Monday, August 26, 2013

Is there such a thing as “wrong” worship?

Yesterday at church, when the service the commenced, the youth leader showed a video showing a worship team giving a parody of what a “wrong” worship is like. In that video, the casts of musicians were playing Christian contemporary songs, but with a change of lyrics with the intent to show what is the “wrong” attitude towards worship. For example, instead of “How great is our God”, the lyric was changed to “How great is this song!”
The youth leader attempted to prod some self-reflection from the congregants with his remarks “Do you come to church to serve God, or do you come to church to serve yourself?” I find those remarks quite patronizing actually. Are there actually anyone that I can think of who comes to church to serve themselves? It is quite insinuating a remark to make in my opinion.
Later in the service, during the sermon, the pastor mentioned something about how coming to church is God’s way of ministering to the congregants. I suppose it is quite a contrast to the perspective towards church worship that is adopted by the youth leader.
I think church service is both about people worshipping God, as well as God ministering to the people, and many other different things to different people as well, and I think people should not be accused of having a “wrong” attitude in service. So what if they came for the friends as church? It is just as well that they are ministered to then if they stayed at home, or go to other places on Sundays instead of church to hang out with their friends. And so what if people pay attention to the quality of the song, and think of it as either great or poor? That does not necessarily derogate from their desire to worship God in service. It is an individual’s way of wanting to express his own style and ideas in worshipping God, and moreover, I believe that that worship service is also to tailor to the preferences of different people as well.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Job (the Movie)

I watched the movie titled Jobs which is about founder of Apple company, Steve Jobs. One thing I like about the movie is the strong similarity in appearance that the cast of actors playing the various characters have with their real-life personalities. I couldn’t have thought of a better actor who bore such semblance in appearance to Steve Job than Ashton Kutcher. And I thought he delivered a compelling performance of Steve Job as portrayed in other sources – Intense, independent-minded, domineering, manipulative, revengeful, cold, ambitious. Co-actor Josh Gad played the part of Job’s trusted friend, co-founder of Apple, Steve Wozniak, who spots the milder geeky personality, quite the Yin to Job’s Yang, and complementing the business acumen of Job with his technical genius for hardware engineering.

The basic storyline, probably well-known to most people familiar with the biography of the various personalities of the computer industry is as follows. Job discovers a prototype of an unprecedented graphic-interface computer in Wozniak’s house which Wozniak had been working on as his own personal project. He convinced Wozniak to start a company together and market the invention. They obtained the interest of a retailer who made a deal to buy the new invention from them. Job and his team begin working to produce the agreed quantity of the invention in Job’s home garage. Apple later expanded, this time having a board of directors, one of which playing the role of the antagonistic role of the disapproving shareholder representative. Job head-hunted for John Sculley from Pepsi to lead the marketing team at Apple. The board later became dissatisfied with what they saw as Job’s exorbidant spending of money into his unprofitable pet project, and replaced him as CEO with Sculley. Job quited Apple. Many years later, with Apple floundering and in need of direction, the new board invited Job back to the company. Job was reinstated to position as CEO, and led Apple to become the world’s most valuable company.

Job is portrayed as a character with a brilliant intelligence but with a terrible personality. He is casted as this genius who knows better than everyone else, and criticisms or opposition from others are never constructive, but are mere stumbling blocks towards the ideal that Job knows better. Job perceives difference in opinion as a lack of foresight on the part of others. He yelled at a fellow game designer at Atari because that colleague was of the opinion that the prevailing technology does not allow for color games, and demands to be given his own project to lead at Atari. He smartingly proves that colleague of his wrong by introducing the game “Breakout”. A judgement of his subordinate in his team developing the Lisa computer that multiple typefonts is not a necessary urgent development is construed by Job as an irreconcilable difference of vision, which merits that subordinate an extremely harsh shelling and firing by Job in front of all the other team members. When the board of Apple remarked that the Apple II failed to sell well because of the high price racketed up by Job in developmental cost, Job retorted back by laying the blame squarely on his marketing director for poor marketing strategy. There is no second guess on Job’s part that the opinion of others might be correct. He is confident that he is right and they are not. And supposedly for Job, being a jerk is justified if you are right. Well, I suppose it is better than someone who is wrong (or simply because he is the boss), and behaves like a jerk regardless. But I would think that working environments would be more civil and humane if we take away the ‘jerk’ manner of dealing with people altogether.

I like this quote attributed to Job that was made at the end of the show - “When you grow up, you tend to get told that the world is the way that it is. And that your life is to live your life inside the world, and try not to get in too much trouble, and maybe get an education, and get a job, and make some money and have a family. But life can be a lot broader than that when you realize one simple thing: that everything around us that we call life was made up by people that are no smarter than you. And you can build your own things. You can build your own life. Build a life. Don’t live one, build one.”

I guess a good question that people can ask themselves in their daily lives is how things in the society or the world they live in can be better, and if they are capable enough, to find ways to achieve that vision. This can be in both the little and the big things.  For Job, his belief of a better world is in the technology products he develops. But I am sure that there are more things in the world that can be improved than just technological advances. For one, I believe society can be kinder, caring, and more compassionate, and people should look out for the interests of one another rather for themselves alone.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Introductory lesson of the Trial of Jesus

I took up this module named “The Trial of Jesus” for one my electives for this semester. It is taught by this professor who previously taught the same course at New York University. I figured that it would be a fun course, and something that would be interesting to blog about in my blog here, which has pretty much a lot of stuff to do with religion. From looking around at the students who have enrolled in the class yesterday, I can see that this course is mostly popular with students from campus religious organizations like the Varsity Christian fellowship and the Catholic Student society.

The professor gave an account of how he got onto the pages of the New York Times for his course. It is not something to actually boast about. He said that one of his student was being interviewed by the New York Times press after course about something to do with the use of iphone in school, and in passing, she mentioned that she had just came from the Trial of Jesus course. This pricked the interest of the New York Times jorunalist, who sent people to inquire about the course. They later did a negative write-up in the New York Times about how premium law universities were teaching silly modules, one of which being this trial of Jesus module. They even asked for the public to comment on the most ridiculous modules that they encountered in their own universities.

But I think my experience on the first session of the module has been positive thus far. From my understanding of what was asked and said in the class, the lessons seek to analyze whether the trial of Jesus was a fair one; whether there was any miscarriage of justice. This has important implications to the theological foundation of Christianity, since one of the claims that Christians make is that Jesus fulfills the Messianic prophecy of being innocent and blameless. A non-theological usefulness of the inquiry would be to understand how the trial of Jesus impacted the way western civilization understand the concept of justice and its legal system.

The professor made some assertions that I shall highlight here. He said that historical research to the trial of Jesus actually reveals very little information about the historical veracity of the trial. It is not clear whether there was even a trial. For example, according to the professor, Catholics believe more in the version of the John Gospel which portrays the ‘trial’ of Jesus as more of an interrogation. Moreover, there is little information of the legal system in place during those times, and how it works substantively and procedurally.

Yet, barring the limitations of a historical understanding of the trial, the professor asserts that what is important is the narrative as accepted by Christians as ‘gospel’ truth. And it is this narrative by which the analysis of the trial of Jesus can be conducted.

Nevertheless, determining the account that happened according to the Gospel encounters problems of its own, notwithstanding apparent difference in accounts of what took place in the trial of Jesus. Several methods are employed to construct a narrative based on the gospel accounts. One which I found memorable was the criterion of ‘Embarassment’, that is that ‘if something reported about Jesus was embarrassing to the early church, the early preachers or the evangelists are not likely to have invented it’ (Brown, The Death of the Messiah pg 18). A Christian law student in class, perhaps a little too overconfidently, suggested a reason why this criterion works. He said that this shows that the Christian authors writing the account must have been committed to the ideal of the truth and presenting it as such. While that could have been the case, the professor had a more modest suggestion that the more likely reason is that the truth of the matter would have been so well-known and notorious to other people, including non-Christians, such that the Christian writers would have come closely within the scrutiny for his integrity if he had presented the information otherwise.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

What is true Faith?

Today’s sermon at church by the pastor was about faith. The pastor gave his sermon based on Hebrews 11 and his sermon was titled Faith of the Ancients. The character of Abraham was used as a model of true faith.

What exactly is faith? There seems to be many definition of what faith is. For this sermon in church today, the pastor states that faith is expressed in obedience to God. The pastor points out Abraham’s obedience to God’s command to go into a new land, as well as to God’s test of him to sacrifice his son Isaac. A Christian friend who recommended me to go for deliverance services in order to receive healing from my tension headache tells me that the faith asked of is not so much about believing that God will heal me, but more of an experimental nature of recognizing the possibility that God may heal me. He terms it “experimental faith”.

I was googling about Christian solutions to obsessive compulsive disorder. Okay, the reason is that I suspect that I might be suffering from a certain obsessive compulsive disorder known as “hypochondria” in that I have preoccupative thoughts about health-related worries. I have worried about things like “damage to cardiovascular health due to passive smoking”, “mercury poisoning from breaking lab thermometer”, “electromagnetic radiation from CRT computer screen”, “brain damage from alcohol consumption”, “brain damage from hitting head on floor” etc. Perhaps this preoccupation with my tinnitus and tension headache are also obsessive in nature, and over-proportionate to their severity. These obsessive health-related worries can be quite debilitating as they can occupy my thought for an entire day and last for months. I was thinking that Christianity might offer solutions to my obsessive worries.

There is this Christian psychiatrist by the name of Ian Osbourne who has written a book titled “Can Christianity cure obsessive-compulsive disorder?” He has a website with the address where he writes information on strategies to deal with obsessive compulsive worries. His proposition borrows from his understanding of a new approach in the world of psychology to deal with OCD named “responsibility transfer therapy” (RTT). The idea of RTT is for the sufferer of the OCD to release himself or herself from the obsessive worry by transferring the responsibility of the worry to another person to handle. For example, a person who worries obsessively about not turning off the gas before leaving the house would delegate that responsibility to check that the gas is turned off to another person, thereby relieving him or her from some measure of that obsessive sense of responsibility to ensure that the gas is turned off. Using this psychology paradigm to describe the Christian approach of trusting in God, this responsibility is here transferred to God. An excerpt from the website below.

A person suffering from fire obsessions, for instance, turns to God and allows him to take responsibility for the prevention of fire. The individual tormented by contamination obsessions gives to God the responsibility for whether or not he will get a disease. The person who fears she has offended God leaves responsibility for any offense to God….Devout individuals with OCD must work to resist compulsions. In doing so they demonstrate or prove, both to God and to themselves, how much they trust him and love him.

This Christian RTT approach relies on the notion of faith in God in its method. The writer has provided an excerpt of what faith here entails.

Theologian Martin Buber illuminates the issue. In his seminal book, Two Types of Faith, Buber begins with this proposition: “There are two, and only two, types of faith: The one from the fact that I trust someone . . . the other from the fact that I acknowledge a thing to be true.” Religious faith, according to Buber, always involves, most basically, either trusting in God or believing in a revealed truth. It is the first type of faith, he is displayed on every page of the Old Testament, as well as in most every sermon by Jesus. It involves unconditional trust in a God who is personal, vital, loving, and trustworthy.

This has great relevance for OCD sufferers. One of the things most puzzling about them is their inability to be reassured about their obsessional fears. People with religious obsessions can be told again and again that Jesus died for them, and that salvation awaits them, yet they still have agonizing doubts. Obsessionals, in fact, have great difficulty in believing in any fact that directly opposes one of their obsessions. OCD sufferers cannot even take as a fact what they see with their own eyes: they can stare straight at a light switch, see that it is off, and yet fear that it is on.  OCD sufferers have a hard time believing in facts. They are doubters. Yet they are very good at trusting in others. It is trust in the person of God—in his power and his mercy—that OCD sufferers must rely on.

For instance, in the case of a person who obsesses that a fire will start in her stove, the right kind of faith is to leave the possibility of a fire with God. If God should, for God’s own reasons, want a fire to start, then he will start one. If he doesn't, he won’t. The wrong kind of faith is to have “faith” that a fire won’t start. For another example. Suppose a person obsesses that he has lost his salvation, and will go to
hell. The right type of faith is to leave his eternal destiny in the hands of God.

The OCDer is called to a deep kind of faith: trust in the ultimate power and mercy of God. We can be greatly consoled by a confident hope that God will prevent an obsessional fear from being realized, a hope that is based on our trust in God's mercy and love. But we can't have factual certainty.

I appreciate the distinction made by the theologian in the excerpt above. Basically, it is a distinction of faith about the factual certainty of God doing something according to one’s wishes, and a ‘milder’, less demanding sort of faith of simply trusting in God. However, a question I want to ask is what kind of faith is actually asked of in the bible. And here, I can quote two scripture giving different answers. There is the one in Hebrews 11 which seems to indicate faith of the kind that requires belief in factual certainty of the fulfillment of the request to God – “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” Then there is the account of Jesus healing the leper in Luke 5. In that account, the leper begged Jesus “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean”. I thought that the faith expressed by the leper, as connoted by his words is more of the ‘milder kind’ in the sense that he has faith in the power of Jesus to heal, but he still leaves as a question of whether he would be healed on the basis of Jesus’ willingness to heal. Now, I will highlight that there is still a thin distinction between the faith described here with that ‘milder’ version of faith in the Martin Buber excerpt above. The leper expresses his faith in Jesus ability to heal, whereas Martin Buber’s ‘milder’ faith simply expresses trust in God given any circumstances, even if things go against the desired wishes of the person holding onto this faith. (Trust me guys, there is even more of such mind-numbing delineating of concepts and definitions in law studies, and some law school students who quite inadvertently develop a habit to see a need for clarification of such delineation in whatever they discuss. I see that theologians may come second in the running for such vain inquisitions)

Personally, I think the ‘milder’ kinds of faith is more reasonably to be asked of a person than a faith demanding a belief in the certainty of the fulfillment of the request. I mean, why does God have to require that his subject believe whole-heartedly that he, God, will do what the subject want before he does what the subject wants? It seems idiosyncratic to me.

In this website containing Philip Yancey’s synopsis for his book “Prayer – Does it make any difference”, Yancey concludes on that question of prayer with “I now see it [Prayer] not so much as a way of getting God to do my will as a way of being available to get in the stream of what God wants to accomplish on earth.” I don’t think Yancey is necessarily theologically substantiated in his drawing up of priorities of the different functions of prayers. I would like to think that I can and should use prayers to make God do the things I want him to, and that this is as equally important an aspect of prayer. There are many examples of such prayers in the bible where the prayee (pardon the legalese) is requesting God to do something that he wants. But I like how Yancey realistically acknowledges the predicament that believers face in having their prayers go unanswered and things not going according to their prayer requests, perhaps the reason why he came to, in my opinion, a disappointing conclusion that the priority of the function of prayers is more of to understand God than to expect a fulfillment of the prayer request. And I appreciate that he does not take the condescending tone that some Christians might take towards another believer by suggesting that that believer’s prayer is not answered because that believer did not have enough faith in God, or that that believer “did not ask for God to come into his or her heart”. A harsh logical understanding of scriptural passage may lead to such conclusions in my opinion.

Law school starts tomorrow for me, and I can’t say that I am feeling too prepared to deal with school given my prevailing conditions. I did experience a lot of difficulties for the past few semesters because of the tension headache, and perhaps, as what I suspect, from obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety disorder. Word has it that these conditions are chronic. But I am hoping for this phase to pass and for my mind to be more settled so that I can concentrate on my law studies. I am not sure whether Ian Osbourne whom I mentioned earlier is being truthful or simply trying to be encouraging, but I like what he wrote in his website about how “three of the greatest luminaries in the history of the Christian
religion: Martin Luther, John Bunyan, and Saint Therese of Lisieux” suffered from obsessional fears indicative of OCD as well, in particular, fear of loss of salvation. Martin Luther, progenitor of the protestant faith I know. John Bunyan I have heard of but am not too familiar, and the third one I have not come across (but I should read up on since she is so venerably described by the author, and to ensure that I come off as well-informed in case one of those smart aleck Christians start questioning me on my knowledge of Christian history). I am amused by his identification of disorders based on his study accounts of these historical figures and his thesis that “All three, even more remarkably, after receiving unhelpful advice from their church elders, found a way to conquer their tormenting thoughts through faith. Each found the same solution: Trusting absolutely in God’s power and mercy. In psychological terms, they transferred the responsibility for their obsessional fears to God.” Perhaps I may come to find a similar sense of relief from being able to trust God more.

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