Tuesday, 30 October 2007

buy bye

Ever felt like you've accumulated too much stuff, and it's just getting in the way? Does Xmas shopping take away your peace of mind? Or have you ever bought something you didn't really need, or even want all that much?

You're not alone.

But doing something about it is another thing. It's simply hard to break out. But there are people taking a stand against corporate consumerism.

Compact is one such group. It was formed by a group of friends in San Francisco who were concerned about the environmental damage of the enormous amounts of waste we generate in western societies. So they did something very radical.

They agreed to not buy any new stuff for a whole year, except for a few important items such as medicines, food and safety items. Instead, they would buy second-hand, borrow/lend, barter or make what they needed.

The idea caught on, and thousands of people have joined the Compact Yahoo Group, and Compact Groups have started around the world. People have found the freedom from consumerism to be very liberating, sometimes even helping to create new community feeling. But not everyone is impressed - some have labelled these ideas as "unAmerican" and undermining economic growth.

The Sydney Morning Herald recently (They're just not buying it, Jacqui Taffel, Oct 27-28) reviewed the efforts of several people trying to live by the Compact principles in Australia. It seems that not everyone is able to keep it up, and some live by less stringent principles. But as with the original San Fransisco group, most do not miss the products they are doing without, and feel positive about the idea.

One said: "It made me think about what is our purpose - is it just to go and buy stuff? And I don't think I've worked that out yet."

I find it ironic that America is at the same time both the world's strongest exponent of capitalism, and supposedly the world's most christian nation. Yet Jesus warned against excessive consumption: ".... guard yourselves from all kinds of greed, because a man's true life is not made up of the things he owns, no matter how rich he may be." (Luke 12:13).

What do you think? Do we consume too much? Have we been conned by advertising to do what doesn't make us more fulfilled and happy? What can/should we do about it? Do we need to go to such lengths, or is there a more moderate approach to resisting consumerism?

Read more about Compact from the SMH; read an interview with one of the founders; or read the Compact blog.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

beautiful scotland (and northern england)

Holiday photos aren't really the purpose of this blog, but I can't resist sharing these. (The pictures are small so they loader quicker, but you can see a slightly larger version by clicking on each photo.)

The Lakes District (Cumbria) on a frosty morning.

The waterfront at Portree on the Isle of Skye.

Thirlmere in Cumbria.

Coniston Water (Cumbria) - the house is Bank Ground Farm, the model for
"Holly Howe" in Arthur Ransome's well-loved "Swallows and Amazons" books.

Eilean Donan castle overlooking Loch Alsh.

The stark beauty of Skye - you can just make out a remote farmhouse dwarfed by the mountains.

600 year old building in the walled city of York.

The 17th century harbour at Portsoy on the north coast of Scotland.

Many neolithic (around 4000 years ago) stone monuments remain in Scotland,
including this burial cairn and standing stone near Inverness.

The village of Crovie on the north coast of Scotland - established as a fishing
village during the "highland clearances" in the eighteenth century, when the
conquering English forced many Scottish farmers off their land. But it is not
suitable for modern fishing, and is now a remote holiday village.

Windswept Iona.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

where's that wally, unkle e?

I'll be away from my computer for a little while, so blogging is unlikely. Back in a few weeks, maybe tell you about it all then. Ciao.

Friday, 5 October 2007

are the stories about jesus true?

You might think that, after 2000 years, everything that could be written about Jesus would have been written. But books about Jesus are still being published in their thousands, and not all by believers.

And there are so many different views: from fringe christian through mainstream christian, to mainstream unbelief, and fringe unbelief. Some people follow Jesus as the Son of God, others don't believe he ever existed.

If you were interested, how would you know who to trust?

I have been researching this question for a while, and I think we must start by checking what genuine historians say. And we can navigate between the people with preconceived opinions either way and get a reasonably neutral assessment by (1) looking at the consensus of historians working in the area (there is safety in numbers), and (2) checking out an agnostic historian with no axe to grind either way.

So I checked out almost every book in our local library by a reputable historian. This included many of the most respected names in current scholarship, such as Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Ed Sanders, Geza Vermes, Tom Wright and John Meier. Here's what I found out .....

how much can we know?

History is not an exact science. Historians can say what probably happened, and what probably didn't, but there is a large amount of material on which they have insufficient information to make a judgment. This is especially true of the New Testament, because of the miraculous element, on which a historian cannot pass expert judgment - our acceptance of the miraculous will depend on what we believe as much as on the historical facts.

So we have to accept some uncertainty, and go with what we have.

the consensus of historians.

Most professional historians are scrupulously objective. (Most of the books that specifically aim to argue for or against christianity are from non-historians.) And here's the range of their conclusions on whether the stories of Jesus are historical.

The most sceptical of historians are probably those in the "Jesus Seminar" - a group of scholars which has methodically applied the most critical analysis to this question. They nevertheless conclude that Jesus was undoubtedly a historical figure who most likely did and said about 15-20% of what we find in the Bible. Much of the rest of the New Testament reflects things that Jesus may have said and done, but it has been interpreted by the early christians in such a way as to make it impossible to know the original historical facts. So these scholars provide some sort of minimum of what we can confidently believe about Jesus.

At the other end of the spectrum, many professing christian scholars believe that almost all the New Testament is not just believable, but also able to be established historically.

But the majority of historians conclude something between these extremes. Here are some examples of what they conclude we can know:

  • Marcus Borg: "some judgments are so probable as to be certain; for example, Jesus really existed, and he really was crucified, just as Julius Caesar really existed and was assassinated......We can in fact know as much about Jesus as we can about any figure in the ancient world."
  • E P Sanders: ".... we have a good idea of the main lines of his [Jesus] ministry and his message. We know who he was, what he did, what he taught, and why he died."
  • G Stanton: "Few doubt that Jesus possessed unusual gifts as a healer, though of course varied explanations are offered."
  • E P Sanders: "That Jesus' followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know."

Thus the mainstream of historians conclude that quite a lot of what is recorded about Jesus actually occurred.

michael grant

The late Michael Grant was an eminent historian who wrote more than 50 books on the history of the Roman Empire. Importantly for the question we are discussing here, he was not a believer. His book, Jesus: an Historian's Review of the Gospels, draws the following historical conclusions about Jesus, using the same methods he used in his other historical investigations:

  • Did Jesus exist?: "[The Jesus myth] has again and again been answered and annihilated by first-rank scholars .... no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non-historicity of Jesus."
  • Is the New Testament historical?: "the picture they [the gospels] present is largely authentic .... information about Jesus can be derived from the gospels."
  • Jesus acting as God: "Jesus introduced a very singular innovation. For he also claimed that he himself could forgive sins."
  • Why did Jesus die?: "Jesus lived his last days, and died, in the belief that his death was destined to save the human race."
  • Grant also concludes that Jesus' tomb was really empty, though he does not believe in the miracle of the resurrection.

Thus Michael Grant's conclusions support, and perhaps go a little further than, the consensus of historians.

what may we conclude

While I have tried to present the historical information fairly, I must make it clear that I write as one who has concluded that the historical evidence supports belief in Jesus. But this is not the only option.

I think it is impossible for a fair-minded person to believe Jesus never existed - the weight of historical study does not allow this. So we are faced with a couple of options, either .....

  1. ..... on the basis of the historical evidence we can believe that Jesus truly came from God, and then we can trust (in faith) the rest of the New Testament that historians cannot verify, or .....
  2. ..... we accept that a man named Jesus lived and taught and died, but that he was mistaken about the more radical claims that he made to represent God on earth.

What do you reckon?

For further reading, I recommend:

  • Michael Grant's book on Jesus.
  • John Dickson: A Spectator's Guide to Jesus. A historian who believes in Jesus presents the historical evidence in a fair-minded way.
  • A more detailed summary on my website - also provides links to websites by both christians and atheists.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

marriage, infidelity and singleness

Back in April I reported on marriage strategies - how living together before marriage reduces the likelihood of the marriage lasting. Now the Sydney Morning Herald has reported on some more interesting facts about marriage.

cohabiting & singleness

A new study by Ruth Weston shows that in the last 5 years there has been an enormous increase in the number of people in their 30s who are not in a live-in relationship, married or otherwise. While the divorce rate is now more or less stable, living together has become more unstable.

In the 1980s, couples tended to live together as a "trial marriage", but now live-in relationships tend to begin more casually. This apparently makes it more likely that couples might live for years in a relationship with little commitment that ends up going nowhere. If or when they finally separate, this time has been "wasted", and the prospects of finding a marriage partner much reduced.

marriage & infidelity

Pamela Druckerman has researched marriage infidelity in several countries, and found some slightly surprising conclusions:

  • The French are among the more faithful in marriage. They do not make a fuss about infidelity, but nevertheless value faithfulness very highly.
  • Americans too value fidelity, but are slightly less faithful than the French. Those who are victims of infidelity tend to suffer more than in other nations, get angrier and almost always seek extensive counselling.
  • Britons, Japanese and Russians appear to be among the less faithful. The instability in Russian marriages seems to be a related to other social problems, like poor health, crime, alcoholism and a growing AIDS problem. In Japan, infidelity seems to be related to an unrealistic approach to marriage, and is beginning to lead to women delaying marriage because of male propensity for discreet affairs.
  • Togo has a level of infidelity many times that of western nations (which may help explain why AIDS is such a problem in Africa!).
  • Most faithful of the nations investigated are Kazakhstan, Bangladesh and ...... Australia.
  • Overall, wealthy countries tend to have lower rates of infidelity, especially among men.

Not sure what all that proves, except maybe that we can flout the conventional standards but it doesn't seem to make anyone any happier.