Tuesday, December 31, 2013

first eleven: most important

Every post seems important to me at the time. Otherwise I wouldn't write it. But trawling through all 400 to select a group that seem to be 'most important' now is difficult. So I've settled on two categories (only using posts unmentioned in earlier first elevens): (a) 'most important'; but also (b) 'most ignored', which will gather those posts which I think are important - but have had less than 100 views. Here goes:

'12th man'     hebelisation
It is more than mere love. The resonance and dissonance which Ecclesiastes creates with contemporary culture is striking and every now and then it bursts out of me.

#11    election reflection
One of the great mysteries to me is how Christians can locate themselves so completely on either the political 'left' or the political 'right'. It has never been that easy for me.

#10    mission: inspiration, concern, hope
It remains the most helpful mission concept I have encountered - anywhere, anytime. Harold Turner's 'three levels'. Every country - as I try to do here with NZ - needs to bring it home, make it their own.

#9     streams and banks
I have no beef with Richard Foster - but some of his disciples have driven me to drink (almost - see #3 below). His imagery has led, unintentionally, to the diminution of the Word of God in so many lives.

#8     listening between two worlds
If there is one thing that stands out from my time with Langham, it is the opportunity to have this conversation. Those in the 'West' have so much to gain by stopping to listen, and learn, here.

#7     curse of the casual
A baptismal service at a leading church in NZ pushed me over the edge with this one - finally. One of those blindspots where we are so obviously out-of-step with biblical, and Christ-ian, faith.

#6     if
Pluralism. Naturalism. Technicism. There are lots of '-isms' that get in there and clutter authentic Christian truth. Maybe the biggest challenge of all is the addiction to our selves - anthropocentrism.

#5     anyone for mysticism?
The 14th of the 400 - a long time ago now. But a little essay for a DMin class comparing Christian songs from different generations precipitated a few scary conclusions.

#4     the unbearable lightness of being disjunctive
Another early post - and a subject to which I returned more than once. Stealing the title of a famous article on postmodernism to speak of an issue that is just as pervasive.

#3    have a drink? yeah right!
Always careful with my words on this topic (see here and here as well). But I remain surprised that more Christians do not choose to abstain as part of their call to a missional life with Jesus.

#2     defined by disaster
It was Cave Creek that prompted the initial observation - and then a series of earthquakes kept me stuck in the same key. A PhD topic which I'd love to engage - but will never be able to do so.

#1     motivation for mission
I know about obeying the Great Commission and you probably do too. But how about diversifying the reasons for joining God in his mission in the world - and doing so for the sake of Jesus?

nice chatting


Saturday, December 28, 2013

first eleven: most fun

Some posts are more enjoyable to write than others. Not always sure why. Probably a bit more creativity and cultural exegesis at work. I love working in that world. Juxtaposition flips my switch. Often the wave is building in my mind for some months and when it crashes to shore in a post which is great fun.  Here goes with a few of my favourites:

#11    camel, elephant, buffalo
It is the best wisdom I can muster on how to live when you move from a country like NZ to a country like India. When frustration begins to fray the temperament, I still travel here for my own advice.

#10    robin & marian, high school musical revisited, ruby sparks
In a previous life I taught a course on worldview and movies. I've ruined so many movies for so many people over the years. It has been an important ministry. Here I cheat with a three-in-one entry.

#9     chapter two first eleven
Yes, I do love my cricket - partly because it no longer holds something close to an idolatrous hold on me anymore. Sometimes it even provides me with the framework to say something important.

#8    ecclesiastes without chapter twelve
Could there be a better sporting biography than Andre Agassi's Open? I find that very hard to believe. But then when it is juxtaposed with Ecclesiastes - well, let the osmosis begin.

#7     reading nike theologically
Completing a sporting triumvirate of entries, each with possibilities for profound theological thinking, comes this reflection on the Nike commercial in the build-up to the 2010 football World Cup.

#6    tour de leadership
Oops - hang on a second. One more post with a sporting theme. Cricket. Tennis. Football. And now - cycling. I just can't leave this one off the list, as I had such fun writing it.

#5    bond at fifty
A character and storyline that has endured for half a century. Each evolution is a window on society at the time (more than is realised) - and maybe also a mirror on ourselves (more than is realised).

#4    extending the playlist: prayer-full and extending the playlist: praise-full
I love hymns. The removal of the best ones from the playlist of NZ churches is a grave error in judgement. We are made in the image of what we sing. Today we are shallow and smaller of spirit.

#3    the olympics with other eyes
I've been doing this for three or four Olympics now. The watching of this supreme sporting event builds the enthusiasm for the mission of God in the world to fever pitch as well. Integrated living.

#2     on a date in chennai
A trip that was designed to annoy, we decided to enjoy. And so it came to pass. Out flowed a post that tries to capture the annoying and the enjoying way in which India can take hold of you.

#1     living it up at the lido
Taking my parents to Miss Potter, set in the Lake District which they so loved - is enhanced by an image & then it gets lost in serious reflection on the place of the elderly in our world today.

nice chatting


Thursday, December 26, 2013

first eleven: most read

I don't review every book that I read - but still this blog has accumulated 79 book reviews. I've settled on choosing ones in which I have lived the most - and then influenced the most. So, for example, there is no room for Stuart Lange's A Rising Tide which within ten hours of being posted became my most viewed post - ever! I still haven't figured out why... but that book wasn't so much about 'influence', as reinforcement.

So, here goes, with the ones that have shaped me the most:

#11     pure gold 
The sad and stirring story of Eric Liddell, reminding me again that nothing beats the usefulness of totally consecrated ordinary people in the mission of God - a goal within reach of each one of us.

#10    musings on a challenge to faith
I fail to see the attraction in atheism. So I thought I'd open my mind and give it a go with this popularised articulation of the cause. It served only to reinforce my commitment to biblical theism.

#9     the mission of god's people
Goodness me - did I never review Chris Wright's Mission of God? This is a fine second choice, confirming my commitment to give my life to joining God in his restorative mission in the world.

#8     dancing in the glory of monsters
The combo of working with Langham and a son with a heart for the Congolese drives me to read books like this. A sad story told on the back of a series of one-on-one interviews by a brave author.

#7     william wilberforce
To follow countless viewings of Amazing Grace with reading this definitive biography of the great man in the months around the 200th anniversary of abolition. Good times!

#6     bible and treaty
The story of the role of the gospel in NZ's early history. To discover the architect of the Treaty to have direct links to both Wilberforce and Simeon was almost too much for this faint heart to bear.

#5     unchristian
The outcomes of this Barna Group project stunned the Christian establishment in the USA, describing how far the next generation is drifting from the faith. Great fuel for my DMin thesis too.

#4     pakistan: a hard country
As a child of India, it surprised me to find my heart so soften towards Pakistan. But it has. This more complicated history added facts to the feelings - and urgency to the advocacy.

#3     fairness and freedom
This weaving of the histories of NZ & USA - chronological and topical, at the same time - is masterful. Then to be able to distill 'fairness' and 'freedom' as the one word summaries?! So satisfying.

#2     the lost history of christianity
Philip Jenkins must fit in somewhere. He has been the discovery of the decade for me. As I never reviewed The Next Christendom, this book is his most accessible book and will do just fine.

#1     to change the world
Every Christian leader must read this book. Enough said. The phrase 'faithful presence' captures the essence of a missiological strategy that has somehow got lost over the past generation.

nice chatting


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

first eleven: most viewed

Eight years of blogging.
This is my 400th post.

I love blogging. My friend, Mike Crudge, was the one who suggested it to me. [NB: Mike has recently followed that advice himself, with his own blog here]. Mike was right. It suits me. It is the most energizing thing I do, often early on a Sunday morning. I have an active mind and blogging helps me stay creative and critical and clear in my thinking. I know I break the rules all the time. My posts are far too long, for example. However it must be remembered that I do write, primarily, for my own benefit - but am happy for people to be looking over my shoulder, if they wish. And now - after eight years - I have the most fabulous personal resource: 400 posts gathered under 22 topics. I think I'll keep going for a bit longer...

Anyhow, I thought I'd celebrate with a series of First Elevens, a cricketing equivalent to a Top Ten. Where do I start? I guess 'most viewed' is the obvious place. So, let's give it a go. Leaving out 'book reviews' - which I'll do separately - and recognising that this creates a bias towards the more recent which have been viewed more, here goes:

#11      being odd
A theme often overheard in this space... The unwillingness of Jesus-followers to stand out from the crowd. Then they wonder why they are so perennially ineffective. Duh?! They have missed an elemental dynamic to mission as it is biblically configured.

#10     man of steel
Always on edge with Hollywood's allusions to the gospel story. The majority world tends to equate Hollywood with the 'West' - and then the 'West' with Christianity. This effort to link a superhero to the Jesus story left me distressed at the damage done to the name of Christ around the world.

#9     if i was bill bryson (part one) ... and also (part two)
While I am no patriot (and find the very concept to be alien to the mission of God in the world), I do love Aotearoa-New Zealand. Driving through its ever-changing scenery is one of life's great delights - matched by any opportunity to plan an itinerary for others doing so for the first time.

#8     all god's people said 'ouch'
In the middle of debates about the emerging church, I stumbled across an Epilogue that stunned me with its prophetic clarity - and reminded me why I just could not sell my soul to the 'emergent' theories. They only have the church at Ephesus in their sights. There are six others to worry about...

#7     leading and creating
Two transformative truths that swept through me to bring healing and conviction. I stumbled across both of them 'in the Word' and 'in the world' at about the same time. Now they are foundation stones in the way I understand what serving God and each other looks like.

#6    snobbery
A bit of fun - but with some deadly serious intent behind it as well. Suggesting that to CS Lewis' subversion of a 'chronological snobbery' (an attitude to history) needs to be added a similar subversion of 'geographical snobbery' (an attitude to culture).

#5     redeeming short term mission
Confession time. Not a big fan of short term mission trips. All sorts of reasons. But they are here to stay and so this is an effort to make them better. Hoping this post might make its way into church mission committees discussing policy and short term mission teams doing orientation.

#4     a 90s kind of guy
I have tended to stay away from anything that looks remotely like sermonizing - but here is an engagement with a part of the Bible that just took off. I simply shared my love for the Psalms in the 90s as they have impacted me decade by decade.

#3     corruption
As I've shifted into the Langham world, this blog has defaulted a bit to alerting Christians, in places like NZ, to what is happening elsewhere. From this distance the headlines on NZ news websites can look silly. 'Is it going to rain on Christmas?' Deary me. Wake up. Start with engaging corruption.

#2     an open letter to those besotted with relevance
I can't think of a bigger blindspot in the life of the church in the 'West'. The irony is that the very thing they prioritise on the way to effectiveness is the very thing that tends to sow the seeds of an enduring ineffectiveness. Plus, it is an exhausting kind of life to live.

#1     preaching from revelation
It was a simple idea. I wanted to spend a year busting my fear of Revelation. I read the text. I reflected on the scholars. I developed a sermon (outside of ch2 & 3). I gathered what I learned into a (long) post and offered it to others. It struck a chord and seems to have helped lots of people.

nice chatting


Sunday, December 15, 2013

dancing in the glory of monsters

'We do not care about a strange war fought by black people somewhere in the middle of Africa' (334). So writes Jason Stearns in Dancing in the Glory of Monsters (2012).

It is hard to argue with him. Truth be told, I don't expect many of you to go on and finish this post.

Built on face-to-face interviews with witnesses, a new one introduced in each chapter, Stearns tells the story of 'the collapse of the Congo' in three successive wars which followed in quick succession after the Rwandan genocide in 1994. This is seriously good story-telling.

His purpose is 'to tackle Congo reductionism' (xxi), that unwillingness to leave the causes of the conflict to be as complicated as they are - preferring, as we do, an 'array of caricatures' (4) because it is easier. But it is complicated. We need to persist where others have fallen away. Since 1996 five million people have lost their lives in the Congo.

It is a story with a 'deep history' (4). But because I want you to read the book, I need to subvert the paralysis which complexity creates. Let me distill for you just one of the conclusions, draw your attention to a single image, and then gather a bunch of comparisons where the unknown is related to the known (for you and me). A neat threefold strategy for engaging complexity.

Stick with me - please!

 a conclusion
Our eldest son works among Congolese in Kampala (Uganda) and Goma (DR Congo). Independently from Stearns, he draws the same conclusion. There is some irony in it. What can so frustrate us, bureaucratic government institutions, is exactly what Congo doesn't have - and needs. There are no functional institutions. Stephen joked on the phone last night about 'Yes, Minister' and the British civil service. But the genius of that system is that the civil service stays while governments come and go. Congo doesn't have that luxury. Ethnic rivalries, regional politics, and big personalities win the day. Near the end of his book, Stearns observes
'Perhaps the most nagging, persistent problem I have witnessed while researching and writing this book has been the lack of visionary, civic-minded leadership' (328).
In this system loyalty is 'more important than integrity' (175) and is valued 'more than competence' (272). All the way through he alludes to this deficit in the Congo. Good leaders at the helm of effective institutions? 'This legacy of institutional weakness [is] for many Congolese almost as depressing as their physical suffering' (126). Leaders view 'the state apparatus as a threat, to be kept weak so as to better manipulate it' (126). Ethnicity is the fiercest ideology: 'it will take generations to rebuild institutions or social organisations that can challenge the current predatory state without resorting to ethnicity' (216). The Congo needs 'a free press, an independent judiciary, an inquisitive parliament' (283) that is able to 'dig deep and scrutinise information' (282-283).

And there is deep history behind this. Be slow, very slow, to allow your mind to assume that there is 'some genetic defect in Congolese DNA, a missing 'virtue gene'' (215) of some kind. The Belgian colonialists must take a lot of heat for this. Having 'dismembered what remained of most Congolese kingdoms' and then creating 'a colonial state whose purpose was to extract resources ... the colonial authorities handed over government to a Congolese people almost wholly unprepared  to manage their vast state' (330).

an image
Did you have lingering look at the book's cover image above?
[NB: also the images, by way of video, posted last year might be helpful]

many comparisons
'Like layers of an onion, the Congo war contains wars within wars' (69). 
On allusions to World War II and the Holocaust:
'There is no Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin. Instead it is a war of the ordinary person, with many combatants unknown and unnamed, who fight for complex reasons that are difficult to distill in a few sentences' (5).
'Unlike the holocaust of Word War II, which had been carried out by a select group of state officials and army officers, largely away from the view of the population, Rwanda's genocide was organized by the elites but executed by the people ... the killing took place in public places' (15).
'Where elephants fight, the grass is trampled' (31).

Thursday, December 12, 2013

lrpl taylor

A year is a long time in sports...

One year ago NZ cricket was mired in a mess. The sacking of Ross Taylor as captain was a case study on how not to do it. It was appalling. Someone should have been sacked. I don't argue with the outcome, as I was one who thought he shouldn't have been the captain in the first place - but the process was unprofessional and, more importantly, demeaning to the person himself.

Taylor took some time out and then came back - and, boy, has he come back. In this current Test he has become the NZ cricketer with the highest Test average (for those who have played more than 20 innings) - higher than Crowe and Turner, Fleming and Sutcliffe. That is an achievement to celebrate.

But there is another achievement hidden away so that only trainspotting cricket-statistics nerds like me will ever notice. Take a look at the list of players with the most catches in Test history from all countries across all times. But look a little closer. Consider the column of catches per innings. The top dozen of all-time - among those with more than 70 catches looks like this:

1. Bobby Simpson  .940
2. Ross Taylor   .904
3. Stephen Fleming  .859
4. Tony Grieg  .813
5. Mark Taylor  .796
6. Graeme Hick  .782
7. Jayawardene   .782
8. Paul Collingwood   .766
9. Graeme Smith .744
10. Greg Chappell   .739
11. Mark Waugh   .738
12. Ian Chappell  .729

But if you know your cricket - reflect on this list for a little longer. It is the stronger bowling teams - particularly with faster bowlers getting nicks into the slips more often - that will produce catchers with higher statistics.

In that list, the Aussies (#1, 5, 10, 11, 12) all come from teams with exceptional bowling resources. So does #9 from South Africa. #4, and to a lesser extent, #8, were part of a fine era of English bowling (but #6 not so much). Only one South Asian (#7), a context known for pitches that are a graveyard for fast bowling.

Which leaves us with two Kiwis way up there at #2 and #3. Neither one comes from the era of Hadlee. Both from weaker Test teams - particularly Ross Taylor. Fiery fast bowlers inducing lots of nicks into the slips? Not in Taylor's era. This is a remarkable achievement. Among NZers, Crowe is only at .546, Coney at .659 (but the safe and gifted, Bryan Young, was 54 from 58 - and .931!)

But across the history of Test cricket, Ross Taylor is one of the most reliable (and unheralded) catchers that the game has known.

nice chatting


living alongside the poor

This is our one hundredth day living back in India, the land of our childhood. The joys, the frustrations - and the conversations - have not changed much over the decades. Once again Barby and I find ourselves talking a lot about how to live alongside the poor. While it is not the daily 'in your face' reality that it is for others (for example, our friends in Kolkata), it is a topic that is never far away.

It is easy for all of us to live in reaction to our childhood. To overstate, to misrepresent - and to swing on the pendulum to some silly extreme out the other way. This is so common in missionary families, as the criticism of parents flows full and frank. You won't catch me playing that game. However we did come through an era when the the response to the poor - starting with beggars, but not exclusively so - included things like ignoring them, or arguing with them, or rationalising their lifestyles ... and running the risk of hardening our hearts towards human need.

This time around Barby and I want to try to do things differently. We won't always succeed.

A few days ago I was reunited with a friend I've made in 2013 - Ajith Fernando's commentary on Deuteronomy. It had spent three months far from me, travelling the ocean waves. I cannot convey how stunned I was when I read these words - typically personal and honest. It was a very early hour. I almost woke Barby to read them to her. Had Ajith been listening to our conversation? He was articulating some of the conclusions we were reaching...
Today many people feel that we have won a victory when we can get away with giving less than what was asked of us. After reading a tract on how to respond to poverty, I decided that I will not bargain with the poor when I buy something from them or hire them to do something for me. Sometimes they quote a price that takes into account that the one who pays will bargain. But if I think this person is very needy, unless the figure asked is ridiculously high I will not bargain with the person - often much to his or her surprise. Extending this principle a little further, if I feel the poor person has done a good job, I sometimes overpay him or her, giving more than what was asked for.               (Ajith Fernando, Deuteronomy, (Crossway, 2012) 415)

Here are a handful of places we have reached together:

We will not bargain with the poor. If what is asked is preposterous, we'll move on - maybe with a shake of the head and a warm, chiding comment. For example, a tuk-tuk driver asking for more than a meter would suggest. But when served well by the poor - the tuk-tuk driver uses the meter and gets us home safely - we will give more than the meter says. In doing so we reward service, not corruption.

We will rescript our childhood experiences, nurturing a fresh instinct to be generous with the poor. Not just money. For example, Barby tries to carry quality food with her when we are out and about. When confronted by a beggar, for example, out it comes with a warm smile, a gentle touch and a "Jesu Masih ka naam me" - it is being given in the name of Jesus Christ.

We will receive back small amounts of change when asked to do so. We don't remember this happening in our childhood. Sometimes the 'keep the change' attitude is unwelcome today. It has happened a few times for both of us. Dignity and respect has entered the equation methinks. If the sabzi-wallah (a roadside seller of vegetables) insists on giving us change (always far less than a mere dollar) - rather than a sweep of the hand to convey 'no, no - you keep it', we will receive it quickly, warmly and gratefully.

We will worry far less about getting ripped-off. This tended to be the consuming concern as kids. Not any more. We won't reward corruption. It is wrong - always. But what is also wrong is the hard heart whose instinct for compassion has dried up. We just do not want to go there. It has too many damaging consequences for our full participation in the mission of God in the world. Tim Keller's words in Generous Justice come to mind.
My experience as a pastor has been that those who are middle-class in spirit tend to be indifferent to the poor, but people who come to grasp the gospel of grace and become spiritually poor find their hearts gravitate toward the materially poor.                      (Keller, Generous Justice, (H&S, 2010) 102).
We will renew our commitment to the Stottian triumvirate that took hold of us in the years after we left India. With every significant financial decision, we will ask two questions 'Is this an expression of our contentment with what we have?' and 'Is this an expression of our generosity with what we have?' And the third part of the triumvirate? I heard him say it with my own ears. 'If I walk into the home of the poorest of the poor and I feel a twinge of embarassment, something is wrong. Alternatively, if the poorest of the poor walk into my home and I feel a twinge of embarassment, something is wrong'. Put it right. How will the triumvirate rule in our hearts now that we are back in India? I guess we are about to find out...

nice chatting


Sunday, November 24, 2013

sachin's speech

I've been exegeting Sachin's retirement speech. It provides such insight into an Indian worldview, often so different from those ones associated with 'the West'.

A full text of the speech can be found here.

[NB: For those who may be unaware (!), 'Sachin' refers to Sachin Tendulkar. His name has the fame that 'Roger' has with tennis, or 'Tiger' with golf - except that in Indian culture, much more is going on with Sachin than mere sport].

But back to the exegesis...

The priority of family
Father. Mother. Uncle & Auntie. Eldest brother. Sister. Other brother. Wife. Children. In-laws. Each receive a paragraph. Taken together this covers almost half of all that he says. Remarkable. Then when he gets to his team-mates, they are referred to as his 'family away from home'. Even his words for his manager have the same reference point - 'more like my family'. 'Family' is the prevailing motif in this speech. It is the primary means of self-understanding. These are the ties which bind people together the strongest. It is towards these people that the deepest gratitude is directed.

The integration of religion
A longtime missionary in South India, Lesslie Newbigin, is credited for raising the alarm in the West about the way religion has become a matter of private choice. But in India, religion remains more easily in the public world. Sachin's religion leaks into this speech. It is expected. It causes no offence. References to prayers and fasts find their way naturally into the stream of words. And it rings true for him. One of the great mistakes of Western-styled pluralism is that it diminishes the role of religion. The world's problems are never going to be resolved by downplaying the role which religion plays in public life.

The appeal of character
Humility. Grace. Warmth. It is not uncommon for people to say that while Sachin was a great cricketer, he was an even greater human being. I love the fact that he had a little list in his hand of all the people he wanted to thank. And it is challenging for Christians to be reminded that it is, primarily, a Hindu faith that nurtured this character (even though some rush to possible Christian influences). Plus I love the way he refers to his coach as 'sir', still offering him respect - even though he never heard the words 'well done' emerge from his mouth. In a land and a sport so closely linked to corruption, Sachin has walked a different track.

In training preachers over the years, I've emphasised the importance of the manner of the preacher. The manner is often a window into the character of a person. If you haven't done so, just listen and watch Sachin here for a bit. It amazes me how this quality has been retained amidst all the worship that has come his way...

The inescapability of hope
Back to Newbigin for this one. On his transition from India to the UK in retirement, Newbigin was struck by the contrast in the hopefulness of the kids on the streets of Madras with the hopelessness of the kids in the malls of Manchester. I'll never forget reading that line. And while it is changing, with much more of Manchester coming to Madras these days, there is something about Sachin's life and career that breathes a little light and hope into India's masses. It is there mingling with the worship. This past month it emerged that 68% of Indians still defecate outside in the open - and this at a time when India is trying to organise a mission to Mars. Oh, the irony of it. Even more ironic is how the fatalism in the Hindu worldview, so easily the antithesis of hope, can't stop the masses dreaming of better times. The writer of Ecclesiastes had a phrase for it. God has planted eternity in the hearts of every human being...

The endurance of eloquence
The manner may be soft and disarming, but out spilled some memorable lines. One media channel even offered the ten best quotes in the speech. Referring to his wife, Anjali, as the 'best partnership I had in my life' is a classic. So also is 'My life between 22 yards for 24 years ... has come to an end'. I actually missed the live event completely (grrr!) - but found myself reading the transcript to Barby from the newspaper the next day. It was hard to stop. It was good to be impacted by words being used well. A retiring All Black captain in New Zealand couldn't hope to speak with such eloquence - and I'm pretty sure it wouldn't bother Kiwis if he didn't.

The limits of influence
With that character in place, you'd expect Sachin to be the classic character-led leader who the troops easily follow into battle. With that capacity to raise the spirit of a nation with a word and a smile, you'd expect Sachin to be able to lift the morale of a team. With his embrace of his team as family, you'd expect Sachin to have an effective 'first-among-equals' leadership style. But history will record Sachin as a failure during his time as captain of the Indian cricket team. There is something more to leadership and he didn't have it.

After the speech Sachin headed off with his family to Mussoorie, where Barby and I grew up. This press release mentions Sanjay Narang, with whom we went to school. Sanjay bought Barby's childhood home. Three years ago we popped in for a cup of team with all the children. Sanjay has developed it significantly - well, that is what Barby tells the children, who listen to the unconvincing tale! The photo in this press release looks like it was taken at this home Barby associates most with her childhood. Pretty cool. The setting and the angles look to be just right...

nice chatting


Sunday, November 17, 2013

an open letter to those besotted with relevance


I don't know who you are. I don't know where you are. But I do know that there are heaps of you out there and I find myself thinking about you a lot. So much so that I thought I'd write you a letter.

First let me try to ensure that we are talking about the same thing. By 'relevance' I mean that approach to church and mission where we flow with cultural trends in order to minimise the difference between the believer and the unbeliever. This becomes a central mission strategy. But I sense it goes a little further than this with you. Your hope for the church seems to lie with it becoming relevant. You might even be among those who say silly things like 'unless the church becomes relevant, it will die'. In your heart of hearts the church and the Bible are in need of an extreme makeover. Because of this you probably spend considerable energy scanning the horizon for the next big thing to make mission effective in your setting.

But let me rush on to say what I don't mean. And if this letter annoys you, this will be the paragraph you choose to ignore! I am not saying that you should go Amish (although the Amish:Mennonite story provides a fascinating case study). I am not even saying that relevance is bad. Goodness me, I travel with Langham training preachers to be 'faithful, clear and relevant'. I've developed courses on Gospel & Culture. One of my favourite teaching topics is what I call preaching worldviewishly. Relevance is OK, but it is this obsession with it that is not OK. Your instinct, even your hope, seems to lie here. Listen to yourself talk. Look at what you read. Your sociology drives your theology and shapes it. That is not good...

How are we doing so far? My guess is that with the first paragraph it was, 'yes, that sounds a bit like me' - but with this second paragraph, you are saying 'that is definitely not me'. Are you sure? Rather than making more exclamations, may I ask some questions of you? Please hang in there with me for a few more minutes.

The love and justice of God is probably at the core of why you get out of bed in the morning. That's great. But where does the holiness of God rank for you? It should be right up there with the others. I hardly ever hear it spoken about among relevance-besotted ones. But in Jesus-focused, biblically-based mission, we will be wowed by God's intention, in Exodus, to come and live with his people. Then we will linger in Leviticus discovering how hard it is for that to happen. For a holy God to live with his people, those people will need to become holy - and that means maximising their differences from the surrounding nations, at the risk of looking decidedly irrelevant. Is the holiness of God as important to you as his love and his justice?

By the way, can you ever imagine those shining examples of godly influence in the public world - Joseph, Esther, and Daniel - ever worrying about whether they are being relevant? I can't.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

on a date in chennai

I have often given the advice that the way to cope with big bureaucracy in India is to adopt the gait and manner of the big animals in India - elephant, camel and buffalo. Steady. Unruffled. Metronomic.

Here was my chance to prove it. 

Our shipment of goods from New Zealand (mainly my books) are stuck at Customs in Chennai. After Barby made an unsuccessful visit last week, we are off again with a smile on our faces, determined to enjoy our date to Chennai. 

It starts with a train trip. My first one back in India. It is a double-decker train. Yippee. At the Bangalore Cantonment station we are greeted with a board on which to match the coach number on our ticket with the place on the platform at which to stand. With only two minutes in which to board and with a clutter of colour in saris ahead of us, struggling to heave themselves up onto the train - we make it in time.

It is a six hour trip. Between me and the window is a beautiful woman discovering Angry Birds. I am pacing myself through Dancing in the Glory of Monsters which tells the story of the wars in Congo. Knowing that refugee camps housed 1000 people in a space the size of a football field makes being an unruffled elephant in India much easier. On arrival, we find our way to the YWCA Guest House. The two single beds adrift from each other are, as usual, a little short and a little hard - but the subsequent merger allows me to be the diagonal to which I have grown accustomed. 

We rise ready to tackle the day. The promised arrival of a car at around 9.00 does not materialise until 11.00 - but finally we are on our way to an area called George Town (where, in the Invercargill version, I had been a pastor). Our agent, Kasturi, takes us through a room with a sea of desks and mountains of paper and on into a little office. 

We sit there. No explanations. He comes and goes for brief encounters. A signature here. A photo there. We play Angry Birds and read Monsters. On one occasion he is accompanied by lunch, with an almost christological announcement on the packaging. This breathes hope into the day, as we still have no idea what is happening...
At close to 4pm, and with government offices closing at 5pm, Kasturi enters the room with the curl of a smile on his face. ‘Come on, now we can go and see the Deputy Commissioner’. Off we go, walking in the third lane of the traffic coming toward us – as the footpath is fully occupied with extraneous items. Into Custom House we go. The reception area has three elevators. A cavernous hole exists where one once was. A second is out of order. The third seems stuck at the third floor, with the arrow pointing up, and a small crowd awaiting its arrival which appears to be far from imminent. With time against us, I suggest that we walk to the third floor instead. The offer is accepted! Into a packed corridor we walk. Oh dear! But I am greeted with an outstretched arm of a warm uniformed man - and a belly that reached me not so long after his hand. On it was fastened a buckle the size of a number plate from which gleamed the words ‘India Customs’. I could see I was in safe hands. 

He gave me his chair. He ordered tea. I love this India. Warm and hospitable. I feel ashamed of my childhood when so often I allowed people in these situations to be the enemy, rather than the friend. We start chatting – except I just can not understand him. The array of odd questions, coming out of nowhere, did not help. 'Are you RC or CSI?’ This is a question about religious affiliation, not TV viewing habits. A little later, after 4-5 efforts, it was ‘What is your salary?’ 

When the predictable ‘how many children?’ came, I had my opportunity to show-off photos to the entire corridor. For a brief moment in time Micah-worship rivalled the Sachin-worship which has gripped this nation. Headlines proclaiming 'God-bye' are not spelling mistakes, as for so many he is 'The Light of Their World'.

Finally, the door opened. I was about to enter the office of the Deputy Commissioner himself...
In I go - but I can hardly see the man. The room is huge. The desk is expansive. And when his mobile phones keep ringing and interrupting, I conclude that this is one important man. But once again he is warm. After a few questions, a few flicks of the hand, a few wobbles of the head –  we had the signature. The deed was done. I think. I'll believe it when my books are on my shelves. I thanked Kasturi profusely for his help. To which he responded, 'No, sir. We are not helping you. This is our service.'

It is almost 5pm. Move over bureaucracy. Start your engines. It is time for the date after the date. ‘C’mon let’s go to the beach’. The famous Chennai beach is wide and long. We overshoot the start and walk back along the beach, with the sun setting behind us, colouring everything just how I like it. The camera on the smartphone gets a workout. [NB: Don’t miss the towers of floodlights at Chepauk, the cricket ground - the only thing I knew about 'Madras' in my childhood]. 

We walk along the beach, then through a lane of little shops the width of the beach. Being world famous in my family for long urban walks in India, off we set again – this time in and through Chennai. Rural train trips and urban walks are the only way to see the real India. After a wee while(!), it is dark and we are in the midst of clogged traffic. It is time to eat. The moment overtakes me. No more elephants and camels. It is time to be raja and rani (king and queen). Plus, so much has been happening in our lives (and we hadn't celebrated my birthday, five weeks earlier, because we had spent it in a Catholic convent on a staff retreat). Rationalising reasons for a little luxury is such fun.

A check on google for 'best restaurants in Chennai', as we walk, reveals that we were not far from the Taj Coromandel hotel. What a delightful confluence of our India and Kiwi identity (NB: 'Coromandel' is a favoured holiday destination in NZ).

WOW. When we arrive at Taj Coromandel, we realise that it is not fit for rajis and ranis, but rather for a greater glory - IPL cricketers. This must be where they stay?! Sure enough, within minutes the waiter, Lokesh, has his mobile phone out showing me photos of him standing Tussaud-like, next to every Kiwi IPL cricketer that has ever graced this country. Jimmy Franklin is his favourite. 'We are good friends'. Lokesh and I get on well - until I realise that he never asks to have his photo with me. The food is sumptuous. All the usual suspects. Dosa. Aloo Jeera. Tandoori chicken. Naan. Sweet lime soda. Lokesh keeps bringing things we didn't order ... and it all amounts to NZD50.  

Our travels through not one, but two, dates in Chennai has almost taken us in a complete circle. We duly complete the circle, returning to the YWCA, and finding our beds still merged - this horizontal hypoteneuse was out like a light. 

nice chatting


Tuesday, November 05, 2013

the messiah above syria

The irony was going to be sufficiently delicious for me.

Earlier this morning I was on a flight from London to Dubai on an Arab airlines (Emirates). I decided to listen to Handel's Messiah, that supreme piece of Christian music, on its entertainment system.

But God had other ideas. He wanted me to have an encounter with him...

I am in a window seat. I never have a window seat. I am too tall. It is pitch black outside. But by the time the flight path takes us over Syria and then Iraq, a line of dull orange appears on the horizon. My mind drifts to the peoples below us. My heart softens again for these troubled nations. The lyrics resonate with the moment.
For, behold, darkness shall cover the earth and gross darkness the people; but the Lord shall arise upon Thee, and His glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to Thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising...
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.
For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given: and the government shall be upon His shoulder: and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
"Oh Lord, may it be so. For those who despair down below, make it true." God has my attention. The heart is soft, the eyes misty.
Why do the nations so furiously rage together: why do the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth rise up, and the rulers take counsels together against the Lord and His anointed...
We are flying east and so the arrival of the dawn is accelerated.

I kid you not. At the very moment that the sun took a full global shape above the horizon, adding such brightness to the sky, Handel's Messiah broke into the Hallelujah Chorus:
Hallelujah! for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth. The Kingdom of this world is become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ: and He shall reign for ever and ever. King of Kings, Lord of Lords.
'Oh, Lord - bring it on'. It overwhelmed me. My mind travels to Syria, to Iraq, to Egypt - and to all the peoples of the Middle East. The Arab Spring is decidedly wintry for so many. 'May the Messiah who fills my imagination and worship way up here, once again move through these lands, these peoples way down there - and bring the peace and reconciliation that only He can bring.'

The sun is bright now. And Handel moves onto such reassuring truths - most notably the certain hope. It is designed to breathe such stillness, and yet such endurance, into our lives. And it does - at 36,000 feet. May it do so for those at ground level as well...
I know that my redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God. For now is Christ risen from the dead ...  
Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever. Amen.
nice chatting


A little postscript.
I think my heart was tender towards this encounter with God for a couple of reasons.
(a) The two biggest influences in my life - my father and John Stott - died just 13 days apart from each other in 2011. That is remarkable enough. But with both of them, their last breaths were taken in the company of Handel's Hallelujah Chorus.
(b) I am in Dubai on my way home from the annual Langham meetings where I have been entrusted - only a matter of hours ago - with the leadership of the Langham Preaching programme globally. Such a privilege, but I am feeling the weight too - and so I am grateful for this encounter with God.

With the directors of Langham Literature (Pieter Kwant) 
and Langham Scholars (Riad Kassis) programmes

Saturday, October 26, 2013

a preaching starting five

I am often asked about books on preaching. My response heads in two directions. The first response is with newcomers to preaching in mind. Where do you start and in what order should you read the books? Then the other response is directed at experienced preachers. Maybe they need to be refreshed, or challenged - or just reminded of some of the convictions they've lost along the way.

This post is interested in that first group. And as I am about to join an NBA Fantasy League (with some of my kids - well, you know how it is, it is a way of staying in touch with them!), a starting-five seems appropriate. I've done this before - but it needs to be done again because there are two new books that have crept into the list in recent months.

1. Greg Scharf, Prepared to Preach (Mentor, 2005). It is hard to go past this one. A short, simple mix of convictions and techniques. It remains the place to begin.

2. Then I'd go back in time... Preaching has such a long ancestry and newcomers need to feel the passion of those who have gone before. It is hard to beat James Stewart, Heralds of God (Hodder & Stoughton, 1946). Read it aloud and feel the warmth and conviction in his Scottish voice.

3. Here is one of the newcomers. I finished reading it on the plane back from Cambodia this morning. Mark Dever & Greg Gilbert, Preach [Theology Meets Practice] (B&H Publishing, 2012). Part One is theology with a focus on Word and words. A helpful section on expositional preaching in the Bible (38-44). The highlight of the book is in Part Two - practice - with 'Delivering the Sermon' (119-130) full of wise, contemporary reflection. Part Three - sermon transcripts - is a nice touch. Each author offers a manuscript and they chat to each other about it as the reader travels through the sermons. [SPOILER ALERT: this is one of those books that sees preaching being for men only. Ugh. It is such a shame, as there is so much good stuff in it].

4. In the pursuit of balance in the starting five, I'd opt for David Day, A Preaching Workbook (SPCK, 2005). It gathers together an array of practical skills and tips for effective communication.

5. Then, another newcomer - this time from Australia: Gary Millar & Phil Campbell, Saving Eutychus (IVP, 2013). It is blessed with a great title - and then there is the subtitle, 'how to preach God's word and keep people awake'. That combo alone should sell a few copies. Mature preachers writing simply and practically from out of a strong theological framework. That's gotta be good for you. Not unlike #3 in its structure and vision, I started reading it before we left New Zealand, but it ended up in our shipment (which has still not arrived). So I can't say much more than that quite yet...

nice chatting


Thursday, October 17, 2013

start of play

Be it cricket, football, golf, tennis, rugby union, or rugby league - no one seems to be too sure about how they started. This just adds to the fun and the intrigue that comes with trying to tell the story.

My friend, Jonathan (Robinson) gave me a copy of Jonathan (Rice's) Start of Play (Prion, 1998). An easy airplane read... As always seems to be the case, it is the sub-title that says it all: "The Curious Origins of Our Favourite Sports".

Here are a few stories which I don't want to forget:

[olympic games]
Did you know that early in the modern Olympic Games movement (1902), one leader argued that 'Women have but one task, that of crowning the winner with garlands' (37).

Did you know that, in 1876, WG Grace ('unquestionably the greatest British sportsman of his century', 89) 'made 839 runs in eight days' (90)? And that in 1880, his two younger brothers joined him in the first Test match ever played in England ... 'but Fred scored 0 in both innings, caught a cold at the end of the match and died within a fortnight' (92)?

Did you know that 'of the ninety-two clubs in the Premier League and the Football League in 1998, perhaps eighteen can trace their origins clearly to the church, and another dozen or so were formed by old boys of schools with strong religious connections' (109)?  That includes QPR, Barnsley, Bolton, Wolverhampton, Southhampton and Aston Villa.

[rugby union]
Did you know that the William Webb Ellis story is fiction? In 1823, at the age he supposedly picked the ball up and ran with it, 'there were no accepted rules of football, so it would have been difficult for him to show a fine disregard for them' (132). But one fact that can be believed about William Webb Ellis is that 'he took part in the first-ever Oxford v Cambridge cricket match. He made 12 batting at number three...' (136). Ahh, out of (rugby) darkness and into the (cricketing) light ... and then even more light. He went on to become a country priest in Essex.

Did you know that there is 'no logical reason why the scoring in tennis is the way it is'? (180). 'The reasoning seems to be derived from French currency of the Middle Ages, which in turn derived from the ancient Babylonian obsession with the mystical significance of the number sixty. The 60 sous coin was the unit most commonly used for gambling ... and the winner of the game would win the coin. There being four points to be won in each game, the players would shout that they had won 15, then 30 then 45 sous, before taking the game and the coin. The forty-five was shortened to forty because it was easier to say...' (180).

Did you know that Tom Morris Jr was the first winner of the claret jug in 1872? He is still the youngest ever winner of The Open - at 17 years of age in 1868. He was set to become the WG Grace of golf. In 1875 he and his Dad (seen together in the photo) were challenging the Park brothers at the North Berwick course. 'On the final hole, young Tom putted successfully for victory, but then was handed a telegram telling him that his wife was seriously ill after giving birth to their first child. They set out immediately for St Andrews ... . But they were too late, and by the time they arrived home, both mother and baby were dead. Young Tom never got over the loss and lapsed into a deep melancholy ... [three months later] he was found dead at his home.' (221-223).

In the wider socio-historical setting, Rice slips in some fascinating observations. The introduction of the railways not only ensured that 'feudality is gone forever' (42), but it was 'one of the fairy godmothers to the birth of national sports' (42) - enabling greater ease of travel to seek competition. [Much like how, through airplanes, the birth of international sports has been made more possible]. The legal changes enabling a 'free Saturday afternoon' (55) were huge. 'The growth of industry had shown the virtues of a competitive economy' (57) and as these industries became 'new sporting benefactors' (57), they brought this competition with them. Also the expansion of the British Empire meant the need for young administrators everywhere and with them went this new-found love of games. And so cricket is played in India - oh yes, it is.

But why was America so resistant?
Only golf, which was reintroduced in the 19th century, and the post-revolutionary sport of lawn tennis ever really took root in America from Britain. Both are intrinsically individual sports rather than team sports. Does the post-revolutionary American psyche prefer self-reliance to depending on others? Did the wide open spaces of the American plains breed a man who has gotta do what a man's gotta do, rather than a man who's gotta do what his team-mates want him to do? (50)
Possibly ... I wonder if it also has something to do with the timing? The colonising of America was so much earlier, before many of these other sports had much momentum in their development.

nice chatting


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

lausanne and me

I had a bit of a chuckle as I reflected on this one.

Theologically, I do Love the Ls - Lausanne and Langham. I guess it has something to do with their common denominator, one John Stott. While Langham preoccupies my life at this current time, I have kept missing out on Lausanne for some time.

In 1974 I was a young teenager. Nobody expected the foundational meeting in Lausanne to be so epochal, or the Lausanne Covenant to become so creedal. It is a magnificent statement of evangelical conviction. 1974 was the year my brother John graduated from high school in India and my father, an invitee to that first Lausanne Congress, took John with him. I've been struggling with jealousy ever since.

In 1989, the Manila event, dubbed Lausanne II, beckoned. Again Dad was attending and this time he invited me to go with him. I was in the final lap of pastoral ministry in Invercargill. I thought it kinda odd to go as a passenger. I said 'no'.  Silly, silly boy. While not the quality of the Covenant, The Manila Manifesto is still worthwhile (with better alliteration). With Dad having now died, I cannot believe that I let that opportunity for memory-making pass by. I've been struggling with regret ever since.

In 2010, it was the turn of Cape Town. I found myself on the selection group for the participants from NZ. By this time I was working with Langham. Never, ever could it be easier for me to go to a Lausanne Congress, except that I was at a stage of life where 1 Corinthians 12 had a hold of me - 'the weaker are indispensable ... (those thought to be) less honourable, we treat with special honour'. I had double-booked myself, with plans to launch the first Langham Preaching seminar in Cambodia at the same time.Ugh. I came to the conviction that I must go to Cambodia. I've struggled with neither jealousy nor regret ever since - and this weekend I make my fifth visit to Cambodia. At least I've been able to benefit from The Cape Town Commitment - in particular, its call for reconciliation and discipleship on a global scale.

There is part of me that would love to be in a classroom again, or a home group, because looking closely at the Covenant, the Manifesto, and the Commitment would shape quickly as a priority.

Actually the chuckling doesn't stop there. For example, Lausanne decides to have a global gathering of leaders in theological education within months of me leaving such a leadership role - and there is just the one delegate invited from all of Australia./NZ/SWPacific. Guess who?! My successor at Carey Baptist College! [I was thrilled for him - and vicarious enjoyment took on new meaning for me]. Then this year - timed for just a few weeks before our planned departure (at the time) to live in Bangalore - I was invited to participate in a strategic global gathering for leaders. Guess where?! In Bangalore! I could not justify coming here from NZ twice in a matter of weeks. So I let it pass me by...

Never mind. I am so privileged to have the opportunities which Langham grants me now to work with the global church. I can drink my fill of it - and I think these smaller settings, 'far from the madding crowd', suit me far better.

nice chatting


Wednesday, October 09, 2013

two generations

I don't often write about our children in this blog - but these photos are too cool to overlook...

After thirty years in New Zealand, Barby and I have moved to India - leaving behind 5 children (we like to think it is 6 because we have a son-in-law as well) and 1 grandson. If it were not for the fact that this is what God wants us to do, it would be excruciatingly difficult. But because this is what God wishes, it is just difficult - and we are trusting him to enable us to cope with the separations. Mind you, many others have walked this walk before us...

I had my birthday last week. Look what the kids did for me. They found two photos from 18+ years ago and then tried to reproduce them as closely as possible. Very precious.

From left to right: Alyssa (a paediatric nurse), Bethany (a medical doctor in a few weeks), Stephen (a lawyer based in Uganda/Congo), Joseph (a few months into physiotherapy training), and Martin (a high school teacher from next year).

The second photo was not quite so successful because the initial one was taken in the back of a little station-wagon. But they get a 'high distinction' for effort, if not outcome. Bethany is even trying to get back into the car-seat! Joseph reproduced the pensive look, but I suspect Alyssa lost the plot...

No sign of son-in-law Timothy in those early years (just as well!). He and Alyssa plan to be in Baptist pastoral ministry next year, with Timothy completing his training at Carey Baptist College this month. He and Alyssa have little Micah, whom we 'talk' to on skype for a few minutes most mornings.

But we do need a photo with Timothy in it, don't we?
Here is one taken at Auckland airport just as Barby and I are about to board the plane to Bangalore...

nice chatting


we are family

I was seduced by the cover.

As I walked through Heathrow the other day, its extremist image and glaring headline captured me.

I bought. I read.

"The War on Christians: the global persecution of Christians is the unreported catastrophe of our time"

The article commences with three observations about the landscape of anti-Christian persecution today, 'as shocking as they are generally unknown':
According to the International Society for Human Rights, a secular observatory based in Frankfurt, Germany, 80% of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed at Christians. (emphasis very definitely mine)
According to the Pew Forum, between 2006 and 2010 Christians faced some form of discrimination, either de jure or de facto, in a staggering total of 139 nations, which is almost three-quarters of all the countries on earth.
According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Seminary in Massachusetts, an average of 100,000 Christians have been killed in what the centre calls 'a situation of witness' each year for the past decade. That works out to 11 Christians killed somewhere in the world every hour... .
After spending the bulk of the article collecting specific contemporary examples of this persecution, the author asks the question, 'why are the dimensions of this global war so often overlooked?' He provides some responses, including:
... the victims are largely non-white and poor and thus not considered 'newsmakers' in the classic sense, and they tend to live and die well off the radar screen of western attention ... 
... the global war runs up against the out-dated stereotype of Christianity as the oppressor rather than the oppressed ... 
... Whatever the motives for the silence, it's well past time for it to end.
Then he turns to Pope Francis (as many will be doing in coming years, as long as he stays alive):
When I hear that so many Christians in the world are suffering, am I indifferent, or is it as if a member of my own family is suffering?
While it is good to have Pope Francis on board with his talk of the global human family, the Apostle Paul has already said something similar - about the church as a single body, not just a single family. To see Paul's words to a local church having a projection onto the global church has become the greatest motivator to mission for me. I obey the Great Commission. I feel the Great Compassion. I know about hell - and heaven. I can count the statistics. But none of these have the prominence that these words from 1 Corinthians 12 have had in my life in recent years:
22 In fact, some parts of the body that seem weakest and least important are actually the most necessary. 23 And the parts we regard as less honourable are those we clothe with the greatest care ... So God has put the body together such that extra honour and care are given to those parts that have less dignity. 25 This makes for harmony among the members, so that all the members care for each other. 26 If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honoured, all the parts are glad. 
And so my response to the article? The global church needs to live like it is a single human family (like the Pope says) and like it is a single human body (like the Apostle says). Name the suffering, the persecution, the discrimination - speak out what is left silent ... and then make decisions with my relationships, my income, and my vocation that glue me with greater solidarity to those I may think that I do not need. This will build the harmony of the global church and this harmony will make the partnership with God in his restorative mission in the world that much more effective.

Postscript: When I write these posts I make it a practice never to consult other sources or websites. I just sit down, reflect and write. But this time I went to Wikipedia to find out about The Spectator. It is 'the oldest continuously published magazine in the English language'. I discovered that they were decidedly right-wing (which I did intuit as I read the rest of the magazine). Well, God bless them for publishing this stuff. Shame on the left-wing press for remaining silent. And may The Spectator spark a greater number of Participators in the mission of God.

nice chatting


Friday, September 20, 2013

six decades of sit-com

We've signed up for tata-sky here in India. A little cricket here, a movie over there - that kind of thing.

So far with Hollywood movies there seems to be some censoring with scenes cut out. But I do not know enough questionable movies well enough to be able to tell quite yet. Certainly every time a cigarette is smoked in a movie, a health warning about cancer travels across the screen. With swearing, the audio is beeped - but then with the subtitles on screen, some 'translation' takes place. Take, for example, the most offensive of all swearing - the phrase 'Jesus Christ'. The other night the subtitles simply said 'God'. Fancy (predominantly) Hindu India demonstrating such sensitivity to the name of Christ...?!

But it has got me thinking about censorship a bit more. Hollywood is inherently iconoclastic and taboo-busting and so censorship is troubling for them. With respect to these (sacred and/or silenced) taboos and icons, it is driven by a search and subvert mission. Hollywood cannot bear to have such things exist. It is interesting to watch this play out over time. Gradually, generationally, it messes with peoples' minds by introducing into them worldview-altering substances - like the popular situation comedies, for example.

One of the research topics to which I'd love to give doctoral level attention (but never will) is a study of the most popular situation comedies across the decades. Here they are:

The Andy Griffith Show (1960s)

MASH  (1970s)

Cheers (1980s)

Seinfeld (1990s)

Friends (2000s)

Big Bang Theory (2010s)

Each series would be the subject of careful exegesis. I'd study the settings in which the action takes place. I'd linger in the plot-lines, keeping a close eye on the sources of both conflict and humour. What makes people angry? What makes people laugh? I'd analyse each main character, their virtues and vices, the way they relate to others - but also the way each would answer the big questions of identity ('who am I?') and destiny ('why am I here?). The dialogue would be critical. What are the issues and topics that predominate? So - just a whole lot of basic painstaking take-it-as-I-hear-it-and-see-it empirical research.

Then I'd turn my attention to a couple of other areas. I'd want to get inside the head of the directors. What is shaping them? Identify their soapboxes. What is their agenda? To what is their life in reaction? It might be subtle, more between the lines than in the lines - but it'll be there and it will be influential. What is their 'point of view' and where does it align (or not) with thoughts expressed by characters?  Hollywood preaches - oh yes, it does, and my ear needs to be attuned to its sermons preached in these sit-coms. Once I've studied the director, I'd go to work on the sociological studies of each decade and place each series in its socio-historical context.

Then the fun begins. And not just because of the comedic lines that can ache the ribs... In a manner akin to the way a biblical theologian tracks a theme through the Bible (for example: temple, or rest, or shepherd) to bring a fullness and balance to the understanding of that theme - I'd do the same with topics which emerge in my empirical research. I'd gather together the 'truths' which repeat and which evolve through these series. I'd have an eye for the fullness and the balance in what is being preached. What would those truths be? As I lay awake this morning, three immediately came to mind - just for starters:

(a) the self

(b) sexuality

(c) community

Then the sadness begins. Attention would shift to those who belong to Jesus and who have lived through these shows. As they've laughed, they absorbed unwittingly. Many of them will have spent more time in these shows than in their Bibles and so it follows that their understanding of these topics is shaped more by these shows than by the Bible (or by the Jesus which it reveals). On these topics, they look at the Bible through the lens of these shows, rather than looking at these shows through the lens of the Bible. The lens has not switched yet. The worldview has not altered yet. The deeper conversion has yet to happen. Romans 12.1-2 is still theory, not practice.

And what research project after research project reveals will be revealed yet again. There is no discernible difference in the lives of Christians when compared with those who are not Christians - particularly when with these three topics are in view. This is not just the case with younger people (I hasten to add), but this is often the generation where the studies focus. We have mixed in so well that we have fallen in. There is no contrast, only conformity. We are into salty and gracey - but not so much lighty and truthy. Rather than being distinctive with distinction, too often we are the same with shame.

When will we learn that the attraction of difference can be far more compelling than the attraction of sameness? When will we recognise that the great enfeebler of a missioning and maturing people of God -  all over the world, irrespective of culture - is the subtlety of syncretism in our lives. And a whole lot of syncretism has been sucked up by a whole lot of people through these shows over the years.

[NB (1): the other sadness is that for so many around the world, shows like these define what life is like in America - and what life is like in America is what the Christian life is like, by definition. No wonder there is a terrorism problem. Guardians of some lives want this life to come nowhere near the lives they guard!].

[NB (2): if you want to read a disturbing book that does something similar, but by starting with the sermons (!!) on the Prodigal Son from 80 supposedly unimpeachable and unsullied evangelicals, see if you can track down the little popularisation of Marsha Witten's PhD thesis entitled, All is Forgiven (Princeton University Press, 1995)].

nice chatting