Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Unhelpful Books (ongoing)

There's a part of me that really, really enjoys criticizing, so as long as I'm compiling a list of books I've enjoyed it's probably appropriate to have a list of books that I didn't enjoy, enough to want to mention it anyway. At least it could generate discussion, no?

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, Gray - I know some people swear by this book but I really did not find it very enlightening. (*pause for snide personal attack directed at blogger and the current quality of his relationships with women*) Certainly the first few chapters are striking in that they very accurately characterize some typical behaviors of men and women. But the reasoning behind them is very generalizing and seems a very blunt instrument with which to assess all of humanity. Also the remaining chapters seem to be very repetitive, as well as contain several lists of characterizations of men and women that seemed to me quite arbitrary.

Another criticism that a friend brought up is that the author is divorced. While I personally would not want to lay too much judgment on such a circumstance, it is an interesting point to bring up considering the book is meant to educate its audience in relational matters. Incidentally, the woman that Gray divorced happens to be Barbara de Angelis, another author whose work I have read and commented on, and actually enjoyed.

Books (ongoing)

I want to make a list of books that I have helped me over the years, both to share and to record for myself. I welcome comments on these selections, and would love to hear about the books that have inspired you, motivated you, or opened your mind. This is an ongoing post so with updates the post date will update as well.

Posted 12/19/06:

Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman - The most interesting concept that this book introduced to me was the idea that as far as the evolutionary time-line goes, man has relied on his emotional responses far longer (perhaps one million years) than his ability to communicate (perhaps 10,000 years) for survival. Thus it is to be expected that at some level our emotions would tend to get the better of us without careful development of emotional control and maturity.* Goleman also gives quite a few explanations for the physiological responses we exhibit when experiencing the emotions common to all. For example:

With fear blood goes to the large skeletal muscles, such as in the legs, making it easier to flee — and making the face blanch as blood is shunted away from it (creating the feeling that the blood "runs cold"). At the same time, the body freezes, if only for a moment, perhaps allowing time to gauge whether hiding might be a better reaction. Circuits in the brain's emotional centers trigger a flood of hormones that put the body on general alert, making it edgy and ready for action, and attention fixates on the threat at hand, the better to evaluate what response to make.

I find his reasoning very enlightening as it gave a lot of rationale behind the expressions of emotion that recognize so vividly yet never thought to wonder why they are just so.

The majority of the book is essentially a call to revolutionize the curriculum of standardized teaching to better equip youth for the emotional challenges that they face in today's world. While admirable, I found myself skeptical of the book's ability to reform the current state of society which seems to leave the education of such subjects to community and family. Nevertheless it is a very illuminating work.

* Incidentally a similar line of reasoning was also brought up in an artificial intelligence paper that I reported on for a class recently, Intelligence without Representation. In it Brooks argues that most of evolution has been spent figuring out how to interact and respond to a dynamic environment, whereas the typical problem-solving behavior was developed in a fraction of the time in comparison. His argument is that the true basis of intelligence is in the former, rather than the latter, which at the time was where most artificial intelligence work was being focused.

Posted 4/28/05:

God Will Make a Way, Cloud & Townsend - See my commentary in a different post.

Posted 8/14/04:

The Disciplined Life, Taylor - Almost everyone I know really hated this book, but I really enjoyed it for some reason. I think in some weird way it empowered me. I guess I feel like I found a lot of validation for some of the things I tend to do naturally.

The Making of a Man of God, Redpath - It's been a while since I have read this one so I don't remember the specifics of why I liked it so much. Mostly it has great insights into David's life and heart.

Humility, Murray - A very humbling book indeed.

A Tale of Three Kings, Edwards - A great study of the enemy within yourself.

Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis - There are a lot of C. S. Lewis writings that I love, and I think this one compilation is the most valuable. I consider Lewis a quite convincing apologetic.

Trusting God, Bridges - A good answer to the question, "Why do bad things happen to good people." It's one of those paradoxes that you have to hold in constant ... I can't think of the word. Anyway I remember my perspective on the subject shifting subtly while reading this.

How People Grow, Cloud & Townsend - The Shoffs had us read this as a leadership group a few years ago. It was so revolutionary for me that I had to read it about three times to really get it.

Boundaries, Cloud & Townsend - How People Grow made references to this book, so I decided to read it too. There is some overlap, but this one is probably more accessible and straightforward. It's probably where I would have started if I did it all over again.

Boundaries in Dating, Cloud & Townsend - Again, there's some overlap here, but there are some very useful insights specific to dating and romantic relationships. Good stuff.

Making Small Groups Work, Cloud & Townsend - This is a pretty short book that tends to have a lot of "lists", which I am not that fond of, but nevertheless it is a great tool for practically implementing the concepts of the other books in the context of small group. Also there is a section on listening that I found to be completely revolutionary.

The Road Less Travelled, Peck - This book has several interesting insights and perspectives on life and human evolution and such. It does go off in the deep-end at certain points, though. While reading this book I wasn't sure of Peck's precise religious beliefs because he seems to approach from mostly a psychological and secular standpoint. I came to find out (in the next book) that he does indeed profess to be Christian.

The Different Drum, Peck - This is sort of a sequel to The Road Less Travelled. I'm reading this one right now, and it's very good so far.

Love/Hate (ongoing)

I've decided that I should be more assertive about who I am rather than deferring my opinions to whoever else is in the room at the time. As an exercise towards this endeavor I will maintain an ongoing list of some things that I love and hate.

    Posted 12/19/06:
  • the TED video blog
  • Radio Lab podcast
  • things my mom gets enthusiastic about

    • Bookworm
    • Sudoku
    • that online Scrabble game with the jumping tile when you score big

  • toffee bar crunch ice cream
  • philosophical discussions with friends
  • feeling a shiver when listening to a new song
    Posted 12/19/06:
  • that (not so) sinking feeling when I flush and realize I've plugged up the toilet
  • people that flake on appointments
  • people that don't return my phone calls

Monday, December 18, 2006

God vs. Science

An article in TIME magazine entitled "God vs. Science" came out a bit ago; actually it was the cover story. It was quite an interesting discussion between outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, and Francis Collins, Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute.

For the most part I found their perspectives remarkably compatible, which could be comforting in some ways, and unfortunately dull in others. Collins has no problem accepting evolution as the means by which God created humans, and Dawkins admits there are profound things in this universe that science cannot (yet) explain. Ho hum.

The one glaring thing I found suspect was Collins' invocation of Occam's razor. The article reads:

COLLINS: ... Barring a theoretical resolution, which I think is unlikely, you either have to say there are zillions of parallel universes out there that we can't observe at present or you have to say there was a plan. I actually find the argument of the existence of a God who did the planning more compelling than the bubbling of all these multiverses. So Occam's razor — Occam says you should choose the explanation that is most simple and straightforward — leads me more to believe in God than in the multiverse, which seems quite a stretch of the imagination.

This just seems silly. If I got that right, Collins is arguing that it's simpler to believe that God exists than that a multitude of universes exist, of which we are just one. What I can't understand is how such an obviously intelligent person cannot see the flaw in that reasoning. By calling the existence of God the "simpler" explanation, he has simply lumped all of the complexity into a different bin and labeled it "God." Which is more complicated – a innumerable number of universes, or some kind of being able to create such universes, at will? One might as well quote Hebrews 3:3:

Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself.

Certainly if the builder deserves greater honor, it is safe to say he is decidedly more complex than the house he built.

One consequence of labeling this complexity "God" is that Collins renders it automatically beyond the reach of human scrutiny, by definition, and thus absolves his responsibility for further study or explanation, because of course such things are "unknowable." This approach is common to all creation/intelligent design arguments and therefore, to me anyway, removes itself from the realm of science. At any rate, I find myself agreeing more with Dawkins than with Collins in this article.

What I really find interesting is the apparent flip in roles between the scientists and creationists/intelligent design proponents. All of a sudden, it is the theists who are saying, "there is no way it could happen" (with regards to life springing spontaneously from non-life), while the scientists are the ones holding out with perseverance and faith, saying, "just because you don't see it doesn't mean it's not there" (with regards to the discovery of some natural process).

Between the two camps I think it's the scientists who have the right approach. To proclaim that there is no way that life can be created spontaneously through random events is tantamount to fortune-telling. Anyone versed in history knows that it is foolish to say "it will never be done" about anything. And to those who would bank their faith on this kind of fragile reasoning, what will you do if someday life is in fact artificially created, or found elsewhere in the universe?

Wednesday, November 8, 2006


I've had this conversation relating some of my reasoning with several people now and it hasn't done much more than, at best, render my audience speechless, or worse, exasperate them. By now I've had a couple of chances to think about this concept a little more precisely so I'll try to express it here.

It isn't much more than the long-standing criticism of fundamental Christianity, namely, if God is so loving, why does he send so many people to hell? Mostly what I have to offer is a rebuttal to the common defenses of this attack.

Probably the most reasonable response to this question is:

God doesn't send people to hell, He lets people choose it for themselves. C.S. Lewis argued this very point quite eloquently; probably the concept has origins even earlier than that. And, for a time this answer satisfied me. It certainly makes sense to say that God loves us so much that ultimately giving us choice is a greater expression of love than forcing his presence upon us in heaven. So in this sense hell is simply an existence apart from God.

Essentially one could characterize the debate as such:


God is unloving for sending so many people to hell.
Actually God is loving because he gives us the choice to choose Him or not.

Thus the responsibility has been placed on us to choose our eternal destination. And here is where I interject a rebuttal — but we didn't choose whether or not to be born.

The defense attempts to remove the judgmental characterization of God by placing the responsibility squarely on our shoulders. But a large portion of that responsibility was already decided when our parents — intentionally or otherwise — conceived us. So why should I be judged by my decisions when it wasn't my decision to even exist? If I had to choose whether to go to hell or to have never been born, I think the obvious choice would be the latter.

As an illustration, in bible studies I used to be involved in we would refer to John 12:47-48:

"As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day."

The illustration went something like this: Imagine you're taking a class. The teacher says, "Here is the textbook, you are responsible for chapters 1-5; there will be test in four weeks." If you choose not to study and get an 'F', is it really the teacher that is judging you? And the answer is, no, it's the textbook that is judging me; I brought this judgment upon myself because I chose not to study; the teacher didn't give me an 'F', I gave myself an 'F' because of my choices.

The corollary to my rebuttal then, is, how about the guy that decided not to enroll in the class? Why should he get an 'F' too?

The point of my rebuttal is this: there is no way of getting around the fact that God sends people to hell; at least, this defense falls short. Ultimately we are all thrown into a test we didn't sign up for but are expected to pass or fail depending on the choices we make with the circumstances handed to us.

Alternate defenses I have heard to the initial criticism are:

Hell is actually like never being born. This is a pretty decent idea. It does make for interesting interpretation of phrases like "eternal fire" (Matthew 25:41) and "eternal punishment" (Matthew 25:46, Jude :7) though. Also, as far as I know the main support of this concept is that the fire-and-brimstone concept of hell was developed later on to scare people into behaving. If you bring this up though, doesn't it lend credibility to the idea that heaven was also developed to inspire people to hope and is therefore also an imaginary concept?

People who don't [have a chance to] believe in Jesus are judged by a different standard — their consciences (Romans 2:15). This argument is quite liberal and opens up a can of worms for the typical fundamental Christian. Notably the interpretations of "Jesus answered, 'I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me'" (John 14:6) and "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved" (Romans 4:12) are difficult to resolve.

When I was part of an organization which believed that it was going to save the world in our generation, then the concept of God sending people to hell was not so hard to swallow — at least I could say I was part of a group that was actually doing something about it. And I really believed it; there really were at the time what looked like substantial results: lives significantly changed, lots of numerical growth. In time though the superficial glory faded — numbers dwindled and life changes either regressed or were more accurately attributed to community or even hype.

So sustaining this interpretation of Scripture means believing that many, many people are go to hell, for many, many generations to come. And thus I think the criticism is valid — can a God like that really be considered loving? Or is there some other interpretation that fits reality better?

Anyway as I said, this argument didn't make it very far with my audiences so far. I am curious if this makes sense to anyone out there.

Saturday, November 4, 2006

Richard & Susan's Wedding

Susan, Richard

Whoops. These are pretty long overdue — I had drafted this up but never posted it.

Richard and Susan got married! Last year October!

Needless to say it was a beautiful ceremony.

Richard was a touch nervous (but of course you can't tell).

Richard actually asked me to arrange one of the pieces performed in the wedding. It was neat to hear it played by some real musicians.

Chris played an original on her guitar as well.

During the reception I had a great talk with Tammy Flemming. She's very approachable and is a lot of fun to talk to. Overall the wedding was very well done and a lot of fun.


So here goes.

There are so many different perspectives from which I have initiated this discussion that it is difficult to decide which is most appropriate. For now I will start with faith.

The concept of faith has always seemed complicated to me; I even remember writing a blog entry on it a while back. There was a time when I wavered between two schools of thought; either faith is a decision that a person makes (Hebrews 11:1), or faith is something that God simply grants (John 6:44, 6:65). This conundrum could also be posed as the probably familiar "free-will versus predestination" paradox.

Recently however I have come to believe that people, using myself as anecdotal evidence, come to faith based on the "personal evidence" they have encountered in their lives up to that time. By personal evidence I don't mean evidence in the sense of apologetics, I simply mean something that someone is willing on which to base a conclusion. When I came to commit myself to Christ the evidence before me was this:

  • I believe in God because the wisdom in the bible seems to ring true to what I have seen in my life.
  • Although I believe in God, I am not certain of the practical aspect of devoting my life to God because, let's face it, I'm not impressed with the people that I have seen so far who already have.
  • My life doesn't seem to be working the way I think it is supposed to, i.e. I am lonely and unhappy.
  • Here is a group of people (Church of Christ) that is actually getting something done and whose members are really serious about following the bible.
There was a part of me that felt woefully ignorant of other religions and wanted to take some time to study them out, but of course the church beckoned and a lost world awaited so the curiosity was relegated for time being. And in the beginning I was happier, so the evidence in my life was indeed reinforcing my faith.

Since that time I have gone through many ups and many downs. During this time, and especially the past three years or so, I added the following to my body of "personal evidence":

  • It turns out that the "getting something done" part of church was really probably the authoritarian and charismatic leadership — cult of personality, if you will. Without that, explosive (numerical) growth is absent.
  • The remainder of the benefits I feel that the church has to offer can be attributed to the community aspect of the group. In fact the most useful lessons on cultivating this community I learn from books by Cloud & Townsend. While they are biblically based, I find it is their psychological training that lends the most value to their perspective.
  • I have experienced and have seen in others an interesting state — believing or knowing intellectually that God loves me, yet not feeling it. How does this state come about? If people simply read a book that tells them God loves them, it may indeed impart that factual knowledge; however it requires real love from real people to be able to even conceptualize what God's love feels like. But that opens up a large loophole in my mind — if what people need is love from other people, why need God?

All this to basically state, I don't think of myself as "falling away" or "giving up", but more than the rules have changed and I am trying to reconcile my concept of God with the evidence I see. In some sense you could probably frame this as "[working] out [my] salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12). For now I will leave it at that and perhaps I will elaborate in future posts.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Taiwan 2005

Okay, trying to catch up on the past year — only nine months late! My cousin was married in September of last year and I made a quick visit to Taiwan for the tea ceremony, which was a week or two before the actual wedding. This my uncle Hong-Sie, aunt Lo-Ying, their grand-daughter Mao-Mao, and my mom at lunch. Uncle Hong-Sie and and aunt Lo-Ying were so hospitable, carting us around everywhere.

On the way to the wedding

Whenever I try to get my mom to treat me more like an adult she brings up things like this photo, where even a woman at her age gets relegated to the center seat when her parents are around.

A photo collection of the wedding couple.

My cousin Yu-Chow's wife and her son. I think they were married a year or two before this; unfortunately I wasn't able to make it to that wedding.

My uncle Chiu-Che, his two daughters, and grandma.

My cousin Jonathan and I. How is it I'm the oldest but the shortest of the cousins?

Jonathan's girlfriend Jia-Jia.

My cousins are so musically talented. I'm just a hack in comparison.

Grandpa enjoys a story from one of the relatives.

My cousin Candy entertains grandma.

The mother of the bride, the groom, and my aunt Yung-Hui.

My cousin the bride performs the tea ceremony.

The happy couple at the reception.

The First 48 Hours

I have taken to watching late night crime shows every now and then. You know, the brainy ones like CourtTV that show you, in the unlikely case you decide to go tearing off to the dark side, exactly how to cover up the most heinous of crimes by not doing the dumb stuff that gets these amateur criminals caught.

A new one that is a pretty subtle rip-off of the 24-style of cinematography is a show called The First 48. Now the reason I mention this, other than to sneak in a confession that I'm a chronic channel-flipper bound to drive my future significant-other to madness, is that the other night there was a really interesting episode involving what was turning out to be a revenge killing in some neighborhood in the south, I think Tennessee.

The investigator had brought in her suspect for questioning and prefaced the scene with a statement to the effect of, "We really need to get a confession out of him." Now the investigator is a stocky black woman with simple but pleasant features. I didn't take much notice of her as the show followed her between the crime scene and the police station. One scene even showed her in such a mundane situation as showcasing some items in her closet, such as her interrogation jacket ("this one really gets the confessions," or something to that effect), and a large purse ("especially good for carrying my gun").

All that changed when she stepped into the interrogation room though. What she brought to bear was not only riveting, but completely unexpected. I'll try to do her justice but bear in mind this is paraphrasing. Speaking to the suspect:

"Now I know that the man killed last night was actually involved in a murder a ways back, he shot your brother, right?" No answer.

"Now sometimes things happen and I'm not saying it's right, but you know, I understand." Stoic silence.

"You've been carrying this torch for a long time, and that's a lot of burden for a man to carry." The man — boy, really — puts his head down on the table and starts to cry.

"I know how hard it is to be a black man in this town. You know sometimes s*** happens and sometimes black men don't know the right way to respond; you probably didn't have any role models showing you what to do and how to behave. I know, it's hard. Now I want to help you but you need to let me." And with that he is sobbing, covering his face, as if trying desperately to save it and whatever dignity he has left.

The scene finally ends without him confessing but later on I think it is mentioned that he does eventually break. What is so startling to me was this detective's ability to connect immediately with all that he had stored up emotionally. It was surprisingly skillful and very moving, as if I too had come in contact with all the stored up neglect, anger and futility that led to this tragically pivotal point in the young man's life.

At the same time the thought lurked in my mind that while the detective stated she was there to help the suspect, the audience is privy to the fact that if he refused to confess, they might not have a case to prosecute. Of course from the spiritual perspective, I believe it really would be helping him to coax him into admitting the truth, and that "getting away with murder," had it ended that way, really wouldn't be. I couldn't help but wonder, though, if the detective herself was really thinking that far ahead, considering the tone of her statement right before the interrogation. Regardless — kudos, detective.

The Big 3-2

I suppose an occasion like today (technically yesterday) would be a good excuse to resurrect the dead carcass that is my blog. Thirty-two good years and I'm still going strong.

Here are the highlights of the past few months.

I am going to UCLA in the fall for graduate school in computer science. As I was making my decision to go I was fluttery with anticipation and excitement, but since then the thought of missing San Diego, DivX, and the comforts of the home here (not to mention the pains of finding new housing, finding a new tenant for the house, moving, and the prospect of adjusting to new roommates) have found me more recently a bit subdued and not a little bit nostalgic. And while a lot of close friends have moved away, two friends have actually moved back, making my move all the more poignant.

I should also mention that I did manage to get rejected from quite a few other schools as well. Quite an exhilarating experience for the ego, the rejection thing. I heartily recommend it.

My grandfather was recently diagnosed with stomach cancer. My mother is in Taiwan right now, doing what she can to tend to him. From her reports at first he did not want to accept treatment, but it sounds like now he has changed his mind and will undergo chemotherapy. Although I have grown up separated by both an ocean and a language, I have always respected grandpa and admired his noble contribution for many years as a clinical doctor in the village where he lives. And of course the fiery character that is my mother certainly speaks volumes of his influence. I wrote him a letter recently but it seemed like such a feeble attempt. I have deep appreciation, nonetheless.

I have been working a lot on a project of Mark's invention called InfoZealot.com (please be patient if the site is down — it's under construction!). It's been a lot of crazy hours but it's already been very rewarding. And now with the prospect of bringing on some other people to do development, I think it will have a good chance of picking up some real momentum.

I am no longer attending a church regularly. Occasionally, usually at the suggestion of a friend, I visit a church now and then. I have had countless discussions with friends regarding that decision and, more specifically, my perspective on God and Jesus these days and it probably would do some good to try to express it here. At the very least my numerous attempts at explaining it have forced me to refine and revise my thoughts. And although I have probably talked to everyone I know about it, I certainly haven't tired of the discussion yet.


Well I've been trying for about two hours to express it but it is starting to go long and to lack coherency so I will have to finish it later as another post. Stay tuned, if you dare.

P.S. Joel if you read this, love the blog. I took a couple of days but now I'm all caught up.