Saturday, August 31, 2013

Perspective on Kansas

One truth imprinted on my mind with great force by my 15-state speaking tour, completed a day and a half ago with a 900 miles drive home from Jackson, Wyoming, is that God gave Americans a spectacularly beautiful country.  (Though we have messed it up, in too many places, with metastasizing strip malls and homogenous agriculture -- couldn't we leave a sizable chunk of the Midwest in its natural state?)  I'll be posting photos of scenes that particularly captured my eye, occasionally over the next few weeks, with a few words of explanation. 

My first glimpse of Kansas reinforced this impression, somewhat to my surprise.  I didn't have time to visit the grasslands preserved in central Kansas.  But in morning mists, the rolling hills along Highway 70, with woods in the valleys, were quite lovely.  How beautiful these grasslands must have been, when dozens of grasses and then wild flowers besides, spread in all directions, with bison, pronghorns, plains grizzly bears, going back further American camels, horses, giant sloths, mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, and American cheetahs, roamed the plains unimpeded by barbed wire. along with smaller animals. 

Wishing I could have driven 50 miles south to the Tall Grass Prairie National Preserve, I spied an exit off the freeway for "Tall Grass Road," or something like that.  It appeared to be an empty dirt road, and I parked on the side of the road, and stretched my legs walking towards a farm house, taking pictures along the way.  After less than half a mile, and many photos, a police car pulled up and ask if it was my vehicle parked "in the road."  Well, OK, maybe I could have pulled over a little further. 

Anyway, here's one of those photographs.  I was especially impressed by this tall white flower, which I tried to take a close-up of but that turned out blurry.  I have no idea what it is.   

Friday, August 30, 2013

"Celsus" on the "Marshall School of Apologetics"

Postscript: Initially I confused two on-line skeptics who both call themselves "Celsus" in this thread.  There were good reasons for the confusion, aside from the fact that both used the same nom de guerre: both like to accuse Christian apologists of "dishonesty," and they seem interested in many of the same subjects.  But my sincerest apologies to Matthew for the error.  Clearly I should have gone one step further in verifying the identity of these two skeptics.  All I can say is, having driven 900 miles yesterday, I'm glad I made an error of such magnitude on my blog, and not on the road.  I will now have a quiet meal of fresh crow for dinner.  I am inclined to add, however, that I also think people who publicly attack others by name should be brave enough to give their own names, which would help prevent such errors.  It is tough to respond to critics who insist on hiding behind masks. -- DM

A fellow calling himself "Celsus" on Amazon, (who may be named Robert) specializes in accusing Christian "apologists" (among whom he numbers me) of dishonesty.  I have dealt with Celsus before in these pages.  He is that unfortunate type of ignoramus who is even ignorant of the fact that he is ignorant.  But there seems (if I am not imagining it) an almost puppy-doggish lack of guile to Celsus' lambastations, that for me at least leave them not completely without charm. 

I have Celsus on "ignore" on Amazon.   Two years ago, I thus rather lately discovered, he had posted a thread on Amazon attacking what he called "The David Marshall School of Apologetics."  (I have a school?  Should I charge tuition?  Students are urged to purchase textbooks via the Amazon links to the right!) 

I was in a small town in the Midwest a couple weeks ago when I came across this thread, preparing to speak, and had a few moments to respond.  So as unhealthy as this focus on the personal is (my books are about more important issues than myself), I took a few minutes to brush aside some of the cobwebs.  This may also be interesting for those of you planning to start your own schools of apologetics. : -)

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Was Martin Luther King a force for good?

Jackson, WY: I'm not usually considered a heretic.  I tend to speak in churches that occupy the middle ground between handling snakes, on the one hand, and holding Indian dances to the Earth Mother, on the other.  Even the most hard-core Darwinists have had to stretch to find traces of scientific blasphemy in the cautious questions I raised about pure materialistic evolution, in The Truth Behind the New Atheism

I also try to write mostly on topics I know something about.  

But today, of all days, in admitted ignorance and uncertainty, let me pose what may be the ultimate heretical question in modern America: did Martin Luther King really do America good?  Or did he harm the country more than he helped it? 

I hear the cries of protest already.  King lived out the Gospel more clearly and persuasively than ten thousand brill-creamed Baptist preachers!  He faced police dogs and water hoses, without raising his hands in violence!  He channeled a movement that could easily have descended into brutality and violence, with a rod like Moses, a papyrus scroll with the Sermon on the Mount written in hot red ink upon it.

No wonder Martin Luther King Day is a federal holiday, when "Presidents Day" is almost forgotten!  No wonder my own home county, King, one of the nation's largest, is now renamed in honor of Martin Luther King, rather than for an obscure vice president, even as vice presidents go. 

But I am wondering: does it do a child more harm, to be raised as a minority in a society that discriminates against him or her?  Or to be raised without knowing his or her Daddy? 

Bill O'Reilly was on the tube Monday, yacking about how terrible it is that most black children now are born out of wedlock.  He went on and on about how horrified Martin Luther King would be, and asked if black leaders would have the guts to bring this crisis up at the 50th anniversary of King's famous speech.

Are you kidding?

King stayed with his wife and children, more or less, true.  But how many other children did he sire?  Whom did they call "Daddy?"

And what are the effects of that example?

For my money, even if he was an infidel and a rabble-rouser, I have to say I think I like Malcolm X better.  I am not even sure, for all his phenomenal virtues, that Martin Luther King's impact on modern America is more for good than for ill. 

OK, bring out the tar and feathers.  

Friday, August 23, 2013

Notes from the northern woods.

Tuesday: I spoke this evening at the cathedral-like Kirk in the Hills, some forty miles north of
Kirk of the Hills, Michigan. 
Detroit.  (I'll post a few photos when I get the chance.)  We had a great turnout for a Tuesday evening in the middle of summer, when many congregants are enjoying the warm August evenings by lakes further north in Michigan.  It was a well-educated audience, also with rich life experience.  Several of those who came were Chinese.  Folks were tolerant of my still somewhat meandering talk on Faith Seeking Understanding -- this one has not been as refined by repetition as have my talks on "Jesus for Skeptics," "Christianity and World Religions," or "How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture" -- and asked lots of interesting and often surprising questions.  (What about Craig Keener's new book on Miracles?  Do the principles I relate in regard to Christianity and Chinese Culture also apply to other traditions?  What role did Pearl Buck play in the growth of Christianity in China?) 

My cathedral in the woods.
At the end of the evening, as we were talking in groups, a bat decided to join the fun.  He circled the room where the meeting had been held as we spoke in groups, then flew around a chandelier in the atrium three or four times, unfortunately without turning into Grandpa Munster in a puff of smoke, however. 

Wednesday: I spoke at a church out in the cornfields and soybean fields at the very southern few miles of Michigan.  This is the very church where Josh Mcdowell became a Christian, in the 1950s.  That was neat, since his writings meant a lot to me when I was a young man.  I thought I talked pretty long, but someone told me several folks actually wanted me to go on.  Well, I would have, but there were children in the audience, and one must have mercy on the kids. 

Josh Mcdowell found Jesus here. 
The pastor and his wife kindly had me spend the night, and he turned out to be quite a character.  He said the deer in Michigan are suicidal -- he's hit five of them.  In one case the deer actual ran into him, damaged his car, then ran off. 

Thursday: I drove directly north through Michigan -- a long, long drive, without seeing any of the Great Lakes that Michigan borders, for about 340 miles.  More and more evergreen trees appeared, along with aspen, eastern cottonwood, some birch, maples, and others.  Then finally the bridge than crosses the straits between Lake Michigan and Lake Ontario appeared.  I stopped to swim to the right of the bridge, which I think counts as Lake Ontario.  The rocks were pretty sharp and slippery, so that wasn't much fun.  But after crossing the bridge -- I'd guess it was about five miles long -- I turned onto Highway 2 (after going the wrong way for a while) and finally pointed the bow of my little blue vessel west, which felt good. 

A few miles to the west, I came to a long sandy beach on Lake Michigan, with shards of beach grasses poking out of the sand.  Everything south was blue -- no land in sight.  The waves were about a foot  high.  It was like swimming at an ocean beach, except the water was much warmer than Puget Sound, and there were no seaweed or crabs or salty tang.  The water was quite clean.  Quite a few people were parked along the shore here, with a couple teenage girls jumping and celebrating in the surf nearby -- I probably should have stayed longer, and swum further.  But it did feel good. 

What struck me about northern Michigan was the familiarity but variety of its trees: pine, fir, some cedars, larch I think, a few hemlocks, along with all the broadleafs mentioned earlier.  This far north, they were packed together tightly, and not very tall, on gentle rolling hills that seemed to go on and on.   Plots of what we called muskeg interspersed with the trees in places.  No doubt the harsh northern winters determine the size and species of trees that flourish -- I seemed almost to see the landscape in winter with my inner eye, as I traveled along.  But I'd really like to see it in the fall. 

Is Highway 2 the most beautiful road in America?  A case could be made. 

Friday:  I'm in northern Minnesota, traveling west.  Highway 2 is a little rough in places, and state governments don't spoil travelers with fancy rest stops, but it also goes through some beautiful country.  This morning I took beautiful pictures of ground fog over lakes in early light. 

Michigan stretches west forever, then a few miles of Wisconsin, then Highway 2 hugs another hundred miles of Michigan, then about so much more of Wisconsin to the edge of Lake Superior (but nowhere good to swim).  Small towns appear every fifty miles or so, some of them very pretty, with lovely white-steepled churches, as in New England.  This will be exquisitely beautiful in a month, as the aspen, maples, et al, paint their beauties upon the landscape. 

I'm in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, now, hoping to stay at a campground near the source of the Mississippi tonight.  After another day of driving, I'll have some time to work on my new book, camping probably in the Dakotas and then Wyoming or Montana, before next Wednesday's final event of this trip.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Earth to New Testament critics!

(Note: I'm at a weird hotel computer with a twisted mind of its own -- probably owned by the Unabomber in a past life.  Excuse the caps, that's the least of its perversities.)

I ha
d the chance to spend most of Thursday in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with a remarkable philosopher named Timothy McGrew.  Tim teaches philosophy of science, among other subjects, at Western Michigan University.  He is also an expert on, besides chess, the application of probability to history, and Lord knows what else, modern apologetics from the 17th to the early 20th Centuries.  Many of these old apologists have a great deal that proves strangely pertinent to share, that is sadly neglected, and often with a literary flair that makes their works just plain fun to read.  

Here's a particularly biting 61 year old passage from an old scholar with too many names for his own good, which Tim dug up from his home library and read me.   It was a good thing, frankly, I wasn't drinking milk while listening.  On my request, he also posted these paragraphs at his Library of Historical Apologetics, which he informs me is due to grow dramatically in the future, with logistical help from a number of other scholars in Texas and the UK.   

I expect many of my readers will enjoy this, as well. 

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

On the Road Again

Salem Methodist, St. Louis

Bonhomme Pres, St. Louis
Well, it doesn't look like I'll have time to finish deconstructing Reza Aslan's new best-seller, Zealot.  You get the picture, anyway.  The house of cards was collapsing by the moment.  Even if you lay the most solid granite on top, the structure will collapse from the weakness below.  And the book does not improve in the final chapters . . . Aslan attacks Paul fervently, he creates a Manichean dichotomy between this pernicious thing called Christianity that Paul founded, and the likeable fanaticism of Jesus . . . Maybe he is recreating Jesus in his own image of Mohammed.  I didn't feel the faintest tingle of a twitch of belief. 

Early tomorrow morning, though, I'm hitting the road.  Here's the schedule.   Come if you can.  I also welcome invitations -- for conversation, for talk, debate, lunch, dinner, a hike.  This is going to be a long, long trip.  Go, Big Oil!  Bring me that sweet, cheap gasoline. 

August 11 St Louis: Salem United Methodist, 9:30 AM, "Christianity and World Religions"

August 11 Chesterfield, MO: Bonhomme Presbyterian, 7 PM, "Jesus for Skeptics"

August 14 Marshall, MI: Marshall UMC, 7 PM (?), topic yet to be announced

August 18, Garfield Memorial UMC, Pepper Pike (Cleveland), Ohio: 9:30 AM sermon, plus Q and A afterwards

August 20, Kirk of the Hills Pres, Bloomfield Hills: 7 PM

August 28 (?) First Pres, Jackson, Wyoming (evening)

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Aslan Stumbles.

(Update: I've just posted an abridged version of this review on, after finishing the rest of the book.) 

Reza Aslan's instant best-seller, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, runs on two levels simultaneously.  On the popular level, and in the chapters themselves, the book is an easy-reading popular reenactment of the Jesus story.  (Well, Aslan's one-sided spin on it, that is.  More on that later.)  Meanwhile, in the back of the book, Aslan carries on a dialogue with various scholars. 

This is necessary, because Zealot purports to be a serious and informed argument for a particular interpretation of Jesus.  Aslan tells us several times how long and seriously he has studied religion, over "two decades of rigorous academic work," seeming to imply that his academic work was mainly of the historical Jesus.  (It was not.)  Aslan's claim is that Jesus was in some sense a "zealot."  Aslan believes that Jesus' appeal was chiefly political and we should read the gospels through that grid. 

Aslan begins by setting the life of Jesus in the context of the rise and fall of Second Temple Judaism within the devouring and unforgiving Roman Empire.  He describes the town of Nazareth, where Jesus was raised, the nearby city of Sepphoris, where he thinks Jesus worked, and rebellions and pogroms that swirled through Galilee and Judea and ultimately led to the violent exile of the Jewish people from their native land.  Much of the territory he covers parallels that covered by John Crossan in The Historical Jesus, though he draws from other scholars as well. 

Zealot is not the worst book I have read on the historical Jesus.  The popular-level story is well-written, and contains numerous interesting historical insights.  (Such as, for instance, that despite his criticism of the Pharisees, some Pharisees seemed to get on well with Jesus -- Earl Palmer has made a similar point.)  Aslan's dialogue in the back of the book does show that the man has read quite a few scholars, most of them respectable. 

But at the half-way point, already it is clear that this Aslan is not up to the job of taking on this particular lion. 

First ten quibbles, then two vital misunderstandings.  (Well, some of the "quibbles" are really quite major, too, and seriously undermine Aslan's argument along with his credibility.  But the last two are the real kickers.)