Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Duh Vinci Code

OK, Dan Brown wrote a potboiler/thriller about some super-secret conspiracy to suppress a story about Jesus marrying Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail is really his blood line. This is supposed to be based on the history of the Gnostic heresy and has been covered up because everybody knows the winners write history and cover up whatever the losers said.

My church is overreacting to this. A couple generations ago Baptists overreacted by camping outside theatres, getting mad, organizing boycotts and generally doing the work of the movie's publicist. Now they're trying to make this into some kind of "outreach" thing. "People will ask questions, blah, blah, blah."

I have some observations:

1) If, instead of Jesus, this movie was talking about Mohammed, you'd see riots, etc. Dan Brown would be rooming with Salman Rushdie in some witless protection program. Imagine the HOLLYWOOD sign with flames wicking up the letters. This says that either Islam is a lot more childish or that Christianity is a lot more wimpy. You decide.

2) The gnostic heresy was 180 degrees out of phase with what the Duh Vinci Code claims in two critical points: a) the gnostics were not feminist-friendly, claiming a woman had to become a man to get to heaven. b) the gnostics were heretical because they asserted the Divinity of Christ, while denying the Humanity of Christ. Orthodox Christianity claims he was fully Divine And fully Human. Contemporary heresies including the Duh Vinci Code claims Christ was just a really good teacher, but not God. ((And if you're not God, but say you are God, how does that really good business work?))

3) The Duh Vinci Code's story about the Holy Grail is as historically accurate as Monty Python's Holy Grail. The Duh Vinci Code should be taken just as seriously.

It is ironic that the contemporary heresy tries to assert the sacred feminine in Mary Magdalene while ignoring the sacred feminine in the Blessed Virgin Mary. Trouble is that the BVM fails to deliver for contemporary heretics because she's not as cool and edgy as the demon-possessed hooker who was rescued by Christ.

There's an agenda and it's very simple: ABC. Anything But Christianity.

C.S. Lewis said in "Funeral For A Great Myth" that there was a pent up demand that reversed the normal flow of information from laboratory to popular culture when Darwin found a naturalistic explanation of origins. Here we're seeing another such inversion between pop culture and history. All the historians say that the Duh Vinci Code is bunk. But people want to believe something new and hidden and different that helps explain the phenomenon of Christianity without having to grasp the prickly bits of God's law and sin and redemption.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Political Hacks In The Intelligence Community

On the heels of the disclosures that the NSA had recorded the telephone calls of foreign nationals suspected to be al qaeda terrorists dialing into the US came another embarassing leak, this time from CIA, that terrorists were being held in secret prisons somewhere in Europe. Probably in the countries that used to live under Soviet domination. Distressing stuff. The Wingnut in me says, "yeah right!" and the Moonbat in me says, "just like those Bushies."

It's been my opinion that the CIA has spent the last couple decades being "the gang who couldn't shoot straight." Starting with the total surprise of the collapse of the Soviet empire and leading to 9/11 made me think the humint side of the intelligence community was woefully inept. This isn't new. When he was in his cups ole Tailgunner Joe MacCarthy thought the place was full of commies. (Until he sobered up and whereupon he issued a retraction.) But I try not to ascribe malice when mere incompetence explains.

Speaking of MacCarthy, a McCarthy named Mary McCarthy is, depending upon who you listen to, either a demon of MacCarthy-like dimensions or a saint along the lines of Joseph Wilson or Valery Plame. Seems she dropped the dime on the CIA prisons deal. Heroic leaker, right?

Based on this morning's reading this is what happened:
She worked in CIA and when the Clinton's took power, she was quickly promoted. According to financial statements, she gives money to their kind of people. All the Clintonistas she worked for and who advised Mr. Kerry (who incidentally served in Vietnam) in the recent election describe her in glowing terms. But there are veiled murmerings from the right side of the blogosphere that she's a political hack.

Now, imagine a hypothetical. (Extended hypotheticals are best read while wearing tinfoil headgear.) You're Porter Goss who was a former spook before becoming a politician and you take over a politicized CIA. Spooks are certifiable "sneaky bastards" and if you're not a spook, remember you're only an amature sneak. (Ms. McCarthy has spent her career in the non-spook side of CIA.) Pause hypothetical.

When you work for the government and you see something bad going on, you can follow several procedures short of leaking the story to the New York Times. There will be an office of the Inspector General to whom you should file a complaint. Ms. McCarthy went to some kind of seminar that put her in contact with CIA officers in the Inspector General's office.

Resume hypothetical. Suppose some sneaky bastard files a false report about human rights violations in covert Eastern Europe prisons. After abu ghraib, the story is not only plausible, but "too good to check." Someone from the analytical side of CIA, who couldn't catch a clue if it were delivered by a hijacked jetliner at several hundred mph, would take the complaint at face value. End hypothetical.

I find it an interesting coincidence that on the very same weekend that Ms. McCarthy was indicted for disclosing classified information, the feds disclosed that they can find no proof of the these covert prisons.

With the aforementioned hypothetical in mind, I suspect that the CIA is getting back into the covert ops business.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

useless cable news

Someone down south has charged some jocks with having raped her. Racist and sexist politics are all in play. What I found most annoying just now is (beside the fact that I was watching this tripe) that in the same sentence where Alan Colmes accuses Sean Hannity for being sexist for mentioning that the accusing party is a stripper, he says she's a mother.

Now, if it is sexist for Sean Hannity to say the woman is a stripper. Isn't it also sexist to say she is a mother? To my knowledge, you have to be a member of the female sex to be a mother.

I don't care what anyone says. The only thing that's pertinent is what happened in this case. Since the case has not yet gone to trial, nothing of what happened has been established. There's nothing but hearsay and gossip until facts are brought out in court.

The bottom line of all this is that 24x7 cable news coverage needs a new "trial of the century" every three weeks or so. At this rate we can look forward to a total of 1733 trials of the century between now and 2106.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

ABC Gnosticism

i read the Da Vinci Code months back and thought it an amusing potboiler. A few scenes made me think, "this will cheese off the Catholics." But the rest just read like fiction, Harry Turtledove kinds of stories where the premise is "what if so and so didn't happen."

But Da Vinci Code gets a lot of traction. There's talk of the "sacred feminine" that some people take seriously and apply it to Mary Magdalene, but never to the Blessed Virgin Mary. (I've said before that there's a reason why there's so much goddess kitsch in the PBS Wireless catalogue.) I think this is because of something I call ABC religion: Anything But Christianity.

There's a lot of people who want to put forth a different ethic than that personnified by the God that Is. And adopting a different ethic, one that's more politically correct about homosexual acts, for instance, is something contemporary culture wants very much, but contemporary culture doesn't have the guts to openly pull out a golden calf. So, there's a lot of effort that goes into redefining Christianity and its ethic to fit their social agenda.

This worked a century ago when the Social Gospel had its expression in theological Liberalism had a primarily economic thrust and we didn't know that socialist economics was the Road To Serfdom. The commies at least had the guts to throw off those ancient myths. But Liberal Christianity has been unable to get traction of late.

So we're seeing different attempts at ABC replacements or redefinitions of Christianity along different lines. Since Christianity has an inherently Historical component, redefinition of Christianity has looked to the historical losers who fought to define Christianity in the first place.

Enter the Gnostics. That was a long time ago and their gospels are coming out of obscure historical places to serve in a contemporary attempt at redefining Christianity. Indeed, it is easy to look at Gnostic texts out of context and put together things that serve the contemporary redefinition/reinterpretation of Christ and his religion.

There's just one problem, when you interpret the Gnostic texts, it is easy to forget why they wee rejected in the early centuries of Christianity. Whereas orthodox/traditional Christianity makes a big deal of the dual human & divine nature of Christ, the Gnostics got his human nature wrong. The 1st century Gnostics would say Christ's humanity was a facade or illusion. Because matter to the Greek mind was inherently evil, Christ being good and God required Christ to be non-material.

In today's context, the heresy of Liberalism said Christ was a nice teacher, a human on spiritual steroids, but not wholly divine. Unless you mean by divine this panentheistic notion where there's a Newage sense in which everything is god. Contemporary society has rejected metaphysical notions that are the linchpins of Gnosticism.

The result is a sort of cafeteria theology where bits that advance the cause of the day are incorporated whilst conveniently ignoring the bits that don't fit. Nor is there any attempt to adhere to any systemmatic thinking to explain the connection beetween the bits you embrace. Sounds like a Cargo Cult, but that's another story.

Moreover, if you are to use the Gnostics to advance some feminist agenda, you've got a little problem with the antifeminist assertions of the Gnostic gospels themselves.

This shows a real risk of dealing with old texts. You can't read an old text with contemporary eyes. You have to understand the old text's philosophical-historical context and read it with that in mind. The ancient greeks had odd notions of substances and essences. Those notions drive a lot of the arguments of the early church fathers. But we're modern scientific rationalist readers, and we should take pains to interpret old texts in their ancient context before trying to translate their message into our contemporary context.

This applies to the traditionalist Christian as well as the new gnostic heretic. I leave it to the reader to supply examples.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Does God Reject People?

So, I'm watching TV and there's this ad with these people sitting in church and you see a finger hit a button and this spring under their chair shoots them off into space. They show a black woman with a baby. Then two guys who look like they want to make out right there in church. Then an arab looking guy. Then you see a handicapper's walker go sailing off. The last scene shows a homeless woman and the white bread folks next slide away.

ha ha ha.

Then the screen goes black and you see letters say, "God Doesn't Reject People" followed by a few seconds then "Neither do we."


So, I turned to my son, and asked, "I wonder what would REALLY happen if you got a bunch of Nazi storm troopers and sat them down in the pew?" And we got our own laugh.

My opinion about what's right or wrong is completely irrelevant. But God's opinion about what's right or wrong is most important. God has either spoken or he has not. And if he has done so, it is unwise to confuse our own moral opinions with whatever God has said.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Story-Driven Development And Cargo Cult Science

Recently at church the Sunday School teacher asked, "does anyone have a story about what that means?" I have noticed a shift to the post-modern emphasis upon narrative over the old-fashioned emphasis upon doctrine. Thus I started thinking thru a thesis/antithesis with "story" at one end pole. What was the other pole? I figured "explanation." A generation ago, the teacher would ask the class for an "explanation" instead of a "story."

Story-driven methodologies appear at church and in software engineering. In both contexts relevant facts are brought to light in a narrative descrptive structure. In church people tell their stories or use stories to point to something deeper--an encounter with the divine or some insight into our nature. This approach has pushed aside doctrinal or dogmatic teaching.

Similarly, some software development teams have adopted a story-driven development model. The software engineer interacts with the customer to discover "stories" that guide the software development process. Each story is a Use Case of the system expressed in narrative form. A story provides a scenario of stimuli from users or external systems and responses by the software solution. The narrative provides a structure whereby phenomena can be elaborated upon and described in measureable, repeatable terms. The distinction between Story Driven Development and Use Cases is that UML is the domain of Big Up-Front Design whereas Story Driven Development is more incremental and iterative just as Test Driven Development is so.

Stories are good in software engineering because every software project is a learning exercize. It invariably starts at "the point of maximum ignorance" and proceeds from there. Similarly, religion today is characterized by more doubt than faith.

Stories are a strategy for coping with incomplete and imperfect knowledge. This seems apt during requirements discovery. At this point, the client is more likely to know less consciously than he knows unconsciously. When a conscious explanation is demanded from him, he may offer something spurious. Conversely, if he were to offer a narrative description, implicit and unconscious information is more likely to slip into the "story." (See Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink: The Power Of Unconscious Thinking." )

Story or testimony places only one demand, that of honesty. The reader has to trust the story reflects the phenomena as perceived by the story-teller. This approach is very post-modern. It arrogates to itself minimal demands of "truth" or of "how" the phenomena come to be.

Reductionism is a necessary survival trait in both religion and in software engineering. Nothing will turn a pleasant philosophical/theological chat ugly faster than the assertion of some point of dogma someone else in the room anathamatizes. And I cannot say how many times a productive engineering meeting has ground to a halt upon getting bogged down in the "hows" while the "what's" remain only partially known. Story-based approaches focus everyone on the "what." This focus lets us all describe and clarify these things most immediately pertinent while deferring the deeper parts to the experts.

Mention of the experts brings us to note that story-based techniques work best in mixed company: in the mixed multitude of believers and skeptics in the theological domain, or in the mix of customer and solution-provider in the software domain.

The Bible was written by and to pre-scientific people. A lot of trouble springs from ignoring this point. The current approach is to interpret it phenomenologically. If the Bible says "sunrise" or "sunset" it means the same thing the weatherman on television means. Neither is making a statement about astronomy, both are saying when the day starts or ends.

There are at least three models that describe the motion of celestial bodies. Ptolemy articulated a system of wheels within wheels with the Earth at the center of the universe and everything moving around it. Copernicus created a model with the Sun at the center of the universe with the earth moving around it. Meanwhile, the Babylonians had created a purely mathematical description that made no attempt to get to the underlying mechanisms underlying the observed phenomena.

In his 1974 Caltech commencement address Dr. Richard Feynman described the Cargo Cult of the south seas. He describes them with this: "During the war they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head to headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas--he's the controller--and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land."

This shows a risk of the story-driven approach. The Cargo Cultists grasp phenomena, they know the story. We must not stop there. We understand why cargo planes came to remote islands and we understand why with the war over, they quit coming.

You have to think about the stories, put them together and underlying mechanisms that explain the phenomena. It is hard to go beyond phenomena we all agree about and add something to it. It paints a target on you. People will argue and your explanation will compete with others' explanations. A few centuries ago folks got burned at the stake when their explanations were shot down. As you may recall the competition between heliocentric and geocentric models gave rise to a lot of angry debate. Had it not been for Galileo's invention of the telescope, the debate might still be ongoing.

Feynman says that real science requires honesty. There will be parts of the story that don't fit your explanation. In fact, when Copernican astronomy specified circular instead of elliptical planetary orbits, its predictions fit the phenomena worse than Ptolemaic astronomy. Galileo's telescope added stories about Jupiter's moons. It's said that some refused to look through his telescope. No honest. Honestly dealing with the bits that don't fit replace some theories and correct other theories.

There is a certain arrogance in an "explanation" emphasis that's absent from "story" emphasis. "Explanation" presumes that one knows more than what's immediately apparent. "Story" acknowledges the limitations of perspective and scope. And it is much less likely to be contradicted by things like Copernican revolutions. On many software projects one learns that the underlying model formulated at one time is inadequate when you learn more later. Thus I think a "story" with its focus upon a sequence of immediate phenomena is less likely to prove wrong than an "explanation". Later stories will elaborate details latent in earlier stories, but not contradict them. (See Thomas Kuhn's "Structure of Scientific Revolution.")

Stories should feed theories. Theories inspire disagreement and argument. Debate may scrape the frothy bits off a theory, but the real advancement comes as more stories are incorporated into those theories. This iterative process is the synthesis of "story" and "explanation."

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Hypocrisy is cancer

A running sore may lie under a purple robe. -- Stephen Charnock

Last week in church I saw the above quote. I didn't like it. The notion of a running sore is disgusting. I guess that's why the quote works. We like to think ourselves something nice when our inner natures are in truth disgusting.

I own a book by Stephen Charnock. He's a cool dude. He's also been dead for a few centuries. Let's see, Mr. Google? Born 1628. I figure in those days one might have more occasion to encounter running sores than in antiseptic America. So, I arrogated to myself the task of updating Mr. Charnock's metaphor to something I could more directly relate to.

A running sore is a wound that does not heal. One of the interesting findings of recent medical science is that Cancer hijacks the healing mechanism of the body. The body sees the cancerous tumor as a wound that does not heal. So, it grows. Cancer I know something about.

Hypocrisy is cancer.

When you look at a cancer patient, you see someone whose skin looks deathly, their hair is falling out, and they look bloated and puffy. The cancer does not do that. It's chemotherapy that does all that bad stuff.

I don't know how long I had cancer. I didn't feel particularly bad for the years I now know that I had the disease. For most of the time, I looked pretty healthy. The cancer caused some blood loss through my colon but it was reabsorbed so the net effect was a bit of anemia. And the anemia didn't feel that bad except for the weakness and loss of stamina. And a craving for ice chips.

The functioning hypocrite probably doesn't notice anything either, just a little spiritual anemia. I don't know about the ice chips cravings.

The hypocrite looks as healthy as an undiagnosed cancer victim. He's probably as unaware of the hypocrisy as I was of my cancer. When you're fooling yourself, you can't try to fool God, because you've fooled yourself and think you've nothing to hide. That's what the prophet meant when he said the heart is deceitful.

Another thing about cancer and hypocrisy is denial. Both my parents died of cancer. So, when I felt chest pains, I thought it was heart disease, not anemia caused by cancer. Hypocrites are the people Jesus beat up on the most. Our unchurched friends tell us the church is full of hypocrites. And we say or think to ourselves, maybe where you were, but not my church, not me. A lot of self-image is tied up in NOT being a hypocrite. So, this business of fooling myself into thinking myself free of hypocrisy is just denial.

But what about my accountability partners? Won't they proof me against hypocrisy? I suppose if you're trolling the web for porn, they'll catch you there. But if you're doing that, you know that's wrong. To get denial right, you have to hide all the yardsticks. The great evil of any society is its replacement of God's law with its divergent standards. My philosophy teacher said that Idols define a culture. The Pharisees replaced the law of God with their traditions. God's Law reflects God's character, replacing the law with tradition is a form of idolatry. If you have replaced God's Law with prohibitions against smoking, dancing and drinking, all your accountability partners have done the same. You probably got that from your parents. Which is why God said that idolaters are cursed through several generations. (And if you have replace God's Law with the tradition of deprecating others who have those prohibitions, see above.)

To detect whether you're a hypocrite or not, you can't trust your heart and you can't trust your traditions. You can only trust God who defines the goodness you are trying to show the world. I believe God has spoken in the Bible. It says things about God's character and God's law. If you want to know what God's character is like, know the Ten Commandments. If you want to know how those commands should be lived out, know how Jesus taught them in the Sermon on the Mount, know how Jesus lived them in the Gospels.

You may object, "But all this focus on God's LAW is legalism!" To which we add the subtext, "And not only were the Pharisees hypocrites, they were legalists, too! I mustn't be that!!!"

I am not talking about how to go to heaven. I am talking about how to detect whether you're a hypocrite or not. I'm talking about getting over denial. I'm talking about finding out whether you're fooling yourself or not.

A lot of Baptists just aren't Zen. God's law is not soap. God's law is a mirror. You do not wash your face with a mirror. Legalists try that and they only break the mirror and cut themselves with the shards.

You look in the mirror to see whether your face is dirty. You use the mirror to see which spots you missed shaving. And that's how you use God's Law. It is the way to disclose how you are fooling yourself.

Gentle reader, you are a hypocrite. I know that I am.

What are we to do about our hypocricy? There's something in us that's wrong and killing us and it has to die. If we don't kill it, it'll get worse and kill us. Even if all we notice now is a craving for ice chips. Hypocrisy is cancer. Our unchurched friends are right, church is full of hypocrites.

Chemotherapy kills cancer cells. That's good. Chemotherapy also kills healthy cells. That hurts. When I looked like "death warmed over" during chemotherapy, don't blame the cancer. Blame the chemotherapy. The part of me that was wrong had to die. It bothered me most when my hair fell out. At that point, I had to show to the world that I was dying. My mom bought a wig. My dad shaved his head. I didn't lose all my hair, but it got thin and I had that cancer patient look. But would I do, cancel chemotherapy for cosmetic reasons?

I said I'm a hypocrite, right? Getting rid of hypocrisy could hurt my reputation. Or enhance it, I imagine my adoring fans whispering to themselves, "He's such a great saint for admitting he's a hypocrite. He's probably just oversensitive about teeny little sins." Hypocrites like to imagine adoring fans whispering like this.

Ever have one of those times when you and the Mrs. have a little tiff that settles into a slow burn? Both of you don't obviously yell at each other, but things aren't right either. That's where my heart was when I sat down to write those deathless words of purple prose atop this page.

That's why I'll give short shrift to howto cure hypocrisy. Don't read about soap from me, pick up your Bible. I'm going to trust God's grace. Ask forgiveness and confess the trivial sin of mistreating my wife.