Law Religion Culture Review

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

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Book Review: Too Big To Fail (2009) by Andrew Ross Sorkin.

Would you want to listen to a play-by-play of a game when you knew the final score?

Some sports purists do, as old games run on the NFL Network and ESPN Classic, to analyze closely what happened.

Likewise, Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big To Fail reads like a play-by-play as it goes from myriad meetings to telephone conversations and then back again as "Wall Street and Washington fought to save the financial system--and themselves." For example, Sorkin reports on proposed merger talks, but knowing that such a merger was not consummated removes any suspense.

A sports play-by-play simply reports what happened. There's little emphasis on coaches' game plans before the game or what they were strategizing during the game. A play-by-play does not explain the why or how of events leading up to the game.

Too, Sorkin does not seem interested in doing an etiology of this financial breakdown. Sorkin quotes President Bush asking, "How ... did we get here?" (p. 440), but doesn't endeavor to provide any answers. Given that some might find the book's size almost "too big to read" (at 539 pages sans acknowledgements and notes), it's surprising how little Sorkin discusses causes.

By contrast, Lawrence G. McDonald and Patrick Robinson's briefer, A Colossal Failure of Common Sense: The Inside Story of the Collapse of Lehman Brothers (reviewed here on November 13, 2009), managed to do so. A former Lehman Brothers vice-president, McDonald was much harder on Richard Fuld and Joe Gregory than Sorkin was. In fact, the only person that took a sustained linguistic beating in Sorkin's tome was Christopher Cox, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (and former Congressman from Newport Beach, CA), whom is called a "lightweight", "cryogentically frozen" (304) and "almost intentionally ineffectual" (422), among other things.

Nevertheless, Sorkin does provide an extensive array of material, that obviously took a tremendous amount of time to obtain. Given that most people weren't in meetings or privy to phone conversations, the book does keep readers' interest, notwithstanding knowledge of how things turned out.

As I passed the 500-page mark, I was impressed by the lack of editing errors, especially given the paucity of time that Sorkin had to conduct all this research and then assemble it into a book in about a year. Just as I formed that impression, a spate of errors cropped up suggesting the book was rushed to press just a bit too soon. (e.g., 503, 514, 516.)


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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Book Review: The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions (2008) by David Berlinski.

"I don't have enough faith to be an atheist."
--Norm Geisler and Frank Turek (from the title of their 2004 book).

In The Devil's Delusion, David Berlinski explains why those who rely on scientific naturalism are stepping out in faith. According to Dr. Berlinski, it's a faith because science has failed to answer the most basic of inquiries: the origins of the universe and life (among other things).

Due to these limitations, Dr. Berlinski chastises those who oversell their worldviews. For example, "The answers that prominent scientific figures have offered are remarkable in their shallowness. The hypothesis that we are nothing more than cosmic accidents has been widely accepted by the scientific community.... It is an article of their faith, one advanced with the confidence of men convinced that nature has equipped them to face realities the rest of us cannot bear to contemplate. There is not the slightest reason to think this is so." (p. xiv; emphasis in original.)

Dr. Berlinski continues: "Daniel Dennett's assertion that natural selection has been demonstrated 'beyond all reasonable doubt' must be judged for what it is: It is the ecclesiastical bull of a most peculiar church, a cousin in kind to an ecclesiastical bluff. When Steven Pinker affirm that 'natural section is the only explanation we have of how complex life can evolve,' he is very much in the inadvertent position of the apostles. Much against his will, he is bearing witness." (196; emphasis in original.)

Berlinski's approach is somewhat unique for a couple of reasons. First, he comes at the issue not as one seeking to establish theism (or even as an adherent of any religion [p. xi]), but instead to undermine this kind of faith propagated by the "scientific community." Moreover, he does so from the inside, as he has taught and written on mathematics and science, after earning a Ph.D. from Princeton.

Second, Berlinski does so with the same searing smugness that came across when he was interviewed in Ben Stein's clever movie, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, in which he insulted Richard Dawkins for his intellectual limitations. In this vein, the book is full of personal attacks, which while amusing, aren't necessary to build the case (and as in law actually undercut it). For example, Berlinski writes: "I count myself among [Sam] Harris's warmest detractors. When he remarks that he has been dumbstruck by Christian...intellectual commitments, I believe the word has met the man." (p. xi; emphasis in original.)

Setting aside the personal attacks, the book's unusual approach to the material gives it currency in today's economy of debate on these issues.

Recommended to those interested in the field.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Taxi Driver Philosopher.

In Irvine, California yesterday, I was stopped behind a taxi cab that had a license plate holder with the following inscriptions: "Ayn Rand Institute" on the top, and on the bottom. I took this picture of it.

Here cab drivers are philosophers. Or philosophers are cab drivers.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


On a jog at the beach this morning I encountered two messages carved into the sand.

On one side, someone engraved "God Loves You".

On the other, "Pot Smokers Unite".

I guess everyone needs a cause.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Book [on CD] Review: What's So Great About Christianity by Dinesh D'Souza.

Dinesh D'Souza probably should be paying royalties to Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and even the estate of Nietzsche.

For all the quotations of their work, he probably owes them a monetary debt. More broadly, D'Souza probably also owes them a debt of gratitude for they serve as foils for his book. In fact, the companion study guide is subtitled, "Your Guide to Answering the New Atheists". D'Souza asserts he wrote this book to answer their (and others') "strongest critiques and objections" to Christianity.

As a result, the book is mistitled (likely to parallel his earlier work, What's So Great About America). It's not so much as litany of the beneficial effects of Christianity as the title would suggest, but as a polemic for the religion, responding to such questions of the origin of the universe, miracles, and the problem of evil, among other things. D'Souza, however, does eventually get to the promised utilitarian argument in his final chapter (26), "A Foretaste of Eternity: How Christianity Can Change Your Life."

Coming from his background as a writer mostly about politics, D'Souza essentially relies on others to make his case in this disparate area. In this sense, D'Souza is a popularizer of what others have done in the fields of philosophy, science, and theology as they bear on these questions. However, while not formally trained in these disciplines, he brings to the topics clear prose, and sometimes, a creative way to repackage these thoughts for a general readership.

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Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Movie Review: The Book of Eli.

In a post dated September 22, 2009, I marvelled at the audacity of a congregation who planned to plant a church in the heart of Hollywood.

Likewise, I marvel at the audacity of the filmmakers of The Book of Eli who placed the Christian Bible at the heart of a Hollywood movie.

So much does this film elevate these Scriptures, it's almost Bible-idolatry.

Witness one line from Gary Oldman's character who seeks to obtain, for nefarious purposes, the lone copy of the Bible remaining after an apocalypse: "It is a weapon." And it's "aimed right at the heart" of humanity. This gentlemen as well as the film's protagonist, Denzel Washington's Eli both value the Bible's life-changing message that it transforms their lives. Both understand its transformative powers, and they mine it for different ends.

As for Eli, his life has been dedicated for the 30 years since the apocalypse to saving these Scriptures by taking them "West". While this name means divine figure, the movie doesn't fully sculpt a Christ-figure, but in its apparently intentional ambiguity, it comes very close. For this reason, and many others, this film is full of Christian metaphor and imagery. Accordingly, it will appeal to believers who have a high tolerance for filmic violence (e.g. Passion of the Christ).

Simultaneously, with a Sixth Sense-type twist (no spoilers here), visually and aurally stunning atmospherics, and an acting gift from Mr. Washington, it operates on its own as a brilliant Hollywood movie.

Highly recommended.

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