Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Mourning Dove

My favorite bird call is that of there Mourning Dove in the afternoon. There is a little guy in our backyard which has been giving me some joy the past couple of weeks. He does his Coo-Poo-OO-OO-OO with the keys B-F (transitioning in the end to C or C#)- C-C-C. I like his sense of scale.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Thoughts on Pew's Findings on Christian Decline in the US

The new Pew poll results showing Christianity suffered a big decline in the US is not surprising. NYT carried this article, which received over 750 comments at the time of this writing (the article was published today):

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/12/upshot/big-drop-in-share-of-americans-calling-themselves-christian.html?_r=0&abt=0002&abg=0#permid=14937370

I like to scroll the comments section to understand the zeitgeist. Nearly all the comments were from people in the 25% or so of the population that Pew determines are the "nones"- those who identify themselves as atheists, agnostics, undecided or not affiliated with any of the categories of religion or irreligion.

I wanted to make a word cloud of the descriptors of the major themes in these comments, but stuck to an old fashioned table containing 4 themes. A summary of the descriptors are below:

IRRELIGION RELIGION CHRISTIANITY GOD
Improvement Irrational Indoctrinated Myth-maker
Grown-up Blind Stupid Authority' (in negative context)
Good news Training for the simple in moral values Narrow-minded
Years of education is paying off Morality is separate Bigoted
A natural outcome of thinking societies Sterile Stupid
People are free to me more moral, compassionate, helping the poor Incalculable evil Judgmental
Politicians should pay attention (to cater to this demographic) Explanation of the unknown Repulican party has manipulated Christianity
Does not explain bad things Conservatism of evangelicals a threat
Institutional faith demands faith If only evangelicals could be down to zero
Racism Evangelicals only a slight decline (in negative context)
Misogyny Maybe it comforts some, but all untrue
Politicized
Denying reproductive rights
Denying gay rights
Backwards-thinking
Idiotic
Brain-washed
No need to tolerate them
Among the worst scourges of the world
No religious people = No religious wars
Keep your religion private, leave others in peace

There were only 3 or 4 comments from those who admitted to being religious or Christian, and these were in the nature of seeing a silver lining in these results (as I too tend to see them)- that, cultural Christianity is declining and a more honest Christianity is hopefully replacing it. I also hope that a less politicized (not apolitical) Christianity would take its place- a Christianity which plays in the public sphere, whether political or not, but not interested in seeking power, rather seeing all human institutions as natural ecosystems to live out and proclaim the Gospel in a winsome manner.

I'm also glad that Evangelicalism has been shown to be in decline- it has long been a contention that Evangelicals do not need to worry as much, it is only the mainline Protestants and Catholics who are facing the decline. Clearly, this should give Evangelicals pause for thinking. The descriptors above show what atheists and other 'nones' think of us. I'm also glad that these comments are seeing the light of day- most people who read them and have even a little wisdom will understand how intolerant and patronizing these comments are, disregarding completely the many scientists, compassionate humanitarians, social/political workers around the world who have positively changed the world through their faith and inspired actions. One commentator, whose displayed name had the suffix PhD, made the comment that one should not tolerate the backwards-thinking, stupid, idiotic and brain-washed people who believe in God.

One commentator, tellingly, remarked that he hoped this would be the end of politicians saying 'God bless America'. A friend of mine recently mentioned he hoped we would say instead 'America, bless God' and that our problems are rooted in the fact that we have not found our rejoicing in God. I agree with this sentiment- I also believe that we (Christians) are to blame for this. Telling all Americans to bless God would be silly- clearly not all of them believe in God in the first place. Those who need to bless God are those who believe, specifically those who have known his saving grace.

I'm convinced that it is not our lack of knowledge that contributed to this decline, but rather our loss of Jesus' central command to love our neighbor, especially here in the US. My Christian friends in Nepal and India are risking life and limb at this very moment to rescue those trapped under buildings, nursing the injured and the sick and providing food, shelter, water and healthcare to those affected by the earthquake. Despite a lot of bluster from Richard Dawkins following the Haiti earthquake, I have not seen any specifically non-religious effort outside of governmental initiatives to help such people.

If Christianity is in decline in the US- or for that matter, anywhere- it is because we have become, as Ron Sider put it, 'rich Christians in an age of hunger'- in other words, not Christian at all, at least in terms of our patterns of living. A Christian commentator saw a silver lining in that he thought this may mark the bottom of the decline and the time may be now ripe for a revival. I doubt this. Looking around I still see the politicking, the narrow confines of our vision in regards to those who need God's grace and our grace the most- the LGTBQs, those who have had abortions, undocumented aliens for whom our healthcare pay or provider systems have precious little to offer, the incarcerated, the poor, the colored, and all others to whom we have denied our grace.

I also share no enthusiasm for the idea that the 'new generation' will embrace these values. If anything, the young are more likely to be nihilists and far more selfish than their parents were or are. But I believe in the supernatural acts of grace that God brings about to alter the hard hearts of Americans (I use the word intentionally). This is surprising and unpredictable. On that I hitch my hope- and on nothing else. In other words, God help us!


 

Friday, April 17, 2015

Cover Art Gone the Way of the Dodo

Cover art used to be covert art. Humble and creative. Now it is rarely art and never covert. Sad how things have changed. Several people I know like to buy old books not simply from a store, but used items from eBay or Amazon, and not just for the low prices. Today’s cover art leaves a lot to be desired. Am I making a lot of noise over nothing?

There is a reason why people still like to read books on paper despite Kindle taking over a big chunk of reading space. This is the same reason why tablet interfaces for books tend to mimic pages of a real book- the layout, the little dog-ear when you turn the page, the sound it makes and so on. There is a mysterious and timeless quality to a page.

Getting back to cover art, take for instance the following contemporary covers of perennial favorites- PG Wodehouse and Enid Blyton.

 
 
 



This degeneration of a magnificent, if self-effacing form of art is reflective of our attitude towards literature in general- impatient, ill-willed, indecent and mercenary, instead of reflective, inspiring, principled and holding in balance the experience of reading and the edification from the source material to our knowledge or skills. We have lost the art of listening, and along with it the ageless art of reading. Cover art is meant to capture moments, themes and attitudes the reader will encounter in the book. I believe cover art began degenerating in the 80s and it has been downhill ever since. In my view it achieved its peak in the 60s and 70s. Here are some examples to prove it. And don’t talk to me about pulp fiction paperbacks- these are not representative of the best cover art, and should be relegated to the recesses of the mind in order to make a fair comparison.

1. WODEHOUSE CLASSIC COVERS

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

2. BLYTON CLASSIC COVERS

 
 
 
 

3. MAGNUM EASY EYE CLASSIC COVERS

 
 
 
 
 



 


This applies to covers of LPs, singles and other music publications as well. We all know the high art in Pinkfloyd covers. Take also for instance the following cover art for a collection of George Melachrino compositions:



Granted, it is mostly a photograph, but isn't the picture and the layout so much more appealing than the appalling contemporary Carrie Underwood album below?




QED, I think!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Venting- Buying a SIM Card


For any travelers to India seeking a local SIM Card:

1. Assuming you have a handset that supports GSM and is not locked (attached to a specific carrier like AT&T or Verizon), you go out to buy a SIM Card.
2. Although you can get this from any dealer for Airtel, Vodafone, VSNL, etc; be sure to get it from a store that you can access easily for the next 2-3 days, because you may need to go to the dealer a couple of times during that time.
3. Get a prepaid card. If you pay upfront to recharge this card over and above the minimum balance that the card gives you, get a receipt for this.
4. Be sure you have (a) documentation- basically a copy of your passport with the photo and bio pages as well as the India visa page and the page where your address is shown, (b) 2 passport size photos; (c) an address where you are staying (some dealers may ask you for proof such as a hotel invoice); and (d) a friend or contact whose cell number you must give- the company will call that number for verification and will later send a text message to the number that your phone is active.
5. It will take a minimum of 24 hours for the reference/verification to be done. After this your contact will get a text message requesting that the prepaid SIM buyer (you) call a number from the phone to activate the number.
6. When you call the number they will activate your number and after a 30 minute =delay you are in theory up and running
7. In reality you may find, as I did, that your talk time balance is Rs. 0, and you cannot make any calls. You can call the customer service number but they will direct you to the store from which you bought the card. You will need to check with them about the money you paid for both the basic SIM Card pack (there is a minimum talktime balance attached to it) as well as any recharge you made.
Then they will call Airtel and get the card recharged with the balane you are due.

In short what should take a few minutes will take you over 48 hours. Be prepared for this if you decide to buy a SIM card in India

Reflections on Landing in India


As the airplane touched down on Dubai’s airport runway and the setting Arabian sun pierced through the windows with hues of red, I sat back and thought of the people I had left behind for a month. Of Al, our short shouting match, for which I felt guilty, that my recent irritability at everything should cause such a ruffle in our otherwise calm moments before my leaving. All because she found my glasses dirty, had to clean them, and complained about the increasing dirt. Of David, his smiling face, so eager to please, his face expectantly looking up to see if there was happiness or any sign of displeasure, and if the latter, his face quizzical in expression, young life flickering like a candle, which we must be cautious to kindle and not starve of life-giving oxygen. Of Emma, her confusions, challenges and questions as we grows up- as she makes mistakes and learns, sometimes the hard way, sometimes through behavior-modification induced by cajoling from her parents. My loves. How I miss them already.

I touched down, texted my wife my belated sorrow at having caused her sorrow, boarded the connecting flight to Mumbai, and after touching down again, reconnected with Philip, my friend who took me to church as this was a Sunday. A loud, mostly young collection of people, with eagerness to share the reason for their joy and new ideas to express themselves through art, music, movies, food, et al. All concepts which have never been my strengths. Through the day, I kept thinking how Indian youth, and even people of my generation have become so tuned in to the emerging zeitgeist in India which is decidedly young (most of India is very young), and global in nature with a stubbornly Indian accent and mannerism.

I think of my poor parents, long in touch with technology- all the way upto the mid 2000s, now somewhat left behind by the new world of social media and smartphones, my mom disabled by her declining eyesight and sickness-forced reclusiveness, my dad who, though in better shape, has had his share of challenges posed by aging and a body whose immunity has become less effective over the years. Both of them gave their all to their work, and now receive a paltry pension from the government, while their juniors who retired after them receive far more. Today’s India does not care much for its seniors, or for that matter, people who hold no promise to produce goods or services.

In my childhood I remember talking to my dad about economic systems, and wondering if the socialist model had merit, while my dad, infused by the liberalization taking place in the then Soviet Union, East Germany and other places, denounced state-planned economy as if from a pulpit. Frm then I have always seen such systems as problems. As life went on and I worked my way through India and the US, climbing the ladder and experiencing the vagaries of capitalism, and all the while seeing India pass me by, becoming unfamiliar, both in appearance and in interactions, as if I were talking to a stranger who I knew a long time ago, perhaps in my childhood, who is now different in every way, except I know that our shared childhoods carry memories.

Today’s India doesn’t care much about providing universal healthcare or a living wage. But am I truly seeing things as they were back in the day? We were middle class, and with my dad’s rising career, moving upward and onward towards being ‘upper middle class’, which we were at the time of his retirement. For a few years after his retirement, his company paid for his healthcare, which they stopped doing after his angioplasties and two open heart bypass surgeries. Thank God for his grace, that after then, dad has not had a major medical challenge which required a procedure. Now he is stuck with declining strength, illnesses which take forever to subside, and a noticeable shiver in his voice and limbs, mirroring the tremors in his once-unshakeable confidence. Today’s India cares about celebrity, with newspapers showing on their front pages pictures of actors inaugurating a new school or hospital, while thousand die of Ebola, famine, war, terrorism, abductions and other causes that make Americans skip a beat each morning as they pore over Google News or watch TV news in the evenings. Today’s India teems with marching workers who stream through gates of gleaming edifices of newly minted technology companies or through converted factory campuses, green and leafy, with an old world charm belying the work that happens within, fitted now to house service workers taking calls, processing insurance claims or fare-filing for airlines. All the while there is human drama outside those walls, little children, the promise of our future, defecating on sidewalks outside their shanties, unashamed and surrounded by people.

Back in the day they must have been the invisible people, or were they simply people we chose not to see? Going about their lives in the slums, some of them trafficked from different states to work as maids or house-boys at a tender age when others in different economic strata would spend their time playing or reluctantly going to school, an exercise imposed on them for which they had no relish, but for which those others who lived in the shadows would have dearly given everything. Singing in trains and asking for food with indefatigable optimism expressed through toothy smiles and cocky rasping voices, not yet broken, but perpetually hoarse with tuneless singing.

Did our welfare state back then hold them any promise? For sure it promised them a lot during public rallies on the eve of elections. They were and are actors in an immense economic machine, without whom India today would collapse like a ton of bricks and fold up in a hurry like a cheap suit. Washing cars, scrubbing floors, cooking food, dressing babies, and doing a thousand other things for which they are ill-paid, although the new middle class would strongly disagree that they are poorly compensated. They would count the free food, accommodation (if they are live-in staff), safety, lack of commute and other such perks to make their case. A small increase of a thousand rupees to their salary, the amount some of them would pay for a dinner at a restaurant, would get their goat.

So which is better? The welfare state or the laissez faire? After all these years I don’t care. I’m an opportunist, so I will grab any opportunity to support those who need help. The aging, the uneducated, the slum-dwellers, the children, the women and myriad others whose lives are now simply factors of production.

India offers a lot of scope for reflection. The taxi driver who drove me to my meeting, who came to Mumbai 21 years ago from Jharkand, as a youngster, having come from a background he describes as ‘weak’, meaning mud huts (‘mitthi ka ghar’) and no support from anyone or anywhere, no job and no prospects in his state. He has now built homes for his family in Jharkand (bada ghar hain abhi), but his life is in Mumbai now. He lives with his family in a small house with hardly any space, paying a rent that takes away most of his income, but as he says, ‘That’s life-everything works for good, and we must see it that way.’ Which taxi driver talks this way in Chicago? That’s India for you. Heart on its sleeve, and none of the grit hidden, though our modern rising stars of the middle class would like to hide it all away behind glass and steel towers, shimmering as if in a desert, and a lifestyle at the opposite end of a pole from these invisible people.

The theme of invisibility is strongly upon my mind today. Perhaps because I’ve been listening the Sara Groves album, ‘Invisible Empires’. In it she sings:

And I don't know where we are
Are we passing through these wires
Are we walking through the streets
Of invisible empires


I hope we are passing through the streets of the one Invisible Kingdom that will be revealed when the dirt of this world's decay shall be peeled away and the rays of the rising Son would touch upon the invisible people.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Animal Spirits


At a gathering at a friend's home last week, we had a fascinating discussion on how our consumption-based model keeps America's economy alive on the one hand; while on the other hand this is perpetuated by the dollar supremacy that seems destined to reign for the foreseeable future.

We all agreed that innovation in the future is the big bet we are placing on in order to enable the debt repayments on domestic and foreign holdings, not to mention the currency itself which is debt in its pure form. To be able to print more currency, we assume that innovation will continue forever. I asked my friend if that were the case, then if there was any place for contentment in our economy. He replied there wasn't.

We also talked about the apparently unfair trade advantage that China has over us, as well as the outsourcing in blue collar work (I would add white collar work as well), as to how this will impact our economy. We discussed the notion of unending innovation as being the answer to these issues as the following chart illustrates. A new product X is created, and this creates jobs in the American economy. Eventually parts of its lifecycle are outsourced, so America does not benefit from "full employment" to the extent this product could offer. However a new product Y (or X + 1) is created through innovation, and it continues this cycle of peaks and troughs in employment.


My friend, though, made the point that innovation will mean less blue collar work, and less opportunities for those with less relevant education. This seems true, even as large innovative companies like Facebook and Google employ less and less people than such a corporation would formerly have, given their revenues and share in the economy.

So we agreed that even as America as a country will continue to prosper, we cannot" (a) prevent shocks such as a the recent housing bubble and the resulting financial meltdown; and (b) ensure reasonably egalitarian growth. In short the domestic economy suffers from both inconsistency and inequality. These are related. The richest will recover faster and more spectacularly from such recessions, and inequality will continue to increase. The richest benefit in this way because the government's currency regime, hinging on its ability to print currency to repay debt and bail out the largest players in the economy, will ensure this. The poorest will continue to get scraps from the table in terms of loan modifications, tax cuts, etc.

This creates challenges for: (a) people below a certain income level measured over a few years, who cannot create enough personal income and wealth to hedge against contingencies or to remain competitive in the face of a highly educated elite class with new toys that help them compete; and (b) countries other than the US which are forced to use the US Dollar as their currency. 

In the first case, that of individuals, their 'basic needs' as defined by economists a century ago, namely, food, shelter and clothing, may be met, but the definition of basic needs as I mentioned in another post keeps changing. The above chart also illustrates this. An innovative product will either become irrelevant as soon as new technology replaces it; or it will go through a period in which it becomes a 'basic need'. For instance, a smartphone today is not a basic need, but it may soon become one even as it supports digital payments instead of credit cards,serves as a tool to prevent home break-ins,  controls access to cars, serves as a GPS device or as a tool to access repositories for documents, media, financial information and control. If traditional mechanisms for transacting merchandise and services make way for digital or virtual mechanisms via such devices, then a person who does not carry such a device becomes noncompetitive and therefore dangerously close to dire circumstances, the equivalent of a person who today does not know how to pay cash for food. This is why all innovations, such as in healthcare, communications, education and so on, eventually become human rights as economies progress, because though human rights are absolute in nature, they are dispensed via interactions and therefore relational (not relative). The need for a smart phone may not be a human right now, but the need for a certain level of education is- and this may call for a device such as a smartphone in the future. In other words, if human beings build up infrastructure for community, such as nations and economies, then each human being who has any part in such community (as a member, partner, beneficiary or an unrelated stakeholder) has levels of needs which must be considered basic human rights for that community, in that time and age.

In the second case, that of countries other than the US, it gets tricky. They cannot inflate the economy as wantonly and elaborately as the US does, because they will need to repay the debt that arises from it. Unfortunately for them, their debt is not denominated in US Dollars. So while economists like Paul Krugman who argue against austerity are right in that European countries which suffer from their levels of unemployment, low growth, low productivity, etc, should spend in order to recover, they need to be much more cautious (than the US) to ensure their debt does not get out of hand. These countries are also tied at the hip to the US via trade. This can help them immensely, as it has in the case of China, which has seen remarkable levels of growth and the redemption of millions of people out of poverty. While they have this benefit, they also are vested in the growth of the US as they hold US government debt which could be repaid only if the US grows enough to keep up. In the case of countries like Russia, we see that this economic relationship is a Faustian bargain which will turn on them if they misbehave, never mind that the US itself is guilty of similar behavior. Russia's options are limited in the face of the current gas price war and limited sanctions in the wake of their attack on Ukraine. Is this a good thing? Americans would say it is, but the price for such punishment is always borne not by leaders but by workaday human beings just like them in Cuba, Russia, Iran and other countries.

Years ago, John Maynard Keynes coined the term 'Animal Spirits' in economics to describe public mood or consumer confidence which drives consumption and therefore investment. People today believe, as my friend did, that the desire to "have", or the "wants", or as Gordon Gecko would put it, "greed", drives innovation. In other words, necessity is the mother of innovation. I think this is only one third of the story. If this were indeed true, why is it that human technological progress increased rapidly from the industrial revolution, and not in the previous centuries? Were human beings less intelligent prior to that time in history? It doesn't seem that way at all. The ancients did produce great works of mathematics, philosophy and literature. We tend to blame our institutions, such as religious or governmental, for stymieing progress. Maybe there is some truth to this. But I believe innovation stems from (a) our need; (b) our desire for truth; and (c) God's sovereign provision. All of these, I believe, are designed and given to us, which means that at some point, they could slow down as they did prior to the Industrial Revolution, or even stop altogether. Betting on unlimited innovation, simply because we seem to have unlimited greed, seems to be betting on fool's gold. Innovation stems first and foremost from a creative God who has blessed us with creativity.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

My Christmas Cocoa Message- December 13- to Emma's Friends

Exactly 30 years ago- in December 1984- I was about your age. I grew up in Southern India, Southwestern India, to be exact. Southwestern India is a tropical place, full of coconut palms, beautiful lakes, beaches and cottages. I grew up at a time when neighborhoods celebrated festivals like Christmas together. Each home would have very carefully arranged nativity scenes, lights on trees, huge paper stars hung up everywhere, on trees, rooftops, on strings hung between trees and so on, in different colors, all lit up with bulbs inside, and in some places, made entirely by hand with pieces of wood, string, glue and paper!

Christmas of 1984 was very special to me because the previous year my granddad was diagnosed with cancer and after long treatment in a faraway city, he had come home. Relatives from all over came to visit and in fact stay at my granddad’s house (and in nearby relatives’ homes) for 3-4 days, during Christmas. Uncles, aunts, first and second cousins, my granddad’s closest relatives, all came together to celebrate. I think everyone felt that he had been saved from cancer by God’s grace, but he was very old, so he only had a little more time to live on earth, so they wanted to come and celebrate with him.

As you can imagine I found it a wonderful time. We all played our part in decorating the house, in building a huge nativity scene, playing games with cousins and friends, listening to carolers who were common in our part of the country in those days. Carolers would come and perform small plays, besides singing. One of the songs that was popular in those days went something like this (in translation):

God is being born
As a human being in Bethlehem
In a mountainous valley filling up with snow
Joyful laughter filling hearts in heaven and on earth
From a sweet, angelic melody


I felt very sad when Christmas day came to an end and everyone left the following day. I’d received a toy drum whose skin I’d broken by poking it hard with the end of the drumsticks- it was a cheap drum! Besides that we were done with all the fun! On the evening of the 26th, granddad’s brother saw a crow (raven) which was struggling to fly. It was on the ground and he realized it was wounded someplace. So he took it and placed it in a cage we had and gave it some food. Sadly it died in a couple of days. Everyone thought it looked sad, refusing to eat, probably wanting to be with other crows and not in captivity.

In the years that followed, I’ve tried to remember that Christmas and wondered what made it so special. I’m sure when you grow up you will have lots of memories about Christmases that were the most fun. So what made it really special? Was it because of the kindness shown by family and friends to my granddad? Was it because this was the first time I thought seriously about who Jesus was and why he came to earth to be born into a feeding place for animals, in poverty and squalor, in fact even threatened by a king who wanted him done? Was it because of the gifts? Was it because of the joy I remember on the faces of my family that I have not seen so clearly in the years to come? I’m not sure. But each time I hear that song I remember the joy:

God is being born
As a human being in Bethlehem
In a mountainous valley filling up with snow
Joyful laughter filling hearts in heaven and on earth
From a sweet, angelic melody


Our carols tell the Christmas story clearly, don’t they? We have heard these songs so many times, so we may not spend much time thinking about what they are saying:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let earth receive her king. Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing.’

Or:

Hark! The herald angels sing, "Glory to the newborn King! Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled

Or take our readings in the Advent season: ‘The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. And those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.

Or:

‘Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.’

Why do these songs talk about light, joy, glory, triumph, peace, mercy, a new born king (though he was born in poverty)? You’ve heard the Christmas story many times, about the star that guided wise men to a manger- a feeding place for animals in a stable, angels singing praises to God and guiding shepherds also to this place, about Mary and Joseph who did not find any room to stay in Bethlehem to which they were traveling, and finally giving birth to Jesus in the stable and laying him in the manger in swaddling clothes. I would like you to think about this event and why it was so special that over 2000 years after this event, people around the world are still singing about this and talking about it, some with doubt and anger, others with joy and peace. I’d like to close with the words of a newer song called ‘Welcome to our World’ that captures the meaning of this joy and peace:

Tears are falling, hearts are breaking
How we need to hear from God
You've been promised, we've been waiting
Welcome Holy Child
Welcome Holy Child

Hope that you don't mind our manger
How I wish we would have known
But long-awaited Holy Stranger
Make yourself at home
Please make yourself at home

Bring your peace into our violence
Bid our hungry souls be filled
Word now breaking Heaven's silence
Welcome to our world
Welcome to our world

Fragile finger sent to heal us
Tender brow prepared for thorn
Tiny heart whose blood will save us
Unto us is born
Unto us is born

So wrap our injured flesh around you
Breathe our air and walk our sod
Rob our sin and make us holy
Perfect Son of God
Perfect Son of God
Welcome to our world

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Contextual Intelligence and Misunderstandings

Nearly every opinion of culture, especially a foreign culture is influenced by our understanding of right and wrong. Tarun Khanna's article on contextual intelligence in the September 2014 issue of the Harvard Business Review talks about the implications of applying Western business understandings to other cultures.

The Aristotelian view of human activity classifies it into three distinct components. Nearly all our misunderstandings of culture arise from confusing these categories, especially virtue (an application) confused with universal principles (an overarching truth). I made this illustration to highlight this fact:


And so, our desire for truth, a universal principle, could mean 'telling the truth' at all times in a society like the United States, but something different, say in Nazi Germany, where people like Oscar Schindler likely needed to conceal their activities to accomplish what was right. When we conflate virtue and universal principles mistakenly, we often get an impoverished version of reality.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

My Failure

A few days ago a former colleague shared with me that another former associate was facing some difficult times. He was doing alright financially and at work, but his wife had been diagnosed with cervical cancer. The local hospital had declared it inoperable and he had taken her to the University of Chicago Hospital, which is a teaching hospital. I called him and he asked me to pray for him. He said he was hopeful that his wife will be healed, and that many other friends are praying for them. I offered him help with looking after kids or any other meaningful help, but he lived a ways from me, and though he acknowledged my offer politely, did not take me up on it.

This friend is a very socially active person. In the days when we worked together he organized the local Indian community to donate food and supplies to a local humanitarian organization called Loaves and Fishes which helped the homeless. He also teamed up with the pastor at a large Assemblies of God church to work with his community to support Loaves and Fishes. He has been working with the mayor and leadership of his city to support community activities among Indians. He is a leader in the local shakha or wing of the community organization Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh. This organization enables training in Hindu virtues and doctrine. Borrowing a page from Christian youth education, they have Sunday school-like classes, along with social activities with a cultural twist, including regular picnics and camps. He has hosted Hindu victims of persecution from countries which have treated Hindus shabbily, and his love for them is genuine.

Often in conversations he would complain about his job and the fact that many people around him do not respond to his work rightly, that often there is unfairness in performance reviews. He firmly believes that Indian ethos means essentially good things, and anything such as rape, female infanticide or other social ills in India are in fact foreign and the result of the advent of Kaliyug, the final dark ages in each cycle of an aeon, which repeats itself infinitely.

Over the past few weeks many events in my life took my attention away from his case- sicknesses and deaths of near and dear ones- and I followed his updates on Facebook. Recently he mentioned that his fruits and flowers which he placed before the idol in his home showed traces of a sacred flame, and felt that these were signs that God was listening. He also posted messages of thanks to over a hundred (literally) friends individually. These people had visited him, helped him tangibly, bringing food, prayers and other elements of support. He posted pictures of some of them, and was touched by their support.

From my own interactions with people, I have often wondered how much they are called to sacrifice to move out of a community with such strong ties and pledge allegiance to Jesus. To a person whose life revolves around such community ties, we often offer a poor imitation of the real thing. Missionaries, especially cross-cultural ones, intentionally offer them real and sincere friendship, but I wonder if such things could ever be a match. Granted, my friend was so active socially, that a lot of this is natural. I doubt that even if with my own family and friends numbering in the hundreds, I would receive such love and support in such a situation from so many.

Is it any wonder then, that when we approach a person with the message that Jesus loves her, she finds it nothing more than a well-intentioned generic message of God’s love that she could uncover from any religious text anywhere? The message of Jesus’ sacrifice is singular and unique, but as we proclaim it as a proposition, without proof in and through our lives that He indeed loves her, I don’t believe that what we are proclaiming is in fact the full gospel. If that were the case, we could send notes containing the basic message of the gospel and not inter into anyone’s lives at all.

In the book ‘In the Company of the Poor’, Gustavo Gutierrez, credited with coining the term ‘Liberation Theology’ in his 1971 book ‘A Theology of Liberation’, says, “Liberation Theology begins with the question, ‘How do we tell the poor that Jesus loves them?’” Sharing the gospel with the poor must accompany our understanding of their longing for justice- and not only eternal justice, but temporal justice as well. Without the missionary herself identifying with the poor and actively undertaking to accomplish justice on behalf of the poor, I believe that what the missionary preaches is in fact not the Gospel. Liberation theology is often accused of having a horizontal focus with even an intentional denial of the propositional gospel. This is not universally true of liberation theologians, though, and while I think this is a serious mistake and denies the gospel outright, I believe the propositional gospel as a proposition, as a set of facts without a personal context is not the Gospel. The propositional gospel must inform the contextual evangelization and the love of the missionary for the people in order for it to be the full Gospel.

There are reports of people having come to faith by just reading the Bible. The Holy Spirit works to accomplish what we cannot. I believe that this upends all our claims to be effective workers for the kingdom. In that sense, the propositional gospel enters into the lives of people through God's direct intervention. More often, though, God works through people to make this happen- and He himself seals the deal through conviction, repentance and faith.

History is replete in many places, and often in India, of missions attempting to replace a community’s most cherished attributes with a culturally compromised version of the Gospel- and not just in the songs, religious text, practices, holy days and community. Sometimes this is necessary, but often not so much. I feel I have let my friend down in his time of need- but many others, some from his community and some others from outside it- have not. In my goal to be an intentional missionary to everyone that I come across, I have failed miserably to care enough for this person. And this should be food for thought as to whether what I’m sharing is the full Gospel.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Giving up on God

I found this article in The Guardian and posted a comment on it. The link to the article and my comment are here:

Article: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/aug/25/ebola-africans-die-god-american-doctor?

Comment (appearing on Page 8 of the comments section):

I think this is an important question to ask. Is Dr. Brantly justified in thanking God, when many others are dying of the same disease, some even after receiving the medicine that Dr. Brantly did? I think the answer, unfortunately for most people, is not and cannot be simple. We have all heard the reasons that believers tend to give: that God has a better plan for everyone that we cannot see, that man, not God, is responsible for these deaths, because of our callousness towards those in need, that God’s purpose in suffering is to save or strengthen souls.

While these explanation serve to strengthen faith in believers, people who ask questions like the one Ms. Hanson asks are not looking for these answers. For each question there is a context, and Ms. Hanson shares hers: the inability to relate to God as being transcendent from physicality (this is significant, and not puerile- as a transcendent God could be misunderstood to be absent or uncaring), the lack of divine retribution for offenders (or as a corollary, sorrow and pain for many devout), a view of the faithful as being intellectually impoverished and as peddling God. These do not cover the range of reasons as to why people disbelieve, but they are some that are mentioned in the article.

It is important to realize that God’s goodness does not necessarily equate to principles we have derived, say from nation-building or economic efficacy. Therefore it does not translate to pleasant lives for all- or for that matter, even pleasant deaths; or equal economic status or rights. This is not to say that such things are not good- but our judgment of God is not based on whether several thousand die of Ebola, is it? Isn’t it based on the question why even one person has to die at all- of Ebola or anything else? Or in other words, isn’t it based on why there is any suffering at all?

Works by people like Dr. Paul Farmer show us how in history human beings have created systems that have killed others. Poverty has not appeared in a vacuum. It has been even intentionally created and perpetuated by people. In his book, Infections and Inequalities, he demonstrates how diseases like AIDS, Ebola and TB, as well as natural disasters strike and kill the poor disproportionately. The 2010 Haiti earthquake cost the country its entire GDP, and 250,000 people died, while millions were injured or displaced. Earthquakes do not kill many people directly, falling buildings do. We have the technology to prevent these building collapses, and they have been proven only recently in California, how even with a moment magnitude of 6.0 no lives were lost though there was financial damage- a mere $2 Billion as one newspaper estimated.

People looking for a simple answer to God’s workings are not likely to get it, because such people are not asking real questions. For example, you could ask me: “If God exists, what does his toenail look like?”- as Ms. Hanson asks in the article, clearly in a facetious manner, but the point is well taken. That question is not so much a question as it is rhetoric. Ms. Hanson clearly gave up on God much before she says she did. The question to ask, then, is this: “My heart and mind are looking for meaning, in my life and in the lives of others. When people die of horrific circumstances in the millions, I fear that there is no meaning. Is there meaning anywhere” The search for God is a sincere search for meaning.

I would like to tell you that there is indeed meaning, and it is people like Dr. Brantly, Dr. Farmer, Dr. Gary Haugen and several others who follow God’s call to serve those who are victimized, who find it. Many others do as well, even without such sacrifices. It is not my place to judge them. They are content with the answers they have been given. Each of us must seek God from our own vantage points.

If the history of our struggle against suffering could be juxtaposed against our agonizing questions, we find that God has indeed intervened on our behalf. We claim science has delivered Dr. Brantly, and not God. Dr. Farmer’s research, as that of many others, shows that pills alone don’t make anyone well. The heart of God makes ways to reach each of us, despite our active campaigns against it. “Giving up on God, ever” is a statement that reveals intent, not conclusion. I pray that you will continue your search.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Soulless Faith

The pithy sayings that permeate our lives in church: "if you find a perfect church, don't go there- you'll ruin it", or "there are no perfect Christians, only forgiven ones" aim to discourage seekers from finding a people who could be held to the standard of Jesus. But how about if a person looking for a church was in fact looking for Jesus himself- the perfect spotless lamb of God? Shouldn't she find Jesus among the people? Sure enough, she may find Him if she were to use a magnifying glass- in the songs, praises, homilies, quotations from the Bible, and so on. Often they substitute genuine passion for passionate oratory, music and "relevance" as evidenced by their astute understanding of prevailing zeitgeist

.But what if she found a people who wouldn't allow non-Christians to join their schools, and did charity instead of seeking real justice in the world, who cared about personal piety rather than the spiritual bankruptcy of the world, of political victories rather than kingdom victories, of allaying one's conscience rather than always living in the tension between the world's tragedy and Jesus' hope? 

I have seen this since coming to the US- and though initially disillusioned, this eventually gave new meaning to those pithy sayings. Truly, there are no perfect churches- but there are churches in which the gospel is long lost, then there are churches which are "Bible-believing" in that they believe in a set of propositions that sum up the Gospel, which if you believe you are saved, but whose lives don't look very much like they are indeed saved. I think this is the case with every person who was saved in the third world and has come to the West hoping for maturity of faith and fiery passion, the kind they see in some of the missionaries who visit their country every so often.

Unfortunately, just as they do not find such passion, most of these people succumb to the culture and become passionless themselves. They become the imperfect church. Curiously enough, in my experience, I have seen something else happen- the passion that once symbolized the churches in India, fledgling at the time, has been long lost- though they are now thriving in therms of the number of members and seekers and the resources at their disposal. Their conversation betrays a strong theological understanding and a global experience with the practice of such theological discourse.

In my opinion, the sooner a person discovers this the better. The disillusionment that follows may yet give way to a renewed desire to be not conformed to it, but to change. People I have seen who are pillars of faith have been often the most troubled. They are our teachers along the way.

Paul Farmer from Mountains Beyond Mountains:

If you’re making sacrifices, unless you’re automatically following some rule, it stands to reason that you’re trying to lessen some psychic discomfort. So, for example, if I took steps to be a doctor for those who don’t have medical care, it could be regarded as a sacrifice, but it could also be regarded as a way to deal with ambivalence.

I feel ambivalent about selling my services in a world where some can’t buy them. You can feel ambivalent about that because you should feel ambivalent. 

The tension between the world's tragedy and God's hope- we should always live there. That is the only place to have real hope. We cannot take our eyes off either end. Even as we lessen our psychic discomfort, it should never be fully done away with. Even as we may be discouraged often, we must never lose hope. On the one hand, our churches revel in God's abundant provision- of salvation, of hope, of creature comforts, of healing. On the other, we defend ourselves on being imperfect- why should we? Shouldn't we lament instead that the person of Jesus isn't found among ourselves when a lost soul comes to seek him?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Mountains Revisited

After so many years, I listened to the Audio Book version of 'Mountains Beyond Mountains' again, the book that first talked to me about Haiti and inspired me. Annie Dillard is right- it unfolds with a force of gathering revelation. It was all I could do to hold back from tears towards the end, just before the Afterword, when Farmer, Kidder and assistant Ti Jean have spent 11 hours walking to seek out 2 patients and resting under a tree in the starlit Haitian night on the way back to Cange.

I read this interview with Kidder on Huffpost recently, by writer Mark Klempner.

MK: Do you feel you were able to get to the truth of what makes Farmer tick, and how his organization has been able to gain so much traction for their idealistic principles?
TK: The little t truth. The big T truth doesn't belong to us.