Archives For China

Robotic Religion

June 6, 2016 — 16 Comments

robot monkClergy can be irritating. I know that better than most . . . because I am one.

While a tiny minority bear some striking similarities to humble saints of the past, far more carry all of the common marks of fallen humanity. They can be argumentative, vain, manipulative, and even vindictive.

It’s not pretty.

Ministers aren’t unique. Being on the “inside” of any community—be it construction workers, educators, soldiers, bankers and politicians—allows one to see unpleasant attributes that are often shielded from the general population.

But, getting back to clergy . . . Since their role is unique in conveying “divine” counsel to others, it is especially important that they be approachable and amicable.

Scientists in China are working on a means of getting around the built-in limitations of the human mediation of divine wisdom.*

They have devised a “robot monk.” It is quite versatile. Not only can it chant Buddhist mantras, something an iPod could do at least as well, it is able to carry on a conversation! Well, the conversation is presently limited to 20 set questions about Buddhism. And the use of a touch screen “held” against his chest makes the comparison with an iPad a bit more accurate.

The automaton’s creator predicts the robot in the yellow robe of a novice will have a major impact, even though he spends most of his day “meditating” on an office shelf.

Enthusiastically agreeing, one worshiper said, “He looks really cute and adorable. He’ll spread Buddhism to more people, since they will think he’s very interesting, and will make them really want to understand Buddhism.”

Now, how can a Christian pastor hope to compete with that. After all, not many are considered to be “cute and adorable.”

What Would C.S. Lewis Think?

That’s a question I sometimes ponder when confronted by particularly odd realities that few of his day could have foreseen.

Lewis was quite respectful of clergy. Read, for example, this account of the way that even religious leaders can succumb to a type of patriotism that is far from biblical.

Patriotism . . . is not a sentiment but a belief: a firm, even prosaic belief that our own nation, in sober fact, has long been, and still is markedly superior to all others. I once ventured to say to an old clergyman who was voicing this sort of patriotism, “But, sir, aren’t we told that every people thinks its own men the bravest and its own women the fairest in the world?”

He replied with total gravity—he could not have been graver if he had been saying the Creed at the altar—“Yes, but in England it’s true.” To be sure, this conviction had not made my friend (God rest his soul) a villain; only an extremely lovable old ass. It can however produce asses that kick and bite. On the lunatic fringe it may shade off into that popular Racialism which Christianity and science equally forbid. (The Four Loves)

Now, it was not the personality or demeanor of this elderly priest that made his comment inappropriate. It was the comment itself. But for a prime example of clerical pride that drives people away from the Gospel, one needs look no farther than the “Episcopal Ghost” in Lewis’ The Great Divorce.

In Mere Christianity, Lewis concisely states the distinctive purpose of clergy. “The clergy are those particular people within the whole Church who have been specially trained and set aside to look after what concerns us as creatures who are going to live for ever.”

Could any other role demand so much integrity and goodwill? I think not. And it is precisely because this role is so unique and significant, that our shortcomings are doubly damning.

Perhaps, given the failings of sinful (i.e. all) ministers, it’s time to consider substituting a robot?

shermanI have no doubt that in no few cases it would be an improvement.

Of course, Christian churches would require a different model. Perhaps one that looks like Sherman on the Mount (minus the bird)?

_____

* You can read a Reuters article about this marvel of Chinese technology here.

Crying for Attention

May 19, 2015 — 11 Comments

abcxyzAre you driven by the unquenchable thirst to be the center of everyone’s attention. Or, would you be more content to live out your life appreciated by a small cadre of friends?

A woman in South America recently displayed an extreme case of the former impulse. She had grown tired of her name because it was too mundane. Apparently she garnered insufficient attention as Ladyzunga Cyborg.

So now her name, legally changed, is ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ.

My first thought when reading this was not that I didn’t believe it. In our foolish world, where people use symbols that aren’t even words for their names, I just shook my head. And . . . I thought “how fortunate for her that she’s not Chinese,” with its 46,964 characters as recorded in the Kangxi Dictionary.

This is not the sort of publicity Columbia needs. She’s acting bizarrely enough to be a mistaken for a Californian.

Of course, people at the opposite extreme—those who cannot bear the presence of other human beings—are also troubled. As with so many aspects of the human personality, people at either of the extreme poles are frequently deemed mentally ill.

This fetish for exhibitionism is alien to me. I would much prefer downing a pint with friends at the Eagle and Child to standing on some stage in front of “adoring crowds.”

My “introvert” quotient appears to be eclipsing my “extravert” qualities.

C.S. Lewis never sought the limelight either. He did not find his experience with notoriety pleasant. And yet, he accepted its burden graciously.

It is commonly known that some days he would spends hours (literally) corresponding with some of the thousands of readers who wrote to him as the creator of Narnia.

It was exhausting.

I assume people like Ms. Abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz seek attention because they feel insignificant or unnoticed.

I find that tragic. Tragic because their name, their true name, is known by the most important and amazing person in the universe. The God who created them.

Each and every person, including you, is unique, precious and loved.

Knowing this provides profound peace. It also delivers us from the constant compulsion to seek attention.

Jesus described the profound value of each person by contrasting God’s love for us with the attention he devotes even to a single sparrow . . . “Not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.”

And you, that’s you, are far more precious than these.

Annual Encouragement

January 2, 2014 — 11 Comments

2013Our grandparents never dreamed a single person could touch as many other people as we now take for granted in our digital age. If you had told them that in a single year, you could interact with people from 140 different nations—and all from the comfort of your own home—they would have had you institutionalized.

Yet, that’s precisely what we do today. And what may be even odder, we consider it commonplace.

Readers who are familiar with the “wordpress community” know that the arrival of the new year includes a welcome ritual. We receive a congratulatory note on our blogging accomplishments during the previous year.

In addition to various statistical notes, the report identifies particularly successful posts. For example, a couple of years ago I wrote “Lessons Taught by Onions,” and for some peculiar reason it continues to draw visitors every single month.

At the top of this post I have reproduced what many of us regard as the most intriguing aspect of the report–revealing where your readers reside. As a novice blogger it’s a wonderful feeling when we first see something we’ve written read by people in a foreign land.

Over the years it’s fascinating to see how the list of visitors grows.

Some countries are tough to reach. This year I finally had a visitor or two from the People’s Republic of China and Mongolia . . . a couple of those challenging lands.

I still haven’t been able to penetrate North Korea. But then, that’s no surprise since they only have one computer with international access, and I don’t publish the type of material that would be of interest to the resident of the presidential palace.

As the new year begins, it’s good to be encouraged by others for one’s past performance. Most of us require a bit of encouragement now and then.

Speaking of encouraging, in a 1956 letter, C.S. Lewis expresses appreciation to a writer who enjoyed his book, Till We Have Faces.

It was nice of you to write about Till We Have Faces (I originally called it Bareface, but the publishers vetoed that because they said people would think it was a ‘Western’!), and a most needed encouragement to me, for it has so far had a more hostile reception from the critics than any book I ever wrote. Not that critics really matter very much. The real question is how the book goes 10 or 15 years after publication.

Encouragement is always welcome, and never more so than in the wake of abundant discouragement.

And then, of course, there is the feigned or teasing sort of encouragement that can only be offered by someone we trust. Someone we know regards us with affection. In that light, I couldn’t resist including the following passage from a letter Lewis wrote in 1951.

All well here except myself, who have a bad cold; but I’m off to Ireland I hope on Friday for a fortnight, which may shift it. (Warnie in his usual way of encouragement, reads me paragraphs from the paper at breakfast about liners wind bound in the Mersey and waves 6 ½ feet high off the Irish coast.)

I must confess that with a large and literate family, I receive more than my share of just this sort of “encouragement.” And I welcome it.

In the meantime, however, the annual report of Mere Inkling’s popularity does inspire me to press on with my self-imposed pace of two columns a week. I warmly invite you to continue the journey alongside me.

Chinese Complexity

October 22, 2013 — 4 Comments

Chinese ChroniclesSome people consider “writing” difficult. It’s not. When you add the adverb “well,” it does become much rarer. Still, writing in English is not challenging at all when you compare it to the hurdle traditional Chinese authors face.

One of the most popular television programs in the People’s Republic of China is essentially a “spelling bee.” During a recent episode the studio audience was embarrassed by the fact only one-third of them were able to correctly write “gan ga,” which means “embarrassed.”

Chinese ComplexThe problem is apparently two-fold. First, Chinese characters are “complex.” That’s why I selected that very word to include here.

The most comprehensive Chinese dictionary, Zhonghua Zihai, was compiled in 1994. It includes 85,568 characters. When compared to the Latin alphabet of 26 characters, it’s no surprise that a poll in China found 99% of the population admitting they forget how to write words. (To be fair, I’m not sure we could find even 1% in the West claiming that they never forget how to spell a word.)

The second reason for the growing national writing crisis in China is the amazing phenomenon called pinyin. Pinyin is the official phonetic system for transcribing the sound of Chinese characters into Latin script. It was created in 1958 by mainland China and has been adopted by the Republic of China as well.

The influence of pinyin has grown dramatically with the advent of computing, and many young Chinese have become dependent on the shortcut. Some educators have labeled the crippling practice “a type of social disease.”

Fortunately for aspiring Chinese authors, knowing a meager 4,000 distinct characters makes one “functionally” literate. Still, even that seems rather daunting. I’ll no longer take for granted my good fortune in having a mere 26 characters to strive to master.

C.S. Lewis offered some fascinating observations about the Chinese worldview. While he discussed the subject in a variety of places, he presents his thoughts most extensively in The Abolition of Man. He finds the concept of “Tao” a useful corollary to what Christians usually refer to as Natural Law.

The Chinese also speak of a great thing (the greatest thing) called the Tao. It is the reality beyond all predicates, the abyss that was before the Creator Himself. It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road. It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the Way in which things everlastingly emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time. It is also the Way which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar.

“In ritual,” say the Analects, “it is harmony with Nature that is prized.” The ancient Jews likewise praise the Law as being “true.” This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as “the Tao.”

Some of the accounts of it which I have quoted will seem, perhaps, to many of you merely quaint or even magical. But what is common to them all is something we cannot neglect. It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.

Although the following story does not relate to C.S. Lewis directly, it offers an interesting insight into the subject of this post. It appears in the book Remembering C.S. Lewis: Recollections of Those who Knew Him, and refers to J.A. Smith, one of Lewis’ fellow professors at Magdalen.

“At the Breakfast Table” was written by another member of the faculty, Adam Fox. Both men knew Lewis well, since they were part of a breakfast foursome in the Common Room at the college.

Now J.A. had fallen into the way of speculating on odd little problems, which apparently assailed him in bed when sleep deserted him. I remember him coming down one morning and telling us that he had been thinking in the night what a dreadful thing it would be for a learned Chinese to go blind. I do not know if the other members of the party knew why it would be more dreadful for a Chinese than for any other learned person.

I had no idea, but I knew my place, and when I asked why this was so, it appeared, according to J.A., that may of the ideograms that make Chinese writing so beautiful conveyed meaning to the eye but had no sound attached to them. Reading in Chinese was in part at least like looking at a picture book, and for that reason, of course, a blind man is fatally handicapped.

As an epilogue of sorts, I can’t resist including one of my favorite Chinese characters. Perhaps you’ll enjoy it also.

Chinese Verbose

Ironically, since it required sixty-four strokes, the word zhé fell from common usage around the fifth century.

Promoting Our Writing

June 19, 2013 — 34 Comments

blog promoOne of the common frustrations online writers face is the question: “is anyone out there reading what I write?”

I suspect that’s been the plaintive lament of all authors, since the dawn of written languages. Just as a conversation can’t occur when one of the parties ignores the other, no “communication” takes place when something is written, but never read.

Blogs provide an excellent framework for exploring this phenomenon. Bloggers don’t write merely for themselves. (If they wanted to do that, they’d simply “journal.”) Bloggers long to have others read their words. And the commonest disappointment of new online writers is just how few people actually visit their sites.

Fortunately, communities such as wordpress include features that allow us to track statistics in an accurate manner. Even when visitors fail to comment or formally “like” a post, they still leave digital footprints. I’ve written before about how enjoyable it is to see how frequently your page has been visited by people from all around the world.

At that time I shared my statistical world map, (directly below). Today I follow it with my current status . . . which reveals that I have finally penetrated the Great Wall and accessed the vast population of the People’s Republic of China! (Of course, I have long suspected the Chinese military of spying on my column, in an effort to glean military secrets about the Inklings’ military service during WWI.)

countries

countries 2

Methods of Increasing Visits to Our Sites

There are a number of concrete ways to expose others to our words. A few appear below. Still, it’s good to remain realistic in our expectations.

I recently read that it’s worthwhile being listed in the Technorati blog directories. As part of the verification process for inclusion there, I need to include in one of my blogs the code RFQE8T2R48RG. (I just hope their verification search engine isn’t confused by the numerous occasions when I’ve used that very same code in my previous blogs.)

As promised, here are a handful of nearly universal recommendations for increasing the number of visitors to our websites.

  • Write on subjects we feel passionate about.
  • Write well.
  • Be as unique as possible (in our personal publishing niche).
  • Encourage people to leave comments.
  • Dialog with the readers who do.
  • Create intriguing titles for our posts.
  • Write regularly (at least weekly, but not hourly).
  • Offer RSS and email subscription options.
  • Visit other blogs & offer encouraging comments.
  • Tell everyone you know to read Mere Inkling.

Truly sorry about that last plug. I’m simply trying extra hard to ensure my words don’t drop into the obsidian darkness of digital anonymity. Blessings in your own efforts to ensure the same!

parentsThere are a variety of reasons for expressing affection and care for one’s parents. Many feel gratitude for the sacrifices their parents made while providing for them. Others treasure memories of never doubting their parents’ love for them. Some enjoyed less idyllic childhoods, but honor their parents out of a sense of duty.

C.S. Lewis described the last type of family in The Four Loves. Rather than giving cause for their children to appreciate them, some parents raise obstacles to their affections.

We hear a great deal about the rudeness of the rising generation. I am an oldster myself and might be expected to take the oldsters’ side, but in fact I have been far more impressed by the bad manners of parents to children than by those of children to parents.

Who has not been the embarrassed guest at family meals where the father or mother treated their grown-up offspring with an incivility which, offered to any other young people, would simply have terminated the acquaintance?

Dogmatic assertions of matters which the children understand and their elders don’t, ruthless interruptions, flat contradictions, ridicule of things the young take seriously—sometimes of their religion—insulting references to their friends, all provide an easy answer to the question “Why are they always out? Why do they like every house better than their home?” Who does not prefer civility to barbarism?

Yes, there are several reasons for honoring our parents, even when they have not “earned” that respect. And now we can add another incentive to do so—because you might be sued in court if you do not honor them! While this statute has not arrived in the Western world, it is a relatively new law in the world’s most populous nation.

The recently revised law requires that adult children visit their parents “often” . . . without defining the specific frequency. Apparently, too many children have become preoccupied with their own concerns. (Shades of Harry Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle.”)

Traditional Chinese culture is renowned for the value it places on revering elders in general, and parents specifically. In the Analects of the philosopher Confucius, an entire section is devoted to “filial piety.”

58. Confucius said: “When at home, a young man should serve his parents; when away from home, he should be respectful to his elders. He should always be earnest and truthful, express love to all, and follow men of virtue. Then, if he has the time and energy, he should study literature and the arts.” [1.6]

71. Confucius said: “When your father is alive, obey him. When your father has passed on, live as he did. If you do so for [at least] three years after your father’s death, then you are a true son.” [1.11]

72. Tzu Lu asked about the meaning of filial piety. Confucius said: “Nowadays filial piety means being able to support your parents. But we support even our horses and dogs. Without respect, what’s the difference between the two kinds of support?” [2.7]

73. Tzu Hsia asked about filial piety. Confucius said: “What matters is the expression you show on your face. ‘Filial piety’ doesn’t mean merely doing physical tasks for your parents, or merely providing them with food and wine.” [2.8]

74. Confucius said: “In serving your parents, you may disagree with them from time to time and seek to correct them gently. But if they will not go along with you, you must continue to respect and serve them without complaining.” [4.18]

75. Confucius said: “Never ignore your parents’ ages, which are both a source of joy (because they are still living) and a source of anxiety (because their deaths are coming nearer).” [4.21]

The Judeo-Christian tradition, of course, also demands respect for one’s parents. “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you (Exodus 20:12, ESV). And from the Letter to the Church in Ephesus: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.”

It is challenging to discern what it means to honor a parent who does not merit gratitude. Indeed, destructive (abusive) parents may well disqualify themselves from receiving honor, since they tacitly reject the very essence of what it means to be a mother or father.

Aside from these extreme cases, where only a biological relationship exists, we must be honest. None of our parents are perfect. But then the corollary is also true—none of their children are, either. It is in these common, shaded cases where our own character is tested.

C.S. Lewis lost his mother at a young age. His father remained distant, and sent his sons to distant boarding schools. During the First World War, Lewis was severely wounded and shipped from the front lines to a London hospital where he recuperated. While a patient he wrote the following to his father in Ireland.

Wherever I am I know that you will come and see me. You know I have some difficulty in talking of the greatest things; it is the fault of our generation and of the English schools. But at least you will believe that I was never before so eager to cling to every bit of our old home life and to see you.

I know I have often been far from what I should be in my relation to you, and have undervalued an affection and generosity which an experience of “other people’s parents” has shown me in a new light. But, please God, I shall do better in the future. Come and see me, I am homesick, that is the long and the short of it.

Sadly, Lewis’ father did not make the trip to visit his son at the hospital. Such is the nature of real life relationships . . . and such is the reason why honoring our parents sometimes needs to assume the form of a law, or even a Commandment.

May it not be so in your family. If your parents still live, I pray God will grant you great joy in honoring them. And, if you have children, I pray that the Lord will fill them with well-deserved affection for you.

_____

If you have never heard the song “Cats in the Cradle,” you owe it to yourself to ponder its powerful message today. You can view it here.

International Blogging

February 13, 2013 — 23 Comments

countries

Who reads blogs? Well, initially, we find just two sources of readers.

  1. Family & Close Friends who we can coerce into reading it, and put on the spot by publicly asking questions related to our recent columns to tighten the screws just a smidge.
  2. Fellow bloggers who search for interesting reads with the ulterior hope that the writers of posts they “like” will make a reciprocal journey to their site.

Expanding beyond those two categories is the challenge. I suspect that most bloggers are resigned to only reaching a relatively small audience. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, junk mail reaches the boxes of millions, but it is tossed into recycling without a second thought. On the other hand, a blog may only be read by a handful of people, but one or two of them may be wonderfully touched or encouraged through that brief encounter. Junk mail is deleted with a groan. Our posts, in sharp contrast, may elicit a smile, a laugh, or perhaps even an appropriate tear.

I can settle for that.

One of the nice things about being part of the WordPress community is the way writers can monitor their site statistics. One fascinating feature is “Views by Country,” which tracks the national origin of visitors to a blog. (Well, not necessarily their ethnic origin, but the country from which they established their online connection with the website.)

Checking out this resource is fantastic for several reasons. First, it’s pleasant as we note visits from locales with which we have a special bond. Republic of Korea, spent a busy year there ministering to those guarding democracy, but still managed to visit many beautiful sites and established many friendships. United Kingdom, got to live there with my family, and visited amazing historic locations too numerous to list. (But, shouldn’t the UK count as three or four countries?) Guam, we got to live there too and enjoy the scenic ocean vistas. (Of course, it’s not a separate country either, being a Territory of the United States.) So what if the word “country” is applied a bit loosely, the sheer breadth of the program’s coverage is impressive.

A second value of the list is that it is educational. You can learn about the existence and/or location of many exotic lands. I’ve had visitors from the Mongolian steppes of the Khans, WWI catalyst Montenegro, freedom-seeking Syria, and the Viking-haunted Faroe Islands.

The third major benefit of visiting the statistics tool is that it can actually reinforce a writer’s sense that someone out there in the vast global unknown is actually interested in their words. I’m amazed, and a mite humbled, to have had visitors to MereInkling from 129 “countries.” Pretty amazing. When I revisit the list every two or three months I see one or two newly reached populations. Yet, as I look at the map, I see many nations remain to be reached. For example, most of the “-stans” and many countries in Africa have yet to feel the warm and liberating glimmer of light MereInkling attempts to deliver.

The Remaining Mystery

I am still plagued by one unanswered question though.

I readily understand why the People’s [misnamed] “Republic” of China has barred MereInkling from internet availability for their billions of prisoners residents.

What perplexes me is why the Kingdom of Denmark has barred access to MereInkling for the subjugated country of Greenland?!? One would think that, in light of their 5 day summer and 360 winter that they would be eager to read something as entertaining as MereInkling. Why has an internet wall been erected to prevent them from doing so? What, we must wonder, is going on behind that impenetrable Ice Curtain?

Yes, for those who think they’ve noted a flaw in my conspiracy theory, I am fully aware that the Faroe Islands are also technically part of the Danish empire. So, why would citizens of Denmark proper and the occupied Faroes be allowed to visit MereInkling while the Greenlanders are left to find enjoyment in measuring the advance and retreat of massive glaciers? The mystery deepens.

As C.S. Lewis wrote in “The Efficacy of Prayer,” in a passage I’ve wrenched completely out of context: “There is a mystery here which, even if I had the power, I might not have the courage to explore.”