Monday, November 30, 2009

Advent Giving

I attended a funeral service today after lunch. It was held in remembrance of a brave little 15 year old girl called Angela, who died of lupus. With music and testimonies, sharing and reflections, hundreds of friends, relatives and church members came together to offer thanksgiving for this brave little joyful and strong girl.

As various people stood up to share, I could hear people quietly weeping all around me. The organizers were brilliant for anticipating the gush of tears. Boxes of tissues were strategically placed for the convenience of all attending. Of all the sharing, the mother's reflections and the reading of Angela's will, unleashed the most tears. I was particularly moved when I hear Angela's will being read out. She willed all her soft toys to her family, and everything else to be sold for the benefit of others, as she did not need them anymore. The will was only discovered after Angela died on Nov 20th, 2009.

As I thought about it, there is much to learn from a 15-year old High school student. Things are frequently not as important as we place them to be. Sometimes, it takes an illness to reveal the true humanity in all of us. In a society where money and possessions seem to be the primary concern of people, this young life is a glowing testimony of love and kindness. Sometimes, simple joys bring about the most satisfying experiences. One thing that impresses me most about the service is how a simple key of 'giving' can unlock the wealth of human goodness. This reminds me of Miroslav Volf's beautiful book, "Free of Charge," which talks about the need for human society to give and to forgive in a 'culture stripped of grace.' It is fitting for this first day of Advent to think about Christ coming down to earth.

If we get out of our homes these next couple of weeks, we will be inundated by the materialism surrounding Christmas, Santa Claus and season of gifts. Volf suggests that we first learn to respond to the great Gift of God in Jesus by exercising 4 obligations:

1) Faith in receiving.
Do not simply think God gives us gifts expecting something in return. The gift is plainly and simply 'free of charge.' Too often, we fail to exercise faith when we receive or give gifts with an expectation to do things for others. I learn long ago that true giving is in giving to others who cannot pay back in return. Faith in receiving is as simple as receiving things without suspecting other people's ulterior motives. True giving does not have a fineprint hidden somewhere. True giving implies a free gift, expecting nothing in return. We can only practice such giving when we have first received love from God. Give people the opportunity to see us as people who have freely received Christ.

2) Oblige to gratitude
Receiving God's gifts correctly means responding with a grateful heart. This is something freely given and received, not demanded. This means that even as we go through the festive period, shopping or joining the throng of busy shoppers, let us be thankful for everything. Again, we need to recognize and appreciate what Christ has done for us, before we can adopt a thankful heart. My readers, receive this Gift of God. Give people of your thankfulness.

3) Oblige to be available
How can our Giver bestow gifts on us, if we are too busy? If we are always not available, we will miss the soft gently whisper of love. My readers, the act of receiving requires our availability. Perhaps, the ones closest and nearer to us are ready to give us something. A child waiting to hug us? A friend ready to buy us coffee? This Christmas, practice being available. Give people of your time.

4) Oblige to Participate
This means that when we receive gifts, we are not to let the receiving be the end point. It is actually an invitation to participate in the joy of giving. Give others the encouragement by joining with them for common causes.

All of these obligations are evident in the life of little Angela. I do not know her a lot. I have seen, shook her hands and prayed with her before. Yet, I felt there is something Angela's passing has taught me. All of the above.

In faith, she receives the gift of life, and the readiness to die. Freely she received, freely she gave. Her gratitude shows forth in the way she gently love her parents, teachers, friends and many people. Her keen awareness that people mean more than things, shines through in her will. Despite her eight years of illness, she was available to give others strength and encouragement. In fact, her brave fight to the end, gave all of us a reason to cherish our own lives. Finally, her dying brought so many people together to reflect and to love Who she loves: God.

This is the true power of giving. Yet, this giving itself is only the beginning. When we exercise the 4 obligations of Faith-receiving, Gratitude, Availability to people and the willingness to participate in community bonding, we move even further. Much further.

The world tells us: "Christmas is a time for giving," let us remind ourselves that the act of giving entails 4 responses:
  • Receiving the discernment to know when to give and to receive
  • Receiving the wisdom to be thankful in our hearts as we see life;
  • Receiving the humility to be available for loved ones and friends;
  • Receiving the willingness to help one another build the kingdom of God, by community participation.
Before we can give, let us receive. For some of us, we need to be reminded that the Giver has already given. Let's open our hands.


Saturday, November 28, 2009

Book Review - "Cash Values" (Craig Gay)

Title: Cash Values - money and the erosion of meaning in today's society
Author: Craig Gay
Published: Regent-College Publishing, 2004.

How do we avoid becoming a society that knows the price of everything but the value of nothing? Well, if we see life as a race to accumulate money and stuff, capitalism is remarkably productive. If we see the problems and negative sides of capitalism, chances are we will rebel furiously against it. Gay convincingly argues that if we approach capitalism with a uncritical mind, chances are we may see an 'erosion of meaning' in modern society.  The key is to see with redemptive eyes.

Gay's book is a welcome effort to correct any modern society that tends to know the price of everything but the value of nothing. It argues cogently that, capitalism for all its power to generate money, is ill-equipped to produce meaning. Without throwing away capitalism totally, Gay helps us look at it redemptively via an 'economy of shrewd stewardship.' He concludes by urging the reader not to be 'overly critical' of capitalism for its ills, nor 'overly concerned' about defending it. His proposal:
"I believe we should use modern capitalism for the sake of our fellow servants, showing them grace, forgiving their debts, unexpectedly lightening their burdens, employing whatever wealth we have - wealth that we know we cannot keep for long - in the service of fellowship and friendship. And we should place our hope in the goodness and above all in the graciousness of God, the God for whom all things are possible." (99)
Overall, this is an intelligent book, well grounded in scholarship and full of wisdom for a world that fanatically believes that money makes the world go round. No. it is the wise use of money that makes the world sound.


Book Controversy: "Deadly Vipers Character Assassins"

Thanks to a blog reader, I came across this controversy over a book published by Zondervan, a giant Christian book publisher. This book is "Deadly Vipers Character Assassins," written by Jud Wilhite & Mike Foster, two white authors.

In a nutshell, too much stereotyping of any ethnic race limits their overall contributions to society, and unwittingly promotes unhealthy perceptions of any one ethnic group.

What the Book is About
Leadership using the metaphor of kung-fu. You can read Eugene Cho's summary here. From what I know, the book covers 7 mortal enemies of leadership character (Creep, Zi Qi Qi Ren, Amped Emotions, Headless Sprinting Chicken, Boom Chicka Wah Wah, Bling Bling and High and Mighty Assassin). All these assassins are secretly working behind the scenes to kill leadership character. Steve Bobbins made an excellent summary on his blog, reproduced below.
  • The Assassin of Character Creep - Character begins to die by a thousand small cuts that weaken you enough for the assassin to deliver the coup de grace...
  • The Assassin of Zi Qi Qi Ren - Zi Qi Qi Ren is a Chinese word that literally means "self-deception while deceiving others"...
  • The Assassin of Amped Emotions - In the moments of everyday life, he waits for you to blow your top, lose your cool, or go postal. Then he strikes...
  • The Assassin of the Headless Sprinting Chicken - If you are too busy and tired, you have little defense against the attacks...
  • The Assassin of Boom Chicka Wah Wah - Stupid decisions are made when thinking is done without the brain...
  • The Bling Bling Assassin - While you chase for "enough" this assassin can cut you down...
  • The High and Mighty Assassin - Over confidence and arrogance can do this assassin's job for him...

    (Credit: Steve Bobbins)
What the controversy is about? Stereotyping of the Asian image.

What happens next? Aftermath
- series of compromises by the authors and publishers;
- Many Asian Americans felt offended;
- Zondervan eventually pulled the book off the shelves;
- Website ( shut down.

Lest I repeat some of the very good points made by many, let me give a brief snapshot of the different views.

On a positive note, there are useful insights about leadership from the book. Michael Buckingham appreciates the book for its creative blending of visual art and concepts. Michael Melilli points out that the book is useful for leaders to take note of lest they fall out of grace. Jenny Clayville, an Asian American fails to see what the fuss is all about, and makes a perceptive note that many who oppose the book have not really read the book in the first place. She gives a helpful summary of the whole controversy. She describes the predicament well: "Now, everyone feels censored."

On the opposing front, some have written open letters to Zondervan (Professor Rah of North Park Theological Seminary), others have written against it on principles, (DJ Chuang, Todd Thomas). Others have published their dismay on their own blogs, websites etc (daveingland, Scott McLellan). I like McLellan's phrase that 'images aren't necessarily neutral' (of the kung fu metaphor).

My Comments
The fact that Zondervan has taken the step to remove the book totally from the shelves goes to show that they recognize the seriousness and validity of the unhappiness. The important thing is to learn from it, not to simply put this aside and forget all about it. Stereotyping of anybody is plain wrong, regardless of who is making it.  Having said this, I must also say that stereotyping happens both ways. Even in Asia, people stereotype white and black people. That too is deplorable. Stereotyping happens everywhere.

Having said this, let me also say that we learn to accept the authors' intent and apology with grace. There was no malicious intention, but a genuine concern to address important leadership flaws in society. Move on, but learn from this episode, that sensitivity flows both ways.

Looking Forward
A side comment. Personally, I have pessimistic views about Asian authors being able to succeed as serious writers in the West. (The authors of the controversial book are not Asian, which makes the stereotyping accusation more serious) Just look at the numbers, and you can see that not many Asian authors ever get on the New York bestseller book lists, let alone starting a writing career at all. If an Asian gets stereotyped as good Chinese cooks, people accept them readily when they set up restaurants and Chinese take away food stalls. If they get stereotyped as kung fu masters, thanks to Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li, each time people see a Chinese, they flash off some kung-fu strokes and may even volunteer to join a martial arts course if he was to start one. As more Asians appear on TV as police officers, as doctors, dentists, teachers and various professions, people will start to change their perceptions of Asians. A TV watching generation is more prone to stereotyping based on what they watch and see. For this reason, I feel that the book is flawed, despite the good leadership pointers and the good intentions the authors originally have. By the way, if this book has been written by an ethnic Asian, I doubt it will stir up so much controversy as not many will read it. There is no stereotyped Asian authors anyway. Some has been successful no doubt, but they remain too few.

If things remain this way, I am somewhat pessimistic about any foray into publishing. Yet, I am hopeful that the day will come, when all Christians, regardless of ethnicity and cultural origins will be stereotyped by how much they love one another. Period.


Friday, November 27, 2009

Manhattan Declaration & Canadian Anglicans

I have been pre-occupied with preparing for my January doctoral residency. At the same time, I unwittingly awaken my 'geek spirit' as I twiddle with computer upgrades, backups and all those Windows 7 stuff. That is not all. I am also in the process of upgrading my Vista Home Premium to Windows 7 Professional, which requires a custom upgrade. With Black Friday deals all around, I am surely distracted. Eek!

Rest assured, my readers that I am still mindful of my humble little blog. This week, I read a couple of books by some heavyweight theologians: Miroslav Volf, NT Wright, ...... (you know). At the same time, I am reflecting on two events. The first is on the Manhattan Declaration and the second on the latest result of the unpopular law court case between the main Anglican diocese and breakaway churches.

Published on November 20th, 2009, this declaration is essentially a statement that supports the following:
"We are Orthodox, Catholic, and evangelical Christians who have united at this hour to reaffirm fundamental truths about justice and the common good, and to call upon our fellow citizens, believers and non-believers alike, to join us in defending them. These truths are: (1) the sanctity of human life, (2) the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife, and (3) the rights of conscience and religious liberty."
According the the press release, the 4700-word document calls all Christians to "to adhere to their convictions and informs civil authorities that the signers will not—under any circumstance—abandon their Christian consciences." Most prominent in such a declaration is the list of religious leaders that support the statement. Some of the signers include prominent figures like Church Colson (Prison Fellowship), James Dobsom (Focus on the Family), Al Mohler (President of Southern Baptist Seminary), Richard Mouw (President of Fuller Seminary), David Neff (Editor of ChristianityToday), Ravi Zacharias, Ron Sider, William Donohue, Joni Eareckson Tada, and others often associated with the 'religious right.' Two professors of schools I am directly associated with, Dr JI Packer (Regent-College) and Dr Dennis Holllinger (President, Gordon-Conwell) also signed the declaration. This statement seems to be gathering momentum even as this is being written. Within a week, the number of signers are approaching 170,000.

The first issue is essentially a support for pro-life. The second is for the traditional view of marriage being between a man and a woman. The third is for freedom of religion and the need to exercise one's conscience accordingly. While the document is not something that is legislated by law, it can be seen as an attempt to make the voice of the religious right heard. This is especially when the political establishment in the US appears to be leaning more to the left, (the more liberal side), thanks to the political rise of Obama and his adherents. I have heard several comments from religious leaders down South that the US is heading toward more religiously liberal lifestyle. Just last week, someone shared with me about the growing suspicions conservatives have over Obama's faith, that he is leading to US to greater secularism.


1) Firstly, is it a necessary document?
I think we need to remember one benefit, that this document is something that is drafted to make a stand for future generations. 'Not making a stand' is already an opinion. While I may not classify this in the same category of the ancient creeds (Apostles, Nicene), this essentially highlights the troubles that many Christian leaders have to face in the light of a post-postmodern era. In other words, what is traditionally believed are no longer automatically believed. The younger generations are beginning to ask why. Youngsters are beginning to question the practicality of holding on to traditional beliefs. In other words, if nothing is done, the sacred cows of yesterday will be slaughtered in the secular abattoirs of tomorrow. If Christians at large do nothing to stem the tide of liberalism, traditional beliefs will be history. From a political standpoint, the timing of the press release tries to apply pressure on the senate not to support abortion funding.

Personally, one does not have to make an official statement in order to prove one's conviction. Yet, I will not be too quick to dismiss the significance of such a document. If we do not agree with it, do not sign it. However, let us not be too loud with our disagreement that our actions undermine the intent of the document. In other words, what may not be helpful for us, may be helpful to others. Whether this is necessary or not, depends on where we come from. As far as the future generations is concerned, I think it is necessary for our younger generation, our children to know about our stand. Otherwise, when people ask our kids about their stand regarding abortion, same-sex marriage and conscience, they may reply: "I don't know." Worse, they may shrug it off by saying: "Whatever!"

2) It will probably create a backlash, (even from moderate evangelicals)
I know that some other respected evangelicals are skeptical about it, like Tim Challies and my Regent professor Dr John Stackhouse disagree with this statement. The latter even says it is a 'waste of time' and his blog has generated quite a vigorous discussion. Dr Stackhouse makes some pertinent observations, which I tend to agree with. However, I have this nagging feel that even if we do not agree with it, we should not block others from doing it. That said, by questioning whether it is a 'waste of time,' it may further discredit the statement. I would prefer Dr Stackhouse to put 'not necessary' instead of the more provocative 'waste of time.' Tim Challies highlights some insightful views by non-signers such as John MacArthur and James White.

Many on the evangelical right may have no qualms in signing the document. Those who oppose will not sign. What remains to be seen is the silent moderate majority. This moderate party can become a bridge not only between these two sides, but also with non-believers. One of the most prominent moderates is the Emerging Church movement. They remain silent. Perhaps, their views are still 'emerging.' Perhaps, they do not feel it necessary to be involved directly. For me, any public and visible press release will create an equal and opposite reaction. This is how the world is. Freedom of speech always means that people are free to agree or disagree. This is a good thing. 'A backlash' is not necessarily a bad thing. It can keep one humble and to recognize that we need to keep one another in healthy check.

Let me say that merely signing the declaration by no means a magic solution to the three complex issues. It is a statement. Period.

3) Declarations Potentially Polarises
While it strengthens current convictions, it also fortifies the opposition. In a nutshell, it polarizes evangelical camps further from each other, forcing some to take sides unnecessarily. This is for me the single most distressing effect of the Manhattan Declaration. Evangelicals are not known to be completely united. This statement may further distance any fragile truce between parties that disagree. This leads me to the next thought about the Anglican Church in Canada further below.

In summary, I feel that the Manhattan Declaration is a document made with the intent to preserve traditional beliefs which is increasingly being threatened. While it may not be the most palatable piece of draft for some, it remains a statement that one can freely sign or not sign. There is no compulsion on anyone that one has to decide. Having said that, this statement forces us to examine our willingness to make our convictions known, especially to a growing and questioning younger generation. Those of us growing up with traditional upbringing do not have to deal with a 'whatever' culture, that our younger generations have to deal with. Without specific statements of belief, people can hop onto any bandwagon of beliefs (and unbeliefs), without a proper sense of what is right or wrong. Too much swimming in an ocean of 'gray,' can eventually drown one's sense of identity. In other words, be prepared to make your stand, albeit a quiet one, especially when others ask us about our opinion. I am ready to sign the document, as a symbol of what I believe rather than to militantly influence others. This I do so, without wanting to condemn or discredit others who will not. I respect them for their reasons for not doing it. By understanding the reasons why each of us do or do not sign, it cultivates an understanding that moves toward unity.

My advice: Do not look at names of people before you decide. Ask your conscience. Let your faith in God determine your action. If you want to sign the Manhattan Declaration, click here. Otherwise don't bother.

Just today, I learned that the main Anglican diocese has won the lawsuit against several breakaway Anglican Churches in BC Canada. At stake are four properties owned by the Anglican Diocese based in New Westminster. While the courts declare that these properties are owned by the Anglican Church, the present parishes were told to 'settle' with the diocese concerned.

Legally speaking, if the breakaway parties no longer belong to the Anglican Church, they have no right to occupy the properties.  I think the decision was made that allows both parties (diocese and the breakaway churches) room to practice their convictions. The diocese gets to keep the title deeds, while the breakaways get to keep their convictions intact. Here are three brief thoughts.

1) In the first place, I feel that the moment the case went before the law courts, it is already a lose-lose situation for all. Why let the secular courts decide on matters of faith?

2) Secondly, this may be the best way forward. It lays to rest the polarising topic of same-sex marriage and allows the respective churches to move ahead with other more pressing matters of faith, like pastoral care, spiritual growth, community outreach among the parishes. It is costly for the parishes to move to another location. Yet, do not underestimate the people of God when they come together. Like the early Church, the more they were persecuted, the more the Word of God flourish.

3) Thirdly, I remember a recent conference at Gordon-Conwell seminary on "Renewing the Evangelical Mission." One of the memorable takeaways is that a revived Church needs to have a "willingness to suffer." A Church that is too comfortable often does not grow as much. Like what they used to say about the early Church in Jerusalem. The reason why there is Acts 8:1, is because the disciples fail to obey and follow through on Acts 1:8.
"And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria." (Acts 8:1)

"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." (Acts 1:8)

I pray that the churches who lose their properties will indeed gain a revitalized faith. Perhaps, their flock will grow even more.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Google Chrome OS

Google is slowly but surely dominating the Internet and poses a big threat to traditional businesses. This initiative called Google Chrome OS looks promising. It aims at people who:
  • are Netbook users
  • Mainly surfs the Internet or do work online;
  • Always has an internet connectivity;
  • Uses mainly (or only) the browser to do work;
  • Cheap and super-fast bootup.
  • Wants something light, simple and open source
If you are a mobile user, who uses a computer mainly to check emails or do work on the Internet, and want a cheap and easy to carry computer device, perhaps Google Chrome OS will interest you. This is the "Operating System" and not the no-frills browser only program. Requiring only a solid state memory on the Netbook-type size computer, the Chrome browser is the operating system. Period.

Everything that one uses to do offline can now be done online. This concept video will show you more.

1) Easy to understand Concept Demo of Chrome OS (link)

I find this video very clear and quite convinced of the benefit of a quick and light browser OS. It is a 'totally rethought computer' for the user who uses mainly or only the Internet.

2) Amazing 7 seconds bootup! (Mountainview Debut)

Presented by the Google Product team, this demo showcases an amazing 7 seconds bootup time for the computer to get ready for our Internet work. They are looking to improve that too! Cool.

3) First Look of Google Chrome OS (link)

This is an interesting take on the Chrome OS from an early user perspective.

My Comments
This is a shrewd move by Google. They are correct that many users nowadays use the Internet for their work. It is also true that the operating system is not that useful if all a person does is Internet work. After all, if most of the time we use browser only as our sole application, why not have only the necessary to support this browser? Since most applications are now online, we do not need to install other programs on our small computer gadget. Imagine saving money on:
  • Ever expanding hard-disk requirements or backup; (store in online)
  • Buying expensive Office Apps; (there's online apps)
  • Investing in antivirus; (scanning available online)
  • Maximum battery life (Google netbook uses solid state memories as alternative to hard disk);
  • Minimum apps (simple)
That will truly be a cash saver. However, the main problem is that the way to use the computer is when one is online. What happens if the inspiration comes, but the internet is offline? I suppose that this idea can work only if the Internet is always available, like in a corporate office environment with Internet connectivity redundancy. This being the biggest weakness in the Google Chrome OS project, I believe that they will eventually have some offline capability. Watch this project carefully. It is quite promising. Perhaps, if such a project becomes popular, we may be able to buy a Google Netbook at Dollar shops one day!


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Virtual Spirituality

Martin Marty wrote in 2005 an insightful article on the trends of modern use of virtual space. We have heard of virtual reality, and virtual space. The inventive human mind will sooner or later come up with 'virtual spirituality.' Marty distinguishes 2 kinds of spirituality. The first is communal. The second is individualistic. It is to the second that he is particularly critical about. He writes from a position of concern that this second type, called "Spirituality Two" will overwhelm the first, making the already individualistic world more extreme in itself. In "Spirituality Two," lonely people becomes more alone when they have their computer screens, their personal iPods and their own electronic gadgets to keep them company. The individual that is trapped in the second kind of spirituality is more concerned with the self and totally disconnected from flesh-and-blood communities. In its place, Spirituality Two people are at home with the digital domain. Whatever a person can dream or desire, or to lust after, thanks to technology, one can select his dream girl or gay friend, choose his preferred digital companion, and virtualize anything. If one cannot get it easily offline, one can simply go online to live out one's fantasies.

This has become rather profitable for companies like Artificial Life. An example is the availability of a virtual girl called Vivienne, who is a walking encyclopedia, a guide for all kinds of questions, who possesses a sensuous body ready to perform anything the 'customer' wants. Though one cannot have sex with the virtual woman, the company promises that one can try. Marty concludes by suggesting that the limit for Spirituality Two may ultimately be financial.

My Comments
Marty's article is an eye opener. Published in 2005, around the same time where "Second Life" was also popular, it was supposed to virtualize a person's dreams and fantasies in the remote comfort of one's computer. It fits perfectly the modern man's desire for privacy, for indulgence and for self-narcissism. Currently, social networking is much more exciting than such virtual toys. People talk more about Facebook, Twitter and even mySpace. I find it quite ironic that while society is said to be getting more individualistic, yet the rise of social networking shows that people still desire to be connected more than being in their own private domain. Fortunately, Marty's negative view of "Spirituality Two" did not become as popular as social networking. People are excitedly connecting meaningfully with one another, in the digital realm. That said, it does not mean that society is any less individualistic.

If I were to call 'Spirituality One' as physical community, and "Spirituality Two" as ego-centric individualism, is 'Spirituality Three' (social networking style) a digital revision of 'Spirituality One?' If that is so, the big concern is whether "Spirituality Four" will be "Spirituality Two" reincarnated?

Strange world. People are beginning to use 'spirituality' as a means to meet their innermost desire for meaning in life. More will be turning to the digital medium to find that meaning. I will be observing cautiously signs for the next phase, once the fad of social networking dies off.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

I Will Follow You (Cantonese)

May this song be an opportunity to worship. This song is striking as the chorus emphatically clings on and follows Christ throughout. It is a good reminder that worship must takes precedence over service.

我要跟主祢(词曲: 刘步青)
Chorus: (2x)
我要跟主祢,让我不偏离, 立志紧握主的手
戒命一生都遵守, 决心跟主祢

Chorus: (2x)
我要跟主祢,让我不偏离, 立志紧握主的手
戒命一生都遵守, 决心跟主祢

Chorus: (2x)
我要跟主祢,让我不偏离, 立志紧握主的手
戒命一生都遵守, 决心跟主祢

Chorus: (2x)
我要跟主祢,让我不偏离, 立志紧握主的手
戒命一生都遵守, 决心跟主祢
我要跟. . . . . . 我要跟


Book - "Click" (Bill Tancer)

Title: Click (unexpected insights for business and life)
Author: Bill Tancer
Published: NY: Hyperion, 2008.

"We are what we click," claims Tancer, a general manager with a data statistics firm (Hitwise) that analyzes what Internet users do online and how the trends are changing the world. Based on collected clicks on the Internet, Tancer highlights trends like:
  • The week after Thanksgiving being the most depressing of the year;
  • Most weddings are held in Summer;
  • Estimating interest in a particular movie by checking the amount of hits on the movie website;
Some of these discoveries are nothing new. However, what is interesting about the book is the understanding of the behavioral styles of people in an Internet era. The questions and search keywords reveal the demands of people in general and allows businesses to target their products accordingly. The first part of the book deals with understanding ourselves. The second part deals with what we do with the information gathered.

Part I - Understanding Ourselves
The Internet has been associated with Porn, Pills and Casino.  Tancer observes that internet traffic often reveals not only the people but the reasons why these people visit the sites. One reason is the get-rich-quick mentality, or feel-good-fast attitude. Some of Tancer's observations are interesting.
  • Porn traffic is coming down due to the rise of social networking; changing interests of a new generation; (23)
  • 80% of all email messages are spam. Though most people ignore the spam, those who unwittingly respond to them, makes spamming very profitable in itself.
  • Online behavioral also reveals political interest;
  • The Internet offers a quick way to detect changing customer interests;
  • "Celebrity Worship Syndrome": Self-help sites which used to be highly popular is fast being superceded by popular news surrounding celebrities. (84)
  • a significant search theme deals with relationship matters. Questions like "Why did he leave me?" and "Why didn't she say goodbye" rank among some of the most popular framed questions.
  • Fear related terms also rank high. The top 15 'fear of' (in order) deals with intimacy, rejection, people, success, crowds, failure, sex, commitment, public speaking, being alone, love, girls, falling in love, abandonment and broken heart. (105-6)
  • "How to" questions reveal aspirations.

I am particularly fascinated by the religious questions, which deals more with 'why.'
  • Catholics tend to ask about their traditions and rituals;
  • Jews search more on Holocaust and why they are so hated
  • Searches for God has to do with the theme: "Why bad things happen to good people."
  • With such revealing statistics, Tancer gives an interesting take to the term Web 2.0 calling it "Web Who.o" in reference to the revelation of selves in the search terms per se.
PART II - What's Possible With What We Know 

The author tries to deal with what to do with the data collected. This is actually the harder but more rewarding portion. In fact, he confesses that when it comes to 'data arbitrage,' the maxim is simplicity is better. (169)
  • There is a close connection between TV watching and Internet clicks. For example, when there is a contest highlighted on a TV program, people rush to the Internet to register their interest, hoping to win some cash or some prize. The key motivation is a get-rich-quick mentality.
  • People who latest trends closely are called the early adopters. Marketers can profit greatly by making intelligent guesses quickly based on trends about market direction. Indeed, rather than waiting for market research companies to tabulate the data and suggest the market trends, having direct access to Internet clicks is faster.

The second part of the book is weaker, as the author tries to make sense of the data. Reading this part makes me feel like the author himself is overwhelmed and struggled to qualify his conclusions. Coming one full circle, he re-asserted his initial idea that we are what we click.

Further Comments
There is a lot of data. Tancer does a good job at getting the data trends out. His interpretation of it however is not as convincing. It seems more like a case of what to do with messy wads of information. I agree that simplicity is key to understanding the data collected. Yet, it requires some skills in differentiating the information obtained. Tancer has the advantage of having first hand access to the kinds of information people click on. He is also correct in identifying some market trends quickly as well as some success in market predictions. Yet, the nature of the Internet is a changing one. For anybody or any organization wanting to build a case or a system based on popularity, one also has to watch out for legitimate unique visitors to any website.

Legitimacy has to do with non-spammers. Uniqueness has to do with ensuring that 1000 hits is not due to the programming genius of a few. The other issue is privacy, which can be a very sensitive subject to many. The popularity of Tancer's kind of work may lead to a greater proliferation of spyware and various adware related cookies on our computers.

The key benefit in reading this book, is in recognizing that people in general have moved from offline to online businesses. In doing so, they have chosen to reveal more of themselves and their preferences via their clicks. While this book does not say a lot of new things in general, it does reminds us the trend that "we are what we click." Currently, the main problem is grappling with over-information. The goldmine of the future is not the collection of data, but of owning or designing a system that can automatically and intelligently make sense of the data. Tancer's book begins rather promisingly, but lands with a dull thud.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.


Unpeeling the Hype of Windows 7

Unpeeling the Hype off Windows 7

Launched in Oct 22nd, 2009, the computer world continues to watch the meteoric rise of Microsoft's latest operating system. Marketed as a replacement for the much disliked predecessor, Vista, and the older XP, the newest operating system comes across much sleeker, more stable and a lot better publicity from both experts and lay users alike. What is happening to Windows 7 appears to be virtually the complete opposite of how Vista was received. The Vista operating system was launched in January 2007, mainly because Microsoft was frantically trying to slow Apple's rising popularity. The XP system was increasingly overshadowed by Apple's continued onslaught of newer and feature-packed Mac OS upgrades. As it turned out, Vista's earlier release pales in comparison to Apple's Tiger, in both features as well as stability.

I remember supporting the Vista operating system in its first year of launch. Installation times were extremely long. Older applications would break. Irritating security messages would pop up unexpectedly, prolonging an already lengthy installation process. As a systems engineer, I remember the simplicity of letting an installation run its natural process while I go for my morning coffee. Upon my return, I am used to seeing "Installation Complete. Click OK." For Vista, it would be windows after windows of agreeing to continue. Feeling frustrated is an understatement. I know that command flags can be program to automatically skip any prompting. However, Vista is supposed to be a tool simple enough for the everyday user, not professional programmers.

I got my first Windows 7 a couple of weeks ago. Here is a quick list of rundowns what my experience looks like.

  1. Windows 7 fixes Vista
    The latest operating system is not exactly a new creation. When we are told that upgrading from Vista would be easiest (compared to XP), we should have taken the clue. Windows 7 is closer to Vista than any of the Windows earlier versions. Indeed, if we upgrade from Vista to 7, installation of the OS can be less than 30 minutes, without having to re-install everything else. This is assuming that we are moving from 32-bit Vista to 32-bit 7; or 64-bit Vista to 64 bit 7.
  2. The Main Difference is in 64-bit
    Unlike what some people think, Windows 7 is not greatly superior to Vista in terms of performance. Tests have shown that speedwise, 7 is only marginally better. The performance distinguisher is between 32-bit and 64-bit. I have two computers, one running Vista (64 bit) and the other Windows 7 (32 bit). The 64-bit Vista outperforms the 32-bit 7 in everything.
  3. Windows 7 feels More Intuitive
    I like the ease of use and the way Windows 7 understands where I want to go. My favourite feature is still the quick search feature. I do not need to open up folders and manually look for my programs. All I need is one search box for everything.
  4. Better Driver Recognition
    Windows 7 comes loaded with its set of drivers. All the devices I have do not require additional software installation. Windows 7 automatically recognizes everything. Compared to Vista, I have to install and re-install drivers in order to make the system accept the new devices.
  5. Thumbnail Preview
    This is one of my favourites for Windows 7. Simply by moving my mouse pointer over the minimized program along the taskbar window, the preview also updates the images accordingly without the need to make that window my primary window. The constant updates are impressive.
  6. Less Alerts. Much Less.
    This is a welcome relief compared to Vista. I dislike clicking through windows after windows of security prompts.
  7. Network Connectivity
    This has also been improved in Windows 7. It is easier for Windows 7 computer to connect to other computers running a different operating system. In fact, the help information anticipates this. This is really refreshing, as it shows that Microsoft is thinking what the user is thinking.
  8. Windows 7 Starter, Home Premium, Professional and Ultimate
    I still dislike the way Microsoft packages the operating system this way. It will be much better if we can have one common platform for all users. This way, we need not worry about what can this version do and not do. I use a Windows 7 Home Premium edition. Two features I miss. Firstly, the ability to connect to a domain, and the flexibility to run older XP applications in their native mode.
  9. Can Run on Older Hardware?
    I remember a computer salesman last month, telling me how Windows 7 perform flawlessly on a 386. I doubt his boast. Netbooks can run Windows 7, but like the biblical example of wineskins, new wine is better placed in new wineskins.
  10. Uncluttering "My Documents"
    This may be frustrating to many users who are used to seeing this as their storage area for working documents. It has been renamed "Documents". The word 'My' is history. However, I find looking for documents much easier, I begin to search for my documents a level earlier, from a "User" level. Previously in XP, all my documents, music, videos etc are under "My Documents." Under Windows 7, everything is under "User" which allows me to quickly navigate my most recently used files automatically on each category without having to open up the folder.
  11. Jump List
    I like the way each open program lists the latest files used by it.

  12. Supportability
    This is perhaps my main reason for upgrade. XP is no longer supported officially by Microsoft. Software makers are increasingly fleeing from Vista. That leaves us with basically one option: Windows 7. If we can upgrade, why not?
My Recommendations

Windows 7 is a good operating system. It is more stable and much more pleasant to work with. We need to be wise with our own resources, and upgrade only when necessary.

XP: If you are currently using XP, know that upgrading to Windows 7 is a big move. Moreover, if you retain the same hardware, there is a good chance that your system may become slower. Do not assume that newer operating system runs faster on older hardware. Compared to XP, Windows 7 is still a more resource hungry system. However, if you are an XP user buying a new computer, choose 7 over Vista for the new operating system for your new hardware. Of course, you can always skip Vista and 7 totally and buy yourself a new Mac.

Vista: If you are currently running Vista, I will recommend you move to Windows 7 as soon as possible. If your computer is 64-bit ready, go for the Windows 7 64-bit version. I am not talking in terms of technical performance. As far as the operating system performance is concerned, I can live with Vista. However, when it comes to future compatibility and the market direction, there will be a sharp rise of software written to support Windows 7 more than Vista. Hence, my recommendation to move to 7 is primarily driven by the market pattern more than technical considerations.

In summary, if you are running Microsoft XP, chances are, you should try to use it as long as possible. If you are running Vista currently, make a move soon to Windows 7, for more software makers will be fleeing from this platform. Most new PCs loaded with Vista comes with a free Windows 7 upgrade anyway. Why not take the plunge if it is free? Even better, when you buy a new computer, make sure it is 64-bit ready, which means at least 4GB RAM and a dual core CPU and at least 250GB hard-disk.

Having said this, some of you may be tempted to go Mac. Remember, that Mac too, especially the Intel ones, can run both Mac OS and Windows. So, having some knowledge of Windows can be extremely helpful.

If you are a student like me, remember that upgrades need not be expensive, especially if you are a registered at major US educational institutions.
    SOME GREAT SOFTWARE DEALS (students only)
  1. Windows 7 Student Upgrade Pack (29.99USD) - up to Jan 3, 2010
  2. Office 2007 Student Ultimate Pack (59.99USD)


Saturday, November 14, 2009

Five (or Six!) Foods That Fix Bad Breath

This article is interesting because it talks about something which affects practically everyone. According to the authors who write under the pseudonymn of RealAge, the foods are:
  1. Lemons;
  2. Parsley and other green garnishing;
  3. Apples;
  4. Crunchy spices;
  5. Mint sprigs or cinnamon sticks
  6. Berries and yogurt.
My Comments
Incidentally, even though the title is 5, the authors list 6. I suspect that these foods were basically mumbled off the hip just to reach a number that is near 5. All of the recommendations are either fruits or vegetable origin. There is no red meat on the list. According to some dental experts, the main cause of bad breath is from the whitish layer that accumulates on the tongue. If that is the case, probably the best way to get rid of bad breath is to tackle the source. I used to see lots of metallic 'tongue scrapers' on sale when I was living in Asia. Here in Vancouver, I do not see them as much.

There is one important thing that they left out: Drink lots of water.


Friday, November 13, 2009

Focus on Marriage series

Here is a list of video messages from Gary Thomas, one of my favourite Regent alumni authors. Ever since "Sacred Pathways," I have been enjoying his books of the 'Sacred' theme. Some of the messages below are adapted from his book "Sacred Marriage." Enjoy learning with me from the videos below.

1) How Does Marriage Grow Us Closer in Our Walk With God? (link)
Marriage does not end in itself. There is more in a good Christian marriage.

2) Why is a good marriage not something you find, it's something you cultivate? (link)
The problem is not couples choosing to grow apart. The problem is they did not choose to grow together. In other words, doing nothing with a marriage is a way of growing apart.

3) How is perseverance in our walk with God related to our marriage? (link)
Hang in there. It is the perseverance and commitment in every marriage that is essential for faith. Like the parable of the 4 soils. It is by perseverance that good fruit comes.

4) For couples who are struggling, how can they stay committed in their marriage? (link)
Marriage is a choice. Virtually every couple re-evaluates whether their decision to marry is wrong. This is a universal feeling at some point in every marriage. Remember that as much as a marriage seems to grow apart, it is equally (or more) possible for it to grow back together. One does not need to 'kill' the marriage. It just means we need to work on the marriage. What God has put together, let no one put asunder.

5) What is one of the biggest stumbling blocks in many marriages? (link)
Will you believe it? It is by putting kids first. The best parents are those who recognize they are firstly a husband/wife before they are father/mother. Like a tree, Christ is the root, marriage is like a trunk to hold the children (branches).

6) What is the value in a couple having a sacred history together? (link)
It is one chance to write a story together.


KJV and the Copyright Issue

Last week, I meet a guy who happened to pop into the church service. He is soft spoken and fits the typical nice guy image we see in many churches on an ordinary Sunday morning. I said hi to him and chatted for a little while. It did not take long before he started asking me about what English Bible translation I use. I told him most of the time, I use the NIV in the Church because it is the most widely used translation by members. He is a KJV-only adherent. The next part of the conversation resembles two typical 'nice-guys' exchanging views that is not exactly nice. I didn't like the way the whole conversation ended. He stuck to his views that KJV is the only God-ordained Bible because it has no copyright. Quoting one of his pastors who argues this point, he criticizes modern Bible translations for sticking a copyright label on a Bible that is supposed to be free. I could not convince him otherwise. He refuses to take other views.

As I think about my personal experience with the KJV, I cannot but feel that it is important for us to understand the context behind each translation. I have memorized chunks of Bible then. Some of my favourite Psalms, the Sermon on the Mount, the book of Philippians, parts of Ephesians, Isaiah among others. Those days, without the electronic gadgets, I carry with me a little KJV Bible which I can easily slot in my pocket. Whether I am sitting on the bus or waiting for an appointment, I will be reading and revising what I had memorized. Those were spiritually fulfilling days. The KJV has a deep influence on my growing up years as a Christian. I still think that the KJV version of the Psalms remains the best English rendition ever. Having siad that, I still think it is important to appreciate the availability of other translations, especially when more reliable manuscripts are discovered. I believe that by stubbornly insisting on any one version only, the church will be left more impoverished of meaning. As a Bible student, I learn a lot from comparing different translations. Even when I am studying the Greek or Hebrew text, I find having English translations side by side illuminates my understanding more than simply reading one version alone. Marva Dawn once mentioned that once, she opened up 13 different readings of 1 Corinthians 12:9, in order to understand the original text better. The different nuances increased her understanding in many different ways. I think this approach is refreshing for Bible reading. The Word of God is for the people of God. We cannot be so stubborn to champion one version over the rest that we fail to appreciate the beauty and diversity of how God speaks through others, not just the KJV translators.

Alister McGrath offers the Christian public a gift in his book "In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible..." In that book, McGrath expertly reveals the context behind the formation of the King James Bible. One of the reasons for the issuance of the Bible is that it is more a political reason more than wanting it to be biblically accurate. Remember that Church of England was on the threshold of breaking with the Roman Catholic Church.

The copyright issue is to me a non-issue at all. The visitor I spoke with, seems intent to prove that the KJV is more God inspired simply because it has no copyright. That is a weak argument. There are many more factors surrounding any translation, not simply the label. Jesus does not speak English to the Jews then.
One of the languages he uses is Aramaic. Moreover, no matter how 'pure' a language is, what usefulness will there be if modern users cannot understand them? Actually, the KJV does have a copyright. The words 'Authorised Version' is in itself an attempt at protecting and copyrighting the Bible translation. Without such protection, anybody can modify the content and distribute them for their own purposes.

How should we deal with KJV-only people? Let me suggest 3 steps to lovingly talk with them.
- we need to know the history of our translations in order to intelligently make some sense out of each of them. Do some homework. Read the translation philosophy behind each translation and then rationally explain them accordingly. Bring them back to understanding the context behind each translation.

- acknowledge that we do not have all the answers. We need not completely agree or disagree with that person who holds his high view of the KJV. Perhaps there is no need to. However, when he starts to impose his views on others, we need to help draw him or her back to the mystery of God's word. Say that God's Spirit is the final interpreter of what we read. In fact, God does not speak in KJV language only. What about the non-English speaking world? Are they impoverished because they do not know English?

- As much as we try to convince KJV-only people not to be bigots, we too have to acknowledge that we can also fall to the other extreme. Whenever there is a disagreement, there is always a tendency to swing too much to the other side. One way to prevent that is to remain open and to listen to what the person is actually saying. Sometimes, the KJV level is only a superficial layer that hides something more. If we look beyond their bigotry behaviour and learn to care for them as persons, we establish a bridge to foster more understanding rather than debate that leads us nowhere. Every conversation can be a form of ministry of listening. On that note, I believe that if church people learns to listen more, there will be greater unity.

Finally, whether it is KJV or otherwise, I feel there is a deeper challenge for the Christian public. It is Bible literacy simply by reading the Bible. Regardless of what translation we use, are we reading enough of the Bible? That to me is the larger issue.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Distraction-Free Writing


I miss using the simple text green on black background (terminal theme) during my programming days. When I was writing on good old C programming and command line syntax use, I marvel at how a humble 8086 processor can do with 256KB of RAM memory. At that time, the 80386 and 2MB of RAM represents the state of the art computer, affordable only by big corporations. Even then, they easily cost a couple of thousand dollars. Wordperfect was my favourite word processor. Lotus 123 was the champion spreadsheet. I kind of miss those days, where 1 application means I work on one project at a time. It helps me in concentrating. Text based programming software such as BRIEF is my favourite. They are fast, stable and does not strain the eye as much as modern bright and high resolution monitors. I used to laugh at how these software programmers' sense of humour. (The programming editor "Brief" is made by company called "Underware Software" a Canadian company ) I should know. I was one.

Fast forward to the post-Millenium era. I am faced with machines that can open many different windows effectively. Dual-core processors and a few GIGAbytes of RAM. That is a whopping 1000x the amount of memory I used to have. Now I live like an in-between. On my right is my heavyweight Pentium DualCore / 4GB / Windows Vista 64-bit computer loaded with tonnes of Windows applications. The computer I am using now is a lightweight Pentium III / 64MB / Windows 98SE loaded with minimal applications. All my old computers are still with me. While I remain fascinated with new advances in computer hardware and software technology, I am reluctant to part with the oldies but goodies. So I searched. I found out that I can still get my old computers running as new, and to get my newer computers behave the way I like it. Here is what I found. Hopefully, this effort can help my readers achieve a better distraction free writing in a world of multi-tasking, multiple windows and the easily distracted modern mind. Most of these applications were inspired by WriteRoom, a Mac OS application. Let me suggest 4 ways below to help us advance toward a greater distraction-free mode of doing our work.

Make Microsoft word like the venerable Green on Black on a Full Screen mode.
- Start any version of Microsoft Word
- {format}-{background}-{choose black=""}
- {format}--{choose green=""}
- You can adjust the paragraph by 1” if you want
- Press {f11} for full screen effect. You will then get the minimalist Green on Black background, which is easy on the eye and will be distraction free in your writing. You can check out more details here. The picture below shows the end result.

[Photo Credit:]

I am impressed with these few Windows applications that emulate MacOS WriteRoom word processor, a processor that is minimalist and distraction free.

1) WriteMonkey []
2) jDarkRoom [] (java based)
3) Q10 [] (windows)
4) DarkRoom [] (windows / .NET)
5) WestEdit [] (windows / .NET)
7) WhiteSpace [] (Word 2007 plugin)

For offline purposes, I think DarkRoom is excellent and simple. I do not need to worry about the screen getting too bright, and it works excellent for my slower 10 year old computer.

Two deserve special mention.
1) Writer [] (web based)
This application brings you straight to a distraction free page that allows you to type in your words immediately. You can choose to save it, blog it, email it, create a pdf of it, or simply store it. For the latter you can easily register a username and password to ensure that the documents are available to you online when you log in next time. This is my personal favourite. (see below)

2) The Other is Google Docs which you can read in greater detail below.

- Thanks to "Amit Agarwal" who designed this template. Open it, sign into Google Docs and you're all set. It's that simple.

Hope the above helps us all extend the use of our older machines, and at the same time promote distraction-free and more productive use of any of our modern computers. Windows are good. However, when it comes to distraction free writing, and as an aid to learning how to pay attention, a simple text based device beats them hands down.


Remembrance Day - Nov 11th, 2009


Remembrance Day is celebrated every Nov 11th, since 1918. According to history, WWI ended when the last guns fall silent at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. That’s a long time ago. For me, I was not even born yet. Neither were my parents. In Canada, Remembrance Day is a public holiday. This week, Prince Charles and his wife is in Canada to be part of the occasion.

I was at Costco a few days ago when I saw an elderly gentleman carrying a coin box on one hand, and a wad of poppy pins on the other. I popped a toonie ($2) into the coinbox and obtained a poppy. Pinning it on my rainjacket, I felt appreciative of those who died in the war for the service of their countries. It does not have to be the people I know. Neither does it have to be the war dead from countries I have to like. A soldier is a soldier. They mainly execute orders from their superiors. Their only liability is to be a citizen of their country who ordered them into the battlefields. War is cruel. There are no true winners. The triumphant paid a high price for victory. So I wear my poppy with me. I want to remember the war dead. I want to show my solidarity for peace and for love in this world. I want to teach my kids not to take peace for granted.

I remember the horrible images of war shared by my grandparents during the Japanese occupation in South East Asia. Many civilians were killed. Families were separated and whole towns destroyed. Young men were automatically sorted into the useful and not. Children, women and the weak are disposed of in the most cruel fashion. War is horrible. It must never be repeated. Never ever. For me, Remembrance Day conjures the following sentiments:
  • War is evil; no matter the motive. It blatantly breaks God’s commandment not to kill.
  • We must pledge to avoid war absolutely. Continually built bridges of communications and understanding; The best way to prevent a war is to maintain dialogue;
  • War is not a simple ‘Good vs Evil.’ It is simply put, a struggle for power and territorial domination.
  • We must never forget that war is costly. It is not merely the weaponry, the tanks and bullets that are expensive. The scars of war ensure that the outlay of war are continually paid, even after the war.
  • Let our children, the next generation that assumes life as an entitlement, beware of complacency. Remembrance Day is not another holiday. It is a critical day to remind everybody, that war must never be the first option on the table. When all options are exhausted, relook at them over and over again, rather than resorting to taking up arms.
  • Looking forward, if there are to be any war in the future, it will probably be one where the soldier will not even know what or who killed them. The war of the future will be drastically different. Worse, if that happens, there might be no more opportunity to remember anything, or anyone.
History must never be allowed to repeat itself. Each remembrance day should pull us a step away from the path of war, and push us a step closer to the path of peace. I watched "Saving Private Ryan," and felt the words used by George C Marshall, in a letter to the mother of Private Ryan very touching.
I have here a very old letter, written to a Mrs. Bixby in Boston. "Dear Madam: I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant-General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours very sincerely and respectfully,

Abraham Lincoln.
" (Gen. George C. Marshall)

The following is the famous Remembrance Day tribute, “In Flanders Fields.”
In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing,
fly Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset grow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw The torch;
be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Dec 8, 1915 John McCrae

Together with all who want world peace, I remember.


Sunday, November 08, 2009

Review: "A Popular Survey of the New Testament" (Norman Geisler)

Title: A Popular Survey of the New Testament
Author: Norman L Geisler
Published: Baker Books, 2007.

Books of the popular genre tend to cover broad themes, without going into too much details. They tend to be written in a manner that captures maximum attention with minimal effort. This 347-pages hardcover book has everything to whet the appetite of the average Church-goer. It has very little scholarship citations which is useful for uninterrupted reading. It contains a fairly helpful list of bibliographical material for the more serious student, ranging from books, commentaries and articles. Using easy to understand tables that compare and contrast books of the New Testament, the author invites readers to comfortably enter into the New Testament material.

The Structure
The Introduction lays the main theme of the New Testament, which is the person of Jesus Christ.

Geisler uses a 6-point question structure to approach the survey of each book.
1) WHO wrote it?
  • This talks about the internal and external evidence of the origins of the book concerned. 
2) WHEN was it written?
  • This estimates the time the book was written, with careful attention to list the different possible views for the reader to note.
3) To WHOM was it written?
  • This is important for readers as it gives the context of the book's first audience.
4) WHERE were its readers located?
  • Often, the location of the readers give us a clue as to why the book was written.
5) WHAT is it about?
  • This forms the main section of each book surveyed.
6) HOW to respond to critics of difficult verses?
  • Some controversial verses were dealt with.
Finally, a set of study questions completes each book section.

My Comments
I must admit that Geisler has done a rather good job in distilling the New Testament simple enough for the average Bible reader. His highlight of themes gives a clear overview of the emphases of each book. I especially appreciate the compare/contrast format that Geisler uses to demarcate both differences as well as similarities of each book. His use of alliteration, memory keys and various pedagogical tools within the book gives a very useful framework for us to hang on to.

Having said that, there are some things I feel less than desirable.
  • Personally, I like his Christ-centered focus of the whole Bible. My question is, whether that truly reflects the intention of the original authors? While I am all for Christ being the entire focus, in inductive Bible study, we need to let the Bible speak for itself, to avoid putting words into the Bible.
  • His mnemonics chosen is too sleek for my personal liking. I feel he has overdone it.
  • Some of the themes he highlights, while memorable may appear to unfairly straitjacket the Bible. (for example, the table below while attractive, looks too simplistic)

In summary, I must say I enjoyed Geisler’s book. It makes a good introductory book to help educate the ordinary Church member who does not know much about the New Testament apart from choice verses. It also makes a helpful reference texts when we deal with controversial verses in the Bible. However, for the serious student, it will be better that this book be only an accompanying supplement to other reference books and commentaries. My rating: 3 out of 5 stars.


100 Most Spiritually Significant Films

Thanks to my friend Stanley, I learned about this Top 100 list. "Arts and Faith" recently published a list of "Top 100 Spiritually Significant Films." There are listed and ranked in order below. I have seen some of them during my student days at Regent-College. I vividly remember Ordet, Babette's Feast, Jesus of Montreal, Shadowlands, The Big Kahuna, Wit, Luther, Gospel of John etc. The ones that I especially enjoy is Babette's Feast and Wit. Both drives home a certain message gently and powerfully. In an age where best-selling movies tend to be those of the sex and violence genre, the list below shows movies with an intelligent message.  Some of the films selected are rather weird like Dogville. I am not sure how Millions ever made the grade. Perhaps, the list of movies tend to reflect the view of the creator of the list. Agree or not, this list does offer us some food for thought. Maybe, one day I'll manage to watch at list half of them. Perhaps, you have a movie that ought to be on the list. I have two: "I Am Sam," a story of near perfect love by an imperfect man, and "Cinderella Man," a tear-jerker that describes a rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-hope Great Depression story.

Rank Title
1 Ordet aka The Word
2 Le Fils aka The Son.
3 The Miracle Maker
4 The Gospel According to Matthew
5 The Diary of a Country Priest
6 The Passion of Joan of Arc
7 The Decalogue
8 Babette's Feast
9 A Man Escaped
10 Andrei Rublev
11 Au Hasard Balthazar
12 The Seventh Seal
13 Ikiru aka To Live.
14 Winter Light
15 The Mission
16 The Apostle
17 Three Colors Trilogy
18 Jesus of Nazareth
19 Jesus of Montreal
20 The Flowers of St. Francis
21 Dead Man Walking
22 Stalker
23 Magnolia
24 La Promesse
25 Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
26 Tender Mercies
27 A Man for All Seasons
28 Wings of Desire
29 Day of Wrath
30 Yi Yi: A One and a Two
31 The Hiding Place
32 Wild Strawberries
33 Rosetta
34 After Life
35 The Sacrifice
36 To End All Wars
37 Chariots of Fire
38 Shadowlands
39 The Big Kahuna
40 Not of This World
41 Schindler's List
42 Millions
43 The Straight Story
44 A Taste of Cherry
45 The Passion Of The Christ
46 Becket
47 Wit
48 Open City
49 Nazarin
50 Secrets & Lies
51 Romero
52 Places in the Heart
53 It's A Wonderful Life
54 Ponette
55 Les Miserables
56 Luther
57 Tokyo Story
58 Hell House
59 Breaking The Waves
60 Crimes And Misdemeanors
61 To Kill a Mockingbird
62 The Mirror
63 The Last Temptation Of Christ
64 The Gospel of John
65 Hotel Rwanda
66 Fearless
67 Solaris
68 The Night Of The Hunter
69 Cries and Whispers
70 Stromboli
71 Stevie
72 Dogville
73 My Night at Maud's
74 Black Robe
75 Close-Up
76 The Apu Trilogy
77 Werckmeister Harmonies
78 Waking Life
79 Koyaanisqats aka Life Out of Balance.
80 Peter and Paul
81 13 Conversations About One Thing
82 The Sweet Hereafter
83 Dersu Uzala
84 Trial of Joan of Arc
85 Summer / The Green Ray
86 Fiddler on the Roof
87 The Bicycle Thief
88 The Year Of Living Dangerously
89 L'Argent aka Money.
90 The Elephant Man
91 Faust
92 Molokai: The Story of Father Damien
93 A Moment of Innocence
94 Jean de Florette / Manon of the Spring
95 Sansho the Bailiff
96 Lilies of the Field
97 The Wind Will Carry Us
98 The Addiction
99 The Song of Bernadette
100 Tales of Ugetsu

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Review: "Sexual Detox" - 2 free ebooks

Sex is one of the most seductive ways to lead people, especially men to sin. One can commit adultery with one simple look of lust. Like a fish hook, it is easy to bite into lust, but very painful and difficult to pull out. When we turn on the TV, sexual images that runs on the programs, the commercials and even news flashes tempts people, especially men.

Tim Challies recently released 2 ebooks that try to address this temptation. There is a need to have a 'sexual detox' especially for men, both single and married. Writing with a reformed perspective, Challies first observes that our modern culture is sex fills our minds and impacts our hearts. He then presents the modern dilemma as follows. How can "guys who want to be holy, who want to honor God with their minds and bodies" overcome the temptations of the modern highly-sexed culture? As both books are largely similar, I shall base my review on the one on the single guy, as every man has been single before.

Brief Overview
Challies answers this by providing 6 short chapters.
  1. In chapter 1, "Pornifying the Marriage Bed," he zooms in on one of the key problems: Pornography. Engaging in pornography essentially makes men put unfair expectations on their wives or future wives, to behave or to act like the false porn portrayals. That is cruel and unfair when the wives fail to 'perform' like what men see on their porn. In fact, once anybody got hooked onto porn as an addiction, it is so damaging that a detoxification process is required for cleansing.
  2. In chapter 2, "Breaking Free" is the first step to recovery. It is not swallowing a detox pill but to stop doing the wrong act altogether first of all. In other words, stopping the act altogether clears the deck for a fresh recovery. In other words, stop consuming porn stuff that puts unreal expectations on others. Instead, begin to prepare one's heart to wear God's lens of purity to learn to see real people, and to love them for who they are.
  3. In chapter 3, "Theology of Sex" lays the groundwork for a fresh start, to see from God's perspective rather than from the world. A theology is important as it affirms that sex is good when we see if from God's original intention. This attempt at a biblical approach is helpful especially for believers.
  4. In chapter 4, "Self-Centered Sex" Challies makes a case against masturbation and other acts that puts self before others. This additional section on masturbation is additional material that is slightly different from the 'married men' version of Sexual Detox. Here, Challies hones in on the true nature of sex. It is not self-centered but love for others centered.
  5. In chapter 5, "Detoxification," the detox process is described in greater detail. Sex is not the 'act' but the 'thought' behind the act. Such a perspective must be maintained throughout the detox process.
  6. In chapter 6, "Freedom," we see how detox liberates one from the clutches of worldly sex. 
  7. Finally, Challies provides a helpful set of resources for those who want to learn more.
The conclusion of it all is simple: "Turn from your sin today. Pursue freedom. Pursue Christ." This is the universal manner to approach all sin. The two ebooks are a quick read and should provide good material for more discussion especially for men's groups. The author has also included some questions for facilitators to use. The ebooks are free for you to download, courtesy of Tim Challies. Thanks Tim.

A) Download "Sexual Detox - A Guide for the Single Guy"

B) Download "Sexual Detox - A Guide for the Married Guy"


Friday, November 06, 2009

Another Troubling Sign for Bookstores

Here is another sad turn of events. Borders will be closing 200 Waldenbooks stores, and laying off 1500 staff. Tough times, but I foresee an even bigger shakeup of the traditional book industry. Their official press release can be read here. I remember Waldenbooks, a favourite haunt for me when I visit malls in the US. It remains one of my popular places to browse and to wait there while my wife does her shopping.
[Photo Credit:]

I think the following trends are worth noticing.
  • Rise of the digital media, ebooks, Kindle and social networking media, that compete on convenience;
  • Rise of the online stores like and large retailers that compete on cost;
  • Rise of a generation who are not too concerned about paperbacks or printed materials. Some may say books themselves are not environmentally friendly. Why not go paperless? 
  • Rise of a new 'normal.' People used to be able to read attentively a book without being distracted. Hence lesser people are buying books. Nowadays, more people are scattering their attention via multi-tasking activities. Jack of all trades, but master of none?
Sigh. What will happen when I visit the mall next time? A mall that has no bookstores? Boring.


"Yawning at the Word"

This month's article by Mark Galli has a rather brave assertion: Reading the Bible during a Church service is considered boring to many. He tells of a worrying experience where reading the Bible is equated to boredom, himself being asked to 'cut down' on the Bible verses while he is preaching. More disconcerting is his sharp rebuke at preachers who prefer to preach exciting 'relevant' stuff like stories etc, rather than the plain Word of God. He writes in ChristianityToday Nov web edition: saying that "It's really hard to listen to God when there are really interesting things to think about." 

There are truly many more interesting things for the 1-day a week Church goer. How can a 1 day Church service compete with 6 days of TV, Internet, Sports, Work, Social and everything else combined? The 6-day mentality wins hands down. Galli's main criticism is on pew listening. From experience, he raises several points pertaining to the way church goers listen to the sermon.
  • People tend to get 'lost' when too much Bible is read during the sermon;
  • People are more interested in processed arguments rather than the pure Word itself; (eg arguments about creation, rather than reading Genesis)
  • People tend to be more concerned about 'relevance' rather than the plain reading of the Word.
  • Some listeners expect illustrations and applications to interest them.
  • Some listen to sermon as if they are preparing to mount a counter-argument, to prove their own personal point;
Poignantly, he shares with us his observation about the lack of listening skills we have simply because we CHOOSE to listen according to our set thinking. Worse, we are raising a whole generation to listen like this.
"We often hear people say how difficult it is to hear God anymore, and I wonder if one reason is that we've forgotten how to listen to the Word of God when it comes to us in the sanctuary or the classroom. We listen like a husband and wife listen when they are in the middle of an argument: they listen only so they can have ammunition to mount a counterattack. That's not listening. And when we listen to the sermon only to hear what seems immediately and directly relevant, neither is that listening. And yet we've raised a whole generation of Christians to listen like this." (Mark Galli)
My Comments
I understand Galli's points. I think the Church ought to incorporate the reading of large chunks of Scripture. I too believe that the Bible ought to be given its full attention, not simply listening only to 'choice' perspectives. Having said that, there is more than meets the eye. I like to make 3 responses in fairness to the laity. Let me put it as my P.E.W response.

I believe that preaching is a shared responsibility. Both clergy, preachers as well as laity ought to come together to listen together. They ought to help one another along, give feedback, and see the sermon as a special channel to deliver God's Word. As much as listeners have to learn to listen to the pure Word of God, preachers ought to give them TOOLS to listen. Training needs to be encouraged for preachers to be able to connect with their listeners. Listeners need to be handheld as they move from one point to another. The lack of listening ability is not simply the responsibility of the laity. The preaching community has to play their part. Both the preaching community and the listening community constitutes the Church TOGETHER.

Teaching the congregation to listen well is an ongoing endeavour. In preaching, we valiantly preach at the level of teenagers so as to ensure the maximum number of people can catch what we are saying. It is wrong to assume everyone's spiritual maturity is at the same level. I believe that with every congregation is both unique and similar. They are unique in the sense that their church and personal contexts are unique. Location of church, the mix and the idiosyncracies of the neighbourhood. Yet, they are universally similar in the sense that the tradition and background they come from mirrors many others of the same. Moreover, they use the same Word of God, even if the translations are different. Not every person on the pew has the privilege of studying and preparing the Word of God like the preacher. They genuinely need help to cope with large chunks of Scripture. Hence, by gently guiding the listeners to where the preacher is saying, the listeners can be trained. I tend to think that if we give in too often to listener's preferences, we end up spoiling their appetite. Preachers need to WHET their appetite for the Word of God, starting from where they are.

I believe that reading Scripture is important in sermons. However, let us not limit ourselves to just the sermon but the WHOLE worship time. We can read Scripture during the singing, in between announcements, when the hat is passed, before the doxology apart from the actual sermon itself. Maybe, 'Scripture reading' can be incorporated into one highlight of the whole church service! This will prepare the ears of people to listen better. Reading chunks of Scripture during service raise other agendas (many legitimate) in the minds of listeners.
  • What is the preacher trying to say?
  • Why is he quoting this part of Scripture?
  • What context is he referring to?
In conclusion, I believe Galli's concern about raising a new generation of narcissistic listeners is somewhat valid. Yet I also believe that preachers have to shoulder part of the blame. We cannot simply sit down and point fingers to people who genuinely desire to know the Word of God. Sometimes, they need an admonishment. Other times they need a gentle encouragement. At all time, they need a loving exhortation. While Galli may have made a good observation, let me add that not everything is lost. It is the subsequent steps that is much more important. Whether one agrees with Galli or not, the question remains:

"How can we listen to the Word of God better?"


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