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America’s Biggest Problem

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Health care reform is an urgent issue. Millions of Americans are uninsured or underinsured. While there are differences about what role government ought to play in health care, there is nearly universal agreement about the need for reform. Yet health care reform is not our biggest problem.

The financial crisis that resulted from the collapse of the housing bubble has led to a worldwide recession. In the United States, unemployment has risen into double digits, and many people have stopped receiving unemployment benefits because they have been so long without a job. Home foreclosures continue at an alarming rate, and occupations once considered secure, still face further cuts. Yet the economic crisis is not our biggest problem.

Since the fall of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, we have fought to contain and eventually eliminate terrorism. Our efforts have certainly curtailed terrorist activities, yet we still face massive military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. In exchange for security we have given up personal freedoms we once held dear. Yet neither terrorism nor the loss of our freedoms is our biggest problem.

Our biggest problem is the oldest in history. It has been with us since the founding of our nation and will continue until history itself comes to an end. America’s biggest problem is sin.

Some people when they hear “sin” think immediately of sexual immorality. This sort of sin has been so long derided by our media that hardly anyone thinks of it as sin any more. As destructive as sexual immorality is to our health and to our future, it is not what I mean by “sin.”

Other people think of the long and varied list of things good Christians are not supposed to do: drinking, dancing, smoking, gambling, and using recreational drugs. Those who assiduously avoid such things certainly appear to have some form of godliness or holiness, but it’s a form our media have mocked until the very concept of godliness seems quaint, like the plain-style furnishings you can buy from Amish retailers. Neither is this what I mean by “sin”

I think of sin the way Heidegger thought of being thrown: it pervades our human condition. By the time we become aware of it, we are already guilty. If we look at the archetypal sin, the first one committed in the Garden (Genesis 3), there is nothing inherently immoral about it. Adam and Eve did not break any law that we would recognize as universal today. They didn’t steal of kill or lie or destroy. All they did was eat what God had forbidden, and they did so under provocation from a tempter who filled their heads with visions of God-like grandeur. What was so damnable about that?

In fact, the sin I mean is what we Americans regard as our greatest virtue. It is our independence from God. Throughout our history, we have been torn between our near idolization of independence and our acknowledgment of God (even the feeble, antiseptic acknowledgment permitted by our modern understanding of religious freedom under the Constitution). Our independence of God is our biggest problem.

Our prophets, instead of calling for national repentance, are too busy casting stones at their political enemies. Since we are evidently reaping the harvest of our greed, why are there so few Christian leaders calling for repentance and urging the church to serve those most injured by it? Why so few warnings about future judgment? Do we really think we can indefinitely postpone the payment for our sins? That the bill for the billions we are borrowing now to stave off depression will not come due at a most inopportune time?

Let us repent. The problems we have are of our own making. We have tried to do good on our own without God’s wisdom and guidance. Now we are trying to correct our mistakes without admitting our guilt or asking for help. Let us repent as a nation. Let those of us who believe in God turn to him on behalf of those who do not. Let us stop castigating our political opponents and acknowledge that we ourselves have been guilty of independence from God. Let us plead for his mercy and grace. Let us serve the poor and share with those in need. Let us practice true religion (James 1:27). A humble, penitent, obedient church might once again display the power of God to a watching world.

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Voodoo Science

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If “voodoo science” sounds like an oxymoron, it’s because it is. Robert Park uses the term to cover all kinds of situations where the language and authority of science are invoked to lend credibility to outrageous claims. In his Voodoo Science: The Road From Foolishness To Fraud, he identifies three types of science that he calls “voodoo science.”

The first is pathological science. This is science that started out as real science but left the path of honest, peer-reviewed study for some reason. He cites the hoopla surrounding cold fusion in the mid 1980s as an example. A similar case could be made today against embryonic stem cell research. Pathological science is science gone awry.

Park shows how pathological science can easily become fraudulent science. This is science that has no other aim than deception, perhaps even self-deception. Dr. Hwang Woo Suk’s claims to have greatly advanced the possibilities of human cloning in 2004 and 2005 are examples of fraudulent science. His results were later shown to have been falsified.

Finally, Park addresses pseudoscience, quackery dressed in scientific garb. Homeopathy is a good example. The supposed “medicines” are solutions diluted with water or alcohol to the point where it is unlikely that even a single molecule of the original solution is in the final product. Park explains:

In over-the-counter homeopathic remedies, for example, a dilution of 30X is fairly standard. The notation 30X means the substance was diluted one part in 10 and shaken, and this was repeated sequentially thirty times. The final dilution would be one part medicine to 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 parts of water. That would be far beyond the dilution limit. To be precise, at a dilution of 30X you would have to drink 7,874 gallons of solution to expect to get just one molecule of the medicine.

As Park points out, there is no way to enforce quality control. The resulting solution should be pure water, and there is no test that can tell what the original medicine was, since no molecules of it remain in the solution.

The section where Park tells about Dennis Lee was embarrassing to read. Lee was a flimflam artist hawking perpetual motion and free energy with all the trappings of a traveling evangelist. He began his show with prayer, seemed to be healed of laryngitis, and repeatedly invoked God to legitimize his claims. “He even made references to his jail time—naturally, his incarceration had been part of a plot by the greedy polluters to suppress the technologies that might save the world.”

Throughout the book, Parks clearly describes in nontechnical language the fundamental errors made by voodoo science, and he equips readers with knowledge that will help keep them from being taken in by ridiculous but plausible-sounding claims.

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Refractions

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When I received Makoto Fujimura’s Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, and Culture, I was wowed by the evident care that had gone into it’s design. It is the loveliest paperback book I’ve ever seen. I expected to find it interesting, perhaps a little challenging, and certainly full of beauty.

But life intervened, first in the form of a traffic collision, then in the form of a layoff from my job. I found myself with more time on my hands than I was accustomed to having, but the last thing I wanted to do was read a collection of meditations by a Japanese-American artist. I read some, found myself foundering, and put it aside. Then, driven by a sense of responsibility to the publisher for sending me a free copy, I tried again. And again. And again.

I found after all my trying that the book was better than I wanted to admit. It isn’t that I don’t like art. It is that I do like logical, well-reasoned argument. I like a straight highway and a car with plenty of horsepower. Instead, I was forced to meander on a country path through unfamiliar landscapes, never knowing quite where I was going or how I was going to get there. It struck me that this was the sort of book my artistic wife would like. I’m not sure she has ever read a book straight through. She reads the beginning, jumps into the middle, skips to the end, backtracks, quits for a week, resumes from a different spot than where she left off, and generally leaves me dumbfounded. If I tried to read like that, my brain would turn to pudding.

(Full disclosure: My wife reminded me that she read The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck straight through and enjoyed it immensely. Incontrovertible evidence that she is a better person than I.)

Refractions is a book of meditations. I find that I cannot simply read it; I have to join in the meditation. Some of Fujimura’s insights are penetrating. Much of what he has to say has been shaped by his proximity to the collapse of the Twin Towers. His studio was covered with dust from the Towers. His child was evacuated from school. He sees the gap where the Towers used to form the backdrop for his working life every day, a gap that seems to him more momentous and intense than any of the presences that still fill his life. Living, as I do, in Minnesota, the fall of the Towers was distant, like the wars that have come since. In fact, the war in Afghanistan has been more present to me because my son spent a year and a half there and is slated to return this fall. But the wars are also outgrowths from the gap where the Towers stood. For Fujimura the absence of the Towers signifies all the absences in our lives that make us incomplete or broken. Every return to Ground Zero is a kind of repentance, acknowledging that brokenness and calling for redemption. He believes that art can facilitate the healing required; that is one of its purposes both for the artist who creates something beautiful and meaningful out of the brokenness and for the one who responds to that creation with understanding and empathy.

Fundamentalist Christians may find Fujimura’s Christianity too inclusive. For example, he draws inspiration from Matazo Kayama, who was a Nihonga master. But like those who say, “All truth is God’s truth,” I think Fujimura would say, “All beauty is God’s beauty.” Wherever the creative process is at work, making something beautiful out of broken pieces, God is also at work because God is an artist.

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