July 2008 Archives

I don't understand what it is to play the race card, so I don't use that expression. Race is fine to bring in when it's relevant and not ok to bring in when it's not, but such an expression seems to me to assume that it's always inappropriate. But I did want to say something about the following remarks (taken from here):

Nobody really thinks that Bush or McCain have [sic] a real answer for the challenges we face. So what they're going to try to do is make you scared of me. You know, he's not patriotic enough. He's got a funny name. You know, he doesn't look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills, you know. He's risky.

Notice that there's no explicit mention of race here. He also doesn't reference his middle name 'Hussein'. He just refers to it obliquely (or perhaps he's referring to his whole name, but it's his middle name that people have used against him). He also makes a veiled reference to his dark complexion with the comment about presidents on dollar bills. But he doesn't use any race terms. Further, when McCain called him out for playing the race card, his campaign denied that the dollar bill reference had anything to do with race. It was about his not being a Washington insider. (I sure hope he continues this line of defense, because if it becomes clear that he sees the founders of this country as evil Washington insiders whose government we need to do away with, then he's not going to be getting very far.) It seems as if he's dancing around the issues he wants to get across without saying anything about them. It makes it sound as if he's trying to engage in the politics of racial fear without losing his appearance of being a post-racial candidate of hope.

Compare his very similar speech from June 20:

The choice is clear. Most of all we can choose between hope and fear. It is going to be very difficult for Republicans to run on their stewardship of the economy or their outstanding foreign policy. We know what kind of campaign they're going to run. They're going to try to make you afraid. They're going to try to make you afraid of me. 'He's young and inexperienced and he's got a funny name. And did I mention he's black?'

Then the previous day (from the same source):

They're going to try to make me into a scary guy. They're even trying to make Michelle into a scary person. Right? I don't know, before I wasn't black enough. 'Now he might be too black. We don't know whether he's going to socialize - well, who knows what.'



The 235th Christian Carnival is up at Everyday Liturgy.

Vague Joints

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I was reading through a section of my dissertation that I haven't looked at in a while, and I found myself reading about vague joints. I didn't remember using that expression, so it was kind of interesting to notice it there.

It doesn't exactly sound like the kind of thing you'd see in a Ph.D. dissertation. Of course, neither do gunk or stuff. Metaphysicians come up with some great technical terms sometimes. Of course, metaphysical discussions of holes really are about holes.

Oh, and if you don't have a sense of what vague joints might be, here's a hint.

This is part of a larger project reviewing commentaries on each book of the Bible. Follow the links from that post for more information on the series, including explanations of what I mean by some of the terms and abbreviations in this post. This is not an exhaustive list, just the commentaries that I think are most worth paying attention to.

My first choice, hands down, is Darrell Bock's BECNT (1994, 1996). It's fairly comprehensive, well-reasoned, easy to read, aware of all the scholarship, and generally conservative. He handles theology more fully than most detailed commentaries (e.g. Marshall, Fitzmyer, Nolland below) and spends a little time on what Luke would have wanted us to take away from the text, which you won't get in very many academic commentaries. This commentary is strong on the flow of argument, taking larger blocks of text to comment on and explicitly thinking in terms of the larger flow at various points, although this usually stops short of what many think of as literary analysis (on which several commentaries below are very strong, sometimes at the expense of everything Bock does well). He does interact a little with Robert Tannehill's work in that area in volume 2, but it's still not a lot. Bock has also written the Acts commentary in this series, but his work on Luke is much more detailed, filling up two volumes, both bigger than the Acts volume. Bock is well-known for his work countering the claims of radicals and skeptics who write about the life of Jesus with the kind of scholarship liked by the History Channel. He's also been very influential in developing and defending progressive dispensationalism, a view that I think is still a little too far in the direction of dispensationalism but is really a different animal and is much more defensible than traditional dispensationalism. I place him solidly in the conservative evangelical camp, and he's taken some criticism for this in reviews, mainly from people who assume historicity and theological agendas are incompatible, something Bock spends a great deal of time arguing against. His scholarship is top-notch. If he's weak anywhere, it's in favoring commentaries over journal articles. Bock has also written the IVPNTC and NIVAC volumes on Luke, but I don't think there's any need to look at the shorter two if you have the BECNT, which you should.

The 235th Christian Carnival will be taking place this coming Wednesday at Everyday Liturgy.
The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts
of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant,
Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this
carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought.
This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps
pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see the complete list at christiancarnival.com.
To enter is simple. First, your post should be of a Christian nature, but
this does not exclude posts that are about home life, politics, or
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Moral Luck: Responses

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This is the 46th post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. The last post presented a problem related to freedom and moral responsibility, one that philosophers have called moral luck. According to Immanuel Kant, you not be responsible for things you have no control over, and yet we constantly evaluate people according to things they have no control over, as the many cases in the last post show. Now I'll turn to some ways people have responded to the difficulties raised by such cases.

Some try to keep a view like Kant's by giving responses to Nagel's arguments, and some of the responses seem ok when you focus in on only one kind of case. Once you look at another case, the response doesn't help. For example, you might insist that your genetic tendencies only make it likely that you do certain things. You still have control. This is what you would expect from a libertarian. Nagel will still insist that there are people who wouldn't have done what they did if they had had less of a tendency. This means their genetic tendency did make the difference. This may not be true for everyone, but it does seem to be true sometimes. That's all Nagel needs, since then you have a case when we hold someone responsible for something outside their control. Similarly, the twin in Argentina may have been able to resist what his brother didn't resist. But the point is more that there are cases when people do things simply because they're placed in the environment that allows it. If Hitler had never had the opportunity to do what he did, he wouldn't have been responsible for all the evil things he did. Then we wouldn't consider him a monster. So he got unlucky in one sense. Maybe he would have been a hero if he'd been in situations that prevented him from being the way he was.

Even more important is that this kind of response doesn't help with cases like hitting someone (or not) while driving under the influence or with the consequences of starting a war. You can choose not to drive or drink, and you can choose not to go to war, but you can't choose everything that happens as a result of your choices. Yet we still praise and blame based on what happens after your choice is made, not always for things you could have predicted.

Even someone's actions when drunk are under one's indirect control, since, as Aristotle points out, you can choose to start drinking. Kant may be fine with that, yet some of Nagel's cases don't even seem to be as much under our control as someone who is drunk. Do his cases show that Kant is wrong? If so, what do we say about the argument for free will based on moral responsibility and having control over what we do? Or should we affirm Kant's view and insist that we shouldn't hold each other responsible for these sorts of things? That would require serious revision in our moral thinking. Or is there some other response? Is our moral thinking just confused? Do we have conflicting moral beliefs? Nagel just says it's a mystery. Peter van Inwagen says something similar about free will. He says any view anyone takes on freedom will involve some mystery, and the goal is to find the view with the least mystery (which he thinks is libertarianism on the issue of free will). What would that be in this case?

You might think of this issue in terms of three claims:

When I was looking for information on the X-Gene for the mutants and race piece I'm working on, one website I was looking at wrongly cited X-Men (the 1991 series) issues 2-3 as one place the X-Gene comes up. I was immediately suspicious, because I'd just read those issues when I was thinking about submitting a proposal for Magneto's moral philosophy for the Supervillains volume (which in the end I decided not to do, even though it would have used material I've put some work into both from the political section of my ancient philosophy teaching and the just war and terrorism section of my applied ethics teaching). I hadn't seen anything about an X-Gene in my recent reading of those issues, but I decided to read them again anyway, and it led to an interesting thought process about the story, something I hadn't spent as much time thinking about the first time through.

The main plot involves Magneto discovering he was genetically re-engineered by Moira McTaggart when he was reduced to a baby. She decided to figure out how the close friend of Charles Xavier could do the things Magneto did, and she discovered an instability in his brain due to the power he was channeling. This did explain how Charles Xavier's friend could become a terrorist. She apparently saw this as hindering who he really was, so she sought to give him a second chance by removing the instability. Many people might think she was preventing a power outside his free choice from influencing him.

What generates the conflict in these issues, though, is that he has a different view. He sees it as her playing God and making every choice he made since then suspect. It's as if he thinks his choices are only free if they go naturally the way they would have without interference from someone changing his internal structure as he existed naturally. I have to say that whether she's right or not, he certainly isn't. How does removing an instability resulting from too much power being channeled through him count as behavior modification of the sort that undermines free will?

But then he forces her to apply the same process (removing an instability particular to him?) to some of the X-Men so that they will follow him and not Xavier. She does it, and they do. Huh? How can removing the instability particular to him from the X-Men who don't have it make them loyal to him and not Xavier? If they do have it, won't it stop their powers from doing the same thing to them and clouding their moral judgments? So removing it wouldn't make them like Magneto. I'm not sure what Chris Claremont was thinking with this one.

Then they snap out of it eventually, because the process only works if the subject never uses their powers. The use of powers undoes it, because somehow the powers are tied into the way the brain has naturally developed, and the genetic re-engineering gets forced back into its natural state somehow by the powers in order to ensure proper functioning. This is also a little strange, because it sounds as if the re-engineering is messing with nature and proper functioning, except the original explanation with Magneto sounded like it was restoring a natural balance that the powers were interfering with.

This was Chris Claremont's last story on X-Men, and in some ways it was a nice send-off to its longest-running writer to end on a battle with Magneto that hits some of the main themes Magneto has always differed with the X-Men on, but it's too bad that a very important premise of the story is so confused, both on the theoretical level about what's going on in this hypothetical scenario and in terms of ethical reflection on that situation. I remember not really liking this story all that much when it came out (seventeen years ago now!), as hyped as it had been with Claremont returning to start off the new X-Men teams and the new book and my favorite new artist Jim Lee rendering the visuals. The first issue is still the highest-selling comic book ever. I don't remember my reasons, but it didn't strike me as worth the attention. I wonder if this was part of the reason.

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I don't know how I missed this, but Dr. Don S. Davis, most famous recently for playing Lieutenant General George Hammond in the Stargate franchise, died on June 29. Apparently when he left Stargate SG-1 in 2003, it was for medical reasons, and he was only able to do a handful of appearances on the two shows over the next five the years, culminating in his appearance in Stargate: Continuum, which comes out on DVD in a week, exactly a month after his death.

The Stargate producers have spoken fondly of Davis over the years as one of the most professional actors they'd ever worked with (always knowing his lines before his arrival on set and always delivering them perfectly), and I get the sense that his lovable character General Hammond was really just Davis himself. The part had originally been written for him to be in tension with the SG-1 team, but Davis worked himself into the role, and they had to provide other characters to play that role.

I knew of some of his other work, especially as Dana Scully's father in The X-Files, but I didn't know that he had a Ph.D. in theater and that he had taught college-level theater for years. That doesn't surprise me at all, though.

For more, see the announcements of his death at Gateworld and SciFiWire and his entries at IMDB and Wikipedia.

In the latest Christian Carnival, I found a post at Got Bible? about the term 'Reverend' for people we also call pastors or ministers. I remembered posting about the same issue a few years ago, but as I was reading this post a new idea occurred to me. At least I thought it was a new idea. Here's the idea. Wouldn't it be interesting to start calling every Christian 'Reverend' the way everyone is a brother or sister in a lot of congregations? After all, Paul calls everyone saints as a reminder that we're all made holy in Christ. Doesn't 'Reverend' pretty much mean the same thing?

The problem with the term is that it makes some people seem more holy just because they hold a certain position in the church, and that's completely opposed to biblical teaching. But if you called everyone by that term, it would removed the problem. I thought about doing this after church on Sunday, but I didn't get around to it with anyone.

So I went to go find my previous post, and here it is. Check out the last paragraph especially. Am I really that out of it that I can't remember the punchline of a post that I can nevertheless remember writing? I mean, I can remember the content of the punchline enough to come up with it again, but I can't remember that it's not new and that it was part of the original post that I was thinking about all along, and I somehow end up thinking it's a new idea that I've never thought of before.

I've often heard passages of music that sound similar enough to another one and wondered if the writer might have taken it from that without noticing. There's a beautiful Spock's Beard song that has a line that sounds an awful lot like John Williams' Jurassic Park theme, which came out the year before. I've long thought some pieces by Trevor Rabin of Yes had some similarities to the Princess Bride theme by Mark Knopfler. There's a repeated short bridge section in Carry on Wayward Son that sounds similar to a Journey song that was never released (but I think might be on their boxed set). That song had been played on a tour the previous year when Kansas had opened for them. The guys in Journey have several times publicly accused Kerry Livgren of deliberate plagiarism. If I can steal an idea from myself without even knowing it, surely these musicians (and all of them are good writers) can unknowingly come up with a melody that's similar to one they've heard before but don't happen to remember hearing.

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To enter is simple. First, your post should be of a Christian nature, but this does not exclude posts that are about home life, politics, or current events from a Christian point of view. Select only one post dated since the last Christian Carnival (i.e. from the last Wednesday through the coming Tuesday). Then do the following:

Moral Luck: the Cases

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This is the 45th post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. The last post finished up the compatibilist account of freedom, and this post moves on to a perplexing problem related to freedom and moral responsibility, one that philosophers have called moral luck.

Immanuel Kant thought it obvious that we're not responsible for things not under our control. Why hold people responsible for the workings of fate? Shouldn't we be responsible just for what we intend to do, or at least what we can reasonably, foreseeably expect given what we intend? It's irrational to evaluate each other based on things not under our control. Yet Thomas Nagel points out that we do it, and we will continue to do it, since it's part of our way of thinking about morality. It seems fine to us until we think more deeply about it. Nagel argues that we can be morally responsible in circumstances we have no control over. His cases involve moral evaluations that depend on things outside our control. He calls this phenomenon moral luck (I think it was actually Sir Bernard Williams who came up with the term). These are cases in which something outside my control affects our moral judgment of my actions, usually by affecting the action or its consequences.

Some of Nagel's cases might fit into different of these categories, depending on how you think of it, so keep in mind that these are loose categories. Also, Nagel has four categories, but I think the difference between two of them is not worth the time it takes to distinguish them, at least for the purpose of these notes, which come from my lecture notes for an introductory philosophy class.

1. constitutive luck: my inclinations, capacities, and temperament aren't fully in my control. Significant aspects of who I am are from genetics, experiences, etc. Yet I often act in certain ways because of these. I may have a genetic tendency to be more violent, or maybe I'm good largely because of a good upbringing. This doesn't stop moral evaluation. We still blame the violent person or praise the good person, and it seems right to do so. (Note: determinists admit this. What's important is that libertarians have to admit a large amount of constitutive luck, which on their view means freedom is a lot more limited than you might have wished.

On Thomas Aquinas' view of natural law, law is written into the fabric of the universe. On one level, everything that happens is part of divine law, since God's plan of providence includes every single event that happens across all time. Aquinas calls this eternal law. On a second level, certain things are good for us or bad for us according to our nature, according to what kind of thing we are and what would make for contributing to our welfare and the internal purpose within us as organisms and as God's creations. That's the natural law. Then human beings can issue legitimate rules that fit with what's best for us and seek the general welfare. If it meets all these criteria, then it's a human law. If it's issued by someone without care for those it includes or if it's not for the general good or reasonable, then it's a real law. Otherwise, it's just a rule. He's got high standards for when a purported human law really is a law.

One of the aspects of this that I hadn't seen until this summer, when I covered a more extensive part of his treatment of this in what's called the Treatise of Law (but is really just a section of the Summa Theologiae, and he gave it no such title) is that he also allows for custom to generate laws. When he introduces the notion of legitimate authority to make laws, he says there are two ways this can happen. One way is that someone (singular or plural) God has placed in care over a group issues a rule that really is for the common good. The other way is that people issue a regulation over themselves. In contemporary times, we hear that and think he's talking about democracy. He surely knew of the ancient democracies, since he education would have included quite a bit about the ancient world. But that turns out not to be his primary concern when he says this. He actually means custom.

We have lots of rules by custom rather than by what we ordinarily call law. I'm pretty sure there were men's and women's restrooms before there were any laws about who can go in which in public buildings. If I'm wrong, there are lots of examples that are like that. It's not illegal in the U.S. to call people ordinary insults, but it's often immoral, and it's against custom if it's a certain kind of insult or a certain kind of context (in the middle of a job interview, say). We as a society have standards not to do things that aren't illegal. They're just frowned on, and you get ostracized or socially penalized if you do them.

What I found interesting about Aquinas on this subject is that he thinks this can go the other way too. If a certain action is worth prohibiting for the common good and is made a law (a genuine law) but then becomes against the common good, what was a law becomes merely a rule. But what about when no one follows a law, and those in authority tolerate such behavior? The movie theater in the mall near us hasn't allowed backpacks in the theater since a little after the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. At least that's their official policy. But no one enforces it, and lots of people don't keep it. I think Aquinas would see that as custom determining what the real human law is, and I think that's a very interesting view. It also has implications for speed limit laws in a jurisdiction where the police don't stop people for going 5 over or 10 over, and everyone drives that fast because they know where the threshold for being stopped is. On Aquinas' view, it's as if the law really is where they practice it as being, not where it's written to be. (Of course, all this depends on the custom's practice being consistent with the common good. If not, then custom couldn't modify written law in this sort of way.)

Latest Cute Kid Quote

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The boys were at their Occupational Therapy, and it was Isaiah's turn. Ethan and Sophia were playing with a game in the gym, which abuts the therapy room. This was late enough for the room to be empty, since they do their therapy from 5:00-6:45 pm, and this was after 6:00. The sanitation engineer, a woman wearing a pink shirt, came in the room to change the trash bags just as I was poking my head into the therapy room to see how Isaiah was doing. When I went back, Sophia said the following:

Daddy, we were sitting here, and that pink lady came in, and she said hi, but we didn't either, because we were too shy.

1. Sophia still refers to people as having certain colors not because their skin is a certain color but because they're wearing clothing that color. She used to do this regularly when she was just beginning to speak in complete sentences. She clearly knows how to distinguish people according to skin color, but she's got a clear enough sense of accuracy not to call anyone black or white, since no one actually is those colors; Mommy is brown, and the rest of the family is peach. It still doesn't stop her from saying a person is the color the person is wearing.

2. The word 'either' seems to be doing the job of 'also' or 'too', either of which would have sounded very strange, so she substituted something that sounds syntactically ok even if it's semantically crazy. Her error-correction has problems in terms of its positive solutions, but she certainly can catch something that doesn't sound right.

3. Many kids are shy. Some will admit to it occasionally if you ask them. What kind of a kid will volunteer her shyness as an explanation for not saying hi to someone, when you didn't ask for an explanation, didn't know to begin with that the person had said hi and she'd refused to respond, and really wouldn't have noticed if you'd never been told? She realizes that she's being shy by not speaking to the woman, but she has this compulsion to tell us not only that she didn't respond but that her shyness is the explanation why she didn't respond. It's as if she has to speak her inner monologue aloud all the time whenever she's just with us, but she won't say a word to other people. That's a weird combination of being shy and being very much not shy.

4. She doesn't just tell us the events that occurred. She's engaging in behind-the-scenes explanation of why she does certain things, and she attributes it to a somewhat abstract quality of herself, her shyness. Do three-year-olds typically engage in such second-order reflection? This is new for us. Since her brothers are well behind her in such things, we have no idea when this sort of thing normally begins.



The 233rd Christian Carnival: The Hilarious Edition is up at Diary of 1.


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My mutants and race piece is in its second draft now, which I'll be sending off tomorrow. I do have some questions that I hope some familiar with recent X-Men occurrences might be able to help with. One of the comments I got back from the editors is that I was taking mutants to be literal mutants, which would mean genes mutated and led to their powers, and these genes would be different genes, genes having something to do with the abilities they end up getting. Nightcrawler's fur would be related to the kinds of genes that produce body hair. Cyclops' force beams would have some connection to genes that affect the eyes. Wolverine's healing factor would come from mutated genes that ordinarily relate to the immune system.

Well, the problem with this, according to my editor, is that the third X-Men movie has a completely different explanation of mutants. They're aren't literal mutants in the sense the term is usually used in biology. Instead, they have this one gene in common. In the movie, they call it the Mutant-X gene. At least that's how it sounds. I later found out this actually does appear in the comic books after I stopped reading them in the mid-90s, and they call it the X-Gene. So maybe it's not the Mutant-X gene in the movie but the mutant X-Gene.

This explanation is just downright stupid. How is it that this one gene explains the variety of powers across all mutants? Also, how did one gene just suddenly appear in all these unrelated people? Whoever came up with this idea knows pretty much nothing about genetics. I did some looking around in Wikipedia, and I found some blog posts about the mutant gene (including this one, which was somewhat helpful). Apparently the Beast, in House of M #2, says the X-Gene is technically a cluster of genes. That's a little better, I suppose, because it allows for different genes to be part of the cluster. Also, the X-Gene was supposed to be scattered throughout humanity but only activated in certain people, and those are the mutants. That's how humans can produce mutant children.

Given that mutants sometimes produce children with the same powers and sometimes end up with children with different or no powers, it seems to me that the X-Gene must not guarantee any particular powers but simply means there's a potential for powers. Without the X-Gene, there will be no powers. When the Scarlet Witch removes the X-Gene from the majority of mutants and the entirety of non-mutants, all the mutants without the gene end up becoming normal humans. So my suspicion is that this would have to be an activator gene (or cluster of genes), and what determines the specific powers is something else. The X-Gene itself is simply an activator, one that probably just isn't turned on in normal humans but is turned on in mutants.

If this is the official explanation in the comic books and the movies, then it changes significantly how my argument in this chapter will work. I think my conclusion still holds, but the argument for it is completely different from what it was in the first draft. So what I'm wondering is if this seems to fit with the recent comic books, since I haven't read any of them. I may have some of them, since I continued to buy them for a little while after I stopped reading them, and I did inherit some more even later from my brother that I haven't read. I don't think I have any House of M, though. I just looked and didn't see any, even though I thought I had some. So what I'd love is if someone could direct me to specific issues where this stuff is discussed, and then I can see if I might have them or if someone could confirm that this is pretty much the official explanation of mutants at this point. If it is, I need to focus on this. If it's not, and it's still sort of up in the air with the more traditional explanation still possible, then I can keep most of what I've written and just add some more on the new explanation.

Update: Someone else has arrived at a similar view, but it assumes one X-gene. If we trust the Beast's analysis, you could make it much more complex, with several genes contributing to activation of the powers, and perhaps all or a certain number of them need to be present. Also, the Celestials, in seeding the human populace with the necessary genetic material for mutations of this sort, might not have included anything like the latent genes to be activated or the activation genes but might simply have placed the necessary genetic materials, with the necessary factors for those eventually to reach a point where they do what happens later on. This would explain a few isolated mutants throughout history and a much more concentrated appearance of mutants in the late 20th century. I like the suggestion that mutates (who get powers later in life due to some stimulus like radiation) have something else activate their latent powers in the way that the X-Gene does with mutants.

A few weeks ago I was looking for something that I was sure I'd written down somewhere, and I found myself saying to myself, "I should have written it down." I did not mean that it would have been a good idea to write it down, and it's too bad that I didn't. I had failed to do something I should have done. When I tried to think about it more carefully, though, I wasn't sure what exactly I had meant. I didn't mean that I had done it because it was a good idea. What exactly is 'should' doing in the sentence?

I meant something like what we mean when someone asks us where the comb is, and we say it should be in the bathroom, fully expecting it to be there and ready to be a little upset upon finding out that someone had moved it. But what's different about this case is that there's no other person involved. Is it that I expect it to have been written down, and then I'll get mad at myself for not doing it if it turns out I didn't? I'm not sure at all what's going on here and how the components of the sentence contribute toward what I thought I was saying when I said it.

The 233rd Christian Carnival will be taking place this coming Wednesday at Diary of 1.
The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts
of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant,
Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this
carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought.
This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps
pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see the
not-recently-updated Matt Jones's list of previous Christian Carnivals or the up-to-date but less-informative christiancarnival.com list.
To enter is simple. First, your post should be of a Christian nature, but
this does not exclude posts that are about home life, politics, or
current events from a Christian point of view. Select only one post
dated since the last Christian Carnival (i.e. from the last Wednesday
through the coming Tuesday). Then do the following:

Last Monday, while driving back from Pennsylvania, we were listening to a previously-recorded Diane Rehm Show episode with James Carse, an NYU professor emeritus of religion. You can listen to the show here.

Carse seemed to advocate a religion-without-God approach, or at least he didn't think we should be confident about the existence of God. This was the first time I've ever found Diane Rehm extending complete incredulity toward someone who was left of her on an issue, but she really gave the guy a hard time with some of his outlandish biblical interpretation and eventually his admission that he'd rather die ignorant than arrive at any knowledge about ultimate realities. After a while, he got frustrated with her and her callers continuing to call him on his pick-and-choose out-of-context methods of interpretation, and he decided to try a new tactic. He decided to call into question the idea of correct biblical interpretation to begin with, with the following argument.

He cited that at one point there were 15,000 members of the Society for Biblical Literature and claimed that they all have to have a Ph.D. and thus have to have argued for some new interpretation, because no one can get a Ph.D. in biblical studies without a novel interpretation. Such a large number of experts continue to produce novel interpretations, and so there's no reason to be confident of any interpretation (or perhaps he was suggesting something stronger, that there's no right interpretation to begin with; I'm not sure which, so I'll take the weaker claim as the more charitable one, since the argument is much more fallacious if it's the stronger one). He calls it very willful ignorance to claim that you understand something in the scriptures.

There are several problems with this argument:

1. The argument actually undermines itself, because it ignores the very fact it relies on. There's tremendous pressure in academia to come up with novel interpretations in order to have a career. So the multiplicity of interpretations tells you less about the subject matter than about the culture that produces those interpretations.

In our sermons, we just finished Matthew 1-7 followed by the Ten Commandments. Matthew 5-7 contains the Sermon on the Mount, and doing that right next to the Ten Commandments is pretty convicting. It's hard to imagine anyone who has carefully read and studied the Sermon on the Mount coming away from it thinking that it's easy to follow Jesus' teaching there. In the light of the full teaching of Jesus, anyone who does so is like the Pharisee who thanks God that he's not like those sinners, someone Jesus roundly condemns. The person is indeed a hypocrite of one of the worst kinds. In one of the last few sermons in the series, one of our elders pointed out exactly this response as one of the many ways people have responded to the Sermon on the Mount that miss the point, in this case violating several other major teachings of Jesus in the process.

I've been trying to find a good interpretation of Barack Obama's 2006 words that have recently gotten a lot of attention. (I first saw the complete quote in context here. although I won't endorse everything in that post, which also seems to me to be focused in the wrong direction.) I'm not having an easy time being charitable.

And even if we did have only Christians within our borders, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? James Dobson's, or Al Sharpton's? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount - a passage so radical that it's doubtful that our Defense Department would survive its application?

There's a lot in there that worries me, quite deeply in fact. I've seen a lot of comment about these words, and a lot of it isn't entirely fair, which amazes me given how many things could be fairly criticized. I do think it reveals some lack of understanding about the New Testament's presentation of how Christians should see the Old Testament, but some very smart biblical scholars make those same mistakes, and in the theologically liberal churches whose well Obama drinks from, I'm sure he gets most of his understanding of the Bible from such people (probably very indirectly).

I've deliberately put off commenting on it, but I still haven't seen anyone point out the aspect of this statement that most disturbs me. (The closest is Collin Hansen's Christianity Today article, but that only gets to the beginning of my worry.) This isn't the only time I've seen Obama try to use the Sermon on the Mount as a method of sticking it to someone whose sins he doesn't happen to commit (or at least not in the way they do). It's very strange to use the Sermon on the Mount that way, though. The Sermon on the Mount sets some pretty tough standards, ones that no one really could meet.

A while ago (June 5, to be exact), NPR's All Things Considered had a piece on punishing kids in school by making them learn Robert Frost. It was intended partly as a way to make the kids learn more. They included several responses to the policy. One response caught my interest. It said that such a policy ends up agreeing with all the high school dropouts that education is bad. After all, it can't be a punishment unless it's bad. The problem with this punishment is that education isn't punishment.

This is a common enough view, and it has interesting implications for theories of punishment. In particular, it seems to undermine restorative, rehabilitative models of punishment. It doesn't undermine the view that we should seek to restore and rehabilitate criminals. It does undermine the view that we should call it punishment when we do so. It seems to me that the main assumption lying behind this slogan is that education isn't punishment, because education isn't retribution.

Given some of the stuff Wink is working on, I thought this was an interesting presentation of a popular intuition about punishment that runs counter to how he's trying to think about punishment.

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The 232nd Christian Carnival is up at Crossroads: Where Faith and Inquiry Meet.

This is part of a larger project reviewing commentaries on each book of the Bible. Follow the links from that post for more information on the series, including explanations of what I mean by some of the terms and abbreviations in this post. This is not an exhaustive list, just the commentaries that I think are most worth paying attention to.

Pride of place goes to the NIGTC volume on I Corinthians by Anthony Thiselton (2000). This is now the most in-depth recent commentary on this book. It's based on the Greek text, and it includes a number of long excurses on difficult issues, so this isn't an easy read, but it's not mainly the Greek that's the issue. It's just a very dense, scholarly work, and it's hard to capture that in popular-level writing (although I think Thiselton is clearer most of the time than most academics are). Thiselton gives close attention to the Greek lexical and grammatical issues, the social background of the letter, Paul's rhetoric, and other elements commonly found in commentaries. Thiselton is also an expert in hermeneutics. One unsual thing about this commentary is that he also includes a lot more of the history of interpretation than is typical, since one of his strengths is the history of theology. I've read some lengthy enough sections of it to know that it's tough-going if you're not up on your Greek, and the excursus I read (on gender issues) was so detailed that it was difficult to get a clear sense of what Thiselton's conclusions amount to. The wealth of information and close attention to detail make it an excellent resource for consultation, even if it might be more difficult to read the whole book cover-to-cover the way I like to. I expect this to be an important scholarly standard for some time, even if Ellis has a good chance of eventually take that place (see forthcoming commentaries below). I also very much appreciate Thiselton's application of speech-act theory (from my own field of philosophy) in biblical studies. Thiselton's philosophical background also makes him more trustworthy on the moral philosophical background of the Greco-Roman world.

David Garland's BECNT (2003) is very good. I've looked at it less than I have some of the other volumes here, but it was enough to see that this is now the first place to look for a more readable treatment than Thiselton. Garland is widely respected by scholars across the spectrum. He left a Southern Baptist seminary because of his egalitarian stance, but on most other issues he's fairly conservative. He has ten years of additional scholarship to influence him and to respond to when compared with Fee below. Fee has such a high reputation that it was difficult to put Garland ahead, but I think I'd actually give up Fee if I were forced to choose. Garland's NAC on II Corinthians was very good, and I think this BECNT is even better. He's also done work on Matthew and the NIVAC volumes on Mark and Colossians/Philemon. He's currently contracted to write commentaries on Luke (ZEC) and Thessalonians (NCC).

Gordon Fee's NICNT (1987) was for a long time the commentary to buy on I Corinthians, but Garland and Thiselton have interacted with a lot of recent scholarship since Fee's commentary was published, and they are at least as good on enough issues that I recommend them slightly higher than Fee. I would prefer not to be without any of them, however. Fee is an excellent commentator in so many ways, including matters of language, historical and cultural background, flow of the argument, and textual criticism. But this very scholarly work doesn't come across as mere scholarship but as the work of someone with a vital relationship with God thinking through the scriptures in a way that will be profitable for his audience. He ends each section with contemporary application issues, but even throughout the commentary you'll frequently find him passionately engaging with Paul's thought or reflecting on the relevance for daily life of the principles he derives from Paul's letter. Fee is one of the most respected Pauline scholars of our time, having now written or planning to write commentaries on Galatians (PC), Philippians (NICNT), Thessalonians (NICNT), and the Pastoral Epistles (NIBC), along with a Pauline theology of the Holy Spirit and an excellent NT Christology. [He's planning Revelation for NCC, so he'll finally be verging into something outside the Pauline corpus.] Most people consider him a moderate Pentecostal. His views are actually not too far from some Reformed charismatics and non-cessationist non-charismatics. I wish most Pentecostals would read this commentary or God's Empowering Spirit to see how someone can be Pentecostal without flatly contradicting scripture in their practice of the so-called sign gifts. One of Fee's most controversial moves in this commentary is his rejection all of the egalitarian approaches toward I Cor 14 as exegetically impossible, leading him to conclude, against all evidence, that the short passage in question is an interpolation by another author despite its being in every manuscript.

Here's a good example of the kind of stream-of-consciousness monologuing Sophia engages in most of her waking hours.

Sophia: Daddy, I want to wear my ugly dress today. It's in my closet hanging on a nail, just like my nail polish. My nail polish is over here. Daddy, look. See, my nail polish is melting off.

She'll often move across several different tenuous connections like that within the course of 20 seconds, and sometimes she even goes on for several minutes. We pick up very little of it most of the time because of how quickly she moves through the various stages.

She also likes to throw in lots of irrelevant information just because she likes to talk about it, so she'll tell me where her bear is (next to her blanket) and have to say that the blanket is a certain color or colors and that her Mommy made it for her. Sometimes she ties things to certain occasions or just mentions some term for a day a while back (often Saturday, which just means a while ago as far as she's concerned).

We got to see her cousin last week, who is only six weeks younger, and I was curious to see if she does the same thing. Not remotely, as far as I could tell.

Oh, and I have no idea why she calls it her ugly dress or why she nevertheless likes to wear it.

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The 232nd Christian Carnival will be taking place this coming Wednesday at Crossroads: Where Faith and Inquiry Meet. The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought. This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see the not-recently-updated Matt Jones's list of previous Christian Carnivals or the up-to-date but less-informative christiancarnival.com list.
To enter is simple. First, your post should be of a Christian nature, but this does not exclude posts that are about home life, politics, or current events from a Christian point of view. Select only one post dated since the last Christian Carnival (i.e. from the last Wednesday through the coming Tuesday). Then do the following:

Gorgias has argued (see here and here) that there isn't anything and (see here) that, even if there were anything, you wouldn't be able to think about it. Now he argues that, even if there were anything and you could think about it, you wouldn't be able to communicate it to anyone.

1. We communicate with language. Language about things that are is not the things that are. So we don't communicate the things that are. We communicate language. The only thing that gets transferred to another person isn't the thing we saw but our words about it. We can't make perceptual images into sounds and vice versa, so we also can't make external objects into language. So the things that are, even if they could exist and be thought of, could not be communicated.

2. Language comes to us just as flavors do. It's an external thing we perceive with senses (visually or aurally). We might be inclined to think of this as language revealing some external object, but that's backwards. We have the language, and we posit an external object to explain the language just as we posit an external object to explain the image we see or sound we hear. (We posit a Grand Canyon when we hear someone tell us they went there.)

3. Language isn't really an object the way visible and audible things are. Even if it is, it's not similar to visible objects. It's grasped by a different organ. So language doesn't reveal these objects that are dissimilar from it.

4. Objects can't reveal each other's nature. So language, which is even more different, can't reveal other objects.


1. Couldn't there be something in our mind when we hear them describe something that's similar to what's in someone else's mind when they see it?

2. We do posit an external object when we hear about it or read about it. We also posit an external object when we see it or touch it. How does that mean the object doesn't exist? How does it mean we can't communicate about it?

3. Language is distinct from the things it is about, but that doesn't mean it doesn't represent those things in a way that it can cause us to think about them. It doesn't mean we can't communicate something by using it.

4. Language doesn't connect us with the very essence of the things it's about, but it does communicate something that allows us to envision some features of those things.

The hosting schedule for the Christian Carnival has dropped off my front page, so it's time to post a new one. You can find more information about the Christian Carnival here. The schedule as it stands is below, and I will add to it as I schedule new hosts.

If you'd like to host a future edition of the Christian Carnival and have not contacted me about doing so, please let me know at the email address at the top of the sidebar. If you have particular preferences as to when you would like to host, please include that in your message. When possible, I will try to give the earliest spots to new hosts and hosts who have hosted less recently.

231 July 2 Fish and Cans
232 July 9 Crossroads: Where Faith and Inquiry Meet
233 July 16 Diary of 1
234 July 23 A True Believer's Weblog
235 July 30 Everyday Liturgy
236 Aug 6 Brain Cramps for God
237 Aug 13 RodneyOlsen.net
238 Aug 20 Parables of a Prodigal World
239 Aug 27 Thinking Christian
240 Sept 3 Participatory Bible Study Blog
241 Sept 10 Crossroads: Where Faith and Inquiry Meet

Obama on Gun Control

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I'm a firm believer in not assigning the term 'flip-flop' to someone unless they go back and forth on it more than once, with a clear sense that they're talking out of both sides of their mouth to different audiences. A change of mind is not a flip-flop, despite the popular tendency to use that term for a principled change of mind.

Nevertheless, there are reasons to criticize someone for changing their mind. One such reason is if they insist that they haven't changed their mind. Barack Obama seems to be in that category when it comes to gun control. He supported the DC gun ban back in February when the issue was before the Supreme Court. Now that the case is decided and the law deemed unconstitutional, he says he supports the decision. See Booker Rising for the video clips.

His only justification for supporting Justice Scalia's opinion overturning the ban now seems to be the same justification he gave for supporting the ban earlier, which is more than a little puzzling. He supports an individual right to gun ownership but thinks it's constitutional to restrict that right in certain contexts, and his support for the most restrictive ban on gun control in the country showed that he thinks these restrictions on the individual right can be pretty extensive without being unconstitutional. So the DC ban was ok. But now he responds to the opinion by saying that the same position he's held all along can support this opinion. He believes in an individual right but thinks restrictions of that right are constitutional. So the DC ban is not ok. Yet he's insisted that this isn't a change in his view. How is it not a change of view to think it's unconstitutional but then to agree with the Supreme Court's narrowly-divided opinion for the opposite view?

So I have a hard time distinguishing this from the mindset of flip-flopping, even though it's not a case of going back and forth. It's what you say on a divisive issue if you want everyone to think you agree with them, all the while planning your policy on something that a lot of them would not agree with at all. It's hard for me to see it as anything else but dishonesty of exactly the type that Senator Obama consistently says he's going to be a change away from. (He surely would be a change from the current administration in terms of policy, but that's not really the thrust of his change rhetoric.)

Update: Obama's response to Hillary Clinton's changing positions on Iraq is a good example of his condemnation of the very thing he does on this issue:

I have to say that she started this campaign saying that she wanted to make history and lately she has been spending a lot of time rewriting it. I know that in Washington it is acceptable to say or do anything it takes to get elected, but I really don't think that is the kind of politics that is good for our party, and I don't think it is good for our country, and I think that the American people will reject it in this election.

I sure hope the American people will reject it in this election, but it's becoming clear that rejecting it would mean rejecting Obama's candidacy. McCain's changed some of his views, but at least he's giving reasons for those changes and admitting that he's changed his mind. Obama is completely contradicting his previous statements while pretending he hasn't changed his views at all.

The 231st Christian Carnival is up at Fish and Cans.

June License Plates

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U.S. States: Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin

other U.S.: District of Columbia, U.S. Government

Canada: Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Quebec

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U.S. States Gained from May: Delaware, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Tennessee

U.S. States not seen yet at all: I still haven't seen Hawaii and Mississippi since I started doing this in October.


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