Friday, January 27, 2006

My virtual library

LibraryThing is a nifty little tool and such a good idea! I've managed to catalogue some of my books, so feel free to have a browse through my library; also, please feel free to ask if you want to borrow anything.

As LibraryThing only allows me to catalogue up to 200 books on a free account, I have to be selective. So let me explain my selection criteria. For the moment, I've only added explicitly Christian, non-fiction books. This isn't because I think non-fiction is somehow superior to fiction (far from it!) but I thought this might be what will be of most interest to my readers. I've also only listed books that I actually own (i.e I bought them, they were given to me as gifts etc.) as opposed to books which technically belong to my family, even if I was the only person to have read them.

I've read the majority of the books listed; however, there are still quite a few that I haven't had the time to get round to reading yet. A chief vice of mine - buying books faster than I can read them! (And this isn't counting those that I haven't listed!) Most of them are with me right now, but a few are back home in Malaysia or in London, sitting on my brother's bookshelf.

My tags are somewhat arbitrary and idiosyncratic as well; I'll clean them up at some point. (read: BK's procrastination will be such that he's never going to do anything about them...)

Would anyone like to pay the US$25 it costs to upgrade my account to a lifetime one? :-p The limit of 200 books would be removed then. I suspect browsing through my library would also give you some clues as to where my interests/leanings/passions lie.

One final bit of useless information: Well-known blogger Steve McCoy and I own 29 of the same books!

Peek into my library!

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Love, Actually

"True LOVE is like ghosts, which everyone talks about but few have seen." - Francois de La Rochefoucauld

One word frees us of the weight and pain of life: that word is LOVE." - Sophocles

"LOVE is actually the magician that pulls man out of his own hat." - Ben Hecht

"This is how we've come to understand and experience LOVE: Christ sacrificed his life for us." - 1 John 3:16, The Message

Do you know love, actually?

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Review: Match Point

How often events, by chance, and unexpectedly, come to pass, which you had not dared even hope for!
- Terence, Roman playwright
Tock. Tock. Tock. Tock. Sweaty palms, immense concentration. Then all of a sudden the tennis ball clips the top of the net, and breaths are held as we watch the ball spin up straight into the air - which side does it land on? Whichever side it lands on, we can almost predict the commentator's next line: "Oh, how desperately lucky/unlucky was that!"

That's how Match Point, Woody Allen's latest flick, opens, sans the commentator but with a voiceover by the film's main protagonist, who informs us that life is often dependent on pure blind chance, and that it is often better to be lucky and good. The tone and main theme of the film is set, and we then proceed to dive into the story.

I've never watched a Woody Allen film before, and I wasn't actually all that interested in his latest, which is either his big comeback film or another false dawn in a long string of recent disappointments, depending on which critic you read. One of my friends dragged me along, however, and while I can't compare it to his other works, it certainly is one of the more thought-provoking films I've watched in recent times. So I thought I'll write up a full review, which I haven't done in some time.

Jonathan Rhys-Meyers plays Chris Wilton, a former tennis pro who had, against the odds, managed to overcome his Irish working-class background and who is now working as a tennis coach at an exclusive tennis club in London. He quickly befriends Tom Hewett (Chris Goode), a member of the upper classes and is introduced to his family. Tom's sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) quickly falls for him. A romance develops (though it feels as if Chris fell into the relationship rather than intentionally pursued it) and he begins his climb up the social hierarchy - taking up a business position with Tom's father's company, mingling with the rich and famous at cocktail parties.

Chris however, develops an attraction to Tom's fiancee Nola (Scarlett Johansson), a struggling American actress who does not have the approval of her future mother-in-law. They eye each other up, their desire for each other evident in their flirtatious behaviour; each time you see them together in a scene, sexual tension permeates the air. Chris marries Chloe, who is sweet but unable to provide the sizzle to their relationship, and this leads on to infidelity. There's more, of course, but to reveal more is to spoil the twists and turns that develop in this pseudo-tragic tale.

I say pseudo-tragic because on one level, the film plays like a classic tragedy, as we know that the protagonist is digging himself deeper and deeper into his sinkhole, wondering when it would all blow up in his face. But Allen counterbalances this with moments of "fate", either implicitly, such as chance meetings between characters (eg. Chris suddenly running into Nola when going to pick up his wife) , or explicitly, such as when Chloe comments on the dreadfulness of an earthquake in China - they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

What I found fascinating was that the film was actually a very good case-study of total depravity and the degenerative effects of sin. Total depravity does not mean that we are as evil as we possibly can be, but that no part of our human nature has been left untainted with sin. As Chris's juggling act becomes more complicated, we begin to see him engage in more and more destructive behaviour, and his rationalizations become more and more pronounced. More than once he claims to want to do what is "right", until we realise that by "right" he means what suits his own interests best. Indeed, when the climax arrives, we are left shell-shocked, and this is especially heightened by the more-than-competent acting of Rhys-Meyers. He plays Chris extremely well, and we can easily believe that Chris is just an ordinary guy like you and me, seeking to move up in this world. So his actions are made even more horrific by this seeming ordinariness.

On the negative side, I found the last part of the film, from the climax onwards, to being very heavy-handed. At this point, Woody decides to throw subtlety out of the window and piles on the themes of luck and blind chance relentlessly, even having Chris quote Sophocles at one point. This creates a contrived atmosphere that the movie is unable to shake off, and this ultimately detracts from the film.

So far I've approached the film mostly from an aesthetic viewpoint, but now I want to engage with some of its ideas. Early on in the film, as Chris, Tom, Chloe and Nola sit down to dinner and engage in small talk, Chris suggests that it is ultimately luck that counts for making it good in this world. Chloe disagrees, vehemently defending the notion of hard work to make it big. We then get this exchange between Chris and Tom:

"My father lost both his legs in an accident, and found Jesus."

"Sounds like a poor trade to me, old boy."

Chris then offers his view, saying "Faith is the path of least resistance", possibly echoing the view held by Woody Allen himself. One should not attempt to hide behind religious superstition in light of a seemingly random universe, but be willing to be ruthlessly pragmatic even in the notoriously gray area of ethics. As Roger Ebert points out, greed, fear, and lust drive the action, but not guilt. Yet even Allen seems to recognise the weaknesses of his own position by pushing Chris to the logical conclusions of his outlook on life. There is a dissonance between the theme of luck and chance and the deliberateness with which Chris first pursues Nola, then in his attempts to conceal the affair. I thought Woody was very courageous in showing what happens when moral convictions go to seed, pushing Chris to the logical conclusions of his worldview, even if he might believe that there is no reasonable alternative. The true horror is when we recognise that if Chris is to be tripped up, it would not be due to his moral shortcomings, but by chance. And what about us, then?

Of course, here, I'll have to respectfully disagree with Chris' conclusions. The way his life subsequently plays out is enough to reveal that the path he chooses is really the one of least resistance. Can he continue with life as before? Actually, he can, dependent on fate, which way the ball drops. But the price he pays is tremendous. Perhaps the trade-off he chose was the poor one after all. For in the end, contrary to what one policeman says late in the film: "We're investigating a crime, not making a moral judgment", the two ultimately go together, since the fact/value split cannot be maintained indefinitely.

A few final words. Don't watch this uncritically, especially as Chris is played sympathetically. My friend remarked how he strangely felt like rooting for Chris the whole movie, and I felt the pull myself. Secondly, Allen apparently has not pulled off the Britishness of the film convincingly, as many British critics have complained that it doesn't feel right. (Not being British, I can't really tell.) The audience I saw it with laughed at some moments where I guess they thought the attempts at being British failed miserably, which means that Woody doesn't quite manage to reach the depths of horror he's aiming for - in fact, some people giggled at the film's pivotal moment.
That's a shame, but despite its flaws, this will certainly be a film to ponder over.

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Thursday, January 19, 2006

Random thoughts in the middle of a busy week

I'm too tired to be able to do any sustained reflection, so here's a hodgepodge of stuff running through my head recently.

Sermons and their listeners
iMonk's latest essay "What's Wrong with the Sermon? It's too long?" is an interesting read. I'm actually quite used to listening to 40-minute sermons, which is more or less the average length of the sermon of my home church, whereas the sermons here tend to fall into the 25-30 minute range. This is more or less ideal, since I think a sermon should usually fall into a 25-45 minute range.

Although it is the preacher's job to expound the word of God, and to improve his communication and delivery skills in this respect to close the gap between the preacher and the congregation, I don't think the latter has an entirely passive role. Instead, I think the congregation has a role in that it must make an effort to be actively listening.

For one, the Sunday gathering is special in that we are coming together as a corporate, covenantal community in Christ. Although the church is made up of people and not buildings and bureaucracies, and therefore we can reject any notion of a "Sunday-only" church, we are told to always meet together and encourage one another, and be devoting ourselves to teaching (Acts 2:42, 1 Timothy 4:13).

Secondly, and on a related point, I think we need to remember that church/the Sunday gathering is not meant to entertain us, and so we need to ditch a consumer-oriented mentality, where we complain that the preacher was too dull, too monotonous etc. This isn't to gloss over the fact that some preachers are more gifted than others, or that some need to work more on their communication skills, but simply a reminder that we are not mere spectators but participants in worshipping God.

The perils of Bible study
One reason that I thought the above essay was pretty interesting has to do with my recent experiences of leading Bible study. A lot of the points are quite relevant to preparing a Bible study as well, including the need for a clear focus, which is my current weakness. I was a little disheartened on Monday (when I was leading) for a variety of reasons. Firstly, I made a boo-boo when I carelessly misinterpreted part of a verse and nearly ended up teaching my group heresy! It was a good thing that David, who's the international student worker at my church, was sitting in on the study and caught the mistake in time. That was a really humbling experience. David was very encouraging afterwards though; he said that he knew that I could usually be counted upon for careful exegesis, and really, what I needed to work on was on writing my questions better so as to let the study flow better. But yeah, tells you that we all need to wrestle with the text carefully and prayerfully and not take anything for granted.

But also, my group has some colourful characters; if you've been a Bible study group leader before, you know very well that sooner or later you're going to get thrown a person or two who just befuddles you to no end! It's a huge challenge to know how to lead in such a situation, when you want to be both affirming and encouraging, as well as encourage discussion (and discourage a "I'm right because I say so" attitude), yet at the same time you don't want the study to go off on a tangent to Never-Neverland. I get especially frustrated when sometimes, people want to rush off to "go deeper" into the text and ignore doing the important, if simple, task of observation - as if that was meant for beginners and not Christians who are "more mature".

It was quite bemusing really, there was a newcomer in my group, and halfway through the study, he suddenly interrupted and went on a long ramble about the importance of making sure that we see the big picture and not inspect each sentence in a word-by-word format less we miss the forest for the trees, as well as the need to remember that the English Bibles we have are very good, but not perfect translations. Which was all mostly true of course, but I was completely mystified as to why he needed to say that; as far as I could tell I certainly was not engaging the text in such a manner.

I never actually thought about it before, but I think I'm actually the youngest in my group, and probably the one with the least life experience as well, but I was wondering if that might affect group dynamics somehow? (Or maybe it doesn't at all.)

Me - the world's worst evangelist
My flatmate and I had a good chat about the Christian faith this evening. He was in my room, looking over a map that I have which also contains data on things like poverty, warzones and so on, and remarked on how he suddenly realized the world wasn't exactly the most peaceful place at all, and that seemed to be the pattern of history. So I went: "Why do you think that is?" He replied that he didn't know. So I went: "Weeelllll.....I think the answer might lie in our understanding of human nature..." and off we went.

Actually, I was nowhere as eloquent as I sound here - lots of ummmsss, aahhhhhs, and internal smacking of foreheads every time I thought that I might have been too obnoxious or too impatient. I think I must have broken every cross-cultural rule (my flatmate is Vietnamese) on the planet. Trust me, it's very instructive to share your faith with another person from a different culture and who doesn't have a good grasp of the English language - no Christian jargon and no big words allowed. And having to keep in mind that you can't take for granted even that you share even the most basic of assumptions. And also humility in recognising that even Christians don't have all the answers, and that it is always love, and not pride that compels us.

I pray that my heart will be changed to have more of a burden for my friends who don't yet know Jesus, because he really is the truth, the way, and the life. Christianity is intellectually credible, but it is more than that, it is also what enables us to be truly human.

Did you know Shakespeare spoke Manglish?
I was reading this in Pericles, one of Shakespeare's lesser-known plays, the other day:

Act 4, Scene 1, lines 72-76
Why would she have me kill'd?
Now, as I can remember, by my troth,
I never did hurt her in all my life.
I never spake bad word, nor did ill turn
To any living creature; believe me la

And there you have it! Manglish can be traced back to Shakespeare!

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Friday, January 13, 2006

The next 6 months are going to be harsh...

I've just finished my collections*, and it wasn't the best, I guess. I think I did ok on 2 questions, but the last question, which actually isn't all that hard, simply showed up my lack of revision. I definitely won't be getting more than 55 for that one(and this is me being optimistic, I suspect it might dip into the 40s). And unfortunately, it's the tutor who's the least impressed with me - I managed to earn a ticking off from her last term - who'll be marking it.

And I think all my exam-taking muscles are rusty. This is the first test I've sat for in over 1 1/4 years (the structure of my course means that Finals** are everything, and I do mean everything), and by the second hour I was already tired. To think, I once used to be able to do 6 hours in the exam hall!

Seriously though, I cannot see how I will be able to blog with any sort of regularity for the next 6 months or so. I already feel like I'm barely coping as it stands. The best I can do, and even this might be stretching it, is once a week. So hmmm...I thought I could do something systematic. I have this Christianity and the Arts series (which will be very long) that I was thinking of doing, but requires lots of drafting first, or maybe I was thinking of just posting some book reviews of the books on my bookshelf (I'm thinking only Christian ones for now). Or something else. What do you think?

* more arcane Oxford jargon, incomprehensible to any outsider, with more than one meaning, in this case, mock exams of a sort which don't count for anything, but which terrify first years and bore 2nd and 3rd years who are more worldly-wise.

** niggly little exams designed to drive you insane.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Curiosity killed the blogger (or, a pointless post about everything and nothing)

Or, even better, a satirical post on what a Xanga post by a 14-year old might look like. But nah, I'm not that clever.

So I thought I better post something, otherwise, the rabid masses that make up my readership might run amok. Oh alright, "masses" might be stretching the truth a little, but hey, surely you don't want my 6 or 7 readers to go psycho on you, do you?

Then again, considering there have been no entreaties for me to resume blogging thus far, maybe I'm overestimating my importance here.

Typically, I would probably have written something along the lines of "reflections on 2005" and/or "looking towards 2006", boring but obligatory, I know, but my mind draws a blank right now. I do like looking back (I'm a sucker for stuff like "The year in review" and especially "Top 10" lists) but for once, I haven't actually gathered my thoughts on 2005, and truth be told, 2005 seemed rather bland, personally speaking.

As for 2006, I'm even more clueless as to what that entails. I guess right now, I just want to develop tunnel vision and try to get through the next 6 months, where I need to primarily focus on my studies. I am starting to feel a little panicky, wondering if I've been a little too laidback over the past 2 years and only just figuring out that I don't know much about anything! Never mind about long-term concerns, I just need to get through this term, revision and the dreaded Finals.

So instead, I thought that I'll write on blogging. *Gasp!* I know, that's even more criminal than writing posts on how the past year was the best/worst ever and publicly declaring your New Year's resolutions. To make matters worse, this isn't a general musing on blogging, but more narcissistically, it's about my own blog! [Add sentence here that goes along the lines that since it's my own blog, I can write anything I want on it blahblahblah. Throw in a pouting smiley and a few high-pitched squeals for effect.]

More seriously, I guess I'm curious as to who reads this blog, how regularly and why. This post therefore, is a survey of sorts. One of the main reasons why this blog has been in a state of neglect since last June, apart from real life, tiredness - wow, humans are so inefficient! They actually need sleep! - and lack of inspiration, is that I'm having trouble knowing where to pitch my blogging voice. I'm suffering from, to borrow a phrase from Prof. Lucy Newlyn, an "anxiety of reception". Basically, that means I don't know which audience I'm writing for. Oh, I suppose there will be those who will say "write for yourself", but I can't do that, since I know blogging is inescapably a public medium.

So who are you?
Possible answers:
- You're my friend.
- You're not my friend. Btw, if you're a lurker, and I think I might actually have one or two here, you're free not to reveal yourselves, since I'm a lurker on many blogs as well.
- I think you're my friend, when you actually aren't, but you pretend to be, so you're actually the non-friend who reads me as a friend. (Cue high-school melodrama here.)
- You're my sibling, and you just realised that your younger brother is way overdue for a good ribbing, so you need to dig up some dirt.
- I just had the scariest thought ever. You're my MUM.

Why are you reading me?
- You just want to see how I'm doing here in the UK. So primarily, you're interested in personal updates and such. (Or you're a virtual stalker. Spooky.)
- You're dazzled by my theological brilliance. Or stupidity. Since both make for compelling reads. More seriously, because I'm an Asian Christian who leans Reformed and there aren't too many of those around, it seems.
- You want my take and commentary on contemporary events or issues.
- You like my writing, maybe when I'm more reflective and inclined to play with words (examples here and here), or when I'm arguing for something (eg. here) or when I'm essentially telling a story (eg. here). Or when I write pointless posts like this one. Or maybe you constantly mine me for examples to show the 12-year-olds you teach "how not to write".
- You need an excuse to procrastinate.
- You're currently enduring a bout of self-criticism and need to punish yourself.
- My browser hijacker is so powerful that you keep returning to this page no matter how hard you try to escape.

Whaat do you want me to write about?
- Sordid tales of my escapades with...whoops, never mind.
-, how Jake Gyllenhaal is like, the hottest star EVER...and Fushigi Yugi is like, the bestest anime ever ever times three, and Harry Potter is an all-time classic and...
- understanding supralapsarianism within the variegated nomism of Judaistic literature, predicated upon a historical-canonical poststructuralist reading of apocryphical manuscripts, focusing in particular on the non-restrictive modifiers in the text.
- Just the wrap. The quicker I get away from this blog, the better.
- Today I woke up. I breathed in, breathed out. I opened my eyes. My head began to lift from the pillow.
- I see dead people.

Other questions:
Do people actually read the Outflow box? I actually update it quite regularly, usually once a week, for short notices that don't really warrant a blog post.

Has anyone ever read the blogging code of ethics link?

Is the wrap actually useful to anyone?

Does this look alright in Firefox?

Does anyone actually care what I watched recently? Not that I care if you don't care. :-p

What is a holloback girl? (Every week I get some people directed to me via Google because they're looking for a definition of a holloback girl, and I posted a parody of Gwen Stefani's video some time back.)

There! That should be long enough to satisfy all you blog-addicts. Plus a chance to calm that itch, you know you want to comment, thus, with my first post of 2006, I offer you a chance to! Instead of the usual rambling monologues where I mumble on about hyper-Calvinism and prattle about why one shouldn't leave Malaysia, leaving no contact points for you to reply, I offer specific questions where you can now respond with similarly long rambling monologues to your heart's contents.

Now you know how my tutor feels when he has that nagging suspicion that I'm just trying to fill up the A4 paper with sentences that make sense but not really just to reach that word limit and give the illusion that I'm writing something substantial. Of course, he has absolutely no hesitation whatsoever in making comments.

I don't really know how to end this post. Maybe to say that I can hope 2006 will be productive in blogging terms, but also a caveat that I might be absent for large swaths of time so that I can get a piece of paper and wear a square hat.

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