May 30, 2004

A night at the Met

No, not the Metropolitan Opera, but darn close, as my own church, the Metropolitan Bible Church of Ottawa hosted operatic tenor Ben Heppner in an eclectic mini-concert. My understanding, though I could well be wrong, is that he was there to lend a hand to a ministry which our church supports, and in which Mr. Heppner's daughter is involved.

After a worship set, Mr. Heppner took the platform. He opened with a rendition of Noël Coward's "I'll Follow My Secret Heart." This was followed by two classical selections: "Non t'amo più" by Tosti and the popular Puccini aria "Nessun Dorma" [MIDI] from Turandot. The remainder of the repertoire was sacred music, beginning with the spiritual "Ride On, King Jesus," and then a selection of great hymns of the faith, including "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty," "I Will Sing of My Redeemer," and "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing." He was accompanied by his daughter on the piano. In between pieces he spoke briefly about his work, his family, and his faith.

I had a chance after the service to talk briefly with Mr. Heppner, and he seemed quite happy to answer my questions about his repertoire (which helped me immensely in preparing this synopsis, as my retention of Italian song titles typically lasts about ten seconds).

Speaking as a very occasional songleader and a fair-to-middling choral singer, it is quite a humbling experience to hear one of the truly great tenors singing on the same stage. Maybe it just gives me something to strive for. Nonetheless, it was a wonderful and uplifting evening - arguably a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The Gospel and Gentiles (Rom. 11:13-36)

[I believe this may be the last of the Romans sermons, at least for now, since the summer hiatus is nearly upon us. It looks like the last one in Romans 11, anyway, and that was about as far as I originally wanted to transcribe this series.]

"Israel the Olive Tree" is a symbol familiar to readers of Old Testament prophecy, particularly Jeremiah and Zechariah; just as the maple leaf symbolizes Canada, so the olive tree symbolize Israel. Paul here pictures an olive tree with some of the branches broken off - those Jews who, having heard the Gospel message and rejected it, have themselves been rejected for a time because of their unbelief. But this gave the Gentiles an opportunity to receive the Gospel; cf. Acts 13:46 and 18:6, where Paul turned away from preaching to the Jews to preaching to the Gentiles and discovered that many of them believed.

However, this led to a spiritual problem developing in the Church as the Gentiles began to outnumber the Jews. They started to become conceited. Hence Paul here warns them not to become arrogant (11:18, 20, 25).

  1. Spiritual pride needs to be pruned.

    How do we know if we are getting too proud? Paul provides five indicators:

    1. You think salvation is all about you. (vv. 13-14)

      Rick Warren begins The Purpose Driven Life with this sentence: "It's not about you." He's right. Paul ministered to the Gentiles partly in hope that by so doing he would arouse a godly envy in his fellow Jews, and they would be saved.

      Too often we have a "cul-de-sac Christianity" mentality where everything flows to us for our benefit. Rather, we should cultivate a "boulevard Christianity" where we receive the blessings but send them farther along the line.

    2. You fail to appreciate your spiritual roots. (v. 17)

      The root of the olive tree is the patriarchs, in particular Abraham, the father of all the Jews. Paul is reminding the Gentile Christians that they are not the roots, they are some of the branches - off a different tree, at that.

      We must never lose sight of the fact that we have been grafted onto a great root, and it is the root that supports the branches, not the other way around. We must appreciate Christianity's Jewish roots. This does not mean that we need to become Jews or obey the Jewish law (see Rom. 10:4), or that we must unequivocally support the state of Israel. What it does mean, however, is that anti-Semitism is also anti-Christian.

    3. You get careless about God's kindness. (v. 19)

      The Jews have lost their place of spiritual privilege for a time, while the Gentiles have been given God's favour. Gentile Christians need to remember that this is only by God's grace that they are in this place right now. But if they move to unbelief, they too will lose their place.

      Gentile Christians must not become careless or conceited, lest they get in trouble with God. The Bible says we may be confident of our salvation (see Rom. 8:30), but this does not mean that we can become complacent about it. Those who are truly saved, will truly abide - persever - in their faith. But there are those who are grafted into the Church that are not truly born again, and they can be cut off again.

    4. You forget your wild side. (v. 24)

      The Gentiles were not naturally a part of the family of faith (Eph. 2:11-12); it is by grace that we have been grafted in (Eph. 2:13). Some of us have a wild background that lets us appreciate what we have been given in Christ. But all Gentiles, though they may not realize it - maybe we've been a Christian all our lives, for example - have a wild side.

    5. You stop marvelling at God's mercy. (vv. 31-32)

      Whether Jew or Gentile, we only believe at all because of God's mercy, not because there is something innate to our nature. We must never forget the wonder that God let us into the family.

  2. A spirit of praise needs to bloom. (v.36)

    Rather than arrogance, the proper response to God's mercy is gratitude. A spirit of pride needs to be pruned so that a spirit of praise can bloom.

May 24, 2004

God's promises to Abraham

A major presupposition of the Dispensational hermeneutic is that there are still promises to Abraham and his descendants (i.e. the nation of Israel) awaiting future literal fulfillment: that they will inherit the Promised Land as a permanent possession, that they will be a great nation, and that from them will come worldwide blessings. These, we are told, are to be realized in the Millennium. Therefore, so-called "replacement theology" (God's transferring his covenantal rule from the children of Abraham according the flesh to the spiritual children of Abraham according to faith) is a fallacy.

Over my Christmas holiday, I sat down with a Bible, a concordance, and the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge, and went through all the promises made to Abraham in Genesis - systematically ordering those promises according to topic and seeking out their fulfillment elsewhere in the Scriptures. My intent was to determine which of them remain unfulfilled 4000 years later. Having posted last night's sermon, I thought it might be a good idea to resurrect this list from another discussion forum and post it here.

Unless otherwise indicated, all chapter and verse references are taken from Genesis.

Promises of Blessings

Status: Fulfilled.

Blessings are promised to Abraham (Gen. 12:2; 22:16) and to those who bless him (12:3; conversely those who curse Abraham are themselves cursed). Also, blessings are to come to the nations of the earth through Abraham's seed (12:3; 22:18).

Paul specifically declares the last of these to be fulfilled in the coming of the Gospel to the Gentiles through Christ (cf. Gal. 3:8). The remainder are fulfilled in a general way, as seen by God's favour upon Abraham and his offspring.

Abraham is also promised a peaceful death at a "good old age" (15:15). He lived to be 175 (25:7-8).

Promises Concerning Ishmael

Status: Fulfilled.

While these promises are not germane to the present point, for the sake of completeness I include them to get them out of the way.

Ishmael was not Abraham's heir, but since he was Abraham's offspring, God promised that he would multiply exceedingly and be the father of a great nation and "twelve princes" (17:20; see also 21:13). These promises were fulfilled to the letter (see 25:12-17).

Promises of an Heir

Status: Fulfilled.

Both Abraham (15:4) and Sarah (17:16,19) are promised an heir despite their advanced age. This promise is fulfilled in the birth of Isaac (21:2).

Promises of Many Descendants and a Great Nation

Status: Fulfilled.

God promised Abraham that he would renew his covenant with Isaac and his descendants. This he does, with Isaac (26:3-5), with Jacob (35:9-15), and with the Israelites at Sinai (Exod. 20-23).

Abraham is promised that he will have many descendants through Isaac (17:2,6; 21:12). They will be innumerable, like the stars of the heavens or the sand of the seashore (15:5; 22:17). Solomon prays to God for wisdom to rule over "a great people who cannot be numbered or counted for multitude" (1 Kings 3:8); in fact the author of 1 Kings says that "Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand that is on the seashore in abundance" (1 Kings 4:20). Nehemiah also affirms that "Thou didst make their sons numerous as the stars of heaven" (Neh. 9:23).

Abraham is further promised that his seed "shall possess the gate of their enemies" (22:17); the conquests of Joshua (Josh. 1-12) and David (2 Sam. 8:1-18), to name two, fulfill this promise.

The promise to make Abraham's name great (12:2) is said to have already occurred, in Deut. 26:5, and it is restated in 2 Sam. 7:9.

God promises Abraham that he would be the father of many nations and that Sarah would be the mother (12:2, 17:4,5,6,16). The fulfillment of this promise in the twelve tribes of Israel is self-evident - the remainder of the Old Testament deals exclusively with the nation of Israel.

A number of promises were made that found their specific fulfilment in the Israelites' deliverance from Egypt. These are:

  • that Abraham's seed would be "strangers in a land that is not theirs (15:13)
  • they shall be slaves for 400 years (15:13)
  • the nation that enslaved them would be judged (15:14)
  • Abraham's seed would "come out with many possessions" (15:14)
  • in "the fourth generation" they would return to Canaan (15:16)

Finally, Abraham is promised that "kings of peoples" shall come from his line. These would include Saul (1 Sam. 10:24), David and his line (2 Sam. 5:3), and of course this promise finds its ultimate fulfillment in the King of kings, Jesus Christ himself.

Promises of Land

Status: Fulfilled.

Abraham is promised the land of Canaan as his possession and that of his descendants (12:7). In places this is said to be "all the land which you see" (13:14-15) and, most specifically, "[f]rom the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates" (17:18).

Joshua conquered it:

So the Lord gave Israel all the land which He had sworn to give to their fathers, and they possessed it and lived in it. (Josh. 21:43)

Some land was lost in border skirmishes during the rule of the judges, but David regained it:

Then David defeated Hadadezer, the son of Rehob king of Zobah, as he went to restore his rule at the River [i.e. the Euphrates]. (2 Sam. 8:3).

Solomon ruled over it:

Now Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the River to the land of the Philistines and to the border of Egypt; they brought tributed and served Solomon all the days of his life. . . . For he had dominion over everything west of the River, from Tiphsah even to Gaza, over all the kings west of the River; and he had peace on all sides around about him. (1 Kings 4:21,24)

In conclusion

All the promises given to Abraham by God have been fulfilled. None remain outstanding.

Joshua affirms it:

So the Lord gave Israel all the land which He had sworn to give to their fathers, and they possessed it and lived in it. And the Lord gave them rest on every side, according to all that He had sworn to their fathers, and no one of all their enemies stood before them; the Lord gave all their enemies into their hand. Not one of the good promises which the Lord had made to the house of Israel failed; all came to pass. (Josh. 21:43-45)

"Now behold, today I am going the way of all the earth, and you know in all your hearts and in all your souls that not one word of all the good words which the Lord your God spoke concerning you has failed; all have been fulfilled for you, not one of them has failed." (Josh. 23: 14)

Nehemiah reaffirms it:

And Thou didst find his [Abram's] heart faithful before Thee,
And didst make a covenant with him
To give him the land of the Canaanite,
Of the Hittite and the Amorite,
Of the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite -
To give it to his descendants.
And Thou has fulfilled Thy promise,
For Thou art righteous. (Neh.9:8)

So the question remains: What part of the covenant with Abraham remains unfulfilled and awaiting the millennial kingdom to be realized?

May Long Weekend Sermon Threefer: From Abraham to the Millennium

[Since it was related to the ongoing series on Romans, I present last night's evening sermon. Again, as a non-Dispensationalist, I disclaim some of the pastor's particular conclusions, but for the sake of a fair and accurate synopsis present the full outline here without comment.]

From Abraham to the Millennium: Israel's Past, Present, and Future

Frederick the Great once asked his chaplain for the greatest evidence of the truth of Christianity. The answer was, "The Jews." They are a small, persecuted group that has alwasy managed to retain its identity throughout all these centuries. Their perseverence is evidence that there is a God in heaven and validity to the Bible.

This is a panoramic view of Jewish history as seen in the Bible. Since Christianity is Jewish, this is our spiritual history as well.

  1. Abraham to Moses

    2000 years before Christ, Abraham had an encounter with God. Promises were made to him, specifically that he would be given a land, that his descendants would become a great nation, and they would be a worldwide blessing. God confirmed these promises with a covenant (Genesis 15), which was made unilaterally by God himself.

    Compare Hebrews 11:8-9,11-13: Abraham and his descendants through to Joseph live in Canaan as strangers. Jacob and Joseph die in Egypt, but Joseph, who dies after a stellar career in the civil service, requests that his remains be returned to Canaan to be buried. The patriarchs believed God's promises, though they didn't live to see them carried out.

    Then a pharaoh arose who "knew not Joseph." He saw the Israelites as an asset rather than a nation.

  2. Moses to David

    C. 1400 B.C., God raised up a leader, Moses, to deliver the children of Israel from slavery. It is at this time that Israel is galvanized as a nation. God gives them the Law at Mt. Sinai, but because of their disobedience, what should have been a short trip into the Promised Land becomes a 40-year waste in the wilderness.

    Moses dies and is succeeded by Joshua, who conquers the land of Canaan and divides it according to the 12 tribes - who, at this time, are still a loose confederation more than a cohesive nation. They are ruled by a series of "judges" and for the next few centuries, Israel experiences cycles of disobedience, followed by distress from neighbouring enemies, followed by deliverance. The people clamour for a king.

  3. David to Jesus

    In approximately 1000 B.C., Israel is ruled by a succession of three kings: Saul, David, and Solomon. David is the high water mark of the Israelite monarchy; though often a moral failure, he is nonetheless a "man after God's own heart." God makes a covenant with David that one of his descendants will perpetually be on the throne.

    Following the rule of Solomon is a civil war, the division of Israel into northern and southern kingdoms, and a downward spiral of evil kings. In 722 B.C., God permits the Assyrians to conquer the northern kingdom of Israel. In 586 B.C., the southern kingdom of Judah follows suit when the Babylonians take over. The land remains depopulated and desolate until about 500, at which time some Jews begin returning. But it isn't the same as it used to be, nor does it appear to be what God had promised to Abraham.

  4. Jesus to the Present

    When Jesus appeared on the scene in the early first century, the people held high hopes that he was the Messiah who would overthrow Roman rule. Then they realized that political power wasn't what he was all about. They had him crucified, calling judgment upon themselves for the act. The consequence: in AD 70, Rome overran Jerusalem and crushed it. It ceased to be the centre of the Jewish religion, and the Jews were scattered across the world for centuries, hunted and haunted for the remainder of their history.

    Then in 1948, the modern state of Israel was created in Palestine. Surrounded on all sides by enemies that desire to push the Israelis into the sea, it is a miracle that the nation has survived. This is proof that God is not finished yet with the Israelites.

  5. Daniel's 70th Week

    During the exile, the prophet Daniel had a vision of the future of Israel in 70 "weeks," or sevens, or years. The 70th "week" is apparently yet future, a time during which someone will draft an apparently workable covenant of peace between Israel and its enemies. But this covenant will be broken in 3 1/2 years by the Antichrist, and it will be followed by another 3 1/2 years of tribulation that will be difficult not only for Israel, but the rest of the world.

    Zechariah 13:8ff describes a time at which 2/3 of the living Jews are to be slaughtered; the remaining third call upon God in repentance. This is the point where "all Israel shall be saved" and the New Covenant is fulfilled.

  6. Millennium

    At Jesus' return, he rules the world from Jerusalem for 1000 years (Rev. 20). It is during this time that the blessings promised to Abraham - land, a great nation, worldwide blessing - are finally realized. God will have kept his promises.

Two "takeaway" applications from all this:

  • It is a great privilege to be in on the blessings promised to Abraham (Gal 3:14,26-29).
  • God is in control of history. He was in control back then, and he remains in control until the end of time.

From the stars we came, to the stars we return.

Author Peter David today reports the passing of Richard Biggs, the actor who played Dr. Stephen Franklin on Babylon 5. I did a little further digging and found this from the series' creator, J. Michael Straczynski, posted to the newsgroup

We're still gathering information, so take none of this as firm word, but what seems to have happened, happened quickly. He woke up, got up out of bed...and went down. The paramedics who showed up suggested it was either an aneurysm or a massive stroke.

Dr. Franklin was one of B5's most morally complex characters. Raised in a strict military home by his father, a celebrated war hero, he chose to study medicine rather than follow the military career that was expected of him. Estranged from his father for many years, they were reconciled in the second-season episode "Gropos." Franklin was often sanctimonious about the habits of his co-workers, while he himself alternately denied and fought an addiction to stimulants that cost him his post. A third-season subplot involved Franklin on "walkabout," in which he wandered the station trying to find himself. A rigorously ethical man, he once destroyed his extensive xenobiology research rather than allow it to be used by the Earth Alliance to build biological weapons. In one of the most morally poignant B5 episodes, "Believers," Franklin defies orders and violates the religious beliefs of an alien family visiting the station to perform lifesaving surgery on their child - only to discover that they consider him defiled by being cut open like an animal and have put him to death themselves. Sometimes portrayed as an arrogant scientist, Franklin was also a fervent believer in "Foundationalism" - a syncretistic religious movement not well defined in the B5 universe, but appearing to be a sort of cross-species Unitarianism.

Thank you, Richard, for bringing such an excellent character to life. You will be missed.

May 23, 2004

Sunday Sermon Twofer: The Gospel and the Nation of Israel (Rom. 10:16-11:36)

[Playing a little catch-up with our pastor's Sunday sermon series. This is this morning's.]

Romans 1:16 tells us that the Gospel went out first to the Jews, then the Gentiles. The sad news is, most of them didn't receive it.

  1. Israel has rejected the Gospel.

    Paul quotes Isaiah 53:1: "Who has believed our report?" The implication is that no one has believed it. It stabs Paul in the heart to have to admit that his own people have overwhelmingly rejected the Gospel message.

    Could there be a reason for this? Perhaps they did not hear. Or perhaps they heard, but did not understand. Paul answers these two possible excuses:

    1. even though they had heard (10:18)

      Paul quotes Psalm 19:4 here. The messsage has gone out to all the earth - Jews included. They can't claim they have not heard.

    2. even though they could understand (10:19-21)

      It isn't a problem of comprehension. Paul quotes Moses (Deut. 32:21) and Isaiah (65:1-2) to show that since the Gentiles were able to understand, certainly the Jews were able to as well.

      The Jews' problem was not with their heads, but their hearts. They were not dull and stupid, but disobedient and stubborn (v. 21). Sadly, this is still true; many contemporary Jews, presented with the Good News, display an almost visceral rejection of it.

    This raises another question: If Israel has rejected God, does this mean that God has rejected Israel? Paul's answer: By no means!

  2. God has not rejected Israel. (11:1)
    1. God has chosen a remnant in Israel in the present. (11:1-6)

      This remnant is those who believe in Christ, a people God has chosen out for himself, small in quantity, but not in quality. Paul proves this by pointing to himself, a believing Jew. He quotes from the story of Elijah to show that God has always had his remnant.

    2. God has hardened the rest of Israel for a time. (11:7-10)

      We were introduced to this idea of "hardening" back in chapter 9. Hardening a clay pot does not change the shape of the pot, it simply solidifies it in whatever shape it is in. Israel was disobedient and obstinate, so God solidified them in their disobedience and obstinacy.

      There is a warning here to anyone who thinks they can play fast and loose with God's standards. Who can truly say that they can do what they want now, and that if they repent later God will forgive them? Perhaps God will harden their hearts too. This is why the author of Hebrews warns his readers not to harden their hearts (Heb. 3:7-8).

    3. God will save the nation of Israel in the future. (11:11-36)

      Is Israel hardened in its unbelief forever? Not at all! Israel's rejection of the Gospel opened the door for the Gentiles to receive it. This is a great blessing for the Gentiles. But the fulness of Israel's repentance will bring an even greater blessing; the nation that was hardened will be the nation that is restored.

      Why is this important? Because there are some Christians who say that God is completely finished with the Jews. However, Paul is saying that God still has plans for Israel.

Two personal applications for this teaching:

  • It provides solid ground for believing in God's promises. God's promises to Israel are irrevocable (11:29). If God will keep his promises to Israel, we can be sure that he will keep his promises to us as well.
  • It provides a good reason to hope in the saving mercy of God (11:32).

The Gospel and Beautiful Feet (Rom. 10:14-15)

[Continuing my pastor's series on Romans 9-11, this is last week's sermon, somewhat belated. I'll post today's later this evening, I hope.]

God thinks that the feet of those who carry the Gospel are beautiful. This passage is a series of successions, numerous links in a long chain of logic.

  1. Saving comes after calling. (13)

    Those who are saved must first call - an admission that they need to be saved, from God's judgment and wrath (which is a key theme of Romans' first five chapters). It is also an admission that we can't save ourselves. But everyone who makes the call, gets an answer.

  2. Calling comes after believing. (14)

    There's a logical order to this. To call on the Lord, we must first believe in the Lord.

  3. Believing comes after hearing. (14)

    Compare John 5:24 - those who hear and believe have eternal life.

    But in our world, there are many people - almost a third of the world - who have never heard. It is even possible for them to be "out of sight, out of mind." But they are not out of God's sight and mind. So what happens to those who have hever heard the Gospel? To be called and saved, they must hear.

  4. Hearing comes after telling. (14)

    Someone needs to tell them. This is a challenge to Christians who believe that their lives just speak for themselves. The "preacher" here is a herald: someone who is sent to proclaim an important message. When a king sends a herald with a proclamation, the herald proclaims it. He doesn't just set a good example for the king's subjects to follow.

  5. Telling comes after sending. (15)

    The heralds must be sent.

    The logic of the passage can be summed up like this: For the lost to be saved, the saved must be sent. There are three pastoral implications for this:

    1. We are all sent to reach people.

      John 20:21 says that as the Father sent the Son, so Jesus sends his disciples to tell people. We may be the "beautiful feet" whom God sends to our friends.

    2. We must send some to unreached peoples.

      Many cultures in our world have not yet heard. The Great Commission says to go in to all the world (Matt. 28:19). So for them to hear, we must send some of our own, and we must send some of our best. Like Paul and Barnabas, they should be someone who will be missed at home.

    3. We must support those we send.

      The emphasis of Rom. 10:15 is our sending, not their going. Perhaps this is because most of us aren't goers, but senders. We can support them through prayer, and through finances.

May 22, 2004

In anticipation of Ringworld #4

By the book, the release of the fourth novel in Larry Niven's Ringworld series is imminent. In anticipation I have been re-reading the first three novels in the series - something I haven't done since high school (in the case of the first two) or since they were new (the third). (As it stands now I am also #19 on the waiting list at the public library, which means I will finally get to read Ringworld's Children some time in the fall by my reckoning.)

Ringworld (1970) is one of the truly great SF novels. A crew of four, comprising Louis Wu, a cynical, 200-year-old man; Teela Brown, a young woman bred for luck; Speaker-to-Animals, an aggressive, cat-like Kzin; and Nessus, a Pierson's Puppeteer, a technologically advanced race whose highest virtue is cowardice. The four of them go exploring on a recently discovered artifact: a gigantic ring a million miles wide and as big around as Earth's orbit.

The sequel, The Ringworld Engineers (1980), starts twenty years later, with Louis Wu and Speaker-to-Animals (now known as Chmeee) returning to the Ringworld with the Hindmost, the deposed leader of the Puppeteers, to find a supposed transmutation device that the Hindmost thinks will help restore him to power. Along the way they discover various alien civilizations, Vampires (non-sentient, blood-eating hominids), and Ghouls (eaters of the dead who trade in information). They also learn that the orbit of the Ringworld has become eccentric and it will destroy itself in a matter of years unless they can save it.

And then . . . there's The Ringworld Throne (1996), where the only mystery yet to solve is, apparently, "Who are you, and what have you done with the real Larry Niven?" To say that Throne is a disappointing sequel is an understatement. It's a plotless, denouement-less dog's breakfast.

The story picks up about a year after The Ringworld Engineers leaves off. Louis Wu and his motley crew are still stranded on the Ringworld after human-turned-Pak-protector Teela buried their spaceship under tons of lava. Unfortunately, Niven has changed a major premise of the last book. Engineers ended with an unthinkable moral dilemma: whether to allow the Ringworld and its trillions of occupants to be destroyed, or save it at the cost of several hundred million lives. This should weigh mighty heavily on Louis Wu's mind, but Niven lets him off the hook: the Hindmost announces that he could control the Ringworld's meteor defenses more precisely than anticipated, and thus was able to minimize the deaths. Had this been revealed at the end of Engineers it would be a hideous deus ex machina. As it is, it's just very sloppy writing; Niven conveniently no longer has to deal with a more complex protagonist.

From here, Throne is basically two intertwined but generally unrelated stories. The first deals with an infestation of Vampires. Louis Wu is legendary on the Ringworld for once boiling an ocean to destroy a field of mirror sunflowers (which kill their prey by focusing sunlight on it and burning it). The resulting cloud cover cut off their light. However, one unintended consequence of this feat is a never-ending overcast sky, ideal for the spreading of Vampires. This, Niven gets right; all actions, however noble, may have unintended side effects that are not so good. The resulting battle between the locals and the Vampires drives about two-thirds of the novel's action.

It's unfortunate that the vast majority of this action involves neither the principal characters nor the mysteries of the Ringworld itself. The appeal of the Ringworld novels is directly proportional to the amount of time Louis Wu spends exploring it. Instead we are treated to four or five different species of hominids comprising thirty-odd interchangeable individuals with unpronounceable names, alternately fighting vampires and "rishing" with each other (i.e. having rishathra, inter-species sex for the sake of binding contracts or forging friendships). It's monotonous, and in the end, there's no payoff. No more of the Ringworld's mysteries are revealed.

Meanwhile, Louis Wu and the Hindmost are investigating why the Ringworld's remaining Pak protectors are destroying incoming ships and interfering with species other than their own. (According to Known Space history established in other Niven novels, Pak protectors fiercely defend their own bloodlines but don't interfere with others unless they pose a threat.) This part of the novel is completely incomprehensible, and I won't even attempt to explain what goes on. It doesn't help that the majority of the action is viewed through telescopes, communication devices, and so forth. We finally get to follow the principal characters around and the story is a mess.

In the end, all the characters are right back where they started. Here's hoping Ringworld's Children, when it comes out, makes some sense of it all; otherwise the Ringworld series has become a lost cause.

May 21, 2004

And now . . . this

Once again, another distinctive achievement from that bastion of Western civilization:

LONDON (Reuters) - Over 80 British students threw caution and their clothes to the wind Friday to set a world record for the number of nudes riding on a rollercoaster.

The naked joy riders spent a hair-raising one minute and fifty seconds swooping around the rails of the gravity defying rollercoaster ride at a theme park south of London.

[Full Story]

Obviously, a whole world of record-breaking possibilities exists for anyone willing to do something in the nude.

May 20, 2004

Suport publik edumukashun

Another gem of common sense from those geniuses who educate children and prove that the Peter Principle is right. Everyone indeed rises to their own level of incompetence.

A wooden baseball bat, no longer than 8 inches and visible through a car window, spurred Diamond Hill-Jarvis High School officials to call sophomore Cory Henson out of class Monday in order to search his vehicle.

Under the Fort Worth school district's zero-tolerance policy, Henson was immediately suspended, pending a conference with administrators today. Officials will decide whether the bat is considered a weapon that would merit punishment, including placement in an alternative school or expulsion for up to a year.

[Full Story]

The funny and ironic part about this story is that the zero-tolerance Nazis missed the real baseball bat in the trunk with the rest of the sports equipment.

May 18, 2004

Troy: Epic story takes on mock-epic proportions

I just got back tonight from seeing the new Wolfgang Peterson epic, Troy, starring Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, and Peter O'Toole. It's a good story, but a bit of a disappointment as far as its faithfulness to its source. At least Peterson was honest enough to say it was "inspired by" rather than "based upon" The Iliad.

First, the positives. I'm really impressed with how far CGI has come, thanks to the recent Star Wars prequels and Lord of the Rings battle scenes pushing the envelope. It's impossible to tell where the real set ends and the CG virtual set begins. An early scene of a thousand Greek ships sailing toward Troy was particularly breathtaking. For the most part, the acting was solid; Peter O'Toole in particular was excellent as Priam, king of Troy. On the other hand, although Pitt as Achilles looks good (though perhaps a little too pretty for the greatest warrior in history), his delivery is a little wooden; Orlando Bloom's Paris comes across as a bit of a weenie. Also, the soundtrack is overbearing and gets tedious after a while, as it's just infinite variations on the same theme over and over again.

The problem with Troy is not the dramatic liberties it takes with the story. Achilles dies at the end of the story, instead of the middle. Menelaus dies in combat instead of at home. The seige of Troy is compressed from ten years to around two weeks. These are arguably justifiable changes made for the sake of good storytelling on film rather than papyrus.

Rather, it is the complete eviscerating of the text of any transcendental properties. There's nothing bigger than the characters. Homer's epic starts with Paris deciding a dispute with three goddesses over which is the most beautiful; when he chooses Aphrodite, she rewards him with Helen. In Peterson's version, they run off together after a one-night stand. The gods pervade Homer, but are noticeably absent in this movie. Sure, they get lots of lip service (mostly complaints that they aren't leading the armies) and Achilles knocks the head off a gilt statue of Apollo, but that's about it. Of course, this also means that the back-story of Achilles' invulnerability (and the source of his one weakness) goes out the window too; now he's just really good at killing people.

Moreover, the characters don't fight for any transcendent values. In The Iliad, the Greeks go to war for honour; all of Helen's old suitors had made a pact with Menelaus that they would defend her. In Peterson's adaptation, Agamemnon pays lip service to the honour of Menelaus and Helen, but in reality he is a political opportunist using this scandal as an excuse to extend his empire. (The allusions to the current conflict in Iraq are heavy-handed, by the way.) Achilles fights for no greater principle than his own glory. If he doesn't feel like fighting, he just stays in his tent with a wench or two. He isn't even given the choice between long life and obscurity vs. early death but great fame that he is in The Iliad.

Troy is enjoyable as a sword-and-sandal epic, but don't expect that by seeing it you're going to get any great insight into Homer.

How well read are you?

Though I have an English degree and consider myself to be fairly well read in literature, I don't generally go in for these "great book" lists. There's something that strikes me as essentially "snobbish" about them, despite the fact that I have a very traditional view of the literary canon (I'm for it). But since reading is one of my passions, I think I'll get on the bandwagon this time.

Courtesy of, then, via Joanne Jacobs, here are the "101 Great Books" of all time recommended for high school students and above.

I'm reminded of a list of "essential reading" given to me by an English prof back in my first year, comprising a number of classical works that English authors (such as Shakespeare, Milton, or Eliot) would have assumed their readers were familiar with, plus selected Bible readings. Apart from the Bible, I haven't read any of that list yet either.

Russ at Coffeehouse at the end of Days notes that Dostoyevski's The Brothers Karamazov, which he considers the greatest novel of all time, didn't make the cut at all.

The [rather pathetic list of] books I've read are in bold: 27, a shade over a quarter of the whole list. How do you score?

Achebe, Chinua - Things Fall Apart
Agee, James - A Death in the Family
Austen, Jane - Pride and Prejudice
Baldwin, James - Go Tell It on the Mountain
Beckett, Samuel - Waiting for Godot
Bellow, Saul - The Adventures of Augie March
Bronte, Charlotte - Jane Eyre
Bronte, Emily - Wuthering Heights
Camus, Albert - The Stranger
Cather, Willa - Death Comes for the Archbishop
Chaucer, Geoffrey - The Canterbury Tales
Chekhov, Anton - The Cherry Orchard
Chopin, Kate - The Awakening
Conrad, Joseph - Heart of Darkness
Cooper, James Fenimore - The Last of the Mohicans
Crane, Stephen - The Red Badge of Courage
Dante - Inferno
Cervantes, Miguel - Don Quixote
Defoe, Daniel - Robinson Crusoe
Dickens, Charles - A Tale of Two Cities
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor - Crime and Punishment
Douglass, Frederick - Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Dreiser, Theodore - An American Tragedy
Dumas, Alexandre - The Three Musketeers
Eliot, George - The Mill on the Floss
Ellison, Ralph - Invisible Man
Emerson, Ralph Waldo - Selected Essays
Faulkner, William - As I Lay Dying
Faulkner, William - The Sound and the Fury
Fielding, Henry - Tom Jones
Fitzgerald, F. Scott - The Great Gatsby
Flaubert, Gustave - Madame Bovary
Ford, Ford Madox - The Good Soldier
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang - Faust
Golding, William - Lord of the Flies
Hardy, Thomas - Tess of the d'Urbervilles
Hawthorne, Nathaniel - The Scarlet Letter
Heller, Joseph - Catch 22
Hemingway, Ernest - A Farewell to Arms
Homer - The Iliad
Homer - The Odyssey
Hugo, Victor - The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Hurston, Zora Neale - Their Eyes Were Watching God
Huxley, Aldous - Brave New World
Ibsen, Henrik - A Doll's House
James, Henry - The Portrait of a Lady
James, Henry - The Turn of the Screw
Joyce, James - A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Kafka, Franz - The Metamorphosis
Kingston, Maxine Hong - The Woman Warrior
Lee, Harper - To Kill a Mockingbird
Lewis, Sinclair - Babbitt
London, Jack - The Call of the Wild
Mann, Thomas - The Magic Mountain
Marquez, Gabriel Garcia - One Hundred Years of Solitude
Melville, Herman - Bartleby the Scrivener
Melville, Herman - Moby Dick
Miller, Arthur - The Crucible
Morrison, Toni - Beloved
O'Connor, Flannery - A Good Man is Hard to Find
O'Neill, Eugene - Long Day's Journey into Night
Orwell, George - Animal Farm
Pasternak, Boris - Doctor Zhivago
Plath, Sylvia - The Bell Jar
Poe, Edgar Allan - Selected Tales
Proust, Marcel - Swann's Way
Pynchon, Thomas - The Crying of Lot 49
Remarque, Erich Maria - All Quiet on the Western Front
Rostand, Edmond - Cyrano de Bergerac
Roth, Henry - Call It Sleep
Salinger, J.D. - The Catcher in the Rye
Shakespeare, William - Hamlet
Shakespeare, William - Macbeth
Shakespeare, William - A Midsummer Night's Dream
Shakespeare, William - Romeo and Juliet
Shaw, George Bernard - Pygmalion
Shelley, Mary - Frankenstein
Silko, Leslie Marmon - Ceremony
Solzhenitsyn, Alexander - One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Sophocles - Antigone
Sophocles - Oedipus Rex
Steinbeck, John - The Grapes of Wrath
Stevenson, Robert Louis - Treasure Island
Stowe, Harriet Beecher - Uncle Tom's Cabin
Swift, Jonathan - Gulliver's Travels
Thackeray, William - Vanity Fair
Thoreau, Henry David - Walden
Tolstoy, Leo - War and Peace
Turgenev, Ivan - Fathers and Sons
Twain, Mark - The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Voltaire - Candide
Vonnegut, Kurt Jr. - Slaughterhouse-Five
Walker, Alice - The Color Purple
Wharton, Edith - The House of Mirth
Welty, Eudora - Collected Stories
Whitman, Walt - Leaves of Grass
Wilde, Oscar - The Picture of Dorian Gray
Williams, Tennessee - The Glass Menagerie
Woolf, Virginia - To the Lighthouse
Wright, Richard - Native Son

May 10, 2004

Nothing like style over substance

From this weekend's National Post:

The University of Iowa probably would say no if it received a lucrative offer to play Florida State in a made-for-TV football game.

The reason: Florida State is nicknamed the Seminoles. Iowa has a policy, approved by its athletic department governing board in 1994, that prevents the scheduling of non-conference games with schools that have American Indian mascots. . . .

The policy had prompted little discussion in recent years until Iowa dropped a baseball game scheduled earlier this week against Bradley, nicknamed the Braves.

[Full Story]

But note the exceptions to the rule:

Illinois, nicknamed the Fighting Illini, is exempt because of Big Ten Conference obligations. . . .

The policy also exempts post-season or tournament games "where we don't have control over the scheduling" . .  .

So for ethical reasons they won't play any team with an Indian nickname, unless it's a game with a Big Ten team or the game counts or it's a post-season game (which really counts) or a tournament game (because if someone else schedules it, well, you gotta).

Could there be a better example of "style over substance" than a politically-correct ban on sports games that is only selectively applied, and in such a way as to not inconvenience anyone's shot at a trophy?

Presumably, the University of Iowa also exempts itself from the ban, since the state of Iowa is named after, you guessed it, an Indian tribe . . .

May 07, 2004

"Unpaid advertising" underscores the intellectual dishonesty of abortion-rights rhetoric

If you're one of the three or four people who read my blog, you might have noticed a number of posts about abortion in the last week or two, where previously there were none. I am staunchly pro-life. I have a number of friends who are pro-life activists in this community. Some of them got on TV and the radio two weeks ago for their counter-demonstration at the so-called "women's rights" march. I stand by them. But I am not formally affiliated with any pro-life organization. Simply put, it isn't my "thing"; I don't define myself as a "pro-life activist" or a "pro-Macintosh activist" or a "Protestant activist" or anything else I happen to have strong views about. But thanks to the marches held in Washington and elsewhere last month, as well as a few soundbites from the media, this is a subject that has been on my mind.

A friend of mine drew my attention to an online "breaking news" story on yesterday's Globe and Mail Web site. This article is a particularly egregious example of the sort of typically bad pro-abortion rhetoric I've been highlighting over the last few days. I suppose that because of the length of this post, it sort of represents my "coming out," as it were, as an outspoken pro-life advocate.

The article purports to be an editorial "comment" by someone named Peter Wilson, about a new abortion-rights advocacy group, Canadians for Choice. Interestingly, when you get to the bottom of the article, you see the following byline:

Peter Wilson, director of communications with the Nunavut Planning Commission, is a member of Canadians for Choice steering committee.

In other words, it's not a balanced news report by a disinterested reporter, nor is it an op-ed piece by a commentator who happens to agree with the goals of Canadians for Choice. Essentially, it is a press release to further the aims of this organization, prepared by someone who helps set its agenda. It is, in short, advertising masquerading as journalism. (I am hopeful that since the "story" is Web-exclusive content, its readership is only marginally higher than my own.)

The article begins:

The establishment this month of a new pro-choice group in Canada signals a new era in abortion-rights activism. Like other human-rights struggles before it, the challenges today are more about funding, education and awareness than about protests or court battles.

Make note of the wording. This is an other human-rights struggle. Wilson is trying to cast the argument for abortion rights in the same light as the fight for racial equality, as his following anecdote (about his witnessing a black family discriminated against in a Georgia gas station) demonstrates. He closes the story:

I am reminded of this story now, so many years later and so far away, because it parallels the struggle for abortion rights in Canada. That struggle has emerged victorious from its own black days, only to be faced with the challenge of getting through the final locked door.

Wilson is right: The debate over abortion is a debate over human rights - only not in the way he claims it is.

In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the decision in the infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford case, in which Scott, a black man who had lived in free territory and then moved to the slave state of Missouri, sought to be recognized as a free man. The Supreme Court ruled that Scott was property and therefore not entitled to protection under law. When the Founding Fathers had written in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal," they had not had black persons in mind. Effectively, Scott was not a person.

The situation is practically identical for the unborn today: under law, they are effectively not considered human persons and therefore are not entitled to equal protection under law.

But this is the crucial issue in the abortion debate. What, exactly, are the unborn? Basic biology, the principle of biogenesis, states that they are human beings. People who reproduce make more people, who for the first nine months of their existence are small, undeveloped, and dependent upon the environment of their mother's womb for their survival. This is a no-brainer, or at least it ought to be.

Dred Scott was later overturned by the Emancipation Proclamation. Today, black people are entitled to equal treatment under law because of who and what they are: human persons. Similarly, the unborn ought to be entitled to equal protection under law, including the right to life, because of who and what they are: human persons.

By contrast, Wilson makes a completely irrelevant comparison. He compares equality under law for black people (based on who they are) to the right of women to have an abortion (based on what they do). This is apples and oranges. And it is based on a false premise. There is no absolute right for a woman to do what she wants; in fact, there are plenty of laws on the books describing actions that people may not do.

The Dred Scott case is rightly recognized today for the sophistry it was. We can only hope that in time, more and more people will come to recognize the obvious when it comes to the unborn, as well.

Wilson's screed continues:

From the time of Confederation until 1969, abortion was a criminal act; women bled to death or died of infections as a result of desperate coat-hanger attempts to end unwanted pregnancies.

Sooner or later you can usually count on the pro-abortionists to trot out the old standby, the "botched illegal back alley abortion" argument.

Let's note right from the start that this argument falls apart on first principles. It assumes that a fetus is not an unborn human person. Thus it sidesteps the real issue: whether it is justifiable for one person to take the life of another, and therefore a "safe and legal" environment ought to be created for the act. (We could argue, on equal logical grounds, that that since a man who assaults his wife runs the risk of having his manhood sliced off or waking up to find his bed on fire, the government ought to set up publicly-funded "discipline centres" where he can administer "physical correction" in a safe environment. This, of course, is idiotic.)

This is an emotionally compelling argument, because no one wants to see women die at the hands of a quack. The problem is, it's not true. It probably never was. Abortion rights activists would have us believe that before abortion became "safe and legal," thousands upon thousands of women died in botched illegal back alley abortions. It "preaches well," but the numbers simply don't add up.

If the claim were true, for example, then starting in 1973 or thereabouts, we would expect to see a sharp drop in the number of deaths due to illegal abortions. There is no such drop - at least, not in 1973. This drop actually takes place in the 1940s. Why? Because contrary to popular belief (and pro-abortion propaganda), the vast majority of illegal abortions were not conducted in back alleys with bent coat hangers. They were done by respectable (though lawbreaking) doctors in offices and clinics. The drop in the death rate can be attributed to the widespread use of better antibiotics as well as general improvements in surgical technique and technology. As a result, the death rate due to illegal abortions dropped more or less steadily. In 1972, the year before Roe v. Wade made abortion on demand "safe and legal" for any reason or none, the number of deaths attributed to illegal abortions was - get this - 39. Since only a tiny minority of illegal abortions were performed outside of the doctor's office, the number of deaths attributable to "botched back-alley abortions" would be smaller still.

There were no "desperate coat-hanger attempts" - at least, not in any quantity that would precipitate a crisis for which abortion on demand was the solution. Peter Wilson is fearmongering.

What about the commonly believed claim that 5 to 10,000 women died because of botched abortions in 1972? Bernard Nathanson was one of the founders of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL). He later repudiated his support for abortion and became a pro-life activist. According to him, the number was a complete fabrication, which was maintained because it was useful to the pro-abortion cause. In his book The Hand of God, Nathanson writes, "There were perhaps three hundred or so deaths from criminal abortions annually in the United States in the sixties, but NARAL in its press releases claimed to have data that supported a figure of five thousand" (Nathanson, The Hand of God [Washington: Regnery, 1996] 90-91; see also Aborting America [New York: Doubleday, 1979] 193).

After a brief history of the pro-abortion-rights movement in Canada, Wilson sums up the current situation with the following:

Today, abortion is safe, legal and publicly funded in Canada. But too many women are still facing a final locked door. A CARAL study last year concluded that more than four out of five Canadian hospitals do not perform abortions. In Prince Edward Island not a single hospital provided the service. Across the Prairies, women can obtain abortions in only 5 per cent of hospitals.

Finding a hospital that performs abortions is hard enough, but in many cases that's just the first of many obstacles. Gestation limits range from 10 to 23 weeks, CARAL found, noting that inconsistencies exist even within individual hospitals. In New Brunswick, in direct contravention of the law, the approval of two doctors is required. . . .

This isn't a Georgia gas station we're running here; the Canada Health Act is supposed to ensure accessibility, and shouldn't be undermined by the personal bias of front-line employees behind the counters of our community hospitals.

Wouldn't a consistent "pro-choice" position not only allow women to choose to have an abortion if she wishes, but also allow doctors to choose whether to perform them? Would it not also mean that those who choose to have an abortion are the same ones who choose to pay for the procedure? This is why I have consistently refused throughout this article to refer to Peter Wilson and his views as "pro-choice." He and "Canadians for Choice," for whom he presumably speaks, are pro-abortion. They will whine at the label, but it is true. For Wilson, "pro-choice" means allowing pregnant women to murder unborn persons for any reason or none. It means obliging doctors to perform those abortions, whether they choose to or not. It means obliging hospitals to accommodate them, whether they choose to or not. It means requiring taxpayers to fund them, whether they choose to or not. And, of course, the unborn persons being murdered get no choice at all.

Remember that the next time you hear Wilson or his fellow activists call the pro-life position "extreme."

Update: At the time of writing (very early Saturday morning), apparently there are a whopping two people who took notice of this piece in the entire blogosphere. Unfortunately, CathieFromCanada takes the opposite position.

May 06, 2004

What tank?

Driving down property values in Omaha:

A large anhydrous ammonia tank helped Sarpy County Sheriff's deputies bust a suspected methamphetamine lab Tuesday night.

Anhydrous ammonia is the key ingredient in meth, and officers spotted a 9,600-gallon tank in front of a house at 151st and Chandler streets. The owners had run a hose from the tank inside the house, according to deputies.

[Full Story]

This is your brain on drugs.

May 04, 2004

The Gospel and the Call for Help: Rom. 9:30-10:13

Continuing with sermon outlines on Romans 9-11 from our Sunday morning service.

The sermon began with a brief recap of the story of Michael Lineau, a filmmaker who went with a team to Mt. St. Helens following its eruption in 1981. It was supposed to be a three-hour, ground-level shoot of the devastation caused by the volcano. But once they got there, magnetic elements in the ash caused their compasses to malfunction, and of course their topographic maps of the region were suddenly obsolete. So a three-hour shoot turned into a three-day fight for survival. What finally saved them? According to Lineau, it was a desperate cry for help.

Similarly, because of sin, our own moral compass is askew and we are hopelessly lost. But we can be saved if we call for help.

  1. Calling on the Lord for salvation is your response to the sovereign call.

    Our call to God is an echo of his call to us. In recent weeks we have heard about God's call (e.g. 8:30, 9:23-24) - that is, God calls some people to himself. However, in this week's passage we learn that there is a call we have to make ourselves (10:12). So which of these is the call that makes the difference?

    The answer is that both of them are essential in salvation. Here is where some Calvinists and Arminians get off track; the Calvinists emphasize God's call, while the Arminians emphasize the human response. Perhaps the best way to reconcile these two extremes is a middle ground of the kind articulated by the 18th century preacher Charles Simeon, who argued that the contradiciton is only apparent:

    When I come to a text which speaks of election, I delight myself in the doctrine of election. Which the apostles exhort me to repentance an obedience, and indicate my freedom of choice and action, I give myself up to that side of the question. . . .

    As wheels in a complicated machine may move in opposite directions and yet subserve a common end, so may truths apparently opposite be perfectly reconcilable with each other, and equally subserve the purposes of God in the accomplishment of man's salvation.

    [Normally my sermon notes contain nothing by way of editorial comment, as I seek to preserve as faithful a synopsis of what was said rather than what I thought about it. I interject here to remark that perhaps the pastor is operating under a confusion of terms. I am a Calvinist, and I accept this "middle ground"  both divine sovereignty in election and human responsibility to exercise faith are taught clearly in Scripture. It is hyper-Calvinists that emphasize God's sovereignty to the point where they must depreciate duty-faith. I believe that prominent Calvinist teachers, such as J. I. Packer or Charles Spurgeon would side with me here. However, the terms are frequently confused by those who claim to hold neither position, and I am in general agreement with the content of this sermon. Outline resumes.]

  2. Calling on the Lord for salvation means you can't save yourself.

    For many people this is a hard admission to make.

    And this is where many of Paul's fellow countrymen went wrong. They thought they could attain their own salvation through the Law. They had all kinds of dedication, but the wrong motivation (10:2). This runs counter to the prevailing wisdom that "sincerity" gets you favour with God. However, it is possible to be both sincere and sincerely wrong  and the Jews were dead wrong. They missed that Christ was the end of the Law; its purpose was accomplished (10:4). Paul is not angry with the Jews; rather, he can empathize with them precisely because he used to be just like them! In fact it was his devotion to the Law that showed him he was wrong (cf. Rom. 7).

    What does it mean to call upon the Lord?

  3. Calling on the Lord for salvation combines personal faith and public confession (10:9ff)

    Paul's argument parallels Deut. 30:12-14. He is saying you don't have to "go" anywhere to be saved, because the word is right there in your mouth and heart.

    The call God is looking for combines:

    1. personal faith in your heart: Believe that Jesus died for sin and was raised from the dead. (The Christian message all hinges on a historical death and resurrection.) One who believes this will be justified (10:10).
    2. Public confession in your mouth: What is in your heart needs to come out your mouth. "Jesus is Lord" is an admission that Jesus rules our lives. One of the ways in which this confession is made is through baptism, which is not a means of salvation, but confession.

    Michael Lineau made a desperate cry for help on Mt. St. Helens. But it wasn't to the rescuers. It was to God. He said, "Lord, if you will save me, I will give you the rest of my life." Shortly thereafter the helicopters came and took them away. That night was a turning point in his life, and 25 years later, he is still following Christ. And on the basis of God's word, I can make this certain promise: anyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.