About Corazon

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Top 10 Documentaries of All-Time

One of my favorite things to do when I have the time is to watch documentaries. Unlike regular movies, documentaries usually make me feel like I am at least attempting to use my time wisely. Now don't get me wrong, I love a good mindless movie as much as the next guy, but documentaries have always had a special place in my heart.

And though I love to watch them, I am actually EXTREMELY picky about the documentaries that I choose to watch. After all, let's face the facts: a lot of supposed documentaries are nothing more than either mockumentaries or political propaganda pieces. As a result, my list of the top 10 all-time documentaries will probably not contain some of the traditional "best hits" that others love.

So, without further delay, here are my 10 Greatest Documentaries of All-Time:

10.) The Tillman Story (2010): The Tillman Story is a moving account of the life and legacy of Pat Tillman (one of my all-time favorite athletes), who gave up a career in the NFL to join the U.S. Army. Sadly, Tillman was killed by friendly fire. Of course, everyone already knows about Tillman's incredible story and legacy but that is not what this documentary focuses on. The Tillman Story explores how the military, politicians and the government in general manipulated his tragic death by covering up the truth and using him as a propaganda tool. Members of Tillman's family and the military come forward to reveal just how twisted Pat Tillman's legacy became for the powers that be.

9.) Friends of God (2007): In this HBO documentary, Alexandra Pelosi travels across America to chronicle the beliefs, practices and politics of American Evangelicals. I enjoyed the film because Pelosi allows the subjects, who include both prominent Evangelical leaders and average believers to speak for themselves. Usually religious documentaries are made to simply poke fun at believes. This film, however, lets the viewer judge for himself/herself.

8.) Life (2009): In this 10-part series narrated by Oprah Winfrey (which is still regularly shown on the Discovery Channel), the miracle and vast diversity of life on planet Earth is revealed in fantastic detail. The camera work in this documentary is second to none, as life in various parts of the planet (at the depths of the sea or the tops of the mountains) is brought to light.

7.) Vanishing of the Bees (2009): One of my closet ambitions in life is to become a professional beekeeper. Bees are, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful, hard working and impressive forms of life on this planet. In this documentary, scientists and beekeepers alike examine the global epidemic that is Colony Collapse Disorder. For the past few years, bees have simply been disappearing from their hives, and the impact on agriculture has been tremendous. Roughly 1/3 of everything humans eat is the result of bee pollination, and without these bees humanity (and other forms of life on earth) will be severely impacted.

6.) Tyson (2009): In this James Toback film, the rise and fall of one of America's most dramatic, charismatic and controversial athletes is Chronicled. The boxing career of Mike Tyson was like a runaway freight train that derailed violently. This film shows an intimate look into the psyche and life history of Tyson. It is one of the most entertaining documentaries I have ever seen.

5.) Baseball (1994): In this Ken Burns documentary, the history of baseball is chronicled. It was a nine-part PBS series that captured the attention of historians and sports fans alike. Baseball shows how the game evolved and influenced American society over its 100-year history. A fascinating and very in-depth analysis to say the least.

4.) Super Size Me (2004): Pretty much everyone has seen this film. Morgan Spurlock (the film's creator and chief figure) goes on a 30-day McDonald's binge, which leads to several health issues. In addition, Spurlock looks at how the food industry in America has effectively woven itself into American culture.

3.) The Wonder of it All (2007): In The Wonder of it All, chronicles the stories of the men behind the Apollo missions to the moon. Interviews with the astronauts, mission control personnel and other important participants reveals the miracle behind America's space program. The Wonder of it All captures the true majesty and wonder of human exploration and leaves the viewer asking, "why don't we do more of this today?" A truly inspiring documentary to say the least.

2.) The Fog of War (2003): The Fog of War is, without question, one of the most chilling films I have ever seen. The documentary is essentially an interview with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who was one of the chief advocates for the escalation of the Vietnam War. In the film, McNamara essentially breaks down as he reveals for the audience the deep personal anguish of decisions that he made which led to the tragic deaths of thousands of American soldiers. Hearing McNamara admit his guilt, remorse and error is a surreal experience. A must-see documentary for sure.

1.) Hoop Dreams (1994): There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Hoop Dreams is the greatest documentary ever made. To give you an idea of how good this film was, it came out the same year as Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction, The Shawshank Redemption and Quiz Show...and it won more awards than all those movies combined. Hoop Dreams follows the lives of two inner city Chicago kids who, over the course of eight years, try to make it to the NBA. The film reveals the incredible pressures that inner city Black kids face on a daily basis and how dreams of basketball greatness serve as a hope for a better life. In the film, the two kids receive scholarships to wealthy, upscale private high schools (the same high school that NBA great Isaiah Thomas attended). But once one of them falls short of expectations, the scholarships suddenly disappear and he is forced to return to inner city public school. Whether you like basketball or not is irrelevant. Hoop Dreams is a remarkable inside view into a world that few ever see or experience. Again, there is no doubt in my mind that this is the greatest documentary ever made.

There you have it! Now, get out to Redbox and rent one! =)

Honorable Mentions:

Planet Earth
It Might Get Loud
March of the Penguins

Friday, August 26, 2011

"Let There Be Light": The Big Bang, Evolution, God and Creation, Part II

Part II: Reckoning the Genesis Creation
with Scientific Creation

***Note: Be sure to start with Part I of this series, which can be found here.***

In this installment I want to attempt to look at how the biblical account of creation (found in the Book of Genesis) compares with scientific reality, and how both can be useful source material. To do so we must first attempt to understand why so many Christians adhere to such a strict and literal interpretation of the Holy Bible.

Sola Scriptura
During the Protestant Reformation, religious leaders like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, John Knox and many others revolted against the traditional doctrines of the Catholic Church, which had maintained a virtual monopoly over Christianity for centuries. Due to a number of factors (church corruption, disagreements over doctrine, church hierarchy, etc.) these "reformers" essentially sought to improve the conditions and direction of Christianity in their day. As a result, the Protestant Reformation brought to life different interpretations for what it meant to be a Christian.

One of the key arguments that arose from the Protestant Reformation was the doctrine of Sola Scriptura (By Scripture Alone). As mentioned above, one of the key problems that reformers had with the Catholic Church was the emphasis it placed on the supremacy of the Pope and other hierarchical leaders. The emerging Protestants had little tolerance for such practices and sought to place ultimate ecclesiastical authority in a source other than a Pope. In consequence, the doctrine of Sola Scriptura became extremely appealing.

At its core, Sola Scriptura suggests that the Bible is the only inspired and authoritative word of God, and the only source for Christian doctrine. As a result, the authority of all ecclesiastical leaders became subordinate and inferior to the ultimate authority of the Bible. In short the Protestant Reformation taught the defenders of Sola Scriptura that no single person (i.e. the Pope) could ever claim superior status or authority over the Holy Bible.

It should therefore come as no surprise to learn that Sola Scriptura caught on very fast with the emerging Protestant congregations. As the Bible became more prevalent in the lives of ordinary believers (thanks to the printing press), more and more people were able to study for themselves the doctrines found in scripture. This essentially placed the burden of salvation back into the hands of the individual, since ultimately Protestants rejected the need to follow a Pope. By studying and then applying the teachings of the Holy Bible, one would be able to find all the needed guidance in order to gain salvation.

And as one would expect, any attack on the sovereignty and infallibility of the Bible was met with severe scorn. In Puritan America, for example, Roger Williams' ideas were met with such scorn that he was eventually forced to flee. Williams suggested that the anti-Christ was the Catholic Church (a common belief at the time) and that its distortions of true Christianity were so severe that a restoration of the holy apostleship was needed in order to know God's true will:

If Christs Churches were utterly nullified, and quite destroyed by Antichrist, then I demande when they beganne againe and where? who beganne them? that we may knowe, by what right and power they did beginne them: for we have not heard of any new Jo: Baptist, nor of any other newe waye from heaven, by which they have begunne the Churches a newe
. (John Winthrop Papers, vol. III, 11. Quoted in Roger Williams: The Church and the State, 52, by Edmund Morgan).In other words, Williams was stating that Christianity needed further guidance and understanding in addition to what the Bible taught. Needless to say, this didn't sit well with those who embraced Sola Scriptura.

Fast forward to today. Scientific discovery has completely changed many of our traditional views of the universe, and in the process, has contradicted (heck, completely refuted) many of the teachings found in the Bible. As a result, those who defend Sola Scriptura are constantly attempting to explain (in a futile effort mind you) why the Bible is still the superior source of knowledge. Take for example this ridiculous debate over dinosaurs. If we take the Bible as literal truth, we must accept that the earth is no more than a few thousand years old (see 2 Peter 3:8). Faced with this Biblical teaching, defenders of Sola Scriptura must then attempt to explain why science insists that dinosaurs lived millions of years ago. Here is an example of their futile attempt to reconcile this dilemma:

Needless to say, this willful rejection of scientific fact combined with blind allegiance to ancient scripture, has become the main catalyst for today's religion/science debates. Men like pseudo-scientist Ken Ham (shown in the video above) have gone to such ridiculous and futile lengths to prove the Bible's validity that it comes as no surprise to see that 4 in 10 Americans believe in the literal Bible account of creation.

So how are we to reckon the realities of scientific discovery with the biblical accounts of creation? Perhaps we will never fully be able to. With that said, there are ways that we can see the truth of both arguments.

The "Seven Days" of Creation

The Book of Genesis opens with a very general overview of God's creation of humanity, the Earth and the universe in general. Needless to say, this vague creation story has become the topic of ridicule in the scientific community. After all, science has proven that the earth is much older than a few thousand years and life took millions of years not days (or 1000 years for each day) to develop.

But is the Genesis story of creation completely worthless? Should we discard it right out of the gate for its apparent flaws? If you accept Sola Scriptura my answer would be, yes. Of course the creation story in Genesis isn't literal truth as so many suggest. But if you believe that the Bible is ancient man's attempt to explain his origins, then some incredible truths can be found. If we take each day and juxtapose it to what science teaches, we can see that there are some striking similarities.

Genesis 1:2-5: 2.) And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

3.) And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

4.) And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

5.) And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
According to astrophysicists, the universe began when a singularity of light, heat and matter suddenly exploded roughly 14 billion years ago, sending an immense amount of heat, matter and gases into the expanses that became space. As the matter and gasses cooled, it eventually coalesced into giant galaxies, stars, nebulas, planets and other celestial bodies.

Genesis 1:9-10: 9.)And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.

10.) And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.
Geologists have shown how during the Archean Eon the Earth experienced incredible tectonic activity. As the Earth's core continued to form, the planet experienced a huge jump in temperature. Volcanic activity spewed molten rock across the surface of the planet. During this era, the Earth's magnetic field was established, which protected it from the immense solar winds of the time (winds that were 100 times greater than what we see today). This protected the infant planet's atmosphere from being stripped away, unlike the atmosphere of Mars which was completely annihilated during this era. During the later parts of the Archean Eon and the beginning of the Proterozoic Eon, water began to form on the newly cooled planet's surface.

Genesis 1:11-1211.) And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.

12.) And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
At this point, life is introduced to the world. Some have suggested that these verses are in complete opposition to evolution since they employ the phrase "after his kind." Geologist and theologian Greg Neyman suggests otherwise. He writes:

Notice that God did not say, "Let there be grass," and there was grass. God told the land to produce the vegetation! It was the land doing the producing, not God. God told the earth to bring forth grass, and in verse 12, "the earth brought forth grass..." In essence, God let the land "do its thing" on its own. Instead of flat, out of nothing creation, the text for Genesis actually supports evolution better!
And when speaking of verses 20-21 (which also have to do with the creation of life) Neyman writes:

In this passage where God creates ocean life, He tells the ocean to bring forth the creatures. He does not say, "Let there be whales;" or "let there be sharks." Verse 21 shows the result, that "God created great whales." Verse 20 gives the process God used to create..."Let the waters bring forth..." Again, this seems to support evolution better than flat, out of nothing creation.
This is an important and often ignored distinction. The Bible does not say that God simply snapped his fingers and created all forms of life. Instead, it says that "the water brought forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven" (Genesis 1:20). And as any evolutionary biologist will tell you, life on earth began in the sea. As evolutionary biologist Steven Faux (who happens to be a distant relative of mine) states:

Animal life developed in the sea before reaching dry land. The first fishes were evident about 500 million years ago. Land tetrapods (four-footed land animals) evolved from sarcopt fishes (lobe-finned) about 400 million years ago.

By 300 million years ago the first reptiles were found.

The first mammal-like reptiles (synapsids) were evident by 200 million years ago. True mammals probably arose about 100 million years ago (see also: Bininda-Emonds).

The first birds (like Archaeopteryx) were evident about 150 million years ago, and they derived from dinosaurs.
So does the Bible support evolution? That probably depends on how you interpret the "Good Book." As I have stated before, any literal interpretation of scripture makes it extremely difficult to accept and embrace the realities of scientific discovery. It's just one of those unfortunate side effects of Sola Scriptura. With that said, I do not see any problem with embracing evolution and the general Genesis story. One can imagine those early biblical prophets, who lacked the current understandings of science, trying to explain the origins of the universe within the context of their time and understanding. From their perspective, breaking the creation into a week-long event seems to make sense, and all things considered, they didn't do as bad of a job as some seem to think.

***Part III: Adam, Eve and the Garden of Eden***

"Let There Be Light": The Big Bang, Evolution, God and Creation, Part I

Part I: An Introduction Into
The Pretended War Between
Religion and Science

"In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth."

This short sentence has caused more controversy than perhaps any other sentence in Western literature. The natural questions which have arisen over centuries of debate on this passage have obviously centered on how God actually went about creating the heaven and the earth. Did he magically snap is fingers and say, "It is well"? Or were the natural laws of science the primary conductors of creation?

Of course, these questions force us down the road to where the intersection between religion and science regularly collide in a violent head-on crash. Ever since Nicolaus Copernicus looked into his telescope back in 1609 and discovered that the earth was not at the center of the universe (a discovery that greatly angered the church and cost Copernicus his freedom), religion and science have been engaged in a tug-o-war for exclusive rights to the ultimate origins of man and the universe. Even 400 years after Copernicus, despite all of our advancement and discovery, mankind is still engaged in this same tug-o-war which has spread into our schools, communities and even our politics.

But this supposed tug-o-war is, in reality, an illusion.

Though I am not a scientist (far from it actually) I recognize that there are some basic facts that cannot be refuted no matter how much we want to believe otherwise. For example, our earth is a spherical object (7,926.41 miles in diameter) that orbits the sun at approximately 67,062 miles per hour. Of course, these are facts that almost nobody debates. But 400 years ago, such a claim could land a person in prison and even end with their excommunication and death. Today no religious figure would be so foolish as to suggest that the earth is flat or at the center of the universe, nor would they suggest imprisonment and death for those who believed otherwise. We have moved past such trivial debates.

But other trivial debates still remain.

First off, I fully recognize that my take on this topic could be construed as offensive to some, but I hope you will believe me when I say that I mean no disrespect. Every man/woman is entitled to believe as he/she sees fit. Religion is a personal endeavor of faith; and faith, as Jesus said, can move mountains. With that said, I also believe the words of Daniel Patrick Moynihan who stated that "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts." Regardless of what we believe, some scientific facts are undeniable.

Such is the case with evolution. Ever since the days of Charles Darwin, scientists have been putting together the pieces of the evolutionary puzzle, and their work has yielded incredible fruit. Today, scientists have been able to map the human genome, illustrate our development via fossil records, calculate the age of rocks and bones with advanced atomic testing methods, explain the natural functions of the universe, etc., etc., etc. Simply put, the debate over the reality of evolution is closed. Yet despite these fantastic discoveries some still maintain that science is wrong, while a literal interpretation of a book written thousands of years ago is right.

Now don't get me wrong, I am not a hater of the Bible. In fact, I believe that the Bible has brought more people happiness and joy than any other book in human history. Those who knock the Bible usually are the same people who have never read it or attempted to understand it. With that said, my original statement stands: I cannot, in good conscience, accept a literal interpretation of scripture (scripture that was written by those of late antiquity and translated over and over again) as the exclusive authority on matters that are scientifically proven to be false. At the same time, I refuse to accept the belief of many within the scientific community which suggests that scripture (and even religion as a whole) is somehow outdated, irrelevant and thus unworthy of our devotion. Such a conclusion seems, in my view, to actually be quite UN-scientific and downright arrogant.

This is why I stated that this "tug-o-war" between religion and science is an illusion. In reality, we require both to help us understand who we are and where we came from. Though religion and science may appear different on the surface, the fact of the matter is that they were made for each other. There is no REAL debate between religion and science because God is the author of science. The natural laws which created the universe and humanity are His laws. The Big Bang was His doing and Evolution is His handiwork.

Of course, this probably isn't going to sit well with many devout scientists and religious zealots but I don't care. These are my views and I am sticking to them. I for one am sick and tired of hearing people on both sides insist that they alone are right, while the other side is wrong. It's time we quit throwing the baby out with the bathwater and accept that both sides have much to offer. As Albert Einstein put it, "Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind." Science needs to learn that despite all it has proven, it cannot observe faith in a petri dish. It will never be able to explain the intangible truths of the universe or the infinite strivings of the human spirit. In short, science's biggest hurdle is accepting the fact that observable facts are not the only facts that can be observed.

On the flip side, religion must accept the fact that the stories found in scripture are ancient man's attempt to explain his origins. Obviously, ancient man didn't have the scientific understanding we possess today. As a result, his stories explaining mankind's origins (chiefly those from the Book of Genesis) are founded in innocent ignorance. After all, how could those of late antiquity possibly understand the Big Bang, natural selection, DNA, etc.? But this does not give today's devout believer a pass. In our modern era we have been given (thanks to God) and incredible amount of knowledge that no other society could even dream of. We know with 100% certainty that the earth isn't 6,000 years old (more like 4.5 billion), that snakes can't talk and that modern Homo Sapiens have their origins not in a garden but on the African plains roughly 200,000 years ago.

If our goal is truly to come to a better understanding of who we are and why we are here (the ultimate question that both religion and science tries to answer) we need not turn a blind eye to the beauty of religious faith and the discovery of scientific research. To do so is to see the world only in black and white. And unfortunately it is the extremists on both ends, who insist on this black and white view of the world, who are causing all of the controversy. We will only see the amazing tapestry of colors that is the creation of humanity and the universe when we reject the all-or-nothing nonsense of the secular scientist and the religious radical.

To my ultra-religious friends I say this: It is time to do away with the childish understandings of ancient man and to accept the knowledge of our present day. As 1 Corinthians 13: 11 states:

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
Stop and ask yourself why you believe evolution to be such an affront to your faith. Is your belief in God so dependant on literal interpretation of ancient works that you are rendered incapable of accepting and understanding the truths of evolution and science? How is your belief in a God, who simply snaps his fingers, creates the world in six days, takes a nap on the seventh (because nothing says omnipotent like needing to check out for a day or so), and introduces evil to the world via a talking snake and a naughty apple, any less relevant than a belief in a God who brings about the beauty of the world via evolution and natural law?

To my secular scientific friends, who rely exclusively on the merits of "rational" thought and "observable" facts I would ask this: Why does your "reasonable" understanding of things entitle you to belittle those of faith? Are you so arrogant as to think that those who believe in God are simply delusional by choice, since they believe in that which is intangible to the scientific method? By what scientific data are you able to justify your mockery of those who claim a deep, intimate spiritual connection with the divine? Can you offer up anything of substance other than "it's just an emotional reaction"? The reality is that in your quest to disprove that which cannot be seen with a microscope or tested in a laboratory, you have actually added credence to faith. You have proven that we cannot discredit any theory until it has been thoroughly tested. And for the believer, the theory of God is tested (and proved) on a daily basis. It is proven in the answer to a simple prayer. It is proven in the acts of charity of a neighbor. It is proven in the hope for a life after death. In short, the faithful have been using your methods long before science came on the scene. Or as NASA Astrophysicist Robert Jastrow stated:

The scientist has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.
In conclusion, let us quit buying into the stupid rhetoric brought on by the zealots and the culture warriors who insist upon the myth that religion and science are somehow opposing forces. Instead, let us think of religion and science as peanut butter and jelly. Though on the surface they look, taste, smell and feel completely different, nobody will debate that peanut butter and jelly are made for one another. I leave you with the words of Pope John Paul II:

Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish...We need each other to be what we must be, what we are called to be.
***This is the first post in a new series on science, religion, God and creation. In part II I will address how the different religious and scientific interpretations of the creation of the world (the Genesis story) can help us develop a better understanding of things when they are taken together as opposed to at odds with one another.***

Sunday, August 21, 2011

James Otis: Abolitionist

When we think of our nation's Founding Fathers, we usually remember only the "key" participants (i.e. Washington, Jefferson, Franklin & Co.). Unfortunately, the contributions of lesser known participants take a back seat and regularly go unnoticed.

Such is the case with one James Otis. I have written about James Otis before in a post explaining his views on the laws of nature and rebellion to authority, but today I want to focus on his views regarding race; views which were, in many respects, very ahead of their time.

Though not a common citizen, Otis' legacy is often shrouded by the contributions of those that fought in the ranks of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Otis was not a warrior. He never fought for independence (in fact, Otis was quite reluctant to break from Great Britain). Yet Otis was undoubtedly one of the first influential voices of the American Revolution. Aside from his protests against the British early on, Otis was also a powerful voice against slavery. Throughout his life, Otis wrote some of the most stirring arguments against "the peculiar institution", most of which were very unpopular in 18th century America. For example, in a 1764 pamphlet Otis wrote:

Does it follow that 'tis right to enslave a man because he is black? Will short curled hair like wool instead of Christian hair, as tis called by those whose hearts are as hard as the nether millstone, help the argument? Can any logical inference in favor of slavery be drawn from a flat nose, a long or a short face? Nothing better can be said in favor of a trade that is the most shocking violation of the law of nature, has a direct tendency to diminish the idea of the inestimable value of liberty, and makes every dealer in it a tyrant, from the director of an African company to the petty chapman in needles and pins on the unhappy coast. It is a clear truth that those who every day barter away other men's liberty will soon care little for their own.
John Adams recalled Otis speaking against slavery even earlier, during his argument against the writs of assistance in 1761. Adams recalled the occasion this way:

He asserted that these rights were inherent and inalienable. That they never could be surrendered or alienated but by idiots or madmen and all the acts of idiots and lunatics were void and not obligatory, by all the laws of God and man. Nor were the poor Negroes forgotten. Not a Quaker in Philadelphia or Mr. Jefferson in Virginia ever asserted the rights of Negroes in stronger terms. Young as I was and ignorant as I was, I shuddered at the doctrine he taught...
In other words, none of the great "key" founders could speak as brilliantly on the issue of slavery as James Otis...probably because none of them wanted to bother. Keeping Blacks in their place was an easier task than to recognize their God-given rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Remembering Otis as a pioneer for the later abolitionists who would follow in his footsteps should not be forgotten. When dressed in this light, Otis' legacy and contributions become every bit as important as those of the men that fought on the battlefield. Though not considered a "key" founder, I find Otis' views regarding abolition to be pretty much "in key" with the ideology of the American founding.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Religious Symbolism of Rainbows

A few weeks ago, my family and I had dinner at the Golden Corral near my house. We should have known better because the dinner was CRAP (as is often the case with Golden Corral). But while leaving, my wife captured the following video of the most impressive rainbow we have ever seen. It was so impressive that a bunch of people came out of the restaurant to see it for themselves. Sadly, the video doesn't due this justice. It was an incredible sight to behold:

As simple and "routine" as rainbows may seem to us after a rainstorm, there is something almost magical about seeing colors forming an arc in the middle of the air. Of course, science has fully explained this phenomenon. In reality, rainbows are not magic but are the result of the sun's light reflecting off of droplets of moisture in the atmosphere. The arc of course is the result of the sun's positioning in the sky v. the angle of the observer (usually a 40-42 degree angle), thus creating the visible arc.

But what did people of antiquity think of rainbows? How did they explain the "magical" colors appearing before them after a rainstorm?

Of course, the most famous tale of rainbows in the ancient world comes to us from the Book of Genesis. In chapter 9, we read of God's promise to Noah and how he vows to never again destroy the world with a global flood:

11.) And I will establish my covenant with you, neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth.

12.) And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations:

13.) I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.

14.) And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud:

15.) And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.

16.) And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.
Of course I recognize that much of how one views this story depends on how you view the Bible. If you esteem the "Good Book" as literal truth, then the rainbow carries an extremely special significance. Pseudo-scientist Ken Ham, advocate of creation science and founder of the extremely controversial group "Answers in Genesis" and the "Creation Museum" states the following with respect to rainbows:

The next time you see a rainbow, remember that God judges sin. But He is also merciful, and He made a covenant of grace with Noah and the animals—He will never again judge with a worldwide Flood
But Christians are far from the only religious group to find a special providential purpose for rainbows. In Greek mythology Iris, Goddess of sea and sky (and who is the personification of the rainbow) is commanded by Zeus to serve as the link between the Gods and humanity. As a result, the rainbow serves as a bridge between heaven and earth. The ancient Chinese and Hindu cultures believed that the rainbow was a slit in the sky, which divided humanity from the Gods. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the rainbow is the jewelry of the Babylonian goddess, Ishtar, who holds it into the sky after the rain as a promise that she will never again kill humanity with a flood. And, of course, no ancient rainbow tale would be complete without everyone's favorite: the leprechaun's pot of gold!

The rainbow even has some important symbolism in more modern times. In 1950 The World Fellowship of Buddhists adopted a rainbow flag as a symbol of peace. In 1921 the International Co-operative Alliance adopted a rainbow flag as a symbol of "unity in diversity." Each color of the rainbow came to stand for a specific goal for the organization and the flag is still largely accepted today. And in recent decades, the rainbow has been adopted by both the peace movement of the 1960s and the LGBT movement of today.

So how do I see the rainbow? Perhaps I should simply see it as Sir Isaac Newton did: a light prism reflecting off of water. And though on the surface, the rainbow can be completely understood through scientific study, I believe (as I believe with all nature) that there is a deeper connection to the divine. As the 18th century scientist/theologian, Emanuel Swedenborg stated when writing about rainbows:

It may be wondered that the bow in the cloud, or the rainbow, should be taken as the token of the covenant in the word -- when the rainbow is nothing more than a certain appearance arising from the modification of the rays of light from the sun then falling upon the drops of rain; and -- unlike the other signs of the covenant in the church just referred to -- only a natural phenomenon. But that the bow in the cloud represents regeneration, and signifies the state of the regenerate spiritual man, no one can known unless it be given him to see and therefore to know how it is.


It is because natural things correspond to spiritual that when what is around the regenerate spiritual man is thus presented to view it appears like a bow in the cloud; which bow is a representation of spiritual things in his natural. The regenerate spiritual man has a proprium of the understanding into which the Lord insinuates innocence, charity, and mercy; and according to the reception of these gifts by a man is the appearance of his rainbow when it is presented to view -- more beautiful the more the proprium of the man's will is removed, subdued and reduced to obedience.
In other words, to separate the spiritual from the scientific is a fool's errand. To see things exclusively through the prism of religion or science is to see the world with one eye. The two should go hand-in-hand to help better explain the true nature of things, and the rainbow is perhaps one of God's greatest illustrations of this fact. The more mankind purifies himself/herself from the vices of the world and embraces goodness, the more truth comes to light.

Of course I don't believe that rainbows never existed before Noah, nor do I believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. Such an approach is childish. At the same time, it is equally childish to allow science the exclusive rights to an explanation of how nature operates. God and nature are like peanut butter and jelly: they were meant for each other. The rainbow, though a simple reflection, is also a reflection of God and his goodness...

... As is all of nature.

Take us home, Judy Garland:

Summer Roundup

Summer is almost officially over so I decided to take this weekend and try to compile some of the "highlight" pictures/videos from our family's past few months. Of course, not everything made it in (there's simply too much material to put on this blog) but here are some of the pictures I liked:

The lazy days of summer.

And, of course, no summer is complete without bike-riding.

One of our family's favorite activities has always been the AMAZING Colorado Springs Zoo.

And what would summer be without ICE CREAM!!!

And indoor camping...
This summer we visited a number of cool museums, including the Colorado Dinosaur Museum.

And some days we were just lazy around the house.

Summer isn't complete without baseball.

A "Mom Sandwich"

Grandma and Grandpa Jones even paid us a visit this summer.

And one of the highlights of this summer: The Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

But alas, all good things must come to an end, and sooner than we could blink, Jaxson was back in school.

See ya next summer!

And, of course, some videos. The first two are from our trip to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and the last one is from the Colorado Springs Zoo birdcage:

The Black Death: A Rat Problem?

For decades, scholars have maintained that the Black Death, one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, was the result of fleas living on the hair of oriental rats. These rats then made their way via merchant ships to the shores of Europe, where poor sanitation in the highly populated (and filthy) towns proved to be a perfect breeding ground for the Bubonic Plague. Long story short, at least 1/3 (and possibly as much as 50%) of Europe's population was killed off by the plague between the years 1346-1353.

But one new scholar isn't buying the traditional explanation of how the Black Death came to Europe. Historian Barney Sloane, author of the book, The Black Death in London, claims that rats were not the carriers off Bubonic Plague. In an interview with The Guardian, Sloane reveals the reasons behind his unorthodox conclusions:

The evidence just isn't there to support it," said Barney Sloane, author of The Black Death in London. "We ought to be finding great heaps of dead rats in all the waterfront sites but they just aren't there. And all the evidence I've looked at suggests the plague spread too fast for the traditional explanation of transmission by rats and fleas. It has to be person to person – there just isn't time for the rats to be spreading it."

He added: "It was certainly the Black Death but it is by no means certain what that disease was, whether in fact it was bubonic plague."


Sloane believes there was little difference in mortality rates between rich and poor, because they lived so closely packed together. The plague, he is convinced, spread from person to person in the crowded city.

Mortality continued to rise throughout the bitterly cold winter, when fleas could not have survived, and there is no evidence of enough rats.

Black rat skeletons have been found at 14th-century sites, but not in high enough numbers to make them the plague carriers, he said.

In sites beside the Thames, where most of the city's rubbish was dumped and rats should have swarmed, and where the sodden ground preserves organic remains excellently, few black rats have been found.
It is sometimes hard for us in the modern era to understand just how horrific the Black Death really was for 14th century Europeans. There is no doubt that the Black Death effected every single citizen of the Western world. Even if they themselves survived the horrible infection of Bubonic Plague they would have certainly known several people who died from it. Sloane provides an excellent illustration of just how terrible the Black Death was for those who lived through it:

It appeared to the citizens that everyone in the world might die. Richard de Shordych left goods and money to his son Benedict when he died in early March: his son outlived him by a fortnight.

Money, youth, and formerly robust good health were no protection. Edward III's own daughter, Joan, sailed for Spain with her trousseau, her dowry and her bridesmaids, to marry Pedro, heir to the throne of Castile. She would never see her wedding day as she died of the plague within 10 days of landing.

John of Reading, a monk in Westminster, left one of the few witness accounts. He described deaths happening so fast there was "death without sorrow, marriage without affection, self-imposed penance, want without poverty, and flight without escape".

In Rochester, William of Dene wrote that nobody could be found to bury the dead, "but men and women carried the bodies of their own little ones to church on their shoulders and threw them into mass graves from which arose such a stink that it was barely possible for anyone to go past a churchyard".

Sloane estimates that people living near the cemetery at Aldersgate, which is now buried under Charterhouse Square, in Smithfield, would have seen a corpse carried past every five minutes at the height of the plague.
As for Sloane's conclusions that the Bubonic Plague wasn't carried by fleas on the backs of rats, I cannot say. I am not familiar enough with the different ways that the Bubonic Plague could have been transmitted. I am skeptical, however, of Sloane's conclusion that the Black Death may not have been Bubonic Plague at all but in fact some other type of infection. In his excellent book, In the Wake of the Plague historian Norman Cantor (who is one of the top Medieval historians today) provides a detailed look at how the Black Death infected the human body. Not surprisingly, it matches exactly with what the Bubonic Plague does.

Bubonic Plague (which is usually circulated via fleas on the backs of rodents...another massive hurdle for Sloane to jump) is a horrific infection of the lymph glands, which causes severe pain, inflamation of the glands usually under the armpit and groin area, fever, coughing, vomiting and eventuality death. The most obvious symptom is that of rotting flesh, which causes extreme pain to the victim, not to mention a horrible stench. In fact, the famous nursery rhyme "Ring Around the Rosie" is believed to have its origins in the Black Death:

1.) "Ring Around the Rosie": signifies a rosy rash that was often seen as a symptom of the early onset of Bubonic Plague.

2,) "Pocket Full of Posies": Some suggest that this line has reference to either flowers being held by the dead prior to burial or to the fact that many Europeans carried posies of herbs to hopefully ward off infection and to ward off the terrible smell of the disease.

3.) "Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down": Of course, reference to death itself and the possible cremation that came with dying from Bubonic Plague.

No matter how the Black Death was transmitted, there is no question that it completely changed Europe. Few historians will argue the fact that the Black Death changed Europe's economics, social construct and even religious perspective. Many have gone so far as to suggest that the Black Death helped to bring about the Protestant Reformation. After all, not even the priests of the church could stop the spread of the horrific plague.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Marco Polo: A Liar?

Every elementary school child has heard of the incredible adventures of the great 13th century explorer, Marco Polo. His tales of adventure and discovery in China, Japan and other parts of Asia are standard history for most. Generations of Americans have grown up believing that Marco Polo was one of the greatest explorers in human history.

But just how true are Marco Polo's accounts?

If you ask a group of Italian archaeologists and historians the answer is: not very true at all. That's right, Marco Polo may have been a conman. According to a team of scholars, led by University of Naples historian Daniele Petrella, Marco Polo simply plagiarized his stories from the many traders he encountered around the Black Sea. In fact, Petrella believes that Marco Polo probably never went further than the Black Sea. She believes this because Polo's stories of the Orient don't fit with the history and archaeology that we now have today. For example, there are a number inconsistencies and inaccuracies in Marco Polo’s description of Kublai Khan’s invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281:

He [Polo] confuses the two, mixing up details about the first expedition with those of the second...In his account of the first invasion, he describes the fleet leaving Korea and being hit by a typhoon before it reached the Japanese coast.
The article continues:

Polo’s description of the Mongol fleet did not square with the remains of ships the archaeologists excavated in Japan, as he had written of ships with five masts, while those which had been found had only three. "It was during our dig that doubts began to emerge about much of what he wrote," added Professor Petrella. "When he describes Kublai Khan’s fleet he talks about the pitch that was used to make ships’ hulls watertight. He used the word 'chunam’, which in Chinese and Mongol means nothing. In fact, it is the Persian word for pitch. It’s also odd that instead of using, as he does in most instances, local names to describe places, he used Persian terms for Mongol and Chinese place names."

The explorer claimed to have worked as an emissary to the court of Kublai Khan, but his name does not crop up in any of the surviving Mongol or Chinese records. The famous travel book was said to have been dictated by Polo to a fellow prisoner named Pisa while he was in jail after returning from his adventures, and to be fair to Polo, it is thought Pisa embellished many of the stories. But the latest claims back those made in a book by British academic Frances Wood in 1995 entitled 'Did Marco Polo go to China?'. She argued he never got beyond the Black Sea and that his famed account was a collection of travellers’ tales.
Interesting stuff. And though I think Dr. Petrella has discovered something (though she is far from being the first to question the authenticity of Marco Polo's claims) I must admit that I am still a bit skeptical. I must admit that I am not well-versed in the history of Marco Polo and as a result, need to dedicate myself to a more in-depth study of his journeys. But the fact that Polo used Persian words to describe different things instead of Chinese is compelling evidence that he may in fact be a fraud. That seems like such a glaring mistake to make and it certainly casts a shadow of doubt onto the Marco Polo story as a whole.