Monday, April 28, 2008

The Bible and Other Faiths 7

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

God's nation among the nations

How will Israel live? Will they live as the covenant people they were called to be among the nations, or will they bow down to other gods and worship them? Regardless of Israel’s obedience or disobedience, God will still speak to the nations through them, but Israel’s disobedience will bring about adverse consequences.

IG hones in on the story of Israel’s land and power in this chapter. She starts by giving us the foundational premise: all land and power is God’s. She quickly covers Genesis 1-2, where human beings are given stewardship over the land under God. Genesis 3 tells us how humans were quick to desire power for themselves. They wanted to be independent of God, and God responded by expelling them from the land he had originally placed under them. The exile of Cain and the story of Babel continued this pattern. IG suggests that Babel is actually a religious enterprise, where religion is used as the means of power to keep the people in the land. In truth, it is God who gives his people the land, and the breaking of the covenant would result in removal from that land. But Israel had yet to understand this and often adopted the attitudes of the surrounding nations/religions.

We move on now to Joshua and the conquest. IG admits that she has often struggled with this book, having even wished that it was not in the Bible. But she has come to accept this as an essential part of the story of God’s mission. However, she cautions us that we will need to read Joshua carefully, and that it is key to remember that the conquest described in the book is unique. It is the only time Israel is ever asked to take land, a unique settlement of God’s people in a land he has chosen for them. What are the main themes of this book? “Joshua is not only about the establishment of a people in a land, but is also about the aweful reality of God’s holiness and judgment.”

IG reminds us that people have always needed land to live in and to cultivate. The Abrahamic covenant recognises the human need for land and God’s ownership of all land. This is not the most important thing, of course, since at the end of the Pentateuch, Israel still has no land! – but does suggest that the timing of the conquest was pretty important. The Canaanite destruction is one of the most difficult and potentially offensive passages in the Bible, and here IG suggests a few things to be kept in mind.
  1. Israel was not allowed to take the land until it was the right time for its inhabitants to be judged. This is hinted at in Genesis 15:16.
  2. The destruction was carefully limited. “Israel was only given a certain amount of land (Josh. 1:4); and within it there were other peoples to whom God had given land. (Deut. 2:9-25).
  3. Israel only destroyed those who opposed her. Some of the Canaanites acknowledged Israel’s God and were not destroyed, and it is clear that in the land itself there were “aliens”, some of whom must have been Canaanites, living among them.
  4. Many 21st century Christians see the total conquest of Joshua as bloodthirsty and barbaric. But for the time, it seems to have been remarkably civilized.
  5. God’s justice is summarized in Joshua 11:20, which contains the difficult idea of God hardening people’s hearts. IG does not presume to offer any better answers than the myriad of commentators, but this is at least clearly God’s judgment on a wicked people.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, Joshua is about Israel’s and Yahweh’s holiness. Israel was to be set apart, and not to follows the trails of false worship. God’s holiness is such that anything unholy that enters his presence will be destroyed. This is true of the Israelites as well, as seen in the story of Achan (Josh. 7). “The holy God is choosing this particular land and this particular nation to demonstrate his holiness”.

IG moves on to the idea of kingship and political power. The historical books in the OT show that Israel kept trying to be like other nations. This extends to their desire to have a human king. God graciously allowed them this, but warned them that they would have to face the consequences as well. Their kings could very well treat them like the kings of other nations, that is, there was always potential for abuse. Still, God used their desire for kingship for good, as he makes a covenant with David, which ultimately points the way for the arrival of the true King, Jesus the Messiah.

IG then reflects on the question of whether Israel was wrong in wanting a king since the idea of kingship is a major theme in the OT (and of course the “kingdom of God” is a big idea in the NT) and interacts with other commentators on this. “There is a sense in which Israel had to be like the nations, because she was [precisely that], a nation[!] The problem was that, as she was warned, she often became too much like them, and fell into the wrong worship and abuse of power…” David’s reign, while not perfect, did point in the right direction, but sadly, the history of Israel’s monarchy showed what often the king took religion and power into his own hands. Israel too often followed the lead of their human leaders when they should have been holy like God.

We now turn to the exile. This is an important theme “for our study of religions…because it demonstrates that Israel’s God is not like the gods of the nations, because he is not a national or territorial god. The exile breaks the ties between god, king, people and power that support the dangerous triangle. It also has significance for God’s mission to his world, as it forces Israel to live among the nations.” Suddenly Israel had to confront some of these questions:
  • Can we live as Yahweh’s people without a temple or land of our own, or without power?
  • Yahweh is not like other gods, we’re beginning to see that. But what does this say about other gods?
  • Yahweh’s rule can be seen in the defeat of his people as well as in their victories. How, then, will we see his ultimate victory?
These various questions were answered by, among others, Jeremiah, Esther and Isaiah, but IG decides to use Daniel as her case study. At the beginning of Daniel, it appears that Yahweh has been defeated, but the rest of the book reveals that Yahweh is at work in Babylon, showing how he is lord of all. The Babylonian wise men have no insight, Belshazzar pays a high price for his disrespect of God. The people-power-land links with religion is broken. God’s people can live without a temple, or land, or power, at the very heart of a nation with a different faith!

Finally, we now move to Israel’s return to the land. Why did Yahweh do this? We can see that this shows God remains faithful to his covenant, and that he also has a plan. It is still God’s intention to bless the nations through Israel, and the books of Ezra and Nehemiah show how Israel tried to be holy, while living among people of other faiths. The new leaders now emphasised separation a lot more, having realised the problem of trying to be like other nations had gotten them into trouble into the first place. (You could say, I suppose, that they were the early forerunners of the Pharisee sect). This is seen in the building of the temple, where the locals (non-Israelites) offer of help was refused, and in the ruthless dismissal of foreign wives. This obviously cannot be a basis for forbidding interracial marriages, as demonstrated elsewhere in the OT, but appears to be because Ezra is worried about their unfaithfulness to Yahweh. IG ends the chapter with a question: is holiness purely about separation, or is there another kind of holiness that does not depend on where we live or we live with?

This is the first time I’ve read a Bible, or at least OT, overview that uses the theme of land (and its natural association with power) as the lens and it’s pretty illuminating. I’m still not familiar enough with much of the OT to be able to discuss the details of IG’s chapters, though I’m sure she’s pretty much on the mark; I’m simply sitting at her feet as a student at this point! It’s also interesting to ponder about how all of the above might help inform Christian reflection on issues pertaining to community, political power, refugees and so on, keeping in mind that Christians are exiles and strangers in this world, of course (1 Peter 1:2). I’m sure there must have been people who have thought more deeply and acted accordingly on stuff like this.

Reflection questions:
Some people say that, to live at peace with people of other faiths, we need to recognize their gods and even to pray with them. Deuteronomy tells Israel that she will live at peace only if she refuses to worship other gods. What questions does this raise in your mind?

What role has political power played in establishing religions in your area? What role has religion played in establishing political power?

Daniel was able to say to the king of the nation that had taken him into exile, “I have never done anything wrong before you.” (6:22). How does this challenge and encourage Christians who live as a minority, under the rule of people of a different faith?

What sort of holiness is it that can bring blessings to the nations? Do you have to keep separate from sinners to keep righteous? How can we witness to people of other faiths if we keep apart from them?

God, gods and other nations

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Sunday, April 27, 2008


I've had a good week. It just felt more productive; the interview seemed to go well, and I enjoyed my time back in the City of Dreaming Spires yesterday. Henry was speaking to a group of Christian international students who will be graduating this year on the challenges of the post-university years and encouraging them from Hebrews 10:19-25, and he asked me and another friend to come along to help out, if only in a small way. I was especially encouraged to see someone I knew who had come along once to my group when I was a Bible study leader as either a very young Christian (or perhaps not even a Christian then), now really desiring to put God first. It was nice to see familiar sights: a student sitting on the bench highlighting her notes, queues of tourists and less industrious students alike forming to go punting, walking past Teddy Hall on the cobbled streets of Queen's Lane.

We also had a thanksgiving service this evening. It wasn't advertised ahead of time, but apparently the church leadership thought it appropriate to pause for a Sunday and simply give thanks for all that God has done in the past 10 years. In a sense, we give thanks each and every Sunday in our "regular" services, but it was nice, I suppose, to just have a little more time for reflection and praise for the gospel work that goes on, seen and unseen, even as we recognise that God is working through his people all over the world and we are but one tiny bit of that work.

I know, since I was under the same impression before I started going there myself, that my church had a bit of a reputation as being one of those hardline "Reformed conservative evangelical types", but I see now that it's a really, really unfair caricature. It has its warts and all, of course, and I wouldn't want to gloss over those, but I have found an attractive and authentic expression of the Body in this particular local gathering. There's no sense of sectarianism, no weapons being handed out for the weekly witch-hunt, no intellectual gamesmanship, and certainly no holy huddle of the frozen chosen. There is of course, the struggle to love God, love one another, to open up to our struggles, to not just store away information but allow a Spirit-driven transformation. But I know that the pictures of what is sometimes labelled as "conservative evangelicalism" that are described and given a roasting in some parts of the Christian blogosphere is a different creature from the one I know. I don't doubt those exist, but it just isn't the one I've experienced.

Sorry for the little tangent there, got a little carried away in wanting to make sure that such generalizations do not hold sway! Back to this evening. I knew that we had planted a couple of churches, but had not realised that all in all, there had been 12 in the last decade! Got to be reminded of the various mission partners we have all over the world, and some of the work that we don't really hear about. Lest we start patting ourselves too much on the back, Paul preached from Mark 10:32-45 on humility and true service - it was one of those sermons where the preacher seems to know all those thoughts that are presently inflating your head and proceeds to nip them in the bud. And of course, we ultimately go back to the cross, the ransoming work of Christ, the One who is both source and example for our service.

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
    his love endures forever.
Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love
    and his wonderful deeds for men,
for he satisfies the thirsty
    and fills the hungry with good things.
- Psalm 107:1, 8-9

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Friday, April 25, 2008


Will be in Oxford for the day tomorrow. Am looking forward to it. I haven't been back since attending a friend's wedding nearly a year ago.

Oh, and the interview seems to have gone well, if you're wondering. :)

Btw, does anyone have a good book or film to recommend for recreational purposes? (Glenn Close's series Damages, recently shown on BBC, looked interesting). Nothing too heavy please. Or if you know of something interesting in London that's worth seeing. Yes, I am a little bored with my routine.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Around the web

Just a couple of things that I thought was too good to pass up...

Those of you who've followed this blog for a little while now might remember me doing a series working through the complementarian and egalitarian views. I didn't touch on the Trinity then, but John Stackhouse of Regent College, an egalitarian, has a good post in which he sums up how both camps appeal to the Trinity to substantiate their respective positions before arguing that the Trinity doesn't prove anything about gender either way.

I listened to Mark Dever's message, Improving the Gospel at T4G, an American conference looking to find the centre ground of an increasingly fragmented evangelicalism, last week (although I'll admit I wasn't concentrating 100% of the time!). It's worth a listen as he wrestles with distinguishing between the gospel proper and what are merely implications of the gospel - might sound like an academic exercise but actually, how we understand the gospel really does impact what we see as priorities, how we witness etc. There's a good summary of his main points at Out of Ur. No substitute for listening it for yourself though, as the subsequent comment thread on the summary post shows. Ugh, lots of people were missing the point, it was just so frustrating to read! I don't know if I agree entirely with everything Dever says, but he's the smart guy and I'm not. But another smart guy, Mike Bird, has good thoughts on it. Bird wants to probe a little more on the details while agreeing with the thrust of Dever's message.

Trevix Wax has a follow up interview with N.T Wright and his new book, Surprised By Hope.

Stephen Murray: Why Being a Follower of Jesus is not enough.

Al Hsu on common ground between 'emergents' and 'new calvinists'. We've just finished a series on 1 John at church and I'm thinking that it's the biblical letter that we all need to hear the most in these times, with its tight emphasis on right belief and right living, both of which are essential, whatever label we self-identify by. I'll love at some point to read both Collin Hansen and Tony Jones's books and compare my own journey over the last couple of years.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Dilbert on interviews

Friday, April 18, 2008

Race meets the Malaysian church (part 2)

Part 1

Racial reconciliation in light of biblical reflection
WN now writes, in light of such attitudes that “the only hope, I believe, in bringing racial restoration is not in voting Opposition (because that reflects a selfish ‘protect me and not the UMNOputeras’ attitude) but in loving every other race.” Yes, yes, yes! I am in wholehearted agreement with the sentiments expressed here. However, I want to build on this statement in two ways. Negatively, I want to demolish what I feel is a false antithesis here. It might be the case that many would have voted Opposition on the basis of selfish attitudes. But I doubt many others would have reasoned like this in casting their votes. Firstly, is voting for the Opposition in this instance really reflective of an "it’s you or me, mister" attitude? I don’t think so. I would likely have voted Opposition in the last elections because I feel that the actions of some members of UMNO have harmed the rakyat regardless of whatever background they come from. The NEP, a political hot potato that inevitably comes up in such discussions, was not originally conceived as a zero sum game but ideally as a win-win situation for all. I would say that I feel that voting for the Opposition in this case is actually one small way I show my love for other races, as poor Malays have suffered especially from the misdemeanours of some corrupt members of the ruling party.

Now this is not the same as saying that by voting for PKR-DAP-PAS and simply changing institutional structures, racial reconciliation will surely come about. This leads on the second way I wish to build on his statement; positively, I seek to ground his proposal more Christianly. Now here I understand by doing so I necessarily limit my audience. I’m following Carson’s exhortation to "think biblically and theologically", and so this is not a discussion on specific matters of civil life and political activity (I hope my short justification of why I would have voted for the Opposition provides a sufficient eg. of this) nor is this a discussion on how best to work with other non-Christians in the public square, many with whom we would find common ground. However, as a Christian, my working assumption is that the biblical metanarrative is true, and therefore this will necessarily be the lens in which I view the world (just as a Muslim or an atheist will have their own assumptions). Anyway, let’s flesh this out.

The starting point, I think, should be the Trinity. The Trinity is perhaps the distinctive mark of the Christian God. For it teaches us one very important truth, and that is God is relational. One of the reasons we can confidently say that God didn’t create humans because he was lonely is because of the Trinity. God has always been in community. We further learn that all humans are made in the image of God. That means all humans have inherent dignity, and it also means that we are by nature, relational beings. Furthermore, as the Trinity is both the perfect example of unity and diversity, it gives us a basis to understand that we should mirror our relationships after the Triune God, enjoying both a God-given oneness and diversity. The way we view people, regardless of race, culture, or ethnicity must necessarily be governed by this.

Sin enters the world, and disrupts both our relationship with God and with each other. At its heart is the failure to honour God; he is displaced. This "works out in countless sins of every description. It includes oppression on the one hand and nurtured resentments on the other—and both feed into what we call racism. Idolatry means we are so selfish most of the time that most of us do not automatically think in terms of sacrificial service...Because almost all sin has social ramifications, the biases, hatreds, resentments, nurtured feelings of inferiority and superiority, anger, fear, sense of entitlement—all are passed on in corrosive ways to new generations." (Carson)

That is as true in Malaysia as in any other part of the world. This is why we cannot portray ourselves as mere victims. This is not to say that there have never been groups of people who have been sinned against terribly, and surely we want to redress those, and institutional reform is one way to go. But people don’t just need to be reconciled to one another, they need to be reconciled to God.

This is why Christians, more than any other people, have a basis to love others, regardless of race. They are meant to be a people reconciled to God because of the cross! Sadly, we have not always acted on that basis and practised what we preached. However, a love for others should naturally flow from the love God that he has shown us, through the atoning sacrifice of his Son for his...not friends, but enemies. In short, it is grounded in the gospel. (Romans 5:8, 1 John 4:10). John makes this clear in v.11: "Dear friends, since God so loved us, so we ought to love one another", where he is speaking of Christians in particular. There is no qualification, no appeal to loving those from the same race or culture. Similarly, in Philippians 2:1-11, we too are exhorted to put the interests of others ahead of ourselves, and again the reason we are given is the example of Jesus himself.

This should be a distinctive mark of Christian communities. There are countless other examples like these: Paul is grateful for the Colossians’ “faith in Christ Jesus” and love for "all the saints" (1:4), the Macedonian church (Gentiles) takes up a collection for the Christians in Jerusalem (Jews), as they recognise the grace of their Lord Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 8:1-9) and so on. Ephesians 2:11-22 is probably the definitive statement on how the cross impacts human relationships and creates not just saved individuals, but a new community. Christians, more than anyone, need to model racial reconciliation as a pointer to the God of all nations. On the final day, Scripture tells us that those who gather around his throne will be from all ethnicities, so that part of our identity is not eliminated in the new creation. Nonetheless such love is not restricted to Christians only, as is made clear elsewhere in the NT. "Make sure that nobody repays wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and everyone else." (1 Thess. 5:15). There is a responsibility to care for the church ("each other") but also those who are not Christians ("everyone else"). In multi-racial Malaysia, I think that this is especially pertinent.

It may be true that “when you start a culture of loving one another, it comes back to you.” But in the end, this is only a byproduct. And I don’t think it holds true in every case. If we recognise that the world is still fallen and that sin still exists, although Christ’s kingdom has already been inaugurated through the death of Jesus, then there will be ugly moments in history where love is not reciprocated. It is in such moments that Christians will need to recognise the hope found in the gospel, because hope found elsewhere is hope misplaced. Even when no one else fights for my race, I can rest secure in the love of Jesus for all people groups, and that in Christ, I also have a family that transcends race. Perfect love does not exist now, but it will in the new creation, and Christians should show glimpses of that future today in the way we treat others.

There is so much more that can be said, but I hope it’s sufficient for my point to stand. People can go and read Carson for a better and fuller account, or alternatively, Bruce Milne’s Dynamic Diversity.

Well, I must have broken just about every blogging rule regarding conciseness! This has been for your consideration and hopefully, not self-indulgence.

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Race meets the Malaysian church

[Context: This is an edited version of a piece in which I interact fairly extensively with my friend Wai Nyan’s reflections on race-based politics. In it I attempt to modify some aspects and build upon his post and in doing so hope to encourage all of us to reflect more on the subject. This post makes no pretence at being definitive or exhaustive, not that I could do that anyway. Wai Nyan has seen an earlier draft, and encouraged me to put it online. Blame him. :-p]

My friend Wai Nyan asks the question, ‘Is race-based politics dying?’ and offers a few brief reflections. I suspect that his reflections are shaped by a desire to respond to those “who say that race-based politics should be eliminated but in the very same sentence, mock the Malays...” and those of similar attitudes. Therefore, his intended audience and purpose is quite different from mine; where he sought generally to correct, I was looking for further elucidation. That needs to be taken into account: writing a disciplinary report to the parents of the naughty kid in your class is obviously different from writing an extended essay for your college professor! So I was looking for some nuance in a post that was not necessarily meant to be read that way.

WN’s post reminded me of a D.A Carson piece where he reflects on racism with reference to the church in particular, and I managed to track it down and reread it. Five Steps for Reconciliation on Sunday at 11 a.m, adapted from chapter 4 of his book Love in Hard Places, represents Carson at his best. He suggests five things we need to keep in mind:
  1. Know the history of the problem
  2. Recognise our mutual culpability
  3. Consider your church’s neighbourhood
  4. Consider the real gospel tensions
  5. Think biblically and theologically

On history and terminology
I want to use Carson’s suggestions as a jumping-off point. I think that first of all, to "know the history of the problem" is to know a little about the word 'race' itself. When we use the word, we normally mean a particular grouping of people based on certain physical characteristics, shared culture and perhaps also area of geographical origin. However, sometimes people go beyond that, and link these inherited physical characteristics to inherited moral, intellectual or behavourial qualities. This is certainly true historically: the history of colonialism reveals that frequent distinctions between the "civilized" and the "barbarians" were often made with these assumptions in mind. Antisemitism is another obvious example. I’m no expert, but as far as I can tell, no respectable geneticist today will tell you that there is an inherent link between “race” and genes. That sounds weird to our ears at first – surely Tiger Woods, Roger Federer and Lin Dan are completely different? It is true that their body shapes, hair and so on are different, and that this is based genetically. Nevertheless, it is only a very small part of us. The mix of melanin, the substance that controls our skin colour, is tiny, and everyone has the same genes that control skin colour! Caucasians could in theory be as dark-skinned as Africans. (I remember first reading about this as a kid in the Bookworm series from Singapore and being very tickled about it). It turns out that a tall person and a short person is probably more different genetically than a Malay and Chinese of equal height.

Does that mean 'race' doesn’t exist? No, we can still talk of race, but we just can’t ground it in purely biological terms. Rather, we use it as a convenient way to classify complex groupings of people with shared physical appearances, cultures, ancestry et al., and all this is bound up with questions of religion and geographical location and so on. It can be very difficult, even impossible to clarify where the exact boundaries are. Where do we draw the line where somebody belongs to a certain race and not the other (or when one qualifies as “mixed”)? The recent blooper where the Chief Minister of Perak mistakenly referred to Sikhs as Bengalis neatly illustrates this, and also shows the very real hurt feelings that can arise.

Generally, we do need to think more about what we mean by 'race', and particularly because it is relevant to, if only in a tiny part, "knowing the history of the problem" in Malaysia. In 1970, Tun Dr. Mahathir, the strongman of Malaysian politics, wrote The Malay Dilemma, where he, among other things, lamented the racial inferiority of the Malays and explicitly linked it with defective genes. This is just not a tenable position. There were also places in the book where he framed the discussion in terms of competition with other races. I don’t know if Dr. M would still defend those views in 2008, or how influential the book continues to be today, but there was no doubt that his book had a significant impact on the psyche of the Malays then and has helped frame the discussion not in altogether helpful ways.

Of course, Dr. M was also building on racial stereotypes inherited from our colonial masters and earlier intellectuals who depicted the Malays as an indolent people. The colonial administrators also played the divide-and-rule game and helped create a racially segregated society and also boosted a collective identity among various people groupings. It is also helpful to remember that as Malaya, which was already populated by various peoples, began to move towards independence, communal groupings were formed – UMNO, MCA etc. – and when they banded together as the “Alliance”, the predecessor of today’s BN, they faced the paradox of appealing to communalist sentiments to pander to their various bases while at the same time trying to present a united front, downplaying perceived threats from the other communities.

Now this is only a very small representation of the various complicated issues at hand. I am actually very reluctant to comment at length because I am quite aware of my own ignorance of these issues. All I really want to show is that it’s really important to try to understand why the situation as it exists today comes about. It’s also why I want to quibble slightly with some of the ways WN frames his discussion. I’m not sure, for instance, if it follows that identifying simply with the phrase “I am Malaysian” leads to CNY, Deepavali or Hari Raya being discarded or our various ancestral histories etc. being disposed of (if that was even possible). I get that this is a rhetorical strategy on his part to show two extreme positions – one where we merely emphasise our lot with no care for others and one where there is a flattening out of diversity, before he goes on to chart a better third way: love. I agree with the rejection of these two positions and the third way, and hopefully this will be evident later on this post.

But I think how we speak of these positions are important. Here, I would prefer to talk in terms of cultures or ethnicities – diverse cultures do exist, and they can all exist under the rubric: “I am Malaysian”. This might sound like mere semantics, but I don’t think so. I feel that we just cannot be loose with our talk if we are to challenge erroneous assumptions about race. Malaysia is a place of cultural diversity, and we can be thankful for that. And we do need to talk about problems of race and racism, as WN acknowledges. But WN implicitly ties CNY, Deepavali and Hari Raya with notions of racial essence, by suggesting that a singular “Malaysian race” means that these celebrations become a thing of the past. But Deepavali and Hari Raya are religious festivals which are celebrated by all kinds of people groups all over the world! True, the socio-cultural conditions in Malaysia are such that to be Malay is to be Muslim, and to be Indian is (mostly) to be Hindu, but this is not a link that is set in stone the way, say, being right or left-handed is. So I would have preferred him to use different terminology or examples.

Carson suggests that we also ought to "recognise our mutual culpability", by which he means that we need to acknowledge that racism often comes from both sides of the divide. WN rightly draws our attention to our hidden racism here; we, whatever colour we are, alll too easily often cast ourselves as collective victims. Yet we all have been guilty of perpetuating the problem at some point. Although he is addressing the black/white divide in America, Carson’s words have applicability cross-culturally and are worth quoting at length here:
" True, slavery is the sin of the powerful, not the weak; and very often racism follows the same pattern. But if racism is defined in terms of exclusion, then racism occurs wherever anyone is dismissed or disowned or demeaned or stereotyped for no other reason than his or her race or ethnicity. Doubtless many white racists think that African-Americans are intrinsically prone to violence, not too bright, and more of the same; but many an African-American finds it hard to imagine that "Whitey" can ever be trusted or should ever be given the benefit of the doubt. It may be useful to draw an analogy. If materialism is the exclusive sin of the rich, then only rich people can be materialistic. But if materialism is the passionate love of material goods, such that God himself is deposed, then poor people may be as horribly materialistic as the rich."

Continued (part 2)

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Doors half open

Got onto the shortlist for interview for a job today! And this too after I was told yesterday of another door left ajar to consider - no guarantee that it would budge further, but the question is whether it's wise to push it in the first place. Not certain about that one yet - it goes off in a pretty different direction... Not that either door sets me on the path to mega-riches, at least not in a material sense. :-p

This interview is at the end of next week. My interview record is mixed: I've had good ones and bad ones. All prayers welcomed. :)

This is an occasion to thank God however, whatever it may bring.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

playing NBA pundit again

The NBA season is about to come to a close. It's been pretty wide open the past couple of years, and it's been no different this year; I honestly have no idea who will be crowned champions come June. The Boston Celtics have the best regular season record and probably deserve to go into the playoffs as slight favourites, if only because their role players have done well to complement the Big 3 of Garnett, Pierce and Allen. I'm especially happy for Pierce, who has stuck out 9 seasons of mediocrity for this. Anyone who's smart will never discount the Spurs, but they might be too old to repeat - they're the AC Milan of the NBA. On the other hand, the other veteran core of Pistons still have it, with a talented if youthful bench to boot. The Lakers are to be taken seriously after pulling off the trade of the year to land Pau Gasol; they now have one of the best, if not the best, starting fives. Flying lower under the radar than in years past are the Suns and Mavs. The Suns wanted to see if an aging Shaq would get them over the hump - I don't think so. The Mavs have been less consistent this year but maybe not having to carry the tag of favourites for once might help. The Jazz, Hornets and my team, the Magic, who have had a good season, aren't quite there yet I think to go all the way. Cavs got to the Finals a season ago on the back of Superman Lebron; he won't repeat the trick.

End of season awards:

MVP: Well, this is the year Kobe deserves to win it. It's a little surprising that he hasn't got one already, he's so good he's taken for granted. Kevin Garnett was the MVP for the first half of the season and I wouldn't begrudge him a 2nd MVP, but it's more likely Kobe will be rewarded. Lebron is the only other serious contender but he's got plenty of time to collect a few before he's retired. Same with Chris Paul.

Most Improved Player: Wow, there's lots of candidates this year for this one. LaMarcus Aldridge of the Portland Trail Blazers had a great sophomore year, and the improvement in his stats is quite something. Chris Kaman of the Clippers had a breakout year and made lots of fantasy basketball fans happy. Chris Paul has even been mentioned, since no one figured he would make the jump from star to superstar so fast, but historically the award has been given for those who make the jump from potential to good/very good. It's a close call for me between the Lakers Andrew Bynum, who was derided a year ago but has shown the mental toughness to take criticism in his stride and become a force down low, and Hedo Turkoglu, a former supersub with the Kings who has become quite a clutch all-rounder for the Magic. As I'm a Magic fan, I decide that my bias should win here and I'll give to Hedo.

6th Man: Talk about key subs and a few come to mind: Jason Maxiell has done really well for the Pistons, and last year's winner Leandro Barbosa still makes an impact whenever he's on the court. Jason Terry came off the bench enough times to qualify for this award, and was the leading candidate for this in the first 3rd of the season. But in the end, really, it has to be Manu Ginobili of the Spurs, who has made the transition from starting lineup to sixth man effortlessly and has become the sparkplug of their offense.

Rookie of the Year: Once Greg Oden went down, we all know this belongs to Kevin Durant of the Sonics, who's done well on a struggling team, although like all non-Center rookies, the field goal percentage isn't great. Honourable mentions should go to Al Horford, who will be a useful power forward on many teams, Al Thornton on the Clippers, who showed his potential once he was given the minutes, and Jamarion Moon of the Raptors, a defensive hustle type of guy with a nice feelgood story of making it in the NBA after years of toil.

Executive of the Year: Well, this boils down to Mitch Kupchak of the Lakers for his trade of the year to steal Paul Gasol, and Danny Ainge, who took a chance and got both Ray Allen and KG to come to the Celtics, but more importantly, managed to get important role players such as James Posey and drafting Glen Davis.

Defensive Player of the Year: I pick Marcus Camby to repeat based on his ridiculous stats - check out his averages for blocks and steals. Competition is likely to come from Josh Smith, who has only slightly less ridiculous stats. Although Kevin Garnett will also come in for consideration based on the fact that the Celtics have really tightened up since he arrived.

Pick for winner? Well, I've got it wrong the last few times, so take my prediction with a pinch of salt, but I think whoever wins the Celtics-Pistons matchup goes on to take it all.

Oh, and I struggled this year in Fantasy NBA, spending the first 2/3s of the season in the bottom half of the table before managing a bit of a run after that. Had a team with too many guards, an injured star player and not much else. Tonight will determine whether I finish in the top half of the table or not. :)

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Counterfeit gospels

Jonathan Leeman posts on a schema of seven counterfeit gospels, as cited in How People Change by Tim Lane and Paul Tripp.
  1. Formalism. “I participate in the regular meetings and ministries of the church, so I feel like my life is under control. I’m always in church, but it really has little impact on my heart or on how I live. I may become judgmental and impatient with those who do not have the same commitment as I do.”
  2. Legalism. “I live by the rules—rules I create for myself and rules I create for others. I feel good if I can keep my own rules, and I become arrogant and full of contempt when others don’t meet the standards I set for them. There is no joy in my life because there is no grace to be celebrated.”
  3. Mysticism. “I am engaged in the incessant pursuit of an emotional experience with God. I live for the moments when I feel close to him, and I often struggle with discouragement when I don’t feel that way. I may change churches often, too, looking for one that will give me what I’m looking for.”
  4. Activism. “I recognize the missional nature of Christianity and am passionately involved in fixing this broken world. But at the end of the day, my life is more of a defense of what’s right than a joyful pursuit of Christ.”
  5. Biblicism. “I know my Bible inside and out, but I do not let it master me. I have reduced the gospel to a mastery of biblical content and theology, so I am intolerant and critical of those with lesser knowledge.”
  6. Therapism. “I talk a lot about the hurting people in our congregation, and how Christ is the only answer for their hurt. Yet even without realizing it, I have made Christ more Therapist than Savior. I view hurt as a greater problem than sin—and I subtly shift my greatest need from my moral failure to my unmet needs."
  7. "Social-ism." “The deep fellowship and friendships I find at church have become their own idol. The body of Christ has replaced Christ himself, and the gospel is reduced to a network of fulfilling Christian relationships.”
(HT: Between Two Worlds)

Was looking at Colossians tonight with my small group on the sufficiency of the gospel, so this feels timely. I'm sure we have all fallen into one of the traps above at one time or another!


Friday, April 11, 2008

Two books

Some amateur jottings on two recently read books...

The Wondrous Cross - Stephen HolmesThe Wondrous Cross, Stephen Holmes

Holmes is both a Baptist pastor and lecturer at the University of St. Andrews, and has been labelled as one of the most thoughtful young British theologians by others. Using recent debates regarding the atonement in the UK as a starting point, Holmes defends penal substitution but argues that we need many complementary descriptions to describe salvation, or as Scot McKnight has put it elsewhere, "stories of the Story". As such, his book reads more like positive statement rather than a defensive reaction, although he does not shirk from engaging various objections to a penal substitutionary understanding of the cross.

Written for the layperson and a model of brevity at only 130 pages, Holmes starts by reviewing the biblical material on the cross in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, before moving on to how the atonement has been viewed throughout history. He then paints a mutifaceted view of the cross before defending the "story" or "metaphor" of penal substitution, and ending with how we should speak of and live under the cross.

There is a lot to like in this book. Its length means that it is not offputting to the average churchgoer, and Holmes is like a patient, laidback teacher with no axe to grind. He is also very restrained in many of his conclusions (sometimes too restrained!), frequently showing how the language of the Bible and of the early church fathers lead to the ways we can understand the cross without necessarily being over-dogmatic about it. Holmes is not afraid to invoke "mystery" and his overriding concern is finally, to move us to worship rather than complete understanding (although he does not pit the two against the other). His emphasis on the many stories/models/metaphors of the cross is to be welcomed as there is some grain of truth in the charge that some evangelicals emphasise penal substitution to the exclusion of other models. Other highlights include his dismantling of the common myth that the tradition of penal substitution started with Anselm and his discussion of God's identification with us.

Its very brevity can also be a weakness however. His 2 chapters on the biblical text often leaves the reader wanting more. And while he explains that he leaves out references because the book is for a general audience (i.e people like me!), it means that one has to take his word for it in the historical section. Finally, Holmes argues that the story of penal substitution needs to take a backseat in today's culture, which has largely lost any notion of sin and guilt. This is a wrong move, I think, whereby the surrounding culture has been allowed to take the upper hand over the biblical material. The images Scripture uses of the cross are surely not arbitrary and cannot be so easily tossed aside in the name of contextualization, for losing the story of penal substitution could have distorting effects on the other stories. He is surely right in his reading of today's culture, but I think the right move therefore is not so much to relegate penal substitution to the periphery, but to find creative ways to express this afresh, as well as to interweave it with the other stories. (See for eg., Romans 3:21-26 and Colossians 2:13-15)

Nonetheless, this is an ideal book for many who have perhaps vaguely heard and been disturbed by some of the discontented rumblings over the atonement in recent years. I will also continue to recommend Mark Meynell's Cross-Examined as the best introductory book on the cross.

Evangelicals in the Public SquareEvangelicals in the Public Square, J. Budziszewski

J. Budziszewski, a well-regarded professor of government and philosophy and also known to many as Professor Theophilus (formerly of Boundless, now at TrueU), examines evangelical political thought in the 20th century through 4 key exponents: Carl Henry, Abraham Kuyper, Francis Schaeffer and John Howard Yoder. His main task is to open the door for more sustained reflection on a specifically evangelical political thought. This is followed by rejoinders by four scholars, each of whose area of expertise is on one of the four men above.

Budzizewski starts off with an opening chapter where he outlines the distinctives of an "evangelical" political theory. All political theories must satisfy the criteria of having an orienting doctrine (a guide to thought), a practical doctrine (a guide to action) and a cultural apologetics (a guide to persuasion). He then gives us some principles derived from the Bible, before noting that Scripture does not give us a comprehensive doctrine of politics. As such, he argues, this needs to be augmented by an understanding of general revelation and natural law.

He then provides an overview of the thought of the four aforementioned thinkers, showing where he agrees and appreciates them and then critiquing them, often from a specifically "natural law" perspective. As I do not have any background in political theory and very little idea on the specific issues at play, I did find this hardgoing at times, although Budzizewski is a clear communicator and provides very helpful explication. I learnt more about Kuyper's sphere sovereignty, for instance, and saw where Yoder was going off-base more clearly. This book is not a substitute for reading the primary texts themselves, such as Kuyper's Lectures on Calvinism or Yoder's Politics of Jesus. However, I can imagine it being a very illuminating commentary if read alongside them. Although the United States obviously provides the backdrop for a lot of the discussion, this did not prove to be a hindrance.

The rejoinders are a bit of a mixed bag. The respondents agree with some of the thrusts of Budzizewski's portraits and critiques and disagree with others. William Edgar's rejoinder on Schaeffer is particularly strong and easy to follow, and David Weeks on Carl Henry is also competent. John Bolt's response on Kuyper is quite dense, while Ashley Woodiwiss on Yoder is just too short.

I picked up this book hoping to learn a bit more about an evangelical approach to politics. Budzizewski's opening essay is very good and accessible to anybody and I am sure I will be looking it up from time to time by way of reminder. The overviews are helpful if you're looking for a historical approach and have already have some grounding in the questions of politics being discussed (eg. the place of the state or the limits of civil liberty). Those looking for something more systematic and introductory will still glean helpful bits here, but will be less likely to be find this book ideal. Nor will those looking for specific proposals on public policy be likely to turn to this book as their first port of call.

So I did learn a bit from this book, but I wasn't quite the right audience for it!

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Bible and Other Faiths 6

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

Development: the calling of a people

"This chapter explores how God developed the family into his special nation among nations that worshipped other gods." They would learn that they were his “special” people, but at the same time that God was the god of all peoples and Israel was chosen for the sake of all peoples. IG, in keeping with the earlier chapters, first explores how Israel is like other nations. Israel’s stories were similar to the stories of other nations. Other peoples had lists of laws similar to those found in the Pentateuch, a famous example being Hammurabi’s laws. Again, other nations also had historical texts containing the military exploits of kings under their gods, descriptions of rituals, incantations and festivals, wisdom literature, hymns and prayers with similar concerns as those found in the psalms, and so on. This should not surprise us, for the people of Israel were humans who lived in a particular time and place, alongside the surrounding nations, who are also made up of humans living in the same time and place!

But...the Old Testament is also very different. IG argues that "although Israel was in so many ways like the nations surrounding her, Israel’s God was not like their gods". A careful reading will show that these parallel texts are often built on very different assumptions. She gives 2 examples, law and temple, and I’ll quickly go through them here. The context for the Hammurabi Code is very different, for it begins with the king listing his own achievements and ends with much aplomb – the king being the one who received these laws from the god Shamash. On the other hand, the biblical account differs in its emphasis on God’s actions in exodus and covenant and its willingness to tell all about Israel’s leaders, warts and all. The monotheism of Israel is another obvious marker of difference. Again, while the gods of all the nations had temples, we can immediately think of a few differences, including the lack of need on God’s part to live in the temple, or the lack of the image of Israel’s god in the temple. We can summarise how Israel is not meant to be like other nations in one word: holy.

IG then briefly traces the development of Israelite religion from Genesis to Numbers, showing how during the time of Abraham, there was no clear separation from the Abrahamite religion from those of other people but that there is an increasing emphasis on separation, or distinctiveness, as the descendants of Abraham begin to become a nation. Why? IG suggests two things. Firstly, it appears that other religions have changed. In Egypt, the pharaoh is without doubt much more hostile to Israel’s god than during the time of Joseph. Similarly, it appeared that Canaanite religion was becoming increasingly immoral. Secondly, Israel has changed. As already mentioned, the family had now become a nation, a people of the exodus, following a god who had rescued them. Israel was now meant to be a "kingdom of priests", teaching the law (Lev. 10:11), handling sacrifices (Lev. 1-7) and blessing the people (Numbers 6:22-27). They would bring revelation of God to the other nations and be a blessing to them. They were meant to be a “holy nation”, reflecting the very essence of God. This is the overriding concern of Exodus-Numbers. IG makes an interesting point here as well – "if Israel was to be a nation among other nations, she too needed a story, a law and a way of worship, and God met those needs". In other words, God recognises and uses (seeing as he is the Creator, after all!) the conceptual building blocks that help build our identity – a shared heritage, culture etc.

But Israel had no king, unlike their counterparts. Their laws are based on God’s character and a recognition of human beings as made in God’s image. Their worship is different. Sacrifices are made not to “feed God”, but to deal with sin and share in fellowship. Their food laws were different, with an explicit link made to holiness, and the prevention of God’s people joining in the feasts of other gods. In summary,

"On the one hand, the tabernacle, the priesthood, the sacrifices and the worship express Israel’s relationship to her God in forms appropriate to her cultural context. On the other hand, the details prevent her from joining in the worship of other gods, and forbid forms of worship that cannot be adapted for the worship of the Holy One. In all this, they reflect the one holy God, for this is Israel’s purpose among the nations."
God’s people are special, but God is not partial. Leviticus 19 twice expresses the command to “love your neighbour as yourself”, once for the fellow Israelite, and once for the alien.

IG is never afraid to show where the biblical accounts are in some instances similar to the accounts of other nations, but as she deftly shows, this should not disturb us unduly. They are also in many ways different. I think this also shows that the Christian’s relationship with culture is never monolithic: we can affirm and transform certain aspects of a particular culture, but also confront and separate where needed. Btw, I highly recommend also reading either Vaughan Roberts’ God’s Big Picture, especially chapter 4 ‘The partial kingdom’ or Bartholomew & Goheen’s The Drama of Scripture and the chapter ‘Act 3 Scene 1: A people for the king’ as a supplement to this chapter, as either of them are very good in orienting us to the storyline of the Bible in general and the big picture of the Pentateuch in particular.

Reflection questions:
In what ways are Christians in your area like non-Christians? In what ways are they different?

For further study, look up ‘aliens’, ‘foreigners’ or ‘sojourners’ in a concordance. In Exodus-Deuteronomy, where were the aliens to live within the framework of Israel’s laws, and where were they treated differently? On what conditions could they join Israel’s worship? What do the prophets teach about justice for the alien?

God’s Nation among the nations

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New Word Alive

New Word AliveI've been kind of wanting to go to New Word Alive (promotional video here), currently underway, this year but circumstances (jobless etc.) have dictated that I won't have been able to go anyhow. Also, I wanted to go with a few close friends as opposed to going with a big group of strangers / people I only vaguely know - this introverted exile needs a (relational) break from time to time - but sadly, most of them couldn't go. To be honest, none of them seemed even interested in going, which was quite disappointing even if in the end I couldn't go anyway.

NWA is a big evangelical UK Christian conference that runs for a week every year around Easter time. They had a little controversy last year with their trustees, UCCF and Keswick Ministries having a theological disagreement with their old partner, Spring Harvest and thus both deciding a split would be best for both parties. It's sad but hopefully healthy for the church in the long run. Hence, the "New" in the title, although hopefully by next year they'll have figured out a better name; I'm assuming NWA is provisional! Don Carson, John Piper and Terry Virgo are the main speakers for this year.

I can experience some of it vicariously though, Adrian Warnock is liveblogging the event. He's got copious notes on all the talks so far. I've also enjoyed his interview with Stuart Townend and his notes of Mike Ovey's seminar on humanity.

Tim Chester has blogged through some of the talks - if you just need a summary you might want to look at his instead of Warnock's stuff - and I'll update the links here if he blogs the rest as well.
Grace and Law (Terry Virgo, Romans 7)
The Cross and Propitiation (Don Carson, 1 John 1:1-2:2)
Treasuring Christ in the call to suffer (John Piper, Romans 8:1-35, Audio, but i haven't gotten it to work yet!)
Praise my Soul the king of heaven (Tim Chester's own reflections on worshipping at NWA)
Suffering and the praise of God's grace (John Piper, Romans 8, Audio)

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The wrap

An early edition this time round.

I've been enjoying Abraham Piper's (son of John) blog, 22 Words, in which he nobly endeavours to keep all his posts to yes, you guessed it, 22 words.

An interesting short paper from the Jubilee Centre on the use of the terms "fundamentalist" and "evangelical" in the public square (especially in the UK) and a good discussion over whether Christians should drop the latter term or not.

NT scholar Darrell Bock has a good article on the orthodoxy of the early Christians when the canon of Scripture was still being formed.

Seven deadly words of book reviewing. I'm guilty of all of them! They've taken away my excuses for lazy writing now...

Washington Post reviews Tim Keller's The Reason for God.

Climate Debate Daily. A collation of the latest news and features on global warming from both sides of the debate. The twin dangers for Christians on global warming, I think, is to neglect creation care of the world "because it's too inconvenient", on the one hand, and to fall prey to a certain kind of agenda that simplifies the questions or subtly accomodates secular humanism or pantheism, on the other.

Speaking of which, this week's Time feature story, The Clean Energy Scam is a fine journalistic piece. It really does a good job capturing the delicate trade-offs that exist in the fight to preserve our environment. Do read it.

Garfield Minus Garfield. The Garfield comic strips, but with the familiar feline removed from the panels, with surprising effects. I'm a fan of Garfield, but even I recognise that the comic has long passed its heyday in the late 80s and early 90s.

The life of a hotel concierge. What it's like to be serving the mega-rich and famous.

The future of work?

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Saturday, April 05, 2008

On the Word as word

Whatever else the gospel is, it is inescapably verbal. The gospel is always announced, preached, proclaimed, heralded, as demonstrated by the early disciples of Jesus. Luke could simply record that they "preached the word wherever they went" and "proclaimed Christ" (Acts 8:4-5), and Paul could thank God for the Colossians' "faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints - the faith and love that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you" (Colossians 1:4-6a), as well as for the Thessalonians "because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe." (1 Thessalonians 2:13). Romans 10:14-15 has inspired many a missionary: "And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?"

But words have fallen out of favour. In a world where political spin seems to distort every column inch and broken promises run rampant in many relationships, we have become cynical about words. Talk is cheap, we say. The contemporary British poet Carol Ann Duffy captures the dissatisfaction over words in her short poem 'Words, Wide Night'. A seemingly conventional poem about someone expressing her longing for her distant lover, Duffy turns this on its head: "For I am in love with you / and this is what it is like or what it is like in words." Shorn of meaning, words cannot capture nor convey what I really feel. I may as well say "La lala la".

Such thinking can easily extend to the good news that Christians offer, good news all too easily obscured by prosperity preachers and graceless peddlers of the gospel. It is into such an environment that we need to hear Paul's words afresh: "God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe...we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to the capricious and foolishness to the postmodernists" (1 Cor. 1:21, 23). We are all too aware in today's environment of the fragility of words, and yet God has decreed it such that his gospel comes in the humble form of a message that Jesus is Saviour and Lord, come to redeem sins and restore creation.

Nonetheless, we can be confident about the adequacy of words. They are not disembodied, for words come from the exercise of the tongue, the movement of the hand. Where there are words, there is a person, whether this person is ignored or otherwise. Why else do we still value face time when we have Facebook? And this leads us to an important truth, that words need not be characterised as merely cerebral. No, words can be intensely personal, as Hollywood has long recognised when an intense scene culminates in the words being spoken: "I love/hate you!" Such words provide us access, access to another world where thoughts become concretised and bonds are formalised. Words are in themselves consequential: witness the couple exchanging the "I do"s of marriage vows or the captain shouting "Fire!" to members of his execution squad.

The words of human beings are finite and imperfect. But the word of a God who spoke creation into being, never fails to keep his promises and who sings over his people (Zephaniah 3:17)? Even more astonishingly, a Triune God who is so willing to reveal himself in relationship to a sinful people that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth?" (John 1:14). Jesus, before returning to be with his Father, mandates that his disciples preach in his name to all nations, and assures them that those who do will do so in his power, through the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:46-49). The gospel is inescapably verbal, but this is not to pit the person of Jesus against the propositional content of Scripture. The disciples obey Jesus, as Luke tells us in The Acts of the Apostles. And when we get to the end, we find an invitation, there, to follow in the footsteps of Paul, an enemy of God who encountered the living Christ, repented, trusted and worshipped him, and "boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ." (Acts 28:31).

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Friday, April 04, 2008

Sick note

Been ill for most of this week. It's not as bad as the last time sickness assailed me but it seems to have lingered on for longer - I have the chills, a bad sore throat/cough, and my temperature fluctuates quite a bit. Twice I thought I was on the road to recovery only for my body to heat up again, so until I have 24 hours sans fever, I will not pronounce myself healthy. The sore throat might take a little longer to go away by the looks of it.

Hence the lack of blogging - well, not really. Even if I've been healthy, have had a bit of blogger's block recently. There have been dregs of posts floating around aimlessly in my mind, waiting to be fished out, prepared, and served accordingly, but I've not had the motivation/inspiration/energy lately to do anything about it. Then again, it's not like I'm Challies (as of today, 1617 days of consecutive blogging) or anything.

In the meantime, why don't you visit some of the blogs on my blogroll instead? :)

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

24 circa 1994

What if Jack Bauer had to play the hero in the mid-90s?

Always good to get some perspective...

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