Thoughts on Genexis 2019 – Beginnings

I was excited to hear about Genexis – a series of talks at Coventry Cathedral aimed at presenting “an evidence based case for a creator God.” If you’ve read many of my posts I expect you’ll know that I have a sincere interest in apologetics, and this was a rare opportunity to hear the arguments, and the evidence, in person and close to home, presented by renowned experts. The talks continue on Mondays throughout September, people of “all faiths and none” are welcome, and the tickets are free, though very limited now. It’s my intention to write some thoughts here on each of the sessions. I’m not expecting to give lengthy reviews or to delve too far into the topics myself, as this is something I naturally do in the course of my thinking and writing. But hopefully I’ll give a small flavour of the sessions, and my strongest take-aways from them.

The organisation and presentation of the first session was encouraging, my ticket was quickly scanned and I was able to find a seat fairly close to the front, although large screens were available to give a good view to the whole audience, as well as showing helpful illustrative slides. The atmosphere was welcoming, and there was clear encouragement for the idea of asking difficult questions and thinking critically about the given answers, rather than just accepting any “information” given, either religious or not, on the basis of “blind faith.” The format of the evening was a series of introductions about the event and the speakers, leading to Sir Stephen Males talking about the nature of evidence and expert witness (he is a judge in the Court of Appeal of England and Wales) before he introduced the main speaker, Professor Ard Louis. Professor Louis then presented his evidence for God in the creation of the universe, before taking a few pre-selected questions from the audience.

I made an audio recording of “Beginnings” but unfortunately the sound quality is dreadful. I hope that video of the talk will be made available in the near future.

To start at the ending, I left the cathedral at the end of the evening feeling disappointed. On further reflection, I realised that this was based on natural but unrealistic expectations I had brought to the event. Because what I was hoping to find was something irrefutable – the silver bullet that could destroy the atheist argument once and for all. Of course this wasn’t going to happen! It’s very frustrating, but I’ve written some previous thoughts about why this might be necessary. Maybe I’ll try to get a question into a future session on this subject though, as I’d like to get a second opinion.

Ard Louis is a theoretical physicist. His topic was ostensibly “creation” – how the universe came into being, and how this points to a creator God. I think this specific point actually took up quite a small proportion of his presentation. This is understandable, because while it is possibly the most fundamental aspect of the “does God exist” question, it is probably the hardest area to actually find “proof” for, due to the limitations of observation, and the laws of physics (more on those later).

Louis first described the huge size of the universe, and then went on to talk about the origins of the “Big Bang” theory, including a very helpful presentation slide showing the size of the universe over time – which really put the concept of “inflation” into context for me – I’ve always had a soft spot for astrophysics.

He then discussed the question of where the universe came from, and suggested that this was in fact the wrong question, and we should really ask where did the laws of physics come from? This is because those laws are apparently what brought about the big bang, and also because (as a later session will detail) they are extraordinarily well tuned for the purpose of allowing life to exist. He said that this points to two possibilities – a multiverse, or a Creator.

So where did the laws of physics come from? No one knows definitively, but Louis described three plausible answers to the question, which I will paraphrase here.

  1. They have always existed
  2. They randomly came into existence from nothing
  3. They were designed by an external intelligence

Louis admitted that all three of these possibilities are troublesome in their own ways, but he found the third answer the most coherent and compelling.

And that, I suppose will be the theme of the whole series of talks – which answers are most coherent and compelling? Given that some truths are unknown (and possibly unknowable) where does the balance of the evidence point? Our own “instinctive” answers will be based on the worldview that we have adopted, but we always need to keep our minds open and question our assumptions, or else we will fall into the “blind faith” trap, and that is neither scientific or Biblical.

“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” 1 Peter 3:15

A significant percentage of the talk dealt with the supposed conflict between science and faith. I can’t recall a time that I was convinced that such a conflict existed. To my mind they are largely looking for answers to different questions, in two different realms – mechanism and meaning. But Louis also gave many historical and contemporary human examples to demonstrate the fallacy.

These were presented in a section he called “zombie myths” about faith and science – zombies because no matter how many times you cut them down they keep coming back. This section gave me my most satisfying moment, when a truth I was instinctively aware of was articulated in a way that I’ve never managed to do. This is the myth of the “pink unicorn” as Louis put it. Basically it’s the criticism that believing in a creator God is the same as believing in a pink unicorn, or a tooth fairy, or a flying spaghetti monster.

The response is so simple. These comparative examples are constructs “within” the material universe. They are figments of imagination, just as I can imagine a phone that transforms into a car when I touch it with my nose. Such an object or creature cannot exist unless it evolves or is built. A creator God by contrast, and by definition, exists outside of the universe and does not need to be bound by the physical laws of His creation.

I think this is also suggested in the Bible, for example in John 4:24 – “God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

Maybe I still haven’t articulated the rebuttal very well, but then I’m not Ard Louis!

I’m looking forward to the next three Genexis evenings, which will each contain two sessions. I hope I’ll do justice to them in my future posts.

Advertisements

Daily Reflection – Promises

As a Christian I’m not sure if I’m supposed to have heroes, except for Jesus of course, and the “heroes of the faith.” Well I had an earlier life in which I picked up a few heroes, and one of them, for better or worse, was Frank Sinatra.

Yesterday evening one of his lesser known albums came to mind, and this morning I lay in bed and listened to it. I just want to talk about it, so I’m not sure exactly where this will go.

The album is “A Man Alone”. It’s quite extraordinary, and if all you know of Sinatra is the Rat Pack, Las Vegas or the Bobby-soxers, it should challenge some of your assumptions about his work. Its subtitle is “The words & music of McKuen” referring to the poet Rod McKuen. It’s a gentle album of songs and poetry reflecting on a life free from the encumbrance of a lasting relationship.

When I discovered the album, as a man alone in my early twenties, it spoke to me on two levels. First I would fantasise about being the protagonist in songs such as “Love’s Been Good To Me” and “The Beautiful Strangers”. I would imagine that in thirty years time I would be able to sing those songs having lived that life.

And I would contrast this with my own life at that time, perfectly exemplified in a poem/song such as “Empty Is.” Sinatra and McKuen were telling me they understood where I am, but hang in there because they also knew where I was going, and it would be a great ride.

As I listened this morning I heard something subtly but profoundly different. I heard the story of a man who had started his adult life with high hopes but who had been let down by broken promises. As a result of this he made a decision not to rely on anyone but himself. He would be kind and loving to others but he would always protect himself from hurt. He would enjoy the freedom of singleness to the full, and not allow himself to fall for promises or commitments that could too easily be broken.

And yes, he enjoyed his life, liaising with different women in different cities. Not tied down, he could live his life on his own terms.

But the good times were not fulfilling. They were a shallow façade, and not far under the surface was an emptiness that would come to haunt him in his solitary times. The man is looking back with a mixture of appreciation and regret. I feel that he’s trying to justify his decisions while in his heart he knows that he missed out on something deeply special because he couldn’t trust another promise.

He makes the distinction between being “alone” and “lonely” more than once. It’s true that they are not the same thing, but it’s clear from the narrative of the album that one has led to the other.

“A Man Alone” was recorded one year before I was born, when Sinatra was just a few years older than I am now. His voice has started to lose its power, and the fragility of his singing at times accentuates the poignancy of the message. At the same time, as an Academy Award winning actor, he brings real emotion and clarity to the spoken passages.

One of the tracks that persisted in my mind yesterday was the poem “From Promise to Promise.” A short piece, which as I’ve suggested, triggers a fateful decision by the narrator, it got me pondering the nature of promises.

As usual, there is far more to be considered than I can write here. Maybe that’s good, as you can take these thoughts and apply them to your own experiences, rather than getting too entangled in mine. My thoughts, my questions, are

  • Who has hurt me most with broken promises?
  • Was it their fault, or did circumstances get in the way?
  • Did I respond with grace?
  • Which promises have I broken over the years?
  • What would I promise now, or in the future, and which promises would I avoid making?
  • How will I respond to the promises of others from now on?
  • What promises have I made to myself, and how many have I broken?
  • What has God promised me?

From Promise to Promise

I sometimes wonder why people make promises they never intend to keep
Not in big things, like love or elections, but in the things that count –
The newspaper boy who says he will save an extra paper, and doesn’t
The laundry that tells you your suit will be ready on Thursday and it isn’t
Love, well yes, but like everything else, we go from day to day
We move from promise to promise
I’ve had a good many promises now, so I can wait for the harvest
And some of them, they come about

Rod McKuen

Book Review: “Martin Luther: A Biography for the People” by Dyron B. Daughrity

October 31, 2017 is the five-hundredth anniversary of the day the Reverend Father Martin Luther posted to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, “The Ninety-Five Theses”. It was an act, history tells us, that lit the blue touchpaper and sparked the Protestant Reformation, changing Europe, and the world, forever.

If you’re anything like me, those two sentences will pretty much cover your complete knowledge of those events. And if so, Dyron Daughrity’s book will fill in a lot of blanks, and help you understand the extraordinary years, at the closing end of the medieval period, and approaching the peak of the Renaissance, in which Luther played a pivotal role.

The first thing I learned is that the Ninety-Five Theses were neither a declaration of war, nor a declaration of independence. The official title attests to this: “Disputation for Clarifying the Power of Indulgences”. Martin Luther was concerned about the abuse of indulgences – the practice of the Catholic Church offering “remission of sins” in exchange for a Christian’s financial offering – effectively giving believers the opportunity to purchase a fast track ticket to Heaven for themselves or their deceased loved ones. He saw corruption in the church and wanted open debate on the matter. Perhaps he believed he could effect change from within and restore the purity of Christ’s bride. As we know, that wasn’t to be.

Daughrity describes well the context of Luther’s life – the changes in academic and theological thinking that were taking place, as well as the political and religious turmoil in Europe as the Holy Roman Empire struggled to push back against the advances of the Ottoman Empire under Suleiman the Magnificent. Into this cultural melting pot Luther was born, and Daughrity tells as much as we know about his early years, education and religious training – a pursuit that was not encouraged by his father.

We see the formation and continuing development of Luther’s key theological insights throughout his life. We see how this theology is built largely on his understanding of the Pauline epistles, and influenced by the works of his other Christian “hero” St. Augustine. We see how his commitment to the Roman Catholic church weakened until it eventually became his enemy, and the Pope became in Luther’s eyes the “antichrist.”

We see a major turning point in Luther’s life at the Diet of Worms and in its aftermath. This was where he faced the real danger of suffering a heretic’s punishment, but survived unscathed thanks to the intervention of his friend Frederick the Wise. This undoubtedly strengthened his standing, while the pamphlets he published from hiding powerfully articulated his theology and his anti-papal arguments. His famous German translation of the New Testament was also completed at this time. After this we see the rapid spread of Protestantism, in its various flavours, and the losing battle Luther waged to keep control of the reforms.

We read of Luther’s key relationships, including his close friendship with Philip Melanchthon, and his marriage to Katherine von Bora. We read of his physical and mental ailments, with depression casting a dark shadow over periods of his life. We read of his outstanding ability to communicate to the common man in his own language, and to win almost any debate – if not at the time then in writing afterwards! And we read of his weaknesses of character, his obstinacy, his infamous anti-semitic writings.

All of Luther’s intricate and interweaving influences are presented in a sympathetic and well formed narrative. Daughrity includes copious notes and quotes from various academic sources, while doing his best to keep this a “biography for the people.” While it is ultimately a biographical work, Daughrity also explains the theological differences – and similarities – between Luther and the Catholic church, as well as the way Protestantism almost inevitably fragmented as soon as Luther’s ideas took root. So it is at the same time a fascinating history book for anyone interested in these crucial years in the life of the church.

It is well worth spending some time with this book.

Thanks to NetGalley and Abilene Christian University Press for providing this book for review.

Book Review – “Wise Guys” by Kent Evans (with Rob Suggs)

I’ll get straight to the point. This is a great book. I read it from start to finish in less than a day (unheard of for me), and then I immediately started reading it again.

Why couldn’t I drag myself away? Well, first of all it’s eminently readable. An easy, conversational tone draws you in. There are a few Americanisms along the way but I can forgive that – coming from an American author. Second, it starts rewarding you with titbits of wisdom right from the first chapter. No – earlier than that. Even during Kyle Idleman’s foreword I found myself thinking, “Yes, this is something I need to do!” And then that realization was reinforced throughout the following chapters, while I was also eagerly picking up life lessons – and being entertained to boot.

So, who are the “wise guys” of the title? They are ordinary people in the main, who happen to demonstrate a great way of thinking or behaving. And this book’s primary purpose is to encourage us to seek those people or, even better, recognise them in our daily lives; and then to learn from them, by observation and/or conversation.

It’s common sense – as is most of the finest wisdom. And most of what you learn as you read is really just reminding you of what you already know: be kind, ask questions, think before committing to a task, and so on. But these are truths that we all need to be reminded of on a regular basis if we are to develop positive habits rather than destructive ones.

The book is autobiographical, but only vaguely chronological. In each chapter Kent Evans recounts an incident in his life, which may have lasted anything from a few minutes to several weeks. He recalls a man from whom he learned something about himself or about life. And he ends each chapter describing those lessons learned, and then offering some “questions to consider.” These questions really help you change the direction of your thoughts away from Kent’s life and towards your own, giving you an opportunity to reflect on where your growth potential lies. It’s a straightforward format, and it works brilliantly.

I want to make three final observations that I hope will encourage you to purchase this book even if looking at the cover and reading the précis doesn’t convince you that it will speak to you.

One: although written from a male perspective, it is equally relevant to women. The book is unashamedly man-oriented. The full title is “Wise Guys: Unlocking Hidden Wisdom from the Men Around You.” Women barely get a mention, except in the acknowledgements. But this is for the very good reason that there is some truth in the cliché that men are generally not good at asking for help. The book is targeting those men and speaking directly to them. But the wisdom contained within is completely applicable to women, and you are just as likely to find a female mentor as a male one, depending on the circles you move in. So ladies – buy this book!

Two: although written from a business perspective, it is equally relevant to life in general. Now I’m not sure that the author intended to write a “business manual,” but many of the situations he describes arise from his business experiences, and so many of the men he learns from are businessmen, and many of his lessons learned are learned in the business arena. But at the same time, at the very heart they are lessons about relating to other human beings – and relationship lessons are invaluable in any area of life. Perhaps another way to say it is: this book will help you learn how to succeed in life – but it will also help you learn how to succeed in business.

Three: although written from a Christian perspective, it is equally relevant to people of other faiths or none. There are a few Biblical references sprinkled throughout the book, and some of the wise guys have connections through Kent’s church family, but there is not even a hint of evangelism or proselytizing; only the recognition that some of the wisdom gleaned from successful mentors also reflects Christian values. Having said that, I do feel that many of the chapters could be used as the basis for very interesting small group discussions. But ultimately, whatever your worldview, you will enjoy and get value from this book.

cover84700-medium

This book was provided to me courtesy of City on a Hill Studio and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Book Review: “And It Was Beautiful” by Kara Tippett

In normal circumstances if I knew the ending of a book before I began reading it, I might never begin. What would be the point? Nobody likes spoilers do they?

If I’d followed my usual line of reasoning in the case of And It Was Beautiful then I would have missed out on a precious, thought-provoking and life-affirming read. And I would have missed the point entirely. Kara Tippett died of cancer in March 2015, and that is where this book ends, but this book isn’t about that ending.

Because first, the book radiates Kara’s faith that death is not the end. Her faith and hope lift her out of, and far above, her inevitable moments of despondency. It also prevents her story from becoming overly sentimental.

Second, the book is a story about life, not death. It is the ordinary life of a pastor’s wife, a mother of four who finds herself in a battle with a deadly foe. But in the midst of that battle she finds joy in her relationships – with her husband, children, friends and relatives. She finds kindness everywhere, and strength in God through her trust in Jesus. She has difficult conversations with her children, and she faces brutal physical pain and emotional turmoil as her cancer refuses to be stopped. But she faces it all with a courage she doesn’t even seem to see in herself, with occasional humour, and with an overriding sense of peace.

And It Was Beautiful is composed of various writings, mostly from Kara’s blog posts at http://www.mundanefaithfulness.com/ and in it she takes us with her on a journey through the last two or three years of her life. The tone is conversational. It is an easy read in that respect, although it had me struggling to hold back tears at some points. Perhaps I can sum up the book in Kara’s own words:

Some have called me heroic, for the fight, for the journey. I’m no hero. I’m just one broken woman looking for grace. I’m one needy heart in need of forgiveness. I’m just like everyone else, fighting to see grace, to live gently, to walk in integrity. It’s a daily battle, and some days it’s a war. And many days I blow it, bad. But there is always forgiveness.

anditwasbeautiful

This book was provided to me courtesy of David C. Cook Publishers and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.