Friday, December 29, 2006

Urbana '06

Urbana is the triennial student missions conference run by Intervarsity in the United States. There's often a focus on racial reconciliation and practical justice, which I've noticed are two distinct characteristics of the North American FES movement. Urbana '06 is going on right now with this year's theme being "Worthy of your calling". You can follow the conference via webcast here, which is precisely what I'm doing. Ajith Fernando is giving the Bible expositions on Ephesians this year.

So what are you still doing on my blog? :-D

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Random 2006 reflections 2

A few months back at a Q&A session after a sermon, someone asked my pastor, "what does a relationship with God really look like? What does it mean to be to have a relationship with God?" There was a pause, and in measured tones, he answered: "I think the foundation of it all is in Jesus' statement 'Repent and believe'. That's the essence of a relationship with God." He went on to add more remarks, but it's this statement that really struck me. I've thought about it a lot since then.

The phrase needs some explaining, as I think these are terms that people often get confused about. To repent is to turn away from a lifestyle which does not have God in the centre, but more than that, it is also to turn to God and give him the worship that He rightfully deserves. As I understand it, to believe, in terms of how it is often used in the Bible, is closer to what we would now normally take "trust" to mean. So, to believe is not merely to give assent to a set of propositions, but is also bound up with notions of confidence and faith. In some ways repenting and believing overlap, since turning to God requires us to put our trust in Him. In other words, I don't think you can separate the two, not neatly, anyway.

It seems to me, especially as I thought about how hard it is to follow Jesus this year, or any year really, that these words ring true. As I wrestle with my sin and my own shortcomings, I can often lean towards two responses, both of which are wrong. There is one whereby we tell God how terrible and guilty we are and promise to do better next time. Or there is the other where we immediately thank God for his grace and don't give our sin a second thought. In both responses I show that I don't understand yet what it means to have a relationship with God.

But if I hear Jesus afresh, when he tells me that the kingdom of God is at hand, and therefore to repent and believe - it really is good news! For Jesus was not only announcing the reign of God, he was also declaring that his subjects could have an intimate relationship with the King and trust Him, especially since we know Him to be trustworthy. And to trust him includes recognising that I can't manage my own sin. By that I mean any barometer of righteousness, any contract I attempt to draw up with God on my own terms will inevitably fail. It means that I come to Him, saying I have absolutely nothing to offer by way of restitution or compensation, and all I can do is trust in your cross. And as I come to trust you, I also commit myself to being faithful, so that I keep following in your footsteps. And when I stray again, I consciously turn to You, asking for forgiveness, joyfully accepting it knowing it to be real forgiveness, and keep persevering.

Nothing I've mentioned here is new at all. But the fundamentals always get lost whenever we just assume them. (I'm certain to forget this in the future, and need to be reminded.) And it seems to me that more than ever, we need to learn to put our trust in Jesus (and in doing so, stop placing our trust in something, or someone else) because He has already brought us into God's presence (Heb. 10:22).

What do you think?

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Top 10 books of 2006 - no. 8 & 7

The Accidental - Ali Smith8. The Accidental - Ali Smith

Ali is one the two Smiths who are the rising stars of British literary fiction (the other being Zadie, no relation). Formerly a lecturer in English, this Scotswoman had a period of self-examination after having been struck down by a mystery bug that kept her in bed for months on end. During that time, she decided that she was never going to be a decent academic, and started to write full-time. Having teased and excited many in the establishment with glimpses of her talent in various short stories, she finally wrote her first novel to critical acclaim - this book was shortlisted for the Booker in 2005, won the Whitbread Award, and made many "best books of the year" lists.

I had only heard of her in passing, but was intrigued enough to give her a try. I couldn't help feeling apprehensive though, since this was being marketed as "literary fiction" and I had found much modern(read:20th century) literature either impenetrable or pretentious. Thankfully, Ali Smith is not one of them. The Accidental is set in modern Britain, as we follow the Smarts on a family holiday. The Smart family looks like your typical middle-class family, but as the novel progresses we see that there are plenty of landmines beneath the tranquil surface. The story is told from the point of view of each family member (dad,mum,teen,precocious child). This happens to be one of the book's strengths, as Smith captures each voice distinctively, using free indirect style, which is no mean feat.

The title comes from the "accidental" entry of a mysterious lady, Amber, who wanders into each of their lives and in doing so shatters the facade of perfection that the family have cultivated for so long. Amber remains elusive throughout the novel - who, or what is she? The closest word is possibly "ghost", but even then that doesn't really fit - she feels more like the manifestation of a presence that just won't go away. In a review of the book later, I discovered that Amber is also a nod to an old Terence Stamp movie in which a mysterious wanderer also suddenly intervenes into the life of an ordinary family, disturbs their routine and generally unsettles them.

This book deals with the hidden dysfunction that occurs in many families, where problems and issues are commonly repressed or denied, or so that one can continue the illusion of the perfect family. Smith does so with amazing inventiveness, using as 3-act structure to frame the book - the novel is split into 3 sections - the beginning, the middle, the end, and experimenting within such a framework. In one chapter, she audaciously has Michael, the father (who also happens to be an English professor), completely think in sonnet-form. I thought she was pushing it there, but I couldn't deny her boldness in even attempting this.

The Accidental is wonderfully readable, experimental in style, and thought-provoking in its themes all at the same time. Persevere with this and you won't be disappointed.

If this interested you, you might also find interesting...: Really, it's hard to think of anyone quite like Ali Smith. You might want to try her earlier short story collection, Hotel World. Zadie Smith is similarly acclaimed, and I've seen many commuters on the Tube with a copy of her On Beauty on hand.

The New Faces of Christianity7. The New Faces of Christianity: Reading the Bible in the Global South - Philip Jenkins

I went to see a friend of mine, a Brit, recently. We used to co-lead Bible studies for international students together, and he was telling me about his current group, which comprised primarily of mainland Chinese students, many of whom were new Christians. They had been studying a passage from Mark, and while discussing how the passage applied to their lives, they ended up debating about the compatibility of being a Christian and a member of the Communist party. "I just sat back and watched in wonder, honestly," my friend told me. "They knew what they had just encountered in the word of God had implications for their lives, and it was great seeing them wrestle with it. Not that I could contribute much!"

This anecdote captures a little of the flavour of the latest from Philip Jenkins. Jenkins, a distinguished historian, is best known for The Next Christendom, in which he shows how Christianity is no longer the exclusive domain of the Northern hemisphere, and that, in fact, the center of gravity has moved Southward. To my Malaysian or non-Western readers, this is something we've all known for quite some time, but for many, especially those who consider themselves both Western and secular, this is something pretty surprising.

In this sequel, he now turns to the question of what Christianity is like in the global South, and more specifically how the Bible is read and affects the day-to-day lives of Southern Christians. His main thesis is that Asian and African Christians (he opts not to discuss Latin America) often live in a milieu which is more akin to the world of the Bible, sociologically and culturally. So, for example, the world of demons and spirits are never far away for the African Christian, nor is the world of natural disaster and a sense of exile from their lands for many other indigenous Christians. Using the Anglican crisis over homosexuality as a starting point to draw a contrast between the North and the South, he shows how the global South tends to take their Bibles more literally and tend to be more conservative in their application.

Each chapter, then, goes on to explore key interpretive issues which divide the North and South, such as the relevance of the Old Testament, an identification with the poor and oppressed (with extremely astute comments about the roots of the prosperity of the gospel), the place of women and patriarchy and so on. Majority World scholars are frequently cited. This is a mainly descriptive book, with Jenkins trying to be as fair-minded as possible and in doing so, rarely makes evaluative statements.

It's also a pretty nuanced book, I'm afraid my summary above is rather crude! And this book raises so many interesting questions, none of which have any easy answers. For example, the Old Testament provides many resonances for African Christians, but are we to take some of its prescriptions at face value, in light of the fact that Jesus has come? Are accusations of syncreticism in some Christian practices in the South justified, or a result of ethnocentricism? What is the relation between divine punishment and communal sin, church and state? How does the Japanese Christian react to passages about eternal punishment, when so little of his people know Christ? (I believe this question also hits closer to home.)

I wonder too, about "globalized" people like me, and how my experiences have shaped my reading of the Bible. For example, how would 1 Peter, when mentioning that we're strangers in the world, and addressed to people scattered throughout Asia Minor, speak to the diaspora? And so on and so forth.

This is a valuable book to read and to expand our worldview, even as we consider what it means to follow Christ as a Malaysian Chinese, a British Indian, an African-American, a Caucasian, whatever. John Stott, in a recent interview, was asked how he would describe the growing church. He said, "growth without depth". May it not be so 50 years from now.

If this interested you, you might also find interesting...:Jenkins has a brief interview with Christianity Today here. Here is a quick summary of his famous piece in the Atlantic Monthly that provided the basis for The Next Christendom. Also, it is worth watching these 2 excerpts of Tim Keller reflecting on The Scripture as Foundation and whether the Bible is culturally conditioned. I found his comments illuminating. If you have broadband, it should take no more than a minute to load each clip, which is roughly 2 minutes plus each.

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Sunday, December 24, 2006

Merry Christmas to all my readers!

Sarah McLachlan sings 'O Little Town of Bethlehem'

The hope and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight

where meek souls will receive him still,
the dear Christ enters in

O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Only One who can change the world

Luke 2:1-20, Isaiah 9:1-7, Matthew 4:12-17

He was considered the greatest king who ever lived. Many commented on his intelligence, charisma, and decisiveness. Indeed, he had done what many had failed to do - he brought peace which had long eluded the kingdom. Historians wrote about him long after he was dead, acknowledging him to be the climax of history. He was even called the "son of god". He was...Caesar Augustus.

And he was certainly a powerful man. He issues "a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world", which, by the way, is pretty big. What he says is law. Augustus is a title that comes from the word augere - "to increase", and means "exalted". He is authority personified, and here we have but one demonstration. So he is obeyed, even in the far reaches of his empire, away from the corridors of power. Joseph, no one significant, dutifully takes his bride-to-be to balik kampung to Bethlehem, a small little village just south of the capital. There was a little drama, though, his fiance's water breaks, and she gives birth to her her firstborn in less than ideal circumstances, all told matter-of-factly by Dr. Luke, who's probably seen his fair share of births. Improvisation is needed, and the feeding-trough, for that was what the manger was, had to be used as a crib.

But in heaven there's a flurry of action over this teenage pregnancy, as the messengers of God get despatched. Why, though? King Herod would later get a little tetchy over this baby, but perhaps he was just overly insecure. After all, Herod, compared to Augustus, was just a petty governor, and Augustus hadn't even heard of this baby. So an angel gets sent to the emperor...wait, that's not what happened. Shepherds? Some special divine oracle is made privy to...shepherds? Not exactly Official Secrets Act material, this. The angel begins to clue us in. "Do not be afraid. I bring good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you, he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."

And suddenly we begin to see what that crafty storyteller Luke was up to. What delicious irony! For Augustus thought he was in control "in those days". "In those days", at the beginning of this chapter, we see the height of the Roman empire. "In those days" it was the period known as "pax romana", or Roman peace. But none of this will last. The Roman empire will eventually sink without trace. Meanwhile, Augustus unwittingly helps move along God's plan, and the prophecy made by Micah centuries ago is fulfilled, Christ is born in Bethlehem. Even "in those days", when Israel had seemed to be all but abandoned, God was king.

For "in those days", many of the Jews, who were the oppressed, had been looking for the Messiah. Simeon, later in the narrative, would be but one example, looking for the "consolation of Israel". But what strange circumstances for a promised deliverer to be born in. God, of course, had different ideas from everyone else. This was an undiscriminating saviour, "for all the people". Still, it's rather puzzling. The kingdom being ushered in was visibly weak, insignificant, and vulnerable. Yet the angel is clear: this is Jesus, "Christ the Lord"! The shepherds don't doubt it. Perhaps that's why the angels go to them. Maybe they had an inkling of what was to come. We will never know for sure if they remembered the prophecy in Ezekiel 34, where God himself declares that he himself will look for his sheep and look after them, rescuing them from all the places where they were scattered. But it doesn't matter. The great news is that the Shepherd-King is here, and he will lay down his life for his sheep.

Any doubt as to Jesus' identity is laid to rest at the beginning of his ministry. Jesus, having heard of John the Baptist's imprisonment, leaves Nazareth and goes to Capernaum, which is by the area of Zebulun and Naphtali. In doing so, he fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah. Matthew, one of his disciples, reminds us of why this is so important:

The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.

Light has broken through the darkness! Jesus lays claim to being the Anointed One. And this king will be like no other king, he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no other end, one in which justice and righteousness will rule, forever and ever. And the paradoxical way in which Jesus accomplishes this is by his death. A death that results in new life.

This is the message of Christmas. In a world where wars never seem to end, where heartache is everywhere, where weariness threatens to overwhelm, Jesus turns this world upside-down. The birth of Christ didn't inaugurate the kingdom of commercialism. Instead, the birth itself was the greatest gift of all, Immanuel, God with us. "Turn to me", Jesus will declare. And if we come with our hands wide open, we receive a gift just as great, if not greater. That in the midst of pain and regret, of anger and helplessness, we can turn to the King of Kings and cry, "Abba Father".

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Friday, December 22, 2006

Random 2006 reflections 1

I think I'm trying to do too much, blogging-wise, but since I don't have that many days left in the year...

I don't really know what to make of 2006. One of the reasons why my reflections are going to be random. In some ways, I don't feel like the end of the year is coming, and that 2007 is just an extension of 2006 - a 2006 (part 2). There is a sense of tiredness that doesn't seem to go away with just the flipping of the calendar.

In some ways, this year has been full of visible, significant milestones. I have

  • graduated with a degree! I still can't believe it!
  • seen my brother get married
  • moved cities for the 3rd time in 4 years, and this time to the biggest one of them all - London!
  • become a postgraduate student, something I never even fathomed a couple of years ago.
  • Gone one whole calendar year (and more) without seeing Malaysia for the first time in my life
  • worked for a charity in a worthwhile project.
  • began considering taking my long-term future in a direction I had previously resisted before.
  • had to learn, as it were, how to deal pastorally with 2 difficult situations as a Christian leader. (Not that the learning is anywhere near complete!)

But as I celebrate my birthday tomorrow, there is just one thing I want to reflect on in this post. I think one of the things that God has been teaching me is to display some patience. Maybe partly because of my own insecurity over the future, and also in watching some of my peers begin to take concrete steps in moving onto a definite path, I wanted to get a move on too. But God said, whoa! Don't you think you're being a little impudent!

I think this is true. Normally, the arrival of birthdays are meant to be followed by exaggerated moans about how old I'm getting, but actually, as I turn 22 tomorrow, I'm actually reflecting on how young I still am. I'm the youngest Masters student on my course. I'm the youngest in my Bible study group. And I still need to learn wisdom and maturity, and there is time to learn both (as well as more practical stuff, of course. :-p). I'm still pretty mobile at this juncture. I'm not too tied down to anywhere yet. And God is saying, steward this freedom you currently have.

Truth be told, I find that very difficult. And so maybe my one birthday request is this, a prayer offered to our Father that I will continue to learn to be repentant and to trust and follow Him. For I am a sinful man, made more alarming by the fact that I am often unaware of how hardened my own heart is. But thanks be to God, there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Top 10 books of 2006 - no. 10 and no. 9

The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini10. The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner is a triumph of good old-fashioned storytelling. Supposedly the first Afghan novel to be written in English - an unverified claim - this is a classic story of two people growing up on different sides of the proverbial fence, even if they are in close proximity to each other.

Amir and Hassan are tighter than brothers, although they grow up under different circumstances. Amir is a Pashtun, a Sunni Muslim, a member of the privileged class. Hassan is the son of their servant, an illiterate Hazara, and he has a deformity - a harelip. Despite this, however, Amir cannot help but feel jealous of the attention Hassan receives from his own father, which in turn only increases his feeling of inadequacy at not having a similar effect. He overcompensates by lording it over Hassan, although this does nothing to assuage his feelings of guilt. "I treated Hassan well, just like a friend, better even, more like a brother. Then why...didn't I ever include Hassan in our games?"

Hassan is too good-natured though to react. This changes, one day, in an incident after the local kite-running competition, which will haunt them both for the rest of their lives. Their friendship is severed, and Amir is left to deal with his demons, which follows even when he later escapes to America, in the wake of the Taliban invasion. What follows is Amir's struggle for a sense of redemption, no matter what the cost.

I read this in the midst of reading loads of postcolonial texts for my dissertation, and it was such a refreshing change. No clever narrative tricks or knowing ironies here - just a crackling tale that moves at a brisk pace. Hosseini is a really good writer, I haven't read someone who was able to paint such vivid pictures in a long time. The confusion that reigned in 1980s Afghan serves as an effective backdrop against what is a very personal story, and themes of forgiveness, mercy, guilt, and the cost of peace and redemption abound. Some might object to the characterization of Hassan, who might come across as being overly passive, a few extraordinary coincidences necessary to add more meat to both the plot and theme, and the ending, which seems to tie loose ends together too neatly. It didn't bother me too much. As Amir ran freely with the kite, so I just ran with the story. And what a pleasure it was.

If this interested you, you might also find interesting...: Hisham Matar's The Inheritance of Men was Booker shortlisted this year, and set in Libya. I've heard it called a meatier, grittier, (more literary?) Kite Runner. Yasmina Khadra's The Swallows of Kabul is also set in an Afghanistan under the reign of the Taliban.

Good News to the Poor - Tim Chester9. Good News to the Poor - Tim Chester

Tim Chester was formerly the Research and Policy Director for Tearfund UK, and is now a church planter in Sheffield. In a year where social justice issues have received a higher than ever profile both in the media and national consciousness, as well as within evangelicalism, this book will be a tremendous help to anyone needing a handle on this. Chester aims to "present a biblical case for evangelical social action [and] offer a critique of some of the theology and practice of social action within evangelicalism."

He begins by starting with God himself, pointing out that social action must be rooted in God's character and reign, and our experience of God's grace in Christ. He then argues against a privatised faith, quickly sketching a historical overview of how we ended up with regarding faith as merely a "private" thing. Next, he shows how the the need for proclaiming the gospel to the poor is still imperative, which rejecting an "either-or" dichotomy between proclaimation and action. Following on from this, Chester discusses the kingdom of God as a message of liberation, grace and community. There is a useful chapter at reminding us that the gospel is for the rich too, as we seek freedom from the god of consumerism. He then discusses some practical issues, looking at issues connected with powerty such as powerlessness, and also the political dimension.

He ends by asking "Can we make a difference?" and it's worth quoting a little from his concluding paragraph:
Proclamation will be central to Christian involvement with the poor because the greatest need of the poor - along with all people - is to be reconciled with God through the gospel. But the message we proclaim is best understood in the context of loving action and loving community. We may see reform in society, we may not. The important thing is for the church to witness to the coming liberation of God. We are called to be the jubilee community in which the poor are welcomed, included and strengthened. We are the place on earth where God's future can be seen."
Chester is always clear, and his discussion is wide-ranging and founded on exegetical premises. Lots of real-life examples are included so that we never descend into the abstract. Really, it's hard to think of any book that might be better than this as an introduction. Certainly in the Malaysian context there's much to ponder here. And so it is a 2006 top 10 book.

If this interested you, you might also find interesting...: John Stott's New Issues Facing Christians Today is a reference work that aims to deal with a wide range of issues from nuclear disarmament to the environment to euthanasia. Tim Chester also has a blog.

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Monday, December 18, 2006

Top 10 books of 2006 - intro

2006 has probably been the most fruitful reading year I've had in a long time. The search for new ways to procrastinate during revision, the extra time after Finals, a summer in which no compulsory reading lists intruded all contributed to this, I think. And although I no longer quite possess the simple, unalloyed joy I had as a child, when I read under the covers long after I was meant to be catching some shut-eye (I'm now tainted by both cynicism and a shorter attention span), it is still pleasurable to encounter new things as familiar, and familiar things as new, to paraphrase the novelist William Thackeray.

There were some interesting trends this year, at least in the UK. In the fiction market, the chick-lit, "yummy mummy" books flooded the market; obviously people believed they would sell. Don't know if they did. I noticed that non-Anglo-American authors writing in English/having their works translated into English received a higher profile than ever - the Indians have been around for a while now, but there are more Japanese and Chinese appearing on the scene, as well as Africans. And of course, second or third generation migrants - there was Amy Tan, Rushdie, and Ishiguro first, now there's plenty more.

Will be interesting to see where that leads. In the non-fiction market, just about every footballer feels the need to publish a biography - Ashley Cole, Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, John Terry...why, oh why? I can understand if it's say, Alan Shearer, but none of these footballers are even close to retirement yet! And also lots of shock memoirs, i.e people with horrific childhoods, be it abuse, or a severe disability such as Tourette's.

On the Christian side of things, I've noticed that IVP(UK) have recently been doing a lot of introductory-level books on a certain topic which often seem to have originated in a sermon series. Take, for eg. Graham Beynon's newest book, Experiencing the Spirit. There is usually a Bible exposition with an orientation towards application for each chapter. This is no bad thing, since it means that these books are explicitly grounded in Scripture and it is easier to see where the writer is coming from.

More broadly speaking, I'm not sure I know enough to discern anything - although judging from the bestsellers, I think it seems people are seeking for more clarity on gender roles, which is a really messy picture here in the West (so John Eldredge's books), or thirsting for something at an experiential, base level more generally (so Don Miller's books, or Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis). I can't think of a single, earth-shattering work. Some people are pushing for Tom Wright's Simply Christian, which I haven't read. I'm sure it's a very fine work, but it does strike me as a little hyperbolic to be proclaiming it this generation's Mere Christianity at this juncture.

Christianity Today also published their top 50 books that have shaped evangelicalism this year - a list that might have a little more relevance to Western evangelicalism but which has surely influenced non-Western evangelicalism as well.

A little note about my top 10 and how I picked it, it was all very arbitrary really. I don't have any criteria, I just picked works which obviously had some quality, which appealed to me, or just happened to seem important or which I really empathised with. I think my top 4 are fairly fixed, but 5-10 could easily have swapped places with each other, and on a different day, some other books might have made it into the top 10 instead.

So, next post - no.10 and no.9...


Saturday, December 16, 2006

A text-only post

You would be looking at some nice pictures, but for the fact that I can't seem to find my camera USB cable. Just one in a long line of things I seem to have lost in my move to my current pad. For one, I can't find a particular mug, which had my name and college crest on it - it was a farewell gift - which is rather annoying. I've also lost a notepad full of notes from my time reading the Bible with a mentor. And my nailcutter. Yes, my nailcutter. People, don't lose your nailcutter - it is extremely irritating to be unable to cut your nails.

Anyway, I was hoping to show you a night shot of Tower Bridge, one of my favourite sights in London, although it isn't as nice a photo as those you can see on postcards (Just Google images it and you'll see what I mean.) I've also had fun this weekend at the Frost Fair which was held by the riverside - music, entertainers, pasar malam, all good. Nice break really. And nice food - how about Argentinian steak with chimichurri sauce and churros with chocolate? The Argentinians were doing so well that they jacked up the price midway through!

Sure beats this, anyway.
cartoon from

Cartoon by Dave Walker. Find more cartoons you can freely re-use on your blog at We Blog Cartoons.

Next: My top 10 books of the year

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Give: A primer

Isn't it annoying how something often loses its lustre when it's turned into a formal object of study and vice versa? This fundamental law of life struck again when I decided to reread the Armitage poem posted below. As I began to read it properly, I began to get more and more excited because I began to see how this simple poem actually employed very sophisticated means to get its message across. So naturally, I just had to share. :)

In doing so, I hope to achieve some larger aims: to get people to appreciate the richness of language, to show that literature doesn't necessarily have to be intimidating, and to simply celebrate the creative gifts bestowed to us by God. And of course, because it's fun! I'll try my best to explain it in as simple terms as I can.


Of all the public places, dear
to make a scene, I've chosen here.

Of all the doorways in the world
to choose to sleep, I’ve chosen yours.
I'm on the street, under the stars.

For coppers I can dance or sing.
For silver-swallow swords, eat fire.
For gold-escape from locks and chains.

It's not as if I'm holding out
for frankincense or myrrh, just change.

You give me tea. That's big of you.
I'm on my knees. I beg of you.

The first thing to remember about poetry is that, unlike prose, it's all about how it sounds. This makes writing poetry more technical, although you'll never notice it in the hands of a skilled poet. There are 2 important elements here. Most people will know about the first element: rhyme, but what most people don't realise is that poetry is also all about rhythm. Have a look again at the Armitage poem. It has 8 syllables in each line, and if you read it out loud, you'll find that naturally, every other syllable is stressed. What you'll get is a "ta-TUM-ta-TUM-ta-TUM-ta-TUM". Technically, this is known as the iambic tetrameter. So why all this technical discussion, you ask? Read the poem out loud again. Notice how conversational it sounds - short sharp sentences - in fact, you could say it sounds almost incantational. This is the result of the poet employing the iambic tetrameter.

Now that we've got that out of the way, let's get on to some really interesting stuff. Firstly, let's quickly figure out what the poem is about. A quick read will tell us that this is the voice of someone who's presumably homeless and trying to get some change off someone. If you're a Londoner I'm sure an image will pop in your head really quickly!

But Armitage has more tricks up his sleeve. If that was all there was to this poem we might very well nod our heads and make a mental note to perhaps give a little to the next beggar we see. The poet bites us deeper than that. Read the first two lines again. What impression does it give you? I remember when I first read them, the picture that formed in my head was that of a middle-class lady who was basically telling her husband that she was about to throw a tantrum over something or another - probably over something that she wanted but couldn't get. So imagine how suprised I was when upon reading the next few lines, I discover that the speaker is actually the homeless person mentioned above. What Armitage does here is essentially set up the reader's expectations and then subvert them. What he does is set the tone of the poem against its content, and immediately that unsettles us.

But wait. Let's go one level deeper. If not for the content, we could easily imagine that the tone being adopted here is rather middle-class. This is signalled by the rather clean, formal language, none of the coarseness we expect from someone from the streets. "You give me tea. That's big of you." What Armitage is doing here, I believe, is not just confounding the reader's expectations, but also showing just how marginalised this homeless person is. He is denied even his own authentic voice! Instead, he has to rely on a retelling of his story through the voice of others. Indeed, he has become a mere commodity in this retelling: "For coppers I can dance or sing./For silver-swallow swords, eat fire./For gold - escape from locks and chains." Slot the coin, get some entertainment. The person becomes dehumanized.

Notice too how the poem progresses. In the first couple of stanzas there's a lot of emphasis on the "I", and also on choice - "chosen...choose...chosen" (and also the third stanza, which implies a choice of entertainment options depending on how much the person is willing to pay.) But this illusion of choice is shattered in the last 2 stanzas. The homeless person cannot actually dictate what is given to him. He might be hoping for loose change but "you give me tea. That's big of you". And so "I'm on my knees. I beg of you." He is at the mercy of the giver. I would also argue that since the last 2 lines are so close in sound as well, it's possible that in the last line, the true voice of the homeless person breaks out, if only momentarily, so that "that's big of you" is starkly juxtaposed with "I beg of you."

And suddenly the poem gains a whole new resonance, as we begin to see just how marginalized the speaker of the poem is, and the way the poem implicates us, the reader. (After all, it's likely to be middle-class people who would be reading poems!) The title of the poem "Give" now jumps out at us - it is no longer a description, but a prescription, or at the very least a challenge. The question now becomes, we have listened, now what are we going to do about it?

I'm sure I've missed out on a lot of other things, for eg. the explicit reference to "frankincense and myrrh" which can only be an allusion to Christianity here (possibly the idea of Christian charity? Or a reminder of Jesus' birth into humble surroundings?), and it's even more interesting that this poem appears in a collection called the "Dead Sea Poems". I don't know enough about Armitage, but often poems also like to allude to other poems, and Armitage might or might not have done so here.

So, have I succeeded with the aims of my post?

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Poetry for the dark winter days

I'm rushing to meet deadlines at the moment. Thankfully, it will soon all be over; I'm 3/4 through an essay and I have a fair idea of what is going into it, it's just a matter of structuring! Anyway, I've realised that a poem on this blog is way overdue. I thought of diving into the Dickinson archive, but as I don't have her book with me at the moment, I've decided on someone contemporary. This is the only poem by Simon Armitage that I've ever read. Enjoy (or ponder?)!


Of all the public places, dear
to make a scene, I've chosen here.

Of all the doorways in the world
to choose to sleep, I’ve chosen yours.
I'm on the street, under the stars.

For coppers I can dance or sing.
For silver-swallow swords, eat fire.
For gold-escape from locks and chains.

It's not as if I'm holding out
for frankincense or myrrh, just change.

You give me tea. That's big of you.
I'm on my knees. I beg of you.

Simon Armitage, The Dead Sea Poems