Thursday 25 June 2009

Homeward Bound

Revisiting our youth

Carmen and I went to see Simon & Garfunkel in concert on Tuesday Night. This iconic musical duo responsible for so many great songs in the 1960s and 70s reunited recently for a limited 'Old Friends' tour of New Zealand, Australia and Japan (here). Whether this is the beginning of a more substantial reunion is unclear but we weren't going to miss the chance to see them together again. However, Art Garfunkel's last words on stage after the 3rd curtain call were "Ask us to come back and we'll do it again". So who knows.

The crowd as you'd expect was decidedly 'more mature' with probably 95% baby boomers and a sprinkling of younger fans who probably first heard Simon and Garfunkel on one of their parents' old vinyls. Or perhaps they'd followed Paul Simon's highly successful individual career post break-up, with highlights like his Graceland Album. I turned to Carmen a few times during the concert with comments like "are we that old?" (looking at the people in the next seats). "Yes!" was the quick reply. And "do they realise just how hard it is for this crowd to get to its feet?", "now that song woke a few of them up" and so on (she showed great tolerance). But what an incredible concert. They've lost little vocally and of course Paul Simon has lost nothing musically. This was a quality concert from beginning to end, with backing musicians who are amongst the best there are, some with 20-30 years performing with Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon as individual artists.

Melancholy, lament and hope

As I sang along to songs that I first loved as a 15-21 year old, and which were the accompaniment to Carmen and my teenage years, a few things about them struck me. Putting to one side the brilliance of lyrics and music, many of the songs suggest a maturity well beyond Paul Simon's years when he wrote them, and lots of them display a tension between melancholy (almost despair at times) and hope as the central implied voices seek truth.

The maturity of Simon's early songs is remarkable. A song like "Leaves that are Green" ('Sounds of Silence' album) displays it with poetic simplicity (full lyrics here). The context might be the ending of relationships but this is cast against the inevitably of time moving on and death being its final destination.

I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song.
I’m twenty-two now but I won’t be for long
Time hurries on.
And the leaves that are green turn to brown,
And they wither with the wind,
And they crumble in your hand.

Many of Simon & Garfunkel's songs have always had a good dose of melancholy, almost darkness and despair at times. But the despair is well masked by the quiet confidence of youth that gives a sense that most things can be overcome. If there is despair, it is heard in the words of Simon's central voices, rarely 'his own'. While some of his songs are upbeat and bouncy 'light' pop numbers, like 'Feelin Groovy' (Garfunkel groaned when this was chosen as part of the 3rd curtain call - "I hate this song"!), many of his early songs are in the folk genres of the day and include sometimes pessimistic views of the world. Here are a few examples.

In the song 'I am a Rock' the central voice is that of the self-absorbed individual who makes himself into an island to avoid the pain that might result from relationships. It becomes obvious that Simon doesn't see this is as a sensible approach to life, instead giving implied support to John Donne's poetic dictum that no man is an island.

'Sounds of silence' is one of their most famous songs. It was released on their very first 'flop' album (Wednesday Morning, 3 AM) that sold just 2,000 copies, that was followed by their first break-up as a duo. But the recording company had it redone without their knowledge with electric guitar, bass, and drums. This effectively launched their careers. What the song means is open to debate, but with lyrics like the following you immediately sense its depth.
Hello darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence

I think that Simon's has written about a wider search for truth, which is revealed perhaps via a dream. Perhaps it is his search, but we're never sure with most of his songs - is this about him or me? The punch line to the song in the last verse is that perhaps truth is found not in the words of historical prophets and great thinkers, but in the simple (but sometimes profound words) of the subway 'prophets'. Now you need to have lived in the 1960s and 70s to realize just how profound some graffiti was in contrast to the inane and mindless tagging of our present age. This was when the Cold War was raging, an age in which every American (and Australian for that matter) thought that a nuclear war was inevitable and that there was a good chance that we'd destroy the world in the process. This was a time when 2-10 words messages had considerable political and philosophical depth.
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said, "The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls"
And whispered in the sounds of silence

His words suggest that truth should be obvious to us, that it is there on display every day as we walk through the subway. But of course like any good post modern song (before its time), the meaning is illusive. One of the things that is engaging about Simon and Garfunkel's songs is that they display paradoxes and discontinuities, dots to join, pictures to finished to complete the story. Poetry to be mined and enjoyed.

I'm not sure how I first heard or 'read' Simon and Garfunkel's work in the 1960s and 70s because I listened and sang as an atheist who saw no place for God in my world, no truth in the prophets. There was no God and Jesus was someone's ancient invention. There was no hope for the problems of the world that I saw in religion, but this changed at age 31 (you can read my story here) and my view of the world suddenly shifted.

Paul Simon's history is different to mine. He wrote as one who probably had a stronger understanding of God - given his Jewish heritage and having grown up in a strongly Christian country like America - and yet his songs seem to imply that he finds reliance on faith wanting. His songs have many biblical images and reference to God, but he doesn't seem to find his hope there. And yet, there is always this wonderful tension between the need for hope and the elusiveness of it in many of his songs. He is aware of the sometimes aimless wanderings of youth from one place to another, one person to another, one love to another, one pursuit to another, or even one cause to another. "Cloudy" in the 'Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme' album is a good example of this as it tells the simple story of a young man hitchhiking aimlessly around California.

Homeward Bound

But everywhere in his songs and the musical laments, crafted in melodies as well as in words, we come back time and again to the inner desire to be loved, to have purpose and to be at home.

When they sang 'Homeward Bound' on Tuesday night the significance of this song hit me as never before, for I listened not as a 17 year old, but as a 57 year-old more conscious than ever that my life is on a perpetual homeward bound trajectory. This 1966 song written by Paul Simon and produced by the great Bob Johnston is said to have been written at the Ditton railway station in Widnes (NW England) where Simon's was stuck. His song speaks of his longing to return home to his girlfriend of the time (Kathy Chitty living in Essex) but also to his home country of the USA. The desire to be at home, with people who love you, where all is certain and predictable is basic to all people. But the Bible teaches that this deep desire for relationship reflects a deeper echo of the call of our Jesus who would have us come home to him, for in heaven he has prepared a place for us and will bring home those who place their trust in (John 14:1-14). It is only here that we will be truly home.

Did the concert take Carmen and I back to the images and memories of our teenage and young adult years? Yes? Did it make us pine for a time when bodies were stronger, faculties more complete, our future ahead of us, the mistakes of later life not yet been made? No! For we are now people who seek truth not on the subway wall, not in the experiences of youth or later age, but in the timeless wisdom of God. And we believe that the prophets did speak this wisdom as they pointed to a time when there would be a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21), when we would bow before the throne of God as his children who have placed their faith in Jesus his son. Our ultimate citizenship is not in this world but in the next, for we are a chosen people who are sojourners and exiles in this world (1 Peter 2:1-13), our citizenship is in heaven and we truly are homeward bound. While Simon and Garfunkel's song reminds me of the challenges of this world, it also reinforces for me why I long for another. Home is (to quote Simon) where my love is waiting, but there is only one love that has ensured my heavenly home - Jesus. Isaac Watt's great hymn suggest the rightful response in 'When I Survey the Wondrous Cross' - Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Related links and resources

John Piper has preached an excellent sermon from 1 Peter 2:11-12 titled "The war against the soul and the glory of God"

James Bennighof, The Words and Music of Paul Simon (here)

Picture credit - Above 1960s graffiti image photographed by Terence Donovan (1936-1996)

Tuesday 16 June 2009

Apologetics and the university

It won't surprise readers of this blog to hear that I believe universities are a key place for apologetics to be practised. At CASE we embrace and support apologetics in its varied forms. In its broadest sense, apologetics is concerned with giving a reason for one's faith. Often, this is due to a need to defend the faith (although apologetics doesn't have to be simply defensive) against various charges of biblical inaccuracy, inconsistency in our claims, challenges of application (e.g. If God does exist then how come....?) etc. The university is a place where ideas are shared and people challenged to consider truth claims and university students are typically people who want to know and who are keen to explore new ideas.

That's why CASE is situated within New College, that's also why New College was built in the 1960s and why we've just built a new building (the New College Village) as home to a postgraduate community at the University of New South Wales (Sydney). That's also why Issue #20 of Case magazine will explore the forms that 'Apologetics' takes.

Universities have served as key sites for debate and dialogue about matters of faith for over 800 years. When William Lane Craig spoke at the European Leaders Conference in 2002 he offered the following comment in support of the key place of universities for apologetics:

"....the single most important institution shaping Western culture is the university. It is at the university that our future political leaders, our journalists, our lawyers, our teachers, our business executives, our artists, will be trained. It is at the university that they will formulate or, more likely, simply absorb the worldview that will shape their lives. And since these are the opinion-makers and leaders who shape our culture, the worldview that they imbibe at the university will be the one that shapes our culture. If we change the university, we change our culture through those who shape culture. If the Christian worldview can be restored to a place of prominence and respect at the university, it will have a leavening effect throughout society."

I hold a personal view that in our rightful desire to challenge our brightest young men to pursue theological education and pastoral ministry, that we have effectively turned our backs on the strategic importance of the university as places for Christians to live out their faiths, and to apply a Christian worldview to their reading, writing, research, teaching and life on campus. It is ironic that at a time when we have such effective student ministry on virtually every university campus in Australia, that we have so few Christian academics giving reasons for their faith. We need more Christian academics that can bring their Christian worldview to bear on all the challenges that the world faces in the 21st century.

We have even fewer Christians on university campuses who are leaders in their fields and who actually see that their faith has relevance to what they have to say on physics, medicine, law, education, sociology, new media, economics, history and so on. Not surprisingly, there seem to be less and less Christian voices amongst the opinion makers, thought leaders and media spokespeople than ever before. As a university academic I know the challenges in applying one's faith to one's scholarship and how hard it is ensure that one's faith is not simply an adjunct to our intellectual pursuits in the academy. This is the greatest challenge that those who are academics on campus face. But what is clear, is that Christian voices do need to be heard on campus not just from the student body and from the visiting Christian staff workers, but from university academics who teach our students and whose views potentially shape how they view the world, how they view epistemology, what the nature of evidence is and so on. Ultimately, this is the sharp end of their preparation to at least hear and consider the claims of Christ.

In the same talk that Craig stresses the importance of a Christian worldview on our campuses he makes these comments about the way the Christian voice is sometimes heard on campuses:

"....the Gospel is never heard in isolation. It is always heard against the background of the cultural milieu in which one lives. A person raised in a cultural milieu in which Christianity is still seen as an intellectually viable option will display an openness to the Gospel which a person who is secularized will not. For the secular person you may as well tell him to believe in fairies or leprechauns as in Jesus Christ! Or, to give a more realistic illustration, it is like a devotee of the Hare Krishna movement approaching you on the street and inviting you to believe in Krishna. Such an invitation strikes us as bizarre, freakish, even amusing. But to a person on the streets of Bombay, such an invitation would, I assume, appear quite reasonable and cause for reflection. I fear that evangelicals appear almost as weird to persons on the streets of Bonn, Stockholm, or Paris as do the devotees of Krishna."

Since opening the doors of our new postgraduate community at UNSW we haven't faced quite faced the "are you weird?" reaction, but we have certainly been confronted by the challenge of defending a faith for which their is little preliminary knowledge and when the worldview of the listener is quite different from that of the Christian. With 315 residents from 55 nations (85% foreign students and just 15% Christian), we have experienced the exciting challenge of giving a reason for our faith to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, agnostics and atheists who have limited understanding and background to the claims of the gospel of Christ.

If you have an interesting in contributing to the next issue of Case on apologetics please contact me.

Related links

Dr William Lane Craig's paper at the European Leaders Conference (here)

Other talks and papers by Dr Craig at (here)

Other CASE blog posts on Apologetics (here)

Monday 8 June 2009

Prenatal Genetic Testing: A pandora's box?

In March while taking part in a conference run by CASE on Medical Ethics I was challenged in quite a personal way about the problems of prenatal genetic testing. I reported on the conference in a previous post (here) in which I offered a perspective on things that had challenged me, including a lunchtime conversation with Darren a young man with cerebral palsy who asked me a question that had life and death consequences. I also shared how troubled I had been by one section of Dr Megan Best's presentation outlining key ethical issues concerning the beginning of life and prenatal testing. Here's what I said at the time:
"She made the simple point at the beginning of her talk that technology has given us information about the unborn child not possible just a short time ago. One consequence of this is that we now find it easier to identify disease and abnormalities in the unborn child. This can be good, with new ways to identify problems and abnormalities prior to birth, and ways to intervene medically, increasing the chance of a successful birth and in some cases solving medical issues more easily than if they are left until after birth. Of course it also provides opportunities for parents to know things about their unborn child not previously possible. This presents parents with opportunities to terminate the life of the foetus based on judgments about identified disease and abnormalities. Hence, technology offers us new knowledge that can be used to ensure life or sadly to terminate it."

What I didn't mention at the time was that just weeks earlier our 5th grandchild had been diagnosed as having a rare genetic disorder either Beals syndrome or another rare form of disorder within the Marfan's group. Abraham Lincoln was thought to have had a disorder within the Marfan's group as he possessed many of the physical characteristics of Marfan's syndrome. People with Beals usually have long, thin, fingers and toes that cannot be straightened out because of contractures. This means they have a limited range of movement in the joints of their fingers, hips, elbows, knees, and ankles. They also have unusual external ears that appear crumpled. Beals syndrome can also affect the skeleton, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and the heart. Contractures of the elbows, knees, and hips at birth are very common. Some babies also have clubfoot, causing one or both feet to be turned in towards each other at the ankles. In most individuals, the contractures improve with time and the clubfoot often responds well to physiotherapy.

As Megan spoke I couldn't help but think, could such testing help parents identify a disorder like Beals? And if so, would some parents choose to terminate? Megan had reported that some doctors had expressed concern that fewer babies were being seen with club foot; could this reflect prenatal diagnosis? In the case of Evelyne's parents, as Christians they would never have considered doing this, and as a result had chosen not to have genetic testing. It seems that while testing is avaliable for Beals (here) and Marfan's (here), there are questions about their reliability. Of course, it is highly likely that testing that is more reliable will inevitably be available if pregnant women want it.

Last Sunday we gave thanks to God for Evelyne Adel Blencowe's precious life as she was dedicated at her parent's church in Bathurst. She was born on September 15th 2008 and has been a joy to all of us. Yes, she will face challenges in life; we still await test results to confirm the diagnosis and as a result don't have a detailed prognosis. This bright little girl whose impish personality and a determination to do everything her 3 year-old brother does, has already had more tests in her short life than I have had in my lifetime, and I'm sure there will be more. But as the Psalmist reminds us she is a blessing from God (Psalm 127:3-5).

For me, little Evelyne brings into focus the enormity of what people choose to do when they abort a child based on a medical diagnosis. There is strong evidence to suggest that the decisions that parents make to have abortions around the world (estimated at 42 million each year or 115,00 per day) are sometimes taken for reasons as basic as the impact that the child might have on the life of the family, the trauma that their condition might cause for the mother, the gender of the child and the chance that there might be an abnormality. Evidence of this can be seen on one well-known website (here). When parents are offered advice about genetic testing, they are encouraged to make choices that are:
"Right for you" and
"Right for you and your family"
Our family couldn't imagine what it would be like not to have our precious little Evelyne. Yes, there are challenges, but these are inconsequential compared to the joy and blessing she has brought to our family

In commenting in a Washington Post article (here), Leslie G. Biesecker of the federal government's National Human Genome Research Institute offered a sobering comment that we need to give careful reflection and consideration:
"[Prenatal testing] is a classic Pandora's box......Like any powerful technology, it solves some problems while at the same time creating new ones. How you use a powerful technology decides whether it's good or bad."
Related links

We published an issue of Case magazine last year that focussed on the theme Living and Dying Ethically. You can find more information (here).

New College runs an annual public lecture series. This year the lecturer will be Dr John Wyatt, author of 'Matters of life and death' (here). Dr Wyatt will present his three public lectures at New College on the 8-10 September 2009 titled 'Bioethics and the Future' (more information here)

Sermon by John Piper 'Abortion, race, gender and Christ' (here).

Excellent Washington Post article, 'Fresh Hopes and Concerns As Fetal DNA Tests Advance' (here)

Associates of CASE can download the talks from the Medical Ethics conference mentioned at the start of the post from our website (here). This includes Megan Best's presentation.

Thursday 4 June 2009

Don Carson's Publications online

Andy Naselli recently completed a bibliography of Don Carson's many publications on the Gospel Coalition website. While the books simply link to Amazon, the real bonus is that 237 of Carson's articles are now available on the site for free as pdf downloads. But that's not all. You can download lots of his sermons as MP3 files as well as conference presentations, book reviews, courses and other things.

While the sermons, conference papers and some other resources have been available on the Gospel Coalition before, this new section brings all of Don Carson's many contributions together in one place.

Here's the link HERE.

HT: Patrick Chan for directing me to Andy's post.