Monday, July 20, 2009

Taking stock

Angry in Malaysia by Tan Soo Inn

"My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow
to speak and slow to become angry, for man's anger does not bring about
the righteous life that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and
the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you,
which can save you." (James 1:19-21 TNIV)

If you are a follower of Jesus in Malaysia, you are probably angry. Consider
the following...

Read the whole thing.

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Friday, July 17, 2009


I've just finished watching a documentary on Alpha on Channel 4 (limited time online; not sure if non-UK viewers would be able to access it). This was of special interest to me since the church previewed is literally just down the road from me, and I have friends who've gone there. It's quite interesting. On the surface at least, pretty even-handed; going for a more descriptive approach. Although there were a few throw-away lines that insinuated that this was a bit of a slick marketing operation. For example, saying that there were pretty girls on hand to serve you food seemed to me deeply unfair in what it implied. Plus the Nicky Gumbel/Tony Blair comparison, which btw, for those of you not in Britain, shouldn't necessarily be taken as a compliment.

Still, it's always interesting to see how Christians are perceived, and always just as interesting to see what sort of questions non-Christians have. There was the line about religion being all about inclusivity, whether Christianity was really more of a psychological experience, and the person who found Jesus off-putting. Disappointingly, the show actually didn't dwell that much on the small group time, preferring, somewhat understandably, to dwell on the various agnostics and their backgrounds instead.

The narrator concluded that Alpha, in the end, was "organised niceness", run by decent people, with just that weird element of trying to get people to speak in tongues on the weekend (I'm afraid I'm not sold on this idea, looking at 1 Corinthians 14?) What the programme does show is that people do have real questions, and that not everyone is a New Atheist™. I was slightly disappointed by the way in which some of the answers seem to have been answered. But the programme only provided a few glimpses of such moments, so it's unfair to judge them on such scant evidence.

There have recently been some questions about whether things like Alpha or Christianity Explored are out of step with the times, and more importantly, whether they come across as being too much like a "package". My own thinking at the moment is that, like most things, they have their place. What we must work hard at is getting our bearings right. So, it isn't a short-cut, nor is it a synonym for evangelism, or indeed, the power and source of salvation.

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last,[a] just as it is written: "The righteous will live by faith".
Romans 1:16-17

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Book Log

An overdue update...

Planet Narnia – Michael Ward
Currently reading. Got this as a gift via an Amazon voucher from my lovely international team, after my boss overheard me talking about it (I think!). Fun reading literary criticism again. In case you haven’t heard of this, Dr. Michael Ward argues that Narnia is based on the seven heavens of medieval imagination. Chapter on Sol was particularly compelling!

A Praying Life – Paul Miller
I have surprisingly few books on prayer, and so thought a refresher would be good. This one exceeded my expectations. I can safely say there’s probably no other book on prayer like this one. Miller applies the gospel to our prayer life and makes us want to pray. Could have more on praying for things we don’t naturally incline to (eg. churches in faraway lands we know little about). But very much recommended.

Why There Almost Certainly is a God – Keith Ward
Great little book which gently but devastatingly takes apart Dawkin’s thesis. Witty, readable, philosophically inclined. Ward is a liberal Christian, so I have fundamental disagreements with him, eg. universalism, but worth a look for the discerning reader.

Beginning Well – Gordon T. Smith
Intermediate level book on what conversion actually is. Something I’m trying to think about, being involved in international student ministry. Ecumenically-minded, drawing from many traditions. Probably needs reread with pencil in hand? For a more introductory book, see Stephen Smallman’s Spiritual Birthline.

Theology in the Context of World Christianity – Timothy Tennent
Missions professor, recently appointed as president of Asbury Seminary. Reflects on issues of concern to global Christians which might not necessarily be obvious to Western Christians, eg. sin as guilt or shame?, the relationship of the Bible to other sacred texts, Jesus as Ancestor in the African context.

The Lost History of Christianity – Philip Jenkins
Well-known author of The Next Christendom explores Christian history in the Middle East, Africa and Asia and so fills a gap, as most Christian history books on the market focus on the West. (This is definitely changing with a recent glut of books on this subject). I struggled at times because my knowledge was shown to be really lacking, eg. not quite sure what Byzantium empire is really all about. Billed as introductory but still not easy reading. Nonetheless, important book.

The Tipping Point – Malcolm Gladwell
Yes, I know I’m really late on this one! But fascinating read even if his case is a bit overstated at points. See also critique of Gladwell’s thesis by Duncan Watts.

One Good Turn – Kate Atkinson
Took this on my recent mission trip as my light reading! Melancholy literary detective thriller, tracing how a road rage incident in Edinburgh changes the lives of everyone involved. I think I prefer her earlier book, Case Histories.

The Declaration – Gemma Malley
Interesting premise: what if we found a cure for aging? What would the world look like, especially with the threat of overpopulation? Good, but contrary to blurb, isn’t quite in the league of Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now. The writing occasionally relies too much on the omniscient narrator.

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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

A mission report

I’m back! Got in late last night, straight to bed, and straight to work this morning. And now combating jet-lag, especially since while I could take it easy today, tomorrow is a pretty full day. No falling asleep in Bible study tomorrow night!

My 2 weeks away definitely counts as one of my highlights of the year. Possibly the highlight of the year. I was pretty apprehensive beforehand, but I’m now so glad I went. Can’t give you complete details unfortunately, as we do have long-term mission partners out there and so I shouldn’t do anything that would compromise their position, however slight.

We usually started the day with training sessions. The first was more biblically-oriented, as we thought about one key aspect of the Bible’s story (eg. creation, cross, resurrection) and how we might share the gospel in a cross-cultural context. The second session concentrated more on the culture of this particular country and some the particular challenges. We usually ended the day, just before dinner, with a devotion from Philippians – I led one of them – and prayer.

We also got, over the course of the 2 weeks, to meet both with believers and non-believers. It was a great experience, and often surprising, too! (People are very open in this country). For instance, I ended up chatting about George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards and David Brainerd with one believer, which was a topic of conversation I can safely say I wasn’t expecting. Or in another chat with an unbeliever, I was rather taken aback by one of her objections, which was basically premised on a feminist reading of the Bible (isn’t it just a partriarchal tool designed to suppress women etc. etc.?). Now I might expect such an objection from an Oxbridge student, but certainly not from someone in this country! It was also good to be able to actually do an impromptu study on the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17ff) with another seeker. And it was really interesting to experience church in another culture, which is not quite like the models we’re more used to.

I think one of the things I also appreciated was seeing how much we have in common with other believers in other contexts. Contextualization is a word we often bandy about, and that’s not a bad thing. I work with international students, and I often get frustrated in trying to work out, and in getting people to see, that you can’t do things the exact same way with them as you do with local British students! But we mustn’t push this too far. In many respects, wherever you are, the challenges and issues are the same.

I also really appreciated just watching our mission partners and what they do day-to-day. You get a much better sense of how to pray for them, what are the issues they face, and so on. It was great to have some good chats with them. I especially enjoyed having dinner with one of them (whom I already knew previously) and getting a bit of one-to-one time in which I was on the receiving end of "ministry", as it were! He had some really good advice as I try to think through what I might be doing for the next 3 years or so.

I loved my team too. I have to say, I suspect it’s unusual to have a team in which the dynamics work out so well. That was definitely an answer to prayer.

So I’ve painted a very rosy picture so far, but as always, that isn’t quite the full picture. I did have some difficult moments. I anticipated the language barrier to be a problem when I came, and there was one day in particular where I had to remind myself that "I’m justified by faith, not by linguistic ability". There were certainly times where I felt like I had been pretty rubbish at serving others and not myself. Nonetheless, it was worth it. At the end of the trip, we did a short questionnaire designed to help us reflect on our experience. And one of the things this trip reminded me was that God is the same God no matter where we are, and Christ is what we need no matter who we are. This trip also helped sharpen my focus. Now anyone who knows me knows that I am anti anti-intellectualism, and that I am convinced good theology is essential to our spiritual health. I’m still convinced. But there is a kind of danger, especially for those of us who often read the many Christian and biblioblogs out there, that we end up in some rather pointless academic debates or stuff that frankly, people don’t care about!

Thanks again for your prayers, and it’s definitely worth thinking about going on a short-terms mission trip if you have the chance!

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