change track with the Incarnation? If flesh and bone is, in and of itself, sinful, how could He who knew no sin have taken on flesh and bone? I think “flesh” would include the brain.

As researchers interviewed for this MSNBC article said, humans can strengthen good habits.

Imagine Christian spirituality this way: At the bottom, we have natural law, or the moral law that C.S. Lewis describes in an appendix to his book The Abolition of Man. This is the moral law that seems to have been consistently intuited by humans throughout history. However, it is also a moral law that we all, to greater or lesser degrees, have violated.

At the top, we have God’s help, God’s power that enables people to do truly good things and overcome selfishness. As G.K. Chesterton said in his book Heretics, the only requirement for selfishness is to have a self (which is why “education” in information and basic knowledge won’t make better people).

At the bottom, the moral law. At the top, God’s help.

Here’s what’s in middle: family traditions, ritual practices, ceremonies, liturgical celebrations — the habits and cycles, associated with Biblical stories and Christian symbols, that write new neural pathways into our brains.

As noted in the New York Times article Can You Become a Creature of New Habits?, good changes in the brain are possible.

Let me jump back to a wide angle on this topic: I seriously doubt that Christian evangelists and apologists can adequately engage the world without some understanding of brain research. What makes us human? What’s the norm for being human? What do we assign to the intangible, unseen realm that is actually tangible, if located in the dark cave of the skull?

While my hope is in the free gift of the New Covenant, I do not believe that God controls everything we become. As it turns out, as humans, as biological beings with brains, at least part of who we are, at least part of who we make ourselves to be, depends upon what we do. We can be staunch believers in that New Covenant and still have no pattern of life or practice that associates with Biblical patterns or Christian symbols.

An article for help navigating the fuss about ‘Love Wins’ and universalism

I’ve been trying to avoid the fuss about Love Wins by Rob Bell — sometimes I tire of intellectual controversies that never advance — but today I saw a sympathetic look at universalism (and a mention of Bell’s book) on a blog by a scholar I like. So I thought about a resource that might serve as a reasonable pivot point on the topic. I recalled that the wonderful, late Richard John Neuhaus had written a thoughtful, historical and Scripture-informed consideration of universalism: Will All Be Saved? Please read it and consider it.

Survey: Most Americans do not believe Japan earthquakes, or other natural disasters, are signs from God

From a survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Religion News Service:

“7-in-10 Americans see God as a person with whom one can have a relationship, and a majority (56%) say God is in control of everything that happens in the world.

“However, less than 4-in-10 (38%) believe earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters are a sign from God; and even fewer (29%) believe that God sometimes punishes nations for the sins of some of its citizens. White evangelical Protestants are the exception to this pattern. Among evangelicals, about 6-in-10 (59%) believe natural disasters are a sign from God, and a smaller majority (53%) believe that God judges nations for the sins of some of their citizens. Only one-in-five white mainline Protestants or Catholics believe God punishes nations for the sins of some.

“Nearly 6-in-10 (58%) Americans say that the severity of recent natural disasters is evidence of global climate change, compared to 44% who say that the severity of recent natural disasters is evidence of what the Bible calls the ‘end times.’

“More than 8-in-10 also say that providing financial assistance to Japan is very important (42%) of somewhat important (41%) despite economic challenges at home. Support is high across political and religious groups.”

Read more of this report.

Pole dancing for Jesus?

I’m not making this up: pole dancing set to Christian music.
But ain’t that America.

Bono: ‘Grace interrupts karma’

I’m glad Rob Sturdy found this quotation from U2’s Bono.

‘Jesus’ as a word on the printed page

The configuration of the letters j, e, s, u, and a second s signifies Jesus, but that configuration is not Jesus. Those letters, constructed as the word Jesus, form a sign. Is this sign substantially different from other types of signs? For some people, a cross signifies Jesus. For others, a candle signifies Jesus. In evangelical churches, a man likely could kiss his Bible without reproach, but he might inspire frowns if he kissed a cross. The former action likely would seem noble; the latter action likely would seem Roman Catholic. If he kissed a candle, he might wind up with a waxed upper lip (in which case, from what I’ve been told, the ladies in Tennessee should kiss candles more frequently). If he were to kiss an icon, most American Protestants would think, “idolatry.” But it’s easy for me to imagine a Christian high school’s gym with the name “Jesus” painted on the wall, and the basketball players all placing their hands on that name before shouting their pre-game motto. Admirable? Maybe. But neither the wall, nor the paint, nor the word is Jesus.

These are still-forming thoughts, rendered in a blog post. Your thoughts?

New essay at LiturgicalCredo

Deborah Reed thinks through “Good versus Bad.”

Why did the Japan earthquake and tsunami happen?

Update: This blog is NOT a news site. This blog is an ongoing commentary on religious attitudes in American culture. Some people believe that God caused the recent earthquakes in Japan. They believe God is sending a specific message through the earthquakes. This post challenges that attitude. This post is not meant to give a scientific explanation, but rather to criticize people who think God is trying teach Japan a lesson. If you follow the link about Glenn Beck, you will understand the context of this post.

Because Japan is close to a major fault line. Now would Glenn Beck please shut up?

Here’s a previous post about ministers who try to divine God’s messages in natural disasters.

A Christian political outlook, and some bad news

Mere Orthodoxy’s interview with Mark Tooley allows the latter to explain why American and British systems of government have triumphed, and Marxist approaches have not.

Meanwhile, Mark Steyn wonders why the murders of Jewish children — including a 3-month-old baby — haven’t merited coverage in the international news media, never mind the party that celebrated the murderers.

A few quick words about George Santayana

Some Turns of Thought in Modern Philosophy.  Five EssaysSome Turns of Thought in Modern Philosophy. Five Essays by George Santayana
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thanks to, I was able to listen to an audio recording of this book on the road between home and campus. Santayana had a rhetorical and stylistic strength in his essays. Although I can’t compare Santayana’s conclusions with the current state of philosophy, I can say that these essays are likely to be useful and accessible to anyone with an interest in the history of philosophical thought. For example, the first two essays address John Locke. One of my favorite quotations, I discovered, came from Santayana’s footnotes in the Locke essays. I had found the quotation attributed to Santayana in another book, but the writer didn’t include the source of the quotation. Here’s that favorite quotation: “Only literature can describe experience, for the excellent reason that the terms of experience are moral and literary from the beginning. Mind is incorrigibly poetical: not because it is not attentive to material facts and practical exigencies, but because, being intensely attentive to them, it turns them into pleasures and pains, and into many-colored ideas.”

View all my reviews

USA Today covers Francesca Battistelli

Well, when a Christian artist’s album debuts at No. 16 on the Billboard Albums Chart, I guess I’ll take a look. Read the short USA Today interview.

Happy Birthday, Michael Polanyi

Today is Michael Polanyi‘s birthday. Polanyi (1891-1976) was a scientist-turned-philosopher, and fathered a “post-critical” point of view through books such as Personal Knowledge: Toward a Post-Critical Philosophy and The Tacit Dimension. Please see my review of Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing by Mark T. Mitchell, and for a more in-depth, academic approach to Polanyi and his ideas, visit the website of the Society for Post-Critical and Personalist Studies and read its publication, Appraisal.

In the classroom: horror movies as harsh moral lessons

One of my creative writing students wrote a vivid, immediate, gruesome short story. At the end of our workshop discussion about the story, I turned the conversation to horror movies as moral lessons.

I asked how many had seen the horror flick Hostel. About a third of the class had seen it. I hadn’t, but I knew the basic idea.

Another student, referring to the starting point of the movie, said, “I’m not going back-packing in Europe anytime soon!”

“What’s the premise of Hostel?” I asked the class. “Trying to hook up with strange girls in a strange place!”

Some of the students made the connection.

I mentioned I had once written an article about horror movies, in a general sense, serving as morality tales:  “The idea is, teenagers are alone together in a way their parents don’t want them to be, and just when things get interesting, the boogey man kills them,” I said.

More of them seemed to get it.

“You don’t want Jason running you through with a big knife, so keep your pants on!”

They laughed.

“So on that note, have a great Spring Break!”

They laughed even harder, and eagerly left the classroom.

John Piper and N.T. Wright

John Piper’s sermons and lectures usually lead me to despair.

N.T. Wright’s sermons and lectures always lead me to worship.

If only I had the theological, doctrinal, psychological, and historical vocabulary to account for those two disparate reactions.

Grandeur and sublimity serve no social or biological purpose

Today is Ash Wednesday, yet the apologetic task continues. Toward that end, I found this useful:

“The awareness of grandeur does not serve any social or biological purpose; man is very rarely able to portray his appreciation of the sublime to others or to add it to his scientific knowledge. Nor is its perception pleasing to the senses or gratifying to our vanity. Why, then, expose ourselves to the disquieting provocation of something that defies our drive to know, to something which may even fill us with fright, melancholy or resignation? Still we insist that it is unworthy of man not to take notice of the sublime.” — Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion