Tuesday, May 24, 2005

$2500 grant helps to talk to the dead (New Zealand Herald)

'A spiritualist group has been given Auckland ratepayer money so it can teach people to communicate with the dead' according to the New Zealand Herald. Read the article here.

Sunday, May 22, 2005


Skepsonix is a website coming from a skeptical perspective where you can listen to audio and/or watch video on topics such as

  • science and pseudo-science
  • evolution, creationism, and ID [intelligent design]
  • atheism and god(s)
  • religion, cults/sects, and healers
  • quantum physics quackery
  • "alternative" therapies
  • and more...

Presenters of the material include James Randi (magician), Richard Dawkins (atheist evolutionist), Phillip Adams (journalist), Carl Sagan, John Paulos (Professor of Mathematics), and Milton Rosenberg (Professor of Psychology). Check it out here.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Movie Review: Star Wars: Episode III

Star Wars Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith is a brilliant conclusion to the Star Wars saga that began 28 years ago. It's been a long wait but worth it. After the predictable titles scrolling into space we are gripped immediately by heart-stopping action that doesn't let up for the whole 140 minutes which seems to go by in a flash. Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christenson), after fighting for three years in the Clone Wars, begins his downward slide to the Dark Side of the Force and his relationships with his wife, Padmé (Natalie Portman) and long-time friend, Obi Wan Kanobi (Ewan McGregor) are strained to the limits.

This episode is rich in religious themes and allusions which are never overshadowed by the relentless action. The dramatic special effects always serve the story. One of the most interesting lines of the movie is delivered by Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) who convinces Anakin that good is a matter of point of view. Acceptance of this perspective on morality is the beginning of Anakin's decline to the Dark Side until evil becomes good in 'the Chosen One's' world view. The Revenge of the Sith is the darkest episode of the whole series because it deals with a good man's descent to pure evil.

The only disappointment of the movie for me is Ewan McGregor who puts in a stilted, artificial performance. The rest of the cast are excellent. This great film would be worthy of repeated viewings -- I'm sure that there is more to uncover than noticeable the first time around. This episode has been compared with Greek and Shakespearean tragedies. Episode III is definitely the best of the series since Episode IV: The Empire Strikes Back. Go see it!

My Rating: ****1/2 (out of 5 - the movie lost 1/2 a star because of Ewan McGregor's acting!)

Best Review

'The movie grabs us from its heart-pounding opening sequence and pulls us inexorably along its trajectory with the grip of the last gruesome act of a Greek tragedy. Its fascination is not what happens but HOW it happens.' - William Arnold/Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Worst Review

'The general opinion of Revenge of the Sith seems to be that it marks a distinct improvement on the last two episodes, "The Phantom Menace" and "Attack of the Clones." True, but only in the same way that dying from natural causes is preferable to crucifixion.' - Anthony Lane/The New Yorker

Content Warnings

Sci-fi violence and some intense images

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Monday, May 16, 2005

Can a Christian be a relativist?

Christians are often very resistant to the idea of relativism. Rick Cornish (2005), in his little book 5 Minute Apologist: Maximum Truth in Minimum Time describes the relativist position to be that '[t]ruth is no longer considered the same for all persons, at all times, in all places. Pick your own truth; one version is as good as the next.' He argues that the idea of relative truth is 'bankrupt' for three reasons:

  1. It defeats itself. In other words, if a person claims that truth is relative they are asserting a truth which, if truth is relative, makes this assertion relative as well and, therefore, must not be absolutely true.
  2. Relativism 'entails that opposites are true'.
  3. It 'renders knowledge impossible.'

If relativism is, indeed, the notion that truth is no longer 'the same for al persons, at all times, in all places' then Cornish's criticisms are very telling and Christians should resist it. At a popular level, where something is often said to be actually true or false depending on the person holding the belief, then the above criticisms are certainly relevant. But is this popular notion, described by Cornish, actually representative of a truly relativist position?

The Philosophical Dictionary defines relativism as the:

[b]elief that human judgments are always conditioned by the specific social environment of a particular person, time, or place. Cognitive relativists hold that there can be no universal knowledge of the world, but only diverse interpretations of it. Moral relativists hold that there are no universal standards of moral value, but only the cultural norms of particular societies. (Kemerling 2002)

There are a number of important points to notice in this definition:

  1. The relativist position is about human judgments, not about the nature of absolute truth. It is absolutely essential to get this distinction right otherwise we end up commiting the straw man fallacy.*
  2. The essential assertion of relativism is that human judgments are affected by the circumstances within which a person lives. This is an eminently sensible and obvious assertion. An individual's understanding of truth is affected by where they live, their history, their age, and so on. It is also limited by a person's abilities to inquire into something and the level of their thinking skills. This essential assertion, then, is perfectly acceptable to a Christian. Why else would it be true that God's thoughts are higher than human thought (Isa Å:8-9)? Is it not because God, being who God is, has a different view of reality than we do and, therefore, the judgments God makes about what is true are different to ours?
  3. The essential assertion of relativism can be applied to two different types of knowledge:
    1. Knowledge of the world Humans cannot have comprehensive, perfect knowledge of the world.
    2. Knowledge of morality There is no possibility of objective morality. Instead, morality is determined by cultural norms of various societies. There is no way to objectively decide what is morally good or evil.

When thinking about the legitimacy of relativism it is important to consider each of these areas separately. Surely a Christian can accept that human knowledge of the world is always going to be less than perfect and comprehensive and influenced by the nature of human abilities, opportunities, and experience.

It is in the area of morality, though, that most Christians will have a problem with relativism. Most Christians want to argue that, in the area of morality, God provides the source of objective knowledge about morality. But even if this is true, the reality is that even Christians disagree on moral questions even while using the same source material in Scripture. There may, indeed, be absolute moral principles, such as the principle of loving one's neighbour as oneself, but it is in the application of principles like this where even Christians come into conflict with each other.

All of this allows us to arrive at some answers to these questions:

  1. Is there such a thing as absolute truth about the world? In other words, are assertions about the world either actually correct or incorrect? Answer: yes.
  2. Is it possible for humans to have an absolutely perfect and comprehensive knowledge of the world? Answer: no.
  3. Is there such a thing as absolute truth about morality? In other words, in a certain situation, is there actually one morally correct way of responding? Answer: from a Christian point of view -- yes.
  4. Is it possible for humans to have an absolutely perfect and comprehensive knowledge of what is right to do in a specific situation? Answer: no.

In other words, it doesn't matter whether we are talking about knowledge of the world or moral knowledge -- in both cases, human judgments are fraught with the consequences of being human! Christians can agree with the relativist on both of these points. The only difference between most Christians and the moral relativist is that most Christians accept the Bible as the source of absolute moral principles.

I return now to Cornish's criticism of relativism. In my view, Cornish's critique does not adequately distinguish between the popular form of relativism and the philosophical form of relativism. He is quite correct in saying that the popular form of relativism is bankrupt. His analysis of relativism mixes these two in the same discussion. So when Cornish suggests that the relativist who argues 'that it's impossible to absolutely understand truth' is incorrect because '[s]he mixes concepts. She assumes that belief in absolute truth requires that one has an absolute understanding of truth...' then Cornish correctly identifies that distinction. In much of his disussion, however, Cornish himself confuses popular relativism with philosophical relativism.

What do we make, then, of Cornish's argument against relativism? If we are discussing popular relativism, then it is true that:

  1. It defeats itself;
  2. It is untenable because it entails that opposites are true; and
  3. It renders knowledge impossible.

However, when discussing philosophical relativism, then:

  1. It does not defeat itself;
  2. It does not entail that opposites are true; and
  3. It does not render knowledge impossible.

Can a Christian be a relativist? Yes, they can, because, along with the "true" relativist, the Christian believes 'that human judgments are always conditioned by the specific social environment of a particular person, time, or place.' (Kemerling 2002). Christians affirm the notion of absolute truth but, in humility, recognise the impossibility of knowing it perfectly. In that sense, we stand with the relativist!


*'The Straw Man fallacy is committed when a person simply ignores a person's actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position.' (Labossiere 1995)


Cornish, R 2005, 5 Minute Theologian: Maximum Truth in Minimum Time, NavPress.

Kemerling, G 2002, Relativism, viewed 16 May 2005, http://www.philosophypages.com/dy/r9.htm#relm.

Labossiere, MC 1995, Fallacy: Straw Man, viewed 16 May 2005, http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/straw-man.html.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Movie Reviews: Quick Takes

The Interpreter (2005) A convoluted political thriller about an interpreter (Nicole Kidman) who overhears a plot to assassinate a fictional African nation's controversial leader. Average compared to other political thrillers such as The Manchurian Candidate. *** (out of 5) Ladies in Lavender (2004) A delightful, gentle comedy/drama set in 1930s Cornish. Two elderly ladies befriend a foreign stranger who is washed up on the beach near their home. Beautiful, sad, funny... it will pull at your heartstrings. **** (out of 5) In Good Company (2004) A middle-aged man (Dennis Quaid) finds himself pushed aside in an advertising agency when a young, inexperienced new boss (Topher Grace) arrives as part of a corporate takeover. Complicating matters -- the new boss falls in love with the middle-aged man's daughter (Scarlett Johansen). Scarlett Johansen is brilliant as usual. Light, superficial, preachy but entertaining. *** (out of 5) The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005) An average movie version of the now-famous work by Douglas Adams. Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) wakes up one morning to discover that one of his friends is an alien and that earth is to be destroyed to make way for a hypespace highway. He goes on a journey through the universe with a guide book that will tell him everything he needs to know. *** (out of 5) Hitch (2005) The best romantic comedy I have seen for ages! Alex "Hitch" Hitchens (Will Smith) is a highly successfully dating consultant who charges for his services in getting men through the first three dates with someone to show them in their best light. Some have even made it to the altar! But when Hitch meets Sara (Eva Mendes) he finds all his theory doesn't work the way he expects. A delightfully funny and entertaining movie. **** (out of 5)

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The 21st century atheist (Guardian)

Here's an article on atheism with a bit of a difference. Dylan Evans believes that fundamentalist atheists like Richard Dawkins have done the cause of religion a lot of good by doing the cause of atheism a lot of harm! He artues that '[n]ot believing in God is no excuse for being virulently anti-religious or naively pro-science'. He suggests that religion is like a piece of artwork and provides this little parable:

once upon a time, a talented artist painted a picture of a beautiful landscape on the wall of his house. People came from all around to see the picture. It was so beautiful that they would spend whole days staring at it.

Led on by wishful thinking, some people even began to forget that they were looking at a painting, and came to believe that the wall was a window. So the artist removed one of the bricks in the wall, allowing the illusory nature of the painting to become clear.

Some of those who had mistaken the painting for reality were upset to have their illusion shattered. But the wise ones thanked the artist profusely. "By revealing the fictitious nature of this landscape," they said, "you have allowed us to appreciate the beauty of your art."

So Evans argues that religion is like a piece of artwork - fictitious but valuable. In some ways, Evans's approach is quite positive -- and certainly values religion in a way that atheists like Richard Dawkins doesn't. This view most certainly makes for better communication between believers and atheists. But, of course, from a Christian point of view, religion is most definitely not just a piece of art. Religion is a way of representing reality. Christianity claims to be based on historical fact. For most Christians, to remove the historical claims would mean the end of Christianity -- at least in its historical form.

Evans thinks 'the best way to think about religion is to see it like the painting in this parable. In other words, religions are beautiful things, but their beauty can only be truly appreciated when they are seen as human creations - as works of art.' For a person who doesn't accept the historical claims of Christianity this may, indeed, be the best way of viewing religion. However, this view doesn't really approach the claims of religion on its own terms. It is unlikely that Evans is going to persuade Christians to view their religion as a piece of art - and I don't believe he has any chance of convincing atheists like Dawkins to see it that way either. Despite the obvious fanaticism of Dawkins, perhaps at least he is being more intellectually honest than someone who wants to reduce religion to artwork. You can read Evans's article here.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

The Real History of the Crusades - Christianity Today Magazine

With the new movie Kingdom of Heaven on our doorsteps, with its central historical context, the medieval Crusades will undoubtedly become the new religious talking point in our society. Thomas Madden gives us the Real History of the Crusades and counters the popular notion that they were '[a] series of holy wars against Islam led by power-mad popes and fought by religious fanatics'. Check out the article here.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Movie Review: Downfall

Downfall is a mesmerising, gut-wrenching, gruelling, shocking drama about the last 10 days of Adolf Hitler's life and Third Reich at the end of WWII. It is based on two main sources: Inside Hitler’s Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich and Until the Final Hour: Hitler’s Last Secretary. The second of these, written by Traudl Junge, one of Hitler's secretaries, provides the view through which we see the story unfold. Junge was hired in the autumn of 1942 when she was 22 years old to be Hitler's private secretary. The film begins with a black screen and a recording of Junge's actual voice as she explains that she '... was not an enthusiastic Nazi'. The story then begins as Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), along with a number of other young women, line up to be interviewed for the job as personal secretary to the Fuhrer (Bruno Ganz). She gets the job. The narrative then jumps to two and a half years later and we find ourselves in Hitler's bunker as the Russians advance on the Berlin. Under the streets of Berlin we see Hitler, first realising that he has lost the war and implementing Clauswitz (defend Berlin at all costs), and then becoming increasing deluded as he tries to turn the war around. As he and his "guests" party on we see, above the streets, the absolute decimation of the German civilian population as they hope that their Furher will bring about victory. There are some shocking scenes in this movie for different reasons. There is some incredibly realistic war scenes rivalling Saving Private Ryan. The most disturbing for me was when Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes) and his wife, Magda (Corinna Harfouch), who believes her children are too good to live in a world without National Socialism, give them a sedative and, while they are sleeping, kill them. Through the course of this movie we see Hitler shrink into a pathetic, insane, raving old man while he still commands the loyalty of his soldiers and staff. Refusing to leave Berlin, against the persistent advice of those around him, he finally commits suicides with his wife, Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler). This film is not, perhaps, for the weak at heart. And yet it is a film that must be seen -- as someone has said, it is perhaps the most powerful war movie ever made. Bruno Ganz is absolutely brilliant as Adolf Hitler. The rest of the cast are excellent. One of the criticisms that has been levelled at Downfall is that the intimacy and intermittent humaneness with which the director has portrayed Hitler might make it too easy for some people to sympathise with him. But, according to what I have read, the portrayal of Hitler is accurate. It allows us to see, perhaps, why so many were seduced by him into perpetrating one of the greatest evils the world has ever known. I like what Michael Wilmington says about this issue:
... unless we fully understand that horror can emanate not just from obvious villains but from destructive but plausible human beings capable of inspiring sympathy and devotion, as Hitler was, we remain vulnerable to the rants and prejudices of the next seductive historical monster, open to the next Gotterdammerung. "Downfall," whatever its shortcomings, bears strong witness to great evil. That is its triumph as a film.
I agree. My Rating: ***** (out of 5) Best Review 'A riveting re-creation of three world-changing collapses: those of the Nazi party, of militarized Germany as a whole, and of the Führer who guided them into self-destructive ruin.' - David Sterritt/Christian Science Monitor NOTE: There are so many favourable reviews of this movie it was hard to pick one! Worst Review 'Downfall may be grimly self-important and inescapably trivializing. But we should be grateful that German cinema is more inclined to normalize the nation's history than rewrite it.' - J Hoberman/Village Voice Content Warnings [very] strong violence, disturbing images and some nudity Award Nomination Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film (Germany), 77th Annual Academy Awards Related Links

'Take the High Road' (Realtor Magazine Online)

Here's a simple, short article on ethics and ethical living that appears in Realtor Magazine Online entitled Take the High Road. The author describes the heart of ethics and provides some guidelines on being ethical every day. An excellent little article.