Živijo Postojna!

March 26, 2008

As most of you probably know by now, I recently heard back from NSF that I have received an International Research Fellowship to pursue a research project as a postdoc at the Karst Research Institute in Slovenia. I will be working with a researcher there named Franci Gabrovšek. He also got his PhD in physics (though his thesis research was in the area of cave formation). The research institute is in a town called Postojna. Elizabeth is still uncertain as to what she can find in Slovenia, but we have decided to go ahead and accept the fellowship. There are three universities within about 20 miles of Postojna, so it is likely that she can find something. The starting date of the fellowship is flexible, but we will be starting sometime between Sept 2008 and Sept 2009 (there is some possibility that we’ll first spend some time in the US). Now it’s time to start learning Slovene. We’re looking forward to knowing a language that James does not!

The project I proposed will study flood pulses in caves and the effect that they have on moving sediment through the cave and enlarging the cave passages. As part of this project I will have to do a fair bit of caving in order to set up monitoring stations in the caves and occasionally retrieve data from those stations. I’ll also be doing some computer simulations of the flood pulses to try to further understand how they effect the cave environment and what they can tell us about the parts of the cave system that are still unknown. I’m still trying to get my mind around the fact that part of my job will be to go caving – and the rest of my job will be to think about caves. It should be an exciting two years.

Slovenia is well known for its caves. In fact the geological term “karst,” which is what the landscape where caves form is called, is a germanization of the Slovenian region named the “Kras.” I’ll be working mostly in two specific cave systems: Postojna Caves and Škocjan Caves. Postojna is a well-known tourist cave where they have a train ride through part of it. It is very nicely decorated, but also has a lot of extensive passage off of the tourist route. Škocjan Caves is a system of caves where a river sinks into a large (500 ft deep) sinkhole and then goes through a massive canyon passage before sinking into a sump. The river resurges 30 km away near Trieste and can be accessed through a number of deep vertical caves between the insurgence and springs. It is also a UNESCO site and certainly one of the most impressive caves I have ever seen. Here is a picture of the canyon passage. The bridge is 150 feet above the floor where the river flows.

Skocjan Cave

You can also check out some pictures from my trip there last year. All except for the first and last pictures on that page are in Slovenia. Here is a photo of the Karst Research Institute. Note the cave salamander (Proteus) on the wall. The English translation of its Slovenian name is “human fish.”

Karst Research Institute

-Matt, the elder brother

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A Response to “Cold War Déjà Vu: Is Terrorism the New Communism?”

March 22, 2008

Obviously James has had more time for reading than I have. I finally managed to finish Gushee’s book, but haven’t gotten any further in God’s Politics. I do share some of your concerns about the war, and in general think that we should be very careful about when we choose to go to war – avoiding it unless absolutely necessary. I’m not sure how much risk there is in Iraq for the same sorts of human rights violations as occurred in Latin America. However, I presume there is at least some risk. Part of the current strategy of the “surge” was to provide monetary incentives to local militia men in order to get them to stop fighting against us and against rival ethnic factions. At present this appears to be working, but it is at least a tenuous arrangement. Hopefully these funds will not be used in the future to fuel more in-fighting.

Given the current situation I feel that it is our responsibility to remain in Iraq and to try to fix the horrific situation that we have created. Essentially this is a “We broke it, we should fix it,” stance. Thus, I think we should focus most of our energies on figuring out how to rebuild Iraq. However, I think it’s also useful to reflect on whether or not we should have gone in there to begin with, and also to question whether or not our leaders had the right motives for doing so. If Saddam had really obtained weapons of mass destruction, then I think there would have been convincing reason to feel threatened by him. It is still not clear to me whether this was simply a failure of intelligence or rather a ploy (based on weak intelligence) to provide justification for a war that was really waged for ulterior motives. In any case, we should have also considered the consequences of creating a power vacuum in a country with such deep ethnic divides. I feel that the plans for rebuilding Iraq were woefully inadequate. I fear that the combination of questionable motives, unilateral action, poor planning for the future of Iraq, and consistent problems with torture and secrecy has actually increased the threat of terrorist attacks against the US. If nothing else it has drastically increased anti-American sentiment in much of the world – a world that was united behind us after 9/11. Many in the Arab world now view us as an occupying force that is involved in a crusade against them. This cannot be helping us in the war on terror. We must remember that the war on terror cannot be fought simply by military means. It is a war of ideas. Right now, I think we are losing that war. Only history will show what good or bad was accomplished by the war. We have at least succeeded in removing a brutal dictator from power. Hopefully, we haven’t replaced him with something worse.

-Matt, the elder brother


Cold War Déjà Vu: Is Terrorism the New Communism?

March 11, 2008

I’ve also been reading Jim Wallis’ book God’s Politics, but I haven’t managed to get a copy of Gushee’s book, although it sounds like a good one. I tried to order it through Interlibrary Loan, but it turns out that you can’t ask for books unless they’ve been out for about 6 months. It looks like I’ll have to break down and buy a copy. I was sitting around reading Wallis’ book last week, when I came to a reference to Oscar Romero of El Salvador. I had no idea who he was, but I thought that Allison probably would, so I asked her. She wasn’t quite sure, but she walked over to the bookshelf, selected a book and plopped it down beside me, saying: “here, you should read this. It’s about El Salvador.” The book was The Massacre at El Mozote, by Mark Danner, which is about a whole town (El Mozote) that was murdered by the radical right-wing troops trying to stamp out the left-wing guerrillas in 1981. I started reading it immediately, and had a hard time putting it down after I started. The book interested me so much that I started reading another one of Allison’s books on Communism in Latin America: Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror, Betrayal and Forgetting in Guatemala, written by Daniel Wilkinson. I have to admit that the impulse to read another book wasn’t inhibited at all by the fact that the semester is half over and it’s hard to be motivated to do my other work.

Not only have I learned a lot about Latin America, US foreign policy during the Cold War and recent history, I could not help but compare American involvement in these events that took place about thirty years ago to the current War on Terrorism and American presence in Iraq. Interestingly enough, this comparison was actually what Jim Wallis had in mind when he mentioned Oscar Romero, a Catholic archbishop in El Salvador who was assassinated for speaking out against human rights violations committed by the American-backed government. One of the main messages of each of these books is that the United States supported dictatorial governments in both El Salvador and Guatemala (as well as numerous others, as Allison informed me), governments that were fighting to suppress communist guerrilla insurgents. The US was aware of the massive human rights violations in each of these cases, but conveniently ignored these inconvenient facts in order to eliminate the threat of Communism from rising up in our back yard.

This concept is summarized well by Wilkinson near the end of his book:

In places like Guatemala, U. S. officials condoned acts of violence that terrorized the civilian population, and the United States even provided material and political support to those who carried them out […] And they dismissed their critics as wooly-headed liberals who were out of touch with […] reality. […] They argued that communism needed to be fought at all costs, but then refused to acknowledge what those costs actually were. (352)

Obviously communism poses very little threat to us today, but since September 11, the Cold-War scare of the old days has been replaced by a new fear of terrorism. We can see, now that the facts about civilian casualties in Latin America are clearly known to all, that we were wrong in giving our full support to governments willing to carry out such brutal acts of violence, a fact that

prompted Bill Clinton to do something that would have been unthinkable for a U. S. president during the cold war: issue a formal apology for the U. S. government’s past support of abusive regimes in Guatemala. (358)

The main threat to human rights in the modern world of terrorism is, in Wilkinson’s words, that

some will […] seek to use the war on terrorism as a pretext for their own acts of terror. (353)

Now there is no doubt that acts such as September 11 are terrorism, and there is also no doubt that such acts should not be tolerated. Another thing is equally sure, however: we must not allow or commit acts of terror in order to keep our private world free from terror. It is very difficult for us, the American public, to know the exact motives of our political leadership in going to war. One of the things that Jim Wallis points out time and again, is that when we first entered Iraq, more than 50% of the population thought that there was a direct relationship between the 2001 Sept. 11 bombings and our war against Saddam Hussein. Also, facts such as the total absence of the alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq insinuate that there is more at stake in American involvement in the Middle East than fighting terrorism and removing terroristic leadership. In the case of Cold-War Latin America, it wasn’t until the smoke had cleared, bodies had been dug up, classified documentation had been released and the global political climate had cooled off that the truth was made known. When it was, it became clear that the United States had implicitly supported acts of terror.

A common enemy can bring political unity. After Sept. 11, Americans joined hands to mourn the dead and begin to rebuild what had been destroyed. The common enemy (terrorists) even provided immense support for a preemptive war in the Middle-East. Over the last few years I have basically ignored arguments for or against the war, because it is so hard to sort it all out. I found myself supporting it, because I felt like it was necessary, but hating it, because no one wants to be at war. I have begun to question our government’s motives and our initial justification for entering Iraq. All in all, I don’t know what to think (and would greatly welcome your opinions). What I don’t want, is to hear twenty years from now about archaeologists digging up countless skeletons of Iraqi children who were massacred needlessly, all in the name of national security. It was the fear of communism that enabled us to sweep those war crimes under the rug. Let’s make sure that history is not repeating itself now, simply because we are afraid. There is no need for Cold-War déjà vu.

I realize that this post is not quite as structured or possibly as well-thought-out as previous posts, but it is my natural response to what I have been reading and thinking about lately. Perhaps it is appropriate at the same time: it is hard to know what to think about the War in Iraq, because the water is so muddy.

-James, the younger brother


Snowed-In

March 9, 2008

Time flies when you’ve got a major deadline looming (finishing my dissertation), but it’s already time for my next personal update post. We had a bit of dead time on the blog a couple of weeks back as things got busy, but you can expect the current flurry of post activity to continue for at least a few more days as James’ next post will be on it’s way shortly (and probably a short response post by me). Speaking of James, I’ll start with a comment about something he said in his previous post, Keepin’ It Real, while explaining why I had been so busy:

Don’t hold it against my big brother, though. Instead, just remember how AMAZINGLY COOL he is. When I think about how cool my older brother is, and about how he actually does the things that I only dream about doing, I’m almost willing to suggest that I’m actually not worthy of the consanguineous bonds between us.

I feel I need to point out the obvious here. James, while you are right that I do a lot of wild and crazy things that the normal person wouldn’t think of doing, dude…you’re the one who’s planning on spending your life living in a grass hut in some third world country creating a written language for some people group that doesn’t already have one and then translating THE BIBLE into that language…uh…I don’t think I can compete with that. Now to my post.

This is my first free weekend at home now for more than a month. I’m looking forward to catching up a bit. Last weekend I had a two-day geology field trip in the Sierras. The weekend before I was also in the Sierras leading an intro to mountaineering trip for the Outdoor Education Program at Stanford (OEP). OEP is a group of volunteer instructors (mostly students) at Stanford who leads a variety of outdoor skills classes. Each quarter we have a for-credit class in the Geology and Earth Sciences department. In this class we teach basic wilderness skills including navigation, how to dress properly, and everything one needs to know to plan and take part in backpacking in the wilderness. In the winter and spring quarters the Sierras are full of snow, so we also teach winter travel and snow camping skills. Each class goes on four trips throughout the quarter.

The trip I led two weeks ago was the third trip, and our tentative goal was to climb a peak. However, nature had some different ideas about what we would be doing. A major series of Pacific storms moved in that week and weekend. When we arrived at the trailhead there was already a couple of feet of fresh powder, and it was still snowing hard. All that fresh snow makes for very slow travel. In the end we only made it about 1.5 miles from and 1000 feet in elevation above the trailhead. This was about a third of the way to the peak. Since breaking trail in the snow was so tough we alternated out who was in front every few minutes. The person breaking trail would step off to the side when they got tired and the rest of the group would pass them. This allowed us to cycle through the whole group. While we were out there it snowed about another 1.5 feet. While we didn’t make it to the peak, it was a good introduction to winter storms. Here is a picture of us heading up the mountain:

Breaking Trail

And another one of some of us at the trailhead after coming back down on Sunday:

At the trailhead

Since I was on skis, the trip down was pretty fun in all of the fresh powder. The students also found it much easier to break trail going downhill.

In other news, we are finishing up the quarter. I’ve really enjoyed my Structural Geology course and have learned a lot. Next quarter I will probably take another geology course, but I’m not sure yet which one. I will hopefully have another paper draft finished soon, but right now I’ve become somewhat stuck with a particular research problem. Basically, we don’t understand some of the results and don’t want to publish until we do. Elizabeth and I will be headed next week (Monday-Wednesday) to visit the University of Minnesota where we both have prospective postdoc positions. We expect to be making some kind of decision about postdocs in the next couple of weeks. I’ll post an announcement once we’ve made a final decision.

-Matt, the elder brother


A Response to “What’s Wrong with the Religious Right:”

March 7, 2008

It has been exciting to see so much activity on Consanguinity this week. I enjoyed reading the comments on Matt’s post, which is why I have chosen to recap that discussion and provide my own take on it. Matt established a growing problem in the Religious Right, excessive partisanship, and reminded us that our only commitment is to Christ and the Church, not to any political entity, which reminds me of some of my favorite words that Jesus spoke. Pilate asks him “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” Clearly divine citizenship is of a greater kind than worldly citizenship.

The interesting question debated in the comments is this: is it right for someone to abstain from voting between two presidential candidates that he cannot fully endorse, even if one is clearly more compatible with his political views? This question has been a hot topic ever since James Dobson said that he could not vote for John McCain on account of his views on abortion and stem-cell research. It does seem, however, that McCain supports the general political stance that Dobson would support, when these two issues are cast aside. It must be true, then, that in Dobson’s view, it would be better for John McCain to be President of the United states than a Democratic candidate. What possible benefit could come from such a stance, which at first glance seems arrogant and disrespectful of our privilege to vote? I wish to briefly consider the pros and cons of such a move.

First, James Dobson has a lot of visibility as a religious figure in the United States. His decision to abstain from voting for president has already made a splash and may go a long way to provide an impetus for change within the Republican party, or perhaps within the Evangelical Church’s voting base, to find candidates with Biblical views. In this way, his abstaining becomes a kind of “civil disobedience,” inasmuch as he means to bring about political change by doing so. It is important to see that a normal citizen, deprived of the visibility of someone such as James Dobson, has very little leverage to bring about this kind of change, which means that it is much harder for a private citizen to justify abstaining.

While it is hard for me to make an overall judgment in this matter, I see some real potential dangers with this move. First of all, if enough evangelicals follow suit by not voting, “Roe v. Wade” will stay alive for another 25 years, and it won’t be God’s judgment on America, but the Evangelical church that is to blame for the thousands of babies being aborted daily. Second, many may not understand that Dobson’s move is largely based on his significant visibility, or misunderstand him in another way, which could ultimately lead to a laxidasical stance toward voting in general. Third, Dobson may now be perceived as arrogant and politically “holier than thou” by non-Christians all across America, which can ultimately become yet another barrier hindering the progress of the Gospel.

Matt helped us see that the Religious Right needs to change. It is much harder to see how that should be accomplished.

-James, the younger brother


Finding Rest In God: Take 11

March 3, 2008

Well, Matt. Your challenge has been met. Although some may not have even read your challenge, it did not go unheard. For the others, I will explain. Matt, who is so far the only person to have commented on my St. Augustine devotional post, made the remark:

Now you just need to make a praise and worship song out of it!

[Matt 1 March 2008 @ 12:20 am]

Well, here is your song, Matt. I have entitled the song “Confession #5” to give Augustine the full credit, since he really wrote it. I have copied the text below so that you can follow along. I apologize in advance for my singing. Give me a break: I wrote the lyrics yesterday, and the music today. It’s also not easy to play the piano and sing at the same time, at least not for me.

I’ll also have you know that recording this thing was a real pain (hence “take 11.” It must have taken me at least as many tries to get this thing right.) Also, when I uploaded the video to my computer, it looked like the audio and video weren’t synced up right, but after I saved the video as a smaller file, it all worked out ok.

James, the younger brother

Verse 1:

F C

My desire is to rest in you,

Dm Bb C

for your Spirit to captivate my soul.

F C

And I long to forget my pain,

Dm Bb C

for your goodness to make me whole.

Chorus:

F Bb/F F

Oh Lord, what are you to me?

Bb F/A Gm F

Please allow me to comprehend it,

Gm F C F

To proclaim the depth of your love.

F Bb/F F Bb F

Say to my soul: “I am your salvation.”

Bb F/A Gm

And as I run to your voice,

F C F

Embrace me from above.

Verse 2:

In this world, Lord, who am I,

that your heart yearns for my affection?

Woe to me! if I am silent

and respond to you with rejection.

Chorus

Bridge:

Dm C Bb Dm/Bb C/A Gm

Lord, the eyes of my heart are set upon you.

F C F/C C

Open them so I may see you today.

Dm C Bb Dm/Bb C Gm

Please don’t hide your face from me, lest I die.

F C F

Reveal yourself to me, Lord, I pray.

Verse 3:

Though my heart is small and broken,

You’re the only one who can fix me.

And my house is full of sin and idols,

You’re the only one who can cleanse me.

Chorus


What’s Wrong with the Religious Right

March 1, 2008

That title get your attention? As a result of our current discussion on religion and politics, James and I have been doing some reading. First off, we started reading a book called God’s Politics: Why the right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It by Jim Wallis. I’ve made it about a third of the way through the book so far and while I don’t agree with everything he has to say I think he certainly provides some good food for thought. A second book I have started reading, which is good enough that it has halted my progress in reading Wallis’s book, is The Future of Faith in American Politics: The Public Witness of the Evangelical Center, by David Gushee. While I am only a fraction of the way through the book so far I can say that I don’t think I’ve seen a more reasonable discussion of evangelical involvement in politics. Either of these books is worth a read if you’re interested in these topics, but I particularly recommend the latter. A central idea in Gushee’s book is that the proper way for evangelicals to relate to government is in terms of a “public witness.” That is, the ultimate goal of our involvement with politics is to bring others to Christ. I think that in many ways this reflects our initial discussion on the purpose of government.

Now to the subject of today’s post, in the first part of his book Gushee embarks on a description of the current “evangelical right” and “evangelical left.” After describing each of these cultural groups he goes on to explain what he thinks is good and bad about each. Since probably most of the readership of this blog is right-leaning, I feel that the most useful way to spend my time in this post is in looking at Gushee’s criticisms of the evangelical right. His primary objection is that the evangelical right has become too partisan. He proposes that the evangelical right has begun to intentify the interests and values of the Church of Jesus Christ with the agenda of the Republican Party. His claim is that the American evangelical right acts as a bloc within the Republican Party and that therefore it acts both to promote the general values of the Republican Party and to promote its own power within the party. And what exactly is wrong with this? Well, a man cannot serve two masters. Therefore the Church cannot both be serving Christ and be a bloc within a political party. Simply put, the Church must declare allegiance to Christ and not to the GOP. He argues that the evangelical right have in many cases adopted the party line on matters that are not grounded in scripture. For example, he points out that in some cases evangelical right leaders have uncritically defended Republican politicians who were convicted in ethical scandals. As Christians we must enter politics with a fierce independence from partisanship and an unswerving loyalty to Christ.

This criticism harks back to a childhood memory of mine. I was probably in my early teens when the family was gathered at my grandparent’s house discussing an upcoming election. I was struck by a comment that my aunt (Carol) made. She said, “We don’t always for the Republican; we vote for the best man.” Given my child-like black-and-white view of politics, this statement made quite an impression on me (obviously since I still remember it). I could see the wisdom evident in it, but it somewhat startled my sensibilities. I had fallen prey to the trap of identifying the values of a political party with Christ’s values. When we approach politics as followers of Christ we must always keep our political allegiances in check. We must constantly ask ourselves whether the values we are promoting align with God’s. I challenge each of you to use the current election year as an opportunity to examine your political stances and ask yourself whether those stances are representative of Christ. Gushee suggests a litmus test: do you have the power to say no to your favorite politician or party?

A further criticism that Gushee has for the right is that their moral agenda is too narrow. Christians should be a voice and a witness in all moral matters. Again, this brings back the idea of a witness. What does it say about us as Christians if we devote all of our time to say…opposing gay marriage, while we ignore other big issues that are clearly of utmost concern to our current society, such as caring for the environment? After all, did not God call Adam to care for creation? What does it say about us if we spend all of our time campaigning against abortion and then turn our eyes as our government tortures other human beings? Others will see us as people who don’t really care about the common good and our witness will be damaged. They will certainly be unwilling to listen to our voice on matters that are more culturally controversial. Imagine if the Church could be a consistent voice for the common good, one that transcended political boundaries and special interests. That would be a powerful witness indeed. I hope that this post has gotten you thinking, and that perhaps it will start some discussion. In our remaining posts on religion and politics, James and I will get more into the specifics of what we think this “common good” is. That is, “What is the Christian platform?”

-Matt, the elder brother