Holy bubbles

I’ve been searching for a preschool for Laurelin for a couple of mornings a week. I think it’ll be good for her, and it will help the two older girls and me get a bit more done in school. It’s either that or a very part-time nanny, but I’ve just started looking so we’ll see.

Anyway, in my search, I came across a preschool that uses a church’s facilities (but they’re not affiliated with them at all). Ben and I scrolled through the church’s page and photos to get an idea of what they believe, etc. out of interest and came across this one. No, I don’t know the context, and each to his own, but…?!

Untitled

Why I quit Facebook (for now)

Disclaimer: this is simply my reasoning for giving up Facebook for the foreseeable future. I’m not saying any of this to make you feel like you should quit Facebook too.

facebook-icon

 

I thought I’d give a bit of an explanation to those who might be interested on why I deactivated my Facebook account 3 months ago (since a few people have asked).

Giving up Facebook was a decision that did not come to me easily. And I should probably say right from the get go that I’m not necessarily quitting forever. I really like Facebook. I like scrolling down the news feed and seeing what people have been up to, checking out their photos and reading some of the interesting articles they’ve linked to. I really miss that feeling of connectedness — showing someone that I’m interested in their life, even if it’s just with a simple ‘like’. I really miss the fact that I now don’t know when someone’s had a new baby, or got a new job, boyfriend, or girlfriend; I can’t see people’s wedding photos or their cute videos; I don’t know what people are thinking through the articles they’re posting. I’ve had withdrawal symptoms, where I’d sneak onto Ben’s Facebook account, until I asked him to change his password so I can’t do that anymore! I had become somewhat addicted… Going cold turkey on Facebook was harder for me than I thought it would be!

For months, I had a growing sense of unease with how much time I was spending on Facebook. It’s not like I was spending hours a day (or even an hour!), but since starting homeschooling, my time has become incredibly limited. I have precious few hours left in a day that aren’t taken up with homeschooling, or with preparing, eating and cleaning up meals, or just trying to keep this place looking half sane. And then I’d waste it by zoning out on Facebook?

I think part of the temptation for me to zone out on Facebook is that I’ve been so tired for months and I seem to just not have the self-control to handle it at this point in my life. It’s so much more beneficial to me to take a 20 minute nap than to zone out on Facebook for 20 minutes!

Tying into being tired: I was also concerned with the kind of browsing I was doing. Nothing about it was deliberate. It was the kind of aimless scrolling and browsing you do where you retain maybe 10% of what you read. I might be reading interesting articles, but in reality I was actually just skimming them. I was escaping reality and zoning out. Doing that in front of a T.V. makes you look like a slob; zoning out in front of a computer makes you look important. You can say something like “Mamma is busy on the computer right now” and it sounds like I’m doing something worthwhile.

Facebook’s nature makes it very easy to spend 2 minutes or 2 hours on there. With the result that I could quickly check it for 2 minutes on my way to the bathroom, get distracted and actually spend 10 minutes instead. And this might be right during a school day. If a friend knocked on my door uninvited at 10am and said, “I’ve come to show you my holiday photos!”, I’d invite them in, but politely explain to them that I’m in the middle of schooling my kids and that her photos would have to wait. Then why on earth do I think it’s legitimate to do that on Facebook? Somehow, somewhere along the track I lost the sense of how absurd my Facebook usage was.

All this has gotten me thinking more about how I want to live deliberately. I don’t want to be zoning out and wasting hours of my life that I will never get back. I want to think carefully about what is worth spending time on or for. I want to be present in body and mind for my children.  I want to remember that spending time on people is more important than spending time on things. I want to consciously be able to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to things that will enrich the lives of my family. Interestingly, that means cutting out more and adding in less. For me, that meant cutting out Facebook for now, so that I could be more present. I’m making some other changes too, and need to make many more. But it’s a start.

Hacker Christianity

Introduction

This is a written version of a pre-Christmas talk I gave at work recently, about the intersection between Christianity and hacker culture. There’s also a video available here — the sound quality’s not brilliant, but feel free to watch it there!

So who am I, and why do I think I can speak on this topic?

Well, I’m a Christian first. The label “Christian” means different things to different people, but I mean something pretty objective by it — I mean someone who believes the Bible, and specifically believes in Jesus Christ as a historical figure who was born, died, and rose from the dead, to save the world, and to save you and me from our brokenness.

But I’m also a hacker. As most of you know, the term “hacker” has two different meanings: the one you see in the news, which is someone who’s done something illegal using a computer — cracked a military code, or broken into an online bank. But that’s really a “cracker”.

The true meaning of the word “hacker” is someone who loves computer programming, who cares about details, and who likes writing code or solving problems in clever and playful ways. This meaning originates back to the 1960’s at MIT, one of the great engineering schools over in the Eastern United States. It started out as a kind of cross between computer programming and practical joking.

For example, one of the great “hacks” some folks did was assembling a full-size model of a fire truck on top of MIT’s Great Dome. The dome usually looks like this:

800px-MIT_Building_10_and_the_Great_Dome,_Cambridge_MA But on the morning of September 11, 2006 (kind of as a nod to the firefighters who helped out in the September 11 attacks) the top of the dome looked like this:

mitfire2 They’d carefully built the parts for the fire truck beforehand, and then snuck them up during the night and assembled it on top of the dome. As you can see, they paid attention to detail — there are pressure gauges and a fire hose, and even two “fire dogs” standing on the side of the truck. So you can see the playful and creative side of hacker culture.

But this also comes out in code — in playful or creative solutions to programming problems. If someone writes a spelling checker in 10,000 lines of code, that’s just run-of-the-mill programming. But when someone like Peter Norvig writes a spelling corrector in a handful of lines of quite readable code, makes it freely available, and writes a short article describing how it works, that’s what I call a great hack:

import re, collections

def words(text): return re.findall('[a-z]+', text.lower())

def train(features):
    model = collections.defaultdict(lambda: 1)
    for f in features:
        model[f] += 1
    return model

NWORDS = train(words(file('big.txt').read()))

alphabet = 'abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz'

def edits1(word):
   splits     = [(word[:i], word[i:]) for i in range(len(word) + 1)]
   deletes    = [a + b[1:] for a, b in splits if b]
   transposes = [a + b[1] + b[0] + b[2:] for a, b in splits if len(b)>1]
   replaces   = [a + c + b[1:] for a, b in splits for c in alphabet if b]
   inserts    = [a + c + b     for a, b in splits for c in alphabet]
   return set(deletes + transposes + replaces + inserts)

def known_edits2(word):
    return set(e2 for e1 in edits1(word) for e2 in edits1(e1) if e2 in NWORDS)

def known(words): return set(w for w in words if w in NWORDS)

def correct(word):
    candidates = known([word]) or known(edits1(word)) or known_edits2(word) or [word]
    return max(candidates, key=NWORDS.get)

Another aspect of hacker culture is bending the rules. True hackers aren’t into doing things that are illegal or immoral, but we really hate red tape, and sometimes that comes at the cost of stretching the rules almost to their breaking point, but no more. For example, a hacker might hate wearing bicycle helmets. But it’s the law (at least in New Zealand), and you don’t want to get pulled over by a cop. So what do you do? Hack the system — ride a unicycle! Or design a self-balancing unicycle that goes as fast as a bike. There’s nothing in New Zealand law that says you have to wear a helmet on a unicycle … problem solved.

Okay, so what about my own hacker credentials? Well, I’m a computer programmer by day, so really I get paid for hacking. I’ve also written or contributed to several small open source libraries:

  • scandir, a better directory iterator and faster os.walk() for Python that I hope to get included in the Python 3.5 standard library.
  • Symplate, a very simple and fast Python templating language.
  • inih, a tiny INI file parser written in C.
  • fabricate, a simple build tool that automatically finds dependencies.
  • Third, a small Forth compiler I wrote in 8086 assembler when I was 16.

Anyway, enough intro, and enough about hacking. I think you’ve got the idea. So what about the intersection between Christianity and hacker culture?

Cross-pollination

One of my aims is to give new meaning to the phrase “tech evangelist”. Usually a tech evangelist is someone who wants to promote their technology. My twist on the phrase is that I’m into both tech and evangelism, and exploring how they can cross-pollinate each other. Even the phrase cross-pollinate has a deeper meaning.

At first glance, hacker culture seems predominately agnostic and atheist, but an interesting fact is how many well-known hackers and computer scientists believe in God. Four of the more well-known ones are:

  • Donald Knuth is basically the world’s most-respected computer scientist. He wrote the multi-volume The Art of Computer Programming and the TeX typesetting system. He’s also written some stuff that directly combines computer science and Christianity, such as the book 3:16. He’s 75 now, and kind of my personal hero — I even told my wife all about how cool he was on our honeymoon.
  • Larry Wall, the creator of the Perl programming language, which is said to be the duct tape that holds the Internet together. He says he kind of considers himself “an apostle to the hackers”.
  • Fred Brooks, who wrote the classic book about software engineering, The Mythical Man-Month.
  • Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired magazine, is a devout Christian and also a “futurist” (not a combination you see every day). Keanu Reeves was required to read one of Kelly’s books before playing Neo in The Matrix movie.

Each of those people is incredibly interesting in his own right, whether you’re more into the hacker side of things or the Christianity side of things — go check them out.

In terms of how the two cultures can influence each other, first up, I think Christians can learn a few things from the hacker community about contributing to “open culture”. In the programming world you’ve got open source software, where people share the source code for their programs freely. Linux, Firefox, Android, the Apache web server … these really have made the computing world a better place. Budding hackers can learn from code written by top programmers, because they’ve made it freely available to use and modify.

In the Christian world, there are some free things, such as sermons, articles, and the King James Bible — that’s in the public domain, but only because it’s so old. Newer Bible translations are all proprietary pay-ware, like Microsoft Word. Various hackers have come up with free software licenses like the GPL, and free culture licenses like the Creative Commons licenses. And they’re starting to influence Christians. A notable free Bible is the Open English Bible, which is developed on GitHub. There’s also the NET Bible and the English Standard Version, which are at least free as in beer.

Then there’s the “commercial Christian music scene”, which is a can of worms I’m not even going to open tonight. But I will quote Larry Wall’s quip on how researchers and artists can have the best of both worlds — get paid for their work as well as give their creations away for free. When he worked at O’Reilly, Larry Wall said, “Essentially, my position is what you call a patronage. It’s a very old-fashioned idea which goes back to the time when there was an aristocracy and they would support artists and musicians. They would have a patron, Tim O’Reilly is my patron. He pays me to create things, to kind of be in charge of the Perl culture.”

A little aside about Creative Commons. This is really great. You write something, you copyright it as Creative Commons, and there are some different options you can choose, but basically you’re giving people the right to use it totally free of charge, and mostly free of restrictions. Creative Commons is actually straight from the Bible — it’s just phrased a bit differently: “Freely you have received; freely give.”

So I think Christians could learn a thing or two about open culture from the free software movement.

Speaking of free software, Richard Stallman, who founded the Free Software Foundation, is basically an Old Testament prophet for his movement, right down to his massive Moses-like beard. I think he’s a bit of an extremist, but sometimes it takes extremes to get people to listen. Since the 1980’s, he’s basically been telling people — in software terms — to go sell their possessions and give everything to the poor. His message is software freedom: that people who use software should be allowed to study and modify how it works. And just like an Old Testament prophet, he phrases it in very black and white moral terms. Still, despite his extremism, I think the overall effect is good. Many people have been inspired to release their software and source code freely, making the programming world a better place.

But the Free Software Religion isn’t ready to take over the world quite yet. And a couple of years ago, I discovered why — their music kinda sucks. Just for fun, if you click the play button below you can subject yourself to two minutes of Richard Stallman singing the Foundation’s “free software song”. Apologies in advance for any cerebral damage caused:

Admittedly Christians have had 2000 years longer to develop good music, but that kinda makes me feel sorry for the Free Software Foundation. I grew up on classical music and solid church music, for example:

So yeah, if you’re a musician, join the Free Software Foundation — they seem to need your help.

Another point of cross-pollination that I’ve written about before is the Reformation — back in the 1500’s when Protestants split from the Catholic Church. I think the Reformation was an incredibly interesting time in history. It’s like Eric Raymond’s essay on open source, The Cathedral and the Bazaar. The Reformation happened when the cathedral model had reached a breaking point; what the world needed was a bazaar.

The Church had effectively made the Bible proprietary software. It was in Latin and very few people could read it; in fact, you weren’t allowed to unless you were a priest. Then along came Martin Luther and established the Free Scripture Foundation. Shortly afterwards, John Calvin and John Knox made the whole thing open source. Johannes Gutenburg founded GutenHub.com to help distribute all of this good stuff.

So that’s some of what hacker culture can offer Christianity, what about the reverse? Does Christianity have anything to offer hacker culture? I believe it does. Hackers do some really good things, but I think they suffer from lack of moral foundation. Put another way, we hackers are nice people, but we can’t explain why.

That’s really where Jesus comes in. He made the world a better place not just by giving a few hours of his spare time; he gave his life. So there’s this concept of sacrifice at the center of the Christian view of things that shapes everything else.

But isn’t Christianity about rules? Actually, it’s not. It’s about crash recovery for programs that have already broken the rules and crashed the system. Of course, there are commandments, but there are only ten — everything else is allowed. The Ten Commandments represent a very positive moral outlook, but they’re stated negatively because they’re like boolean logic. It’s much shorter to say “thou shalt not” do this one thing than to list all the hundreds of things you should be doing:

# Which "commandment" would you prefer to maintain?

# This:
if action != 'murder':
    perform(action)

# Or this?
if (action == 'helping_save_a_life' or
        action == 'going_to_the_doctor' or
        action == 'random_act_of_kindness' or
        action == 'helping_old_ladies_across_street' or
        action == 'teaching_kids_how_to_code' or
        action.startswith('good') or
        action in other_good_deeds):
    perform(action)

It’s also much less restrictive, because there’s only one thing you can’t do, rather than hundreds you have to constantly remember to do. As one example, it’s simpler to say “thou shalt not commit adultery” than to say “make sure you always respect your wife, be faithful to her in bed and out of it, buy her flowers, learn her love languages, etc etc”. And programmers love brevity — why use 50 words where 5 would do?

So I think programmers could do a lot more good if we had a clearly defined moral foundation. For example, we know it’s wrong to discriminate against women in tech, but when someone does it, all we can say is “bad programmer” (or maybe “bad brogrammer”). Why is it okay to degrade women while playing Grand Theft Auto, but morally wrong at a tech conference? I humbly suggest that hackers would do well to take a page out of The Good Book on some of these issues.

What if we truly believed “do unto others as you would have them do unto you?” In fact, in this specific case of showing respect for women, Jesus actually got the ball rolling — the very first people he appeared to after he rose from the dead were women. This was a subversive cultural act — a “hack”, if you like — because in those days women didn’t get much air time.

The ultimate hack

The Christian story is full of hacks — sometimes elegant and beautiful hacks, at other times downright hackish hacks. It begins in the book of Genesis with a beautiful hack — God simply spoke, and the universe appeared. That’s voice-activated 3D printing on a cosmic scale. Trees and animals and men and women were also created by God speaking.

Then there was the Fall. We (the programs) decided we didn’t like the programmer’s logic. We ate the forbidden fruit. We asked for it — and we got the first core dump; the first blue screen of death.

That begs the question of why God allows evil? There’s a very simple hacker’s answer to that: He didn’t want us living in a sandboxed environment. In the programming world, you can create safe places for code to run, called “sandboxes”, where the code can’t do anything bad to the system. In a web browser, this is a great thing — imagine if you visited a web page and it deleted all the files off your hard disk. But then imagine if your operating system was in a sandboxed environment. Basically nothing useful would be allowed, and nothing could happen. You could never do factory automation or smart traffic lights.

We don’t have to log in to Life every morning as a user with restricted access. Instead, God gave us freedom to break the rules, and ultimately to crash the system. It’s like writing low-level C code for the Linux kernel. It’s very unsafe, but very fast and powerful. However, the next thing God did was to start implementing His crash recovery program.

Along the way, He continues to use various hacks to achieve His goals. He chooses to start with Israel, a tiny little nothing kind of country, when He could have chosen one of the world super-powers: Egypt, or Persia, or Greece, or Rome. He picks a woman named Rahab, who was a foreign prostitute, to be part of the royal bloodline. He chooses David to be a king of Israel and ancestor of Jesus — David, who was half the size of his handsome brothers and only a simple shepherd. The least shall be the greatest.

Then Jesus, who’s an instance of God himself, enters His own program as an unprivileged process. He’s like the author who writes himself into his own novel. Even the way Jesus enters is a hack of the human reproductive system — a virgin birth. He tweaks the laws of physics plenty of times with hacks that we still can’t figure out: turns water into wine at a wedding reception; walks on water; raises someone from the dead; miraculously makes people well. Because He’s the Programmer, these are not hard for Him to do.

But the culmination of all this is the ultimate hack. The Romans used crucifixion as a very cruel form of torture to send a loud and clear message that being a traitor was not okay. It was a slow, painful death. The Roman leaders knew Jesus was innocent, but they condemned him to death anyway.

But in an incredible twist, God uses this cruel death to bring life. After three days, Jesus comes back to life, and in doing so, opens a portal to eternal life. It really is the ultimate life hack. In one act, death is reversed. Sins are paid for and forgiven. This one act of self-sacrifice set in motion a thousand others, and Christianity spread like wildfire in the ancient world.

But now to make it a bit more personal: God didn’t put you, or me, in a sandboxed environment either. We don’t play by the rules; we don’t follow His protocol. He lets us stuff up, and in the course of a lifetime we cause enough core dumps to fill a hard drive. That’s the bad news.

But the good news is he didn’t stop there. Christians talk about “Jesus dying for our sins”. But what that means is that He cleaned up our mess for anyone who relies on His solution. He fired up the debugger on each one of our core dumps, found the source of the problem, and fixed it. And He didn’t charge us a thing — it was all free, and it’s all open source, right in the gospels.

This really changes your philosophy; but it also changes the way you act. I’m really thankful that God “debugged my code” free of charge, and the least I can do is follow the protocol and give back to the hacker community. Again, in Christian speak they call that “doing good works”, but it’s the same thing.

So in this sense, God is a hacker — He’s the implementer of the ultimate hack. But there’s also a difference between God and ordinary hackers. God is also described as the ultimate Father. And Fatherhood is not something talked about much in hacker circles.

As a Father, God loves the world, and good earthly fathers love their families. But because God made us, and because we’re so much younger and so much smaller than God, he also requires our respect … He even says to “obey” Him. Now there’s a word you never see in hacker culture.

But once again, there’s a good hacker analogy. Programming languages often have a BDFL (Benevolent Dictator For Life) who’s in charge of the language. The dictator part — are they in charge? Yes, they are, they call the shots for that programming language. Are they good guys, are they actually benevolent? Usually they are. It’s the same with God, except that he’s not a dictator, he’s a King. And he’s not just a “good guy”, he’s the source of all Goodness.

I want to challenge Christians not to ignore the powerful concepts and analogies that hacker culture brings to the table. But I also want to challenge hackers: if Jesus was a historical figure, and if he did actually sacrifice himself and conquer death in the ultimate life hack … isn’t that a patch we should find out about and apply?

So there you have it. That’s the Christmas story, the Christian story, in hacker terms.

Further reading

  • God, the Hacker: Technology, Mockery, and the Cross by Martin Olmos — the idea of God being the ultimate hacker isn’t new with me; this is a really interesting article I found while searching for info on the subject.
  • Theological Cultural Analysis of the Free Software Movement by Gervase Markham — some great thoughts on the Free Software Movement from a Christian perspective.
  • What Would Jesus Hack? — probably the only news article I’ve read that brings together the Vatican, Larry Wall, and Wired magazine. (More from the Vatican here.)
  • Geek Theologian — interview with Wired magazine co-founder Kevin Kelly, in which both his futurism and his religious beliefs came out quite clearly.
  • The Reason for God — a great book by Tim Keller that asks and answers some of the hard questions about religion from a thoughtful, Christian perspective.

Tips for new New Yorkers

It takes a lot of adjusting to live in the greatest city in the world, and there are some protocols that you should follow if you want to survive in this city. You might be a kind, generous and gentle person in the privacy of your own home, but follow these tips for how to act in public, and within a couple of weeks you will not only feel like a real New Yorker, but look like it to anyone watching.

1. Don’t smile at strangers. It’s weird and disarming.

2. Be aware of others’ personal space. Never sit down right next to someone unless it is the last open seat. When you’re waiting for the train, or anywhere else for that matter, space yourself evenly with other people who are waiting. If you’re on a very crowded train, avert your eyes, listen to your iPod and try to touch those around you as little as possible.

3. Walk down the street avoiding eye contact. Pretend you don’t see anyone else; this helps you stay in your own bubble. Keep this rule especially if you see someone who is homeless, dressed very strangely, openly homosexual, begging, or even busking (unless they’re very good).

4. Don’t stop in the middle of the sidewalk to take photos. The locals have jobs to get to.

5. If you can’t find a parking spot, double park your car. This is your right. If you want to be nice about it, you can put your hazard lights on, plus this helps other cars see yours better so they won’t damage your paint job.

6. If you can’t fit into a parking space, use your car to gently nudge the car behind and in front until you fit.

7. Please feed the rats who live in the subway tunnels by throwing your litter and any extra food bits you don’t want onto the tracks. They appreciate it. (This goes for the streets too. Litter creates jobs.) Oh, and please spit your gum out onto the sidewalk. This makes a nice black polka-dotted pattern on the sidewalks, which adds interest.

8. Courtesy doesn’t get you anywhere. Demand what you want in a loud and aggressive voice. This certainly applies to driving too — claim the part of the road you want by pushing in, and honk out your frustrations.

9. Parents in NYC are morons. Please help them parent their children by telling them what they’re doing wrong and how to fix it, but don’t help them. If they wanted to procreate, they should deal with the consequences.

10. Take it for granted that you live in one of the greatest cities in the world. So what if you have access to the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, the World Trade Center, the Empire State Building, Central Park, Broadway, Times Square, countless amazing art museums, 5th Avenue, Coney Island, the Bronx Zoo (to name a very few) just for the price of a subway ride? Treat these as your rights, keep to yourself, and follow the rules above.


Yes, yes, that was tongue-in-cheek. Sort of. There are plenty of helpful, friendly, courteous and kind New Yorkers. Some days it just feels as if they’re hiding.

Caring for Creation

My friend Matthew Bartlett recently started his own publishing company, and his first book is The Biblical Mandate for Caring for Creation by retired New Zealand minister Dick Tripp. The 158-page book, which can be yours for a mere $24.99, is definitely worth a read. Actually, “worth a read” is not a great compliment — what this book and this topic deserve is thought and action.

This post is partly a book review, and partly a discussion of the subject more generally. In terms of the book, there are several things I didn’t love about it, but there are many things I did, so I’m going to start with those.

Things I loved

His biblical take on the subject. Chapter 6 through to the end of the book is a thorough look at what Genesis through to Revelation has to say about creation, how God sees it, and how we should treat it. In the introduction, Tripp notes that

It is the revelation of Scripture, what God himself thinks about his creation, that should provide the most compelling reason of all for Christians to be concerned about it.

As well as quoting a lot of Scripture, Tripp shows how some of the big themes of the Bible tie in directly to caring for creation. Some examples: God’s love of fruitfulness, the goodness of creation, humans being made in God’s image, the Fall, an emphasis on “land” with Israel, and the new heavens and the new earth.

It’s pretty simple, really. As Christians, we believe God made the world and everything in it, and he made it very good. The universe is the greatest work of art by the greatest Artist. So we should do what we do with other good art: enjoy, respect, and preserve. And by preserve, I don’t mean keeping it under a glass case, like old art in a museum. The world is living art. It’s the most amazing display of interactive art there is — and it’s not merely interactive, it’s to be cared for and ruled. (In chapter 7 Tripp goes into detail about what “ruling it” means, and what it doesn’t.)

On a related note, although I don’t usually go for bold text in books, the author and publisher have done something I really liked in this one: all Scripture quotations are in a semi-bold font. It makes them stand out, and shows how much Tripp digs into the Word in chapters 6 through 14.

I also appreciate the timeliness of the book, in the sense that this topic — caring for creation, the environment, etc — isn’t something evangelical Christians have been saying much about. We say we’re conservative, but we’re more worried about conserving thees and thous than trees and boughs!

There’s Francis Schaeffer’s Pollution and the Death of Man, a really thought-provoking little book, but published in 1970. Then there are a few concerned individuals who’ve said something since then, but other than that, we’ve left the topic to the liberals and greenies! Okay, I’m being somewhat tongue-in-cheek here. In fact, Tripp’s book shows just how much has been written and done about it since then — and a lot of that by orthodox Christians.

Tripp doesn’t compromise core Christian truth (in fact, he also authors a Christian apologetics website). He’s big on the message of the gospel: our brokenness, and our need to submit our lives to the Creator and Saviour. He’s clear that if we don’t care for our souls, our care for creation is going to mean little. In his conclusion, he notes that “perhaps the greatest reason for caring for the earth is, simply, gratitude.”

Oh, and I enjoyed his five references to C. S. Lewis. How can you go wrong with that? Seriously, though, Lewis thought a lot about this topic: not so much environmentalism, but God’s care for creation and creatures. In fact, you could see the entire Chronicles of Narnia as a story against cruelty to animals. In the chapter on humans being made in God’s image, Tripp says:

C S Lewis, who wrestled in many essays with the senselessness of animal suffering, argued that is was precisely because humans are higher than animals in creation’s hierarchy that they should oppose animal cruelty. Our superiority to animals ought to motivate us ‘to prove ourselves better than the beasts precisely by the fact of acknowledging duties to them which they do not acknowledge to us.’

Near the end of the book, he also notes Lewis’s rejoicing in the final renewal of creation:

C S Lewis painted a great picture of this in the conclusion of The Chronicles of Narnia. Aslan takes the children into a new world. Following a great conflagration of fire and wind they see a world strangely familiar and yet one in which every blade of grass and every leaf on every tree seems to mean more. Everything is deeper.

Thinking of Narnia and animals reminds me of a discussion I had a few years back with some folks in our youth group. Someone said how sad it was that there are only about 5000 tigers left in the world today, when just 100 years ago there were probably more than 100,000. A dissenting voice said something like, “Saving animals is for greenies … who cares if a few big cats die out. They’re just another animal!” That’s not only callous, it’s theologically screwed up, forgetting God made all things good. The tiger is my favourite big cat, and one of the most wild and beautiful animals designed by God — but for every 20, we’ve killed 19.

Things I didn’t love

There were a few things about Tripp’s book that I didn’t go for. First, I’m not a fan of how the book begins. I’ll admit my bias up-front: I’m skeptical of much in the modern environmental movement — if you want, put me in the “fairly typical right-leaning Christian” basket. In the first few chapters, he quotes a huge number of statistics from all sorts of people, some of them very sad, some of them hard to believe, and a few of them almost laughable. Apart from the fact that you can prove anything with statistics, I thought this was an unconvincing start for a book with Biblical Mandate in the title.

Tripp is no doubt trying to use these facts to build an emotive case for the need to care for creation. But for many, beginning with a truckload of scary facts may work against his argument. And a few of the statistics simply need removal. For example, he quotes the WWF saying that “the only nation living sustainably is Cuba.” Huh? Cuba has one of the worst human rights records around. The WWF might as well have said, “Adolf Hitler was a non-smoking vegetarian who loved animals,” which is factually correct, but completely misses the more important issue.

However, plenty of the facts sound reasonable enough, and many are incredibly sad. Just one example: “4 billion cases of diarrhoea each year are associated with lack of access to safe water. 1.7 million people, mainly children under five, will die as a result.” There is a lot to think about in these first few chapters, and the statistics-laden beginning doesn’t spoil the book. As I mentioned above, the rest of the book is filled with Biblical and philosophical arguments for why all this matters.

Second, I didn’t love his general acceptance of leftist evaluations of the problem. This is related to the above: particularly near the beginning of the book, he quotes a whole spectrum of different environmentalists. While I appreciate his non-partisan spirit, the problem with this is that they have very different ideas on how to solve said problem. So much of the time, proposed “solutions” to environmental problems involve stricter and stricter laws. But if the main problem is greed, the solution is not bigger government; it’s getting rid of greed. That’s a much harder problem to solve, of course, but it’s one that the Bible has some pretty good answers to.

Finally, Tripp’s stance on evolution didn’t sit right. He’s dismissive of Christians who “are more concerned with how God created the earth, and in particular in arguing against evolutionary scientists, than they are with our responsibility to revel in, nurture and sustain God’s creation today”. He also says it’s “significant that Genesis does not state the process by which God made the earth”. Hmmm … my version of Genesis 1 states the process quite clearly: God spoke, and it was so.

Sure, I disagree with him on how God created the earth, and that’s fine as far as it goes. However, there are two problems here. First, I think his dismissals are rather simplistic, and he may end up turning away more conservative Christian readers than he intends. Second, it strikes me that the creationist position is actually stronger when it comes to caring for creation. If all of of life (including humans) evolved by random mutations, what is there to make each species so worth preserving, like a unique piece of art? But if God designed and created each type of plant and animal as a work of living art, then we have every reason to care for them all.

That said, I appreciate the fact he doesn’t dwell on this, or make a big deal about it throughout the book. Instead, he simply points people to his earlier booklet on the subject, The Complementary Nature of Science and Christianity (which I haven’t yet read).

Where to from here

Tripp ends with (and I say this respectfully) a good, old-fashioned call to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord of our lives and Saviour of the world. One of the results of acknowledging Christ, he says, will be a new appreciation of the world in which we live. He notes that while there are many “generic reasons” to care for the earth, Christians have even more reasons — God-centred ones at that:

The earth is of value because it is God’s creation; he has declared it good and he delights in it; he has appointed us his vice-regents to care for it as well as for one another … and, in view of the resurrection, we have assurance that any good we do will not be in vain.

So practically, where can conserve-ative Christians start? Tripp’s book is about the biblical mandate to care for creation, not so much how to care for it, but he does provide some helpful pointers and further reading.

For one thing, reading his book makes me want to re-read Schaeffer’s Pollution and the Death of Man. Tripp mentions this book positively in his chapter on Christians and the environment, and it was Schaeffer’s book that started me thinking about the topic several years ago.

But there’s more than just things to read. Tripp mentions A Rocha a few times — they’re a Christian organization already doing creation-care in various places throughout the world. John Stott, theologian and bird-watcher, had a fair bit to do with A Rocha. Incidentally, the publisher’s sister and her husband, Anna and Lynton Baird, recently returned from a trip helping A Rocha in Canada and Kenya. In short, A Rocha seems like a really good place to start for those keen to help “in the field”.

One concern of mine is that while people are willing to talk about “saving the planet”, they are often unwilling to think about things like frugality. I really think part of the reason we use and abuse so many natural resources is because we want as many nice things as the next guy. Call it greed, covetousness, or whatever you want, but Christians especially need to be content with what they have, if not less. Many of our mothers and grandmothers exemplified this, as well as the now-forgotten attitude of “waste not, want not.”

As an American-born New Zealander, this seems to be even more of a problem here in the United States. Everything comes wrapped in a few layers of petroleum-derived product and then double-bagged. “Organic” vegetables that cost three times as much as normal produce are carefully sealed in fancy plastic containers. Every other person on the subway is carrying their coffee in a throw-away cup. Convenient, efficient, and ugly — right down to the litter scattered on the footpaths. P. J. O’Rourke’s quip is very true: “Everybody wants to save the earth; nobody wants to help Mom do the dishes.”

So go help mum with the dishes. Then check out A Rocha, order Dick Tripp’s book, start thinking about how you can care for creation, and post your thoughts in a comment!

Is Christianity sexist?

Perhaps the most-prayed Christian prayer is the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father who art in heaven…” But why Father and not person or parent? Is Christianity sexist?

Our home church denomination recently held a national Synod meeting, and one of the things they discussed was the updated 2011 translation of the NIV Bible. I think the general consensus was that the new NIV is a bad idea, due to gender-neutral language creeping into places it shouldn’t be.

On the positive side, the 2011 NIV has reverted many of the over-the-top gender-neutering in their previous attempt, the TNIV. Also, they don’t change pronouns for God into gender-neutral pronouns. All credit to them for being careful, for listening to feedback, and for taking the Bible seriously. What with idioms and word-play, vastly different grammars, and cultural issues — translation is hard.

But still, is this as hard as all that? If it said “father” in the Greek, then we should probably leave it that way — God, and the human writer might, just maybe, have had a reason for using that gender. On the other hand, if a word or phrase is ambiguous or gender-neutral in the original, translate it that way. The Bible is (among other things) a literary work, and if these things are translated out, we’re going to lose all those thematic connections our English teachers told us about.

But what about gender-neutral language more generally? I’m going to go out on a limb, though not a very long one, and say that Christianity and Gender Neutralisation can’t coexist. You see, the Bible says that God is our Father — not our mother, and not our caregiver. It tells us how God made Adam and Eve in his image. And it shows how God, through Jesus, became a man, and represented the human race as a man.

If you define sexism as recognising differences between the sexes, then yes, the Christian religion is sexist. For example, the Bible talks about fathers disciplining their sons. Does that mean that mothers shouldn’t discipline their sons (or daughters)? Of course not, but it is saying that in this respect, fathers are representative, that they should be setting the example. It also reminds us that God is our father, and He disciplines us like earthly fathers should discipline their kids.

But if you define sexism as treating the other sex unjustly, then Christianity is not sexist. The powerful statement in Galatians 3:28 makes that clear: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” God doesn’t get overly excited about equality — that’s a mathematical concept, as in “two plus two equals four” — but He is keen on equity, that is, justice.

I don’t think this is trivial. In some strange way, it’s woven into the fabric of our “diverse universe”. Perhaps the doctrine is not very likeable. But I’d much rather live in a world with two very different sexes than in a world of androgynous sameness. Do we really like it when we can’t tell whether someone’s male or female? Trust me, it happens far too often here in New York, and it’s not pretty. Maybe such people have noble motives, but what happens is that they all end up looking like 17-year-old boys who can’t grow facial hair. Though it does make for a good (whispered) game on the subway: “Is that a guy or a girl?”

We’re human, and that means male or female. Yep, that’s pretty binary. As you relate to someone, their sex is a key part of how you interact with them. (Try it sometime: have a face-to-face conversation with a stranger, forcing yourself not to notice whether they’re male or female. It’s basically impossible.) Whether you’re a guy or a girl is crucial to your identity. This is strangely controversial to many today — but why reject what our Maker has so obviously put in place?

In other words: Christianity is only as “sexist” as Creation.

The Person’s Prayer

Our Caregiver in the spiritual realm,
Transparent be your name.
Your democracy be voted in,
Your social policy be implemented,
In reality as it is in the spiritual realm.

Give us every day our organic tofu,
And give us low interest on our debts,
As we charge a premium to our debtors.

Lead us not into discrimination,
But deliver us from intolerance.

For yours are the democracy, the wealth, and the popularity,
For a little while,
Amen.


The above is my contribution to the World Council of Changes and their emphasis on spirituality for modern human beans (soy, for example). It’s important to modernise our personal beliefs, to keep them fresh, relevant, and up to date. Why settle for a heavenly Father when we can have an intimate synergy with a spiritual caregiver? Why worry about old-fashioned concepts like God’s kingdom and God’s will when everyone else is talking about democracy and social good? And who wouldn’t want to be delivered from intolerance and discrimination?

Seriously though, I did have a point. But I’m not going to tell you what it is, because I’m saving it for some future blog entries, such as “Translation is hard”, “Is Christianity sexist?”, “The dogma is the drama”, and other light-hearted discussions.