Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Year in Review, 2009.

Books Read

1. Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church by Michael Horton (reviewed 1/15/09);

2. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (reviewed 1/19/09);

3. Fun While It Lasted: My Rise and Fall in the Land of Fame and Fortune by Bruce McNall (reviewed 1/26/09);

4. Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story by Lang Lang with David Ritz (reviewed 2/4/09);

5. Lawyer Boy by Rick Lax (reviewed 2/11/09);

6. How to Lose Friends and Alienate People: A Memoir by Toby Young (reviewed 3/2/09);

7. A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity by Bill O'Reilly (reviewed 3/20/09);

8. Why I Became An Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity by John W. Loftus (reviewed 4/5/09);

9. There is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind by Antony Flew with Roy Abraham Varghese (reviewed 4/24/09);

10. 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, OxyContin and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania by Matthew Chapman (reviewed 4/30/09);

11. Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? A Debate Between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan (reviewed 5/13/09);

12. Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America's Soul by Edward Humes (reviewed 5/21/09);

13. Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America With Einstein's Brain by Michael Paterniti (reviewed 5/24/09);

14. The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University by Kevin Roose (reviewed 6/7/09);

15. Little Pink House: A True Story of Defiance and Courage by Jeff Benedict (reviewed 6/8/09);

16. Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey into Manhood and Back Again by Norah Vincent (reviewed 6/23/09);

17. Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever by Walter Kirn (reviewed 6/26/09);

18. Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America and Found Unexpected Peace by Willliam Lobdell (reviewed 7/2/09);

19. Is There A God? by Richard Swinburne (reviewed 7/10/09);

20. This is Water, Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, About Living a Compassionate Life by David Foster Wallace (reviewed on 7/25/09);

21. Was Jesus God? by Richard Swinburne (reviewed on 8/3/09);

22. The Right Stuff by Thomas Wolfe (reviewed on 8/11/09);

23. The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture by N.T. Wright (reviewed 8/17/09);

24. Renegade: The Making of a President by Richard Wolffe (reviewed 8/28/09);

25. Columbine by Dave Cullen (reviewed 9/14/09);

26. The Faith by Charles Colson and Harold Fickett (reviewed 10/4/09);

27. Out of Captivity: Surviving 1,967 Days in the Colombian Jungle by Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell, Tom Howes and Gary Brozek (reviewed 10/9/09);

28. The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich (reviewed 11/1/09);

29. Boots on the Ground by Dusk: My Tribute to Pat Tillman by Mary Tillman with Narda Zacchino (reviewed on 11/11/09);

30. A Colossal Failure of Common Sense: The Inside Story of the Collapse of Lehman Brothers by Lawrence G. McDonald with Patrick Robinson (reviewed 11/13/09);

31. Speech-Less: Tales of a White House Survivor by Matt Latimer (reviewed 11/18/09);

32. American Original: The Life and Constitution of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia by Joan Biskupic (reviewed 12/3/09);

33. The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins (reviewed 12/23/09);

34. God? A Debate Between a Christian and Atheist by William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (reviewed 12/29/09);

35. Reasonable Faith: Christian Faith and Apologetics (3d ed. 2008) by Willliam Lane Craig (good survey of Dr. Craig's five unequally persuasive, but cumulative arguments for God's existence);

36. Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman (2009) by Jon Krakauer (when a great writer, Krakauer, meets a great subject, Tillman, recording great triumphs and tragedy, it's textual magic).

Losses Sustained

John A. Radcliffe (see 9/30/09 post).

Film of the Year

In a lean year, Inglourious Basterds (sic) for the writing (by Quentin Tarantino) and acting (by Christoph Waltz)--in multiple languages--of the instantly legendary and unparalleled character, Col. Hans Landa.

Trial of the Year

Part I:;

Part II:

Appeal of the Year (tie)

"That's You"

Part I:;

Part II:


Part I:

Part II:

Part III:


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Book Review: God? A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist.


There's an elegant simplicity to this question and title. It's the most threshold of queries. Worldviews necessarily turn on the answer.

William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong tackled this fundamental question in two live debates and then collected these arguments into a book. "In th[e] first debate, Craig argued for the existence of God, and then Sinnott-Armstrong criticized Craig's arguments and offered arguments to the contrary." (p. x.)

In the second debate, Sinnott-Armstrong opened by arguing against the existence of God, and then Craig criticized Sinnott-Armstrong's arguments and offered arguments to the contrary." (xi.)

In organizing the ensuing book, "Craig developed his opening remarks" from the first debate into Chapter 1 of this book, while Sinnott-Armstrong expanded his opening remarks" in the second debate into Chapter 4 of this book." (xi.)

"After exchanging those chapters, Sinnott-Armstrong polished his criticisms [in the first debate] to produce Chapter 2 of this book, and Craig elaborated his remarks [in the second debate] to create Chapter 5 of this book. Finally, after [they] exchanged Chapters 2 and 5, Craig wrote Chapter 3 in response to Sinnott-Armstrong's Chapter 2, and Sinnott-Armstrong constructed Chapter 6 as a reply to Craig's Chapter 5." (xi.)

As a result of this methodology, the participants created a product that truly represents an engaged debate in book format. I had criticized Dr. Craig's earlier effort to turn a live debate into a book (Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? [reviewed on May 13, 2009]), because it was (through no fault of Dr. Craig) like Grape-Nuts--neither grape nor nuts, i.e. neither a debate nor a book. Fortunately, this effort hits both notes.

Although several arguments were advanced in the process, I want to focus on one that typically emerges when God's existence is debated--the problem of evil or suffering.

I've known Dr. Craig as a usually careful debater. Consequently, I was surprised to read his following concession: "Now we come to a really serious problem, atheism's killer argument, the problem of evil." (112.) "Killer argument"? Dr. Craig concedes too much. It's perhaps a "challenging" or atheism's "strong[est]" argument, but "killer"? As Dr. Craig then proceeds to offer arguments answering it, it appears that Dr. Craig doesn't believe it's a dispositive or even persuasive one. In any event, I found Dr. Craig's turning the "problem" into a proof to be remarkable. Dr. Craig posits: "evil paradoxically goes to prove God's existence, since without God things would not be good or evil as such....But even in the absence of any answer to the 'why' question, the present argument provides that evil does not call into question, but actually requires, God's existence. So although, superficially, evil seems to call into question God's existence, at a deeper level it actually proves God's existence, since without God, evil as such would not exist." (126.)

This book expertly captures the essence of the modern debate about God's existence. Both sides ably represent their respective positions and engage well. Recommended.

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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Movie Review: Avatar (Mild Spoiler Alert).

Visually innovative, narratively derivative.

You've never seen anything like this. But you've heard the story before.

Even with the hype and the twelve-year hiatus from features, director James Cameron exceeds expectations in making a visually arresting filmic experience. Please see this in 3-D. You will be transported to another time and place. After all, the film is set on "Pandora" in 2154. You wouldn't expect to see the same things seen on Earth, such as a large ship or a diamond necklace.

However, the saga of the Na'vi thinly veils the story of Native Americans and other indigenous peoples (complete with attendant spirituality). Writer Cameron does creatively introduce a hitherto overlooked aspect into the narrative--a paraplegic protagonist in an action movie.

Despite some anachronisms and an overlong battle scene at the end (and generally), the movie delivers what others can't: a truly innovative visual experience.

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Friday, December 25, 2009

Do I Need To?

During a break in trial last week, the court reporter asked me if I had ever taken a speech class.

My immediate thought was, "Do I need to?"

Her next query explained the impetus for her question.

"Have you been a professional speaker?"

What I initially thought might have been an insult turned out to be a nice compliment. She concluded the conversation by asking me if I would be interested in representing her in a case where she was being sued for north of seven figures. She identified her current attorney--a famous trial attorney--whom I will not name. I declined but thanked her for the kind words and vote of confidence. An early Christmas gift that cost nothing.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Book Review: The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (2009) by Richard Dawkins.

Like a "fronkey", The Greatest Show on Earth represents a hybrid.

It's neither fully a science text nor a screed.

It's not a dispassionate, objective science text because it contains so much rhetoric and surprisingly few supporting notes. For example, Dawkins crows: "Evolution is a fact. Beyond reasonable doubt, beyond serious doubt, beyond sane, informed, intelligent doubt, beyond doubt evolution is a fact." (p. 8.) Dawkins continues: "Evolution is a fact, and this book will demonstrate it. No reputable scientist disputes it, and no unbiased reader will close the book doubting it." (9.) When a lawyer overargues a case, it makes another wonder what is being omitted or obscured. Here, we might start with a definitional problem. If Dawkins means "microevolution" (changes within species), I doubt he would receive much argument from advocates of "intelligent design" or even creationism. But if he means evolution in the sense of common descent from a nondivine single source (which he seems to), the "evidence" isn't as compelling as promised.

Conversely, it's not merely a screed because it provides Dawkins' "summary of the evidence" for "evolution" (vii). Dawkins usefully illuminates how various "clocks" are used to measure time in millions of years. (Chapters 4 and 10). Dawkins additionally explains the fossil record and its interpretation. There's also discussions about genetics and plate tectonics that edify.

Especially given Dawkins' complaints about having his prior writings used against him, I found this passage from The Greatest Show on Earth puzzling. "Every fossil that might potentially be intermediate is always classified as either Homo or Australopithecus. None is ever classified as intermediate. Therefore there are no intermediates." (202.) Some form of that last sentence is likely to be extracted and used against Dawkins.

A populizer of Darwinism, Dawkins remains at the vanguard of debate as to the origin of human life. Thus, it's a good idea to read his books, regardless of one's biases.

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Monday, December 07, 2009

DVD Review: Collision: Christopher Hitchens vs. Douglas Wilson: Is Christianity Good for the World? (2009).

In my law school class last week, we discussed the newly released DVD, Collision: Christopher Hitchens vs. Douglas Wilson: Is Christianity Good for the World?

On the surface, this might appear to tangential to a legal course. Au contraire.

At the end of this DVD, Hitchens makes an insightful comment about the United States' legal system. He critiques American culture by observing that debate is "very poorly conducted" here. He cites two examples to support his argument. First, he points to Congress with its series of speeches, but no engagement. Second, he skewers television talk shows with the converse--people yelling at and past each other. I added a third: talk radio (on both sides of the political spectrum) mostly operates as an echo chamber with callers simply feeding back the views of the hosts, or telling them what geniuses they are.

Hitchens carves out one notable exception to this dearth of debate: courtrooms. He finds them founts of argument evolving with evidence, concepts and arrangement in symmetry. Agreed.

In this DVD, however, Hitchens and Wilson strive to add a new source of debate: philosophical dialogue. This DVD compiles exchanges of these participants from their 2008 book tour loosely around the question asked in their book, "Is Christianity Good for the World?" I say loosely because the discussion routinely veers beyond this singular question, but generally represents a clash between atheist and Christian worldviews.

Familiar with Hitchens through his books and other writings as well as his performance in similar debates, and generally regarding him as one of the most skilled communicators walking the planet, I frankly wondered whether Pastor Wilson would be up to this task. While others have criticized his performance, I think apart from a couple of missteps he held his own. Even Hitchens regards the two as "reasonably well matched"--high praise.

Despite some excesses, such as a Rocky-style intro, as if two pugilists were entering a ring, and some bizarre, jarring camera angles, graphics and editing, the DVD still captures the essence that makes this debate entertaining. There are real and respectful exchanges of ideas that can inspire the audience to greater understanding and engagement with important issues.



Thursday, December 03, 2009

Book Review: American Original: The Life and Constitution of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (2009) by Joan Biskupic.

Justice Antonin Scalia has objected to receiving "lifetime" achievement awards as akin to a shiny statue going to a "washed up" Hollywood actor to recognize past achievements.

This new book, American Original: The Life and Constitution of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, while seemingly a capstone of Justice Scalia's long career on the bench at the U.S. Supreme Court, instead posits that he now "might be at the apex of his influence." (p. 364.)

"Scalia had changed the terms of the debate at the [Supreme] Court, in law schools, and in professional legal analyses." (353.)

He has been called the Court's "most influential justice." (353.)

So, rather than just celebrating a career, the book looks for streams collecting into Justice Scalia's current, powerful river of influence.

Some key themes emerge: (1) his religion; (2) his politics; and (3) his jurisprudential philosophy, among other things.

Religious Influences

Justice Scalia recounted "the last lesson [he] learned at Georgetown: not to separate your religious life from your intellectual life. They are not separate." (25.) Others have observed this influence: "Scalia's longtime friend Arthur Gajarsa, who became a federal appeals judge in 1997, characterized Scalia as defined by his Catholicism. 'I think his faithful belief in the Catholic doctrine is what makes him run.'" (187.)

As I have written extensively on the intersection of law and theology, especially as it relates to the similar use of texts, I found the following observation intriguing: "SUNY-Buffalo law professor George Kanner linked Scalia's text-driven legal approach with his 'catechism' roots as the son of observant Catholics and a graduate of the Jesuit-run Xavier High School and Georgetown University." (191.)

Political Influences

American Original also recounts Justice Scalia's work in the Nixon and Ford administrations, where he linked up with Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. He argued strongly then for an expansive Executive branch power, and that view has not abated on the bench.

Jurisprudential Influences

This book spends considerable space delving into Justice Scalia's originalist judicial philosophy and traces its outworking through many controversies and opinions.

Biskupic, a Supreme Court reporter for many years, with Justice Scalia's blessing (413), has written a superb, fully-orbed portrayal of the high court's "most influential justice."

Recommended to lawyer and layperson alike, but since the book delves into the "weeds" of the law, it probably would be appreciated more by the former.

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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Best Exam Answer Ever.

While waiting for trial to begin this week, our conversation turned to university philosophy courses. It triggered my memory of a tale about the best exam answer ever.

In one of my graduate philosophy classes, a classmate recounted that his undergraduate philosophy professor gave an exam with a single instruction. The professor placed a chair on a table in the front of the class and instructed, “Prove that this chair doesn’t exist."

One ingenious (and brave) student answered with a two-word response, “What chair?”

It’s all about the burden of proof--and brevity. As Shakespeare observed in Hamlet, "Brevity is the soul of wit."