Month: October 2015


“The Martian” is the kind of movie I used to love as a kid, full of heroic scientists, and the wonders of space travel, and the best aspects of human achievement. I guess my Christianity has always been sprinkled with a bit of humanism–in the best sense of the term.

This movie will of course be compared to the other “space realism” movies that have come out in the last two years. It is a warmer and less theological movie than “Gravity”, though it does touch on that loneliness of being alone in space (or in this case, on Mars), and it approaches some of the big existential issues. Really, though, this hearkens back more to “Apollo 13.” This is a fairly straightforward saga of one man’s survival in an unforgiving environment, in this case Mars. As with Ron Howard’s movie, teams of NASA engineers and scientists must figure out how to solve seemingly insurmountable problems to get him home safely, while the whole world watches.

At one moment in the film, the main character played by Matt Damon asks a colleague on a nearby space vessel to relay a message to his parents. What he says here is very touching. He wants to reassure them that he loves his work and that his death has meaning. I don’t remember the exact wording, but he says something to the effect of “I died for something that is bigger than me.”

That phrase resonates with my own longing for a meaningful life. Ultimately, for all of God’s children, life does have that kind of meaning. We live for the kingdom of God. We do the tasks God has given to us to do, and can go on to our eternal rest satisfied that we died for something that is bigger than us. As the great apostle Paul stated when contemplating his own death, “for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

This is not to belittle human achievement on its own terms. When humanity listens to “the better angels of our nature”, when it ascends the highest peaks, when it produces masterworks of art or sublime music, when it rises above self-destructive appetites in order to do good, and when it reaches into space, we as Christians should appreciate these things. We do not worship humanity, of course, but we worship the God that made us, and who deeply loves us. These achievements are gifts, reflecting the common grace of God. We are seeing in them the spark of divinity, the echo of that image of God that has been given to each of us.

Several stories have recently outlined a chilling culture of abuse that had developed at the Word of Life Christian Church in upstate New York. 19 year old Lucas Leonard was beaten to death during a “counseling session” because he was planning to leave the church.  His 17 year old brother, Christopher, was also beaten and had to be hospitalized.  The boy’s parents and several church members were present and took part in the beatings.  Witnesses have described the boy’s mother whipping him with a black cord.

A picture has emerged of a church that was secretive, whose pastor had become paranoid and controlling, driving away many members. Today’s New York Times describes it as a “lethal sect”. Apparently it was not always so. Somewhere along the way an ordinary church took a dark turn.

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Former members of the upstate New York church where two teens were viciously beaten paint a picture of a once vibrant and joyous house of worship that declined into a place of fear and intimidation under new leadership.

“When I first arrived, it was warm and welcoming. It was encouraging. It was helpful,” said Chadwick Handville, a massage therapist in Phoenix, Arizona, who left the Word of Life Christian Church in June 2000 after 10 years that included a stint as a worship leader and trustee. Things went downhill after founder Jerry Irwin returned from some time away and reclaimed his position as pastor, Handville said. (from Yahoo News).

In the evolving world of thought control on college campuses, a new concept has emerged. Known as “trigger warnings”, messages akin to the old Surgeon General cigarette labels now flag speakers or concepts that may “cause emotional distress”, so that they may be shunned and avoided. The idea emerges out of the feminist theory of “safe space”, and students, at least radical ones, want their colleges to be “safe” from ideas deemed offensive (in other words, any with which they disagree).

Consider the following excerpt:
You wouldn’t know it to look at her, but Christina Hoff Sommers is apparently the kind of speaker whose very presence on college campuses is so alarming that students require advance notice, also known as a trigger warning.

At least, that’s what happened when the American Enterprise Institute scholar spoke this month at Georgetown University and Oberlin College. Campus feminists kicked into high alert, warning students that her lecture on feminism and criticism of the college “rape culture” could make them “feel unsafe.” (From Washington Times).

It isn’t only conservatives that are disturbed by this. A professor wrote an essay for Vox titled, “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me.”):

I am frightened sometimes by the thought that a student would complain again like he did in 2009. Only this time it would be a student accusing me not of saying something too ideologically extreme — be it communism or racism or whatever — but of not being sensitive enough toward his feelings, of some simple act of indelicacy that’s considered tantamount to physical assault. As Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis writes, “Emotional discomfort is [now] regarded as equivalent to material injury, and all injuries have to be remediated.” Hurting a student’s feelings, even in the course of instruction that is absolutely appropriate and respectful, can now get a teacher into serious trouble.

Furthermore: In 2015, such a complaint would not be delivered in such a fashion. Instead of focusing on the rightness or wrongness (or even acceptability) of the materials we reviewed in class, the complaint would center solely on how my teaching affected the student’s emotional state. As I cannot speak to the emotions of my students, I could not mount a defense about the acceptability of my instruction. And if I responded in any way other than apologizing and changing the materials we reviewed in class, professional consequences would likely follow.

It may be no big shock to learn that Christian content might induce a trigger warning. In fact here is a passionately written atheist’s perspective on this: “That last point requires a bit more explanation, because I failed to mention that for some formerly devout people, church and churchy talk can actually be triggers for some very negative emotions. I don’t think our friends and family understand this, which makes perfect sense if you think about it. For them, this stuff is all wonderful. It thrills them and they can’t understand why others wouldn’t have the same reactions to songs about Jesus, about sin, about going to heaven and about getting saved from Hell. It seldom occurs to them that the very same songs, turns of phrase, and even mannerisms which feel so right to them can feel so wrong to someone else, especially someone to whom they are closely related.

In an ironic twist, Duke University students who are Christians are now being “triggered” by a book. Read more at Washington Post. It appears that on their way out of the public sphere, Christians have learned a bit from their leftist foes, and are using this kind of reasoning as a rear guard action to opt out of reading material that is offensive to them as Christians:

It’s also the case that these Christians are simply exercising the newest right on campus: the right to not be exposed to ideas or materials exposure to which might result in a bad emotional or intellectual reaction. Leftists on campus, it is well documented, routinely insist that they be warned if they might come within hearing distance of a conservative idea, book, or speaker, lest they find themselves with a case of the vapors. I have no use for such theatrics, especially inasmuch as it has become an authoritarian movement demanding the abridgment of free speech. Nevertheless, what’s good for the goose should be good for the gander. Except that for some, it isn’t.

You may read the entire post “trigger warnings are for liberals only” at the Stand Firm BLog, for an introduction and a sampling of some of the delicious howls of rage from leftists who don’t feel that what’s “good for the goose is good for the gander.”

The sad result, of course, is the slaughter of truth and the murder of intellectual freedom. This also causes further disengagement of Christians and non-Christians from each other’s ideas–for better and worse.


(Mt Everest seen from the Rongbuk valley, close to base camp at 5,200m; public domain image available at Wikimedia Commons)

I watched the 2015 movie “Everest” with my family, including a preteen son who loves mountains.  You may wish to catch this soon, while it remains in theaters.  The epic film follows the events of the 1996 disaster, when a blizzard imperiled (or ended) the lives of numerous climbers.

The movie could be divided into two segments, both vivid and compelling.  The first is the introduction to the characters and a depiction of their arduous ascent to the top of Everest. The audience learns of the motivations of the climbers. We are treated to the most breathtaking scenery, interspersed with studies of the grim realities of the trek above the “death zone”, the region above which human life is unsustainable. The movie shows us instances of high altitude pulmonary edema, loss of limb due to frostbite, and the madness that can accompany hypoxia. One is literally on the edge of eternity as an avalanche or wrong step can send a climber plummeting into oblivion.

But treacherous terrain isn’t the worst threat. Linger a few hours too long and even the most acclimatized mountaineer will succumb. Instead of the “valley of the shadow of death”, this is the sun-washed summit of death. Perhaps the grizzliest of sights one must pass on the way to the top are the corpses of those who have not made it. You may read about this in much more detail at this Gizmodo blog post. Bodies can linger in a state of mummification due to the intense cold and dry air. The hazards involved in extracting bodies means that some 150 corpses have been left where they lie. (In fact, some of the deaths on Everest reflect Ill-fated efforts to recover other bodies). A worthy movie could be made simply by lingering on the difficulties of journeying up to the peak. I might pause and note that the movie might have been ultimately more uplifting and inspiring if a different expedition were picked as the subject, such as the climb of the blind man Erik Weihenmeyer in 2001.

Part two of “Everest” gives us the details of the tragedy of 1996, and serves up a great deal of suspense. Several parties of climbers became delayed getting to the summit because of ropes that had not been previously set, and possibly because of too many people trying to make the summit on one day. As the last safe moment to turn around came, people who had invested tens of thousands of dollars and weeks of time were faced with the prospect of turning around with the summit in view. Some of them made bad choices based on emotion rather than yielding to the cold logic of better judgement.

I won’t give away the details of who lived or died, though this belongs to history. I will instead narrow my discussion to one of the fascinating survival stories. An American client, Dr. Beck Weathers, a pathologist from Texas, was a member of the expedition. A brash and arrogant man, he admitted in a later scene that the adrenaline rush of mountain climbing was his way of dealing with a black depression that threatened to consume him.

He was unable to make it to the top due to sudden onset of blindness. He ultimately became lost in a blizzard with others. When a fellow climber named Anatoly came upon him he was unconscious and appeared to be dead, and was left where he was. The next morning, against all odds, he awoke from his stupor, and staggered to camp. He eventually was extracted by helicopter. Though he lost his hands and nose to frostbite, he survived to resume his career as a pathologist. He has written a book about his brush with death and also became a motivational speaker.

Recently, he has spoken of his reaction to “Everest” and the aftermath of his experience. Watching it was “difficult”. However, “If I knew exactly what was going to happen — every bit of the struggle and heartbreak — I would do it again in a heartbeat. I gave up a couple of parts. But what I got back was my marriage, my relationship with my kids and a forced reevaluation of how I wanted to live the rest of my life. I got so much more out of it than I gave up.”

The full details are at L.A. Times.

This is a story that has been spreading lately on news and social media sites, and we will pile on in support of efforts to halt this injustice. The victim here is a Shia Muslim youth.

From the Jerusalem Post:

Saudi Arabia plans to crucify protester as it ascends to UN Human Rights Council chair

…Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr, a member of Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ite minority, was convicted on a variety of charges including taking part in anti-government protests, breaking alliance with the king, sedition, rioting and attacking security patrols in 2011. Nimr was 17 years old when Saudi authorities arrested him.

As a signatory of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Saudi Arabia is forbidden from enacting capital punishment against people under the age of 18. UN human rights experts also added that al-Nimr was subjected to torture and did not receive a fair trial.

This is so very sad. Our condolences to these families.

A gunman singled out Christians, telling them they would see God in “one second,” during a rampage at an Oregon college Thursday that left at least nine innocent people dead and several more wounded, survivors and authorities said.

More details are available at the New York Post.

What happens when your God is Mammon instead of the Lord of Truth:

FRANKFURT — A scandal that has battered Volkswagen’s image in the United States spread to the automaker’s core market in Europe on Tuesday, when the company said that 11 million of its diesel cars were equipped with software that could be used to cheat on emissions tests. That was more than 20 times the number of cars previously disclosed.

Read it all at New York Times.