Sunday, March 31, 2013

My fourteen best posts of the year!

Whew!  Lots of writing lately!  I finished my doctoral thesis, took oral exams, then prettied the whole the thing up , last year.  Faith Seeking Understanding went to press in fall, which involved prior work -- writing, interviewing, editing, even translating -- on every page.  Touchstone Magazine published my articles on Lin Yutang, and another comparing the faith of the Stoic Epictetus in God, to that of Zhuang Zi, the great Chinese humorist and philosopher.  (A third article, on John Loftus and the "Outsider Test for Faith," is due out next month in that same magazine.)  Dr. Tim McGrew kindly cowite (and vastly improved) a new chapter with me for a forthcoming volume, True Reason (due in print from Kregel early next year).  I also edited two previously-written chapters for that book, and helped with chapters by other contributors, as well.  And yes, I'm also working on new book projects!   

Also, over the past 13 months, I wrote almost 200 blog posts here -- some of them rather long! 

"I can't read all those!  Don't ask me!"  You protest in horror. 

I thought as much.  Make me do all the work!  You know writing these things hurts me more than it does you! 

But all right, here are thirteen (check: make that fourteen) I think especially worth reading.  I have chosen one (at least) from each of the past thirteen months.

Why thirteen months? 

Well, today is Easter.  So I thought we should begin with a piece I wrote for last Easter.  This article was a sleeper for a full year, then has come roaring "back to life" over the past month, with hourly visitors from higher and yon.  So it seems right to start with that. 

March, 2012  How likely is it that a certain rabbi will come back to life -- even before we find compelling evidence that he has done just that?  Read "Prior Probability of the Resurrection."  (That having set the stage, you may also enjoy Tim and Lydia McGrew's fabulous "The Cumulative Case for the Resurrection.")

April, 2012  Is Richard Carrier a myth?  A whimsical debate in heaven between great philosophers of the past, over sunflower seeds and tea.

May, 2012  A challenge to PZ Myers, to debate whether Christianity helps or hurts women.  If you're interested in this important issue, you may like to read my full series on the subject, beginning with this post

June, 2012  Here are my answers to a long series of challenges Jay Lowder, one of the more thoughtful atheists on the Internet, throws out to Christians.  (Lowder and others respond briefly in the comments section.)

July, 2012  A personal interlude, from a "lion's den" in Oxford, England: I go for my Viva 

August, 2012  Is God univeral?  A Stoic and a Taoist limp into the Church. (This is one of the Touchstone articles.) 

September, 2012  I disrespect Islam, Brian McLaren, and politically-correct cant, all in one happy post.

October, 2012  More off-beat musings, this time on a very different kind of religious leader, the Chinese philosopher Lao Zi. 

November, 2012  This piece is hard-hitting and not maybe as diplomatic as it should be, but one from the heart: America's War on Children.

(Note: Let me add another article from that month which is one of the most important of the year:"How Christ Liberates Humanity," a bibliography of about 130 books (mostly) that show how the Gospel has transformed the world for the better.) 

December, 2012  I take a break from bashing the secularists  here to critique Alvin Plantinga's argument from evolution, against naturalism.  This piece provoked a lot of interesting discussion, from both skeptics and Christians with some strange bedfellows, including from professional philosophers and others who evidently knew more about the subject that I did.  (But I still think I'm right!)    

January, 2013  Here's my list of the 100 Greatest Brits, ever.  Would you like to add (or subtract) anyone?  Some interesting suggestions are made in the comments section.   

February, 2013  Canadian philosopher Randal Rauser interviews me on our new book, Faith Seeking Understanding. 

March, 2012  Are you still in the mood for more debate?  Read the second part (at least) of my detailed analysis of Richard Carrier's opening statement in our debate in February.  Or would you rather go cross-country skiing in the North Cascades with my son, John and I?  Pick up some skis, and join us. 

Friday, March 29, 2013

The North Cascades on X-Country Skis

There was a forty-percent chance of rain yesterday, and the Mountain Loop Road is well on the watery side of those stats.  But John is home from college for the week, we'd never been there in the winter (is this still winter?) and we had to try. 
The plowed part of the road ended three miles to the west. We skiied up the road without knowing exactly where we were, and found ourselves at the picnic area by the little trail leading to the Ice Caves.  These caves are quite a sight in summer, barely 2000 feet above sea level, formed by avalanches sliding into a land of shadows off of Big Four Mountain.  



That's John, and Jake, and that's Big Four Mountain, down which the avalanches feed into
the ice caves.  You can see the trees have been snapped off where we're standing in
the past.  Not a good idea to get any closer, in late March, with 200 inches of
snow pack at the top of that mountain. 
Back across Snoqualmie River to our home.  In a week, these trees should all be a soft green.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Fact-Checking Carrier II: Looking for Aliens

I now continue with a more detailed analysis of Richard Carrier's initial argument in our debate in Alabama last month, especially his attempted rebuttals of my arguments for Miracles, God, and Jesus.  This will be the second and probably final part, unless I decide to take another shot at Carrier's "Problem of Evil" argument.

Several posters have kindly responded to my request for alternative and, hopefully, better rebuttals. 
Here, by Darrin Rasberry, an Orthodox Christian.  Here, by John Fraser, a missionary who is educated in philosophy.  Matthew Schultz has posted his response in the comment section for Carrier's talk.  Steve Hays posted this response, and then decided to have a little fun with Carrier's remarkable remarks about how Jesus' raising of the dead might have just been psychosomatic.  Thanks, guys!  More responses may yet come in. 

Carrier's arguments below, even more than in the first part, are of the scatter-shot, blunderbluss variety, and do not seem aimed even roughly in the vicinity of my actual arguments he is attempting to rebut, as I will show.  Yet he claims, at the end of his talk, to have "rebutted every one of his arguments that's relevant to this debate."  I therefore allow myself, in a few cases, to offer somewhat flippant responses. 

Jesus and Space Aliens?

I want to give you another example. Is it reasonable to believe an alien spaceship was recovered at Roswell, New Mexico, and alien bodies were autopsied by the government? Books written within forty years of the event in 1947 claim dozens of witnesses saw these things and gave detailed narratives of them.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Fact-Checking Carrier I

In February, Dr. Richard Carrier and I debated "Is the Christian Faith Reasonable?" at the University of Alabama-Huntsville. (A debate kindly sponsored by Ratio Christi and Nontheists.)  Carrier began his opening talk by giving a highly effective (I thought) version of the Argument from Evil, focused on Jesus' failure to warn people against easily preventable diseases. (Though some of his claims about Jesus himself were patently false, as I argue below.)  I may deal in more depth Carrier's Argument from Evil later.  Here I'd like to focus on those of his comments meant to rebut my opening arguments.    I'll begin with strategies of general dismissal, then focus on three more concrete arguments Carrier made.  (More will probably be dealt with in a later post.) 

Marshall vs. Carrier: Richard's opening argument.

Richard Carrier's opening argument, February 9, 2013, University of Alabama-Huntsville  (Subheads have been added, and again, disfluencies subtracted, so as to make what follows maximally readable.) 

All right. I can't give you all the reasons I think Christianity is unreasonable in the time given here, so I'm only going to focus on a few. Of course after this debate you should go out and learn more -- more of my writings, more of David's writings, others, Christians, atheists and so on. Learn about this beyond what gets covered in this debate.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Marshall vs. Carrier: My opening statement

In our debate in February at the University of Alabama - Huntsville, Richard Carrier advised the audience, "Of course after this debate you should go out and learn more . . . Learn about this beyond what gets covered in this debate."  I agree.  A public debate can be a fun spectacle, but also the chance to raise important questions and to think in new ways -- then go out and check the facts for oneself. 

That's the main reason I'm putting together a transcript of our debate.  Not only for the value of the debate itself, and not just because I personally prefer transcripts, which can be read easily and quoted if desired.  But also this allows the debate to go on, to serve as a springboard to further research.  I, for one, am eager to double-check some of the claims Richard made during our debate, not all of which I could answer (or even knew enough to answer!  and I'm pretty sure that was true for him, too) in those few minutes on stage.  And maybe others will also like to know where we got our information from, and check whether it is accurate. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

What are the best cities?

Lijiang: honorable mention.  If they hadn't busted me here for Bible
smuggling, maybe higher. 
The Mercer Quality of Living Survey rated the best cities on earth in which to live. It turns out most of them are German, if you believe Mercer. Aside from Vancouver, Aukland, Singapore, and Copenhagen, 6 or the top 10 are German-speaking cities in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland. 

It occurred to me the first time I saw one of their surveys, in which six German towns also won top honors, that Mercer is wrong, and it might be a nice break from serious subjects to post an alternative way of judging cities here. 

First of all, you probably shouldn't begin with a set of criteria. Begin by getting to know great cities on their own terms. Walk.  Smell.  Taste.  Chat.  Get lost on the boulevards and in the parks. 

But if you really need some criteria, say because you want to be "scientific" or have some other neurosis, here are a few ideas, in more or less random order:

(1) Did God make this the right place for a city? Its amazing how often people put cities in the wrong places. Why Phoenix? Can anyone explain?

(2) A good city needs beautiful buildings. It's nice if some of them are old, but it's not absolutely necessary. Gargoyles, bright lights, reflections, are all pluses. All major Japanese cities lose points; small towns where only old people live gain points.

(3) Of course beautiful women also make a city beautiful.

(4) A great city needs great food. Of course every large city nowadays has an infinite variety of ethnic cuisines -- the key here is good CHEAP food, served by real human beings, if possible, and with some flare.

(5) Do the people here have a sense of humor?

(6) Are there lots of kids? A city without children is a museum.

(7) Are kids allowed to light firecrackers, make noise, splash in pools, and play at the beach with their dogs?

(8) How many generations helped build the city? Are there ghosts of great writers and statesmen and scientists about? Take off points for famous tyrants and totalitarians, present of course but also past. Such boring ghosts they make. 

(9) Give points for top universities, multiply by the inverse square of the metropolitan population, or something like that.

(10) Takes points away for high taxes, add points for low taxes. Sorry, Berlin, Stockholm, Oslo.

(11) Add 50 points if the city is by the sea, 20 for a large (clean) lake, 10 for a (beautiful) river.

(12) A good city needs mountains nearby, with old trees. Extra points if you ski. 
Seattle: forget coffee!  This is a day-trip away.

(13) Add lots of points if you can drive three hours to (a) broadleaf woodlands that turn color in fall; (b) coniferous forests where they let you cut Christmas trees; (c) farms (1 hour or less); (d) ocean beaches; (e) glaciers; (f) desert.

(14) Does the city have a beautiful skyline at night?

(15) How many languages is worship conducted on the weekend here?  The more, the closer it is to the vision of heaven in Revelations. 

(16) Who do the sports fans hate? Add points if everyone hates the Yankees, Tokyo Giants, Manchester United, or some such placebo. Subtract points if you have one of these vile teams in your city.

(17) Yeah, take a few points off for unemployment, high murder rate, blight, smog, earthquakes, terrorism, and the like if you must.

(18) Now throw your scoring system out the window. If a cop or a nag comes up to you and gives you a scolding, burn all your bridges, shake the dust off your feet, and never come back. If someone politely throws it in the garbage can, smile once, get out of the car, walk for an hour, talk to a few people, and make the call exclusively on the mood you now find yourself in.

Someone suggested Budapest.  Someone else, Montreal.  A frequent poster here, Brian Barrington, suggested Australia, then France (which of course are not cities, but do contain some):

I'd agree with David that the best way to judge a place is to go and walk around a have a look. The place I have been to with the highest quality of life, if you just look at the overall country rather than specific city, is Australia. It's sunny, it's rich, it's safe, it's friendly, everything works, it's optimistic, the cost of living is not outrageous, the restaurants are good, healthcare is good. If you like beach life and outdoor activities you are sorted. One disadvantage is that it's very far away from everywhere and it doesn't have much in the way of history or culture.

If you take all that into consideration as well, then the place with the best quality of life is France, because it is a country with EVERYTHING.

So those would be my personal observations, and I get support for them from another Quality of Life survey:

Well, I haven't been to Australia.  They don't have much snow, anyway, or enough mountains, and too many snakes and deadly spiders. Plus it takes forever to get anywhere else. 

I have been to France, and much of it is gorgeous, without too many snakes.  If I knew the city better, I might include Nice, which is nice, from the mountain looking down on the city and the Mediterranean sea in the morning.  But judging a city by its looks alone is too superficial: I don't know any French cities well enough to evaluate them fairly.  (I did have some delicious peaches in Cannes, which helps. but doesn't quite get us there.)

So the following list is admittedly limited by my very limited travels or sense of a few places I have not been. 

Drum roll .  . . .

(1) Hong Kong -- even if you do have to live in a rabbit hutch, there's no place like it. The world's most spectacular skyline.  Everything moves -- water, people, trams, double-decker buses, hovercraft, subways.  Islands. Hills.  Monkeys.  Cantonese food.  Brilliant new architecture.  700 year old villages.  (Downside: so humid in long summer.  Dirty beaches.) 

(2) Vancouver Good, cheap Chinese and Indian food (among others) everywhere.  Beautiful views in every direction.  Community feel.  Nice houses, lots of trees.  Better recent architecture than Seattle.  Skytrain works. 

(3) San Clemente, CA -- no wonder Richard Nixon got tanned, rested and ready here -- it's a gorgeous little town with red-tile rooves, clinging to the hill above the ocean.  After speaking at the also very attractive Presbyterian church in town, walked down to the pier for some fish and chips. 

(4) Black River, Kyushu, Japan -- really just a hot springs resort, you can walk up and down the creek and sample the best hot springs by lantern, then drive up to the world's biggest caldera the next day.
A couple random kids at Nugget Creek falls, just north
of Juneau. 
(5) Juneau, Alaska.  Maybe the most beautiful natural setting for any capital in the world, when it's not drizzling.  Avalanches twisting down Mount Roberts in the snow.  Bald eagles.  Glaciers you can walk to, and pick semi-precious stones. Echo Ranch Bible Camp.  But prepare to be depressed in the fall.
(6) Shanghai Why Shanghai?  I don't know, ask the students at Nanjing University -- they all want to move there.  Renao, "hot and sweaty," in a good way.  Electricity in the air.  Spectacular skyline, but some old buildings, too.  Come at October 1st, and get bopped on the head with big air-filled hammer-balloons. 
(7) Oxford You can walk everywhere.  Hike through the trees above C. S. Lewis' house on a windy autumn day, and watch the oaks and maples turn into Dryads and Naiads.  Walk along the Cherwell, and look for Alice punting.  Listen for echoes of the debate between Sam Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley at the Pitts River Museum. 

(8) Honolulu -- I'd say Kona, but need the Asian stimulation.

(9) Seattle  You can see the mountains of three national parks from the city on a moderately clear day -- and three snow-crested volcanoes, including Mount Rainier.  (Mount Saint Helens used to be visible.)  Every day the Olympics look different across Puget Sound from my parents' house in West Seattle.  Salt water borders the city on the west, glacier-scoured Lake Washington on the east.  Coffee may not taste like much, but it smells good.  Some cool buildings.  Not too many muggings. (Well, one is too many, but you get my drift.)  Some decent Asian food.  (Seattle loses points for its great phobias against dogs on beaches, plastic bags, and firecrackers.  Never mind the rain, or Vancouver and Oxford are sunk, too, not to mention Juneau.) 

(10) Toss-up and honorable mention: Bath, Beijing, Hangzhou, Lijiang, Madison, Wenzhou, York, Petropavolovsk for all the volcanoes. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Perspectives: Taiwan mountain valley

A typical mountain valley in Taiwan -- one of the most crowded countries in the world, if you can believe it by this photo.  I walked this day for twelve or thirteen miles along a mountain road, meeting just a few cars the whole day, along with one monkey in a tree eating fruit.  (The only snake I met that day was a dead snake -- a big, colorful green snake -- but these hills are rich in snakes, too, some of whom I have encountered in the past.)  More than half the little island is uninhabited (by humans), aside from a few scattered tribal villages.  Yet the population now is some 23 million, on an island one fifth the size of Washington State.  There is much to see on this beautiful island. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Hector Avalos is on the War Path (again)!

Sorry to readers who are tired of my debates with New Atheists -- I do have a bunch of stuff I'm looking forward to write about soon, including the remarkable story of Ranald Macdonald, the half-Chinook Indian who was the first American to voluntarily visit Japan, and maybe some good stuff from Plato, too.  But the fireworks shop has just gone up in a blaze of glory.  Hector Avalos is on the warpath, John Loftus is swearing at me (whether for good or bad reason, I'm not quite sure myself), and I still need to go through my debate with Richard Carrier and sort out fact from fiction.  So sit back and enjoy the show, if that's your leaning, or throw water on the conflagration, if you're a responsible citizen.  Or grab a few bottlerockets yourself, and come join the fray.   

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Loftus vs Marshall I: An Alphabet of Errors (on Science and Faith)

John Loftus' new book, The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True is now in my hands, and yes, it's as bad as feared.  I've read the first half, where he makes his general case and "deals" with my arguments (well, some of them, if by "deal with" we mean "misconstrue" and "dance around"), along with those of other critics (Mark Hanna, JP Moreland, Victor Reppert, Randal Rauser, etc).

Since I know my own arguments best, I'll begin this series by dealing with John's critique of those, as he sees them.  This is a case where an "insider" perspective may prove helpful.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

And here are the steeples . . .

Founded in 1831, Salem Presbyterian
Church (I called it "Shalom"
on Sunday) with neighboring
steeples from Episcopal, Baptist, and
Methodist churches, lends a sense
of aesthetic harmony to the center of
town.  But Salem Pres is, I think, the
most beautiful.  The city is Salem,
I have not always appreciated the look of churches.  There was a time when I thought it was a waste to spend money on stained-glass windows.  Sometimes I suspect that the beauty of a sanctuary may actually distract attention from God, and the formal clothes one wears can be a disguise, so God can't spot us on the pew.  The worship sometimes seems more real, more spontaneous, conducted in a room with no distractions.  I'm not sure if these feelings were an accident of my own history -- growing up with more formal worship, then learning the extemporaneous, more open style in a bombed-out ex-hospital in Hong Kong, with Youth With a Mission, or whether there really is a causative link. 

Grace Methodist beautifies a city that
(in its old core) is already rather
pretty despite some noisy cars, North
Augusta, South Carolina.  (Just across
the Savanna River from the famous
golfing mecca.) 
Plus I often felt, in China and Taiwan, that local churches looked too western.  Why not build worship halls that look like a temple, with cool Chinese-style "gargoyles" on the roof, and pillars and incense?  Or in a more austere, classical mood, how about something in the style of the Temple of Heaven, in Beijing? 

Be that as it may -- and I still don't like hard wooden pews -- I'm coming to appreciate the beauty of traditional church buildings, and how they redeem a landscape. 

COLUMN: Dr. David Marshall and GUMC Take a Stand for God and Christianity
Talking with a gentleman at
Grace Methodist in North
Augusta, South Carolina.  From
the North Augusta Star.

American cityscapes need a lot of redeeming, especially the new parts of town, and some run-down districts.  Strip malls may or may not be convenient -- why don't they ever sell real food at a "convenient store," is heart disease supposed to be the most convenient way to die? -- but how they do uglify.  I am beginning to think concrete may sometimes be an actual sin, a betrayal of our calling to take care of the Earth, one of too many sacrifices we make to the great god Auto. 

Here, by contrast, are four churches I spoke at in the South this winter, in four different states, with a little of their history. 

North Avenue Pres, in downtown
Atlanta.  Built from Stone
Mountain granite, North Avenue
has also hosted Korean, Eritrean,
Kenyan, and Sudanese fellowships,
and many mainland Chinese
scholars on Sunday morning from
nearby Georgia Tech. 
Religion poisons everything?  Hogwash.  Around the world, in a modern, industrialized landscape, even religions I don't mostly believe in save some part of our souls in this limited sense. 

These four churches also seemed to anchor their communities in deeper ways -- as centers of community, ministry that stretches beyond those communities to the world, and spiritual nournishment for those who come.  I enjoyed getting to know their pastoral staff a little, and watching people who obviously cared for one another interact.  It appeared that God was working through their ministries, and that there were some wonderful people in their churches who do seem to be making a difference in the world.

That's perhaps the best part of these speaking tours.  (Though I also enjoyed hiking on the Appalachian Trail this Sunday afternoon!)

I see the value of churches like Mars Hill Fellowship, with box store architecture, but intense outreach to hurting and disfunctional people like us.  But even Mars Hill is now renting the beautiful old United Methodist Church in downtown Seattle, along with the former Hillcrest Pres in West Seattle, where I grew up.  Maybe we can do the one, without neglecting the other.  Maybe God does want us to redeem our world with beauty that all can see, even while we try to unpretentiously befriend our neighbors with Christ's love.   

So here are a few steeples. 

Open the doors, and you're likely to meet some great people. 

West Huntsville Baptist, Alabama, is a thriving, multi-ethnic
fellowship in a part of town that has been a little neglected.  Watch out for the
trees in the parking lot! I like a church
that won't make ask trees get out of the way of the automobiles!   

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Avalos on the Resurrection: Some challenges

Dr. Hector Avalos, Religious Studies  professor at Iowa State University, with whom I've locked horns in the past, posted a long piece on the resurrection yesterday at the "Debunking Christianity" website.  I say it is on the resurrection to keep things simple: Avalos introduces a large cast of scholars, and considerable "back-story." He is as much arguing against the scholarship of William Lane Craig in defending the resurrection (but even that's simplifying things), as against the resurrection per se.  But I haven't read Avalos' book on biblical scholarship, and am less concerned with that at the moment.  Let's keep it as simple as possible, and focus especially on those points most relevant to actually discussing the resurrection of Jesus. 

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Faith Plus: Christian discoveries for John Loftus.

John Loftus, in his on-line persona at least, seems determined to explore every nook and cranny of fuzzy thinking about Christianity.  Take his post this morning contrasting the top-ten discoveries of science for 2012, with the allegedly shoddy record of religion in making new discoveries during the same year:

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Marx Madness: Ten Criteria for Historical Influence

Sam Harris says that it "really does matter" what we believe.  Richard Dawkins agrees, and devotes a great deal of space to the pernicious effect of belief in God. (As does Hitchens, and to a lesser extend Dennett.)
But how does it matter what we believe?  What is the link between belief and effect of that belief?  How can we be sure there is any real causative connection?