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August 05, 2007

Book Review: Devices of the Soul by Steve Talbott

I mentioned before that I'd read this one, and it's been quite a while since I finished it. But this book gives you a LOT to think about, and a lot to digest -- even after you finish reading it. And it's NOT a walk in the park to read, either. But it's a book with an important message.

Talbott starts off with a sort of definition of terms. He defines technology in the classic sense -- the Greek term techne referred to mental craftiness and trickery as often as it did the mechanical product of that craftiness. Talbott also reminds us that the Greeks didn't consider techne something that was inherently good -- it was always respected, no matter how grudgingly, but it wasn't always something that led to a positive outcome.

Talbott's use of The Odyssey in this context is very effective, reminding us that the 20th and 21st centuries don't have the corner on the technology market. The emphasis on the mental aspect of techne -- the craftiness and inventiveness -- is important to Talbott's thesis -- we must consider whether something should be done (the impact on society of new technology), not just whether we can do something. As Talbott puts it on page 9

When you look today at the mesmerized preoccupation with the sweetly sung promises of salvation through digital information, you realize that our own culture honors the Sirens far more than it does the healthy respect for the risk, the self-discipline, and the inner cunning of Odysseus, man of many devices.
Talbott's purpose in the book is to advocate a more balanced approach to technology, and a willingness to question whether an advance is really an advantage.

Chapters 2 and 3 take a slight detour. Each chapter examines how nature and humanity interact, which is important when we examine how non-natural technology attempts to make human life "better." Most telling are Talbott's stories of native cultures and how they are changed by the introduction of what we would consider simple technological advances. Talbott shows that these native people have a communion with their environment that allows them to see things that others do not see at all, and he posits that this type of communication with nature is possible for all mankind -- if we would just try. When we do that, we begin to interact with what Talbott refers to as The Other.

Talbot uses a lot of spiritual/religious language in the book, especially in these two chapters, without actually approaching The Other as God, though it would seem that The Other is more of a "god in us all" concept, almost panentheistic as opposed to classically theistic. It seems that Talbott's dedication to Naturalism as a worldview keeps him from considering that there is anything outside of Nature, so his idea of The Other has to come from within everything -- very similar to the idea of The Force in Star Wars. At one point, he speaks of our unique ability to "detach ourselves from our environment ... to see things from the Other's point of view..." without fully exploring or understanding why we are that way. Mankind was created to enjoy fellowship with God. I found myself repeatedly agreeing with what Talbott was saying, but wanting him to go a bit further -- this section was simultaneously very interesting and very frustrating.

Many scientists will be upset with Talbott's "anthropocentrism" -- a tag he readily accepts, and in fact seems to wear proudly. But he again differs from a classic theistic perspective by saying, "What distinguishes us is not our moral worth, but the fact that we bear the burden of moral responsibility." In other words, we're not worth more morally than an owl or a whale, but we bear more moral responsibility than those animals do -- assumably because we have that unique ability to commune with the Other in us all.

One popular arguement in favor of expanded use of technology is the idea of helping people -- especially "the handicapped." Talbot gives an incredible example of someone whose "handicap" actually helped them to succeed. The story of Jacques Lusseyran should be taught to every school-aged child in America as an example of what can be done even in the face of what everyone else considers a severe handicap. Talbott uses his story to show that technology may make the handicapped "normal" but it will never make them whole.

I also admire Talbott's willingness to question technologists and geneticists who claim that our obligation is to use technology to "improve humanity." I've always found it interesting how many evolutionists want to try and thwart the natural evolutionary process by using genetic engineering or technological implants to improve humanity. Talbott correctly points out that the obsession with technological improvements to humankind (or technological alternatives to humanity) is, in the end, rooted in fear. Fear of death, fear of obsolescence, and most of all fear that there really is more to us than just an individual collection of molecules. Talbott, unlike so many others, is willing to ask whether something is right to do, regardless of whether it's possible or not. "The moral range of our responsibility ... is determined not only by the range of our power to act, but also by the extent of our understanding." Our use of mechanical techne must be informed by our biological techne.

There's a LOT to this book. And there are many things that we won't like to hear -- we like our lives that have been simplified through technology. We like having information at our fingertips. We don't want to have to think about right and wrong -- we just want better, faster. But Talbott has my attention. This book is a must read, especially for Christians in churches whose answer to decreasing attendance is more bells and whistles.

Talbott has some very interesting things to say about modern education as well, and it's reliance on technology. What he writes mirrors a lot of my own personal experience, but that's a topic that deserves it's own post -- probably Monday.

Posted by Warren Kelly at 12:01 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

August 15, 2007

Calling Down the Wrath:
Imprecatory Prayer and the Modern Christian

Associated Baptist Press ran a story today about Wiley Drake, former SBC second vice-president (and current candidate for SBC President). Drake is calling for imprecatory prayer, calling down God's wrath on two staffers for Americans United. Americans United has asked the IRS to investigate the tax-exempt status of Drake's church, First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park, California, after Drake used church letterhead and a church-sponsored radio program to endorse Mike Huckabee for President.

Of course, the first question most people will ask is "What the heck is imprecatory prayer?" And when they find out, they'll most likely ask "Is that really the Christian thing to do?" So let's look at both those questions, so we can find out whether we should be embarrassed by Drake, or proud of him.

Imprecatory Prayer: What Is It?
According to

–verb (used with object), -cat·ed, -cat·ing.
to invoke or call down (evil or curses), as upon a person.

So imprecatory prayer is when Christians pray to God for someone -- not for their well-being, or for their repentance, but for their destruction, or at the very least their pain. We're praying that bad things will happen to them.

The Bible is full of examples of this. Psalm 109 is one glaring example of imprecatory prayer. In this Psalm, David, a "man after God's own heart," prays thusly:

9 May his children be fatherless
and his wife a widow!
10 May his children wander about and beg,
seeking food far from the ruins they inhabit!
11 May the creditor seize all that he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil!
12 Let there be none to extend kindness to him,
nor any to pity his fatherless children!

Pretty harsh words! Not just against his enemies, but his enemies' families as well.

"But, Warren," you say, "That's the OLD Testament. God's a lot nicer now." My first response is that you need to read more of the Old Testament. My second response is to show you Revelation 6:

9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”

This isn't a cry to God for the salvation of those on the earth -- it's a cry for justice. It's a cry for vengeance. It's a New Testament imprecatory prayer.

But note the targets of these prayers. In Psalm 109, David is praying about people who " return for my love they accuse me, but I give myself to prayer. So they reward me evil for good, and hatred for my love." These are people who David has been kind to, and who are returning evil for his good -- they're taking advantage of him. These are people who David could have had jailed, exiled, or killed. He could have taken all of their possessions, and sold their families into slavery. He was, after all, King. But instead, David is taking his case to God, and allowing God to have vengeance rather than himself.

The saints in Revelation 6 are referring to those enemies of God who martyred them. They are praying against people who have set themselves against the will of God -- willfully and intentionally trying to thwart God's plan, and silence His people.

So imprecatory prayer is to be directed against those who have declared themselves at total, willful enmity with God. Not against people who simply oppose us -- people who oppose God.

But what is it's purpose? What's the motivation behind imprecatory prayer? The example we have in the Psalms is David facing insurmountable odds and praying for protection and justice. He couldn't defend himself, or he would have -- David was not weak, nor was he a coward.

Is Imprecatory Prayer for Christians Today?

This is actually an easy question. 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that "all Scripture ... profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness ..." So obviously the idea of imprecatory prayer has some value for us. It reminds us that vengeance is His, not ours. It reminds us that we can trust in Him to defend us when we cannot defend ourselves.

But we also need to learn from David's example. In the first five verses, David declares his innocence. The accusations made against him are false, made by people who are enemies of God and His purposes. He declares his innocence, and asks God to defend him. The saints in Revelation are likewise blameless.

So there are some guidelines that we must use when considering imprecatory prayer. We must first be innocent. The accusations against us must be false. Second, we must be defenseless. We cannot be able to legitimately defend ourselves from our foes without direct intervention from God. Third, the people we are praying against must be opposing God and His will, not just us.

Imprecatory prayer is not popular. After all, by the popular definition of Christianity, we don't oppose people. We don't speak against people, we don't condemn. We just love, and accept. That's what the world expects. Judging from the tone of the ABP article, that's what they expect. And we are supposed to love one another.

But we're also called to preach the truth of God, and sometimes that means reminding people of His judgment. And it's clear from Scripture that that sometimes involves prayers of imprecation -- asking for God to bring His judgment to those who oppose Him. The saints in Revelation aren't condemned for it, and we shouldn't be either.

Whether Wiley Drake's imprecatory prayer meets the Biblical criteria or not, I will not judge. But I think it's valuable for us to remember that there are Biblical standards for imprecation, and as Christians we must know them before we start praying the wrath of God down on people.

Posted by Warren Kelly at 08:34 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

August 20, 2007

Thanks a LOT, NPR

So I'm listening to NPR one day, minding my own business. World Cafe comes on, and they're featuring a band my wife had just heard about (on another NPR show -- we're such yuppies!) -- Los Straitjackets. And so I listened. And now?

I'm hooked.

It's not just the luchador masks (though that IS a cool touch). It's the guitar work, the Dick Dale-style instrumentals. It's the whole 1960s surf-rock vibe, and I can't get enough.

Their latest album is Rock en Espanol, and it's Spanish versions of classic rock tunes. Note I didn't say covers -- if you know Spanish, you'll notice that the lyrics don't always match up perfectly, but the feel is right. They rhythm is right. And the guitar is always right. My favorites on this one have to be "Hey Lupe" ('Hang On, Sloopy'), and "Loco Te Patina El Coco" ('Wild Thing'), but the entire album is outstanding, with vocals provided by Big Sandy (of Fly-Rite Boys fame) since they don't normally do vocals.

I also downloaded "Little Drummer Boy" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" from their Tis the Season album. I love unique takes on Christmas music, and these will both be excellent additions to the playlist this November and December. I especially like the Dick Dale influenced take on "Drummer Boy."

The last album I sampled (at least for now) was Sing Along with Los Straitjackets. I downloaded "California Sun" (vocals by Dave Alvin) and "The End of the World" (vocals by Leigh Nash, formerly of Sixpence None the Richer). "The End of the World" was one of the first country songs I remember, with Skeeter Davis' plaintive vocals. Nash does a good job on this song, and it brings back memories of long car trips listening to the 8-track in the family station wagon.

All of these are available at emusic, so go download them. And if you haven't joined yet, you should -- you get 50 free songs!! And make sure you check out Los Straitjackets -- any band that offers actual vinyl LPs has got to be great!

Posted by Warren Kelly at 07:36 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 26, 2007

May 9, 2008 ...

... is a date I am looking forward to. REALLY looking forward to.


Speed Racer was must-see-TV for me when I was a kid. They tried to revive the series in animation not long ago, but it just didn't work for me -- I've missed the original ever since MTV aired it and then dumped it. Speed, Pops, Mom, Trixie, Spritle, Chim-Chim, Sparky, and (of course) Racer X were a huge part of my childhood. And now it's coming to the big screen.

Speed's brother Rex didn't run away in the movie -- he died (at least according to the synopsis -- I'm still holding out hope for a Racer X/Rex Racer connection). So far, everything else seems very faithful to the original, so I'm optimistic.

It seems like Hollywood is taking '70s and '80s properties and trying to revitalize them, to get the Boomer crowd into theaters. So far, I've not bee impressed with their efforts. They'd better not mess up Speed Racer, too.

Posted by Warren Kelly at 02:21 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 27, 2007

An Exit Strategy That Just Might Work

The SBC has been calling for people to pull their kids out of public schools for years now -- a call that I haven't been very receptive of, so far, and a call I have yet to answer (my daughter started 1st grade at a public school last week).

One of my problems is that in this area, public schools offer the best educational opportunities around. There are a couple church-run Christian schools, but from what I've heard about them, I'm not impressed. Home schooling is not an option yet -- we're trying to get rid of some of our old debt, so we can't home school right now, though that may be an option in the future. We are working with our daughter at home, which we always have done and will continue to do.

My other problem is more nation-wide. There is a lack of good, high-quality, affordable Christian education in many parts of the country. And I've called on the SBC to work on this problem -- we've got a national infrastructure in place for disaster relief, global missions, etc. We can set up something to help our local associations and state conventions to set up Christian schools throughout their area. These schools should be inexpensive, and academically rigorous. We've got the ability to set up a school "system" similar to the Catholic church's parochial school system. We can make a difference, if we try. We owe it to our kids.

Southeastern Seminary is starting something that I hope spreads throughout the SBC. They've had a masters in education administration for 10 years now, though it's probably one of the least popular programs, I'm sure. The rest of our seminaries need to follow suit, and we need to tell people what we're doing, and why. If we are serious about the need to reform education, then we need to step up to the plate.

Parents should never have to make the choice between a Christian education and a quality academic education.

Posted by Warren Kelly at 12:42 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 31, 2007

An Apology to Future Historians

One of the really fun things I've found in studying history (and yes, there are several) is reading letters. When someone is writing for publication, they are much more polished. There's a sense that 'this is going to last. People are going to read this years from now. I'd better make it a good one.' There's good material in those kinds of writing, to be sure, and you can learn a lot. They are valuable resources, and important to doing history.

But in letters you get much more personal. You meet the writer as they are -- they're not worried about people reading the letter decades from now, they're not thinking about the public record. They're just putting some words on paper for someone they know, giving them advice or telling stories or encouraging them -- whatever the purpose, they're very much in the moment, not concerned about the longevity of the letter. Some of my favorite books are collections of these letters -- these things people never thought would be widely read. I find myself learning a LOT more about the writer, and their time, when I read their letters.

This post at the Thinklings blog got me thinking. Actually, it got me thinking again about something that I've discussed with my wife (the American Revolution scholar). "What are historians going to do with the late 20th-early 21st centuries?"

We don't write letters much any more. (Of course, my wife will tell you that I never write letters BEFORE I got the computer and Internet access, but I digress). We email, and email is a very fragile thing. All I have to do is hit one button, type one command, and it's gone. DELETED, as StrongBad would say. Computer forensics could find some of them, but fifty years from now they'll be gone, unless we save them all. And I don't know many people that keep all their email -- I've even deleted email from my "bottomless account" at Gmail.

Will historians of the future wonder about us? Or will they be so used to electronic communications that they won't think twice about it? Will they be amazed at the amount of paper correspondence that we still do have? Or maybe they'll just spend a lot of time poking through server records, wondering why the ruler of Nigeria spent so much time trying to get people to hide his money.

Posted by Warren Kelly at 08:40 AM | Comments (21) | TrackBack

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