Monday, September 25, 2006

The Limitations of blogging

I'm currently rereading Quentin Schultze's Habits of the high-tech heart, trying to finish what I started a couple of years ago – having initially left it at home but now back in my hands(thanks, sis!). And I was really struck by some of his gentle yet firm observations of the technological society that we now live in. Among other things, he critiques our penchant for informationism, that is, a belief that somehow, more access to more information can somehow lead to progress and a better society. He also shows how our informational practices have turned us into impersonal observers rather than interested participants – thus the term “surfing” the net is particularly apt as it never gets beyond the surface. There are loads and loads more gems that I don't have the space to uncover here, but I just wanted to take some disparate threads of his and run with it to think about blogging.

In a way, it's a pity the book came out just before the blogging phenomenon had started gaining momentum, as I would have loved to see what he would have said specifically about this particular practice. Nevertheless, I doubt it would have changed much of what he has already written. Recently, the biblical scholar Andreas Kostenberger wrote on hermeneutics (that is, the study of interpretation) of the blogosphere and the genre of the “blog”. In that post, he ruminated on the very practice of reading a blog and the proper interpretive controls we need - “much would be gained if we were to intuit the proper genre of another’s blog and critique that blog in keeping with the authorially intended genre”. This is in keeping with what I have long thought. I wrote a long, long time ago about different genres of blogs and the different types of bloggers, and proposed a 4Cs model: creator, catalyst, chronicler or commentator. The creator, I opined, was the one who threw out original posts, a way of thinking out loud, roughly similar to Kostenberger's genres of the editorial and panel discussion. The catalyst, I thought, was one who picks up an idea and runs with it, again, perhaps similar to the panel discussion again, alluded above. The chronicler could either be one who is simply diarizing his own life, lovingly shaping it into a narrative, with its characters, point of view etc. Or he could also be helping us sort out what may be a jumble and put it into discernible order, like those who collate all the links to a particular issue. And the commentator is self-explanatory I guess.

Obviously these categories are rather loose and I'm sure you can think of some blogs that don't fit into those above. But my main point is that I think we are often still babies in our practice of reading blogs sometimes. The internet and blogging in particular has often been praised as allowing for the democratization of information, allowing for a plurality of views (polyglossia I think might be the appropriate technical word). Yet this has also resulted in a flattening that fails to take into account things like context, cultural difference, communication styles etc. For example, humour often doesn't seem to translate well on the internet. Neither does our whole personhood appear to be able to make the transition onto screen: often, bloggers, myself included, admit that what we are like in person and our online personas don't always match (the Jungians among you must feel vindicated now! :-p )

Schultze points out that ethical practice and technology seems to have become disconnected, or at least distorted, and often, we are so used to our technological society and the optimistic rhetoric of its proponents that we seek essentially technological solutions to essentially moral problems. So think of spam filters or in the case of blogs, the necessity of banning vulgar commenters. The point isn't that we can't seek recourse to such actions, but that often, we refuse to see that the problem is still that of our human hearts. It is a reminder that would serve us well.

I am not a Luddite; I don't think it means we should be running away from technology. But I don't quite share, to name an example, Hugh Hewitt's enthusiasm that blogging is going to be revolutionary. Blogging is hard work, and sometimes I don't feel like persevering when my energies might be better served elsewhere. In reading blogs and blogging, we have to work harder than ever to be graceful, to communicate cross-culturally, and it does give us the opportunity to expand our worldview and to be able to stay in touch and respond to each other in more interactive ways than previously imagined.

And to borrow the title of a Wendell Berry book which I have never read, I think we should continue to stand by words, and blogging is still about writing (with apologies to the many fine photo-blogs out there.) On the cover page of that particular book is this sentence: “such fidelity to the word, as evidenced by clarity of meaning and intent, would go far to reconnect language to life.” Hopefully we who are bloggers aspire to reconnect our blogging to life. Today in my quiet time I was reading the opening chapter of Colossians. In one magisterial sweep Paul declares the supremacy of Christ, that all creation is made by Him and for Him. He was Lord before blogging came to be, he will be Lord after blogging has passed away. We shouldn't forget.

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Monday, September 11, 2006

9/11 five years on

9/11 children
Not suprisingly, 9/11 coverage is going crazy on the 5th anniversary of the horrific attacks, but as always, it's the stories of ordinary people affected which can be the most moving.

Anniversary tests the courage of children

Plenty of other coverage at the Sunday Times and elsewhere too.

[Pic is of the 9/11 children, who were still in the womb when they lost their fathers.]

Thursday, September 07, 2006

To the prospective humanities student

So you're about to start university. Excited? Nervous? I know I certainly was! And why not? It's after all, the time of life to spread those proverbial wings, as you take those tentative steps out of the nest. New friends, new environment, new style of teaching & learning, new everything. And kudos to you too for choosing to do the humanities (liberal arts if you're in America). Be warned, as you get nearer graduation, as you look around you and see your various engineering, medical, science-y, and business friends all working on something tangible, you might, understandably, wonder if you're learning anything all that useful; if you have anything at all to contribute to the world. I suspect even those of us who feel strongly about the value of the humanities will have moments of weakness when we wonder whether the common arguments about the humanities cultivating ethical foundations and aesthetic appreciation holds weight. After all, weren't the Nazis reading Proust while their victims writhed in pain next door? [1]

But wait, there's more. You're not only about to head off to university, you're heading off to college as a Christian. Maybe you've grown up in a Christian family all your life. Or you just became one recently. Or maybe, although you regard yourself as a Christian, you've never been able to quite fit the mold. So maybe going to university scares you a little, 'cause you've heard all about those stories of how Christians are ridiculed in class. Or you're afraid that you could lose your faith. Or maybe you're excited, 'cause now you have a chance to explore all those niggly doubts that bothered you but were stifled back home. Whatever your background, a whole world of possibilities have opened up. What should you do?

Full disclosure. I am a recent graduate myself, not so far ahead of any of you guys, so I can't claim to have enjoyed the fruits of reflection; I am not distanced enough yet. Although I suppose I am reasonably intelligent, I will never be a heavyweight intellectual. Because my field is English literature, a lot of my following comments will naturally mostly apply to those who are doing likewise. Also, my comments will reflect my own experience, that is, a non-Westerner studying in the humanities faculty of a Western university. And for those of you who have had the privilege of having a good education in the humanities at secondary school level, treasure it. One of the things I realised at this level was just how poorly Sejarah or History is taught in Malaysia up to Form 5, where rote learning is overemphasised at the expense of learning the tools of proper historical analysis. I honestly felt this handicap when I was writing some of my essays, finding it difficult to sift through often dense material. These are merely intermittent reflections, hopefully they might be of some worth.

Firstly, don't be naïve. Certainly 50 years ago Christians might have had a hard time in the sciences, but today the situation is reversed. Many working in the sciences have now realised that there not need necessarily be a disjunction between science and faith, and many prominent scientists are also Christians. [2] A student worker once remarked to me that it's the students in the humanities nowadays who need the most support. Be aware of how your discipline has developed, and the impact of what is known as “critical theory” on just about every humanities department. [3] I suspect many of us studying the humanities are in some way preoccupied with the question of what it means to be human, after all, that must be where the term “humanities” come from, right? But increasingly, in many humanities department there exists a currency of thought that is hostile to the human. Constructivist theories of the self, i.e all of our knowledge is constructed and contingent on experience and perception rather than reflecting any transcendent reality is often assumed. This is especially so in the English department (less so in philosophy). I remember how one of my tutors told one of my coursemates to remove all mention of any universal values in her essay, as it was “outmoded” and has “no credibility”.

Therefore, it's important to recognize the importance that the lordship of Christ extends to every realm, including the life of the mind and the land of academia. Before you go off to college, do yourself a favour and read Byron Borger's important essay Making the most of college:Learning to love good books. Develop a Christian worldview and be committed to thinking things through biblically. If you're like me, you might find this frequently difficult, and you're unsure if Christianity really does speak to those issues. (or if it does, you just don't know what it's saying!) That's ok. We don't always need to know the answers to the questions that are being asked. It is faithfulness and biblical fidelity that matters more. If our faith is true, it will hold up.

There are many good books on worldviews. Middleton and Walsh's The Transforming Vision is a standard in this field (although it is difficult to get in the UK). James Sire's been doing lots of thinking in this area too, and his Universe Next Door and Discipleship of the Mind are also standards, as is Gene Veith's Loving God with all your mind and the similar sounding book by JP Moreland,Love Your God with all your mind. My only complaint is that these books are all written by Americans, and therefore, a lot of its more practical advice is only suitable for a North American audience. Where are the Brits? A particular favourite of mine is Charlie Peacock's New Way to Be Human, which is not only instructive, but also a work of art in itself, shimmering in lyrical prose. If you are in a British university, it might be worth getting Marcus Honeysett's Meltdown, which briefly explores some of the big ideas by the theorists, and the impact of these ideas on both the university and the church, although you won't be satisfied if you're looking for something beyond the introductory level.

But don't dismiss secular education. Learn as much as possible and to the best of your ability. This isn't always easy, and I confess to cutting corners under pressure. If you have a good mind, use it. There is much you can learn from, even from your professors who might be avowedly anti-Christian. Wrestle, if you can, with viewpoints different from your own. Oh, and this was my big mistake – even if you have to take a lower grade sometimes, don't ever skim on reading the primary material for secondary material. It might seem more impressive when you're quoting some other academic who's done more thinking and research on something than you have, but in the long run, wrestling with the primary materials will serve you better. Don't repeat this fallacy! (But if you do fall to the temptation, there is no condemnation here from one who has also fallen) ;-)

Get to know the God's story of his people, that is, the story of the Bible. We need to get acquainted with this particular story because it is also the story with which we participate in. [4] A good Bible overview is particularly helpful in this. [5] As we see redemptive history being fleshed out, we gain confidence in God's promises and a renewed resolve to live in line with his will.

Get involved in the local church. It's easy in the rarefied atmosphere of academia to forget this, but this is really important. Parachurch organizations are good and very helpful, but if we solely depend on this for fellowship, we are in danger of missing out on something larger. It can be something “small”, stewarding, stacking chairs etc. In all this, we are serving the larger Christian community. Sometimes being humanities students can equip us in very useful ways, for example, they can be very gifted in handling the Bible.

Sometimes as a humanities student, in telling others about Jesus, you will meet the philosophically-inclined type. You know the ones I mean (you might even be one yourself), those that seem to speak in four-syllable words all the time and who can introduce 5 different abstract concepts in 10 seconds! If you know that you're out of your depth intellectually, don't despair. Remember, then, you're not there to win an argument, although that doesn't mean you can't have a rational conversation. (After all, part of being a human is being rational.) It's the gospel that saves, not arguments! Do get yourself acquainted with possible answers to common questions, but don't forget that humans are more than just rational beings.

And have fun, it'd be over before you know it. And hey, when it's time to go into the "real world", maybe you'll discover that all those charges of the humanities not being relevant to the real world is actually a good thing. ;-)

[1] If you are seeking a healing balm in the face of these doubts, reading Peter Leithart's article: 'For Useless Learning' in the conservative journal First Things might help. Reading it at the end of my first year was good for me.
[2] See the Agora's paper on science and religion, for example.
[3] I'm obviously more familiar with the literary version, but there is no doubt that there is overlap.
[4] See Eugene Peterson's Living into God's Story
[5] Recommendations include Vaughan Roberts' God's Big Picture, Bartholomew and Goheen's The Drama of Scripture, Michael Williams' Far as the Curse is Found.

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Friday, September 01, 2006

Some reflections on the summer

It has been quite a summer – interesting, thought-provoking, challenging. Mostly, it has been a summer of transition. I've had to say goodbye to my student days, although true closure will come when I attend my convocation at the end of this month. I've had to say goodbye to friends, and it's quite amazing to know that there are already, just barely three months on, all scattered around the globe, some in Hong Kong, some in Singapore, some back home in Malaysia, others here in various parts of the UK. I've said goodbye to the church that has taught me so much over 3 years, and it was really good to be able to say farewell to Vaughan on my last Sunday, and who only had kind words to say to me.

And I've said hello to a sister-in-law. I've said hello to a whole new world where responsibilities actually mean something, as I hunt for a job. I've said hello to a whole host of doubts as I now wonder where I fit in in this world, even as I marvel at the cultural melting pot that is London, where I'm currently living.

One thing I've really appreciated about this summer is that I have, for once, had the time to absorb quite a huge amount of books, and it's been really enriching to be able to tackle quite a lot of new books. Farish Noor's The Other Malaysia, for instance, for an academic book, was a rip-roaring read. I found much to chew on Lionel Shriver's award-winning novel We Need to Talk about Kevin and although it took me much longer to read, it was fun to re-immerse myself into the American South in Leif Enger's Peace Like a River. And there was so much more too, discovering Jumpha Lahiri and her wonderful short stories, being a teenager all over again in Curtis Sittenfield's Prep, etc. etc. The only thing, to my shame, is that I haven't fulfilled my aim at the beginning of the summer to finish off Stott's Cross of Christ, although I'm halfway through now. If I have time, I'll love to write up reviews of some of these books.

Job-hunting has been difficult, and I have to learn not to take each rejection personally. It's really competitive out there, and I find writing cover letters especially hard, because on the one hand, you lose out if you're being too modest – you've got to sell yourself – but at the same time, you shouldn't come across as being too cocky. Waiting has got to be the hardest part, and I especially hate it when companies don't tell you that you've not made it to the next stage, at least if they tell you, you know you can keep on looking and not be kept in limbo. And truly speaking, a degree, even from a well-respected institution, doesn't count for that much, at least not here. Having work experience on your CV is really helpful, as I've discovered.

Still, I've managed to do some volunteer work for a charity, which I've really enjoyed. Those of you who know me know that I've been really fascinated by cross-cultural issues and how they affect our identity, and also, I guess, our missiology, for the past year, and I've been involved in an Oral History Project that's looking at Chinese immigrants in Britain as well as British-born Chinese. I've enjoyed listening to some of the interviews I've been transcribing, and it's been really fun having been doing some editing and copy-writing work as well.

What's been really challenging about this summer though, it's that theory becomes real. As I struggled with the occasional bouts of existential angst, as I wonder if I'll ever get a job, as I try to balance my filial duty to my family without making the mistake of idolizing them (my parents are here in England till my graduation), it's been a first-class lesson in learning to trust God. And it's been really hard, and it's still hard! It's amazing how one still forgets to pray even when the circumstances are unfavourable. Even as I struggle with the way I've been moulded, how so much of my past has shaped me, yet I also find comfort in the truth that I am in the hands of the Master Potter.

I'd really prefer to begin working, and I still think that, after much reflection, that this is the still the best decision. (My contingency plan now includes possibly doing a Masters, but I am still hesitant, for various reasons.) Yet I know I must continually let my reflections be shaped by the priorities of God, not those of the world. I still remember the last study of 1 Corinthians. Coming after the magisterial chapter 15, which talks about the resurrection, one could easily dismiss chapter 16 as an add-on, an epilogue where he just extends the customary farewells. Yet upon closer inspection, we find Paul making sure that his travel decisions, where he takes his ministry, continually shaped by the message of the cross he carries – a theme that is there throughout the entire letter.

Summer's not over yet – who knows, maybe there'll still be a surprise or two in store!

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