God is Not Great: first impressions and thoughts on book and author

I’m three chapters into God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by the late, atheist debater and journalist Christopher Hitchens, and I’m getting a few distinct impressions of the author’s overall argument and personal qualities.

At the end of the first chapter of this book, I wrote, “So far, I’ve found this book alternatingly entertaining, saddening, thought-provoking, wise, foolish, absorbing, and irksome (sometimes several of these at once). I can’t wait to continue.” That remains true.

A few initial thoughts:

Who was Hitch really mad at?

It seems his original gripe was with 20th-century, British-American, pietistic, ideologically-driven, shallow, pseudo-Christian religion, of the kind that is commonly seen in the U.K. and U.S.A. today (and about which there’s certainly plenty to criticize). I sense his complaint started there (very legitimately) and grew with his experience to encompass all forms of legalistic, domineering religious belief and practice (of which there’s been no shortage in world history).

He accurately sees and rightly repudiates much that is vile, regressive, and unjust in many religious people, factions, and organizations across the world.

Are “religious” conflicts religious?

In any conflict in which the opposing sides have claimed different religious denominations, Hitch seems to automatically assume that religion must have been at the heart of the conflict (or at least an intensifying factor). I mean conflicts like the Roman Catholic Croats vs. the Orthodox Serbs, or the Northern Irish Protestants vs. the Southern Irish Catholics.

I have a problem with that automatic assumption: it seems plain to me that, in cases like these, religion has been completely assimilated into nationalism. As Hitchens says, “To be Croatian…is to be Roman Catholic.”

The transition from religion to religion-as-nationalism is easy, natural, and common, but I don’t think that’s because religion is predisposed to it: it’s because people are disposed to be nationalist and tribalist, and nationalists will seize on any difference at all to puff themselves up at the expense of the “others.” And once religion has become “baked into” a culture—once the form is everywhere and the substance is gone—then one of the most obvious differences between the nationalist’s culture and the “enemy’s” culture is their religion. So this too is chewed up by tribalists—and readily received by the outwardly religious who’ve lost any real substance of what their ancestors believed.

His doctrine

So far, he doesn’t strike me as having well understood the claims the Bible and Jesus Christ actually make about themselves and God. Then again, for all I know at this point, that could be because the people he most criticized didn’t well understand these things either.

His language

He was a commander of words, with a sharp and incisive mind—a true reporter’s eye and satirist’s wit. I’ve greatly enjoyed the quality of his writing.

His sweeping claims

So far, I’ve read at least one statement in this book that is plain bunk (there’s another possible one that I’m still holding in suspension of judgment).

The statement, from chapter 4, is, “The attitude of religion to medicine, like the attitude of religion to science, is always necessarily problematic and very often necessarily hostile.”

Always? Necessarily? This was too much for me. Did Hitchens honestly not know of the faith of Galileo, Kepler, James Clerk Maxwell, Michael Faraday, Copernicus, Mendel, or a host of other great figures in the history of modern science and medicine? Not even of very contemporary figures like Raymond Damadian, co-inventor of the MRI scan? What about Christian theologian and Oxford biophysicist Alister McGrath? Or even Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health and an evangelical Christian, whom Hitchens chose to supervise his medical care during his battle with esophageal cancer?

I mean no acrimony towards Hitchens in saying all this. The statement I’ve highlighted is simply exasperating. It puts me out of patience, as the old idiom goes.

I suppose the most charitable interpretation is that Hitchens grew up (as seems likely) in a pseudo-Christian community that discouraged and deplored science as a menace to faith; from there, perhaps he bought into the popular narrative that faith and science are inherently opposed. This blatantly false narrative is now so common that many people seem to think it self-obvious, and Hitchens may have been one of them.

Other impressions of Hitchens

In no particular order, it seems to me he:

  • had a fine aesthetic sensibility
  • was wise enough to wonder at the marvels of the universe
  • could be crude and vitriolic
  • was very well-read
  • was well-traveled and, if there’s anything to his brief sketches of his journalistic journeys (which I see no reason to doubt), physically courageous

Last words

Just to be clear, Hitchens and I would have disagreed on nearly every fundamental question of life, especially the question of who is Jesus of Nazareth.

All the same, had circumstances concurred, I think he and I could have been friends. At the very least, I would’ve enjoyed a chance to talk with him. I hope he had someone in his life to show him plainly, not in words and arguments but in deeds and manner, who Christ really is.

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What Tolkien’s greatest tragedy teaches us about how to live

Though Túrin, a mighty warrior, was cursed by Morgoth (Sauron’s master, from way before the events of The Lord of the Rings), he had the opportunity to escape the curse—but he continually made terrible choices that brought pain on himself and ruin and death to everyone around him. He tried to do the right thing, but his pride continually prevented him from doing what was best.

Túrin had his excellent qualities: he was strong, skillful and brave in battle, and compassionate to the needy, and he had a strong sense of justice. But all of these could not overcome his pride, hotheadedness, desire for glory, and refusal to listen to wise counsel. In fact, his strength and charisma only made the effects of his pride and rashness even worse.

What Túrin teaches us is that a strong and compassionate person will still cause suffering and bring ruin if they allow themselves to be arrogant and foolhardy, ignoring good advice and seeking glory and revenge.

His story is told in a chapter of The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s great history of Middle-Earth from its beginning through millennia of the war of the elves with Morgoth, and in The Children of Húrin, a novel.

Why you should care about fantasy fiction

Image courtesy of Jason Coates

Image courtesy of Jason Coates http://bit.ly/1yPwIZ5

I’ve known a few people (and I’ve heard of more) who say they just don’t like fantasy. When I’ve asked why not, the answer has usually been that they don’t like the orcs and trolls and goblins and elves and dwarves and all that sort of thing. They prefer realistic stories that have to do with the real world.

So why does fantasy exist at all if it’s mere freakish escapism with no connection to reality? Why can’t we get our heads out of the clouds and settle down to something more practical?

I’ll spoil the end for you: I believe that fantasy is eminently practical — that it has much more to do with real life than most people might suspect.

Fantasy reflects our world through a curious sort of lens, and by showing it this way, it helps us see our world all the more clearly. That’s the real magic.

Sometimes this roundabout way is the only way for us to see things about our world that we’ve been blinded to, not because they’re hidden, but because they’re right under our nose. I agree with C.S. Lewis that humans are marked by “the horror and neglect of the obvious.” Fantasy helps us see the good and evil, mercy and cruelty, courage and cowardice, justice and treachery, and wonder and awe in our world more clearly than we might have seen otherwise.

But some people haven’t experienced this. Either they’ve never tried, or they have tried but couldn’t see past the elves, wargs, wizards, nymphs, and the like. It seems people who don’t like fantasy make a great mistake: thinking that these fantastical things are what fantasy is *about.*

All these fay and faerie elements are the skin of fantasy, not its soul.

Of course, bad fantasy might focus on the dragons and gnomes and witches and magic for the sake of the spectacle they provide, and stories like that are hardly worth telling.

What do you think? Does fantasy give us something that can’t be gotten elsewhere? Does it have other value or uses?

I graduated from an extraordinary place of learning, and now I get to encourage others to go!

Vision of Inner Thoughts 0007 by agsandrew

A couple weeks ago, I noticed a student in the Sunday school class that I help teach. She answered the questions in a weary tone, looking bored.

That sparked something in me. I guessed she was bored with the lesson because she was already far beyond it. She was ready to learn more sophisticated stuff than the basics being taught.

I remembered what it was like for me in public school — constantly frustrated that we couldn’t move ahead more quickly.

While keeping an eye on the class, I started writing on an index card. While the other teachers were cleaning up at the end of the lesson, I called her over.

“I noticed that the lesson seemed a little simple for you. You get easily bored in school, don’t you? You get frustrated because you could be learning much faster than the class?”

She confirmed exactly that.

I told her what I’d written, then handed the paper to her. Here it is:

Try to get your parents to send you to Trinity Classical Academy. There, you will learn much more and more deeply than at public school.

Whether or not you can go to Trinity, go to The Master’s College. There you will learn to divide and discern the truth, rightly handle the word of God, and know yourself aright. You will find true learning, guided by the light of God’s truth, administered by teachers and staff who really care about their students.

If you go to Master’s, work as hard as you can to get scholarships. I recommend the book How to Go To College Almost for Free, by Ben Kaplan.

Good luck, and God bless. Never stop learning.

-Nathan Paul, alumnus, The Master’s College

She glanced over the paper, looked up at me with a big smile, and left.

Book TunnelOnward and upward!

Image credits:
“Vision of Inner Thoughts 0007” by agsandrew [CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 License] via DeviantART. No changes made from original.
“Knowledge tunnel” by PublicDomainPictures [CC0 Public Domain license] via Pixabay.

Are Christians prudes?

Prudery 1 - George Augustus Sala“Prude” wasn’t always a negative word, but in the last century it’s come to describe someone who seems to feel disgust, revulsion, or fear towards expressions of intimacy.

Synonyms include: prig, prissy, goody-goody, fuddy-duddy, killjoy, moralist, and puritan (ironic, that last one, as the original Puritans definitely enjoyed the good life, but that’s a topic for another time).

The people I’ve most heard called “prudes” are Christians, and that’s why I care about this topic. Some of us who follow Christ may well be prudish (but so are a lot of non-Christians)—but what I want to show you is that Christianity is not prudish.

What I want to show you is that Christianity is chaste, and chastity is a very good thing. In fact, it’s the opposite of prudery, just as love is the opposite of fear.

Chastity isn’t just virginity: chastity is appropriate expression and enjoyment of affection and intimacy. For example, sex with someone who’s not your spouse is utterly unchaste, but nothing is more chaste than sex within marriage.

The difference between chastity and prudery can be confusing, because the two can act very similar. The difference is in the attitude. Prudery tends to be fearful, disgusted, cold, and self-righteous (especially when a prude is priggish). On the other hand, true and God-inspired chastity should be joyful and celebrate intimate affection!

The bottom line is that God invented intimacy, and He thinks it’s a great idea. Like anything else, it has its boundaries—just like water, food, fire, and wine, it has its harmful and helpful uses—but within those guides, it is a wonderful, God-blessed thing, and Christians should treat it as such.

“Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure . . . ”

We’ve made room for a lot of lies by treating these words as purely negative—as though “honoring marriage” had only to do with abstinence beforehand.

Marriage should be the one place in all the body of Christ that He shines through most clearly. The Christ-centered union of a son of the King to a daughter of Heaven is one of our clearest pictures of what God Himself is like. To enjoy and celebrate that, for yourself and your spouse and others, is incredibly chaste. Prudery is not part of Christianity, but chastity certainly is.

Thanks for reading!

Nathan

Image credit: “GeorgeAugustusSala1828-1895” by Allister – Flickr: George Augustus Sala (1828-1895). Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons – link.

Won’t fascists just go away if we ignore them?

Image result for nazi rally

From Joe Messina, a local Republican Party chairman, in the Santa Clarita Signal:

“Chairman Messina argued that if counter protesters hadn’t shown up in the first place, nothing would have happened and the white supremacist message, which he and his fellow 38th District Republicans strongly oppose, would not have been broadcast on an international level . . . ‘You let those idiots over there go do their thing, leave them alone, don’t give them any attention and they burn themselves out,’ Messina said” (A5).

No, they don’t. They don’t stamp and scream for attention and tucker themselves out unheeded. They’re not toddlers. They’re ideologues. It’s ignorant and shortsighted to suggest that the best strategy is to simply ignore them until they go away.

White supremacists are dedicated to white power. Their “great cause” carries quasi-religious tones. They will no more starve from lack of attention than will ISIS. They imagine their culture, their way of life, and their very bodies are threatened. When you believe you’re threatened this way, do you just quiet down because no one’s paying attention? No: you yell louder.

Fascism will be a danger for as long as the United States exists. As long as there are people frustrated with the political process who are willing to justify violence to get their way, fascism will be a threat. Fascism will be a threat as long as anyone buys the myth of racial superiority.

Evil must be called out for what it is, because evil does not die in the dark. It festers.

 

 

Citation:
Ender, G. and Monterrosa, C. (2017, August 15). SCV reacts to Charlottesville events. The Santa Clarita Valley Signal, pp. A3, A5.

The cost of following Christ

In the church circles I know, it seems that when we talk about “the cost of following Christ,” we mean one of two things:

A) enduring ridicule and ostracism from nonbelievers; or,

B) literal martyrdom

People seem to tend towards one extreme or another. But do we consider anything else on the spectrum between the two?

Following Christ might mean you’re late for a date because you stopped to help someone on the side of the road (and decided not to leave until it was resolved). Showing mercy might mean missing events altogether because of Kingdom business.

Following Christ might mean associating with people you’d rather not: people who make you uncomfortable, whom you’d rather not be seen with, who trigger every prejudice (disguised to you as “reason” or “wisdom”) you have. Visiting “widows and orphans in their distress” might mean embracing people who’d make your friends’ noses wrinkle.

Following Christ might mean passing up opportunities to make money because you have more important things to do. It might mean you can’t buy a home or a new car. It might mean going without new clothes, movies, eating out, smartphones, wifi, or any luxury we’ve come to consider essential to life. It might mean getting funny looks, then concern, then ire even from other Christians who think you’re too extreme: you’re giving too much of your time and money.

Following Christ might mean drawing ridicule from those in power and their clients; then, after ridicule, subversion and even open hostility, because whatever the GOP wants you to think, the powers that rule this world are not friendly to the mission of Christ.

Why do 41% of college students quit? You might be surprised . . .

[8-minute read]

dropoutAre U.S. students quitting college en masse because their unprepared, fragile little minds can’t handle cramming college courses between all-night parties and posting on Instagram? Or because they’re so pampered by their helicopter parents that they can’t function without their caregivers meeting their every need? Or because they’re entitled, spoiled, lazy narcissists whose delicate egos can’t handle less than an A? Actually, despite what TIME Magazine, The Atlantic, Business Insider, the Los Angeles Times, NPR, Psychology Today, Forbes, the New York Post, National Review, The Guardian, and others would claim, all the above is far from the truth.

41% of college students quit without finishing their degree. What’s the biggest reason for this? Believe it or not, it’s because they’re poor—so poor, in fact, that their parents and financial aid packages can’t pay enough to free them from the need to work. These students aren’t working so they can afford iPhones, slick cars, restaurants, travel, and party supplies: these students are working to pay for food and housing for themselves and their families. For many of them, the stress of balancing work and school becomes too much.

So they quit. They work full-time at lower-wage jobs because the landlord and grocery store won’t accept “I have to pay for school” and an IOU. Sure, that bright future of earning more with a college degree looks shiny and promising (though less promising now than previously), but the cost to get there is just too steep.

According to research by Public Agenda (sponsored by the Gates Foundation), just 11% of college dropouts said a “major reason” they quit school was they “didn’t like sitting in class,” and only 14% said it was because “many of the classes were boring” (Johnson 7).

By contrast, 71% of college dropouts said they left school because they “needed to go to work and make money”, and 52% said they “just couldn’t afford the tuition and fees” (ibid.). The same source also found these students “were often assuming responsibilities and financial burdens that traditional full-time college students do not have to shoulder,” such as caring for dependent children and family members (6).

These conclusions are also supported by Dēmos, a public policy research center, which reported, “Surveys of students who have left college without earning a credential routinely cite employment and finances as the main reasons for student departure” (Orozco 1).

The cost of college

Is it truly surprising that the lowest earners can’t afford school, given the enormous increase in college costs?

If we really need a citation to say school’s gotten more expensive, citations are widely available. According to the College Board, inflation-adjusted tuition and fees at public four-year institutions have risen 270% over the last 40 years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that, from 1978 to 2011 (33 years), tuition rose three and a half times more than the Consumer Price Index and the average hourly wage (Clemmons). In contrast, in the 30 years from 1982 to 2012, inflation-adjusted average family income rose only 16% (WhiteHouse.gov). Furthermore, from 1980 to 2000, the ratio of cost of education to income doubled for the lowest-income families, i.e., those most likely to quit college (National Center 5).

Why is school so expensive?

Culprits include administrative costs, regulation, and the rise of the luxury campus:

Administration

According to Paul Campos, law professor and author, the number of administrators in the California State University system grew 221% from 1975 to 2008 (n.p.). And what was the increase in full-time faculty during the same time? Three and a half percent.

Campos goes on: it’s not just the CSU system. “According to the Department of Education data, administrative positions at colleges and universities grew by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009, which Bloomberg reported was 10 times the rate of growth of tenured faculty positions.”

Regulation

Colleges and universities are broadly treated as state agencies. In the words of Dr. Lyall, this subjects them to “mandatory participation in state health insurance and pension programs,” and they don’t get to “manage their own capital bonds and building projects” or “their own human resources (hiring and pay) policies” (ibid.). This is repeated by Robert C. Dickeson in a report for the Secretary of Education: “Federal regulations impose additional costs on college budgets . . . as many as 12 different federal agencies impose regulations on colleges, and most of the requirements are neither coordinated nor paid for” (2).

Bureaucracy is inherently inefficient, compounding costs of compliance, not to mention requiring ever-growing administrative staffs to keep up with regulations.

Luxury campuses and athletics

Rudy Fichtenbaum, professor and president of the American Association of University Professors, pins blame for college costs on many universities that “have borrowed millions to build luxury dorms, new dining halls and rock-climbing walls” as well as “[subsidize] intercollegiate athletics” (ibid.). This compounds the regulatory burden as many of these facilities, including healthcare clinics, daycare centers, sports centers, dining halls, and dorms are all subject to their own sets of laws and reporting requirements.

What do we do?

In the face of all these factors, how can we cut the cost of education so our poorer students can stay in school?

Cut administration

Cut administrative staff. Or, in the event university presidents and boards of directors aren’t willing to slash their own salaries and support staff, students will have to take action to pressure their schools to cut costs.

Reduce regulation

State and federal governments need to work with schools to coordinate and reduce regulatory demands, treating them less like state agencies and more like businesses. They should be able to make their own bottom-up decisions on pay, benefits, construction, bonds, and maintenance, rather than contort to top-down regulations.

Take learning online

Massively-open online courses are already giving first-rate professors the opportunity to reach thousands of students at a time. Courses from venues like Coursera, Udacity, edX, StraighterLine, the Saylor Foundation, and Khan Academy provide highly affordable (or even free) channels for students to learn the fundamentals of a given discipline at their own pace. If colleges want to reduce costs and retain students, they should make agreements with these providers to accept their coursework for credit (as hundreds of schools have already done).

Simplify campus and work to learn

Maybe we don’t need more schools with luxury housing and glitzy athletics. Maybe we want more places like the College of the Ozarks, nicknamed “Hard Work U” because students live simply, work on campus, and pay no tuition.

Towards an idea

There is no easy or single answer to the rising problem of college costs, but while it remains, the poorest (as usual) are the ones most affected. While it persists, it’s not an economic problem, it’s a social problem, and if universities and governments want to get serious about the ideals they preach of liberality and equity, they need to get serious about cutting costs of education, even at the expense of tradition, comfort, administrative jobs, and athletics.

Simply put, a school should have willing students, great teachers, and the absolute minimum of everything else. No more luxury campuses, no more administrative bloat, no more fanciest newest everything. The idea of the university is to build the mind: let’s make that the first priority.

 

 

Works Cited

Belkin, Douglas. “How to Get College Tuition under Control: Three economists debate the causes and possible solutions for the high cost of college.” The Wall Street Journal. 2013. <https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324549004579068992834736138&gt; Retrieved 14 Feb 2017.

Campos, Paul. “The Real Reason College Tuition Costs so Much.” The New York Times. 2015. <https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/05/opinion/sunday/the-real-reason-college-tuition-costs-so-much.html&gt; Retrieved 10 Feb 2017.

Clemmons, Courtney. “Weighing the Cost and Value of a College Decision.” U.S. Department of Education. 2013. <https://sites.ed.gov/ous/2013/07/weighing-the-cost-and-value-of-a-college-decision/&gt; Retrieved 10 Feb 2017.

College Board. Annual Survey of Colleges. <https://trends.collegeboard.org/college-pricing/figures-tables/tuition-and-fees-and-room-and-board-over-time-1976-77_2016-17-selected-years&gt; Retrieved 10 Feb 2017.

Dickeson, Robert. 2006. A National Dialogue: The Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education, Issue Paper, “Frequently Asked Questions About College Costs.” Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education. <http://www2.ed.gov/about/bdscomm/list/hiedfuture/reports/dickeson2.pdf&gt; Retrieved 14 Feb 2017.

Johnson, Jean, et al. With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them: Myths and Realities About Why So Many Students Fail to Finish College. Public Agenda, 2010. <http://www.publicagenda.org/files/theirwholelivesaheadofthem.pdf&gt; Retrieved 10 Feb 2017.

National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Losing Ground: A National Status Report on the Affordability of American Higher Education. 2002. <http://www.highereducation.org/reports/losing_ground/affordability_report_final.pdf&gt; Retrieved 14 Feb 2017.

Orozco, Viany, and Nancy Cauthen. Work Less, Study More, and Succeed: How Financial Supports Can Improve Postsecondary Success. Demos, 2009. <http://www.demos.org/sites/default/files/publications/WorkLessStudyMore_Demos.pdf&gt; Retrieved 10 Feb 2017.

WhiteHouse.gov. “An affordable college education is a cornerstone of middle class security.” <https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/share/college-affordability&gt; Retrieved 10 Feb 2017.

 

[This essay was composed for a scholarship provided by Transtutors]

 

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I had a dream: I must master kung fu

Lightning Storm at Beach Over the Atlantic Ocean

I had a dream that said I’m destined to master kung fu. I’m doing it.

I was in a videogame, watching myself, not sure I was controlling my actions. The action climaxed on a tropical beach. The clouds turned crimson and thundered, and from the lightning over the water a giant rubber ducky appeared. This monstrosity shot lightning bolts at me; I found myself dodging at incredible speed with martial mastery. Then I woke up.

So kung fu? Essentially, it’s not a martial art, but “skill gained through long effort and application of prolonged practice” (according to Victor Mair of UPenn).

As a citizen, debater, employee, speaker, and soon-to-be teacher, the skill I’m destined to master is kung fu of the mind.

Here’s how I read the dream: whether real life is illusion (videogame or otherwise), whether I really have agency over my actions, whether this dream was a sign or subconscious gibberish, whatever horrors strange or mundane may come, I must do the best I can with my abilities and circumstances. So I’m learning to ground myself and discern and interpret all things nimbly and skillfully, whatever their source: to engage with information and argument, take it all in, take it apart, critique it, digest, and apply it, whether in the realm of literature, teaching, science, business, or anything — to see the lightning coming, dodge, and (eventually) learn to redirect it back.

I know kung fu. And it will empower everything I do in life, for building my students, others, and myself.

 

This short and somewhat silly (but mostly serious) submission was created for Unigo’s I Have a Dream scholarship.

[Photo cred Kim Seng via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Answering ancient questions: what is goodness?

death-of-socrates-cropped

People’ve been asking this question for a long, long, long time.

About 2,300 years ago, in ancient Greece, a very wise man named Plato recorded many of the words of his master, Socrates. Once, Socrates had a conversation with a priest of the gods, whose name was Euthyphro. Socrates loved to ask people questions about all sorts of things. In this case, he questions Euthyphro on the nature of “piety” or “piousness:” that is, following what the gods command.

The fundamental question becomes: is the pious pious because the gods ordain it, or is the pious some higher standard that the gods adhere to?

This question has come down through history to us like this: is goodness good because God commands it, or is God held by some higher standard of good? Both answers have problems. Read the full post »

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