Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Dangers of Bookishness

From Buzzard Blog:

Quoted in his biography, Martyn Lloyd-Jones provides a great caution against the danger of living

"a kind of second hand spiritual life on books...We may do this for years without realizing that we are living on books instead of living on Christ."

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Bible and Other Faiths 5b

For previous entries, just click on The Bible and Other Faiths label at the end of this post.

Beginnings: Genesis (continued)

Genesis 12-50 tells us about God’s mission to the world. God’s covenant to bless Abraham and his family is for all the mixed-up, sinful peoples of the world. Genesis is unique in that it is the account of God calling an ordinary man and his family, and so instead of comparing it with other ancient stories, we shall read it in the context of what we know about other nations.

IG then enters into a very interesting discussion regarding Abraham’s relationship with Yahweh. The names of Abraham’s family suggest that his ancestors worshipped the moon god, chief of whom was El. (Remember, Abraham was from the Mesopotamian city of Ur). Citing OT scholar Gordon Wenham, who analyses the names used for God in Genesis in light of Exodus 6:3, where God says to Moses: "I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty [El Shaddai], but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them", she concludes that "Abraham was thinking in terms of El, the god he already knew about, but that it was Yahweh who was calling him all the time." IG then documents how Abraham responded to God in ways which was already used in his culture – he did “religious” things, such as building altars, offering sacrifices and cleansing himself.

Abraham's worship is also contrasted with those found in his culture, as seen in the building of his own altars, and the absolute forbidding of human sacrifices seen in the account of Isaac. These patterns continue throughout Genesis. God speaks to Abraham and his family. He encourages them. He loves them. They respond in faith and obedience, and doubt and sin. There is no laying down of “religious” rules, but instead a demonstration of God’s covenant call to a particular family. Indeed, the covenant of Genesis 15, while similar in many respects to covenants in the ancient world, is different in that it is between God and a human family, not a king and a conquered nation, and it is unconditional. Abraham begins to see that this is a God who takes the initiative and keeps his promises, and so he is unlike El and the other gods. El might be said to do these things, but it is God who actually does them.

IG now turns her attention to the other nations in Genesis 12-50. Firstly, nations other than Israel are also Abraham’s descendants. Sadly, the descendants of Lot, Ishmael and Esau will turn to other gods and become some of Israel’s greatest enemies. The Moabites and Ammonites, for instance, result from Lot’s drunkenness and incest. Meanwhile, Abraham fails to share God’s concern for other nations. He lies to Abimelech and the king of Egypt, and causes God’s judgment to fall on them. He fails to take good care of his servant, Hagar. On the other hand, God approaches Abimelech in a dream (20:6-7) and rescues him. The Genesis narrative also seems to cast the mysterious figure of Melchizedek in a positive light, although this is not explicit. Perhaps most significantly, God uses Joseph to provide for the Egyptians during the years of famine.

What about other gods? Genesis is, for the most part, silent – no mention of the Canaanite or Egyptian gods. The only mention of other gods comes in the story of Jacobs. Laban’s household gods (31:19, 30-35) are not taken very seriously. Jacob also orders his household to rid themselves of all foreign gods when he goes to live in Bethel. Why does Genesis choose to record this particular episode? It appears that as Jacob had been disobedient before (having not previously gone to Bethel as he promised to), and in light of the disobedience of more or less his entire family in the previous chapter, where Dinah is raped, particular attention is drawn to the need to obey and trust God here. Jacob recognises that if God is God, all other gods have to go.

In summary, Genesis 12-50 does not directly discuss the surrounding religions. What are we to make of this? Some suggestions:
  • The other gods are not important. What matters is that the one true living God is active among the people he has made.
  • Forms of worship are not yet important.
  • Other aspects of religion, such as laws and ritual purity, are also not yet important. Trusting God is the more important issue.
"In calling out a people from polytheism, then, God did not give a religion. The way to blessing for a multifaith world was not a religion but a family called to dynamic relationship with the living God."

IG’s discussion concerning Abraham was fascinating, to say the least, but I do feel like I’ve been left hanging a little because she fails to bridge contexts between the world of Genesis and ours. For instance, what are the implications, if she is right, of how Abraham initially conceives of God? To be fair, IG does anticipate these questions in her reflection questions and likely wants the reader to do some thinking of their own by not providing any answers at this point! It’s probable that she’s saving this for later on in the book, but I would have liked more guidance on how to read this in the context of the overall storyline of the Bible / salvation-history. How does the coming of Christ change all this, if it does? Even just a couple of comments along the lines of "I’ll cover this more in chapter X, but here it’s sufficient to say that..." would have been welcomed.

Still, IG does a great job opening our eyes to the reality of a God who draws near and who calls his people, not a demanding deity who needs sacrifices.

Reflection questions:
  • Did God call you to religion or a covenant relationship?
  • If a Muslim, Hindu, or traditional African believer comes to Christ, what sort of religious practice should he or she follow?
  • Which of the laws or religious practices of your church were given by God?
  • God spoke to people outside Abraham’s family. Does he speak to non-Christians today?
  • Paul goes to the story of Abraham when he is discussing how non-Jews – people from another faith background – can be included in the church (Gal. 3). What can you learn from the story of Abraham about mission to a community that already has a different religion? How does this beginning of God’s mission to the nations compare to the beginnings of Christian missions in your country?

Next chapter:
Development: The calling of a people

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Bible and Other Faiths 5a

Time to dive back into this series. I'm currently blogging through The Bible and Other Faiths by Ida Glaser. For previous entries in this series, just click on The Bible and Other Faiths label at the end of the post.

Beginnings: Genesis

IG explores Genesis in a little more depth than others, convinced that it is a foundational book, as well as to provide a model for deeper study of other passages. Genesis 1-11 introduces us to a world of peoples. God creates humankind in his own image, puts them in a good land. Sin enters the world, humans are expelled from Eden, and there is an increase in human wickedness, leading to judgment and the flood. God then “recreates” the world. This world includes the covenant of Genesis 9:8-17, which includes all living beings and the earth itself. And IG wants us to see that people of other faiths are human beings, in God’s land and under God’s rainbow, just like us. "Part of the point of the flood story is to show that all peoples have one source: we come from Noah."

This is underlined by the following sections after Genesis, which gives us some insight into this world of different peoples. Noah and his sons tell us about the presence of sin and inequality. The table of nations in chapter 10 paints a more positive view of peoples in all their diversity. Babel shows God’s judgment on those working against him, and its effects are still seen today in miscommunication and prejudice. Yet IG contends that the division of people is also necessary to limit the effects of sin in this world. And so our differences are both part of God’s providence and the results of our sin.

IG moves on to provide a contextual reading by comparing this account to the other creation stories of the time, specifically, the Babylonian creation epic and flood story. I won’t recount them in detail here, but basically it involves lots of gods fighting against each other, out of which details of how the world and certain elements of it emerge. "The end point of all the creation stories is a particular human society, in a particular place, organized for the service of the gods. Much attention is usually given to the temple building that symbolises all of this." IG, utilising the same literary tools used to read other creation stories to read Genesis, notes a couple of features peculiar to the biblical story.
  • Genesis discounts other gods; all things are under the control of this one God.
  • Genesis gives a different view of the purpose of human beings. They are not solutions to a problem, but to be blessed by him and to hold responsibilities within creation.
  • Genesis recognises anti-God powers, but God has no need to fight them, he can control them with a word. There is one exception, the human being. God, however, is still supreme, and he is still committed to love us – that is the message of Noah.
  • God’s judgment are for different reasons. The emphasis on God’s justice and human sin are unique to Genesis, he does not get angry arbitrarily.
In summary, Genesis exalts Yahweh as the only creator of the whole universe and of all peoples, unlike other ancient creation stories.

What do we learn about religion here then? Although specific religions of the time are not discussed, we can still learn quite a bit about human religion generally. Humans need a way to God, and sacrifice seems to be a way – eg. Abel and Noah. Yet at this juncture, just why their sacrifices were acceptable is unclear. (Cf. Cain). But it is clear that God does not need our sacrifices, unlike the Babylonian gods who were “fed” with sacrifices. Instead, God feeds his people instead! (Gen. 9:1-3). Indeed, religion could cause violence, as testified by Cain’s murder of his brother. Nor do religious places impress God – implicit in the Babel story is also a criticism of Babylonian religion, which has Marduk building an impressive temple to the doorway of God. And so religion can easily lead to two fundamental mistakes: that we can be the same as God, or that God is far away and we can find a way of reaching him.

Instead, Genesis paints two pictures of true faith, rest and walking. Other creation stories often gives the origin of religious festivals and their purposes, for eg., to guarantee a good harvest. Yet Genesis only tells us about the Sabbath. There is no need to persuade God to work, but rather, a recognition that we can rest in God’s sovereignty; his work is done, rituals are unnecessary. Secondly, we relate to God not by climbing up to him, but realising that God has come down to us. He walks in the garden (3:8), and those named righteous in Genesis 1-11, Enoch and Noah, also walked with him (5:24, 6:9). It is into such a world, with its different languages and territories and temples, that God speaks and acts, as he calls Abraham.

Before moving to the rest of Genesis, IG provides a short excursus on communication. She notes that the Genesis writer was not afraid to use the thought forms and cultural expressions of his day to deal with their concerns; he shared some of them anyhow! Of course, stories could also be used to challenge other stories, as in Babel. For further exploration, she suggests reading through Hosea, and noting how ideas associated with Baal: fertility, rain, storm, crops etc. are used to show that Yahweh is Lord of all.

I think I’ll stop here, and do the rest of this chapter in the next post. Here are some of questions for reflection that IG suggests:

What creation stories do people in your areas tell? What are the purposes of these stories?
How do the ideas about religion generally help you to understand the specific religions in your area?
How could you use Genesis 1-11 to communicate with people in your area, especially in light of their creation stories?
I think it’s useful to point out too though that creation stories need not be “religious” in the way we usually conceive of them. The Big Bang is a creation story of sorts. Pleasure could be the name of our god. And so on. These questions could provide a fresh way in helping to understand and engage with our non-believing family and friends.

Anyway, please do feel free to comment!

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Wordsmiths: On the Comfort of the Resurrection

CLOUD-PUFFBALL, torn tufts, tossed pillows ' flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs ' they throng; they glitter in marches.
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, ' wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle in long ' lashes lace, lance, and pair.
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous ' ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare
Of yestertempest’s creases; in pool and rut peel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed ' dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squadroned masks and manmarks ' treadmire toil there
Footfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, ' nature’s bonfire burns on.
But quench her bonniest, dearest ' to her, her clearest-selvèd spark
Man, how fast his firedint, ' his mark on mind, is gone!
Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark
Drowned. O pity and indig'nation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, ' death blots black out; nor mark
Is any of him at all so stark
But vastness blurs and time ' beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, ' joyless days, dejection.
Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. ' Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; ' world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, ' since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, ' patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

chevy = chase
stanches = stops the flow
shivelights = slivers of light
firedint = mark made by fire
Jack = ordinary man

Hopkins is one of my favourite poets. A Catholic, he initially resolved not to write any more poetry upon entering the priesthood, and even burnt some of his earlier poetry. A tragic boating accident which claimed the lives of 5 nuns relieved him of this vow and he wrote a poem in tribute to them. I was actually asked at my university interview to read up on some of his poetics and discuss them with my tutor, which was nerve-wrecking to say the least! Although sadly, I didn't get to spend enough time studying him, the essay I wrote on him for my Victorian Lit module was probably the only time I didn't actually spout complete rubbish - not that I remember anything of what I wrote!

This is not an easy poem to read, so I'll try to provide some guidance. The first thing to note is that the full title of this piece is On the Nature of the Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection, which provides some clues. Heraclitus was an ancient Greek philosopher who maintained that everything in the world was in a state of permanent flux. For him, fire is the origin of all matter, including the soul, as it is a symbol of perpetual change.

The second thing to note is that Hopkins had very interesting aesthetic theories, and for our purposes, we just need to know that he believed very strongly that we can perceive something with great intensity; in other words, Hopkins has a basic trust that our senses can work really well in telling us what we need to know about our surroundings. And so he often tries his hardest to paint very vivid word-pictures, to the extent of coining new words. A favourite technique of his was to create compound words to try to get his point across. You also frequently find ungrammatical structures in this poem, such is the intensity of his communication.

Therefore in this poem, he starts out by constructing a picture of nature at its wildest, reflecting the Heraclitean flux. You'd notice the barrage of words thrown at you as you read it, which only adds to the effect. This celebration of nature, however, is tempered by man's place in the scheme of things. Hopkins is aware of man's frailty and mortality in the "Million-fueled Nature's bonfire". "His mark on mind, is gone!"

But abruptly, something joyously breaks in: "Enough! The Resurrection!" The wild energy displayed in the first half of the poem is now more controlled, reflecting that Nature is not its own Master, after all, but under the thumb of God. Notice the deliberate repetition in the final words - this shows the firm hand of a Creator, not the random chance of evolution. (Hopkins was writing in the age of Darwin, after all). And it is God that also enables the hope of the putting "Away grief’s gasping, joyless days, dejection". The Heraclitean conception of a "world’s wildfire, leave but ash" is at odds with the Christian belief of resurrection. We can be "immortal diamonds", sharing the same incarnate body as Christ.

Not that he didn't know how difficult life could be in the present. His notes in 1889 read: "There is a happiness, hope, the anticipation of happiness thereafter: it is better than happiness, but it is not happiness now."

But don't you just love knowing of the inbreaking of God into the world through Jesus, who dies in our place and defeats death, and that if we place our trust in him, we share in his resurrection life? "Enough, the Resurrection!"

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Holy Saturday

Untitled (Feel free to suggest one!)

The moon peers back not through the fog
Wakefulness is not granted,
the dream lingers on
like the aftertaste of a bitter lager
But the candle is lit
The table is set
And the feast is laid
Lamb, bread and wine
Flesh and blood intertwined
His life for mine
One for the many.

Hands passing along the cutlery
the breaking of bread
Eyes inwards, upwards and sidelong
As cups are raised to lips
Murmured thanksgivings.
Whispered encouragement.
Throaty laughter.
Songs bursting from bosoms.
The excited patter of tiny feet
As child gambols about with child.

Lift up your hearts!
It is the time between the dying and the rising.
Morning is not far off
The Son comes again
arrayed in glory.
Remember. Eat. Drink. Live.

© BK.

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Friday, March 21, 2008

Good Friday

To the cross I look, to the cross I cling
Of its suffering I do drink
Of its work I do sing

For on it my Savior both bruised and crushed
Showed that God is love
And God is just

At the cross You beckon me
You draw me gently to my knees, and I am
Lost for words, so lost in love,
I’m sweetly broken, wholly surrendered

What a priceless gift, undeserved life
Have I been given
Through Christ crucified

You’ve called me out of death
You’ve called me into life
And I was under Your wrath
Now through the cross I’m reconciled

In awe of the cross I must confess
How wondrous Your redeeming love and
How great is Your faithfulness

© Jeremy Riddle

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Maundy Thursday: Luke 23:1-25

opening of Luke's gospelAccusations laced with irony. Indecisive leadership. A desire to abdicate responsibility. A hankering for spectacle and ridicule; governance made frivolous. An unholy alliance of hedonism and power farcically pushing the true King around like a puppet. A miscarriage of justice. An exchange, egged on by rebels (not just spiritually but literally). "Surrendered Jesus to their will" - so who is in charge? Pilate? The crowd? Or God?

For Jesus willingly came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10), identifying himself as the Suffering Servant -
"he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors." (Isaiah 53:12; Luke 22:37)

and also as the Ascended Son of Man (Luke 22:69), proclaiming that He is indeed, the King of the world.

BIBLE READING: Luke 23:1-25

Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, "We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ,a king."

So Pilate asked Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?" "Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied.

Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, "I find no basis for a charge against this man."

But they insisted, "He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here."

On hearing this, Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. When he learned that Jesus was under Herod's jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time.

When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform some miracle. He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him. Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate. That day Herod and Pilate became friends—before this they had been enemies.

Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, and said to them, "You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. Therefore, I will punish him and then release him."

With one voice they cried out, "Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!"(Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder.)

Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. But they kept shouting, "Crucify him! Crucify him!"

For the third time he spoke to them: "Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him."

But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. So Pilate decided to grant their demand. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Wednesday: Faith in Jesus in Mark's Gospel

"The cross is the intersection where God meets humanity. Saving confession is not predicated on prior knowledge, proximity to Jesus, or privilege; it is, rather, an act of faith in a divinely revealed act of atonement. The centurion's confession is the saving proclamation of the church, for it is the convergence of Mark's two major themes: the meaning of Jesus and the meaning of faith. The Son of God, on whom rests the unique blessing and love of the Father, chooses not to exalt himself but to follow a path of servanthood, indeed of vicarious suffering and death, so that through the cross the world might acknowledge him to be the Son and with him share free and joyful access to the Father."

"True faith is always aware how small and inadequate it is. The father becomes a believer not when he amasses a sufficient quantum of faith but when he risks everything on what little faith he has, when he yields his insufficiency to the true sufficiency of Jesus, 'I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief!' [Mark 9:21-24] The risk of faith is more costly to the father than bringing his son to Jesus, for he talk about his son but he must "cry out" for faith. True faith takes no confidence in itself, nor does it judge Jesus by the weakness of his followers. It Looks to the More Powerful One (1:7) who stands in the place of God, whose authoritative word restores life from chaos. True faith is unconditional openness to God, a decision in the face of all to the contrary that Jesus is able."

- James Edwards, Pillar Commentary on Mark, p. 483, 280.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Tuesday: Whither forgiveness?

This clip from ER has already made the rounds in the blogosphere, but if you haven't seen it, it's worth watching.

"Love is at the heart of the Apostle Paul's account of Christ's death. But surprisingly, even scandalously, love not just for victims but also for perpetrators - for those who are "powerless" because they are caught in the snares of "ungodliness," those who are "unrighteous", sinners deserving of God's "wrath", "enemies". [Referring to Romans 5:6-8]. It is not, of course, that love for those who suffer is absent from Paul's writings...And yet at the heart of the gospel is a powerful conviction that God loves the ungodly - loves them so much that Christ died for them and in place of them. Ungodly - the kind of person Paul himself was before being called as an apostle...

...Since no third party is involved, in Christ's Passion no one is forced to do anything for anything else. Substitution is a gift initiated and willingly given to Wrongdoers by the One who was wronged, not a burden of service placed on an outsider. And it is a gift that, far from signalling the passive acceptance of abuse, most radically calls into question such abuse. For it condemns the wrongdoing while at the same time freeing the wrongdoers, who receive forgiveness in repentance, not just from punishment and guilt but also from the hold of the evil deed on their lives."

- Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World, pp. 116-7

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Monday: Lenten Prayers for the Week

Loving God,
I am just beginning to realize how much you love me.
Your son, Jesus was humble and obedient.
He fulfilled your will for him by becoming human and suffering with us.
I ask you for the desire to become more humble
so that my own life might also bear witness to you.
I want to use the small sufferings I have in this world to give you glory.

Please, Lord, guide my mind with your truth.
Strengthen my life by the example of Jesus.
Help me to be with Jesus in this week
as he demonstrates again his total love for me.
He died so that I would no longer be separated from you.
Help me to feel how close you are and to live in union with you.

God of love,
My prayer is simple:
We have been stubborn and rebellious
but you are merciful and kind.
For the sake of Your son, Jesus Christ,
who suffered and died for us,
forgive us all that is past.
I know only
that I cannot have real strength
unless I rely on you.
I cannot feel protected
from my many weaknesses
until I turn to you
for forgiveness and your unalterable love.
Help me to share this
strength, protection and love with others.

Christ's Imagined Choir

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The wrap

fajita wrapThe Wrap no longer seems to serve its purpose as well as it used to, and perhaps one day I might get one of those widget thingys which highlights links of interest in the sidebar, and just retire this. But for now the fajita wrap lives on!

If you're still starving for more Malaysian political commentary, you know better than to visit this blog. Here are some tidbits out of the goodness of my heart. :) Ong Kian Ming, who is a PhD student at Duke, contributor to Education Malaysia and occasional contributor to The Agora, has an excellent analysis worth reading. Same goes for Bridget Welsh's piece, Election post-mortem: 10 Top Factors. Welsh is a John Hopkins academic with a long-standing interest in Southeast Asian, especially Malaysian, politics. Wall Street Journal and The Economist both have short op-eds as well, here and here.

I really like Michael Patton - he's a very thoughtful blogger. He's done an absolutely fantastic series on the emerging church, and his delineation of how one might or might not "emerge" is the most helpful one I've seen yet.

I haven't really opined on the emerging church much recently on this blog - there's been no reason to - but one of the things that have been percolating in the back of my mind for some time now is the thought that the emerging church is actually the step-daughter of the charismatic movement. The two are obviously NOT the same, but I would love for someone to trace the continuities and/or parallels between the two. Both have laid particular stress on the kingdom of God. For John Wimber, for eg., signs and wonders were the big thing that demonstrated the arrival of the kingdom, whereas for say, Brian McLaren, the kingdom is associated with the reforming of unjust social structures, although of course both are not mutually exclusive. Both have segments which are extremely interested in renewing church structures (house church movement), eg. such as Bryn Jones in the UK in the 70s, and today, people like Alan Hirsch. Both seem to me to run the danger of an over-realised eschatology. (Of course the opposite is true for those that run in conservative circles!) Both have raised new, if different, questions, regarding the authority and sufficiency of the Bible. And so on. Historically, I wonder if the trajectory of both would be similar - the charismatic movement drew huge flak during its birthpangs, some justified, some not, and hopefully, the process of correction etc. will play itself out and result in maturity. This seems to have occurred with the UK charismatic movement.

He's also got another good post on orthodoxy.

What makes a church missional?

The Christ Files. Documentary. "In a captivating journey across the globe, Dr John Dickson examines ancient documents and consults the world’s most respected historians and scholars. Beginning with the Gnostic Gospels, he criss-crosses continents on a search back through time for the historical sources that reveal the real Jesus — a search for The Christ Files." There are previews on their website. The Christ Files will be broadcast in Australia, where John Dickson is from, on the Seven Network at noon on Good Friday, March 21, 2008, and DVDs will be available in time. There's also a little book with the same title, already out, that touches on these issues.

I think a lot of us want to show generosity and hospitability to those in need. We want to open our doors in the spirit of true Christian love. But it's difficult to balance that with wise choices. This is a great post by a pastor's wife, living in the inner city, who genuinely struggled to balance the two: Hospitablity and boundaries.

The Ultimate Student Resource List. Not a student anymore, but still useful to know of these online applications and tools.

The fun, definitive list of all of Pixar's in-jokes and self references.

14 Greatest Basketball Movies. I know White Men Can't Jump and Coach Carter, but that's it. What happened to Space Jam? (just kidding...)

So Marvel tried to completely erase over 20 years of the Spiderman-MJ marriage by having a villain erase their memory. Marvel were just trying to some freshness to Spidey, but it hasn't gone down too well. This story is a little old, so I'm not sure if anything has changed since then.

Speaking of which, Where have all the superheroes gone?

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Some needed levity

Jobs and life... (Click for larger image)

This was fun!


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Monday, March 10, 2008

Elections: facts, figures, quotes

With thanks to Malaysiakini and Malaysia

Barisan Nasional only gained about 51 percent of the popular vote from the 7.9 million ballots cast on Saturday.

However, it took 63 percent of the seats contested - or 140 of 222 seats in Parliament.

Interestingly, its peninsula-wide popular vote was only 49.79 percent, which effectively means that the opposition received the majority vote in this part of the country.

The New Straits Times said the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition - made up of 14 race-based parties - achieved 51.2 percent of the popular vote after support from ethnic Chinese plunged from 65 percent to 35 percent.

Backing from the smaller ethnic Indian community plummeted from 82 percent to 47 percent, while the number of Malays, who form the coalition's bedrock, fell from 63 percent to 58 percent.

The youngest candidate was PKR’s Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, who is 26. He defeated Seri Setia incumbent Seripa Noli Syed Hussin.

The largest majority was won by DAP’s Teresa Kok against BN’s Carol Chew, by 36,492 votes in the Seputeh parliamentary seat in Kuala Lumpur.

The smallest majority was just 14 votes for BN’s Hamdi Abu Bakar who beat Abu Bakar Haji Hussain of PAS in the Pengkalan Baharu state seat in Perak.

Prominent blogger Jeff Ooi - whose campaign was done online and funds were raised through his website - won the Jelutong parliamentary seat in Penang for DAP.

Other bloggers are Tony Pua (DAP, Petaling Jaya Utara parliamentary seat), Elizabeth Wong (PKR, Bukit Lanjan state seat) and Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad (PKR, Seri Setia state seat).

The full team from the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry all lost in the polls.

All top MIC leaders were wiped out - president, deputy presidents, two vice-presidents, women's chief and youth chief (one of the three vice-presidents, KS Nijar, did not contest).

"Prior to the elections, Barisan Nasional had kept on telling people to show their dissatisfaction through the ballot box. Now they have really shown it." - PPP president Datuk M. Kavyeas

"In the years to come, convincing younger voters to support a party purely on communal grounds will become tougher. A two-party system seems likely to evolve from the outcome of this general election. The first page of the new Malaysian political era opens today." - Wong Chun Wai, Star editor-in-chief.

"The race-based system is breaking down. The government is not looking so representative... and may have to re-engineer itself to be much more cognisant of this shift in the way people are voting" - Johan Saravanattu, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Saravanamuttu said the dominant Umno, which leads the coalition, would have to do a radical rethink about how it could become more inclusive to face the new challenge posed by PKR.

Silliest comment of the day goes to former Information Minister Zainuddin Maddin:
"It is not that they love PKR or PAS more that they voted against me.

The Chinese showed their resentment because of the economic backlash they often complained about. So, PAS and PKR should not be overly proud of their win (in Kedah).

The people may have to pay a price for their decision."
Completely missed the point.

"It’s also significant because the revolt is very multi-racial, and it’s taking place in urban areas throughout. But in the remaining states, some of the old patterns (of voting) remain, which means that the ‘tsunami’ (of change) has not reached the entire country. Sabah and Sarawak, meanwhile, seem to be on a trip of their own and are rather unpredictable.

The other significant thing is that (Datuk Seri) Anwar Ibrahim had his ear to the ground better than any other political analyst. He was the only one who thought that something like this could happen. He was most astute in reading and understanding the Malay mind. He read it correctly...

This demonstrates that we are moving into a middle ground that needs to be consolidated. This middle ground has candidates who are very conscious about bridging the gap and about being non-racial. All said and done, the BN has racially-exclusive component parties but now we have political entities which are actually multi-racial in composition and orientation."
- Dr. Francis Loh, political scientist, USM

"The fact that so many independent candidates and so many new faces have come to the fore shows that the Malaysian public has grown weary of the old faces, the old discourses and the old mode of politics in the country. We are now a more complex and plural society than before and we need to forge a new politics that reflects this diversity and pluralism.

We need and want a new Malaysian politics where merit, equality, fairness and accountability prevail. The Malaysian people will no longer tolerate empty promises, discredited politicians, bankrupt politics, cronyism, nepotism and abuse of power. The Malaysian nation wants the country back. We will no longer surrender our future to politicians and elites alone."
- Dr. Farish Noor, Malaysian public intellectual, author of The Other Malaysia

"In the lead-up to the election, the trend with the ethnic Indian and Chinese electorate was a huge protest vote against the BN. There was substantially less fear of an Islamic state. Within the Malay ground, the original assumption was that the Malay electorate was with the BN. Malay support for the BN was comfortable at the point when the election was called.

From the dissolution of Parliament till nomination day, the bickering and horse-trading between Umno candidates started the erosion in Malay support. During the campaign period, the erosion increased because the BN’s communication strategy was out of tune with the electorate. In the final days of campaigning, there was further erosion because the BN went on the attack. The attack on Anwar and the belated attempt to go on an offensive further pushed the Malay electorate away from the BN.

Malay support for the BN is split. In a lot of areas, the support for the BN was not much more than 55%, while in places like Kelantan, the BN support from the Malays was much less. Of course, internal and local factors also come into play. Then on polling day, Malay turnout rates were lower than expected."
- Ibrahim Suffian, programmes director of Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research

"Finally, a word for Umno. It would be foolish to write them off as a spent force. They'll still be running this country, and if they are smart enough, they'll retool, haul themselves into the 21st century and remain a potent force.

If they don't resort to any hanky-panky in the coming days, they'll deserve praise for respecting the country's democratic system despite all the ills that have diseased this grand old party."
- letter to Malaysiakini

"The challenge for the opposition in the coming months and years is a huge one. There will be many more ways to fail in this challenge than to succeed.

The parties have to be always vigilant, honest and humble. Their members will not be exempt from frequent visits by the demons of human weaknesses.

But the same people who have put them there can as easily reverse the decision if they should betray the faith. Checks and balances are essential for any system of government.

Whatever their political persuasions may be, Malaysians will benefit from the change. Let us all get down to hard, honest work."
- Yeo Yang Poh, former Bar Council President

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Sunday, March 09, 2008

Malaysia's coming of age

I've been away for the last couple of days and have only just got back, and am very, very tired so pardon the incoherent ramblings below. I just needed to write this while it was still fresh.

Anyway, wow. I knew I was only going to hear election news a day late, so it was with some anticipation when I logged onto the Net. And I'll be honest - I was not expecting this. BN denied 2/3 majority, not one, not two, but 5 states fallen to the Opposition. Wow. Succint recap here. (For my non-Malaysian readers, I realise this might all be rather remote for you, but it's a big deal for us :))

Let me tell you what I expected. That BN were going to lose some seats was a given. While the rumblings of discontent has been there for a while now, it was really the emergence of Hindraf that made me see just how bad it was. For the very first time, the Indians were not going to be a reliable voting bloc for the BN. Still, I was very cautious with my projections, having heard premature cries of triumph before. I expected MCA and Gerakan to do pretty badly, so seats in places like KL and Ipoh and Penang would be hit. I expected PAS to retain Kelantan. I thought that if the opposition won an additional state, it would be a bonus - maybe Terengganu. I thought BN would lose 2/3 majorities in Penang and possibly Kedah and Selangor. And I expected one or two bigwigs to go, such as M. Kavyeas (OK, I was 100% certain Kavyeas would lose) and Datuk Seri Samy Vellu. For MCA and Gerakan to be completely wiped out in Penang, for PKR to actually win Selangor, that was all totally beyond my imagination. In my defence, MalaysiaKini's editor Steven Gan had sounded a similarly cautious note, and hey, even the DAP leaders were stunned by the margin of their victory!

Stepping back for a moment, let me just tell you two stories. The first was a few years ago, when I was interning at a local paper. Shadowing a journalist, I had gone to attend a closed-door meeting where a speech was being given by the BN's top guy in Sarawak. To my astonishment, what followed was a smug, self-satisfied speech which included inflammatory racialised comments and a palpable sense of "I'm the one in power, I'm the one who gets to call the shots". That he could make such a speech in full hearing of journalists only served to magnify how much control he held. The journalists at the paper I worked knew that it was pointless filing a report that contained all the details of the speech because the senior editors would just kill it. The second story is during my Oxford days, when Anwar Ibrahim was invited by the Asia Pacific Society to deliver a talk. In the days leading up to the event, government scholars were sent emails warning them to stay away or face the consequences. I am not a government scholar - they probably don't even know that I exist! - so I had complete freedom to go and listen to Anwar personally. Even more shocking, however, was when Anwar came to give a talk in London. In a clear act of intimidation, officials of the Malaysian Student Department actually came to the venue and began to silently take photos.

Add to this little anecdotes the macro stories of electoral ink shenangans, tales of corruption and so on, and I am willing to say that I'm very happy with the outcome of this election, to say the least.

Other thoughts. Firstly, this election result is historic because psychological barriers have been broken. The conventional wisdom has always been that BN is just too powerful to be denied a 2/3 majority. Instead, an entire generation has seen it done for the first time, and so are given fresh impetus to believe that they can make a difference. Just as important is that it means that the BN hoodoo of May 13 is now dispelled. Some BN leaders like to hold May 13 over our heads and warn of a repeat should they lose. Thankfully, it appears that Malaysia is starting to show signs of finally moving beyond that.

Secondly, a Chinese swing was predictable. The Indian swing was expected. But actually, the massive number of losses sustained by BN showed that Malays were voting for the opposition too. In other words, it appears that Malaysians, as a whole, were fed up with the government, and not just minorities. This is a good sign, not because Malays are voting for the opposition, but rather, it shows that communitarian politics had taken a backseat to issues which Malaysians had legitimate gripes about.

BN was too complacent, and Abdullah Badawi misjudged the ill-feeling on the ground. This is amazing considering that 4 years ago, he was seen as a welcome relief to the bullish Dr. M. Here was a kinder, gentler man, known as Mr. Clean and seen as a consensus-building politician. Today, he is the man whom voters find easiest to project their anger on. What happened?

BN often likes to dismiss bloggers and such by pointing to the "silent majority", whom they see as backing them. For the first time ever, this election shows that the "silent majority" has very clearly gone against them. Let me offer up Bandar Kuching as an eg. This is a DAP stronghold which nevertheless fell to the BN in 1995 thanks to the popular former Kuching mayor. DAP reclaimed it in 2004 after the BN had put up a candidate whom no one wanted, not even BN's own supporters. This time, they put up a bright young lawyer and BN loyalist who had strong grassroot ties and was seen as capable of giving the DAP a fight. In another election, he probably would have. Not this time, he was crushed comprehensively. This is not, I don't think, through any fault of this particular candidate, but that the "silent majority" had already made up their mind, regardless of candidate. This scenario was replicated elsewhere in the country.

Anwar not having a seat to contest was a blessing in disguise for the Opposition. He could criss-cross around the country, helped provide a focus to their national campaign, and possibly did more damage than if he had been contesting. Another factor that cannot be discounted was the incessant criticism of Dr. M, whose endless barrage must have worn down some of BN's defenses.

It's interesting to note the emergence of young guns this time around. I used to occasionally read Nik Nazmi's writings when he was a student at King's, now he's sudddenly an MP for PKR! I had told Wai Nyan, where Tony Pua (Oxford) was contesting, that I had a favourable view of his work at Education Malaysia. I was quite surprised to see a figure floating around somewhere than Malaysia's demographic had gotten younger, and the truth is, there are many bright and educated people who are well-informed, and as long as the BN fails to reform itself, will inevitably gravitate towards the Opposition. Another bright young guy, who didn't contest this time around, was the Harvard-educated Nat Tan, who works for PKR.

I'm actually glad that DAP and PKR now have the opportunity to govern a few states, if only for the experience. The most important thing to remember is that they have to be given time. They're new at this, and you can be certain they'll have problems. As long as they show a willingness to learn, to try their best, and not fall prey to shortcuts, this will be invaluable for their leaders. Lim Guan Eng's, Penang's CM-designate, press conference was encouraging at sounding all the right notes (see below). Cautioning against lavish victory parades was another welcome (and canny) move.

As for BN? Well, hopefully, this will prompt some soul-searching. Malaysia will benefit from a reformed BN. Gerakan's Dr. Koh has been gracious in defeat, and Ku Li's honest appraisal is encouraging as well. Please, UMNO, don't opt for the ostrich approach. Pak Lah, please admit that this was indeed a vote of no-confidence, and be willing to reform the system. You'll be more respected for that. Malaysia is showing signs of being more willing to discuss issues of race and religion more openly. By all means, be cautious, but lose the authoritarian approach. There are signs of hope.

I'll like the Opposition in Parliament to adopt some semblance of a shadow Cabinet, as in Britain and Australia, now that they've got the numbers. I think it's a useful practice and helps with accountability.

I guess finally, as a Christian, I can be thankful that God's hand will not slip, and I know that whatever happens, we can trust in Him. Our hope does not lie with political reform, but with the saving grace of God through Jesus.

I'm completely shattered, so I need to pause here.

Lim Guan Eng's press conference

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Malaysiakini is free

If you didn't know it already, MalaysiaKini is free for one week until March 10. This is a great move on their part (with the added bonus of being a savvy marketing decision!) - there's nowhere else you can get quality news on Malaysia.

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The Bible and Other Faiths 4

For previous entries, just click on the Bible and Other Faiths label at the end of this post.

Peoples surrounding Israel, and their gods

This chapter’s a short one, offering a quick overview of some features of the Old Testament world. As the time period which the OT covers is a long one, belief systems and practices obviously change and develop throughout. Nonetheless, we can still establish some basic characteristics of these surrounding religions.
  • People believed in many gods. They might have a main god, but there would usually be other minor gods as well, ruling over various aspects of life. Society was pluralist.
  • Gods were associated with particular peoples and places. Religions were territorial and/or national.
  • The king had a special relationship to the god. He represented people to the god and vice versa, and so sometimes is seen as divine himself. Religion thus had a political character.
  • Gods were sometimes merged. Sometimes, it was difficult to tell gods apart from their names. Other times, a conquered people meant a conquered god. Religions were syncretistic.
  • Gods had particular functions. There was a god of war, a god of childbirth and so on; at times they formed a hierarchy based on their importance to everyday life.
  • Gods often expressed something in the natural world. Baal, for instance, had control over the rain.
  • There were stories about the gods. “The peoples explained their world by telling these stories, usually vivid poetic descriptions of battles and sexual exploits”. Many of them also had creation stories.
  • Gods were worshipped in similar ways. They took different forms, were often represented by images, had priests and temples, and sacrifices were commonly offered to them. There were also various rites, some of which acted out the stories of the gods, including their sexual exploits. This led to the rise of cult prostitution.
  • There were religious experts. Perhaps a priest, or a storyteller, or a seer.
IG moves on the people groups of the time, who come from 3 main areas. Firstly, there was Mesopotamia, the fertile land between the Tigris and Euphrates, where Abraham came from and where the Israelites were exiled to. Its people included the Sumerians, whose creation myth included human failure and a great flood. “Sumerian society was organised mainly in villages grouped around cities to form city states, each of which would have a ruling council under a king who was a representative of the city’s chief god”. Then there are the Babylonians. Babylon was a centre of power for much of its history – good (very) old Hammurabi, for instance, was one of its rulers, who attempted to unite the whole of Mesopotamia. One of their gods, Marduk (also Bel), was considered particularly powerful and is mentioned in Isaiah 46:1 and Jeremiah 50:2. Then there are the Assyrians, north of Babylonia. They were a major political force until the rise of the Babylonians. Their goddess of love and war, Ishtar, had her temple in Niveneh.

Secondly, there is Egypt, which was a very different civilization, with the River Nile serving as the basis of its economy. Egypt regularly interacted with peoples in Canaan throughout biblical history, and many Semites (Hebrews) came to live among the Egyptians at different times. They had lots of interesting gods [I did a project on Egypt when I was about 12 or 13 and it was fun finding out about all about them!], most prominent being the sun [god]. Egyptian worship is rather different from Mesopotamia. Their temples were isolationist, with only priests allowed entry, and gods brought out only for special occasions.

Finally, there is Canaan, the "Promised Land". There was an interesting variety of people groups there, including Amorites, Moabites, Edomites, Phoenicians and Philistines. Most of what we know about them comes from texts discovered in the ancient city of Ugarit, now part of modern-day Syria. El is the chief god, worshipped under different names – some speculate that Melchizedek was priest of El-Elyon, usually translated “God Most High” (Gen. 14:18). El is Creator, kind, merciful, wise. Under him is a pantheon of gods, sometimes called “sons of El”. The Canaanite god Christians are most familiar with is Baal, meaning “master”. He’s the weather god, meaning that if you want a good harvest you’re best be not displeasing him! Interestingly, there’s a Canaanite story where Mot, the god of death, kills Baal, who in turn gets killed by Anath, Baal’s consort, who revives Baal, has sex with him and therefore restores his powers. This story reflects the pattern of rainfall and fertility in Canaan – Baal’s death corresponding with the dry period and so on. The story was acted out with temple prostitutes to ensure Baal’s “revival”.

Throughout this book, IG will throw out reflection questions from time to time for us to think about, and she tosses up one here:
In what ways are the religions in your area like the religions of these different nations?

My gut feeling is that many of my Malaysian/Majority World readers will have no problem finding points of similarity. Off the top of my head I immediately think of the Dayaks and Gawai, or harvest festival, with various ceremonies performed to ward off evil spirits and offering rites of thanksgiving to gods of the natural world.

This chapter provides us with bite-sized chunks of information for orientation purposes, as many of us will have very little idea of the OT cultural-historical background. It’s almost too short, but since she’s writing The Bible and Other Faiths and not Encyclopaedia of the Ancient Near East, it’d be churlish to quibble.

Next chapter and into the Bible itself
Beginnings: Genesis

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Monday, March 03, 2008

The Bible and other Faiths 3

For previous entries, just click on the Bible and Other Faiths label at the end of this post.

Reading the Bible

We are invited to read through Psalm 148. At first glance, it doesn’t seem relevant to the topic at hand. We understand the Creator rules over all his creation, but that’s about it. But what if we remember that the worship of Israel, as expressed in this psalm, was the worship of a people surrounded by other peoples of other religions? (We just have to think of modern-day India, Sri Lanka, or indeed, Malaysia). Gods were associated with the moon and stars, stories told of cosmic battles between different gods, nations ascribed their allegiance to different deities. IG invites us to read through Psalm 148 again. This time, we see that this psalm challenges such thinking! Sun, moon and stars are created things, not gods; this is the One God, not just a god of a particular nation, and all aspects of creation – fertility, weather et al. – are subject to Him. Furthermore, “this psalm goes on to say that this God is to be worshipped under a particular name, revealed to a particular people who have received particular favour.” (Psalm 148:19-20)

As we come to the Bible, then, IG wants to deal with how we approach it. She then makes the claim that, although she has said that we must start with God’s revelation and therefore the Bible, it is, in one sense, impossible. We have to read the Bible being who we are. Before we open the Bible, we already have presuppositions, whether we like it or not. Instead, we can allow the Bible to have priority over our own thinking. So it is in this sense that the Bible is our starting point. This is just how all knowledge develops, we understand things in terms of what we know already, and we need to hear in a language we can understand. God speaks into a dynamic, not static, situation, and so in dealing with this book’s topic, we need to see how he says it as well as what he says.

Secondly, it is not immediately obvious where in the Bible we should "start". The Bible doesn’t mention Hinduism or Buddhism or Islam, in fact, the word "religion" itself cannot be found in the OT. It is important that we do not treat the Bible as a Q&A book. She then notes a common method in approaching the Bible with questions about other religions: the thematic method. Idolatry and the uniqueness of Christ are two oft-treated themes, as many point out Jesus as the only begotten Son, the name above all names, and so on, and others point out the frequent condemnation of idolatry throughout the OT and NT. During the 20th century, more people began to notice some other, more positive themes, regarding God’s concern for all nations. For example, Jonah is sent to Niveneh, Jesus draws the Samaritan woman in, and Melchizedek seems to worship the true God, even though he is outside the covenants.

Interestingly, exclusivists, inclusivists, and pluralists all appeal to the same passages. John 14:6 is an interesting test case. For the exclusivist, this is a clear-cut expression of Jesus pointing to himself as the only way. Inclusivists might argue that our understanding of “only way” needs to be broadened, especially in light of John 1:9. Pluralists might argue that this statement is rooted in faith, it is meaningful for Christians but not others. Two little girls might think that their respective daddies are the best daddies in the world, and they are both right, that is their experience.

And so, IG says, it is quite apparent that the thematic approach is inadequate. For one thing, which theme do we choose? We tend to ask themes according to our questions, and our questions might not necessarily be the best ones to ask. Our questions are all tangled up with various assumptions. However, even more problematically, is that the thematic approach is selective, we choose passages that we think are only relevant to our theme. We might also emphasise one theme over another. Those who see the Bible as only a human book will have no problems with seeing it as contradictory and historically and culturally shaped, with no direct meaning for us today. The opposite problem may arise and we read it ahistorically, without noting for example, to whom particular words are said.

IG now proceeds to describe a canonical approach, drawing on the work of Dan Beeby. Here are some of the ways we can look at the overall pattern of the Bible, which helps us see God’s pattern to his world.
  1. The U pattern. From the highs to the lows and back again. We start with God’s good creation, then the Fall, climaxing the death of Jesus, and then little by little the new creation is restored.
  2. Promise and fulfilment. The NT tells us of the fulfilment in Christ that all the OT points to, and then points on to the complete fulfilment that Christ brings.
  3. From beginning to end. The Bible moves from the perfect Garden of Eden to the perfect heavenly city in Jerusalem.
  4. Relationships. Perfect relationships between God, humankind, and creation broken and restored.
  5. Promises, blessings and covenants. How do the covenants, beginning with Abraham in Genesis 12, work out? Blessings not just for Abraham’s descendants, but through them, for the other nations as well.
God works in his world throughout history. “If we look at the overall shape of the Bible, we have to conclude that, whatever Israel was chosen for, God’s purposes have always been for the whole of humanity and not only for one particular nation.” Beeby suggests that the nations surrounding Israel are parallel to people of different faiths in our times. It is important to see that Israel existed for the nations, bringing blessing to them. They lived among the nations, struggling with them, yes, but also depending on them, Egypt being the obvious example. Finally, Israel was meant to be a witness to the nations, showing them what God is like, although they often failed at this task. It is the same with Christians in the NT. This, Beeby suggests, can be a basis for a relationship with peoples of different faiths.

IG wants us to note one more important thing, and that is that the link between nations and gods is one that continues to this day. By that, she means that it is often the case that religion is bound up with our ethnic and national identity. If we see a Sikh, for eg., we immediately think that he must be a Punjabi.

IG ends this chapter by briefly noting 3 levels of reading into a text:
  1. Author-centred reading: the text as a window. The text becomes a window with which we can become acquainted with a world.
  2. Text-centred reading: the text as picture. We focus on the text itself, noting how it says things, like looking at a picture in detail.
  3. Reader-centred focus: the text as mirror. What does this mean for me, today?
All three levels gives us important insights and it will help to hold the three together. In parts 2 and 3 of the book she will focus on the first 2 approaches. How do biblical writers relate to the religions of the time, and what does the text say and how does it say it?

Much of what IG says here will be familiar to those who have read hermeneutics and Bible overview books, but it’s a good reminder all the same, especially in recognising that people with different convictions all appeal to the Bible, and in noting the weaknesses of a thematic approach. I certainly appreciated Beeby’s insights into the place of Israel amongst the nations and how that might inform our thinking today!

We now come to part 2 of the book, Reading the Old Testament.

Next chapter
Peoples surrounding Israel, and their gods

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Sunday, March 02, 2008

Evening service: a chronological account

Subtitle: On Kindness

Sunday evening. I'm in church, a little weary mentally and emotionally if not physically. My friend asks me to save a seat for him while he goes to the loo, but unfortunately we lose each other and the service is starting. Psalm 145 is read out as Paul gently settles us down and focuses us: God is our king, the one we praise and worship, most worthy of praise, and we remember what God is like in particular: "The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love". With that, the sounds of Crown Him with many Crowns begin to play. From Psalm 145 too, "The LORD is righteous in all his ways" (v.17), something we all are not, mindful of the ways we have failed him throughout this week. And so we turn to God, whom we can call our Father as part of his family, in a time of corporate confession:

Father, we have sinned against Heaven
and against you.
We are not worthy to be called your children.
We turn to you again.
Have mercy on us,
bring us back to yourself
as those who once were dead but now have life
through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Hear Psalm 145 again: "The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love...The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth." (v.8, 18), and reminded that Jesus assures us completely that forgiveness is there for all who truly turn to him: "Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28)

We hear from LM, who is about to declare his faith (instead of being baptised, having already been baptised as an infant in a nominal Roman Catholic family) but before that we hear a little of his story. Apart from the odd crisis moment here and there where God is a convenient genie to call upon, God has otherwise been absent from the first 18 years of his life. But having been puzzled by the behaviour of a Christian girl he fancied, he undertook to go to an "Introducing Christianity" course if only for the sake of impressing said girl. Not that it went well at first, having fallen asleep in 2 of the first 3 weeks he went! But in the fourth week, it was as if somebody had switched on a light bulb. An awareness of his own sense of sin, coupled with just an awestruck feeling of the person of Jesus suddenly had him scrambling for answers, wanting to know more about Christ and those who call themselves his followers. The rest is history. Well, it isn't really, but you know what I mean. This isn't read out, but I now think of v.19 in Psalm 145 - "He fulfills the desires of those who fear him; he hears their cry and saves them." As always with baptisms/declaration of faiths, my favourite part is when at the end of it, we all get to say together that "We are members together of the body of Christ; we are children of the same heavenly Father; we are inheritors together of the kingdom of God. We welcome you!" and then break spontaneously into applause. It reminds me that Christians are never just individuals but a part of one whole body.

We hear prayers, for the week of evangelistic talks just gone by, that peace and justice might reign in Kenya, for some of our mission partners. And then we sing, His Forever and Yesterday, Today and Forever. It is during the singing of the latter that I am reminded once again why the words of the songs we sing are so important. I'm not feeling particularly upbeat, but when I sing a song like that, which focuses on God as the object of our faith and not on the strength of my faith, how I happen to be feeling at that particular moment, that paradoxically, I am strengthened, for I can be certain that God is "always loving, always true / always merciful and good / are faithful and we will trust in you."

We're in the middle of a series on Elisha in 2 Kings, today being 2 Kings 4:1-44, 6:1-7. This is a passage with some more well-known stories, such as the widow and the oil, and the barren woman who ended up having a son, losing him, and getting him back, but it also contains some more obscure yarns, like the poisoned stew (!) and the borrowed axe head(!!). I won't cover the sermon in detail, but it was nourishing. Andrew's quite new at this, having not been out of Bible college for that long (although to his credit, he has already co-written a well-known book!), so his preaching may seem a little unpolished, but I actually think that the plainness of his sermon helped in magnifying God's word tonight. Andrew tells us upfront that his sermon really has only one main point today: the kindness of God. Having set the passage in context, God's judgment of a nation and his preservation of a faithful remnant, of whom all of today's characters are a part of (v.1, 9, 38, 6:1), he shows that the five stories we look at all point to a God who loves his people. Andrew right points out, I think, that this particular son doesn't grow up to be anyone "special", or significant in the Bible storyline. Having recently been looking at many barren women who eventually bore sons who were "important", such as Sarah (Isaac), or Hannah (Samuel), or even Ruth (Obed), it's easy to think that God only blesses those whom he deems important in history, even if it is salvation-history, but here instead we simply see a God who passionately cares for all his people.

I enjoyed his point about the incident in 6:1-7 too, which records a seemingly trivial incident, especially when juxtaposed with what comes after! But again it illustrates that God is concerned with all our lives. Andrew also mentioned his wrestling with how to best apply the passage. To show us how not to apply the passage, he read out part of a sermon by a popular prosperity gospel preacher here in London on this exact passage, which to bluntly put it, was horrendous and pastorally irresponsible. But at the same time, Andrew tells us that after thinking long and hard about it, it is still right to conclude that God wants to bless his people. We could easily fall into the opposite trap of having low expectations about God, and fail to see that our God is one who draws near, one who delights in showing his love.

Whew! I've written far more than I expected, but I need to mention one last thing about the sermon before we move on. Throughout this series in 2 Kings, the preachers have sought to persuade us that through Elisha, God is offering a preview, a microcosm of what he will eventually do through Jesus. After tonight, I'm convinced! There is of course, the basic fact that both their names mean "God saves". That in itself doesn't show anything. But when I see Elisha raising a child from the dead, or feeding men barley loaves with some left over (4:42-44), the Christological parallels become more striking. God ultimately shows his kindness through Jesus. In a world hostile to God, we can be sure of Jesus' own kindness to those who are faithful to him. (Romans 2:4 is the other verse that immediately comes to mind.) And so we sing again, and we close as we started: "The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love."

My Bible study co-leader came up to speak to me briefly, and I'm thankful that he seems to be more deliberately looking out for me lately in a big church where I can still feel alone in a crowd. I spotted Nicholas Cage/David again tonight, but didn't have a chance to see if he remembered me. Instead, it was another more recent conversation that got a sequel. Lee is a Korean who's newly arrived in London - I won't go into it, but basically not knowing anyone and being homeless, he ended up being invited to stay in Andrew's (said preacher) home. I was asked to take him under my wing last week, and we ended up having a very good and very long chat, despite the fact that his English wasn't very good. Unlike David, Lee is a Christian, who's about to go join YWAM in Switzerland. (As YWAM is an organisation I'm familiar with, that did help provide some grist for our conversation!). He was delighted to see me again this week and although I was initially not feeling up to it, I could see that he needed a familiar face and agreed to go to church supper with him. This time around as we talked, I was just blown away by his simple trust in God this week, as his gratitude to God providing "his manna", as he jokingly put it, in terms of providing for a place, food, and Christians came across really clearly. He thanked me for showing him kindness as we got ready to head home, but once again, I was left thinking: "The encouragement isn't as one-sided as you think!"

To use Piperite language, tonight was a God-saturated service, with the Word given primacy, and a recognition that Christians are all part of a body. I know the church is far, far from perfect; I've heard plenty of stories of spiritual abuse; that people "like Jesus but not the church" etc. etc. When I came back tonight, I'm still tired. I still know there are battles ahead. I still wish that in many ways, I had more intimate relationships with other Christians. But in the end I'm also thinking: churchless Christians? Why?

Notice: This post is another one of those that BK just had to churn out so he apologises if it is a little raw.

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