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Monday, January 31, 2005

Christian Tsunami Relief: good works with good news...bad?

I came across this article today by Seema Sirohi and published in Outlook India (28 January 2005) that set me thinking more seriously about the wisdom of mixing religion with relief work. Can the two never go together? and if they can, in what way?

Right from the get-go, the title suggested much about the tenor of the article: "Counting Sheep? The proselytizing zeal of American missionaries knows no slack even in tsunami aid." To say the least, a charge seems to be implied here about the utter impropriety of leveraging on the vulnerability of tragedy victims, and the sheer insensitivity of not knowing that.

As a Christian who "takes her faith very seriously" (--and what is a Christian, or Muslim, or Hindu, or Jew, supposed to be, except one who is serious about their faith? this has always struck me as a tautology often arising from lack of thought and simple bias against the religious), I must admit I felt a little personally targeted by the tone set by the title. More than that, I felt that something had to be wrong: this picture of 'underhanded' Christians and an insensitive Christianity does not square with what I know to be true according to what the Bible says.

Sirohi's main thesis is that the zeal of American religious organisations and missionaries in mixing religion and relief work has manifested itself in ways that exacerbate religious tensions. She cites, and rightly suggests as crass, the comments of Franklin Graham (son of Billy Graham) that "If we are going to depend on Muslims to go in and help Muslims, well, they aren't coming."

Reading her criticism of the actions of certain Christian groups and individuals is saddening, as some of her criticisms--assuming the facts are accurate--are to my mind well-warranted and consistent with biblical principles. For instance, "some Christian missionaries [in Samanthapettai, a fishing village in Tamil Nadu] reportedly refused to distribute biscuits and water unless the Hindu recipients agreed to change their faith. When TV reporters approached the nuns, they refused to comment and left."

Firstly, the Bible never teaches that we should refuse compassion and aid to non-believers. If anything, Jesus Himself repeatedly taught that the love of God is to be shown precisely by loving our neighbours in word and deed, be they Samaritan or Jew (e.g. Luke 10:27-37). The apostle James exhorts believers to show their faith by their works--for example, by not showing partiality to the rich, in giving food to the hungry, and in clothing the poor. Peter challenges believers to keep their behaviour excellent among non-believers so that they will observe the good deeds and glorify God (1 Peter 2:12). Secondly, Christians are to be people of integrity, striving to live in a way which is above reproach, "always being ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence, and keep a good conscience so that the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behaviour in Christ will be put to shame." (1 Peter 3:15) The context in this verse is slightly different, but the principle of integrity and transparency remains relevant. If the nuns did in fact deliberately evade the reporters as if they were aware of some impropriety, then they are rightly rebuked and we can pray that they will come to walk in a way more worthy of the risen Christ.

Sirohi also highlights the seemingly less-than-honest promotional tactics of World Help in its quest to gain more supporters, making its provision of Bhojpuri bibles sound more momentous than it really is. I quote:
World Help has printed 1,00,000 Bibles in Bhojpuri, a language it glibly assumes was hidden from evangelists. "Imagine a group of 90 million people who have never been able to read God's Word in their own language until just recently. What an incredible opportunity God is giving us to provide Bibles for the Bhojpuri for the very first time!" declares its mission statement. (Not quite an accurate claim: Bible work in Bhojpuri is nearly a century old in India, even older if you count work targeted at the diaspora.)

Again, if she is correct that World Help has deliberately sought to manipulate the truth for more effective sales rhetoric, her criticism is a fair one. Without further knowledge of World Help, though, one may reserve harsher judgement and generously take it that they were just mistaken in their belief about the recent realisation of a Bible in the Bhojpuri language. In any case, her case is made where it applies to a larger point: that of honesty, again, a virtue the biblical God takes very seriously. Consider passages verses like: "Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being..." (Psalm 51:6a) and "A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is His delight," Proverbs 11:1--not forgetting the commandment against lying: "Thou shalt not raise a false report: put not thine hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness." (Exodus 23:1)

I also agree with Sirohi when she writes that by "lacing help with questions of faith, however delicately," and by "charity with an ambiguous agenda," evangelical groups--especially American ones--can deepen religious faultlines at a time when talk of civilisational wars rages in e-chat rooms." That is why I believe that Christians can and should help in the relief effort not so much by advertising that they are there as missionaries, or by making the distribution of Bibles a focus, but by doing what they have pledged to the local governments as their mission: simply, to offer humanitarian aid. There should be no ambiguity in the agenda.

By all means, be open and honest about the mission statement of your organisation (that's what's rankling many people, Sirohi included, I think). But clearly distinguish that outright evangelistic mission (by which I mean the holding of evangelistic meetings, constantly encouraging people to attend church services, and the like) from the humanitarian one, even though there is, and ought to be, a vital relationship between the two--in that we love because God first loved us, and we can show His love to others by our love for them. In a time when religious sensitivities run high, and where the American is rightly or wrongly particularly suspect, it is only to be expected that presenting too closely the good news with good works will make one stand accused of taking advantage of a bad situation. And such practice in one extreme form--the Portia-type mercy to Shylock (i.e., your faith for your bread)--has reared one of its ugliest and most harmful heads in this whole issue. "This kind of proselytisation," says Ashutosh Varshney, political science professor at Michigan University, "demeans the idea of religious conversion, for it uses helplessness to spread a religion." Amen to that. But I would like you to be clear about what I am saying.

I am not saying that Christians should not desire to reach out to the lost through the gospel. They should, and it is a command that they do. Jesus said, "Go ye therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:19-20) I am also not suggesting that relief work and (the more vital) salvation work can never go together, or that they ought not to. The Holy Spirit can and does touch and convert hearts at any time, and in any place--tsunami-devastated or not. If His people pray fervently for opportunities to share the good news with the unsaved, He will provide them. There is no need to sneak in the gospel with the food, or force it down people's throats. The execution of Jesus' command was not meant to, and does not, work that way. As Ashutosh Varshney continues, a "genuine change in conviction remains the best basis for religious conversion and should not be stopped." To that I would say, the only basis for genuine conversion.

Where there are true Christians doing God's work of compassion in the right way, Christ's light and love will be manifest. As the Preacher says, "To everything there is a season..." (Ecclesiastes 3:1) Though Christians are enjoined to preach the Word, in season, out of season, there are legitimate contexts in which the cause of the Kingdom is served not by the enthusiastic distribution of Bibles or preaching from the rooftops even before one has spent time with the locals and shown that one does care. Often times, the gospel is advanced because people, seeing the excellent testimony of Christians doing good works, came forward on their own accord to ask for an account of the hope that is in us.
"For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and appearing of our great God and Saviour Jeus Christ, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds." (Emphasis mine, Titus 2:11-15)
"Our people must also learn to engage in good deeds to meet pressing needs, so that they will not be unfruitful." (Titus 3:14)

Compelled by God's love and His truth, countless numbers of Christians have already gone out into the mission field to offer help to the needy and to win the lost. (All people need the Lord! As offensive as this may sound, there is no apology for the message that salvation comes by Jesus alone. Some offence is inevitable.) Much good has been done through the ages. Christian humanitarian work, like that of many other faith-based and secular organisations, is nothing new. I shall be praying that God will be glorified indeed, and many sheep brought into the Shepherd's fold, by Christian work done in a Christian way in which God will be pleased to bless.

Not all that cool...

I am nerdier than 18% of all people. Are you nerdier? Click here to find out!
According to their assessment, I am "not nerdy, but then again not all that cool either." :)

Something from Marge Simpson comes to mind here: "Hey kids, not caring about being cool... that's cool, isn't it?" Bart and Lisa: "No."

How nerdy are you?

Found this on my brother's blog--the Wx Plotter's Fun Test. According to its Nerd Quiz:
I am nerdier than 80% of all people. Are you nerdier? Click here to find out!

Sun of my soul: separating the sacred and the worldly in worship

Note: This post can be seen as a further comment on my earlier post reviewing John Frame's defense of contemporary worship music.

"Sun of My Soul", written by John Keble in 1820, has an interesting and instructive history which I discovered when looking up the hymn in The Cyber Hymnal. “Hursley,” from the Ka­thol­isch­es Ge­sang­buch (Vi­en­na: 1774) is given as the music to which the hymn is most commonly sung today. In addition, two alternate tunes are given: “Keble,” by John B. Dykes (1875) and “Abends,” by Herbert S. Oakeley (1874). The following is Oakeley's own explanation of why he decided to compose a new alternate tune for the words of the hymn:

I was, many years ago, im­pelled to set Keble’s words to mu­sic for Hen­ry Bak­er, in con­se­quence of the in­ad­e­qua­cy if not vul­gar­i­ty of the tune which had got into gen­er­al use. I re­fer to “Hurs­ley,” which, how­ev­er, is now less oft­en sung than for­mer­ly.

“Hursley,” strange to say, had been in use in Ger­ma­ny--where, as a rule, chor­al­es (An­gli­cè hymn tunes) are so dig­ni­fied and ad­mirable—-since cir­ci­ter 1792, and is at­trib­ut­ed to Paul Rit­ter.

One of my rea­sons for dis­lik­ing it so much is the re­sem­blance it bears to a drink­ing song, “Se vu­ol bal­la­re,” in Noz­ze di Fi­ga­ro. As Mo­zart pro­duced that op­e­ra in 1786, he is re­spon­si­ble for the open­ing strain, which suits his Bac­cha­nal­i­an words ve­ry well. But to hear "Sun of my soul, Thou Savi­our dear," sung to a live­ly tune, un­suit­a­ble to sac­red words, had the ef­fect of driv­ing me out of church.

Oakeley's words illustrate how the principle of association is an important one when we consider what we bring into the church service. One of the best discussions of this principle I know is in Don Lucarini and John Blanchard's Why I Left the Contemporary Christian Music Movement (Evangelical Press, 2002). In the chapter that deals with this principle, the authors take on the common argument made by proponents of CCM that it is acceptable to use popular contemporary secular tunes for worship because folk and bar tunes of Wesley's era have become our "great hymns of the faith". In other words, if even great traditional hymnwriters did not disdain the use of the 'worldly' music for their songs, then music is probably neutral and any attractive tune can be reclaimed, as it were, as Egyptian gold.

First off, the claim that Wesley used bar tunes without compunction is a suspect one--a convenient urban legend! John Makujima's Measuring the Music has a more detailed discussion on this issue. And if I remember correctly, the point made by Lucarini and Blanchard is an excellent one that explains why most conservative Christians, unlike Oakeley, have no qualms at all about using the 'bacchanialian' tune in worship: in short, the associations between "Hursley" and Mozart's opera have waned to a point when people are no longer offended or stumbled by the music. This is a classic case of God's prohibition to the Israelites boiling a young goat in its mother's milk (e.g. Exodus 23:19). This practice was not intrinsically bad, just associated too strongly with pagan sacrifices.

Will what happened to "Hursley" happen to rock and pop music we have today? Does the principle apply in much the same way? I personally very much doubt it. Rock and pop are music styles vastly different in kind from Mozart's compositions, and they are openly acknowledged by some of their artistes to be clearly opposed to God in their very natures. Perhaps someone with a better knowledge of music can post a comment.

Sun of My Soul (John Keble, 1820)

Sun of my soul, Thou Savior dear,
It is not night if Thou be near;
O may no earthborn cloud arise
To hide Thee from Thy servant’s eyes.

When the soft dews of kindly sleep
My wearied eyelids gently steep,
Be my last thought, how sweet to rest
Forever on my Savior’s breast.

Abide with me from morn till eve,
For without Thee I cannot live;
Abide with me when night is nigh,
For without Thee I dare not die.

If some poor wandering child of Thine
Has spurned today the voice divine,
Now, Lord, the gracious work begin;
Let him no more lie down in sin.

Watch by the sick, enrich the poor
With blessings from Thy boundless store;
Be every mourner’s sleep tonight,
Like infants’ slumbers, pure and right.

Come near and bless us when we wake,
Ere through the world our way we take,
Till in the ocean of Thy love
We lose ourselves in Heaven above.

(Closing hymn of the final service in which Rev. Dr. T. T. Shields--one of the most respected, uncompromising and fiery preachers of 20th century Canada--preached, on 30 May 1954, before the Lord called him home on 4 April 1855, concluding his 45-year pastorship of his beloved Jarvis Street Baptist Church.)

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Cartoon illustrating irony

Click to see cartoon: "Here, take these extra fishes and loaves in case you want to share with someone."

Chanced upon this and couldn't help thinking back to the days when I was scouring the net and books for amusing illustrations to teach the concept of irony to Secondary One students. One does need some knowledge of the biblical account of Jesus feeding the multitudes (e.g. John 6:4-13) to appreciate this, but it is a context that is widely known, and one that can be easily furnished. Wish I had this then...

Shakespeare's coming to Ripostes!

Attention all teachers, students, and lovers of Shakespeare! There's soon going to be a new website dedicated to the man whose works are "a bridge between the world we have lost and the world that we have become." (Michael Wood, In Search of Shakespeare) To whet your appetite a little, and to pre-empt some of those "oh, not another Shakespeare website!" groans, this website will bring together some of the best and most interesting articles on the bard, and tips on how to read Shakespeare aloud, point you to some of the most useful sites on Othello, and also clarify the meaning of some favourite terms like "hamartia". Among other features, there will also be a section on the stage and page debate, and also one that attempts to answer common students' questions like: Why Shakespeare? What have we to do with a dead white male?

Why the title "JC Shakespeare"? This website was designed initially with JC teachers and students in mind. The project, however, has broadened so as to include things which may not be of direct interest or relevance to the 'A' level Shakespeare syllabus. I have been working on and off on materials for such a website for ages now, and think that I should realise my plans for a Shakespeare website soon or I may never get it going.

Do watch out for the link that I shall provide soon for my biggest, most ambitious web project yet!

Note: For those of you who are not familiar with the Singapore or British education system, JC refers to junior college, which corresponds in a way to Grades 11 and 12 (I think). The JC is a place where many Singapore students have fond memories--and also unforgettable ones--of never having had to work harder to get good grades at the 'A' level examinations so as to qualify for their university of choice. I still remember dropping my cup of coffee (yes, coffee) on the history textbook on my lap one night when I dozed off while cramming for a history exam.

K9-5: Laddie, Our Faithful Night-Watchman


Found on page 46 of The Gospel Witness and Protestant Advocate (Sept 28, 1944), a publication of JSBC, our church in Toronto, and republished here for animal lovers:
For the sake of those who love dogs, and for the sake of others who only dislike arsonists and burglars, we introduce our faithful night-watchman--Laddie. He came to us while the church was under construction [late 19th century]. When the services are in progress Laddie is kept in his own quarters. At other times he is on patrol. Laddie is beloved of all dog-lovers. We could fill a small-sized book with stories of his canine intelligence. It is enough to say that he has frightened the wits out of several would-be burglars. The police tell us he is worth a hundred men. The burglar-alarm messengers say he has a voice that can be heard in Winnipeg!

Laddie lives on the premises except when he goes home occasionally with one of the janitors. He is friendly to all until the building is locked up at night. Then he considers himself in charge, and no one can touch a door or window without being greeted with something resembling the roar of a lion.

At night he has the right-of-way through Rotunda and Offices, and has saved us from break-ins on several occasions.
Thursday, January 27, 2005

Tiniest Surviving Baby: All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be - Psalm 139:16

In June 1989, Madeline made history. Born at 27 weeks into her mother's pregnancy, she weighed just 9.9 ounces, less than any surviving baby in medical history... See pictures and read more.

Pooh Pooh: more amazing bread imprints

The 10-year-old grilled cheese sandwich that supposedly bears the miraculous imprint of the virgin Mary made news late last year when its owner auctioned it on e-bay--and sold it for a whopping US$28,000. Now, you can have your toasted bread bear the imprint of Winnie-the-Pooh for a tiny fraction of that amount. Incidentally, my husband and I also came across a toaster that creates the imprint of Hello Kitty during our recent Christmas holiday in San Francisco.

What is Contemporary Worship Music? A review of John Frame's defense of CWM

Have you ever heard that music is neutral? that all kinds of music styles should be permitted in congregational worship as long as the lyrics are Christian, and the music makes one feel closer to God? The debate over acceptable worship music has been raging as long as the so-called "culture wars" between the "modernists" and "postmodernists". Much ink has been spilled on the subject on both sides of the debate, with no perceivable end in sight. Some have questioned if music is worth making a stand about in the first place. Aren't there more fundamental issues? Shouldn't fellow Christians stand united over what's common and important instead of separating and quibbling over peripheral issues of the faith? Is music a so-called peripheral issue in Christian doctrine and practice? Are we justified by the Bible to speak of "peripheral" issues in the first place? Leaving aside the last question for now, I shall explain briefly why I strongly maintain that how we worship (what songs we sing, etc.) is a central issue in God's sight, as made clear to us by His Word.

God cares greatly about the manner and media of worship because it shows how obedient to we are to Him. Consider, for example, the remarkably detailed instructions on how his house of worship is to be constructed, right down to the precise measurements of beams and pillars. Consider again His detailed instructions on how the sacrifices are to be made --such as what qualifies as a fit offering, and what is to be burnt, and what kept as food for the priests. God also forbade His people to boil a young goat in its mother's milk, most probably because of the stain of association: this was a practice common in pagan sacrifices and Israel was not to use what was associated with the pagans in her worship of her God. There are many other such examples. God is holy, and commands His people to be holy (sanctified, set apart) as well.

John Frame, well-known 20th century theologian of the Reformed school and a student of the renowned Dutch theologian Cornelius van Til, sets out to give a carefully reasoned biblical defense of contemporary Christian music (CCM), or, as he prefers to call it, contemporary worship music (CWM). Many reviews, largely positive, have been written about his book entitled Contemporary Worship Music: A Biblical Defense (P&R Pub., 1997). Read this one, for instance.

I enjoyed reading his book and have found it to be, on the whole, very even-handed even as he makes no bones about which side he is on. His work is meant to be a defense of CWM, and one can clearly see how he has made a good case from the Bible against the blanket criticism and dismissal of all contemporary Christian compositions. No fair-minded reader can walk away from his book without being more wary of committing the fallacy of the hasty generalisation--a mistake that too many on both sides of the debate have made. There are, however, several aspects of his book which I think bear further examination.

Frame concedes that there are differences of emphasis between contemporary worship music (CWM) and traditional worship music (TWM). CWM is “primarily a celebration of the Resurrection… a large emphasis on joy, celebration. … The dark side of Christian experience still exists, but it is brought to the feet of the risen Jesus.” TWM, “on the other hand, tends to focus more on our pre-resurrection relationship with God. God is more distant, more disapproving. He is hidden, and we are unclean, unfit to enter his holy place. We are lost, without hope. As a kind of re-enactment, at least, we need to be saved from sin again by believing the gospel and finding forgiveness. Then we hear the assurance of pardon … Then we may experience some of the post-Resurrection experience, until next Sunday." (Frame, p. 80)

Does this description of TWM square with your own experience of it? It does not mine. Frame's presentation of TWM's emphasis is inaccurate and misleading, although it is to his credit that he does acknowledge his loaded language that declares his preference. There are scores and scores of traditional hymns that focus on the joy of Christian living and of victory in Jesus. A cursory look at the index of songs in most traditional hymnals should make that evident.

Frame also contends that the great merit of CWM is that it is "Christian music that is immediately accessible – to the young as well as the old, to the immature as well as the mature. Therefore... it is a valuable tool for teaching the immature, for helping the immature to become more mature. ... it is better that children sing some children’s hymns, rather than adult hymns alone. The same can be said of CWM.” (pp. 163-164) He admits that CWM songs "do not attempt to cover a great deal of doctrinal territory but to cover a small amount of teaching vividly and memorably." (p. 166)

So far as some carefully selected CWM songs can be included in the worship service to complement traditional hymns to make the congregational singing more accessible and varied, I can see the value of CWM. To argue or to imply, however, that traditional hymns are not suitable, or at least not as suitable or helpful to young Christians is to miss out on the fact that the apostles certainly did not eschew deep and sometimes difficult doctrinal truth in their epistles to new believers. Doctrines of salvation, justification, election, predestination, atonement, sanctification and depravity of man, for example, abound in the book of Romans. In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul also teaches eschatology, the doctrine of end times. To mature as believers, babes in the faith must not be deemed to need 'protection' or bolstering from deep truths that God deems essential to His children's understanding. If the reservation concerning TWM is the language that many of them use, that's another matter. It is true that the language of many great hymns of the faith is of an older age (containing more passive constructions, for instance), often more literary, and more redolent with complex metaphors that demand or assume more of those singing them. I would contend, however, that most of them are not really beyond the comprehension or appreciation of most believers, given time, exposure and spiritual growth. If language that is apparently more difficult is to be a reason for TWM to be avoided in worship, to what extent do we have to apply the same principle to the Bible itself? What about passages in the Bible that are not eminently paraphraseable in simple, contemporary language that is "not too difficult for the common man"?

I fully agree with Frame that what is perhaps most important is the discretion of the church leadership in using songs (whether traditional or otherwise) that reflect proper biblical priorities and sound doctrine (p. 97). From my experience and acquaintance with several churches and organisations which use CWM, though, the tendency is to rely almost fully on the limited corpus of CWM songs and reinforce the idea that CWM is better than TWM which is dismissed--openly or, more commonly, by suggestion--as stuffy, old-fashioned, and irrelevant in today's world. Frame admits that CWM "emerged in a background of charismatic theology," and is quick to add that "for the most part it does not urge charismatic distinctives upon the worshiper." (ibid., p. 139) A child will take on characteristics of his parents on a very fundamental level, and so, CWM and charismatic theology. And if Frame is right about how CWM does not "urge Charismatic distinctives upon the worshiper," it may be that what it often omits, or neglects to emphasize, is also vitally important to Christian truth and life. We are told to teach the whole gospel. Not to do so on a consistent basis may well constitute a distinctive of a particular group or movement.

Finally, it seems almost too convenient for Frame to suggest, at the very least, that any contemporary Christian song counts as CWM. Surely some contemporary hymn and song writers (such as those at Wilds and Soundforth) would make a distinction between their music and CWM. Labeling is certainly not all, but it is significant because it points to a real distinction. Some songs included in the CWM corpus, like “As the Deer”, “I Love You Lord” and “Shine Jesus Shine” could as easily be categorized as hymns or traditional choruses. No one is denying that some, or even many, good, doctrinally sound songs are written today by contemporaries. The issue is not the date of composition: that should not be the criteria for categorizing songs as CWM or TWM.

What is the precise criteria that clearly distinguish CWM and TWM? I have some ideas about that, but this post is too long as it is. I also suspect that most of us who are professing Christians--and even many non-Christian Singaporean cab drivers I've talked to--do have some instinctive sense about what is "Contemporary Christian Music", and what's not.
Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Neil-ing the Problem of the All-Consuming TV "Family" on Family Literacy Day

Okay, the title is admittedly a little corny. But the subject matter is a serious one. Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Penguin, 1985) deserves mention and review again--20 years since its publication--for all its refreshing and pressing relevance to the state of our society today. The eve of the 6th annual Family Literacy Day in Canada is probably a good time to post a few thoughts on the issue of how the replacement of the printed word by television is affecting the way we think and communicate.

Postman's main thesis is that American society has moved from an age where the written word was dominant to one which is dominated by television and show business--to its detriment, in the decline of serious and rational thought and conversation. Every medium and technology has its own inherent bias and encourages certain tendencies. Just as the written/printed word promotes sequential, coherent and rational thought expressed in propositional form and calls for the reader's understanding and consideration of its argument, hones a tolerance for delayed response and so on, television places far less emphasis on rational argument and promotes the idea that the worth of anything is measured chiefly by its entertainment value. "Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television." (Postman, p. 87)

Ironically, the problem is often made worse by the supposed champions of literacy and education--teachers and intellectuals--who constantly strive to make television an educational tool par excellence, who urge television to be more of a carrier of important cultural conversations, which is something its form was not made to do. Given the right kind of training through the medium of television, increasingly and in too many places promoted, it will be little wonder if future generations become less able to read, and less interested in doing so. What's the great loss in this, some may ask, since television is able to do so much in way of providing information on all areas of life from politics to law to raising public awareness of the world around us? And aren't we forgetting the educational benefits of the internet (in which this blog itself is posted)? If the TV and computer can give our children information given in books, what's the harm? Firstly, it's highly questionable if all kinds of knowledge currently (or should be) taught in schools using books can be taught through television. Many things, like political philosophy and epistemology, are just not "eminently televisable" (ibid., p. 152). Secondly, Sesame Street, the oft-touted prime example of how learning can be both fun and effective, has not taught children to love school as much as it has taught them to love school that is like Sesame Street. It doesn't even matter if children do learn the alphabet from such television programs; more crucially, they are learning the "supra-ideology" of entertainment.

Postman nailed the problem of television when he writes about the comprehensiveness and the potential that it is commonly perceived to have. It is a medium that encompasses all forms of discourse, one from which anyone can learn about the most recent policies, find out who won the ball game, enjoy some light-hearted entertainment, and find out more about the current affairs or the latest scientific discoveries. One big reason why the printed word took such a hold on people's lives and minds in earlier times is the monopoly it had--there was literally no other alternative medium with that kind of reach. Today we have a media and information glut where much that is produced and consumed is largely influenced by the dominant medium of the colourful, seductive moving picture. Even from the time of Postman's writing, books have begun to take on the forms and the language of television--in easily digestible eye-candy morsels. Think of the recently published New Testament for teens entitled Revolve in which each page resembles a glossy fashion magazine complete with tips on dating and makeup. Revolve does contain the entire text of the New Testament, but will it really promote a love for His Word and the holy lifestyle that is commanded therein? I personally doubt it can, although God can work good through anything.

At the end of the day, there is a vast and undeniable difference between reading the printed word and watching television. The differences are many and a few important ones have been stated, or at least implied. I shall not try to enumerate an exhaustive list of differences or give a comprehensive argument for the benefits of the printed word over those of television. Much has already been written on this, and Postman has done a job that I could never do trying to explain how our (I'm identifying with Postman here-) position is not merely another "elitist complaint against 'junk' on television" (ibid., p. 16). There are many benefits to television, and we're not denying that--but perhaps not so much for education, and perhaps the losses outweigh the gains in the final analysis. All is not lost though, and some television programs, in small, carefully administered doses, may on occasion provide a useful material for classroom learning and discussion. "But what is happening is that the content of a school curriculum is being determined by the character of television ... One would have thought that the school room is the proper place for students to inquire into the ways in which media of all kinds--including television--shape people's attitudes and perceptions." (ibid. pp. 153)

Just another word on TV using Ray Bradbury's TV "family" as an illustration. In Fahrenheit 451 (Del Rey, 1987), the protagonist's wife and her friends are hopelessly addicted to their multi-panelled TV--a kind of surround-sound, surround-screen TV which envelopes them, commanding their facile participation in shallow and inconsequential conversations and situations presented by life-sized soap opera characters who become their "family". This is obviously an exaggeration of what our TV experiences are like but illustrate well the point I wish to make. TV has the power to influence you in very subconscious ways, making you captive to its continuously changing images and sounds, and tempting you to suspend your rational thought processes to simply absorb what is presented in unrelenting speed and in forms which are not for the most part amenable to careful analysis and evaluation in the way words on a page are. A TV program you choose to watch consumes you, and good books (like classic novels) are often said to do the same, but you read at your own pace, and the words on the page engage your reason and understanding.

It seems ironic that a made-for-TV movie televised nationally during primetime should be what kick-started Family Literacy Day in Canada in 1999. It is also ironic that this movie should be made a publicity centrepiece by literary organisations who helped promote it by distributing posters and bookmarks to the general public. "Penny's Odyssey is about the agony and ecstasy of growing up as much as it is about reading and writing," says director Alan Goluboff. "Even people who can read will sympathize with the characters and find the program engaging." Am I the only one who finds the last sentence more than a little strange and telling?

Penny's Odyssey is the one thing parents seem to be encouraged to order on that webpage, and quite plausibly the one thing that most who would celebrate FLD would want to watch with their children. "Read, Write, Surf, Sing" goes the motto of FLD. They forgot "Watch." (ibid. p. 161) To be fair, my knowledge of FLD is all but most recently acquired and limited. And, as Postman says, "no medium is excessively dangerous is its users understand what its dangers are." But do they? Will most of the people this literacy campaign is targetting be sufficiently aware that there is an inevitable relation between form and content? It is possible that Penny's Odyssey will excite some children a little more about reading, but I am not optimistic. I have not watched Penny's Odyssey and so cannot much more about it, but I do not think I'll be in a hurry to get a copy. All the same, I wish the organisers of the ABC Canada Family Literacy Day all the best.

When God blesses my husband and I with a baby to bring up and teach, he or she will surely not be learning the alphabet from Winnie-the-Pooh video series or the numbers from Sesame Street. "Train up a child in the way he should go, / Even when he is old he will not depart from it." ~ Proverbs 22:6

cat in the snow

cat in the snow, originally uploaded by HUICHIEH.

Kitten in the snow...begging for food.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Watts a True Refuge?

Certainly not Isaac Watts--but the God He knew and about whom he wrote more than 600 hymns. Isaac Watts (1674-1748), lovingly known by many as the Father of English Hymnody, is one of my favourite hymn writers. The words to his songs have often uplifted and challenged my heart. Some of his most famous works include "O God Our Help in Ages Past" (based on Psalm 90), "When I Survey The Wondrous Cross" and "Joy to the World".

We often have a tendency to restrict our congregational and personal singing to a certain selection of songs contained in the song books we possess. One of the greatest blessings that have come of being, for a time, a member of good churches outside our home country is the opportunity to see that there is so much more to solid hymns than the usual "old favourites". For Loy and I, the "usual suspects" happened to be the most famous hymns of the faith, but also more contemporary compositions produced by music groups and writers who are mostly are associated with Bob Jones University--Wilds and Soundforth, to name two.

I do not subscribe to the view that music is neutral. Neither do I think that any traditional--or for that matter, contemporary--song is good simply by virtue of the date of its composition or style (and shall post a short review of John M. Frame's Contemporary Worship Music soon). However, being in a church that is rather more traditional in its hymn selection and which draws on a much larger corpus of English hymns (especially of the Reformation era) has given me the joy of coming to know many more good hymns--even by writers whom I thought I knew fairly well! The feeling of discovering one of these during a service is akin to that of serendipitously finding a real gem while just casually browsing the bookshelves in a familiar old book store.

"God is the refuge of His saints" (sung last Sunday morning at our church in the Warrington tune) struck me particularly because of the recurring water-related imagery which could not but sound a more powerful note in light of the recent tsunami disaster. Most of us will probably face only tempests of mental, emotional and spiritual kinds. But these may not be, for their non-physical nature, any less distressing, daunting, or dangerous than physical disasters. For those of us, however, who know the Saviour--who have been called "saints"--this hymn reminds us that God is our ever-present help in time of trouble (Psalm 46). And those who do not know the God in this hymn may not be, for all their seeming peace, prosperity and security, better off than victims of devastating natural disasters. The victims of the latter know, at least, that they need refuge and aid.

(Note how the water-related imagery moves from being violent and distressing in the stanzas 1-3 to being gentle and peaceful in s. 4 and 5.)
God is the refuge of His saints,
When storms of sharp distress invade;
Ere we can offer our complaints,
Behold Him present with His aid.

Let mountains from their seats be hurled
Down to the deep, and buried there;
Convulsions shake the solid world:
Our faith shall never yield to fear.

Loud may the troubled ocean roar;
In sacred peace our souls abide;
While every nation, every shore,
Trembles, and dreads the swelling tide.

There is a stream, whose gentle flow
Supplies the city of our God,
Life, love, and joy, still guiding through,
And wat’ring our divine abode.

That sacred stream—Thy holy Word—
That all our raging fear controls;
Sweet peace Thy promises afford,
And give new strength to fainting souls.

Zion enjoys her Monarch’s love,
Secure against a threatening hour;
Nor can her firm foundations move,
Built on His truth, and armed with power.

(The Psalms of David, 1719)
Tuesday, January 18, 2005

A verse that came to mind when reflecting on recent events

From the Gospel According to John
As He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?"

Jesus answered, "It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him..." (9:1-3)
Monday, January 17, 2005

Mac Mini

With all the hype about this cutie:

I feel compelled to link to this review.

And mind you, I am no anti-apple-advocate. I use both a Dell Dimension Desktop (2GHz P4, 768MB, ATI RADEON 9200 128 MB) and a Mac iBook (12.1" G4 800MHz); and Elaine uses a Dell Inspiron 600m Notebook. And I happen to like them all for different purposes.

Another review here (warning: hilarious or vulgar, according to taste)

UPDATE: ExtremeTech seems to have backtracked a bit.
Sunday, January 09, 2005

Loss and Hope in South Asia: Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face

Note: This post was created mainly with fellow Christian readers in mind. "So, then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith." ~ Galatians 6:10

God does move in mysterious ways, as poet William Cowper writes--in ways that we may not always understand in full, such as the recent disaster in South Asia. But let us always remember that He is sovereign over all things. As the hymn continues, "Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, But trust Him for His grace; Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face."

Read more about the disaster and relief situation in South Asia as seen from the perspective of evangelists of Asia Harvest, an inter-denominational Christian mission working among Asia's unreached people groups. It was initially feared that entire tribes, along with many of the comparatively few Christians in this extremely unevangelised part of the world might be lost in the tsunami disaster. However, a few reports have come in with some good news, such as that regarding the Mokkien (Sea Gypsies) of southern Thailand and Myanmar. Let us continue to pray for the work of missionaries in these devastated parts, that despite the immense human suffering and loss, the kingdom of God will continue to expand, bringing hope, healing and Life to many through His gospel.

In the days since [the last email fearing the loss of entire tribes], however, we have thankfully read a report that most of the Mokkien people are safe. The report started: 'Knowledge of the ocean and its currents passed down from generation to generation of a group of Thai fishermen known as the Mokkien sea gypsies saved an entire village from the Asian tsunami. By the time killer waves crashed over southern Thailand last Sunday the entire 181 population of their fishing village had fled to a temple in the mountains of South Surin Island. 'The elders told us that if the water recedes fast it will reappear in the same quantity in which it disappeared," 65-year-old village chief Sarmao Kathalay told the paper. So while in some places along the southern coast, Thais headed to the beach when the sea drained out of beaches -- the first sign of the impending tsunami -- to pick up fish left flapping on the sand, the gypsies headed for the hills.'

Asia Harvest partners in Malaysia are some of their best placed representatives to help with both the immediate emergency needs, and the longer term goal of helping people rebuild their lives and bringing them the gospel. Writes Paul Hattaway of Asia Harvest: “They are already coordinating with efforts in Aceh, Indonesia. 150 Christian medics and volunteers from the Indonesian capital Jakarta are already in Aceh helping with medicine, food, water, tents, etc.

The message and plea from these Malaysian representatives?

Please don't be put off from extending help because of the millions of dollars coming in from governments / Red Cross / OXFAM, etc. The need is more than just containers of supplies; it is a 'human factor' need. They can't meet that. Only the Body of Christ is empowered to minister healing and peace and comfort. It is more than throwing mineral bottle water from moving trucks and feeling like they have done their part, it is about... sitting down with a mother who has lost her husband and children, and praying with her... and helping her to put the bottle of water on her lips and nourish her... only the Church can do that!

Please refer to the link above to find out how you can donate towards this special relief ministry.

Because there is no reason that I alone should be idle when so many are toiling

UPDATE: My blog has moved to From a Singapore Angle as of Jan 22.

I've started a new blog: Singapore Tsunami Relief Effort, dedicated to the Singaporeans involved in helping our neighbours affected by the earthquake and tsunami of December 2004. This allows me both to do something that I've meant to do soon after the events of 26 Dec, and also keep Ripostes for its original purposes. As for my motivation for the new blog, I'll let the following story say it for me:

Once upon a time, when tidings came to the city of Corinth that King Philip...was coming with an army to lay siege to the city; the Corinthians, being stricken with great fear, began busily and earnestly to look about them and to fall to work...Their labor was seen by Diogenes the philosopher, who, having no profitable work that he could help with immediatly girded about him his philosophical cloak, and began to roll and tumble his great barrel or tub (in which he dwelled--for he would not live elsewhere) up and down upon the hillside that lies adjoining to the city...On of his friends, seeing this...came and asked him: why are you doing this?...I am tumbling my tub, Diogenes said, because there is no reason that I alone should be idle when so many are toiling...

Modified from the preface of Ralph Robinson's 1516 English Translation of Thomas More's Utopia
Monday, January 03, 2005

Everywhere where the Gospel is preached

Note: A small team from our (Huichieh and Elaine) home church in Singapore went to Myanmar for a short trip to help out at a bible school we've been supporting. One of the team members--a 16 year old girl named Charlane--sent us an email after returning to Singapore, and having read what she wrote, we immediately invited here to write up a a short report for us as an inaugural post for a projected series entitled "everywhere where the Gospel is preached" in which we post the experiences of Christians in various parts of the world. Here follows her report (slightly edited):

Nine of us from the Asian Baptist Community Church (ABCC) took a trip down to Myanmar this past December (10-17 Dec 2004). As it was in the month of December, the weather was chilly--much unlike the rest of the year (which is warm). It was seven enriching and humbling days.
For some, the trip brought back many childhood memories, and for others it was an eye opener. One thing to know about Myanmar is that it is like Singapore forty years ago--dusty streets, broken down buildings, cracks along the roads and buses so crammed the people seemed as if they could fall out any minute. I cannot imagine myself living in such an environment having led most of my comfortable life with everything air-conditioned!! People there live on what very little they have.
Our church was there to visit a bible school which we have been supporting in various ways spiritually and financially. Our pastor, Dr Reynolds, has been to Myanmar about seven to eight times to teach the students there. Many of these students have left homes and traveled long distances to learn more about God and to share His gospel. This time, he brought us along to see more of what our church has been doing for fellow believers in Myanmar and to give us a chance to help out.

Apart from Dr. R, the church members who went were also prepared to teach and equip the students with various skills. for example, Mr Lock, a deacon in our church and a retired teacher, taught the students how to prepare lesson plans for their own teaching in the future. Sister Soon Peng, a nurse, taught basic hygiene and medical knowledge. (Our church also supplied them with many medical supplies for future use when the students go on missions in the valleys to share God's word.) As for me, being the youngest member of the group, I helped prepare food for the students with Sister Sylvia. During the time we were there, the students had to start school earlier than usual and so they needed to eat earlier as well. On normal days, they only have two meals: lunch at ten and dinner at six. When we were there, we prepared an additional breakfast for them. (They most likely didn't want us to leave because of breakfast and great tasting lunch!)
Despite their poverty, the people we worked with have a great faith in God to provide them with whatever they need. They are so warm and sincere. God has left a soft spot for the people there in my heart. He has made me want to go back year after year to share whatever blessings God has bestowed upon me with them. I might even overcome the environmental differences to go and live with them to share the gospel if God so wills and calls me to it.

When it was time to leave, I was not at all emotional. But on the early morning when all the other church members have left for some last minute shopping, I stayed behind in the hotel room (Since I've already completed my own shopping) and emotions soon overwhelmed me. I could not stop crying--I love the people there.

Well there is much more that happened in Myanmar that I would really love to share, but I'll leave it up to you to experience it if you ever get a chance to. Take care and thank you for taking time to read this blessing. God Bless.