Sunday, November 24, 2013

Ain't That N.I.C.E.?

I wrote this more than four years ago … and things have only gotten worse. It's interesting to see how some bad ideas (and names) have changed -- for the worse.

In the third installment of his space trilogy,Space Trilogy That Hideous StrengthC. S. Lewis' main character (Mark Studdock) was seduced with the promise of joining the inner ring of a powerful English society that used questionable tactics to establish an "efficient" state bureaucracy run by controllers who saw themselves as being a cut above the rest of the world. The name of the society Mark yearned to join was the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments -- N.I.C.E.

Lewis described N.I.C.E. as:
"the first fruits of that constructive fusion between state and laboratory on which so many thoughtful people base their hopes for a better world. It was to be free from almost all the tiresome restraints ... which have hitherto hampered research in this country. It was also largely free from the restraints of economy ..."
This, in fictional form, was the epitome of what Lewis feared would become a socio-political reality. Some of his reviewers begged to differ. The New York Times described That Hideous Strength as "superlatively nonsensical excitement, challenging implications," while Time magazine called it a "well-written, fast-paced satirical fantasy." That was in 1946.

Fast forward to 2009.

John C. Goodman, writing in National Review (September 21, 2009), reports on the contemporary British health commission:
"which currently recommends against any treatment that costs more than $45,000 to save a year of life. Because of [the commission], British cancer patients are denied access to drugs that are routinely available in the U.S. and on the European continent, and thousands die prematurely."
The name of the commission is the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, but the Brits refer to it by the more commonly recognized acronym: N.I.C.E.

I wish I could make this stuff up. In fact, when I read it I assumed that Mr. Goodman had made it up. He didn't. But the creepy stuff doesn't stop there.

The reason Mr. Goodman cited this fact was because N.I.C.E., according to former Senator Tom Daschleis the model for American health care reform. He said so in his book, Critical: What We Can Do About The Health-Care Crisis. Barring the inconvenience of paying those pesky income taxes that only those of us who are not driven to work in a limousine should have to bear, the good Senator would have been the one overseeing our American N.I.C.E. guys.

Today, we see hypocritical politicians passing laws they've never read. We see the unilateral decisions of Barack Obama changing the duly passed, "settled law" of the Affordable Care Act to favor his cronies and union bosses. We see Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle touting the fact that they will also be covered by ObamaCare while conveniently avoiding the subject of their under-the-table subsidies. We see this is "necessary" to preserve the crop of geniuses in Washington D.C. from experiencing a "brain drain" if forced to live under the law like the rest of us chumps. We see HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius who, as we have seen, will not only fill that role but also be the one to decide which pool of federal funding will be used to fund abortion.

We see, in other words, that all the N.I.C.E. guys are really just lying through their shiny white teeth.

Remember all the talk about "death panels" in ObamaCare? Well, given the ideology and bureaucratic impulses of our current cast of political characters, does anyone truly doubt that there will be rationing. When resources are limited and controlling costs is the reason the reform was pushed in the first place, this will be the inevitable result. Someone will be charged with responsibility of deciding who gets what. Someone like Mark Studdock.

And that is a hideous strength to wield.

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Friday, November 22, 2013

Remembering Jack

Everyone who was alive 50 years ago probably remembers where they were and what they were doing on this date in 1963. It's a day that is emblazoned in our minds because it was the day that one of the greatest and most influential men in modern history died. Sadly, I didn't learn the significance of that day until nearly 30 years later. I'm still learning how much that man influenced my life and how indebted I, and many others, are to his life's work.

His friends called him Jack, but the man I'm talking about is not the man that you are probably hearing about in the news today.

His name was Clive Staples Lewis.

On the first day of classes in my Master's Degree program at Biola University, Craig Hazen welcomed us to the campus and asked us to go around the room for an introduction that included a short explanation for how and why we became interested enough in Christian Apologetics to enroll in the program we were just beginning. As I recall, there were about 28 of us in the room. Twenty five of us (me included) invoked the name of C. S. Lewis.

This was not, and is not, idolatry. Jack Lewis would reject and admonish the very thought of such a thing. It is simple respect and gratitude for the memory of the death of a great man and the enormous impact he had, and is still having, on this world.

His books are still being published. His allegorical stories and novels are still being made into films. Max Mclean has made himself deservedly famous for his one-man-show theatrical presentations in which he does nothing but give a dramatic recital of Lewis's books (so far including The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce). Think about that. We live in the age of instant news, YouTube videos and Snapchat. Max Mclean is reciting 70 year-old C. S. Lewis books ... and his audiences are mesmerized by them.

It is hard for me to imagine that any one person outside the biblical authors could ever again have as much influence on the thinking of so many people in ways that defend and promote the truth and reality of Christianity as C. S. Lewis. His way with words, the depth of his thoughts, and the prescience with which he anticipated the world we now inhabit is breathtaking to comprehend. He was a master of language and a brilliant observer of culture.

He was not a philosopher. He was something better. He was someone who could make philosophy real. He could see where philosophy was heading. His predictions and philosophical forecasts from the 1940s and 50s have become today's headlines. If you're skeptical of that claim, don't take my word for it, just sit down for a couple of hours, read The Abolition of Man, and try to fathom the fact that it was first published in 1947.

Beyond that, C. S. Lewis was a model for both Christian believers and rationalistic skeptics who have both stopped thinking about life's most important questions because they've already found their answers. He grew up an atheist but later admitted that his atheism was motivated by the emotional consequences of the pain he experienced in his youth that he could not reconcile with a good and loving God. That is a difficult thing to overcome. It is the most common reason for rejecting belief in God's existence. It is the enemy of reason. Yet, Jack Lewis vanquished each of these because he was more committed to the rational pursuit of truth than a victim of the tendency to let emotion succeed in locking the door behind a closed mind.

Lewis' mother died when he was 8 years-old. His father shipped him and his brother off to boarding schools where he gained not only a superior education but a love for books and inner reflection that was born of loneliness. Many of Lewis' childhood memories shaped the characters he would later create. His vivid pictures of those times became the settings for his stories. He relished the influences of George McDonald and G. K. Chesterton, who made him a lover of story and challenged him to think for himself. He fought in World War I, was wounded, and had one of his dearest friends (Paddy Moore) die in that war. Then, because he honored a pact he made with Paddy, on his return to England, Lewis spent the next 32 years caring for Paddy's mother -- an enterprise that was both strenuous and stressful but that Lewis rarely mentioned.

This was a man who had every excuse to be bitter and angry but everyone who knew him thought him to be the most cheerful and joy-filled person they had ever met. Lewis rejected bitterness and emptiness because he turned toward the Truth and power of Christ.

In his autobiographical and ironically titled, Surprised By Joy, Lewis describes his arrival at Oxford and the idyllic picture he had in his mind of the place that would become his academic home and anchor. He got off the train and wandered through town looking for a place to stay. As he wandered, the town "became more and more shabby, with one dingy shop after another, [but he continued] 'always expecting the next turn to reveal [its] beauties.' Only when it became obvious that he was coming to open country and there was no town left did Jack stop and turn around. Then he saw [Oxford] in all its glory, with its grand collection of towers an spires reaching toward the sky, a picture of academic splendor unsurpassed anywhere in the world* ...

"I did not see to what extent this little adventure was an allegory of my whole life."

With Douglas Gresham
Recently, I got as close as I could ever get to meeting Jack Lewis when his stepson, Douglas Gresham,  along with Dr. Devin Brown of Asbury University and author of, A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C. S. Lewis, visited a nearby church to spend a couple of hours telling stories about him. It's a book that any skeptic or any fan of Christianity should read and consider because C. S. Lewis was both. I wish we would all be so dedicated and insistent on pursuing the Truth.

In an age where sound bites and celebrity count for more than substance, Jack Lewis -- a man of whom there only exist 38 photographs in the world** -- still resonates with and touches those who are privileged enough to take in his work. Over the years I have found that there are some of his ideas that I may take exception with but there is no Mere Christian who has made me think more about our shared convictions than Jack Lewis. I look forward to the day when I get off the bus at heaven's gates. I don't think I'll have to look far to see a barely recognized figure who seems somehow more imposing than all the familiar faces whose own earthly notoriety was their goal. When I do, I'll remember the words from The Great Divorce when the traveler's guide/teacher assured his student that: "[He] is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things ... Redeemed humanity is still young, it has hardly come to its full strength. But already there is joy enough in the little finger of a great saint such as yonder [gentleman] to waken all the dead things of the universe into life."


* Devin Brown, A Life Observed, p. 97.
** According to The Magic Never Ends documentarian Chip Duncan as cited in: Devin Brown, A Life Observed, p. 18.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

J. Warner Wallace: Christian Case Maker

A new addition to the staff at Stand To Reason, J. Warner Wallace is a fantastic apologist whose clarity and attitude should inspire us all to "bloom where we're planted" as defenders of our Christian convictions.

In his book, Cold Case Christianity, Jim puts his experience and expertise as a cold case homicide detective in Los Angeles to work to analyze the evidence for Christianity. It's a great book that I highly recommend.

If you've been challenged about the ability of the New Testament writers to write the Gospels, this is a great article by Jim about the authenticity of the Gospel of John:

How Could a Poor, Uneducated Fisherman Write the Gospel of John?

Good stuff all the way around!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Buried Treasure

Yesterday I completed a project that I have been putting off for months when I finally brought in some topsoil to regrade a spot in our backyard, seeded it, covered it with straw, and set up a sprinkler to water the new grass to life. As you can see, the shape of the area in question is fairly odd for a Fall replanting project. A perfect square? What's up with that?

Well, fourteen and a half years ago, when we moved into our new house, our five boys were 11, 9, 7, 4 and 2 years old. The younger part of the crew requested a sandbox in the backyard. Not being one to go out and buy some flimsy metal contraption that would rust away before the next summer, I reacted with overkill to produce the kind of sandbox I would have wanted as a kid. It took me a while but I finally created a 10' x 10' monstrosity. It had two layers of 6"x6" treated lumber to form the frame, bench seats on the corners, and probably two cubic yards of fine sand I lugged in bags from the hardware store over the several trips I made to find the right stuff to build it. And it wasn't going anywhere. The boards were held together with 6" countersunk lag bolts and the whole thing was anchored to the ground at the corners with pieces of 2 foot re-bar that were pounded home with a sledgehammer.

Now that's a sandbox.

Our boys spent a lot of hours playing in that thing. They built castles using Tonka trucks and bulldozers. They conducted full scale war re-enactments in that sand complete with tanks and plastic men shooting from tactically advantageous positions. They threw sand at each other. In fact, experts estimate that close to one cubic yard of that sand found its way back into our house over the ensuing 14 years.

But the sandbox days are over. Over the last several years, the sand became a breeding ground for those thick, spiny weeds that viciously attack you if you try to pull them. Rusted trucks found their way to the garbage. The wood was dried and cracked. The sandbox became nothing but an eyesore that made mowing the backyard more difficult than it really needed to be. I just couldn't bring myself to do anything about it. When Hank, our beloved golden retriever and The World's Best Dog, died a few years back, we planted a willow tree to remember him ... right there next to the sandbox.

The willow is getting bigger but the sandbox is just getting more overgrown.

So, this summer I had to cave to reality. We chopped the boards and pried rusted re-bar from the ground. Our sandbox frame became a funeral pyre for nasty weeds and plastic toys. Yesterday I lugged bags of topsoil to cover the dirty sand and, as I was raking it smooth and level, a few buried army men found their way to the surface begging for one more day in the imagination of a little boy.

I saved the army men.

And so a square of dry hay now covers the place where the sandbox used to be. Our water bill will be a little higher until the grass sprouts and, eventually, the yard will be easier to mow. But the sandbox won't be gone.

I was too lazy to replant the area the way I probably should have. I just left the sand where it was and covered it with a few inches of topsoil. My guess is that that square in our backyard where the sandbox used to be will always be a little soft and get mushy when it rains. The grass may grow a little differently in that square next to Hank's tree. Most people probably won't notice but we will. If you know where to look, you will always be able to see the outline of the place where five carefree little boys just played with army men.

That's my plan, anyway.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Fast Food

In mid-February a friend of mine mentioned that a few years ago he started a personal tradition of fasting during the Lenten season leading up to the celebration of Easter. He said that the impact the experience had on him the first year he attempted it was powerful and had led him to continue the practice every year since. He didn't tell me what he meant by "powerful" but he challenged me to give it a try.

Coincidentally, I had been considering doing exactly that, though on a much smaller scale than he suggested. My friend had researched the issue and found that the original practice of the monks who instituted Lenten fasting was to fast every day except Sunday for the 40 days leading up to Easter Sunday. The monks apparently believed that Sunday, being a day of rest, should also include resting from the practice of fasting. So, though he was not in any way Catholic, my friend had decided to do the same thing. He suggested that instead of going directly to a full-blown fast, I should wean my way into it by eating only fruits and vegetables for the first week. He told me this on the day before Lent began.

The next morning (after breakfast), I decided that instead of just teaching and talking about the spiritual disciplines (you will find a good summary of what they are in a blog series by Ken Boa here: Spiritual Disciplines, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), I might actually try putting them into practice. And so, almost on a whim, I vowed to give it a shot. I had no idea what I had signed up for.

Before I go any further, please understand that I realize the whole subject of the "spiritual disciplines" can be controversial. There are some who attribute these practices to eastern religious influences, to the occult, or to a dualistic, works-based view of spirituality. These can include unbiblical ideas like "learning to hear God's voice," adopting Gnostic concepts, or succumbing to the false notion of Catholic asceticism and the like. I understand and agree with those concerns. I am not addressing those here. My only goal during this whole ordeal was to use fasting as a tool to recognize my own self-centeredness and to redirect the energy I usually spend thinking about me to instead think about the God who sustains me.

I took my friend's advice to institute a purely fruit and vegetable diet (except that I added nuts to the list because I was a wimp) and it was only a matter of hours before the effects were obvious -- mostly when I had to drag myself kicking and screaming out of the pantry I frequent all-too-often. This was the first lesson I drew from what came to be an eye-opening, 40-day excursion into self-discipline and prayer. It is not about what you fast from or how far you go with your commitment. It is all about making the commitment in the first place. I found that when I put the brakes on my self-indulgent nature and forced myself to focus upward or to say a prayer - no matter how short or un-lofty - my propensity for the former gradually morphed into my practice of the latter. After a couple of weeks the practice took less and less effort.

Fasting is not meant to make us "better" or more "spiritual." It goes without saying that it should never be used as a self-serving method of impressing other people with the awesomeness of your own humility (see: Matthew 6:16). It seems to me that anyone who really understands the purpose of fasting also understands that doing it with the right intention means that no one will ever know you are doing it ... until you write about it on your blog, of course.

In other words, I found out what my friend meant when he described his fasting experiences as "powerful." The power in this or any other spiritual discipline comes in recognizing just how much we don't think about what we should be thinking about. The power comes in recognizing that we are powerless in every way that really matters. The power comes in the tangible realization that the most impactful aspects of this life we are living are the ones that are intangible.

When you recognize the Source of that power and recognize that it does not reside in your own head, you can go revert to your old ways of doing things (as I have) but you never go all the way back. You can't. And that's the point.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Stop Staring, Please

Two and a half weeks ago, my dermatologist performed a Moh's surgery procedure on me to remove a patch of squamous cell skin cancer from the inside of the bridge of my nose. It really is more of a nuisance than a serious threat but the healing process has not been fun. It was painful at first and came with a swollen, partial black eye and an obnoxiously large bandage that blocked my vision. The big bandage took a week to get reduced to a large bandaid, and now I'm down to a small circular one that I almost forget is there ... until I go out in public.

This whole ordeal has given me a new perspective, and not just on the issue of why we need to use sunscreen. I already knew that and have chosen to ignore it for most of my life. The bandage is a consequence of my bad choices and a reminder that I have made a lot of them. But the reason I'm writing this is because the bandage has also become a trigger for making me realize how badly most of us react to those who are different from us. It's a realization that may even be uglier than squamous cell skin cancer.

It's only a bandaid people!

Little kids stare at me like I have a third eye. Adults in the airport pretend not to look, but then I catch them stealing glances. It's as if I had a giant growth sticking out of my forehead and it has made me think, "What if I did?"

What if, like the young man my wife and I saw in Times Square this week, instead of a two-week stint with a bandaid, I had a lifelong attachment to a giant growth that deformed my face and forehead? What if I had Downs Syndrome? What if I had a speech impediment? In other words, what if I could never take the bandaid off? Do we even realize how much we can affect the personality of someone simply by staring at them because they are different?

I doubt it.

Though this is a good reminder about how we treat people who are different from us, it is obviously not some profound insight I got from having a bandaid stuck to my face. The real reason I'm writing this came last Sunday when, in the midst of my two-week bandaid ordeal, our minister addressed the subject of homosexuality and same-sex marriage in his sermon. I agreed with everything he said: That homosexuality is clearly condemned in the Bible; that same-sex "marriage" is an oxymoron; that we as a society should reject it; and that our reactions to the homosexual agenda are largely unproductive and makes things worse. All that said, it made me think, "What if your bandaid is homosexuality?"

I once flew with a flight attendant who commented that you could tell he was a homosexual "from outer space" ... and he was right. How do we -- how do I -- treat people like that? Is my first reaction to stare; to mock ... or to love?

Now, I know there are those who will argue with me about comparing the permanence and innateness of homosexuality with a bandaid that I can take off at will. I think there are good reasons to reject the idea that homosexuality is not a choice. I know there are good reasons to argue that homosexuality defies natural law and is therefore objectively immoral. I reject the very idea of same-sex "marriage." I am not arguing those points here. I could be wrong about them but if I am my point becomes even more relevant.

Let's assume I am right. Let's assume that, like my squamous cell skin cancer, the bandaid we stare at is there because homosexuality is a cancer that comes as a consequence of immoral behavior. So what? My being right about homosexuality has nothing to do with my treating other people -- most especially homosexuals -- with love and kindness, even in my own private conversations about it.

I have been guilty of failing at that responsibility -- that's what my bandaid really taught me.

We need to love homosexuals more than they love homosexuality, whether it's a bandaid they can take off or not.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Why Jerry Coyne's Claims Are Not Persuasive

Recently, I've been challenged by a new acquaintance to discuss some of the details and implications of Darwinian Evolution. This is a friendly discussion and I commend my skeptical, truth-seeking friend for his willingness to tackle these issues in a serious, respectful manner. We also agreed to read a couple of books that supported our respective points of view. I recommended Jay Richards', God and Evolution and Fazale Rana's, Origins of Life. To his credit, he ordered both books the next day. In turn, I agreed to read a book he thinks is compelling in support of evolution, Jerry Coyne's, Why Evolution Is True.

Coyne is a very convincing writer and makes a compelling case for his view. Ultimately, I don't find it persuasive but that's why we're having the discussion! In an attempt to engage Coyne's arguments, I am linking to a series of blog posts by Jonathan McLatchie, a fellow CrossExamined instructor and frequent contributor not only to the CrossExamined Blog, but to the Discovery Institute's Evolution News and Views.

This link gives a summary of Jonathan's multi-post review of Coyne's book and links to each of the posts in the series: Jonathan McLatchie's Review of: Evolution is True.

Jonathan has a undergraduate degree in Forensic Biology and a Master's Degree in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Glasgow, Scotland. He is currently serving as an intern with the Discovery Institute in Seattle. In other words, Jonathan is the kind of guy who can speak intelligently to this subject and I am happy to let him. As the discussion progresses, I will try to offer my own thoughts at a more practical, Marine-friendly level if I can.

Here are some quick takes on each post in the series with specific links to each one.

Coyne defines "evolution"

Underwhelmed: Reviewing Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True

The gaps in Coyne's claim about Universal Common Descent (UCD) ... the idea that all life has descended from a single, single-celled, simple, common ancestor:

Jerry Coyne's Chapter on the Fossil Record Fails to Show "Why Evolution Is True"

Atheists never tire of denouncing theism as a lazy appeal to wishful thinking that gets inserted anytime there are gaps in our scientific knowledge. On their view, this is when theists shout, "Goddidit!" (You can see examples of this very thing in my discussion with tildeb a few posts back). But now, Jerry Coyne turns that notion on its head by presuming to know how God would do things if He really designed life. Coyne's lame claim is that "suboptimal" design proves that God could not have been involved. Apparently, Jerry Coyne not only knows what the most optimal design for each biological system should be, but also that this is exactly the kind of thing we should find if Darwinism is true. In effect, Coyne misses the irony involved when he shouts, "Evolutiondidit!":

From Jerry Coyne, "Evolution-of-the-Gaps" and Other Fallacies

This post shows the problems with Coyne's claim that "biogeography" -- the view that geographical evidence from continental drift and migration supports evolution -- offers convincing support for the "truth" of evolution:

As Evidence of Darwinian Evolution, Biogeography Falls Well Short of Satisfying

Evidence against Coyne's case for natural selection as an adequate explanation for the design everyone recognizes in life:

Blink and You'll Miss It: Jerry Coyne Turns His Attention to the "Engine of Evolution"

A short look at the ultimate question of human evolution and a summary of McClatchie's critique:

Human Origins, and the Real Reasons for Evolutionary Skepticism


More to follow on this discussion. It should be interesting ...