The Elephants in the Room:  Rapid Migration and Recolonization of the Earth Following a Global Flood

Naturalis Historia

Mastodons, mammoths, camels, horses, giant bison and giant sloths roaming the mountainsides of the Rocky Mountains may seem like something that only Hollywood could dream up but there is abundant evidence that North America was once home to a thriving community of animals that today we might associate with the African Serengeti.

Previously (The Snowmastodon Fossil Discovery) we visited a high alpine reservoir dug out of what used to be a high alpine lake. The sediments that had filled in that lake preserved tens of thousands of bones from more than 40 vertebrate animals species. How did this lake form?  How did it fill up with sediment? How did all these bones come to be preserved here? How did the animals preserved here get to Colorado?

Ziegler Reservoir at Snowmass showing how the site of this ancient lake that sits nearly on top of a mountain ridge. From…

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Book Write-Up: Unimaginable, by Jeremiah J. Johnston

Jeremiah J. Johnston.  Unimaginable: What Our World Would Be Like Without Christianity.  Bethany House, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

Jeremiah J. Johnston is a New Testament scholar and a Christian apologist.  In Unimaginable, Johnston essentially argues that Christianity is better than a lot of the other belief systems out there.  It was better when it began, and it presented a loving God, who was in contrast to the amoral gods of Greco-Roman society.  It has long upheld the dignity of human beings against racism, economic inequality, and immoral callousness; many of the renowned figures of the Enlightenment cannot say the same.  Moreover, Christian theism provides a solid basis for morality, something that atheistic views do not do.  Johnston not only promotes Christianity, but he criticizes prominent atheistic and skeptical figures, often highlighting their sexual promiscuity, concluding that their skepticism of Christianity was a means to justify their lifestyles.

In terms of positives, the book is interesting.  Johnston near the beginning of the book refers to research that suggests that civilization was built around religion rather than vice versa, and that monotheism preceded polytheism.  This discussion somewhat contrasted with the usual tone of the book, which was that Christianity is right and moral and other worldviews are grossly deficient, in that it held that a belief in God is a primal aspect of humanity.  Johnston’s references to Bertrand Russell’s spiritual searching, and to Richard Dawkins’ candid admission that he would not be too happy to see Christianity go, highlighted the complexity of these thinkers.

Some discussions in the book were actually nuanced.  The discussion about whether Hitler was a Christian did not cavalierly lump Hitler into the atheist camp but thoughtfully engaged what Hitler believed about religion and sought to explain his pro-Christian rhetoric.  The discussion on Darwin was all right, for it highlighted stages in his thought about religion, while taking care not to demonize the theory of evolution.

The references to primary sources make this book a keeper.  What immediately comes to mind are the Greco-Roman sources what expressly dismiss the concept of bodily resurrection.

Also noteworthy are the endnotes.  Johnston refers to scholarly sources for those who wish to inquire further.  His book is well-researched.  For instance, he engages Candida Moss’ book, The Myth of Persecution, while mentioning scholarly resources that are critical of it.

In terms of negatives, the book somewhat downplays, and sometimes ignores, the pro-slavery and sexist and patriarchal sentiments that have existed within historic Christianity.  Johnston does well to demonstrate the pro-woman aspects of the Bible, but biblical interpretation played a significant role in Christian sexism, as well as Christian pro-slavery sentiments.

While there were occasions in which the book highlighted the complexity of those whom it criticizes, there were plenty of occasions when it did not.  For example, the book cavalierly declares Tolstoy an atheist seeking to justify his sexual promiscuity, but Tolstoy was also one who took the Gospels seriously, to the point of being a pacifist.  The book presented many prominent skeptics and atheists as morally-deficient human beings, but it may have been more thoughtful had it also engaged the immorality and hypocrisy among Christians.  That would have added a tone of humility to the book.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest.

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Church Write-Up: Is Christianity Necessary?

For church last Sunday, I attended the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, its Sunday school class on patristic interpretation of the Gospel of John, and the “Pen church.”

A lot of points were brought up.  One point with which I struggle is the Christian notion that Christians are people who have been made new, whereas non-Christians are severely deficient morally and spiritually.

The pastor at the Missouri Synod church said that newness is not merely a repair of the old but is actual newness.

The teacher at the class on patristic interpretations said that, for the church fathers, one is either indwelt by the Spirit of God, or one has an evil spirit.  He did not cite biblical passages, but I think of Ephesians 2:2, which states that the prince of the power of the air (presumably the devil) works in the children of disobedience.  Some of the patristic readings that we looked at treated baptism as something that spiritually cures a person, healing his or her inner spiritual maladies.

The pastor at the “Pen church” did not get into such topics, so much.  He did, however, present adherence to Christianity as necessary for rebounding from the bullying that we experience at the hands of life.  He referred to Hebrews 12:2, in which the author exhorts his audience to look at Jesus, the author and finisher of their faith, who endured the cross, despised the shame, and sat down at God’s right hand.  The story of Esther also came into his sermon, as he said that, had Haman killed the Jewish people, there would have been no Christian church.  Some may be happy at the absence of the Christian church, he said, but, without the Christian church, would there be hospitals and orphanages?  His implied answer was “no.”

Here are some thoughts:

A.  I have a hard time believing that I am somehow better than non-believers.  Non-believers have their flaws, but they have their assets as human beings, too.  Moreover, I, too, am deeply flawed.  Suppose that a Christian then says that I am not a true believer, and that is why I have flaws.  He or she is entitled to his or her opinion, but I have known believers, and they, too, have their flaws.  They can get impatient.  They are not universally accepting of people.  They are derisive.  They do not necessarily help those who need help.  I am not eager to say that they are not true Christians, for I hope that God is there for them, as I would hope that God is there for me, with all of my flaws.

B.  I struggle to believe in change.  I am the way that I am and have been.  Others are the way that they are and have been.  I know unbelievers, and I cannot envision them changing their minds.  Some were Christians for a time, but they went back to who they previously were, which does not mean that they reverted to being horrible people, just that they once more became people who were adverse to or skeptical of Christianity.  I also look at myself and see some of the same hang-ups that I have had for years.  When those hang-ups do not manifest themselves, it is because I fight them, hopefully with God’s help.  I still feel as if God is working in the midst of flawed me, rather than curing flawed me.  He is more like a dam, holding in waters, than one removing the waters.

(UPDATE: I acknowledge that there are many atheists or non-believers who become Christians and stay Christians.  Maybe I haven’t been reading their stories enough!)

C.  This is a tangentially related issue, but something was brought up at the patristics class that reminded me of things that came to my mind earlier that week.  The teacher told us the story of Augustine’s conversion.  Augustine’s mother, of course, prayed for Augustine to become a Christian: I thought of something that was said to her by a wise Christian, that she should spend less time talking to Augustine about God, and more time talking to God about Augustine.  That is relevant to the topic of this post, but the teacher did not mention that anecdote.  He did talk about how Augustine was impressed by the Christian father Ambrose, and Ambrose suggested that Augustine read the Book of Isaiah.  Augustine tried and did not understand it: he did not know what to make of it.  Augustine then had to learn how to interpret the Bible as a Christian, for it to come alive to him.  I have been reading some patristic interpretations of John 2, in which Jesus turned water into wine (the class will get into those), and Augustine likened coming to understand the Scriptures according to their Christological and spiritual sense to water changing to wine.

I have been on a Daily Bible Reading plan.  I will finish it.  But I do not always get a lot out of it.  What do these battles and kings’ worshiping practices have to do with me?  I do not feel utterly baffled when I read the Bible, as Augustine was when he read Isaiah.  I, however, would read Isaiah differently from how he did so when he thought that he understood it: I would read it in light of the history of Israel in the eighth-sixth (maybe even fifth) centuries B.C.E.  That does not exactly give me a spiritual high.

D.  Can people rebound from the bullying of life without looking to Jesus as the author and finisher of their faith, or looking at the example of Jesus as a faithful sufferer?  Can they rely on some inner strength, or other coping mechanisms (and I mean healthy ones, not drugs or drinking or other addictions)?  Perhaps.  At the same time, I have my doubts that a naturalistic universe can give them a solid hope.  I know non-Christians who still have spiritual beliefs, such as a belief in karma, or reincarnation.  That gives them hope that things will turn out better, at some point.

E.  I tend to agree with the pastor of the “Pen church” that a lot of hospitals and orphanages would not exist without Christianity.  Non-Christians can have a sense of compassion and social justice, but, in many cases, Christianity has provided that “umph” that motivates people to do something.

I’ll close comments because I am not interested in my spirituality being questioned.  This post is rather perfunctory, anyway, since I try to write about the church services that I attend each week.  I was not even in the mood to write it.

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The Power of the Word

Clarissa's Blog

I detest Steve Bannon. He stands for everything I deeply dislike. But the author of Fire and Fury depicts Bannon in such a way that I have started harboring warm and fuzzy feelings towards him (or, rather, the character called “Steve Bannon” in the book). I need a reality check after each chapter because I don’t like where the book is taking me. And Wolff isn’t even a particularly good author. He’s wordy, he’s repetitive, he is extremely pompous. And yet 200 pages of reading about how Bannon is an idealist, a working-class fellow who is rejected by snobby, cynical elitists and how Trump is a big old softie whose heart is “a marshmallow” (that’s a direct quote from the book) and who feels deep compassion for Syrian children is starting to have an effect.

I’m still hoping to get to the end of the book but the moment I…

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Book Write-Up: Vindicating the Vixens

Sandra Glahn, ed.  Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible.  Kregel Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

As the title indicates, this book is about women in the Bible who have been marginalized or even vilified in conservative Christian culture.  The authors themselves are conservative Christians, in that they have a strong view of the inspiration of Scripture and the historicity of the stories in the Bible.  They have different levels of scholarly credentials, with some contributors having Ph.D.s, and some having masters’ degrees.

In this review, I will comment briefly on each essay, to provide you with the flavor of the book.

“Preface,” by Sandra Glahn, Ph.D.

What stood out to me is Glahn’s reference to the argument that Scripture marginalizes Deborah because Hebrews 11:32 mentions Barak but not Deborah.  Glahn disagrees, but she does not detail why.  A later essay in the book actually uses Hebrews 11:32 to undercut a popular conservative Christian talking-point.

“Introduction: The Hermeneutics of ‘Her,'” by Henry Rouse, Th.M.

This essay covers methodological issues.

“Chapter 1: Tamar: The Righteous Prostitute,” by Carolyn Custis James, M.A.

This essay defends Tamar, affirming that she faithfully performed her duty to her late husband.  It effectively discussed the motivations of the characters in Genesis 38.  For example, it talked about the economic motivations that Ornan had for depriving Tamar of his seed.

“Chapter 2: Rahab: What We Talk about When We Talk about Rahab,” by Eva Bleeker, M.A.

This essay explores the possibility that the Israelite spies sought to sleep with Rahab the prostitute when they stayed with her.  That was not its only point, but it was one of the issues that it explored.

“Chapter 3: Ruth: The So-Called Scandal,” by Marnie Legaspi, Th.M.

This essay attempts to refute the idea that Ruth was sexually propositioning Boaz while he was drunk.

“Chapter 4: Bathsheba: Vixen or Victim?”, by Sarah Bowler, Th.M.

This essay argues that Bathsheba was a victim.  Some of its arguments are speculative and not very convincing.  For example, why wouldn’t the prophet Nathan talk to Bathsheba had she done something wrong?  He talked to David, who clearly had done something wrong.  Still, the essay does well to highlight that there is no evidence in the Bible that Bathsheba sought to seduce David, and her argument about the location of purificatory baths is plausible.  Bowler also powerfully argued against the tendency of some conservative Christians to treat statutory rape as consensual sex, for which both victimizer and victim are responsible.

“Chapter 5: The Virgin Mary: Reclaiming Our Respect,” by Timothy Ralston, Ph.D.

Among other things, this essay addressed the question of how Mary could seemingly doubt Jesus’ mission (Mark 3:21, 32), while having learned from an angel that Jesus was the Messiah.  Ralston speculates that Mary had nationalistic Messianic expectations.  This essay is also useful in describing the development and history of concepts within Mariology.

“Chapter 6: Eve: The Mother of All Seducers?”, by Glenn Kreider, Ph.D.

This essay plausibly argues that Adam was physically with Eve at the temptation (Genesis 3:6), yet it criticizes the conservative Christian talking-point that Adam should have exercised moral leadership over Eve.  The essay was somewhat thin in addressing God’s criticism of Adam for listening to the voice of his wife (Genesis 3:17).

“Chapter 7: Sarah: Taking Things into Her Own Hands or Seeking to Love?”, by Eugene Merrill, Ph.D.

This essay is informative in referring to how ancient Near Eastern culture could form the backdrop for some of the customs in the Abraham and Sarah story, while acknowledging that some of the customs are attested later than the time when Abraham and Sarah allegedly lived.  This essay gives Sarah the benefit of a doubt in terms of her interactions with Hagar and Ishmael, whereas the following essay is more supportive of Hagar and Ishmael.

“Chapter 8: Hagar: God Names Adam, Hagar Names God,” by Tony Maalhouf, Ph.D.

This essay is critical of the saddening tendency of some conservative Christians to blame Hagar for the Middle Eastern conflict, which is based on the assumption that Ishmael was the ancestor of the Arabs.  Maalhouf also offers an alternative interpretation of Genesis 16:12 to the one that asserts that Ishmael was violent.

“Chapter 9: Deborah: Only When a Good Man Is Hard to Find?”, by Ron Pierce, Ph.D.

This essay argues against a popular Christian conservative claim that God only accepted Deborah’s leadership because good men were not stepping forward to lead.  As Pierce argues, a good man did step forward, Barak, yet God still supported Deborah’s leadership.  The essay offered an intriguing explanation for how the city of Abel Beth Maacah may relate to the story of Deborah, as the term “mother of Israel” appears in both Judges 5:7 and II Samuel 20:19 (where Abel Beth Maacah appears).  Pierce tends to regard the poetry and prose in the Deborah story as consistent with each other, whereas more liberal scholars have treated them as independent.  Treating them as consistent does not always work: Pierce, for example, interprets Judges 5:27 as Sisera’s attempt to rape Jael, which is an understandable interpretation, although it is not salient in the prose (where Jael kills Sisera when he is asleep, not when he is trying to rape her).  Pierce highlights that rape is a theme in the Judges story, however, particularly in what Sisera’s mother says in Judges 5.

“Chapter 10: Huldah: Malfunction with the Wardrobe-Keeper’s Wife,” by Christa L. McKirland, Th.M.

This chapter is interesting because it interacts with how Jewish and Christian interpreters throughout history have addressed the prophetess Huldah.  Unfortunately, McKirland laments, they have often asked why God did not consult Jeremiah or Zechariah, as if Huldah was God’s Plan B.  McKirland critiques that assumption.

“Chapter 11: Vashti: Dishonored for Having Honor,” by Sharifa Stevens, Th.M.

This chapter is interesting because it refers to the history of interpretation of Vashti, as well as what Herodotus says about Xerxes’ wife (who has a different name in Herodotus’ story).  What they say is negative.  Unfortunately, Stevens does not really account for why Herodotus is so negative about her.  Stevens discusses how God replaced a strong woman with another strong woman, namely, Esther.  She also tells a compelling personal story about rejection, and how she struggled to move on from that.

“Chapter 12: The ‘Woman at the Well’: Was the Samaritan Woman Really an Adulteress?”, by Lynn Cohick, Ph.D.

Cohick seeks to refute the assumption that the woman at the well (John 3) was a loose woman.

“Chapter 13: Mary Magdalene: Repainting her Portrait of Misconceptions,” by Karla Zazueta, M.A.

Zazueta argues against the idea that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.  The essay mentioned that the Talmud presents the area of Magdala as a morally-depraved area, but it does not do anything with that reference.  The essay also explores what Mary’s possession by seven demons might have meant.

“Chapter 14: Junia/Joanna: Herald of the Good News,” by Amy Peeler, Ph.D.

Romans 16:7 mentions Junia, and there have been many interpreters who argue that the passage means that the woman Junia was an apostle.  Peeler agrees with this interpretation, while denying that it is relevant to debates on women’s ordination.  Peeler offers some arguments against the scholarly grammatical arguments of Michael Burer and Dan Wallace that Junia was not an apostle.  Peeler discusses the history of interpretation about Junia, particularly among church fathers.  Peeler speculates about the horrors that Junia may have experienced in prison, based on what women in that historical context endured there.  That presented Junia as courageous in her Christian convictions.  The essay also discussed what her apostleship may have meant: Paul in I Corinthians 15:7 mentions apostles who saw the risen Christ, and they appear to be distinct from the Twelve (see v 5).  Peeler speculates that Junia may have been Johanna (Luke 24:10), changing her name as other Jews Latinized their names for the benefit of their Roman neighbors.  This was the richest essay in the book.

The book is interesting because it offers alternative interpretations and fresh insights.  Some interpretations were more convincing than others, but all were worth reading.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest!

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Movie Write-Up (Loosely-Speaking): The Last Jedi

I saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi yesterday.  To be honest, I do not have much to say about it.  If there was a point that stood out to me, it would be, to draw from the Gospel of John, that the Force “bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth” (John 3:8 KJV).  Of course, that John passage is about the Holy Spirit, not the Force, but the Star Wars movie seemed to be making a similar point about the Force.

In one scene, Luke Skywalker is teaching Rey about the Force.  Rey thinks that the Force is about moving objects with one’s mind, but Luke responds that the Force is not about that at all.  It is the balance that emanates from nature and binds it together.  And it is there, even if the Jedi cease to exist.  That, Luke said, is why it is arrogant for the Jedi to assume that they are so necessary, as if they have a monopoly on the Force.  That was an insightful scene, eclipsed by a lot of Luke’s self-pitying sentiments.

In another scene, Luke sees the spirit of Yoda.  Luke is thinking of burning down a Jedi Temple, which contains Jedi sacred books.  But Luke does not really mean it.  Yoda, however, spares him the trouble and destroys the Temple himself, as he calls down lightning.  Luke is shocked, and Yoda states that the books have a lot of wisdom, but page-turners they are not!  There have been Christians in history who have seen the Bible that way: it has wisdom, but the Spirit takes priority.  Indeed, God is not dependent on the Bible and exists and works in God’s own right.  Still, should not religion have some discipline and structure, which the Bible and institutions provide, rather than being utterly free-flowing?

At the end of the movie, there are children who are slaves on a Vegas-sort of planet.  We meet them earlier in the movie.  Luke has already died, and the children are telling each other the story of Luke Skywalker.  Their master angrily barges into the room and tells them to get to work, and a boy draws the broom towards his hand with the power of the Force.  He looks into the heavens, as dramatic Star Wars music plays, and the movie goes to the closing credits.  The Force continues and works, even if there are hardly any Jedi anymore.  That reminds me of I Kings 19:18.  The prophet Elijah believes that he is the one one left standing for Yahweh, but God tells him: “Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him” (KJV).

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Church Write-Up: Rationalizing; How Foreign?; a Different Justice; Jacob; God Fighting Battles; Planned Job

For church last Sunday, I attended the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, its Sunday school class on patristic interpretation of the Gospel of John, and the “Pen church.”

Here are some items:

A.  The pastor at the Missouri Synod Lutheran church was talking about rationalizing away the darkness.  He told a story about when he grew up in Wisconsin, where the sunset was at 9:30 at night, and he would be reading in bed.  He did not want to get up to turn on the light, so he tried to convince himself while the sun was setting that there was just enough sunlight for him to read.  He told another story about when he was in the fourth grade, and his dad told him before he went out to play with his friends to head on home when he saw headlights.  His response to that was to go where there were no roads, so he would see no headlights and thus could keep on playing with his friends.  The pastor likened that to how we try to rationalize our darkness: how we may attempt to interpret the Bible to justify what we are doing, rather than trying to live according to its standard.

I won’t comment much here.  This is not a very comfortable topic for me.  When it comes to such things as forgiving others and loving my neighbor, I do try to bring the Bible down a few notches.

B.  The teacher at the Sunday school class about patristic interpretation of the Gospel of John was contrasting ancient patristic approaches to the Bible to modern-day Enlightenment historical-critical approaches.  He seemed to be assuming that his audience adheres to the latter, whereas the former would be something that is foreign to them.  I was wondering to what extent that would be the case.  On the one hand, within evangelicalism, at least, I have heard Old Testament or New Testament stories being treated as an allegory for the spiritual life, or Old Testament figures presented as types of Christ.  That is similar to patristic exegesis.  On the other hand, I could sense within the audience a recognition of the importance of interpreting biblical passages in light of their context, and I would not be surprised if they conclude that the fathers, at times, went too far and imported extraneous material into their interpretation of the biblical text.  It will be interesting to see how they respond.

C.  The teacher shared an interpretation that Gregory of Nyssa made of Matthew 5:6, in which Jesus blesses those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (which has the same Greek word as justice).  What is righteousness, or justice?  Gregory engaged the philosophical answer that justice was giving to people according to their worth.  Gregory said that Christians hunger for a higher kind of justice: one in which God gives to people, apart from their merit.  Ultimately, since Christ is righteousness (I Corinthians 1:30), Christ is the one after whom his followers hunger and thirst.

D.  At the “Pen church,” the pastor began a series on being resilient.  He told the story of Jacob: Jacob was continually scheming and fighting to get his own way, all the way back to his birth.  But he came to the point where he surrendered to God and decided to let God fight his battles.  I thought back to a Tim Keller sermon that I heard about Jacob: Keller said that the point of Jacob’s wrestling with God is that God is the one with whom Jacob was actually wrestling all his life.

E.  Do I have any experience of God fighting my battles?  Well, I can say that there were times when I expected the worst, and the worst did not come.  Life does not work that way all of the time for everyone.  I doubt that I am especially favored by God, while they are not.  I have uphill battles that they may lack.  It’s just life, I guess.

F.  The pastor told a story about when he was in college, and he did not have a car.  He filled out tons of resumes to get a job, and he reluctantly took a job at a Chinese restaurant.  He was only there for three months, but, during that time, he led a fellow employee to Christ.  That affirmed to him that God was with him wherever he ends up.  But he also felt that God had him there for a purpose: so that the employee would know of God’s love and enter into a relationship with Christ.

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