Friday, January 30, 2015

Reaction: J Warner Wallace and The Case For Truth, Part 3

Okay, I'm watching this video, because someone said they'd be interested in my response to it. The background post is here. I'm almost certainly over-thinking the whole thing, but hey -- if they didn't want over-thinking, they should have asked someone else for feedback.

In our last installment, I went through about the first third of the fifty-two minute video. That took a long time, since I'd spend anywhere from five to twenty minutes responding to things that took Mr. Wallace no more than thirty seconds to rattle off. Naturally, I'm going to stick with the same format for this installment, because I don't have any better ideas and anyway learning from your mistakes is for wimps. Wrong and strong! Full speed ahead! Here we go...

...Picking up at the sixteen minute and thirty second mark:

17:54: Talking about objective vs. subjective truth: "I'm going to test you on this, so be ready." Laughter. "And by the way, most churches and most groups that I work with will fail the test."

18:30: Now he's comparing a mission trip to explain the only medical cure for tuberculosis with the need to share your faith. By implication, he's tying in the concepts that A) his brand of Christian faith is objectively true, and B) sharing your faith is a matter of life and death. Note that he hasn't actually established either point; he's just sort of sliding those assertions in as an aside.

20:20: He's... using a metaphor about a house to basically point out that people commonly confuse objective truth-claims with subjective truth-claims. That seems like an unnecessarily elaborate way to make a relatively simple claim. Also, this is kind of a false dichotomy. Truth claims don't just fall into objective or subjective categories; there are, for example, claims that might be objective but we don't have enough evidence, or adequate methods of testing them, to be sure.

20:50: Considering theological truth as subjective weakens the truth claim, "because opinions don't really matter, if you think about it." No. Just, no. Not everything has to be Ultimately Important to matter.

21:00: "We have to reunite this idea, and get to one total truth, so we understand that the truth claims about God are every bit as objective as truth claims about math." ::sigh:: Are you really sure you want to go there, Dude? I ask because, as you yourself have pointed out, an awful lot of the reasons that people believe are... well... personal. Subjective. Francis Schaeffer has an entire book entitled He Is There and He Is Not Silent -- which, if it were true, would be far too self-evident to require a book.

Also, I'm troubled by the idea of "one total truth". Are we trying to unite subjective and objective truths here? Because that seems... problematic. Or are we just going to discard all subjective truths as unworthy of the label of Truth, and make sure that theological claims don't get discarded with them? That seems problematic too, but in a different way. Precisely which theological claims are we going to establish as independently-verifiable objective truths?

I'm just going to mention again that I have biases, and one of them is a low tolerance for showmanship. If you have a proof that the existence of God and/or the historicity of Jesus is/are real and verifiable, quit dithering around and show me.

23:38: "Now if I made this statement about Hyundais: 'I'm so committed -- Hyundais can fly you to the moon.' Objective or subjective?" Depends on how you meant it, of course, which is precisely the problem with most so-called "literal" readings of the Bible. Yes, I could assume that you were making a claim of objective fact, which in this case is relatively easy to disprove; but honestly, a statement like that is far more likely to be hyperbole, a metaphorical expression of your enthusiasm for the brand -- what you might call a poetic truth -- which would be based on your experience with the cars, and your opinion of the cars, and therefore subjective, and therefore (according to what you said back at the 20:50 mark) valueless.

Except that this also shows why the idea that subjective claims lack value is at best incomplete, and at worst simply wrong. As a data point, "This person has had such good experiences with Hyundai cars that they're willing to say things like, 'Hyundais can fly you to the moon,'" is actually useful to know. It isn't the Absolute Truth of whether you'll like a Hyundai as much as the person who said it, but it's still a useful indicator.

I'm going to un-pause, now, and see how Mr. Wallace answers his own question...

24:30: He's written it off as an objectively false claim. And, almost immediately afterwards, he's confusing objective and subjective. "If I said to you, 'I believe Chocolate chip cookies are the best cookies in the world,' that's a subjective claim." No, no it isn't. That's an objective claim, because either you do believe that, or you don't. It's a changeable objective claim, since your belief might change if someone introduced you to a new, better cookie, but it's still objective. You have to take the qualifier away to make it subjective: "Chocolate chip cookies are the best cookies in the world" is a subjective claim.

I'm pretty sure that if I were, hypothetically, one of the teenagers listening to this talk, he'd have lost me right there. But, again, I was a weird kid.

25:00: "Now, let's take the test together. We're gonna divide all true claims into two sides. On one side we're gonna put all objective claims, on the other side we're gonna put all subjective claims." That's kind of a false dichotomy -- sort of like any idea that starts with, "There are two kinds of people in the world..." Never trust a setup like that. When you're talking about claims, you're talking about things said by people, and when you're talking about things said by people, it's almost always more complicated than that.

Grouping all claims into either subjective or objective categories (while, as I've noted, a very cop thing to do) completely ignores questions of context, irony, hyperbole, exaggeration, sarcasm, humor, and really a substantial portion of all the rich variety of ways that people use to communicate. To make this division, you basically have to pretend that those things don't exist (and, by extension, didn't exist for the people living in Biblical times or the people who wrote their stories). You have to pretend that people don't interact or behave like people, in other words. You have to assume that people only ever communicate with each other in direct, literal sentences which present clear, unambiguous claims.

That's... functionally illiterate, in most cases.

(I'm sorry. I really set out just to explain why this sort of thing might not be all that persuasive to unbelievers. Instead, I'm being... well, pretty harshly critical of what Mr. Wallace has to say. Admittedly, that's precisely why this sort of thing might not be all that persuasive to unbelievers, but it still feels like I'm shading over from pointing out areas of disagreement and into actively debunking his points. Unfortunately, I don't think I can tone down my response and still offer any sort of useful or honest feedback. So just bear in mind that I don't begrudge Mr. Wallace his Christianity, or his belief that Jesus of Nazareth was an actual historical person, or any of that; it's just that I have some serious issues with his methodology.)

I'm going to stop here. (That means that this is definitely going to be at least two more installments, as we're roughly half-way through at this point. I doubt I can cram the next twenty-seven minutes of the talk into a single post; in fact, I suspect we'll be slowing down rather than speeding up. Still, I can hope, right?)

Benchmarks for this point in the lecture:

1. I'm seeing a lot more rhetoric than logic. I mean, Mr. Wallace has laid out the problem as he sees it: young people are leaving The Church in droves (and, I suspect, the occasional Hyundai), because they're going off to college without being ready to defend their beliefs. He's suggested a solution: prepare the young people by showing them that Christianity (and specifically his Baptist, definitely-not-Mormon brand of Christianity) is objectively (and, by implication, provably) true. And then, instead of just laying out this proof -- which ought not to be so terribly difficult -- he changes the subject. We're halfway through his talk, and we haven't done more than touch on the idea that this proof exists; the entire lecture so far is basically just background and build-up.

2. The hermeneutic he seems to be laying out here (at least, so far) strikes me as... well... simple-minded, and precisely the sort of thing that falls apart immediately when you try to apply it to the way actual people actually communicate. That isn't entirely Mr. Wallace's fault; a lot of what he's saying is standard, or at least very common, Christian doctrine.

3. I mentioned in the introductory post that a lot of apologetics seem to be designed more to reinforce the faith of existing Christians than to persuade unbelievers. That's definitely the case here (which, admittedly, makes sense when you consider his audience for his particular talk). Sure, Mr. Wallace has mentioned the vital need for people (and especially young people) to share their faith at all times, and the prospect of having solid proof of the historicity of Jesus seems like it could be really helpful with that; but he hasn't offered any discussion on how to approach people about your faith, how to actually share your faith, or when to shake the dust from your heels and move on to the next metaphorical town. This talk is (I think) building up to his core point about how Christians can know that the tenets of their faith are objective true, but it's building up with an explicit emphasis on keeping Christian young people in Christianity, rather than on bringing in new converts.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Reaction: J Warner Wallace and The Case For Truth Part 2

Okay, I'm finally watching this video, because... um... mostly because someone said they'd be interested in my response to it. The background post is here. This is probably more feedback than they wanted, but, well, here we go...

Very, very first impressions: he's a good speaker. He's active, dynamic, charismatic; he's talking about his background, his family, offering some personal info to make a connection. He also talks quickly -- that's part of the "dynamic, charismatic" element, but it also means he's throwing a lot of information at his audience without giving them much chance to stop and assess it.

1:50 "I was the kind of atheist that was really pretty obstinate." I have no particular reason to doubt this, but it's worth mentioning that it's sort of de rigeur in this sort of "I once was lost but now I'm found" story. Lee Strobel was an atheist until he turned his skills as an investigative reporter towards finding out if Christianity was really The Truth; Josh McDowell began his journey as an atheist examining the evidence and seeking the truth. Heck, Mike Warnke was a Satanic High Priest before he found Jesus and became an evangelist -- or at least so he claimed, for years, before Mike Hertenstein and Jon Trott debunked pretty much everything he ever claimed. Having said that, I know (and occasionally work with) some police officers; and they tend to pretty black-and-white, clear-cut-categories sorts of people. So assuming that Mr. Wallace was an atheist, he probably was pretty obstinate about it. It's just that any time an apologist starts out talking about how much of an atheist they once were, I'm inclined to take it with a grain of salt.

2:22 - There's a really abrupt transition from "I was an atheist" to "I worked on a lot of high-profile cases" and then some talk about statutes of limitations and cold cases. He's basically setting out his credentials here -- he used to be an atheist, he's done a lot of investigation of things that happened a long time ago.

3:24 - "But now we're gonna take some of those techniques that we learn(ed) doing cold cases, and we're gonna apply them to the Christian worldview." That... seems like some heavy-duty conflation. "A long time ago" in historical terms is very different from "a long time ago" in terms of prosecuting a felony. The past is a foreign country, if you'll permit me to borrow a phrase. Mr. Wallace spends the next couple of minutes talking about how he, and his father, and his son all use basically the same equipment and the same techniques -- three generations! Consistency! -- and how those techniques can be applied even further back... but I'm dubious. So, I'm just going to pause here and point out -- again -- that Baby, It's Cold Outside sounds very different to modern audiences than it did to its original audience, and that's only going back to the 1940s. The idea that you can examine historical documents in the same way that you would look at modern eye-witness testimony or other evidence strikes me as hugely, fundamentally flawed.

That doesn't necessarily mean that he's wrong, of course; but to my mind it's a good reason to be wary.

5:00 - "The problem we're facing with young people ... Christians who attend college leave Christianity in large numbers. It's pretty ugly." This comment isn't exactly problematic, since he's addressing Christian youth at the Summit Worldview Conference, and -- being presumably all Christian -- we can safely assume that they agree that young people leaving Christianity is a Bad Thing. So I don't think he's wrong to mention it here, or to describe it the way he does... except for the part where he seems to be blaming colleges and/or the college environment for their departure. Again, this may be my own experience coloring my interpretation, but "going off to college" also happens to coincide with a point at which young people suddenly become much more free to make their own decisions. (I, myself, quit attending church when I went to college. I hadn't actually considered myself a Christian for two full years before that; it was just that attending church helped maintain the Domestic Tranquility Index while I was still living with my parents.) And there seems to be a social and/or historical trend of young people leaving Christianity right now, quite possibly just because there isn't as much pressure on them to stay as there was for earlier generations.

So while I understand and even sympathize with his desire to help young people remain Christians, I think the assumption that college is some sort of hostile environment may be somewhat (though not completely) misguided. Correlation is not causation.

6:00 "I think there's a simple math to the problem we're seeing... We're gonna add three things. The first thing [is that Christian students are poorly prepared]." Again, there's that belief that college is a hostile environment.

7:15 "Why are you a Christian?" He rattles off a list of answers. "Those are the same answers Mormon give -- they give the same answers as Christians give." So, apparently, Mormons aren't Christians. That's... troubling. First of all, I don't think it's his place to judge. Second, that sure as heck isn't how Mormons see it -- they see themselves, very consistently, as a return to the Christianity of the early church, albeit with some additional revelations given to them. Mr. Wallace has just said that his step-mother is a Mormon, so I find it extremely hard to believe that he doesn't know this. The alternative, of course, is that he knows but doesn't care, which indicates a degree of arrogant disdain that doesn't speak particularly well of him either.

Notice, also, that he's kind of jumping from topic to topic -- he's not laying out his thesis in a neat, orderly set of propositions. Part of that is simply a matter of being a good public speaker; if you just lay out your position one point at a time, it's pretty boring to listen to. But it also makes it easy to just sort of nod along in agreement, since you're only seeing one little piece of things at a time. Hopefully he'll do more to tie it all together as the talk progresses.

8:00 Mr. Wallace supplies another answer: "How about, 'We know it's evidentially true'? They can't say that." Um, yes they can. Maybe if you were talking about Shintoists or neo-Pagans or something, but Mormons? Mormons are working from the same starting point that you're trying to prove is "evidentially true". How do you have a Mormon step-mother and not know this?

8:20 He's finally gotten back to point #2 of the three things he referenced at the 6:00 mark: "Aggressive, antagonistic campuses." (Yep, I called it.)

I dunno, maybe I'm biased -- I mean, I started at an Episcopalian university and finished my undergraduate degree at a University founded and run by the Disciples of Christ. So maybe the public universities are hugely antagonistic to the Christian faith? Maybe it's the community colleges? Except I did my graduate work at a publicly-funded, entirely secular University, and I don't recall seeing anything in the way of Christian-bashing there, either.

"Let's face it: most college campuses are not in favor of Christianity anymore." A) In my experience, that's only true in that most colleges don't seem to care about it one way or the other. B) There's a world of difference between not favoring something -- not granting it special status or special standing -- and being aggressively antagonistic towards it.

9:10 "There's a third thing..."

9:40 Finally, we get there: "Innately fallen humans as students." Whew! Again, this is boilerplate Christian doctrine, so no real problem there.

10:00 "We have a pre-disposition as fallen humans to chase our desires anyway." Okay, I was wrong. I do have a problem with this. The idea that people leave Christianity because they're "in love with their sins" or "they want to be able to sin without being convicted" or just "they want to be able to sin" might hold water if being a Christian seemed to, you know, prevent people from sinning -- or even slow them down in any meaningful way -- but that just isn't how it works. At least, not in my experience, and not in any sort of study I've ever seen.

::sigh:: I think I was hoping that "innately fallen humans as students" meant "we're fallible and we get things wrong"... but, no.

11:25 "We have to move The Church in a new direction. That's why we have something like Summit to begin with. You are The Church. You're the most important demographic in the church." Sure, but just try getting the actual leadership to listen to anything you have to say. (Sorry, that was unnecessarily cynical, but A) I'm hearing that complaint a lot from the sorts of people who get called "post-Evangelicals", and B) I have strong memories of being a teenager, and being regularly assured that my generation had an important role to play, just... y'know... not yet, and in the meantime we should stay quiet and do as we were told.)

(I hated that. And it didn't just come from church-folk, either. Not even close. Dude, you're up there lecturing at the front of the class; you're not a "was", and your students aren't an "is". You're an "is", and if you're lucky your students are all "will-be"s. No, I have no idea how to punctuate that. Otherwise they wouldn't be sitting there listening to you tell them what to do.)

14:00 "This is a stupid missions trip. This is dumb, because this is really a matter of opinion." Nice lead-in. So, at the 14:10 mark, we get "This is the first thing we have to get this morning. You've gotta understand the nature of Truth. If there's no truth, there's no truth about God." We've just hit our first major proposition, our first vital starting point, a quarter of the way through his talk.

This is the difference between persuasive speaking, and laying out a cogent logical argument.

16:30 He's been laying out the difference between objective and subjective, and as an example he's compared a missions trip to preach the superiority of chocolate chip cookies as a desert (subjective) and a trip to explain to people stricken with Tuberculosis about the only effective cure for TB (objective). So he's tying the question of objective vs. subjective together with the question of what's really worth arguing over, at least by implication. He also seems to be making an argument that objective claims are valuable, whereas subjective claims are not -- and I don't entirely agree with that.

However, at this point I'm going to stop. We're roughly a third of the way through this; I have now spent something like four hours to get through sixteen and a half minutes of Mr. Wallace's presentation.

Benchmarks for this point in the talk:

1. I'm extremely impressed with him as a speaker. I think I'd still have disagreed with him, back when I was teen and at least nominally a Christian, but I wouldn't have been bored. A bit impatient for him to get to the meat of his argument, maybe.

2. I'm not terribly impressed with his argument so far, or where he seems to be going with it. It's hard to say for sure, of course, because he skips around a lot and seems to be laying his view out more by a process of accretion than by assembling it into a structure, but that's part of why I'm not terribly impressed so far. It's also, very probably, part of why he's a successful speaker; painstaking logical arguments tend to be boring, whereas persuasive speech needs to be engaging.

3. I keep wondering about the apparent teenagers that make up his audience: are they all gung-ho and inspired, or are there any of them who are more like I was: not responding, but weighing up Mr. Wallace's assertions privately, reserving judgement for later? Useless speculation, but in terms of laying out my biases it's worth remembering that I was a weird kid.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Parenting Equation

Here's my Unified Field Theory of Parental Sanity:
S=(T/E) + M - W

Where:
S = Sanity
T = Time
E = Energy
M = Money
W = Work
Low results correspond to cluttered houses, hastily-prepared meals, and dark circles under parents' eyes, and various other signs of emotional breakdown. High-value results correspond to neat houses, home-cooked gourmet meals, well-organized and biddable children, and parents who are fit, happy, and energetic (who are completely horrible people, I'm just sure of it).

Monday, January 26, 2015

Music: The Rifle's Spiral

The Shins:

This is one of those that I put up here for the video, as much as (or more than) the music. This is also another song that I know about only because I have some wonderfully weird online friends.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Reaction: J Warner Wallace and The Case For Truth part 1

One of the parents in the Christian Parents of Atheist or Agnostic Children support group asked for my reaction to this video of a lecture by J Warner Wallace, apparently entitled "The Case For Truth". It's taken me a little while to get to this -- the lecture is an hour long, and I have small children, which isn't a combination that lends itself to convenient review and reflection. Since that wasn't working, I decided to try a different approach: I'm going to watch the video in smaller chunks (at a guess, probably four sections of roughly fifteen minutes each; but that depends on how the lecture is structured) and write down my reactions here.

For anyone coming in new, it will help to understand my perspective: I'm an atheist (or an agnostic, unbeliever, or whatever label you prefer, really. "Unregenerate sinner" is not the worst thing I've been called). My role in the support group is to help -- or at least try to help -- the Christian parents get a handle on how non-believers and former believers look at things. (That's insofar as there's any one particular way that unbelievers look at things, which usually isn't the case.) So I'm not going to try to debunk or refute whatever Mr. Wallace has to say in his lecture, but I will almost certainly be trying to explain why his arguments may not be as convincing to unbelievers as they are to believers. (It's been mentioned before that a lot of Christian Apologetics seem to serve more to reinforce believers than to persuade unbelievers; I don't know if that will be the case here, but it seems likely.)

J. Warner Wallace is the author of Cold Case Christianity, which is a book and apparently (unsurprisingly) also a ministry. I have not read the book, and I don't follow the ministry, but his biography says that he was a vocal atheist who used his skills as a police detective to investigate the evidence for Christianity, and became a convinced and passionate Christian (and Christian apologist). That's oversimplifying a bit, but I think it's a fair summary.

According to the blurb on Amazon, "In Cold-Case Christianity, J. Warner Wallace uses his nationally recognized skills as a homicide detective to look at the evidence and eyewitnesses behind Christian beliefs." This isn't an entirely new approach; the basic idea isn't so different from Josh McDowell's Evidence That Demands A Verdict (which I've read) or Lee Strobel's The Case For Christ (which I haven't). This... and I say this now now, so you'll understand my bias going into this... this whole approach is one that strikes me as fundamentally flawed, because it depends on treating the accounts given in the Gospels as if they were separate from Christianity. (There are other, nearly-contemporary accounts, but as independent evidence they're not that helpful; they're second-hand, written well after the events they describe, and/or open to question about how much of the text is original, as opposed to being later interpolations.)

Now, none of that may have anything to do with whatever Mr. Wallace discusses in this particular lecture; I don't know. But since I've run into his name and some of his ideas before, I thought it was worth laying out my background and the way it shapes my responses before diving into the video itself. Unfortunately, that's eaten up my writing time for this evening; so we'll actually start watching in a day or two (or three), in the next installment.