Monday, August 30, 2004

Worship Without Dumbing Down

What else are people saying about worship music?

Our discussion can hardly be complete without a reference to Lutheran scholar Marva Dawn's oft quoted tome, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down. She's concerned about the long-term effect of too much self-centred worship:
Particular behaviours arise out of the same kind of persons we are. If we habitually concentrate on ourselves, we will be more selfish with others. If God is the subject in our worship, our behaviour will reflect God’s actions in us. Paul writes that as we behold the Lord’s glory we are all “being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another "(2 Cor. 3:18).
Brian McLaren (pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church and a leader of the emergent movement ) surveys the current trippy-happy worship scene and issues a friendly call to songwriters to embrace deeper biblical themes. What would a Martian think if it would pay our church a visit?
"If you doubt what I’m saying, listen next time you’re singing in worship. It’s about how Jesus forgives me, embraces me, makes me feel his presence, strengthens me, forgives me, holds me close, touches me, revives me, etc., etc. Now this is all fine. But if an extraterrestrial outsider from Mars were to observe us, I think he would say either a) that these people are all mildly dysfunctional and need a lot of hug therapy (which is ironic, because they are among the most affluent in the world, having been blessed in every way more than any group in history), or b) that they don’t give a rip about the rest of the world, that their religion/spirituality makes them as selfish as any non-Christian, but just in spiritual things rather than material ones. (That last sentence may be worth another read.)"
Follow this link for more.

John Mortensen adds his two bits to McLaren's piece with the following advice to write lyrics, melody, etc worthy of our Creator. Very hard work, surely, but absolutely critical.
"Many are noticing that contemporary praise music seems increasingly lifeless and artificial. It may be possible to work toward a more authentic expression of worship but it will come at the cost of much creative effort. The noisy products of masspopcult need to be shushed so that writers from within the community might have a voice. The community itself will need to encourage its writers, bear with them, and (probably) forgive them.

Both music and texts need to be taken far more seriously; lyricists must craft their meaning, imagery, and rhyme until they are worthy expressions of worship. Composers need to match such texts with finely-wrought tunes of unique singable beauty."

Read the rest of his response here.

Saturday, August 28, 2004

Better Worship

I don’t want to get ahead of the book I’m reading, but there’s so much that’s provocative. For instance, Don Carson (ed. Worship by the Book) makes reference to a book by David Peterson (Engaging with God), while confessing his admiration and partiality for the author’s thesis. Peterson’s study of New Testament worship led him to ask: if the injunction to worship is a constant for new covenant Christians, why then do we meet together every Sunday for worship? Surely we do not meet on Sunday for that, unless it is something we have not been doing throughout the rest of the week. Peterson believes that the church meets together primarily for mutual edification. Yes, there’s corporate worship, but it is for building one another up (as opposed to just wanting a ‘touch’ from the Lord?) that the church of God meets.

I think there's something there. I’m inclined towards Peterson's point of view considering that Christians are after all part of a living organism, a body, of which Jesus is the head. We worship God everyday as part of the covenant lifestyle, encompassing work, play, study, recreation - all of life, all the time! But mutual edification as Peterson notes, can only take place when we meet with others who belong to Jesus' body.

In an age where "hell is other people" (Sartre) a lot of us find consolation in distance, separation, things, books, and er, blogs. It just takes too much, makes too many demands. Ouch! Yet, the christian must swim against the tide and celebrate relationships. You can develop a relationship online - to a degree - but face to face, warts and all, is where you edify and are edified in return. This side of heaven, what the world wants to see is how it is possible for a bunch of people to stay together in community, to stay reconciled......even if it hurts.

I recall Bonhoeffer's words in Life Together that the christian community is a faith community and a gift of God, and should therefore be subject to His Word, where everyone is loved as Jesus loved, for Jesus' sake. "We are bound together by faith, not by experience," says Bonhoeffer. How the community edifies its own members in the experience and practice of corporate worship is another essay in itself.

Carson takes time to shore up his thoughts, and I hope to post some more of his views here. But here’s something that ought to give you an idea of what you’re in for:

In an age increasingly suspicious of (linear) thought, there is much more respect for the "feeling" of things - whether a film or a church service. It is disturbingly easy to plot surveys of people, especially young people, drifting from a church of excellent preaching and teaching to one with excellent music because, it is alleged, there is "better worship" there. But we need to think carefully about this matter. Let us restrict ourselves for the moment to corporate worship. Although there are things that can be done to enhance corporate worship, there is a profound sense in which excellent worship cannot be attained merely by pursuing excellent worship. In the same way that, according to Jesus, you cannot find yourself until you lose yourself, so also you cannot find excellent corporate worship until you stop trying to find excellent corporate worship and pursue God himself, Despite the protestations, one sometimes wonders if we are beginning to worship worship rather than worship God. As a brother put it to me, it’s a bit like those who begin by admiring the sunset and soon begin to admire themselves admiring the sunset.

Friday, August 27, 2004

Generation to Generation

Picked this up from a homeschooler's blog. I like the part where Antoine de Saint-Exupery writes about knowledge and ideals that are "wordless and full of wonder," and the importance of living "not by things, but by the meanings of things."
In a house which becomes a home, one hands down and another takes up the heritage of mind and heart, laughter and tears, musings and deeds.
Love, like a carefully loaded ship, crosses the gulf between the generations.
Therefore we do not neglect the ceremonies of our passage: when we wed, when we die, and when we are blessed with a child;
When we depart and when we return; when we plant and when we harvest.
Let us bring up our children. It is not the place of some official to hand to them their heritage.
If others impart to our children our knowledge and ideals, they will lose all of us that is wordless and full of wonder.
Let us build memories in our children, lest they drag out joyless lives, less they allow treasures to be lost because they have not been given the keys.
We live, not by things, but by the meanings of things. It is needful to transmit the passwords from generation to generation.


Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Worship Woes

My friend says he finds it unsettling that women should worship lead, simply because Paul himself denied them such headship roles. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise anyone since it’s a debate that refuses to die (a woman’s role in church, I mean). I can’t say I have come to any firm conclusion myself having disavowed a fair bit of my own traditional roots, but what my friend said next alarmed me somewhat. He said if it was up to him to worship lead, he would give away all the electric guitars and drums but the piano (!), to start with. No one would be up on the stage. As worship leader he would stand with the rest of the congregation - he in the front row, of course - all facing the same direction (like congregants in a mosque) and he would direct the church to sing only hymns. But then he says, “the youths would throw me out of the church.”

I’m intrigued by his comments and I confess I’m not sure if I’m supposed to laugh or cry. I have just started reading Worship By The Book (edited by Don Carson) and I’m going to keep an open mind. Interestingly, the first chapter has Willard asking if worship traditionalists have thought through their presuppositions carefully. Because, as he says, it is not as simple as it appears.

Then there is this article by Philip Yancey. Titled Would Jesus Worship Here? he sees strength and confusion in the internal logic of worship practices across the denominational divide (not to mention diversity of practice even within a single denomination). How strange we must all appear to an outsider seeking clues to our faith, he writes. He wraps up his impressions with the following:
"First, not many people in church look like they're enjoying themselves. Second, Christianity may show its best side as a minority faith. I see more unity and creativity in places like the United Kingdom and Australia, where Christians have little hope of affecting culture and concentrate instead on loving each other and worshiping well. Third, God "moves" in mysterious ways. To visit the burgeoning churches of the apostle Paul's day, you would need to hire a Muslim guide or an archaeologist. Western Europe, site of the Holy Roman Empire and the Reformation, is now the least religious place on earth. In Latin America, while the Catholics preached God's "preferential option for the poor," the poor embraced Pentecostalism.

Meanwhile, the greatest numerical revival in history is occurring in China, one of the last atheistic states and one of the most oppressive. Go figure."

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Celebrating Grace

As I read Romans 6 this morning, I can understand why the whole idea of being "dead to sin and alive in Christ" raises question marks. Sin remains, and how it dogs our existence. Douglas Moo (NICNT) admits to it, as does Paul, but explains that what’s happened is a realm transfer: it’s not sin that rules although it remains, but Christ who reigns. The Christian life is about pushing back sin’s hold on us, submitting to a “celebration of grace” while taking care not to give in to the “abuse of grace.”

Monday, August 23, 2004

Which God?

When we talk about knowing God, we must admit we can know nothing about God except for what He has revealed Himself to be. In other words, we are not at liberty to express or imagine or entertain pet ideas about a God cast in our own preference at the expense of the One who has revealed Himself in Scripture.

Carl F Henry (1913-2003) once wrote, "that if we humans say anything authentic about God, we can do so only on the basis of divine-revelation; all other God-talk is conjectural."

The issues we have with 'identity' and about being 'authentic' may be our way of avoiding the God Who Is in favour of the God Whom I Identify With.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Social Pariahs

CNN has a Back to School Special which includes a write-up on homeschool. While there’s the usual snapshot of a homeschooling family, nay-sayers weigh in their opinions too. This comes as no surprise as the National Education Association (the largest teachers union in the U.S) has been among one of the most vocal critics of homeschool for years. The National Association of School Psychologists is another group that charges that homeschooling deprives kids from developing social skills. Here’s an excerpt:
"Unless we are prepared to keep our children in bubbles their entire lives, we have to give them an opportunity to have some exposure to real-world problems so they can develop coping strategies," says Ted Feinberg, assistant executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists.

Feinberg argues that as cultural understanding becomes more valued, social interaction and exposure to different people and ways of viewing the world are necessary components of education.

"It's one thing to read about it," he says. "Much of what we learn in life is a matter of interaction. I just wonder how that takes place in a home school environment."

In any case, as Dr Gary Knowles of the University of Toronto said after years of study on homeschoolers, "Where did we ever get the idea that 2,000 13-year-olds were the ideal people with which to socialize other 13-year-olds?" As I see it, the assumption that interaction in schools develops coping strategies is a myth. If this is true, then what is self-evident is that schools aren’t doing a good job at all. The one single common denominator in the army of disillusioned, alienated, and self-obsessed youths and adults we encounter today is the fact that they have been to school.

David Guterson, the best-selling author (Snow Falling on Cedars) and homeschooling parent wrote in Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense that we need to look at society and question if schools are preventing it from unravelling or if it is a contributing factor.

Going further, Guterson argues that there is a world of difference between social health and financial success, between sound relationships and economic necessities:
"Those who assert that we are condemned to social struggle in order for our economic system to work assert by extension that we must live unhealthy lives. Schools should not be arranged so as to foment a perpetual and relentless social strife merely to prepare people to perpetuate the same arrangement when, one day, they go to work in the world. On the contrary, we should want our schools to aspire to something better."
On the other hand research on homeschoolers turned adults since the 1990s suggest that being educated at home have not turned anyone into a social pariah. Instead, they tend to be entrepreneurial, professional, and independent, with a healthy connection with their families. What is also evident from research is that teenage homeschoolers are not angst driven nor do they demonstrate a desire to isolate themselves from their parents.

Homeschool is changing the paradigm in education. It may seem so obvious now, but it wasn't very long ago that schooling was thought to equal education, or that schools are the sole repository of knowledge (okay, there are still many who hold this view). Above all, more and more families are now educating their kids at home not just because they see schools as a fading behemoth (which it is), but for reason of lifestyle too. Homeschool presents the best option for the life we choose, the values we cherish, and the goals we’re aiming at.

For additional stories, visit the following links:
First Wave Of Homeschoolers Come Of Age
At Home In The Classroom

Patricia Lines (senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, and former researcher for the U.S. Department of Education) writes about the progress homeschooling has made in the U.S:
Homeschooling Comes Of Age

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Innovate. Or die.

Here I go with another rant. In the last years, the advertising and media industries have been battered by a tsunami of change.

1. Independent media houses have taken over the world! Previously, all media buying and planning were handled through ad agencies. An archaic 15% agency fee levied on media placements (unchanged since the early 70s!) as commission goes out the window because independent media specialists today offer clients better discounts. Due to volume buys, they return up to 10% and more to clients (plus other goodies), increasingly and effectively shutting down media departments in agencies.

2. Clients are taking back control of printing and prepress (colour separation, filming, etc), two essential processes ad agencies normally undertake as billable professional creative services (although outsourced). Most agencies add an industry mark-up of 15% and above here depending on the scope of work involved, which enlarges an ad agency’s overall margins.

Despite unfamiliarity with the above processes, clients feel the savings they make justify the inconvenience. Savings? Well, yes, because in a dog-eat-dog world, printers and prepress providers are known to offer rates so low they are unmatched by any agency.

Take the Chinese press for instance. Unlike other language media owners who subscribe to agreed rates and contracts, Chinese press sales reps negotiate percentages directly and independent of agencies. How the noose tightens.....

3. Say, how much is creative work worth? While Clients and suppliers like these muscle into agency ‘territory,’ it has become imperative to charge a higher premium for creative work - ideas, concepts, copy, etc. Brain work which cannot be quantified, and for which clients in the country to this day are unwilling to dig into their pockets. How would you fancy an invoice of RM10,000 for a logo? Uh-uh. Besides, hourly rates for creative work are not only unacceptable in Malaysiaas impractical, they are being reconsidered in many parts of the world too.

4. Globalisation has ripped across traditional boundaries killing any inclination to localise or contextualise campaigns. Okay, I’m exaggerating for effect, but just slightly. There is increasingly no pressing need to reshoot new campaign commercials, photograph fresh new pix, or compose original jingles for use in another country lacking in economies of scale (like Malaysia for instance). Additionally, stock photo companies are offering images that are downloadable via the Internet, reducing incentives for local creatives to produce their own!.

While TV stations are bound by the Made-In-Malaysia ruling (commercials airing in local stations must have majority local content), even that is mere lip service as competition heats up.

5. Broadcasting stations are sidelining the little guy by packaging media buys and air time with post-production. Well, not entirely, but enough to kill outside independent production houses that normally have their jobs cut out for them. For clients, that means they get TV/Radio station DJs to do voice-overs, complete audio and sound production facilities, camera crews to shoot your TVCs, etc, all under one roof, and at rates that are almost unbeatable.

This makes an attractive entry point for small and medium size enterprises (half of the total business). That's good surely, but look who’s getting the production business. As a result, independent audio houses and film production companies in Malaysia are shutting down or down-sizing, except for a handful who have ventured abroad to widen their base to stay afloat.

Now does that sound like bad news? You tell me.

Money matters

I should be sleeping but I can't. Messed up inside. The day before a client called to complain about a quote. "It's beyond my budget. How about using 2 voice talents to make 4 voices. If not I'll just pay you for the concept and I'll get Astro to record it for free."

It gets to me, that a client can be so caught up in saving money for his company he forgets the little guy, the one who's lost his business to Mr Big Corporation (like this audio house who's losing out to Astro), the backroom boys who toil for pittance while Big Corporation reaps millions... and still complains about costs!

Then there's your OWN partners who think nothing about squeezing suppliers too. Watch out for your own margins, brother. Don't you know the other guy is watching his own too? It's them, or us. Me, I just want to get my job done.

The constant comment that the job with the bigger margins takes priority over another who's giving peanuts is supposed to be good business sense. Prioritise, brother.

I think I'm just mad because I'm thinking about faith and money right now and I'm stymied by folks whose piety stops at economics. No, it doesn't mean I have everything figured out. I'm not just having an easy time figuring things out. Can a person really be christian and observe just, fair, and ethical business practices?

Business. It's who squeezes who. Blink, and you're out.

Wealth and Faith

"He defended the cause of the poor and needy,
and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?"
declares the LORD."
Jeremiah 22:16

Is creating wealth a bad thing? No. The Bible is very clear that God has created a gorgeous world and placed human beings in it to revel in its splendour and produce an abundance of good things. Is God biased? No. The Bible explicitly declares that God has no bias either toward the rich or the poor (Deut 10:17-18).

What then is the problem? Why do Scriptures warn again and again that God sometimes work in history to destroy the rich? The Bible has a simple answer. It is because the rich sometimes get rich by oppressing the poor. Or because they have plenty and neglect the needy. In either case, God is furious.
Four biblical truths about the poor are essential if the church today is to be faithful.

1. The Bible says that the Sovereign of history works to lift up the poor and oppressed.
2. Sometimes, the Lord of history tears down rich and powerful people.
3. The Bible says that God identifies with the poor so strongly that caring for them is almost like helping God.
4. Scriptures teach that God’s faithful people share God’s special concern for the poor.
Living Like Jesus:Eleven Essentials for Growing a Genuine Faith

Wednesday, August 18, 2004


The church is reporting deficits. Just a two-congregation church averaging between 70 and 90 every Sunday but expenses have overtaken collections. There’s the usual head scratching but in some ways a deficit is a very good place to be in. We try to make sure we’re exercising good stewardship of course, keeping overheads to the minimum, but is church management all about balancing books?

One too many pastors pay lip service about trusting in God and living simply, and then say with audacity, "But money is important too, so we need to talk about giving and raising funds." Thing is, these same pastors will in the same breath promise that giving generously will bring blessings, usually money. Sadly, what some churches call ‘blessings’ the man in the street calls ‘materialism.’ Similarly cynics dismiss what we sometimes call ‘giving God our best’ as ‘extravagance.’ When Jesus said, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” there was nothing remotely connected with material pursuits as a legitimate close second because as I recall, “all these things will be given to you as well.”

Back in the 70s, Brother Sun, Sister Moon the celluloid version of the life of St Francis of Assisi made an impression on me. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli, the same director who would later give us Jesus of Nazareth, BSSM was a somewhat pompous production, brimming with religiosity, and a hippy attitude. I liked it, although I vaguely remember how much it was a child of the times (flower power, theme song by Donovan, etc) and how overtly political the retelling of St Francis’s life and the founding of his Franciscan order. Then again, religion is politics in different clothes.

Anyone who knows anything about St Francis will know how he set aside his privileged upbringing for Lady Poverty. His disciples disavowed material attachments on the basis of Jesus’ words to take no bread, no bag, no money in their belts but sandals and a staff (Mk 6:8,9). One of the most striking scenes occurs towards the end when St Francis in tattered robes ascends the steps of the magnificent church (looked like St Peter’s). Someone - was it a priest? - played by Alec Guinness says, “You in your poverty put us to shame.”

Of course, Christianity doesn’t celebrate asceticism or poverty. Yet Jesus became poor though he was rich for humanity’s sake, which tells you where God’s heart is. In a conversation, a recent convert from Hinduism was denouncing the rich when I replied that the Bible only condemns those who sought riches and hoarded them to the detriment of their souls. On the other hand, those who are rich are called to be rich in good deeds and not put their confidence in mammon. Paradoxically, material blessings are common among those whom God favours. The rub is, that is God’s business, not ours...His gifts, not our pursuits.

Back in church, we’ll have to tread carefully where money is concerned. I’m not trying to play down the role of money but I am concerned that we do not find ourselves worrying about it. There’s something obscene about the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’ which is neither wealth nor gospel in the truest sense. Money should be freely given, and responsibly used to further missions, support full-time workers, help the disadvantaged, but never to build one’s kingdom on earth. In God’s economy, people come ahead of property (One preacher I know even went as far to say, "books before bricks") Yes, there’s so much one can do with money for the Lord, but God does not ask us to do what he does not provide.

Hudson Taylor famously said that, “God’s work done in God’s way will never lack God’s supply.” The OMF which has its origins in Taylor’s China Inland Mission never makes any appeals for funds to this day. The tension in these modern times is looking at God’s word and not the bottom line. Or the balance sheet.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Minding Dad, Finding Equilibrium

Dad was in an extremely bad way and had to be admitted again Friday. His physical deterioration was painfully visible and I felt powerless. I left in the middle of a fellowship at home to drive him to Sunway. Even then, he was dressed in his usual white long sleeves, folded up around his arms, and tucked into his grey pants looking as he would if it were an ordinary night out. I had Ethan and Deta come along to help.

In the hospital room, he was helped out of the wheelchair on to his bed and into his hospital gown. Albert arrived shortly. Without waiting for the M.O, he inserted the needle and tubing and set up the drip. Dad was weak but conscious. He asked to go the washroom and with some help sat down, his self-respect held loosely together by thin drawstrings around his back. How gaunt he not like Dad, the man whose reprimands we used to scoff in youth, and whose approval we still secretly crave. It was then that I saw how even in infirmity there was a kind of stoic nobility in him, wounded but indomitable.

It was past 11 p.m. when we prepared to leave the hospital. Dad whispered, "Terima kasih, Deta" which stopped me in my tracks, and I turned to look first at Dad, and then at Deta.

I drove back to see Mom. She met me at the door and I told her not to worry as she muttered something about how frail he was. There was a palpable gloom in the air, a sense of resignation. She heaved and broke down in uncontrollable sobs. I wrapped my arms around her. Dad wants to go home, she said. He has left instructions, what to wear, what photo to display, where he wants his final resting place to be...

Right now, Dad seems to be showing some recovery. He is able to sit upright, eat a bit more solids, his voice firmer. Stubborn man that he is, he got out of the bed in the middle of the night Sunday - unassisted - and fell(!) There was a bit of finger-pointing about who was and wasn’t there, but thank God, Dad is all perked up because of the whole episode.

A week ago, I stood before the church and said I was grateful for their continued prayer and visits. I told them it’s not true I had become busy caring for Dad as other family members were also keeping watch and asked to remember us all at this time. I am learning not to allow the illness to take its place in the centre of our lives, I said. People do it all the time, moving illnesses, exams, ambitions, holidays, etc from the periphery into the centre, carelessly letting them dictate the agenda; I didn’t want to do that.

Birth. Illness. Age. We live, we die, and in between life is about finding equilibrium. The one thing around which all of life should revolve, is Christ alone. Strange how it sounds like some perverse logic. The truth is, Dad is constantly on my mind. I came away wondering if that’s how it’s supposed to be, not wanting everything else to recede on account of Dad, wondering if I should have said what I said.

Monday, August 16, 2004


Sunday was good. An invigorating worship and a reminder about the suffering church by visiting speaker Rev Johnson Chua. He quipped that it was his 4th anniversary speaking at Hope EFC's Missions Month. Service closed with a hymn that challenged our affections:
My Jesus I love Thee
I know Thou art mine
For Thee all the follies of sin I resign
My gracious Redeemer
My Saviour art Thou
If ever I loved Thee
My Jesus 'tis now
Not tomorrow. Not later. Here. Now. A couple of Sundays ago, another speaker called it, "in the meantime."As I see it, it's Carpe Diem with a divine impetus.

It was a pleasant surprise meeting Yoshua too. We talked briefly about blogs(!), 'The Passion of the Christ' (ask your friends: "wanna see a banned movie for free?"), but had to go take care of Sunday School. There just isn't time to linger and chat on Sundays.

In the afternoon, Kin Yan came by with Vysia and her sis Vynie. Hey, what's going on? And Vynie said she stays on the 17th floor which is 2 floors above us! Again, had to leave the guys to deliver a DVD player and projector to the Chinese church so Sook Ching kept the conversation going. Brief, but welcome interruptions.

It was really good meeting up with people I've come to know and appreciate working on PHASES. I dare say they have made a difference in my life and my family in ways I cannot fully describe. There are no accidents in life, and I believe it.

Friday, August 13, 2004

What others are reading

Books my office receptionist is reading:
Nightmares Malaysia:True Ghost Stories
I Shudder At Your Touch
The Dictionary of Dreams

Roaring lambs

Bob Briner’s Roaring Lambs is a passionate discourse about being salt and light. He’s concerned at the way the Church distances herself from the marketplace, particularly the media industry - music, TV, Hollywood, etc. There is an undeniable need out there for serious talents with a Christian worldview. It's the frontline of the 21st Century. The late Briner (d.1999) is not Philip Yancey or Ravi Zakarias but his heart is in the right place and he raises some very good points which deserves a hearing. But Briner was either not acquainted with the arguments or his sight was set elsewhere when he wrote the following:
“[The]… people who control television programming, those who decide what programs get on, almost always are as morally neutral as the technology of television itself.”
Hmm. I blinked in disbelief.

20 pages earlier, he writes about Sir David Puttnam’s (that’s right...he was knighted for his efforts!) fall from grace. Puttnam was producer of Best Picture Oscar award winner Chariots of Fire (which as everyone knows has a compelling depiction of missionary Eric Liddell), and briefly head of Columbia Pictures. His stint at Columbia was stormy and he was ridiculed out of office for his philosophy of and approach to movie making - which says alot about morality and neutrality in Hollywood and TVland.

Elsewhere in an interview with an Irish film quarterly, Puttnam comments on his 1997 book 'The Undeclared War.' Everything serves the insatiable machine:
"The creative side in American terms is that aspect of film-making that serves the machine. It doesn't have a separate life, whereas in Europe the creative side has a life all of its own."
To be fair, Undeclared War is not about the philosophical machinations of Hollywood, but the politics of power behind the ongoing U.S vs Europe film war for global domination (there is one, and Puttnam goes back 100 years to the Lumiere Brothers, Charles Pathe, etc, and the beginnings of the Hollywood Studio system to make his point). What he says about European creativity is moot, but that’s another story.

The point is, this machine is certainly not neutral, morally or otherwise. And if you should ask the late Neil Postman, neither is the medium. Postman is of course, something else, but he makes valid arguments against our surrender to technology and the way it dominates and defines morality to our loss.

A machine that churns out populist films in service of mammon can hardly be described as 'neutral' (Then again, few things in life are, anyway). Maybe they’re showing their true colours more unabashedly now, which is why one New York Times columnist declared that in the U.S, “there is a war against religious faith” (no reference to Bush or Iraq).

Bob Briner may not hit all the bases, but where he does, he hits with a lot of panache.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Vulnerable love

"Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable."
The Four Loves

Wednesday, August 11, 2004


Rajan R is quite a guy.

Not yet out of Form Six but he’s been blogging for a while on stuff that's ignored by most teens his age. He mangles the language too much for my liking, but he’s so plugged in he’s literally up to his nose-hair in world affairs.

Gained some notoriety too. Got his 15 minutes when Instapundit linked his blog for his comprehensive coverage on the genocide in Sudan (now that’s a nice change from all the introspection common to bloggers!) Really commendable. Occasionally he goes out of his depth, gets entangled in ad hominem exchanges (pretty virulent ones too) spiced up with 2-bit name-calling of the garden variety. He slugs it out heroically, but he’s holding up fine.

[Hey, the guy's on the PHYW list]

Anyway, a few days ago Travel 2165 (whoever this person is) hit below the belt. Started 'demeaning' Rajan’s age among other things (Rajan’s own words), and earned the honour of being the first to be banned from posting comments.

Ah, the age thing.

In the last American Idol finals, Diana DeGarmo’s age was Simon Cowell’s hobby horse: "You’re only 16! How many mountains have you climbed, Diana? How many rivers have you swum?"

Sometime ago, an executive with a bank with whom we were working on a promotions campaign caught me by surprise with a request. Could we send someone ‘younger’ to liaise with her instead? "Can talk more easily," said she.

That’s not half as funny as the hair stylist who asked me after a hair cut: "So Uncle, any colour you want to dye your hair?"

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Weight of Glory

“You and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness.” C.S Lewis The Weight of Glory

Out on the deck this morning I can see a young couple in the pool and I am momentarily distracted. I read Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:16.
“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”
I’m glad the ESV retained that familiar phrase: The weight of glory. Unseen. Incomparable. Eternal. More than just a figure of speech, I like to think that Glory has Mass. Volume. Weight.

I’m thinking on this as I reflect on Dad. I helped him into the car yesterday morning to drive him to Sunway for his appointment with Dr Robert Jalleh and it is obvious he is looking even more feeble than before. More frail than he ever was since he fell ill. Yes, his jaws are still set tightly with the determined look of a man unaccustomed to weakness. I see his slightly gnarled fingers grip the rail, trembling, as he walked gingerly down the stairs. I held him under his arm and led him to the car. He said, "Feel weak."

At Sunway, I pushed a wheelchair to Dad and he sat himself down; the effort left him a little breathless. His shoulders are hunched now, eyes looking ahead yet not looking, while he held to on his x-rays and dignity. We waited for Albert and talked about the MRR, Sunny in Bangkok, Rosalind, and for a while he was normal again.

I’m thinking of Anita Brookner’s Visitors. It’s a bleak look at age and loneliness, reminiscence and introspection.

What does Dad think about, I wonder. What would I be thinking if I were in that wheelchair? We’re possible gods and goddesses masked in flesh and bones. We’re under a spell yet, and it seems the only weight we feel is the ravages of time. God, wake us up.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Rise of the Robots

I saw I Robot. They said it was based on (or was it ‘suggested’ by) Isaac Asimov’s book of short stories, drawing liberally from his well-known 'Three Laws of Robotics.' Anyone can see why these fictitious directives have become iconic - they don’t smart from legalese:
1.A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2.A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3.A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
In the movie, the 'Three Laws' set the stage for a high-tech action thriller. I enjoyed it - in a detached kind of way. I’m writing what I remember of the movie and the image that keeps coming back is Will Smith’s buff body. Then there's the oh so obvious product placements: Converse, JVC, Audi (not to mention U.S Robotics). That doesn’t say much for a movie that attempts to question the ugly side of technology and whether robots have the capacity to evolve higher intelligence. There were the requisite cool action set pieces, thrilling car chases, Matrix-like slo-mo, etc, but I must say they did feel staged. Like the attack on the police and the riot scenes. Where’s the danger? The action was fast and furious, but lacking in terror - the kind that the Terminator franchise had in spades (not the last one though). Okay, maybe I’m expecting too much out of an actioner.

Make no mistake: I like sci-fi. Still, what every old tired genre needs is not a bigger piece of canvas or a thicker coat of paint, but something that goes deeper.

Besides, a thoughtful philosophical underpinning would be welcome sop to cineastes who want something more than eye-candy. Like Blade Runner, which succeeds as techie noir, for instance. Or Star Trek: Next Generation’s First Contact which shed its highbrow pretensions without sacrificing brain or brawn. Even Steven Spielberg’s A.I had more emotional appeal in comparison, although it admittedly got sloppy towards the end. Same goes for Tom Cruise’s flawed Minority Report (also by Spielberg) which had its moments, but at least you empathize with the characters.

One thing that post-modern film-makers and script writers won’t give up is a surrender to meaninglessness, even if a lot of what makes it to the big screen deserves to be forgotten (anyone remember another Asimov adaption, the awful Bicentennial Man?). Vestige of a Judeo-Christian heritage you could say. Now this longing for purpose is either a useful plot devise or a punching bag, or both. In the movie, Sonny the ‘evolved’ NS-5 robot muses about his existence:
“My father made me for a purpose. Do you believe everyone has a purpose?”

Spooner (Will Smith's character) replies: "Designer, you mean."

While dystopian movies such as this take for granted the evolution of intelligence, any reference to “ghosts in the machine” is always telling. They cheat. They want their cake and eat it too. They've practically given up everything that defines humankind as a divine image bearer, but they just can’t bear giving up their souls.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

Back to basics

This morning at our monthly Saturday Board Prayer, KS thanked God for the reminder that a shepherd never wounds his sheep. Like the Good Shepherd who seeks the lost, lays down his life for the many, a shepherd’s calling is to guard, to lead, to heal, to love. But, to die?

After Prayer, we talked about youth and our apparent inability as adults to meet their needs. Truth is, we are out of touch and do not understand them at all. Offended by their habits and lifestyle, their apathy and self-absorption, we no longer connect with our youth. Sure, we mouth the usual platitude about their being ‘leaders of tomorrow’ and people with ‘potential.’ Right now, what’d we give if they’d just wash the gel of their hair and turn down that sorry excuse for music called Hoobastank.

A couple of months ago I declined an invitation to lead a workshop in a youth camp. The organisers said the camp was aimed at helping kids take a reality check. Get back to basics, you know, and get back to God’s Word. A pastor had argued that today’s kids were so ensnared in ‘virtual reality,’ they didn’t know they have been sold a lie by Hollywood, the mass media, and the internet. Those poor lambs. Seeing I work in the advertising industry, would I be able to help?

I declined as I had prior commitments. It made me think though, if that was an accurate assessment of today’s kids. Wasn’t it presumptuous, saying our youth couldn’t tell virtual reality from real life, that they needed some kind of education? I asked a 20-year old who has been involved with young people in the PHASES community. She shook her head, asked whether a young person was represented in the organising committee, and said:

“Youths today know what’s real and what’s virtual. They have no problems here. Their problem is relationships. They’re looking for friends, real friends.”

We think they’re lost sheep in need of saving. They think we underestimate them.

This same issue of today’s youth came up in a meeting two nights earlier. Someone acknowledged the dilemma of post-modernism and the fact that we could not afford to lower the bar, let culture set the agenda. He quoted a writer or theologian and apologized that he was going to repeat what he had been telling us all the while.

“We need to tell people: 'I’m not here to entertain this person or that person. I’m here to tell you that you have offended a holy God, and you’ll go to hell if you don’t repent and turn to Jesus for salvation.' "

Which is all true of couse. Only, I'm looking at the wounded and wondering if we're doing such a good job being shepherds. I'm wondering how we're doing being a friend.


Elliot asked if I ever feel the urge to blog about everything strange that happens. He said if I do, I've been infected. It's a disease called 'blogomania.' Well I must confess to the inclination. Previously I used to record sights and thoughts in a little notebook I carry, but my hand's become increasingly stiff, and writing has become er, somewhat tedious. Blame it on the computer; all that 2-finger typing, you know. It's easier thinking on the keyboard too. Nicholas Negroponte is right: future history will be built on bits, not atoms.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Driving with Dave Brubeck

I left home early today, at 5.10pm or so. Stopped to refuel and when I finally got on the Penchala Link it was 5.31pm. I love driving on this stretch. It’s clear everyday, and although they have a ridiculous speed limit here (60km) most cars pretend they don’t see the sign. The Dave Brubeck Quartet is playing and I realise how much I genuinely enjoy the CD. For some reason or other, I think of crunchy, crispy biscuits whenever I’m listening to it. Oh, I imagine dim lights, and a glass of red wine too.

This live performance at Carnegie Hall in 1963 is definitely one of the best live jazz albums you’ll ever hear. It swings from the first piece (St. Louis Blues) to the last note of the Quartet’s signature piece Take Five by bandmate Paul Desmond. Bossa Nova USA got me tapping my feet and Joe Morello shone in an 8-minute plus drum solo (on Castillian Drums). Electrifying. I bought this album over a year ago, and listening to it now, it made me wish I were there.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Fast food culture

"One of the problems with popular culture is that, by itself, it does not teach the sort of habits necessary to enjoy it wisely. Unless you had a taste for something better, you would never get tired of eating fast food or frozen dinners all of the time. If you were dissatisfied with such a diet, you wouldn't be able to define your dissatisfaction unless you had something else to compare with."
All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes

Mundane faith

Over dinner, Ethan was reminded of someone who said, “Christianity is lived in the mundane.” Yes, if by mundane we mean the ordinary routines of life. But if it refers to a life-draining experience of interminable boredom with no surprises and no joy, then we must insist that Christianity transcends the mundane.

Today’s culture celebrates the new, the stimulating, the highs, constantly pushing the ante of excitement to higher and higher levels. New sights, new sounds, new cars, new technologies, new husbands and wives. Old products clothed in new packaging scream at consumers - All New Formula! Brand New! New Look! Super New Action!

In church there’s obsession with newness too: new songs, new experiences, new ways of doing things. All this is good to a point. I mean, I like new things myself. Yet, constantly seeking the new is a kind of idolatry because it disdains the old (as irrelevant?), and forgets that our God is the eternally unchanging God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It’s like a restless search for something to put off ennui.

There are some things that are necessarily boring - like sticking to appointments, dressing appropriately for occasions, waking up early for church, reading the Bible. How about boring things like saying Please, Thank You, and Sorry? Sweeping the floor, making the beds, cooking a meal, and washing up etc, are incredibly mundane. Not every activity needs to pump up adrenaline.

There’s value in history, tradition, the comfort of order and expectedness.

I don’t mean stick-in-the-mud traditionalism - a sense of timelessness in the 'old time religion' is what we need to learn. After all, the Bible does say that the love of God is “new every morning” (Lam 3:23). What we need to reaffirm is faith in a God who is the same Yesterday, Today, and Forever, while celebrating the wonder of rediscovery of this infinite God of Wonders in fresh encounters daily. Experiencing the 'old, old story' in a new, new, way is where our tension lies. Marva Dawn wrote in Reaching Out without Dumbing Down that,
“Models in our environment form us. Our behaviours form us – they arise from our character, and repeating those behaviours will reinforce character in turn. Our milieu forms us - that is why we must ask careful questions about how we should allow the ethos of the culture surrounding the Church to affect what we do in worship. Especially because we live in a milieu that bombards us with its false conceptions of the world, of self, and of truth, we must be very careful and purposeful in fostering biblical perspectives.”
Further into the book she warned against giving people less of the gospel (by embracing popular cultural norms) because there would be no reason to be a Christian then. “When we give people an inferior gospel, we also fail to train their capacity for judging truth and for seeking the best expressions of it.“

How well we do as a Christian community depends on how well we communicate and live out the biblical perspectives. In a noisy world that seeks to drown out thought and reflection, and demand conformity, that’s a tall order.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Homeschooling on the Rise

"Home schooling is just getting started. We've gotten through the barriers of questioning the academic ability of home schools, now that we have a sizable number of graduates who are not socially isolated or awkward — they are good, high-quality citizens. We're getting that mainstream recognition and challenging the way education has been done." Ian Slater, National Center for Home Education
The latest news on Yahoo! News reports a 29% growth in the number of students taught at home in the U.S since 1999. In Malaysia, fears about legality of homeschool (now that primary education in an approved institution is compulsory) has dampened interest somewhat, but once in awhile there's good news. Star carried a favourable writeup on homeschooling Sunday featuring Dr Benjamin George (Read it here) whose family is part of our Ampang Support Group. I was hesitant to talk to the reporter for the article and in retrospect it's probably a good thing. At least it puts another face to homeschool in the country instead of mine! But the article also carried a picture of Ethan and Elliot taken maybe 4 or 5 years ago, uncredited and unnamed.

For the full U.S Education Department report on home schooling, click here:

Tuesday, August 03, 2004


I have to blog this.

Saw a man in a wheelchair cross the road in front of the General Hospital. Brave man. He wheeled himself off the kerb, crossed over to the divider, and rolled down three lanes of oncoming vehicles. Cars slowed down and backed up. He took his time, causing a jam of sorts. Reminded me of the unknown Tiananmen hero who stopped a convoy of armoured tanks.

(Tiananmen Square uprising was in 1989. Has it been so long?)


The client threw out my radio ads.
He didn’t like the Tom Jones one, and he didn’t like the French one either.

"Nice. But meaningless," said Mr Client.

Couldn’t persuade him to consider the radio ads as branding efforts to complement the rest of the hard selling promos, ads, and collaterals. He wants clever; he wants witty; he wants the ads to say what he wants to hear.

The hardest thing about meetings like this is to keep a straight face when your ideas have just been publicly shredded.

I deflected the humiliation with a not so Oscar-worthy rejoinder. "Thanks for the stab to the heart."

Mr Client looked amused and said, "I haven’t started yet."

Strange tales

Hey, dig this: a micro-budget movie about strange people!
Check out The Incredibly Strange People Show

Here’s what the makers say about the flick:
“TISPS satisfies on another level as well. For me, the humor and visual style of this flick was so "incredibly strange" that the movie exists as a fine work of surrealism as well. Nothing in this movie is conventional. Everything is intentionally off kilter. Abstract visuals, bizarre plots points, and costuming that spontaneously swaps characters make TISPS a fascinating, artful, and memorable experience.”
Strangeness stands out. Which brings me back to Paul Theroux.

Theroux’s romance of strangeness is 'clumsy' because it defies clarity. In that way, the travel tales of Theroux are selective because he’s homing in on people and places weird and wonderful (including the odd and offensive). It's one man's point of view. Not that it is wrong. Anyway, who wants to hear about the drabby existence of the ordinary, calculated, regulated, regimented, P.C, and incredibly boring? It is a gift to be able to mine nuggets of existential unease from his encounters and write about them. Does the romance ever wear off, I wonder?

When you stare into the abyss long enough, the abyss stares back, says Nietzche.

Travels with Theroux

Paul Theroux confesses to an attraction for the wild and ‘clumsy romance of strangeness’ in his 1979 book The Old Patagonia Express. The author and travel writer is remarkable for the way he literally seeks out strangeness. Remote villages, nowhere places, seedy bars, decrepit trains, but mostly what he’s drawn to are characters - in particular the weird ones. I love his style, his descriptive powers. Trenchant, pungent, and highly opinionated, reminiscent of his old mentor VS Naipul. For someone who is a prolific writer of books about travels in far-flung places, it’s not the journey that he enjoys.

“I think any sensible person would admit that the experience of travel, no matter what kind -- whether it's plane, train, bus, boat, car -- it's awful. It's uncomfortable. It's tedious. It's repetitive. And in order to achieve the epiphanies of travel -- the vistas, the experiences -- you have to go through an awful lot of hell and high water.” (Salon Interview)
Really, he’s no tourist. What he's after is the geography of strangeness located in people.

I’m reading Patagonia and some of the locals (including occasional displaced Americanos) are so bizarre and peculiar, they’re caricatures of dislocated humanity. But that's why they make interesting reading. I get the feeling that he enjoys constructing narratives around the folks he meets so he can deconstruct them. Long after you put the book down, it's not the sights you remember. It's the people.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Fairy tale

She met Hidekazu on the climb up Mount Kinabalu. Shy glances turned serious and before anyone knew what’s going on, she was taking Japanese lessons and listening to J-pop.

One day a year ago she asked what I would say to her - "if I were your daughter" - had I been told she was turning her back on life and career in Malaysia for a fresh start overseas. Maybe for good. She said it was a chance in a lifetime starting anew in a small countryside in Japan, working in a ‘friend’s’ shop making Japanese cakes and pastries. It's a village outside the city and immigration officers were unlikely to drag her away for working illegally. She would take her chances.

Besides, she wasn’t getting any younger and she did not want to settle down one day wondering ‘what if’ at chances she let slip. Would I let her go? She was certain it was God’s doing, opening doors, bringing opportunities her way: what did I think?

What could I say?

This evening at Cyberview Lodge Resort Hotel, family and friends from near and afar celebrated her marriage. She looked wonderful, positively radiant, arm locked in Hide’s. On the screen in the banquet hall, we saw slides of her in a kimono, eyes looking askance. There she is with family, hers and Hide's, in a formal studio shot. Then, another of the couple beneath a cherry blossom tree. And another, of kissing silhouettes. And another of the two posing in the autumnal light of a scenic lakeside, swathed in scattered brown and gold.

She still could not believe that life could be so good to her, she said. It was like a storybook, a dream. Except she was living it. Everyone was happy for her, and they told her so - perhaps with a tinge of envy. Fairy tales do come true.