Category Archives: Essay

Whither our Universities? Part 2

Is the sun setting on our universities?

Here are some additional links to columnists speaking about the sanctioning of Professor Tomas Hudlicky:

Barbara Kay at the National Post … https://bit.ly/2Vtq7Tx-Kay

Jordan Peterson at the National Post … https://bit.ly/3g7HbGK-Peterson

Chapter 9, “The Aberhardt Constant” From The Battle for Halcyon

I did not want to distract from the discussion of the facts around the Tomas Hudlicky sanctioning by talking about the “What If” questions in my writing. In this snippet from The Battle for Halcyon, the faculty are using what they know to gradually move the student body to think a certain way. The fictitious Professor Aberhardt appears before the university senate to complain that they are moving too quickly. As a sociologist he had developed a metric (called by others The Aberhardt Constant) for how fast one can change a subject’s thinking without the subject realizing what is going on. This, of course, is fiction but here is the dialogue:

“What’s all this about Darwin?” asked John Hobbs, wiping his pudgy face with a handkerchief.

Darwin Blackmore considered his colleague for a moment. John Hobbs was short and his extra weight made him look as if he did not have a waist.

Blackmore caught himself stroking his goatee and put his hands down on the conference table in front of him.

“John, I don’t really know what Aberhardt wants to talk to us about. He asked to meet with the Senate Executive Committee on a matter of some urgency. Since he’s a member of the Senate I couldn’t say ‘no.’ I have given him twenty minutes.”

The door opened and Blackmore’s pretty Executive Assistant, Bernice Le Blanc entered and closed the door behind her.

“Professor Aberhardt has arrived for his appointment. Is it convenient for me to bring him in now, or do you need more discussion time?” asked Bernice.

Blackmore looked around the table. “Shall I have him brought in?” Everyone was nodding. Blackmore turned and nodded to Bernice as well.

A few moments later, Bernice ushered Aberhardt into the conference room. Blackmore rose to shake his hand as Bernice left and closed the door behind her. Frederick Aberhardt was an austere man with a long thin face crowned with thin, wild, scraggly hair. His chin was defined by a brown goatee that was as wild as the hair on his head.

“Professor Aberhardt how good it is to see you,” said Blackmore. Blackmore hoped he sounded sincere.

Aberhardt took his hand, but only nodded in acknowledgement.

“Please have a seat at the table,” said Blackmore.

“I’m used to lecturing, so I’ll stand,” said Aberhardt.

Blackmore felt his face getting warm. The pompous swine!

Blackmore turned toward the others and cleared his throat as he tried to regain his composure. With long practice, he made his face impassive.

“Friends, it gives me great pleasure to welcome the distinguished Professor Aberhardt to our council chambers. He is one of the most eminent sociologists of our time. He has written the book The Sociology of Democratic Governance, which received the President’s Award shortly before we were dislocated. Even before the award, the book had become obligatory reading in all serious sociology and political science courses.”

He turned to Professor Aberhardt. “Welcome to our meeting, Frederick. Please tell us about the urgent matter you wanted to talk to us about.” Blackmore sat down and leaned back in his chair.

Aberhardt had a surprisingly loud voice for a thin man and glowered at his audience with piercing eyes.

“As Darwin has said,” began Aberhardt, “I am the pre-eminent sociologist at Halcyon. I’m here to warn you that you are taking a dangerous course. As I listened to our senate deliberations over the last few weeks, it has become clear to me that we are contemplating taking more direct action to bring resisters or rebels into line. WE MUST NOT DO THAT.”

The shock of Aberhardt’s shout, made Hobbs, who had begun to doodle on his note pad, drop his pencil on the floor. He frowned at Aberhardt and shifted his position.

“I’m not sure I follow you, Frederick,” said Blackmore in a soft voice.

“In my book, The Sociology of Democratic Governance, I go to great lengths to define what has subsequently been named the Aberhardt Constant.

“Perhaps you should explain, Frederick, since not everyone here has read your magnificent work recently.”

Aberhardt’s eyes bored into Blackmore, as if questioning whether or not he was being mocked.

Blackmore gave him his most reassuring smile.

Apparently satisfied, Aberhardt went on. “Many governments in the past have tried to direct the thinking of their subjects. They have used force and coercion. Although they appeared successful for a time, they ultimately failed. Why?” Here he thrust his index finger into the air.

“They failed because coercion achieves outward compliance, but had no control over what happened in the minds of their citizens. Thus, their thoughts unmodified, the subjects became increasingly rebellious until the opposition gained power to revolt.”

“Through our empirical studies we know better. We encourage people to express their opinions. We welcome them. When they criticize us, the nature of their criticism tells us to what degree our persuasion is working. By using the media, the arts, and education, we can change the prevailing public opinion in the direction we want at a rate given by the effectiveness of these tools. I have measured that effectiveness. That rate is defined by Aberhardt’s Constant. As long as we only make changes at a rate less than this time constant, then the average person, even though he grumbles about some of the things he sees going on, doesn’t become alarmed enough to take action because the change is happening slowly. He doesn’t realize that his opinion is being incrementally being shifted for him by unending repetition in the direction of the next behavior modification step through school, through television and every other thing in his environment he sees or hears. We can study him, poll his attitude and opinions, and if one message doesn’t work, we’ll try another. We can always measure our effectiveness because he’s willing to tell us what he likes and what he doesn’t like.”

Blackmore shifted in his seat uncomfortably. He heard Lydia Pendergast beginning to tap her foot on the floor.

Maybe I shouldn’t have sat down. Now that Aberhardt has the floor he could go on and on.

Aberhardt continued. “This gradual thinking modifcation works splendidly as long as we don’t go too fast. Some changes are so significant and so difficult, we actually have to wait for a new generation to grow up under our tutelage to achieve change. But, here is the critical point.

“If we try to go faster by coercion, then not only will we build up the subject’s resentment, but by its very nature, coercion causes the subject to hide his true feelings from us. When that happens we no longer accurately measure public opinion…” Aberhardt again stabbed the air with his finger for emphasis. “And so we will be governing in a vacuum, being forced to use stronger and stronger measures to maintain compliance until the system collapses in a revolt or an unwelcome opposition party.

“All of this is explained in my book …

“Yes, yes, yes!” muttered Lydia Pendergast. “We know all that.”

Aberhardt glared murderously at Pendergast.

Undaunted Pendergast continued. “Halcyon is a closed, controlled environment. We have broken down many of the institutions that have caused us so much grief. We know that religion poisons everything and so we have been careful to make the practice of religion a private affair, excluded from all public discussion, and so thanks to our excellent management, religion has almost disappeared. We won’t have any Martin Luthers rocking our boat…”

“Undoubtedly that has been an excellent development,” said Aberhardt.

“We have suppressed the family,” continued Pendergast. “Isn’t that important?”

“It’s true, that suppression is very important for sociological evolution. The stable family is a sociologically self-contained unit which means we don’t really know what ideas are taking root there. They don’t need us to care for them. In our new order, we create state dependency by ensuring there are almost no close familial relationships…”

“Exactly my point,” interrupted Pendergast.

“Let me continue,” interrupted Aberhardt in turn, “the subjects now look to Halcyon to raise their offspring. If they are sick they come to our doctors. If they are depressed they talk to our psychologists. At every turn we are able to influence them. These are all excellent steps but with our current actions we are jeopardizing all of our progress…”

“Really Frederick, I’m sure you’re right about the basic facts and your theory is brilliant,” said Trevor Huxley cleaning his glasses. “But it will take twenty or thirty years to make the kind of changes we want if we follow your infinitesimal steps, even given the rather substantial control we have over the Halcyon media, the few artistic endeavors we have left and of course our educational activities. We simply don’t have twenty years. This army of Apemen we have heard about could be here any day now and we need to make sure that everyone is on board. We can’t have any disunity. We can’t have our decisions questioned. Only the strong will survive and we need to govern strongly.”

“Besides,” added Pendergast, “your problem Aberhardt is that you’re working through social influences. Biology is more fundamental than sociology. Give me the right neurotransmitters and I can make our people believe anything you want.”

“Enough,” said Darwin Blackmore. He stroked his unruly goatee. “Thank you Professor Aberhardt for you valuable and insightful discourse. I will weigh your suggestions as well as those of Professor Pendergast and Administrator Huxley carefully.”

Aberhardt scowled. “You’re not going to take my warning seriously, are you?”

“Nonsense,” said Blackmore. “You have given us much food for thought. As I recall, Aberhardt’s Constant is a constant in name only and can be increased; perhaps you and Dr. Pendergast should have more discussions. With the right kind of psychopharmacopeia one could make the changes much sooner and so modify the magnitude of the Aberhardt Constant. Thank you for your time.”

Blackmore’s best smile was wasted on Aberhardt’s back as he stomped out.

As the door slammed, Pendergast muttered, “When I make this work, we’ll have to rename it the Pendergast-Aberhardt constant.”

Blackmore, ignoring Pendergast’s mumblings, went on:

“I have one more item to discuss. Do you remember after the first Halcyon River expedition returned and reported about the City of the Dead? There was a fellow on that expedition, Albert Gleeson. Subsequently because of his bizarre religious ideas, Jonathan Boyd, the psychiatrist at Halcyon Medical Center, decided he was delusional and needed to be protected. Boyd sedated him because of his illness, but then Gleeson mysteriously vanished from Halcyon. He reappeared on the Second Halcyon River expedition, and then after that disaster, joined the rebels in the new colony. Well I have reliable information that he has secretly returned to Halcyon.”

“Is this a problem?” asked Huxley. “After all he is only one person. I presume there is only one, am I right.”

“No, he’s not a problem,” said Blackmore. “Indeed, now that we know he’s here, he’s even less of a problem, but still this colony he and his fellow rebels have set up is an annoyance. Furthermore as Professor Aberhardt has so eloquently pointed out, we persuade people to our way of thinking through the media, the arts, and through education. But this colony is beyond our reach on all three fronts. We want to mold and shape our society by controlling the story that everyone believes. Who knows what peculiar ideas, indeed, what dangerous and inimical ideas they may come up with, in the absence of our guidance. We can’t lose control of our conditioning program because of these uncontrolled upstarts.”

 “So what do you propose?” asked Pendergast.

“Propose? I propose we watch him discreetly. That way we can locate all of his contacts. We may not need to do anything, but if he does cause trouble, we’ll pick him up. Now if we have no further business, I still have some excellent wine in my cellar that I think we should try.”

Whither Our Universities? Part 1

Is the sun setting on our universities?

Since high school, one way or another, I have been associated with universities. First as a student (undergraduate and graduate), then as a Postdoctoral Fellow, as a research collaborator, and also as an Adjunct Professor. I have also participated in academic pursuits such as writing and refereeing papers. Organic Chemistry was my focus and through that discipline I met many fine people.

A writer of futuristic fiction is concerned about where things are headed

As a writer of futuristic fiction, I am driven by “What if …” questions. Since universities have played such an instrumental role in our culture in molding the sequential generations, naturally enough, some of the “What if” questions deal with trends or potential trends I have observed in higher education.

In my novel, The Halcyon Dislocation, the movement and isolation of a hypothetical University of Halcyon to a parallel world sets up an experimental literary sandbox. One can ask the question, what would the university elites do if they had the opportunity to channel the thinking of their students in any direction they chose? What would they choose? How would they get there?

What would university elites choose if they could mold student thinking in any direction they wanted?

One of the problems that plagues science, indeed culture and politics as well is the question:

If I can do something, how do I determine if I should do that very thing?

The “can” is usually determined by data, experimentation, and collective scholarship, but the “shoulds” remain elusive since they depend on the question of objective right and wrong which is inaccessible to data and experimentation. In the absence of an objective right or wrong, the answer often becomes: “Because I have the power and I want to, I will do it and no one can stop me.”

The danger then, for universities, is the tendency to becoming factories of conditioned students rather than nurturing educated students who have learned to thoughtfully consider opposing points of view in humility and respect.

Becoming factories producing conditioned students, rather than educational institutions that enable students to thoughtfully consider different viewpoints with respect, is one of the dangers universities face

The antidote to this tendency to become ever more efficient conditioners of students as our manipulative skills and technology increase, is to make sure opposing voices (including religious voices) are not only allowed to speak, but are heard and considered. Free speech is the best safeguard against conditioned speech.

A Recent Example That Hits Close to Home

I know of Organic Chemistry Professor Tomas Hudlicky by his fine reputation. He wrote, and had accepted a paper in Angewandte Chemie (along with the Journal of the American Chemical Society, Angewandte Chemie is arguably one of the two best journals in chemistry). However, after the Twitterati ignited a Twitter storm (Twitter Gewitter?) everything changed for Professor Hudlicky, According to an article in the National Post by Peter Shawn Taylor, the accepted paper was withdrawn by Angewandte Chemie, the two referees were taken off the referees list (I’m sure as volunteers they have better things to do with their time) and the editor was suspended.

I respectfully suggest you read the whole paper, as I did, or at least read up to page 4, along with Note 2 which seemed to cause all the offense and then think about discussing the points Professor Hudlicky is making.

The text of the paper if it’s still available … Hudlicky Paper

Retraction Watch with resignations

Another Retraction Watch discussion

A blog by Jordan Peterson on this specific topic

In my view, the proper way to proceed is to have everyone, first read the paper, then present their best arguments in respectful discussion. A view or position that is not permitted to be questioned, is likely indefensible. If the case for the other side were compelling, why not make it? Is that not the mission of universities to encourage students to properly discuss opposing points of view with respect and leave the final convictions that come out of the discussion to the students? Apparently not.

A Writer’s First Visit to the Holy Land: The Golan Heights and Tell Dan

Introduction

A source of the Jordan River in the Tell Dan Nature Preserve

As I stated previously, before I talk about my trip to the Golan Heights and Tell Dan, I want to talk about the situation we are all facing with regard to the Coronavirus. One of the most helpful things I have heard was a brief interview Ravi Zacharias gave from a hospital parking lot (he was in for a cancer treatment after a recent diagnosis).

He said essentially there are two extreme responses to avoid: great fear and indifference. I think he is right and that middle road is what I want to follow as I take precautions of “social distancing” and yet do not let fear rule my thinking. Here is the link to his approximately six minute interview by Ben Shapiro.

Ravi passed away a few days ago on May 19, 2020. Although I did not know him personally, I have read so many of his books and attended a course of his that I feel as if I do know him personally. Since, as it turns out, this interview was the last message from him that I heard, it is even more significant for me.

Tell Dan and the source of the Jordan

Attribution: Map Data © 2020 Mapa GISreal. Orion-Me. A view of the Tell Dan Nature Preserve

The land given to the tribe of Dan is very different from the country we have seen up to this point. Close to Mount Hermon and the Golan Heights, this country was lush as opposed to arid. We saw some of the streams that formed the source of the Jordan River.

The abundant water reminded me of Psalm 1 and Jeremiah 17, a tree planted by streams of water.

A tree planted by stream of water. Psalm 1:3.

An Ancient Canaanite City

Ancient Canaanite arch predating the Roman arch

One of the remarkable finds in the archaeological excavations in this area was the discovery of a “Canaanite Arch” (shown above) which predates the Roman arch. 

A Canaanite Small City

One of the interesting excavation sites in this area was a Canaanite City (much smaller than what we consider a city today). Notice they do not have freestanding walls but rather back-filled walls. The stone work and foundations required for free-standing walls were apparently not known yet.

Walls supported by earth before free-standing walls could be constructed
A closeup of the fortifications
An altar

In the picture below, one sees the remnants of a frame that held the posts of the sedan chair or throne that would be carried to the outside of the city gate for the king to greet delegations, negotiate with neighboring rulers, or perhaps even hear complaints and charges from his own subjects.

This again verifies the historical accuracy of the Bible as the city gates play such an important role in the historical Old Testament accounts. Meeting strangers outside the city gates also likely served a strategic, military purpose: visitors could not spy out the defenses of the city itself since they were not allowed inside.

The platform for the king’s chair just outside the city gates

Personal Reflection

The past two weeks have seen the passing of two very important people in my life. My father passed away on May 10th, while Ravi Zacharias passed away on May 19th. They were very different people: my father was a private man who influenced his family, his friends and his faith community; Ravi Zacharias was an international speaker who profoundly challenged everyone who would listen (including me) to think carefully and consistently about their faith.

Different as they were, they both impressed me with their commitment to understanding the Bible rightly and living out a life that put trust in the Lord Christ. Seeing the picture of the tree in the middle of the pool at Tell Dan reminds me to do the same.

For the previous post in this series …
If you are looking for something to read during this time of isolation, my e-books (ePub format) are now also available from Walmart … here are the links:

The Halcyon Dislocation

The Battle for Halcyon

The Dragons of Sheol

Questioning Your Way to Faith

A Writer’s First Visit to the Holy Land: Golgotha and the Garden Tomb

Introduction

As, probably for the first time in my life, I celebrate Good Friday and Easter Sunday at home and not in the direct presence of other Christ-Followers, I reflect on the privilege it was to visit Israel and particularly Golgotha and the Garden Tomb only a couple of months ago, a short time before all travel was curtailed and then suspended. Easter is a time when I particularly reflect on the times and locales that were intimately bound together with Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection: the Mount of Olives, Gethsemane, Golgotha, and the Garden Tomb.

Golgotha

Golgotha site photographed in about 1870. With the light optimal so one can see the eye sockets of the skull in shadow.
Same location, February 2020. Earthquake damage has obscured some of the features.

We are not 100% sure of the Golgotha (Calvary) site used for Christ’s crucifixion. We know when the Romans crucified someone, they chose a very public place, near a main road or gate, so that it would have maximum impact on passers-by. This location, along with a nearby burial site seem like a likely spot, particularly if one looks at older photographs when the area was less built up and the sun, at the correct angle throws the skull’s eye sockets into shadow.

The Garden Tomb

Line-up by the garden tomb

Near the site of Golgotha one can also find burial sites. These sites have a rock-sealed chamber where the wrapped body is left to decay, so that the bones can be recovered later and stored with those of other family members in a family ossuary. Sometimes there is also a chamber where mourners can wait.

Personal Reflection

Having visited Israel, I cannot now read the accounts of Jesus’ trial, crucifixion, burial, and resurrection without remembering places we visited.

One cannot get around it. The death and resurrection of Jesus is at the heart of the gospel and the Christian message. One can disbelieve it, but one can’t legitimately explain it away.

At the end of the Garden Tomb visit, our group had a secluded patio to ourselves where we could sing about the resurrection. We sang one of those songs today as part of our internet Easter service. That song brought the garden musical worship experience flooding back.

Questions

  • With our coronavirus-imposed isolation, how has that affected your celebration of Easter?
  • How have you meaningfully connected with friends and family during Easter, a time when many of us would gather at someone’s home for a meal and family time?

I’d love to hear your answers as comments here or on Facebook.

For the previous post in this series …

A Writer's First Visit to the Holy Land: The Sea of Galilee

Introduction

Sunrise from our hotel on the Sea of Galilee

Before I talk about my trip to The Sea of Galilee, I want to talk about the situation we are all facing with regard to the Coronavirus. One of the most helpful things I have heard was a brief interview Ravi Zacharias gave from a hospital parking lot (he’s in for a cancer treatment after a recent diagnosis).

He said essentially there are two extreme responses to avoid: great fear and indifference. I think he is right and that middle road is what I want to follow as I take precautions of “social distancing” and yet do not let fear rule my thinking. Here is the link to his approximately six minute interview by Ben Shapiro.

Travelling Around The Sea of Galilee

Nazareth, Magdala (near Migdala) and Capernaum [Attribution: Map Data © 2020 Mapa GISreal. Orion-M]

We left Nazareth and Mount Precipice to our hotel on the Sea of Galilee. (Capernaum and Magdala (near Migdala), which I will talk about presently are shown as ellipses on the above map). I was blessed to have an east-looking balcony to capture a beautiful sunrise from my room.

Our day began with a boat ride across the sea and for such a small lake, it had a fair chop. I guess the lake rift valley, surrounded by high terrain. means the surrounding mountains/hills act like a funnel and when the wind changes direction, it can whip up this relatively small lake significantly (reminiscent of the gospels).

Travelling up the west coast of The Sea of Galilee
A view of the rugged eastern shore

Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount

Mount of the Beatitudes

Capernaum

Capernaum, the site of much of Jesus’ ministry, has a church and significant excavations and restorations of a beautiful synagogue. This synagogue dates to a time after the first century, as indicated by the imported light-colored stone, but in a corner, below the newer synagogue, one can find the remnants of the older synagogue that Jesus attended.

The older synagogue from the time of Jesus in Capernaum

Peter/s house in Capernaum has been covered by a church, and the excavation is shown here.

A “homeless Jesus” sculpture in Capernaum

I learned that since the Galilee area is volcanic in origin, the older building from the time of Jesus consist of black basalt. Later when Capernaum became more prosperous because of a Roman road, the newer buildings used imported white or light-colored stone.

Magdala, Home of Mary Magdalene

The church at Magdala

We finished our day at a beautiful church at Magdala, the home of Mary Magdalene. There is a wonderfully restored synagogue from the time of Jesus at this site. Magdala is at the entrance of a pass that is the likely route Jesus would have walked from Nazareth to The Sea of Galilee, so almost certainly He would have used this synagogue after his journey.

Personal Reflection

At the Mount of the Beatitudes, I had the chance to site on a bench in the beautiful church gardens and reflect on Matthew 4:23-5:12.As I reflected on this passage, I focused especially on Matthew 5:7 ” blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.”

It struck me, when our hearts are right, that genuine mercy is always an option to the penalties specified in the Mosaic Law. In Matthew 1:19 when Joseph realized that Mary was pregnant before they had come together, it is written of him: “And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her [a betrothal had the same force as a marriage and required a divorce] quietly.”

Presumably, in that society, Joseph could have publicly shamed her or even demanded she be stoned (John 8:3-11). He did not because, as the wronged party, mercy was always an option.

Being merciful is always an option.

I and many others have sometimes wondered if the God of the Old Testament has the same character as the Father God of the New Testament. We know from our teaching that he does. The fact that mercy is always an option, if the people have the heart for it, helps me to look at the Old Testament in a new light.

Questions

  • If you have a particular passage in the Old Testament that troubles you, how might “mercy is always an option” help you understand it?
  • One of the questions put to us at the Mount of Beatitudes: “For you, what is the hardest part of being a Jesus follower today?” How would you answer that question?

I’d love to hear your answers as comments here or on Facebook.

For the previous post in this series …
If you are looking for something to read during this time of isolation, my e-books (ePub format) are now also available from Walmart … here are the links:

The Halcyon Dislocation

The Battle for Halcyon

The Dragons of Sheol

Questioning Your Way to Faith

Sunrise over The Sea of Galilee

A Writer’s First Visit to the Holy Land: Nazareth Village and Mount Precipice

Our route so far: we traveled up the coast from Joppa to Caesarea Maritima, then over to Mount Carmel and finally to Nazareth (see the three ellipses).

Our Route So Far

We began our journey traveling up the coast from Joppa (south Tel Aviv) to Caesarea Maritima. We then headed inland along the the Valley of Yizre’el (also called the plain of Megiddo as in Armageddon).

One of the difficulties in reading maps of the Holy Land is that every place seems to have several different names, each with different spellings as the name gets transliterated into different alphabets.

In the case of the Yizre’el Valley/Plain of Megiddo, both Yizre’el and Megiddo were (and I suppose are) important towns in the valley and it makes sense for inhabitants to name it after the nearest important town in the valley. You’ll see the plaque on Mount Precipice near Nazareth called  the Yizrael Valley, yet its the same valley we saw from Mount Carmel.

Nazareth Village

The wine press at Nazareth Village.

Nazareth is a small city of about 77,000 surrounding the village area of  the Nazareth of two thousand years ago. The original village would have been located close to the springs that made life in this arid place possible.

We visited Nazareth Village, a reconstructed village from the time of Jesus on an archaeological site that used to be a terraced farm two thousand years ago. In the picture above, one can see the wine press itself, a flat, slightly sloped area where the grapes were pressed barefoot and then a channel to a deeper hollow where the grape juice was collected.

A closeup of the flat portion, the channel, and the collection basin of the wine press.

The History of Nazareth Village: “Extensive archeological [sic] excavations show that this remarkably preserved site is home to an over 2000 year old wine press cut into the bedrock. The remains of a vineyard, watchtowers, terraces, spring fed irrigation system and stone quarries tell the story of a working farm area just outside of the original old Nazareth. The hillside was preserved and untouched on the grounds of the Nazareth Hospital, established in 1906 by the Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society (EMMS), now called the Nazareth Trust.

A vineyard watch tower at Nazareth Village (Read the Parable of the Tenants … Matthew 21: 33-46).
A reconstruction of an ancient olive press. The stones on the lever beam were successively engaged to recover three fractions of olive oil from the olive mash. The earliest fraction was purest and most precious.
Scrolls in the reconstructed synagogue at Nazareth Village.
Ceiling beams and ceiling cover of reconstructed dwellings following the ancient pattern. This is the type of roof that would have allowed loyal friends to lower their crippled companion into the presence of Jesus (Mark 2:1-12).

Mount Precipice

The Valley of Yizre’el (Plain of Megiddo) from Mount Precipice, near Nazareth.
According to the Gospel of Luke (Luke 4:16-30) “And they rose up and drove him out of town and brought him to the brow of the hill … But passing through their midst he went away.”

Personal Reflection

As I reflected on this passage in Luke chapter 4, after having just finished studying the life of Elijah and the confrontation on Mount Carmel, it struck me for the first time that Jezebel was a Sidonian (1 Kings 16: 31).

Yet even in the culture of that time in which the family members and people of Jezebel should be held equally culpable for Jezebel’s deeds, our gracious God sends Elijah to look after a Sidonian widow and her son during a time of extreme drought.

Confirmation Bias

My trip to Israel was much more than confronting and learning about history; it was also a time of personal learning and reflection. On Mount Precipice as we were thinking about the Luke 4:14-30, we were asked to consider the question:

If someone were to follow you for a week and watch how you live, what would they say about who you believe Jesus to be?”

As a scientist, I worry a lot about bias, in particular confirmation bias, the observation that if a person believes a theory or hypothesis to be true, then they leap with glee on any datum that supports their point of view,  but likely relinquish troublesome data points to the “To Be Explained” file with a sigh saying “I’ll have to give those data points more thought to see if I can see how they fit in.”

So “Whom should you ask?” I guess I would say ask someone else who does follow me around and then tell me what they see so that we’ll both know!

Likely there would be some indicators that I think Jesus is who He said He was, mixed in with many attitudes and behaviors that say the opposite (unfortunately).

Questions

  • If you have ever been to the Holy Land, what thought or experience has stayed with you the longest?
  • Did your visit to the Holy Land pique your interest in spiritual things or diminish your interest?
  • If you haven’t gone to the Holy Land yet, and were given a chance to go, what would you hope to see/learn/experience?

I’d love to hear your answers as comments here or on Facebook.

For the previous post in this series …
If you are in Mississauga and interested in checking out Peter’s futuristic fiction … here is the link to his books in the Mississauga Library.
Mount Tabor as seen from Mount Precipice.

A Writer’s First Visit to the Holy Land: Mount Carmel

The statue of Elijah at the Deir Al-Mukhraqa Carmelite Monastery on Mount Carmel, the likely site for the contest between Elijah and the four hundred prophets of Baal.

Mount Carmel, Elijah, and the Prophets of Baal

Elijah served as prophet in one of the darkest chapters in the history of Israel. A weak and wicked king, Ahab had married Jezebel, a Sidonian. Jezebel ran the kingdom in Ahab’s name. She killed, likely with the complicity of the prophets of Baal, pretty well all of the prophets of Yahweh.

We read in 1 Kings 18:3-4 (almost as a footnote or side note) that Jezebel had cut off the prophets of the LORD:

And Ahab called Obadiah, who was over his household. (now Obadiah feared the LORD greatly, and when Jezebel cut off the prophets of the LORD, Obadiah took a hundred prophets, and hid them by fifties in a cave and fed them bread and water.)

Many will likely remember this narrative well, where Elijah challenges the 400 prophets of Baal and the 450 prophets of Asherah that ate at Jezebel’s table to a contest on Mount Carmel. Ahab was urged by Elijah to:

“Send and gather all of Israel at Mount Carmel …” (1 Kings 18:19).

Having been on top of Mount Carmel, it is easy to see how that could have happened. One has the rocky and steep rounded mountain open to the vast Migiddo plain. The leaders of Israel could readily climb the mountain side to be near the summit to see the priests performing their worship ceremony. Yet the summit is so exposed that even people some distance away in the plain could seen the culmination of the sign with fire from the sky consuming Elijah’s offering.

A view of the plain of Megiddo

A Troublesome Question

A troublesome question for me (perhaps not for others) would be “where is the grace in this passage towards the prophets of Baal?”

Having seen the character of Jesus in the New Testament and recognizing that this is also the most complete representation of the God’s character in the Old Testament, I would expect to find some evidence of His desire for grace, repentance, and forgiveness.

For me (and I recognize there is no explicit evidence for this in the passage) I think one of the reasons the Baal worship and the taunting by Elijah went on for such a long time, was to afford some of the prophets of Baal an opportunity to realize that they were serving a false god and repent. There is no evidence they did so, but God’s willingness to accept repentance seems almost boundless.

Even Ahab, after all the terrible things he did and allowed to be done, had his repentance accepted (1 Kings 21:27-29). His repentance only temporarily delayed the deportation of Israel, since the rot was too deep, but it delayed Judgment Day for a time.

Rocks on the side of Mount Carmel present an interesting conundrum from a military perspective. The plain of Megiddo seems to be ideal terrain for tanks (or chariots) while the surrounding mountains with all their rocks would be nigh impassible for any but infantry on foot.

Personal Reflection

The teaching on this epic historical narrative on Elijah left me with the challenge: “How can I apply this to my life. What should I take a stand on, even if it goes against what many around me believe?

As I pondered these questions, it occurred to me how deeply our presumption of relativism in general and Political Correctness in particular has colored our view of every question. Indeed, it seems making pronouncements of any kind (except pronouncing that one shouldn’t make pronouncements) is seen as a statement of opinion or fashion and can only be valid for ourselves and has no universal applicability. Indeed to insist otherwise is seen as bigotry.

In our culture of Political Correctness, it seems that making a statement that ideas, attitudes, and behaviors have genuine consequences is seen by many as capricious and egregious as insisting that everyone must only wear black.

This state of affairs makes application of the Elijah passage quite difficult. As a writer of fiction, I am constantly being told by my writer’s group and editor “show don’t tell!”

For our culture, telling, or making pronouncements is an anathema and keeps the speaker from being heard. If, however, I can construct a fictional character so real as to be believable, let them have ideas, train their own attitudes, and then makes choices that have consequences, then perhaps the reader will see the connections.

This has been a spur to me to strive to be a better writer, avoiding the preaching of sermons (telling) in my books, but letting the reader discover the connections as the story unfolds. I hope I can continue to grow as a writer and do it.

For the previous post in this series …
If you are interested in checking out Peter’s futuristic fiction … here is the link to his books on Chapters/Indigo.

A Writer’s First Visit to the Holy Land: Caesarea Maritima

The Mediterranean seen through an arch of the aqueduct at Caesarea Maritima.

Walking from Joppa to Caesarea

In the previous post in the Holy Land series, I spoke about Joppa and an appeal by Cornelius, a Roman centurion situated Caesarea, for Peter to visit him. Peter traveled to the city of Caesarea (or more precisely Caesarea Maritima to distinguish it from other cities in the Roman Empire honoring Caesar – you may remember for example Caesarea Philippi), a distance of approximately 33.6 miles (63 km). Our guide spoke of an average walking distance of 15 km per day, so that would suggest it would be a four-day journey one way.

I think the 15 km/day walk was a leisurely trek that took into account the penchant of travelers of that day to be news-bearers as well as news-acquirers as they stopped along the way.

Cornelius’ servants were legionaries. The Roman army had three walking paces with full kit that had to be achieved by every legionary. Stragglers were unacceptable because they divided the army and put it at risk.

  • A standard march: regular step or military pace – about 18.4 miles (29.6 km) per day with full kit
  • Faster step: about 22.1 miles (35.5 km) per day
  • Forced march: up to 30 miles (48 km) per day

Thus given that Cornelius’ emissaries were likely traveling without full kit and the distance is easily achievable given legion requirements, the New Testament account of roughly four days round trip is easily achievable.

Herod the Great

A view of the harbor destroyed by earthquake and tsunami. Much of the coastline has been altered by these calamities and the jetties are submerged.
Cormorants roosting on ruins close to the sea in Caesarea.

Caesarea Maritima was built by Herod the Great over about twelve years (22-10 BC). He was an audacious builder and we will encounter his work again, in the temple renovation in Jerusalem, at Masada, and at the city of Herodion (his burial place).

Herod’s construction was impressive: he built a breakwater and jetties to achieve a deep water port on a coast with no natural protection. he also built a Roman city complete with theater, hippodrome (horse and chariot races), and an amphitheater (gladiatorial events) as well as Roman baths, statues and temples. It became a major Roman base in the area, consistent with the New Testament teaching.

Paul also also was imprisoned in Caesarea, the governor’s residence (Acts 23:23-Acts 26:32) and made his defense before King Agrippa there.

Alas, Caesarea was built in an earthquake zone and was severely damaged by quake an tsunami sometime in the 1st and 2nd century. By the 6th century, the damage was so great the harbor was unusable. This can be seen from the pictures.

Personal Reflection

A replica of a stone found at this location bearing an inscription referring to Pontius Pilate.
The description accompanying the Pilate stone.

Caesarea, like so many sites in the Holy Land is replete with archaeological evidence that complements and corroborates the data historical data found in the New and Old Testaments.

As a scientist who has spent a good fraction of his life conducting research in chemistry and physics, I am well acquainted with the careful distinction that science makes between data and explanatory interpretations of the data (by that I mean hypotheses, theories, and laws).

One is taught that data is to be taken as correct and true and cannot be dismissed lightly. Even if one suspects an error was made in a measurement, one does not delete the offending datum, but one remeasures it and keeps both old and new.

In contrast, one works to disprove hypotheses in order to avoid confirmation bias.

However, to an outsider, it seems these rules are abandoned when it comes to the Old and New Testament. Indeed it seems to me they are often treated not like data but hypotheses and so analysts feel free obligated to disprove their reliability.

 

Yet coming to the Holy Land, one finds hundreds, likely thousands of pieces of evidence: places, people, landmarks etc. which are referenced in the Bible.

Both Old and New Testaments are ancient documents with an excellent documentary pedigree. Yet it seems, these documents are often put on trial and assumed to be fictitious until proven otherwise.

For me this is reminiscent of some of the shoddy police work one sometimes reads about, where an officer is so convinced that a defendant is guilty that he automatically adds any witness with a potential alibi for the defendant to the list of co-conspirators.

This process is helpful if one is only interested in getting convictions, but not if one is  looking for the truth. In the same way, if one treats the biblical texts as hypotheses and not as data, then one is not giving the texts the recognition they deserve.

If you are interested in checking out Peter’s futuristic fiction … here is the link to his Amazon Author page.
For the previous post in this series …
Remains of the aqueduct that once brought water to Caesarea.

A Writer’s First Visit to the Holy Land: The Port of Joppa

Introduction

As a writer and a Christ-Follower visiting the Holy Land for the first time, it became apparent my trip cannot help but change the way I read the bible, look at history, and see one of the places that formed, in large measure, the civilization in which I live.

As someone pointed out, it is like going from a black and white picture to a three-dimensional color picture: the details are essentially the same but are seen in a wholly new way.

The bell tower of Saint Peter’s Church as seen from the steps of Kikar Kedumin Street in Joppa
A closer view of Saint Peter’s Church and bell tower.

Joppa

Joppa (also called Jaffa, Japho or Yapo) has been the port for Jerusalem from well-before King David. According to Wikipedia its use as a port dates back to 1800 BC.

It was captured from the Philistines in the time of David and used by Solomon as the port for the building materials used for the first temple  (2 Chronicles 2:16).

I saw Joppa on a windy day. The architecture is from different periods, given that port has been taken and retaken. It is an interesting mix of older architecture from successive periods standing along side modern art.

The new in the midst of the old. Modern iconic art in Old Joppa.
Although the original house of Simon the Tanner has almost certainly been destroyed, it would have been a house similar to this one, overlooking the shore. The flat roof was for guests and even though it is winter one can see that the vines on the roof, in summer, would have provided shade in the heat of the day.

Personal Reflection

In Acts Chapter 8 and 9 (Acts 8:36-9:48) we read the account of Peter and Cornelius. The latter, as a God-fearing centurion in Caesarea, after a vision, sends for Simon Peter in Joppa. Peter, himself, as an observant Jew needs convincing through a separate vision, that he ought to make the long journey to Caesarea and enter the house of a gentile. Peter does so and we have the first occurrence of the grace of the Christian message being extended beyond a Jewish audience in the New Testament.

As I read this, and I pondered Peter’s dilemma in being told, against his own background and inclination, to extend the gift he and his people had received through Christ, to not only others, but members of the oppressor’s class, it made me reflect on my own time and what it might mean.

We live in contradictory times. In school we are taught that we are biochemical machines that are the product of billions of years of mutation and selection, with bits of genetic code (genes) acting like puppet masters directing our every step to maximize our self preservation and reproduction so that our particular gene sequence comes to dominate the pool.

At the same time, in the same schools, we are also taught the contradictory assertion that we are held responsible for the past acts of our immediate ancestors, our clan, and our tribe even though we were not even alive to participate in the decisions (whether good or bad) that were made on our behalf.

For me the teaching in Acts 9 brings harmony to our modern contradiction. We owe duty and allegiance to family, clan, and tribe. However, Acts 9 teaches us to look beyond with a duty to those outside since they are also our brothers.

Acts 9 teaches me to care for, and do my duty toward family, clan, and tribe. Yet life is not a zero sum game where we only win, by pushing outsiders down, but rather, in the end, there are no outsiders.

Looking north toward Tel Aviv from Old Joppa. The little dots in the water are surfers.
A zoom lens closeup of the surfers waiting for the next big wave, north of Old Joppa.

I’m often asked: “Can you make money as an indie author?”

When people ask me this question, they are usually asking because they or someone they know is active or will be active in writing a book, and they are wondering what to expect. Others ask it because they are skeptical that it is even possible to make money without going through a traditional publisher.

My answer is usually a qualified “yes” it is possible (but certainly not guaranteed) to make money through an indie or as I prefer to call it, a micro-publishing endeavor.

Why the qualification? There are three basic reasons.

Indie or Micro-Publishing is a Small Business Endeavor

The first thing that one has to remember: Micro-Publishing is a small business. Like other small businesses, this means you will likely not be making money out of the starting gate. Rather, like other small business start-ups, you will have to put in long hours with little remuneration, and finally there is significant risk that you will run out of money, patience, or interest before the business begins to pay off. This comes with the territory of starting something you own.

A case in point, many writers that try to find a traditional publisher also spend a great deal of time writing with no remuneration and then attempting to convince a publisher to take on their manuscript (also with no remuneration). This start-up time when taking the traditional route is often excluded from pay-back calculations. The writers who run out of money, patience, or interest choosing this route are ignored leading to a “survivor bias” when comparing traditionally published authors with indie authors.

Many writers augment their early cash flow with writing-related income, for example, editing, free-lance magazine submissions, contract writing for trade journal or instruction manuals. In my own case, since I write Science Fiction, I tutor in physics and chemistry, as well as provide chemistry consulting as a way of staying connected to science.

Indie or Micro-Publishing is an Annuity Business

Secondly, Micro-Publishing is an annuity-driven small business. When you publish your first book, there will be an initial flurry of interest and then slower sales over the long term. Long-term sales depend on how many people hear about your book and hear enough good things to take a chance to buy it. You may also get copyright remuneration or some remuneration for library usage. These long-term sales are your annuity.

The key point: as you write more books, this annuity stream will grow, but often in the initial stages, the up-front costs of writing and publishing more books will grow faster than the annuity stream.

Most Writers Care About the Art as Much or More than They Care About the Business

Finally, writers are artists as well as business-owners. They have a message or art they wish to develop which is often more important to them than the money. I’ve often been told, “If you wrote Science Fiction more like mainstream SF, you would sell more books.” I think that’s true, but I wanted to write Science Fiction that I would like to read but no one else has bothered to write. For me that means I explore worldview, spiritual, and philosophic questions as well as maintaining a strong science component in my novels. Not optimizing only for the money, probably puts one on a slower growth trajectory, but through it I hope to connect with kindred spirits who long for the same kind of story that I seek.

So What Should I Worry About as an Indie Writer?

1. Scalability

First, ask yourself what happens if my next book goes viral and hundreds, even thousands of readers want it at once? Can your distribution system handle it? If you only sell personal copies or mail them yourself, the answer is probably “no.” If some other organization handles the sales, then the answer is likely “yes.” In other words, make sure your distribution channel is scalable in case the breakthrough you hope for happens.

2. Marketing

Writers are often taught to market aggressively. I won’t do that for two reasons: (1) I don’t want to approach anyone in a way that I would not want to be approached. I don’t like aggressive tactics so I won’t use them. (2) I started to realize that when friends would see me, they would immediately think “I haven’t bought Peter’s book yet.” I don’t want that either. Their friendship is much more important to me than a sale. They need to know that they don’t have to like or buy my books to be my friend. That thought should not even come up.

As a consequence, most of my “advertising” or marketing is low-key on social media, by email signatures, or by magnetic signs on my vehicle. Word of mouth, without my intervention, is still the best form of advertising. Improving my writing craft so that readers will enjoy my books so much that they will give them as gifts or recommend them to friends and family is my long term objective.

3. Things Change Unexpectedly

When I published my first book, it was still possible to use Canada Post to mail books to customers at a reasonable shipping charge. Now so many surcharges, special charges have been added that even with a small-business discount, it can cost me $17.50 to ship one book to a nearby small town. Who can afford to pay that much on a book worth $20-30? the answer is “no one.”

This unexpected change has shut down one potential channel for reaching readers. These kinds of changes that are beyond a writer’s control have a major impact on the business. Like all small businesses, one has to adapt and make sure there are several ways to get your books to your readers.

Final Thoughts

Above all, keep writing, connect with like-minded readers, and connect with other writers who share your passion to communicate with others and bring a little beauty and inspiration into their lives.



Disclaimer

I do not offer publishing, small business, or other financial advice. I offer my own history, observations, and comments up in the hope they will stimulate thinking and discussion.