Top 10 Books that Stuck with Me

There’s a Facebook Meme going around my friends about the “Top 10 Books that Stuck With Me”.   I love the concept, because it reveals a lot about a person.  I could easily write this up as a facebook post, but I want this to stick around.  I believe theses books will help you understand my mindset and where I’m coming from.

Without further ado, here’s my Top Ten Books that Stuck with Me

  1. The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman. For some reason, a book arguing for globalization was my first foray into non-fiction reading.  Friedman’s ability to explain the history of computers, open-source software and outsourcing opened my mind to a larger world of economics.  While Friedman’s arguments are out-of-date and his attempts at updating the material are mediocre, this book opened my mind to a whole new (flat) world
  2. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.  Ender’s Game introduced me to a new world of stories, of complex minds, of philosophical ideas, and hard sci-fi that still holds up today. I’ve only read the novel once, but that one reading left  a deep imprint on my mind.  I enjoyed the sequels (Both the SPEAKER OF THE DEAD trilogy and ENDER’S SHADOW series), but none of them had the depth and impact that Ender’s Game had for me.
  3. The Republic, Plato:  I originally studied Plato during a course that tried to analyze it from a “Biblical worldview”.  The author was obsessed with trying to prove how Platonism was incompatible with “Biblical/Hebrew thought”.  But as I read Plato’s Republic, I began to see how Plato’s ideas (at least the ones about the nature of things) could be compatible with Christian thought.  I began to see how they influenced Augustine and other thinkers. It was even clear how  Plato’s ideas  could help us understand the nature of God and the nature of Man, and how they interacted with reality.   It was because of Plato that  I saw how Non-Christian ideas could be compatible with a Scriptural view of reality.    While I’m no longer a Platonist (I prefer Aristotelian thought, instead), I still cherish Plato’s ideas and the historical attempts to reconcile his ideas with Christian thought.
  4. Do Hard Things, Alex and Brett Harris:  I originally viewed the Harris Twins as saints, as men who changed everything for me..  It’s because of them that I developed a love of non-fiction, of writing, and of philosophical debate.  They taught me to strive for more than the status quo and to do my best in order to glorify God. After 5 years of reading them,  I’ve now learned  how their movement was invested in a certain sect of conservatism that promotes unhelpful ideas about politics, gender, and other issues.  I’ve met people who were negatively impacted by Do Hard Things, and who suffered because of it.  I still think some of the ideas were valuable for me, but it’s hard to say whether I would recommend the book today.
  5. The Truth is Out There, Thomas Bertroneau: This simple book that explored certain Christian ideas in classic sci-fi left me with a desire for deep thought about pop culture.  While the book is a bit niche, it’s still one of my favorite books on the topic.
  6. The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell:  Gladwell is one of my journalism heroes.  He tells stories and expressed ideas in a way that everyone loved and that was accessible.  I’ve read every one of his books. But the one I will revere above all others was my first: the Tipping Point.
  7. Why People Believe in Weird Things, Michael Shermer: I believe skepticism and Christianity are compatible.  Being a Skeptic doesn’t mean being an atheist; It just means critically testing all the evidence before you and making sure all claims and evidence are valid.  Enter Michael Shermer, a prominent atheist and skeptic. His book Why People Believe in Weird Things is on my list because it was a perfect book for taking on nonsensical claims. In it, Shermer doesn’t try to dismiss religion (Though he does critique the modern Creationist movement), but challenges popular non-religious views on subjects such as the lunar hoax, Objectivism and Holocaust Denialism. He showed me how to critically think through the evidence and events and find the truth.  In fact, it’s because of Shermer and his skeptical view of the world that  want to  help cultural Christianity avoid these falsities and seek the truth. While Shermer and I disagree on many things, including God’s existence, religion’s value and Intelligent design, I still appreciate his work and how it can help a person build a stronger critical lens.
  8. The Reason for God by Tim Keller.  Over the years, I’ve enjoyed  reading about Apologetics, but most books are either condemning of the other side or unhelpful for engaging with the complexities of other groups’ ideas. However, the one apologetic text I would heartily approve of is The Reason For God. Keller is a master of using  thoughtful prose to make complex ideas accessible.  While his book doesn’t answer every argument, it is still one of my favorites to use in conversations with Non-Christians.
  9. On Writing Well, Will Zinsser: This book was recommended to me by an old editor. I’ve read it multiple times, and learned many things about the nonfiction writing craft because of it.  If it weren’t for this book, I don’t think I would be where I am today.
  10. Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling.  HP was the song of my generation.  Thousands of my fellow students read it.   However,  HP was more than just a good book to me.    HP was the gateway drug to my Geekdom.  Through Harry Potter, I helped me develop a love of story, a love of fantasy, and a love of good reading.  I learned that fantasy could be fantastic, and that loving a good story didn’t have to end with the book.

 

Christian Mingle: The Movie

Christian Mingle is one of the biggest Christian dating sites online. You may have seen the ads for it.  I think it’s cool it exists, just like there are dating sites for Jews and atheists.  However, for some reason, Corbin Bernsen (Better known as Sean Spencer’s dad from PSYCH) is writing a directing a movie about a girl pretending to be a Christian to get on Christianmingle.com.

Here’s the trailer.  

The concept feels like a really weak version of other comedies I’ve watched.

That said, I have no idea what inspired Bernsen to write such an absurd film.  Was he paid to write it?  No clue.  Only time will tell how this film turns out.

Is there a Christian Persecution Complex?

According to my friend and past editor Alan Noble, yes.  He wrote a feature for The Atlantic that does a great job of exploring the modern state of American Christianity and how so many are actively seeking reasons to claim persecution:

The Christian church itself has a long history of telling stories of martyrdom and persecution. The stories of saints’ lives often center on their sufferings for Christ. For example, Fox’s Book of Martyrs is a popular and classic text recounting notable martyrdoms throughout church history. The purpose of these stories is to inspire and strengthen Christians, particularly those who will later face persecution. But they were not designed to function as aspirational fantasy. And that is the real problem with many persecution narratives in Christian culture: They fetishize suffering.

Read the entire thing here.  It’s a fantastic piece.

I’m back! (August 2014)

Aloha!

I haven’t blogged in a few weeks, and am really sorry.  A lot has happened since my last post and now.

  • I moved to New York, where I had to live with friends for a few weeks, then moved into an apartment
  • I got an internship with Tom’s Guide/PURCh, where I get to cover tech and learn online media journalism.
  • I attended Redeemer Presbyterian Church, the home of Timothy Keller and his amazing community.

Now I have a long subway ride home and back, and have to socialize and explore the city.  However, because I believe this blog matters, I will be striving to post as often as possible.  We’re still going to explore issues of Christianity from a Skeptical position, as well as engaging with the news and with popular bloggers in a thoughtful and valuable way.

Anyway, I hope this blog is able to encourage some thoughtful and engaging ideas, and we can spread the conversation.

Taking Off the Roof Pt. 3: HE IS THERE AND HE IS NOT SILENT

As I end my journey through Schaeffer’s “trilogy of books”, I feel as though I’m ready to take on the world. Or at least the rest of Schaeffer’s work.

After finishing God Who is There and Escape from Reason,  the pinnacle of the work is He is There, and He is Silent.  This book is more focused on a key question of how we hear and know God.

Schaeffer argues that there is a metaphysical,  a moral and an epistemological need for a creator who is personally interested in personal beings. He then represents opposing ideas, and how they’re inconsistent.  In the end, man needs a personal Creator who created personal beings to make sense of all the universe.  In the end,  I completely agree with his conclusion, and thought he made a decent case.  However, a few things did bug me as a Iread them

  • I’m not absolutely sure the way he gets there is the most effective.  He makes some weird historical claims (as expected).  For example, he notes how Carl Sagan was a follower of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and how Sagan mixes science and science fiction.  I’m not sure how this is relevant?  I may not agree with Sagan, but I’d never declare his work to be science fiction in the stylings of Burroughs.  Is this a statement regarding Sagan’s thing about stardust?  His ideas about man traveling into space?  What is it?
  • As usual, a lot of Schaeffer’s stuff is really timely, engaging with the thought leaders and counter-culture of the mid 60s-early 70s.  That’s fine, but it makes hard for the book to hold up as a timeless document, IMO.   The first three chapters focused on these timely examples, while the meat of the book was in the final chapter.    I liked the idea of one Amazon reviewer, who thought that the final chapter of the book should have been printed as a booklet, and that Schaeffer summarize the preceding three chapters in a prelude, which would have saved time.

Overall, I think I enjoyed this volume more than the other two, since it seemed more focused on particular ideas and “modern patterns”, and less on history (where Schaeffer seems his weakest).

Why We Creationists need to fact-check ourselves (A Rumination on Joshua Feuerstein

Josh Feuerstein

Its weird how some things go viral; especially when those things are based on oversimplifications and falseties.

A recent case of this came up via God of Evolution, a site run by fellow journalist Tyler Francke.  Tyler focuses on critiquing creationist misrepresentations of Evolution and showing that Evolutionary Creationism is actually a valid belief to hold.

Tyler  linked to a video from the evangelist Joshua Feuerstein, who argues he can refute Evolution in under 3 minutes.  The video went viral, and even attracted the attention of the BBC, who did a segment on the argument.

While Tyler’s response was satirical, pointing out how this simple argument wasn’t enough to convince most Evolutionary scientists. The video still attracted the attention of atheist vloggers and bloggers, and even warranted an article (taken from Patheos blogger JT Eberhard) at the Richard Dawkins Foundation website.

I’ve heard these arguments that Feuerstein promoted before.  However, it wasn’t in a public debate between two experts.  It was in a training situation, where the students are learning it in a form of  bubble.  The argument is great when facing off with each other and with those w/ little experience in physics or biology.  But if used in a conversation with an actual expert, the argument turns out to be quite faulty.

Answering the Thermodynamic case against Evolution

For example, let’s look at an argument promoted by Feuerstein and even by Henry Morris (of the Institute for Creation Research); that the Second Law of Thermodynamics contradicts Evolution:

8.  ”The law of thermodynamics says that chaos can never produce order.”

First, there is not one “law of thermodynamics”.

Second, order can arise out of chaos.  Roll a dice enough times and you’re bound to get a string of 20 consecutive sixes.

Third, you’re probably referring to the second law of thermodynamics (or whatever website you took the argument from was).  The second law states:

The second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy of an isolated system never decreases, because isolated systems always evolve toward thermodynamic equilibrium, a state with maximum entropy.

Essentially it means that in a closed system (a system where additional energy is coming in) things will move toward a state of disorder.  The argument Joshua is using assumes that the second law prohibits order from arising, therefore something (which he asserts is god without any evidence) must be causing the order.

The rebuttal is easy: that’s not what the second law states.  Even in a closed system the second law doesn’t prohibit order from forming, it just says that the ordered energy will be less than the disordered energy.

But in terms of evolution the second law doesn’t even apply because living systems are not isolated.  They are not closed systems.  Look at any plant to see this.  Most plants produce leaves by using 2% of the energy it receives from the sun to photosynthesize atmospheric oxygen and carbon dioxide molecules into high-energy, highly organized hydrocarbon molecules such as sugars.  This doesn’t violate the second law because the increased order is driven by energy coming into the system from the sun.  In fact, is is thanks to the second law of thermodynamics that living systems are able to increase their organization.

Had Joshua gone to a biologist (or chemist) or to a textbook on evolution, he could’ve learned this.  But he didn’t.  He went to a website where anybody, credentialed or not, can espouse any position, whether or not it’s the scientific consensus.  This is not the behavior of somebody who cares about science.  It is the behavior of somebody who is looking to confirm the position they already hold and to make it sound scientific.

See?  An argument that seems, in light of a layman’s knowledge of thermodynamics, to make sense.  But when compared to somebody who actually understands thermodynamics and physics, it falls to pieces.  Feuerstein’s video is full of these problematic arguments.  I really wish Joshua Feuerstein had taken time to see if his argument held up before vlogging it to millions of viewers.

Frankly (Francke-ly?), this is what bugs me.  I see straw man arguments like this all the time in both the Christian and Atheist camps.     Too often,  I found myself thinking that  I have the answers, but when these answers are tested against someone with better knowledge,  they all fall flat.

One of the most memorable instances of this was when my professor brought in a man named Max.  Max was a philosopher, a theologian, and a brilliant man.  He knew his theories of epistemology, teleology and theism better than I knew the Doctor Who universe (which is saying something).  He came into class, put on his “atheist hat”, and presented an argument that, after three hours of discussion, no one in my class could find a hole in.    Sometimes, this was because we are missing a series of facts.  Other times, it is because you and your opponents are working from two different definitions.  We were stunned. If Max had left us there, we might all considered abandoning our faith

Thankfully, Max took the next two days to lay out the logical foundations required to answer the problem he offered. And when we reached the answer, our minds were blown.  He did his best to offer proper definitions and descriptions of the problems, and give us the strongest philosophical foundation for struggling with this problem.

IThere are some legitimate problems that each side (whether it be atheist vs theist, or Evolution vs Intelligent Design) presents.   But if you  or I  want to engage in a way that deals with these intellectual problems, then let us learn to communicate effectively and accurately.

If we want to argue anything, let us use accurate  terminology and fact-check  everything.  If we’re talking about proofs or theories in science, then let us use the proper in-context definitions.  If we are trying to argue that faith is destructive, then let’s use the proper definition, not one that we’ve determined via our own experience.

The goal of every conversation should be clarity and accuracy.  If I don’t have that, then I’m wasting my breath arguing.  After all, the most loving thing you could do for your neighbor could be striving to understand them.

Taking Off the Roof Pt. 2: ESCAPE FROM REASON

When The God Who Is There was published, it was quickly accompanied by another volume; Escape from Reason.  In it, Francis Schaeffer  argues that early Medieval thinkers like Thomas Aquinas established arguments which divided the holy from the secular, thus creating a problematic intellectual practice that damaged modern notions of truth, empowering experiences and weakening reason.  Schaeffer starts from a dichotomy that Aquinas established which led to this intellectual divide.  He then traces the development of secular and existential humanist thought through history, to our modern (AKA 1960s) setting.

As a book, Escape From Reason is a lot shorter than God Who is There.  It is quite clear that the book is a companion to the it as well.  After all, both books attempt to track history to  find its key issues and its relevance .  However, that means that it suffers from some of the same problems as The God Who Is There. 

The history Schaeffer provides has few, if any footnotes, and isn’t based on academic scholarship, but on Schaeffer’s experience in the topic; an experience which is hard to validate.  This causes Schaeffer to fall into a particular area of analysis; namely that of misunderstanding Aquinas and using this misunderstanding to engage with every other scholar.   Schaeffer also tends to simplify the complex arguments of men into concepts which seem easy to refute or engage with, but are half-truths.

I will say that I agree with Schaeffer’s conclusions; that as Christians, we must hold to some absolutes, and that these absolutes (Which include the supernatural nature of God) are really important and provide us reasons to hope.

I especially appreciated this line from the book:

 “We cannot deal with people like human beings, we cannot deal with them on the high level of true humanity, unless we really know their origin-who they are. God tells man who he is. God tells us that He created man in His image. So man is something wonderful.” 

This volume is helpful for sparking some ideas.  However, I sincerely wish Schaeffer did better academic proofing and fact-checking in his conversations about the history of theology and philosophy.

 

Is the Duck Dynasty Bible Valid?

Phil Robertson, AKA The Duck Commander is getting busy again.  This time; he’s working with his “Beardless brother”, Alan, to write the “Duck Commander Bible”:

Duck Dynasty bible is on the way thanks to television’s Robertson family.

The founders of the company Duck Commander and stars of the A&E reality show are planning to release their Duck Commander Faith And Family Bible later this year, publisher Thomas Nelson noted.

The Duck Dynasty bible will be published in the King James Version and include 52 Bible-reading plans. Publishers said it will highlight the family’s core values of “faith, family, fellowship, forgiveness and freedom.”

“We are honored and excited to be working with Phil and Al Robertson on this new Bible,” said Robert Sanford, Vice President and Associate Publisher for Thomas Nelson’s Bible Group, said in a statement. “The Robertson family’s passion for the Word is infectious and the impact of their ministry is amazing. We see this Bible as being something people can grow with in their own personal walk with God.”

The Duck Dynasty bible seems to indicate that the controversy surrounding comments made by Phil Robertson are not having a lasting effect on the Robertson family brand. Despite a dip in ratings the show remains one of the most watched on cable, and its stars remain both marketable and popular, especially in conservative circles.

First, I need to start off by admitting I was never a fan of Duck Dynasty.  I would much rather watch Rick Grimes kill zombies than watch Phil and his family do their thing.   But they seem like nice people and dedicated believers. 

However, Phil and his family are no longer just a family. They are a brand.  The amount of Duck-Commander branded merch is unbelievable, even before the Phil Robertson-GQ blowout.  There are bobble heads, dolls, fake beards, shirts, food, drinks, and more.  And let’s not ignore the books.  I think I’ve seen 10+ books about the Robertson family in the last 2 years.  They’ve been as divers from Uncle Si’s “advice” to the “Wives of Duck Dynasty” to a children’s book about why beards make everything better.  They’ve also  written their own devotionals, and produced the upcoming Faith Commander Church Curriculum (w/ VBS and Teen studies built in).

In other words, the Robertsons are a product machine; driven by a market that wants them and to be like them.  And frankly, I think that’s problematic.

It’s quite likely that I agree with the Robertsons on a lot of things.  But I’m not sure that they deserve to be the center of such large projects as a “Church-Wide Curriculum Kit” or a Bible. They aren’t some great clan of prophets, providing new insights in a culture that is deaf;  it’s fueling a market-based culture of hero worship.

SD Kelly over at Christ and Pop Culture notes:

The real problem with all of this isn’t that the Robertsons aren’t the people they claim to be. The problem is that fans of the show seem to view the Robertsons as heroes, following and defending their exploits both on and off the screen with a fervor usually reserved for superstars or politicians. The tendency toward hero worship is a human quality, what could be considered a human failing, but Christians — of all humans — are supposed to be inoculated against this failing, because we are the ones who understand this truth at the most fundamental: nobody is perfect. There is only One who is perfect, only One who is worthy of worship, and it is not any of us.

On a similar note, Rod Dreher (who is a fan) notes how Phil’s involvement with leading the GOP might not be the best thing for developing the party into a healthy whole:

Is putting a reality TV celebrity, one known for being extremely polarizing in the culture war, in that slot really the sign of a party that’s looking outside of its own navel?

I know of plenty of people who would argue that projects like this might help the Gospel.  But they’re also projects that will end up  fueling the Christian Industry Complex/Hero Complex that American Evangelicals already suffer from.  We don’t need more products from celebrities, and we especially don’t need specialized Bibles which present extrabiblical content that has little-to-no basis in scholarship.  Instead, we need to look to those with truly helpful insights and legitimate experience to help the American Evangelical Church find the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

What do you think?  Is Phil and Alan’s new project more legit than I think?  Or is it just adding to the noise? Leave your comments below!