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  Greetings to all our readers and patrons
Stewardship and Trusteesh
  By A.J. Philip  
  I ACCOMPANIED Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on his visit to South Africa on the occasi  
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Letter to Metropolitan
  By Rev A.P. Jacob and five other priests  
  Most Rev. Dr. Joseph Mar Thoma Metropolitan Most Rev. Dr. Philipose Mar Chrysostom Mar  
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Back to infancy -- they n
  By Shaheen Chander  
  ENJOYING a relaxed weekend, I was checking updates on the Facebook page. I came across a b  
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The Bible, its story
  Mathew Thomas  
  The Bible: The Biography
Karen Armstrong
Atlantic, London
Pages 302 Rs 425

KAREN ARMSTRONG'S book, The Bible: The Biography, delineates the history of the formation and appreciation of the Bible. It is a book with exquisitely bright language and absorbing narration.

It is endowed with enormous quantity of information in simple language. However, the author's purpose is not simply to give a 'biography' of the Bible, but to plead for a different perspective with which to approach its reading.

Armstrong assumes at the outset the human tendency to seek meaning, which engenders the necessity to interpret the Scriptures. Having begun thus, she takes a deviation when she states: "Today scripture has a bad name."

Considering the terrorists' use of Scriptures, she takes into account the claim of religion's secularist opponents -- Scripture breeds violence and sectarianism. She takes up the task of the 'biography' of the Bible to confront this allegation and show what the Book is and what it is not.

For this purpose, she goes back to the history of the traditions that laboured to explore the meaning(s) of Biblical books and finds out that "some of the most important biblical authorities insisted that charity must be the guiding principle of exegesis".

In the subsequent chapters dealing with the formation of the 'Torah', the canonisation of the Hebrew Bible, the formation of the Gospels, and 'Midrash', she sets apart one chapter on 'Charity' as the key principle of interpretation by the early Christian Fathers.

In the chapter 'Lectio Divina', she shows how the peaceful, leisurely perusal of the Biblical text by monks and rabbis gradually led to the emergence of critical approaches. In the next chapter, 'Sola Scriptura', she depicts how a deviated stream of the Protestant Reformation paved the way for a literal reading of the Bible.

The last chapter, 'Modernity' portrays the development of historical criticism of the Bible, the movements that pointed out its disadvantages and, finally, the method of inner-Biblical exegesis by Michael Fishbane.

On the basis of this analysis of the history of Biblical interpretation, she establishes that Jews, Christians and Muslims should explore 'a counter-narrative that emphasises the benign features of their exegetical traditions'. She suggests that a common hermeneutics among religions should emphasise the tradition of compassion, which is evident in the 'principle of charity'.

The book is a significant contribution in that it gives a concise history of the formation, canonisation, and interpretation of the Bible. As the title indicates, it is not an objective history, but a 'biography' of a book that lives.

Since the Bible is a living book, it continues to hold an influence on the lives of the people. In the course of narration, the writer attempts to lead the readers to some theological conclusions. The biography of the Bible, therefore, is an expression of history as theology.

The book, however, raises certain seminal questions concerning the approach to the Bible. The virtuous purpose of the author is to erase the 'bad name' that the Scriptures have received because of the unfortunate association of terrorism with religion. This ignores the fact that terrorism, in any religion, is an aberration, and not the result of the interpretation of Scriptures.

In almost all cases of terrorism, religion is a shield to conceal hidden political agenda. Hence, it seems inappropriate to trace the 'fundamentalist' notions to the history of the evolution of tradition. It should be treated as a disease resulting from the unholy conspiracy of political power and religion.

In order to seek new avenues of multi-religious interpretation of the scriptures, she seems to suggest the 'principle of charity' as a key to the reading of the Bible. This raises the question of the role of the Bible in the community of faith. The writer assumes the propaganda for compassion as the primary purpose of the Bible.

The author seems to overlook the fact that the primary message of the Bible is soteriological. There is a disproportionate emphasis on compassion by several ancient interpreters because they recognised well that compassion is the primary effect of salvation. If we take out the delineation of salvation from the Bible, or subjugate salvation to a secondary status, then the whole reading effort will be futile. The normative value of the Bible rests upon its message of salvation. To read it as a text of 'charity' is to dethrone it from its normative significance.

The book gives elaborate evidence to the deep and wide scholarship of the author, who was a Catholic nun before taking up writing as a full-time career. This, too, is accomplished in the simplest possible way. Still, sometimes, the author uses certain vague or undefined terms, thus leaving the arguments unconvincing.

One such word is 'exegesis', which is basically the method of Biblical analysis in the historical-critical approach. Literally meant 'generating out of (the text)', this indicates a search for meaning in the text. Purposely or not, the author uses the term loosely to all hermeneutical approaches, from the allegorical method to Fishbane's inner-Biblical process. Another similar loose term in the book is 'fundamentalism.' She uses it as a general term to brand all views, other than her own multi-religious approach.

The book is informative particularly in the chapters, 'Scripture', 'Midrash', and 'Lectio Divina', that give interesting information on the process of canonisation, the Rabbinical interpretation of the Hebrew Bible and Biblical interpretation by early Christian Fathers, which are not easily accessible to all. Besides, the presence of an excellent glossary and an index containing terms, scholars and biblical references is worth mentioning.
The reviewer is a student of the Bible and priest of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church
Woman's take on a man's world
  T.N. Sushama  
  The Hour Past Midnight
By Salma
PP 480, Rs 350

The Hour Past Midnight, originally published in Tamil, is the first novel by feminist poet Raasathi A. Rokkiah, known to the literary world by her pen name Salma. The female experience in an oppressive society is not alien to the author. Nor is the world of Rabia and the people around her. Salma was withdrawn from school at the age of 13. She lived in the confines of her home for eight years till she married a man of her parents' choice. She spent her adolescence avidly reading books procured from libraries and writing poetry -- secretly. Her first collection of poems was published when she was 17. Interestingly, Salma's literary life remained unknown to her family for a while.

Despite strong resistance from her family against her literary pursuits, she published several collections of poems and short stories and a novel 'Irandaam Yamangalin Kathai' in Tamil. 'The Hour Past Midnight' is the English translation of the novel.

The story is set in the 1980s in a conservative Muslim family in a remote Tamil Nadu village. She explores the life of the village dominated by Muslims; obviously the main characters come from a Muslim family and its neighbours. It is written with the passion of an autobiographical work.

The hugely male-dominated world of a little girl, Rabia, emerging in 'The Hour Past Midnight', is full of women. Though their position is inferior to the men, who decide the course of their life, this small world throbs with their aspirations and desperations, and their passions and frustrations. Against all odds they struggle hard and suffer in silence to keep the honour of their family. But in such a small world the most tightly kept secret is the hot gossip of the time. The women ardently work together and lavishly share what they have for the festivals, enjoy their togetherness, make the gatherings lively with passionate conversation. They love bitching behind the back of anyone upon whom they showered praises the moment before. That is the zestful, yet narrow-minded, world around little Rabia and her friends.

Conditioned by the kind of society in which Rabia lives, she is moulded to willingly accept female submissiveness and thus naturally 'wants to be proud of him' -- Ahamad, her friend who has a special place in her heart. Ahamad is a prototype in the making, of vain male pride. The sensitive Rabia, at a point, is able to change her aloof father who realises that he was unable to have an affectionate relationship with his daughter due to his excessive desire for a son.

Even for a barely dignified life, a woman needs to have a living husband. Sherifa, the young widow, has to suppress her longings to wear a good saree and jewellery. Small wonder that in her prayer, Rabia's mother Zohra calls out to Allah to call back all women while their husbands are alive. Zohra tries to discipline her daughter thoroughly and even stops her schooling. In the process, she makes her feel 'caged'. For asking an innocent question -- why she cannot go to the mosque and pray with men? -- the answer she got from her mother was, "no means no, that is all". In her conservative world, women are expected to obey, not to question. Even the strong-willed Rahima, wife of her father's elder brother, did not have a choice but to accept an undesirable bridegroom for her daughter. Shame and the fear of sin were instilled in young female minds.

But gender oppression cannot really prevent one from experiencing carnal desires. Ahmad's mother Nafiza's sexual relationship with a young man is not a secret even to her aged and loving husband. And she is not the only woman who dares.

When the community wants to punish an aged and poor woman, Nuramma, whose daughter eloped with a 'kafir' thus bringing dishonour to the community, she begs for mercy. When her pleadings fail, she stands up furiously pointing contemptuously to each man present and asks, "my daughter has wronged, but is there a single man among you who has not slept with a Hindu worker woman?" The 'jihadis', though, did not have an answer. They only further tightened the restrictions on their women besides hunting for the errant woman and isolating her old mother.

There is a sharp criticism of social customs. Rahima advises Saitthoon, who is ill and anaemic due to frequent pregnancies, to get herself sterilised without her husband's knowledge. She sharply criticizes him for quoting Shariat to his wife to point out that it is a sin to prevent pregnancy.

Women live their life observing their customs and traditions in a world infested with devils, ghosts, and angels, and yet always under the watchful eyes of Allah. They are obliged to keep the honour of the family and the community.

The life story of Amina, grandmother of Rabia, is reflective of the burdens of such a female life. Married at the age of 10 to a wealthy widower, life was for her a violent war with herself. She had matured beyond her age with early childbearing and family responsibilities. On finding out that her little sister, who refused to go back to her husband, was pregnant, Amina decided to abort the unborn child. In the dead of night she secretly brought home a local midwife. Clutching Amina's hand her beloved younger sister went through the agonising process and her life ended along with the baby that "dropped from her body as fragments and shreds and clots of blood".

History repeated for Amina when her own younger daughter, Firdaus, left her husband and came home. Fearful of her strict mother the lonely girl, deeply yearning for love and happiness, is drawn to her neighbour, Shiva, and involved in a physical relationship with him. On finding out this affair, Amina mixes rat poison with water and forces her to drink it. The young woman's only sin was that she loved life. For the mother, more than her love for her daughter and her life was the family honour that she was ordained to uphold.

In an unequal world, women go through unexpressed agonies which they are unable to share. As Rahima tells Rabia, according to the Shariat men can marry four times. It is not wrong. If women do it, it is wrong. But Rahima tells her this dispassionately. As a matter of fact!

Salma's novel is proof enough that a conservative society cannot throttle your spirit and strangulate your growth if you have the willpower to resist and the determination to face impediments. The author has survived and surmounted this unequal world through sheer willpower. Salma refused to submit to her conservative world and found such escape routes to reach a plane where male meanness has no value.

Breaking out from a male-controlled world, Salma today is not only an acclaimed writer but a social activist and political leader. Currently, she is the chairperson of the Tamil Nadu Social Welfare Board, a very appropriate forum for a person of her insight and imagination.

In 2003, Salma and three other women were accused of obscene writing. Salma's novel is the answer to this male mindset -- "when women do it, it is wrong, sorry, obscene!"
T.N. Sushama was a newscaster with All India Radio and is now based in Bangalore.
Churchless Christianity
  Katie Galli  
  Why We Love the Church
by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck
Moody Publishers, July 2009
PP 224, $11.99

A STEADY stream of books with titles like 'Pagan Christianity', 'Quitting Church', 'Life After Church', and 'They Like Jesus But Not the Church' show that some of the church's staunchest critics come from within. Many Christians advocate an ecclesiology in which church is understood merely as the plural of Christian; hanging out at a café talking about Jesus is just as valid an expression of "doing church" as traditional models, if not more valid, because it is more relevant to the culture.

In 'Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion' (Moody), Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck, authors of 'Why We're Not Emergent', address what they call the "decorpulation" of Christianity, a growing movement of evangelicals who want "spirituality without religion, to find a relationship without rules and have God without the church."

Barista Katie Galli, who this fall begins graduate studies in history at Cambridge University, interviewed DeYoung, senior pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan, about his own struggles with the church and his reasons for remaining in a traditional, institutional church.

What makes a group of Christians a church?
As a theological category, church could refer to just those who are Christians. But when we use the word church as in, "I'm at church," "we are going to church," "we are the church," we're talking about a gathered body with certain parameters.

In the New Testament, you get a good sense that the church looks a little different in Acts than it does in Corinthians and in Timothy. But there's teaching. There's singing. There's praying. There are sacraments.
It's important to remember that when you have two people at Starbucks who are talking about Jesus, that's nice and that may be a group of Christians, but a church has order, offices, and certain worship elements.

How institutional should the church be?

It's a mirage to think we are going to have something of lasting impact that isn't going to institutionalize in some way. I don't think we have to pit structure against the Spirit or believe that somehow the Spirit can only work through spontaneity.

I fall back on the historic marks of the church. The church needs to regularly gather in worship, in prayer, to hear God's Word, and to receive the sacraments. It should be an ordered body where there's membership, leadership, and discipline.

You say people are disillusioned with the church for many reasons. Which is the hardest for people to get over?

I think the personal reasons are definitely the hardest and most frequent. There are enough sinners in all of our churches, and we need to be willing to listen to people when they are genuinely hurt. But I think a lot of this "church is lame" stuff is really immaturity.

Hopefully people will look back and say, "We were kind of like petulant children getting tired of our parents and thinking that they didn't know anything." Then you get married and have your own kids and realize, "Maybe I didn't always see everything as clearly as I thought I did."

Unfortunately, we have so many choices of churches that we don't have to work through those things (and the growth that God might want to give us through the painful process).

In your book, you talk about past disillusionment with the church. Does every generation go through this phase?
It's easier for young people now to have their voices heard, so it sounds louder and can have a bigger ripple effect. Ultimately a lot of these folks, I think, will come back to the church.

Some won't, because we are seeing the stripping away of some of the nominal bark of the Christian tree in this country. I think there are a lot of nominal Christians who no longer feel the cultural pressure to go to church or say that they're Christian.

What's the greatest danger of churchless Christianity?

Without the regular routine, sometimes humdrum, mundane gathering -- preaching, praying, singing, sacraments, "Yep, we're doing it again this week, doing it again next week"-- without the regular plodding stuff of congregational meetings and nursery workers, I don't know if the churchless movement is sustainable.

The second danger with churchless Christianity is that in some instances, it might not be Christianity anymore. Churchless Christianity sometimes seems to be anti-pastor, anti-sermon, anti-doctrinal boundaries, and the mantra, "I want Jesus, not religion."

At the same time, I think there are encouraging pockets of churches in Reformed traditions, Anglican traditions, and charismatic traditions that are getting more serious about doctrine and living out their faith, as the American superstructure is probably getting less Christian.
(Courtesy: Christianity Today)
The making of Sonia Gandhi
  By Rasheed Kidwai  
  SONIA tried to master Hindi from various sources before taking the plunge into politics. She had begun learning Hindi at home soon after her marriage. Indira had arranged for a tutor from the Hindi Institute at Green Park to teach her to read and write in the Devanagari script, and slowly she developed a liking for the language. Her teacher found her a good learner who seldom missed her homework.

"I had no choice so I learnt it," Sonia said, pointing at the tradition of speaking only in Hindi at the dinner table since the time of Motilal Nehru. No one, including the head of the family, was permitted to break the tradition. It is one custom that is still practised at 10 Janpath. In the first few months that Sonia began to speak in Hindi, Sanjay would laugh each time she made a mistake, but Indira and Rajiv would quickly reprimand him and help Sonia. Sonia took Sanjay's remarks sportingly. In 1980, a few days before his death, she managed to correct 'his' Hindi. Everyone present had a good laugh. Sonia also made it a point to try to speak to all her Indian friends in Hindi. Now she initiates a conversation in Hindi with all those who hail from the Hindi heartland and speaks in English to those who come from across the Vindhyas.

Once she was elected to Parliament, the process of educating Sonia gained momentum with partymen vying to take up the assignment. The party's former chief whip in the Lok Sabha, Professor P.J. Kurian, who had lost the election, took it upon himself to brief Sonia about parliamentary conventions and customs. Also assisting her were Madhavrao Scindia, Shivraj Patil, M.L. Fotedar, Margaret Alva, Prithviraj Chavan, Salman Khurshid, Arjun Singh, P.M. Sayeed, Mani Shankar Aiyar, Girja Vyas and Pawan Bansal.

Sources close to Sonia said that her first few months in Parliament were most testing. There were five hundred pairs of eyes watching her every movement. The press gallery, special gallery, visitor's gallery, diplomatic gallery were all packed too. There were at least a dozen eager beavers among the Congress benches itching to give unsolicited advice. Worse, trusted hands like Vincent George and Pulak Chatterjee, a bright 1974 IAS officer from the Uttar Pradesh cadre, could not be of any help once she was inside the Lok Sabha. As a Sonia aide said, ' Madam is a reticent person and she hated the intense public glare. She did not want to give the impression that Congress leaders were helping her. There used to be intense relief each time Parliament got adjourned.'

Sonia was aware of the prevailing tension in the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) but saw little reason to panic. She told her associates that she needed time, recalling how Rajiv could not make a speech during his first year of Parliament (1981-82).

Slowly, she began learning the ropes. She made her first speech as a member of the Lok Sabha on 29 October 1999, though she had spoken there on five occasions before to facilitate the Speaker and Deputy Speaker, second motions of their election and announce her resignation form the Bellary Lok Sabha seat. Sonia had won from both Amethi and Bellary, but according to the law she could keep just one seat. Bellary, an industrial town in Karnataka, gave Sonia a mandate in spite of spirited efforts by the BJP's Sushma Swaraj who had taken pains to learn Kannada. There was constant media speculation that she would humble Sonia. But a day before campaigning ended, Priyanka arrived, and the entire township was out to see and hear her. Sushma did not wait for the verdict. She knew she had lost.

For her speech, Sonia came prepared with reams of paper, printed in bold 30-point type with just a couple of sentences written on each sheet. Sonia began speaking amid catcalls, but Speaker G.M.C Balayogi was extremely considerate. At the back of his mind was his own experience as he too had faced a communication problem when he was appointed Lok Sabha Speaker in 1998. (He was from Andhra Pradesh and not very fluent in Hindi.)

With this presentation, Sonia passed the litmus test. (Women's Feature Service)
Extracted from 'Sonia a Biography' by Rasheed Kidwai; Published by Penguin Viking; PP: 216; Price: Rs 425
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