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Bill Nye and the Challenge of Inspiring Specks of Dust

Jun 22, 2015 | Trevin Wax

NR15UnivCommencement4801We’re in the middle of our series through several of this year’s notable Commencement speeches. First, we looked at Stephen Colbert’s address to Wake Forest University, and we heard from Ian McEwan, on the gift of free speech. Last week, we listened to Katie Couric’s warnings about technological distraction. Today, we hear from Bill Nye, a distinguished scientist who will probably be forever known as “The Science Guy” due to his popular children’s program on PBS. He spoke last month to the graduates of Rutgers university.

The Biggest Crisis in Human History

People tend to think of “fiery prophets” as belonging to religion, but after reading this speech, I wonder if this wouldn’t be an apt description of Nye as a scientist. In this speech, he paints a stark picture of the future (“We are now deep in the most serious environmental crisis in human history”) but then expresses hope that this generation can “avoid this looming disaster.” He writes:

The oncoming trouble is Climate Change: It is going to affect you all in the same way the Second World War consumed people of my parents’ generation. They rose to the challenge, and so will you. They came to be called The Greatest Generation. I want you all to preserve our world in the face of Climate Change and carry on as The Next Great Generation.

More than 70 million people died in World War II, a human toll that is simply staggering when placed alongside all other wars of history. Unless we are facing the imminent deaths of millions of people, I find it difficult to believe that climate change will motivate the same sort of urgency as WWII did. Ironically, according to Nye, the world’s biggest problem is human beings — there simply are too many of us.

We have almost 7.3 billion people breathing and burning an atmosphere, which is, in the planetary scheme of things, quite shallow. We all share the same air. That’s why our climate is changing.

So, the biggest threat to the vast numbers of humanity is climate change, and the biggest threat to the climate is the vast numbers of humanity.

Change the World (Literally)

What is the best way to fix the climate change problem? Nye turns to technology and is hopeful that entrepreneurs will invent whatever is necessary to save our problem. But he worries that techno-optimism (placing all our hopes in technological advance) is just another way of living in denial. According to Nye, climate change is happening so fast that we simply cannot wait. So, he urges the students to push for environmental legislation.

Now, most commencement speakers urge students to “change the world,” to the point it has become something of a joke. But when most speakers talk about “changing the world,” they are referring to society. Nye means it literally. Change this world, the very environment we inhabit. He offers several ideas for moving forward, and seeks to inspire the students to see themselves as the Next Great Generation, a label he returns to more than once.

Humanity’s Inspiring Smallness

But it’s here that the inspiration takes a strange turn. He writes:

We are one species — each of us much, much more alike than different. We all come from Africa. We all are of the same stardust. We are all going to live and die on the same planet, a Pale Blue Dot in the vastness of space. We have to work together.

Our species is “worthy of the future,” he says, because we find joy in increasing our knowledge. “That’s what drives us.” He then describes his state of mind after hearing for the first time that there are more stars in the sky than grains of sand on the beach.

In that long-ago moment I was paralyzed by self-doubt. I am just a little kid standing on a beach. And, that beach is a one of many beaches on a planet that turns out to be, in the cosmic scheme of things, pretty small — a speck really. Furthermore, my home speck, the Earth, is just a speck orbiting a star that really, considering all the other sand-grain-numerous stars, is just another speck in the galaxy of stars. The galaxy, in turn, being another speck, among galactic specks. I am a speck on a speck orbiting a speck in the middle of deep spacey specklelessness. I don’t matter at all.

But then I think, wait. I have a brain, albeit only this big. (My old boss’s — somewhat smaller.) And, I can imagine all of this. That is wonderful. That is remarkable. That is venerable — worthy of respect!

It is intriguing to watch a naturalist who sees the dissolution of the universe as inevitable seek to inspire graduates to save the planet. If the planet is doomed and humanity is meaningless, just why should we endeavor to save this place?

Nye is right to see human beings as worthy of respect, but it’s unclear where this respect comes from. Why is having a brain or an imagination something venerable? We are all going to live and die on the same planet, a Pale Blue Dot in the vastness of space, he writes. Just how is this inspiring?

It’s hard for believers to see how this is attractive or compelling to people. But we ought to step into the shoes of the naturalist for a moment to see it from the inside. Nye doesn’t see a contradiction between his denial of transcendence and his belief in human significance. The believer might be frightened by the idea that we are alone in the universe, but the unbeliever might find such an idea exhilarating, much like a kid who has left home for the first time and is in the middle of a busy train station without any authority or guardian looking out for him.

Nye doesn’t deny the world has meaning; he just reduces it here to our physicality, this present moment, in this small speck we call “a brain.” And because we can think and exercise our imagination, we ought to see ourselves as “worthy of the future.”

What Is Man That You Are Mindful of Him?

This isn’t the place to take Nye’s naturalism head on. Instead, I’d like to close this summary by mentioning how not one of the other speeches we’ve looked at (or will look at) ever challenges this naturalistic understanding of our world. The other speeches were not delivered by committed naturalists like Nye, but they all assume that this world is all there is, or at least they offer no hint of anything transcendent.

All the challenges to change the world, all the inspiring words delivered to student, they are all spoken from the earth’s horizon. We are all on the ground, speaking to one another. We never hear from the skies.

Ironically, Scripture also contains a trace of Nye’s wonder at humanity’s insignificance in light of the vastness of creation. The psalmist wondered: What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? 

The believer and the unbeliever can stand on the same seashore, look up at the stars, and be awed by humanity’s smallness. The believer is in awe when considering the mind of God. The unbeliever is in awe when considering the mind of man.

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Worth a Look 6.22.15

Jun 22, 2015 | Trevin Wax

Worth4Kindle Deal of the Day: Welcome to the Story: Reading, Loving, and Living God’s Word by Stephen Nichols. $2.99.

Welcome to the Story teaches believers not only how to read the Bible, but how to read it in such a way that it permeates their lives—reading, loving, and living God’s Word.

Christianity Today on going deeper after the Charleston murders:

In the face of such evil, we first grieve. There is no understanding evil because it is ultimately irrational. But God has shown us what an initial response looks like: the Psalms of lament, like Psalm 74.

Speaking of Charleston, what about this monumental display of mercy?

The late Christopher Hitchens formulated (and forever repeated) a superficially clever challenge to people of faith: “Find one good or noble thing,” he said, “which cannot be accomplished without religion.” The astonshing rejoinder to Hitchens comes now from the family members of those who were gunned down Wednesday night in Charleston, South Carolina.

Don’t miss James K. A. Smith’s reflection on “Fatherless Days:”

Father’s Day is easy for me: I have none.  They all left.

So I don’t have to find an awkward card amidst the cloying selection on offer.  I don’t have to make the clichéd choice between necktie or power tool.  I don’t have to endure the awkwardness of a largely wordless afternoon in the presence of my progenitor, or remember to call and then try to wrangle a conversation out of the receiver.  (“I don’t have to,” of course, is it’s own sort of spin, papering over the “I don’t get to” buried beneath it.)

So Father’s Day is easy for me.

It’s the rest of the fatherless days that are difficult.

What’s Pixar’s secret to making truly great films? The Washington Post explores:

As parents and grownups still vividly in touch with their childhoods, the gifted artists at Pixar know that the most universal chords to be struck revolve around change and its companion that is loss; around innocence and experience; around the necessity of relationships and the inclines and declines of life. And around the fact that Joy leavens our lives, yet Sadness deepens the journey. In striking these chords, Pixar plays an emotional symphony of dualities.

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Bless Through Me, Lord Jesus

Jun 21, 2015 | Trevin Wax

Lord Jesus,
Take my mind and think through me,
Take my hands and bless through me,
Take my mouth and speak through me,
Above all, Lord Jesus,
Take my spirit and pray in me;
so that it is You who move and have Your being in me.

16th century prayer

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Toto, I Have a Feeling We’re Not in Athens Anymore

Jun 20, 2015 | Trevin Wax

Steve McAlpine, writing about cultural developments in Australia:

For all of the talk about exile, the language of Athens, and the need to find a voice in a culture of competing ideas, was far more prevalent in Exile Stage One conversation than the language of the true city of exile, Babylon. We were exploring ways to deal with the culture being uninterested in us, not despising us. I well remember myself saying “People are not walking past your church and saying, ‘If I never go to church, that’s the one I am never going to.’ No, they don’t see it at all.” That’s Athens talk, and assumes that if we can just show a point of connection to the culture then the conversation will flow and we will all get along.

I have changed my mind on this one. In the last five or six years the culture (read: elite framework that drives the culture) is increasingly interested in bringing the church back into the public square. Yes, you heard that right. But not in order to hear it, but rather, in order to flay it, expose its real and alleged abuses and to render it naked and shivering before a jeering crowd. It is Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego standing up before the statue of gold, whilst everyone else is grovelling and going, “Pssst, kneel down for goodness sake!” It is officials conspiring with the king to show that Daniel’s act of praying towards Jerusalem three times per day is not simply an archaic and foolish hope, but a very real threat to the order of the society and the new moral order that will hold it together.

If the primary characteristic of Exile Stage One was supposed to be humility, the primary characteristic of Second Stage Exiles will have to be courage. Courage does not mean bombastic pronouncements to the world, not at all. It has to be much deeper than that. It will mean, upon hearing the king’s command that no one can pray to any god save the king for thirty days, that we go into our rooms with the window open towards Jerusalem and defy that king even as our accusers hunt us down. It means looking the king in his enraged face and saying, even in our God does not rescue us from the flames, we will not serve your gods or bow down to your statue of gold. Unlike Athens, Babylon is not interested in trying to out-think us, merely overpower us. Apologetics and new ways of doing church don’t cut it in Babylon. Only courage under fire will.

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My Take on Pixar’s “Inside Out” — Brilliant and Beautiful

Jun 19, 2015 | Trevin Wax

inside-out-imageIn World this week, I have a review of Pixar’s newest film, Inside Out:

When a studio partnership has engendered as much success as Disney/Pixar has over the years, it’s easy to judge a film by how it measures up to previous successes. Is it as emotionally compelling as Toy Story 3? Does it delight like Finding Nemo? Does it contain the artistry of Wall-E? With each release, Pixar hopes to continue its streak of excellent and beautiful films that exceed the audience’s ever-growing expectations. With Inside Out, rated PG for mild thematic elements and some action, Pixar has delivered.

Continue Reading…

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Katie Couric on Gaining Technology and Losing Your Soul

Jun 18, 2015 | Trevin Wax

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We’re continuing our series through several of this year’s notable Commencement speeches. Last week, we looked at Stephen Colbert’s address to Wake Forest University, and we heard from Ian McEwan, on the gift of free speech.

Today, we listen to Katie Couric, who delivered an address at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Couric’s life story includes highs and lows — an illustrious career in journalism as well as her family’s encounter with cancer. Considering her experience at work and home, it’s interesting to see how her speech begins and ends.

The Heart and Soul of America

Couric starts by praising the institution and America’s educational system, one that continues to attract people from all over the world. But it is somewhat startling to hear her say “state schools are the heart and soul of our nation.”

A century ago, a commencement speaker would likely have mentioned churches as the heart of America, not the state-run educational system. Of course, she’s right that these campuses are where “brainpower” is “ignited” (in her words), but we generally use “heart” and “soul” language to refer to the cultivation of who we are as people, not just our intellectual learning but also moral formation — places where morality and virtues are extolled and inculcated. When one thinks of the scandals and accusations plaguing many state schools, this statement from Couric, taken at face value, should be troubling. If UVA is the heart of America, our soul is in trouble.

Timeless Principles in a Fast-Paced World

Couric moves on to the main body of her speech, acknowledging the ”breathtaking, head-swiveling change” that is powered by technology and is changing our everyday lives in so many ways. She mentions the way technology has disrupted the workplace and transformed “career ladders” into ”an Escher drawing.”

With all these options and no sure footing, what will guide us? Couric offers a few ”enduring principles and timeless values” as the answer.

First, she encourages people to pursue what they’re passionate about. Figure out what it is that excites you and go for it. But don’t take too long, because you don’t want to reinforce millennial stereotype of “living in your parents’ basement eating microwave popcorn and binge watching reruns of The OC.” She goes on:

“Don’t drift through your twenties. Use every stop along the way as a chance to make an investment in the person you want to become.”

Good counsel. I’ve said similar things to twenty-somethings before.

Couric is also helpful in cautioning against extremes. Be confident and courageous, but don’t let that confidence morph into hubris. “Make sure that moxie comes with a big dose of humility,” she says. After all, your education isn’t over. Life is all about learning new things. Learn from successes, and learn from failures.

Over against Colbert’s advice to adjust the standards so that failure becomes practically impossible, Couric says failure can be a good thing. She also encourages students to fight against their generation’s entitlement mentality. 

The Good Life and What Threatens It

It’s at the end of the speech that Couric’s vision of the good life comes into view:

A successful life isn’t just about what career path you’re on, or what milestone you’ve met, or what the numbers are on your direct deposit. Success is about becoming the kind of person you want to be.

It’s here that she sounds a little like Colbert’s speech, in that there is no objective standard to measure your success in becoming who you want to be, or whether who you’ve become is good. But, while Colbert gave this advice as a way of shielding graduates from external criticism, Couric is afraid technology is shielding graduates from ever contemplating the big questions. For Colbert, the big problem you’ll face is detractors. For Couric, it’s distraction.

We spend so much time these days, I think, looking for external validation – with our carefully crafted Instagrams, clever postings, perfect pictures, counting our likes, favorites, followers and friends – that it’s easy to avoid the big questions: Who am I? Am I doing the right thing? Am I the kind of person I want to be? – the kind of honest self-examination that truly fuels personal growth.

Without sustained attention to our character, says Couric, we will wind up without purpose and meaning. And only once we’ve discovered a life of purpose will we be able to attain “that sometimes-elusive condition known as happiness.”

If your purpose is changing something in the world or fighting injustice of becoming an activist, good for you! But Couric cautions against an activism that is blind:

Activism can’t truly lead to lasting, meaningful change without dialogue, even with those with whom you may disagree.

Losing Your Soul To Your iPhone

How we disagree is an important issue moving forward. For all the good that social media can accomplish, there are downsides. I am quoting her more extensively here because this is an important point:

Constant connectivity can leave you feeling isolated and disconnected. Do not be seduced by the false intimacy of social media. Comfort and support can be found in online communities, but they cannot replace the humanity of real ones.

Life is too exciting and wonderful and intense and insane and just plain fun to have your nose buried in a screen for hours on end.

I used to tell graduates that no one on their deathbed ever said, “Gee, I wish I had spent more time at the office.” The 2015 version of that should be, “No one on their deathbed ever said, ‘Gee, I wish I had spent more time on my iPhone.'”

And remember: words have power. Anonymity may be the new phenobarbital, and while digital snark – trolling, trashing, mocking and ridiculing, judging and hating – may make you feel temporarily superior, it hardens your heart and corrodes your soul.

Couric began with the exhilarating promise of technology and the potential for change in the world, but she ended with a warning to not lose your soul in the process.

Because she sees state schools as the heart and soul of our country, Couric’s vision of the good life is already diminished. And yet she senses that not all is well. There are dangers lurking around the newest and most innovative products our “brainpower” can devise.

In this speech, Couric does not appeal to any sort of higher power. She does not reference religion or mention anything more than “this world” as it is. Within the words of this speech, we are trapped in what Charles Taylor calls “the imminent frame.” Still, Couric’s warning has the faint and distant echo of Someone who once said to be careful not to gain the world and lose one’s soul.

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Digging into the Decline of the Southern Baptist Convention

Jun 17, 2015 | Trevin Wax

sbccMy latest article at RNS:

The largest Protestant denomination in the United States is meeting this week, but it’s not as large as it was last year, or the year before. Southern Baptists now number just under 15.5 million members, down from a peak of 16.3 million in 2003. And many people in the Southern Baptist Convention sense a corresponding loss of clout and credibility when speaking to the wider culture. 

What’s going on? The number of Southern Baptist churches is higher than ever — 46,449 churches are in some way affiliated with the SBC. Meanwhile, church planting continues to pick up steam, and a common concern among established churches is the need to be “revitalized.”

So, why did the SBC’s growth begin to slow in the 1950s, stall in subsequent decades, and then begin to decline several years ago? And what does all this mean for the SBC’s engagement on political and social issues?

Continue Reading…

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Worth a Look 6.17.15

Jun 17, 2015 | Trevin Wax

Worth5Kindle Deal of the Day: The Great Books Reader, Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization$1.99.

Selected as one of 2011’s Best Books for Preachers by Preaching Magazine

Danny Akin on fatherhood — 10 roles fathers play in the lives of their children:

Fathers play many roles in rearing their children. Through each role, they prepare their children for life and give their kids opportunities to build a relationship with dad.

Anne Chamberlin is grateful for the legacy of Elisabeth Elliot as a “third-way” woman:

Both the anti-feminist and the anti-delicate flower, she taught what I came to think of as a “third way” of womanhood that seemed like Ruth and that Proverbs 31 woman with her strong arms, shrewdness, and nurturing ways.

Matthew Lee Anderson has written a provocative and insightful essay on our culture of reading and the end of dialogue:

A culture where reading is in decline will be a culture where inquiry and learning struggle as well, and the possibility of genuine and meaningful dialogue with those who we disagree will erode too. There is a fundamental connection between how we take in the world around us and sort through it internally and how we participate in conversations with those around us. As our culture reads more poorly, it will speak more poorly and respond more impatiently and less charitably.

A brief, roundtable discussion (Tim Keller, John Piper, and Don Carson) on thriving churches in a hostile culture.

Thriving Churches in a Hostile Culture from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

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Ian McEwan and the Precious Gift of Being Offended

Jun 16, 2015 | Trevin Wax

pic_giant2_051915_SM_Ian-McEwanWe’re continuing our series through several of this year’s notable Commencement speeches. Last week, we looked at Stephen Colbert’s address to Wake Forest University. Today, we’re hearing from Ian McEwan, an acclaimed English novelist and screenwriter, who delivered a message to the graduates at Dickinson College.

Free Speech is Under Fire, As Always

McEwan’s speech is striking in that he quickly dispensed with the typical pleasantries of this occasion and bypassed the usual inspirational platitudes. Instead, he went straight into “warning” mode and urged the students to defend free speech, which he defined as “writing and reading, listening and thinking” and said is “the life blood, the essential condition of the liberal education you’ve just received.”

On the one hand, the students should be grateful for this era.

There is likely more free speech, free thought, free enquiry on earth now than at any previous moment in recorded history (even taking into account the golden age of the so-called ‘pagan’ philosophers). And you’ve come of age in a country where the enshrinement of free speech in the First Amendment is not an empty phrase, as it is in many constitutions, but a living reality.

On the other hand, free speech is endangered:

But free speech was, it is and always will be, under attack – from the political right, the left, the centre. It will come from under your feet, from the extremes of religion as well as from unreligious ideologies. It’s never convenient, especially for entrenched power, to have a lot of free speech flying around.

It’s helpful for McEwan to make his case by appealing to the common ground (he hopes) all will agree on, no matter our political or religious persuasion. That’s why it’s instructive that he issues this warning in a way that crosses these lines. It’s in danger from all sides, and therefore it must be protected by all sides.

Why does free speech matter so much? Because “freedom of expression sustains all the other freedoms we enjoy,” he says. “Without free speech, democracy is a sham.” McEwan compares the Western world to free speech in other parts of the globe, or rather, the lack of it. He diagnoses the condition of free expression as “desperate” in many parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East, Asia, and in much of Africa.

Sacrificing Free Speech for Political Expediency

If “free speech” is prominent here but not elsewhere, why is McEwan devoting so much attention to protecting it? Why issue such a stern warning for Americans?

It’s because McEwan sees how our political allegiances can blind us from the need to protect someone’s freedom of expression. He calls this “bi-polar thinking” and then gives an example: “Let’s not side with Charlie Hebdo because it might seem as if we’re endorsing George Bush’s ‘war on terror’.” McEwan believes this to be a “suffocating form of intellectual tribalism and a poor way of thinking for yourself.” He mentions Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an ex-Muslim who is critical of Islam, who is unwelcome on many American campuses.

Are All Beliefs Worthy of Respect?

Then, McEwan makes this claim:

Islam is worthy of respect, as indeed is atheism. We want respect flowing in all directions. But religion and atheism, and all thought systems, all grand claims to truth, must be open to criticism, satire, even, sometimes, mockery.

I believe there ought to be a distinction between respecting persons and respecting a person’s beliefs. Earlier in the speech, he mentioned the silliness of Holocaust deniers and yet articulated their right to free speech. Surely, he would not say that the belief that the Holocaust never happened is “worthy of respect.” Why then should we consider any system of belief or unbelief worthy of respect? Would we not do better to focus on respecting persons rather than positions?

I do not believe Islam is worthy of respect. As a Christian, I see Islam as a false religion. If I believed Islam were true, I would be Muslim and not Christian. Even though I do not believe Islam is worthy of respect, I believe Muslims are worthy of respect, not because of what they believe, but because of who they are. They — like me, and every human being — are made in the image of God, and as image-bearers of God, they are worthy of respect.

I agree with McEwan; I want “respect flowing in all directions,” but I’d qualify that as being respectful toward persons, not considering all beliefs as “worthy of respect.” I believe the Holocaust denier is worthy of respect as a person; I do not respect his appalling views, even if I believe he has the right to them.

The Precious Freedom of Being Offended

McEwan goes on to warn against placing limits of free speech simply because you don’t like the speech that is going on. He writes:

It can be a little too easy sometimes to dismiss arguments you don’t like as ‘hate speech’ or to complain that this or that speaker makes you feel ‘disrespected.’ Being offended is not to be confused with a state of grace; it’s the occasional price we all pay for living in an open society.

The dismissal of arguments is something that has been going on for quite a while now. At times, it has been a tactic of the right; today, it is often displayed on the left, as Kirsten Powers’ new book documents so forcefully.

Overall, I believe McEwan’s speech to be a strong reminder of just how important free speech is for a free society. We do not seek to maximize free speech by perpetually offending people. Instead, we welcome the opportunity to be “offended” by someone’s free speech; it is a gift to be cherished, a reminder of the precious and beautiful right we have inherited. It may be awkward at times, inconvenient, and sometimes offensive, but the freedom of expression is one of the hallmarks of Western civilization.

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