Places to go

  • Local pages

  • Categories

  • Quote of the month

    I have discovered that most people have no one to talk to, no one, that is, who really wants to listen. When it does at last dawn on a man that you really want to hear about his business, the look that comes over his face is something to see.

    -Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

    Stars Beneath Us now available for pre-order on Amazon


    Since January I have been working on a book for Fortress Press. I just finished the second round of edits and I’m feeling pretty happy about that.

    Fortress, a well-respected publisher of academic theology, recently decided to try its hand at a popular line of books called Theology for the People. Stars Beneath Us is in that line and will be released on February 1, 2016.

    Here’s the description from Amazon, where the book is now available for pre-order:

    In ways both confident and gentle, Stars Beneath Us brilliantly shows God’s presence in the ever-evolving cosmos. Relying on his upbringing as a Baptist, his doctoral work in experimental nuclear physics and gamma-ray astronomy, and his ordination to the gospel ministry in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Paul Wallace weaves a book unlike any other in faith and science literature. Instead of engaging the debates of natural theology or proofs for the existence of God, this is a call to courage for those who fear a true encounter with the cosmos will distance them from God. With a winsome mix of compelling personal narrative and insightful biblical analysis, the author engages the enigmatic story of Job and reimagines the divine monologue of Job 38-41, rejecting standard God-as-bully readings of Job. Relying on a theology of openness to the world, Stars Beneath Us will inspire readers to engage with the natural world in new ways and find God, as it turns out, everywhere.

    Here’s an extraordinary video on cosmic perspective

    Here’s a new and beautiful way to put us in our place: A solar system model scaled to the Earth as a marble. The model was built in the Black Rock Desert and is seven miles across. Set it on HD and full screen. Enjoy.

    Major thanks to Alert Reader Ron Taylor for bringing To Scale: The Solar System to our attention. As for everyone else, keep on sending us interesting pieces when you find them — the Internets are huge, and we here at are oh so tiny.

    Nadia Bolz-Weber on the physicality of God


    When I first heard that Nadia Bolz-Weber was coming to speak at my church next weekend, I wasn’t too disappointed that I won’t be in town for the event. Her persona, to me, is a little off-putting: the cussing, tattooed pastor. I mean, that’s interesting for about five minutes.

    But then I read yesterday’s Atlantic interview with her and you know what she said? “Oh, here’s this tattooed pastor who is a recovering alcoholic who used to be a stand-up comic–that’s interesting for like five minutes.”

    My misgivings somewhat assuaged, I read more and now I find her perfectly fascinating. Not because of her tattoos or hipster glasses, but because she says things like this:

    [Christianity] is physical. You can’t even get started without a loaf of bread and a jug of wine and a river. There is this incredible physicality to what we believe. This is spirituality in the dirt. We have a God who slipped into the vulnerability of human skin, and walked among us, and was born amongst straw and animals, and walked the earth, and ate with his friends, and spat in the dirt, and used mud and his own spit to heal people. This is not an ethereal, transcendent, otherworldly, escape-this-earth kind of god. Even after his resurrection, he was disturbingly physical about all of it. He was grilling fish on the beach and having people touch his actual wounds.

    This stuff goes on, in one of the most inspiring interviews I have read in recent memory. Bolz-Weber’s words stand opposed to the God-is-in-heaven-watching-us-be-good ethos that eats away at American Christianity from both the conservative and liberal sides. She goes on to say some great stuff about Mary Magdelene, sin, and the incredible opportunity Christians have now that we’ve lost our buildings and power.

    But back to the physicality thing.

    I wonder how much of the “religion and science problem” comes from assuming that God is some kind of ideal super-object in the sky that stands apart from the particularity and physicality of our lives. You know, the God of the philosophers. Something we can back away from and analyze, something separate that we might reject or accept, like a cautious consumer might reject or accept a deal on a car. That we might do so is the assumption of both the atheist and the Christian apologist, and is there anything more boring than a debate between them? One way out of that deadlock is to locate God in the muck and chaos of our lives as Bolz-Weber suggests. Then we could no more get a fix on God than a fish could get a fix on water, and the debates might go away, or at least get better.

    I’m now wishing I could be at church next weekend. Friends and family who go: listen well! I’m looking forward to hearing your reports.

    Here’s to a lovely Labor Day weekend for all Alert Readers.

    Near-death experiences? Not good news for Christians


    Hieronymous Bosch, Ascent of the Blessed, c. 1495. The light at the end of the tunnel has caused some to speculate that Bosch either had a near-death experience or had spoken to someone who did. Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image for a high-resolution version

    “Near-death experiences are perhaps the only spiritual moments that we have a chance of investigating in a thorough, scientific way.” So writes Gideon Lichfield in this month’s Atlantic. He may be right — usually when someone’s meditating or praying or otherwise opening themselves up to God there are no monitors and electrodes anywhere in sight. But when one is dying in the hospital the best possible experimental apparatus is all in place, set to measure every electrical impulse, every twitch of the neuron.

    In the article Lichfield describes his visit to an NDE conference, his discussions with believers and skeptics, and his research into the history and present status — both scientific and social — of NDE’s. In all this he offers plenty of insights, but the most salient is that, to date, there is no hard evidence in favor of NDE’s. That is, none that would convince any scientist. There are plenty of stories, but, as some bright wit once observed, “proof” is not the plural of “anecdote.”

    The NDE’s most prominently discussed in the article are of the out-of-body variety, cases in which the patient was able to look down on the hospital room as if floating somewhere near the ceiling. Some “experiencers” describe things they could not have known about from any other vantage point, and researchers prep certain hospital rooms by placing, on shelves near the ceiling, objects that simply cannot be seen by anyone standing on the floor or lying in the bed. The hope is that a out-of-body NDE will happen in one of these rooms, that the disembodied soul will detect the hidden objects, and will, when re-embodied, describe it.

    Which brings me to something Lichfield never mentions, certainly because it’s far outside the purview of his article: The very idea of disembodied human souls rising from dead bodies is contrary to orthodox Christianity. The old-time gospel song notwithstanding, Christianity does not say that when we die, hallelujah by and by, we will fly away. Instead the orthodox belief, codified in the creeds and supported by plenty of scripture, including the tradition’s central event, is that there will be a general resurrection of the dead. On that day, if you’re one of the elect, your body will not be left behind, but somehow reconstituted. This event is modeled on the resurrection of Jesus, who of course was not disembodied post-Easter. He could be touched. His glorified body carried the marks of his torture.

    The point is, Christianity does not draw a line between the physical and the spiritual. Which makes perfect sense for such an incarnational tradition.

    But many people think the body is opposed to the spirit. This old spirit-matter dualism is due largely to Plato and his followers and has nothing to do with the Bible (Paul’s constant references to “the flesh” are not about physical bodies). As an idea it sure dies hard, though; I bet that most churchgoers, if you asked them, would say that we do fly away into some immaterial spirit world — heaven, hell, whatever — immediately after death. But this is simply opposed to standard-issue Christianity.

    So if somehow an out-of-body NDE is proved to happen, this would not really be a point for traditional Christianity. In fact, for many believers it would not be good news at all.