Saturday, January 31, 2009

Beyond Discernment

Scan through the brochures all  around promoting theological workshop, seminar, forum, etc. Tell me I'm wrong, but the objectives of these sessions are almost always about 'raising a generation of discerning believers'.

Discernment. Knowing truth from falsehood (and being able to detect the latter even when lodged within the former). Being sensitive to the message of God, knowledgeable of correct Biblical exegesis (or at least know when it's veering off an accepted trajectory).

Discernment. This word virtually encapsulates 'Christian thinking' in some circles today. All other words are mere variations of this one, which is to say that 'Christian thinking' is about ONE thing only: Knowing the truth.

Sigh. That's the plan. To create men and women who go around being able to point out what's wrong and right with what people are saying about God and the world (including, yes, those who use the Bible).

Honestly, it depresses me. 'Raising a generation of discerning believers', IMO, is much less exciting-missional-inspiring-stimulating than nurturing: 
  • creative/innovative believers
  • explorative/investigative believers
  • curious believers
  • believers interested in learning about other faiths/worldviews, their data-perspectives, their arguments and their networks of convictions? (okay, I confess I've seen this on one or two brochures before, but these are almost all restricted to Roman Catholic-organised inter-faith dialogues?)
  • believers able to accept paradoxes and synthesize multiple (even contradictory) ones
Of course I'm all for discernment (who isn't?), but if I didn't know the Christian community better, I might start to feel we absolutely abhor creative thinking about theology. Do we?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Lost in Translation - A Review

How do you tell when you may've watched a 'post-modern' movie? When it's hard to tell anything else about the film.

It's never entirely clear what 2004's Oscar-nominated Lost in Translation - one of Bill Murray's rare ventures into 'serious' acting and Scarlett Johansson's introduction to the Hollywood heavenlies (which wasn't hurt by a 30-second indulgent glimpse of her ample behind right at the film's front) - was trying to get at.

Sure one could say, 'Tokyo', but the city was everywhere yet (because of that?) nowhere. So Tokyo is a land which drives Americans crazy, a fantasy-arena where life's details and granularity is hopelessly mixed up in triviality, obsessive formality and technological excess, where empty temples co-exist with crowded strip-joints; who cares? One can't help but feel that Japan the nation was merely the medium for a vague pseudo-message not easily deciphered.

Or, was the show merely about a middle-aged man, Bob, struggling through a week of life in Tokyo and who happened to befriend a philosophy-grad, Charlotte, accompanying her husband on a business trip which leaves her feeling imprisoned in a Tokyo-imposed cage of meaningless activity? Yes, except there is no message here, no moral, no plot, no 'solution', no - one could say - point to the two hours of what seems like two people trying to do nothing but cheer each other up. And they do so via parties, with (cheap) philosophy, through one- and two-liners and, most significantly IMO, by staring at each other.

Maybe these were the themes director Sofia Coppola was trying to get at. Staring and quietitude striving to transcend the superficial pauses of an urban chaos which ploughs on and on. Stillness and deliberate thoughtfulness when noise and buzz dominate and when life at home inflicts pain and relational dead-ends (both Bob and Charlotte never seem to end their overseas phone calls happy).

Maybe the whole movie was motion-streaming a strange friendship just to see where things led to on their own. Maybe Coppola didn't know where she wanted the movie to head, and she was waiting for Bob and Charlotte to give her the answer i.e. there was no 'director', the script was 'writing itself'. Regardless, Lost in Translation often felt like it's title, so movie-goers raised clear story progression, be warned.

There are many other questions one may ask although, again, I'm curious if we were meant to ask them. Were Bob and Charlotte falling in love? If so, what exactly was preventing all-out romance, apart from marital fidelity? If not, then was the movie exploring the boundaries of Platonic affection between people who, for all intents and purposes, seemed drawn to each other (and if so, what's the conclusion?)? And why did Bob 'give in' so easily to a total stranger (so much for fidelity) and how did this figure into the movie (since not much was said about it)? What about Charlotte's long silent peerings into temples and gardens? Did those mean something?

Perhaps, in the final(?) analysis, Lost in Translation is about friendship - pure but not simple. It's about how friends are made, how a relationship progresses through desire (both sexual and otherwise), how likings and loves adapt, and, ultimately, how we acknowledge the end of a cherished stage (although I'm willing to bet there is no fixed meaning of the final farewell scene; it truly is anybody's guess what the point was, if there was even one).

We've all lived through difficult (but relatively short) phases in life which were redeemed on account of an individual whose presence made the occasion mean something, whose words and companionship redefined the experience from one of repulsion to one of warmth and rightness. Perhaps Coppola meant to depict such quiet relational miracles, the metamorphosis of two 'wrongs' (Bob and Charlotte being in Tokyo) into one 'right' (a week-long mutually supportive memory).

Lost in Translation
, ironically, may really be a movie about being found - at least for a while.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Does the Old Testament justify Israel's violence in Gaza?

I dropped a comment on Sivin's blog last week, in reply to someone to wrote in regarding the Hamas-Israeli war. This is what the person said:

"Before you go any further and start getting theological, I’d like to invite you to look simply at your OT and explain why God was so war-like then and did not seem to exhibit our modern sensibility about war and the killing of what we would now termed “innocent” civilians.

"Was the God of the OT the same God today or not? Ponder over this a bit, and then perhaps you might get to be in a better position to dispense your views about Israel/Palestine issue, instead of merely following the world’s view of current events which are largely influenced by people with varied vested interests."

The implication seems to be that since God in the OT endorsed/ordered war and killing, this should be accepted today.

A few comments:

1. Even if we have absolutely NO answer (to the relation between the 'war-like' God of the OT and what we see in the NT), I think our theology would be better ‘on track’ if we focused on Jesus as the ‘ultimate’ (and OT-clarifying) revelation of the kind of God that God is. If we hold to this and if we read the Gospels and look at the character and actions of Jesus, it would become very difficult to justify anything like the violence happening now in Gaza (by any party). Also, I find it significant that the NT writers never used the OT to justify physical violence (and the NT as a whole never condones violence or calls the early church to ‘act in self-defense’, launch pre-emptive strikes, etc, etc.)

2. OT violence was specific divine judgments against wicked nations (e.g. the Amalekites) which continually terrorized the Hebrews. The ‘take-over’ of Canaanland was *punishment due* to the Canaanites for their detestable practices and sin (virtually all the prohibitions in the OT are counter-responses to the practices ALREADY committed by the people, e.g. bestiality, infant sacrifices, incest, prostitution, etc.) i.e. God was going to judge these people anyway but He mercifully decided to not do another Sodom-and-Gomorrah and instructed Israel to chase them out into exile instead.

The point is: This is VERY different from the situation today in which innocent people are being made to suffer because no other retaliatory response (apart from shelling Hamas venues within Gaza) can be considered.

3. Finally, consider the limitations God gave the Israelites for their Canaan campaign:
  • They were supposed to make PEACE to the nations at a distance (see Deut 20:10-16)
  • They were ordered to NOT destroy the ‘cities and the buildings’(!), (see Deut 6:10)
  • They weren’t even supposed to destroy the vegetation and trees, (see Deut 20:19)

Suffice to say, we simply cannot look at the OT violence and a) ignore the message/example of Jesus in order to b) justify the killings of innocents today (for whatever reason).

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Malaysia's 2nd Fiscal Stimulus?

Our DPM has invited everyone to post suggestions for the country's second fiscal stimulus. But the thing about the phrase 'fiscal stimulus' is the idea that the economy can be 'pumped back to life' if we only but discover the correct set of policies to zap it with.

It's tempting to believe we can revive the nation's wealth if we only we can :
  1. get more people spending - preferably on stuff they don't really need (it's a little harsh, but unless there's some greed and vanity, the economy isn't going to grow all that much; capitalism doesn't work very well on food- and necessity-consumption alone, although thank God for the automatic-stabilising these provide)

  2. get more people spending faster i.e. entice Ah Kow to pass the cash to Ah Lim who will hand it to Ah Lee in less time than it took previously - why? so all three end up with more within a given duration and the crowd (i.e. the entire economy) becomes on the average more 'excited' about buying buying buying.

  3. get more foreign people spending, preferably on new factories or buildings in the country

  4. get producers to NOT raise prices - how? by keeping basic expenditure (that which impacts a majority of the population) low, by setting price-ceilings, by keeping supply high, by offering alternatives to heavily-demanded products, etc.

These four goals (the classical honey-pots of consumption, velocity of money, FDI and inflation - there're probably a few more but it's been awhile...) are sweet and dandy, except they've always struck me as being akin to giving medicine for a sick body i.e. it may restore you back to health but it nevers help you grow (let alone become stronger).

And if the body remains inherently weak, then it's more medicine every now and then(?) That sucks.

In my view the primary way an economy grows for real is by focusing on the 'fundamentals' (ah, so not-postmodern of me to say that). I'm talking about at least five things:
  • Environment - the country's lungs
  • Education - the country's intellect
  • Domestic Unity / Harmony - the country's emotional health
  • Foreign Relations - the country's friends
  • Political Integrity - the country's spirit
Build these up. Work on these. And over time the country's wallet will take care of itself.

My Conductor Friend

Meet one of me pals, CKW. Some interesting stuff about him:
  • The guy's a musical genius; I imagine when he looks at (complex) song-sheets he can hear 'everything'. He's also the only orchestra conductor I know personally.
  • He pioneed teaching with ICT at my previous organisation and he'd certainly be a key-pick on any project seeking to 'expand boundaries'
  • He taught biology previously (get that: music and bio, whoah!) but I hear he's as eclectic as they come, with numerous tertiary-level subjects under his belt now.
  • He loves food (critical criteriaon for advancement in Malaysian social circles, eh?)
Most of all, he asks good questions. 

About life,  about faith, about it all. Check out his webpage too.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Palmer's 23 Rejects

There's Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Max Lucado, Eugene Peterson and other great spiritual writers out there. There's only one writer, however, who's managed to push me to the edge of sobbing more times than I bothered to keep track of, and that's Jim Palmer.

His book, Divine Nobodies, is the perfect blade for the heart frozen (and thus shrunken) in metaphysical theology, Christian 'systems' and relationally problematic ideas of God. The stories are totally fresh (because they're true) and the mapping to theological ideas is sublime. Best of all, they leave you holding back the tears - or just letting them flow.

His second book, Wide Open Spaces, was less touching but introduces radical theology minus any scholarly snobbishness or must-read-thrice paragraphs.

1. Whatever it is you believe, it must pass the mind’s test of logic and reason.

2. Don’t trust or follow what you feel deep inside.

3. Don’t try this apart from institutional structures and programs.

4. If it has anything to do with God, ultimate reality, and the deepest longings of your soul, count on it being near impossible for someone like you to figure it out.

5. Don’t fraternize with non-believers or people of different religious or spiritual beliefs.

6. Just assume that what others say the Bible says is actually what the Bible says, especially if the person saying it is someone who is supposed to know that sort of thing.

7. That deep feeling of love, peace, freedom, joy and contentment can’t be God. Instead, you should probably start feeling guilty about where you are falling short with God.

8. Reduce your life only to those things that you can fit into the “God” category. If necessary, justify other things by creatively establishing some remote correlation.

9. When you become progressive or more enlightened, look down your nose (in compassion of course) upon those poor souls who have yet to reach your level.

10. Assume that everything you’ve been told or currently know is all there is to truth and anything refuting it must be wrong. In other words, you’ve arrived with virtually nothing left to learn except for trying harder with what you already know.

11. If you keep applying the same formula or beliefs and it doesn’t produce the result it promised, assume the problem is you.

12. Don’t waste your time with the small stuff, do something big or join something big.

13. Have a social justice persona. Remember that the image can suffice even if you don’t really have the time or inclination to respond to people in need along the everyday paths of life.

14. Make sure a majority if not all of your conversations are overtly connected somehow to “God.” Unless the word is actually used or some closely associated word, the conversation doesn’t really count in terms of eternal value.

15. Be at least slightly skeptical and conflicted about truly enjoying very ordinary moments in your life…feeling of the warm sunshine on your face, playing a board game with your daughter, walking your dog, taking photographs, enjoying the quiet, lounging around with your family - that kind of meaningless stuff.

16. Proceed as if figuring out truth is a matter of your intellect.

17. Make sure at all times there is some burning question you have to answer or some enlightening understanding you must attain before you can rest.

18. Don’t take personal responsibility for the insanity of your beliefs and practices that were damaging and destructive. Blame and resent others.

19. Measure and judge others based on where you are. Just assume if it’s a place where you currently are, everyone else should be there. If it’s something you now believe, everyone else should believe it. If it works for you, it should work for everyone.

20. Draw your conclusions from the data gathered through your physical senses. For example, come to a determination about others based on their appearance, attitude, and actions.

21. Just accept at the outset that your humanity is your enemy.

22. Equate God’s blessing with improved circumstances or existing in a constant state of “good feelings.”

23. Don’t ever let yourself fully give into love and freedom.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Wikipedia - Why Not?

I presented the following chart - which I constructed from David Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous - in a discussion about the institutional respectability (or lack of) for Wikipedia. It compares the online (copy-left) encyclopedia with Britannica, symbol of academic kosher-ness.
For those of us unwilling to include citations or references from Wikipedia or grant it 'academic' status, we should at least ask ourselves:
  • What's wrong with Wikipedia being authored by anonymous folks? Why can't we let the knowledge stand on its own?

  • Why don't we give more credit to Wikipedia for at least being forthright about possible non-neutrality of articles? How many citable books do NOT include this (yet expect us to take 'their side' of the debate?)

  • Why don't we credit Wikipedia for providing a discussion area where the issues can be thrashed out? And isn't the on-going, non-definitive (emergent?) nature of the articles a plus? Aren't these (again) yet another improvement over the standard 'acceptable' texts which are (wrongly) 'definitive' and can only point to more references (if at all) for the historical discussion?

  • Why don't we commend the collaborative nature of the articles in Wikipedia? Why are we more impressed with articles which were written by just ONE person?

Finally, on a practical note, when mistakes are made, they are almost instantaneously corrected in Wikipedia - can't say the same for the rest. So, what's "academically inappropriate" about Wikipedia again?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Power of Saying Hi

There have been numerous occasions where I've conducted briefings on scholarships, new procedures, or self-improvement opportunities and practices, to students.

Occasionally, a few students actually come up to me. What's interesting is why they do so. It's not for clarification, application, commendation or (God forbid) criticism regarding the issue briefed about.

It's just to say hi.

That's it. Very few in the audience go up to the presenters to do nothing but say hi and thank you (more of the former). Usually those who do are different and slightly over-performing than the crowd. It's almost as if they realise that outstanding people do (even very minutely) outstanding things - like say hi without an overt agenda.

What results, of course, is that this flash of difference won't go unnoticed. Presenters tend to remember these for-no-reason greeters later when they seem them (or their names) again i.e. they will, expectedly, stand out.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Assignment Tips

Some general assignment tips I wrote for my Marketing students at the subject blog, thought I might post them here too:
  • Always 'push the envelope' i.e. read up stuff and issues that not many research into (someone wrote on 'disruptive marketing' which was quite refreshing)
  • Highlight the key points you're trying to make (e.g. by bolding, underlining, etc.) - sometimes I get pages and pages of 'plain text' and it hurts my eyes (so sue me). 'Help' your marker with his marking by making key sections 'jump out'
  • There is no 'maximum' to your references - please remember that academics LOVE to see lots and lots of citations and references (and as I've said, to have very few references is 'suicide')
  • Try to link up your sections - don't "blindly" write on topic A, B, C just because the question says so(!)...make sure they connect to each other somehow (e.g. NOT MANY of you tied the Macro-Environmental Factors to the Marketing Mix)
  • Finally (for now), write with passion!!! Put. Your. HEART into it!!! Your examiner will surely 'feel' the vibes.

Friday, January 16, 2009

3 Ideas on Christian Education

My submission for the church's Christmas newsletter (better late than never, right?).

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Day at the Office

It isn't always like this, but I guess when the lines between work and play dissolve, other barriers fall too?

6 Ideas on (Not) Having Meetings

1. Never call a meeting simply because it's on the schedule - this is meeting for the sake of meeting. How many times have people wrecked their heads trying to come up with an agenda? Don't. Forego 'regular' meetings altogether because they are by and large point-less (a little overboard? Sure, but not by much)

2. Never call a meeting to discuss operational / admin / departmental issues - got a budget problem? A client issue? Machinery concerns? God wonders why we have heads and managers if we need to call other heads and managers to deliberate on such things.

Only call a meeting for strategic or ground-breaking decisions. Apart from collectively peering and charting the unknown, there's no need to physically get people together to communicate.

3. Never have more than three items on the agenda - anything more and focus/attention goes out the window (together with many a participant's spirit...let's not kid ourselves)

4. Never have an AOB - this is a recipe for disaster and time-wasting (if it's important enough it either gets on the agenda or the next one)

5. Always set a (preferably short) time limit for each agenda item - bring a bell if necessary

6. Float discussions and debates on Wiki prior to the meet

Monday, January 12, 2009

Deconstructing Church & Country

I wrote Deconstruction & the Daring Christian many months back. This may (or may not) be published later but I'm glad at least a dozen folks have even bothered to click on it (smile).

The article looks at one dude's reflection on post-March 8 Malaysia in the (dark?) light of deconstruction and tries to suggest that maybe impossible, irrational, un-real thinking, the kind of thinking from another kingdom (a celestial non-democrary), are worth pondering if not striving towards.

But if it serves as a helpful introduction to an(O)ther way of seeing faith, doctrine and politics, I'd be please. I suspect stuff like critical theory, Derridean analysis (or deconstruction) and post-modernism in general are still very unfamiliar to the Malaysian populace, given our often brash certainties regarding what's "good" or "bad" for the country. We're too sure, IMO, about the way forward, too embracing of 'sides', too judgmental of those who sit on the fence (or forego even that).

God knows we have too many 'positions' and 'stands' in the world.


I always felt there was something fascinating about 'impressionistic' art. But nothing prepared me for the fact that these two were the works of two elephants (painting separately).

Nothing like a good surprise to start the week.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

May on Ryoan-Ji

"The Zen rock garden at Ryoan-Ji (is) one of the greatest masterpieces of world art and...the only place on earth where the sacred cannot be abused. Everywhere else where the sacred manifestly lives there is latent power to justify fanaticism, self-righteousness, contempt for those outside the magic circle.

"Who would kill in the name of fiteen irregularly shaped rocks with no agreed - or even definable - meaning? Who would justify a murderous idology on the basis of their enigmatic spatial relationships and their furry tufts of moss? Who would be inspired by a sea of raked white gravel to dehumanize and subdue foreign peoples?...there is nothing here to inspire violence, hubris or condemnation." (Atomic Sushi, Simon May, p.197-198)

I wish I could take my family there. I wish the bosses of the IDF and Hamas and maybe Obama himself could spend some time with the rocks. I'm sure there'll be many lessons learnable, not least that there're alternatives to philosophies like 'Kill (the innocent, if necessary) Or Be Killed.'

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Donation Sites for the Gaza Conflict

Tear Fund


RedCrescent (Malaysia)

(The links may not open to an actual donation mechanism, but if you follow them far enough eventually they should).

Christ on the Road

1. Don't use the horn (unless it's life-or-death); say what you want to say with either a kind hand (not a finger!) or a nice smile

2. Look at the faces of the drivers, chances are they're troubled, hurt, disturbed. Say a 3-second prayer for two people every 10 minutes. This takes you out of yourself and makes you a spiritual hero

3. If jams are frequent, you can:

  • Leave your house (much) earlier - and discipline your rising time
  • Leave your house (much) later - and spend the extra time reading/reflecting
  • Get a walkman or iPod and use the jam time to learn something new or enjoy music - skip the radio unless you've found a great channel

4. Don't cut queues, beat lights or overtake any but the virtually stationary cars (what's the rush?)

5. Let others cut in, give way and smile at them

6. Put the safety of other drivers at a high priority

7. When at the tol, give a big smile to the attendant (who's job is certainly less attractive than yours) and thank God that you've got a car, a job to get to and money to help you along

Sunday, January 4, 2009

God of the Average

Health, career, academics, family, housing, crises, addictions: these are the usual items we mention at prayer meets. 

But there are some things we do NOT pray for, period, let alone raise in a prayer meeting or group-chat. I mean, when was the last time we told a friend, "Please pray for my...:
  • credit card - it's the third time it's been frauded, very troublesome informing my regular payees, (re)signing and faxing docs, etc. 
  • broadband - I need it keep steady, especially during exam weekends
  • split hairs, white hairs - yeah I'm vain too, so sue me... 
  • pride - I really think I'm the best in my department, can't help fantasizing about being given accolades and awards every now and then, can't help feeling cheated when some other dude gets the unexpected kudos 
  • mattress - it's a breeding ground for bed bugs (even if they don't bite you, which is rare, they still explode into many tiny black blotches on your bed you wonder if your Mont Blanc was leaking)" 
  • time/motivation - to clear my store room, to hit the gym again, to get new shoes, to clean the fridge, etc."
I reckon we've been ingrained with the idea that God only listens to "important-enough-to-be-announced" prayers. Maybe we find the casual and the ordinary embarassing to bring up at prayer meetings or a waste of 'sharing' time.

But tell this to a father whose daughter keeps nudging him to sleep a bit more to the side so she can sleep closer next to him. Or to a mother whose son is wailing because he can't find his beloved red tumbler.

It's not about triviality. It's about intimacy. In this case, ours with God.

Our prayer that mountains be moved is likely more effective only after we're used to praying for that 10-year old car top start after a long drive (or a cold night). 

Our prayer for special doctor-dazzling healing will come more naturally only after we've been praying for the grace to do things like clean the corners of the room ceiling. 

We'd feel more at home praying for spiritual conversions after we've done the time of praying that currency conversions don't hit your overseas credit payments too hard.

Because if we don't pray for the banal which can occupy up to 70-80% of our daily experience, no one else will. God is as much the God of the average and the awkward as He is of the awesome.


Tip to ooze (almost instant) credibility when you speak: Don't fidget.

Don't move your fingers. Stop that shaking foot. Keep your eyes stuck on your listener's. Quit the grinning-for-no-reason. If there's discomfort, hold it in. Especially during, but don't limit it to, your critical statements.

Be still. And know that stationary is salutary.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy Constructed New Year

We don't celebrate Dec 29 or Dec 30 or Dec 31, but we count down the seconds to Jan 1 and when the clock strikes midnight the fireworks explode, the wine glasses are raised and the wings of song and cheer are freed.

But what sets apart one date from another? What makes 19.5 hours ago more celebration-worthy than, say, 9 hours ago? Society's labels, that's what.

This is the wonder of Man : That we can and are willing to construct arbitrary frameworks of order and shape our lives (and our very emotions) around them.

Time, like much of what else, takes on whatever meaning, genesis and shape we put into it. The "first day of the year" can be whenever and however we choose it to be. So, presumably, can the rest of our lives.

Happy '2009'. Let's have good fun.