Friday, February 29, 2008

Hermeneutics quiz

This was an interesting hermeneutics quiz (how we read our Bibles) designed by Scot McKnight (HT: Lim Kar Yong - who is such a liberal! How can we let such ppl teach in seminaries one... :-p)

"Ever wonder how two people can look at the same passage of the Bible and come away with such different applications? The ways we interpret the Bible, and what enters into our process of applying the Bible, are important for us to be aware of. Without this self-awareness, we can have blind spots in our Bible reading and not even know it."

This quiz "is designed to clarify how you understand the Bible and how you apply it. Some people will quibble with the categories in the quiz or insist on more than one answer. That’s okay. No test like this can reveal all the nuances needed, but broad answers are sufficient to benefit from taking the quiz."

I scored 57, which apparently means I'm a moderate (53-65). The other categories are "conservative" and "progressive". According to McKnight, moderates "are conservative on some issues and progressive on others. It intrigues me that conservatives tend to be progressive on the same issues, while progressives tend to be conservative on the same issues. Nonetheless, moderates have a flexible hermeneutic that gives them the freedom to pick and choose on which issues they will be progressive or conservative [makes me sound wishy-washy! -BK]. For that reason, moderates are more open to the charge of inconsistency. What impresses me most about moderates are the struggles they endure to render judgments on hermeneutical issues."

There were some answers I found very hard to pick actually, and some where I was not entirely happy with the language used, but McKnight did acknowledge as much. I still think my answers actually make me a conservative, and that those who hold to literalistic readings of the Bible be better called "fundamentalists".

The question on tattoos reminded me that I was at quite a different place eons ago. When I was 15 or 16 I remembered being at a youth camp where I was a small group leader for the first time. Somehow we ended up having a conversation on whether it was Christian to have tattoos or not and I remember trying to push my group, asking them if it was okay to have a "John 3:16" tattoo. Then I read out Leviticus 19:28. We all then agreed that it was settled, no tattoos, whatever the tattoo proclaims! I feel sheepish thinking about it now...

So what are you?

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Oh, and btw

Cooking in a dark kitchen with your cell phone doubling up as a flashlight because the lights have blown, and being swayed from side to side on a chair by an earthquake like a baby being gently rocked by his mother?

Such are the adventures of life.

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Apologetics in the service of God

What a fine, fine essay on apologetics in service to the kingdom of God. Definitely one of the best I’ve read on this topic in some time. It’s the type of stuff I wished I’ve written. Thanks, Mr. (Dr.?) Rauser!

My church is doing a series of apologetics-evangelistic talks this week, and as some in my seekers Bible study group wanted to go to last night’s talk, I went along with them. Professor John Lennox, whom I’ve already mentioned a couple of times on this blog, was doing one on "Has Science buried God?". This is the third time I’ve heard him speak on this topic, and this was possibly the best and most moving yet – he responded very sensitively to a question on suffering and Auschwitz, and his account of the conclusion of a recent debate with Richard Dawkins was arresting. Given time to put forward their concluding remarks, Lennox had spoken of the resurrection and hope, to which Dawkins condescendingly responded: “Resurrection? We’ve just had a very fascinating discussion on science and religion, and you end on this fanciful note? How unworthy, how utterly unworthy of the universe.” Lennox reflected on this statement for a long time afterwards, and concluded: “Dawkins has it backwards, ultimately, it is the resurrection which gives worth to this universe.” Btw, if you didn’t know before, Lennox has finally written a book, God's Undertaker, on this very topic, so if this is something you want to dig further into, then his work should definitely be on top of your reading list!

Lennox is a fine communicator with the ability to explain complex things simply, but as my group is not proficient in English, they obviously struggled with the talk. But in helping them try to understand, I actually thought they probably got more out of it than some hardened atheists I know. I asked one of them, “So what were you able to follow?” He said, “Science is limited”. I laughed and replied, “You got half the lecture!” He was able to agree whole-heartedly with that, and had no objections to the argument from complexity either as articulated by Lennox after I had explained it to him. Considering how many people fail to see that a purely scientific approach is actually silent on questions of ultimate reality, this was a heartening experience.

Which brings me back to the essay I mentioned at the beginning of the post.
One of the things the essay brings to our attention is quite simply, the degree to which belief or unbelief may seem convincing is related to its surrounding culture, what is sometimes known as the "plausibility structure". I think for my seeker friends, it is possible that not being raised in the intense furnace of a culture that glorifies rationalism meant that it was much clearer to them that science has its limits (although my premise is undermined by the fact that they come from an atheistic culture as well). Also, just seeing an Oxford professor unashamedly claim to be Christian, even if they can’t follow every detail of his lecture, helps communicate that Christianity is never about blind faith. Whereas one of my other friends, was telling me how frustrated he was in inviting people to this talk, as none of them were even willing to entertain the notion that religion/Christianity – not necessarily synonymous, mind you! – might have something worthwhile to say. Tim Keller makes a similar point:
"Every culture hostile to Christianity holds to a set of 'common sense' consensus beliefs that automatically make Christianity seem implausible to people. These are what philosophers call 'defeater beliefs'. A defeater belief is Belief-A that, if true, means Belief-B can’t be true.

Christianity is disbelieved in one culture for totally opposite reasons it is disbelieved in another. So, for example, in the West it is widely assumed that Christianity can’t be true because of the cultural belief that there can’t be just one 'true' religion. But, in the Middle East, people have absolutely no problem with the idea that there is just one true religion. That doesn’t seem implausible at all. Rather, there it is widely assumed that Christianity can’t be true because of the cultural belief that American culture, based on Christianity, is unjust and corrupt...So, each culture has its own set of culturally-based doubt-generators which people call 'objections' or 'problems' with Christianity."
Elsewhere, Keller is keen to show that the gospel affirms various individual cultures, explaining that we need to "connect the story of Jesus to baseline cultural narratives", or in other words, showing that a culture (Asian, African, Western, gothic, skater-bois, etc.) need not necessarily be set in stark opposition to the gospel. But at the same time, the gospel must confront the idolatrous aspects of each of our respective cultures. This is where arguments can play a role. So, as both Keller and Rauser show, even in a world where people are pragmatic rather than abstract in their reasoning, or seeking to make meaning out of their lives rather than looking for answers to intellectual objections,

"we need to recognize that the rational discussion is intricately interwoven with a broad range of non-rational factors (e.g. psychological, sociological and hamartiological [i.e sin]). As such, this involves a shift from focusing on arguments to persons within the context of a broad cultural renewal and the strategic use of arguments within that renewal."
Thus, this is not to denigrate the place of love, integrity, community, stories, relationship, social concern etc.; just the opposite really as all those are key. It’s simply not to drop rational arguments from the list. In my experience, I find that this is true, non-Christians enjoy being part of a loving Christian community, but they also do want to know how Christianity answers the big questions and the claims it makes on our lives. "Defeater beliefs" need to be dismantled: the belief that Christians are arrogant can be dismantled both by seeing Christians love their neighbour and serving each other in humility, as well as a more cognitive understanding that the gospel Christians believe is actually one that sees
  1. everyone, including themselves, as sinners, i.e not just failing to love God but actively hating him
  2. giving Christians no basis on which to peddle their superiority over others, but a basis which recognises their profound need of the mercy of God
  3. and therefore humbly accepting the grace and forgiveness Jesus offers as a gift through his death in my place, finding significance in him rather than in feeling superior over others
  4. And also the basis for why Christians want to share their faith with others, not because they want to impose their beliefs on others or because their religion is better, but because it is good news!
But we need our rational faculties not merely in the act of deconstruction but reconstruction as well. And so, for example, becoming a Christian means
  1. being convinced of the historical plausibility of the resurrection
  2. and its implications: that Jesus is victorious, that this provides a foretaste of the world to come, that judgement is coming.
  3. This in turn gives Christians the necessary impetus to work in light of eternity, and so be willing to witness explicitly if tactfully, help the poor, fight injustice, and celebrate the goodness of culture where it is to be found. As John Lennox points out, atheism undermines the basis for a just world, Christian theism affirms it.
The gospel is eternally relevant: it always speaks in some way to our hopes and fears and dreams, healing our balms, and it is also eternally demanding: challenging our worldviews, correcting our perspectives, calling us to times of hardship.

Anyway, do read the whole thing so that my ramblings might make some sense: Worshipping a Flying Teapot? What to Do when Christianity Looks Ridiculous.

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Monday, February 25, 2008

Wordsmiths: The Joy of words

Yes, I agree with you, there's just been too much self-aggrandising, pompous verbosity around this blog lately. We're in need of an antidote. C'mon BK, if you have to be leaking words, at least make sure they don't drip uselessly into a sea of nothingness! Be like today's wordsmith, exulting in

The Joy of words :D
words words words
Writing is joy
so saints and scholars all pursue it.
A writer makes new life in the void,
knocks on silence to make a sound,
binds space and time on a sheet of silk
and pours out a river from an inch-sized heart.
As words give birth to words
and thoughts arouse deeper thoughts,
they smell like flowers giving off scent,
spread like green leaves in spring,
A long wind comes, whirls into a tornado of ideas,
and clouds rise from the writing-brush forest.

- Lu Ji (261-303)

Source: The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry, Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping (eds.)

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Christians and political engagement summary

Sorry about the recent abundance of posts on politics recently; I guess in light of recent events in Malaysia, Malaysian citizens have been more active in engaging with the public square. Afraid this is another one. Thanks for bearing with me!

Wai Nyan has written a thoughtful, pithy post on democracy. I think he's right - we do tend to elevate the status of democracy to that of saviour, which it isn't of course, and it can easily spill over into self-indulgent praise. But as the Bush Administration is no doubt aware, liberal democracy doesn't happen to be the answer to everything. It is God who directs the future. Anyway, I left a comment simply summarising the various positions of Christians towards political engagement, and I thought I'll put it here too. However, I don't actually know that much, so feel free to correct where I've gone wrong in my descriptions. Below is my comment, slightly modified.

'One of these viewpoints is principled pluralism, which is a fairly mainstream position of many Christians, especially those that lean in favour of democracy. I believe (might be wrong) they argue that the basis for this is natural law, so God has revealed to everyone a general standard of righteousness - murder is bad, human equality should be pursued etc., and so society/legislation can be founded on such grounds. This has been criticised along the same lines as you have, I think, sin - putting me first - gets in the way of natural law, and the standards laid out are arbitrary. For instance, Rowan Williams in his recent lecture proposed "human dignity" as the benchmark, and someone might ask, but how do you define that?

There is another version of principled pluralism, I think, which does not use natural law as its foundation, but argues for "Christian principles" to be established and therefore able to influence society. This I think, is the "neo-Calvinist" version. It firmly affirms God as ruling over all things, but feels that the Fall means that a "Christian" government can easily lead to some sort of religious tyranny. Consensus-building is favoured over imposition.

There’s the Anabaptist take, which argues for a radical separation between church and state, and to be indifferent, not to social justice, but to influencing legislation. It’s primarily about being a "witnessing community".

And then there’s the Reconstructionist/theonomist view, which I think you’re slightly leaning to. (There might be differences between the two, but if so, I don’t know what they are). They criticise those who are "principled pluralists" for not recognising that the state can never be neutral, and that laws are better explicitly grounded in the Bible, not just a "vague" notion of "natural revelation". They would argue that "if Jesus is Lord" then surely this includes legislation as well. Those who are really radical might promote even the enforcement of OT laws (though I imagine the application of this is much more sophisticated than “don’t eat shellfish!”). Democracy and "rights language" is an idol that needs to be rebuked. This is more of a minority viewpoint though. As you can imagine, the idea of a "Christian nation" is too much for many to stomach, similar to how a lot of us react when we hear "Islamic state"...

I think the Catholics also put forth some different ideas, but I haven’t the faintest clue what they are (or maybe they’re the natural law guys?). Lutherans might also see things differently, not sure about that...

These are all simplistic versions, and they probably overlap at various junctures. Basically, how you view the relationship between law and gospel, what you think of the end times (will things get better? worse?), and the related question of how Christians should approach culture all seem to have bearing on how you think Christians should engage politically.'

The neo-Calvinist approach naturally appeals to me, probably because I've been influenced by neo-Calvinist writers in relation to engaging culture. Wouldn't have a clue on defending my position though.

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

12 hours of blog fame

Well, this blog had about 12 hours of fame after my previous post got linked by Malaysiakini. I had the highest number of hits ever, but I expect things to return to normalcy today. :) Would have been nicer still if they had been directed to a post like this one.

And if my blog stats are any indication, Malaysiakini's readers are overwhelmingly from KL.

And for a light-hearted take on the elections (sorry non-Malaysians for the in jokes):

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Malaysian election web goodies

Update: More links added. [Waves at everyone coming from Mkini]

Yeah, I know it's a lot of posts today, but wanted to try to separate all of these out:

For those who don't know already, Malaysia Votes is a pretty helpful website for a closer look at election issues and political analysis. I recognise one of the names from the Sun.

And there's an interesting if critical opinion piece in Malaysiakini on the (non-?)role of Christians in Malaysian politics.

Plus The Centre for Public Policy Studies, an independent, non-partisan thinktank is probably worth a look - I haven't though.

Malaysian Media Monitors Diary, run by Aliran and CIJ.

DAP unshoots foot, PAS takes 2 steps forward, UMNO unleashes anti-kafir kafir. Interesting election short stories, and an unabashed plea on behalf of the opposition.

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Word of the week


Otherwise known as involuntary eye twitching. Possible causes include stress, fatigue, too much caffeine, or eye strain. Any of the above could easily apply to me! (Well, I don't feel particularly stressed, and I think I've been getting enough sleep, but maybe not...)

It was fairly constant on Monday, although it didn't come in such regular intervals on Tuesday and Wednesday. Funnily enough, I got very little sleep on Wednesday night but I had no problems yesterday.

Ah well, there's always Botox...

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The Bible and Other Faiths 2

The Academic Scene

In this chapter IG (the Asian in me has won out – I can’t call a lady 30 years my senior by her first name) very briefly traces the development of Western thought and how that has shaped the disciplines of theology and religious studies. In doing so she hopes to help us understand better why such discussion is undertaken in the first place, and the differing stances taken up by different Christians.

What is “religion”? Its origin lies in Latin, meaning “service rendered to the gods”, before taking on a Christian meaning in the European languages, referring primarily to the Christian God. Non-Christians only fell into 3 other categories: Jews, Muslims and heathen/pagans. However, as Westerners came into contact with various non-Christians, especially during the colonial era of the 18th and 19th centuries, they began to realise that “pagans” were not simply uncivilized barbarians but people who had their own ways of thinking and believing. In attempting to describe and make sense of all these new beliefs, they wrote in terms of what they knew already, that is, “religion”.

With Enlightenment philosophy taking a firmer grip of Western thought by the 19th century, it was inevitable that people began looking for a way to analyse “religion” and to come up with theories. Two influential strands in particular stand out, that of idealism, which finds its basis of the world outside the material realm, and positivism, which rejected all supernatural notions and privileged a scientific approach. Although at first glance, both seem opposed to each other, nevertheless both share assumptions that have shaped religious studies to this day:
  • Objectivity. Both wanted to explain the world in a way that applied to everyone of all cultures, places and history.
  • Science. Both saw reason as the primary way to investigate religion.
  • Essentialism. Both were looking for the “essence” of religion, that common ingredient which would explain all religious phenomena.
  • Evolution. Both maintained that humans were on an upward slope of progress. For some, that meant leaving religion behind as something “primitive”, for others, it meant an ever more sophisticated understanding of monotheism.
We can see all these influencing how religious studies departments are structured today as they are studied on human terms, for eg. sociology of religion, anthropology of religion etc. At the same time, scholars have seen some of the difficulties this has raised, including the difficulty of locating an “essence”, defining religion in general (should Satanists count? Why or why not?), and the recognition that none of us are presuppositionless. Today, postmodern thinking has also taken hold, and many people have no problem believing that there are different truths for different people.

IG then suggests what a Christian might make of all these:
1. we can be grateful that religious studies has contributed to dispelling ignorance and prejudice and recognising that we have a shared humanity.
2. although religion cannot be understood in purely human terms, nevertheless religions do have human aspects and religious studies helps us better understand these. We can see how faith affects society, for both good and bad.
3. By recognising the assumptions and bases of academic religious studies, we are therefore able to ask critical questions about it, and also think about Christianity for ourselves in light of what we know about God, that is, theologically.

All theology is done in a context. However, in the last 2 centuries, many theologians have been unable to approach the Bible as a revealed book, but only as a human one. They, however, wanted to retain the label “Christian” and chose to reinterpret many of the events recorded in the Bible in a new light.

European Christians traditionally thought of all non-Christian peoples as lost and therefore in need of the gospel. However, some Christians began seeing religion as purely human phenomena, and were also influenced by evolutionary ideas. There were “savages/barbarians” and “civilized” people, and the link was made that Western culture=Christian and therefore more civilized than all other cultures. Of course, a grasp of the biblical faith will help us see that humankind is not evolving upwards, nor are Christians morally superior, but in need of God’s grace. Yet we need to be aware that when we say “Jesus is the only way to heaven”, many will interpret this to mean “Christians are superior to others”.

IG now delineates for us how theologians have tried to understand other faiths, and proposes three widely-used categories: exclusivist, inclusivist, and pluralist. Not everyone will neatly fit into any of these categories, but they provide a helpful framework.

Salvation through explicit faith in Christ alone.
God’s special revelation through Israel, Christ and the Bible only.
Christocentric – Christ is Jesus of Nazareth. Holy Spirit given through him.

Salvation through Christ but not needing explicit faith in him.
There may be special revelation elsewhere (apart from the exclusivist view).
Theocentric – Christ is seen in Jesus, but not confined to him. The Holy Spirit might be at work everywhere.

Salvation available through all faiths.
Religion as differing human responses to the transcendent
Cosmic Christ. Universal spirit.

Also, the word “salvation” might sometimes be used in different ways by different people. Exclusivists and inclusivists both see Jesus as the final revelation from God. In general, IG sees pluralism arising out of a combination of people’s experiences and the ideas explored above, and briefly gives the example of both John Hick and a few Asian theologians: it is not just Western theology that is contextual!

IG ends this chapter by recognising that while all faiths are human, that does not mean it must exclude God. That is the mistake of liberalism. At the same time, conservative Christians need to be reminded that all humans are made in the image of God and that Christians have human shortcomings too. Finally, it is the Bible that we must come back to, to see what God is really interested in.

“We know that we are not able to judge ourselves rightly, let alone to judge our fellow Christians or people of other faiths. We want to hear God’s judgment. This book is in the Lausanne tradition of understanding the Bible as God’s written word. That is where we shall start our search for answers to our questions about people of other faiths.”
A useful chapter, although it suffers a tiny bit from slight repetition. It might also be helpful to note that the word “religion”, when it was used in medieval times, not only referred to what we might now call piety but also to acts of devotion and liturgical practices. In other words, it had a bodily element to it, and so there was no separation between body and soul, or material-spiritual, which is what idealist thought separates.

Chapter 3 is entitled Reading the Bible.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Bible and Other Faiths 1

I’ve been meaning to blog through a book for a while now, but of course my procrastinating habits get in the way. So, without further ado...

I’ve chosen a book on what I think is a timely, and indeed timeless, topic. The Bible and Other Faiths by Ida Glaser is part of the Global Christian Library series, a brainchild of John Stott. This series aims to birth more books with an international authorship, recognising the need for more biblically faithful and contextually relevant books from a non-Western perspective, for both Western and non-Western audiences alike.

From the blurb at the back: “In today’s world, when Christians think about other religions, numerous questions and issues arise – and their convictions about Christ and about other religions can have a significant influence on their understanding of how God relates to people, and what their own conduct towards them should be. From her wealth of inter-cultural and inter-faith experience, Ida Glaser believes that the most urgent questions for Christians focus on their own responsibilities and other people’s welfare...[she] explores biblical perspectives on other faiths and their adherents, with clarity, sensitivity and challenging insights for all Christians.”

The book itself is split into 4 parts: Setting the Scene, Reading the Old Testament, Reading the New Testament, and Seeing Ourselves. There're 15 chapters altogether, and I’m going to dive straight into Chapter 1: People and Places, because Ida herself explains both her background and her hopes for the book in it.

“Every sentence written in this book is written in acute awareness of blood and tears being shed as human beings, made in the image of God, show the effects of the ‘fall’ in the contexts of their religions. It is also written in belief that Jesus Christ is God’s gift to his fallen world”.

So begins Ida. In the face of 9/11, Muslim-Christian clashes in Nigeria,, civil war in Sri Lanka and so on, what should Christians think about it? Ida, upon being invited to write this book, ponders on the popular questions Christians ask about other religions. Is Christ the only way? Is there any truth in religion? What about conversion? Yet Ida, from her time spent both in the Bible and amongst various peoples think that there are even more urgent questions: How can we understand religions and the way they affect human beings? What is God doing amongst people of other religions? How do the great commandments and the Great Commission relate to people of other religions, especially in places of interreligious conflict?

Of course, both set of questions are interrelated, nevertheless, the second set of questions puts the focus both on other people’s welfare and our own responsibility, and so she finds these set of questions much better to ask. For her, a key text that has governed her thinking is Micah 6:8:

"And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."
Her stress is on our responsibility as Christians: “As we read the Bible we might not find answers to all our questions about other people. But if the Bible is God’s word to human beings, we can expect the answer to ‘What does the Lord require of us’”.

She tells her own story briefly. Born to a Jewish father and a Christian mother, she committed her life to Jesus at 14. Not long after, her parents died in a car accident, and her Jewish aunt, her new caretaker, wept as she couldn’t comprehend how she could be a Christian when she believed that it was Christians who put Jews in the gas chamber. Ida’s awareness of the effects of religion, the question of identity and the possibility of prejudice were all sharply honed from a young age.

At university she encountered people of different faiths, including Muslims and Hindus. From her various friendships she was able to recognise how difficult is was for someone who had turned to Christ from another faith background to deal with their respective families and cultural tensions. She has also welcomed international students to London, taught Physics in Malaysia and the Maldives, and worked in the inner city. I should also say, by way of an aside, having attended a talk by her last year, that she is also no longer Ida Glaser but Ida Coffey, having married late in life! (She must have been at least in her 50s). She is currently Senior Teaching Fellow at the Edinburgh Centre for Muslim-Christian studies and is also looking to set up a similar initiative in Oxford. She also serves the mission agency Crosslinks and lectures at various Christian colleges both in and out of the UK. She tells us all this because she believes her experiences will inevitably affect her writing, and that theology can never remain at a theoretical level.

She concludes this chapter with a brief note on the usage of the words “religion” and “faith”. People tend to prefer to use the latter word than the former to describe their way of life, their duty of God. So she will use the word “faith” to refer to how people describe themselves. However, there are times she will use the word “religion”, in the usual sense Western academics use it to describe people’s beliefs, practices and way of life. She will also sometimes use the word “religion” to describe human efforts to reach God, following Karl Barth, who argued that religion does not start with God’s self-revelation and therefore actually leads us away from him.

There will also be callouts or sidebars sprinkled throughout the book which act as reflection questions of sort. As I blog my way through this book I’ll also highlight those.

The next chapter is The Academic Scene.

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Sunday, February 17, 2008

This weekend

and the past week has been encouraging in general.
  • Listening to Charlie and William preach faithfully, in the Spirit's power, to head and heart.
  • Spending time in 2 Corinthians.
  • Joyfully leading a group of non-Christians through Mark 8:22-38, where Peter, for the first time, proclaims Jesus as Christ.
  • Being part of a united voice singing From the Squalor of a Borrowed Stable and Great is the Lord.
  • Praying with friends.
  • Feeling happy on behalf of a good friend over a piece of good news.
  • Feeling less anxious about pending job applications.
  • Watching Juno, which, though it's early in the year, will probably end up as my favourite film of 2008.
  • Enjoying my bedtime reading.
  • Eating trout with minced crab and herbs for free. :)
  • Man U thrashing Arsenal.
  • Watching this year's thrilling NBA All-Star Slam Dunk contest, with a favourite of mine, the Magic's Dwight Howard, winning it. Highlights below:

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

Malaysian elections, vote wisely!

Snap! It's an election. Farish Noor does a great job summing up the political situation heading into this election. Sadly, although I am eligible to vote for the first time in my life I wouldn't be able to exercise it this time round.

I was looking for the link for this particular eCommentary from Tan Soo Inn but it doesn't appear to be up. So, here are his thoughts on how Malaysian Christians should approach the elections:

Commentary: Vote!
By Soo-Inn Tan

I had already planned to be in Kuala Lumpur in early March. Even if I hadn't, I would have made sure that I voted in the coming Malaysian general elections. I had long decided that the salt and light mandate (Matthew 5:13-16) meant that I was to live out kingdom values in every sphere of life. I have always been clear that this involved my participating in the political life of the country.

I have no illusions about the ability of politics to save the nation. The fundamental problem of humankind is sin. And as James Houston, citing Dallas Willard, reminds us, human institutions, "cannot change the human heart. That is why Jesus did not send out his disciples to change governments or even to build churches, but to change hearts."
(Joyful Exiles, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006, p.87)
The growing political awareness of Christians in Malaysia should never distract us from our ongoing task of preaching the gospel.

However the bible does see civil authority as an institution sanctioned by God to govern the people with justice (Romans 13:1-7). Therefore it is incumbent on Christian citizens in a democracy to participate in the choosing of the people that will make up that authority, to help ensure that those who take office will be people who will govern with justice.

Richard Bauckham roots this aspect of our Christian duty in the work of
Christ Himself:

"Because the Kingdom of God ... embraces the whole of human life, and because (Jesus) identified in love with human beings whose lives were affected by political structures and policies, his mission impinged on the political along with other dimensions of life."
(The Bible in Politics, Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989, p.142)

Few of us may be called to impact the political process directly by joining political parties or by standing for office. But we all can pray (Ephesians 6:10-20; 1 Timothy 2:1-7)). And we can vote.

What criteria should guide our choice of whom to vote for? There is no direct teaching from Scripture but I can think of three criteria that may be helpful --- character, competence, and convictions.

My first criterion is character. Does the candidate have a servant heart? Is he or she running for office because he or she genuinely wants to serve the people? Or does the candidate use political power for personal gain? Is this a person of integrity? Does he really care for the welfare of all communities in his constituency? Is she a person of integrity?

My second criterion is competence. Does this person have the ability to do the job he or she is running for? The candidate may be a nice chap but can he or she get the job done? Does the candidate have a proven track record of successful governance at other levels? If the person has been in office for a few terms already, what is his track record?

My third criterion is convictions. What political convictions does a candidate espouse? Often that means taking a long hard look at the manifesto of the party the candidate represents. Carefully study the positions of the various parties --- the National Front, DAP, Parti Islam, Parti Keadilan Rakyat etc. Which party/alliance has an approach to governance that is closest to a biblical worldview? Issues that should concern us would be issues like human rights, religious freedom, abuse of power, corruption, justice, servant-leadership, and a concern for the weak and marginalized.

Proverbs 31:1-9 is one of the few passages that seek to give advice to those in political power. Bauckham, in his analysis of the passage, points out that the passage:

"...focused on the notion that political power is a responsibility to be exercised for the sake of others, especially those most in need of help and protection, not a privilege to be enjoyed for the king's own advantage." (Bauckham, p.44)

Of course it is very possible that, after taking a long hard look at all the candidates through the lens of the above three criteria, you find that none really qualify. Does that mean we should not vote? No, I believe there is still something constructive we can do - we can vote for the lesser of evils.

Speaking about the American context, but with wisdom applicable to us, James W. Skillen writes:

"Obviously the voter must try to select the better of the two candidates as judged by how they will fill the office. The voter's decision might be little more than a choice for the lesser of evils, but a vote must be cast."
(The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity, edited by Robert Banks & R.
Paul Stevens, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997, p.1091)

I fear that some of us are too idealistic about the choices we have this side of heaven that we easily become cynical. Cynicism breeds apathy and we end up not voting, thereby throwing away an opportunity to be part of godly influence in the world.

Biblical realism means we know that we are in this for the long haul and that our final hope is in the second coming of Jesus Christ. Therefore we are not discouraged by the imperfections of the present situation and continue to do what we can, trusting that the Lord will take the "five loaves and two fishes" of our efforts and use it for His purposes.

Biblical realism also means that I will accept that Christians may end up with different convictions as to how best to serve the Kingdom of Christ in the political sphere. Some believe that the only realistic way to work for change is to keep on chipping away from within the present ruling alliance. Others will feel that the only way to be true to their consciences is to join an opposition party. Frank and honest debate between the groups can and must take place. But both groups need to be charitable to each other as an expression of their common allegiance to the same Lord.

And it is because we believe in the sovereignty of our Lord that we will not be anxious, either before the elections or after. But we want to be faithful to our Lord. Therefore we will pray. And we will vote come March 8.

NOTICE: Dr Ng Kam Weng of Kairos Research Centre will speak for 1 1/4-hr and take questions for 45 minutes. He will speak on the
(1) Bible and politics,
(2) the nature of Malaysian politics and
(3) issues in the coming general election.

Date: 23 Feb, Sat,
Time: 3pm-5pm
Venue: TTDI Gospel Centre,
20 Lrg Datuk Sulaiman 1,
Taman Tun Dr Ismail,
60000 KL
Invite your church members and friends. FOC.

A short Christian Federation of Malaysia(CFM) voting guide.

You can also check out my tentative reflections a while back - Jesus and Politics: A Primer, which also has some other links you could check out.

For another even briefer outline about why Christians should care about politics, here you go.

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Friday, February 15, 2008

For George

cat mimicking Jesus
Kind of miss the cat. Even if he sometimes thinks he's the centre of the universe. Don't we all? :-p

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

2 Cor. 1:18-20

But as surely as God is faithful, our message to you is not "Yes" and "No." For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by me and Silas[b] and Timothy, was not "Yes" and "No," but in him it has always been "Yes." For no matter how many promises God has made, they are "Yes" in Christ. And so through him the "Amen" is spoken by us to the glory of God.

In the final analysis, if the Corinthians can’t bring themselves to trust Paul, he wants to make sure that they trust Christ. “I’m not perfect,” says the apostle. “But he is. His word to you is marked by integrity and sincerity and his promises will never be withdrawn or fall short of fulfillment. When it comes to who he is and what he’s said, he’s an unequivocal Yes!”

What a powerful reminder to forgetful folk. What a marvelous affirmation to suspicious souls. What a rock solid reassurance concerning God’s intentions toward us. When we doubt his word or let anxiety supplant faith, we are called to look at Christ Jesus and behold God’s indelible “YES!”

Because of Jesus Christ: the perfection of his life, the sufficiency of his death, the power of his resurrection, the certainty of his return, God’s answer to your questions is always and ever, “Yes!”

- Sam Storms, Meditations on 2 Corinthians


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Rowan Williams and Islamic law/secularism

Been trying to get my head round the hoo-haa surrounding the Archbishop of Canterbury and his supposed statements about introducing some element of sharia law into the British system. This is especially interesting as a Malaysian since of course, we do have some form of a parallel legal system which has, nonetheless, been creaking under the strain of apostasy cases in recent years. It’s fairly impressive too that the Bearded One has managed to unite (some) conservative and liberal voices within the Anglican communion to speak out against him, outraged not a few Muslims, earned a gentle reprove from the Prime Minister’s office and even reportedly caught the Queen’s attention. All in a day’s work then...

Anyway, decided to attempt to read his lecture today before reading all the surrounding commentary. Rowan Williams is, of course, renowned as one of the world’s most gifted and dense academic theologians, even if he is rarely in concert with evangelical sympathies, so I expected this to be hard going. I remember reading somewhere that this lecture only had 132 sentences. Considering the lecture is over 6000 words long, that roughly works out to 47 words per sentence!

Some quotes from his lecture; me trying to make sense of it after every - :

“Even when some of the more dramatic fears are set aside, there remains a great deal of uncertainty about what degree of accommodation the law of the land can and should give to minority communities with their own strongly entrenched legal and moral codes. As such, this is not only an issue about Islam but about other faith groups”
– the issue, as also shown by the title of the lecture: Civil and Religious Law in England.

“my aim is only, as I have said, to tease out some of the broader issues around the rights of religious groups within a secular state, with a few thought about what might be entailed in crafting a just and constructive relationship between Islamic law and the statutory law of the United Kingdom.”
– bold mine, what he’s hoping to achieve in this lecture (very important to set his lecture in context!)

“If shar' designates the essence of the revealed Law, sharia is the practice of actualizing and applying it...”
– spirit and letter of the law?

“Thus, in contrast to what is sometimes assumed, we do not simply have a standoff between two rival legal systems when we discuss Islamic and British law. On the one hand, sharia depends for its legitimacy not on any human decision, not on votes or preferences, but on the conviction that it represents the mind of God; on the other, it is to some extent unfinished business so far as codified and precise provisions are concerned. To recognise sharia is to recognise a method of jurisprudence governed by revealed texts rather than a single system”
– sharia has as its basis a doctrine of revelation from God, but this is not expressed in a simple code of regulations, rather it works itself out according to certain a priori principles. Hmmm, does this mean that he’s going to argue that sharia therefore has the ability to adapt in the light of differing socio-political contexts?

“Both historically and in the contemporary context, Muslim states have acknowledged that membership of the umma is not coterminous with membership in a particular political society: in modern times, the clearest articulation of this was in the foundation of the Pakistani state under Jinnah; but other examples (Morocco, Jordan) could be cited of societies where there is a concept of citizenship that is not identical with belonging to the umma. Such societies, while not compromising or weakening the possibility of unqualified belief in the authority and universality of sharia, or even the privileged status of Islam in a nation, recognise that there can be no guarantee that the state is religiously homogeneous and that the relationships in which the individual stands and which define him or her are not exclusively with other Muslims. There has therefore to be some concept of common good that is not prescribed solely in terms of revealed Law, however provisional or imperfect such a situation is thought to be. And this implies in turn that the Muslim, even in a predominantly Muslim state, has something of a dual identity, as citizen and as believer within the community of the faithful.”
- Being part of the umma or a Muslim disciple isn’t synonymous with citizenship. State not the same as being a mosque/church/temple, government not imams. Principled pluralism? i.e government must recognise Muslims are not just citizens, they are other things too, members of a certain faith community. State’s jurisdiction is not total.

“It also occurs when secular government assumes a monopoly in terms of defining public and political identity. There is a position – not at all unfamiliar in contemporary discussion – which says that to be a citizen is essentially and simply to be under the rule of the uniform law of a sovereign state, in such a way that any other relations, commitments or protocols of behaviour belong exclusively to the realm of the private and of individual choice.”
- oooh, being sneaky here. Secular govts often say something along the lines of “you’re free to do anything you want in private, so long as it doesn’t break the law/harm others”. But RW seems to be implicitly questioning, is it as simple as that?

“If the law of the land takes no account of what might be for certain agents a proper rationale for behaviour – for protest against certain unforeseen professional requirements, for instance, which would compromise religious discipline or belief – it fails in a significant way to communicate with someone involved in the legal process (or indeed to receive their communication), and so, on at least one kind of legal theory (expounded recently, for example, by R.A. Duff), fails in one of its purposes.”
- Wah, this is getting pretty philosophical. Actions cannot be so easily separated from intentions or being (ontology)? Context is important – why someone does what he does and under what circumstances need to be taken into account, but the law has not always been successful at distinguishing this, since it is often more concerned with only the mere action/behaviour. In this case, RW seems to be saying, more attention needs to be paid to the religious identity of a person, or at least not treat him merely as an individual, but a certain member of a faith-community. Although he isn’t saying that this is like a “get out of jail free card” – “oh, because my Muslim sensibilities dictate that I believe and therefore do this, so you can’t ordinarily enforce law X against me!”

3 potential objections:
1. “it leaves legal process (including ordinary disciplinary process within organisations) at the mercy of what might be called vexatious appeals to religious scruple”
– eg. what if a Muslim employee refused to handle a book of Bible stories? Is she just being overly fussy? RW’s answer, establish some sort of authority to distinguish between uninformed prejudice/nonsense and which is serious business.

2. “recognition of 'supplementary jurisdiction' in some areas, especially family law, could have the effect of reinforcing in minority communities some of the most repressive or retrograde elements in them, with particularly serious consequences for the role and liberties of women.”
- i.e isn’t it now easy to have a convenient excuse to do some really nasty things and defend myself by saying, hey, stay out of my business, you don’t understand the complex cultural-religious workings here? Won’t it be worse for eg., for women who might have enjoyed better rights without such a jurisdiction? RW’s answer: “no 'supplementary' jurisdiction could have the power to deny access to the rights granted to other citizens or to punish its members for claiming those rights.”

“In the particular case we have mentioned, the inheritance rights of widows, it is already true that some Islamic societies have themselves proved flexible (Malaysia is a case in point).”
– Just had to point that out since he mentioned Malaysia... :) Interestingly, he goes on to mention the far harder case of apostasy, and as far as I can make out, speaks in vague terms about some form of “basic ground rules”, acknowledges its complexity, and doesn’t really deal properly with this objection.

3. “supplementary jurisdictions is simply incoherent if we want to preserve the great political and social advances of Western legality”
- i.e everyone is equal before the law. RW’s answer, Aiyah, not so easylah! “But this set of considerations alone is not adequate to deal with the realities of complex societies: it is not enough to say that citizenship as an abstract form of equal access and equal accountability is either the basis or the entirety of social identity and personal motivation.” Back to the point that as human beings, we are not just citizens, but our identities are rooted in loads of different things – we are members of a family, of an ethnic group, of a religious group etc.

- At this point his lecture gets really, really dense as he tries to answer this particular objection. Not quite sure I get it at all, but he seems to be saying that instead of adopting the public/private distinction of the law which I mentioned earlier, it needs to be seen more dynamically, in constant conversation with various communities to make sure that they don’t become so isolated and take the law into their own hands while respecting their diversity. To do so, he appeals to the basis of “human dignity”.

“But to return to our main theme: I have been arguing that a defence of an unqualified secular legal monopoly in terms of the need for a universalist doctrine of human right or dignity is to misunderstand the circumstances in which that doctrine emerged, and that the essential liberating (and religiously informed) vision it represents is not imperilled by a loosening of the monopolistic framework.”
- so this is what he’s really trying to deal with, rather than simply “let’s allow Sharia law into Britain!”

I gave up on the last 750 words or so, but just quickly scanned through for his conclusion:
“In conclusion, it seems that if we are to think intelligently about the relations between Islam and British law, we need a fair amount of 'deconstruction' of crude oppositions and mythologies, whether of the nature of sharia or the nature of the Enlightenment. But as I have hinted, I do not believe this can be done without some thinking also about the very nature of law.”

Some thoughts
If I were listening to rather than reading this lecture, I would never have understood even 10% of it! No wonder he was so widely misunderstood, and I understand that RW owned up to “obscurity of expression”. Although I should also mention that I see some commentaries that dispute that he was misunderstood, rather, he was understood but still received a negative reaction. For eg., see this New Statesman commentary. The writer makes a great point – third paragraph from the end – about why a Christian leader, in light of his own beliefs about the revelation of God, would therefore support a legal system in which he must consider misguided and illegitimate. That does present a problem for the concept of principled pluralism (which, btw, although I have never done any thinking on stuff like this, is, I suspect, my subconscious default position). The same writer suggests that Williams real attack is on secularism, which I think is a fair enough point. He takes that negatively, but obviously, I don’t.

The other thing I don’t get is that Williams seems to assume throughout the lecture that some form of liberal sharia law would triumph rather than a “primitivist” (his word) version. How will that happen? And why would Muslims of any stripe want to listen to a Christian bishop on this point anyhow?

Still, this lecture highlights the complexity of the discussion, encompassing as it does everything from questions of assimilation/integration/national identity/multiculturalism, and I haven’t even included the legal and religious dimensions yet!

Finally, I know that this is an academic lecture and all, but RW didn’t seem to offer a distinctively Christian approach. Not that I mean he has to pepper his quotes with Scripture references, but simply that, given his role as the leader of the Anglican Church and not as a jurisprudence specialist, surely there might be more biblical reflection? No one would have been offended, if anything, it would be expected from a guy who heads up a church comprising of millions and millions of Christians.

Rowan Williams and sharia: A guide for the perplexed - This is regarded as the best and most detailed breakdown of the lecture.

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Saturday, February 09, 2008


I went to watch Cloverfield today. At first I thought of writing a review, but in the end, decided that James Berardinelli pretty much nailed it.

Imagine a monster film told from the perspective of one of the random terrified screamers on the streets of New York instead of the "hero"/government/military/scientist etc., marry it to a Blair-Witch style handheld camera technique and you get Cloverfield. Someone said (below) that it's Godzilla for Generation Y, a postmodern, pessimistic take on catastrophe - there's no overarching metanarrative, no answers to the many questions raised: where does the monster come from? and so on. Granted, it does probe questions of "what would I really be like in the face of unimaginable disaster" but not in a sustained fashion.

I think it's a very well-crafted film, but that's not necessarily the same as an enjoyable or even ultimately worthwhile film. There was one particular moment near the end of the film which I found very difficult because it hit too close to home. Where it succeeds is that it really makes you believe you were there, which, for some, is what cinema is all about. Parallels to 9/11 too are of course, unavoidable.

If you've watched it, there's a very spirited comment thread going on over at Ross Douthat's, an Atlantic columnist, blog. Well worth reading.

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Friday, February 08, 2008


A lot of today's links were first highlighted by uber-blogger Justin Taylor.

IVP is offering free daily devotional readings for Lent from their catalogue of books. Lent is traditionally the period of 40 days leading up to Easter on the church calendar and is often taken by many Christians to be a time of reflection and sometimes, fasting.

You can download free Tim Keller sermons reflecting on the nature of some common objections to Christianity. Keller is one of the most insightful Christian leaders out there today. His book The Reason for God, is going to be out soon, with a Penguin imprint publishing it, I believe.

N.T Wright in Time Magazine on common Christian misconceptions about heaven. This is one of Wright's biggest bugbears. :) As usual, he's very lucid. I agree (enthusiastically!) with him mostly, but there are one or two things which I'm not completely sure about. The trouble is, I don't know what it is exactly that makes me slightly uneasy.

Also useful for a point of comparison is You Were Made for Earth: Trevin Wax's interview with Michael Wittmer. Wittmer is the author of one of my favourite Bible overview/worldview books, Heaven is a Place on Earth.

There's a lot of good stuff in today's CT. There's a fascinating cover story on the ancient-future movement, a good interview with Carson and Beale on their Commentary of NT use of the OT, and a thoughtful piece by Tim Stafford comparing today's culture to Samaria. Plus CT's 2007 films of the year.

That's it for the moment. Feeling a little lethargic.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Random thoughts for jobless times

Some updates of a more personal nature...

As some of you know, I am still hunting around for a job. I wrote a little piece, Fixed Points for Jobless Times, by way of reminder for myself a while back but I won’t deny that I tend to forget just about all the time! I had quite a tough January in fact – I finally managed to secure a proper interview, then proceeded to mess it up, needless to say I didn’t get it.

I think I can safely say that I continue to discover how much of a sinner I am. I was going to say that I’m appalled at my lack of prayerfulness even in difficult times, but I think it’s truer to say that I’m appalled by my lack of any dismay over my lack of prayerfulness! I can be a bit of a Sunday-only Christian. Or take self-pity. It might sound justified to do so in my context: “Boo-hoo, woe is me”, but as John Piper astutely observes, self-pity arises from a sense of innate worthiness; it is a subtle form of unapplauded pride. Even as I look at some of my blog posts of last month I think maybe that I don’t heed Proverbs 10:19 – "When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise". A couple of posts back I quote McCracken on the fight to keep hanging onto the gospel of grace. It’s absolutely true, I find that my thoughts and actions continue to show how much of the immeasurable riches of what Jesus has done for me I have yet to grasp. We never move on from the “basics”.

I think in times like this there is inevitably going to be some wondering over issues of guidance and such, and I continue to wrestle with them, wondering if I have sufficiently thought through some of my decisions and second-guessing others. There are no quick and easy answers here, and I accept that this is where I need to truly trust in a God who has already shown, through his Word, that He is thoroughly trustworthy. Plenty of alternatives abound, all a variant of self-sufficiency: thinking that it is ultimately my CV, my skills, or my personality (or my lack thereof) which will determine my destiny. It also means waiting...and make no mistake, waiting can be akin to the tension stored within the twisted pieces of wood of a catapult.

...tension is a passing note... :)

I don’t think I’m the only person with a tough January though. There’s plenty of uncertainty amongst those working in the financial sector due to the credit crunch and I’m sure some of my friends are affected by rumours and hearsay. I sat next to a Kenyan Christian too recently, and while he assured me his family were all safe and sound, I can imagine how that could be a potential cause for anxiety. One of the things I’m really grateful for this past Sunday evening was the opportunity to hear out a friend of mine who was really struggling in his final year at university and then to pray for him. Similarly, I think of another friend who this past weekend shared some penetrating insights on both my particular situation as well as life as a Christian more generally. This same friend had his own pastoral situations to deal with – he had someone ask him, “My friend, who is a Christian, was demon-possessed and committed suicide. What does Jesus have to say to that?” I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes!

As Eugene Peterson, the anonymous Christian and Ruth have all reminded me in the last few months, being a Christian doesn’t take us away from our earthly sojourns here even as we live in light of eternity. To borrow another phrase from Peterson, Christian spirituality is earthy: dealing with everydayness, in the midst of doing the laundry, in the middle of traffic, in the nitty-gritty of life, yet continually aware that "in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ...through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit." (Eph. 2:15, 18). Christian spirituality is Trinitarian spirituality.

So to borrow yet another phrase from Peterson – the guy is a true wordsmith - the road ahead is “a long obedience in the same direction”. “[Israel] worked and played, suffered and sinned in the world as everyone else did, as Christians still do. But they were now going someplace – they were going to God. The truth of God explained their lives, the grace of God fulfilled their lives, the forgiveness of God renewed their lives, the love of God blessed their lives…Repentance, the first word in Christian immigration, sets us on the way to travelling in the light.”

On a related note, I’ve been listening incessantly to You Are Holy (Prince of Peace). It’s not that new a song, but I’ve only discovered it recently. I had not realised that it was penned by MWS either. What I really love about it is that we get to sing both objective truths – “You’re my living God / You’re my saving grace / You will reign forever / You are Ancient of Days” and so on while singing getting to respond in song subjectively at the same time during the chorus – both important to worship I feel! You can tell that all that time spent in Anglican churches have rubbed off me somewhat...


Oh, and finally, Gong Xi Fa Cai! Happy Chinese New Year!

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Friday, February 01, 2008

Best. Wayne Grudem. fanboy video. ever.

here. You really need to see it.

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NBA watch

I see that the NBA All-Stars were named today, which means that it's halfway through the season. It's been an interesting season, and at this stage there's no clear favourite, not even the Boston Celtics, who after their amazing 29-3 start have cooled off considerably - they won't be repeating Jordan's Bulls as the only team to win 70 games in a season. This is a season as good as any where an unheralded team could nip in and steal a title.

The Spurs and Mavs haven't been quite up to their usual high standards, and to a lesser extent, the same goes for the Pistons. The Portland Trail Blazers have been quite the surprise package so far, and have cemented Nate McMillan's position as the best young coach currently in the game (sorry, Avery). Although I don't think Brandon Roy should have been an All-Star just yet, although there's no doubt he's very good, just not better than either Baron Davis or Deron Williams at this point. I'll have to grudgingly admit that the Lakers' above-par performance so far shows Phil Jackson in a positive light. Chris Paul, meanwhile is fast becoming one of the elite point guards in the game, and the New Orlean Hornets are definitely on the right track. I'm glad for them, because Paul, on all accounts, is a decent young man and the team has provided a boost for this recovering city.

Lots of interesting names in the mix for Most Improved Player as well. Chris Kaman has become a legit center, thanks in part to the injury to Brand. Same goes for Andrew Bynum. Hedo Turkoglu had an outside chance of becoming an All-Star this year, and I'm glad to see him doing well on my team, Orlando Magic. Some of the Sacramento Kings, John Salmons and Francisco Garcia, have shown they can play as well. And how about Toronto's Jose Calderon? He's a rookie, so not exactly qualified for the award, but he played overseas for a couple of years before finally getting a shot at the NBA this year, and he has an amazingly impressive assists:turnover ratio.

OK, all this basketball talk must have bored you football fans out there, so you can go and check out this column on David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo instead. If only I can watch the NBA here in the UK!