Friday, May 22, 2009

The Space Between

I'm sure it sounds like a strange thing to say, but I was feeling particularly unMalaysian this week. So it was really nice to go to an event tonight where I was surrounded by Malaysians - the most Malaysians I've seen in one place in nearly 2 years if you don't count last year's Christmas hols when I was home. I went to hear a well-known Malaysian political figure speak - I won't mention his name right now, but you all know who he is. Even asked a question, which is rare for me since I'm usually silent at Q&A sessions since I never come up with anything good to ask. That hasn't changed - my question was pretty lousy and I wished I'd sharpened it up!

But I am in a strange place right now. I'm currently part of a British world, yet not part of it. Like something grafted on. There're so many things I just don't understand or am not comfortable with. But I'm going to need time to feel fully Malaysian again, I suspect. I remember just thinking about all the conversations I heard when I was back, and again when I (unintentionally!) eavesdropped on another conversation amongst Malaysians just a few days ago, and just being surprised at the content and manner of those conversations. I always knew that when I eventually come back, I'm going to have to deal with reverse culture shock but it's really been hammered home this year.

I think I really have a much better idea what missionaries go through compared to as recently as 6 months ago. And this is without even suffering a linguistic handicap! Sure I've read up a little on cross-cultural issues, but being immersed in a situation where I work alongside British colleagues and with (mainly) East Asian students, with virtually no contact with Malaysians, whew! Different ball game altogether.

But I know this is a good opportunity too, to just learn, learn to depend on God, learn what it really means to be part of the people of God, learn to expand my worldview, while I remain in this strange place. For one more year, God willing. It is really hard. Thankfully I know one person who is in a similar position to mine, and hopefully we'll get to have at least one time each month where we can share stuff, but in the day-to-day, it can be tiring not to have that resting place available to you. Or just as likely, I haven't learnt yet what it means to rest in God. There's an absolutely brilliant chapter on ambivalence in Dan Allender's book The Healing Path and here's a great line which I need to hear daily: "Faith that is founded on the memory of God's intrusion into my story and hope which is freed in the imagination of God's promise to shape my story for good combine to enable me to open my heart and live for love today."

Sorry, but outside this blog, wasn't sure where I else I could dump some of my ruminations... :)

Labels: ,

Monday, May 11, 2009

Dude, where's my Bible?

I, and I know others as well, was really struck by an extended metaphor in yesterday's sermon. It's actually quite cheesy, absurd even. But maybe that's part of its staying power. It was certainly effective, stubbornly refusing to disappear like that stain on my kitchen table.

Imagine the Bible in my car. Where would it be? At this point, I thought we would be heading towards the Bible as engine, but that's not where we ended up. Is it

1. in the boot? Out of sight, out of mind? Something we sort of know is there, but in practice it may as well not exist?
2. in the backseat? Like an annoying backseat driver whom we just want to chuck out, or at least tune out?
3. in the front seat? We appreciate him as a conversation partner, a dispenser of good advice, and hey, like a good map, frequently worth consulting. But it's us that's still in the driving seat.
4. in the driving seat? Allowing it to lead us wherever we are?

This is actually a very helpful taxonomy and really gave me pause as to whether I'm allowing God's word to shape me as it should.

The literary critic George Steiner makes a point worth considering in relation to this. In a well-known essay, Steiner distinguishes between a critic and a reader. While recognising that this antithesis is, in reality, a false one, he employs it to make a salient point about how we approach a text. The "critic" becomes the judge and master of the text, whereas a "reader" is servant to the text. The former retains a distance, the latter attempts to draw near. But the former, in doing so, turns the text into a commodity; he empties it of any "real presence". Steiner is not dismissing criticism per se, that's his vocation after all! But only as readers first can we offer proper respect to the text, and by implication, its author. To be a "critic" first and foremost only serves to stoke the ego.

I think that's where the danger lies as we struggle to be disciples of Jesus. As we seek to "grow up in our salvation" (1 Peter 2:2), we sometimes confuse our increasingly sophisticated reading of the Bible with genuine Christ-like maturity. The pastor-scholar Dan Doriani, commenting on James 1:19-21, very insightfully maps out the potential pitfalls. As a new Christian, our reading might be naive and devotional. We have our highlighter pens out, as we earnestly desire to hear God's voice. Hopefully, we learn to be better readers, placing texts in their contexts. Maybe we even advance to becoming technical readers, with knowledge of Greek, biblical culture etc. As part of the community of believers, we become technical-functional readers, personally detached, even as we share our insights with others. But what we really need, Doriani suggests, is to become technical-devotional readers. Every technical skill remains, but we need to rediscover that child-like desire to let the word speak directly to our hearts again.

I currently read the Bible one-to-one with a younger Christian. And I increasingly see that unless I allow the Bible to really speak to me, to probe me, to be "consumed by the text", to use Steiner's language, I don't really have anything to teach. Or learn actually. A truly sophisticated reading of the Bible is one which reads our lives as well and seeks to "live into God's story", to borrow a phrase from Eugene Peterson. And that's really scary. So I need to ask myself regularly: Dude, where's my Bible?

† Expand post

Labels: , ,

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Religion and the public square at Veritas

I was at the Veritas Forum at Oxford University on Thursday Night. I very nearly didn't go, as I was quite tired and I knew I had a pretty full Friday coming up. But I didn't really want to let my inviter down, and besides, the topic was a good one: the role of religion in the public square. The speakers were Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer, Head of Jewish-Muslim Relations for the Chief Rabbi of the U.K., Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, who's currently at the forefront of the debates regarding the future of the Anglican Communion, and Professor Tariq Ramadan, who teaches at the University of Oxford and whom you see regularly quoted in the (British) media.

As you can imagine, the debate was pitched at a pretty high-level, and it took supreme effort on my part to concentrate. I didn't take any notes either, so I'm afraid there won't be any blow-by-blow account of the evening here! But it was certainly interesting. I was especially intrigued by Tariq Ramadan. His opening statement (all the speakers were given 5 minutes to make one) was essentially a lecture in hermeneutics, where he went on for a little bit about the need for context. He also distinguished between two authorities - here I lost him a little because either he was mumbling or my seating position wasn't great for the acoustics - but it seemed to me like he endorsed some version of a public/private split. I can't remember the exact phrase now, but he did have some pithy statement on the relationship between principles and ethics; basically, he defended his right to believe while accepting the need to negotiate with rival traditions in the public square.

But his biggest point, which he repeated throughout the evening, was the need to be consistent with one's own values. And after setting such a high standard for himself, he failed to meet it, it seemed to me. On the one hand, he would uphold "universal values" such as equality, but on the other hand, he would revert to some form of social constructivism at points. The other thing I struggled with was figuring out how distinctively Islamic Professor Ramadan's position was. I knew he belonged to the reformist camp within Islam, but I don't remember him quoting the Quran even once, or using Islamic doctrine as a springboard, although Bishop Nazir-Ali, more than once, invited him to do so. In some ways, I almost wonder if his views could have come from a secularist, although that's probably overstating it, and I'm sure Professor Ramadan would insist he is working within an Islamic framework. For him, the thing most needed in the Muslim world was simply more education. By contrast, both Bishop Nazir-Ali and Rabbi Dr. Brawer were not afraid to use the Torah/Talmud and the Bible as sources for their reflections, as they should. I don't think I was the only one who thought so, during the Q&A, a Muslim student in the audience challenged Professor Ramadan to show how his views were part of mainstream Islamic thought. (Obviously, I have insufficient knowledge to make a judgment).

Dr. Brawer was arguably the clearest of the speakers, but also the least interesting, as he didn't really say all that much. Bishop Nazir-Ali, I thought, acquitted himself pretty well. Although there was a point in the discussion where it was all about just war, and I wasn't sure if that was just a tangent. Towards the end of the evening, we got an especially sharp disagreement on what constituted "Judeo-Christian tradition" and its impact on European civilisation. Professor Ramadan insisted that the contribution of Islam to Europe must not be overlooked, whereas Bishop Nazir-Ali defended the Judeo-Christian tradition as necessary to provide the necessary undergirdings for Europe as they cope with the challenges of the future. To put it another way, Bishop Nazir-Ali thinks that we need a Judeo-Christian foundation if we want an increasingly plural society to remain inclusive. (Nazir-Ali had earlier made a distinction between civic and religious pluralism, which I think is an important one)

Like I said, it was a sprawling discussion, and certainly quite academic, so I'm not even sure if I represented anyone fairly! But this continues to be an important topic, especially as mainstream commentators are beginning to recognise that God is back on the agenda.

† Expand post

Labels: , , , ,

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Wordsmiths: Goodnight / They Sit Together on the Porch

desert porch - Michael DresselIt's been ages and ages since I've actually featured a wordsmith, since I moved back to Oxford, I think! So I thought I may as well do two wordsmiths at one go! I've stolen the first one from Steve McCoy's National Poetry Month blogfest. The second is from Wendell Berry, a writer who's thought long and hard about the natural world, and whom I would love to get to know more. Both, I guess, are loosely connected thematically and capture the way a day fades away beautifully. Enjoy! (Photo: Michael Dressel. For previous wordsmiths featured on this blog, click here.)

Goodnight by David Ferry
Lying in bed and waiting to find out
Whatever is going to happen: the window shade

Making its slightest sound as the night wind,
Outside, in the night, breathes quietly on it;

It is parental hovering over the infantile;
Something like that; it is like being a baby,

And over the sleep of the baby there is a father,
Or mother, breathing, hovering; the streetlight light

In the nighttime branches breathing quietly too;
Altering; realtering; it is the body breathing;

The crib of knowing: something about what the day
Will bring; and something about what the night will hold,

Safely, at least for the rest of the night, I pray.

They Sit Together on the Porch by Wendell Berry

They sit together on the porch, the dark
Almost fallen, the house behind them dark.
Their supper done with, they have washed and dried
The dishes–only two plates now, two glasses,
Two knives, two forks, two spoons–small work for two.
She sits with her hands folded in her lap,
At rest. He smokes his pipe. They do not speak,
And when they speak at last it is to say
What each one knows the other knows. They have
One mind between them, now, that finally
For all its knowing will not exactly know
Which one goes first through the dark doorway, bidding
Goodnight, and which sits on a while alone.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Who am I behind closed doors?

This really hit home for me today in my quiet time:

...You may have heard these words (or some variation on them) quoted before: "What a man is in secret, in these private duties, that he is in the eyes of God and no more" [John Owen]...

...It is not my visible service so much as my hidden life of devotion that is the index of my spirituality. That is not to despise my public life, but to anchor its reality to the ocean bed of personal fellowship with God. I may speak or pray [ed's note: or blog!] with zeal and eloquence in public. I may appear to others to be master of myself when in company. But what happens when I close the door behind myself and only the Father sees me?

- Where God Looks First (p.159), In Christ Alone, Sinclair Ferguson

Labels: ,

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Malaysian issues

On current form, I'm afraid this blog is probably going to be nothing more than a linking outpost for a little bit.

There was an interesting survey, albeit a little dated, to discover the view of Malaysian Muslims on questions of identity, as well as related issues and concerns. Makes for interesting reading, and some of the findings were surprising, at least to me.

More contemporary is the recent ruling on the conversion of children in divorce cases where one of the spouses have converted. There's a good summary and analysis of the issues involved at the Nut Graph.

(HT: Ps. Sivin)

Labels: , ,


Wish I could be watching! If you're not an NBA fan, basically what was expected to be a rather blase first-round series has turned out to be one of the best first rounds ever. Game 7, the final game is tonight. Game 6 highlights below. As someone whose primary strength is shooting, I was enthralled by Ray Allen here.