Christians and “Coincidences” or Is There a Hex in the Patternicity?

This article has many images and footnotes; I encourage the reader to download it as a pdf here: Shogren_Christians and Coincidences

It happened just the other day: I had been thinking about James Bond, and later when I pulled out a form of identification for the bank teller, I noticed that my ID number began with 007! Was I a secret agent? Perhaps one suffering from amnesia?

Or, let’s say a man “has a system” for beating the Vegas roulette table. He has noticed that black has come up eight times in a row. So he bets everything on black, because “there’s clearly a pattern to the wheel tonight.” Meanwhile, a man across from him is thinking to himself, “I’d better put everything on red, since it looks like it’s due to come up.”

A child and her companion lie on their backs, looking up at the clouds. “That one looks like a giraffe!” she says. “And that one a camel!” “No, not a camel, look at it upside-down, it looks just like an octopus.” One child says, “An angel!”; another says, “Actually, it looks quite like Charles Darwin!”

We have all played this game without realizing that we were doing pattern recognition. As Paul Simon wrote many years back, in the song “Patterns”:

The night sets softly
With the hush of falling leaves,
Casting shivering shadows
On the houses through the trees,
And the light from a street lamp
Paints a pattern on my wall,
Like the pieces of a puzzle
Or a child’s uneven scrawl.

Leaves, shadows, trees, indecipherable scrawling – these can all seem like messages because of our human tendency for patternicity. So can tortillas and numbers and corporate logos, as we shall see.

This is why astronomers speak of the Horsehead Nebula, which was not modeled after a terrestrial animal, but just sort of looks like a horse!

From ages past, people have imagined patterns in the stars and constructed “constellations” of animals, gods, heroes. And we can get a cross-check on patternicity by seeing how different cultures “read” the same stars –  it’s Orion in European legend, but the same stars are a hunter and his dogs chasing a deer in India. Mr. Rorschach invented his famous ink blots on the basis of human pattern recognition (“Ummm…is it, maybe, two ducks kissing?” “Okay, Mr. Anderson, we’d better make it three sessions per week!”)

We are wired to quickly detect patterns in the data we see and hear. This is a huge help to get us through the day: when our alarm clock goes off, we don’t have to puzzle over, “Now, what could that buzzer possibly mean?”

But for some people, that recognition faculty goes beyond what is useful (more…)

What I read in 2016, the short list

I have always been a big reader, but never anything close to my list for 2016. That’s when I began to use the wonderful online group, Goodreads.com, to log the books that I have read, am reading, and want to read. I am up over 1900 books that I have logged as “read” in my lifetime, so far, but I know there are hundreds I cannot remember; I imagine the number should be more like 2500.

“Do you want that reading list Super-Sized?”

Over Christmas break 2015 I decided to join their Reading Challenge for 2016, and set a (as it turns out, too ambitious!) personal goal of 150 books/plays this year, including the complete works of Shakespeare, the Koran, and others, let alone material for class prep. Typically I am reading eight books at a clip; some short documents, some long tomes, some Audible recorded books from Amazon.

Overall, I read a lot more non-fiction this year than I usually do, although I also read some marvelous fiction.

Here are some of the highlights, in no particular order:

Russian themed. Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons (1862) was excellent. I am about a third of the way through the fictionalized biography of Trotsky by Leonardo Padura, The Man who Loved Dogs. Dostoyevsky, The Idiot (1868-69) is a Christ-allegory. All are available on Kindle.

George Orwell beyond 1984 and Animal Farm. I have read 1984 a dozen times since Junior High, and decided I should branch out. Keep the Aspidistra Flying is a novel (more…)

Lady Apostle Lands in Jail!

If I asked you “Who were the martyrs of the early church?” you would, quite properly, begin with Stephen in Acts 7; James in Acts 12; and then go on to Peter and Paul.

“Brave, godly men were early martyrs” = a right answer

But not a complete answer.

Why not? Because we all, simply by being human, look at history through our own set of lenses. Because of such “cognitive bias,” the data that confirm our expectations stand out in bold print, and the data that don’t fit into our grid fade into the background. To answer our question, may I suggest that:

“Brave, godly men and women were the early martyrs of the church” = a better answer

Christian women were singled out for persecution in a way that their Jewish and Gentile contemporaries were not.

lady-martyr

Let us first honor those Jewish women who were victims of (more…)

My Time with the Koran, April 2016

Read the whole file here shogren_my-time-with-the-koran or download it on your phone. my-time-with-the-koran

My reading the Koran is like a rock-and-roller trying to figure out what in the world that jazz trio is up to. Still, if I will opine that the Koran is right, wrong, or indifferent, I feel I should have at least a basic, first-hand awareness of what it actually says. This, even though people all the time comment on books they haven’t yet gotten around to; the Bible in particular, unread by many Bible-believers.[i]

I bring this up because, like you, I have seen certain Facebook memes and books that “prove” that all Muslims are “really” in a jihad against the West; and that when some (apparently very nice) Muslims claim they are not planning to blow stuff up, well, they are lying, since everyone knows that in Islam it’s cool to lie about not being involved in jihad in order to be more effective in jihad. See my dilemma?

We live in a world where from all directions, especially in the social media, we see quotations taken out of context. I love the new usage of “cherry-picked,” a term that is often applied during election years. According to the Urban Dictionary, it is “When only select evidence is presented in order to persuade the audience to accept a position, and evidence that would go against the position is withheld. The stronger the withheld evidence, the more fallacious the argument.”

Jefferson’s well-known statement that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing” is usually taken out of context; when Lincoln “said” that he was not concerned about slavery, but maintaining the Union, that’s cherry-picking; and when the Lincoln meme tells us “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet,” that’s just a fake. We run into supposed quotes from George Washington, Albert Einstein, Gandhi, Joe Stalin, even George Carlin. A snatch of a phrase from Alexis de Tocqueville or Gibbon’s Rise and Fall, also practically useless unless read in context.

At any rate, I have had on my reading list for some time to go ad fontes (Latin, “back to the sources”) and read books of other faiths, not objectively—which is unattainable for anybody—but directly and unmediated. I have a copy of the Book of Mormon waiting in the wings; a dear Hindu friend gave me a beautiful edition of the Bhagavad-Gita, also on my list; Confucius’s Analects I read long ago, also the Mishnah and the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Gnostic literature. On the wackier side, I have read the prophetic quatrains of Nostradamus (meh) and looked over some of the “exposés” of the Catholic Church by Charles Chiniquy (yow!). I read Pope Francis’s Laudato Sii on environmental issues and later on his Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee: the latter in part because I heard somewhere that it promised to send Protestants to the guillotine in a 21st-century Inquisition; turns out, it did not mention decapitation or any bloodshed; who knew?

I also wanted to read the Koran because of a phenomenon that is very obvious from a Google search, that there are Muslims apologists who carefully read the Bible—in order to refute it.[ii]

So, this was my first time through the Koran, and I went cover to cover. I looked up some points to clarify what I was looking at, but tried to avoid the Hadith interpretations or other viewpoints, except for the ones I read afterward about jihad. It was “Back to the Koran” time.

s-l1000

Let me give some broad observations, from a Christian for Christians, and then address specific topics. (more…)

“I don’t believe it!” Thoughts on truth and social media, Part II

In Part I I began an extended-play rant against internet disinformation. I’m against it for two reasons: I don’t like false information; I don’t like to look foolish when I fall for it.

Here are other areas where we need to show some healthy skepticism:

ECHO CHAMBER EFFECT

In 2015 the social media were packed with people reporting that Pope Francis had announced that Islam and Christianity were equally valid and that the Koran and the Bible were basically the same message: “Jesus Christ, Jehovah, Allah. These are all names employed to describe an entity that is distinctly the same across the world.”

“I’m the pope, but I’m broadminded!”

People were outraged! The Vatican denied it which, for some of us, was evidence that it must have really happened. It appeared on the bogus Washingtonpost.com.co, conservativebyte.com, also civictribune.com (which altered the story, so that the pope supposedly said this at the White House). So, I have seen the same exact story, usually quoted verbatim, on four websites. Does this mean there are four “sources”? No, only one, and that original source (National Report again!) said they were just joking! But the echo effect means that the reader senses that, “It must be so, because everybody is talking about it!” The National Report was also responsible for the spoof that the Pope wants everyone to be micro-chipped by 2017.

For the Christian there is a special sort of news source, the Prophetic Site. If one blogger says he, I don’t know, saw four grim horsemen riding around in the field ‘back of his farm, then the story will spread far and wide within days, if not hours.

TABLOIDS

Ah, for the days when tabloids were clearly labeled and placed at the supermarket checkout. Then you could give a quick glance and find out when Elvis was spotted with what Venusian or how a Wolf-Boy was loose in the Maine woods.

Here’s one you won’t soon forget:

wtf tabloid headline

Now you just have to click on and find tabloids online, for example, WorldNewsDailyReport.com. Read all about it! “Man who spend 57 Years Counting the Bricks in the Great Wall of China.”

Of course, (more…)

“I don’t believe it!” Thoughts on truth and social media, Part I

Capture

“You must not pass along false rumors.” Exodus 23:1

My friends know what a skeptical soul I am. Whenever I see a post on the social media, my first reaction is to shake my head and say, “Yes, but, how do you know this to be so?”

And they know me as the one who annoyingly responds on Facebook, “Is this true??”

I really, really, don’t like to be “had”. They “got” me badly, once, when I saw an announcement that MTV was going to start putting operas into their mix of music. MTV!! Twenty years ago, and it still burns me. Later I realized that the announcement came out on April 1.

Set aside videos of cute kittens or adolescents cracking up their skateboards. Let’s focus on those other things – political, social, religious, etc. – which get posted on social media and spread like wildfire. They go viral because of a factor in the human mind called “cognitive bias”. Everyone has cognitive bias = that when I hear things from certain sources, or which resonate with what I already “know” to be true, I more easily assume it’s true, at least until someone proves otherwise.

Let’s take an example: ISIS

In December, after the San Bernadino shootings, these two pictures circulated the internet. If someone put them on Facebook, you and I would probably be more likely to accept one as “real” and the other as faked or at least less important information. The first looks like a pro-ISIS rally, the second something else:

Photo 1

Photo 1

Photo 2

Photo 2

Answer: Both were taken in Dearborn, Michigan. Photo 1 was a march on Dec 5, 2015, by Muslims against ISIS. The other picture in front of “City Hall” is, I was able to confirm, Dearborn City Hall, located at 13615 Michigan Avenue; it was a march by Muslims again, against ISIS, in August 25, 2014. And I learned that there have been a number of these marches by Muslims in Dearborn. (more…)

Did your pastor/teacher/expert/YouTube guru set a wrong date for the Second Coming? Don’t let them off the hook

It appears to be the busy season of people telling us when Jesus will return. I have seen five dates for the period of September-December 2015 and others for 2016 or 2017. Four of those dates have already passed us by. Whether these date-setters claim to be prophets or not, they all transgress the Lord’s warning – “Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it.” (Matt 24:23); and Paul’s statement that we shouldn’t let anyone confuse us with their predictions (2 Thess 2:1-2).

As I have written at length elsewhere, these Date Setters tend to fall into predictable behaviors. Download the entire article here: “Shogren_How to calculate when Jesus will come without even being a prophet!”

First, people speak with great confidence ahead of time, naming dates or months or years and offering incontrovertible proof that the Lord will return as they predicted.

130909-signs-end-times

Second, when he does not return, what happens? Most date-setters have a strong psychological (more…)

Published in: on September 30, 2015 at 3:36 pm  Comments (2)  
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How to Calculate when Jesus will Come – without even being a prophet!

Download the entire article here: Shogren_How to calculate when Jesus will come

What follows is my response to the outbreak of Blood Moon Fever and the Shemitah Virus, and more broadly, to the rapidly-spreading epidemic of predictions of Jesus’ near return between 2015-2017. I offer it to the Christ whose coming I love.

Something like 41% of the American people believe that Jesus will definitely or probably return by 2050. That figure shoots up to 58% when the pollster asked white evangelical Americans.[1] So, once someone starts with that basic assumption, that we must be in the Latter Days, very few will question it: it now becomes a question of detail and voilà, a whole End Times cottage industry springs up.[2]

My readers know that I am a “Matthew 24:36 Strict Constructionist”: that when Jesus said that no human – or angel, or the Son of Man – knows the time of the Second Coming, his original intent was to forbid all date-setting, not just the “day or hour” but any time at all; and that he meant that we should leave off amateur predictions of the End Times.

I mention this verse, which is found in my Bible in Matthew 24; but I suspect that some imp has gone around and whited out v. 36 from many copies.

There are two types of individuals who set dates for the Second Coming: the one who regards him or herself as a “prophet” who receives messages from God; the one who insists that he or she not be called “prophet”. I break them down as follows:

Date-Setter by Revelation – an early example is that in the 2nd century, a man named Montanus claimed that Jesus would soon return, to a little town in Asia Minor; more recently, all sorts of prophets – and psychics – predict the Second Coming – we can probably put Emanuel Swedenborg in this group, also Edgar Cayce; so did Joseph Smith, founder of the Latter-Day Saints. Just go on YouTube and you’ll find plenty of these dreams and visions, and most are not cult leaders.

Date-Setter by Calculation – these are the people whom we will study in this article. They base their predictions principally on the Bible text or some strained reading of the Bible text. They dazzle us with numbers, dozens of verses, references to lunar eclipses, killer asteroids, flip-flopping magnetic fields, RFIDs,[3] chemtrails, earthquakes, assertions about how many years a “generation” really is, and so on. Let’s call them End-Time Number Crunchers or ETNCs.[4]

I guess we could consider a third group the Blended Date-Setters; they appeal now to their calculations, now to dreams and visions. Here’s one, a man who sets dates according to Jewish feasts, and also collects testimonies of “Dreams and Visions of September [2015] Rapture”; for example, he tells of one dream about how Puerto Rico was covered by snow – hence the End is Nigh.[5]

article-2352717-01BD66460000044D-85_634x437

Who are the End-Time Number Crunchers (ETNCs)?

One of the reasons ETNCs are dicey about the label of “prophet” is because Deut 18:15-22 prescribes the death penalty for all who make “presumptuous” predictions, that is, “if the word does not come to pass or come true.”[6] I have run across a number of these date setters, some of whom use the title Watchman or Watchman on the Wall (see Isa 62:6, Ezek 3:17, 33:6). The idea is that they have a Get out of a Stoning Free card if they make mistakes in their calculations. (more…)

Published in: on September 10, 2015 at 5:47 pm  Comments (16)  
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“The Paranoid Style in American Politics” has its 50th Anniversary

[One of my few blog entries on politics, and how it relates to psychology, sociology, and modern apocalyptic eschatology. Here is a full pdf version: Paranoid Style Turns 50_Shogren]

Because of his ability to describe and predict American political behavior, Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” should be required reading for the citizen. And except for Sacred Scriptures and the US Constitution, I never say any text should be mandatory. “Paranoid Style” was a short, dynamite article in the November 1964 issue of Harper’s, and is still available on their website archive. [1] We will look at some of its insights for today, and in particular, its implications for the evangelical church.

His immediate interest was the conservative movement that backed Barry Goldwater for president in the 1964 election. As a confirmed liberal of the old style, that is, to the left of typical Democrats of today, Hofstadter argued that he was not simply being anti-conservative – and that he was! – but rather: “I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing.”

I offer my own summary of the script of the “paranoid style”:

Nothing is what it seems to be: there are evil forces at work, carrying out their treacherous actions and shielding themselves from the attention of the general public;

I and a small group of whistle-blowers are even now revealing this hidden reality;

the proofs are extraordinarily complex and interwoven, but the central truth is simple and can be explained in a few sentences;

we who are “in the know” are continually hampered or even checkmated due to powerful enemies and widespread public apathy and gullibility.

“Nothing is what it seems to be – there are evil forces at work, carrying out their treacherous actions and shielding themselves from the attention of the general public”

conspiracy-theory-top-secretExamples from recent decades would have to include Senator Joe McCarthy, who argued that the loss of Eastern Europe and China to the Reds could not reasonably have happened by accident, or by normal political (more…)

Published in: on December 19, 2014 at 7:29 pm  Comments (16)  
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The Gospel and Choice, Part 1 – Is the battle for belief played on an even field?

Have you debated the doctrine of election, jaw clenched, over coffee? In a classroom? In your small group?

"Election!"  "Free will!"

“Divine sovereignty!”                                      “Free will!”

It’s a vital topic, but your venue is ill-chosen. Rather, we should be discussing the doctrine of election to the extent we are doing evangelism and being eyewitnesses to God’s transforming power.

That’s how the apostles did it, as traveling evangelists who by the Spirit were applying God’s truth to real life, analyzing their preaching and prayer life, and later the psychological, cognitive and behavioral transformation of their hearers. Only then did they draw conclusions about whom God had elected. (more…)