Saturday, July 31, 2004

Ideology vs Theology

Marvin’s email mentioned Alistair McGrath, which made me visit my bookshelf. I picked up McGrath’s A Passion for Truth: The Intellectual Coherence of Evangelicalism, and found between its pages an old photo of me with a birthday cake. 29-6-93. Those were the days at Bob Kappa - when I had a lot more hair. My eyes run across the page bookmarked in history and underlined was McGrath making a point about German Christians during the Second World War, and ‘non-biblical controlling influence’ upon modern day Christianity:
"We criticize German liberal theologians for supporting the imperial war policy in 1914, while turning a blind eye to the fact that they were simply endorsing a general cultural trend. We criticize the German Christians for obeying Hitler in the 1930s, conveniently choosing to overlook that they were simply submitting themselves to the prevailing cultural norms. We are doing the same today, by allowing ourselves and our churches to follow societal norms and values, irrespective of their origins and goals. To allow our ideas and values to become controlled by anything or anyone other than the self-revelation of God in Scripture is to adopt an ideology, rather than a theology; it is to become controlled by ideas and values whose origins lie outside the Christian tradition - and potentially to become enslaved to them."
(Italics mine, for emphasis)

In God's Hands

Last Sunday, as I placed my hand on Dad’s back I could trace his shoulder blade against his skin. He had lost so much weight, the ridges of his spine were barely concealed beneath the thin white singlet he had on. He had difficulty eating and his coughs made things worse. Mom pointed at his stockinged feet and said they were swollen. Just over a month and a half after he was diagnosed with cancer in the liver, and two weeks after his angiogram and embolism, he was clearly wasting away. We prayed to the Lord of Lords, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, that my Dad would know his life was secure in God’s loving hands.

Today Albert said Dad would have to be admitted. His feet, all puffy and more swollen than they were on Sunday. Side effects of chemotherapy. Also he had not been eating and sleeping. Dad would probably be put on a protein drip or something. My Dad. He who never had any major ailment all through his 79 years. Until now, Mom had said.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

The problem with people

"When you work with people, there’s problems," Theresa said.

"When you work alone, there’s problems too," I said.

We’re driving back from a meeting with a client, and talking about how difficult it was getting temperamental people to finish their work on time. There’s too much work; there’s too much stress. How much can a person take anyway, before the facade of civility undergoes a Hulkian transformation?

The problem is not work, I think. We are the problem.

We have a problem with people because we have problems with ourselves. If I’m not comfortable in my own skin, it’s going to be tough living and working with others. Okay, maybe work - stressful work - triggers an extreme reaction, and snap! Anyone would lose it. Break down. Blow up. Wouldn’t you?

See, it’s no one’s fault.

Reading & Reasoning

"Christianity depends on reading.
Therefore, Christians have to read."
Gene Edward Veith

Someone actually suggested that our own children read because they got their parents' genes. Well, genes have no more to do with reading habits than being born of Christian parents makes anyone a Christian. But I have to admit that the environment plays an influential role.

In our home, reading takes the place of TV (ours broke down 4 years ago and we have not replaced it). Yes, there's the occasional dvd movie (our TV receives video signals from the player only), but as adults who are already avid readers, we tend to read 2 or 3 books at any one time. Understandably, libraries, bookstores, second-hand bookshops, and book sales, become popular haunts. It's not hard to imagine therefore why our kids got bitten by the book bug. Friends who visit are surprised at the library that's the Tan Residence. "Have you read all these books?" they ask for the 1000th time. My guess is they know the answer (no, I have NOT read all the books on our shelves) but as conversation starters go, it beats being asked if our children have a problem socialising!

More than just books is the attitude we share for life-long learning. Whether we read for instruction or for leisure, we tell our children not to be afraid of questions and ideas, because they're essential to learning. I realise of course that it's not the number of books you read but how well you read that matters. Reading well is reading critically - which is what good readers do. Reasoning is the corollary of reading. It's the ability to separate fact from fiction, what's true from what's real, and finally, the profound from the trivial. With practice, the mind is sharpened and our esteem for truth deepened, wherever it's found - because all truth is ultimately God's truth.

The great protestant reformer John Calvin has this to say:

"The human mind is fallen as it is, and corrupted from its integrity, is yet invested and adorned by God with excellent talents. If we believe that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we should neither reject nor despise the truth, wherever it shall appear unless we wish to insult the Spirit of God."

If we want to develop our critical faculties, reading ranks high on the to-do list. This is followed closely by reflection and discourse. These last 2 disciplines are hard to exercise these days, because both require time - preferably lots of it. You need space to think through what you're reading; you need time for meaningful exchanges, to talk things out, someone to bounce ideas off. Sadly, our activity-mad culture has already encroached into our churches and homes, robbing us the quiet necessary for reflection, meditation, talking, and listening.

In an age where truth has taken a back seat, it does not require a genius to figure out how this dismal state of affairs came about. It makes me wonder if we will be able to emulate Paul's courageous defense before Festus in Acts 26:25 where he declared:

"What I am saying is true and reasonable."

Making an argument for faith on the basis of truth and reason starts with reading well. I sure hope our children will be able to take a stand like Paul and echo these same words with equal passion and confidence.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Serious drama

"The serious writer has always taken the flaw in human nature for his starting point, usually the flaw in an otherwise admirable character. Drama usually bases itself on the bedrock of original sin, whether the writer thinks in theological terms or not. Then, too, any character in a serious novel is supposed to carry a burden of meaning larger than himself. The novelist doesn’t write about people in a vacuum; he writes about people in a world where something is obviously lacking, where there is the general mystery of incompleteness and the particular tragedy of our own times to be demonstrated, and the novelist tries to give you within the form of the book, a total experience of human nature at any time. For this reason the greatest dramas naturally involve the salvation or loss of the soul. If there is no belief in the soul, there is very little drama. The Christian novelist is distinguished from his pagan colleagues by recognizing sin as sin. According to his heritage he sees it not as sickness or an accident of environment, but as a responsible choice of offence against God which involves his eternal future. Either one is serious about salvation or one is not."

FLANNERY O’CONNOR (1925 - 1964)
Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Book burning

A friend asked Sook Ching why our family reads books that have wizards, talking animals, and goblins (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, etc). No, this friend has never read any of these books, nor does she have any inkling what they are or who the writers are, except for what her church leaders say about them.

“Aren’t these things occult?”
“Our body is God’s temple, so why do you want to fill your mind with these things?”
“Would Jesus sit down to watch these movies with you?”
“Would you burn all your books if God asked you to?”
“What do you mean you see something about Jesus’s sacrifice in Spider-Man? Spider-Man is just a comic book character - he’s not real.”
“Well, I have not missed anything by not reading or seeing these things, right?”

It continues to disturb me that many people in the church are unable to appreciate the arts - books, movies, music. Granted, there are stuff out there that are plain bad, aesthetically or scripturally, even blasphemous. Many things that pass for art these days are simply not good, wholesome, or pure.

But this is precisely the point. Once you go down that road attempting to divide good from bad, you will be enmeshed in legalistic one-upmanship. I believe it’s the sort of mindset that devised the Jewish law or 613 halakhah - legal extrapolation of the Ten Commandments regulating life and conduct. I also believe it’s why the Islamic polemic on halal and haram has made control freaks of the Muslim self-righteous.

Some interesting links:

Torah 101
Ask the Imam
Flex The Brain (Issue 11-01-03)Gene Edward Veith's article on reading which appeared in WORLD Magazine Online. He says "reading books the right way keeps the mind in shape the way exercise keeps the body healthy."

Monday, July 26, 2004

John Thava Balakrishnan 1945-2004

I like the way Dallas Willard puts it in one of his books, that we all should live “in view of the heavens opened.” What he means is that one’s life and pursuits should encompass eternity, because life doesn’t end at physical death. Take the long view and see the big picture, in other words.

I’m thinking about this as I reflect on John’s passing just this Friday.

In his last years, John lost both legs to diabetes, had part of his testicles removed, suffered bouts of depression, survived a minor stroke, had failing eyesight, put up with incontinence, and paid the price of years of abuse to his body as a chain smoker. Even before his legs were amputated, he was difficult. He frequently had the look of an animal ready to pounce; he was a certified schizophrenic, moody, cantankerous and cranky - and that’s on his good days. Who knew what he would have been without the antipsychotic drugs he took periodically to stop him from slipping off the edge.

God knows how many times he had been there. The bloodshot gaze, fits of self-delusions, aggressive loud voice. More than once I had to reprimand him for the verbal assaults thrown at his wife Maliga. His failures were undeniably many, as were his faults.

Here was a man who dropped out of medical school in India (apparently ran out of funds), went up the source of Ganges River looking for God (didn’t find him there), hiked along the Asian Highway through Europe, scrounged, lived off the kindness of others, picked oranges in an Israeli kibbutz, and for awhile was convinced the Jewish life was for him. Told about a Christian commune in Switzerland where there was food and shelter, John headed for L’Abri and met its founders Francis and Edith Schaeffer, and found Jesus. By then he was already ill, displaying early symptoms of schizophrenia (which he hinted was triggered by heartbreak). Later back in KL, he claimed he was chased out of his home for his faith. Years later (in the late 80s), his mother - we knew her as Auntie Grace - miraculously became a Christian herself.

Yet in that befuddled mind was an intellect that refused to take everything lying down. We talked about many things - Schaeffer, kundalini, theology, Hinduism, the media, politics, existentialism, always over teh tarik and thosai. Maybe he did, but I do not remember him ever shaking his fist at God for denying him the life all men dream of. He was fiercely conservative, refusing to buy into the tongue mumbo-jumbo (“Our God exists in time, space and history and He communicates in proper normal syntax and meaningful sentences” he would say), and felt more at home in a Brethren church than anywhere else.

He wanted to do 'God’s work' yet ended up at various times an inmate at the psychiatric ward, a security guard (!), a peddler of roses in pubs and eateries (RM25 per stalk on Valentine’s Day), an English language tutor, a copywriter (guess where the idea came from) - and would you believe - a manager with a small trading company run by an Indian national. Oh yes, he was briefly a full time worker with the Gospel Hall as well. He could never hold down a job, but to his credit, he never gave up trying (or scheming).

John represented the all too visible collapse of one man’s good intentions in the mad swirl of defective genes and bad choices; one does reap what one sows, regardless of what you think about predestination. Yet he was also more than a social discard.

I remember that verse in Ecclesiastes 3:11, that all humanity bears the stamp of eternity at the core of their being. In light of the heavens opened, John’s weakness was God’s opportunity. It’s what the Bible calls grace. Because, unless you know what it is to be broken you don’t know the need for restoration. You don’t know the depth of God’s love until you realise it reaches even to the worse of us all; Jesus died on the cross for the stricken and the strong. What John taught me was that no one is better than his neighbour, for we all are in need of redemption. Only, John’s needs were more obvious.

We who are able forget that our ‘good works’ are no more than filthy rags, what more our preoccupation with ‘ministry’ or ‘service,’ as if to repay a debt. We mean something because God sees eternity in us. And what God sees in us matters far more than what we see in each other, or how we wish to be seen by our neighbours.

John’s troubles are over. In heaven where God makes all things new, the new John Thava would be a sight to see.

“What dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause”

Shakespeare (Hamlet)

Sunday, July 25, 2004

The man in the casket

Hearing that John had gone did not ‘register’ I think, until we came face to face with his body in the casket at the evening’s wake. There he was wearing his smudged glasses, his cheeks waxened and unnaturally puffed up by an overzealous mortician. John was shrouded to his neck with white linen emblazoned with a cross. Up close, he had the guise of someone familiar: this man vaguely resembled someone I knew - could this be, is this...him? Then it hit home.

I choked, and my eyes brimmed over.
I’ve known John a long time - almost 20 years. I caught sight of the boys, their pale faces momentarily stunned by the awful, banal look of death. Sook Ching had the crumpled look of a person who was fighting back her tears.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
"Now the dwelling of God is with men,
and he will live with them.
They will be his people, and God himself
will be with them and be their God.
He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain,
for the old order of things has passed away."

He who was seated on the throne said,
"I am making everything new!"
Then he said, "Write this down,
for these words are trustworthy and true."

He said to me: "It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega,
the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty
I will give to drink without cost
from the spring of the water of life.
He who overcomes will inherit all this,
and I will be his God and he will be my son.
Revelation 21:3~7

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Wake up call

The house alarm went off a little after 5 a.m Friday. I wouldn't say it scared us witless, but when the three of us - Sook Ching, Ethan, and me - staggered groggily to find out what set it off, I dare say we were more than slightly nervous. It could have been an intruder, but everything was fine, thank God. The yard door was locked, and so was the front door. We turned the alarm off and went to bed. Elliot was totally unaware, but he woke up to find his brother sharing his bed.

It was almost ten when we all woke up again and had breakfast. There was just a couple of chapters or so left of Elizabeth George's In the Presence of the Enemy, and
I read furiously, racing with Lynley and Nkata to Barbara's rescue. As they say, it was unputdownable. Predictable conclusion, but unputdownable all the same. At about noon, we left for Jelapang to see John who we were told had just come out briefly of his coma (Maliga called in the morning).

When we were nearing Tanjung Malim, Nisha phoned to say that her dad had just died.

Friday, July 23, 2004

And the Skylark Sings


By David H. Albert
New Society Publishers

The whimsical title of David H. Albert's book is lifted from a poem written by William Blake (1757-1827), itself a fitting prelude to the Albert Family's homeschooling adventure. In the poem, a schoolboy denied summer's simple pleasures complains:

"...going to school in a summer morn,
O! it drives all joy away."

That pretty much sums up where the author is coming from, and what he thinks is wrong with schools today.

This 1999 book is subtitled 'Adventures in Homeschooling and Community-Based Education' and I was happy to have gone along for the ride. David Albert (who is a Quaker) and his partner Ellen tell an engaging story about homeschooling their daughters Ali and Meera in ways that mirror their deep love for children. As David writes, he did not start out to be a champion for the homeschooling community; it's not clear, but perhaps his daughters' precocity eased the way.

The book begins at an annual concert featuring a Handel's Messiah Sing-And-Play-In in Santa Cruz, California. There his 20-month old daughter Ali (short for Aliyah Meena) falls under the spell of the proceedings, and promptly declares she wants to learn to play the violin, "NOW!" By the time you reach page 34, seven-year old Ali is part of the Portland Children's Chorale performing at New York's Carnegie Hall, besides having raised enough money (by herself) to buy her own violin. In the meantime, younger sister Meera Behn is inviting herself over to a neighbour's and along the way picks up piano, and subsequently a gifted piano tutor who teaches her music and sight-reading - all before she learns to read and write (Read the writer's advice on choosing a music teacher too).

David Albert calls himself an advocate for children and believes that education is not a commodity to be packaged and dished out with utilitarian glee. Unfortunately, modern schooling puts the stress on adequate instead of optimal learning, a fault David deservedly skewers throughout the book. Schools in themselves are not necessarily 'bad' but in the writer's opinion they are far, far, too 'narrow' in their objectives for reasons that become clear in the light of his daughters' remarkable education.

The book provides a personalized and anecdotal account of homeschooling that leaves no doubt that the writer had to learn on the go (like all novice homeschoolers). But you don't get a sense of disquiet or an inner struggle though. Hmm. He's a brave man who takes the road less traveled, with no preconceived ideas, as he says. And no master plan too. No, that's only partly true, because to begin with, the writer certainly believes in a child's potential and the book fairly bristles with fascinating insights into child-directed learning. As an unschooler who subscribes to natural learning, David's story of Ali and Meera's education makes a convincing pitch for homeschool.

The girls come across as normal kids whose language, reading habits, writing skills, thoughtfulness, musical talents - and may I add, self-confidence - flower in the fertile soil of the Albert household. Now, there's socialization for you. In a home where 'seldom is heard a discouraging word' (so goes the song of a bygone era) children cannot but thrive. What about curriculum? Both Ali and Meera were not tutored in a didactic or formal manner as David believes "the job of the teacher (parent or otherwise) is not to teach but to provide the opportunities whereby these needs can be met." How these opportunities were harvested is richly elaborated in the rest of the book.

Since no single individual (teacher or parent) can expect to meet a child's every learning need at any one time it makes good sense to look elsewhere - to clubs, relatives, neighbours, the library, friends, community historians, etc, who provide a ready network of available resource. As the education of Ali and Meera unfolds, the reader sees how the girls' interests serendipitously lead to apprenticeships with adult 'experts' and participation in community-based activities with heart-warming success. They cost virtually nothing (or little) to tap into as well.

The writer is quick to assert that the book is not of the "My Homeschooled Kid Got into Yale... Yours Can Too!" genre. And I like the fact that he spends as much time writing about what his children have taught both him and his partner Ellen, which he says are chiefly, humility and respect. Intertwined in this narrative are the writer's personal thoughts on education, examinations, life, humanity, and his wishes for children everywhere, whether educated at home or in school. He reminds us that education should not be seen as the mastery of knowledge or amassing of facts. It's really about nurturing good citizens of the planet whose values go beyond consumerism and one-upmanship.

He does meander towards the second half of the book, but don't mind it. Pat Farenga, President of Holt Associates, calls this book "...a beautiful story...A joyous and memorable book!" I agree. As a book that enlarges one's convictions about homeschooling and raising children, it's a story well told and a book you don't want to miss.

Link to William Blake's poem.

[This review was previously posted online on HOMEFRONTIER]

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Fahling for Mary

Mary Fahl would most likely have her albums categorized as New Age, though how it’s defined is anybody’s guess. I first heard her singing ‘Going Home’ a haunting tune that was the theme song of Gods and Generals, a mini-series about the American Civil War.
It was her voice.
Low, earthy timbre, almost brooding.
I got goose bumps listening to it.
It's been a long time since a singer did that to me. Imagine Diana Krall and Annie Lennox reborn, reconstituted as one.
Found out that she was lead vocalist with a band called October Project. 2 albums later (last one 1995) they’ve all gone solo, but their CDs remain much sought after even today. Mary’s first solo album The Other Side of Me (2003) isn’t available locally so it’s to the rescue. I thought I placed a double order, one OP and one MF, but the good people at Amazon couriered 2 OP instead.

Beware the small print

The Dome.
One Utama.

D.Fernandez pointed at the standee card with a screaming 50% OFF on our table: if you’re paying with a Standard Chartered Credit Card, you get half price on drinks. Later when we’ve chowed down our sandwiches and he’s paying the bill he asked the waiter why there was no discount. The waiter said it only applied to soft drinks - the fizzy type like pepsi, coke, etc.

“What the big print giveth, the small print taketh away,”
I quipped, quoting something I read somewhere.

The catch is always in the small print.
Small prints make cynics of us all.

Riding the train

The crush of warm bodies during rush hour is unnerving. The sweat. The odour. Strangers swaying, lurching, and touching self-consciously. People look away, embarrassed that they should be so close. No, you're not supposed to be chummy on the train.

The other day, a man was talking into his mobile phone in a language that was positively Thai, all nasal and flat. Then at the KLCC stop four middle-eastern types got on board and carried on a loud conversation. There was a guttural and fractured cadence to their voices and I told myself, 'Arabic' (of course it could well be Iraqi, Iranian, even Kurdish, but the auto-response system in my brain said 'Arabic'). Wednesday morning, it was four white backpackers who caught my attention, speaking what? Swedish? Some European tongue, sharp and accented with a lilt, but certainly not French or German. But what do I know?

I'm just glad to find a seat so I can read, which I discover is a cinch if you board the train at Taman Melati or Kelana Jaya, two stations bracketing the PUTRA line. I don't see many people reading however. In the last four days riding the train, I saw one or two lucky enough to find a seat read their newspapers. One young girl holding on to the overhead strap had her eyes glued to a Chinese book, its pages folded back. But you've got to hand it to this guy who sat next to me. He was reading some text about Islam vs the West, the Decline of Islam in India, etc. To my surprise, he fished out a dog-eared and well-thumbed pocket dictionary from his trousers. Now, is that a reader, or what?

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Got my car back!


I’ve got my car back and I am as happy as peach. After riding the train for the last 4 days, it was good to get back into the driver’s seat and be in control again. This is not to say the train rides were bad. I mean, there was some inconvenience (Sook Ching had to drive me to and back from the station, and between station and office I had to hop into a cab). At least I could read: I revisited (speed-read) David Albert’s inspiring 'And The Skylark Sings With Me,' ploughed through Stephen King’s 'On Writing', and I’m close to finishing Elizabeth George’s 'In the Presence of the Enemy.'

Now, I’m going to slip my new October Project titular CD into the player, turn the volume up while I enjoy the drive home. Never mind the jams.

OP’s Mary Fahl’s alto contralto voice beckons.

Tickets for a ride we didn't choose

More news that tells you what you already know: Islam’s grip isn’t about to be loosened anytime soon, whatever else the media may be saying about PM Pak Lah’s moderate 'Islam Hadhari.'

Case #1: Four Malays who were arrested for deviant teachings (one has since died) had their appeal against the Syariah Court thrown out by the Federal Court. Although the defendants claimed they had renounced Islam and therefore need not submit to the Syariah Court order, the Federal Court’s rejection effectively denies a Malay Muslim his absolute right to give up Islam and practice a religion of his choice! The appellants have been in detention since November 2000 for refusing to submit to Syariah Appeal Court order to attend repentance classes. Read it HERE.

Case #2: In another widely-watched case, a Hindu bank clerk S.Shamala's fight for custodial rights after her husband embraced Islam and converted their two children (5 and 4 years) without her knowledge ('in a shroud of secrecy' so declares the judge) reaches a stalemate. High Court judge Faiza Tamby agrees to visiting rights, but puts his foot down on the religious position of the children. The learned judge warns Shamala she would lose her right to actual custody "if there were reasonable grounds to believe that she would influence the children’s present religious beliefs (Islam) or make them eat pork." The judgment borders on doublespeak, but you make up your own mind by reading the Star report HERE.

These are all disturbing signals that Malaysia’s already on the slippery slope to losing her secular constitution. Farish Noor writes: "Lest it be forgotten, any attempt to introduce an Islamic State in Malaysia will lead to a radical (and irreversible) change to the constitutional framework of the country. The conversion from a secular state to an Islamic state is not simply a matter of semantics…..The reality is that the introduction of a religious state in Malaysia will bring about changes that none of us are really prepared for, and what is more these changes can never be reversed once they are installed. Instead, the Malaysian public has been sold tickets for a journey the course of which none of us have anticipated or charted."Full article HERE.

Kairos Malaysia’s previous comments on the Islamic-Secular State debate provides a context to the ongoing imbroglio. Read them HERE.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Raising Up Fathers

Christianity Today carried an interview with Maggie Gallagher, author of the book 'Raising Up Fathers.' Interesting.

But I firmly believe that mothers and fathers both matter a great deal to their children, and that marriage is the way that you get that for children. You cannot raise a generation of men to be good family men unless you tell them that husbands and fathers matter a great deal.

One of the things sociologist Brad Wilcox shows is that conservative Protestants, who are the only group of people actively advocating for male headship in our society and for a strong vision of gender difference, oddly enough turn out to produce husbands and fathers who are more like the "new man," that is, a warm, engaged, attentive father. And their wives report that these men are also more appreciative, and the wives are happier than the average wife or the wives of religiously unaffiliated men. This is true only for conservative Protestants who go to church. If you're a nominal conservative Protestant and you just pick up on the headship ideology and you don't have the idea of love and sacrifice for the sake of your family, it turns out badly.

To read more, go to:

Starting out

I thought it was Isaac Newton (1643-1727) who gave us this quotable gem, that we see further because we stand on "the shoulders of giants." It appears that he borrowed that phrase from the distinguished scholar and philosopher John of Salisbury who lived during the Middle Ages. But as learned as he was, John himself was actually quoting from a contemporary, one Bernard of Chartres. (I've got to dig deeper - possibly visit the Catholic Encyclopedia).

The point is, no one is entirely 'original' or 100% self-made. We're a confluence of myriad thoughts and ideas. We're all shaped by the things we see, read and ingest. We all build on someone else's work, someone else's blood, sweat and tears. If we are the better for it, we owe it to giants who go before us; they who offered us their insights so we see clearer, and their shoulders to stand on so we see farther.