Friday, October 29, 2004

Emerging contentions

Looks like Christianity Today has caught up with the emergent church movement. At the recently concluded Billy Graham Center's 2004 Evangelism Roundtable Presentations Brian McLaren submitted a paper outlining a ‘broadened’ approach to evangelism, calling for a timely evaluation of method and emphasis in our postmodern times. In particular, the apologetic of good works, though costly, is potentially a more fruitful approach than the appeal to absolute objective truth. On that score, McLaren shares the same sentiment as Francis of Assisi who said, "Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words."

Pointing to the problems of making truth claims to a culture cynical of adjectives like objective or absolute the church will only find its good intentions rejected. “…arguments that pit absolutism versus relativism, and objectivism versus subjectivism, prove meaningless or absurd to postmodern people: They're wonderful modern arguments that backfire with people from the emerging culture," said McLaren.

The alternative as every emergent reader would know, is not to ditch our allegiance to Christ or Scripture, but build authentic communities that draw people the way Jesus himself drew the masses, especially the marginalised, to himself. I think we can all agree with that. There is no question about the need to live authentically as a vibrant community expressing kingdom values in all its demands. But the niggling question is, is that all, and if not, in what way do we have to think about being 'relevant'?

I think John 6 is instructive. John reported that when Jesus’ teachings became ‘hard’ many disciples began to leave. Jesus himself persisted and up the ante: "Does this offend you,?” he asked. That his uncompromising stance showed up the intentions of the human heart is telling: “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” (v62)

Duane Lifkin who responded to McLaren’s paper admitted that an epistemology that relies too much on enlightenment construct would undermine our witness. But this is where Lifkin put his foot down. Argument by reason should not be dismissed as a child of the modern age (and typecast as somehow mistaken), because the New Testament is full of it eg, Paul’s letters which make strident objective truth claims with no apology. I know, the present conversation smells like law vs grace all over again, although in different dress, perhaps.

This is the bone of contention, I think, and evangelicals will need to talk through it in the days ahead. Charles Colson himself expressed discomfort at suggestions to mute (well, not exactly) our claim to propositional truth in the present context. Consider the transitions: From learned to learning; knowledge to mystery; certainty to I don’t know. All this is fine where they genuinely express the limits of reasoning, and where they help us bridge the postmodern gulf. Yet, is this where the proverbial camel gets its foot into the tent?

The cover story by Andy Crouch is as informative as it is nuanced. He quotes Mark Talbot who questioned the hoo-hah over categories of modern and postmodern, and its impact on objective truth claims. Talbot says, "The great irony is that by giving us these sharp categories of 'modern' and 'postmodern' ways of thinking, McLaren is doing the very sort of categorization he describes, and implicitly condemns, as modern."

Crouch ended his piece with a reference to Luther, whose dissatisfaction with the decadent church of his day led to the Reformation. The analogy is interesting, but to at least one noted scholar, it is misplaced. Don Carson’s lectures on the emergent movement made the comment that there is a world of difference in the two movements: Luther in kicking off the reformation sought to align the drifting church and her worldly pursuits with Scripture; the emergent movement seeks to align the church to the culture of our day and renew its relevance in a postmodern context.

The conversation continues and I’m all ears.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Abraham's children

"Life has its lessons to teach us and there are certain lessons that I can't get in six weeks or six months."
Mike Yaconelli
As Paul tells us in Romans 4, Abraham’s faith journey is not just an example to emulate, but a paradigm for grace. For comparison, there's Hebrews 11 where Abraham’s place among Scripture’s heroes in the pantheon of faith is underlined in v13, “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance.”

My class of young adults were discussing how that translated into real life experience, and I had each person chart their own pilgrimage (as far as they could remember) from age zero to the present. Nothing scientific; just a process to kick off discussions. It was interesting to see the jagged inclines of individual journeys, sometimes with steep climbs and sharp falls, and mostly squiggly uneventful periods. It was funny-sad and instructive to hear each person caption his/her highs and lows.
“That’s when my Mom died.”

“ I don’t remember much, but photos of my childhood showed a very happy child.”

“I didn’t enjoy secondary school at all.”

“That’s when I became a Christian and it was a good time.”

“Relationship problems – struggled a lot.”

“This is where I came out of a low point – I’ve seen things – I know better now.”
When asked what challenges stood in the way of a life of faith, everyone talked about obedience - doing what God wants. Someone said the books she's read about Godly living disheartened as she was quite certain she was nowhere close to the sort of standards expected. “What happens if we die when we’re at a low point?” she asked. I looked around the table and I saw people who seemed sure of their faith, but were uncertain if God was sure of them.

Romans 4 tells us that it was God who counted Abraham righteous, and not something old Abraham did to score points. As Abraham's children, we'll need to learn that grace is seeing salvation from God’s point of view. We get the descriptive and prescriptive passages in the Bible all mixed up, and we walk around like men and women with millstones around the neck. Mike Yaconelli’s chart reference (Messy Spirituality) was helpful to illustrate the lesson that it’s okay to admit to flaws and struggles because we’re in great company with the OT heroes of faith. I have come to understand that our checkered track record - diversions, falls, and detours - are legitimate struggles in Christ, and if 70% is what we can give that’s got to be as good as the widow’s two mites.

Faith is being sure of things we cannot see, so says the author of Hebrews. I guess that would have to include confidence in God’s unseen work in our often-messy lives, that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil 1:6)

Sunday, October 24, 2004

State of the union

My cousin scandalised her family when she decided to live with her boyfriend back in the early 70s. It was the Age of Aquarius; the tremors of the hippy 60s and its anti-establishment culture were shaking up Asia. I had just started secondary school and I can still remember my aunt going on and on about her daughter. She wept and ranted to anyone who cared to listen. I also remember thinking to myself, yeah, but what’s the big deal? So what if they want to live together before they get married? What’s in a piece of paper?

As they say, that’s all water under the bridge.

So, how do you explain the increase in cohabitation today? Is there a difference between living together and being officially married?

Most people say cohabitation should logically help make better marriages. Yet, it appears research across the First World prove otherwise.
“Many cohabitating couples break up before they marry. One researcher found this happened to 40 percent of the couples he studied. Although cohabitating couples are not married, the ending of the relationship is often as emotionally devastating as a divorce. Studies show cohabitating couples have greater marital conflict and poorer communication than couples who married before cohabitating. Couples who engaged in sex before marriage were more likely to commit adultery in their marriage than those who waited until marriage to engage in sex."
(Joe S. McIlhaney Jr., M.D.)
Professor of Sociology Dr David Popenoe who is a leading expert on marriage calls cohabitation “the enemy of marriage” and offers research to back up his claims. In a response to a Salon article, Popenoe refuted what he called the writer’s bias towards a particular ideology, by stating baldly, “No scholar that I know of, or anyone else for that matter, has been able to contest this with any counter evidence, (that premarital cohabitation results in negative social outcomes).” [More]

Why the negative effects? Popenoe’s executive summary of his landmark research titled, SHOULD WE LIVE TOGETHER? What Young Adults Need to Know about Cohabitation before Marriage has this to say:
The reasons for cohabitation's negative effect are not fully understood. One may be that while marriages are held together largely by a strong ethic of commitment, cohabiting relationships by their very nature tend to undercut this ethic. Although cohabiting relationships are like marriages in many ways-shared dwelling, economic union (at least in part), sexual intimacy, often even children-they typically differ in the levels of commitment and autonomy involved. According to recent studies cohabitants tend not to be as committed as married couples in their dedication to the continuation of the relationship and reluctance to terminate it, and they are more oriented toward their own personal autonomy. It is reasonable to speculate, based on these studies, that once this low-commitment, high-autonomy pattern of relating is learned, it becomes hard to unlearn.

The results of several studies suggest that cohabitation may change partners' attitudes toward the institution of marriage, contributing to either making marriage less likely, or if marriage takes place, less successful. A 1997 longitudinal study conducted by demographers at Pennsylvania State University concluded, for example, "cohabitation increased young people's acceptance of divorce, but other independent living experiences did not." And "the more months of exposure to cohabitation that young people experienced, the less enthusiastic they were toward marriage and childbearing."
Another university researcher Professor in Sociology Linda Waite writes that cohabitation’s negative effects come about precisely because “it carries no formal constraints or responsibilities.” According to her, the Cohabitation Deal comes with a lot more cost than The Mariage Bargain.

In spite of the less than happy outcomes, unmarried couples are increasingly choosing to live together. Susan Sarandon once said in an interview that she’s shunned marriage because she’d rather a person remain in a relationship because he really wanted it - and not because of a marriage certificate.

That sounds terribly righteous, except that people aren’t one dimensional. As much as we want our hearts to be true, our feelings honest, boundaries are what we also need to keep our bond safe, like a lot of things in life. Sure, a piece of paper doesn’t guarantee a marriage stays intact. Ideally marriage authenticates a relationship and puts a seal to the couple’s commitment away from the dictates of shifting emotions. That piece of paper attests to the couple’s agreement in the eyes of the state, and their family and friends.

Of course there's another point of view to the debate and you can find an alternative response on this site . Whatever the causation or correlation, statistical and empirical, your answer to the question, "Who has ownership over my life?" ultimately determines the choices you make. For the Christian, the answer to that question is God. Pascal said, “The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of.” This is why both heart and reason must find another reference point. For me, that reference point is the authority of God’s word.

For database on family and society issues, The Heritage Foundation has a catalogue of interesting findings.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Superman, RIP

"I refuse to allow a disability to determine how I live my life. I don't mean to be reckless, but setting a goal that seems a bit daunting actually is very helpful toward recovery."
Christopher Reeve 1952-2004

Friday, October 15, 2004

Family at risk

It was a good two days of plenary sessions and workshops at the recently concluded Asia Pacific Family Dialogue. The formal dinner on Monday to launch proceedings looked promising but ended up a letdown. Besides the usual speeches (Dato’ Sharizat came out tops against a UN executive, and Qatar’s permanent rep to the UN) and performances (one involving children and another, a ghastly nondescript ‘tribal’ dance item), diners fed on shrimp salad and then frozen peach ice-cream before the main course was served at 10.30pm. Even then, our table didn’t get anything and not wanting to wait, we left to have char koay teow somewhere nearer home.

Aside from that, I’m just glad to be a part of the event as appointed rapporteur (nice term for note taker) at 3 sessions and a round-table discussion. I’m also glad to have been reminded once again how vitally important the family is and how urgent it is to nurture fathers, mothers and their children - individually and relationally. Here are a few findings I took home with me:
+Children missing out on secure attachments (with their parents) develop into problematic youths and have been found to be more vulnerable to emotional distress

+Father care is important to child development and the continuing health of the entire family. Anti-social behaviour in children is more prevalent in fatherless households

+Core values picked up by children in the early years have been found to remain throughout adulthood, eg, religious values, political convictions, relational attitudes

+Because of the plasticity of our brain, negative behaviour in children arising from wrong parenting styles is reversible once remedial steps are taken

+Fathers who wash dishes at home have been found to live longer, statistically (haha)

+The Baptist denomination has the highest divorce rates among Christian denominations in the US

+There is statistical correlation between cohabitation and divorce, and incidences of depression (more in women), instability, and violence in these relationships

+Children from single-parent families or divorced families have been found to suffer inordinately more emotional and behavioural problems, which subsequently affect their academic performances as well
Obviously I am quoting generally off my head, but the wealth of statistical data and research on family health and child development have confirmed what we already suspect: the family is in decline. The increasing rate of divorces, illegitimacy, single-parent families, fatherless or absentee fathers in households, etc, paints a devastating portrait of modern civilization and the future of nation states.

One may point to feminism, secularism, even education, but some social scientists and researchers are already saying the underlying factor behind much of the problems is the pursuit of self-fulfillment and egalitarianism instead of fulfillment of duty. I know that sounds like a simplistic response to a very complex situation, but the world is not friendly to the family these days, and that puts a lot of stress on the health of our children. I think it's all the more reason why homeschooling makes good sense, and I am glad to be among those who have chosen the road less traveled.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Losing faith

Had dinner with a Turkmenistan couple the other night. Turkmenistan, if you do not know, is a largely Muslim state that found its independence with the demise of the USSR. But it is also very much a secular country which is now only asserting its cultural heritage and Islamic identity. We had a very good time and the couple was great company. The husband was more gregarious of the two (also more proficient in English) and I learned how he had left his Islamic faith.

So how did that happen? Our Turkmen friend was on a plane en route to London when the World Trade Towers were brought down by Islamist terrorists. Thrown into an emotional turmoil following the horrific event, he questioned how a religion that was supposedly from God could bring death and destruction. His conclusion? God exists but all organised religions are man-made and only result in divisions and conflicts. “I am a freethinker. Why don’t you come and join us?” he announced in a booming voice, a twinkle in his eye, and with arms outstretched.

We talked about Turkmenistan, politics of race, watermelons (they have HUGE ones – put your hands out and make a circle - back home) culture and language (everyone speaks Russian, but, like Malaysia, schools are now introducing the Turkmen language as their medium of instruction) and of course, religion. But I sensed that it wasn’t the appropriate time, having just met them at a friend’s dinner. Some of the usual comments about truth, faith, that religions were all false, spiced up the meal. Admittedly, I’m not so quick on the uptake and only in retrospect am I able to think through what I should have said. Ah well.

I have read and heard about Muslims losing their faith in the aftermath of 9-11. That night I actually met someone who was candid about losing his, and without irony celebrated the loss of what he never possessed in the first place.

Thursday, October 07, 2004


R. Paul Stevens of Regent College in summing up a Spirituality in the Marketplace Seminar once said, "There is no tension in a corpse." Indeed. While he is referring to what takes place in the marketplace, that little truism about tension applies just as well to the rest of life. And since we inhabit a world of the living, would someone care to do a little calculation and say how such tension might multiply exponentially in our daily interactions with the rest of the human race?

St Paul who was himself no stranger to inner tension (and external pressure) talks about finding relief through Jesus in Romans 7. There is debate if Paul was describing pre- or post-conversion, but I take comfort in Romans 8 where he affirmed that there is now no condemnation for a believer who is set free from the law of sin and death. Meaning, in spite of prevailing ‘tension’ (can I use that word?) my security is certain. It’s the testimony of the Spirit in the word of God that brings me this assurance - not my emotion or intelligence (although I’m sure they too have their part to play): "The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children." Rom 8:16

The process of sanctification sometimes takes us through terrain where light and shadows dance. Once I mentioned to a friend who asked about my new year’s resolution to work hard at disciplining my time. She laughed as she replied, "You say the same thing every year." Okay, okay, so I do. As someone wrote, “A lifetime of habits takes a lifetime to change,” which is so good to hear.

Putting away the stuff that eats into my soul and thus stands in the way of my relationship with Jesus, is intrinsic to the journey. As long as it’s in the same direction towards spiritual formation and maturity (Eugene Peterson’s “long obedience in the same direction”), I'll be looking out for the occasional dip in the road; maybe I'll miss a turn here and there, now and then.

At some point I’ll have to shut my ears to the voices of condemnation that would rob me of my confidence that God is doing something in my life, that He isn’t quite finished with me yet. That’s what trust is all about. That’s why the Bible talks about endurance and perseverance, overcoming and finishing the race, etc. Just as faith is not necessarily the absence of doubt (Os Guinness), tension is not the absence of trust. I am not yet a corpse; I shall not be robbed of my a child of God, an heir, and co-heir with Christ. There’s glory at the end of the journey. There is no quick-fix. For now there’ll be tension, even suffering.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Of specks and planks

I am surveying the church landscape littered as it were with tragic castaways - decent human beings who are Christian, sensitive, thoughtful, and hurt. The perpetrator is usually seen to be today’s modernist Church and her stick-in-the-mud members. Born in the social upheaval of 16th century Germany, she is apparently as archaic as she is parochial. This time the Church is unwittingly embroiled in another cultural upheaval called postmodernism, and she doesn’t even know it. So I’m thinking aloud to myself, how did we get here? Why does it matter? And where is Luther when you need him?

I became a Christian shortly after my 12th birthday and threw myself with the enthusiasm of a zealot into the Baptist church I was born and raised in. There was so much to do, and you were only young once. Back then, we had those monthly ‘Business Meetings’, where everything and everyone was fair game. Which often accounted for embarrassing conflicts, public squabbles between church board and pastor, emotional clashes between adults and hormonally-charged teens (some kids dug up a monkey climb because they thought it unfair to lose their hockey pitch to it), and other little cold wars whose fires were never put out to this day.

"If you love me, you will obey what I command.”

There were good things too, of course, for which I and many of my peers will be eternally grateful. We grew through an early grounding in the Word, discovery and acknowledgement of our gifts, and found wonderful opportunities to serve and learn. Ours was a camaraderie born of shared ideals. All played a part in shaping a worldview that was firmly rooted in the sovereignty of God. Even now, many of us remain actively engaged in our churches in ministry and outreach, some in fulltime service.

I think I know something about scars, wounds, and rejections, coming as I did from that Baptist church in a small town. As they say, Christians shoot their own. In fact negative vibes were so overwhelming, youth fellowships and Sunday School were completely decimated for a couple of years. Now as a lay leader in another church in another city, I have no illusions about people being hurt. Here too, we have the walking wounded - decent people who are sensitive, thoughtful...and hurt. As glib as it may sound, that’s life.

Yet I believe God is sovereign: Jesus is alive, his word is true, and the Holy Spirit has come to make a home within God’s own. Contradictions between word and deed are inevitable among exiles from the Garden, but in spite of these failures, and because we live “in view of the heavens opened” (Dallas Willard), the Christian life must offer something qualitatively different. The question is, how?

“Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me.”

Meanwhile, comfortably ensconced in the upper rungs of Maslow’s hierarchical premise, the lines separating what we need and what we want get desperately blur. Propositions like love and obedience are up for grabs, like chaff in the wind. So we’re caught up with issues of individual space, personal rights, and vague notions about grace and tolerance. Fingers quickly point to sources of discomfort and antagonism. Hey, I’m talking about my legitimate need here! We are but victims of the self-righteous who value programmes more than people, conformity above creativity, structures over souls. Why can’t they understand? Achievement oriented churches suck.

So many people step on our toes, too many in authority fail us. Hypocrites crowd the institutional Church and if you can believe it, there’s not a shred of genuine Christian love in there. All you happy smiley people be damned.

There is a point to all this soul-searching for sure, until I hear a still, small voice: Do you honestly desire reformation or vindication? Is it about finding new ways of doing church, or shouldn’t we talk about going back to basics, of being God’s authentic people? The day of accounting will come soon enough, every speck of sawdust and misshapen plank in every eye weighed and measured; don’t suppose any help will be needed to pick them out . So I think I should be careful with finger pointing, for the measure of true righteousness lies not in my actions, but in my reactions as well.

If we love Jesus, we should not hesitate to die to self, to obey him - doggedly -in the midst of rejections, hypocrisies, prejudices, and bitterness. Work for reformation, certainly; pray for transformation, surely; and forgive others their trespasses daily, as much as we desire our trespasses to be forgiven.

"If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.”

Frederica Mathewes-Green concluded the story of her spiritual pilgrimage out of feminism with these words:
“…the only path to salvation, to transformation in Christ, is by humility and repentance. Pray for the grace to see your own sins; pray that you may not fall into the trap of judging others. Consider yourself the chief of sinners, not the chief of the sinned against. Stop scrutinizing your experience, looking for examples of offenses; love keeps no account of wrongs.”
Jesus washed the feet of his disciples in the upper room. Including Judas’.