Curiosity Propels My Toddler to Learn. Will Computers Ever Compare?

How our relationship to God makes us unique from our robot imitators.

My son saw a shark today.

In his two short years, this was the first time he beheld the creature. His eyes went wide. Would he fear the thing?

His head tilted a few degrees left, betraying a smile. Not knowing what it was or its name, he christened it himself. Pointing, he proclaimed, “Agu dalpha!”—his toddler parlance for “alligator dolphin.”

As a linguist and translator, I was charmed. What a peculiar name. What a sensible name.

He saw the creation, and he named it, tapping into that ancient stream of humanity flowing back to our first ancestors.

In mere fractions of a second, his mind sifted his entire knowledge base. Visual, motor, linguistic, and associative information danced across the trillions of synapses in his brain, pivoted in his frontal cortex, then flew back through the Wernicke’s area, arcuate fasciculus, and Broca’s area and was ultimately heralded out by the motor cortex controlling his speech articulations.

These so-called “basic” mental processes are extremely complicated. Legions of academics and corporations toil round-the-clock to teach computers to approximate just one of these steps. The who’s who of star tech companies together spend billions to crack even a sliver of the great problem of true intelligence.

But my toddler, unbidden and unsupervised, does this entirely of his own agency. He is an analog masterpiece. And he is not unique in this. In his young mind, unsupervised learning meets unsupervised creation. These are hallmarks of human intelligence.

Currently, we are the only created beings in the universe that can do these things—at least that we know of. Computers cannot perform unsupervised learning like we do. Even their supervised …

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Church Is a Family, Not an Event

The Bible refers to fellow Christians as “brothers and sisters,” but how often do we treat them as family?

The little boy was playing in the street, kicking the dust, jumping off walls. My wife happened to walk past him with our five children, which caught the lad’s attention. He watched from a distance for a while and then plucked up the courage to jog over and ask: “Are you going to a party?” My wife quickly answered: “Yes, we are! We call it church. If you go and check with your mum, you can come with us.”

That little boy ran home and was back in a couple of minutes with a huge smile on his face. That Sunday he stayed for a cup of hot chocolate and left before the service began. But he was back the next week and the week after that. Pretty soon he had brought his mother, his brother, and a couple of his cousins. Eight years later, they are an integral part of our church.

One of the most moving moments of those years was when the boy’s mother was baptized. Standing waist-high in water, she explained a little of her traumatic childhood, her years living rough, and something of the struggles of trying to hold her own family together. Her face shone and her voice clearly articulated her love for the God who had found her and welcomed her home.

The idea that had caught her son’s imagination was that church was like a party that he and his family were invited to. Until then, they had sadly mostly experienced what it was like to be excluded, but the discovery that church wasn’t so much an event you turn up to as a family you belong to was life-changing for them. In fact, it was life-changing for the whole church.

More Than an Event

I have met many pastors and church members who can tell similar stories. As I visit many churches that are embracing people in desperate need of family, my eyes …

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How to Defend the Gospels with Confidence

Questions about their reliability deserve better than sheepish mumbling.

Last month, Harvard psychologist and atheist public intellectual Steven Pinker posted this provocative tweet: “As any Jew knows, there is controversy (to put it mildly) over whether Jesus was the messiah. But did he exist at all? A new book by R. G. Price argues, ‘Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed.’”

This comment garnered well over a thousand likes and 600 shares. This, despite the fact that the book Pinker highlighted was self-published by someone without the relevant scholarly credentials. Its thesis is historically laughable. But the takeaway is one that even a highly educated atheist like Pinker will gladly swallow and propagate. Posts like this reinforce the popular idea that Jesus is a flimsy, semi-mythological character—wearing sandals for sure, but without any clear historical footprint.

We Christians know better. Or do we?

Stop the average Christian and ask if there is any historical evidence for the person on whom they have staked their life, and you will likely hear sheepish mumbling. Most of us wax apologetic when people ask about the evidence for Christ, but not in the right sense: Rather than offering reasons for our faith, we simply reveal our ignorance. All of which makes Can We Trust the Gospels?, a new book from Cambridge University Bible scholar Peter Williams, essential reading.

The Best Records

Williams begins by mining early non-Christian writings about Jesus and his followers: sources like the Roman historian Tacitus’s account of Christians being blamed for the Great Fire of Rome (A.D. 64); or Pliny the Younger’s correspondence with the Emperor Trajan, regarding how severely to persecute Christians; or the first-century Jewish historian Josephus’s …

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From Russia, Without Love: Ukrainian Orthodox Mark Christmas with Biggest Schism Since 1054

Eastern Orthodox experts and Protestant neighbors explain the impact of Constantinople setting Kiev free from Moscow.

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine has been born again.

On January 6, it received the tomos of autocephaly—the documentation of its independence among Eastern church bodies—from one Orthodox heavyweight, the Patriarch of Constantinople, despite the vociferous opposition of another heavyweight, the Patriarch of Moscow.

To understand the significance of the biggest Christian schism since the Protestant Reformation, unfolding since last fall and formalized this weekend as Eastern churches celebrated Christmas Eve, a brief history is in order.

Founded in Kiev in 988 A.D., Vladimir the Great accepted Christianity on behalf of the Rus peoples, who would eventually constitute the nations of Russia, Belorussia, and Ukraine.

Tradition holds that the formerly pagan Vladimir wished to give a religion to his realm, and queried representatives of Judaism, Islam, and the different rites of Christianity.

Astounded by the majesty of the Byzantine mass, Vladimir chose Constantinople. In 1054, the Great Schism split Christianity—and the Rus remained in the Eastern Orthodox world.

Geopolitical winds shifted, however, and in 1686 the Patriarch of Constantinople—considered within Orthodox leadership to be the first among equals—placed the patriarchate of Kiev under the ascendant patriarchal church of Moscow.

In the modern era, geopolitical and religious winds continued to blow. In 1991, Ukraine became an independent nation. The following year, a breakaway bishop (or metropolitan, in Orthodox parlance) established an independent Ukrainian Orthodox church based again in Kiev, joining a smaller Orthodox schism from 1990 in staunch opposition to the canonical Moscow-affiliated church. Neither group was recognized by the patriarchs …

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The Audacity of Mary

God chooses the unlikely yet obedient to be his image bearers.

As I spent time reflecting on Mary in the Gospel of Luke this advent, I was continually brought to tears in a way that I’ve never experienced. Her story is beautiful and bold. It reminds us of the uncomfortable reality that witness is embodied and done in community.

It is sacred, messy, painful, and confusing. Yet it is God’s way of birthing gospel dreams in and through each of us.

Ben Witherington III writes in Women and the Genesis of Christianity that:

…it is Elizabeth and Mary, not Zechariah and Joseph who are first to receive the message of Christ’s coming, who are praised and blessed by God’s angels, and who are first to sing and prophesy about the Christ child…perhaps they are also the first examples of the lowly being exalted as part of God’s plan of eschatological reversal that breaks into history with, in, and through the person of Jesus.

When Gabriel appears to Mary, he doesn’t begin by telling her what will happen. He tells her why. Why? You are highly favored. Mary is troubled by his words and asks, “What kind of a greeting is this?”

He tells her again, “Don’t be afraid, you have found favor with God.”

The angel speaks these words to Mary because she is seen as anything but favored in her culture. Mary is a peasant, an unmarried girl from an insignificant village. In Jewish culture, a woman pregnant outside of marriage faced the threat of being put to death at worst and being dishonored and disgraced at best.

Women today are fighting through the barriers to share Jesus as they ask the same question Mary asked—“Why? Why am I, or would I be highly favored by God? Why would God choose to use me in his plans as a single woman who …

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Ten Theses on Creation and Evolution That (Most) Evangelicals Can Support

We won’t achieve perfect unanimity on every contested topic.

Not long ago a pastor friend called, asking for help. “I’m preaching through Genesis 1–11,” he said, “and I need some advice on the whole creation and evolution thing.” There was anxiety in his voice. He wasn’t sure how preaching on origins was going to go in his church setting—or whether he would even survive! Understandably so. There is hardly a more controversial subject among evangelical Christians.

Several years earlier, a rumor circulated within my congregation along the following lines: “Pastor Todd thinks we came from apes!” My congregation was, historically speaking, on the conservative side of many theological issues, this one included. In its not-too-distant past, the church had embraced six-day, young-earth creationism as its (unofficial) teaching position. Needless to say, the fact that their relatively new and fairly young pastor held to a version of evolutionary creation caused some congregational heartburn.

This tension-filled season in the life of our church provided a good occasion to engage in serious conversations about origins issues. We grappled with our doctrinal boundaries as a local church: What degree of diversity will we allow? And given our diversity, what can we still affirm together as a unifying doctrinal core?

The upshot was the development of a series of ten theses on creation and evolution that we believe (most) evangelicals can (mostly) affirm. We weren’t looking for perfect unanimity. Our ultimate goal was to maintain the “unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3) and to prioritize the gospel as of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). It was important for us to arrive at a position on creation …

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Interview: Eugene Peterson Wanted to Know Your Name

How, the late pastor asked, can you shepherd a flock you don’t know?

Eugene Peterson—who died in October at age 85—is best known, perhaps, as the author of The Message, his vernacular paraphrase of the Bible. But for many pastors and church leaders, Peterson was also a mentor who taught them to be shepherds rather than CEOs—in large part by modeling that approach himself. Drew Dyck, acquisitions editor at Moody Publishers, spoke with Peterson in 2017 as one of his final books (As Kingfishers Catch Fire) was published. They spoke about recent developments across the ministry landscape, the seriousness of the pastoral calling, and how The Message sprouted from his desire to truly know and listen to the people in his ministry. Pieces of that interview appear here for the first time.

In the preface of As Kingfishers Catch Fire, you write that the Christian life is “the lifelong practice of tending to the details of congruence.” What does that look like in a pastor’s life?

As pastors we’re interested in getting people to live a life that is congruent with the gospel. One of the things I realized from day one is that I needed to listen to congregants and not just put things into their heads. This is one of the wonderful things about being a pastor. You get the time and the opportunity to make connections with the everyday lives of people in your congregation. You can’t just treat Christianity as a pile of ideas from which to add and subtract.

You grew up in farming country, and your father was a butcher. Did that environment shape you as a pastor?

By all means. People who work with the soil and with animals learn to respect what they’re doing and the subjects of their work. My dad had one man working for him who he would send to the farms or ranches. …

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When the Word Becomes Words

Ann Voskamp and photographer Esther Havens document the moment a new Bible translation arrives in a rural Kenyan community.

The word of God comes riding in on a camel. It’s a kind of modern-day Palm Sunday in Northern Kenya, the nomadic Rendille people waving their worn sticks instead of palm branches, the Word of God itself stacked in bound cardboard boxes, lashed to the hump of a swaying dromedary.

More than a thousand Rendille and dozens of distant neighboring tribespeople have gathered in the stifling heat, with ready smiles and raised hands, to greet the completed New Testament in their own mother tongue. They have been parched for living water under the desert sun for decades—centuries—and this day is nothing short of a resurrection coming. Dancing women stir the dust with their feet, thousands of beaded necklaces rattling like rising bones, and they point out how even the Word-carrying camel can’t seem to stop grinning.

The Rendille translation is one of more than 120 nearing completion in Africa alone in 2018. Over three decades ago, two faithful missionaries and two deeply committed Rendille tribesmen began laying the foundation for this day when they set out to translate parts of both Testaments into the Rendille language. Their painstaking work finally came to fruition in the last three years, thanks to technology and consulting methods beyond those early missionaries’ wildest imaginings and to partnerships between groups including Wycliffe, Seed Company, BTL Kenya, and Africa Inland Mission.

Which is what makes today, the day the Good Book comes, seem like a divine visitation.

Pastor David Gargule, a native Rendille who holds master’s degrees in theology and in organizational leadership and management, has returned here to the desert, because what would it be to find success in the world if his own …

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Gospel-Centered Resolutions: Not All about You, but God Working in You

The cultivation of our love for God isn’t something we can nurture all on our own.

It’s day one of the New Year— let the resolutions begin.

Ugh.

New Year’s is perhaps the only holiday that requires its celebrants to continue the ‘festivities’ months and months after the day is out.

It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

After all the partying and fellowship die down, most people can’t help but get started setting goals and making resolutions. As a matter of fact, a full 40% of the nation’s population makes New Year’s resolutions each year.

Of course, the size and scale of these goals often differs from person to person. Many set out to change their budgets, bodies, homes, or education levels. Others want to focus on emotional well-being or the building of meaningful interpersonal connections with others.

But regardless of the specific area of interest, there exists a couple of common denominators between these resolutions worth acknowledging.

First and foremost, everyone seems to want more of something specific in their lives.

We are never satisfied.

Statista performed a study in 2017 on individuals’ New Year’s resolutions across the country. When asked, 53% of respondents wanted to save more money, 24% of respondents wanted to travel more, 23% wanted to read more books. Others wanted to increase their own personal health by losing weight, getting in shape, or quitting smoking.

More is a common focus, and that is not always bad.

Many of us could benefit from books, travel, or a little weight loss. What’s most impressionable here is the theme of discontentment; we are a society full of perpetually unsatisfied people, hungry for more of whatever we can get our hands on.

As the line in Hamilton goes, “I’ve never been satisfied.”

Actually, …

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A Voice in the Crowd

What’s good and what’s bad about unpopular opinions.

The Huffington Post recently drew eye rolls with a tweet claiming that the beloved children’s TV classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was “seriously problematic.” The accompanying video pointed out all kinds of bigotry and abuse in the show—which, as responders were quick to point out, the show was not actually endorsing. Quite the reverse, in fact. The whole point of Rudolph, as most viewers know, is that in the end, difference is celebrated and bigots see the error of their ways.

But you can’t cause an uproar by just saying what people already know. And lately, causing an uproar seems to be a major goal, if not the major goal, of many who formulate and proclaim opinions for a living. From NPR’s Ira Glass dissing Shakespeare to the various debunkers of It’s a Wonderful Life, trolling cultural icons is a quick, easy, and regrettably popular way to attract eyes and clicks.

The Toronto Star actually dedicated an entire column, titled “The Heretic,” to trolling. The idea was to let the paper’s writers take turns sharing “a wildly unpopular opinion.” I found this out one day when I noticed that my timeline was full of angsty chatter about, of all things, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

I soon traced the angst to this Toronto Star article: “‘Ode to Joy’ has an odious history. Let’s give Beethoven’s most overplayed symphony a rest.” After glancing over the ideological and political history of the beloved piece, music writer John Terauds threw his bucket of cold water: “But from today’s perspective we know that unilateral calls to world brotherhood in joy have a flip side, which is tyranny. We appreciate now …

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