Monthly Archives: October 2015

Bangladesh – Making News for the Wrong Reasons

Cricket is little known outside countries that were once part of the British Empire. Yet in some of those places, and particularly on the Indian sub-continent, it enjoys immense popularity. In India itself it is by far the most popular sport, and here in Australia our national team attracts a large and enthusiastic following.

So it was big news in early October when Cricket Australia announced that it had abandoned plans for a short series of test matches in Bangladesh, because of security concerns.

In the words of an official statement: “Following the most recent information from Australian Government agencies and our own security advisors, we have decided that, regrettably, we have no alternative but to postpone the tour.”

Unofficially, cricket executives were more blunt – they had received intelligence that Islamic State terrorists were becoming more active in Bangladesh, with foreigners a particular target. Now our national soccer team, the Socceroos, must decide what to do about its World Cup qualifying match in the country that is scheduled for November.

Sadly, this also has implications for Christians.

Until recently Bangladesh has not featured greatly in the concerns of Christians who follow the pains of the persecuted church. Yes, it is ranked at Number 43 in the latest Open Doors World Watch List of the countries where Christians face most persecution.

But even Open Doors conceded: “Bangladesh continues to be a secular country, and its constitution gives freedom to all religions to practice their own faith. The country does not have blasphemy laws or an anti-conversion bill.” It thus stands in contrast to Pakistan, with which it was once joined as a single nation.

But unfortunately, it shares one particular characteristic with Pakistan – a rise in extremist Islam. Open Doors has noted that radical Islamic groups have been pushing the government to modify the constitution, including demands for Sharia Islamic law.

On October 5th three men attacked a local Christian pastor and tried to slit his throat. He survived, and police have arrested a member of an Islamic political party in connection with the attack.

There have also been some recent attacks on foreigners in the country, with Islamic State claiming responsibility.

Bangladesh is not a country that is often in the news. I am guessing that it seldom features in the prayers of most Christians. It would be terribly sad if all this were to change because of the rise of Islamic extremism.

Camps of Refugees – Come, Lord Jesus

As refugees and migrants pour into Europe in ever-greater numbers, some commentators have been expressing wonder that so much of this was foretold in an amazing 1973 novel, “The Camp of the Saints.”

But the commentators are generally secular in outlook and so fail to note something else – that the novel is also, in some respects, a Christian parable that points to an “end-times” view of the end of civilization.

“The Camp of the Saints” was written by French Catholic novelist Jean Raspail and portrays a liberal Europe so stricken by guilt over its own perceived racism and past injustices that it is simply unable to resist when a million-or-so Asian migrants arrive in boats and declare their intention to stay.

Among many incredible parallels with today’s unfolding events, there is even in the 1973 book a Latin American pope intent on proclaiming his humility and preaching universal love.

Raspail’s thesis is quite clear: our Western liberal society – church included – has lost the will to defend itself.

The book, right from the start, injects an apocalyptic Christian theme. It actually begins with a revealing quotation from the Bible, which also provides its title:

And when the thousand years are completed, Satan will be released from his prison. And he will go forth to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for war, whose number is as the sand of the sea. And they went up over the breadth of the earth and encircled the camp of the saints and the beloved city. – Revelation 20:7-9

Does Raspail suggest that his book’s third-world “invasion” is part of the last battle of Satan? It would surely seem so.

So what is the proper Christian attitude to the escalating crisis? I live far away in Australia, and hesitate to voice a view. But certainly I wonder how Europe can possibly hope to integrate so many men and women from such different cultural backgrounds. I even wonder how many of them are genuine refugees.

But numerous Christians see only one valid response. The pastor of the church where, until recently, I was a worshipper, posted on his Facebook page a link to an article from Britain’s The Guardian newspaper that carried the headline: “Christian politicians won’t say it, but the Bible is clear: let the refugees in, every last one.” My ex-pastor added a comment: “Oh yeah! Wish I’d preached that.”

Here in Australia our previous government relaxed its enforcement of laws on illegal migrants, and suddenly we were hit by waves of tens of thousands of Asian boat people. More than one thousand are known to have drowned.

So two years ago a new government began intercepting and sending back all new arrivals, and within a remarkably short time the boats stopped. We still take thousands of refugees each year, but they come legally, systematically and safely. It is a stand that makes sense to me.

Other rich countries in this region like Japan and South Korea take virtually no refugees at all. My wife is Korean, and she recently read out to me a telling newspaper report. Some Asian countries, including hers, have just celebrated the annual Moon Festival, when families traditionally feast together. In Seoul a group of students, inspired by humanitarian activists in Europe, decided to organize a special meal for refugees in their country. But there was a problem. They could find only a dozen of them.

Perhaps the Bible is explicit in affirming that we must allow into our countries every last one of those seeking refuge. I am not so sure. But I do feel that, when I watch on television the heart-rending images coming from Europe, I am witnessing hints of the apocalyptic ending of our civilization. Surely I am not alone in retiring to bed at night thinking, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

The Hope of a True Arab Spring

Spring has arrived here in my home city of Melbourne, Australia, the fruit trees are in blossom and once again our garden is full of color. And not before time. We have just endured our coldest winter in twenty-six years. So much for global warming.

I mention this because I wonder if we are also witnessing a few fresh buds of hope in what has been a relentless season of bad news for Christians in the Middle East. In just the past couple of weeks I have read four separate news articles that talk of Muslim refugees to Europe who are turning to Jesus.

For example, under the headline, “Muslim Migrants Find More Than Refuge in European Churches,” the Wall Street Journal reports: “Priests and researchers say they have witnessed a parallel trend to the surge in migrant numbers flocking to Germany in recent years: a rise in conversions from Islam to Christianity.”

Meanwhile, the “Christian Today” website writes: “Hundreds of Muslim refugees are converting to Christianity in a Berlin church. Pastor Gottfried Martens has seen his congregation at the evangelical Trinity Church grow from 150 to more than 600 in just two years, describing the number of conversions as a ‘miracle’, according to Associated Press.”

The journalist in me is cynical. The numbers involved are fairly small. And might this be no more than a ploy by our liberal/left-wing media to indoctrinate us into becoming more accepting of the waves of mainly-Muslim refugees?

Heed, too, the words of the Wall Street Journal: “While most converts invoke spiritual reasons, people involved in the process point to another motivation: a conversion could make the difference between obtaining asylum or being deported.”

Yet the Christian in me has hope.

I was a journalist in Japan for many years. I wasn’t a Christian back then, and in fact became quite involved in Zen Buddhism. Early this year I was asked to address some trainee missionaries on my experiences. Later, at morning tea, I casually remarked that I felt sorry for Christian missionaries to Japan, as I regarded the people there as not especially receptive to the message of Jesus.

An experienced missionary was in attendance, and he agreed. But then he added: “We used to say the same about the Middle East. I know missionaries who spent years there without much result. But suddenly in the last few years we are seeing a big change. More and more Muslims are turning to the cross.”

This June and July our church participated in the “30 Days of Prayer for the Muslim World” event that is organized each year to coincide with the Ramadan festival. According to the official background booklet: “In our day we are seeing the greatest and most wide-reaching turning of Muslims to Christ in history.”

So are we actually witnessing the start of a real Arab spring, a turning to the true source of new life? Or do we see no more than a few weak buds that will quickly wither in the oppressive winter? I do not know. But I do know that God is actively at work, even – especially? – in the darkest of seasons. That is why I am filled with hope.

Cuba – Waiting for a Real Revolution of Religious Freedom

Pope Francis arrives in Cuba for a short visit. Might it lead to an end to the persecution of Christians that is a feature of this Communist nation? Unfortunately, the signs are not hopeful.

According to a June 2015 report from Christian Solidarity Worldwide, violations of religious freedom have actually been growing in severity during the year, with the authorities targeting church property as a new means of controlling religious groups.

A further cause for concern is the arrest in February 2015 of a church leader Jesus Noel Carballeda and his imprisonment since then without charge, apparently for his continued leadership of an underground church group.

The report concluded, in part: “Many observers have wrongly interpreted concessions given to a few religious groups, in particular the Roman Catholic Church, and the upcoming papal visit, as indicative of a new and growing respect for religious freedom. However, the growing severity of violations of freedom of religion or belief reported by a wide range of denominations and religious groups, and new legislation used to justify the arbitrary expropriation of religious properties in order to exert more control over the relevant religious group, are evidence of the opposite.”

Roberto Ornan Roche is a Cuban writer and also a strong Christian. I would particularly recommend his short book “The Lighthouse of Asaph,” which is a moving collection of devotionals. A few years ago I interviewed him about the reality of being a Christian in today’s Cuba.

He said that persecution began at a young age. “I remember when I was a schoolboy that our teachers made us stand at the front of the classroom, so that the other students could make fun of us because we were Christians,” he told me.

“The other children were trained to hate us. This was not an isolated practice. It was mandatory for the teachers to embarrass the Christian children. Likewise, it was necessary for parents to deny their faith so that their children could study at university.”

Despite this, he said, Cuba boasts some strong churches and excellent leaders. “Our pastor is a very good preacher,” he said. “He is very inspiring and his sermons attract a lot of non-believers. We also have home prayer groups, and fasting and prayer in the mornings.”

He described the congregation as “simple and humble, very poor and unpretentious,” and noted that some members who had been able to leave Cuba to live abroad were helping the church with gifts.

He also said that after waiting many years for a permit, and “jumping over thousands of bureaucratic barriers,” his small church was constructing a new building.

So there is hope. And I assume that eventually the Communist thugs who rule Cuba – and North Korea too – will be forced into retreat, delivering a real revolution of religious freedom. But I do not see signs that the Pope’s visit will be the catalyst that brings this about. I hope I might be proven wrong.

Anger and Confusion – the New Normal

Our Christian brothers and sisters in many countries find themselves under increasingly violent attack. I feel sure that I am not the only Western Christian who is unsure about the best response.

Should they fight back? I have written already that I believe they have no choice. But this must be measured.

Earlier this year suicide bombers targeted two churches in Pakistan, killing 15 worshippers. Anguished Pakistani Christians subsequently went on a rampage through the streets of Lahore. They blocked roads, attacked police and then seized two innocent suspects who were being held in police custody, and beat them both to death.

I wrote what I thought was a highly sympathetic column, stressing that the Pakistani authorities were notorious for not helping persecuted Christians.

But I also said: “It may be difficult to condemn…the spontaneous retaliation in Pakistan, but condemn [it] we must. We might argue about when it is permissible for Christians to fight back, but we can surely agree that mob violence is never the answer.”

Now I have heard from a Christian who was upset by my words. Here is an excerpt from her email:

“I am curious – are you a martyr, have you suffered or watched your family suffer for generations? You so easily write. If you condemn these then condemn David in the Bible who went and fought to get his wife back with his whole army…do you think people died that day? Heck yes!

“I do not encourage people killing the Muslims but neither do I condemn them. Are you a martyr? I have met several martyrs – each will tell you of weaknesses they struggle with. Imagine the guilt of the Christians who actually did the killing…Here you condemn and they need forgiveness just as much as the Muslims they killed.”

No, I am not a martyr. Not even close. I cannot begin to imagine what it is like to live as a Christian in a strictly Muslim country, suffering for generations. So perhaps she is right. Perhaps I should not have condemned the actions of the men who went on a rampage and ended up killing two innocent suspects.

But I feel I am correct. We cannot condone Christians who form unruly mobs, leading to out-of-control violence. We can understand it, and we might even know that under similar circumstances we could have done the same. But still we must condemn it, for the sake of our civilization.

And yes, it is true – I sit comfortably at home, writing so easily about persecution. The woman who emailed me is, apparently, nearer the front lines, dealing directly with the persecuted. In further correspondence she said that she too did not condone mob violence. But she had become upset when she witnessed my column somehow being used – I don’t know how – to condemn Christians.

We live in tumultuous times, with violence against Christians on a scale not seen in many centuries, and with a global media that beams the atrocities into our living rooms.

No wonder Christians are angry and confused about how to respond. I am too. I am beginning to think that anger and confusion are the new normal for our age.

Half-Price Beer – But It Comes at a Cost

It was one of those wonderful discoveries you dream of but never expect – half-price beer. And not just any beer, but premium, top-quality stuff, a while ago at my local supermarket.

“We’re discontinuing these lines,” said the shop assistant. “They’re almost all gone, so we’ve knocked down to half-price what’s left, to get rid of them today.”

There were only about six boxes left, and I bought virtually the whole lot. As I left, I asked the guy why they were discontinuing the sale of such good beers.

“We want to make space for more mixed cocktail drinks,” he said. “That’s where we make our biggest profits.”

I thought of this a week later when I attended a talk on teenagers and parties, given at my sons’ high school. The presenter was a local policewoman, Susan, an attractive blonde woman with the build of an East German swimmer, who told us she was previously in undercover.

What she said was blunt:

* Teenagers nowadays want alcohol at their parties, and they’ll bring it in, no matter how strict your supervision. They’ll hide it in trees, in your neighbor’s property or wherever, to retrieve once the party starts. The latest trick is to gift wrap it and pretend it’s a present.

* Kids know they can’t take home their alcohol, because they’ll get into trouble, so they finish everything they bring. And because they know they’ll get into trouble if they arrive home drunk, they drink all their liquor in the initial 30 to 45 minutes of the party. They go from sober to screaming drunk in a flash, then spend the party getting sober again.

* Some parents [I think she might have been looking at me when she said this] allow their teenagers a little alcohol at home, and are happy when they find the kids actually don’t like it. But that’s because they’re serving them expensive wine, when what the kids want are [the above-mentioned] cordial-like mixed cocktails.

* She said she tries all the new cocktail drinks as they hit the market. The latest milk-based drinks have no alcohol taste at all. They’re like liquid Mars Bars. And as most of these drinks are vodka-based they don’t leave an incriminating alcohol smell on the breath.

I went out and bought four of these drinks and later at home I tried them. Mudshake and Cowboy are milk-based cocktails tasting, respectively, of caramel, and butterscotch and cream. Vodka Cruiser is like a fizzy, passionfruit-flavored soft drink. Flirtini is a raspberry-flavored vodka cocktail, and the only one of the four that makes you feel like you’re drinking alcohol.

All four were extremely sweet and syrupy, and each left a bitter, metallic, chemical after-taste. Each had an alcohol content of around five per cent, and cost from A$3.30 to A$4.00 for a small bottle. This is more than double the price of a larger can of beer, with similar alcohol content. No wonder the supermarkets want to make more space.

I am still not sure where to direct my anger.

It’s clear that our kids are being royally ripped off, but it seems nowadays that if they’re not buying over-priced alcohol then they’re spending their money on new ringtones for their mobile phones, or on $100 designer sunglasses or wallets or whatever.

It’s disgusting that liquor companies are making alcoholic drinks that taste like chocolate milk shakes and are clearly aimed at the young. But if you have a liquor industry you can’t really expect them to make only drinks that people don’t like.

It’s dreadful that it is, apparently, not overly difficult for young people to obtain alcohol, though I don’t think that’s new, and, anyway, it’s probably pretty inevitable in a free society.

I think to me the outrage is that we have given our kids so little to believe in, that, when they get to a party, about all they want to do is get blind drunk as fast they can.

Our Culture’s Biblical Illiteracy – “An Illness Which May Be Terminal”

More than two decades ago, at the age of forty-four, I became a Christian. In an effort to “catch up” with others in my church, I enrolled at the Bible College of Victoria, a well-regarded evangelical institution here in Melbourne. Eventually I completed a Graduate Diploma in Christian Studies.

Some time later I was chatting with one of the college lecturers, and he remarked: “If you wanted to catch up with the people in your church you didn’t need to do a diploma. I could have taught you in an afternoon what they know.”

He was being sarcastic, but truth lay in his words. The decline in biblical literacy in our culture has been startling.

Here is what theologian Professor George Lindbeck has written:

The decline of biblical literacy has been abrupt and pervasive. Language, culture and imagination have also been debiblicized at a remarkable rate.

The decline affects intellectuals and non-intellectuals, the religious and the non-religious, those inside the churches and those outside, clergy and laity and…Bible-loving conservatives as well as purportedly less biblical liberals. ….

When I first arrived at Yale, even those who came from non-religious backgrounds knew the Bible better than most of those now who come from churchgoing families.

Though I came from a non-Christian family, I found I knew lots about the Bible when – twenty-two years ago – I first set foot inside my local Baptist church.

I knew, for example, that there were an Old and a New Testament and ten commandments. I knew the names of the four gospels as well as plenty about the life of Jesus. I could recite the Lord’s Prayer. And I had a strong knowledge concerning many of the characters, stories, literary expressions and proverbs of the Bible.

I guess this was partly because I had traveled a lot – not least including six months in Israel, exploring my Jewish roots – and had accumulated many life experiences, such as, for some years, a deep involvement in Zen Buddhism.

Also, I had always been a bookish, studious person. When I was at elementary school in New Zealand, in the 1950s, we had thirty minutes of (non-compulsory) religious education each week. One day the Congregational minister who taught us announced a contest, to see who could most accurately write down the Lord’s Prayer.

The winner? – Me, one of the few kids in the class back then who never went to Sunday School.

In any case, I find that some other non-Christian people my age also know a lot about the Bible. And younger people too often know little. I think it’s a disaster.

To quote George Lindbeck again:

Every major literate cultural tradition up until now has had a central corpus of canonical texts.…Without a shared imaginative and conceptual vocabulary and syntax, societies cannot be held together by communication, but only by brute force (which is always inefficient, and likely to be a harbinger of anarchy). 

But if this is so, then the biblical cultural contribution, which is at the heart of the canonical heritage of Western countries, is indispensable to their welfare, and its evisceration bespeaks an illness which may be terminal.


My Lucky House

It can be fascinating leading a weekly Bible study in which all the participants – bar myself – are Asian. It sometimes helps bring the Bible to life.

Once we were discussing the issue of eating food that had previously been offered to idols. This is a real issue for many Asian Christians. Despite the words of Paul (for example, in First Corinthians he says about such food that, “we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do”), most Asian Christians I know will not eat food that has previously been placed as a religious offering before the home altars that are found in the houses of many Buddhist and Taoist families.

My (Korean) wife had previously refused to eat some choice fruit offered to her by a Chinese Buddhist friend, after learning that it had come from the family altar. Others in our group say that when they are given such food they accept it, but will not eat it, instead passing it on to Buddhist friends.

I recall the time when we were talking about feng shui, an ancient Chinese spiritual discipline that seeks to bring harmony to our lives through bringing us into alignment with the natural forces of the universe. It is often used in home design and construction.

One member of our group noted that feng shui is practiced routinely by so many Chinese – particularly in Singapore – that even Christians subconsciously apply many of its principles when buying or building a home. That led to a lively (and unresolved) discussion about whether Christians should be adhering to the practices of other spiritual disciplines.

It’s like the argument about whether Christians should practice, say, yoga. And I guess Jews have similar issues about whether or not to ignore Christmas.

One lady told how her Buddhist father-in-law, visiting Melbourne from Malaysia, called in a feng shui expert to check out their home. She admonished him (it takes guts for a Chinese woman to admonish her father-in-law) and told him not to talk about these things.

As she said to us: “I don’t believe in feng shui, but it can prey on your mind. It’s better not to know.”

I know what she means.

In our neighborhood of Melbourne is a giant, white-stone mansion owned by a family of very wealthy Indian Sikhs. (Locals jokingly refer to this palace-like residence as the Taj Mahal.)

Three-and-a-half years ago we bought a new home. And when we came to sign the purchase contract we learned from the real estate agent that we were buying from this particular Indian family, who owned many properties around Melbourne.

One Saturday, soon after we moved in, I was away, but my wife was working in the garden when an Indian couple arrived. They asked if they could take a look at our house. It turned out that they were members of the wealthy family that had previously owned it.

They told my wife that of all their many properties, it was our house that had been their former residence, before building their mansion (and then renting out our house for many years).

“We were struggling,” they said. “But after we moved into this house all our businesses started to prosper.”

They told my wife it was a shame we had removed the small pond they had built in the front garden, as this was particularly auspicious. Nevertheless, they assured her: “This house is an extremely lucky house.”

My wife told them that as Christians we believe all our blessings come from God. And of course I do believe that.

Yet, the words of those Indian visitors do prey on my mind. Is mine a lucky house? I can’t help – very occasionally – hoping so.