April 2009: Books Read

1. Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs by Ken Jennings. Lately I’ve had a greater than average interest in the game show Jeopardy! – largely because I took an online contestant test back in January. So just in case, by some miracle, I end up getting on the show, I wanted to know more about it. Therefore, I went to the library and picked up this book by Ken Jennings, who became famous for winning 74 consecutive shows a few years ago.

The book does contain his reflections on his record-breaking run, but it’s more than that. It’s about the history of trivia and why so many people in our culture are obsessed with it. He includes chapters on pub trivia, on the biggest trivia contest in America in Stevens Point, WI, and on the art of composing trivia questions. I found it a fun, quick read – in part because he includes trivia questions in the text.

Earlier this year, I read a book by another Jeopardy! champion, Bob Harris, and one interesting difference between that book and this one was in their depiction of Alex Trebek. Both Harris and Jennings portray Trebek as distant, but that’s where the similarities end. Harris thinks that Trebek is a benign presence, rooting for all the contestants but unable to be too friendly because of the required professional distance between host and contestant. Jennings, on the other hand, shows Trebek to be surly and impatient for the day’s taping to be over so he can get to a Lakers game. I suppose the world will never know what he is really like – but I’m inclined to believe Harris’s characterization. After all, somebody who volunteers his time to World Vision can’t be that self-absorbed, can he?

2. The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Francis S. Collins. This book came out in 2006, while I was studying at Regent. I remember reading chunks of it in the bookstore while browsing, but I never bought a copy because of all the required reading I had to do. Now, curious about how this book handles the science-faith “debate,” I decided to pick it up.

Collins is the former head of the Human Genome Project and an evangelical Christian, so he of all people ought to be able to adjudicate on the mess that we are in in our culture regarding science and faith, specifically when it comes to the issue of evolution. He breaks the book down into three parts. The first is called “The Chasm Between Science and Faith,” and in it he tells his own story of coming to faith from an atheistic background, as well as briefly addressing some popular objections to belief. The second is called “The Great Questions of Human Existence,” and in it he talks about the origins of the universe, the origins of life on earth, and the human genome. The last chapter in this section was a very readable account of his own journey as the head of the Human Genome Project. In this chapter he also sets forth his case for why he thinks that evolution is the best explanation for what we find in our genes.

Part three I found to be the most helpful given the question that I came to the book with: How does Collins view the culture war between science and religion? He says that people have four options when it comes to navigating science and faith. Option 1 is Atheism and Agnosticism. Not surprisingly, Collins finds this option insufficient. Option 2 is Creationism. Despite its popularity among evangelical Christians in America, Collins says that it has a flawed foundation. Clinging to this position makes it easy for opponents of faith to win easy victories, and it also causes many young people to turn away from faith when they discover that scientific data conflicts with Young Earth Creationism. Option 3 is Intelligent Design. I appreciated Collins’ distinction between Creationism and Intelligent Design (ID). ID is newer, and is not necessarily tied to the notion of a young earth. Nevertheless, Collins finds it wanting both scientifically and theologically. I was most interested in his theological objections, namely: it is a “God of the gaps” theory. Science can’t explain how certain things got to be complex through evolution, and so God is invoked. As Collins says, “Advances in science ultimately fill in those gaps, to the dismay of those who had attached their faith to them. Ultimately a ‘God of the gaps’ religion runs a huge risk of simply discrediting faith… Intelligent Design fits into this discouraging tradition, and faces the same ultimate demise.” (193)

The fourth option is theistic evolution, which Collins calls “BioLogos” (clicking on the word will take you to the recently launched Web site of the BioLogos Foundation). This is the option that Collins finds most compelling, and I must admit that I find his argument compelling as well. I mean, when you enlist C.S. Lewis in your cause (as Collins does with a quote from The Problem of Pain on p. 208-9), how can you lose?

The book closes with a chapter that is more specifically from a Christian perspective than what came before. He exhorts believers and scientists to lay down their weapons in the culture war and realize that “Science is not threatened by God; it is enhanced. God is most certainly not threatened by science; He made it all possible.” (233) There is also a great appendix on bioethics, particularly dealing with stem cell research. All in all, a great, readable book, and I recommend it.

3. The Jeopardy! Book by Alex Trebek and Peter Barsocchini. This is another book that I got from the library because of my recent Jeopardy! preoccupation. It’s not a bad book; it tells you all about how they make the show and what the most successful contestants have in common, as well as giving you several questions and answers used on the show. Problem is, it came out in 1990, so it’s pretty outdated.

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One thought on “April 2009: Books Read

  1. dawnomite May 3, 2009 / 11:46 am

    You would be GREAT on Jeopardy! I so hope they call you!

    Having read none of the Jeopardy! books, I’m inclined to believe Jennings’ opinion of Trebek more. 74 times! I bet Trebek was bored as all get out with Jennings’ run – not the length of the run itself, which was exciting for all of us! – but the constant, “Oh, Jennings knows this one too. ho hum!”

    That said, I always seem to notice when Trebek is rooting for a player. I never notice an impatience or annoyance.

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