Albania’s Waste Management Challenge

In recent years Albania imported a lot of garbage, mostly from European nations. Unfortunately, the country lacked the infrastructure and regulatory capacity to deal with so much waste. Out of fear that toxic waste would poison the country, the government banned all such imports in 2013. Still, importing continues under the label of “raw materials,” and in the meantime the poor eek out a living picking through the garbage.

This is a complex health and social issue, one that is not easily resolved by a single solution. The poor need access to work and education, entrepreneurs need access to material for their recycling business, the nation needs revenue and at the same time must work to improve medical treatment and living conditions for everyone.

The following report from Journeyman Pictures shows the many sides of the waste management challenge Albania is facing.

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Inside What Was the Largest Homeless Encampment in the United States

A couple of years ago I did some volunteer work in a homeless camp located in New Jersey. Earlier this year I heard that the camp had been closed down and the residents relocated. What I saw there was unpleasant, although the residents were fairly well-organized. The video below, from Mother Jones, shows what was, until the first week of December, the largest homeless encampment in the U.S.. Called “The Jungle,” this place that appears to have been much worse than where I volunteered.

It is important to note that this is not merely a social problem or an economic issue. Providing people with homes will not relieve them of their addictions, provide them useful job skills or treat their psychological issues. To resolve the homeless crisis it must be approached on all levels, something that would involve a coordinated investment in reintegrating residents into society. Multiple solutions and a great deal of work would be involved.

As I mentioned above, authorities have sent in police, work crews and social workers to dismantle this encampment. There’s no telling where people will go, but I’m fairly certain one or more new encampments will come into being elsewhere in short order, assuming people don’t reoccupy this piece of land.

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Cognitive Dissonance in Progressive Evangelical Theology Peter Enns is an evangelical theologian who is perhaps foremost among several in attempting to create an apologetic for the Bible that will be both satisfying for modern Christians as well as compelling to non-Christians.

In a book published in 2005 he laid out the facts regarding the history of Israel and the composition of the biblical text, all the while defending that it is still rational to believe in YHWH as a deity and Jesus of Nazareth as God incarnate. In fact, a central point he made in that book was that even as God accepted the biological, cultural and historical constraints involved with assuming a human identity, so also all other revelation of God is likewise limited by its human nature. In other words, while Jesus is to be seen as innocent of sin and truly God in the flesh and he was also very truly a man, it is also the case that the Bible is to be understood as really the “word of God” communicated in human language, symbolism and cultural forms.

Enns’ 2012 book, “The Evolution of Adam,” (which I have not yet had the opportunity to read) reportedly aims to clarify the matter of human origins and evolution for those committed to holding to a Christian outlook. Although this has not been a particular struggle for generations of Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants, contemporary evangelicals have had a hard time reconciling their beliefs regarding biblical innerancy with the verifiable conclusions of science as it pertains to the age of the universe and biological evolution.

This is a struggle to which I held no immunity in my life as a Christian. Raised Roman Catholic, I was provided the theological tools early on to deal with this seeming conflict. When I later converted to evangelicalism the trouble was renewed. With no reasonable excuse other than wanting to obey God, I made a choice to believe in creationism. Of course, it’s no simple matter to will oneself to believe in something that evidence contradicts. Years later I found my way out of the thicket of fundamentalist Christianity and back into a saner outlook.

Still, the troubles remain.

First, the early portions of the Bible, particularly in the book of Genesis, provide what are purported to be explanations for the way things are in the world. A six day creation is described, followed by a second creation account in which God plants a garden and makes man out of the earth. However these texts were originally intended to be understood, over the years they were taken to be the final word on the topic of origins. Although many scholars, including Augustine of Hippo, saw these as not being concrete descriptions of the beginning of time and our species, more widely they were taken at face value. Languages are well are portrayed in the Bible as being a curse, the result of human hubris and disobedience.

Second, historic accounts include subtle and often even glaring inaccuracies and anachronisms. Abraham had to deal with Philistines, a people that only arrived in Canaan at a later time. He also depended heavily on camels, although these were only domesticated in the Middle East in a later century than he is said to have lived. These variances pale in comparison to the possibility, put forth by many in the archaeological community as a certainty (this is much-debated by experts in that field), that there was never an exodus from Egypt nor even a united kingdom of Israel. Instead, Israel and Judah developed alongside one another, contending with one another and with other nations. Judah only rose to prominence after the fall of Israel in 722 BCE. It was at that time that the stories of the northern and southern kingdoms began to be would together, and it was after the return from exile hundreds of years later that the Hebrew Scriptures as we now know them really took shape. It seems almost certain that Deuteronomy and Joshua began as products of Josiah’s reign, being the “book of the law” that was “found” during temple reforms. These were later redacted further to fit postexilic circumstances.

Third, the moral tone of much of the Hebrew Scriptures is not what most would consider ideal, nowadays. Commands to commit genocide, murdering all non-combatant men, women and children in various cities, would be looked upon in our times as atrocities and war crimes (Numbers 21:35; 31:15-18; Deuteronomy 2:34; 20:16-17; Joshua 10:40, 11:8 & 21-23; 1 Samuel 15:3). In the same category is the talk of killing all but the virgin girls, who shall be kept for the Israelite men.

Finally, and most relevant to the topic if evolution and the Bible, is the matter of human suffering and death. The Bible portrays death as being the result of Adam’s sin. Spiritual death directly due to sin, and physical death due to exclusion from access to the “tree of life.” If, however, the tree of life is not a historical fact, and if indeed there were untold generations of homo sapiens rather than a single pair to start it all, what this all means gets muddied. 60,000 years or more of prehistoric but otherwise modern humans struggling against heat, cold, famine, war and disease while a deity looks on and waits for the right time is hard to fathom. Cruel, to say the least.

In a purely naturalistic worldview there is no one to blame and we can say that prehistoric misery was a regrettable reality of life that we need now to avoid. Given that suffering is a natural occurrence resulting from the sensitivity to pain we need in order to survive, and that death is a mechanism by which natural selection functions, there doesn’t seem to be much room left for deity or immortality.

Just in case the point above was missed, I’ll repeat: Physical death is a necessity in order for evolution to function. The less fit genes are weeded out over time by death, and the deaths of individual organisms allow room for younger organisms to live. This being the case, there seems to be no way in which human death can be considered somehow unique or the result of a curse on humanity. Scientific and biblical viewpoints regarding death, therefore, seem to me to be incompatible. Dr. Enns, for his part, argues that they don’t have to agree as they are speaking different languages for different purposes. While I greatly respect his courage and scholarship, I have serious doubts about his conclusions in this matter.

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Why I Am Not a Christian (Book Review)

After many years avoiding it, I finally read Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian” early this year (yes, it’s taken me almost a year to post this review).

The first time I became aware of Russell’s book I was either in the first or second year of college. I was attending a Bible college in the Midwestern United States, as well as a local community college. An upperclassman in the Bible college dorm was reading this book one evening, and I mutual friend noticed and commented. This young man defended reading it, despite being a Bible college student, precisely because believers need to be intellectually honest and explore what detractors have to say. I was unconvinced.

A couple of years later I attended Harding University, a conservative Christian liberal arts university located in Arkansas. One day at the college bookstore I noticed that Russell’s book was available for purchase. I don’t know if it was required reading for a class or merely an option, but the presence of the book annoyed me.

It’s a shame it took me so long to get around to reading this title. It is short, lucid and compelling. Originally delivered as a lecture and later published as a pamphlet, this book is accessible and easy to understand.

To me, the strongest arguments Russell provides against the Christian faith are those directed at the existence of a creator god. He quickly disposed of arguments from first-cause, natural-law, design and morality.

His point about morality seemed a little weak to me, as he apparently couldn’t conceive of right and wrong being derived from the nature of God himself rather than from yet another external code. In other words, since God is faithful, adultery is wrong. Since God is life and the author of life, murder is wrong. Since God is truth, it is wrong to lie. These attributes or properties of God would, in my view, provide the basis for any moral code.

At the same time, the apparent lack of intervention on the part of any deity to correct efficiently the terrible suffering of humanity and injustice present for thousands of years in our civilization is pointed out effectively by Russell. This to me seems one of the strongest elements in a case against the existence of a supreme god, or at least indicates that if such a being exists, he is not concerned with human suffering.

The book begins to fall apart for me at the discussion of Jesus.

First, Russell fell into the same trap as many other past and present skeptics with regard to the Bible. Following the line of many fundamentalist Christians, Russell mistakenly understands Jesus’ references to judgment coming in that “generation” has being a depiction of his bodily return. Since it is evident that the “Second Coming” did not happen in the first century C.E., this must be failed prophecy. Only, it isn’t. A closer reading of Jesus’ words reveal that he was speaking of two judgments. One was the judgment that ultimately came on rebellious Jerusalem in 70 C.E. with the arrival of Roman armies. In this context it makes perfect sense for Jesus to warn people to watch for the signs and pray that it doesn’t happen in winter. This and whether or not a woman is pregnant would make no sense whatsoever if the text were talking about the bodily return of the resurrected Jesus. Instead, Jesus is depicted as having spoken of two judgments. The first eventually happened in 70 C.E, as indicated above, and the second is the yet-to-occur coming of Jesus in judgment, in accordance with later church teaching.

Second, Bertand Russell argued against the morality of Jesus, accusing him of preaching endless suffering in hell. This is another place where distorted traditional teaching has been forced into the text. Jesus spoke of “Gehenna,” a place outside the city of Jerusalem that served as a garbage dump. Although his use of this term may have been somewhat metaphorical, it seems to me that he was fairly consistent in using it to speak of the judgment to come on that generation. The rebels and civilians who remained in the city would be killed, their bodies dumped outside the gates and left to rot and burn with the trash. (Several years ago I wrote a post condemning the moral state of the world with regard to extreme poverty in which I borrowed this language.)

All in all, “Why I Am Not a Christian” was a worthwhile, swift read. Although lacking in a few points, it was succinct and thought-provoking. If you would rather listen to the book in audio format, it’s available via YouTube below.

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How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (Book Review)


Had someone told me only a couple of years ago that I’d read — and actually enjoy —a book by Bart Ehrman, I would have said they were crazy. What a difference a little time and careful thought can make.

Ehrman’s goal in this was to explain just what the title indicates: how Jesus of Nazareth came to be worshiped as God. He begins with ancient Greek, Roman and Jewish beliefs about the gods, and by the end of the book he drops us off in the 4th century C.E. amidst the theological wranglings and contentious church councils of that era. In between we are shown step-by-step how an apocalyptic preacher came to be considered the one true God.

“This is one of the hard-and-fast ironies of the Christian tradition: views that at one time were the majority opinion, or at least that were widely seen as completely acceptable, eventually came to be left behind; and as theology moved forward to become increasingly nuanced and sophisticated, these earlier majority opinions came to be condemned as heresies.”

A Bible scholar and former evangelical, Ehrman knows well both the text and the communities that interpret it into their communal and personal lives. He reads the text plainly, moreso than fundamentalists, evangelicals and others who claim to do so as well. His effort to obtain critical objectivity yields some surprisingly good insights into the meaning of what was written.

“All we would need to do would be to read the Bible and accept what it says as what really happened. That, of course, is the approach to the Bible that fundamentalists take. And that’s one reason why you will not find fundamentalists at the forefront of critical scholarship.”

One of the key challenges presented by Christians in defense of their faith is the resurrection of Jesus. Ehrman addresses this head-on, presenting both the inconsistencies and contradictions between the resurrection accounts in the Gospels, as well as a brief exploration of more likely alternative explanations. No new ground appears to have been broken here, but – to extend the metaphor – Ehrman tills the soil well.

“Precisely those conservative evangelical scholars who claim that mass hallucinations don’t happen are the ones who deny that the Blessed Virgin Mary has appeared to hundreds or thousands of people at once, even though we have modern, verified eyewitness testimony that she has.”

The description of how exaltation Christology differs from incarnation Christology was by itself worth the price of admission. For example, I’d never have imagined that in the Roman world, for example adopted children were frequently favored over their natural-born counterparts. Additionally, Ehrman clearly defined the differing points of Jesus’ life in which, according the the four Gospels, Jesus may have attained divinity.

“But only two people known by name were also called “Son of God.” One was the Roman emperor—starting with Octavian, or Caesar Augustus—and the other was Jesus. This is probably not an accident. When Jesus came on the scene as a divine man, he and the emperor were in competition.”

If you have no background in Christianity, I recommend that before digging into this book you at lead spend some time a reading of the four Gospels and the Book of Acts. Also, as a warm-up for what you’ll read here, check out Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan. I also found helpful having read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology not long ago.

“Ancient Jews had no expectation—zero expectation—that the future messiah would die and rise from the dead. That was not what the messiah was supposed to do. Whatever specific idea any Jew had about the messiah (as cosmic judge, mighty priest, powerful warrior), what they all thought was that he would be a figure of grandeur and power who would be a mighty ruler of Israel. And Jesus was certainly not that. Rather than destroying the enemy, Jesus was destroyed by the enemy—arrested, tortured, and crucified, the most painful and publicly humiliating form of death known to the Romans. Jesus, in short, was just the opposite of what Jews expected a messiah to be.”

Anyone looking to gain insight on the historical Jesus will benefit from reading this book. You will also be able to see how the many extant varieties of Christianity came to be, as well as have a glimpse of the other interpretations of the faith that did not survive the first centuries of the Common Era. Buy this book, read it and enjoy.

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Book Review)

Several years ago when my faith was at a low ebb a coworker loaned me some CDs of talks given by Rev. N.T. Wright about the life and vocation of Jesus. The depiction of a historical Jesus that he portrayed captivated me in such a way that I felt my faith renewed. This, together with Wright’s explanations of Pauline doctrine, kept me anchored in Christianity for a while longer. In a very similar manner, “Zealot” by Reza Aslan has also served to provide a breath of fresh air, shedding new light for me on the life and times of Jesus.

To begin, it is important to note that unlike N.T. Wright’s approach, Reza Aslan sees a sharp distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. He works through this book to explain the cultural and historical context in which Jesus of Nazareth operated.

The principal task of the messiah, who was popularly believed to be the descendant of King David, was to rebuild David’s kingdom and reestablish the nation of Israel. Thus, to call oneself the messiah at the time of the Roman occupation was tantamount to declaring war on Rome.

Again, Aslan sets Jesus deeply in his historical setting. His descriptions of locations and scenarios bring the period to life vividly. Further, he talks about groups like the Sicarii, first century Jewish terrorists who were known for carrying concealed daggers and assassinating people they considered traitors, including a high priest in broad daylight. I had also never heard of Sepphoris either, despite it being a prominent Roman city in Galilee. All this despite having spent countless hours since my late teens studying the Bible and even obtaining a Bachelor’s degree in Ministry that included mostly courses in Bible. Perhaps the fact that I didn’t know about these things for so long is my fault, but I really don’t think they were emphasized at all either in church teaching or in my college studies.

Written for the layperson, “Zealot” comes down on a few points of history that could still be debated. For instance, Aslan affirms that Nazareth had no synagogue, though in the end notes he admits that one hasn’t been uncovered yet, and that it’s possible that any room housing the Torah in which worship took place could have been the town’s synagogue. He also emphasizes heavily the poverty of the people of Nazareth, to the point of insisting that they were all illiterate and uneducated. I’m not certain that they were all as illiterate as he portrayed. One very odd point he brought up was the fact that despite the Gospel account of Jesus being taken to a cliff near Nazareth to be thrown down, in fact there is no cliff nearby. Only a gently sloping hillside is present.

Jesus was a wonder-worker, one of many in that time period. Whatever really happened when people were cured or delivered from demonic influence, that’s precisely what all the people believed was happening. It was so commonplace that Jesus would have been considered merely one more among many, although he came with a couple of twists that caught people’s attention. First, he healed people for free. Normally wonder-workers would demand a price for their services, but apparently such was not the case with Jesus of Nazareth. Second, he insisted that the signs and wonders he was performing were in fact indications that with him the Kingdom of God was coming. His strong sense of vocation led him to make extraordinary claims in keeping with Jewish tradition.

…most people in the ancient world, did not make a sharp distinction between myth and reality. The two were intimately tied together in their spiritual experience. That is to say, they were less interested in what actually happened, than in what itmeant. It would have been perfectly normal, indeed expected, for a writer in the ancient world, to tell tales of gods and heroes, whose fundamental facts would have been recognized as false, but whose underlying message would have been seen as true.

According to Aslan, much of what we have in the Gospel accounts regarding the judgment of Jesus were largely fabrications. There is simply too much wrong with the portion recounting the judgment by the Sanhedrin. Everything about how it was carried out was irregular and even sloppy. Christians who affirm the Gospel accounts as accurate contend that this very irregularity highlights how serious a threat the Jewish leaders felt Jesus to be. In any event, it’s strange that they thought it necessary to hand him over to the Romans for judgment, as nothing impeded them later from stoning Stephen to death. Aslan also sees the Roman judgment scenes in the Bible as theater, given that Roman rulers like Pilate wouldn’t likely have paid much attention as they signed execution orders. Pilate signed off on the deaths of thousands routinely, and the depiction of him agonizing over the judgment of Jesus seems terribly exaggerated in the larger historical context. Jesus was just one more of many rebelling against Roman rule.

Regarding the resurrection, Aslan leaves it in the realm of faith. Something happened that made “historical ripples,” though what that was is unexplained. The Hebraic Jewish believers stayed on in Jerusalem, even after persecution began and seemingly remained immune to it. James the Just, brother of Jesus, appears to have been considered a pious and respectable man in Jerusalem right up to his death. It was the Hellenistic Jewish believers who had a different angle on the faith and were therefore expelled from Jerusalem. In departing, they took their faith with them and spread it wherever they went.

Paul, originally called Sail, converted after a vision experience. Just what this experience was is not explained by Aslan. Whatever it was, he afterward became very zealous for his new faith, although he showed little interest in the Jesus of history and took his cues from a spiritual Jesus who guided him. He boasted of having received no instruction from anyone else, receiving his guidance directry from Christ. In the end, his interpretation created a new faith.

Throughout the Pauline epistles there are references to Judaizers, people who were going into the churches Paul had established and teaching that it was necessary to follow the Jewish law in order to follow Jesus. I’d always been taught that this was a rival faction that arose in the church, without the consent of the apostles. Aslan claims instead that the people Paul was contending with were in fact sent out by James the brother of Jesus to correct the departure from the faith of the Jerusalem church that Paul’s doctrine was creating. This, to me, is one of the most startling possibilities brought up by Aslan. The idea that Paul worked in opposition to, or at least at variance from, that which was considered normative by the Jerusalem church and its leadership.

 The Jerusalem church was considered the mother church until the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and Mark was written in Rome shortly after that time. Matthew, Luke and John came after Mark, and they all had a strong interest in distancing Jesus from the Jewish uprising. Luke had the added interest of casting his friend and mentor Paul in a positive light. Paul’s writing gathered importance after the fall of Jerusalem, as the scattered churches turned to those writings for guidance.

The choice between James’s vision of a Jewish religion anchored in the Law of Moses and derived from a Jewish nationalist who fought against Rome, and Paul’s vision of a Roman religion that divorced itself from Jewish provincialism and required nothing for salvation save belief in Christ, was not a difficult one for the second and third generations of Jesus’s followers to make. 

Two thousand years later, the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history. The memory of the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, the magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost, has been almost completely lost to history.

Later church councils further clarified and codified the Pauline way of thinking about Jesus.

The memory of the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, the magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost, has been almost completely lost to history. That is a shame. Because the one thing any comprehensive study of the historical Jesus should hopefully reveal is that Jesus of Nazareth—Jesus the man—is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in.

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” isn’t a perfect book. Aslan repeats, for example, the story of recent creation that the high priest had a rope tied to his ankle in case he died in the Holy of Holies and needed to be dragged out (there’s no ancient reference to this being a practice, it’s simply been told and retold so often that people take it as true). Further, this is truly a book for a layperson, and not a scholarly tome. Despite that, it’s well-documented with plenty of references and very solid end notes that permit further study on the part of the reader. Most of all, this is a readable and truly engaging retelling of the life of Jesus, one that is surprisingly a “page-turner.” If you are interested in knowing more about Jesus, this is one book that should be on your list.

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Christmas Eve 2014

Our tree.

This is the first Christmas I’ve spent with my wife and children in two years. In November 2012 they came to Brazil, and on December 27, 2013 I arrived here. The tree we decorated is one we bought last year, right after Christmas, at the Wal-Mart here in Uberlândia. It felt a little surreal listening to Christmas music and hanging ornaments while a warm breeze blew in through the open window. After all, it is summer in the southern hemisphere. 

The city of Uberlândia has put up Christmas lights in a few public parks, and the malls are decorated as well. One of the malls has its decorations sponsored by Pixar, which means that there are a lot of Monsters, Inc stuffed animals and the like around. Not very “Christmasy” if you ask me.

Uberlândia’s “Eiffel Tower,” the Algar Tower atop a building downtown, has been lit up like a Christmas tree, as you can see below.

Algar Tower - Christmas 2014 photo VIDEO0039.gif

In any event, the main thing is being with family. However much we might miss the traditional Christmas of North America, with the winter cold and school presentations, we’re better off than we had been, because we’re together.
In the spirit of the season, enjoy the following rendition of “Silent Night.” Happy Holidays, everyone.

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Christmas 2014 in Uberlândia

A year ago at this time I was in Newark, NJ packing to join my family in Brazil. Although I did go to a Christmas Eve get-together with friends, it just wasn’t the same without my wife and kids. Now, here I am, in Uberlândia. Though I spent Christmas in Brazil a couple of times when I lived here last, it still seems strange to have this holiday in the middle of the Summer. For those of you in the United States, imagine singing “Jingle Bells” on the 4th of July. It’s sort of like that.

Even so, what matters most is that I’m with the people I love in a country that has meant a lot to me over the years. I’m glad to be spending this warm (even sweaty!) Christmas season in Uberlândia.

Feliz Natal, everyone.

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We Are Gifts to One Another