Wednesday, November 16, 2011

In Our Own Backyard

Over a year ago, when walking through the "forest" that's about a 10-minute walk from our house (Парк партизанской славы), we stumbled on a very cool-looking ropes course set up among the trees. It was closed at the time and we only really noticed the stuff that was pretty high up in the air. It was too much for lil' D then, so I didn't really give it a second thought.

Last month, Josie stumbled upon it again and recommended that I take D. I did a few weeks ago and, man, was it a hit! I guess we shouldn't be surprised. Dietrich has an acute love for the adventurous that borders on dangerous. I think our biggest problem is that he's at least a dozen centimeters—how's that for mixing categories?—away from advancing to the next level. He's already asking when he can go higher.

Here are some highlights of that first visit. (Here's the main page for the Seiklar website with You Tube videos at the bottom. Most of the videos are from a different park than the one we go to. Here's the photo gallery page. Most of the photos are from the park we go to.)

Dietrich's having-fun face.

Dietrich's in-the-zone face.

He didn't fall much, but this part of the course and this situation, in particular,
led to the most slip ups. Even when you're only 3 feet off the ground,
the safety of the harness is necessary for kiddos.

More serious action.

Sometimes D tried to simplify things by large steps and
leaps over the more difficult nuances.

This is one of the few times in the net bridge where he didn't lay down and
pretend to sleep. All the kids did it. Must be a 21st-century thing.

Figuring out the carabiner.

This shot shows both D trying to walk the plank without holding on and
the high level platforms in the background.
Daddy's pretty excited to try out the big kid stuff with D in a few years.

This shot shows D's internal struggle. "What I'm doing is totally cool,
but I can't wait to take on that supah-high stuff."

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The GOP and Me

I've been much less involved in politics while living overseas these last 7 years but, of course, with a presidential election coming up, I'm paying a good bit of attention. It turns out that we'll be in California for the 2012 presidential primaries so I've been watching the major debates, trying to keep up to speed. Let me just say that, as a connoisseur of philosophical and religious debates, party nomination debates leave much to be desired. I think I better start doing more reading and leave the media circus that is political debate behind. I finish watching each debate more flustered than I was before. In spite of the frustrations, I feel like I know each candidate well enough to say whether or not I think they would be a good person to consider voting for as GOP presidential nominee.

Acceptable Candidates

Rick Santorum - I'm likely voting for Santorum. Most of the candidates, as well as the media, have focused the discussion thus far on the economy. I'm more concerned about social and cultural issues than economics and the candidate who tries to talk about these things most often, and most conservatively, is Santorum. Unfortunately, he's probably too conservative to get elected. But the primaries are about voting your conscience so, Santorum's my guy.

Newt Gingrich - No candidate is more pleasant to listen to than Newt. He's clearly the most intelligent guy on the stage and he's one of the few who doesn't blurt out slogans and catchphrases at every turn. I liked Newt as the Speaker of the House and I'd like him as president. It's a genuine shame that a guy this politically talented has such a train wreck of a moral life. Besides that, no one thinks he's electable.

Possibly Acceptable Candidates

Mitt Romney - Over the course of the last few weeks, as this post was percolating, I had Romney in the "Acceptable Candidates" list. He is debating well and does not make me wince. A huge plus for him is that most everyone agrees that he is electable. However, I've always feared that, if Romney was the nominee, it wouldn't take long before the anti-conservatives would begin to criticize the religious, philosophical, historical and scientific mess that is the Mormon worldview. With that criticism being raised at the primary level among conservatives, I fear that Romney won't hold up as a viable candidate. I hope I'm wrong because he probably is the candidate most likely to defeat Obama.

Herman Cain - I like Herman Cain and think that he would bring good business sense to the White House. Unfortunately, America is not a business and needs more than a good businessman at the helm. He says very little about social and cultural issues and the media hardly asks him any questions in this regard. He might be a good candidate for president, if we had more information.

Absolutely Unacceptable Candidates

Ron Paul - Seriously. If you can't answer a question without getting mad about U.S. military involvement overseas and if the answer to every question posed to you is, "we need to stop fighting all these wars," then you do not have what it takes to be president.

Rick Perry - I voted for President George W. Bush twice and, while I don't regret that, I do wish that he didn't come across as so unintelligent. Rick Perry, as far as I can tell, is actually as unintelligent as President Bush is accused of being. When he takes notes while a question is being asked, I don't think there is anyone who believes he is able to hear the question and write something down at the same time. His consistent lack of coherent answers substantiates the concern. I know some people from Texas and they are more than happy to sit this election cycle out. I hope their wishes are fulfilled.

Jon Huntsman - Huntsman is simply trying too hard. As former Ambassador to China, we are thankful and impressed that you are fluent in Mandarin. But stop telling us that; it makes you seem haughty. Also, I'm Gen X and I like Nirvana. But please don't force Nirvana references into your talking points; I'm not impressed and I don't want Kurt Cobain influencing U.S. politics in any way. While Santorum is, unfortunately, too conservative to get the nomination, Huntsman is, fortunately, too liberal to get the nomination.

Gary Johnson - This guy just showed up at the last debate. He spoke about 3 times. He tried to make his candidacy appealing by saying that, as Governor of New Mexico, he vetoed more bills than any other state and, arguably, more than all of the other states combined. I'm sorry, all that does is make me sad for New Mexico. No one can get anything done there because veto-happy Johnson can't get along with anyone.

Michele Bachmann - Whereas Romney was on my "Acceptable Candidates" list and dropped to "Possibly Acceptable Candidates," Michele Bachmann used to be on my "Possibly Acceptable Candidates" list and is now on the "Absolutely Unacceptable Candidates" list. Ron Paul's answer to everything is, "no more foreign wars," Bachmann's answer is either, "I was the first/only/strongest opponent of that bill," "No one has fought/lobbied against/spoken out about this issue more than I," or "I will not stop/rest/be silent until issue x/y/z is repealed/solved/changed." The easy response to this type of argument, which has been successfully utilized over and over by the other candidates, is to state that almost every one of the things Bachmann opposed was actually enacted in the end. That lack of success is surely part of the reason why she is not the frontrunner she used to be.

At the end of the day, no matter how disappointed I may be by the results of this process, I agree with the sentiments of John Mark Reynolds that we're looking for someone who can lead our country well for 4 to 8 years, not someone who will establish a conservative utopia. That takes a lot of the pressure off as we wait to see who gets to run against Obama next November.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Our Crazy, Cross-Cultural Kid

Dietrich is doing some amazing stuff linguistically as he continues to adjust to a 3-language environment (English, Russian and Ukrainian). Here are some of the funniest.

1. Он меня обидел (Ohn menya obeedel)
"He offended/insulted me" or "He hurt my feelings." The verb is pretty flexible in Russian but I don't think it's as flexible as it is when Dietrich uses it. When you ask Dietrich about his day, he usually talks about whether or not anyone at school did anything bad. Vlad took away Dima's toy. Vlad pushed Nastya down. Vlad threw sand at Sasha. (There are 2 Vlads in Dietrich's class and one or the other of them is the cause of 90% of the problems. We expect that these Vlads aren't the villains they seem to be on Dietrich's telling.) Now, when we're at home, we let Dietrich tell us about these things in English. But when we're on the street, we ask Dietrich to speak quietly, if he's speaking in English, or to speak in Russian. He'll often choose to speak in Russian about these things when we're out and about. He loves to start every account with the phrase, "So-and-so offended/insulted/hurt the feelings of so-and-so." After we ask for clarification he goes on to tell us the details. It's not often something were the verb "to offend," "to insult" or even "to hurt one's feelings" seems to be the best choice. When taking a way a toy, pushing someone down and throwing sand are all lumped together into the word "обидел," it's a sign that either everyone in his class is more concerned about being offended than anything else or that we need to help him expand his vocabulary a bit in this area. But I wouldn't want to offend him by proposing that. We'll just work on it in subtle ways.

2. Excessive punishment
One of the more troublesome stories that Dietrich told a few weeks ago was about a boy who, for starters, took off his slipper (slippers here have pretty hard soles) and hit another boy above the eye with it. The hitter then struck the same boy with his fist in the same spot above the eye. And just to make sure the job was done, he picked up the slipper and threw it at the same boy and hit him in the same spot. One of those actions caused the victim to start bleeding. Horrible, shocking story. We followed up by asking if the boy was punished/disciplined in any way (there is only one Russian word for punishment/discipline, which makes the theological distinction a bit tricky, but that's a topic for another post). Dietrich said that he was not allowed to come back to school. We asked how long he had to stay away from school. Dietrich told us that he had to stay away for 40 years! While feeling very sorry for the poor boy who had been stuck so many times, we had a lot of fun imagining a 5-year-old who, after being banned from school for 40 years, finally gets to go back to kindergarten at age 45. Sounds like the plot of an Adam Sandler movie. Since the aggressor is back at school, we assume that Dietrich misunderstood something. That makes guessing why D came up with the 40-year punishment all the more fun.

3. Why stop at 3?
On weekday afternoons, Dietrich is allowed to watch 30-minutes of something educational. Only on the weekends is he allowed to watch a feature-length cartoon. At some point, in order to help his Russian/Ukrainian language acquisition, we decided that he could watch 30 minutes of a feature-length cartoon during the week, if he watched it in Russian or Ukrainian. He doesn't choose that often but I've come home to him watching, Cars, Finding Nemo, Toy Story 2 or 3 in Russian or Ukrainian, only later to hear him playing with toys and using words, phrases and sentences in one of those languages mixed in with his English. Success. Until a few weeks ago. We borrowed Aladdin from some other missionaries and I, jokingly, told him that I was going to play it in Polish (region 5 DVDs come dubbed into a number of Eastern European languages). After answering his question, "what's Polish?" I played it in English and didn't give the conversation a second thought. The following weekend I had been out somewhere and came home while Dietrich was watching Aladdin. I was, as usual, trying to tune it out, but something wasn't right. I listened and couldn't understand a thing. Dietrich's obvious and nonchalant answer to my puzzled inquiry about what language he was watching the movie in has had me baffled to this day. I'd say he watched Aladdin, in Polish, all the way through, about 6-7 times. Masochist or future linguist? You make the call.

We love our little guy and are very thankful to God for how well he is doing with the confusing and complicated MK life he is leading. These and many other moments like them simultaneously lighten the mood and keep us grounded in reality.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

How Not To Do Missions

A particular Central Asian country with a religious population made up, primarily, of Eastern Orthodox Christians and Sunni Muslims, constitutionally allows Protestant and Evangelical Churches to register with the government and operate free of charge. No fees and no taxes are to be levied. Corrupt government officials, however, demand bribes from these Churches for registration, as well as other rights and privileges. With little money and high moral standards, the indigenous Evangelical Church refuses to pay the bribes, trying to influence the government to follow the constitution and allow the Church to do what they have every political right to do, i.e., to register and operate freely.

A particular missions-minded, non-Central-Asian Evangelical Church is doing Church planting in the aforementioned Central Asian country. These missionary Church planters are paying the unconstitutional bribes demanded by the corrupt government officials as they organize and operate new Churches. The corrupt government officials now believe that the Evangelical Church is able to pay a bribe and will, eventually, violate their moral standards and do so. The indigenous Church leaders are told that the missionary Church planters are paying the bribe and so they can/should/must, as well. The actions of the non-Central Asian missionaries are having a hugely negative political impact on the indigenous believers, resulting in even more hardships than those they already have to bear.


Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Goodness as Beauty

I'm writing this, my 100th post, in the hopes that is it not my last "academic" entry for the next 3 years. However, as I have moved into a new and very different role here in Ukraine, I wonder if it might be. A month ago, I became the area director of our mission here and will thus spend my time working with people, leading and participating in meetings, strategizing and, of course, answering a steady flow of emails. I was going to be teaching ethics in March and would have spent the summer and fall reading lots of great stuff, like the article I'll be discussing below, to get ready for that. But with the job change, I'll spend much less time with my head in a book, and so I wanted to get this idea down before it is replaced by conflict resolution principles.

The April 2011 opinion piece in First Things entitled, "The Beauty of the Ethical," by Ross McCullough is, well, beautiful. McCullough talks about the essence of ethics, which boils down to the the way we interact with people every day. All of the theoretical, dilemma-ridden ethical discussions that arouse our passions but are rarely materialized in real life, should take a back seat to the way we act toward the person who sells us our groceries. The heart of ethics is found in what we really do rather than what we want to do or think that we should do. And so, as we live out our lives and act out of goodness toward others, we are being ethical, even if it it doesn't seem like we faced up to and overcame a major moral dilemma. To witness a life lived consistently in accord with well-grounded and truth-infused daily ethical standards is a thing of beauty, even if that life is never publicly acknowledged or rewarded in any way. The goodness of that life is itself beauty and we should strive to exemplify that everyday beauty as much as or more than we should worry about the right way to solve illegal immigration, the Arab-Israeli conflict or world hunger.

In case you don't want to read the whole piece, here are a few of McCullough's thoughts that bring ethics down from the top shelf and put them into the grasp of the everyday, illuminating the grandeur of a consistent, cultivated ethical character.

On the loss of a grand moral vision:
"Somewhere along the way the traditional scheme of virtues was greatly flattened. Morality was collapsed into justice and justice reduced to its political dimensions: Prudence came to be conceived as cleverness, temperance as a lifestyle choice, fortitude as an admirable but not a moral thing. General prohibitions and political action items became the substance of everyday moral thought: Do not rape; end global warming. We lost sight of the truth that chastity is no more about avoiding rape or even adultery than kindness is about avoiding murder: Certainly the two are incompatible, but cultivating the virtue goes far beyond avoiding its most flagrant violation."

On the bankruptcy of secular morality:
"And his [the secular moralist's] great fault is that he lacks a sense of the intimacy of ethics. ... They [the secular moralists] live their ethics in the selection of sandals, the choice of coffee stands, in the produce aisle: common enough situations in life, but hardly the stuff of it. They think always in grand terms, as if good politics made a good life, or love of man were the same as the love of men, or philanthropy charity. They judge their moral success always by the fate of the world and never by the fate of their marriage."

On the beauty of the moral life:
"There is a beauty to the moral gesture, the moral life, the moral soul; there is a quiet harmony to the parts of the act and to the priorities of the life and to the passions of the mind; and there is from all this a beauty that spreads slowly and subtly but unstoppably out across this sleeping world, like the first signs of the sun."

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Day I Almost Maimed 5 People

We've been home for 3 days. We'd been traveling for the previous 7 weeks. That's not an excuse for not blogging; it's just an explanation. The last leg of our trip had us in northern Germany. Man, that's beautiful country! The Bible school that hosted the SEND Eurasia Family Conference was perfect for just about everyone. From elderly couples on the brink of retirement to young families with kids of varying ages, we all had a blast.

On our excursion day the "grown-ups" visited an old city and had a historic tour. The "young'uns" went to a bird park. It was half bird zoo and half super-cool playground. Here's Lev chillin' out with daddy to prove that it was a grand time, and to show how amazingly cute he is.

Time for the maiming. Here's me shooting out the barrel of an amazingly fast slide.

At the end of this slide you have two options. Option 1: Stay in the seated position and end up with a bunch of sand up your shorts. Option 2: Plant your feet and let the momentum stand you up straight. (Notice that there is no significant drop; it really does shoot you out with enough force to put you on your feet.) Here's me going with option 2.

Now, if I would have gone down the slide before taking Lev down with me, I likely would have opted for option 1 when I did go down with him. But that's not how it went down. Rather, as I stood at the top of the slide, Lev in hand, to monitor Dietrich's first slide run, I let two other SEND missionaries talk me into taking Lev down with me on my first attempt. Here we are, like a cannonball out of a cannon.

Looks fine, right? It was, until the extra 25 Lev pounds kicked in. Instead of just planting my feet and being stood up straight, I planted my feet, was stood up straight and pulled forward so powerfully that I had to take huge bounding steps forward to keep from falling over on Lev. And what you can't see in the photos is that there is only about 10-12 feet after the edge of the slide before a foot-high wood barrier separates the sandbox from a downward-sloping hill. Just beyond the barrier are huge bushes covered with inch-long thorns.

So, the first two people potentially maimed are me and Lev. I could have fallen on him or carried him right into the thorns with me. The third and fourth potential victims were the aforementioned missionaries who talked me into going down with Lev without a test run. They were sitting directly opposite the mouth of the cannon and, if they hadn't stopped me, would have been bowled over backwards right into the thorns. Thanks, Dave and Gardner.

The most unfortunate and actual victim of this whole affair was 7-year-old Matthew, who was innocently digging in the sand in front of his dad, Gardner. He—his right leg, to be specific—was right in my path as I lunged forward. I stepped right on it. As soon as I felt that I was on his leg I tried to ease up but even half of my weight (plus Lev's) would have been enough to do serious damage. Thankfully, nothing broke and he was alright after a few minutes. Poor little guy.

So, there you have it. I could have been responsible for quite a lot of pain on that pleasant Sunday afternoon and several of us could have experienced the German health care system, which is surely fabulous. Was it dangerous? Yes. Was it fun? Yes. Should I have followed my instincts and done a test run instead of my live-up-to-the-challenge nature? Yes. And am I thankful that no one was seriously injured? Yes and amen!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Going to College?

If so, I want to recommend a tremendous resource. Now, when I envision my readership, high-schoolers or parents of high-schoolers don't really come to mind. Nonetheless, our kids (or your grandkids) will go to college one day so maybe you can utilize it the future.

First Things dedicated their entire November 2010 issue to a survey of American colleges and universities and to the state of American higher education generally. Unlike some issues, as far as I can tell, every article is available for online viewing. Here are the links to the best articles and why I like them in case you don't want to look through it all for yourself. But I recommend the whole thing, minus the poetry, if you have the time.

College Descriptions and Various Rankings, FT editors

This is a fairly broad survey of most of the major schools in America and includes a discussion of each institution's academics, social habits and religious context. Since the editors and the journal as a whole lean Catholic, they didn't think too highly of Biola, unfortunately. But they did rank Wheaton as the best religious school in America so we know they aren't completely closed to Protestant efforts in academia.

Go With God, Stanely Hauerwas

If you are a Christian and think that college is just 4 years of goofing around until you have to get a real job, or a time when you get to step outside the bounds of your faith and do a little experimenting, or simply an excuse for not giving your whole self in service to the Church, think again. Hauerwas powerfully communicates the fact that college is a special call from God, a unique time to either be influenced (if attending a Christian school) or influence (if attending a secular school) for the good of the Kingdom of God. Hauerwas often gets labeled a postmodernist—a claim about which I am not prepared to offer an opinion—but, in this article, he speaks as clearly as any early-20th-century fundamentalist preacher ever did. I wish I would have been able to read this before I started college; it took me years to learn some of the basic stuff he lays out in this article. If you're just staring college, read and obey.

Bacchanalia Unbound, Mary Eberstadt

If Hauerwas' article stimulates you, Eberstadt's article will scare you to death. The amount of drugs and alcohol abused and sex had in most of America's colleges and universities makes one wonder if the Amish approach to cultural engagement isn't the right one. No one, student or parent, should even think about college without intentionally working out a spiritual, moral, social, behavioral plan of attack against that rampant evil that is college "recreation." Thank you, Mary, for bringing these horrible realities to light.

Again, the whole issue is worth reading but, if you've no time for that, check out the above and be as prepared as possible for the college years.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Practicing the Presence

Sometime in the past decade, I lost the ability to plan for and keep up with regular, personal, spiritual retreats. A legitimate excuse might be that, when I worked a manual-labor job with set hours, vacation days, holidays, etc., it was easier to schedule a time to go to the park and be alone with the Ever-Present One for several hours. Now that I live the life of a missionary-teacher, I'm either reading the Bible, reading about the Bible or teaching the Bible. I'm getting much more spiritual input than when I was making photocopies of psychology dissertations at Biola's Duplicating Center. But that's a bad excuse because I still need the silence and solitude that my current shared office and child-filled home don't afford.

Well, feeling the weight of the absence, I took a "personal day" last week. Man, did I need it. One of the things that I did was to pray through a spiritual classic, which also used to be part of my former regime. It's uniquely refreshing to let someone much more experienced and mature than you guide you in your thoughts about and conversations with God. Since I didn't have a lot of time I wanted to pick something that I could work all the way through in the amount of time I had. So I picked Brother Lawrence's, The Practice of the Presence of God. What a kickpuncher! There's nothing like a 17th century monk to shake your modern (or postmodern) mindset and get you thinkin' new thoughts!

Aside from recommending that you spend some time with a spiritual classic (click here and here for some good collections), I want to offer a few of the thoughts I found most powerful (or shocking, or encouraging, or challenging, etc.) this time 'round with Larry. (The quotes that begin with "Brother Lawrence told me ..." are from conversations that M. Beaufort had with him.)

1. "[Brother Lawrence told me] that we should establish ourselves in a sense of God's presence by continually conversing with Him."

2. "I engaged in a religious life only for the love of God, and I have endeavored to act only for Him; whatever becomes of me, whether I be lost or saved, I will always continue to act purely for the love of God. I shall have this good at least, that till death I shall have done all that is in me to love Him."

3. "[Brother Lawrence told me] that all bodily mortifications and other exercises are useless, except as they serve to arrive at the union with the love of God."

4. "[Brother Lawrence told me] that is was a great delusion to think that the times of prayer ought to be different from other times; that we are as strictly obliged to adhere to God by action in the time of action as by prayer in the season of prayer."

5. "[Brother Lawrence told me] that we ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed."

6. "[Brother Lawrence told me] that all things are possible to him who believes; that they are less difficult to him who hopes; that they are more easy to him who loves, and still more easy to him who perseveres in the practice of all three virtues."

7. "Sometimes I consider myself there [in set hours of prayer] as a stone before a carver, whereof he is to make a statue; presenting myself thus before God, I desire Him to form His perfect image in my soul, and make me entirely like Himself."

8. "There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful than that of a continual conversation with God. ... It is not pleasure which we ought to seek in this exercise; but let us do it from a principle of love, and because God would have us."

9. "I wish you could convince yourself that God is often (in some sense) nearer to us, and more effectually present with us, in sickness than in health."

10. "Let all our employment be to know God; the more one knows Him, the more one desires to know Him. And as knowledge is commonly the measure of love, the deeper and more extensive our knowledge shall be, the greater will be our love; and if our love of God were great, we should love Him equally in pains and pleasures."

Sunday, February 20, 2011

At Long Last

If you're proud of your alma mater, you probably like to see your former profs publish good books and write good articles (or the appropriate equivalent in whatever field you studied) so that more people than just you can enjoy the fruit of their labors. I definitely feel that way about Talbot School of Theology and think that many more people should be familiar with her faculty than actually are.

Now it's much easier with the launch of a Talbot blog — The Good Book Blog. Not all profs are posting there; I think it's a little less than half. But that's better than none and there are already some great posts to digest (see Dr. Ken Berding's posts on prayer and the family here and here) (also check out Dr. Ken Way's story of how he chose where to earn his Ph.D.). Check it out as often as possible, stretch your mind and enrich your soul.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Tribute to Oksana (Photos by Sergei)

If you get our newsletter then you've seen this picture of my philosophy students from the class in November.

I'm obviously not in the photo because I'm taking the picture. However, there's one more person who should be in the picture but isn't. Her name is Oksana and, although I taught the class in Russian, things would have been a whole lot worse without her help. Here's just a few of the things she did:

-She went through my notes (which had been translated by someone else previously and contained mistakes due to the fact that I didn't have any live contact with that person during the translation process) and made extremely thorough revisions.

-She translated 2 new sets of lecture notes that I hadn't finished for the previous semester's class.

-She sat through the whole class and, whenever I didn't know a word/phrase or sufficiently slaughtered a word/phrase, she informed me of what I really should be saying.

-She helped me grade the assignments that were written Ukrainian, a language which is still way out of my reach.

So, as you can see, my pedagogical success (if you want to call it that — my students probably don't), is due in large part to Oksana's able and effective service.

Well, last Monday was her birthday and, in typical KTS fashion, she made a cake and brought it to the office. When the available seminary personnel gathered around to sing and congratulate her, we all partook of the goodies. Present at the shindig was Sergei Tarasenko, KTS librarian, TST-KE student and budding photographer. He graciously offered to give me the pictures that he took of me at the occasion and, in a rare moment of blogging forethought, I asked him for a number of other pictures so that I could post a tribute to Oksana for her wonderful work in my class. So, I present to you a few photos of Oksana and her office party, courtesy of Sergei.

Oksana, the marvelous translator

The food

Eric messin' up Sergei's shot

Eric doing some serious eating

Igor and Sergei (no, not photographer Sergei) doing some serious eating

Thanks again for all the help, Oksana, and happy birthday!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Join the Debate

I stumbled upon an amazing site while searching iTunes for some good theology/philosophy/apologetics podcasts. It's and it's got an amazing amount of material for those who love to listen to debates and discussions on the major topics in the philosophy of religion. They claim to have over 500 debates available and, so far, I don't think they're foolin'. Go there, find something that interests you and indulge, for free.

But this recommendation comes with 2 cautions. First, in case you are easily offended, the site is not administered and moderated by a Christian. He's an agnostic and he's not afraid to use expletives. I learned this after I posted a comment on a debate that I had listened to and was responded to in a manner not suitable for all audiences. The comment was not personally directed at me but it was an introduction to what can be found on the site. Reader beware.

The second caution is in regard to "interaction addiction" to the site. I listened to a podcast of a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Alister McGrath. I wanted to make a comment in the forum that they create for some debates. You have to be a member to participate. I became a member and posted my comment. The moderator responded immediately and in a manner that enticed me to respond again. I started to receive emails every time something new was posted on the site (yes, that function can be turned off). A topic appeared that is extremely interesting to me. I spent an hour just a bit ago posting in the forum. And, on top of all that, they give you "activity points" every time you participate, which flips a little switch in your brain and makes you want to "play." As you can see, it can be addicting and I'm hooked. If you are prone to addiction, beware.

And now for the shameless plugging. Here are links to the forums that I've posted in, in case you are interested:

My comments on the Hitchens/McGrath debate

My posts in the Science & Faith forum

Join if you dare, read if you want, but, by all means, listen until your ears bleed. Nothing gets the the wheels turning like a good debate.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Christmas/New Year's Book Bonanza

Our Christmas/New Year's traditions have developed into a cool East-West hybrid that spreads the celebrating out for much longer than we're used to in the States. Let me explain.

Our local Church, Light of the Gospel, has services and youth performances on and around the 25th of December and, as a family, we do stockings and one family gift on that day. Most of the people around us don't acknowledge that date as anything special, so we keep it low-key and focus on the family and faith aspects of it.

The big day for Ukrainian gift giving is January 1. Of course, everyone is up late celebrating the New Year and boy, do I mean late. Not-quite-professional-but-highly-impressive fireworks get going at midnight all over the city and go strong until about 1:00AM. Then, after decreasing in frequency just a bit, they continue until 4:00 or 5:00AM. This year featured a bunch of youngsters misfiring a sky rocket that flew a few feet off the ground (horizontally instead of vertically) and exploded into the side of a car about 150 feet from us. I was torn between anger over such irresponsibility and curiosity over what would have happened if it exploded under the car, all the while thanking the Good Lord that we weren't any closer to the incident than we were. Mishaps and lateness notwithstanding, fireworks everywhere you turn is a great way to bring in the New Year.

So, the drawback to combining gift giving with New Year's is the sleep deprivation that accompanies all activities on January 1. But the pluses outweigh the minuses. First, all of the materialism that accompanies the gift giving is clearly shifted away from the celebration of the Incarnation. Second, nothing happens on January 1 so you have all day to lounge around and put together all of the stuff that a 4-year-old receives at this time of year. Third, no matter how hard they try, my parents' Christmas box never arrives before the 25th. This year it arrived on Thursday, which would have been late if we were counting on it for Christmas. But since we do presents on New Year's — blammo — presents on time!

You'd think that it's all over and done with, right? Well, given that this is an Orthodox country and thus follows the Orthodox calendar, Christmas is officially celebrated after New Year's on January 7. So, instead of being out of school from December 27-31, Dietrich will be out of school from January 3-7. Thus, more rest and recreation is ahead of us a family. Also, more celebrating is ahead of us as our Church takes advantage of the holiday to focus on Jesus' birth with a more evangelistic thrust the second time around, hoping to present the Gospel compellingly to any nominal Church-goers who may be simply trying to do their "religious duty" on that day.

The above, apart from explaining how we celebrate the holiday season, is mostly just a set up for why I'm bragging about my gifts on New Year's and not on Christmas. I always ask for books at the holidays — I take 'em any way I can get 'em — but this year I really scored. 10 books total and I want to read all of them right now! Realistically, I should make it through 4, maybe 5 of them in the next year so, if you want to know what I think, check back next year at this time. Here they are, in no particular order. If you've read any of them and have any thoughts, please comment.

Michael F. Bird & James Crossley, How Did Christianity Begin? A Believer and Non-believer Examine the Evidence (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008).

This book was advertised in First Things and caught my attention. I'm already about 20 pages into it. The fact that the "non-believer," Crossley, believes a lot things that non-believers are not supposed to believe should make the debate a lot more interesting.

John Mark Reynolds, When Athens Met Jerusalem: In Introduction to Classical and Christian Thought (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009).

John Mark Reynolds is a dynamic and deep thinker and delivers a great lecture. It's probably safe to say that he delivers too many a great lecture given the time it took him to complete this book (I remember talking to him about it at least 10 years ago). In any case, this book should bring clarity to the often misunderstood relationship between Christianity and ancient thought. If I teach philosophy again in the fall, this book is definitely on my summer reading list.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 8 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010).

Obviously, Bonhoeffer is respected in this house, but I've always been embarrassed that I've never read this key collection of his final thoughts. By the time I knew that I should read it, the English translation of his complete works was already in process and I wanted to wait for it in that series. Now that it's out and I have it, I will consume it forthwith.

Peter Kreeft, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Heaven but Never Dreamed of Asking (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1990).

I'm teaching a course in March/April that includes eschatology and I don't have a lot of books on Heaven (mostly because there aren't a lot of specifically theological books on the topic) for preparation. Kreeft is an excellent writer and has another book on the existential case for Heaven that is awesome so, I assume this one will be too.

Michael Rydelnik, The Messianic Hope: Is the Hebrew Bible Really Messianic? NAC Studies in Bible and Theology, Vol. 9 (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2010).

The NAC Studies in Bible & Theology series is awesome! I read Jason Meyers' The End of the Law, also from that series, and am still adjusting my worldview in light of it. I'm collecting all of the books from the series so, there isn't a specific reason why I asked for Rydelnik's book other than that I didn't have it yet. But I'm always glad to be forced to spend serious time with the Old Testament, which this book will do. And how can it not be beneficial to wrestle with Its promises of a Messiah that are ultimately fulfilled in Jesus?

Keith Ward, The Big Questions in Science & Religion (Conshohocken, PA: Templetom Press, 2008).

If I have an academic hobby (as opposed to a specialization), it's digging deep into the science-religion debate. While poking around on a few years ago, I came across this book and it promises to be a fresh look at some of the major questions that come up in that debate. Who knows when I'll get to this but I can't wait 'til I do. (The page for this book at Templeton Press says that the book is in Russian. If so, I may be reading it sooner than later. That's exciting.)

Thomas Flint, Divine Providence: The Molinist Account, Cornell Studies in Science & Religion (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998).

Molinism is the major view of divine providence in Talbot School of Theology's Philosophy of Religion and Ethics program and I need to know more about it than I do. William Lane Craig has a good introductory text on the view; Flint's seems to be the more scholarly and philosophical counterpart to Craig's book. Explaining how God can be sovereign while man can be free is not an easy task. I'm looking forward to seeing how the Molinist account compares to the standard Calvinist and Arminian/Wesleyan accounts.

D.A. Carson, Divine Sovereignty & Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2002).

One of the major contenders for a Calvinist explanation of the divine sovereignty/human freedom problem is compatiblism, which Carson contends for in this book. Carson is an amazingly sharp thinker and I expect to read a very well-argued and very biblical case for the view when I get around to tackling this book. I'll try my best to read Flint and Carson back to back, if I can.

Christopher Morgan & Robert Peterson, eds., Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004).

This book is also to prep for my upcoming eschatology class. The bummer is that it is the second time I've had to buy the book. I don't have a good system for keeping track of books that I lend out (call it irresponsibility or communalism). So, at some point in the last few years, I let someone borrow the book and never got it back. I've asked everyone I can think of if they have it and, with no positive results, my poor wife had to buy me a book that we'd already spent money on in the past. The good thing is that its a great collection of powerful essays that argue for a biblically faithful view of hell so, if the person who has it reads it, they'll be really well informed about where not to go when you die.

Bruce A. Ware, ed., Perspectives in the Doctrine of God: 4 Views (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2008).

I love the multiview book series by all 3 major publishers (B&H's Perspectives series, IVP's Spectrum Multiview series and Zondervan's Counterpoint series and here and here). This format forces the authors to succinctly state their view and to interact with others who share a view different, often radically different, from their own. This particular book would be good to read before I read Flint and Carson, as it would give the Arminian and Open Theist perspectives on the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom, as well. Maybe the summer of 2012 will be dedicated to that research project.

I hope you had a merry Christmas and as happy a New Year's as I did.