What is Christianity? An Interview With Bart Ehrman

This is a really good interview with Bart Ehrman, a scholar with degrees from three prominent biblical and theological colleges who specializes in textual criticism of the New Testament, the historical Jesus, and the development of early Christianity.

He points out a lot of interesting facts, such as evidence that Jesus’ teachings and behavior suggest he was a Jewish reformer with no intention of creating a new religion; that the spreading the faith to non-Jews (and ultimately the world) was an innovation of Paul that was strenuously opposed by Peter; and that early Christianity and Judaism may have been “henotheistic“, in that they did not rule out the existence of other gods but simply argued that only one of them should be worshiped ahead of the others.

Regardless of your religious persuasion or lack thereof (I am a secular humanist), the two hour interview is well worth checking out just from an academic point of view. (Ehrman is a former born again Christian who during his studies became agnostic, but he takes a fairly charitable view of Christians overall.)

Let me know  what you think and feel free to share your thoughts.

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Superheros in a Globalized World

One of my long-running creative side projects since college has been building a superhero universe that is set in a globalized world with an international cast and multicultural flavor. (Which is one reason I love Overwatch so much.) One of the key themes I want to explore is how international relations and cultural clashes come into play in a world of superpowered beings.

What would happen if a Superman-style hero landed in Bolivia, Tajikistan, or the Congo? Suddenly the poorest and least influential countries in the world are major superpowers in their own right, able to project their values or interests, deliberately or incidentally, on the global stage. The world’s premier guardian would be shaped by a completely different culture, religion, or ethos, perhaps with certain universal principles, like fairness and compassion, still present but expressed in different ways.

How would linguistic, religious, cultural, and political disputes come into play when heroes respond to crises that know no borders or affiliations? How would they cooperate or clash? What do superheroes do in countries where governments are not representative of the people — would they be vigilantes outside the law, or work within the circumstances they are dealt? (I envision a bit of both.) What about in places where there are deeply entrenched sectarian, ethnic, and/or ideological divisions? Would they rise above the fray or remain parochial?

For example, I have in mind that superheroes in Germany would operate with far more transparency (including have their names and addresses publicly available) and far more restraint than elsewhere, for obvious reasons. This is common with the way their security and intelligence forces currently operate.

In the U.S., I would imagine a very complicated state versus federal dynamic at play, as far as jurisdictional issues, funding, etc., as well as a larger issues of whether government and taxpayers should get involved in the process at all. (Not a new idea of course, given Marvel’s Civil War, but still a relevant and interesting one.)

I recall the comic arc wherein Superman renounces his U.S. citizenship due to a widespread perception that he is an instrument of American policy. Though seen by many fans as an audacious gimmick, I think it touched on increasingly topical themes of identity, patriotism, and nationalism amid a globalized world. As Comics Alliance explained:

Superman replies that it was foolish to think that his actions would not reflect politically on the American government, and that he therefore plans to renounce his American citizenship at the United Nations the next day — and to continue working as a superhero from a more global than national perspective. From a “realistic” standpoint it makes sense; it would indeed be impossible for a nigh-omnipotent being ideologically aligned with America to intercede against injustice beyond American borders without creating enormous political fallout for the U.S. government.

While this wouldn’t be this first time a profoundly American comic book icon disassociated himself from his national identity — remember when Captain America became Nomad? — this could be a very significant turning point for Superman if its implications carry over into other storylines. Indeed, simply saying that “truth, justice and the American way [is] not enough anymore” is a pretty startling statement from the one man who has always represented those values the most.

It doesn’t seem that he’s abandoning those values, however, only trying to implement them on a larger scale and divorce himself from the political complexities of nationalism. Superman also says that he believes he has been thinking “too small,” that the world is “too connected” for him to limit himself with a purely national identity. As an alien born on another planet, after all, he “can’t help but see the bigger picture.”

This is the sort of issue I hope to explore in my own superhero universe someday, in addition to giving readers across the world heroes they can relate with or who reflect their unique cultural, political, religious, or historical experiences.

Finland’s Basic Income Trial Ends — But New Ideas Emerge

I previously discussed the Finland’s basic income experiment, which was one of several being conducted across the world. After a little over a year, the Finnish trial — which involved 2,000 unemployed citizens receiving a flat monthly payment of $685 — has come to an abrupt close following the government’s lack of interest. As the BBC reported:

 

Finland’s two-year pilot scheme started in January 2017, making it the first European country to test an unconditional basic income. The 2,000 participants – all unemployed – were chosen randomly.

But it will not be extended after this year, as the government is now examining other schemes for reforming the Finnish social security system.

“I’m a little disappointed that the government decided not to expand it,” said Prof Kangas, a researcher at the Social Insurance Institution (Kela), a Finnish government agency.

Speaking to the BBC from Turku, he said the government had turned down Kela’s request for €40-70m extra to fund basic income for a group of employed Finns, instead of limiting the experiment to 2,000 unemployed people.

It is unfortunate that a government otherwise open to bold new solutions to social problems has opted out of taking this trial to the next level. Continue reading

Over 80% Top Science Students Second Generation Immigrants

Among the major consequences of curtailing immigration to the United States would be losing access to the world’s best and brightest — and their children and grandchildren. As Forbes reported:

A new study from the National Foundation for American Policy found a remarkable 83% (33 of 40) of the finalists of the 2016 Intel Science Talent Search were the children of immigrants. The competition organized each year by the Society for Science & the Public is the leading science competition for U.S. high school students. In 2017, the talent search competition was renamed the Regeneron Science Talent Search, after its new sponsor Regeneron Pharmaceuticals,and a new group of 40 finalists – America’s next generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians – are competing in Washington, D.C., from March 9 to 15, 2017.

Both family-based and employment-based immigrants were parents of finalists in 2016. In fact, 75% – 30 out of 40 – of the finalists had parents who worked in America on H-1B visas and later became green card holders and U.S. citizens. That compares to seven children who had both parents born in the United States.

To put that in perspective, even though former H-1B visa holders represent less than 1% of the U.S. population, they were four times more likely to have a child as a finalist in the 2016 Intel Science Talent Search than were parents who were both born in the United States.

Continue reading

The U.N. Official Who Quietly Saved the World From Nuclear Annihilation

U_Thant_(1963)

Though they are in charge of an organization that represents virtually all of humanity, Secretary-Generals of the United Nations — described variably as the “world’s moderators” and the “chief administrative officers” of the U.N. — have never been household names. Not many could name or recognize the current officeholder, António Guterres, the former prime minister of Portugal, let alone any of his eight predecessors.

Yet one of these men, a self effacing and bespectacled diplomat from Burma named U Thant* not only served with distinction as a capable administrator — of what was then a young, bold, and largely untested institution — but true to his role as the “world’s mediator”, he saved humanity from one of its closest calls with armageddon: the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Continue reading

How South Koreans Hold Their Corrupt Leaders to Account

South Korea is the only country in the world where all living former leaders (six in all) have either been convicted of corruption offenses, or are being tried or investigated for such crimes, including two former dictators from the 1980s and 1990s. Just last year, one of these leaders was unseated following what may have been the largest peaceful mass demonstration in modern history (and which received support from the legislature and judiciary). Three deceased leaders have also been touched by posthumous corruption scandals or investigations.

Observers once noted that corruption was a “feature rather than a bug” of Korean politics, yet the Korean people — less than two decades into being an full fledged democracy — are doing everything possible to change that. This isn’t to say that these actions are totally free from political self interest and the like — although it is worth noting that the vast majority of Koreans support these actions regardless of their political affiliation.

Korean voters have since elected, Moon Jae In, a refugee from the Korean War who was once jailed for protesting against South Korea’s dictatorship, and was a human rights lawyer before he went into politics. He is so famously “clean” that he avoids having any private or professional meetings with friends to avoid even a hint of corruption. He is subsequently one of the most popular leaders in the world, with over 70 percent approval.

Source: The Economist

The World’s Most Infamous Genocide is Quickly Being Forgotten

After over seventy years of proclaiming “never forget”– which goes hand in hand with ensuring that we stay true to “never again” — society is increasingly losing sight of that mantra, according to a survey released on Holocaust Remembrance Day this past April and reported by the New York Times: Continue reading

Nearly Half of All Americans Avoid Health Care Due to Costs

Courtesy of Forbes comes a depressing yet not entirely surprising report:

Cost continues to be a barrier to treatment with 40% of Americans who say they “skipped a recommended medical test or treatment in the last 12 months due to cost.”Another 32% were “unable to fill a prescription or took less of a medication because of the cost,” the West Health/NORC poll of more than 1,300 adults said.

“The high cost of healthcare has become a public health crisis that cuts across all ages as more Americans are delaying or going without recommended medical tests and treatments,” West Health Institute chief medical officer Dr. Zia Agha said in a statement accompanying the poll results. The survey is being released at this week’s American Society on Aging 2018 Aging in America Conference in San Francisco.

The West Health-NORC poll is the latest national survey showing Americans continued frustration with high healthcare costs even as the U.S. spends more than $3.3 trillion annually on healthcare.

Note that those who skipped doctor’s visits and medication did so despite being sick or injured — such is the state of both the U.S. healthcare system and the national economy.

Also consider the following comparative analysis of maternal healthcare from The Economist:

In 2015, the Lindo Wing [where the third royal baby was born] charged £5,670 ($8,900) for 24 hours in a deluxe room and a non-Caesarean delivery. A survey in the same year by the International Federation of Health Plans found that the average fee for such a delivery in the United States was $10,808. That rises to roughly $30,000 after accounting for care given before and after a pregnancy, according to Truven Health Analytics. Insurers cover most of the cost, but parents are still left with an average bill of about $3,000. In many European countries, free maternity care is available.

A visual of this disparity really drives the point home:

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With all the wealth and economic potential of our $18 trillion-plus economy, one would think we could figure out a way to make having a baby, or getting routine treatment at a clinic, more accessible and affordable.

An African Nation Takes Charge in Addressing Hunger

254px-zambia_-_location_map_28201129_-_zmb_-_unocha-svgAfrica rarely comes to mind when one thinks of groundbreaking scientific research, much less the obscure nation of Zambia, located in the south of the continent. Yet in addition to being one of the world’s fastest growing economies, it is home to the Zambia Agricultural Research Institute, a gleaming new government agency that is pioneering solutions to world hunger.

Its work includes cultivating a form of sorghum (an important staple grain) that is bitter tasting to pests like birds; improving corn, unanother global staple, to be richer in vitamin A (whose deficiency leads to hundreds of thousands of cases of blindness worldwide); and creating disease resistant cassava, a nutritionally-dense and drought-resistant crop that provides a basic diet for over 500 million people.

Moreover, in order to diversify the food supply to better prevent hunger, Zambia gives its farmers electronic vouchers that allow them to buy whatever farm supplies they want. Imagine how much more progress we’ll see as more and more nations get the resources to educate, train, and empower their citizens. (Especially Africa, with its large youth population.)

Source: The Economist

The Countries Whose Citizens Are Most Likely Fight a War

According to a 2015 WIN/Gallup International global survey, which asked respondents in 64 countries whether they would be willing to fight for their country in a war, Japan had the fewest people willing to go to war (11%) while Morocco and Fiji tied for the highest (94%). The U.S. and Russia were at 44% and 59% respectively, while rising powers China and India were at 71% and 75% respectively.

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Regionally, Europe had fewest people willing to fight a war for their country while Asia had the most.

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A total of 62,398 individuals were surveyed globally between September and December of 2014, with roughly 1,000 men and women serving a representative sample for each country. Interviews were conducted in person, by phone, or online. I’d be curious to know how much the results have changed since 2014.

Of course, a willingness to go to war in the abstract does not necessarily mean that one will answer the call of war if it actually comes. I think Americans in particular are far more gung ho about war in theory — from which the vast majority are far removed from experientially — than in practice. (Tellingly, a lot of the higher-ranking countries in terms of willingness to go to war — such as Finland, Russia, and Turkey — have compulsory military service.)

Sources: Brilliant Maps; Gallup International