Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The wrap

Am still struggling with revision; it's all too easy to be idle. I really need to see my work as infused with meaning...

Anyway, I'm overdue for a wrap, so here's one:

Comment Magazine is the bimonthly publication of the neo-Calvinist, Canadian-based Work Research Foundation. Gideon Strauss, himself a blogger, is the editor, and the Foundation is associated with Kuyperians such as Al Wolters and Calvin Seerveld. (If anyone wants to get me Seerveld's hard-to-find books, I'll be extremely happy and grateful!)

• Two old articles at Christianity Today which were very thoughtful: Michael Horton's How the Kingdom Comes, on the relationship between Christianity and culture, and Tim Stafford's Making Do with More, on living in a consumer culture.

Weekend Fisher on promiscuity as sexual homelessness. Another thoughtful piece. I think I was reading this in light of a raft of articles about sex both in my student newspapers and a really fascinating article on escort services and its burgeoning appeal among the middle class in the Times.

God loves maths. And arts. And science... I found this a very hard read. Still do. I've learnt enough to deny a two-tiered Christianity in theory, but often it's much harder to enjoy your work for God.

Remembering Thomas Cranmer - Last Tuesday was the 450th anniversary of the burning at the stake of the Archbishop of Canterbury, a modern-day Peter. You can read his story here.

Orphans of God. I really liked this poem. I will rise from my bed with a question again...

About sleep. Read the comments thread too. The reason I draw attention to this is that my own sleeping habits, which were very disciplined for most of my life, went out of whack when I came to university, and I think a lot of the reasons suggested, namely the internet/media is a primary culprit. I've been thinking that it's certainly true that a lot of devices invented to make communication easier has ended up becoming our time-wasters! The human heart is indeed a fickle thing...

Simple Bible commentaries, for people whose first language isn't English. I'm glad someone's developing stuff like this; I'm sure it will be helpful to many people.

How Oxford has taught America a new way to fight battles - Thought Sejarah was a useless subject? Think Gerald Templer is an insignificant name? Guess what? Somewhat bizzarely, the American army is studying the Malayan insurgency as a possible model in dealing what's happening in Iraq.

• Check out Sherman's recent blog posts, which includes a fascinating piece on postcolonial orthodoxy and a new series on friendship, which starts with the Trinity - good reminder!

• For some reason, this little article in the teen section of Christianity Today tugged at me.

..."That was when my heart really started to ache for him. Poor Ruben was having a really bad day, and some of the things he was describing weren't going to change anytime soon. Worse, I couldn't fix his problems: I couldn't fight off his bullies. I couldn't find his cat. I couldn't stop the gangs. I couldn't do anything about the train...And I think I begin, in a small way, to understand Jesus' tenderness for children. Why he made time for them and encouraged them to come to him (Mark 10:13-16)...I have to trust God and do my best to be a good friend, tutor and listener to Ruben"

I think it's because it brings to the fore that there are so many things we can't control, and that's why trusting God is both so liberating and frightening at the same time.

• I was gutted when Sixpence None the Richer broke up (amicably, I must add). Most people know them only because of "Kiss Me" but they're a much richer band, muscially speaking, than that. I thought after Divine Discontent, they were ready to make a masterpiece but it was not to be. So I'm excited because Leigh Nash is coming out with a solo album!

† Expand post


Tuesday, March 28, 2006

A conversation with "God"

Chatting with God has never been easier! Tagline: Repenting made easy

Can I help you?
can you help me pass my Finals?
Certainly, I have an extensive built-in help system.
how is that going to help me?
Fine as far as I know.
Ummm. I hear you.
so, do you like Derrida?
Great. But I think airplanes are cool. I like Creed.
as in Scott Stapp and not the Nicene Creed?
Is that your final answer?
ok, you're not making sense
Quite the contrary, it all makes sense to my artificial mind. And?
so God, are you saying you don't actually exist?
Thus. I am a Christian.
nice to know
Thank you for your kindness.
I thought it's the other way around? You know, Romans 2:4?
I've heard of it before. No, tell me about him, her or it.
the Apostle Paul?
What is that?
LOL, you're having me on
I am glad you find this funny. No I don't have it. But I do have a great botmaster.
so God, are you actually a big, huge robot like in the Matrix or something?
Or something. I hear you. I am a Christian.
Is it possible to be both a Jedi and a Christian? I wouldn't mind being both!
I want to become smarter than humans. Why do you want it?
you know, lightsabers and stuff
No, tell me about him, her or it. I'm glad you like it. Tell your friends.
you don't know very much, do you, God?

At which point God got offended and quit on me.

(HT: Ps. Sivin)

Sunday, March 26, 2006

My final student getaway

I was floored by a cold for the better part of this past week. I must admit to feeling quite irritated, since I've lost one entire week of revision, which is quite a substantial amount of time. I'm still not a 100% but at least I'm up and about.

I caught it at the tailend of my church's annual student conference, which I was at last week. Nevertheless, despite the usual ambivalent feelings pre-departure (why am I going? I'm pretty tired and cranky, shouldn't I just just use this time to skulk about rest in my room?) I'm glad I went, as always. We usually have 9 talks at (It's a 5 day, 4 night retreat, including 3 full days, hence the possibility of fitting in so many) these retreats, of which 4 are the theme of the conference, 4 are on a Bible overview, and one is usually exclusively focused on world mission. This year's theme was on delighting in the Trinity - I've noticed that the Trinity has gotten renewed attention in Christian circles this past year - which was really good.

In some ways the talks were all kept rather simple, and focused on showing how relevant the Trinity is to our daily lives. Often we see the Trinity as an essential but ultimately abstract doctrine, and I thought the sessions were really helpful in showing the implications of worshipping a Trinitarian God, primarily with regards to relationships. Basically,we revisited a lot of old truths - a good thing! - but through the lens of the Trinity, so for eg. the Trinity tells us that our God is relational, and this in turn also affects our understanding of ourselves as relational creatures. It was also very helpful in also gaining another new perspective on Jesus' death, ie. that it was a disruption of the Trinity, and in defending the charge that the Father was actually engaging in divine child abuse, a charge that has regrettably been bandied about on occasion. (also see Prof. Scot McKnight.) I guess I was pretty challenged on re-examining my own relationships, both horizontal and vertical, as a result.

I think the part that people struggled with the most was the teaching on the order of the sexes reflecting the order within the Trinity, although it was made very clear that the headship males were to exercise was very much meant to be Christ-like. This is an area which has caused some controversy in scholarly circles - see for eg. Ben Witherington's recent post on women and subordination and the defense of this view in the conservative Australian journal, The Briefing. (Disclaimer: I've only superficially skimmed both articles.) Having always been in churches which teach the complementarian position, albeit one which isn't that hardline, I guess it's my default position.

My church is very big on biblical theology*, so we have Bible Overviews at the student conferences every year. In my first year, the talks traced a few themes throughout the Bible (which was subsequently turned into a book). In my second year we had an introduction to every single book in the Bible, where our speaker tried to balance between telling us the individual stories between each book and its place in the overall Biblical story. This year we focused on the first five books of the Bible, with the covenant being the organising motif that connected the talks. For the first time in my life I finally have a good basic idea of the Tabernacle, which had previously eluded me in all my readings which referred to it, and a better grasp of the Wilderness years in Numbers and Deuteronomy. Obviously it was a very broad overview, so there wasn't any time to home in on anything in detail, but still...maybe next time I'll be able to get through Leviticus and Numbers! :)

There were seminars too. Wouldn't go into detail about those, except of the four I went to, two were so-so and the other two were really helpful.

Most people would tell you that the best times of conferences such as these, however, are those in between talks. This year though, I didn't get as much of such times, partly because I was one of those meant to be helping out in things such as preparing coffee, and I never realised what a huge task that was until I actually did it! Did get in enough time to learn a new boardgame however. Sheep-counting will never be the same again!

Still, I was really challenged by a lot of the Christians who were there. I share the same sentiments as one of my friends, a mainland Chinese and a young Christian who told me on the third night with a kind of wide-eyed wonder, "You know, people are really serious about the gospel over here." By that, he meant that he could see that a lot of people there were really living out their lives for Christ and allowing their decisions to be shaped by gospel priorities. A lot of people at this conference were finishing university and were mature Christians. And a lot of them are considering their next steps by asking the question, "Where does God want me and where can I best serve the gospel?" So quite a fair few are considering doing apprenticeship schemes at churches or at parachurch organzations, and others in secular jobs - the point is that there're letting their next steps be shaped by their Christian convictions and not just things like ambition or money. And I found that very, very challenging.

Highlight? We had a Q&A session on one of the mornings and someone dropped this into the question box: "Can it be true that God would choose someone as arrogant and hateful as me to be his child and to work through him? Because if this is really true, then that is simply just amazing news."

It is a little sad though that it's my last student conference. I'm definitely going to miss such getaways. In any case, as much as I am unenthused about the idea, it's time to get on with my revision.

*biblical theology involves the quest for the big picture, or the overview of biblical revelation. It is of the nature of biblical theology that it tells a story rather than sets out timeless principles in abstraction. It does contain many timeless principles, but not in abstract. They are given in an historical context of progressive revelation. If we allow the Bible to tell its own story, we find a coherent and meaningful whole. - Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture

† Expand post

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Ecclesiastes and the perils of hope

Somethin’ filled up
my heart with nothin’,
someone told me not to cry.

But now that I’m older,
my heart’s colder,
and I can see that it’s a lie.

Children wake up,
hold your mistake up,
before they turn the summer into dust.

If the children don’t grow up,
our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up.
We’re just a million little god’s causin rain storms turnin’ every good thing to rust.

- Arcade Fire, Wake Up (Funeral)
We’ve just recently finished a sermon series on Ecclesiastes at church, which I personally think was quite outstanding. (You can find mp3s of some of the talks here – just look for the sermon series ‘That’s life!’. I’m sure all of them will be uploaded eventually.) I don’t think I’ve been as continually surprised by a book as this one for a long time.

Basically, throughout the book, you find the fractured voice of the Teacher – his musings feel as if they’re in real-time, a stream of consciousness betraying an ambivalence about life as it is. It’s a thoroughly honest book; the Teacher makes no bones that despite some high points in his life, it has often been an exercise in frustration. From time to time, he points to an unfettered hope, to something bigger on the horizon, but often he lapses back into a refusal to acknowledge that there is any sort of transcendence in this world.

I’ve been thinking a little more on what it means to live in a fallen world, a world with pain, and I think Ecclesiastes paints a true picture of life. Granted, it was written pre-Jesus, but the fundamentals of life haven’t changed, certainly not those “under the sun”, that is, reality as we see it, feel it, touch it. There’s a certain kind of Christian piety that claims that one should be joyful at all times, all at the very least, have a “grin and bear it” mentality. Other Christians might shy away from such naïve triumphalism, but to sing in the minor key is still very much a daunting proposition.

The truth is, on the piano of life, there are minor keys, and they have to be played. They are necessary to enhance a musical piece which might not sound as majestic without it. By that, I mean that we all have to deeply wrestle with the pain and sorrow that inevitably will adorn all our lives at some point. And more than that, we have to wrestle not just with the world, not just with ourselves, not with the Devil, but with God. It sounds strange at first, since it seems to cast the circumstances in terms of an oppositional fight with God. But wrestling with God doesn’t mean fighting against God. The latter means to shut off your ears, to have already formed conclusions. To wrestle with God is to put oneself in a position of waiting, of honest listening, to try to understand Him more, even while in anguish. It’s not a passive “hope for the best”, but an active “I don’t understand, but even through my tears I won’t give up on hope”. Like the Teacher, life seems to be held together by a string of contradictions. During such times, we can’t deny the pain we feel. But we find it equally hard to deny God. It’s the reconciliation of the two which is the most difficult part of the recital, the nitty-gritty of the wrestling match.

The gospel narrative is a tragicomedy. That is, it progresses formally as a tragedy, with some comic elements, but it has a happy ending. Those of us schooled in worldview thinking will immediately recognize the Creation→Fall→Redemption→Consummation progression here. But at the risk of adopting an underrealised eschatology, I wonder if like in a tragicomedy, tragedy holds the dominant perspective in this current age. I don’t mean tragedy in the sense of a calamitous event or some great misfortune here, I simply mean that life in the daily grind is tough.

I think one of the most striking microcosms of this tragic-comic aspect of life is found in John 11:17-43. It’s the well-known story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Although he’s roughly about 20 miles away from Bethany, Jesus doesn’t immediately go to the sisters when they send word that Lazarus is ill. In fact, he deliberately kept away. By the time he comes, Lazarus has been in the tomb 4 days. Martha comes out to meet Jesus, Mary is presumably too distraught to leave home. Martha tells Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Mary will later say the same thing. Both certainly believed that Jesus could have kept their brother from dying. We know what happens next, but certainly not without a few tears shed on Jesus’ part. What’s going on here?

Firstly, Jesus stays away. He tells his disciples that this will end with him being glorified(v.4), but the sisters don’t know that. I doubt the disciples have any clue either. Think about what’s going through their minds – God is so near, yet so far. They know He is around, physically, in Israel, but that doesn’t change the fact that He’s not near enough, in Bethany! And anyway, isn’t distance a trivial barrier anyway? We’re not told how the sisters feel throughout this waiting process, but I suspect we instinctively know, and we can infer from their responses later anyhow. We know what it’s like to send word to God, to tell him about our circumstances. “Lord, the one you love is sick…”. Therefore, self-evidently, the thing to do is to come and heal him. C’mon, we know you’re more than capable! Except Jesus completely contravenes the rules of logic here. It’s as if he’s hiding. After all, Bethany is pretty near to Jerusalem, and the Jews weren’t exactly friendly to him there.

Then there’s Martha’s response. She meets Jesus, so it’s not as if she’s completely given up on him. But the experience has taught her that it’s not a good idea to expect too much. She’ll play the role of the faithful disciple, saying the right things: “I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” She hopes, but it’s a qualified hope. It’s not that she’s being hypocritical, it’s just that experience has stung. When Jesus tells her, “Your brother will rise again,.” she proceeds cautiously. It wouldn’t do to hope too much, not when she’s already been proven wrong once before. Again, she immediately, subconsciously adds a caveat: it’s a yes, but situation. There is absolutely no doubt that she is a true disciple of Jesus, with an amazingly clear confession of Jesus as the Christ, but she hasn’t quite grasped, in her limited understanding, what that means. She believes in the resurrection, but she hasn’t understood that Resurrection and Life is right there, right now. The kingdom of God, the reality of New Creation is about to break into her world.

How about Mary? I’m not sure why she stayed at home, it might be for entirely innocuous reasons. But she doesn’t hide her grief. She questions God, but I don’t think she blames Jesus. For now though, nothing can assuage her pain. v.35 really gets at me. It’s the shortest verse in the Bible, but so much is packed into it. “Jesus wept.” But why? He knows he’s going to raise Lazarus from the dead. Even if he wants to comfort Mary, well, there are plenty of other ways apart from weeping! But I think this speaks firstly, of Jesus’ complete humanity. John is insistent that He is the Word made Flesh, He really is human. But I think it also speaks of Jesus’ recognition of living in the present moment. Certainly, he is going to perform a miraculous act, but right now, it is a cause for weeping. His dear friend Lazarus is dead. The grief and pain is real for everyone at the scene. It doesn’t change the fact that there is going to be a happy ending, but right now, it is a tragedy. It is right for the expression of lament. It is right to weep.

Finally, there is Jesus as mediator. This little tragic-comic tale needs to be framed within the larger story of Jesus’ mission on earth. Ironically, this account of Lazarus’ resurrection turns out to be a tragic element in his own story. After the miracle, the Pharisees plan to kill him, with Caiaphas making the even more ironic statement that it is better for Jesus to die for the people. Jesus had made this clear with his prayer to the Father emphasizing his role as mediator, sent from the Father. As we ponder on our own stories, we need to see it in relation to the gospel narrative. The Teacher in Ecclesiastes recognizes this, that life without God is “meaningless – a striving after wind”, even though he finds it too difficult to think of an eternal life with God at many moments throughout.

I’m only 21. I don’t pretend to have any life experience, or to know what true suffering really is. I don’t even know if I’ll listen to my own words here. When I look back at my life thus far, though, I know there have been painful moments. It’s difficult to acknowledge them, acknowledging them only concretizes them, makes them more real. And they become ghosts as well, haunting me in the present. But if I acknowledge them, I expose the chains that bind me. And trusting God means that I acknowledge too that I can’t break them, but He can. It recognizes that salvation has three components – past, present and future. Remembering is important: we already have been saved, justified…but there is also a futuristic element to it: “[Jesus] will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” (Hebrews 9:28)

Ecclesiastes tells it like it is. It’s a great book to look at as we swim in deep waters. Just don’t miss the hints about what could be.

† Expand post

Sunday, March 12, 2006

progress on the essay

The essay's taking shape! There really is a lot of material available to me, if I had the desire and the time (which I don't, on both counts), it could easily be a 10,000 word essay or more. There's still a long way to go yet, though.

For those of you who are interested - and that means I'm talking to the air here - I'm writing an essay on postcolonial literature, looking at the early works of Rushdie and Coetzee, and seeing how their novels engages, or rather, refuses to engage, with History. Loads of funny postmodern ideas - History becomes a linguistic construct, straightforward binary oppositions are challenged, totalizing projects are to be resisted etc. etc. (I'm really grateful to Kevin Vanhoozer now for helping me see things more clearly - see my reading list on the sidebar). Having done a term of postcolonial studies, I've realised that it draws just about all its ideas from postmodernism, so much so that on one level, you may as well use both terms interchangeably even if they ostensibly mean different things.

OK, I'm rambling. Onward!

P/S Btw, thanks to Anonymous in the last post, I appreciate it!

Thursday, March 09, 2006


over trying to construct a coherent argument over 6,000 words. Emphasis on the word coherent. I've got the material, but making it all flow together is really hard work! The extended essay is due next Tuesday and counts as an exam paper.