On counseling and medication

An interesting discussion on counseling and medication over at another blog raised a good point that I’ve often found is a stumbling block to Christians. David Powlison, quoting the Director of the National Institute on Mental Health, said:

Psychiatric medications can sometimes take the edge off symptoms, but they can't give people what they really need. People need meaning and relationships. Psychiatry can't give that. Medication can't give that.

This is something that is apparently difficult to understand for those who have not had immediate contact with the effects of this kind of medication (known as “psychotropic” medication).

I once had a student whose comment revealed that even those who HAVE had contact sometimes misunderstand. She said in an off-hand manner, “I’ve taken anti-depressants. They make you happy!”

The truth is, they don’t. They might help you to be normal (in a chemical sense), but they don’t make you “happy.” My concern deepened as I counseled this student about this, because she had faced mild-to-moderate depression for so long that she had come to assume that her
depressed state was “normal”-- thus, having that edge of depression taken off was “happy” feeling to her.

Here’s my best analogy of what psychotropic drugs offer: Suppose you love running, and have your heart dead-set on running a marathon in a year. In preparation for a training regimen, you visit your doctor, who informs you that the slight pain in your knee is actually a problem that needs to be addressed surgically; in short, if you don’t have your knee scoped, you won’t be able to train for the marathon, let alone complete it.

Here’s the analogy: if you have your knee scoped, is that going to make you ready for the marathon? No. You’ll still have a lot of work to do to condition your body (and your mind) for running the marathon. But if you don’t have your knee scoped, you are guaranteed that you won’t be able to run the marathon.

So it is with psychotropic medication: they won’t overcome your depression for you, but they might address the physical/physiological obstacles that would keep you from being able to do the work of overcoming depression. (Likewise with anxiety and other clinical mental health issues.)

Why "Expelled"?

I didn't see An Inconvenient Truth. It's not that I don't care about the environment; I'm even impressed with Al Gore's passion and presentation skills (had he honed these a few years earlier, he may have won the electoral vote!). I just don't care too much about sitting through a movie-length propaganda film from a point of view that I don't completely agree with.

Likewise, I've never seen any of
Michael Moore's documentaries-- although I confess I've always wanted to see Roger and Me, his film about how General Motors abandoned their factory in Flint, Michigan. Moore's political worldview, so I understand, is so in-your-face that those who disagree can feel the blood pressure rising.

The bottom line is: why go see such films? While some are cleverly disguised as documentaries (which, by definition, has a somewhat raw and unedited approach to presenting reality-- thereby calling into question whether the films mentioned here are true documentaries), they are actually long propaganda pieces.

Here's my question: who goes to see these that don't already hold to the positions presented? Can Moore claim to have swayed thousands to his political perspective through
Fahrenheit 9/11? Has Al Gore really turned toward global warming the attention of those who were skeptical before?

I ask because I'm curious about the kerfuffle and spin surrounding the recently-released
Expelled. Apparently Ben Stein (you remember him: the monotone teacher constantly calling for Ferris Bueller) has positioned himself as the Al Gore of Intelligent Design, making an exposé-like film that reveals how scientists everywhere, who are sympathetic to an Intelligent Design (ID) position, are being fired or run out of their positions in academia and scientific research because of their belief in the possibility of ID.

From the trailers, Stein's movie looks snarky and humorous (at least to those of us who lean toward his view on the matter). Apparently Stein interviewed a few prominent Evolutionists for the film as well as ID proponents, and his use of their perspectives has cast question on the reliability of he presentation, for me at least. At least one of these prominent scientists (who viewed the film in a pre-screening) claims that the editing and cut-and-paste job done to his interview completely misrepresents his point of view. What is worse, apparently one of the dominant thrusts that Stein attempts to make in the film is that Darwinism was a prime motivating factor in Hitler's Nazi regime, and therefore Darwinism ought to be inherently suspect. (Good thing folks haven't drawn the same mistaken conclusion about Christianity because of the Crusades and the Inquisition... oh, wait-- they have.)

So I wonder: what is the goal here? Do we (Christians, sympathizers to ID, those concerned with the lack of "objectivity" that comes with worldview-- take your pick) honestly believe and hope that secular, atheist scientists who doubt ID or zealously affirm a Macro-Evolutionary position will come to this movie and have their worlds turned upside-down? Do we expect that thoughtful secularists who are NOT scientists will be persuaded by such a film?

And if so, do we expect that it will happen through sarcasm, misrepresentation, and a handful of arguments wrought with poor logic (hasty generalizations, slippery slopes, ad hominems, etc.)? And that actions like
kicking out those who disagree from early screenings will advance the cause? I don't really follow what the point is, unless it is some sort of retribution for Christians and other conservative thinkers being mischaracterized in the past. Otherwise everyone sees it for what it is: a propaganda piece (as my friend Jon said, "Obviously it is propaganda, but it is *my* kind of propaganda :)").

One more thing: I want to take this opportunity to call on
World magazine, and especially Marvin Olasky, to step up and do the right thing with regard to this movie. Over the last three weeks, I have been appalled by World's coverage of this film. The same magazine that called Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, "disgusting, pathetic propaganda without the slightest shred of integrity" (July 17, 2004 issue) and accused Gore's An Inconvenient Truth of employing "stage tricks, straw men, and well-rehearsed rhetoric" (June 17, 2006 issue) lauds Expelled as, "reasonable, radical, risible, and right" (April 5, 2008 issue). Ironically, Olasky himself (who reviewed Expelled) said that biblically-directed reviews should "emphasize specific detail, not abstract theorizing" and "should present a biblical perspective, not individual bias" (Olasky, Telling the Truth: How to Revitalize Christian Journalism. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1996, p. 173). Marvin, your team of reviewers has been waffling back and forth between "Inconsistent Christians" and "Traditionalists" instead of pursuing true biblical objectivity (see ch.1, esp. p.20, of Telling the Truth).

A new view on waste disposal

Here's an interesting set of artwork that depicts quantities of waste created in the U.S., with statistics. While some of this is fairly heavy-handed rhetoric, a good bit of it is illustrative in ways that just seeing numbers alone cannot accomplish.

It certainly brings us back to the question: what sort of stewardship are we exercising with regard to our world?

A new (to me) take on global warming

George Will argues that the human cost of global warming is "cheaper" than the cost of maintaining or improving the global temperature. By cheaper, I mean that the threat to humanity and to our ability to survive and thrive as a society. As Will says, an important question is: "How much are they willing to pay—in direct expenditures, forgone economic growth, inefficiencies and constricted freedom—in order to have a negligible effect on climate change?"

Will approaches the problems of environmental concern with a quite pragmatic vantage point, but I think what he underscores (indirectly) is helpful: there are things that we fail to consider when we look at such problems. Often, our solutions appear to be what is best for now, only to create new problems down the line.

Think, for example, of the problem of our reliance on fossil fuels for so many parts of life, but especially transportation. For many, the obvious solution is hybrid and all-electric technology to power cars. But the long-term effects of this may be even worse than depleting fossil fuels: such vehicles require enormous batteries that will, eventually, be disposed of; where will we put them? Is there a clear plan in place to efficiently recycle them so that we don't end up with even more waste (and fairly hazardous waste, at that) in our landfills?

It may be better, instead, to focus on utilizing natural gas (another fossil fuel, ironically) as the next step for fueling our cars and trucks-- it burns very cleanly, and we have it in abundance-- the main issue is one of distribution. Meanwhile, batteries can continue to reduce in size and our ability to recycle them will also improve.

A similar concern is with regard to electrical power: for years, environmental activists have asserted that our current (primarily coal-powered) power grid is a threat to our ecosystem, especially with more than 35% of our CO
2 emissions coming from them, causing harm to our atmosphere. Yet, the same activists have long maintained that nuclear power-- which has the unique ability to create incredibly large amounts of electricity without atmospheric repercussions-- is equally as dangerous in other ways.

However, Patrick Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace (one of the loudest voices about such concerns) has recently made
a bold statement reversing his position on the matter. Moore's argument is that we need to give a second look to nuclear as a truly viable alternative to burning coal.

Still, the long-term costs must be accounted for: though nuclear power plants are not the threat to the well-being of those around them they once were feared to be, an increase of nuclear power plants represents a corresponding increase of nuclear waste that must be disposed of carefully and safely. The question of what sort of legacy we are leaving for our children and grandchildren is
one that we must consider. With continuing improvements in realms such as wind, hydroelectric, and solar power (the Japanese have made substantial advances with solar, in particular), there are better long-term alternatives.

And I have to wonder (and as a Pastor, feel compelled to wonder aloud): is the stewardship we are called to exercise as Christians best understood as simply improving our technology? How about simply reducing our demand for it? Driving less, riding in carpools when possible, and implementing alternative means of transportation come to mind when gas prices are up-- why not at other times? Using space heaters, efficient gas logs, and other forms of more localized heating during winter are great alternatives to simply turning up the thermostat. And there are surely other ways to reduce our collective demand for local, national, and global use of energy and fuels.

What are some ways that you can think of to reduce demand and improve stewardship?

Internet communities article

I've always been fascinated with technology, and over time I've developed a lot of thoughts and ideas about how faith and technology collide. A few of these thoughts made their way into an article that I recently wrote for ByFaith magazine, which ended up being called, "Looking for Love in a Few Wrong Places". That article, which focuses particularly on how technology and the Internet allow communities to be built in new ways, is now available on the ByFaith website, in case you're interested.

By the way, if you don't already subscribe to ByFaith, I would highly recommend it (and not just because I write for them)-- it is a good magazine that offers a helpful look at many diverse topics.

Stem cells and life issues

One of the issues that has confused Christians for nearly a decade is that of stem cell research. While many of us have heard the claims that "stem cell research will cure the world's diseases and afflictions," these claims are sometimes challenged, often unsubstantiated. And just as the issue was moving to the fore of public interest, the 9/11 terrorist attacks (rightly) took our attention off of it.

What is going on with the stem cell question? Proponents have long argued, as I mentioned before, that the key to solving a great many medical problems may lie in investing in stem cell research, specifically embryonic stem cell research. In fact, they have maintained that only embryonic stem cells offer the possibilities that medical science hopes for. Opponents claim that, in the case of embryonic stem cells, there is a moral/ethical sticky wicket involved: in order to obtain these cells for research, a human embryo must be destroyed. Since many believe that human life begins at conception, this means that, a human life must be taken in order to perform the research. This was the state of the debate 6 years ago, and for a long time there was little change in this impasse. Immediately prior to 9/11, President Bush issued an executive order substantially limiting stem cell research, and that further ceased any progress in the discussion.

Fast-forward to June of this year: a bill (one of a series) was passed by Congress to approve funding for embryonic stem cell research, and President Bush vetoed it. At that time, he put forth the argument that he (and many other opponents) have offered before: there are other, better sources for stem cells than living human embryos, and these offer as much possibility as any embryonic cells do. While many proponents snickered or jeered at Bush's dogmatic take on the research, a few scientists (specifically in Kyoto, Japan and Madison, Wisconsin) plodded ahead with just such an effort.

This fall, they announced their success in two medical journals (Cell and Science): they had succeeded in creating human stem cells ("pluripotent" ones-- meaning they have the potential to take many forms) from existing human skin cells. What is more, because these stem cells are created from a human's own cells, they theoretically offer better potential at organ replacement, for example, because of a lesser likelihood that the organs will be rejected. And this obviously removes the ethical concern, as no embryos are required for this process. They declared their discovery an "ethical and political win-win."

This advance, however, is not welcome news to the ears of everyone interested in this medical technology. It turns out that other implications have emerged from this research, as well: stem cell research may not be the promising cure-all that many hoped it to be. Instead, it may simply contribute to the study and advance of existing cures for diseases, rather than offering exciting and near-miraculous new approaches to curing things like paralysis, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, or heart failure.

Many still claim that embryonic stem cells still offer this promise. Yet the truth is starting to come out: as Paul Nurse (a medical Nobel winner) said at a stem cell conference, "Creating cell lines for transplant is unlikely to come down the pike any time soon. Opponents recognized that this was an overselling of the technology" (Newsweek, 12/3). Even if the strongest opponents are right about embryonic stem cells, that still leaves the ethical dilemma of the use of embryos for research purposes. Thus, this revelation (about the realistic limits of stem cell research) at best puts us back to the stand-off that has been status quo for the past six years.

Two things need to occur to reasonably advance this issue for Christians and others: first, attentive thought should begin to debunk the myth that "funded stem cell research = cures for all our ills." Until our world begins to understand this more fully, no profitable discussion on the matter can really take place.

Second, however, is the imperative that everyone, even (and especially) Christians, must begin to accept: the bio-ethical issues of the value and sanctity of human life, so core to many Christians' understanding of how we understand things like the abortion issue, needs to be explored more fully. We must not accept a weak, inconsistent application of life-value, but must realize the full extent to which this value applies to our world. It includes (but is not limited to) embryonic stem cell research, cloning, and abortion; but it also includes questions about elder care, certain fertility efforts, and even warfare. From my perspective, we (as a Church) have been careless about thinking through the consistent application of our claims to be "pro-life" in the big-picture sense.

"Where they stand" by Richard Ostling, in World magazine, December 15, 2007 issue.
"Reality Check on an Embryonic Debate" by Sharon Begley, in Newsweek magazine, December 3, 2007 issue.
"Scientists Produce Embryonic Stem Cells from Skin" by Joe Palca, on All Things Considered, November 20, 2007 episode.