Sunday, December 18, 2005

To my blog readers / The last wrap of 2005


I'm aware that the quality of my blogging has been slipping lately, and even if you don't think so, I think I can do so much better than this. I have been feeling very tired and worn out this academic year, and I'm going through a spiritually dry season. And it can be really hard to know how to write sometimes, because although I'm sure my readership is pretty small, it's a diverse bunch of people and I'm very ambivalent at where I should pitch my blogging at. I guess maybe some will say then I should blog for myself, or blog to the glory of God (just to sound more spiritual *grin*) but that doesn't necessarily solve the problem. But please excuse me, with so many other things calling on my attention, I'm not giving this blog as much care as I should. I'm in a funk.

Anyway, as I'll be away for the next 2 weeks, I won't be blogging, so let me wish all my blog readers a very happy Christmas! Let me leave you with a wrap:

Ten Reasons to Listen to Questions before you answer" - Listening, a lost art.

Through flawed leaders - Old piece, which I liked a lot. And feel encouraged by.

Adrian interviews Richard Cunningham - Richard Cunningham is the national director of UCCF, which of course I'm heavily involved in.

The Marks of the Pharisee - Doug Wilson makes us rethink our portrait of the Pharisee...and ourselves.

Preparing a sermon (with John Stott) - Joshua Harris talks us through the basics of preparing a sermon. And his advice for the blogosphere is worth a read as well.

Andree's aphorisms - As advertised. Those on prayer especially ring true.

LibraryThing - Good idea! Catalogue your books online and share it with friends. But free signup only limits you to 200 books though.

Deferred success is the new term for failure - The year's top politically correct words.

Food! Glorious food!

Wizards of Winter video - OK, this guy is a genius, very rich, very bored and very annoying, all at once. Using Christmas lights in an *ahem* ingenious way.

P/S Really like the Narnia movie. Despite all the positive reviews, went in with fairly low expectations. Lucy was a delight from start to finish. My only quibble is Aslan-related. But definitely worth a watch.


Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Are you going hyper-Calvinistic?

25 warning signs that you might be obssessing with Calvinism.
(HT: Justin Taylor)

[If you're not sure what Calvinism is, then this post might be a little confusing and will have you convinced that my sense of humour is ah....deficient. :) But then again, it was all predestined anyway. :-p ]

BWAHAHAHAHAHA!!! Absolutely great post.

No. 10 is absolutely on the mark. It's become a bit of a joke actually, because the guy reads, endorses and writes forwards to so many books! Hmmm....considering that he endorsed a recent N.T Wright book, I wonder if the Reformed community will now disown him for not being "Reformed enough"? :-p

OK, this is scary. I knew every name on no.7. At least I know what my kids names are going to be (Jon, John, Jonny, Johnita?); there's empirical evidence that this will ensure that they'll be part of the true covenant family. :-p Eh, you're not a paedobaptist? Out, Out!

Oooh, I think I'm a heretic, because I'm listening to the guy listed in No.6 right now. (Derek did an interview with Challies recently, and in the process, destroyed the common stereotype of Reformed evangelicals.)

Hmmm....I'm mostly an IVP guy, not a Banner of Truth guy. (No.20) I also own books from Zondervan, Kingsway and Regal. *gasp* Am I one of those people who occupy the second-lowest dormitory in hell (only above Hitler and Pol Pot)? Could I be...charismatic? Woe is me...

I think I need to work harder on my Calvinist credentials...

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Students united

In 1780 there was strong suspicion of Methodism and those of Free Church affiliation at Oxford and Cambridge. Those who were suspected of evangelical sympathies had their papers vetted, and in 1768, six students had been expelled from St. Edmund’s hall, Oxford, on trumped-up charges when they had been found meeting for Bible Study.

Quite amazingly, a century later, the Cambridge Intercollegiate Christian Union (CICCU) would be borne – the fruits of a prayer meeting initiative taken a decade earlier, in spite of strong opposition, including from other Christians, who did not see any reason why a gathering of undergraduates needed to take place. From just a few people meeting in a small room, it grew, and in 1874 a lay preacher, Arthur ‘Beauty’ Blackwood (later Sir), in Cambridge to take a meeting, would write to his wife: “Great Hall nearly filled. About six hundred. Deep attention for one hour…daily prayer meeting attended by seventy downright men – a marvellous sight. Then down to the river to see Boat Race. Great fun. Saw one man who wished me to be hanged…” Two years later, CICCU would be founded, seeking to carry on God’s work ”amongst undergraduates by undergraduates”.

I’m always amazed and immensely grateful at the humble beginnings of the CU movement, birthed in Cambridge, and this was brought back anew to me on Thursday, when I volunteered to help out at IFES, who were in desperate need of people to stuff envelopes with Christmas letters. After all, their headquarters are only a 15 minute walk from where I live! It was really nice to do something unstudenty, although ironically, it was for a student organization.

IFES came about in 1947, when the British student leaders invited the participants of the Cambridge Conference (held on the eve of WW2, where student representatives from over 30 countries met) who had survived the War to meet together. Delegates from national student Christian movements from Australia, Britain, Canada, China, France, Holland, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, and the United States agreed to form a federation of national Christian student movements. The International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) came into being in August of 1947.

I love the CU movement, and just the idea of so many different students, in different contexts, all united under Christ excites me. The UCCF here in the UK in particular, has been strongly influential in shaping British evangelicalism, since just about every prominent Christian leader here in the UK spent his formative years in the CU (less true in the US). J.I Packer was converted in Freshers’ Week in Oxford, as was the late David Watson, the charismatic evangelical, at Cambridge. John Stott and David Jackman were all moulded by the CU. Many missionaries, including the OMF “elder statesman and woman”, Dick and Rose Dowsett came through the CU ranks.

Just how global the student movement was brought home to me in my 1st year here. Lindsay Brown, the current IFES general secretary, was speaking in Oxford on missions one Wednesday evening to a group of British students, in what was a very typical British meeting, of the “stand-up, sit-down” variety. To my astonishment, when I went back to Kuching that summer, I discovered that Mr. Brown would be speaking in my home church to students, while being hosted by my ex-youth deacon (now an IFES committee member for Sarawak). I decided to go, and it was surreal to see myself surrounded by enthusiastic undergraduates from local varsities (I must have been the only overseas student there), with lots of vibrant singing (very different from Oxford). Perhaps the greatest impression on me was made during the Q&A session, where despite the halting English of many present, there still bombarded Mr. Brown with questions on learning to live for Jesus better, especially in the face of opposition.

It’s so cool to help out and hear of what God’s doing all around the world. For all you Malaysians who just returned from the national FES conference, guess what? There were people praying for you! And it’s quite sobering to hear of stories where students really have it tough, and face actual physical persecution for their beliefs.

Being heavily involved in my CU, I’ve been very frustrated at a lot of things that sometimes never seem to go our way. Yet when I think of 15 Christian students struggling in a French university which has close to 20,000 students, I know I have it good. And in any case, remembering the roots of the CU movement, we know that God can use anything.

So if you received an IFES Christmas letter within the next couple of weeks, I might have stuffed them! Unless they’re badly stuffed of course, that can’t be me…

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The mini-wrap: More Narnia links

One of my favourite critics, Jeffrey Overstreet, turns in a high-quality review.

Peter Chattaway of FilmChat's review.

Chuck Colson's review.

The Chronicle of Higher Education carries an article that ably defends Narnia against some of the common charges laid against it, especially by Philip Pullman. Incidentally, I went to watch a Pullman-penned Sherlock Holmes play last night. Pretty fun, but Pullman's probably a better novelist that playwright.

Alan Jacobs, professor of English, cultural critic, and author of among others, A Visit to Vanity Fair posts an insightful essay on the imaginative world of Lewis.

The vitriol against Lewis in some sections of the media is quite amazing. I've already mentioned The Guardian, but both the New York Times (subscription required, so I'm forced to link to a second-hand account) and the New Yorker published quite deeply antagonistic articles regarding Lewis.

At the same time, we have to guard against idolizing Lewis. One of the great, experiential truths of Christianity is the fact that God uses weak, fallible people all the time, and Lewis is no exception. Genius, Grief and Grace is a great book that looks at the great heroes of the faith, warts and all, including Lewis. If Lewis were alive today, he won't be the most obvious candidate to become the next pastor of your church - after all, his view on Scripture wasn't orthodox, he lived with a woman who was older than him for over 30 years, and was good friends with a homosexual. Not your typical profile, eh? Then again, Abram, Gideon, and Paul weren't what you were expecting either.

The No.1 reason not to leave Malaysia

I'll be on the next plane back if I keep frequenting blogs like these.

Or this. Or this

Sherman: Friends are those who are committed to the common food.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

it's that time of year

I popped into my college common room earlier tonight to catch the Man U-Benfica game, to find myself surrounded by excited, fresh-faced teenagers here for their interviews. As I found a place on the sofa, I caught snatches of conversation as people exchanged their interview experiences and frightened those who hadn't had theirs yet, while others debated whether to go out to the pub in the rain.

And to think, 3 years ago, I was in their exact same position; in fact, I was in the very same common room watching a football game (Valencia-somebody, it was a forgettable 0-0 game) after my own 2 interviews, which I had convinced I had botched, and not very bothered about it. (I had low expectations.)

Now I stand on the threshold of graduation.

That's scarier.

As for Man U crashing out of Europe this early for the 1st time in 9 comment. Except to say that tonight, for the 1st time in my life, I've discovered that Fergie is mortal. And sackable.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

My love affair with Narnia

"They say Aslan is on the move - perhaps has already landed."
It was late August, and the itch still hadn't come yet. My hunger for children's and young adults fiction, which had not dimmed even with entry into university (and supposedly, adulthood) was being indulged in by reading some old favourites (Cynthia Voigt's Dicey's Song) and discovering some new delights (Madeleine L'Engle's A Ring of Endless Light). But I hadn't felt any particular stirrings for the Land of Talking Beasts, the pavilions of Cair Paravel, the purposeful wanderings of public schoolboys(and girls).

But I knew it would come, as it did every year without fail. And sure enough, about mid-September, I felt the familiar craving once more. I immediately went to the corner of my room, found the old, worn boxed set of 7 books, and cast my all-seeing eye across the titles emblazoned on the sides of each book. This time around, it didn't take me long to know which book I wanted, and soon I was happily settled in on my sofa, opening the pages and losing myself in seeing if Shasta could beat the army across the desert in The Horse and His Boy once more.

The Narnia movie is opening this Thursday, and since it's getting increased publicity, I thought this would be as good a time as any simply to share my love for the series. I have yet to tire over it, having read the whole series 6 or 7 times over already. And every year, I will reread at least one book from the series. In this case, I guess I'm following Lewis' advice to follow up the reading of new books with old books!

My first contact with Narnia actually wasn't through the book, but on the stage. I think I must have been 5 or 6 at that time when somebody put a production of part of the story of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe in my school. I can't remember the occasion, but I seem to remember that my brother, who was in Primary 5 or 6 at that time, was in it, and seemed to have played the part of the lamppost. (A very important part, I might add). Everything else is hazy, but I remember that part clearly.

I must have been about 10 or 11 when I first read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. The entire set of the Chronicles of Narnia has always been around my house in some form or another - even when my mum gave one entire set away, she went out and bought another one. So it was inevitable that I would eventually get around to reading it. I absolutely loved it. I can still remember the White Witch being a really scary figure in my mind - I suspect that it was influenced by my mental picture of the Ice Queen (another scary fairy tale). I felt Lucy's indignation when her siblings didn't believe her, and I was horrified by Edmund and his succumbing to Turkish delight. I think the scariest scene is when they enter the Queen's palace for the first time, and there are all these stone figures.

Like Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, I also intuitively got a sense of the nobility of the heroes. The Beavers and Mr. Tumnus are people whom you can instinctively trust. Peter was always going to grow into his eventual role as High King. And Aslan! What a figure. And when he died on the Stone Table, I couldn't believe it. (More on Aslan later).

No one told me that this book was often taken as a picture of Christianity, but no one needed to. It was as plain as day to me even then that the Christian story was what undergirded Narnia. I still see, even today, that Lewis never intended to go out and write an explicitly religious allegory, although he did, tongue-in-cheek, talk about sneaking it past "watching dragons", but simply, that his knowledge of the Christian story simply informed his fiction for children.

The Horse and His Boy was next, and I think Shasta just might be my favourite hero in the entire series, even more so than Caspian. Completely ignorant of his true status, he does what is right anyway. In some ways, this story is a bildungsroman, or a story of the coming-of-age of a character, in this case, 3: Shasta, Bree, and Aravis. Seeing one group of completely different people work together to beat the odds always makes for a good story, and this is what we get here, and I think we can find echoes of David, Daniel, Moses in Shasta.

Prince Caspian was a more traditional fantasy tale, whereby we have an evil uncle occupying the throne illegally, an heir that's a threat, and an underground movement that nevertheless, is floundering under pressure. Seeing old faces such as Penvesies was great, but I think this book really shined when focusing on the internal tensions of the rebel movement, with the loyal badger, the rather naive Trumpkin and the impatient (what creature was it again? A goblin? I can't remember). It does capture some of the impatience I'm sure we all feel, living in a world that seems unfair and unjust.

I initally didn't like The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. There was an initial melancholic air about it that I didn't like, and I remember especially disliking the character of Eustace. Often, I felt like screaming at him, "Why are you so stupid? Can't you see?". Later, I realised that I didn't like Eustace at all because
1. We all know someone like Eustace, who gets on our nerves
2. We all know that there's something of Eustace inside all of us

But his incarnation as a dragon and subsequent change ranks amongst the greatest moments in the series, and by the time we get to the last book, Eustace has become one of the most solid characters around. Perhaps he's a little like Paul. (Btw, I'm not suggesting at all that Lewis had allegorizing tendencies in mind, quite the opposite, in fact. I'm merely drawing parallels here.) And Repeecheep is the other memorable character. Which other character can make Aslan roar, "Ah, you have defeated me?" :)

After I read The Silver Chair for the first time, I didn't come back to it for a long while. I thought it was the scariest book of the entire series, and I couldn't bear reliving how Jill and Eustace went so off-track. The Green Lady rivalled the White Witch for pure evilness, and the alluring music that she played, made me wonder how anyone could withstand that. This was the closest shave in the entire series where evil really looked as if it would triumph over good, darkness would overcome light. But that's the reality of our experience, and when I eventually came back to it a second time, I saw more clearly for myself the truth of the statement that fiction, and fantasy in particular, can say true things about the state of the world.

The Last Battle just might be my favourite. When you have a donkey who has no idea he's being manipulated, an ape that's gone way above his station, a cocky cat, and when people start talking about "Tashlan" (I slapped my forehead when I read that), boy, you know you're in for a ride. But it's the last couple of chapters that are so particularly precious to me. To this day, it is this book which has primarily influenced my imagination as to what heaven would be like. And I love the last sentence, where the narrator describes all that has gone on before as simply the prologue, and that we are only stepping into Chapter 1 of the never-ending story when we enter the real Narnia. I've never thought of heaven as a harp-playing, fluffy cloud-spotting place, I've always thought of heaven as the place where things are more real. (Admittedly, it does sound like this picture of heaven has Platonic influences). But wow! Trust me, my thirst for heaven was renewed.

The Magician's Nephew is the first book in the series, but it was the last one I read. (I could possibly have read it before I read The Last Battle.) One reason for this is that I have an irrational aversion to prequels. For some reason, I'm always afraid that prequels would shatter my illusions about a certain character or the world of the book that I was reading. This book strengthened the evil nature of the White Witch, but seeing how Narnia was sullied was perhaps the most powerful moment in this book. Although seeing the Witch in modern-day London provided plenty of comic relief.

Throughout all 7 books, however, there's no doubt that Aslan is the most compelling character. The tension between him not being a tame lion, yet a tender one at that, is very skilfully drawn out by Lewis. Think, for example, of the scars that Aslan gives Shasta to spur him on. Or the way he gently disciplines Jill in The Silver Chair. I can't think of anyone quite like Aslan in all of literature.

Narnia isn't loved by everyone. The author Philip Pullman quite famously blasted the Narnia series as serving the cause of "life-hating ideology", and there is some indication that he deliberately positions his Dark Materials trilogy in opposition to Narnia. Some Christians (sigh), have charged that Lewis was in league with Lucifer and bringing about paganism (double sigh). Proof? Well, look at Lewis - he frequented the pub! And why did he have to write religious allegory anyway, was he ashamed of the gospel? (I kid you not, this is an actual argument).

But I love Narnia, and my love affair with it is something I will carry with me for my entire life. And I won't have it any other way.

I don't intend to offer too much commentary on the film itself, or on CS Lewis, or on some of the current issues surrounding the movie. (eg. the marketing juggernaut accompanying it etc.) But I thought that you will find some of the recent comments in The Guardian very interesting indeed, so I'll offer you a selection.

His Dark Materials by Alison Lurie. A sample paragraph:

Many readers have been infuriated by his condemnation of the former wise and gentle Queen Susan, as no longer "a friend of Narnia". She is cast out of paradise for ever because at 21 she speaks of her earlier experiences as only a childhood fantasy. She is also said to be "too keen on being grown up" and "interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations". Apart from the fact that these seem very small sins, it is hard to believe that Susan could have changed that much in only a few years, and forgotten her joy in Narnia. It seems deeply unfair that Edmund, Susan's younger brother, who has betrayed the others to the Witch, is allowed to repent and remain King Edmund, while Susan, whose faults are much less serious, is not given the opportunity.
Reactions of readers to the Lurie article.

'Narnia represents everything that is hateful about religion', by the well-known columnist Polly Tonybee, which I thought was a very revealing piece. Sample paragraph:

Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to? Poor child Edmund, to blame for everything, must bear the full weight of a guilt only Christians know how to inflict, with a twisted knife to the heart.
Reactions to the Tonybee column

The Guardian film review. I must admit to being very surprised by the positive review, because Peter Bradshaw is the most belligerent of all the film critics I read. A good sign that the film is quality?

A more general piece on Lewis and Narnia.

Oh, and do share with me if Narnia has enchanted you too. :-D

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Sunday, December 04, 2005

God's new community

November was a tough and stressful month for me, possibly one of the toughest months I've had in my life in recent memory. Basically, a couple of things all appeared to come to a head all at the same time, which put a huge drain on my physical, mental and emotional resources and left me feeling overwhelmed. I had a chronic cough all term which I now suspect as being stress-related, and was ill from the middle of last week to the middle of the week that just passed, which did throw me into a slight panic because I was very behind in my extended essay. No surprise, then, that blogging was not on my agenda!

But that's all behind me now. The essay's done, the illness mostly gone, and despite still occasionally feeling discouraged this week, I know that our God is Immanuel, God with us. Over this weekend, more than one person has commented on the big smile that's semi-permanently plastered on my face, in contrast to the miserable figure I cut out last week.

What can I say? I've been so aware of God's grace during this time. In retrospect, I think God was very gracious in preparing me before I even knew it myself. Thinking back, I can't help but chuckle over the friendly debate going on in the Christian blogosphere over the past month over the cessation or non-cessation of certain spiritual gifts, as I can't help but feel that it's a moot point. On the last Saturday night of October, I was praying (and struggling), when I felt a very, very strong impression to pray in tongues, something I haven't done in a long time. So I did, and it was liberating - God gave me such joy and empowered me to desire to pray for other people that night, it's been a long time since prayer came so easily to me! And throughout, I knew that God was saying that eternal joy was not tied to mere circumstance, a truth that has kept me going over the past month.

My experience here, I think, is in keeping with what Scripture says about tongues. It is mysterious, but adds a new vitality to our prayer life, especially when we don't know what to pray for (1 Corinthians 14:2,14; Romans 8:26-28). It is God's gift to edify the individual (1 Cor. 14:4, although it is this aspect that also means that tongues is actually the least of the gifts, for it cannot edify the church except when it is interpreted). And any gift of the Holy Spirit must point us back to Jesus (John 14:26).

God's New Community I have been haunted since the beginning of the year by the words of Jesus in John 13:34-35: "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." Those are strong words, for Jesus is laying down the marker by which we will be recognised as his followers! And as I struggled and helped those who were struggling this past month, I've had the chance to think anew on those words and reflect on the nature of Christian fellowship.

It has been said of modern evangelicalism that it is weak on ecclesiology, i.e. the doctrine of the church, and I think I largely agree. At least, it seems weak at "being church", especially if we remember that church = people = followers of Christ. I remember that at least one book which focused on evangelical distinctives (it could have been Packer and Oden's One Faith, but I could be wrong) didn't even have a chapter devoted to the nature of the church, and skimming through Grudem/Purswell's abridged systematic theology handbook Bible Doctrine on the church left me strangely dissatisfied. I'll say one thing, whatever you think of the emerging church conversation, it has at least brought ecclesiology firmly back on the discussion table. This is a good development, for I think, it will at the very least help force us evangelicals to think through more carefully what a church is and should be like biblically.

To that end, over the past 2 days, I've been reading a little book by Graham Beynon called God's New Community(IVP). Each chapter is simply an exposition of a Scriptural passage that focuses on an aspect of church, eg. what is a church? What does it mean to belong? In that sense, it's very basic, and I think many of us might be tempted to skip such a book because it covers very familiar ground - "Oh, of course I know that church is more than a building, it's about people!" etc. Why not move on to the meatier stuff of ecclesiology, such as Protestant-Catholic relations, or debate over church government models and the role of deacons?

That was how I was tempted to think. But the more I've had the chance to reflect, the more I think that although we think we've got the basics nailed down, in practice, we actually don't. Let's see if I can demonstrate this.

Over the past few decades in evangelicalism, we've seen an emphasis in the nature of our personal relationship with God, to the detriment of a more corporate understanding. I think of the paucity of modern worship songs that stresses the nature of life together as Christians as an example.

Yet biblical religion is inescapably corporate. "For we were all baptised by one Spirit into one body - whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free..." (1 Cor. 12:13, emphasis mine). Paul doesn't write to individuals, he writes to churches! I think we all hear the argument from time to time about how being a Christian doesn't necessarily mean we have to go to church. But I think this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding. Such a person has completely missed the point about "church". If a person is a Christian, then he is automatically part of the church (which if we remember, = people). Then, the question is no longer about whether the person should go to a church or not, but whether he wants to grow in Christ (which should be the aim of every Christian.) And we have to be among other believers for that to happen (Col. 1:28).

Having struggled to be a good and loving brother-in-Christ to other Christians, as well as a good friend to non-Christians, I am more than aware how tough it is to live in relationship and community. Especially when we have such a range and diversity of believers in the family. We usually refer to the "new birth" when we talk about becoming Christians. Jesus' point in John 3 was that being born again is the prerogative of the Spirit, and that we don't have any say in the matter of our salvation. Similarly, when we become children of God, and we don't get to choose who our brothers and sisters are in Christ!

But we are called to love them all the same. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said: "People love the idea of community more than the experience of community." It's true. It'd cost us in terms of our time, our energy, our privacy even, as we allow other Christians to take part in our lives and we in theirs. How often do we look to serve one another, give to one another, encourage another when we gather together? How often are we dependent on one another? How often do we see service as getting ready the after-service drinks and kuih-muih but not the kind words that a discouraged brother really needs to hear? Or after praying for a person in a small group, follow up on that prayer point the following week?

Not easy, is it? No, I certainly don't think we've got even the basics of "church" down at all. Oh, how I long for the day when we really do live as God's new community, but I have to admit, one of the real downers of the past month was that the reality is so different at the moment (and I shouldn't exclude myself from blame).

By no means have I worked this all out for myself. And for now, I'll leave you with the words of sifu Schaeffer: "Love - and the unity it attests to - is the mark Christ gave Christians to wear before the world. Only with this mark may the world know that Christians are Christians and that Jesus was sent by the Father."

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