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Thursday, March 31, 2011

book report: Grant and Sherman by Flood (2005)

It's been a while since I've read some Civil War history. This one came recommended on an article at Salon on the top 12 Civil War books, and I can say I recommend it as well. Charles Bracelen Flood focuses on the deep and sometimes strained friendship between U. S. Grant and W. T. Sherman, the great Union generals from the West. If this book were a meal, I'd call this a chicken pot pie lunch, comfort food, satisfying but not too filling. You won't get that many details on actual battles. You will get the big delicious parts though. This is less about blood and guts and more about relationships. Flood gives plenty of ink to their marriages, their in-laws, and their occupations between wars. Their inter-war (Mexican and Civil) lives were gaps in my knowledge and quite interesting to me. Flood seems unabashed in his support of the Union position. He does not subscribe to the "lost cause" historical mirage.
Gen. U.S. Grant - Category:Images of people of...Image via Wikipedia
This is a book of anecdote before analysis, but that does not mean there is no analysis, but he prefers to let the anecdotes have prominence. Two stories stood out to me. The first one I had never heard before, but I'm sure must have been part of any preacher's arsenal. It is set in the battle of Shiloh.
When Governor Harris came riding up to Johnston after the successful attack, the general beamed at him and said, "Governor, they came near to putting me hors de combat in that charge." He raised his boot to show that its sole was flapping loose, cut from the rest of it by a musket ball. Johnston's gray uniform had been slashed by other shots, but he seemed unharmed and exultant. He gave Harris a message to take to another officer; when Harris came back, he found Johnston groggy and about to fall out of his saddle. What Harris did not know was that, in a duel fought in Texas twenty-five years before, a pistol ball cut the sciatic nerve in Johnston's right leg in a way that left it numb. During the attack just minutes past, a musket ball had severed an artery in that leg, but as he bled profusely, Johnston felt nothing, and in the excitement and confusion of the moment, no one else saw what was happening. By the time Harris and others helped him to the ground, he was in critical condition. Even the the quick application of a tourniquet might have saved him - Johnston carried one in a pocket - but he had sent the nearest surgeon to help wounded men nearby, and none of his staff knew what to do. Within minutes, Albert Sydney Johnston died. p.110-111
That is a wild story, and Flood tells it well. Another anecdote pointedly shows the hypocrisy of the miscegenation "fears" of the rebels, as related by one of Sherman's soldiers on the great march to the sea. A major from Illinois found an old woman, the mistress of a plantation, lecturing him that the Northern policy of freeing the slaves would lead to what she called "Amalgamation" - racially mixed children. "The old lady forced it on me," he recalled, "and as there were three or four very light colored mulatto children running around the house, they furnished me an admirable weapon - She didn't explain to my entire satisfaction how her slaves came to be so much whiter than African Slaves are usually supposed to be." p.270 Yes, the lost causers seem to ignore the de facto concubinage of slave women in their glorious confederacy.

Flood has previously written a post-war biography of Robert E. Lee and writes of him with admiration. He does not shy from the clay feet of anyone, yet does not dwell much on Grant's alcoholism. He certainly covers it, but not enough so that the reader wonders why Grant developed a reputation for drunkenness. Nevertheless, Grant was an innovative general, especially among the Union's leaders, and Sherman learned from him, enabling him to move with high speed through the south. It wasn't just the Union's abundance of materiel that enabled them to prevail, and Flood wants us to know that great generalship also contributed.
General William Tecumseh Sherman, 1865.Image via WikipediaEnhanced by Zemanta

new looks for the blog

Google has new ways to look at the blogs on blogger, which this one is part of. I really like this one, the sidebar. For whatever reason, the mosaic does not work well. I think it might have to do with my pictures are usually links and not hosted in the blog posts. But you can try different views to see what works for you, unless you are like me and only read through rss.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

more quotes from The Emergence of the catholic tradition (100-600) by Pelikan

Part of the resolution over the divinity of Jesus came from received liturgy among the church catholic. Liturgy carried an authority akin to tradition but distinct from it. Jaroslav Pelikan describes its important role in his great church history book, The Emergence of the catholic tradition.
...Theology had to come to terms with liturgy.

Of special interest in the liturgy was the language being used about the Virgin Mary, who had come to be called "Theotokos." [Greek for "Mother of God"- jpu] Despite the effort to find evidence of it elsewhere, there is reason to believe that the title originated in Alexandria, where it harmonized with and epitomized the general Alexandrian tradition. The earliest incontestable instance of the term Theotokos was in the encyclical of Alexander of Alexandria directed against Arianism in 324. Later in the fourth century, the emperor Julian, in his polemic against the "Galileans," asked the Christians: "Why do you incessantly call Mary Theotokos?"But the sources of the idea of Theotokos are almost certainly to be sought neither in polemics nor in speculatoin, but in devotion, perhaps in an early Greek version of the hymn to Mary, Sub tuum praesidium; here, too, theology had to come to terms with liturgy. In the conflicts with Gnosticism Mary had served as proof for th reality of the humanity of Jesus: he had truly been born of a human mother and therefore was a man. But as Christian piety and reflection sought to probe the deeper meaning of salvation, the parallel between Christ and Adam found its counterpart in the picture of Mary as the second Eve, who by her obedience had undone the damage wrought by the disobedience of the mother of mankind. She was the mother of the man Christ Jesus, the mother of the Savior; but to be the Savior, he had to be God as well, and as his mother she had to be "Mother of God." In popular devotion these themes were interwoven with other speculations about the manner of Christ's birth and about the later life of the Virgin, but in its fundamental motifs the development of the Christian picture of Mary and the eventual emergence of a Christian doctrine of Mary must be seen in the context of the development of devotion to Christ and , of course, of the development of the doctrine of Christ. p. 241
As Pelikan subtitles the series, this is a survey of the development of doctrine. Doctrine did not emerge complete but developed in response to those who challenged the scriptures and the liturgies and the traditions, all of which were in place before the challenges. I think it demonstrates the wisdom of God to plant these ahead of the controversies. It's like intelligent design for theology, all prepared for ahead of time waiting to be discovered.

The wiki entry on Pelikan has this great quote from him on tradition vs. traditionalism,Jaroslav Pelikan. Personal photographImage via Wikipedia
His 1984 book The Vindication of Tradition gave rise to an often quoted one liner. In
an interview in U.S. News & World Report (July 26, 1989), he said: "Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in

conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition."
I find this provocative and worth pondering. That means I will probably have to buy that book at some time as well.
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Saturday, March 26, 2011

quotes from The Emergence of the catholic tradition (100-600) by Pelikan


I finally finished Jaroslav Pelikan's first installment of his massive 5 volume series on The Christian Tradition: A history of the development of doctrine. He covers the first 500 years, before the East and West split. The end of the book focuses on Augustine and how the church worldwide interacted with and rejected his fatalism. That was new information to me, but that's why I read history books. Part of the rejection had to do with his inconsistency with the received tradition and teaching of the fathers before him. In light of recent controversies among the evangelical Christian reading public. Pelikan explains the united church's perspective so,
The apostles had ruled the church by their proclamation, and now their place had been taken by others who continued to rule by the same proclamation. The succession was uninterrupted and the continuity unbroken.
Yet the norm of antiquity did not automatically elevate to authoritative status every theologian of the past, regardless of what he taught. In his defense of the catholic faith against Manicheism, Augustine had rejected "all the testimony you can bring in favor of your book from antiquity or tradition" so long as it did not agree with "the testimony of the catholic church ... supported by a succession of bishops from the original sees of the apostles to the present time." Vincent, for his part, insisted that the prestige of the theolgians of the church, including that of Augustine himself, defer to "the decisions of the antiquity." A prime instance of this requirement was the case of Origen [my emphasis], who although an ornament of the church for his piety and his learning, fell into error and corrupted the ancient faith. Vincent's judgment of Origen was made official at the Second Council of Constantinople, at the urging of Justinian. Justinian cited the authority of "the holy fathers who, following the inspired Scriptures, condemned such doctrines {as the preexistence of the soul}, together with Origen, who made up such myths." By his doctrines Origen had "forsaken the divine Scriptures and the holy fathers whom the catholic church of God regards as its teachers and through whom every heresy everywhere was driven out and the orthodox faith was explained." Within antiquity, then, some teachers were to be preferred to others; there was ancient heresy as well as ancient orthodoxy, and any teaching was to be condemned despite its age if it deviated from what had always been taught by the true succession of orthodox bishops and theologians. In Augustine's case, there was probably no possibility of anything so drastic as a formal condemnation by a duly constituted synod of the church. Instead, later Augustinism discreetly eliminated what was objectionable in Augustine even as it celebrated his authority. Antiquity was vindicated and orthodoxy was preserved.
...Cassian put the case for consensus perhaps more completely than any other theologian of the fifth and sixth centuries: "There has never been anyone who quarreled with this faith without being guilty of unbelief, for to deny what has been proved to be right is to confess what is wrong. The consensus of all ought then of itself to be enough to refute heresy; for the authority of all shows indubitable truth, and a perfect reason results where no one disputes it. Therefore if a man seeks to hold opinions contrary to these, we should, at the very outset, condemn his perversity rather than listen to his assertions. For someone who impugns the judgement of all announces his own condemnation beforehand, and a man who disturbs what had been determined by all is not even given a hearing. For when the truth has been established by all men once and for all, whatever arises contrary to is by this very fact to be recognized at once as falsehood, because it differs from the truth." pp. 337,8,9

The weakness of Christian liberalism and cults in whatever form taken through the years is it's hubris to question again what has been settled for centuries. Some things are settled. There's no need to have a conversation about some things. Time does not unsettle some things.

update: for a brief compendium on pre-Augustine teachings on free will by the church fathers, see this link.
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Saturday, March 19, 2011

book report: Signature in the Cell by Stephen C. Meyer (2009)

Stephen Meyer hopes this book has the impact that Darwin's Origin of Species has had on the world. I don't think Signature in the Cell stands alone in the way Origin does, but in concert with all the other books (Darwin's Black Box by Behe) from practicing scientist supporting Intelligent Design, it is a major player. Will intelligent design be the next scientific revolution as Kuhn describes them? I hope so. Scientifically, Meyer's arguments are tight, but the philosophical hurdle may be too much for predominantly agnostic and atheistic scientific high priesthood.
According to one worldview, mind is the primary or ultimate reality. On this view, material reality either issues from a preexisting mind, or it is shaped by a preexistent intelligence, or both. Mind, not matter, is, therefore, the prime or ultimate reality - the entity from which everything else comes, or at least the entity with the capacity to shape the material world. Plato, Aristotle, the Roman Stoics, Jewish philosophers such as Moses Maimonides, and the Christian philosophers such as St. Thomas Aquinas each held some version of this perspective. Most of the founders of modern science during the period historians of science call the scientific revolution (1300-1700) also held this mind-first view of reality. Many of theese early modern scientists thought that their studies of nature confirmed this view by providing evidence, in Sir Isaac Newton's words, of "an intelligent and powerful Being" behind it all...The opposite view holds that the physical universe or nature is the ultimate reality... The age-old conflict between the mind-first and matter-first worldviews cuts right through the heart of the mystery of life's origin. Can the origin of life be explained purely by reference to material processes such as undirected chemical reactions or random collisions of molecules? pp. 36-37.
Meyer's argues well in the rest of the book that only guided experiments produce hoped for origin of life molecules, and only assisted simulations generate specified and complex information. Darwin wrote his argument when cells were understood as vital protoplasm with no guess at the complexity of the machinery within each and every cell. Meyer goes into detail on just a few components of cellular machinery, DNA, RNA, and the storage of protein information and it translation into protein products. The water gets deep, but Meyer explains it well. I hope the reader not familiar with molecular biology does not give up. In my work as a metabolism biologist, I'm familiar with equally complex systems with multiple redundancies that make the development of medicines very difficult and costly. It seems that the biology is fractal, every level is just as complex as the level above it.

Meyer wants to focus on the origin of life as a case for intelligent design.
The picture of the cell provided by modern molecular biology has led scientists to redefine the question of the origin of life. The discovery of life's information-processing systems, with their elaborate functional integration of proteins and nucleic acids, has made it clear that scientists investigating the origin of life must now explain the origin of at least three key features of life. First, they must explain the origin of the system for storing and encoding digital information in the cell, DNA's capacity to store digitally encoded information. Second, they must explain the origin of the large amount of specified complexity or functionally specified information in DNA. Third, they must explain the origin of the integrated complexity - the functional interdependence of parts - of the cell's information-processing system. pp. 134-135
He then shows the failures of science to find purely material explanations for these issues and analogies to support design. He cites the work of Michael Polanyi contrary to the theory of DNA arising because of the laws of physics and chemistry. "DNA base sequencing cannot be explained by lower-level chemical laws or properties any more than the information in a newspaper headline can be explained by reference to the chemical properties of ink." p. 240 This is a great example of the philosophy behind the book. The analogies can be understood by anyone, not only those with higher degrees and white lab coats. For those of us who like the details, though, this book is good.

The end of the book focuses on the divergence that results between the two philosophies. Materialists responded to the discovery of non-coding areas of the DNA by calling them accumulated mutational junk. Design theorists expected function, and then they were proved right. The functions of "junk" DNA keep being discovered, mostly by those who don't expect design, but it doesn't seem to sway them. But neither does the macro structures on animals. If one prefers to not believe in God, evidence for Him, must be explained away. If one does believe in God, it's a pleasure to admire his artistry, like Meyer does.




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Monday, March 14, 2011

book report: Keep Your Greek by C. R. Campbell (2010)

I had all sorts of intentions to re-read my Greek New Testament this year, but it's March and I haven't. I was feeling the guilt when I saw Zondervan was running a blog tour for this book, Keep Your Greek by Constantine R. Campbell, I signed up for a review copy.

When it arrived, I was surprised at how thin it was, less than 100 pages in a medium sized font. When I started reading it, I was surprised that it wasn't entirely written by Campbell, a Greek and New Testament lecturer at Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia, but also by commenters on his blog where the essays were originally posted. At first, I thought some of the comments included were extraneous, just page fillers, but themes emerged, including the recommendations of other Zondervan books for the study of Koine Greek, some of which I own already. I am not saying this short book is merely a promotional vehicle for Zondervan's other scholastic products. In fact, I am encouraged to resume reading again in my Greek New Testament. I brought my Greek NT to church the morning I was reading the book and realized I haven't forgotten that much, it helped that our congregation is studying through John's gospel, the most accessible gospel in Greek. Campbell encourages us, first of all, to read, everyday, for 10-20 minutes. I can do that. I remember that regular reading on its own got me into a rhythm of the Bible that helped me through the more demanding reading, like Hebrews. I'm not sure I will pull out my vocabulary cards again, another recommendation, but I am encouraged to resume reading as I think anyone who reads this book will also be.
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Friday, March 11, 2011

As the soul is to the body, so the Church is to the world

This is from a very early Christian writing called the Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetes. I read it this morning as part of my Lenten reading this year. Chapter 7 struck me with it's relevance to today's environment and our cultural debate.

CHAPTER V -- THE MANNERS OF THE CHRISTIANS.

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

bike review:men's Simple 3 by Giant


It's been two years since I bought a bike. Every two years or so, I tend to buy a new bike. At least they've been coming down in price. Last time I bought a Townie 7D and loved it, see my review. Back then I finally admitted that my recumbent was not good for winter commuting. I found out that the Townie's had a mild pedal forward design and found a local bike shop selling them, Niantic Bay Bicycles. I shop in the winter when sales are slow, it's my birthday and I have a little extra cash in my pocket, and the previous year's models are marked down to make room for the new year's. I put big metal baskets on the back of the Townie and rode happily for two years. When I dropped in for a complimentary tune-up at the shop I saw a marked down bike with a couple things I've been coveting in the Amsterdam flavor of bike. The Simple 3 was solid, had wider tires, had a rack that took panniers, had fenders, had an internal hub (3-speed), and pedal brakes. This is designed for winter riding, in my opinion, even though marketed as a cruiser.

I used to read the Lovely Bicycle! blog for it's appreciation of upright european bicycles. But I lost interest as she developed an affinity for drop handlebars, something I can no longer use with the tendonitis in my wrists. The Simple 3 has these wonderful swept back bars, like a european city bike, for comfortable upright riding. However, my 6.5 mile commute is hilly, I do live in Connecticut after all, so there are times when I'll lean forward for some leverage on the pedals. I could never lean forward on the Townie, or even stand up much on them, because of the elongated geometry of the bike.

There are two other cycling blogs I still read, Jill Outside, which used to be Jill in Alaska, but she has moved south and is moving to the west coast now. I read her to be encouraged to keep riding in the cold and when it's hard and quite a slog. She trains for 100 mile rides or transcontinental rides. I just ride to work. But there is no reason I should let 20-30 mph winds keep me from riding, especially on this tank. Nor should I skip a ride because the bike paths are slushy. I have fenders now. Also, I no longer fear wet rims extending my braking into a traffic intersection like I did with my Townie. The coaster brake is internal and stops me no matter what the conditions are.

I also read the Fat Cyclist, another endurance rider whose greatest ability is endurance. He admits he'd have to endure less if he weighed less. Which brings up the topic of weight, not mine, but it is less than Fatty's, but the bike's. Giant is weird and elusive about it on their site. I haven't put it on a scale, but it definitely weighs less than my Townie 7D with it's metal baskets on. I'd say it's 25 lbs or so. With only 3 gears and a few really steep, but, thankfully, short ascents plus the weight, I really slow down and push. I took out the 7D again to see how those ascents are with a wider gear range. It seemed to me the Simple 3's low gear was like the 7D's 2nd gear. So riding the Simple 3 is like riding the Townie when I want to get some more fitness out of my ride. It's not like I'm riding a snow bike like Jill's Pugsley. But it will let the hills challenge you. For me, since I don't want to be a "Fat Cyclist," I am happy to ride a fitness bike for my short commute. This bike is not built for speed, but for comfort. I think it would be more comfortable with a shock absorber in the seat post, like my Trek has, but the fat tires have handled the pot holes pretty good.

I believe the Simple 3 is the closest I will get to a european city bike on the bare bones budget I have. I think it is perfect for riding on flat places if you aren't in great shape or on short hilly commutes if you are seeking fitness as well as a means from point A to point B that does not involve the ever pricier gasoline.