Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Narnia's moonshine

Of course I am looking forward to the Narnia Chronicles' big screen debut, and like everyone who appreciates C.S. Lewis's writings we hope the early word out that the movie is 'faithful' to the book is exactly as claimed (okay, okay, there's the polar bears controversy, but I can live with that bit of artistic license I think). PBS' Religion & Ethics website has a good discussion on the book and its author that you simply have to read. Tim Mattingly comments on the core symbolism of Christ's death and resurrection in the book and says, "... you would have to be pretty blind not to see what the symbols mean and to hear what the words mean."

All this is true of course and you can imagine a feeding frenzy as churches consciously buy into the marketing machine to make sure this message is not lost on moviegoers. (I loathe the fact that The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe tracts were advertised to churches for bulk purchase). I understand the impulse although I am not crazy about 'marketing' (I work in an advertising agency, ha!) the movie on that platform because it does a serious disservice to the story which was not written as an evangelistic tract anyway. Isn't it telling that the movie cleverly adopted two marketing approaches - one for churches, and another for, erm, pagans?

There is something wrong when the arts - and movies in particular - are only endorsed on the basis of how evangelistic its message is. This certainly cannot be what we mean when we talk about redeeming culture and the arts. What about getting people to read the book as literature in the first place? Alright, so JRR Tolkien was dismissive of Narnia and thought poorly of Lewis's effort, but as a story, it is a tale well told, magical, enchanting, and most of all, enduring. We need to hear what Lewis says about his own mythic excursus and writing for children:
Some people think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument; then collected information about child psychology and decided what age-group I'd write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out "allegories" to embody them. This is all pure moonshine. I couldn't write in that way at all. Everything began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn't even anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord.
Significantly, the author's Christianity undergirded his art and served his tale almost incidentally, and not the other way around. Same with Tolkien's LOTR. To read literature written by authors of christian persuasion solely for the allegories they may contain is to miss the woods for the trees.

Friday, November 25, 2005


Blogger's "Flag" controversy rages:

For a long time, Blogger has been quietly taking away both of the above "privileges" from some blogs. In other words, when such a delisted or "de-indexed" blog publishes new posts, they don't enter the queue of newly published posts, and so they have no chance of receiving traffic through either of the two above avenues.

Now the procedure has become an officially announced part of Blogger's policy. On August 17, Blogger introduced a new feature called "flag as objectionable." (link) This meant that if a blog reader came across a blog that he/she disliked, for any reason whatsoever, he/she could communicate his/her displeasure to the Blogger staff by clicking on the new "flag" button on the “navbar” at the top of the offending blog. Then, if there are enough objections, Blogger staff block that particular site, that is, make it impossible for that blog to receive traffic through the above two avenues. Removing them from these lists means that far fewer people, if any, will ever see these blogs.

(More: Hidden Censorship on Google's Blogger is now Official Policy)
This is news to me. What's going on, really?
Blogger Help has this to say about its 'flag' feature:
The "Flag?" button is a means by which readers of Blog*Spot can help inform us about potentially questionable content, so we can prevent others from encountering such material by setting particular blogs as "unlisted." This means the blog won't be promoted on Blogger.com but will still be available on the web...

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Tuition blues

Back when I was in school, tuition was what you took for remedial purposes – you were weak in a particular subject, and you needed extra coaching. Even then, the numbers who were tutored outside school were small, not to mention the number of teachers who taught after school hours to earn a little more money. I remember a math teacher (he was from UK) who gave me extra lessons in math for free, which is practically unheard of nowadays. Well, as they say, times have changed.

One mother told us her 16-year old son needed tuition because he wouldn’t study otherwise. Another parent said the schoolteachers weren’t teaching and tuition made up for what her son did not learn. Still another said tuition kept her child out of mischief.

It’s a terrible indictment on the education system that more and more Malaysian children are taking personal tuition in multiple subjects, whatever the reasons. It’s not uncommon to hear of children who actually spend afternoons and evenings studying almost ALL school subjects in a tuition centre.

Take a look at the table below and tell me that something’s not wrong with this picture:
  • More than 90% of urban children go for some sort of tuition
  • Private tuition centres can rake in between RM20,000 and RM50,000 a month
  • Tuition fees increase annually and parents forced to send because children are weak in class
  • Parents fork out anything between RM200 and RM2,000 fees for each child per month
  • Schoolteachers unable to focus on weak individuals because of large classes
  • An estimated 50% of teachers reportedly give tuition to earn extra
  • Malaysian education system’s emphasis on paper chase blamed
Read more here:
  • Something is definitely wrong when students have to resort to so much of tuition to help them with their school lessons. If schools were doing their job, there would be no need for the kind of tuition that goes on in money-making tuition centres. Why aren’t students in school learning and what’s hindering schools from doing their job?
  • It is unconscionable that 50% of teachers give tuition. It merely fuels suspicion that some teachers deliberately serve a half meal in school only to dish out more to those who are enrolled in their private tuition classes. Should school teachers be allowed to give tuition anyway?
  • Something needs to be done about the wages teachers are earning. We shouldn’t be surprised about the quality of teaching when the profession draws people with less than noble aspirations and skills. With the salaries they're offered, surely you don't expect the best people to become teachers, do you?
  • The emphasis on examination scores has eclipsed the true nature of education, leading to a skewed understanding of learning and its value to making a whole person. No wonder the papers are replete with stories of secondary school students who have poor social skills, or are unable to learn when placed in colleges and universities abroad where rote-learning take a backseat to exercising one’s critical faculties.
  • The hours spent in tuition simply drains all interest in real learning and leaves a child with no time for other pursuits. Imagine, a child spends nearly 6 hours in school and after a hasty lunch is packed off to a tuition centre where he goes through the very subjects his teachers in school were supposed to have taught him. Is there anything more wearisome for a school kid?
  • Too many children have given up music or art because school, exams, homework, and tuition rob them of their leisure time. No wonder so many graduate from textbooks to newspapers and nothing else once they leave school. We fork out money to put our children through hours of tuition and then bemoan their lack of creativity, social consciousness, or interest in spiritual matters.
  • Think of the stress on families. How much time does a child get to spend with Dad and Mom (and his siblings) if all the time he has is taken up by tuition everyday? It can’t be good when such an inordinate amount of time is spent "socializing" with peers in school and at tuition while so little time is spent doing things together at home as a family.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Sex Change

Interesting link I got from Nov 16 post on The Agora:

Without any fixed position on what is given in human nature, any manipulation of it can be defended as legitimate. A practice that appears to give people what they want—and what some of them are prepared to clamor for—turns out to be difficult to combat with ordinary professional experience and wisdom. Even controlled trials or careful follow-up studies to ensure that the practice itself is not damaging are often resisted and the results rejected.

I have witnessed a great deal of damage from sex-reassignment. The children transformed from their male constitution into female roles suffered prolonged distress and misery as they sensed their natural attitudes. Their parents usually lived with guilt over their decisions—second-guessing themselves and somewhat ashamed of the fabrication, both surgical and social, they had imposed on their sons. As for the adults who came to us claiming to have discovered their “true” sexual identity and to have heard about sex-change operations, we psychiatrists have been distracted from studying the causes and natures of their mental misdirections by preparing them for surgery and for a life in the other sex. We have wasted scientific and technical resources and damaged our professional credibility by collaborating with madness rather than trying to study, cure, and ultimately prevent it. More.

Paul McHugh is University Distinguished Service Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University.

Ellen Makkai writing in WorldNetDaily discusses sex-change surgery and looks at continuing disorientation some transsexuals feel post-operation. The attempt to feel the "same on the inside as on the outside" doesn't always end on a happy note. In fact a long-term follow-up report on adult transsexuals treated at Johns Hopkins revealed that none of the post-operatives showed measurable improvement in their lives.

And here's a tragic story of David Reimer who was "a boy, then a girl and then a boy again." Born a boy, David was raised a girl after a botched circumcision at 8 months. After discovering his true identity at 11, he grew up and struggled to live as a man, which ended tragically last year in May 2004. He was 38 years. David's traumatic life story was first told by John Colapinto in a Rolling Stone article, and subsequently in the book, As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised As A Girl before his suicide.

Natalie James' story about this medical tragedy and David's recollection of life as a girl is found here.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Sony gets flamed

Sony’s surreptitious scheme to copy-protect their CDs drew the wrath of bloggers around the world who took the moral highground and flamed the corporation.
“It seems crystal clear that but for the citizen journalists, Sony never would have done anything about this," says Fred von Lohmann, senior intellectual property attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a cyber liberties advocacy group that has been vocal in its condemnation of Sony and may eventually file a a lawsuit against Sony, in addition to three that have already been filed. "It's plain to me that it was Sony's intent to brush the story under the rug and forget about it."

Alan Scott, chief marketing office at business information service Factiva, said, "I think that we're in an entirely new world from a marketing perspective. The rules of the game have changed dramatically. The old way of doing things by ignoring issues, or with giving the canned PR spin response within the blogosphere, it just doesn't work."
Another feather in the cap for bloggers. Bloggers are indeed 'citizen journalists' and they have a vital role in contributing towards a more equitable world. It seems integrity, fairplay, justice, and honesty are still applicable in the new world then. Or does morality apply only to money-grubbing corporations, and does it only matter when we become victims?

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Million-ringgit poser

Jessie Chung and Joshua Beh look like any happy couple - except that Jessie was born Jeffrey 30 years ago and underwent sex-change operations to become a woman three years earlier. The million-ringgit wedding in Kuching, Sarawak, was attended by some 800 relatives and friends, and presided by 3 pastors from Bountiful Harvest, Shepherd’s Centre and Assembly of Love. According to the Star, the unusual high-profile wedding is the first of its kind in the country.

The event has turned the spotlight on churches as they scramble to give an answer to contentious gender and same-sex relationship issues more commonly reported in the western world. It's a difficult issue and we'll have to tread carefully while the debate rages, made more sticky in the court of public opinion. NECF's Rev Wong Kim Kong has been reported in today's papers as saying that same sex marriages even where one party has had a sex-change operation, cannot be condoned: “It’s clearly stated in the Bible. There is no such thing as creation of half-half. Therefore, biologically and genetically, there is only male and female.”

It's not been said but I suspect in the back of everyone's minds is the tussle between acceptance of a supposedly aberrant but all too human condition, and an individual's right to happiness - a legitimacy untrammeled by cost or convention. There are implications either way which may not necessarily fit into neat or politically-correct boxes.

I think C.S Lewis got it right when he wrote that, "A right to happiness doesn't, for me, make much more sense than a right to be six feet tall, or to have a millionaire for your father, or to get good weather whenever you want a picnic." I happen to hold to the same view as Rev Wong's - and I do agree with Lewis - but one who handles the Word and deals with human lives, must do so with tears as much as with firmness of conviction. As the story unfolds in the weeks ahead such grace is going to be needed.

Meanwhile, Chung's brother, who coordinated the wedding, said the couple was prepared to live abroad if they are not allowed to remain husband and wife.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The 'C' word

The inimitable Philip Yancey's got a thought-provoking essay out in Christianity Today. He is puzzled that the 'E' word spells terror and questions how Christians ended up in a parallel universe.
I went away from that discussion with my head spinning, just as sometimes happens at the university reading group. How can people who inhabit the same society have such different perceptions? More ominously, what have we evangelicals done to make Good News—the very meaning of the word evangelical—sound like such a threat?
I don’t think the ‘E’ word causes so much brouhaha here in Malaysia but it’s probably because ‘evangelical’ is such a formal word, hardly used in conversation. Journalists on the other hand, tend to equate evangelicals with fundamentalists and George W. Bush and not particularly in a good way. But mention ‘christian’ (or church) and you might get a reaction.

On that score I agree with Yancey that yes, people do have strange notions about who we are, what we believe, and how we live out our faith – even in a plural society like Malaysia. Aliens, that’s what we are. I once told a colleague who was having trouble with a co-worker that I would do my best to help patch things up but that there was a limit to what I could do. I also assured her that I would pray, at which point she burst out laughing - right there in the restaurant, her lunch barely contained in her mouth. Well, at least I wasn’t anathema, but you get my drift.

What do people think of Christians or Christianity? Here’re some of the things that have been told to my face:

They've after our money and they're always collecting money
I find that a terrible indictment. The shameless way that money is solicited (often in exchange for spiritual rewards or as a sign of spirituality) for building funds or something or other makes me nervous. During a local bible school graduation dinner I attended, it's founder was introduced to the 1000-odd guests as "the best offering taker" before he launched into a collection spiel. In another place at an 'evangelistic concert,' during which a painful plea for money was made, a teenager told us in a blasé tone of voice, “What do you expect, it’s the church.” Which wasn't exactly comforting. A friend was very blunt: “You all very rich. So many big churches. What you all do with the money, construct bigger churches and buildings?”

They’re do-gooders and oh so holy
People aren’t so much offended that we do good, but are cynical that we even believe it’s the right thing to do, or that by our deed think we're better than them. The inference really is that someone who doesn’t do the same or “act holy” is somehow tainted, and people do not in general like to be shown up for being ‘normal’ in an unchurched way. For instance, I would never give out a bribe if a cop asks and some people think that’s so dumb and inconvenient. Surely there’s some kind of ulterior motive? Usually if you keep it up - being 'nice' and all - you're seen as a wimp, a doormat, and absolutely naive about the way things work in the real world.

They’re always in church and have no time for their friends
This one gets to me. A lot of times recreational activities and outings take place during weekends. Due to commitments in church, that narrows down one’s availability to go on a weekend trip to Fraser’s, white-water rafting, an evening out on the town, or a campout. Meetings, meetings, meetings - and we're not talking about seminars, camps, conferences, missions, etc. You don’t get invited after awhile. On the other hand, we think nothing about inviting our friends to church functions and then wonder why they have no time for things of eternal consequence. Are there too many meetings in church and why should that be so?

They say those of us outside the church will go to hell
Well, not in polite company you don’t talk about hell. But get yourself into an involved religious conversation and it’s bound to come up. “So Christians are the only ones going to heaven? What kind of God is this?” David Wells in his book (God in the Wasteland) documents research on seminarians who in the majority share the good news but agree that the ‘bad news’ don’t get mentioned because it would be a turn-off. Wells wonders if this accommodation is a kind of sell-out to the therapeutic culture we inhabit. Paul advised against ‘underhanded’ ways to share the gospel, and surely the apostles didn’t mince their words, did they? But - pardon me - hell, many evangelists don’t even talk about ‘sin’ anymore in public meetings.

They’re all hypocrites
This one gets a lot of press. Admittedly we are hypocrites in varying degrees at various times, and I suppose it’s a painful reminder never to go about with a self-righteous air. Think of cars with Jesus stickers breaking speed limits or beating the red lights. Getting past the hypocrisy objection to the person of Jesus is not easy. Earning the right to be heard is often said to be the way forward. Someone said once that we can’t stop people from finding fault or pointing fingers, but we ought to live so they can’t pin anything on us. Then again, does that mean we wait till we are uhm, more ‘holy’ before we earn the right to speak up for our faith?

They’re like the talibans
This one came up in a conversation about Iraq and George Bush. The bile at the mention of Bush (spit)! What can I say? The friends who brought this up saw Michael Moore’s infamous movie and were convinced the religious right in the US were no different than the abovementioned Talibans. After all, they’re imposing their jaundiced views on everyone, and see where it’s taken the world?

Yancey’s closing words that “it is possible for the church to gain a nation and in the process lose the kingdom” is food for thought. Although it’s written in an American context, I can see applications for churches who fight battles (with good intentions, no less) but lose the war. It’s silly to expect non-believers to see things our way. Then again, it doesn’t make sense to adopt an unbeliever’s point of view just so we can get a hearing. Or does it?