Monday, June 30, 2008

Quote of the Day

The fact that 'abba' is remembered as particularly characteristic of Jesus' prayer probably implies that it was an unusual style of prayer. Had it been the typical style of addressing God in the prayers of the ordinary people of Galilee or of a particular Jewish sect, it would not have been regarded as evidence of the Christian claim to the Spirit and to divine sonship. But since (so far as we can tell) the claim to a share in divine sonship through the Spirit is something which marked out the first Christians within the Judaism of the time, the evidence which these Christians cite as proof of that claim must itself have been distinctive. Had 'abba' been widely used outside Christian circles, its use within Christian circles would have proved nothing. It is cited in Romans 8 and Galatians 4, then, precisely because it was remembered as something distinctive -- a distinctive bond between Jesus and his disciples, and so distinctive also in its original use by Jesus himself.

Why was it so distinctive of Jesus' own prayer? The most probable answer is the 'Abba' was a surprising word to use in addressing God. In its natural usage it was a family word and usually confined to the family circle. It was the word with which children would address the head of the family, and so carried with it a considerable note of warm trust as well as of respect. It was a word resonant with family intimacy, probably used by children from earliest years of speech; as we can tell from its very form, it would be one of the earliest words an infant would be able to say. There is no precise equivalent in English, though the older style 'Papa' probably comes closest. The nearest today would be the colloquial 'Dad'.

The point is that to address God in such a colloquial way, with such intimacy, is hardly known in the Judaism of Jesus' time. The regular Jewish prayers were a good deal more dignified, more in the style of the second address used in Matt. 11.25 - Luke 10.21: 'Lord of heaven and earth'. Interestingly enough, the same is true of the typical Muslim today: he will address Allah as the 'All merciful'; but 'Father' is too bold and improper. So too at the time of Jesus. Had most Jews of Jesus' time considered using 'Abba' in addressing God they would probably have rejected it as too intimate, as a mark of irreverence.

Jesus would not have been unaware of this. And yet 'Abba' was his characteristic way of addressing God. Presumably for the same reason: what others thought too intimate in praying to God, Jesus used because of its intimacy. The most obvious explanation for Jesus' adoption of just this word as the hallmark of his prayer was that it expressed an intimacy with God which he experienced and relied upon in his relationship with God. He thought of himself before God as a son before his father. Since the 'Abba' prayer is both so characteristic and so distinctive of Jesus, it must mean that Jesus naturally or instinctively saw himself as God's son, sustained by that intimate relation with God which only a son close to his father can know.

James D. G. Dunn
The Evidence for Jesus

Friday, June 27, 2008

Military Incompetence

I often find myself telling people that the Iraq War is actually going above average for a military operation. It's not that individual people in the military are incompetent, but that the military as an organization -- any military, not just the USA's -- is incompetent. This is well known by those who have studied (or lived) military history. Unfortunately military history is not being taught much nowadays, and this is to our detriment: it removes our ability to place contemporary military actions in their larger context.

I just finished reading a book that illustrates the chaotic and unorganized nature of warfare well: Peleliu: Tragic Triumph: The Untold Story of the Pacific War's Forgotten Battle by Bill Ross. This was one of the bloodiest battles of World War 2, made even worse by the fact that the island never needed to be taken, and they knew it beforehand. It served no purpose, and even the reasons some thought it should be could have been accomplished by just bombing the hell out of it rather than taking the island meter by meter.

And, of course, like all battles, it was characterized by massive incompetence. The decision to prepare for the battle on the island of Pavuvu, for example, was just a massive screw-up that almost defeated the Marines before they even went into battle. But here's one example from the first several days of the battle of Peleliu:

Someone in the chain of command decided to try a new method of getting fresh water ashore to resupply the troops. At first glance, it looked like a good idea. Perhaps it was -- if someone, anyone, had displayed common sense. But no one did.

Instead of bringing potable water ashore in amtracs carrying 1,000-gallon trailer tanks pulled by jeeps or trucks, or on pallets loaded with conventional 5-gallon steel jerry cans, why not bring the precious cargo to the beach in 55-gallon barrels previously used to hold gasoline or diesel fuel?

The reasoning behind the scheme had a measure of undeniable logic. The steel drums took up less valuable space on landing craft, and a few could be carried in each amtrac with assault forces. Once ashore, they could be tipped over and rolled to waterheads by shore party troops, becoming easily accessible sources to replenish supplies of drinking water.


No effort had been made to purge the barrels of the residue of petroleum they still contained. Thus every drop of water was contaminated and literally unfit for human consumption. To drink it was an open invitation to disaster, but many hundreds of unwary Marines did despite the evil taste -- and the inescapable consequences.

Half-crazed with unbearable thirst and overpowering heat, the men gulped down canteens full of the vile mixture. Within minutes, many doubled over with hellish stomach cramps. Others were hit with violent and uncontrolled coughing, vomiting, and diarrhea.
People who have not been in the military are shocked and baffled by such a scenario. Those of us who have actually been in the military either shake our heads or laugh and say, "Yeah, that sounds about right."

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Defining Belief

According to a Pew survey, 21% of atheists believe in God, and 17% of agnostics are absolutely certain that God exists.

(cross-posted at OregonLive)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Cancer Cure?

Potentially wonderful news. A man in Great Britain had skin cancer which had spread to his lymph nodes and one lung. Doctors took some samples of his white blood cells that attacked the cancer cells, cloned them, and then injected a whole heapin' bunch of 'em back into his body. He "was free from tumours within eight weeks of undergoing the procedure", and has shown no sign of remission for two years.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Thought of the Day

Freedom of speech is not the right to be listened to.
Even if it were, the right to be listened to is not the right to be taken seriously.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Uke your guts out

My sister sent me a link to this most excellent video of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain:

Here's another video of them taking one of the most godawful songs ever written and making something pretty good out of it.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Why I Love the Internet, part 1

This is absolutely beautiful: The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis can now be read online. It's one of Lewis's most important works despite its brevity; it has only three chapters: "Men Without Chests", "The Way", and "The Abolition of Man" (as well as an appendix). I would think it violates copyright laws, but it's hosted at Columbia University's website.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The "PC" stands for "PsyCho"

Here's something I marked last month to blog about as soon as I had the time. A university teacher is planning to sue her students for writing unfavorable teacher evaluations. The teacher is Indian (ethnically; she's from New York), and believes that the students must have had racist or sexist motivations for not liking her.

At first I thought this was an example of political correctness run amok. But then I read this interview with her. I don't mean this as an insult, but apparently she is emotionally unbalanced. One of the "racist" incidents involved two students talking to each other (not to her) about someone the teacher didn't know, but had a southeast Asian name. The students were making fun of this person -- not for his name though. She suggests that by making fun of someone with such a name in close enough proximity for her to overhear it, they were slyly trying to intimidate her.

That's not even the most bizarre part. Her account of a female student "harassing" her in class when her boss (Tom Cormen, the Chairman of the school's writing program) is:

PV: One of the things that she did, this is also really interesting, was that she would always ask me how to spell things. That was her thing. She would say how to do you spell this? How to you spell that? I mean—what am I supposed to do?—so I would tell her. One time Tom Cormen was sitting in the class, and she asked me, how many T’s are in Gattaca. This was the kind of question she was asking, “how many T’s are in Gattaca?,” and I was about to answer her and Tom Cormen pre-empted me, “two t’s.” I’ll leave you to interpret it.

TDR: No. No, I don’t understand that.

PV: I have to tell you: it means tenure track.

TDR: Oh, okay.

PV: Because I wasn’t tenured track.

TDR: Oh, okay, yes.

PV: They were trying to intimate that I wasn’t ready for tenure track.

TDR: Yes, okay, I didn’t realize that’s what that meant.
Yeah, neither did anyone else, including the student and Tom Cormen.

Monday, June 9, 2008

More on Saddam and al-Qaeda

I wrote earlier about a recent report from the State Department entitled "Saddam and Terrorism: Emerging Insights from Captured Iraqi Documents". The report claims that among the myriad of terrorist groups to whom Saddam Hussein had operational and diplomatic ties, two in particular worked under the banner of al-Qaeda: the Army of Muhammad and Egypt's Islamic Jihad. His ties to these groups were financial; that is, he financed their terrorist operations. As such, I concluded, it demonstrates that Saddam had an operational tie to al-Qaeda, and at any rate, if we were going to take the fight to the terrorists, it was necessary to take out Saddam. It should be pointed out that I have only skimmed the report myself, and in fact, it's an abbreviated version of the first volume. I don't know how many volumes will eventually come out.

Now another report has come out entitled "Whether Public Statements Regarding Iraq by U.S. Government Officials Were Substantiated by Intelligence Information". This one I haven't looked at personally at all, so I'm just going with the accounts of it given by others. The answer to the question the title poses is essentially "yes". The Washington Post writes

But dive into Rockefeller's report, in search of where exactly President Bush lied about what his intelligence agencies were telling him about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, and you may be surprised by what you find.

On Iraq's nuclear weapons program? The president's statements "were generally substantiated by intelligence community estimates."

On biological weapons, production capability and those infamous mobile laboratories? The president's statements "were substantiated by intelligence information."

On chemical weapons, then? "Substantiated by intelligence information."

On weapons of mass destruction overall (a separate section of the intelligence committee report)? "Generally substantiated by intelligence information." Delivery vehicles such as ballistic missiles? "Generally substantiated by available intelligence." Unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to deliver WMDs? "Generally substantiated by intelligence information."

As you read through the report, you begin to think maybe you've mistakenly picked up the minority dissent. But, no, this is the Rockefeller indictment. So, you think, the smoking gun must appear in the section on Bush's claims about Saddam Hussein's alleged ties to terrorism.

But statements regarding Iraq's support for terrorist groups other than al-Qaeda "were substantiated by intelligence information." Statements that Iraq provided safe haven for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and other terrorists with ties to al-Qaeda "were substantiated by the intelligence assessments," and statements regarding Iraq's contacts with al-Qaeda "were substantiated by intelligence information." The report is left to complain about "implications" and statements that "left the impression" that those contacts led to substantive Iraqi cooperation.
Regarding al-Qaeda in particular, here are two paragraphs from page 67 of the report. Here's what it says:

On January 31, 2003, the State Department Undersecretary for INR, Carl Ford, wrote a memo to Secretary Powell laying out the intelligence on Iraq's ties to al Qaeda. He wrote that "Our evidence suggests that Baghdad is strengthening a relationship with al-Qaida that dates back to the mid-1990s, when senior Iraqi Intelligence officers established contact with the network in several countries." Ford added that "we have some evidence that Iraqi Intelligence has been in contact with elements in the northeastern area. And the al-Qaida operatives in Baghdad."

Ford wrote that Zarqawi "has had a good relationship with Iraqi intelligence officials" and that "we have hard evidence that al-Qaida is operating in several locations in Iraq with the knowledge and acquiescence of Saddam's regime." Ford wrote that intelligence "revealed the presence of safehouse facilities in the city as well as the clear intent to remain in Baghdad. Also, former NGO workers outside of Iraq who we believe provide support to al-Qaida have also expressed their intent to set up shop in Baghdad."
I'm particularly interested in the "hard evidence that al-Qaida is operating in several locations in Iraq with the knowledge and acquiescence of Saddam's regime". What became of this evidence? Was it shown to be false when the coalition invaded Iraq? If so, what are the alternative explanations of the "hard evidence"? If not, then it appears that not only was there an operational connection between Saddam and al-Qaeda, but they were actually operating in Iraq with his "knowledge and acquiescence". That strikes me as a pretty big deal.

Update: Two points: first, I should have made explicit what is implicit in the Washington Post quote: the new report is specifically written against Bush by Senator Rockefeller. The whole goal in writing this report was to push the "Bush lied!" meme. Yet over and over again they were forced to acknowledge that the claims he and his cabinet made "were substantiated by intelligence information". The only areas where they can contend with him is in his response to the intelligence information. But that's a political and strategic point that has no bearing on whether Bush accurately represented the information he was given. So the report is an anti-Bush report that was nevertheless forced to acknowledge that his claims about Iraq were soundly based on intelligence.

Second, I never heard anyone in the Bush administration say that Saddam had any kind of operational tie to al-Qaeda; only a diplomatic tie (which is obvious from the fact that Saddam offered Osama sanctuary in 1999). Yet the report says that they received intelligence claiming there was "hard evidence" of a closer tie between the two. So did I miss it? Can anyone point me to a Bush cabinet member suggesting anything stronger than a diplomatic tie to al-Qaeda?

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Nihilist gum

It has no flavor. Just like life. Sigh.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Quote of the Day

On one occassion, these students asked me to give a special address on the subject 'The Bible and Science,' with particular reference to the issue of creation as opposed to evolution. The topic was a popular one, and a large number of students gathered in the assembly hall, not only Christians, but many from various other backgrounds as well.

My thesis was that the biblical account of the progressive steps in the creation narratives, when rightly understood, fitted in perfectly with the known facts of science, including biology, geology and the laws of physics. Following my address, some of the students asked questions which I endeavored to answer. Then one of the teachers I had not met before suddenly spoke up.

'I wish to say that I disagree with ninety percent of what the speaker has said!'

To support his case, he quoted from the writings of liberal and atheist philosophers. By then we were almost out of time, so I realized that I had to make my point quickly and unequivocally.

Afterwards, I had a chance to speak with this young teacher. His name was Ron Nugent. He was a graduate of the University of Western Australia and had come to Sarawak on a volunteer basis. His desire was to help students of developing countries improve their education and thus be better equipped to find their place in the modern world. He had high ideals, but despite a Christian upbringing, his views were decidedly atheistic. He told me, however, that he was seeking truth.

I was impressed by this young man's sincerity and commitment, and I invited him to come for dinner sometime. A fortnight after our first meeting, Ron visited us in the home we were renting. We had a good long chat, and I showed him some books by Christian thinkers and offered to lend him any of these books he might care to read.

Over the next year, Ron travelled among the people of the interior, including those in the upper Limbang and the upper Trusan. He met people in the longhouses, both those who were Christian and those who were still pagan, and he was impressed with the fact that Christian beliefs could be integrated positively into their native cultures. He also observed the lives of the Christian students at the College. This, along with his extensive reading, influenced his thinking, and the following year Ron began to slip into the Christian services which were held at the College on Sunday mornings. Towards the end of that year he made a life-changing decision to become a Christian, and at his baptism he gave a splendid address entitled 'My Pilgrimage from Atheism to Christ.'

C. Hudson Southwell
Uncharted Waters

More on Mars

As I was, ahem, preoccupied last month, I didn't blog about any of the developments in space exploration. First, John McCain wants a human presence on Mars, and has called upon NASA to encourage the American public as they did with the Apollo moon landings.

More important, the Phoenix Mars Lander landed near Mars's north pole. Here's an amazing picture that the Mars Reconaissance Orbiter took of the Phoenix as it parachuted down.

And here's a picture the Phoenix took from the surface, showing something off in the distance which may be indicative of very primitive life on Mars.

Friday, June 6, 2008


Just turned in my last paper. I still have to defend one of my papers and my thesis at the end of the month, but the writing is done. And

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Early Muppet Shows

I'm not quite finished with my papers yet, although the big stuff is out of the way. I still have some rough drafts to finalize and turn in. In the meantime...

My dad had one of those prehistoric video cassette recorders in the 1970s (the cassettes were rocks), and he often recorded things from the TV for my sister and me. Now with the advent of YouTube, I sometimes come across the things that we watched over and over when I was a kid. Here's one: the original Muppet Show. I can't embed it, so here are the links to part 1, part 2, and part 3. Kermit wasn't the host yet. No laugh track. Some of the voices are different. The guest stars were the seven deadly sins. Me like.

Also, given that Harvey Korman just passed away, here are the links to the first-season Muppet Show where he was the guest: part 1, part 2, part 3.