Saturday, December 29, 2007

Two oh oh seven

One final post for the year. I was just thinking a little about the year gone by, as you do. And as always, it feels like it’s gone by too quickly. In some ways, I supposed this year was always going to be a transitional one. It’s quite stunning to realise that I’m over a year removed from my undergraduate days, although I’m really glad now that I didn’t move straight into the working world – I feel as if I needed to catch my breath a little! After that frenetic final year, it was quite nice to move back into a bit of a more 9-5 classroom routine, which is what this Masters felt like, and that the pacing of the course was more relaxed, enabling me to enjoy weekends without any guilt.

It was transitional, I suppose, not just academically, but also in adjusting to a new church, new living spaces, new friends, new realities, and also learning to say goodbye. In emails to friends this year, I often referred to Al Hsu and his perceptive comments in The Single Issue regarding the post-university years. Although I technically haven’t left university then, his wise words regarding the losses we sustain once we leave studentdom applied to me too. Briefly, these included

The loss of familiarity. University in effect becomes your home away from home. The hallways, the lecture halls, the library are all paths I travel through daily for 3 years. I know where the best cinemas are, the cheapest places to eat. The location has become part of my history, and so it’s not surprising that I need to properly grieve that when I move on. This is especially so when I move to a place like London, which is so huge that I still don’t have any idea half the time where to go to get a particular item or service!

The loss of status. We all fit into certain niches as students, and the way university is set up means that it’s pretty easy to find your way to fill those, whatever it may be: drama club etc. We might have been somebody, holding a committee position of some sort; in my case, a CU rep. No one really cares about that once you move on. The truth is that often these feeds into our identities and it can be quite disorientating when that’s gone.

The loss of intimacy. Basically, this simply means people move on. Two of my closest friends at university are no longer in this country, although the fact that both are currently in Singapore lessens that impact somewhat as I’m sure I’ll see them again at some point. But I also know that there are some people whom in all likelihood, I might never bump into again.

I think too of people moving on to different life stages from me, eg. friends who have entered into the working world while I haven’t, or those who have gotten attached (perhaps even married) while I have remained single. And of course, getting used to a more uncertain future. Now that I have finally left the education system, suddenly there isn’t quite a predetermined path to follow.

I was thinking too about how my university years have made me realise how much I don’t know. I always hoped that a university education would primarily teach me how to think, and while I am still not at all a natural critical thinker, I do know that at least I can see some discernible differences in the way I process my thoughts from a few years ago. I know that I see complexities more often nowadays. But it also makes the world a bit of a less certain place, and (hopefully) it humbles you as well.

One of the best things I got to do this year was to be able to go through Mark’s gospel as an ordinary member of a Bible study group. It was thoroughly refreshing and I think I can say that it did, however imperfectly, deepen my love for my Saviour. I was also more thoroughly convinced that, despite the obvious pitfalls of descending into bibliolatry, God’s Word grows us and sustains us. I don’t have all the answers to the various questions being raised at the moment with regards to Scripture, such as inerrancy, but I think that it is possible to freshly articulate a robust biblicism.

It seems more and more to me we’re living in liminal times, that is, a time where we’re in the middle of shifting paradigms. In the West, I think there’s plenty of recognition that we’re living in what has often been called "postmodernity", even if no one can quite agree on what that means, or at least it’s entering a post-Christian age. I think the age of secularism is on its last legs, and religion is making a big comeback in the public square, not that it ever left in some places. We have to come to grips with what it means to live in a globalised, pluralistic world. Not to mention the legacy of colonialism and neo-colonialism for the Majority World, and how the Christian faith will engage with these new realities. The emerging church in its best expressions are taking this seriously. Pentecostalism is still young and it will be interesting to see how that evolves. As a non-cessationist, I’m glad that cessationism is becoming a minority position though. :-) But I would say that the prosperity gospel is also one the most dangerous threats in the Majority World today.

I’m too young to really remember even the Cold War, but while terrorism is now a familiar staple in the news, it’d be interesting to see what the rise of China and the possible comeback of Russia means. I know we often lament about our cultural captivity to consumerism as well as wonder about whether there ever will be any viable alternatives to unbridled capitalism.

Malaysia’s gone through quite some turbulent times this year, its 50th. I think that Abdullah Badawi’s relatively weak leadership has contributed to this, as unlike his predecessor, a strongman, he’s been less able to contain any political ferment. There are more questions than ever over the nature of the social contract, and more religious polarisation – from fervent debate over the nature of Muslim conversion (and burial rites) to the latest debates over whether it is appropriate for a non-Muslim to use the word Allah to refer to God. It doesn’t quite help that that the situation is still very much coloured by race. Christians will have differing stances over how to engage (or indeed, if to engage at all) but Malaysian Christians cannot take a tidak apa attitude any longer.

I always find going into a new year slightly intimidating, and even more so this time as I move into the working world and learn of budgeting and such. I know that in terms of personal holiness, I’m still sorely lacking. I’m leading a small group again, although in quite different circumstances, and that’s always a challenge. As is building and maintaining friendships, especially for anti-social me. :-)

I've discovered that this little excerpt from Eugene Peterson's A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, which I first featured here has proved to be something worth reflecting on this year, and so I quote it in full once again:

"To suppose that [the Christian life is a quiet escape or a fantasy trip] is to turn the nut the wrong way. The Christian life is going to God. In going to God, Christians travel the same ground that everyone else walks on, breathe the same air, drink the same water, shop in the same stores, read the same newspapers, are citizens under the same governments, pay the same prices for groceries and gasoline, fear the same dangers, are subject to the same pressures, get the same distresses, are buried in the same ground.

The difference is that each step we walk, each breath we breathe, we know we are preserved by God, we know we are accompanied by God, we know we are ruled by God...We believe that life is created and shaped by God and that the life of faith is a daily exploration of the constant and countless ways in which God's grace and love are experienced."

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Sunday, December 23, 2007

Merry Christmas!

We interrupt this regular transmission to bring you breaking news...

Happy birthday to me
I turn twenty-three!
I still have no money
Or my own biographeeeeee!


In other news, conclusive evidence that BK's tutors are on crack surfaced today when he discovered that he had been awarded a distinction for his Masters. BK(MA)?!!??

An empty apartment, furnished with a television and a petulant adolescent will also be in the charge of BK for the next ten days or so. George is your typical teenager, sucking up to you when he wants something (particularly food), before sullenly ignoring you once the stomach is filled. Or else demanding inordinate amounts of attention while expecting you to clean up after him. At the same time, George is capable of tugging at your heartstrings, as he did this evening while I was leaving, staring woefully at me in the hallway with his puppy-dog pout. Don't tell George I said that though, as he won't appreciate it. He is a feline after all.

Anyway, I might not blog for the remainder of 2007; at the very least, I expect blogging output to be reduced. So have a very Merry Christmas!

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Christmas: New Beginnings

Matthew 1:1-25

Once upon a time. It was a dark and stormy night. What crosses your mind as I say these words? Perhaps it was the land of castles and dragons and princesses. Or the creepy, dilapidated mansion at the end of the street. Or maybe a flood of boredom simply filled your senses as your hand automatically reached for the remote. Yet whatever our reaction, whether of anticipation or ennui, those stock phrases instantly communicated to us a whole range of (dull) plotlines, images and characters simply because of their familiarity.

Does the beginning of Matthew seem like that? Many of us will own up guiltily to ho-humming here. I know I do. Luke’s beginning has the tone of a learned professor, scribbling furiously at his desk as he seeks to preserve an “orderly account”. Mark is the excitable movie director, plunging us straight into the action. John is that intriguing artist – his prologue may be perplexing, but it has the ring of poetic beauty and philosophical sophistication to it. Matthew, uh, sounds like the guy from the National Office of Statistics. I guess somebody has to record that kind of stuff. Number-crunching, genealogies, blahblahblah. And the list isn’t even all that familiar, although we might recognise some names like Abraham and Isaac and Boaz and David, in the same way we might know the Disneyfied versions of many fairy tales but be hazier on the original stories themselves.

But hang on. Let’s go back to the beginning. What if the sentence continued “Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person” (Back When We Were Grownups, Anne Tyler)? Or “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” (1984, George Orwell)? Our interest is piqued, and we are eager to find out more. To do so, however, is to enter the world of the story. Most of us understand that clocks, first of all, do not strike thirteen, and secondly, thirteen is an unlucky number in many cultures. Some of us might pick up that a bright, cold day in April is actually very rare. Orwell is hinting right off the bat that something is definitely amiss. Why are the clocks striking thirteen? We’ll need to read on. We’re actually in media res, or in the middle of things. The story is told linearly, but we will need to fill in retrospective gaps, to look not just forward but backwards.

So back again we go to Matthew’s opening and this time, attempt to imaginatively inhabit his world, see it through Jewish eyes. All those names! Each transports me to an anecdote passed down from generation to generation, a memory of what it was like to be part of God’s people, a recalling of events of my collective past. They strike a chord within me – wonder and sadness. Scanning the list, I see Matthew doing something striking. He divides the genealogy into three main sections of fourteen names each (v.17): from Abraham to David, from David to "the time of the exile to Babylon" (v.11) and then to Jesus himself, situating the central character of this account in the midst of the larger story of Israel. It is “something which gives explicit expression to the conviction that a providence of God had been at work in the ordering of Israelite history up to Jesus' time” (John Goldingay).

Matthew wants me to see God’s hand at work here, but to what end? I peer at this family tree again. Jesus. That’s it. A biography of Jesus that sees the need to include a genealogy is making a point about his heritage. Matthew realigns my line of sight. Jesus is of royal stock, the son of David, the greatest king in Israel’s history. I go back to David’s story, and remember the promise made to him:

"When your days are fulfilled and you rest with your fathers, I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his Father, and he shall be My son." (2 Samuel 7:12-14)
King David with harpAnd I begin to get excited. It’s not so much that Jesus is David’s son per se. As a Jew, it’s been drilled into me since young that the arrival of this Davidic King coincides with the coming of God’s reign! It is the end of oppression, the coming of justice, the restoration of Israel. Jumping ahead in Matthew’s story for a moment, imagine my shock when Matthew tells me of Jesus standing trial before Pilate and being asked, "Are you the king of the Jews?" to which he replies in the affirmative (27:11). But how can this be? Not only is the Davidic king suppose to come in victory, but he is meant to be a true Israelite, the one who models obedience, and yet on both counts Jesus seems to come up wanting by being executed as a criminal.

Jesus is also identified as the son of Abraham. So I go back to another story of beginnings, this time, the beginning of Israel. Once again, it is the story of a promise (Genesis 12:1-3). It is the promise of people, starting with a son, out of which a nation would arise. It is the promise of blessing, but startlingly, it is not a blessing merely for a particular people group. "All peoples on earth will be blessed through you." The same is said of the Davidic king: "All nations will be blessed through him" (Psalm 72:7). If I still don’t get the point, Matthew gets me to look at the family record again and particularly at the women. Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba. The women...they’re not Jewish! (And not with the best of reputations either). Being part of Israel is not the be all and end all. John the Baptist later on warns the Pharisees of their complacency: "Do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’" (3:9).

But how can John say that? And back again we go to the beginning. This is "a record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ". And once more, I am reminded of yet another beginning, but a more unpleasant one this time. It is the beginning of death. The exact same phrase (although it might not appear so in some English translations) is found in Genesis 5:1, where we get a genealogy of Adam. And in this genealogy, with one exception, we hear that so-and-so died, one after another, even if they lived remarkably long. Death does not discriminate between Jew and non-Jew, for all are children of Adam. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

And so Jesus is now situated not only within Israel’s story, but humankind’s history. But now let’s go to the beginning of the Jesus narrative itself. And let me briefly compare it with another beginning. Laurence Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy famously starts with these words:

“I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them…had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider’d how much depended upon what they were doing…Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly, - I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me.”
The running joke is that the protagonist, Tristram, attributes all the blame for his failings in life to his parent’s thoughtlessness in conceiving him; it is, in a way, a comic take on original sin. There is also another running thread, which doesn’t really come out in the excerpt above, that Tristram keeps on trying to get back to the beginning of his story but he doesn’t know where to start (Sterne’s point: there’s no beginning and end in art, or life).

Matthew goes about showing the birth of Jesus in a much more deliberate manner. This is the point of new beginnings; it is also the end of an era. It is the fulfilment of prophecy, the climax of history. Matthew matter-of-factly tells us that Joseph was going to divorce Mary because, you know, his wife-to-be happened to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Say what? This is no ordinary child, to say the least. He "will save his people from their sins" (1:21), those cancerous acts of opposing God’s kingship which plunged us into the world of death in the first place. Jesus is the new Adam!

Here we also find the beginning of new expectations, for this wasn’t quite what people were expecting the Messiah’s coming to be about. Steven Kellman, in an essay ‘Grand Openings and Plans: On the Poetics of Opening lines’ suggests that openings tend to serve one of two functions, “either to thrust us immediately into the text or to retard our encounter until we are prepared for it.” And so Matthew, in his opening 4 chapters, by citing fulfilled prophecy after fulfilled prophecy, hammers it into us that Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, the promised Davidic King and Son of Abraham, the fulfilment of God’s plans, so that we can absorb the shock and grasp the magnitude of Jesus’ mission. For "just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up" (John 3:14). In other words, Jesus knows that he must go on to the Cross, where he takes our place. Only then will the New Creation, the hope of true forgiveness, true justice, true beauty, and true life be ushered in.

Christmas. It is the story of a gracious God who knew what he was doing from the very beginning. It is the story of a God who keeps his promises. Today, we know it primarily as the story of a birth of a rather famous historical figure, but Matthew shows us that it is far more than that. And in the present day, it is an invitation to a new beginning for us, if we repent, turning from our old, sinful ways, and trust in Jesus. It is eternal life itself. And it is also an invitation to have confidence in the promise that God, through Jesus, will one day reconcile all things to himself, under his rule. Imagine that. All things. All nations, Malaysia, England, South Africa, Iraq. No more threats of war and racism. No more fears of global warming. No more subjugation, institutional and spiritual.

We’ve been talking about beginnings. How about this for an ending?

And He who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new”
- Revelation 21:5 (ESV)

The dream is ended: this is the morning.
…now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
- The Last Battle, C.S Lewis

> Last year’s Christmas post: The Only One who can change the world

P/S Christmas, new beginnings? Sounds like quite the story but...Bah humbug. Not in the real world. If that’s you, why not read through one of the gospels for yourself, and you might also like to pick up one or more of the following:

Where is God in a messed up world?, Roger Carswell
The Case for Christ, Lee Strobel
Mere Christianity, C.S Lewis
Who was Jesus?, N.T Wright

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Gospel, Personal AND Cosmic

An excerpt from Trevin Wax's review of John Piper's new book, The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T Wright:

In other words, Piper and Wright are agreed on the gospel message and its effects, but the two scholars are looking at the gospel from two different perspectives. Piper is looking at the gospel as primarily about the salvation of individual sinners, which has as an effect the restoration of the entire cosmos. Wright is looking at the gospel as primarily the restoration of the entire cosmos, which includes the personal salvation of individual human beings.

There is a danger in both ways of viewing the gospel. Piper’s way of viewing the gospel could lead us to so emphasize personal conversion and the salvation of individuals that we forget the cosmic implications of the lordship of Christ which are manifested politically and socially. If we negate the cosmic effects of the gospel, we truncate the message and leave the Caesars (idols) of the world on their thrones.

On the other hand, Wright’s view of the gospel could lead us to so emphasize the cosmic implications of the gospel that we devote all of our time and energy to politics, social work, and philanthropy and leave little room or passion in our outlook for personal salvation, evangelistic activity and bold proclamation of the gospel for individual sinners. If we negate the personal, individualistic aspect of the gospel, we neuter the message by failing to call individuals to repentance and faith.

We needn’t choose between the personal and cosmic gospel. We need both dimensions. Thankfully, Piper and Wright agree that the gospel includes both these dimensions. But I would suspect that they would also argue that the primary lens through which we view and preach the gospel should be either personal or cosmic.

Trevin Wax's entire review series. For another brief review, go here.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Santa's little accident

Santa's little accident

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Wordsmiths: Corde Natus ex Parentis

During Christmas we celebrate the mystery of God made man, capable of hunger and weariness and suffering and sickness and even death. Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, in a dirty, smelly stable! Christ's birth reveals to us God's sacrificial love. Jesus himself made the incredibly bold statement: "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father." (John 14:9) If true, what an explosive claim! Of those convinced, the fourth century historian Eusebius could write, "How many psalms and how many songs, which from the beginning were written by pious brothers, sing about Christ as the Logos of God and confess that He is God."

I'll let Mark Noll introduce today's wordsmith:

'One of the most highly regarded Latin poets of Christian antiquity, Aurelius Clemens Prudentius, left prominent government office at age fifty-seven to retire to a monastery and dedicate the rest of his life to serving God by writing hymns and poems. His Christian hymn Corde natus ex Parentis (Of the Father's love begotten) expresses in lyric form what the ecclesiastical councils hammered out in doctrinal propositions: Jesus is fully divine, coequal with the Father (harking back to the Nicene Creed), and fully human, being born as a baby (anticipating the Chalcedonian definition).'

Of the Father's love begotten
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending he,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see.
Evermore and evermore.

O that birth for ever blessed!
When the Virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving,
Bore the Saviour of our race;
And the Babe, the world's Redeemer,
First revealed his sacred face,
Evermore and evermore.

O ye heights of heaven, adore him;
Angel hosts, his praises sing;
Powers, dominions bow before him,
And extol our God and King;
Let no tongue on earth be silent,
Every voice in concert ring,
Evermore and evermore.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

Music of the year

Well, this is going to be a short list. I almost never listen to Top 40 stuff, preferring to pursue whatever I'm interested in. I've never, not even once! listened to Lily Allen's Smile, which was the smash hit of last summer. To prove I'm not completely hopeless though, I have actually heard Amy Winehouse's Rehab, Plain White Ts Hey There Delilah and Leona Lewis' Bleeding Love. My tastes tend to be fairly eclectic. I like rock, especially the indie variety, folksy-rootsy-singer-songwriterish stuff, and emo, but I'm not averse to pop, jazz (although I'm not intelligent enough to talk about "improvisation" and what-not) et al. Heavy metal is probably the only genre I just don't get. I also grew up listening to "Christian" or CCM music, and while I obviously no longer buy into the sacred/secular divide, I still do listen to bands which are marketed to the Christian segment. Here are some songs and albums that I've come across this year.

Jars of Clay are too good to remain pigeonholed as such, and I really enjoyed their newest album, Good Monsters, a birthday gift. Oh My God is a candidate for song of the year. downhere have long been an underrated Christian band. Where else are you going to find lyrics such as "You wouldn't walk out on this tragedy / Never give up on your Iliad / You suffered for the victory / 'Cause it's always been your labor of love?" (Iliad)? Their newest album wide-eyed and mystified is their best and most accessible yet. They aren't quite as wordy as on No Place for Substitutes but they haven't dumbed down either.

Both Arcade Fire's Neon Bible and The National's Boxer have appeared on many top 10 lists and I am the proud owner of both of them. Obviously appeals to my elitist side! I remember the first time I listened to Arcade Fire's first album, Funeral. I thought, "What in the world have I bought?" On my second listen, I was going: "They're very interesting at the very least..." By my fourth listen I had fallen in love with them. Neon Bible is just as amazing and definitely more accessible. The National's last album, Alligator, got them plenty of attention and their follow-up is very good too. I thought the final third of the album sagged a little but until that point, it's utterly compelling. Fake Empire is another potential song of the year for me. Phil Campbell's Joy is good singer-songwriterish stuff, although not outstanding enough to make it a must-buy. I've never really listened much to Radiohead, but did not resist getting their latest In Rainbows. Again, they take some getting used to. The first half of the album sounds decidedly more experimental while the second half tend to be more about the melodies. Over the Rhine's Trumpet Child has a lovely big band/jazz vibe to it. And the best album of 2007 no one's heard about? Jeremy Casella and RCVRY. Christianity Today Music deservedly gave it 5 stars. It would not look out of place in any mainstream critic's Top 50. His music is suprisingly hard to describe, but I suppose orchestral pop with a hint of electronica comes closest.

I should talk about some of the more interesting songs I've sung in church this year. One that really stayed with me, although I've only ever sung it twice, is Two Sins Have We Committed. It's a song of lament and confession that is suitable for congregational use. When the chorus of a song goes: "What fools we are! How blind we are!", it catches your attention. The two sins alluded to in the title is really one, when we turn away from God and make something else an idol. It's a good song of response to sing especially after a hard-hitting sermon. (In case you're worried, the chorus ends with "Change our hearts that we might live /For you O Lord always"). I also hope in time that two new songs, written by Simon Pedley and based on Isaiah, will be widely known. They're Servant of God Most High and The Day is Soon. Philip Percival's Never Alone is already catching on, deservedly so. It'd be great too if many songs from Sovereign Grace's Songs for the Cross-Centered Life and Valley of Vision get sung in churches all over the globe. They're strong albums both lyrically and musically. Sovereign Grace's earlier albums did suffer from a rather dated sound but that's certainly not the case here. Would you believe me if I told you that one of the albums I enjoyed the most was a children's album? It's really hard to get that balance between music that's enjoyable for kids and adults alike, and to write good lyrics that are simple enough for children, but EMU Music's Get Ready! does just that. Hey, I even think Forever and a Day is one of the best songs I've heard all year. My nieces and nephews are going to enjoy it. I also got a chance to listen to Hillsong's Saviour King and contrary to some reviews, I thought it was quite a strong effort. Lyrically, as always with Hillsong, some of their songs leave me ambivalent, but on the whole, I liked it.

This year does seem like quite a good year for music. Other well-reviewed efforts that I've not had a chance to listen to, or at most just a little, include Patty Griffin's Children Running Through, The Shins Wincing the Night Away, Modest Mouse's We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, Band of Horses Cease to Begin, The White Stripes Icky Thump, Iron & Wine's Shepherd Dog and Caedmon Call's Overdressed.

Now, YouTube galore!

Arcade Fire's No Cars Go

The Frames' Falling Slowly, featured in the film Once

Oh To see the Dawn (The Power of the Cross) by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty

And for a Malaysian flavour, Evenstarr's Masih (and also a chance for me to casually mention that I know the lead singer!)

Master List of online "Best of 2007" music
Relevant Mag's list

Songs/albums of the year for you?

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Hindraf arrests

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Films of the year

First, the pseudo-advert and the biggest 'awwww' of the year...

Next, the trailer...

And on to the main feature!

I haven’t watched that many films this year, partly because London cinemas are more expensive (although the one near my bro’s place is certainly value-for-money: fairly cheap for a very pleasant environment, and even better, not overly crowded!), but also because my two movie kakis are no longer in this country. :( As with the books, I’ll simply list them as far as I can remember. Some are technically older releases which I caught on DVD.

Babel was nominated for an Oscar earlier this year and I really enjoyed it. It intertwines three narratives set in the Americas, Africa and Japan respectively, exploring the consequences of our actions, cultural prejudice and the importance of family. I know quite a few think it overwrought though. Hot Fuzz is my favourite comedy of the year, certainly one of my overall favourites of 2007. Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright team together again in this hilarious story of a cop whose record is so good that he gets assigned to a sleepy English village so that the others don’t look so bad. I also absolutely loved Sunshine, the sci-fi flick from Danny Boyle about the dying sun, even if recent revelations (to me) regarding Alex Garland’s screenplay put a new spin on my interpretation of the movie. The Curse of the Golden Flower wasn’t bad, although the kaleidoscope of colours and the intricate politics of the imperial Chinese court is a potent combination guaranteed to make your head spin. The Lives of Others can lay claim to being the best film of the year, as it follows the cat-and-mouse game between an East German secret agent and the dissenters of the Communist regime, culminating in powerful sacrifices having to be made on both sides. The Painted Veil is an adaptation of a Somerset Maugham book, regarding the healing of a fractured marriage of a young English couple set (mostly) in 1920s China. It’s great to see a positive portrayal of marriage on the big screen.

Amazing Grace is a good biopic of William Wilberforce, considering that I thought it could easily have been very dull. Spiderman 3’s pacing may have been a little off, but is still a great summer movie. I’ve written a sort of reflection-cum-review elsewhere on this blog...Transformers is exactly what you’d expect, mindless entertainment. Story? What story? It’s all about the robots baby. Little Miss Sunshine was the quirky indie hit of 2006, a story that ostensibly is about the hilarious attempt to get the youngest daughter, Olivia, of a rather dysfunctional family to a beauty pageant on time but is really about family sticking together, no matter how messed up we are. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is huge fun, although knowing the book definitely helps. The Simpsons Movie feels just like an extended TV special, which is fine as long as you’re a Simpsons fan. Gags aplenty. I admit it, I watched High School Musical! Another well-written romantic comedy was the Korean film Two Hundred Pounds Beauty. It’s both intelligent and funny! I also caught the London International Animation Festival this year, which featured a collection of animation shorts. I remember enjoying Recto Verso in particular.

Little Children is one of the best “dysfunction bubbling underneath perfect suburban life” films I’ve seen. My in-depth review is here. Darren Aranofsky is acknowledged as one of the more talented directors working in America today, but The Fountain is just terrible. It’s overly melodramatic and contrived. Thankfully, the movie I watched after that was the magnificent Ratatouille, which continues Pixar’s winning streak. I say it has a longshot for an Oscar Best Pic nomination. This is one not to be missed. Once is a sweet slice-of-life tale of a friendship between a budding street musician and a Czech immigrant, backed by an excellent soundtrack. Fracture is a courtroom thriller with an overly cocky Ryan Gosling battling Anthony Hopkin’s cunning. The performances of both lift the movie out of B-grade territory.
That’s it, I think. I feel like I missed out on quite a lot. Having not watched the second instalments of either Pirates of the Carribean or the Bourne franchise, I naturally didn't watch Part 3. I did watch both Shreks but decided the underwhelming reviews meant that it was time to put Shrek 3 to bed. Some of the films I’ve heard raved about include the Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks & Two Days, No Country for Old Men (not yet released in the UK), The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the harrowing documentary Darfur Now, Michael Clayton, Knocked Up (well, my brother thought it was intelligently written and the reviews seem to agree), Rescue Dawn, Zodiac and This is England.

Ghibli also had a film out this year by Hayao Miyazaki’s son, Tales of Earthsea, but that has gotten a mixed reception. The Golden Compass has gotten more bad reviews than good, and I don’t mean from Christian outlets with agendas! American Gangster is apparently solid but nothing more. Ditto for Atonement. Lion for Lambs too talky and more suited for the theatre than the cinema, concludes the vast majority of reviewers. The Devil Came on Horseback is another much-needed Darfur documentary. The Assassination of Jesse James is meant to be pretty good and solidifies the comeback of the Western, although it’s also very long.

Some of the films I’m looking forward to watching include indie favourite (and also favourably reviewed) Juno, Lars and the Real Girl and Enchanted, which, although it supposedly suffers from a lacklustre ending, is meant to be Disney gently poking fun at itself.

Roll the credits...

Paste Magazine’s best films of 2007
Top rated films according to Rotten Tomatoes
Awards Daily best films of 2007
Roger Ebert, when he finally gets round to choosing it
Christianity Today Movies Top Films, not yet out

What were your top/favourite films of the year?

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Books of the year

It's that time of year where best-of lists come out. I'm a sucker for such lists. I doubt anyone noticed, but I never actually posted my top book of 2006. And I’ve decided not to for the moment. I’ll keep that in reserve for the day when I might actually write about it.

I’ve been fortunate that my Masters has surprisingly afforded me with a lot of free time this year. I doubt I’ll ever have as much time to read ever again. Rather than do a top 10 this year though, I thought I’ll just list, as far as I can remember, all the books I’ve read (or skim-read) this year with short comments.

Shining Like Stars by Lindsey Brown is the gripping story of the IFES movement and a testimony to God’s goodness and faithfulness. You could say it’s the unofficial sequel to Howard Guinness’ Sacrifice. Clinton Arnold’s 3 Crucial Questions about Spiritual Warfare is a balanced treatment of an often sensationalised topic. He believes Christians can be harassed and influenced by demons although not possessed, and argues for the existence of territorial spirits, with the caveat that we are not told to engage directly with them, and therefore a lot of talk in some charismatic circles of “spiritual mapping” (to use one eg.) and the like is misguided. Chris Wright’s Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament is a helpful book both about Jesus in light of the OT, and the OT in light of Jesus, looking at Jesus in relation to OT mission, identity, promise and so on. What Jesus Demands from the World is a devotional book from the pen of John Piper as he systematically works through all the commands of Jesus found in the Gospels.

Immanuel in our Place by world-renowned OT scholar Tremper Longman III is a book for the layperson on various aspects of Israel’s worship, such as temple worship, sacrifices, priesthood and the Sabbath and how they apply to Christians today. I’ve only read portions of Eugene Peterson’s classic A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, on the Songs of Ascents (Psalm 120-134), but as you’d expect from Peterson, it is thoroughly refreshing. I also got through his Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, his tour de force on Christian spirituality, way too quickly, just enough to get a vague idea of the overall shape of the book – it really needs to be read slowly and savoured, and his words need time and space to reflect upon. Spirit of Truth by David Jackman is a back-to-basics exposition of the person of the Holy Spirit. Anyone who has heard Jackman knows that he is a fantastic preacher, but for some reason, his writing style was a bit dry here. Graham Beynon’s Experiencing the Spirit, which covers similar ground, is written in a more conversational style which perhaps appeals to below 30s like me.

Tom Wright’s Simply Christian is a warm introduction to Christianity, both for believers and non-believers alike, although comparisons to C.S Lewis’ Mere Christianity are definitely overblown. Bruce Milne’s Dynamic Diversity will unfortunately probably not be widely known, but he presents a compelling vision of a church which in its diversity of gender, race and socio-economic status will be able to show that in Jesus they are one people. John Stott’s The Message of 2 Timothy is the most enjoyable commentary I have ever read, and should be your first stop if you’re looking for a popular level commentary on that particular letter. I wish he treated 2:24-26 in detail though...William Taylor’s exposition on Philippians: Partnership, published by Christian Focus, is clear and encouraging. I finally read George Eldon Ladd’s classic The Presence of the Future. Since it’s an old academic book, it is a little dated and hard-going in places and most of the detail will be forgotten by me. Nonetheless, I remember having my eyes opened by some of his discussion on the prophetic/apocalyptic dimension. I have written a more in-depth review of Brian McLaren’s The Secret Message of Jesus. It’s a good book on the Kingdom of God, although it seems to have an overrealised eschatology and has a provocative appendix.

I have not finished Ida Glaser’s The Bible and Other Faiths, and am thinking of starting over and making a blog series out of it. T.M Moore’s I Will Be Your God, a book on covenant aimed at laypeople, was surprisingly dull and would definitely have benefited from better editing. I just couldn’t get into it and might give it away. Peter Jensen’s At the Heart of the Universe, on the other hand, was a very pleasant surprise. Picked up on the cheap, this is a good book on basic Christian doctrine that does so without using the template of a textbook. It is now the second book I will turn to (the first being the Bible of course!) if I’m looking for Christianity 101. Richard Tiplady’s book World of Difference? is quite interesting as it explores globalization and the need for fresh paradigms for both missions and mission agencies. I quite enjoyed Tim Chester and Steve Timmis’ Total Church, a “missional” book stressing the twin priorities of gospel and community, although I also appreciated the critique given by a good friend of mine on this book, who found it overly prescriptive in places.

Possibly the best book I read this year was the magisterial Pierced for Our Transgressions by Mike Ovey, Steve Jeffrey and Andrew Sachs. N.T Wright, who wrote a very critical review of the book, even calling it sub-biblical, got it wrong on this count. It defends the doctrine of penal substitution, showing the exegetical, historical, theological and pastoral underpinnings of it, but in a warm and charitable way without ever sounding defensive. The only thing that would have made this book better was if they had showed in detail how the motifs of victory and penal substitution complement one another, but that would be a book for another day. Ben Cooper’s little book Just Love is a book I’m sure I’d go back to again and again to clarify my thinking on the necessity of punishing sin. A book that would be at odds with the two above is Steve Chalke and Alan Mann’s controversial The Lost Message of Jesus. It is similar to McLaren’s book in many respects and has many good things to say (for eg. I’m glad he brought attention to the fact that the Ten Commandments are framed within the context of God’s grace, shown in the rescuing of his people out of Egypt), but seems to me to fail to take sin seriously enough. I was willing to give Chalke a generous berth, but his final chapter was disappointingly inadequate and contrary to his defenders, does not merely attack a caricature of penal substitution. In any case, I hope this dialogue continues in the spirit of love.

Esther Meek’s Longing to Know is subtitled The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People, and she does so by drawing on the insights of Michael Polanyi (without ever mentioning him by name outside the Intro!) as well as deconstructing Enlightenment notions of certainty and doubt. I thought she was convincing! Turning Points by Mark Noll is a potted introduction to key events in church history. It’s very readable, although invariably some events might be more fascinating than others depending on people’s interests...I have already raved about Alister McGrath’s Christianity’s Dangerous Idea...Graham Cray’s Disciples and Citizens had a misleading title, as I thought it was a book explicitly about a Christian approach to politics. Its subtitle A Vision for Distinctive Living sums up the contents of the book better, and is fairly insightful, especially in the British context. I read big chunks of David Wells’ God in the Wasteland partly for my thesis. 5 Paths to the Love of Your Life (ed. Alex Chediak) sounds like a cheesy New Age book, but actually lays out the 5 different viewpoints on the courtship/dating/relationship debate amongst Christians. It’s also got one of the worst written blurbs I’ve ever seen. I’m probably closest to Rick Holland’s Guided Path, although his position overlaps significantly with Lauren Winner’s well written chapter (Countercultural Path) and Doug Wilson’s Courtship Path. The other two positions are a little more off. A book to get if you’re looking beyond Josh Harris.

I only dipped in and out of R. Paul Steven’s Doing God’s Business, a book on marketplace theology, that is about work, business, vocation and the Christian life. John Dickson’s A Spectator’s Guide to World Religions is a superb succinct introduction to the world’s major religions. Although Dickson is a Christian, this is not an apologetic work; rather, he allows each religion to speak on its own terms. Dean Flemming’s Contextualization in the New Testament is, as far as I am able to evaluate, a sane and admirable exegetical treatment which is restrained in its conclusions. Great book for anyone involved in cross-cultural ministries, and that’s probably virtually everyone these days! I have read a little of Kevin Vanhoozer’s First Theology: God, Scripture and Hermeneutics. This one is not for the faint-hearted! I got through his first essay, more of a survey on hermeneutics, alright, but his chapter on effectual grace defeated me. Andrew Perriman’s Faith, Health and Prosperity is a comprehensive evaluation of Word of Faith teaching.

I can’t quite remember if I finished Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day before or after the New Year, but whatever – it’s a great book! I also read his moving Never Let Me Go, where he explores an alternative future where cloning is possible. Jennifer Donnelly’s A Gathering Light won the Carnegie in 2003 and is the best young adult fiction I’ve read in years. It’s set at the tailend of 19th century America, featuring both a coming-of-age tale and a murder mystery. One of those books which can be enjoyed by all ages...Christian fiction gets a lot of bad press, much of it deserved, for being hackneyed and generally poor, but there are signs that it is improving. I tried Karen Hancock’s series Legends of the Guardian-King this year and it was moderately entertaining. The first two books are well-plotted and there is adequate characterization, but the last two books were definitely weaker. Still some way to go then...The graphic novel is a genre that deserves to be taken seriously. I previously read Craig Thompson’s Blankets on growing up in fundamentalist Christianity and was similar enthralled by Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, a memoir of growing up in Iran (hmmm, maybe this doesn't belong in fiction). Scott Turow, known for his legal thrillers, has written Ordinary Heroes, a touching World War II novel. Ian McEwan’s Atonement is seen as his masterpiece – reading it did not give me any cause to dispute that. George Pellecanos’ The Night Gardener was described as the best crime novel of 2006, and it certainly did transcend the genre. Anne Tyler’s Saint Maybe and Digging to America are lovely, lovely slice-of-life books on oddball characters; the former is better than the latter.

My favourite space opera Star Wars returned to form this year with a projected 9 book series, Legacy of the Force. So far six books have been released, and it’s a welcome relief from the X-Wing wreck that was the Dark Nest Trilogy. How in the world did Troy Denning, who also wrote Star by Star, considered by many to be in the upper echelon of the many Star Wars books, manage to conjure up that mess? Still, he has redeemed himself, especially with Inferno, the latest. It’s sad to see one of my favourite characters, Jacen, go dark though...I finally got round to reading Shusaku Endo’s classic, Silence. A lifelong Catholic who struggled with his faith, Endo has his characters endure the silence of God and does not offer a way out at the end. The longest book I read this year was the epic Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, which clocked in at over a 1000 pages. It certainly was different and I did find it enjoyable, although I struggled to keep track of the main threads of the plot. Neil Gaiman’s Stardust is old-fashioned fairytale storytelling at its best, without ever toning its more adult elements down. I’ve only read two of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories so far, after spotting it at a second-hand bookstore. A devout Catholic, she stands in the tradition of the American gothic south, and her stories are known for both its brutality and grotesqueness, as well as its unflinching portrayal of grace. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was satisfying overall, even if I wish one or two things were done differently.

Zadie Smith’s prize-laden On Beauty is delightful, even though I have ever only read the first 40 pages of Howard’s End, the E.M Forster book to which she pays tribute. Anyone who is in the humanities will surely recognise some of the characters in the book. I’m not sure if non-humanities people will get it though. Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories is a detective novel that nevertheless easily transcends the genre, with its meditation on memory and the frailty of the human condition. It’s also pretty funny. Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto is a bit too slow-moving in places, but overall she really makes you feel for her characters, especially when you know the enforced utopia in which her characters dwell could never last forever. Laura Lippman’s What the Dead Know is a clever, if more conventional crime thriller. Lippman is a good writer and is not adverse to showing her more “literary” side by occasionally alluding to various classics. Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, the first in His Dark Materials trilogy, was ok. It could be confusing at times and is not that exciting. His anti-Christian leanings start to show by the end of the book. I am currently in the middle of Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip, a 2007 fan favourite which made the Booker shortlist.

Jonathan Wolff’s An Introduction to Political Philosophy is touted as the best book of its kind. Its conversational style is both a strength and a weakness – it means that you can follow through arguments in depth but also means that looking up something for quick reference is difficult. Stephen Tomkins’ biography of William Wilberforce is good, focusing on the parliamentary battles and his friendship with William Pitt. He prefaces each chapter with a real-life account of slavery. It’s appreciative without being hagiographic. This bio is shorter than either Kevin Belmonte’s or William Hague’s. TIME journalist Pico Iyer’s travelogue, The Global Soul, is a great anecdotal read about the global village we live in, although he occasionally overreaches in his usage of analogy when trying to make a particular point. Kua Kia Soong’s May 13 was an unexpected gift and an important read on this watershed event in contemporary Malaysian history. Thomas De Zengitota’s Mediated is a good introductory look at a postmodern and media-saturated society written in a journalistic style, although his name-dropping is at times infuriating and seems to betray a certain smugness (look, I know Baudrillard! Heidegger! All the shamans of cool!). Paul Johnson’s Creators, which I have not finished, looks at famous creators such as Shakespeare, Bach etc. and muses on aspects of creativity. His sketches tend to be fairly conservative; I had a look at some of his endnotes for his chapters on Shakespeare and Chaucer and I know my tutors would likely have considered the books he references old-fashioned. I found Jan Greenwood’s Protestant Evangelical Literary Culture and Contemporary Society, which I gather is a revision of her dissertation quite interesting. It was useful for my thesis anyhow! But I think I’m in the minority of one here.

I was hoping to read a missionary biography this year but just never got round to it. I was also thinking of reading a couple of older Christian books (by which I mean anything that pre-dates C.S Lewis), like Chesterton or Ryle. Oh well. I had my eye on a couple of non-fiction books to do with sports. Yasmina Khadra’s The Attack was meant to be my summer purchase but other books kept distracting me. And now I’m wondering if it’s worth reading Khaled Hosseini’s follow-up to The Kite Runner as it appears to be one of the biggest sellers of the year.

Here are New York Times's 100 Notable Books of 2007
The books of the year according to various writers
The Village Voice's list
Sharon Bakar has more links and a useful breakdown
IVP editor Al Hsu's list

What were your top/favourite books of the year?

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Hospitable Society

Timely words that deserve to be quoted in its entirety:

Feasting and care for the poor have been polarized in contemporary culture. If you’re a “conservative,” you’re in favor of free trade, consumption without guilt, festivity without concern for those who can’t join you, who probably deserve their poverty anyway. If you’re a “liberal,” you renounce festivity because other people are hungry and how dare you eat when someone else isn’t.

The Biblical prophets combine a promise of festivity with severe denunciation of greed, luxury, and oppression. But they combine the two seamlessly by emphasizing hospitality. The promise is a feast like the feasts of the Pentateuch, where the widow, stranger, and Levite are not forgotten but included as welcome guests.

Against both “conservative” indifference and liberal asceticism, the Bible presents the ideal of the hospitable society.

- Peter Leithart

(HT: David Field)

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Sunday, December 09, 2007

Fixed points for jobless times

I am lazy, the laziest boy in the world. I sleep during the day when I want to, 'til my face is creased and swollen, 'til my lips are dry and hot, 'til my hair is mussed and sinewy. I eat as I please. To think, in childhood, I missed only one day of school per year. No longer. Job-hunting. It's hard. Periods of uncertainty, rejection letters, perceived looks of pity, puzzled reactions. Even my sentences are lazy. The shortening of prose. The firing of staccatos. Write briefly, while others go for pages. I hear the head, the voices of reassurance of the commonality of the experience, the urging of patience. The body only knows of the sagging of shoulders. The feet doesn't even know what to do with itself. And that familiar refrain, set on repeat. Work hard and do not shame your family, who worked hard to give you what you have.*

While I'm looking for work, I've been trying to think through how the gospel should shape the way I live during this time. This is hard work too! Not just thinking, but then living it out. Here are some fixed points I've come up with, the stars by which I navigate these rapids:

1. Work is good. Before the Fall, God has already revealed himself as a worker, and gave responsibilities to Adam to work the garden. Post-Fall, the world-weary writer of Ecclesiastes is able to say that man finds satisfaction in his toil (3:13). The New Testament is replete with commands not to be idle. Therefore, it is good and important for me to keep on looking for formal work and also look for other ways to redeem the time, even something as simple as cleaning my room. This is especially needed for Type B personalities like me.

2. Work is not the gospel. Work can and should bring glory to God. It can be an expression of worship and love. But if my identity becomes fundamentally bound up with what I do for a living, if my job status determines my worth as a person, if I put my trust in my university degrees, than I have lost sight of what is truly good news. Even Type Bs like me who think they are not tempted to make work an idol should not underestimate the threat. And so looking for work should never become my greatest need in my eyes. God's grace is my greatest need.

3. Money is not the gospel. Earning money is good. Money empowers: it gives us choices to purchase commodities, to live in places which we otherwise are unable to. It reminds me to be thankful for my parents who were able to support me here in the UK. But like work, money can wield power over us. Again, this can work subtly. I am not planning to work for an investment bank, and I might look disdainfully upon those who do so as having the wrong priorities. But even if I take up a low-paying position in an NGO, I can still choose to make money my comfort.

4. God is sovereign and loving. He works for the good of his people. This is supremely demonstrated in the gospel event of Jesus' birth, life, death and resurrection. He does not expect us to be passive, but to exercise wisdom. Nevertheless, that does not mean that he is simply helping those who help themselves. Faith is trusting in God's promises, not of health and wealth, but in his lavish grace and his faithful provision. Times looking for employment can also be times of reflection on how God might grow us, where we might need to change.

5. In Christ, I need not fear any condemnation. Unemployment invokes guilt, screams parasite. Christ's death tells of my justification, speaks of my dependence upon him. Unemployment invites despair and despondence. Christ's resurrection implores hope and yearning. Unemployment magnifies failure. Christ ate with failures, and his followers will be at the victory feast.

6. God's people love Christ by loving one another. The gospel reconciles us both to God and to one another. Employed people, of course, can help and encourage those who are unemployed. Grace says we can never be too proud to accept help. But the unemployed can help by serving others in creative ways, with their time. The unemployed are not exempt from loving others.

Just being able to state these doesn't make it any easier of course. I find prayer hard even now. Prayer can seem like a time-issue, as in "I'm too busy to pray!" but really, when one has a lot of time, it is exposed as a heart issue. J.I Packer says that "people who know their God are before anything else people who pray". Ouch! But it does tell of my lack of trust, because my failure to pray is fundamentally that. This works because prayer = going to God with our hopes and fears = raised expectations, and so failure to pray = thinking that God can't deal with them = a way to minimise disappointment, "just in case it doesn't come out the way I want it to".

And so this becomes the daily struggle. And so here we are, in the hard business of Christian living.

Cause when it's always winter but never Christmas
Sometimes it feels like you're not with us
But deep inside our hearts we know
That you are here and we will not lose hope
- In Like a Lion (Always Winter, Never Christmas), Relient K
*This paragraph is me seeking a creative outlet and playing around with words, so please don't read it woodenly! Sentences in italics are me acknowledging intertextual references to Blues, a poem by Elizabeth Alexander, found in Body of Life.

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

BK's Bibliolatry

Warning, this is a self-indulgent post. I'd like to think I rarely do those and so I'm allowed to be cut some slack once in a while. I did feel a little conflicted about putting this post up, but (un)fortunately, the bibliophile (bibliolater?) in me won out. So, since I've been running with the book theme recently, here is (an extremely condensed version of) my wishlist!

  • The ESV Literary Study Bible
    At the moment I only own two Bibles, my well-worn pocket NIV and the NIV study Bible. The ESV has established itself as my comparative version of choice, and my church preaches using the ESV. The characteristics of this particular study Bible is pretty unique, focusing on the literary features of the text. I especially like that it's single column; even a simple change from the traditional two column can sometimes make a reading feel fresh.
  • The Gospel in a Pluralist Society by Leslie Newbigin
    A famous book on an important and timely issue.
  • Volumes in the New Studies in Biblical Theology
    I already own Neither Poverty nor Riches, Christ Our Righteousness, Possessed by God and Hearing God's Words. I'll especially love From Every People and Nation, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth, A Clear and Present Word, The Cross From a Distance and Contagious Holiness but they're all good! :-D
  • Colossians (NIVAC) by David Garland
    Might be leading a Bible study on this some time next year, so will come in useful!
  • Two Views on Women in Ministry (rev. ed), edited by Stanley Gundry and James Beck
    Well, I did do an extensive series on this topic so it'd be nice to follow up. :)
  • Through a Screen Darkly by Jeffrey Overstreet
    Don't know if this belongs here or the Christian section, but I'd love to read his reflections as a Christian on film!
  • The Gift by Lewis Hyde
    Such an interesting topic! Has been recommended by a lot of authors such as Margaret Atwood.
  • From Homer to Harry Potter: A Handbook on Myth and Fantasy by Matthew Dickerson and David O'Hara
    There're quite a few works of literary criticism that I'd love to get actually, and this is one of them.
Oklah, feel guilty enough already. My Amazon wishlist is longer! And my secret wishlist even longer (that's probably in the hundreds, but to make that public reveals the sinful covetousness of my heart)!

End indulgent post.

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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Future of Reading

Ebooks and ebook readers haven't really caught on, although they've been touted for the better part of the decade. I'm not too sure how many of my readers know of the Amazon Kindle, which is a portable reading device, but it's certainly whipped up a media frenzy. It's quite an interesting tool, on which you can not only download books, but also subscribe to various newspapers and magazines, as well as access Wikipedia.

Newsweek has a very good feature story. It doesn't just focus on the foibles of the device but explores the wider implications of new technology on reading.

Like virtually all bibliophiles, I've always been a bit of a traditionalist - how can something mechanical replace the smell, the feel of the book? But over this past year my assumptions have been challenged. I was at a forum discussing ebooks earlier this year and I was quite suprised to learn of the existence of E-Ink, which makes the page on the screen look very much like a printed one and more or less eliminates screen glare (one of the major things that put me off). Amazon czar Jeff Bezos certainly thinks that we can get over the physical nature of books : "I've actually asked myself, 'Why do I love these physical objects? Why do I love the smell of glue and ink?' The answer is that I associate that smell with all those worlds I have been transported to. What we love is the words and ideas." In some ways, I think the transition has happened without me/us(?) noticing it - the simple notion of anyone with an internet connection being able to publish a blog, read other blogs and comment is actually quite revolutionary when we think about it.

I'm also quite intrigued as to the relevance of this to Christians; with regards to Bible reading, mission and so on. During early church times, Christian scribes were among the first to adopt the codex, a manuscript whose sheets of papyrus are fastened together in the form of a book rather than a scroll, which made circulating documents easier. The invention of the printing presses, of course, ushered us from an oral culture to a print culture. What was previously transient now acquired a new air of permanence (speech vs writing). Also, the fixed form of the printed book meant that books seemed more "weighty", it had an authority about it that was not present in the medieval manuscript tradition, which was often more of a colloborative effort. I'm sure the lawyers will tell me that they give more leverage to written material than to oral utterances. The rise of print (and literacy) also led to a rise in the notion of privacy; you can read on your own whereas you have to talk with someone.

And yet with the rise of new technologies, we're swinging back to an oral culture, albeit a very different one. Comments on blogs act like annotations. Blog posts are never finished products, well, unless you cut off comments. I was wondering how the ability to be able to search a book electronically might change our reading habits. (Actually, we already do this when we search for something on Bible Gateway, but if that feature was widely available on an ebook reader...) The invention of the hyperlink means that we no longer have to follow something from beginning to end - you might have clicked on the Newsweek link above before returning (or not!) to this post!

I should say that the Kindle has had an underwhelming response so far. It's far too expensive, and still has too many kinks by the looks of it. But I wonder. Would people be taking ebook readers for granted in 20 years time?

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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Kinder, Gentler Calvinists

Just in case you missed this:

NT Professor Scot McKnight posts a letter seeking a pastoral response. Abraham Piper (John's son) offers much needed thoughts.

Also relevant: An old Jollyblogger post Some thoughts on godly disputation.

A remark in today's sermon brought this to my mind and I thought it deserves wide circulation.

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Saturday, December 01, 2007

In the Valley

When you lead me to the valley of vision
I can see you in the heights
And though my humbling wouldn't be my decision
It's here your glory shines so bright
So let me learn that the cross precedes the crown
To be low is to be high
That the valley's where you make me
more like Christ

Let me find Your grace in the valley
Let me find Your life in my death
Let me find Your joy in my sorrow
Your wealth in my need
That You're near with every breath
In the valley

In the daytime there are stars in the heavens
But they only shine at night
And the deeper that I go into darkness
The more I see their radiant light
So let me learn that my losses are my gain
To be broken is to heal
That the valley's where Your power is revealed

© Bob Kauflin 2006
based on the Puritan prayer 'Valley of Vision'

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