Saturday, September 20, 2014

‘Is That a Fact?’ (Book Review)

What’s attractive about book debunking urban myths and exposing frauds? It’s not just the promise of being well-informed, but very much the satisfaction of laughing at the expense of those we imagine are too stubborn or stupid to see the light. The latest book in this genre of exposé is Joe Schwarcz’s Is That a Fact? Frauds, Quacks, and the Real Science of Everyday Life.

The book starts off promising to entertain with a great introduction, stressing the need to think critically, assessing the problem of popular scientific misinformation, and discussing the limitations and difficulties that plague scientific research. But it quickly goes downhill with a rather boring review of should-be-obviously-wrong beliefs. Unlike similar debunking books that are upbeat in tone and fun to read, Schwarcz is dull. His explanations are bogged down in a lot of scientific lingo, and too often he just resorts to the “Well, it’s obviously stupid to believe this” sort of attitude. As if that’s actually going to help the reader!

When discussing things whose status is verified or yet to be determined, Schwarcz is a lot more balanced and easier to read. However, by then I was disillusioned with the book. Schwarcz just doesn’t deliver. Worse yet, he proves that even he’s not immune to quackery, eagerly taking up the banner of his favorite fad diet. Given his heavy use of science, readers with backgrounds in chemistry might appreciate Is That a Fact. However, the majority who just want to be entertained by a scientist uncovering the truth about Youngevity and Dr. Oz should probably look elsewhere.


Monday, August 11, 2014

The Titus 2 Woman Teaches What Is Good

Miniature of poetess Faltonia Betitia Proba (4th Century)
teaching the life of Jesus, De mulieribus claris
by Giovanni Boccaccio (15th Century) (Wikipedia)
If we were to ask the average Christian about what is meant by “Titus 2 Woman,” he or she would probably say with the utmost of confidence, “The older women are to teach the younger women,” and launch into a discussion about the importance of positive role models for today’s girls. Many heads would nod, indicating that that answer is satisfactory, but if we thought about it a little, it really should raise more than a few eyebrows. After all, in what society in all of human history have older women not been expected to impart some sort of knowledge upon the younger members of their sex? What next? “Parents, feed your children”? Pauline doctrine, often thought of as theologically sophisticated, now appears utterly sophomoric. So on that note, let’s take a look at what the text actually says:

[Π]ρεσβύτιδας ὡσαύτως ἐν καταστήματι ἱεροπρεπεῖς, μὴ διαβόλους μὴ οἴνῳ πολλῷ δεδουλωμένας, καλοδιδασκάλους, ἵνα σωφρονίζωσιν τὰς νέας φιλάνδρους εἶναι, φιλοτέκνους σώφρονας ἁγνὰς οἰκουργοὺς ἀγαθάς, ὑποτασσομένας τοῖς ἰδίοις ἀνδράσιν, ἵνα μὴ ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ βλασφημῆται. – Titus 2:3-5 (NA28)

Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.Titus 2:3-5 (ESV)

As I mentioned earlier in this Bible study series, the word of interest is καλοδιδασκάλους (“teacher of virtue”/“teaching good”), giving us the second instruction for older women. The first was, as you’ll recall, the charge to be reverent, which was then defined in terms of its opposite behavior, being malicious gossips and drunkards. Now we have the call to be teachers of virtue. Older women are to teach what is good, so that by doing this, others will learn to model godly behavior.

Notice that Paul clearly places the emphasis not on who is being taught (i.e., “young women”) but on what is being taught (i.e., “goodness”). I might appear to be making a mountain out of a mole hill, but a slight difference in how we read a verse can have profound implications on how we live out its doctrine. By emphasizing the “who,” many Christians have exchanged lessons on godliness for courses on Home Economics. It takes the young woman away from Mary, learning at the feet of Jesus, and places her into the kitchen with Martha, learning how to bake whole wheat bread. Cretan women would’ve taught their daughters cooking skills regardless. What Paul was concerned about was them practicing righteousness, something they obviously weren’t doing. We shouldn’t confuse the two.

Another concern I have is the disturbing trend for male church leaders to insist that the verse absolves them of teaching young women anything since that’s a woman’s job. One Bible professor I heard made an argument from silence, showing that since Paul never gave Titus anything to relay to the young women directly, Titus wasn’t to teach them at all. This professor never thought to be consistent, however. He would have to claim also that Titus couldn’t teach slave masters since Paul only gave him instructions for slaves (Titus 2:9-10), but I suppose that would’ve struck him as ridiculous.

Before I close, I’d like you to consider a new interpretation. No, I
’m not trying to rewrite the Bible. The translation “and so to train the young women” is, in my unschooled opinion, both an accurate rendering of the Greek and consistent with the overall context of the passage. However, in the course of studying it for this series, I’ve wondered about possible alternative readings. The two words of interest are σωφρονίζωσιν (“making sensible”/“recalling them to their senses”) and νέας (“new”/“young”).

While words like “training,” “teaching,” and “instructing” suggest imparting something new, σωφρονίζω appears to also carry a sense of restoration or reconciliation. In other words, Paul might have not intended the Cretan women to merely instruct each other, but to also correct each other, bringing wayward souls back into communion with God. And while νέος is known to mean “young” (think “neonatal”), we’re also are familiar with the usage of “new” (think “neoliberalism”). I’m wondering if it is possible that the νέας Paul was referring to were “new women” or recent converts (cf. Colossians 3:9-10), but that might be a stretch. At the very least, I hope that, in your quest to become a “Titus 2 Woman,” you will foremost be a teacher of what is good. Expect that role to include some teaching and perhaps some restoring. And in your quest to meet the needs of those younger than you, don’t forget that new Christians need guidance too.

Monday, July 28, 2014

‘PushBack’ (Book Review)

If dystopian fiction is your kind of thing, consider the second release of PushBack: Deficit Triggers Hyperinflation, Terrorism (2014) by Alfred Wellnitz. In the midst of economic chaos, the United States of America is helpless against secessionist efforts. Atlanta native Jim Reed finds himself living in a tyrannical military state that unapologetically eliminates all opposition, including his longtime girlfriend. Now our hero goes underground as John Renner and joins the Freedom Legion, bent on ending the CAN Party’s tyranny.

Now that I’ve got you interested, let’s lay it all out. While PushBack initially may have had some potential, I have to agree with the hero who thinks the plot sounds like a B movie (p. 25). Wellnitz resurrects the Southern Confederacy, Adolf Hitler, and the Soviet Russia – and puzzlingly has them all in agreement – because he apparently can’t think of anything original. His hero is presumably a rather decent person yet is drawn into a terrorist organization because he’s so wrapped up in his desire for revenge. We don’t see an internal struggle fleshed out as he kills and plots to kill hundreds of people. We’re just expected to accept what he and his fellow freedom fighters do, creepily in clear conscience. And in the end, we have a new military state – albeit run by the good guys – that isn’t any more interested in answering questions than the previous government. Oh, and that’s supposed to be the happy ending.

The citizens of the Federated States aren’t the only ones left with questions. I was left wondering about a few things myself. For example, despite Wellnitz’s penchant for including too much backstory and endless detail, he overlooks some important details on how and why the United States of America fell. In the midst of hyperinflation, economic chaos, and secession, the narration keeps its focus on the Presidency. That’s like a first grader’s impression of the Federal government. Where was Congress during all this? Why wasn’t the Senate exercising any power? And how did the Federal Reserve, which is generally conservative in its policies, allow the money supply to expand out of control? Wellnitz might believe he’s politically savvy, but his lousy setup betrays his ignorance.

Another thing that really irked me is his treatment of race/ethnicity, sex/gender, and sexual persuasion. Wellnitz is stuck in the 1950s and lacks any understanding of how racial identity and racism have changed since then. He creates a fantasy world where all whites are bad guys, unless Jewish or Scandinavian (or married to such), and the only political issues of importance are legislating racial supremacy and segregation. While the author probably was hoping for extra points for being inclusive, his diverse cast of characters, including one lesbian, is so contrived that it’s more likely to irritate his readers than impress them. And if he’s hoping to spark some sort of activism by his book, it’ll probably be from Latina Mothers Against Idiot Authors. It’s bad enough that he belabors us with each person’s age and physical description. We really don’t need to be told a zillion times that every Latina character has a beautiful body.

Speaking of irrelevant detail, we don’t need to know the number of chairs at a particular kitchen table which no one happens to be sitting at. We don’t need to know that the hero has his facial hair styled just like the author’s. And we don’t need to be told the names, physical features, dress habits, and backstories of people who will appear in the movie script as Security Guard 1 and Bureaucrat 2. What is needed is for Wellnitz to learn how to edit, and while he’s at it, hire a professional proofreader. The book is rife with typos, formatting errors, poor wording, endless repetition, over-explanation, and spell-checker casualties (e.g., “resurrection” for “insurrection”). All this makes for a rather painful read.

I could spell out every problem I noticed, but my review would end up as long as Wellnitz’s 417-page book. I’ll cut it short with this: Wellnitz fails primarily because he doesn’t stick to writing about what he knows. Religious, ethnic and regional cultures are poorly portrayed. The hero’s career prior ends up being irrelevant because the author’s not familiar with it enough to have the character utilize those skills or knowledge sets. A lot of this could’ve been easily avoided. Instead of our hero being a black lawyer, why not a white Navy officer or engineer? Instead of setting the story in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and California, why not stick with South Dakota and Minnesota (where a Somali love interest would’ve made a lot more sense, I must add). At his age, Wellnitz should have a lot of life experience to draw from. Unfortunately, he doesn’t utilize it in ways that would make this book a success.

While I still stand by my claim that PushBack shows some real potential, it’s nowhere near ready to hit the bookstore shelves. Give the author a few years to clean up some parts, rework others, and run the manuscript by some trained eyes. Then we’ll see how it does with a re-rerelease.


Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. I was not required to write a favorable review.