Thursday, March 29, 2007

William Wilberforce and Amazing Grace

william wilberforce
"God Almighty has placed before me two great objects: the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners (morals)."
- William Wilberforce, journal entry, October 20, 1897
I went to watch Amazing Grace on Tuesday night. As most of you probably know, this year is the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain, and William Wilberforce, whom this film is about, was a primary force behind this.

Let me just quickly talk about the movie from a primarily aesthetic viewpoint first. Told initially through flashbacks, the film unsurprisingly focuses mainly on Wilberforce’s struggle against slavery, set against the backdrop of political machinations, his failing health, and his friendship with William Pitt, the Prime Minister. In other words, it is, as far as I know, very faithful to the historical account. However, in dramatic terms, it means that the movie can be a little flat at times. Drama is all about conflict, and while there are conventional “bad guys”, they are not very well drawn-out. It would have been better if a little more time was spent exploring those who were in favour of the slave trade.

Having said that, I hasten to add that Amazing Grace is still a good movie, and indeed, a necessary movie. Ioan Gruffuld portrays Wilberforce pretty well, and there are powerful moments, particularly when he seeks advice from John Newton (writer of Amazing Grace, hence the movie’s title). I managed to read a biography of Wilberforce prior to watching the film, and was fascinated by what was clearly a close friendship with William Pitt – that came across as well. The movie also seamlessly weaves in Wilberforce’s Christian faith with his convictions so that it never feels like an add-on.

While it is not necessary to have known anything about Wilberforce before watching Amazing Grace, it helps! So for example, the film assumes some knowledge about Charles Fox and the Clapham Sect. But I guess, on the other hand, the film is meant to arouse your curiosity in the first place and lets you fill in the gaps later!

William Wilberforce remains relevant for us today, and anyone watching Amazing Grace will no doubt be able to draw parallels with contemporary issues today. What do I think Wilberforce/Amazing Grace have to teach us?

Firstly, the importance of history. I am a poor history student – I'd blame the Malaysian education system, but that’s taking the easy way out isn’t it? We are all blinkered by our times, and it is always helpful to go beyond the Now. As one historian says, someone trying to understand the present is like a man with his nose pressed against the mirror while trying to see the body.

Secondly, the importance of perseverance and hope. Wilberforce saw his bill defeated year after year in parliament, and there is no doubt that there must be plenty of times when he despaired. Wilberforce gave his whole life; he died 2 days after the Commons victory. To do so, he needed to have hope, hope that his vision would really come to fruition.

Thirdly, the need for moral clarity. Wilberforce knew that slavery was wrong, and for most of us today, this is obvious. But during those times, confusion reigned, and indeed, even John Newton himself had trouble seeing what exactly was wrong with slavery. We need to ask for God’s help to see through the fog of many similarly complex ethical issues today, and for confidence in what we know to be right.

Fourthly, amazing grace! God used an imperfect person, John Newton (who was obviously aware of that fact!) to inspire Wilberforce. Wilberforce himself was not always saintly – he was pragmatic in attaining office (vote-buying), and some today will no doubt be a bit alarmed at some suspiciously right-wing looking tendencies (imprisonment without trial, anyone?). But he knew he was weak, both physically and spiritually, and had no doubt that it was the gospel he depended on.

Fifthly, the sovereignty of God. God often looks as if he’s absent from this world, especially in light of injustice. But God is not deaf to the cries of the suffering, and he demonstrated this supremely on the cross, which consequently means that for those who trust in him, even as they work hard to show God’s kingly rule today, they can look forward to a day when his kingly rule will be consummated. I think Wilberforce understood this, for though his name is primarily associated with the slavery trade, he knew too that it was faith in Jesus that was at the heart of his vision. For instance, when the British East India Company's charter came up for renewal in 1813, he fought successfully to insure that Christian teachers would be sent to India along with the company's entrepreneurs.

For further reading:

William Wilberforce: A Hero for Humanity – Kevin Belmonte
This is apparently the best biography available by a guy considered the foremost authority on him (He was the consultant for the movie). I failed to locate it; I should have known it would come out to coincide with the film!

William Wilberforce – Steven Tomkins
This is the bio I eventually picked up, and I enjoyed it. Written by a BBC journalist with a PhD in church history, it examines the political context pretty closely, and never descends into hagiography (excessive praise without merit). I only wished he talked a little more about Wilberforce’s faith in relation to his politics. Yet he obviously has affection for his subject matter.

Amazing Grace in the life of William Wilberforce – John Piper
This is ideal for anyone wanting a short introduction, weighing in at 64 pages. The blurb suggests that Piper is especially interested in the spiritual basis for his passion and perseverance.

Wilberforce – John Pollock
An older treatment reissued by a noted biographer. I believe he wrote an award-winning bio of Hudson Taylor.

The Amazing Grace of Freedom: The Inspiring Faith of William Wilberforce – Ted Baehr et al.
This is the “official” book, which I think is in a coffee-table format, with nice pictures and attractively laid out commentaries, plus essays. So if that’s your thing, this is the book you might want to look at.

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Monday, March 26, 2007

The Poetry post - Psalm 51: Somebody Else

Regular readers of this blog will know that I like to post a poem, or at least something literary from time to time, and we're overdue. :D I really should find a name for such posts like I do for The Wrap.

This time around I've been really struck by this wonderful paraphrase of Psalm 51 by Paul David Tripp. Try reading it aloud, it really has quite an effect!

Psalm 51: Somebody Else

I really wish I could blame
somebody else.
I wish I could place the responsibility
on somebody else.
I would love to point the finger
at somebody else.
I wish I could convince myself
that it was somebody else.
I tried to feed myself the logic
that it was somebody else.
For a moment I bought my argument
that it was somebody else.
There is always another sinner
who can bear my fault.
There is always some circumstance
that can carry my blame.
There's always some factor
that made me do what I did.
There's always somewhere else to point
rather than looking at me.
But in the darkness of bedtime
the logic melts out of my heart.
In the moments before sleep
the pain begins to squeeze away my breath.
As my mind replays the day's moments
the conclusion is like a slap.
There is no monster
to hide from.
There is no excuse that holds.
My war is not external
the enemy is not outside.
The struggle rages within me,
nowhere to point or run.
No independent righteousness,
no reason for smugness or rest.
I am my greatest enemy
and rescue my only hope.
In the quiet I face it
I cannot blame somebody else.
One more time I close my eyes admitting
my only hope is found in Somebody else.

His books are all worth a look.

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Top 10 books of 2006 - 6 till 2

Before my computer died at the turn of the year, I was blogging through my top 10 books of 2006 (here and here). So, anyway, I thought I'll just pick it up again. It feels wrong not to offer comprehensive reviews like I did with 10 to 7, but I don't think I can do the same for the rest of the books. So, instead, I'll just finish off the list, with a few brief comments. If any of you want to find out more about a particular book, just leave a comment and I'll respond in more detail there.

My top book of 2006 merits a post all on its own, and I will get to it at some point. I suspect that I have also just found my top book of 2007 over the past weekend, if the first third of it is any indication. Anyway, here it is:

6. Flowers for Algernon - Daniel Keyes
Written in the 1950s; considered one of the best 100 science fiction novels of all time. It takes a simple premise - what if someone with a low IQ could become really smart? And what happens when he realises that this is only temporary, and that death awaits him? Keyes accomplishment is his total mastery over Charlie's, the protagonist, voice. Moving and heartbreaking. Don't be surprised to find yourself shedding a tear or two at the end.

5. Interpreter of Maladies - Jhumpa Lahiri
I have a new role model and her name is Jhumpa Lahiri. She does not write showily and her prose is uncluttered, but every word counts. This collection of short stories explore Indians in exile and received the Pulitzer Prize, and I think it's superior to a more recent, similar effort by Yiyun Li (although that one is pretty good too.)

4. We Need to Talk about Kevin - Lionel Shriver
I am, a little morbidly perhaps, fascinated by school shootings, and this is the third novel I have read that deals with this issue (the other two being Vernon God Little and Hey Nostradamus!.) This is a penetrating epistolary novel that tries to imagine such a horror from the perspective of the penetrator's mother. Could she have forseen it? Prevented it? Great book to start thinking about nature/nurture and also the reality of sin in a fallen world.

3. The Cross of Christ - John Stott
Stott's magnum opus; this lives up to its reputation for the many riches contained within. However, it also lives up to its reputation for being a very dense read! One reading is not enough, and I know I have to read it again. But it is definitely worth the time.

2.The Healing Path - Dan Allender
Allender is possibly the best Christian writer you've never heard of. His writing style is similar to Philip Yancey and Brennan Manning. Combine that with his rich pastoral insights and this was a book that blew me away. The chapter "Ambivalence and the loss of love" is worth the price of the book alone.
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Friday, March 23, 2007

Two Timothy

In about a month's time I'll be off on a weekend away where we'll be thinking a little more of ministry, especially in a small group context. We'll mostly be looking at 2 Timothy, and all of us who are going have been asked to read through the letter beforehand. I'll also be leading a short (10-15 minute) study on 2:14-26. :-0

Anyway, I thought it might be a good idea to blog through the letter. For one thing it'll help me be more disciplined in reading, but it might also be great to let you all "sharpen" me. It might be in correcting or refining my exegesis, catching me if my interpretation is off somewhere, perhaps asking questions that I haven't thought of, wondering aloud etc. But even more than that, we might be able to reflect together on how 2 Timothy should change our thinking, our worldview, and ultimately, our lives.

The version I'm reading from is the ESV, since that's what we'll be using at the retreat. John Stott's The Message of 2 Timothy is at hand to help me through difficult parts, but apart from introductory matters, I shall resist using it until I have read through the primary material itself.

So yeah, this is an open invitation for anyone to join me!


Thursday, March 22, 2007

Don't be evil!

secular sunday school - googleSee more at Epilogue TV.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Was she afraid of batty bloodsuckers?

I need a respite from some of the heaviness of previous posts!

On my way somewhere - I can't remember where exactly - last week, I hopped onto a very full Tube train. So there I was, packed into this particular carriage like a tin of sardines, but thinking myself lucky that I didn't have to wait on a crowded platform and lose precious minutes. As the beeps indicating that the train doors were closing sounded, the lady next to me turned to her companion and remarked:

"I knew I shouldn't have eaten all that garlic!"


You know, all that government investment in extra carriages had better be speeded up quick...

P/S If you're in London, do go see the Natural History Museum's WildLife Photography Exhibition. It's £3.50 for students, and worth every penny.


Sunday, March 18, 2007

An emerging church webliography - initial, half-formed thoughts

Some quick, loosely connected thoughts on the “emerging church”. If you’ve skimmed through some of the material in the previous post, you probably won’t find much new here. The following assumes some familiarity with the emerging conversation.

Much is made of the fact that the “emerging church” is diverse. Really, truthfully, this is true of any movement. I mean, you wouldn’t lump Benny Hinn, Peter Wagner and Gordon Fee under the same banner if you were talking about the charismatic movement; John MacArthur, R.C Sproul and Karl Barth if you were talking about those in Reformed circles, or for that matter, Abdullah Badawi, Shahrir Samad, and Tengku Razaleigh when talking about UMNO!

[To give you an idea of the diversity, surf any of these 6 blogs below, and I’m sure you’ll be surprised that they are quite different:
Emergent Voyageurs
Stephen Shields
Bob Robinson
Scot McKnight
Tony Jones ]

I think, though, that one of the reasons why this had to be stressed by both sides has a sociological side to it. One of the emphases of the EC has been on networking and dialogue, and a lot of it is done on the Web, especially what is known as Web 2.0. In a previous age, a lot of ideas would have been explored in books, which were by definition “closed”, since once you print a book you can’t change the words just like that, nor can you actually literally talk to books. Contrast this with a blog, where it is easy to edit material, and not only that, but it is possible to actually comment on them and begin a conversation. This is what linguists call secondary orality (The link will explain this in more detail).

What this does, however, I think, is merge the particular with the general, since a specific conversation is now a matter of public record. So it becomes easier to conflate a specific individual’s musings with a whole doctrine of the EC. Now I don’t want to let the EC off the hook here :-p and give some of them the excuse of “X said this, but that’s not what I said!” but I think the sociological dimension is worth thinking about and I hope those more able than I will pick up on this and see if they can expand this in a more fruitful direction.

Which ties in to my next point - Contextualisation. I guess one of the implied things from what I just said is that we need to look at things in context, which in one way is a very “emerging” thing to say. (Although I would contest that surely this point has been made in countless Bible studies!) This is what a lot of the talk is about. So the terms “modernity” and “postmodernity” abound, and the point is that for the Westerners engaged in this project, they’re trying to think through how to communicate the gospel for today. Now it certainly can be said that some might go about this in unhelpful ways or in ways which might actually compromise or undermine Christianity.

But with the appropriate controls, this is surely a commendable aim, and if we understand this is a main thrust of the EC than I think more productive dialogue will follow. In some ways, some of the emerging people are just trying to work through what missiologists have talked about for a long time. After all, no less than Don Carson, certainly no hero of many within the movement, has written this: “to have Rwandans and Singaporeans and Japanese and Bolivians thinking through the Bible for themselves, learning from the history of the church, while nevertheless learning to be faithful and learning to read the Bible in their own contexts, [is] surely a good thing.”

And this insight is gleaned from interestingly enough, postmodernism. I think like it or not, the EC is certainly more sympathetic to postmodernism than evangelicals in general. Even in the field of academic postcolonial studies, most people there are influenced by postmodern philosophy in general. Now here I am more out of my depth, but my own thinking goes along the lines of the fact that firstly, critics need to realise that postmodernism is not the same thing as relativism, a trap that many fall into, and secondly, like with many things, it is possible to glean many useful insights from postmoderns. For the emerging folk, it is certainly worth thinking about whether this is a well one should drink from consistently, even when we make the distinctions between hard and soft postmodernism. Surely certainty and mystery can be held in tension?

One of the most interesting books I read in the past few years was a history of the charismatic movement (which admittedly was looking more at the British side of things, but always with an eye on the global). It was quite interesting to read a lot of the intense debates that went on which those of us who are in our 20s and below have no idea of! What emerged was a renewed clarity on the role of the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts for today, a proper recognition of the experiential dimension of the Christian life and other things. That some convergence has happened is reflected in the grouping of churches such as Sovereign Grace in the US and newfrontiers in the UK.

So, time for my completely random guess: in 20-30 years time something similar will happen with the emerging church. They will help us recover forgotten emphases – I suspect a correction to individualistic tendencies is one of them. Some things will get thrown out along the way – the more mainstream element of the emerging church were not afraid to tell one of their own he had most definitely overstepped.

Anyway, I think that’s the last I’ll formally address anything “emerging” for a while. Jesus, the Bible, the gospel: to my shame I don’t talk about or allow my life to be shaped enough by them, and these are the things that really matter!
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Friday, March 16, 2007

An emerging church webliography

Although I’ve been acquainted with (and I mean this in the sense of having heard about and having read both proponents and detractors, and not in the sense that I’m affiliated or have actually seen an expression of) the “emerging church” for a while, it’s not something that really registers with my everyday life. Most of my friends have never even heard of the term, never mind have an opinion in it.

Nevertheless, I’ve noticed that is starting to change, and I have been asked what it is, and what I think about it. Considering men and women far wiser and more experienced than I have struggled to answer such questions, I would prefer to defer judgment on this one. Instead, I thought it best to offer a webliography of what I think might offer the best summaries and flavours. There is, and I guess this is due to the nature of the Web as well, some rather ill-informed and hasty stuff out there, and I hope that the below would separate the gold from the dross. And then, I’ll offer a few preliminary thoughts. For the record, I don’t necessarily agree with every single thing stated in the webliography below.

If you only read two, then I suggest reading the McKnight and Taylor pieces; the former being more sympathetic while the latter having more reservations. If you are Malaysian, then do read Ps. Sivin’s take as well.

I shall offer a few thoughts tomorrow, since this is pretty long!
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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Those books make nice decorative objects...

Over at Guardian Books there's a really interesting article, The Great Unread, surveying the books Britons own but don't finish. The book that topped the poll was kind of unexpected, but not that surprising, in my view. I was not impressed at all by Vernon God Little. In fact, I can't even remember why I was so unimpressed beyond a vague recollection of wanting to throttle the annoying narrator! It's hilarious though, that Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is on the list - c'mon people, it's nowhere near that bad!

But for all those who couldn't make it to the end Ullyses and Satanic Verses, I sympathise. I didn't even bother trying to get beyond the first paragraph of the former! And SV is a tough read, what with the similar sounding names and interspersed narratives. Actually, Rushdie can only be taken in small doses, anything more will leave you more light-headed than is actually healthy.

I used to feel more guilty about not finishing a book than I am now. Then again, in recent years I've picked up a horrible habit of reading 3 or 4 books, sometimes more, at once. I think I always felt an obligation to get to the end once I've started. Sometimes the trip is worthwhile - after a slow beginning, there's no doubt I'm glad I persevered with To Kill a Mockingbird! Sometimes it was more akin to a marathon - you've started, so may as well keep going. I got lost halfway through Graham Greene's Brighton Rock but managed to get to the last page.Hmmm, maybe I'll reread it someday.

Reading the confessions of others have assuaged my guilt slightly. My favourite comment was the one by magdalenrose: "The only reason there's no Dickens on there is because people are LYING. :)" LOL. Self-confession time - I failed to get through even a quarter of Pickwick Papers and still had the temerity to quote it in a first-year exam paper. (Hey, I did finish Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and David Copperfield, that's my defense! Just don't tell a certain friend of mine who wrote his Masters dissertation on Dickens!)

Another book I really hated was Tristram Shandy. Everyone was going on about it being the first truly great experimental novel, all I saw was squiggly lines and an incontrovertible desire to hurl it across the room. (I did better, I sold it off!)

So, over to you! Which books have you not been able to finish? (I've restricted my remarks to fiction, but all genres welcome!) Have you ever bought books simply to display your intellectual credibility - it's ok, be honest! Why couldn't you finish them, and would you give them another shot?


Sunday, March 11, 2007

Review: The Secret Message of Jesus

The Secret Message of Jesus
Cross-posted at The Agora

In light of the recent “Quiet Revolution of Hope” conversations, I thought now might be a good time to look at McLaren’s latest book. I know (I’m thinking it too!): not another review? But nevertheless, I will plough on and hope that the following will turn out be of some use to you, and if not, you can always discard it.

Some preamble is probably necessary. Firstly, this is NOT a review of the “emerging church” movement/conversation. Nor is this a review of Brian McLaren’s other books; in any case, this is the first McLaren book I have read. Obvious points, I know, but in light of the occasional silly comments that come up whenever McLaren's name is mentioned, they do need to be made.

My exposure to Brian McLaren
My first exposure to McLaren was during my A-Level days, when I was googling around on Christians and postmodernity, and stumbled across an article by him at Next-Wave. I had never heard of either him or the emerging church then. I later read a review of “The Church on the Other Side” in Kairos Magazine by Ps. Sivin, but it didn’t register then that both Brian McLarens were one and the same! Since then, I have had the opportunity to read various articles by him, as well as his contribution to The Church in Emerging Culture. When I heard that he was coming out with a book about the kingdom of God, I thought this was the ideal book to pick up to see what the fuss was all about.

Because of all the (unfortunate) heat that McLaren has generated in recent years, I will be as careful and thorough in my reading of him as I can. As a fellow Christian and English major, I’m sure he will join with me in affirming authorial intention and genre. :)

Who is McLaren trying to reach? In his introduction, it’s very clear that he’s after those who are dissatisfied with a “formulaic religious approach” (eg. those preoccupied with programmes) or a “materialistic secular approach” (p. xiii) - those who feel that there is something more out there, ‘Christian’ or not. After all, why the surge of interest in the Da Vinci Code or the Gnostic Gospels? Could it be, McLaren challenges us, that the problem does not lie with the gospel accounts themselves but “with our success at domesticating them”? (p. xiii) In short, he wants to make plain again the truly radical, robust, visionary, transformative message contained in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It’s not that he has it “all figured out…but I can tell you I’m confident I’m onto something.” (p.xiv). That's why he's writing.

He then envisages 3 types of people who might be reading his work. The first is those who might not have heard of him before, but who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious, interested in Jesus but not Christianity”. Secondly, he imagines those who are already familiar with some of his work and want to continue along the journey they've started. Thirdly, he conceives that some of his critics might pick up the book. His words to them are particularly important. McLaren tells us that there would be some aspects of Jesus’ life and message he would not be emphasising, as he wanted to keep his work short so as not to scare people away. This does not mean he is minimising them (p.229) After all, he feels, there are plenty of other books out there on such issues already! Moreover, he is writing for a biblically and theologically illiterate audience, so precise theological formulations are not of utmost concern to him. Instead, what he hopes is that the book “might provoke thoughtful debate, pose fresh questions and shed a little new light, but more than that, stir our hearts, fire our emotions, and fuel our imaginations.” (p.229).

I spent a lot of time on clarifying McLaren’s aims and intended audience because I feel that once we get that right, the style and delivery of his book makes much more sense. And I am quite happy to say from the outset that I think he succeeds quite brilliantly. His conversational style and clear communicative abilities come to the fore here and I have no doubt this will compel his target audience to keep reading.

The meat of the book
In Part 1 of the book – Excavation – he helps us place Jesus in his original setting. For me this was the best part of the book. He painted vivid pictures and was able to transport me back to 1st century Israel, helping me imagine what it would have been like to be there and the full implications of what Jesus was saying. I appreciated the brief way he quickly tied the Old Testament story to the coming of Jesus (eg. pp. 19-22, 25-28) in a very accessible manner.

In Part 2 – Engagement – McLaren wants to look at the message itself, starting by examining the medium of the message. He explains Jesus’ use of parables, and their capability to invite people to "ask questions" and "depend on the teacher himself", as well as their transformative power. (pp. 45-46) For those who might question, as I initially did, whether he neglected to mention that Jesus’ parables were also meant to separate insiders from outsiders, don’t be too quick to write McLaren off! He does, after all mention on p.47 that parables exclude those who don’t want to be transformed and he deals with the question of inclusiveness on chapter 18 (he flags this up on p.48). This principle of suspending your judgement, I feel, holds true for the entire book, because I often found myself asking a particular question in response to a point McLaren makes only for him to deal with it a couple of pages or chapters later.

He then has a chapter on signs and wonders as pointers to Jesus as God (p.58ff). In the following chapters he talks about being agents for the kingdom of God, despite its weakness, and some might feel that he is veering close to the social gospel in the language he employs.. Again, reserve your judgement! Chapter 12-13 will assuage your fears. (The own goal story was brilliant!) On occasion, I did wish he phrased things slightly differently, but I did understand that on one level, it was good to be jarred out of my complacency by the freshness of his expression. In between, there was a short but much appreciated chapter on correcting the misconception that Jesus and Paul had two different messages.

Part 3 – Imagination – wasn’t quite as strong as the rest of the book, I felt, as he explored the more practical ways of what it means to be part of the “kingdom of God”. There is some good discussion here, such as chapter 18, which I alluded to earlier, on the "borders of the kingdom" and a level-headed chapter on the last things.

I do have some criticisms, and I state them now while bearing in mind his earlier caveats about not being able to say or emphasise everything, and also in remembering who he’s writing for. My criticisms are all inter-related in some way. The first is very minor and is probably covered by his disclaimers. I thought that he could have devoted a teensy more space to the fact that one aspect of Jesus’ message is cautionary, i.e. Jesus does come to warn people of future judgement, for example, in Luke 13:1-5 and Matthew 25:31-32. So in a sense, the gospel is concerned with the afterlife, with what happens after you die. Now you can see that I’m wearing my conservative evangelical spectacles here, and I must be fair to McLaren: on p.163 he gives us an example of Jesus warning people of the possibility of missing the kingdom, and on p.173 he alludes to Jesus’ prophetic office in frequently giving warnings, not so much to tell the future but to “change the future”. Moreover, implicitly, one of his target audiences are those who have grown up with a truncated “go to heaven after you die” gospel, who would already be familiar with this notion. So I fully accept I’m nit-picking here. I guess I’m just concerned that, having grown up hearing Christian talks which were more concerned about “finding my significance” and God being my buddy rather than God as majestic King and with the beauty of his holiness (eg. Isaiah 6, Revelation 4), I wanted an (over-?) correction. I just thought it would be great, with his talents, if he could make a parable such as the Parable of the Vineyard (Mark 12) come to life in making this point.

Secondly, and this is related to the above point, I don’t think he elaborated enough on why we might not want to be in the kingdom. The picture he paints is so attractive that we might ask, why is it that not everybody is rushing to this kingdom? (Our sin, in case you were wondering). Again, to be fair to McLaren, I believe he will say he covered it more than adequately in chapters 12-13, where he talks about the great reconciling work of God and the need for repentance ("thinking about your thinking" is one way he phrased it). But while he covers the horizontal relationships well (our relationships with one another), I don’t think he adequately explained why we need to be reconciled with God in the first place (the vertical relationship, which makes the new horizontal relationships possible). Here a similar work that I thought did this better comes to mind. Most of you are probably not familiar with Charlie Peacock’s New Way to Be Human, but he covers much of the same ground as McLaren in a similarly attractive writing style (Peacock is a musician) and he has a chapter called “East of Eden” that, I think, explains sin as a general barrier to the kingdom of God better. (Yes, yes, I can see you all rolling your eyes at how fussy BK is! :=p )

Finally, in his Appendix 1, he asks the question “Why didn’t we get it sooner?” I believe this appendix is a good indication of why McLaren sometimes vexes some evangelicals so. Here, he muses on why we might have lost our true vision of the radicalism of Jesus’ message – such as overly esoteric debates on theological issues, the influence of Greek philosophy etc. Without doubt some of his judgments are right, but is he broad-brushing a little too much? I think some evangelicals might feel unfairly judged, having been in churches where the concerns are not just other-worldly but this-worldly, and they might feel as if McLaren ignores large swathes of church history where Christianity has often been a driving force for social change. I can see one or two thinking: "It would be nice if he said something good about us for a change!" Of course, it’s unlikely McLaren had such people in mind, but it does make those as I’ve described above feel naturally defensive.

On the whole, I enjoyed the book, and I think he has done well in providing a primer on the kingdom of God and sparking off fresh thoughts. I think I am comfortable with lending this to most of my friends.

The unimportant stuff post-review
Looking for a similar book? I enthusiastically recommend New Way to Be Human, mentioned in the review. It doesn't suffer from the weaknesses of McLaren's book.

Keen to find out more about the kingdom of God in the whole Bible after reading McLaren? God's Big Picture by Vaughan Roberts will set you on your way.

Think my review is ridiculously long? Here are some alternatives: Craig Carter and Alwyn Lau

My edition is published by W Publishing group and the page nos. correspond to them.

UPDATE (10/10/07): I have to confess that with hindsight, I think my review was overly apologetic and I think my nitpicking is warranted, although I still think overall it's not a bad book. As I've noticed that this post gets hit upon from time to time, I want to point people to Greg Gilbert's superb treatment of the way Brian McLaren understands the gospel.
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Saturday, March 10, 2007

Questioning the existence of man

{Yes, I am blatantly engaging in an act of plagiarism}

So I've been hiding away - isn't it a sad fact that the lack of a computer and internet access now condemns you to the life of a hermit? :-P Actually, that's not quite true, it was nice to escape from the tyranny of techonology and the virtual world for a while, and anyway, I could always get internet access at my library on Mon-Sat. Plus, more reading time!

My time back in Malaysia was good, on the whole, although not without its stressful side. Some of you know that the main reason I went back was not for Chinese New Year per se, but for my brother's home wedding reception, so you can imagine life being pretty hectic. And unfortunately, but this is the messy part of life, tensions arose too. I spent half of the week sleeping on the sofa - so you can imagine the number of people in my house. (Poor me...haha, although I play the martyr here, in truth, it was a nice sofa...). Best part was probably spending time with my eldest sister and her family, since I hardly ever see her at all (probably a combined total of 2 weeks at most over the last 3 years?), and of couse, I had to defend my status as the favourite uncle. (Btw, the picture above is not of my nephew, but of my cell group leader's son.) One thing I discovered, to my shame, is that I couldn't remember the exact details of many fairy-tales - so I was frantically making things up when my nieces kept asking me to tell them Goldilocks/Snow White/Cinderella!

I also got to see people I haven't seen for a long time; in one case, a friend I haven't seen in over 5 years, in another, one I haven't seen in 3. It was a real pity I couldn't go and make contact with a few others as well.

Since I got back, it seems as if piles of work have been waiting for me, and also I have had to make some choices over a couple of things, so am feeling pretty exhausted. What I don't understand is that sleep has not been making a difference this week - I'm getting my minimum 7 hours yet still wake up feeling fatigued everyday.

Am feeling like I'm just going through the motions spiritually too at the moment.

This past week at bible study, we were doing a review of Mark 8:31 to the end of chapter 10 (the section of Scripture we've been looking at this term), and we discovered that Mark had actually envisioned a chiasmic structure to it. The "climax" of the structure, if you want to call it that, was 10:13-16, where Jesus tells us that to belong to the kingdom of God, one has to come in childlike dependence. This was set against the backdrop of failure to get in on our own - as seen in the accounts framing Jesus' words, such as blind Bartimaeus, the dissenting disciples, or the rich young man. I was reminded of this afresh today on my travels on the Tube, seeing a child automatically stretch her arms to her father in wanting a lift, and another father balancing his two kids on his lap. One of my group members seem especially struck by the review study, and I had to confess feeling a little chastened that I didn't seem to internalise it in the same way as her. So, something to chew upon more.

OK, hopefully this miscellany will suffice for now, and God-willing, with enough energy I will be able to provide more sustained thought on just one topic in the future instead of the tangled web above.