Monday, August 30, 2010


I feel sad today, really sad.

As if being a country where foreign forces fight a war on your own soil is not enough...

As if having the worst air disaster ever to occur in your history is not enough (and having it happen in sight of your country's capital)...

As if being ravaged by the worst floods in your country's history is not enough (and without the outpouring of compassion to which other countries are accustomed)...

... then your country's cricket team gets caught up in a betting scandal that brings shame on your people, confirming to many that your country is a place where corruption is endemic and out of control.

And all of it happening in a matter of weeks.

Yes, Yes, Yes - I know #4 is not in the same league as #1 through #3. Not even close. It is a very light and simple straw - but today it feels like it is breaking the camel's back.

I know a bit about that part of the world and the mixture of anger (for those thinking wrongful accusation has been made) and shame (for those thinking rightful accusation has been made) will be deep and wide and intense.

It just isn't fair.

And all this from a missionary kid raised in India.

nice chatting (I think)


Thursday, August 19, 2010

fox news

There are some remarkable things about the USA (for example, where would you find billionaires - in any currency - coming together to commit themselves to giving half of their wealth away? Amazing)...

... but Fox TV is not one of them.

I was disappointed, but not surprised, to read that their ratings are soaring. But don't count me among their fans. Here are ten reasons:

I find it staggering that a media outlet can claim to be legitimate and yet occupy, so transparently, only one place on the political spectrum. In reacting to what they perceive to be a left-wing bias in the mainstream media, Fox News makes little attempt to be balanced at all. They seem to swing to the opposite extreme and stay there. When does such a stance become mere propaganda?
[And I am writing as someone who has never voted 'left' in a political election - ever.]

It is not just the bias, it is the volume with which the bias is projected. Everything is so loud. Everything seems to attack the viewer in headlines, playing on our fears and anxieties to the point of becoming overheated and even irrational at times.

The volume is made worse by the brashness of the celebrity hosts in their stable. Messrs O'Reilly, Hannity and Beck are some of the most smug and arrogant people I encounter on TV - and I do find it distressing that each one, as far as I know, claims to have a Christian faith.

I remain unpersuaded by some of the assumptions lying behind the unimpeachable vocabulary that is used on Fox News. What is this 'freedom' that is talked about? Sometimes it sounds like the 'freedom' being protected is nothing more than the 'American way of life', marked as it often is by things like over-indulgent consumption. What is 'patriotism'? I'd love someone to give me a biblical basis for patriotism. I cannot find it - or construct it. I have yet to be convinced that God looks down from his heaven and sees national boundaries. There is one church and it is global.

Why must every woman doing a news spot on Fox News look like she has been recruited from the latest Miss Universe pageant? What are the subtle messages being absorbed by the women (and men!) who are watching? And this in a culture which struggles to find a beauty beyond the skin-deep and the youthful.

The USA is a large country at the center of the world. To some degree we all revolve around it. The USA does not need to define themselves by going outside themselves in quite the same way as we do. This means that Americans, quite understandably, can live in a bit of a bubble. And in its approach, Fox News builds and strengthens that bubble - while I would suggest that the first principle in being an American Christian is to burst the bubble and make extra efforts to see the world from other perspectives.

Those little segments of news stories which fill the time between the main shows ("...and here is something you might find interesting...", or however they say it) are a little annoying, aren't they? Over the months, I have watched how they have this capacity to make small stories seem big, while ignoring many a big story - thereby making them small. As a Christian living in this world I find this unacceptable.

To identify a Christian perspective with one side of the political spectrum is always unwise. Fox News frequently leaves me thinking that God votes Republican. As for me I find voting in elections so difficult. My sense is that (in)justice trumps the economy as the primary issue about which to be concerned. Then when (in)justice is the focus for any length of time, attention will turn to ethics. Here is where it gets tricky. Will it be personal ethics, the great concern of the "right" (and Fox News) OR will it be social ethics, the great concern of the "left". Voting becomes tricky because I want to be equally concerned about both the personal and the social. In the past I have leaned towards the personal/right - but it is no more than a 'lean'...and I am not so sure about the future.

I know they would deny it, but there sure is more than a whiff of islamophobia hanging around Fox News from time to time. And yet in a society with such a good track record on 'freedom of religion', my understanding of the Islamic community is that they just want policies in place that treat islamophobia in much the same way as anti-semitism. Is that so wrong?

There are some truly remarkable things about the USA. But as I travel through Asia sometimes I shudder when I sense people building their understanding of what America is like largely from Fox News. That is sad, very sad. And it is ever so far from the truth. There are far, far better bits to America.

Yes, yes, yes - I know. I could just turn the TV off.
And sometimes I do.

nice chatting


[PS: to any American friends offended by this post, being offensive is not my purpose - although I do realise it may be a consequence. Sorry!]

Thursday, August 12, 2010

a chopsticks conversion

A recent post was about 'converted, always converting' and related some of the areas where I have changed my mind in recent years. I want to pick this theme up again, but this time in a more practical area.

But first I need to explain something both about my past and my personality. I am a missionary-kid from India. Through my teenage years our home was an international guesthouse with missionaries coming and going. I remember laughing at the heavily accented (be it British, or American) Hindi that we used to hear - not to mention the stumbling pronounciation of the newer recruits. Then there was the mocking of people making very average attempts to dress 'like the natives'.

There has been a bit of hangover in my life ever since. 'Unless you can embrace a new culture with both authenticity and accuracy, don't bother'. That has been a mistake.

And the mistake becomes complicated when it conspires with my personality. I am more introvert than extrovert, more timid than adventuresome. This means that when I move across cultures I am more likely to freeze up than I am to step out. That is a real shame. I envy extroverts, I really do. They just waltz into these situations. I can't.

In my current role with Langham Preaching I move from country to country at a dizzying speed and often find myself immersing deeply, if only briefly, in a new culture. I love the peoples of the world. I long to hear all those languages around the throne. Indeed I am writing this in the middle of an intensive weeklong training seminar with pastors from that big country above Hong Kong. I am the only white face and there are only a handful of people (if that) who speak English. But I have a deep sense of privilege to be here.

Often I have another training colleague with me (usually an Aussie, so far) and on more than one occasion I have learnt from them in this area. This is what I've observed. You can be wildly inaccurate but if you are authentic, with a love in your eyes and a warmth in your face and prepared to have a go, they'll love you all the way home. We give out 2-3 books at the end of the training week, often calling people forward name by name to receive them. On one occasion my fellow trainer (in his words), "butchered every name on the list" as he read them out - but in that very moment he bonded himself with the people in a special way. I saw it happening with my own eyes.

I think I knew all this already. Actually I know I did. But for the reasons stated above I am so slow to put it into practise.

So here I am having a fork-free week in Hong Kong. I wonder if the chopstick is a pointer to this new conversion which I'd like to embrace. Putting my past to one side - together with the timidity and the introversion - I'd like to step out and into new cultures more freely, more fully and less fearfully - putting away the fork and picking up the chopsticks in all sorts of ways.

One area of regret for me has to do with my time as Principal at Carey Baptist College and my engagement with Te Reo Maori (the Maori language). I don't doubt my commitment to it. I only need to recall the disappointment I felt when a training initiative was closed down! Plus I'd love to have learned Te Reo Maori to signal that commitment but the demands of the job just did not make it possible. Nevertheless, in retrospect, I wish that I had taken the opportunity to speak and use Maori more often. Whether it was opening the Carey year with a powhiri (which I often did) or routinely starting a speech with a greeting in Maori (which I seldom did), I could have embraced Te Reo more fully. But the stakes were high - being inaccurate and inauthentic was not a good look and there was huge pressure to get it right. Then when the timidity (or, more accurately, the flat-out fear I felt in these settings) and introversion took over, I just didn't do what I should have done.

nice chatting


Thursday, August 05, 2010

god's continent

Yes, that's right - I have digested yet another Philip Jenkins' book. It is becoming a compulsive behavioural disorder (particularly when I see the next one already on my desk). This one is a sane and measured response to the fear that Europe is becoming some sort of Eurabia where Christianity's prospects, currently being dismantled by secularism, is about to suffer an even worse fate in the form of an incoming Islamic tide sweeping through what was once God's Continent.
Philip Jenkins, God's Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe's Religious Crisis (Oxford University Press, 2007)

A few reflections...

Twenty years after the end of the Cold War Europe is again "a critical theater for rivalry" (25) - this time between competing forms of religious belief: Islam, Christianity, and secularism. While it has the makings of a similar crisis in the way it feels unresolvable, maybe it will resolve itself in time?

There is a "birth dearth" in Europe where falling birth rates are leading to a "slow motion autogenocide" (6) which contrasts markedly with countries from where many immigrants, often Muslim, are coming. Quoting Mark Steyn, "the design flaw of the the secular social-democratic state is that it requires a religious-society birth-rate to sustain it" (7). In Western Europe "the rule of thumb is that "the closer you get to the Pope, the fewer children one has" (30). This is part of the challenge behind Turkey's application to the EU. If admitted it will be the most populous country in the EU by 2015 and one of the few with a rising birth-rate. The Muslim percentage in Europe would jump from 4.6% to 16% overnight and keep rising sharply - not to mention that the country being admitted is where the word 'genocide' was invented less than 100 years ago with the extermination of its Christian Armenian population in 1915. A difficult debate...

Jenkins constantly asks the question whether religion is the underlying issue with the ongoing tension in Europe. For example, what about generational difference between the white (often older and richer) and the non-white (often younger and poorer)? There is "a disaffected underclass" (178) but how much is it really a religious issue now - and how much might it become a religious issue in the future if tensions are not reduced, thereby "removing the festering grievances that potentially drive people to militancy" (232). With the collapse of Marxism, "Islam is becoming in Europe the religion of the repressed" (132).

Faith is struggling in Europe under secularism. "In a typical year, the Catholic archdiocese of Dublin, with around one million faithful, ordains one new priest"(33). In time this same secularism may dilute Islam as well. Who knows? And yet there is "faith among the ruins" as Jenkins reaches for all kinds of evidence: "an enduring Polish piety" (57); "the golden age of pilgrimage" (60f) etc. The tendency is to overstate the Muslim "threat": "Europe's evangelicals, charismatics, and pentecostals outnumber Muslims by almost two to one and will continue to do so for the forseeable future" (74) - not the least because alongside the Muslim immigrants from Asia and Africa, there are also Christian ones from the same regions. By 2025 about 8% of Europe is likely to be Muslim - not that overhwelming a statistic.

There is room for dispassionate critique of some prevailing assumptions about Islam. Muslim aggression has marked the history of Europe as much as Christian aggression. For example, consider the high profile which the Crusades still receive from a millenium ago and then the skimming over a few Muslim stories of oppression in the intervening centuries. Furthermore, for some, "Muslims can scarcely demand complete religious freedom throughout Europe if Christians are not allowed limited rights to worship in Islamic lands" (270). That was one of the more compelling statements in the book for me.

"The key political struggles within Europe's contemporay Muslim communities concern intimate issues of home and family" (179). There are still more "revolutions at home" to occur. And the treatment of women is to the fore here, as Jenkins works his way through the issues that do tend to surface like arranged marriages, wearing of burqa/hijab/jilbab, importation of wives, polygamy, suppression of domestic violence, gender roles, "honour killings", and genital mutilation. There is still a long way to go...

There is a chapter on terrorism - but it does not dominate the book. While the voices of the extremist is "shrill, ... the religious situation is much more complex than it might appear. While radicals and militants flourish, their opponents are numerous and significant, and so are the forces working against this extremism" (147). Interestingly, Jenkins predicts that "unless political circumstances change radically, there will soon be a major attack on an iconic symbol of European Christianity" (264) - for example, a cathedral of some kind.

Europe is not ready to enter the discussion because of the way it has minimised, even misunderstood, the role which religion plays in public life. Whereas in the Muslim mindset "politics is a subset of religion" (180), in the Euro-American mind the two are segregated into exclusive domains - with religion tending to be forgotten, in Europe anyway. And because Europe has been so irreligious/secular, they have tended to see the tensions solely as racial issues, eliminating the religious element simply because it has not been a feature of their own lives. As Jenkins concludes, Europe does not face a "Muslim problem" but a "religion problem" - with "the systematic failure by European elites to understand religious thought and motivation" (259) leaving them ill-equipped to face the great issue of their time. This leaves a space for a genuine presentation of the gospel in word and deed.

One statistic I still can't believe: "A third of the two million people in Britain who originated in the Indian subcontinent came from just one region - Mirpur in the Pakistani part of Kashmir" (110) ...

A slow and absorbing read (mostly as I travelled through Europe) - but ever so worthwhile.

nice chatting


Tuesday, August 03, 2010


I continue to reflect on MP Chris Carter's self-destruction on TV last week.

I am not surprised that he has requested two months off work for health reasons. I do not know what his health issues are - but I remember wondering at the time if this guy was in burn-out mode.

I hope Christian leaders, particularly pastors, were watching...

If the emotional tank is not replenished and the gauge closes in on 'empty', all kinds of things start to happen. Behaviour becomes irrational, for starters. But the thing I saw in Carter that I have seen in myself on occasion is that when the tank is empty, disappointment morphs into anger and sometimes even onto rage.

And here is the problem. Here is one reason why burn-out is so catastrophic. If that anger is not addressed, it causes people to say things they regret. Just a word or a phrase. And they can lose their job (like Carter) - because toothpaste cannot be put back into the tube. It just can't.

I hope Christian leaders, particularly pastors, were watching...

nice chatting


golf rankings

Every now and then, on a Tuesday morning, I check out the latest golf rankings.

It all started in 1992 when those two likeable Maori lads, Michael Campbell and Philip Tataurangi, led New Zealand to the world amateur title (the Eisenhower Trophy). I've always enjoyed them and been following their fortunes ever since.

It does not make great reading this morning!

Tataurangi is ranked 914 and Campbell is ranked 949 and so both are likely to fall out of the Top 1000 in the next few weeks. Tataurangi has had some dreadful injuries and Campbell's fall is so dramatic, having been ranked in the Top 20 for awhile.

But other countries caught my eye this morning...

The USA has four of the top five golfers and if things remain on the same trajectory it is only a matter of weeks before Tiger Woods loses his number one ranking. But with only five golfers in the Top 20, there has been a sharp decline in American golf in the last twelve months.

Conversely, the most dramatic transformation in the same time frame has been from ENGLAND (and also GREAT BRITAIN). Six of the Top 20 are English, while nine are British. For all the flak that British sport attracts, this is a remarkable turnaround.

Other nations in decline are the AUSTRALIANS (now only one in the Top 30) and the NEW ZEALANDERS (for the first time in years - maybe ever, I suspect - we have no one in the Top 200). Another nation on the rise is SOUTH AFRICA (five in the Top 30)...

nice chatting ... about utter trivia!