Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A.N. Wilson - To and From Atheism

A.N. Wilson has had a career as an Oxford teacher, biographer, and much-awarded journalist. In Christian circles, he's perhaps best known for a widely reviled biography of C.S. Lewis.

At the time he wrote about Lewis, Wilson would have called himself an atheist. But over time, he's come back to theism and, apparently, Christ. Here are a few excerpts from a recent article he wrote; it's good enough, though, that you might want to read the whole thing here.

By nature a doubting Thomas, I should have distrusted the symptoms when I underwent a “conversion experience” 20 years ago. Something was happening which was out of character – the inner glow of complete certainty, the heady sense of being at one with the great tide of fellow non-believers. For my conversion experience was to atheism. There were several moments of epiphany, actually, but one of the most dramatic occurred in the pulpit of a church.

At St Mary-le-Bow in the City of London, there are two pulpits, and for some decades they have been used for lunchtime dialogues. I had just published a biography of C S Lewis, and the rector of St Mary-le-Bow, Victor Stock, asked me to participate in one such exchange of views.


I can remember almost yelling that reading C S Lewis’s Mere Christianity made me a non-believer – not just in Lewis’s version of Christianity, but in Christianity itself. On that occasion, I realised that after a lifetime of churchgoing, the whole house of cards had collapsed for me – the sense of God’s presence in life, and the notion that there was any kind of God, let alone a merciful God, in this brutal, nasty world. As for Jesus having been the founder of Christianity, this idea seemed perfectly preposterous....It was a nonsense, together with the idea of a personal God, or a loving God in a suffering universe. Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense.

It was such a relief to discard it all that, for months, I walked on air. At about this time, the Independent on Sunday sent me to interview Dr Billy Graham, who was conducting a mission in Syracuse, New York State, prior to making one of his journeys to England. The pattern of these meetings was always the same. The old matinee idol spoke. The gospel choir sang some suitably affecting ditty, and then the converted made their way down the aisles to commit themselves to the new faith. Part of the glow was, surely, the knowledge that they were now part of a great fellowship of believers.

As a hesitant, doubting, religious man I’d never known how they felt. But, as a born-again atheist, I now knew exactly what satisfactions were on offer. For the first time in my 38 years I was at one with my own generation. I had become like one of the Billy Grahamites, only in reverse. If I bumped into Richard Dawkins (an old colleague from Oxford days) or had dinner in Washington with Christopher Hitchens (as I did either on that trip to interview Billy Graham or another), I did not have to feel out on a limb. Hitchens was excited to greet a new convert to his non-creed and put me through a catechism before uncorking some stupendous claret. “So – absolutely no God?” “Nope,” I was able to say with Moonie-zeal. “No future life, nothing ‘out there’?” “No,” I obediently replied. At last! I could join in the creed shared by so many (most?) of my intelligent contemporaries in the western world – that men and women are purely material beings (whatever that is supposed to mean), that “this is all there is” (ditto), that God, Jesus and religion are a load of baloney: and worse than that, the cause of much (no, come on, let yourself go), most (why stint yourself – go for it, man), all the trouble in the world, from Jerusalem to Belfast, from Washington to Islamabad.

My doubting temperament, however, made me a very unconvincing atheist. And unconvinced. My hilarious Camden Town neighbour Colin Haycraft, the boss of Duckworth and husband of Alice Thomas Ellis, used to say, “I do wish Freddie [Ayer] wouldn’t go round calling himself an atheist. It implies he takes religion seriously.”
This creed that religion can be despatched in a few brisk arguments (outlined in David Hume’s masterly Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion) and then laughed off kept me going for some years. When I found myself wavering, I would return to Hume in order to pull myself together, rather as a Catholic having doubts might return to the shrine of a particular saint to sustain them while the springs of faith ran dry.


Attractive and amusing as David Hume was, did he confront the complexities of human existence as deeply as his contemporary Samuel Johnson, and did I really find him as interesting?


A materialist Darwinian was having dinner with me a few years ago and we laughingly alluded to how, as years go by, one forgets names. Eager, as committed Darwinians often are, to testify on any occasion, my friend asserted: “It is because when we were simply anthropoid apes, there was no need to distinguish between one another by giving names.”

This credal confession struck me as just as superstitious as believing in the historicity of Noah’s Ark. More so, really.

Do materialists really think that language just “evolved”, like finches’ beaks, or have they simply never thought about the matter rationally? Where’s the evidence? How could it come about that human beings all agreed that particular grunts carried particular connotations? How could it have come about that groups of anthropoid apes developed the amazing morphological complexity of a single sentence, let alone the whole grammatical mystery which has engaged Chomsky and others in our lifetime and linguists for time out of mind? No, the existence of language is one of the many phenomena – of which love and music are the two strongest – which suggest that human beings are very much more than collections of meat. They convince me that we are spiritual beings, and that the religion of the incarnation, asserting that God made humanity in His image, and continually restores humanity in His image, is simply true. As a working blueprint for life, as a template against which to measure experience, it fits.


When I think about atheist friends, including my father, they seem to me like people who have no ear for music, or who have never been in love.


I haven’t mentioned morality, but one thing that finally put the tin hat on any aspirations to be an unbeliever was writing a book about the Wagner family and Nazi Germany, and realising how utterly incoherent were Hitler’s neo-Darwinian ravings, and how potent was the opposition, much of it from Christians; paid for, not with clear intellectual victory, but in blood. Read Pastor Bonhoeffer’s book Ethics, and ask yourself what sort of mad world is created by those who think that ethics are a purely human construct. Think of Bonhoeffer’s serenity before he was hanged, even though he was in love and had everything to look forward to.

My departure from the Faith was like a conversion on the road to Damascus. My return was slow, hesitant, doubting. So it will always be; but I know I shall never make the same mistake again. Gilbert Ryle, with donnish absurdity, called God “a category mistake”. Yet the real category mistake made by atheists is not about God, but about human beings. Turn to the Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge – “Read the first chapter of Genesis without prejudice and you will be convinced at once . . . ‘The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life’.” And then Coleridge adds: “‘And man became a living soul.’ Materialism will never explain those last words.

Excerpted from

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Is This Good News or Bad?

Today's newspaper reports that the Presbyterian Church (USA) has voted once again to reject a measure that would have allowed for sexually active gay clergy in that denomination.

The church rule that remains in effect requires "“fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness.”

So, is it good news that the measure was defeated? Or is it bad news that 40+% of the presbyteries voted against fidelity in marriage and chastity in singleness?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Protestants: "People Who SORT OF Want a Religion"

Siskel and Ebert in the '80s, filming promos for their show. I can't think of a good reason to post this, except that it's really, really funny...unless you hate curse words and mockery and derogation of religion. OK, on second thought, it's not funny at all. Especially the religious stuff that starts around 5:45. Don't watch it. (Siskel on the left is Jewish, Ebert on the right is Catholic.)

Gotta credit Hemant.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Brilliant First Lines

I just started reading a new (to me) novel, Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear it Away. If it's like the other works of hers I've read, it won't be pleasant, but it may well be unforgettable (try to read her short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find" and then get it out of your head; I dare you).

In any case, here's the first sentence. Have you ever read a better one?

Francis Marion Tarwater's uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.
Once I read that, I was hooked. The next 35 pages have been pretty good, too.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Being Angry At the Right People...and About the Right Things

In Luke 9.51-56, James and John ask whether they should call down fire from heaven to destroy a Samaritan village that rejected Jesus. Jesus rebuked them for the suggestion. A.B. Bruce has this to say about that:

Jesus too, all gentle as He was, had His thunderbolts; but He reserved them for other objects than poor, benighted, prejudiced Samaritans. His zeal was directed against great sins, and powerful, privileged, presumptuous sinners; not against little sins, or poor, obscure, vulgar sinners. He burst into indignation at the sight of His Father's house turned into a den of thieves by those who ought to have known, and did know better; He only felt compassion for those who, like the woman by the well, knew not what they worshipped, and groped after God in semi-heathen darkness. His spirit was kindled within Him at the spectacle of ostentatious orthodoxy and piety allied to the grossest worldliness; He did not, like the Pharisee, blaze up in sanctimonious wrath against irreligious publicans, who might do no worship at all, or who, like the heretical Samaritans, did not worship in the right place. Would that zeal like that of Jesus, aiming its bolts at the proud oak and sparing the humble shrub, were more common! But such zeal is dangerous, and therefore it will always be rare.


James and John...thought themselves actuated by zeal for the glory of their Lord, and so they were in part. But the flame of their zeal was not pure: it was mixed up with the bitter smoke of carnal passions, anger, pride, self-will. Then, again, their spirit was not such as became the apostles of the gospel, the heralds of a new era of grace. They were chosen to preach a message of mercy to every creature, even to the chief of sinners; to tell of a love that suffered not itself to be overcome of evil, but sought to overcome evil with good; to found a kingdom composed of citizens from every nation, wherein should be neither Jew nor Samaritan, but Christ all and in all. What a work to be achieved by men filled with the fire-breathing spirit of the "sons of thunder"! Obviously a great change must be wrought within them to fit them for the high vocation wherewith they have been called. Yet again, the spirit of James and John was, of course, not that of their Master. He "came not to destroy men's lives, but to save them."

- A.B. Bruce, "The Training of the Twelve," pp. 246-247

Painting: Valentin de Boulogne, "Christ Driving the Money Changers out of the Temple," c. 1618

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Happy Earth Day

The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Whole Foods . . . Whole Fools

Every time I go to Whole Foods, I wonder why I did so. Today, I've concluded that only fools and those who don't know the value of money shop there. (And yes, I'll admit I sometimes do foolish things.)
Please tell me why I want to spend 20-100% more for the same items I can get in the neighborhood grocery store or at the world's best food purveyor, Trader Joe's. Coffee, beer, produce, cheese, you name it, it's all ridiculously priced. Whole Foods claims they're competitive if you shop carefully. That may be true, if you shop in their dumpster. Otherwise, I just don't see it.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Cross After Easter

"The fact that fidelity involves a cross, as also the fact that Christ was crucified just because He was righteous, are well understood by Christians when they are a suffering minority, as in primitive ages. But these truths are much lost sight of in peaceful, prosperous times. Then you shall find many holding most sound views of the cross Christ bore for them, but sadly ignorant concerning the cross they themselves have to bear in fellowship with Christ. Of this cross they are determined to know nothing."
- A.B. Bruce, The Training of the Twelve, p. 185.
For too many, "discipleship" is something you do in a group once a week. It is not a lifestyle, worldview, or guiding paradigm. Nor a relationship with a Master, for that matter.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Another Thing That Makes Us Not Just Animals

You can surprise a dog,
but only a man can be struck with awe.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Thank God for Stupid Disciples

There can be no doubt that Jesus spoke plainly enough about His death at least; and yet His death, when it happened, took the disciples as much by surprise as did the resurrection. One explanation suffices in both cases. The disciples were not clever, quick-witted, sentimental men such as Renan makes them. They were stupid, slow-minded persons; very honest, but very unapt to take in new ideas. They were like horses with blinders on, and could see only in one direction, — that, namely, of their prejudices. It required the surgery of events to insert a new truth into their minds. Nothing would change the current of their thoughts but a damwork of undeniable fact. They could be convinced that Christ must die only by His dying, that He would rise only by His rising, that His kingdom was not to be of this world, only by the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost and the vocation of the Gentiles. Let us be thankful for the honest stupidity of these men. It gives great value to their testimony. We know that nothing but facts could make such men believe that which nowadays they get credit for inventing.

- A. B. Bruce, The Training of the Twelve, pp. 494-495 (emphasis added)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A New Day

I will heal their waywardness

and love them freely,

for my anger has turned away from them.

Hosea 14.4

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Friday, April 10, 2009

O Haupt voll Blut

"THE" Passion hymn, with music arranged by Bach. Lyrics in English and German below. Have a Good Friday.

O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, Thine only crown;
O sacred Head, what glory, what bliss till now was Thine!
Yet, though despised and gory, I joy to call Thee mine.

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered, was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ’Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor, vouchsafe to me Thy grace.

Men mock and taunt and jeer Thee, Thou noble countenance,
Though mighty worlds shall fear Thee and flee before Thy glance.
How art thou pale with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn!
How doth Thy visage languish that once was bright as morn!

Now from Thy cheeks has vanished their color once so fair;
From Thy red lips is banished the splendor that was there.
Grim death, with cruel rigor, hath robbed Thee of Thy life;
Thus Thou hast lost Thy vigor, Thy strength in this sad strife.

My burden in Thy Passion, Lord, Thou hast borne for me,
For it was my transgression which brought this woe on Thee.
I cast me down before Thee, wrath were my rightful lot;
Have mercy, I implore Thee; Redeemer, spurn me not!

What language shall I borrow to thank Thee, dearest friend,
For this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine forever, and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee.

My Shepherd, now receive me; my Guardian, own me Thine.
Great blessings Thou didst give me, O source of gifts divine.
Thy lips have often fed me with words of truth and love;
Thy Spirit oft hath led me to heavenly joys above.

Here I will stand beside Thee, from Thee I will not part;
O Savior, do not chide me! When breaks Thy loving heart,
When soul and body languish in death’s cold, cruel grasp,
Then, in Thy deepest anguish, Thee in mine arms I’ll clasp.

The joy can never be spoken, above all joys beside,
When in Thy body broken I thus with safety hide.
O Lord of Life, desiring Thy glory now to see,
Beside Thy cross expiring, I’d breathe my soul to Thee.

My Savior, be Thou near me when death is at my door;
Then let Thy presence cheer me, forsake me nevermore!
When soul and body languish, oh, leave me not alone,
But take away mine anguish by virtue of Thine own!

Be Thou my consolation, my shield when I must die;
Remind me of Thy passion when my last hour draws nigh.
Mine eyes shall then behold Thee, upon Thy cross shall dwell,
My heart by faith enfolds Thee. Who dieth thus dies well.


O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden,Voll Schmerz und voller Hohn,
O Haupt, zum Spott gebunden Mit einer Dornenkron’,
O Haupt, sonst schön gezieret Mit höchster Ehr’ und Zier,
Jetzt aber höchst schimpfieret; Gegrüßet sei’st du mir!

Du edles Angesichte, Davor sonst schrickt und scheut
Das große Weltgewichte, Wie bist du so bespeit!
Wie bist du so erbleichet! Wer hat dein Augenlicht,
Dem sonst kein Licht nicht gleichet, So schändlich zugericht’t?

Die Farbe deiner Wangen, Der roten Lippen Pracht
Ist hin und ganz vergangen; Des blaßen Todes Macht
Hat alles hingenommen, Hat alles hingerafft,
Und daher bist du kommen Von deines Leibes Kraft.

Nun, was du, Herr, erduldet, Ist alles meine Last;
Ich hab’ es selbst verschuldet, Was du getragen hast.
Schau her, hier steh’ ich Armer, Der Zorn verdienet hat;
Gib mir, o mein Erbarmer, Den Anblick deiner Gnad’!

Erkenne mich, mein Hüter, Mein Hirte, nimm mich an!
Von dir, Quell’ aller Güter, Ist mir viel Gut’s getan.
Dein Mund hat mich gelabet Mit Mich und süßer Kost;
Dein Geist hat mich begabet Mit mancher Himmelslust.

Ich will hier bei dir stehen, Verachte mich doch nicht!
Von dir will ich nicht gehen, Wenn dir dein Herze bricht;
Wenn dein haupt wird erblaßen Im letzten Todesstoß,
Alsdann will ich dich faßen In meinem Arm und Schoß.

Es dient zu meinen Freuden Und kommt mir herzlich wohl,
Wenn ich in deinem Leiden, Mein Heil, mich finden soll.
Ach, möcht’ ich, o mein Leben, An deinem Kreuze hier
Mein Leben von mir geben, Wie wohl geschähe mir!

Ich danke dir von Herzen, O Jesu, liebster Freund,
Für deines Todes Schmerzen, Da du’s so gut gemeint.
Ach gib, daß ich mich halte Zu dir und deiner Treu’
Und, wenn ich nun erkalte, In dir mein Ende sei!

Wann ich einmal soll scheiden, So scheide nicht von mir,
Wenn ich den Tod soll leiden, So tritt du dann herfür;
Wenn mir am allerbängsten Wird um das Herze sein,
So reiß mich aus den Ängsten Kraft deiner Angst und Pein!

Erscheine mir zum Schilde, Zum Trost in meinem Tod,
Und laß mich sehn dein Bilde In deiner Kreuzesnot!
Da will ich nacht dir blicken, Da will ich glaubensvoll
Dich fest an mein Herz drücken. Wer so stirbt, der stirbt wohl.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Practical Man

A man devoid of faith, like Judas, needs something to sustain him, to nourish his emotional life, and most men in this position boast of their practical side. Judas was practical.

--Jim Bishop,
The Day Christ Died, p. 88

This book was written in 1957, and I read it almost 30 years ago. This is the one line in the entire book that has stuck with me over the years.

I'm rereading the book this week, and I still like the comment about Judas. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I do pride myself on my practicality. Keeping things in order and under control does in some way nourish my emotional life.

There's no sin in being practical. The entire book of Proverbs certainly recommends it. The problem comes when practicality takes the place of faith. And that happens often in my prayer life. I tend to ask only for that which, in my eyes, has a reasonable expectation of happening, something whose means of fulfillment I can map out, "if only God will give a little nudge here and here."

I'm guessing a person of faith will focus more on what God can do than on what is practical, feasible, and doable. Certainly, He who creates ex nihilo will have a few tricks up His sleeve!

A practical man can simulate service to the Master without ever actually having to relate to Him. A practical man takes initiative and leads to where he thinks things should go, maybe along the way asking the Master to endorse the effort. A man of faith meets with the Master and receives instructions, then follows.

Judas was a practical man.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Good & Useful? Or Useful, but not Good?

[D]oubtless Judas took part in this Galilean mission, and, for aught we know to the contrary, was as successful as his fellow-disciples in casting out devils. Graceless men may for a season be employed as agents in promoting the work of grace in the hearts of others. Usefulness does not necessarily imply goodness, according to the teaching of Christ Himself.

- A.B. Bruce, The Training of the Twelve, p. 108

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Man With Two Minds

What kind of man was Judas? According to A.B. Bruce,

Supposing Judas to have been chosen to the apostleship on the ground of apparent fitness, what manner of man would that imply? A vulgar, conscious hypocrite, seeking some mean by-end, while professedly aiming at a higher? Not necessarily; not probably. Rather such an one as Jesus indirectly described Judas to be when He made the reflection: "If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them." The false disciple was a sentimental, plausible, self-deceived pietist, who knew and approved the good, though not conscientiously practicing it; one who, in aesthetic feeling, in fancy, and in intellect, had affinities for the noble and the holy, while in will and in conduct he was the slave of base, selfish passions; one who, in the last resource, would always put self uppermost, yet could zealously devote himself to well-doing when personal interests were not compromised--in short, what the Apostle James calls a two-minded man [James 1.8].

In thus describing Judas, we draw not the picture of a solitary monster. Men of such a type are by no means so rare as some may imagine. History, sacred and profane, supplies numerous examples of them, playing an important part in human affairs. Balaam, who had the vision of a prophet and the soul of a miser, was such a man. Robespierre, the evil genius of the French Revolution, was another. The man who sent thousands to the guillotine had in his younger days resigned his office as a provincial judge, because it was against his conscience to pronounce sentence of death on a culprit found guilty of a capital offence. A third example, more remarkable than either, may be found in the famous Greek Alcibiades, who, to unbounded ambition, unscrupulousness, and licentiousness, united a warm attachment to the greatest and best of the Greeks. The man who in after years betrayed the cause of his native city, and went over to the side of her enemies, was in his youth an enthusiastic admirer and disciple of Socrates.

[In the footnote about James 1.8, which refers to a "double-minded man, unstable in all he does," Bruce says this means] a man with two minds; not one real, the other feigned, but with two minds both real so far as they go, only the wrong mind strongest, and ultimately prevailing.

--A.B. Bruce, The Training of the Twelve, p. 371

This passage helps me understand how Judas could be Judas. Or how I can be Judas.

Monday, April 6, 2009

What Could Make Me Ashamed To Be An American?

My old passport was nearing its expiration date, so I sent off for a new one. Mindful of last year's processing bottlenecks, I paid the extra $60 for expedited handling. And that's what I got; the new passport arrived exactly 1 week after I sent in the paperwork.

That's the good part.

What I actually received is a nightmare. Have you seen the design of the new passports? I'll be embarrassed to flash that thing on any foreign border. It used to be that passport pages were demure backgrounds for the visas and stamps you'd get while travelling. Now, the passport has been turned into a gaudy picturebook, complete with quotations from historical Americans, the national anthem, and the constitution. How those poor border guards are supposed to find a place to put their stamps, or how anyone is supposed to be able to read them against the dark, intense background colors, is beyond me.

Reportedly, the design was approved by Secretary of State Colin Powell. All I can think is that he signed off on this travesty only after he had already decided to resign. It must have been his way of getting even with the administration that he felt had mistreated him.

Apparently, I'm not the first to have this low opinion of the new design. It's been called "the ugly khaki shorts of passports," "like being given a coloring book that your brother already colored in," and "a tangled mess," Here are a few other choice quotes:

  • The new passport comes with its own name: “American Icon.” It’s hard to think of one that was left out. (NY Times)
  • “There is also something a little coercive about a functional object serving as a civics lesson, even a fairly low-grade civics lesson.” (NY Times)
  • Apparently, someone forgot that passports are mainly meant to be read by, you know, foreigners. Plastered like a NASCAR vehicle with cheeseball patriotic clip-art that might have been swiped from the Colbert Report's opening credits, the new books spill jingoism the way traveling Americans once spilled hard currency.Fair enough, given the administration that introduced the new passports. Unfortunately, where the Bushies once excelled at logos and backdrops, the redesign is also hideously, hideously ugly. (Design Cultures Blog)
  • The passport's subsequent pages--the ones that are supposed to be used for foreign visas and entry stamps--follow along with illustrations as predictable as a junior-high American-history project. Cacti! Mountains! Independence Hall! A gargantuan rendering of the Liberty Bell! The whole romantic panoply, from coast to coast. (Design Cultures Blog)

Where did the designer go after this project? Apparently, he moved on to the Acura TL redesign.

Friday, April 3, 2009

We May Have Pat Robertson, but Islam Has Its Own Buffoons, Too

First off, this is not a joke...though it is funny in its own way. See why this Saudi cleric thinks Mickey Mouse should be exterminated (90 seconds):

And from much more liberal Kuwait, we learn the danger of massage parlors and hair salons. Notice the undocumented statistics and the utter ignorance ("Do women get massages, too?). This one will take you almost 6 minutes, but you'll be riveted:

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Start Small, Grow Big

A.B. Bruce was a Scottish pastor and professor in the 19th Century. He wrote a classic about how Jesus trained his disciples, called, appropriately enough, The Training of the Twelve. In this book Bruce takes a chronological/ episodic approach, rather than a systematic or topical one, which may help to explain why the book is 550 pages long.
Bruce treats the disciples as real people, not as caricatures or buffoons. Throughout this work, he shows himself as one who clearly has soaked himself in the Word and meditated on it deeply.
In the following passage, he talks about the difference between apparent church growth and lasting Church growth. "Rousing the masses" can never replace training the few:

Where there is no obvious excitement, the church in [the view of some] is dead, and her ministry inefficient. Such [people] need to be reminded that there were two religious movements going on in the days of the Lord Jesus. One consisted in rousing the mass out of the stupor of indifference; the other consisted in the careful, exact training of men already in earnest, in the principles and truths of the divine kingdom. Of the one movement the disciples, that is, both the twelve and the seventy, were the agents; of the other movement they were the subjects. And the latter movement, though less noticeable, and much more limited in extent, was by far more important than the former; for it was destined to bring forth fruit that should remain—to tell not merely on the present time, but on the whole history of the world. The deep truths which the great Teacher was now quietly and unobservedly, as in the dark, instilling into the minds of a select band, the recipients of His confidential teaching were to speak in the broad daylight ere long ; and the sound of their voice would not stop till it had gone through all the earth. There would have been a poor outlook for the kingdom of heaven if Christ had neglected this work, and given Himself up entirely to vague evangelism among the masses.

- A.B. Bruce (1831-1899), The Training of the Twelve, p. 107
The entire book can be read or even downloaded at Google books.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

How Many Friends Do You Have?

Is Facebook a gamechanger that's expanding our network of friends? Is it fundamentally changing how we relate to others...and how many others we relate to? Maybe not.

From the February 28 issue of The Economist (excerpts):

That Facebook, Twitter and other online social networks will increase the size of human social groups is an obvious hypothesis, given that they reduce a lot of the friction and cost involved in keeping in touch with other people. Once you join and gather your “friends” online, you can share in their lives as recorded by photographs, “status updates” and other titbits, and, with your permission, they can share in yours. Additional friends are free, so why not say the more the merrier?


Several years ago, therefore, Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist who now works at Oxford University, concluded that the cognitive power of the brain limits the size of the social network that an individual of any given species can develop. Extrapolating from the brain sizes and social networks of apes, Dr Dunbar suggested that the size of the human brain allows stable networks of about 148. Rounded to 150, this has become famous as “the Dunbar number”.

Many institutions, from neolithic villages to the maniples of the Roman army, seem to be organised around the Dunbar number. ... But that does not prove Dr Dunbar’s hypothesis is correct....

The rise of online social networks, with their troves of data, might shed some light on these matters. So The Economist asked Cameron Marlow, the “in-house sociologist” at Facebook, to crunch some numbers. Dr Marlow found that the average number of “friends” in a Facebook network is 120, consistent with Dr Dunbar’s hypothesis, and that women tend to have somewhat more than men. But the range is large, and some people have networks numbering more than 500, so the hypothesis cannot yet be regarded as proven.

What also struck Dr Marlow, however, was that the number of people on an individual’s friend list with whom he (or she) frequently interacts is remarkably small and stable. The more “active” or intimate the interaction, the smaller and more stable the group.

Thus an average man—one with 120 friends—generally responds to the postings of only seven of those friends by leaving comments on the posting individual’s photos, status messages or “wall”. An average woman is slightly more sociable, responding to ten. When it comes to two-way communication such as e-mails or chats, the average man interacts with only four people and the average woman with six. Among those Facebook users with 500 friends, these numbers are somewhat higher, but not hugely so. Men leave comments for 17 friends, women for 26. Men communicate with ten, women with 16.

What mainly goes up, therefore, is not the core network but the number of casual contacts that people track more passively. This corroborates Dr Marsden’s ideas about core networks, since even those Facebook users with the most friends communicate only with a relatively small number of them.

Put differently, people who are members of online social networks are not so much “networking” as they are “broadcasting their lives to an outer tier of acquaintances who aren’t necessarily inside the Dunbar circle,” says Lee Rainie, the director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a polling organisation. Humans may be advertising themselves more efficiently. But they still have the same small circles of intimacy as ever.

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