The Robots are Coming: Us, Them & God by Nigel Cameron

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Back when I studied theology at university, Science and Religion used to be one of my favourite areas of study, but I always found the area of engagement with questions about AI interesting for the first few minutes, and disappointing thereafter.

I found it interesting because there are lots of genuinely good questions there – for example “What if we manage to make a machine that is the same sort of intelligent as ourselves, rather than just very good at following instructions? Could it relate to God? Do computers have rights? Could they / should they?” I found it disappointing because the answers tended to be either poorly thought through or missing altogether.

This book is an introduction to the field, and it’s probably the best thing I’ve read on it from a Christian point of view, but there are still loads of weaknesses, some of them simply because no-one has thought about those areas properly.

What Cameron does very well is raise a lot of the important questions, and summarise the main views in the secular discussion on the area.

I think he’s much patchier on offering Christian answers to some of those questions – sometimes it’s really good and sometimes he just doesn’t seem to have anything to say (to be fair to him, I’m not aware of good Christian answers to some of the questions he raises).

There are also some big questions and issues he ignores, which is a problem. For example:

  • Is human intelligence or the sense of free will something which just emerges from a sufficiently complex system, or is it something different which God has given to us which computers could never have? I don’t raise that question because there’s an easy answer to it, but because the answer, whether we know it or not, makes a profound difference to some of the other questions around potential machine rights.

  • The issue of cyber-security. For example, he mentions a Barbie doll which needs a WiFi connection and can speak back to children, without noticing the implication that a human hacker (or a sufficiently advanced future AI one) could therefore hijack it to listen to whatever your child says and speak back to them in the person of a favourite toy. Creepy? Absolutely, but Cameron just misses it.

There are a couple of other reservations I have about the book. He always capitalises “Robot”, which just looks weird, especially when all the sources he quotes from don’t.

[Disclaimer – I was sent a free copy of this book, though I’m not sure why. It hasn’t influenced my review, though I might not have read the book otherwise.]

Was Jesus Literate?

The_Commentary_on_Habakkuk_Scroll_(1QpHab)_Written_in_Hebrew_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe four Biblical gospels are the only early detailed source for the life of Jesus, so let’s assume that we take them at face value. In the gospels, Jesus reads from the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:16), which indicates that he could read Hebrew. There are no other direct references to Jesus reading. There are lots of references to Jesus being well-learned in the Jewish scriptures, and expecting others to have read them, so it’s likely that he did it regularly. The Jewish scriptures were written in Hebrew and Aramaic.

Hebrew and Aramaic are pretty similar languages – much like Spanish and Italian today. They use the same alphabet and have a lot of overlap in vocabulary. Aramaic was the normal language spoken by Jews living in Israel at the time of Jesus, so it’s likely to have been Jesus’ first language. Hebrew was the language of religious worship, and as a Rabbi, it’s likely he would have been fluent.

So far, decent evidence for Jesus being able to read Hebrew and Aramaic. We’re told in John 8:6 that he wrote something in the sand; we’re not told what, but there’s no evidence that Jesus was skilled at using a quill. There are no other records of Jesus writing anything in any language.

Greek was the main language of the Roman forces who were occupying Israel at the time. It’s likely that Jesus could speak a bit of Greek – he certainly had conversations with Greek-speakers (e.g. Mark 7:26); some of his disciples (e.g. Philip who grew up in the bilingual town of Bethsaida) were clearly pretty much bilingual.

We don’t know anything about whether or not Jesus could write in Greek. We do know with a fair degree of certainty that Peter couldn’t; it seems that he got Mark to write down his memories of Jesus’ life (as the Gospel of Mark), and that he needed Silas’s help to write his first letter to the church (1 Peter 5:12).

The New Testament was almost entirely written in Greek, mostly by Christians who had grown up either as Jews in Greek-speaking areas (Paul) or as actual Greeks (Luke).

 

Who can preach in church?

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There are a number of qualifications I’d expect for someone to be able to preach in church.

For example, I’d only allow someone to preach if they were living a lifestyle that fit with what they are meant to be preaching. Not perfectly, of course, since only Jesus can do that, but the kind of stuff in 1 Timothy 3. I know there are folk at church who gossip a lot, or who get drunk regularly, or who sleep around or who don’t treat their families properly. Those people are all very welcome to come along, but I wouldn’t let them preach.

Likewise, there are doctrinal issues as well. I know there are folk at church who believe in reincarnation, or who don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead, or who don’t really believe that God is Trinity. Again, they’re very welcome to be there, but I’m not going to let them preach. Broadly, I’d draw the line at needing to believe the Nicene Creed, plus the absolute authority of Scripture, plus not saying something that I’d disagree strongly with.

Third, they need to be able to preach. Not everyone is. Some people waffle on endlessly, others speak mainly about themselves, others just can’t manage to be interesting. It’s tough to know whether or not people can preach without letting them have a go, so I’d usually say that new preachers need to preach to me or to a small group and for me to check it’s ok before I’d let them preach up front in the church. I’d want to help them improve as well, so they’d need to be open to feedback or training.

 

Book Review – How to Interpret the Bible by Ian Paul

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[disclosure – I know the author, and he gave me a free copy of the book so I could review it]

Biblical interpretation is a really challenging and multi-layered task. At one level, anyone can gain a lot from just reading the Bible, and most of it is pretty easy to understand at face value. At another level, it’s not unusual to find people writing books arguing opposite cases for slight shifts in meaning in a single verse or even to find non-Christians who have spent years reflecting on why a story works quite the way it does.

Ian Paul (Christian bible scholar, academic and blogger) has written this book as a very short (28 page) introduction to the task of interpreting the Bible. I suppose it’s mainly aimed at the thoughtful person-in-the-pew, or possibly at a rookie Bible College student.

He asks and introduces four main questions:

  • What kind of writing? (Genre)

  • What did it mean? (Context)

  • What does it say? (Content)

  • What part of the story? (Canon)

I agree that they are four of the most important questions to ask when trying to understand a passage, and Ian generally handles them well, often illustrating it with controversial examples which he has done a lot of work on, especially New Testament apocalyptic literature and women in ministry. At least one of the examples (seeing the promise of healing in James 5 as being a wisdom statement rather than a promise) was a series of dots all of which I knew, but which I hadn’t joined before in quite that way.

He also recognises some of the big dangers – for example letting our loyalty to a group within the church stop us from reading a text rightly if it disagrees with the group view, or the danger of an effective “priesthood of Bible scholars”, though there’s not always space to discuss how to deal with the problems effectively!

The one big weakness, and the thing that would give me hesitation about using this book with folk I’m teaching to understand the Bible, is that it’s very New Testament – heavy. Almost all the examples, and all the difficult ones, are from the New Testament. That makes sense – Ian is a New Testament scholar, but the Bible is mostly Old Testament and some of the key principles for working with the OT are missing.

For example, what Ian says about reading one passage as part of the big story of the Bible is true and helpful, but there’s nothing about what it means for the whole Scripture to be about Christ (Luke 24:27, John 5:39). He recognises that the Old Testament was written for us (1 Cor 10:11), but doesn’t really engage with what that means for interpretation.

All in all, I’d say it’s a good place to start with learning how to interpret the New Testament, but I think it’s missing a few key tools for the Old.

Book Review – Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

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I like reading sci-fi; I especially like intelligent sci-fi. Kim Stanley Robinson is one of the best intelligent sci-fi authors out there at the moment, and this is meant to be one of his best books. Some people are even saying that it’s one of the all-time sci-fi classics.

In my opinion, nearly, but the ending doesn’t work. (spoilers below)

Continue reading “Book Review – Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson”

Ecclesiastes and the New Testament

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So what does the New Testament do with the big idea in Ecclesiastes? As I’ve written previously, the key idea in Ecclesiastes is the idea of hebel – that everything in this life is “just a breath” – it passes away.

When the Old Testament was translated into Greek, hebel was translated to ματαιοτης / mataiotēs, which my (borrowed) big Greek dictionary translates into English as “emptiness, futility, purposelessness, transitoriness”. So pretty much the same idea.

Mataiotēs is only used three times in the New Testament. In Ephesians 4:17 it describes the way that “the nations” think – taking no notice of God. In 2 Peter 2:18 it’s used to describe how false teachers in the church are speaking – attracting Christians to go back to “fleshy desires” and “sensuality” instead of following Jesus. But it’s the other use that’s the most interesting.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to mataiotēs, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Romans 8:18-25, ESV

The mataiotēs of the world is like the suffering of the Christian. It is itself passing away. But it seems that Paul says more than that.

Did you ever wonder why in Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve sin, God curses the ground instead of them? I think Paul tries to answer that in this passage. I don’t pretend to understand it fully, but it seems that Paul is saying when Adam and Eve fell, God deliberately pushed creation down with us so that just as we are broken and do things wrong, so too creation is broken and things go wrong, because when he rescues us through Jesus, so creation too will be rescued and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God, and just as things will be even better for us then than they were for Adam and Eve before the Fall, so too with creation.

Glen Scrivener summarises the gospel as follows: “Jesus comes and joins us in our mess, so that we can join him in his family.” I think what Paul is saying here is that the same happens with creation. God makes it join us in our mess so that when we are rescued, it is too.

But it also serves as a signpost. We’re in a world that is passing away to remind us that our present situation is only passing away. Everything will be made new in the end.

The pointlessness of life is in itself a pointer to the fact that the groanings of this life – the fact that we never manage to live up to what we aim for, the tension between being dead to sin but alive to God, the present suffering and the hope of glory – that they are also transitory. They will go, and be replaced by something much better.

The Christian hope of heaven isn’t sitting on a cloud semi-disembodied but wearing a nightie and playing a harp. It is of a new life in a new heavens and a new earth – this world renenwed, remade, perfected. The frustrations of this life show us that this life is not the ultimate reality. And they happen because it’s part of God’s plan to bring all the good things in the world into his new creation.

Ecclesiastes and the Meaning of Life

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Ecclesiastes is one of my favourite books of the Bible (it’s in the top 66 anyway), but it’s also one of the most misunderstood. Even one good, generally evangelical commentator (Tremper Longman, NICOT) argues that because the message of the main part of the book isn’t obviously Christian, Ecclesiastes is actually another author doing long quotes from a book he disagrees with.

Ever since I became a Christian, the book always had some resonances, but I wasn’t entirely sure how it fit with the rest of the Bible. I guess the turning point came when I read this post by Hebraist Chris Heard, which got me thinking about translation issues.

The key phrase in Ecclesiastes can be seen in the second verse.

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
Ecclesiastes 1:2, ESV

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”
Ecclesiastes 1:2, NIV

Smoke, nothing but smoke. [That’s what the Quester says.] There’s nothing to anything—it’s all smoke.
Ecclesiastes 1:2, Message

Clearly there are some issues in translation. The key word is הבל / hebel, which is translated “vanity” (more “literal” translations), “meaningless” or “smoke”. It usually means something much closer to “breath” in Hebrew. Oddly, given that no-one uses that translation, it makes more sense to me translated as “breath”. Everything is just a breath – it’s “meaningless” because it’s ephemeral; it’s passing away.

In addition, as Heard argues, the longer form of hebel is also frequently mistranslated.

I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
Ecclesiastes 1:14, NIV

I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.
Ecclesiastes 1:14, ESV

I’ve seen it all and it’s nothing but smoke — smoke, and spitting into the wind.
Ecclesiastes 1:14, Message

A more literal translation of “and a chasing after the wind” is “a neighbour of wind”. It makes more sense too! The point of Ecclesiastes isn’t that everything is meaningless like chasing after the wind is meaningless – it isn’t. The point is that everything “under the sun” – everything in this life – passes away, therefore it doesn’t make a long term difference; in a sense it’s futile. It’s just a breath, the neighbour of wind.

So then, what’s the point of Ecclesiastes? To remind us of the fact that things in this life pass away, so we shouldn’t put too much weight on them. It’s exploring what meaning can be found in life when that life is transitory.

In the following quotes, remember that “meaningless” is referring to the idea that it’s only a breath – it will soon pass away. This is what Ecclesiastes says about the purpose of life.

What does the worker gain from his toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him.
Ecclesiastes 3:9-14, NIV

Whoever loves money never has money enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income.
This too is meaningless.
As goods increase,
so do those who consume them.
And what benefit are they to the owner
except to feast his eyes on them?
Ecclesiastes 5:10-11, NIV

Be happy, young man, while you are young,
and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.
Follow the ways of your heart
and whatever your eyes see,
but know that for all these things
God will bring you to judgment.
So then, banish anxiety from your heart
and cast off the troubles of your body,
for youth and vigor are meaningless.
Ecclesiastes 11:9-10, NIV

Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them”-
before the sun and the light
and the moon and the stars grow dark,
and the clouds return after the rain;
when the keepers of the house tremble,
and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
and those looking through the windows grow dim;
when the doors to the street are closed
and the sound of grinding fades;
when men rise up at the sound of birds,
but all their songs grow faint;
when men are afraid of heights
and of dangers in the streets;
when the almond tree blossoms
and the grasshopper drags himself along
and desire no longer is stirred.
Then man goes to his eternal home
and mourners go about the streets.
Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
or the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
or the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher.
“Everything is meaningless!”

Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the whole duty of man.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.
Ecclesiastes 12, NIV

It’s about the futility of trusting in wisdom, riches, power, sex to bring meaning to life and the importance of being content with what you have and of fearing God, because what God does lasts forever, unlike what we do (Ecclesiastes 3:14).

As book recommendations go, the best one I’ve found on Ecclesiastes (so far; I’ve skim read quite a few) is the NIV Application Commetary by Iain Provan.

Up next – Ecclesiastes in the New Testament

(reposted from 2007, when I was doing a fair bit of work on Ecclesiastes.)

Book Review – Towards a Theology of Church Growth

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I’m really not sure what the point of this book is, because it seems to be labouring under the assumption that most Christians and most Christian theology hasn’t figured out that the church should be growing numerically.

That may be the case in some ghettoes of pseudo-Christian theology, but it plainly isn’t the case in most of the Church. Consider the word “apostolic”, which features in the Creed. It’s a word that came into English via Greek, meaning “sent out”. The equivalent word from Latin is “missionary”. If the church isn’t missionary, it ain’t apostolic either, and therefore probably isn’t the church at all.

Having said that, there are some really interesting essays in here from a lot of Christian scholars of different backgrounds. Especially good were the ones on the Holy Spirit, medieval church growth and Thomas Cranmer. A few chapters were weaker – notably ones on Acts (Chris Green is so much better on that) and Celtic saints (just because Cuthbert was devoted to prayer and needed persuading to do mission, doesn’t mean that contemplative prayer is itself mission).

But all in all it was a worthwhile read.

Quirinius and the Census

A repost from a few years ago….
I did a talk today on “Has History Disproved Christmas?” The answer, of course, was “No!” But here are a few of my notes about the census problem.

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.
Luke 2:1-5, NIV

Bock identifies five problems people cite when it comes to this passage.

  1. There was no known empire-wide census under Augustus
  2. No Roman census would have required Joseph to go to Bethlehem to register
  3. Israel under Herod wasn’t officially part of the Roman Empire until Herod died in 4BC
  4. Josephus wrote that the first Roman census was under Quirinius in AD6, and that caused a revolt
  5. Quirinius wasn’t governor of Syria until 10 years after Herod died. Herod died in 4BC, Quirinius became governor of Syria in AD6.

Here are some answers to those problems, adapted from Bock…

1) The Romans liked doing censuses because they liked taxing people. We know there was ongoing census activity across the Roman Empire at the time of Herod.

3) We also know that vassal kings (like Herod) did censuses too when Rome told them to. There’s even evidence that Jews under Herod were paying Roman taxes (and hence had been census-ed).

If there was a census for Roman taxation and at Roman command under Herod, it makes sense that…

2 & 4) If Herod did a census (before 4BC), he might have done it Jewish-style rather than Roman-style. A Jewish-style census could well involve going to ancestral towns, especially if Joseph owned land in Bethlehem, as he might well do if descended from David. [Incidentally, Joseph owning land in Bethlehem could also explain the different genealogies in Matthew and Luke – one might be the genealogy attached to the land…] A Jewish-style census wouldn’t have caused riots like the Roman-style one in AD6 and so is less likely to be mentioned by Josephus, who is the only non-Biblical historian describing Palestine in that period.

It’s also clear that the census Luke is talking about isn’t the one in AD6. For example, a census after 4BC wouldn’t have required Joseph to go from Nazareth to Bethlehem – after 4BC they were in different provinces. Luke also knows about the AD6 census – he mentions it and the rebellion in Acts 5:37.

So what about Quirinius? Luke 2:2 reads “This was the first census that took place whilea Quirinius was governor of Syria.” But the NIV has a footnote saying “Or this census took place before…”

The word in question is πρωτος – dictionaries define it as “first, before, greatest”. So it could be talking about the census BEFORE the one where Quirinius was governor of Syria (the one in AD6 which caused all the trouble). We’ve got the same issue in English with the word “prototype”, which is from πρωτος. Is the prototype of a new car before that car, or the first one?

Literally, the verse reads “this was the first census of Quirinius, governor of Syria.” Qurinius may well have been asked to administer the census by Herod, even though he wasn’t governor of Syria yet. In the same way, we might say “President George W Bush was a notorious drunkard as a young man”, even though he wasn’t president when he was a young man.

In conclusion, these verses don’t seem to provide good reason to doubt the historicity of Luke’s account.

The TOAD of Guidance

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When we talk about “God’s will” or “God’s plan”, there are actually three different things that we might mean.

  • God’s sovereign plan – his plan that can never be beaten or thwarted – e.g. in Romans 8:28-30

  • God’s revealed plan – which is what he wants us to do. It’s not always the same thing – God sometimes calls us to do things and we don’t do them. That doesn’t mean we’re stepping outside his sovereign plan, but it might mean we miss out on some blessings. e.g. Judas Iscariot.

  • God’s individual plan – what God wants me (or you) to do that he doesn’t necessarily want other people to do. For example, in Acts 16, Paul concludes that God is telling him to go to Macedonia, but that’s not something God tells everyone to do.

The Bible almost entirely focuses on how to God’s sovereign and revealed plans – it tells us lots of stuff God calls us to do, and lots of things about who he calls us to be. e.g. Eph 1:3-12. There’s lots about how to live; not much about specific situations.

And that shows us that God cares far more about how we behave in our marriage than about who we marry; he cares more about the way we go about doing our job (and not letting our job eat our life) than he does about what we do for a living.

When it comes to questions of God’s calling, our main focus should be on what he has told us clearly in the Bible. The Bible tells us everything we need to know to live for him in the world (e.g. 2 Tim 3:16-17).

Sometimes God also speaks to us individually by his Spirit, but

God also sometimes speaks to us individually by his Spirit, but:

  • he has never promised to give us individual answers to questions

  • what we think we hear must always be tested (e.g. 1 John 4)

  • God’s Spirit will never contradict scripture

  • It doesn’t take away our responsibility for making a good decision Ps 32:8-9

Often we have to make decisions without a direct word from God on the situation.

What we need then is wisdom, which also comes from the Spirit (James 1:5).

There’s a wonderful example of this in Psalm 32:8-9.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.
Do not be like the horse or the mule,
which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle
or they will not come to you.

God promises to guide, but also tells his people not to be like the horse or mule which need telling every step of the way; he expects us to use our abilities and wisdom in following him.

And that brings us to the TOAD of guidance.

  • Trust God’s sovereign plan

  • Obey God’s revealed plan

  • Ask for God’s individual plan

  • Decide for yourself!