June 2006

War and Faith in Sudan.  By Gabriel Meyer. Photographs by James Nicholls. Eerdmans. 216 pages. $20.

Why do most of us prefer reading about individual heroes rather than a multitude of them? Perhaps because the personal story gives us more than the facts; it gives us a sense of how it might feel to be in the midst of tragic struggle. But only a writer such as Gabriel Meyer, a novelist and poet as well as an international journalist, could give us a book like War and Faith in Sudan. His words break through any barriers of apathy we might have to reading about "ho-hum, another war," and move us to compassion for the hundreds of thousands of victims and to awe for the courage of the survivors. James Nicholls's photographs are more than illustrations. Some images are startling enough to be archetypes of whole worlds of significance.

The story behind War and Faith in Sudan, both personal and historical, is itself of interest. Meyer agreed to accompany the pastor of the region, Bishop Macram Max Gassis, on a flight into a war-torn area in the mountains of Sudan. The purpose was to film enough about the Nuba tribe to be able to interest the U.S. and other countries in helping the victims of years of enslavement, torture, and genocide.

The 20-year-old war has been a rebellion of Christian and indigenous peoples against an Arab-Muslim tyranny. The work of Bishop Gassis and his team -- producing films, filing news stories, and planning meetings with key political leaders -- brought about a mediation led by former U.S. Senator John Danforth, and eventually a peace agreement pending either secession from the Arab-Muslim state or re-unification with civil rights for all.

Meyer remarks that in the mountains of Sudan he could witness the stark contrast between the secularized faith of many countries and "its vital front line in Africa and Latin America, where faith is still a matter of life and death."

If you want to let these front-liners of the faith refresh your own, read War and Faith in Sudan.

- Ronda Chervin

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science.  By Tom Bethell. Regnery. 256 pages. $19.95.

Tom Bethell raises important criticisms of how science is currently done. Dominant points of view in its various areas have become almost immune from criticism. Yet, of all our inquiries, science should be the most open to new evidence. A number of factors contribute to science's "bureaucratic tendencies."

First, science increasingly depends on government funding, and those who control the purse strings determine what projects are pursued and what results are acceptable. Second, increasing specialization means that within each area there are fewer "experts." Third, there's increasing emphasis on consensus. Those who control the funding are more interested in results than research, so they seek consensus. But history reveals many a scientific consensus that has been overturned.

Science depends on the free search for knowledge and, if Bethell is right, consensus is the enemy of science. He devotes much of his book to criticizing a number of consensus views, most of which are left-leaning. Prominent scientific myths, he claims, are: that humans cause global warming; that human cloning and embryonic stem cell research are the keys to health; that the overwhelming evidence supports Darwinian evolution; that religion is the enemy of science; and that AIDS is an equal opportunity epidemic.

Like Bethell, I think science can be a sacred cow and that scientists are often seen as the authorities on nearly everything. But scientists have biases, conflicts of interest, and hidden agendas. They are not always truthful, and credentials do not always deliver what we expect them to. Some scientists are incompetent, and most fall on a continuum between semi-competent and reasonably good. Perhaps 10 percent are really top notch, but even superstars should be evaluated by their actual arguments.

For the most part, I also agree with Bethell on the interface between religion and science. For example, the evidence for naturalistic evolution is underwhelming. Much evolutionary theory is only a series of ad hoc explanations to cover the poor fit between Darwin's theory and actual fact.

Nonetheless, Bethell sometimes fails to provide reference where the context requires them. For instance, while arguing that AIDS is not a heterosexual epidemic, he says, "careful U.S. studies have already shown that at least a thousand sexual contacts are needed to achieve heterosexual transmission of the virus." But he gives no reference for this claim.

In attempting to establish that the Catholic Church was open to the Copernican view, he quotes Galileo as follows, "He soon found that his Jesuit friends in Rome had already verified the actual existence of the new planets, meaning the moons of Jupiter, and had constantly been observing them for two months: we compared notes, and I found they agreed exactly with my own." No reference.

Bethell tends to overstate his case. In attacking evolution, he says, "molecular biologists don't have any idea how the mechanisms they study came into existence." Not so. In speaking with molecular biologists, I've learned that they have many ideas on how these mechanisms came to exist. Their ideas may be right or wrong, but they do have ideas.

At other times, Bethell concedes too much. He introduces the following argument against Intelligent Design: "If the advocates of intelligent design can invoke an invisible designer, or God, who can prevail over all difficulties any time He wants, then we are more in the realm of magic than science." However, a strength of Intelligent Design is that the Designer is not identified. But acknowledging design in nature does not have to enter into the separate theological questions about the Designer. A person who knows nothing about airplanes and has never seen one, who then sees an airplane land, and examines it, will probably conclude that it was designed. The fact that he doesn't know how it works, who designed it, or anything about the designer, is of little importance. Working on one problem at a time is perfectly legitimate in science.

Bethell is also glib in dismissing theistic evolution. He quotes approvingly a number of people who say that theistic evolution is inherently atheistic. But he excludes a whole continuum of views, while implying that all views along this line are inconsistent with theism. But why? G.K. Chesterton says that an atheist must embrace A to Z evolution, while the theist is free to follow the evidence and believe in any amount of evolution or none. "Young earth" creationists sometimes insist that anyone who disagrees with them is not a Christian. The atheists have to love these guys. They are such an easy target; their stance ends any engagement with the evidence that the earth is millions of years old. People instructed in all-or-nothing doctrines, at some point, often find they no longer believe them and drift into reluctant agnosticism.

Tom Bethell has written a moderately useful book that introduces important issues from a conservative point of view.

- Carl Grant

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