Thursday, November 29, 2007

Book Recommendation: Christianity's Dangerous Idea

Christianity's Dangerous Idea - Alister McGrathI once heard it said that Alister McGrath is at his best when he’s writing as a historian. On this evidence, I agree. Christianity’s Dangerous Idea is a fantastic book on the history of Protestantism that is – to selectively quote from the blurbs – highly readable, wonderfully wide-ranging, accessible and engaging. All those adjectives are important, for they highlight that McGrath is not writing for an academic audience, as he makes clear in his Introduction, although he does make extensive use of the best scholarship available. (Looking through his endnotes was exhausting – where does he find the time to read this stuff?)

This is both an important and great book because it shows why history matters in a manner that is accessible to the layperson. History helps us make some sense of how we got here and offers some answers as to why that is so. It gives us context. History makes things concrete: it shows how various values, beliefs and cultures are sewn together in a complex web and affect the lives of real, living people like you and me. In that sense, it can never be abstract: for us younger ones, imagine living through May 13, 1969 in Malaysia. History helps us avoid the pitfalls of the past, not perfectly, mind you, since it is surely difficult to detect the newly-laid snares of well-worn pathways. History also shows that life is messy; it sharpens our recognition of complexity and humbles us in the process, but does not sacrifice a fundamental coherence of narrative. And it surely matters for Christians especially, not just to know, remember, honour and learn from those who've gone before us, but also to recall that the Christian faith itself is rooted in history. Our own sacred text tells of a God acting in history, culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Christ, which is, amongst other things, a historical event.

So what is the dangerous idea alluded to in the title? For McGrath, it is "that the Bible is capable of being understood by all Christian believers - and that they all have the right to interpret it and to insist upon their perspectives being taken seriously". Doesn’t sound like much I know, which just reveals how much we take it for granted today. He proposes to "trace [the impact of this idea] on the unfolding of the movement in the past and its development in years to come", seeking to clarify the identity and internal dynamics of the movement. The book is divided into three parts. The first section explores how Protestantism came into being, constructing a compelling narrative that examines the key players and factors that gave birth to this phenomenon. The second section looks at some of the basic ideas of Protestantism and how that has shaped Western culture in particular. Finally, he considers Protestantism in the twentieth century, honing in on its global expansion and particularly on Pentecostalism, before addressing the future of Protestantism in a concluding chapter.

His main premise is really, really thought-provoking, in that he shows how a clear adherence to the authority of Scripture has necessarily led to diversity within Protestantism; such a diversity, however, shouldn’t be taken as unequivocally good or bad. In some ways, this is a book about contextualization: he shows how Protestantism is intrinsically adaptable, capable in its very nature of responding to new challenges or situations. Each new generation will need to wrestle afresh with what Scripture is saying to their particular context or setting. "At its heart, Protestantism represents a constant return to the Bible to revalidate and where necessary restate its beliefs and values, refusing to allow any one generation or individual to determine what is definitive for Protestantism as a whole." (p.199).

This is both a strength and a weakness. The lack of clear boundaries and the democratization of interpretation account for tensions and sometimes, deviations from orthodoxy which are only clear in hindsight. But each new generation might recover lost emphases as well. McGrath, interestingly, tells of how the application of the Great Commission to today was only made in the 18th century, with the saints of yesteryear having previously only seen it as applying to the apostles. One surely could make a similar case for the role of the Holy Spirit in the 20th. I also remember reading another seminal history book, David Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain earlier this year and finding it quite shocking that the notion of a personal second coming only began to take root sometime in the 17th century; previous generations had believed in the second coming of course, but conceived of it in vague, impersonal terms.

There are so many things to appreciate about this book. I like the way he tells the story of the birth and development of Protestantism. Like any good drama, we get a sense of why the principal actors behave as they did, the external factors that tipped events one way or the other, and the urgency of the matters being debated. Even more impressively, an introductory work of this nature necessarily has to paint in broad strokes, but McGrath shows nuance whenever he can. For example, what is known in the popular imagination as “the Reformation” was in reality a “series of reformations”; and it was quite a surprise to discover how conservative Luther really was, in that he sought to find continuities with the Catholic tradition of his day. It was quite funny actually to read about some of his contemporaries denouncing Luther for not being radical enough! It was really good too to learn a bit more about the differences between Lutheranism and those of a more Reformed persuasion. I have sometimes heard segments of the emerging church today described as Anabaptistic, and after reading a little on the Anabaptists here, I can see why. I found the chapter on Protestantism and the shaping of Western culture highly satisfying as well for personal reasons. I surveyed similar material (in much less detail) for part of my thesis and am gratified to discover that McGrath and I virtually reach the same conclusions! You know, Alister called me and asked to see an advanced copy... ;-)

Of course, one could quibble here and there. Although he does talk about the Anabaptists, I wish he had said a bit more about them. The Socinians, a 17th century heretical movement that have largely been forgotten until recently, only received one mention – I wanted more! Ditto with Laudianism, with which I became acquainted with in passing when studying 17th century literature, as well as the consequences of Gutenberg and printing. But I guess when you’re trying to cover 500 years in less than 500 pages, you need to be selective. I wished too that he would interact more with some of the theological positions presented, but again, this is not the purpose of this book - this is a historical work, not a theological one. McGrath occasionally references material such as the "English Civil War" without comment, assuming his readers would be familiar with them. I would imagine those who were brought up in the British education system and weren’t throwing paper planes while Mr. Barkin droned on would at least recognise these events. For the rest of us, tough luck. But then again, in the age of Wikipedia, laziness is a harder excuse to sell.

On matters I know more about, he calls Bunyan’s Pilgrim's Progress a novel, which certainly could be contested; I would probably say that it was an important forerunner for the rise of the novel, but I wouldn’t claim more than that. Finally, I thought his chapter on the Pentecostal revolution wasn’t quite up to the high standards of the rest of the book. He mentions C. Peter Wagner’s influential description of the charismatic movement coming in "three waves" but otherwise doesn’t seem to deal with Third Wave views at all, preferring to stick to classic Pentecostals. Maybe classic Pentecostalism is still more prevalent than I imagined, and conversely Third Wave charismatics less influential than I thought? Also, I was surprised to see him devote some paragraphs to Oneness Pentecostalism (a heteredox movement that denies the classical view of the Trinity) when discussing Pentecostal tensions with Protestantism as I thought that was a fairly marginal group, and more space could have been devoted to other, more important controversies, such as "signs and wonders". But maybe this is a more significant movement than I thought, considering that (I think) TD Jakes adheres to some form of Oneness Pentecostalism. And no Toronto Blessing! Overall, I just thought McGrath could have been better in his selection of the material here.

But these are mere trivialities. Let me say it again: this is a fantastic book. Probably in my top 3 of the year. In an age of consumerism and globalization, Protestantism might find itself shaped in unexpected ways yet again. And we need to be humble and dependent on the Spirit, knowing that it is easy to fall off the path of orthodoxy, and yet we can also joyfully trust that God is sovereign as he leads his Bride.

# Here is an audio interview with Dr. McGrath on his book.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

More Pullman

Just some links for those who're wanting to investigate more, and there must be considering the upsurge of google hits on Pullman! Peter Chattaway provides a good overview in Christianity Today, and he's got plenty of discussion going over at his blog. You might find these posts interacting with director Chris Weitz interesting - here, here and here.

My favourite film/arts critic Jeffrey Overstreet has a superb, in-depth Q&A which should be your one-stop resource. Anthony Loke a.k.a the reb also weighs in.

My original post is here, including a short reading list.
UPDATE: Peter Chattaway posts an extended interview with Pullman himself.

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

A conversation

Nicholas Cage Con AirI sat next to a guy at evening service today. He was a little scruffy-looking, with a haircut not dissimilar to Nicholas Cage in Con Air. Actually, I thought he looked uncannily like someone (in?)famous, but I still can't figure out who. He looked fairly intimidating, not the kind of guy you want to play roughhouse with. It was a little surprising, then, when we both stood up at the end of the service, to find out that I was actually taller!

The service started with a reflection on Scripture,and I noticed that he didn't have a Bible and offered to share mine with him. He nodded politely at me and said he was fine without one. As the music struck up, I then noticed that he didn't have a service sheet. (We're old school, no OHP projectors!) So again, I offered to share. He mumbled something and declined again. Then I cottoned on. He must have found reading difficult, and if I insisted I would just have embarrassed him. So I let him be.

Because my church is pretty big and so it's likely you're sitting next to someone different each week, there's always a moment during the service where we have a pause and introduce ourselves. So at this juncture, I said hi to Nicholas Cage. He gave me a name. David. Not Rusty James or Motorcycle Boy then. We talked a little. He seemed reticent, yet at the same time pleased that I was attempting to engage him in conversation. He asked me how long I had been coming - I've been here for just over a year now. He claimed to have been coming for two. I asked him how he found it. "Oh, I like it maybe 50%? No, just 40%," he said. "What about you?". "Oh, errr...70?" I said, probably unhelpfully. I wish now that I had pursued what he thought of the church or said something more about the church as family; putting percentages on it was simply travelling down a cul-de-sac. In any case, he chuckled.

He then asked me if I was a Christian. I nodded. He wasn't. But he was coming as he wanted to learn. I asked him if he had been learning much. "Well," he reflected. "It's not easy, you know. I've been listening, real hard, but," he knocked his forehead lightly, "not much goes in here, you know? I'm sure you find it easier as a Christian," he looked at me a little wistfully. I wanted to encourage him and almost quoted Jeremiah 29:13. Instead, I said, not very coherently, something along the lines of how it was really God's work that helps us understand and I'm sure it could help him too, which this time drew a more cynical look. He replied, "Ah, but the devil is at work too." We lapsed into a silence. And then I asked him, "So when you're not here on a Sunday, what do you do?". He said rather reluctantly, "Oh, I work." Seeing his reluctance to divulge information, I didn't probe further. But with some effort, he looked at me directly, and said, "I work in a casino." I nodded; that wasn't shocking really - it wasn't like he had announced that he was pimping Eastern European girls for a living. At this point our conversation was interrupted as we were brought back together by the service leader. But it was not before he whispered to me: "I've seen the devil's work firsthand."

Charlie preached a characteristically fine and heartfelt sermon on 1 John 2:28-3:10. As always, Charlie helped bring out the relational implications as we saw what it meant to live as the family of God, as his children. In light of David's comments on God and Satan, I couldn't help but wonder what he (David) made of 1 John 3:10. 1 John is not an easy letter to read and can be read very moralistically. Charlie did a good job of making sure we still saw Jesus in v.5 and v.8, but I did wonder whether a non-Christian would have seen the gospel of grace, especially if he was thrown right into this passage without any prior knowledge. (This isn't a fault of either Charlie or the Apostle John of course!)

At the end of the service I bit my lip, sent a quick prayer to my Father and turned to David. "What did you think of the talk?" I inquired. He looked startled to be asked his opinion. "What do I think?" he repeated. The cynic re-emerged. "Well, it's not very realistic is it?" he said. "How so?" I asked. "Well, the world, everyone's, full of sins aren't they?" I agreed: "Yes, the world is a broken place - none of us are good, we're all sinners." We lapsed into another short silence, and then he mumbled something - I wasn't able to catch it all but it was along the lines of "what's the point? All this doing good, all these rules are useless anyway." I saw that this was rapidly heading towards moralism, so I tried to redirect the conversation towards Jesus. We had a short exchange but I don't think he quite got that Jesus is the centre of Christianity and who we're all about. He shook his head, sighed, then said: "Oh, all this scanning [his word] to see whether you're doing right or not. I think it must be exhausting. It's more relaxed, you know, to not worry about such things." I replied, as gently as I could: "Actually, I think it's the other way around." He suddenly looked very interested. "Why is that?" So I tried to explain how Jesus, and indeed, the message of 1 John, is one of reassurance and security, and freedom to follow and know God.

At this point, someone who apparently knew him came over to say hi, and it was clear from their ensuing conversation that he had been actively trying to love David and to introduce him to God's love. I was encouraged by that. It was time to go, so we said our farewells.

I thought about David on the way home. I thought about how he must really be spiritually hungry, even as he oscillated between cynicism and longing. After all, to keep coming to church even when he liked it "only 40%"? I wondered how he felt being in a predominantly middle-class church. I wondered what he saw at work in the casino and how that coloured his world. I wondered too how to reach non-book people like him. Before writing this post, I remembered vaguely that Tim Chester had written an article on this very subject and googled around for it in vain. If anyone knows where it is, please do tell me!

I'm glad too. I think how difficult it must be for Charlie and others who are engaged in the preaching ministry, and how they must work hard at "speaking God's words", as it were. I'm grateful that the Holy Spirit is the one who ultimately does the work and not us. I'm encouraged that there's people, like this brother, who are following God and loving him by loving others. In a big church like mine, I know it's easy to be critical and be especially dismissive of it as a middle-class ghetto. But there's much that goes unseen.

I'm not too sure why I wrote this post, but I had to get it out of the system.

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Saturday, November 24, 2007


I found out that Deb and Sarah won! Context here.

Today, I stayed in this afternoon and found myself listening to audio clips of various Christmas albums off the internet.

Today, I read a lengthy interview with N.T Wright. It's very, very good. I only have hazy notions of his views on Romans 2, so I can't really say much on that. I've been teaching Romans 1-5 in small groups and Romans 2 has been the toughest passage to get to grips with so far. I still maintain he's completely missed the point of Pierced for Our Transgressions though.

Today, I also read an older interview with Eugene Peterson on spirituality.

Today, I did NOT reread a chapter on work from Guidance and the Voice of God. That was last night. It was good and necessary to recover my bearings as I continue to seek employment, and try not to feel too discouraged.

Today, I thought that there are seriously many bright and talented people out there.

Today, I tried to be thankful.

Today, Australia has a new Prime Minister. Just had to point that out because it was on the front page of just about every news outlet I saw, on and offline, today.

Today, I knew that injuries had fatally crippled my Fantasy NBA team.

Today, I ate fried chicken.

Today is really, really cold.

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Friday, November 23, 2007

On "liturgy"

Pre-written order of service, typically including prayers to be spoken in unison and designated locations for hymns, bible readings, and teaching. (Theopedia)

the customary public worship done by a specific religious group, according to their particular traditions. It may refer to an elaborate formal ritual such as the Catholic Mass, or a daily activity such as the Muslim salat (see Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, p.582-3). Not infrequently in Christianity, a distinction is made between so-called "liturgical" and "non-liturgical" churches based on the elaboration and/or antiquity of the worship, but this obscures the universality of public worship as a religious phenomenon...Typically in Christianity, however, the term "the liturgy" normally refers to a standardized order of events observed during a religious service, be it a sacramental service or a service of public prayer.

low church
A neutral term that describes a more informal worship setting, which does not follow set liturgical patterns and where the order of service is far less prescriptive. Historically, this emerged from disagreements on how to approach church worship during the Reformation. Spontaneity is especially encouraged in Pentecostal-Charismatic churches. (BK)

This is a hilarious and thought-provoking conversation between a father and son upon visiting a church that was more low-church in practice. Some excerpts:
Nathan: OK. Why didn’t we confess our sins when we began the service?

Papa: This church doesn’t believe in it.

Nathan: WHAT?!

Nathan: What about the Creed? Why didn’t we say the Creed?

Papa: Well, partly because it’s liturgical. They think they won’t mean it if they say it.

Nathan: We could sing it.

Papa: They don’t know how.

Nathan: Oh — they haven’t been Christians very long, huh? Let’s teach it to them.

Papa: Let’s not.

Papa: No. They don’t drink wine here.

Nathan: WHAT?!

Papa: SHHH!
You have to read the whole thing; it's brilliant! And written in the spirit of fun, it should be said. Although I'm still not on board with infant baptism...

I enjoyed reading it partly because I've been to churches along the whole spectrum. I grew up in a fairly typical evangelical low church environment, where we sing song after song, followed by notices, prayer and the sermon, and we had the Lord's Supper every month. For many years I thought this was normative, not recognising the diversity of traditions amongst Protestants, having assigned "liturgical" services to the Catholics and those slightly weird Anglicans. In my less mature teenage days, of course, I simply thought that liturgy was mere ritual and dead to the movement of the Spirit, not recognising that even the tradition of informality was a tradition in itself!

Since then I've been to Anglo-Catholic services: candles, incense and all. That did make me a little uncomfortable. Right now, I attend a church which is somewhere in between. Actually, because of my low-church background, for a long time I considered it very formal; my friends from more traditional backgrounds disagree, telling me that it doesn't resemble anything "high church"! (Very typical middle-of-the-road Anglican in that sense). But I really enjoy it, especially the evening services, as you can often see how much thought has been put into the order of service. What I find particularly helpful is that there is a deliberateness about it.

We often begin by considering a theme, usually related to the sermon on the night, say, for example, the great love of God, and the songs are chosen accordingly. At set points throughout the service, there might be a short Scripture reading, a confession of sin, and occasionally we recite a creed. This also helps in fostering a sense of corporate identity, and a sense of connection with the saints that have gone before us. Songs-wise, we sing everything from old hymns, played on the organ, to contemporary songs like Redman or Tomlin or Sovereign Grace with a full backing band. I've come to realise that if you have the resources and personnel, any song can be jazzed up. The service leader keeps things on track, often reminding us why we sing a particular song, or encouraging us - for instance, reminding us after we've confessed our sins of the forgiveness already given to us by Jesus. There's also room within the service for reflection.

Interestingly, it has been noted that in the last decade or so evangelicals have begun recovering an emphasis on liturgy, and it's interesting that in America at least, statistics show that younger evangelicals (20s to early 30s), especially those with a college education, are now more likely to attend churches that would be considered a little more "liturgical". I haven't quited escaped my upbringing though; I think I would always prefer to go to a charismatic church rather than an Anglo-Catholic one! :)

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Monday, November 19, 2007

On rereading

When I saw that Tim was reading John Piper I got so excited that I did what I usually try not to do and only skim-read the rest of his post before leaving a comment. Not a good thing, that. In fact, it's possibly bordering on sinful since it means I'm not truly listening. It's always better to read what someone says carefully before deciding whether it's wise to comment.

Anyway, on to the point of this post. Tim made some remarks in his opening paragraph to the effect of how he rarely rereads sections of books, and that made me think of Christian books that I find myself returning to time and time again. I don't think this is necessarily the catch-all criteria in determining if a Christian book is great; for instance, a really difficult theological work may be read with much profit but I might not necessarily want to reread the whole thing again. But, especially in the case of so-called "basic" books or books written for the layperson, if I find myself reaching for it repeatedly and still finding it helpful, challenging, encouraging, and so on, it must have something going for it that sets it apart from some of the dross that appears on many bookshelves these days.

Also, it can be fascinating to reread stuff because they can read differently from when you've first read them, owing to factors such as having more life experience, being in a different situation, having more knowledge in a specific area, having read more widely and critically, or having changed your mind about something. Frequently, there're sentences or paragraphs that leap out at you where before they seemed peripheral.

Of the top of my head, here are some of the books that I keep going back to (excluding reference works and such):

1. The Enemy Within by Kris Lundgaard. I find that I need to reread this book every once in a while. This is a brilliant book about personal holiness that is unfortunately not that widely known. I remember the first time I read it - at the end of every chapter I had to put it down and think about (or resist doing so!) about how I've lost my first love. I read and enjoy my fair share of works that remain in the abstract, but this isn't one of them! It's extremely, extremely readable and well-grounded, and I think it's one of those rare books that both new Christians and those who've been one for decades will find equally illuminating.

2. The Discipline of Grace by Jerry Bridges. Another book on sanctification. I just reread a couple of chapters tonight and it was good to be reminded of great foundational truths yet again. We tend to one of two extremes, either being unnecessarily weighed down by guilt or too unconcerned with our sin, and Bridges is an effective antidote to both.

3. Out of the Saltshaker by Rebecca Manley-Pippert. This is a classic on evangelism that I find really stands the test of time. It helps keep me sane. I go back to it, laugh at the stories she tells, feel challenged by the need for evangelism, and reminded that it's not about techniques but about loving God and neighbour. It's like spending time with a grandma who tells you the same stories and gives you the same advice every year, but it never gets old.

4. Cross-Examined by Mark Meynell. I think it was CJ Mahaney who said it's a good idea to read a book on the cross every year. I've overhyped this book that I've probably set up would-be readers for inevitable disappointment, but I still find that this book is one of the clearest expositions on how amazing the cross is.

5. Cry of the Soul by Dan Allender and Tremper Longman III. This is a really good book on the place of the emotions in the Christian life. There's just so much good stuff here!

I'm sure there are others too. I haven't mentioned John Piper, because I haven't actually returned to him that much despite the fact that Desiring God was such an important book in my life, but I will surely love to reread it again. I suspect that I'd probably need to return to Os Guinness' The Call at some point. Some books that I've acquired too recently to know whether I'll be returning to them but which I think will be a permanent fixture on my bookshelf include Peter Jensen's At the Heart of the Universe, which was truly a pleasant surprise (it's a great Christianity 101 book), Eugene Peterson's A Long Obedience in the Same Direction and Paul Miller's Love Walked Among Us.

So what about you? Are there any Christian books that you find yourself going to again and again? (Btw, this is true for fiction too, but that's for another day!)

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Philip Pullman

I haven't really put on my thinking cap or pulled out my writing pen (or in this case, keyboard) this week, as I don't really have anything of note to say. This is in spite of having actually read some good material both online and offline, plus longer-term stuff that I've always wanted to post about. I've been feeling a little tired, mentally, and the onslaught of the cold means that I much prefer to huddle under layers of blankets.

Not having posted anything book-related for a while, thought I'll do so today.

Not surprisingly, with The Golden Compass slated for release on the 5th of December, there's been more chatter about Philip Pullman and his Dark Matters trilogy. The eagle-eyed among you might have noticed that Northern Lights has been stuck to my Currently Reading board for quite a while now. Having picked it up a couple of months ago, I got distracted by other books and haven't returned to it just yet. Still, I only have a quarter left to go, so will finish it soon!

For those of you not clued in, this is the fantasy series, apart from Harry Potter, of the last decade or so. His Dark Materials comprises of Northern Lights (American title: The Golden Compass), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. It's quite a dense trilogy, which means that the plot isn't easy to summarise. Basically, the story revolves around Lyra, a plucky preteen, who discovers that she is the central figure in a complex conspiracy between two sides vying for power. As we read on, and bear in mind that I haven't read that much yet, we can see that the story begins to take on added meanings and that we're actually reading about a war between God, or perhaps more accurately, the Church, and Satan.

Pullman draws on ideas from quite a diverse range of fields. Physics, for one - the trilogy takes place in a multiverse (as I know zilch about physics, you have to look elsewhere if you're looking for more on multiverses!), and there's stuff about dark matter as well. Philosophy, for another - Pullman is sympathetic to gnostic strains of thought. Not having read the whole trilogy yet, I can't confirm this, but I suspect that Pullman probably is a Romantic.His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman (That means he sees emotion and sublimity as the epitome of the human experience, not that he's the second coming of Colin Firth!) His literary influences are pretty obvious; I'm sure more than one of you would probably have guessed that John Milton's Paradise Lost is an obvious literary forbearer, and Pullman is obviously interested in expanding on William Blake's famous statement that "Milton was of the devil's party without knowing it". (This is a reference to the fact that many people who read Paradise Lost couldn't help but feel that Satan was portrayed as the hero, although there is much debate over whether this was Milton's intention or not. Not that authorial intentions matter much nowadays in the scholarly guild anyway.)

Pullman is an atheist, and has gone on record attacking C.S Lewis' Narnia, although opinion as to whether His Dark Materials is explicitly anti-Narnia differ. He is also acknowledged as a very gifted and imaginative reader. All three individual books have won awards, and Northern Lights snared the Carnegie of Carnegies. Now to tell you the truth, I've been pretty underwhelmed so far by his writing, but now that I've become a little more familiar with where he's coming from, I've grown more appreciative. And hey, in my final year at university, someone in my faculty was offering a lecture series on "Philip Pullman and John Milton", so obviously they must think he has some merit!

Pullman, as far as I can tell, pulls no punches. A lot of his disconcerting stuff (to Christians) are found in the second and third books, so I haven't gotten to them yet. But from what I've heard, God is portrayed as feeble and weak, the Christian heaven a horrible place, and the church invariably an instrument of oppression. So as you can imagine, many Christian groups are up in arms over the release of this movie and calling for a boycott. One prominent exception, though, has been Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who argues that the books aren't anti-Christian so much as it is anti-dogmatic.

I have yet to make up my mind, but I do think that a boycott is simply counter-productive. I always think that far too many Christians take a reactionary approach. Do we really think that Pullman, Dawkins et al. are going to cause the downfall of Christianity? I don't think so. That doesn't mean that I don't think the books have the capacity to be dangerous or subversive. But really, that isn't anything new. Long before Pullman, there was Jan Mark's Divide and Rule and Pete Hautman's Godless, and to a lesser extent Lois Lowry's The Giver, all young adult fiction which also highlighted the darker side of organised religion. It shouldn't be surprising that so many coming-of-age tales feature religion prominently, since religion would surely come into the equation whenever people start exploring the big questions of life. Far better to engage with the books themselves, to show where (I suspect) Pullman's ideology actually weakens his storytelling, and to paint a far more compelling narrative of the Christian story, which is of course one of true freedom rather than oppression.

Whew! I was actually planning simply planning to write little vignettes of some of the books I've been reading, but I see that this post has developed into one about Philip Pullman. So I'll just leave it there. When I eventually finish the trilogy I might tell you what I think. But for those of you looking for more detail, here's a good if long podcast interview with Alan Jacobs, professor of English at Wheaton College and author of one of my favourite Harry Potter essays. He essentially sees a Manichean duality at the heart of Pullman's thought. There are spoilers in the interview though! Jacobs has also written a critique of the trilogy in the Weekly Standard (referenced in the podcast interview), which is unfortunately no longer online. However, there are some extracts from that piece here.

Also, here's a short reading list:
  • Dark Matter: A Thinking Fan's Guide to Philip Pullman by Tony Watkins. This is the book I'm planning to read once I've finished the trilogy. Watkins, a Christian, explores the scientific and literary background to Pullman, interviews Pullman himself, offers a generous appreciation of his writing before going on to offer a critique of Pullman's distorted version of Christianity. I've heard lots of praise for this one so am looking forward to dipping into it.
  • The Devil's Account: Philip Pullman and Christianity by Hugh Rayment-Pickard. Rayment-Pickard, whom I think is a Catholic, offers a succint critique of the morality underlying Pullman's work, showing that it doesn't hold the high ground.
  • Shedding Light on His Dark Materials: Exploring Hidden Spiritual Themes in Philip Pullman by Kurt Bruner and Jim Ware. I saw this book profiled recently, and as far as I can tell, the authors argue that Pullman's story actually undermines his own worldview by showing how Christianity is the only plausible framework which his world can operate. Or something like that. That's an interesting thesis, though I'm not sure if it's persuasive.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

This blog is so junior high!

cash advance

Aiyah, and all this time I thought I was so smart lor. Turn out that ah boy and ah girl all have no problem reading this belog one.

OK OK, no more Manglish. Maybe this just shows that I have the populist touch. :) However, no more of this nonsense. I thrive on obfuscation. Why say "lie" when I can say "epistemological fallacy"? From now on, I shall write like this:

"It is the deterritorialization of the discourse of the other, displaced from its topography of narrative and unable to carve out a spatial and temporal autonomy, yet which paradoxically preserves its singularity and transforms itself in its alterity that resists the penetrative gaze that seeks to do violence to its textual substance and prevents a premature foreclosure of subversive utterances."

Or something. It's not just genius level I'm aiming for, it's beyond genius! MWAHAHAHAHA etc. etc.

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Monday, November 12, 2007

True gospel living

As a Christian, losing sight of the gospel or even merely relegating it to the margins as "basic stuff" is very dangerous. In fact, when we ponder upon it, we realise just how often we don't grasp how amazing it is, and how it doesn't touch upon our lives as it should. Certainly true for me anyway.

Here's some very thoughtful excerpts on the gospel that I've been meaning to post for a while now.

1. From Darryl Dash's notes on Tim Keller's talk at the Evangelical Ministers' Conference 2007 in London (my friend who was there told me it was outstanding):

We have Christ's righteousness. We understand that we're sinners but infinitely loved. We're as loved now as we will be a million years from now.

This means that we are weaker and more sinful than we ever before believed, but also more loved and accepted than we ever dared hope.

If that is the case, the way that you can tell that you are a Christian who understands the gospel, rather than a religious person, is how you handle repentance. If you are religious, repentance is occasional and traumatic. It's what you do to get out of the sin bucket into the love bucket. Repentance then becomes another weapon in your arsenal of self-salvation. It becomes a work. But you never know if you've been repentant enough.

But if you believe the gospel, then we understand that the gospel has nothing to do with our performance. This gives us the freedom to see sin everywhere in our lives...

My dear friends, most churches make the mistake of selecting as leaders the confident, the competent, and the successful. But what you most need in a leader is someone who has been broken by the knowledge of his or her sin, and even greater knowledge of Jesus' costly grace. The number one leaders in every church ought to be the people who repent the most fully without excuses, because you don't need any now; the most easily without bitterness; the most publicly and the most joyfully. They know their standing isn't based on their performance.

All of life is repentance, and repentance increases joy. It's not traumatic; it's joyful and it's healing.

What this means for us is that as we look at the criticisms we are getting, especially from inside, it's like when I do marriage counseling. A husband and wife are both saying something critical about the other. In each case, 80% of what they are saying is wrong. And yet 20% is right. Yet with the 20% that is right, the way it's expressed may be exaggerated, and the motivation may be wrong. It may be expressed outrageously. It's almost impossible for each side to hear the truth.

What I say to them if they are Christians is, "If you believe the gospel, you will be humble enough and assured enough that you can admit your sin and admit the 20% that's right without excuses or rancor. Just ignore all the exaggeration and bad motivation and admit that 'what you say about this is right and I'm going to repent of it.' If you both do this, it's a tremendous opportunity for growth. If you don't do it, it's because you don't believe the gospel no matter what you say."

...Never believe that criticism of our doctrine is all that's going on. It's also criticism of our practices. And don't think that by writing books defending your doctrine you've dealt with the criticisms of our practice...Isn't orthopraxy [right living] part of orthodoxy [right belief]? Of course it is!
More than enough here to chew on and be cut to the heart! I'd strongly recommend reading the whole thing.

2. From Matt Kleberg at Common Grounds Online:

I internalize and cover up my sin and weakness because I fear that any failure on my part implies a failure of Christianity. I must be perfect; otherwise Christianity is just a big flop, exposed as an elaborate hoax. The pressure is on and I must perform so that Christianity looks like a good buy.

This assumption is the exact opposite of the gospel. It is anti-gospel. To say that my failures somehow discredit Christianity completely disregards the cross! What pride and hypocrisy! Out of death we are made alive in Christ and our new identities are not bound up in our own righteousness, but rather the righteousness of Christ. It is by His perfection that we are presented as spotless before the Father. And while the Spirit does begin its healing work on our hearts, it is forever the work of Jesus that makes us children of God. I no longer have to disguise my sin for fear of nullifying the gospel. The gospel, rather, nullifies my sin, and frees me up to live as though transparent. The world can see through me- can see that I am needy and that there is a savior who triumphs over my brokenness.
(HT: JollyBlogger)

3. "The gospel is a story about Christ, God's and David's Son, who died and was raised and is established as Lord. This is the gospel in a nutshell."

- N.T Wr...wait, it's Martin Luther! from "A Brief Instruction on What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels," Luther's Works, ed. E. T. Bachmann (55 vols.; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1960), 35:118.

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

The wrap: BERSIH

Updated with additional links.

All links will open in a new window.
BERSIH march
The context for BERSIH and its aims. Adjunct to this is the judiciary crisis, a crisis found lamentable by the Sultan of Perak, a widely respected former Chief Justice. PM says "rally not Malaysian way" and darkly alludes to wild behaviour. "Saya pantang dicabar" (I dislike being challenged), he says. If you missed this, Tan Soo Inn offers some words for Christians struggling with this issue. It certainly is not a clear-cut case for Christians I feel, and we should take some time to reflect on points of agreement and divergence. (A passage that should be considered, apart from Romans 13, is 1 Peter 2:13-17). The actual text of the memorandum is here.

This is the CNN coverage of the rally. They played up the Anwar angle, although the rally is more demonstrative of general dissatisfaction rather than anything to do with him. Asia Sentinel has an even more in-depth report, including this key sentence:
"...the Sultan of Terengganu, who currently holds the rotating kingship and is Malaysia’s constitutional head of state, ordering his royal guards to stand aside so that the marchers could deliver the petition despite the fact that police had refused to grant a permit for the rally".
Former NST editor-in-chief Kadir Jasin certainly thought that was significant. (link is in Bahasa Melayu). Jeff Ooi has photos and videos, including Al-Jazeera coverage and an interview with Ooi himself. I wished that Al-Jazeera had more explicitly identified Jeff Ooi as either a prominent blogger or from DAP, rather than a "journalist", although it doesn't invalidate any of the points he raises. More great photos here.

The Star spun it as an illegal assembly that caused nuisance, and downplayed the numbers, saying "more than 4,000 people" marched. Every other newsreport I read flatly showed that there were at least 7 times that number, with 30000-40000 probably about right. The mainstream media in general didn't give the march much coverage. Information Minister Zainuddin Maddin refutes claims of the use of force, according to the National News Agency Bernama. (A video of his antagonistic conversation with Al-Jazeera is here). An eyewitness account contradicts him, or at least shows that the Information Minister plays it down too much. I liked his "Malaysian television viewers are laughing..." line. Er, no. So he might have been a little theatrical, but that didn't change what happened. Rocky, citing MalaysiaKini, says journalists were not spared. I had not realised this, but there was a small gathering in London as well. Over 20 people were arrested. (Another report from an international news source has put it as high as 245). Here is a map detailing the key events at the rally. Personally, I think this is a sign that the PM is rattled.

Final link for the moment on this post: A roundup of post-BERSIH buzz.

Lastly, some words from Walter Moberly from my devotional notes, writing on Isaiah, and a challege from Ajith Fernando on an eternal perspective:

"Finally, we see that all nations of the world are accountable to the one true God, whether or not they recognise or acknowledge it. The nations whom Isaiah addresses are probably meant to represent the world as a whole as he knew it; so even if the world we know today is much larger in geography and population than anything Isaiah knew, the basic principle remains the same. Knowledge of God as revealed in Scripture is as far as could be from a private concern, but is about the truth of our world as a whole. It may only be on the day of judgement that the truth will fully be disclosed to all, but, whether our life situation is routine at work or home, or involves combatting institutional corruption, sex slavery, or degradation of the environment, our task bear witness now to what will be then."

"I have always been reluctant to use the language of priority...I prefer to simply say that our calling is to be obedient to God totally... we are called to be holistic. But part of holistic Christianity surely is the statement of Christ that all earthly gain is worthless if a person loses his life to eternal destruction...I will do all I can to encourage people to live the Christian life in society. But I will also follow Christ's example in placing before Christians the fact of eternal damnation and the glory of eternal salvation. And I will challenge them to follow the agenda of Jesus, who 'came to seek and to save the lost' (Luke 19:10)...".

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Friday, November 09, 2007

IFES world student day

Today is IFES World Student Day. I am a big fan of the student work IFES does all over the world, and can testify to having benefitted much from my involvement in OICCU. I remember truly understanding the global reach of IFES a couple of years ago when I heard Lindsey Brown, the former General Secretary, speak twice, once to a predominantly white audience in Oxford at a missions evening, and then, that summer, coming to Kuching and encouraging an audience of local tertiary students whose English was not the best but who were so obviously hungry to know God better and to live for Him. (It was actually pretty surreal as I was the only overseas student at that Kuching gathering!)

Students can testify to God's workings everywhere, and this is my favourite student story of 2007:

BGC CU (a small arts college in the UK) are a small group of students, around 15 or so, who were recently thrown out of their Student Union, derecognised as a student society and had their bank account frozen. The SU had sent along a "spy" to the weekly CU meeting, which happened to be one of the PURE course sessions which teach the biblical view on sex and relationships. The girl enjoyed it so much that she actually came back the following night, boyfriend in tow!

After much prayer and discussion, the Student Union decided to reinstate the CU just before they were due to put on some events designed for student witness. Guess who became a Christian at those events? Yes, the very same spy!

Let it not be said that God doesn't possess a sense of humour! :)

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Between Romans 13 and Revelation 13

This is an ecommentary, reproduced here in full, from Tan Soo Inn at Grace@Work.

"We must obey God rather than human beings!"
(Acts 5:29 TNIV)

eCommentary: Between Romans 13 and Revelation 13

Some of my Christian friends in Malaysia are caught in a dilemma. The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (BERSIH), is calling for a peaceful rally to be held this Saturday, to press for reforms in the electoral system. [Note: Bar Council's response is here]. The police have refused to give a permit for the rally citing various legal reasons. BERSIH has appealed against the decision. There has been no news as to whether the appeal has been successful at time of writing.

Some Christians are sympathetic to the concerns of BERSIH. They want to see changes in the electoral process that would help elections to be more "clean and fair." But they are not sure if they should take part in a rally which has not been permitted by the powers that be. Citing Romans 13: 1-7 some feel that they should not.

Others argue that the powers of the state are not absolute especially when they deny citizens basic rights like the right for peaceful assembly. Therefore many Christians are asking WWJD? What would Jesus do? The better question perhaps would be "what would Jesus have me do?"

Let me state up front that I haven't received any direct word from the Lord. All I know is that seeking to follow the Lordship of Christ in a fallen world means that Christians often need wisdom to discern between various biblical injunctions. On the matter of the relationship between church and state, Christians have to take seriously the biblical material found in both Romans 13 and Revelation 13.

Commenting on Romans 13:1-7, Dennis Hamm, SJ, writes:
"Paul was indeed making the case here that normally civil authorities are servants (knowingly or not) of divine providence. Obedience to such officials was a way of loving one's neighbour as oneself and fostering the order necessary for harmony in society."
("Faith's Call to Justice", The American Catholic Weekly, July 31, 2006, p. 2)
But in the same article he also warns against "a passive and uncritical attitude towards public officials." He points out the danger of such an interpretation by reminding us that during the rise of Nazism in Germany, some pastors urged their churches to cooperate with Hitler and his agents on the basis of Romans 13. "Hitler was, after all, a legitimately elected official" (Hamm, p. 2).

The situation in Revelation 13 however is very different from the one in Romans 13. Nigel Wright points out that Revelation 13 "acts as the counterpoint to Romans 13. The author (of Revelation 13) refers to Rome and its persecution of the saints, and reveals the beastly character of human power systems. In accordance with the nature of apocalyptic literature, the author describes here the potential nature of all human power. All governments have it within them to be idolatrous and to oppose the good." ("The Church and 'God's Servant' the State, Part 1", Anabaptism Today, Issue 7, October 1994, p. 3)

In Revelation 13 there is no call to submit to the civil authorities. Instead believers are called to be faithful to Christ even if it costs them their lives. The church is never called to violent resistance. But there is clear teaching about the need to suffer if need be, when being true to one's Lord means coming up against a state that is now in opposition to the concerns of the Lord.

Therefore, the Christian's default position should be to support the state, seeing it as "a power ordained by God for the preservation of order" (Wright, p. 5). However, quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Dennis Hamm reminds us that to be good Christian citizens also "includes the right, and at times the duty, to voice (our) just criticism of that which seems harmful to the dignity of persons and to the good of community" (Hamm, p. 2-3).

In the light of passages like Revelation 13, Douglas J. Moo interprets
Romans 13:1-7 in this way:
"...Paul's demand that Christians submit to government means simply that they recognize government's rightful place within the hierarchy of relationships established by God, a hierarchy at whose pinnacle is God. When, therefore, government usurps its place, and commands us to do something contrary to our ultimate Lord, we are free - indeed obligated - to disobey. This view may, however, unduly weaken the meaning of 'submit.' Perhaps the best solution, then, is to view 13:1-7 as a general statement about how the Christian should relate to government, with exceptions to this advice assumed but not spelled out here."
("Romans", New Bible Commentary, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994, p. 1153)
So, should Christians attend the BERSIH rally if the police permit is not forthcoming? In this and in many other issues, I will say again "ask the Boss." He has promised to give us wisdom when we need it (James 1:5). Therefore the church should come before the Lord for a time of discernment. The Living Christ is in our communities and speaks to us through His Word and through His Spirit. We need to be confident of His presence and His leading and seek His mind together.

Still, this side of heaven we "see in a glass darkly" (1 Corinthians 13:12) and different Christian groups may come to different conclusions on this matter. We need to be gracious enough to accept and love those who, in trying to follow Christ, come to different conclusions from us. What we can do is to encourage one another to be faithful to obey Jesus as He calls us to "deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him" (Luke 9:23). And to be faithful in preaching the gospel.

Ajith Fernando's recent article in Christianity Today [BK's note: excellent "back to basics" article!] is timely. While he applauds evangelicalism's present commitment to societal involvement, he warns that the pendulum should not swing too much away from our duty to proclaim the gospel. He says:
"I will do all I can to encourage people to live the Christian life in
society. But I will also follow Christ's example in placing before Christians the fact of eternal damnation and the glory of eternal salvation. And I will challenge them to follow the agenda of Jesus, who 'came to seek and to save the lost' (Luke 19:10), reminding them of the advice of Jude, who said, '... save others by snatching them out of the fire' (v.23)."
Some of us have been convicted to take part in BERSIH's rally. But we should all be clear that the ultimate solution to humankind's problems is the gospel of Jesus Christ. And in our commitment to share the gospel we must be prepared to stand alone.

Your brother,
Soo-Inn Tan

NB See also my earlier post Jesus and Politics: A Primer.

Cross-posted at The Agora by Hedonese

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Wordsmiths: The Fortress of Solitude

Today's wordsmith is slightly unusual in that he is the first prose writer that I've featured. Jonathan Lethem is a Brooklyn writer and prolific essayist. His novels tend to defy categories, with "magical realism" perhaps coming closest, and they usually deal with off-the-beat characters, settings and situations. He is keen to explore subjectivity and the interior life. His 1999 novel Motherless Brooklyn won a slew of awards.

I'm going to confess that the book from which this excerpt is taken, The Fortress of Solitude, belongs to my started-but-never-finished pile. The novel centers on a coming-of-age tale of two friends, through the lens of racial tensions and pop music in 1970s Brooklyn. Oh, and the main character can fly. Really. (As you can see, Lethem doesn't see fit to meet our preconceptions!) Lethem is a novelist who writes like a poet. His first page, reprinted below, riveted me from the word go, as he paints a canvas of a Brooklyn street one humid summer evening to provide the reader a glimpse of a society on the cusp of change. Old and new, side by side.

girls on fireLike a match struck in a darkened room:
    Two white girls in flannel nightgowns and red vinyl roller skates with white laces, tracing tentative circles on a cracked blue slate sidewalk at seven o'clock on an evening in July.
    The girls murmured rhymes, were murmured rhymes, their gauzy, sky-pink hair streaming like it had once never been cut. The girls' parents had permitted them back onto the street after dinner, only first changing into the gowns and brushing their teeth before bed, to bask in the orange-pink summer dusk, the air and light which hung over the street, over all of Gowanus like the palm of a hand or the inner surface of a seashell. The Puerto Rican men seated on milk crates in front of the bodega on the corner granted at the apparition, not sure of what they were seeing. They widened their lips to show one another their teeth, a display to mark patience, wordless enduring. The street strewn with bottle caps half-pushed into the softened tar, Yoo-Hoo, Rheingold, Manhattan Special.
    The girls, Thea and Ana Solver, shone like new-struck flames.
    An old white woman had arrived on the block before the Solvers, to reclaim one of the abused buildings, one which had been a rooming house, replacing fifteen men with only herself and her crated belongings. She was actually the first. But Isabel Vendle only lurked like a rumor, like an apostrophe inside her brownstone, where at this moment she crept with a cane...Isabel Vendle was a knuckle, her body curled around the gristle of old injuries...
    The girls on wheels were the new thing, spoilt to start the show: white people were returning to Dean Street. A few.

If you're tempted, be forewarned, Lethem is no easy read! I didn't have the patience to get through it, and admittedly 1970s New York is a bit remote to me. (Oh, and leave a comment if you can guess what the title is a reference to. It's not difficult!)

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Men and women's roles: Random concluding thoughts

A mono-dialogue
Continuing the conversation (Gen. 1-3)
The end of the conversation (but not really)
1 Timothy 2:8-15 (Part i)
1 Timothy 2:8-15 (Part ii)

I better wrap up this series. Not quite sure what else to say really, at least not in any coherent way.

Why has this discussion proven to be so heated? I’ve mentioned one reason in the introduction – it inevitably touches at the core of who we are. Furthermore, it invariably touches on church practice. An egalitarian female might feel restricted in a church that adheres to complementarian teaching and that she is not being allowed to express her gifts fully. A complementarian might feel uncomfortable sitting in a church where a female pastor is preaching. There really isn’t middle ground. It can be hard to say "let’s agree to disagree" in a situation such as the ordination of female bishops, for in effect, the complementarian is ceding ground to the egalitarian.

In recent years, the debate has also moved on in such a way that links it with more fundamental Christian doctrines. One of the things that interested me in the initial comment thread over at Tim’s original post is how quickly the discussion moved to the question of the authority of the Bible. Some prominent complementarians, most notably Wayne Grudem, has discerned a trajectory that he sees as leading to liberalism in the way egalitarians read the Scriptures. Egalitarians will dispute this. So there is a sense in which there is a more fundamental debate going on. IMHO, the current vigorous debates over the trustworthiness/clarity/authority of the Scriptures is going to be one of the top two or three debates which will mark out my generation, thanks to the powerful challenges posed by the "postmodern turn" and a pluralistic world. There is an urgent need for a fresh rearticulation of the doctrine of God’s Word and how it informs the Christian life.

Another fundamental doctrine that has been linked to the issue of gender roles has been that of the Trinity. These debates are very complicated, and touch on the issue of the subordination of the Son to the Father. Kevin Giles, an Australian theologian and an egalitarian, has been very scathing in particular on complementarians, effectively accusing them of being Arians (i.e. believing that God the Son is somehow lesser to the Father). Complementarians defend themselves by pointing out the difference between essence and roles. As you can see, the waters can get murky indeed.

It’s just really, really hard for both sides not to talk past each other. The surrounding culture makes it tough too. A complementarian sees a world where people are simply confused by what it means to be a man and woman, from “hooking up” to high divorce rates, and are alarmed by the increasing passivity of the male, often mocked in TV shows where they are portrayed as buffoons and indecisive. An egalitarian sees a world where women in many places are nothing more than objects, where glass ceilings exist, put in place by old boys’ networks, and where women seem to be marginalised in churches.

As I’ve mentioned before, complementarians too need to clearly model Christ-like love and sacrificial headship if there is any chance for them to persuade others that they have interpreted God’s word correctly. They must seek to encourage the gifts of women. 30 or 40 years ago complementarianism was the majority position. I’m certain this is no longer the case.

This has been a series that has been personally stimulating, and I’m glad that I’m somewhat clearer of my position than before I started. Feedback on this series is most welcome! When I have time, I hope to read up a little more on this subject. Here is a short reading list for those who wish to pursue this further:

Two Views of Women In Ministry - contributors: Linda Belleville, Craig Keener (egalitarians), Thomas Schreiner, Craig Blomberg (complementarians). This is the first work to look at if you want to look at the biblical arguments put forward by each side. I definitely want to read this at some point. Make sure that this is the revised edition, as the first edition (which had Ann Bowman as a contributor) was significantly weaker!

Equal but Different, by Alexander Strauch. (C) For an introduction to the complementarian position.

Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, by John Piper and Wayne Grudem. (C) Most comprehensive complementarian book.

Women’s Ministry in the Local Church, by J. Ligon Duncan and Susan Hunt (C). Does what it says on the tin.

Discovering Biblical Equality, by Rebecca Groothuis et al. (E) This is the egalitarian equivalent of the Piper and Grudem book above.

Women in the Church, by Stanley Grenz and Denise Muir Kjesbo. (E) Argues that women should serve as full partners in ministry with men.

Why Not Women?, by Loren Cunningham et al. (E) YWAM founder offers introduction to egalitarian position.

Men and Women in the Church, by Sarah Sumner. (C/E?) This book is a serious attempt to find a third way, but I have to confess I’m not sure if that’s possible. Still, it’s a worthwhile effort. Supposedly John Stackhouse’s Finally Feminist attempts a similar thing on a more limited/pragmatic scale, but my understanding is that Stackhouse in reality firmly lands on the egalitarian side.

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Saturday, November 03, 2007

Aftereffects of a thoughtful conversation

Isn't it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be part of it?
- Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow

We're not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.
- C. S Lewis, Letters

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Friday, November 02, 2007

Hoops Hype

I've been floored pretty badly by a viral infection - the sickest 24 hours I've had in years! - I was vomitting, feverish, aching all over and literally bedridden all of yesterday. Was very thankful to two of my friends who, at their inconvenience, brought over porridge for dinner. The fever appears to have burned itself out, so I can actually get out of bed today, although my back still hurts pretty badly. Can't make it to dinner with a friend as originally planned though.

Anyway, time for a change of pace. A new NBA season is now underway! Last season was pretty good in that there were no outright favourites, the only disappointment being that the Cleveland Cavaliers were completely overmatched against the Spurs in the Finals. But this season proves to be just as intriguing.

First up of course is the Boston Celtics, who made not one, but two blockbuster trades to acquire Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. Together with Paul Pierce, that's easily the best trio in the NBA. The problem is they're pretty thin elsewhere. The bench isn't as horrible as some have suggested: Tony Allen is talented if a bit hotheaded, Eddie House will always get you some points even if he plays no defence, but getting James Posey is the real coup, he'll be a reliable sixth man. I figure they'll win the Eastern Conference though, and should be the favourite to make the Finals.

The Eastern Conference still isn't as strong as the West. The Chicago Bulls have a great talented core: Luol Deng and co. If they still have Tyson Chandler I'll say they're the best team in the East. But they don't, but this is still a very good team and will challenge the Celtics for the East. The Detroit Pistons have kept their veteran starting five, but I wonder if they've reached their peak. They'll still be a force to reckon with, however...Ditto with New Jersey Nets, good trio of Kidd, Carter and Jefferson, interesting addition of Magloire, but I don't think it's quite enough. And my team Orlando Magic overpaid to get Rashard Lewis. He's a very good, but not great player. Still, if Dwight Howard were to improve...the Cleveland Cavaliers have done nothing this summer and will not be back in the Finals unless they swing a trade for a good point guard. Miami Heat? No longer a good team. Expect the New Orleans Hornets to improve...

The Western Conference is still where all the powerhouses are, though. I have a huge soft spot for the San Antonio Spurs and wouldn't begrudge them a succesful defence of their title. But the neutral's choice surely must be the exciting Phoenix Suns who again came so agonisingly close last year. And with all-round good guy Grant Hill now on their team, you really want them to win one. Losing Kurt Thomas hurts though...Dallas Mavericks have officially earned the choker tag - favourites the last two years and botching it up each time. They still have the deepest team in the league, and it won't be a surprise if they once again finish the regular season with the best record. Utah Jazz are interesting. They have an underrated starting five, and Boozer and Williams will probably be recognised as All-Stars this year. Houston Rockets also have that deadly inside-out tandem of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady with a fairly strong supporting cast, but the questions are still the same: Can McGrady stay healthy and will there be team chemistry? Denver Nuggets are most definitely a dark horse. The LA Lakers are more like Hollywood at the moment...

So who'd I like to win? I know the Magic won't, so once again, it's that sentimental favourite - the Phoenix Suns. I want Nash and Hill to retire with at least one ring to their names.

Oh, and I've succumbed to playing Fantasy NBA for the fifth time!

Bonus: Top 10 plays of the 2006/07 season