The Reading List: Part 2

Last May, I posted a list of books I’ve read with a brief description of each one and a bit of a response to it. This annotated bibliography of sorts was useful for me, to organize my thoughts on the books and help me remember the main ideas or stories and my responses to them. I decided to share it to keep me accountable for actually writing it, and in the hope that somebody might find my thoughts on these books helpful if they’re interested in these or similar topics.

With 2018 squarely behind us, I wanted to round out the list with everything I read in the second half of last year. Here it is, in roughly the order in which I read each book:

The Character of Virtue: Letters to a Godson, by Stanley Hauerwas. In 2002, Stanley Hauerwas became the godfather of Laurence Wells, the son of Samuel and Jo Bailey Wells, friends and eventual colleagues at Duke Divinity School. As the boy’s godfather, Hauerwas agreed to write a letter each year on the anniversary of his baptism, describing a different virtue in each letter. This book contains the published collection of Hauerwas’ letters, written over the course of sixteen years, on a host of virtues ranging from patience to friendship. In addition to the challenging and thought-provoking reflections on these virtues from a brilliant Christian thinker, I appreciated the book’s personal tone and time-bound qualities. I pray almost daily for God to create and nurture in me the virtues of the Christian life, and trust that books like this one will help me recognize what those virtues look like.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything, by Chris Hadfield. This was a fascinating read from an astronaut who traveled to space three times and served as the commander of the International Space Station in 2012. The book was very well-written and gave an insider’s view of what it’s like to be an astronaut, as well as highlighting important life lessons that Hadfield gained from his experience that can apply to just about anybody. I especially appreciated the combination of grit, humility, and perspective that characterized Hadfield’s journey from a kid who dreamed of being an astronaut to a man who saw that dream come true.

Infinite, by Jeremy Robinson. A friend recommended to me this fast-paced sci-fi book about a man who’s stuck alone on a space ship, traveling through the universe, unable to change course and unable to die. In addition to being just plain entertaining, the story raises some good questions about our relationship with artificial intelligence and virtual reality. I didn’t read a lot of fiction books this year, but I’m very glad this was one of them.

Ripples in Spacetime: Einstein, Gravitational Waves, and the Future of Astronomy, by Govert Schilling. In this book, Schilling chronicles the hundred-year search for gravitational waves, from Einstein’s prediction of their existence in the early 1900s to their eventual discovery by the Laser Interferometry Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in 2016. What’s especially striking are the long-lasting perseverance and large-scale collaboration of the scientists involved in the search, many of whom waited decades to see their efforts pay off. It’s hard not to be impressed by the extreme precision of LIGO or by the multi-national effort to create it and analyze the results—to say nothing of the new avenues of astronomy that gravitational wave detection promises to open up.

Einstein’s Miraculous Year, by Albert Einstein with a foreword by Roger Penrose. I actually got this book when I was much younger, but for some reason I never read it until this year. The book contains English translations of 5 landmark papers that Einstein wrote in 1905, a remarkable year in which he published the special theory of relativity, which changed forever our conceptions of space and time, and his first explanation of the photo-electric effect using the idea of photons, a significant contribution to quantum physics for which he eventually won the Nobel Prize. These were technical physics papers and I won’t pretend that I understood all the math, but even so it was fascinating to read Einstein’s work and see his original presentation of ideas that would change our understanding of the world in such profound ways.

Modern Cider: Simple Recipes to Make Your Own Ciders, Perries, Cysers, Shrubs, Fruit Wines, Vinegars, and More, by Emma Christensen. Definitely the outlier on this list, but it speaks to another hobby of mine! My wife Amy bought me this book for my birthday, since she knows how much I love to make my own apple cider. It’s a hobby that started a few years ago, which has gotten a bit more intense each year. This year I built my own cider press (before I was boiling the apples to create the pulp I used to make the cider) and made 2 big batches, experimenting with different combinations of apples and canning about 6 gallons of cider all together. I really enjoyed the book, which contains a lot of good tips and recipes for making both hard cider and the non-alcoholic kind (which I make). Next year I’ll almost certainly increase my production and try my hand at fermenting a couple of batches using the recipes in this book.  

Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, by Maryanne Wolf. In this book, a neuroscientist who specializes in what happens in our brains when we read describes the neurological changes that take place when we read on screens as opposed to paper. Wolf gives a highly accessible overview of the processes our brains go through when we read, and of the changes in our brains as we learn how to read. What becomes clear through her account is that reading is far from hard-wired into our minds. Rather, our brains are highly malleable (she uses the term “neuroplasticity”), which allows us to develop reading as an adaptation. But this very plasticity leaves our brains vulnerable to other changes when we read in other ways—which is exactly what’s happening in our culture as we move to reading shorter, simpler content on digital devices. She makes a convincing and compelling case that we are losing the ability to sustain our attention and follow longer, more complex sentences and paragraphs, and asks what will happen if these changes become irreversible. Most importantly, she advocates for protecting children from these changes by nurturing their ability to read and teaching them how to be intelligent users of digital as well as print media. I appreciated her book very much, and it’s caused me to think twice about other changes that our brains and bodies are undergoing as we race into a new, technological world—and how we might resist the negative effects of those changes.

Revelation Through Science, by James G. Martin. My aunt gave me this book, signed by the author—an organic chemist who studied at Princeton and taught at Davidson University. Oh, and also the former governor of North Carolina. The book makes the case for the ability of science and religious faith to coexist, and highlights the ways in which science points us to the knowledge of God. The book gives a wonderful introduction to major scientific fields and identifies ways they are compatible with Christianity. As someone who’s long since reconciled the science-versus-religion debate, I didn’t need any convincing to be 100% on board with his argument. Still, I appreciated the in-depth look at all these various fields from someone with a stellar science background and strong Christian faith, who also happens to know a thing or two about how politics are involved.

Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, by Simon Sinek. This was a quick read, but a good one. Sinek makes a strong case for identifying one’s purpose, whether that’s applied to an individual, a community, a company, or a product, and letting that drive every decision and course of action going forward. Much of what he has to say is obviously true once he expresses it, but it’s so easy to forget that it’s important to receive the reminder and see just how critical it is to maintain a sense of “why.” The book caused me to reflect on my own sense of “why” and conclude that I’m all about learning new things—I feel energized and passionate when I’m learning something new, whether that’s about the Bible or about publishing or about science. As long as I keep that curiosity and drive to learn front-and-center of my life, chances are I’ll feel pretty fulfilled most of the time.

An Altar in the World, by Barbara Brown Taylor. Our home group read this over the course of several weeks, and I appreciated the insights Taylor outlined about how we can see each moment as an opportunity to connect with God. As someone who’s constantly striving to do more and make the most out of every available minute, I found myself especially challenged by her emphasis on keeping Sabbath. It’s something I hope to be much better about in 2019.

Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero, by Henryk Sienkiewicz. A fellow grad student introduced me to this book eight or nine years ago, and I found it deeply moving. It did not disappoint on a second read this year. The book tells a beautiful story of love and the power of the Christian faith as a new movement in ancient Rome. As I’m exploring connections between science and faith—asking how the Christian faith can respond to new discoveries and developments in our world—it was important reminder sacrificial love, relentless hope, and the world-changing power of the Christian faith are timeless.

For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, by W.H. Auden. When I was in divinity school, I came across a few lines of a poem:

How can the Eternal do a temporal act?
The Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible.

When I got curious and looked them up, I discovered that they were part of this much larger work by W.H. Auden, which tells the Christmas story in poetic form, from Advent through the holy family’s flight to Egypt. For the past four or five years I’ve made it a practice to read through the poem each year during Advent, and it still moves me every time. The idea of infinite reality meeting our finite world, a theme which runs through the whole poem, resonated with me more deeply this year after several months of thinking, reading, and writing about how the physical laws of the universe point to the God who created them.

Transhumanism and the Image of God, by Jacob Shatzer. This book isn’t due to publish until April, but Jacob is a good friend of mine from Marquette University, and he was kind enough to let me read a preview copy. In this book, Jacob gives an introduction to transhumanism and, just as importantly, insight into some of its central values and the way our cultural practices and tools lead us to adopt those same values. While he recognizes the good things that technology promises, he also cautions against the uncritical optimism of the transhumanist outlook, and reminds us that the Christian way of life values different thing and lifts up alternate practices and attitudes to shape our lives in a way that’s authentic to who we’re created to be. In my next post I’ll write up a fuller review of Jacob’s book, so be on the lookout!

Genes, Determinism, and God, by Denis Alexander. Rounding out 2018 is this book about the interplay between genetics and human free will. I found myself wishing I’d taken a few more biology classes as I was reading it. It was well-written and highly informative, but dense and at times technical in a way that left me as a non-biologist a bit in the dark. Still, the author does a fantastic job of showing just how intimately our genetics and our environment are intertwined, each contributing decisively to making us who we are. He shows how environmental factors, including everything from life experiences to molecules that interact with and within our cells, even our decisions and habits, have a profound effect on who we are—how we look, behave, think, feel. He makes a powerful case for affirming human free will despite recognizing the role of genetics in shaping who we are. He articulates a view of the human person based on contemporary science that is both hopeful and challenging, consistent with Christianity’s view of what it means to be human and the way God calls us to live.

Collecting my thoughts about the books above reminds me once again how enjoyable and fulfilling it was to explore new (to me) ideas in 2018. I have a brand-new stack of books awaiting me in 2019. Stay tuned!

What about you? Read anything good last year?


The Star of Bethlehem

Last week saw two important milestones in space exploration. On New Year’s Day, NASA’s New Horizons probe completed a flyby of Ultima Thule, a Kuiper Belt object more than 4 billion miles from the sun, far past the orbit of Pluto. It is the most distant object ever visited by humankind, and the images and other research gathered by New Horizons will help scientists better understand the formation of our solar system and its planets. The next day, China placed a lander and rover on the far side of the moon, also a first (previous moon landings have all been on the near side, which always faces Earth). Chang’e-4, as the mission is known, promises new research on the moon itself as well as possible advances in radio astronomy. Both of these missions represent the latest and best in humankind’s efforts to understand the universe, allowing our natural curiosity to prompt a journey to learn and understand ever more.

This past Sunday, the church remembered a time in our own story when interested observers looked up, saw something that sparked curiosity and reverence, and set out on a trip prompted by what they saw. Epiphany is the day the church recalls the journey of the Magi who visited Jesus, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It’s always observed on January 6, twelve days after Christmas, which this year happened to fall on a Sunday. For me and others who have a habit of looking up with wonder and a desire to know more, the day of Epiphany invites some speculation about the star that prompted the visit of the Magi.

What Did the Magi See?

The story of the Magi is found only in Matthew (2:1-12); none of the other Gospels contain the story. Matthew tells us that the Magi saw a star “in the East” or “at its rising” (Greek ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ), which they associated with a recently born “king of the Jews” and set out to honor him (Matthew 2:2). Biblical scholars, theologians, astronomers, and other scientists have throughout the centuries have asked about the star the Magi saw. When I was a student at the University of North Carolina, I saw a show at Morehead Planetarium about the star of Bethlehem that described some of the likeliest candidates. These include a comet, a supernova, an alignment of planets, or some other unusual coincidence of planetary motion in conjunction with the moon or a particular constellation.

It’s been suggested that the language Matthew uses to describe the star may offer some clues as to what the Magi may have seen. Vanderbilt astronomer David Weintraub calls attention to the case made by fellow astronomer Michael Molnar, who explores this idea in detail. Assuming that whoever they were, the Magi were well versed in astrology, Weintraub asks whether any astrological language shows up in the text of Matthew. Following Molnar, he finds two possible candidates. The Greek ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ, meaning “in the east” or “at its rising,” could mean what is now known as a heliacal rising, the first appearance of a planet just before sunrise when previously it had not been visible because it was too close to the sun. Similarly, Matthew’s description of the star “stopping” could refer to a planet’s stationary position in the sky, either at the beginning or the end of its apparent backward motion. (Planets move around the sun in a continuous orbit, but as the Earth moves past them in its own orbit, they appear to move backward for a period of time due to the Earth’s motion.) Weintraub, following Molnar, argues that these two clues in Matthew suggest a particular conjunction of several astronomical events—the heliacal rising of a planet, its subsequent retrograde motion, and all this lining up within the right constellation—which would have occurred between April and December of the year 6 BC.

I’m sympathetic to the case made by Molnar and Weintraub because it takes seriously the language that Matthew uses to describe the star. I’ll leave it to astronomers to investigate other possibilities.

Matthew’s Interpretation of the Star

As a biblical scholar, I’m much more fascinated by the way Matthew used the star to tell us something about the birth of Jesus. To me, this is at least as important as the sign itself that the Magi saw. It’s not just the celestial phenomenon that matters, but the church’s interpretation within the story and community of God’s people. So whatever the star may have been, it’s important to ask what meaning the author of Matthew saw in it and in the Magi who observed it. In other words, what meaning does Matthew wish for his readers to find in them?

For one thing, many people in the ancient world drew meaning from astrology, and it would have been a common expectation for the birth of an important person to be heralded by the stars. At the very least, Matthew would have wished to relate celestial signs that pointed to the birth of Jesus for this reason. Yet a reading of Matthew 1-2, coupled with a knowledge of first-century Messianic expectations, shows that the star means far more than this. In Matthew, the star of Bethlehem fulfills prophecy, substantiates Jesus as a royal descendant of David, and creates a link between the birth of Jesus and the experience of Israel and Moses during the exodus from Egypt. All of these are consistent with Matthew’s goals and themes throughout the Gospel and especially in the first two chapters.

Matthew’s Gospel highlights many instances of Jesus fulfilling the Hebrew Scriptures. The author often does this with the use of explicit statements and direct quotations, such as Matthew 1:22-23, which quotes Isaiah 7:14:

All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means “God is with us.”

All four Gospels show Jesus fulfilling prophecy, but Matthew is unique in the frequency and directness with which he does so. Moreover, the author of Matthew clusters these direct quotations toward the beginning of his Gospel; they appear more frequently in chapters 1-4 than through the rest of the book. That’s no accident—these quotations early in the Gospel set the tone for the rest of the work, giving the reader the expectation that much of Jesus’ life and ministry would fulfill in some way the Hebrew Scriptures.

Though the author of Matthew doesn’t use a direct quotation in reference to the star the Magi saw, it’s likely he did regard this as a fulfillment of prophecy. Numbers 24:15-19 contains an oracle from the non-Israelite prophet Balaam, one of four oracles the prophet pronounced over Israel before they entered the Promised Land after forty years in the wilderness. In this fourth and final oracle, Balaam says:

I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near—
a star shall come out of Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise out of Israel (Numbers 24:17a).

This brief text was regarded by many first-century Jews as a prophecy of the Messiah. It appears in this context in the War Scroll and other ancient documents, and the leader of the second-century Jewish revolt against Rome was dubbed bar Kokhba (“son of the star”) in reference to this prophecy. It’s difficult to know how widespread this view of Numbers 24:17 was, but given Matthew’s interest in showing how Jesus fulfilled prophecy, it seems very likely that he would have been aware of it and intended his audience to recognize in the star seen by the Magi a fulfillment of the words of Balaam.

It’s been suggested that Balaam’s oracle originally pointed to the reign of King David, in part because of the mention of Moab and Edom later in the oracle (Numbers 24:17b-18), both of which David conquered during his reign. This probably bolstered the identification of Numbers 24:17 as a messianic prophecy, since the Messiah would have been a descendant of David. That was surely also in view for Matthew, who is especially concerned with portraying Jesus as a descendant of David. Matthew begins with a genealogy that traces Jesus’ ancestry back through David all the way to Abraham, describing Jesus as “the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1-16). Matthew claims that there were 14 generations from Abraham to David, another 14 generations from David to the Babylonian exile, and another 14 generations from the Babylonian exile to the birth of the Messiah (Matthew 1:17). This identification of 14 generations points to David, because the numerical value of David’s name in Hebrew is 14. Matthew exhibits a clear concern to portray Jesus as a descendant of David, which the story of the Magi and the star helps accomplish.

Finally, it’s important to note the function that the star plays in the narrative of Matthew chapter 2. The star is what prompts the Magi to journey to see Jesus, which leads to their meeting with Herod, which eventually leads to Herod’s plan to kill Jesus, the murder of the children of Bethlehem, and Joseph’s flight to Egypt with Mary and Jesus (Matthew 2:13-18). These events draw a connection between Jesus and the exodus from Egypt, which Matthew highlights directly by a quotation from the prophet Hosea: “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (Matthew 2:15). Because of the events set in motion by the star, Jesus will spend some time in Egypt, just as the Israelite people did many centuries earlier. Similarly, the birth of Jesus will be accompanied by the cruel murder of young children, as was Moses’ birth, with Herod playing the role of the new Pharaoh (see Exodus 1-2).

The author of Matthew clearly regarded the star observed the Magi as important. Not only does it show the fulfillment in Jesus of a prophecy about the Messiah, its earlier connection to the reign of David would have strengthened the identification of Jesus as David’s descendant. And on top of this, the star functions as a plot device that helps shape the narrative of Jesus’ birth in a way that recalls the birth of Moses and the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt.

What’s striking about Matthew’s use of the star is that he does not regard it just as a sign in the heavens, though that in itself would have been remarkable and worthy of inclusion in a story about Jesus’ birth. To be sure, the star does invite us to consider how the heavens bear witness to the birth of God’s Son, and how this sign was recognized by those who were paying attention to the night sky. But what Matthew teaches us is that the signs of the heavens must be interpreted in light of the story of God’s people as revealed in Scripture, if their true significance is to be grasped. The star was not just a portent in the sky; it was a fulfillment of prophecy, a recollection of the time of David, a key event in a story that becomes a new exodus.

Assuming that there were Magi and that they saw something remarkable, the story in Matthew chapter 2 is an instance of the community of faith in Jesus interpreting their observations and knowledge in light of the larger biblical story. Among other things, this gives us an example of how to engage with the scientific observations and conclusions in our own day. It’s our task not to oppose this knowledge, nor should we welcome it uncritically. It’s our calling to narrate these observations in a framework and story of faith in Jesus Christ, to help ourselves and the world understand how they point to God the Son who has come to be with us. That’s what the early Christian author of Matthew did in composing his Gospel. It’s what the church continues to do today as we remember the story of the Magi each year on Epiphany.

“I Am Who I Am”

My second year of seminary, I was translating Hebrew with some friends. We were making our way through the early chapters of Exodus, and had gotten to the story of Moses and the burning bush. One of us, I don’t remember who, slowly translated the part where Moses asks about God’s name.

My friend Phil asked us to pause for a quick second. “Guys,” he said. “We’re about to translate some of the holiest words in Scripture.”

Phil was right. The sentences we translated next unfolded the revelation of God’s name YHWH to Moses.

God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:14)

This scene where God reveals the divine name to Moses is not only a key event in the narrative of Exodus (and thus in the whole Bible). It’s also a scene that gives remarkable insight into the meaning of God’s name.

And so many readers miss the most important part of what God says to Moses.

Most biblical scholars understand the divine name, probably pronounced Yahweh, to come from a form of the Hebrew word “to be.” The four consonants of the name, YHWH, are known as the tetragrammaton, and there is some close (though not exact) correspondence between these four letters and the third-person forms of the verb “to be.” God’s statement to Moses that “I am who I am,” using the first-person singular form of “to be,” is an important bit of evidence in support of this interpretation. In that case, the divine name YHWH means something like “He Who Is” or “The One Who Is.” This is further supported by the Septuagint, the a body of Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, which translates the Hebrew words “I am who I am” into the Greek “I am the one who is,” using a participle form of “to be.” So the idea of YHWH being closely related to the verb “to be” is not just a modern discovery; it appears to have been recognized by those who translated the texts of the Hebrew Bible into Greek.

When we recognize this dimension of the name God reveals to Moses, it communicates something powerful about the identity of God: the LORD, YHWH, is the Creator of the whole world. We might think of God as the source of all being or even Being itself. There’s a reason using language for God such as “the great I Am” is so powerful. (That line in the song “Mary Did You Know?” gets me every time.) Moreover, it’s remarkably consistent with the picture of the Creator God we get elsewhere in the Bible, from the creation narrative where God creates by saying “Let there be…” to the prologue to John where the eternal Word is described as that which brought all things into being.

It’s tempting to see this profound meaning underneath God’s words to Moses and stop right there. In fact, I think that’s what a lot of readers do when they see the implications of God’s response that “I Am Who I Am.” The God who commands Moses to bring the Israelites out of Egypt is the Creator, the source of all being, the great I Am. God’s identity as the source of all existence and life undergirds Moses’ mission, such that Moses does not need to fear anything as he carries out God’s instructions to go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of bondage. And going forward in the story, it’s this very same source of all being that sends the plagues, parts the sea, and appears to the Israelites on the mountain.

Or perhaps Moses’ request to know God’s name was a desire to have some sort of control over God, to be able to invoke the deity at his own initiative to give reassurance to the Israelites. In that case, God’s response indicates that he reserves absolute sovereignty. God answers to no one, will be controlled by no one. Not Pharaoh. Not Moses. Not you or me. If naming or knowing one’s name is a form of control, then God tells Moses that this name is different. “I Am Who I Am,” God says. We cannot put God in a box.

Both of these interpretations are out there, and there is a good bit of truth to both of them. God certainly is the Creator of the universe, and it matters that this very Creator is the one who happens to be speaking to Moses in a burning bush just now. And God certainly is sovereign, with no superior and no equal, as subsequent events in Exodus will demonstrate quite clearly.

What many readers fail to acknowledge, however, is that God keeps talking to Moses. God does not stop with, “Say to the Israelites, ‘I Am’ has sent me to you.” God says something else, which communicates just as much about God’s identity and relationship to the people Israel as “I Am Who I Am.”

 God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:

This is my name forever,
and this my title for all generations. (Exodus 3:15)


“Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever.” Just after revealing a name that’s universal and cosmic in scope—I Am Who I Am—God returns to the particular relationship established with Israel’s ancestors, the blessing and covenant that undergirds God’s initiative to rescue Israel from slavery and bring them to the Promised Land. And it’s only after naming this relationship that God tells Moses “this is my name forever.”

I believe it’s critical that we read these two statements together and not focus exclusively on the more mysterious and metaphysical I Am Who I Am. The implication is that God is sovereign, beholden to no one, but God has chosen to establish a relationship with this particular people, to identify with them, to bless them and redeem them and be their God even as he remains the Creator God of all the universe.

It’s as if God is saying, “I will be who I will be. And who I will be is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What I will be is faithful to the covenant that I made with them.” This—all this, including the messy interaction with a particular covenant people—is God’s name forever, his remembrance for all generations.

As we look to the intersection of science and faith, it can be tempting to focus only on the first sentence of God’s response to Moses, to emphasize God’s role as the source of all being and life, the creator of all, the first mover who remains sovereign over the universe. But to do so is to neglect the way God has chosen to identify himself through and in relation to a particular people, whose story Christians believe continues now among those who profess faith in Jesus Christ.

If we take this seriously, it means we who are interested in science and faith need to pay attention not only to science and philosophical ideas about God, but to the very specifics of the Christian faith. The language and imagery of Scripture, the rituals and rhythms of the church, the fruits of the Spirit in our lives, the sacraments, and all other means of God’s grace will help us know the Great I Am—and, I am convinced, something about the very nature of the world God created. It’s not because God fits into the boxes we’ve created for him, but because God has himself chosen to be made known in this way, as the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their descendants.


Books to Be Thankful For

It goes without saying that Thanksgiving is a time to pause, reflect, and express gratitude for all of the good things God has given us. I’m thankful for so many things—a wonderful family, a warm home, a rewarding job, and more than my fair share of good opportunities, to name but a few.

Among the many things I’m thankful for are the books that have played a part in shaping my mind and, therefore, my life. I thought it would be fun to share the top 25 books I’m thankful for, roughly in the order in which I first read them.

  1. Stevie’s Tricycle. A family favorite, enjoyed by my all us grandkids on my mom’s side of the family.
  2. Fox in Socks, by Dr. Seuss. One of my favorites as a kid, which my son also enjoys, making it doubly special.
  3. The United Methodist Hymnal. The hymns, liturgies, and confessions in this book have shaped me profoundly from my earliest days until now.
  4. Star Wars books. All of them. I can’t possibly pick just one.
  5. Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the 10th Dimension, by Michio Kaku. My first introduction to the world of theoretical physics.
  6. A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking. A classic that strengthened my love of physics and science.
  7. Relativity: The Special and the General Theory, by Albert Einstein. Reading and understanding this book as a teenager not only taught me a great deal, it gave me a lot of confidence in my abilities and a deep desire to learn more.
  8. The Confessions, by Augustine. I’ve read this at least three times. There’s a lot of theology and insight into the human condition wrapped up in a single person’s account of his journey to faith.
  9. The Art of Biblical Narrative, by Robert Alter. After a college degree focused on historical criticism of the Bible, this book was my introduction to reading the Bible as literature. It gave me a whole new perspective and ignited the next phase of my studies.
  10. The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Structure and the Drama of Reading, by Meir Sternberg. Similar to the Alter’s book, this one continued that next step of studies and also contributed to my doctoral dissertation.
  11. Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson. Just a beautiful story about growing up. I didn’t resonate with Robinson’s other novels, but this one struck a chord within my soul.
  12. Prolegomena to the History of Israel, by Julius Wellhausen. Cemented the Documentary Hypothesis and set the stage for source criticism of the Pentateuch for the next century and a half (and counting).
  13. East of Eden, by John Steinbeck. A moving story with an incredibly large scope, this book captures the themes of Genesis in a way only a gifted writer and storyteller could do.
  14. From Father to Son: Kinship, Conflict, and Continuity in Genesis, by Devorah Steinmetz. I’m deeply grateful for Steinmetz’ work and insights, which were invaluable for my doctoral dissertation.
  15. The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity, by Jon Levenson. The same goes for Levenson’s book, which is remarkably insightful and clearly written.
  16. 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess, by Jen Hatmaker. The only book on this list I haven’t actually read. My wife Amy read it and implemented its 7 challenges during our first 7 months of marriage. As crazy as it sounds, it was a great way to begin our life together and I will always be thankful for it.
  17. On Becoming Babywise: Giving Your Infant the Gift of Nighttime Sleep, by Gary Ezzo and Robert Bucknam. When we were new parents, this book gave us confidence and taught us a lot about the importance of sleep. It turned out to be a really good fit with our parenting style.
  18. Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown. I’m sure I read this as a kid, but I truthfully don’t remember it. It was, however, the first book I read to my son, on the night we brought him home from the hospital. My daughter loves it too, and it symbolizes the joy that reading to them brings me.
  19. Resident Aliens, by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon. I really should have read this book in graduate school, but I didn’t. But I really should have.
  20. The Workbench Design Book, by Chris Schwartz. Most of my woodworking reading comes from magazines and blogs, but this book was an important exception. It taught me the value of a good workbench and how to build one. I took my woodworking to the next level by building a workbench based upon the principles I learned from it.
  21. The Dark Forest Trilogy, by Cixin Liu. This whole trilogy was ambitious, and it delivered in a big way. I credit it in large part for reigniting my love for science and space after 10+ years of studying the Bible in depth.
  22. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell. After reading Joseph Campbell’s book, I will never look at dreams or stories the same way again. Or Disney movies. This book is why I cried during Moana. I mean, why you cried during Moana. Shut up.
  23. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, by Christopher Vogler. Along with Campbell’s book, this one showed me the role that stories play in our lives and how powerful they are when they connect with us in the right way.
  24. Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl. No matter what happens to us, we can control our attitude and our response to it. Such a powerful message resonates all the more because it comes from a Holocaust survivor. Everybody should read this book.
  25. The Feynman Lectures on Physics, by Richard Feynman. As I got back into physics, this book was especially valuable due to Feynman’s gifts as a teacher and writer. I’m deeply thankful for Cal Tech for making all 3 volumes of these lectures available for free online.

Now, your turn. What books are you thankful for?



Our Place in the Universe

When I was a kid, there were nine planets. Guess how many there are now. Eight isn’t a bad guess, now that poor Pluto has been demoted to the status of dwarf planet. But it’s way more than eight. As of November 8, 2018, there are at least 3,845 planets. There are the eight in our solar system, plus 3,837 confirmed exoplanets, or planets in orbit around other stars.[1] That’s a staggering figure, especially considering that the first exoplanet was discovered in 1992. Our known universe is getting bigger every day.

This naturally raises the possibility of life on those other planets, maybe even intelligent life. An important part of the search for exoplanets is finding planets in the so-called habitable zone of their host stars, where liquid water can exist along with other favorable conditions for life. In fact, there’s a whole field of astronomy called astrobiology that studies the possibility and necessary conditions for life on other worlds—including places in our solar system that might harbor life. These fields are continuing to ask “Are we alone?” and their discoveries make it likelier every day that we’ll find the answer is “No.”

Now, in this climate, where our known universe is getting bigger every day, we Christians make some bold, exclusive claims. We believe that God of all the universe has uniquely spoken to us through the Scriptures. We believe, moreover, that this very God has come to dwell among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth—as one of us—to reveal God’s will and God’s word in the language of a single human life. We believe God has given us the Holy Spirit to inspire us and guide us, and has charged us with a mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

This means, among other things, that we claim to have a special relationship with the God who created our world and the entire universe—a claim that some might find silly at best and dangerous at worst. When we consider things like the immense size and age of the universe; the discovery of stars and planets potentially very much like our own; and the possibility of life on other worlds, it changes our perspective. Our universe is getting bigger every day; we are getting smaller in our own eyes. How can we still claim to have a special relationship with God when we are, to all appearances, completely ordinary and unremarkable?

Consider the following quotation, from Thomas Paine:

 “From whence then could arise the solitary and strange conceit that the Almighty, who had millions of worlds equally dependent upon his protection, should quit the care of all the rest, and come to die in our world, because, they say, one man and one woman had eaten an apple….

But such is the strange construction of the Christian system of faith, that every evidence the heavens afford to man, either directly contradicts or renders it absurd.”

—Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, 1793.

I came across this quote in the book Religions and Extraterrestrial Life, by David Weintraub. The quote captures one of the chief difficulties Weintraub identifies in Christianity’s ability to respond to the discovery of extraterrestrial life: the unique relationship Christianity claims between God and humankind in light of the possible non-uniqueness of humanity’s intelligence, morality, or spiritual sensibility.

This is a version of an idea known as the Copernican Principle, which essentially says that we aren’t special. Earth is not unique. We aren’t privileged observers of the universe. If we lived somewhere else or at some other time, the laws that govern what we experience and observe would still be the same. We are ordinary, nothing special. It’s called the Copernican Principle after Nicolaus Copernicus, who is famously associated with the heliocentric model of the cosmos—the idea that Earth revolves around the Sun and not vice-versa. In other words, we aren’t the center of the universe. And we shouldn’t look at the universe with the assumption that we occupy a special place.

For most of human history, and for most of religious history, we thought everything revolved around us, with the earth at the center of it all. And our religions and philosophies grew up under this understanding. So the quote from Thomas Paine, and similar quotes from many others, make sense in that light. The narrative they spin is that these new findings move us beyond religion, or at least the Christian religion, because the Christian religion depends upon a special relationship between God and a subset of humankind.

How then can we hold onto a claim of a special relationship with God if this Copernican Principle is true—if, indeed, we are nothing special?

Though it seems like these scientific findings are brand-new insights and realizations, questions very much like these have been asked before.

“There is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Despite Qohelet’s geocentric perspective, he’s right. There is really is nothing new under the sun. God’s people have been displaced from the center before. God’s people don’t need science to tell us that we are, really, nothing special. God’s people have wrestled with these questions before. Consider the words of Psalm 8:

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?”

—Psalm 8:3-4

Or the words of Deuteronomy 7:

“It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.”

—Deuteronomy 7:7-8

The writer of Psalm 8 knew, by observing the heavens, that it’s a strange and wondrous thing that God should be mindful of human beings. The writer of Deuteronomy felt deeply that Israel was neither more numerous or stronger than other peoples, had nothing in particular to commend them as God’s choice. The Psalmist knew humans were nothing special. Israel knew that as a people, it was nothing special. And that self-knowledge was hammered home in 587 BC when the kingdom of Judah was conquered, the royal line of King David was dethroned, the people were exiled, and God’s Temple was destroyed. God’s people knew then, if they didn’t know it before, that they weren’t the center of anything. They were looking at hard evidence that they were just like every other nation that had fallen to Babylon. Much of the historical books and the prophetic writings are processing that very catastrophe, articulating what it will means and what it says about the people’s special relationship with God.

And the Bible is full of God choosing and working through individual people who are entirely nothing special, ordinary, one among hundreds of thousands. Gideon was the least in his clan, and his clan was the weakest in his tribe, but God chose him to lead Israel against the Midianites in Judges (Judges 6:15). God chose Jacob over Esau when Jacob had done nothing, either intellectually or physically or morally, to deserve it. Moses asked “who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:11) and God didn’t respond by listing Moses’ good qualities to prove that he was “somebody.” God said only “I will be with you” (Exodus 3:12). My favorite example is Mary. How many other young women could God have chosen to be the God-bearer? She was nothing special, no more or less than the other young Jewish women, who themselves were no more or less than the other young Samaritan or Egyptian or Parthian or Roman women. Yet God chose her; God worked through her; God was born through her. On page after page of the Bible, God works through thoroughly ordinary people.

These examples of individuals and the self-understanding of Israel as God’s chosen people point to the important biblical motif of election. One way to put it might be to say that God’s chosen people aren’t chosen because they are special. They are special because they are chosen.

This idea of election—Israel’s self-understanding as God’s chosen people—is an important undercurrent through the whole Bible. But as Deuteronomy shows us, it’s not because they were special. It’s because they were chosen by God.

And Israel’s election does not mean that God was only concerned with Israel. As we read in Exodus 19:

“Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.”

—Exodus 19:5-6

All people belong to God, in other words, but Israel has been set apart.

So there’s an important distinction to notice. Election refers to a community that’s been specially singled out and set apart by God. And this doesn’t mean that God only cares about the chosen people. Rather, the chosen part signifies and expresses God’s relationship with the whole. Going back to Exodus 19:

“Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.”

—Exodus 19:5-6

The whole earth belongs to God, but Israel is a priestly kingdom, a holy nation. And as a holy nation, they bear witness to God’s relationship with all people. The biblical idea of election does not mean God only cares about a chosen people, Israel. Instead, it means that God specially chooses Israel to signify God’s care, protection, love, and sovereignty over all people. And as we’ve seen, it doesn’t mean that Israel was specially deserving of God’s choice…their own self-understanding was precisely that they weren’t deserving, but they had received it nonetheless. God’s choice of Israel is a gift of grace.

Now, taking it back to the cosmos. I wonder if we can extend this idea of election to the place of humankind and the earth within the universe.

Just as Israel is the chosen people who signifies God’s relationship with all people, humans might be God’s chosen creatures that signify and express God’s loving relationship with all creatures. Indeed, the Creation story in Genesis 1 points in this direction by speaking of humans created in the image of God.

Previously, we’ve conceived of humanity’s special relationship with God in terms of our intelligence, or our spiritual sensitivity, or our capacity for morality. In those cases, there’s something about us that makes us special. But if we put it in terms of the idea of election in the Bible, we’ll see that we’re chosen by God, created in the image of God, because God has chosen us. We are the token portion, the Temple, the priestly creatures.

It’s not that God loves humans more, or that humans are more deserving of a relationship with God than other creatures. Rather, it’s that humans are chosen by God to signify and express God’s relationship with all creatures.

What is our place in the universe God has created if we really are nothing special?

The biblical motif of election points to the fact that God works through non-special people in the Bible, and non-special Israel, and non-special you and me, all the time. It’s not because of deserving, of being special, that God has a relationship with us. It’s because God chooses to, out of God’s love for us and for all creatures.

And even if there are other intelligent creatures out there, that does not diminish our special relationship with the God who created the universe, or our responsibility to love God and our fellow creatures.

[1] According to the NASA Exoplanet Archive,

Extra Oil

About a year ago, I heard a sermon on the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids in Matthew 25. One of three parables in Matthew 25, in the middle of the fifth and final major “discourse” or teaching sections of Matthew, this parable compares the kingdom of heaven to ten bridesmaids who go out with lamps to meet the bridegroom before a wedding banquet:

Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. (Matthew 25:1-13 NRSV).

The parable plainly contrasts five wise bridesmaids who bring extra oil for their lamps with five foolish ones who neglect to bring extra oil. The point of it, made in the final verse, seems to be that God’s people who eagerly await the kingdom of heaven must keep ever vigilant because we do not know when it will come in its fullness—that is, when the bridegroom will appear.

In the sermon I heard, though, the preacher quite insightfully pointed out that this parable is not at all about the unexpected arrival of the bridegroom. All ten of the bridesmaids were eagerly awaiting his arrival, after all. All ten of them went out to meet him, and all ten brought lamps. And despite the parable’s concluding exhortation to “keep awake,” all ten of the bridesmaids fell asleep. No, this parable is not about the sudden, unexpected arrival of the bridegroom. It’s about the unanticipated delay of the bridegroom. What separated the wise bridesmaids from the foolish was their preparation for a long night of waiting.

The best biblical scholars have a way of describing some new insight into the Bible in a way that makes you wonder how you’d never noticed it before. That was the reaction I had when I heard this preacher. Of course, I thought. It’s about the bridegroom’s delay! This parable is about preparation, cultivation of a faith that can last into the late, late hours.

The preacher went on to describe how important it was to have a faith that can last. What if the bridegroom is delayed in our personal lives? In the life of the Church? Do we, as individuals and as a community, have a faith that can stand up to the waiting?

The preacher went on to list examples of ways the bridegroom might be delayed, but I found my mind wandering—as often happens in sermons. (My way of “listening” tends to be a kind of midrash, where I take a Scripture reference or insight and mentally run with it in all sorts of directions, which may or may not relate to the point the preacher wishes to make.)

“What if the bridegroom is delayed one thousand years?” I thought. Does our Church have a faith can withstand that kind of timeline? What are the most important characteristics of such a faith? In other words, what sorts of habits, questions, confessions, and practices will enable the Church to thrive for another thousand years? What, to use the language of the parable, will be the oil that keeps our lamps burning that long?

A delay that long seems unlikely to those of us who are used to thinking in minutes and seconds and birthdays, maybe looking ahead to the next generation if we’re especially farsighted. A thousand years—surely Jesus will return before then. And yet such a delay is hardly impossible. It’s been almost two thousand years since Jesus’ death and resurrection. (That’s roughly twice as long as the interval between the founding of David’s dynasty and the birth of the Messiah.) To give no thought to the next thousand years is to refuse to pack extra oil to keep our lamps burning.

Of course, my mental midrash was not yet finished. “What if the bridegroom is delayed ten thousand years?” This seems even less likely than a thousand. And yet, two millennia removed from the first century AD, we are already 20% of the way there. We can maybe, if we stretch our minds and imagine as hard as we can, conceive of the kind of changes that will take place over the next one thousand years. But ten thousand? Will we even recognize the world that will exist then? Will we recognize ourselves? Or will the difference between our descendants and us be as great as the difference between us modern humans and those who lived through the last Ice Age? How could the Christian faith possibly last so long? What kind of oil will we need to fill our lamps if the bridegroom is delayed that much?

But I wasn’t finished. “What if the bridegroom is delayed one million years?” Lest we think that’s ludicrous, we should remember that it’s been 4.6 billion years since the earth was born and 13.8 billion since the universe as we know it began. Our Creator works on those time scales as well as those we humans are more familiar with.

There’s a real possibility that humankind itself will be extinct over such a long time period, apart from God’s providence. Homo sapiens diverged from homo erectus on the order of 300,000 years ago. Will our descendants, if there are any left, be a different species from us? What will be the nature of those differences? What will they believe in, and how will that faith express itself?

By the end of the sermon my thoughts were almost literally off in space somewhere (Kids, see what happens when you’re a Bible nerd who reads too much sci-fi and you let your mind wander in Church?)

I’ve thought a lot about that sermon and the possible extended delay of the bridegroom over the past year. It’s part of what sparked my interest in exploring the intersection of faith and science in more depth.

Now, I don’t think the parable implies we need to concern too greatly with the future of our faith. I don’t think the answer, in other words, is to spend as much time thinking about the Christian faith of the future than we do nurturing and shaping our faith in the present. Peter and Paul and many of the early Christians thought the bridegroom would come in their lifetimes, and they certainly didn’t anticipate a delay of two thousand years. They managed to plan the faith deeply enough, and water it well enough, among the early Christian communities that it continued to thrive. For those earliest Christians, it was enough to write down Gospels and teach the children. (Perhaps we need to take more seriously that the lives of children are where the present and the future intersect.)

Still, the parable does turn our attention somewhat to the future. The most important thing is staying awake and keeping your lamp burning, it tells us. But don’t forget the extra oil; it may turn out to be crucial. And that precaution might be more urgent than ever given the accelerating pace of change in our world today. Colonization of Mars might well happen in my children’s lifetime; tourism and industry in outer space almost certainly will happen within my own. Human lives will be on average longer, perhaps very much longer, in the near future. Human communication has already been altered forever with smart phones and social media over just the last ten years.

These changes, and others on the horizon we can’t even know about, cannot help but alter in some way our expressions and experiences of the Christian faith. I think it’s faithful to walk into this future with thoughtfulness and purpose, rather than just letting it happen to us and around us. This is part of what it means to bring extra oil so that our lamps are able to last the night, whether than night is ten or a hundred or thousands of years long.

And it’s critical to remember that we’re bringing extra oil for the lamp, not getting ourselves a new lamp. It’s not about reinventing the gospel, or about finding a new one altogether. Instead, it’s about investing in those aspects of our faith that promote longevity, and doing so in a way that’s faithful to the tradition we’ve inherited. It is, to use a term from Greg Jones that I’ve written about before, traditioned innovation.

I will conclude with a list of what these aspects of faith might be, a list which will necessarily be incomplete. This is a starting point, but I hope a helpful one.

  • Teaching the faith to our children.
  • Embracing reason and observation as an avenue for encountering God.
  • Communicating the good news of Jesus Christ in as many ways, through as many media, as possible, including current and emerging media of communication.
  • Exploring the intersection between the faith and science.
  • Affirming that humans are created in the image of God, whatever changes are on the horizon for us.
  • Acknowledging the reality of human sinfulness, despite the promise of innovation.
  • Expressing new encounters with God and insights into our faith in the language of the Bible and tradition, to see how they are natural outgrowths of the faith we have received.

As I said, these things are a starting point, but I believe each of these aspects of the Christian faith represent drops of oil that will enable our faith to last through a night that extends past our individual lifetimes.

What would you add to the list?

Science and Revelation: It’s Complicated

Can science be a source of divine revelation?

I’ve been thinking about that question this week, and here’s my preliminary conclusion: it’s complicated.

To begin with, much depends on what we mean when we say “revelation.” I’ll be the first to affirm that science can teach us something about God. Psalm 19 and Romans 1, among other biblical passages, make clear that nature points to the Creator God. So if that is the meaning of revelation—a means of learning about God—then sure, revelation can come through science. But theologians often distinguish between “natural theology” and “revealed theology,” that is, between what we can know about God through reason and observation of nature and what can only know about God because God shows it to us in a special way. Some things we can know about God by observing nature. For example, we can infer the existence of a Creator by finding our world to be well-ordered and intelligible. We can deduce that God must be immensely powerful by considering the energy of stars or the vastness of the observable universe. Other things, however, can only come via special instances of God’s self-disclosure. We can only know the loving character of God, for example, or that God wishes to make a covenant with a chosen people, because it has been revealed to us in Scripture and in the person of Jesus Christ.

If we allow this distinction between natural theology and revealed theology, then what we mean by divine revelation is the latter. In other words, “revelation” is a narrower concept than “what we can know about God.” Revelation refers to that which we know about God because God has revealed it to us—the initiative is with God who makes himself known to us.

Science can be a source of natural theology, but it is not in itself a source of divine revelation in this narrower sense of the term. Science is a human endeavor, and its initiative lies with the human scientist—the observer, the measurer, the quantifier, the hypothesis-maker, the theorist. Science can teach us about God, but it cannot in itself teach us the things that we can only know through God’s self-disclosure.

However, I wonder if revelation in that strict sense can take place through science. Is it possible for science to be an avenue through which God can make himself known in a special way? Or does science pertain strictly to furthering our understanding of nature (and therefore of God only in an indirect way)?

The relationship between writing and Scripture is a useful analogy. Writing is also a very human endeavor. Most writing (at least good writing) has the ability to teach us something about God. Great novels, plays, and movies give us insight into our place in the world and what it means to be human. They resonate with some of our most primal emotions and instincts, yet also elevate our understanding of them by holding them up to the light. We get goosebumps when we read or watch those scenes, recognizing almost instinctively that they have delivered to us some truth about ourselves and the world around us. Good writing has the ability to rouse our emotions and enrich our minds in a way that opens up nature in a new way. Such writing teaches us about God in the same way that watching a sunset or looking at the night sky teaches us about God.

Yet some writing has become Scripture. Some writing has been inspired by the Holy Spirit and has the capacity to teach us those things that only God can reveal to us. This writing took place through a human process, using ink and papyrus and scribes who had imaginations and training and also got tired sometimes. I think it’s likely that these writers didn’t think at the time that they were writing Scripture. But as it turns out, they were. Not all writing contains divine revelation, and in the same way not all prophecy—not even all ancient Israelite prophecy—contains divine revelation. And yet some of these things do contain God’s revelation because they have been inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Which brings us back to the original question and a better way to ask it:

Can science be a source of divine revelation?

The better question is, can science be inspired by the Holy Spirit?

In other words, all science can teach us something about God. But might it be possible that some scientific results are inspired, that within them we can see evidence of God taking initiative to show us something we could never have reasoned or inferred on our own?

I’ve probably angered both scientists and theologians by even raising the question. It’s preferable to regard science and theology, where divine revelation is at home, as separate realms of study with different methods and objects of study. And that may turn out to be accurate. It may well be that the role of science in theology is to push our understanding of nature as far as it can go, and thereby advance our understanding of the Creator God. Perhaps the very nature of science precludes it from being an avenue of divine revelation in that stricter, divine-initiative sense of the term.

We must take such boundaries seriously. Science is not a field of study, after all, but a method of inquiry based on careful observation and testing and interpretation of results. A critical part of the scientific method is to prioritize experiment and observation. The final arbiter of scientific inquiry is always experiment—if experimental results disagree with a particular theory, the theory must be reworked or discarded in favor of something that better fits the results. In this method, no theory is safe, and even the most hallowed theories are subject to the possibility of finally being proven false. The scientific method is abandoned if the scientist or the theologian ever says “this is revelation” and closes the book, refusing to hold the results up to further scrutiny or testing. The scientific method and the authority that comes with recognizing something as divine revelation seem to be utterly at odds.

And yet, to say that the scientific method or the powerful instruments at our disposal when we do scientific research are forever closed to God’s self-disclosure is to place drastic limits on God, and probably on science too. Writing and speaking are, like science, human tools for making meaning and interpreting our world. If God can use them to become known in a special way, I hesitate to say that God cannot use science too.

Can science be a source of divine revelation? As I said, it’s complicated.


The Bible, Hyperspace, and the Joy of Deep Reading

The Strange World of the Bible

I was a teenager when I started reading the Bible every night.

I’m aware now that most American teens probably weren’t doing that in mid-90s, but I didn’t think much about it at the time. I was always involved at church growing up, first in our children’s ministry and later in our youth group. At some point, the message got through to me that I ought to be reading the Bible regularly. It just seemed to me like something grown-up Christians did, like singing the hymns in church or knowing the Lord’s Prayer by heart.

I was given a Bible in the 3rd grade that I’d never bothered to read, but one day—I don’t remember how old I was—I opened it up started at the beginning of Genesis. I read it each night in my bed before falling asleep, and it became a habit. My goals were modest; I only had to read enough each night to turn the page once before falling asleep. That made the tough chapters in Exodus and Leviticus a bit more manageable, and it kept me moving at a consistent pace. By the time I graduated high school, I had read the whole Bible front to back.

I soon discovered as I read, though, that the Bible was much more than what I thought it would be. I’m not sure what I expected—a handful of stories I already knew and some moral instruction, maybe? Yet what I found were fearful stories of a man with a tent peg driven through his temple; a murdered and dismembered woman; prophets who did strange things and said even stranger things. Even the familiar stories from Sunday school were different somehow. They were shorter than I thought they’d be, but managed to say more than I thought they could say, and I struggled to understand all that they could mean. I wrestled with my frustration that the people of Judah couldn’t obey God and kept getting punished in Judges through 2 Kings. I felt confused and saddened when their chances ran out and they were conquered and deported by Nebuchadnezzar’s army. It wasn’t supposed to end like that, was it? But I wasn’t even halfway through, so it couldn’t possibly be the end yet. Still, the things that came afterward hardly brought about anything that seemed like resolution.

Though some of it was foreign, unexpected, and confusing, the Bible was not opaque. I did comprehend some of it, and grew to understand more as I familiarized myself with its world. Over time, I gradually came to be formed by the Bible. I’m convinced of this. Despite my imperfect understanding, the words I read shaped me and I grew to love my nightly encounter with them. During my first semester of college, I took Introduction to the Old Testament, where I learned about the history and geography of ancient Israel and Judah, read Hammurabi’s code and other ancient near Eastern texts, and came to understand the reading techniques and methods of study that would help me explore the Scriptures more deeply than I’d thought possible. I went on to major in religion, then got a Master’s and a Ph.D. in theology and biblical studies. What began as a nightly devotional practice became a quest that would last more than a decade to understand the Bible and the world it opened to me.


Around the time I started reading the Bible, I was also being introduced to the world of physics. My 8th grade class went on a week-long field trip to Washington, DC, and at some point I found myself in the gift shop of the National Air and Space Museum. I had loved the museum itself, but in the gift shop a book caught my eye that would, as hokie as it sounds, set me off on an adventure of learning. The book was Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the 10th Dimension, by Michio Kaku. I can’t say for sure why I decided to buy it, though I suspect it had something to do with the fact that the word “hyperspace” reminded me of Star Wars. I blazed through the whole thing, from the introduction all the way through an odd idea called string theory. That book was my introduction to the strange, mind-bending world of theoretical physics.

I was a smart, curious kid, and all of a sudden I was reading these heady ideas about the nature of reality and the possibility of wormholes and 10-dimensional superstrings. I felt like Alice jumping down the rabbit hole. I learned about higher-dimensional space, and how we can only conceive of it through analogies. I discovered special relativity, and how time is not a thing separate from space, but makes up the fourth dimension of what is called spacetime. I learned about how spacetime itself can be curved and warped in these higher dimensions, which on the one hand explains gravity and on the other hand opens the theoretical possibility of time travel. Wrestling with these ideas, and similar ones in books I read after it, helped me see that the world around us contains an unfathomable depth of reality, of which our everyday experience offers us only the most fleeting glimpse.

Deep Reading and Exploring New Worlds

These formative experiences from my youth have been on my mind this week because I’m reading a book titled Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. The author, Maryanne Wolf, is a neurologist who studies what happens in our brains when we read, and how learning to read actually shapes the circuitry of the human brain. She describes the importance of reading deeply and attentively, taking our time to process the words and the ideas they convey, letting them carry us into new worlds where our minds are free to question and explore. She shows how the neurological process of reading is inherently malleable, which makes it both adaptable and fragile. Wolf wants to protect the skill of deep reading and the deep thinking in an era where digital reading drives us to read shallowly, impatiently, and with minimal attention.

As Wolf described the importance of literature in her own life, particularly how it influenced her as a young person, I recognized myself in her story. Both my introduction to theoretical physics and the gradual growth of my love for Scripture came about because of the freedom and the patience to read deeply and intensely, with all the close attention that’s necessary to understand a 4-dimensional hypercube or to follow Paul’s reasoning in Romans. I see how important it was that I had space to read, reread, ask questions, and make analogies. I’m ready to join her crusade to protect this kind of reading for adults and (especially) for young people.

Most of all, though, Wolf has helped me to see that the real value came from holding the world of Scripture and the world of physics together in my mind, allowing my understanding of each of these worlds to shape my understanding of the other. Over time, without even realizing it, I came to understand that these two worlds were leading me to the same place. I wanted to understand reality and nature, but realized that endeavor would find its completion only in the knowledge and love of the Creator God. I wanted to learn about my religion and serve God faithfully, but came to recognize that reason and observation of the world around me were gifts to help me on that journey.

In both physics and faith I discovered ample room for mystery, and I found that exploring both together bore fruit more often than it presented an obstacle.

That was my experience as a young person, and it continues to be my experience today.

What about you? How has reading and exploring new and different worlds shaped you? How do you stay open to new ideas, inspired to learn and grow through strange new worlds?


Asking the Right Questions

My son asks questions incessantly. He constantly wants to know what something is, or what something means, or what we’re doing tonight, or what the plans are for a week from Tuesday. Sometimes the questions are mundane, and sometimes they are innocently profound:

  • “Who’s going to be at soccer practice?”
  • “If I eat all my green beans, can I have a cookie?”
  • “Daddy, are you free? Am I free? What does free mean?”

(He actually asked that last one when he was 3, in the car one evening when I was thoroughly unprepared for an existential crisis.) And don’t even get me started with 10 levels deep of the question “Why?” As every parent of small kids knows, incessant questions are an important part of how they learn and grow and discover their world.

The other night, my son asked some great questions as we were reading the story of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea:

  • “Why do they call it the Red Sea? The sea isn’t red, it’s blue.”
  • “How did God make the water separate?”
  • “But why did God use the wind? Why didn’t God just use magic to part the waters?”
  • “God and Jesus can’t be the same thing, can they? Things can’t be other things.”

(Kid, I have a Ph.D. in this stuff. I ain’t scared…bring it!)

I patiently responded to each question, fascinated by where the questions were taking his young mind. He understood that I am both a husband and a father, and he is both a son and a brother…and so perhaps Jesus can be both God and a human. He understood that I use tools to make things out of wood—I’m the one who drives a nail, but I use a hammer to do it…and in the same way God used the wind as a tool to drive back the waters of the Red Sea.

“So Daddy. It’s like when I play with my cars. I’m the one playing with them, but I use my hands to do it?”

“Yup, exactly!”


Asking the right questions is important for adults just as it is for children. It’s the only way to learn, really. We must ask a lot of questions, and we must be sure we ask the right questions.

I came across some of my old teaching notes recently, and I was reminded of the importance of asking the right questions in some key Bible stories.

For instance, when we read the story of Cain and Abel, we are very tempted to ask why God accepted Abel’s offering but did not accept Cain’s (Genesis 4). Indeed, many biblical interpreters have gone round and round with this question over centuries. But I’m convinced that the most fruitful way to read this story is to recognize that Cain had to respond to his situation without knowing why…the crucial question in the story is not what gave rise to Cain’s circumstances, but whether or not he would live faithfully within those circumstances. The new question becomes: How can we live faithfully when things go wrong and we may never know why?

Or when we read the story of Joseph and his brothers, we see Joseph playing a cat-and-mouse game with them, accusing them of being spies, framing Benjamin for theft, threatening to make him a slave, all while keeping his identity hidden (Genesis 42-44). We are very tempted to ask what Joseph’s purpose was in treating his brothers this way—what was his hidden plan that would bring about forgiveness and reconciliation? So many biblical interpreters have addressed this question by assuming that Joseph had a well-defined, if unclear, motive. But I’m convinced that Joseph had no purpose in mind, and was just reacting to changing circumstances. Read in this way, the emotional and psychological labor of Joseph as he struggled to reintegrate his brothers into his life becomes clear. New questions emerge: What leads Joseph to forgive his brothers despite his struggle? How do the changing circumstances bring him around to forgiveness and a future in which he’s part of his family once more?

It’s amazing how simply changing the question you ask of a given Bible story—or in a given situation—can change your perspective and open up a new possibility for meaning and discovery.

That’s part of why I decided to try to hold together theology and physics, the Bible and space exploration. These represent huge sets of questions about our world and human life, about the present and the future, sets of questions that often are held apart at arms’ length rather than brought together. What might we learn, what new questions might we start to ask, if we bring them together?

We might learn something by asking new questions, like:

  • What can the Copernican principle in science teach us about the idea of election in the Bible?
  • How can the Bible’s understanding of the role of humans in God’s creation shape the way we extend our presence—and the presence of other species—beyond earth?
  • How will the psalms, prayers, and worship traditions of the church help us make meaning of the wonders we find on other worlds, which bear the mark of the same Creator who made us?
  • What new expressions of worship will come from those wonders and the things they teach us about God?

These questions and many others might well guide us to new insights and discoveries in science and space exploration, and they might well draw us deeper into the knowledge and love of God. I’m excited about them, because even if these don’t turn out to be the right questions, asking new questions in new ways is the only road to new knowledge.


When we finished our impromptu theology discussion, I put Caleb’s Bible story book back on his bookshelf.

“Caleb,” I said. “You ask really good questions. Never stop asking questions. Asking questions is important, because that’s how you learn. And some questions, the best ones, don’t have easy answers. You have to work for them, and sometimes you won’t find the answers at all. But those are usually the questions most worth asking.”