Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Fall of the Berlin Wall

The 11th grade history class is currently studying the cold war period. This has been a particularly fascinating topic to teach since I grew up during that time of history, when all the maps looked different and the world was, quite literally, a different place.

When I was eleven years old, I had the chance to travel to West Germany with my family. I will never forget the afternoon my dad drove us to the wall separating West and East Germany. A chill was in the air and the rain drizzled when we got out of the car and looked at the ominous electric fence separating the free world from “the evil empire.” A lone guard on the other side stared gloomily at us. The rest of my family had their picture taken in front of the fence but I was afraid to go near it. A few minutes later I plucked up the courage and asked my dad to photograph me next to the terrible barrier, or as near as I dared approach.

I’m glad I decided to have my picture taken in front of the wall because only three years later it was torn down. A year after the momentous upheavals of 1989, when communism collapsed and Eastern Europe was given its freedom, my family travelled back to Germany. This time there was nothing preventing us from driving straight into the eastern part. We travelled to Berlin and saw the remnants of the Berlin wall, where people were still dismantling the remaining portions of what had become a hated emblem of totalitarianism.

I was only fifteen, but the experience left its mark on me. There was something moving in seeing the broken concrete all over the ground and thinking, “So this – broken concrete - is all that is left of a regime that tried to suppress freedom and truth.” I stooped down and pocketed a few pieces of the rubble, determined to show them to my own children one day.

Teaching the fall of communism has forced me to revisit those amazing events of nineteen years ago. As I reflect on it, one thing that strikes me is that the fall of Soviet communism was not really that amazing after all. It is true that during the 80’s not even the most optimistic historians could have predicted the momentous changes that would occur in 1989. Yet from the perspective of all history, the fall of communism should come as no surprise. Hasn’t every other evil empire eventually been reduced to rubble? The Assyrian empire, for all its boasting, was dismantled by the work of God. The Babylonian kingdom similarly rose to glory but collapsed in ruin. The pride and grandiose claims the Persians, the Romans and the Nazis were likewise brought to dust by the Almighty.

Building an empire is rather like building a castle on the sand: sooner or later the tide is going to come and wash the whole thing away. But there is one empire that has and will continue to remain strong throughout all time. As kingdoms wax and wane, Christendom outlasts them all. Villains rise and fall, but the people of God are always there to pocket their remains to show the next generation.

His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom the one which shall not be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:14)

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Elections in America

There are many things that confuse my British friends about America, and at the top of the list has to be the American election system. In the UK it's so simple: the person with the most votes in your region is elected to go to Parliament, and the party with the most Parliamentary seats gets to choose who the Prime Minister will be.

Well actually, it's not quite that simple. But it's still true to say that compared to the American system British elections resemble a paper airplane compared to a jet engine. For example, read the following description of the Democrats' Iowa Caucus lifted from
THIS Wikipedia article:

"Participants indicate their support for a particular candidate by standing in a designated area of the caucus site (forming a preference group). An area may also be designated for undecided participants. Then, for roughly 30 minutes, participants try to convince their neighbors to support their candidates. Each preference group might informally deputize a few members to recruit supporters from the other groups and, in particular, from among those undecided. Undecided participants might visit each preference group to ask its members about their candidate.

"After 30 minutes, the electioneering is temporarily halted and the supporters for each candidate are counted. At this point, the caucus officials determine which candidates are viable. Depending on the number of county delegates to be elected, the viability threshold can be anywhere from 15% to 25% of attendees. For a candidate to receive any delegates from a particular precinct, he or she must have the support of at least the percentage of participants required by the viability threshold. Once viability is determined, participants have roughly another 30 minutes to realign: the supporters of inviable candidates may find a viable candidate to support, join together with supporters of another inviable candidate to secure a delegate for one of the two, or choose to abstain. This realignment is a crucial distinction of caucuses in that (unlike a primary) being a voter's second candidate of choice can help a candidate.

"When the voting is closed, a final head count is conducted, and each precinct apportions delegates to the county convention. These numbers are reported to the state party, which counts the total number of delegates for each candidate and reports the results to the media. Most of the participants go home, leaving a few to finish the business of the caucus: each preference group elects its delegates, and then the groups reconvene to elect local party officers and discuss the platform.

"The delegates chosen by the precinct then go to a later caucus, the county convention, to choose delegates to the district convention and state convention. Most of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention are selected at the district convention, with the remaining ones selected at the state convention. Delegates to each level of convention are initially bound to support their chosen candidate but can later switch in a process very similar to what goes on at the precinct level; however, as major shifts in delegate support are rare, the media declares the candidate with the most delegates on the precinct caucus night the winner, and relatively little attention is paid to the later caucuses."

And that's just one state caucus. Wait until we get to the general election and then you have to start contending with the Electoral College - that complex mechanism which allows George Bush to be elected president even though Al Gore got more of the popular vote.

My outline of the American election process (which can be downloaded
HERE) may help to alleviate some of the mystery my British friends feel about American elections. For further reading, I suggest George Grant's book The Importance of the Electoral College. Dr. Grant shows how this complex and messy system is actually central to American democracy.

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Friday, May 16, 2008


Esther, I and our three older children are off this weekend to watch Prince Caspian. Let's hope they do a better job than they did with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. (Click HERE to read Esther and my thoughts after watching The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe).

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Explaining Biblical Morality to Teenagers

A Christian friend once asked my advice about defending Biblical purity to his teenage sons and daughters and their friends. How, he asked, do you articulate the reasons why casual dating wrong? Also he wanted to know what was the best way to defend the Biblical sex ethic. By God's grace my answers hit the nail on the head for the family and he said it helped them enormously. I’ll post it here in case anyone else can benefit from it. This is what I said:
I am in total agreement with your position on relationships. As our older children become interested and involved in relationships, I’ve also been forced to explain our ethos and clarify the reasons behind it. I’ll share the approach I’ve taken.
Whenever I tell my children that intimacy is inappropriate without a clear possibility of marriage, or that casual dating is wrong, or that modesty is important, I always try to emphasise that this is because I take a higher view of love, romance and sexuality than those with looser standards. This is such an important point to emphasise since those who maintain Biblical standards of purity and integrity are frequently accused of being repressive or of having a pessimistic view of sex. But in reality, it is those who are casual with their sexuality who do not have a sufficiently high regard for it.
So the starting point has to be an affirmative one. If the restrictions are not seen within this positive context, then everything the parent says will just be perceived as repression, legalism, over-restriction, and so on. This is something that was impressed upon me when I was researching about the betrothal movement where the starting point is predominantly negative.
Building on that, the problem with casual dating is that it trivialises relationships and treats our sexuality as unimportant. When two people are simply pursuing a relationship as a means for personal pleasure, it offers a sort of ‘emotional foreplay’ that provides the pleasure of a relationship without the responsibility of a committed relationship. That is hardly good preparation for marriage. Because we have been created in the image of God, casual relationships cannot fulfil us and will always leave us feeling empty even if they provide a temporary thrill.
If you look at the pioneers of the sexual liberation movement and the founders of radical sex education, they say in their writings that the most effective tactic for subverting all sexual norms was to first get people to think of their sexuality in a common and casual way. It is scary that many Christians approach relationships in a way that implicitly encourages a casual approach to sexuality, even if they still hold to the external standards of Judeo-Christian morality. As long as they stop short of jumping into bed with someone of the opposite sex (or wherever they happen to draw the line), many Christians see nothing wrong with a casual approach. They think that as long as you don’t have sex before marriage then you are keeping to the Biblical sex ethic and you’re fine. This is ethics by subtraction, which leaves a moral vacuum that makes the young person a prime target for sexual temptation. It also means that the person can approach members of the opposite sex with all the wrong attitudes and they think it’s fine because they haven’t actually 'done' anything immoral. But in reality, the do’s and don’ts of Biblical morality spring forth from a whole attitude about how we approach members of the opposite sex – it’s an orientation of honour, responsibility, care and love in the 1 Corinthians 13 sense. It’s a mindset that puts such a high premium on sexuality, love and romance that the thought of squandering these things in a careless and flippant way should fill us with horror.
Seen in this way, purity, sexual reserve and modesty need not be indicative of an under-sexed temperament, as is often thought; rather, it is an acknowledgement and preservation of one’s sexuality as a gift from God. Purity is not a matter of negation, but of affirmation: affirming the sacredness of sexuality and committing to preserve the sense in which it is set apart and cherished.

In the long run, this is the truly erotic option. It’s parents like you and me who are opting for the genuinely erotic option for our children. We are saying that sex is a Big Deal and should be treated like a Big Deal. We are saying that the sexual rite is ‘holy’ in the sense that it is set apart. What it is set apart from is the ordinary and the common; what it is set apart for is the covenant of marriage. On the other hand, those who are so sexually active that they give no second thought to a one-night-stand, and are consequently treating sex like it is no big deal, ultimately end up finding the activity less pleasurable (and there is a large body of anecdotal evidence to bare this out).

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Friday, May 02, 2008

Bible Overview

HERE is the text for a lecture I gave to some Christian young people presenting an overview of the entire Bible. What prompted the lecture was my realisation that many Christian young people have a knowledge of the Bible that is in bits and pieces, without any understanding of how everything joins together as a whole.

Trying to tell the story of the Bible in a one hour lecture was a learning experience for me as well! There may be room for improvement and I would welcome feedback, although I do think that overall I have succeeded in bringing alive the dominant themes of redemption history.

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