Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Sharing at Q. TEA Peace Talks

Last Saturday I took part in an interfaith event organized by Q Commons Singapore. My fellow presenters were Md Imran Md Taib (Muslim interfaith activist), Isa Kamari (acclaimed Malay poet), Chew Lin Kay (humanist interfaith activist), Jason Leow (Zen practitioner), and Aaron Lee (prize-winning poet and Christian activist).

I presented on a theology of peace which revolved these three points:
  1. The pursuit of peace is necessary because the competition of sovereignty is perennial.
  2. The peace of Jesus' kingdom is not the peace of the empire.
  3. Jesus, Christians, and peace-building.
The presentation might not be clear. So, here is the tidy version.

1. The pursuit of peace is necessary because the competition of sovereignty is perennial.
The world is filled with competition for sovereignty. Everyone wants to be sovereign. We see this competition in four domains:
  • First, the international domain. Major superpowers contesting over global hegemony. Previously, between the western and eastern blocs. Now it is between USA and China. The recent Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is but one example.
  • Second, the national domain. Different political, ethnic, and religious factions contesting over governance within the country. (Certain national contest extends over into the international domain, such as the call to establish Islamic caliphate across the globe by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.)
  • Third, the communal (and domestic) domain. We see competition within a community that is based on differences such as gender and individual interest. Dispute within church, sibling rivalry, and marriage commotion are examples.
  • Fourth, the personal domain. This is the competition experienced by individuals within. We find in ourselves conflict between our ideal self and our base self. To use psychoanalysis term, it is the competition between our id and superego. Very much like what Paul wrote in Romans 7:15: "…what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do."
When mismanaged, the competition in each domain can lead to violence and chaos. The international conflict leads to war, national to riot and coup, communal to separation or felony, and personal to mental breakdown and suicide. The competition in these four areas are perennial. Thus, the need to pursue peace.

2. The peace of Jesus' kingdom is not the peace of the empire.
What can Jesus teach us about peace in a world where the competition of sovereignty is perennial at these four areas?

Jesus introduced the idea of the kingdom of God that is already here and now but not yet completely manifested. In Christian theology, this is known as the "already but not yet" kingdom. The idea of kingdom is also an idea of sovereignty that also promises peace into the world.

But what kind of "peace" that Jesus promised? The idea of peace is commonly understood as the peace of empire. In Jesus' time, it was known as Pax Romana, the peace of Rome. When Japan was conquering Asia during the Second World War, they promised to bring "great peace". 

The peace of empire is a combination of military and political power. They are intrusive in nature. The peace of Rome brought heavy taxation and political subjection. The so-called "great peace" of Japan brought massacres and sub-standard living. Therefore the peace of empire provokes hostility and insurgency. People rebelled against such peace.

Jesus promises peace, but what differentiates his version of peace from that of the powers in the world? There is degree of ambiguity on this. For even in Jesus’ time, not everyone understood peace the same way as Jesus did. He knew that his peace would come across as division to some (John 16:33 contra Luke 12:51-53).

Nonetheless, I think here are some characteristics of the peace promised by Jesus:
  • Jesus' peace is not the peace of empire. It is not military or political. Although it has a skewed view on military force and has something to say on the political, it is not a peace to be established by weapons and parliament.
  • Jesus’ peace is not primarily concern over the competition of sovereignty in the four domains (international, national, communal, and personal). Jesus’ peace addresses the competition of sovereignty between humanity and God. He is concerned over the conflict between the empire of humanity and the kingdom of God. Violence, greed, oppression, and transgressions of all kinds and forms are manifestation of humanity's challenging God's sovereignty. Sometimes these competitions are carried out in the name of religion. At other times, in the name of humanistic ideals.
  • Jesus saw humanity's rebellion as futile and will be ended by God. This is so by the principle of justice. If humans are not made to rebel against God, then it is only right that God corrects this error by unmaking them, that is to destroy them. The only way to escape this without deviating from the cause of justice and still preserves humanity is through the sacrifice of a scapegoat that can represent humanity.
  • Jesus saw himself as that scapegoat. He willingly set down his life as the sacrifice on behalf of the human race to fulfill the required divine justice while preserving humanity. Through his sacrifice, the ultimate destruction of humanity is averted. This is the peace that Jesus brought. His is not the peace of empire spread by weapons and sustained by force, but the peace through the cross that addresses the competition of sovereignty between humanity and God.
What then does this peace have to say to the competition in four domains today?

3. Jesus, Christians, and peace-building.
First, Jesus' peace is not established by military or political powers, therefore Christians should not think that we are doing God a favor by using empire's apparatus to establish God's kingdom. If Jesus’ peace is coercive, his servants would have fought to prevent his arrest (John 18:36).

When Jesus was about to depart, he said: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid."

So, let us freely, without trouble and fear, continue to make peace, build peace, and sustain peace in this chaotic world. But with the way of the cross, not the means of the empire.

Second, Jesus' own example as peacemaker between humanity and God is a model for peace-making. Our pursuit for peace must prioritize justice and the preservation of humanity.

By framing conflicts in term of the four domains (international, national, communal, and personal) is not complete without also seeing them as subsets of the war humanity waged against God. Without the latter, justice is factional and open for re-definition by the competing parties. And preservation of humanity then becomes preservation of human beings who are on our side.

Between justice and preservation of humanity, we cannot choose one over the other. And when we had to, self-sacrifice is an option. Striving for justice and humanity's peace (instead of factional justice and self-preservation) is imitating Jesus.

Third, Jesus taught the importance of peace-building in relation to religious identity: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." (Matthew 5:9)

Interestingly it is not the other way around. Jesus didn’t say, blessed are the children of God (that is those who see themselves as religious) for they will be peacemakers. Jesus didn’t start with who we think we are, and then we have to go and make peace. He started with those who are already making peace, and declared that they will be called children of God.

Therefore let us not get caught up with solidifying our exclusive socio-religious identity that we forget that those who will be called children of God will not be those who are busy identifying themselves as such but those who are actually pursuing peace.

Monday, May 04, 2015

A word on church growth methods

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Christianity is a missionary faith. It aims to make everyone into Christ’s disciples. Thus, numerical growth is a major characteristic of the faith since its beginning. All believers are to share the gospel to everyone they know in order to increase kingdom membership. However, this is so much easier said than done.

The difficulty is not so much in how to increase numbers but in what numbers we want to increase?

It is not difficult to achieve numerical growth because there are time-proven methods that guarantee increased membership. This is the good news.

As found in various studies, there are three ingredients which are empirically demonstrated to boost membership effectively.

The first ingredient is “spiritual entrepreneur”. Most congregations that achieve exponential growth within one generation have a celebrity Senior Pastor.[1] 

The Senior Pastor is a highly popular, eloquent, and innovative person who runs the church like an entrepreneur would a company (which Presbyterian’s Elders-Deacons system does not allow). In fact, the Senior Pastor is the brand of the church, as how Steve Jobs is to Apple Inc. 

Not convinced? Well, think of all the big churches you know—most of you probably do not know anyone else from those churches except their Senior Pastor, right?[2] Just like everyone knows Steve Jobs but most has not even heard of Jon Ive, who designed Apple’s revolutionary products.  

The second ingredient is the “deployment of marketing strategies, technologies and consumerist ethos” for the church.[3] Churches that adopt this method “draw on popular culture and a consumerist logic in order to attract an audience more familiar with rock and roll, shopping malls, and self-help culture than with traditional church liturgies, hymns, or symbols.”[4] 

The relationship between church and members is viewed through the relationship between a company and its customers. The church produces messages and experiences that are consumer-driven, which is effectively presented via marketing techniques and technologies to capture the populace’s interest. 

Emphasis is placed on making the church “seeker sensitive”, which often means toning down the inherited religious symbolism and rituals. The sermon has to be TED-like, that is topical in addressing popular needs rather than expository in seeking God’s prophetic voice in the Bible.

The third ingredient, which is related to the second one, is to provide a range of services cater for the members. The church invests in programs that address the various needs of the members and allow them a few varieties to choose from. Church is structured like a shopping mall that has “something for everyone”.[5]

These three ingredients guarantee numerical growth. 

However, there is not-so-good-news. Like all methods, these three come with pitfalls as much as promises.

When churches that grow due to a celebrity Senior Pastor often cultivate a personality cult following more than a congregation that gathers for a communal spiritual journey. 

Mars Hill Church was founded in 1996 by its Senior Pastor Mark Driscoll, who is famous for his Reformed preaching. The church deployed effective marketing strategies and technologies to maximize its outreach. The church is ranked by Outreach Magazine as the third-fastest growing church in 2012.[6] At its peak, it had 14 branches with weekly attendance of 13,000. 

Yet, in 2014, Driscoll resigned. Following that, it was announced that all Mars Hill churches will dissolve by 2015.[7] Another similar example is Robert H. Schuller and his Crystal Cathedral. Therefore, it would not be too imaginative to suppose that the same would also happen to many local big churches with a celebrity Senior Pastor.

Aligning churches along the consumerist logic to be “seeker sensitive” and as centre that has “something for everyone” raises serious questions on what disciples are we making? 

The Willow Creek Community Church has congregational size of 24,000 and listed as the most influential church in America. Outside its founding Senior Pastor Bill Hybels’ office hangs a poster that says, “What is our business? Who is our customer? What does the customer consider value?” The church invested millions of dollar annually to provide many types of programs for members to participate. 

This reflects the church’s ministry philosophy, as its executive pastor Greg Hawkins said, “Participation is a big deal. We believe the more people participating in these sets of activities, with higher levels of frequency, it will produce disciples of Christ.”[8]

Then around the middle of 2000s, the church engaged an external agency to conduct a multiple year qualitative study of the church. The findings were unexpected—63% of the church’s most active and considered spiritually matured members were actually contemplating leaving the church! 

The multimillion-dollars-programs the church invested in to cater for all its members and its “seeker-friendly” culture could not retain members. The turnover rate was high. This corresponds to what we see in local “seekers sensitive” churches.

Furthermore, in a separate study, it is found that today’s young Christians (18-29 years-old) are more appreciative of liturgical religiosity: 78% preferring quiet church than loud church, 67% describe their ideal church as “classic” rather than “trendy”, and 77% like church with a sanctuary than church with an auditorium.[9]

My point is this: There is no perfect church growth method. Each comes with pitfalls and promises. As churches embrace the method of their choice, they also must prepare to brace themselves for the pitfalls. Indeed, these methods guarantee numerical growth—of personality cult followers and high turnover rate in church membership. Therefore, the difficulty is not on how to increase disciples, but what kind of disciples are we making?

Recognizing where the real difficulty lies helps us to see ‘doing church’ in a way that is freed from the shadow of surrounding churches with exponential growth. Only then can we begin to understand the bearing of disciple-making.

A pastor friend once told me that his ideal church size should be about 200 to 300 members. That is a good size to build community that is socially viable, where most people can get to know most other people as how they should be as a spiritual family. Any number beyond this should be directed for a new church plant. (This is of course another easier-said-than-done issue as small congregations have difficulty getting venue for their activity. Yet, the suggestion rightly prompts us to rethink the purpose of the church.)


[1] Scott Thumma, “Exploring the Megachurch Phenomena: Their Characteristics and Cultural Context,” Hartford Institute for Religion Research, 2003, http://hirr.hartsem.edu/bookshelf/thumma_article2.html
[2]  Jeaney Yip and Susan Ainsworth, “’We aim to provide excellent service to everyone who comes to church!’: Marketing mega-churches in Singapore,” Social Compass, vol.60:4 (2013):508.
[3] Terence Chong and Daniel P.S. Goh, "Asian Pentecostalism: Revivals, Mega-Churches, and Social Engagement," in Routledge Handbook of Religions in Asia, eds. Bryan S. Turner, Oscar Salemink (Routledge, 2015), 407.
[4] Stephen Ellingson, “New Research on Megachurches: Non-denominationalism and Sectarianism,” in The New Blackwell Companion to the Sociology of Religion, ed. Bryan S. Turner (Blackwell, 2010), 247.
[5] Thumman, Exploring the Megachurch Phenomena.
[6] Brendan Kiley, “Mars Hill Announced the “Third Fastest-Growing Church” in America,” dated 24 September 2012, The Stranger, http://slog.thestranger.com/slog/archives/2012/09/24/mars-hill-announced-at-the-third-fastest-growing-church-in-america
[7] Ruth Graham, “How a Megachurch Melts Down,” 7 November 2014, The Atlantic, http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/11/houston-mark-driscoll-megachurch-meltdown/382487/
[8] “Willow Creek Repents? Why the most influential church in America now says “We made a mistake,” 18 October 2007, Parse: Leadership Journal, http://www.christianitytoday.com/parse/2007/october/willow-creek-repents.html?paging=off
[9] Stephanie Samuel, “Study Shows Millenials Turned Off by Trendy Church Buildings, Prefer a Classic Sanctuary,” dates 14 November 2014, The Christian Post, http://www.christianpost.com/news/study-shows-millennials-turned-off-by-trendy-church-buildings-prefer-a-classic-sanctuary-129675/

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Michael Barr twisting Lee Kuan Yew's words?


After the passing of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), the media around the world was featuring various people to talk about him. One of them is Michael Barr, Associate Professor of International Relations at Flinders University who wrote  Lee Kuan Yew: The Beliefs Behind the Man (USA: Georgetown University Press, 2000). Barr was interviewed by BBC and Telegraph. His 2011's article is widely shared on Facebook timeline.

Barr has also published an interview on New Mandala. In the article Barr wishes "that those of [LKY] devotees who know better could find the honesty to recognize his failings so that more casual followers of public affairs would have a chance of reaching a more balanced perspective" (emphasis added). Many have considered Barr a fair scholar on LKY.

My friend recently recommended me a book co-edited by Barr: Paths Not Taken: Political Pluralism in Post-War Singapore (Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2009). I was surprised when I came to the following passage:
"Yet the words of the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew make clear that he never believed in a Marxist conspiracy. In a private meeting in the midst of the crisis [LKY] dismissed the supposed Marxist conspirators as 'do-gooders who wanted to help the poor and dispossessed'. [LKY] even declared that he was not interested in 'Vincent Cheng and his group', but he was more concerned about the 'involvement' of 'several priests'. Yet 20 people, none of them priests, were detained for several months, and two more for several years."
(229, emphasis added)
Barr' statement asserts that LKY knew that he was not actually countering Marxists through the infamous Operation Spectrum. The footnote to LKY's statement states:
"Report of Lee Kuan Yew's words in ISD notes of a meeting between the PM and Catholic Church leaders on 2 June 1987 at 3pm at the Istana. This document is marked 'SECRET' but was released to the court as Exhibit 85(d) during the government's legal action against the Far Eastern Economic Review in 1989." (244)
I am surprised that Barr made this assertion because that is not what LKY said in the Far Eastern Economic Review. Here is the original sentence:
"Lee commented that the Singapore Government was 'dealing with a new phenomenon---do-gooders who wanted to help the poor and dispossessed, getting perverted along the way to Marxism,' as in the Philippines."
(From Far Eastern Economic Review, October 1989, vol. 146, p.16. Emphasis added)
It is clear from the original passage, LKY indeed saw his government as countering Marxists, who started out as "do-gooders". This coheres with LKY's memoir where he stated that the 1987 operation was counter-Marxism:
"The [Internal Security Department] considered these pro-Marxist English-educated activists an incipient security problem, and in 1987 recommended that they be detained. I accepted the recommendation. I did not want a couple of pro-communist cadres including Tan [Wah Piow], on whom we had hard evidence of links with the [Communist Party of Malaya], to rebuild their influence using innocent but disaffected activists. Their new united front included a Roman Catholic who had given up becoming a priest to dabble in liberation theology."
(Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to the First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000 [Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2000], 137)
Whether the detainees were involved in Marxist conspiracy is besides the point. The fact is that Barr's assertion that LKY has never believed in a Marxist conspiracy is a distortion of LKY's words to mean the opposite.

Barr shrewdly quoted only the portion from the source that can be manipulated to support his false claim. 

In his post on New Mandala, Barr asked LKY devotees to be honest in recognizing the former Prime Minister's failings. I do not know why Barr did not do the same in his article. He twisted LKY's words and presented to us a statement that is completely opposite from the original source. Only Barr knows why he did that.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

On hate speech law and governance—A reply to Carlton Tan

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The Amos Yee case has roused netizens to revisit the issue of hate speech law (Section 298) in Singapore. Over at Asian Correspondent, Carlton Tan alleges three problems surrounding this law: it is unnecessary and redundant, cannot be consistently applied, and liable to be abused.

The hate speech law may be problematic but I cannot agree with Carlton that those purported three are the problems.

While I do not know if Carlton is legally trained, I have to say that I am not. So my opinion is opened for correction by those who are.

Unnecessary and Redundant?
Carlton states that the purpose of Section 298 is “meant to protect individuals from feeling offended,” and this was “never Parliament’s intention” as its purpose is to “safeguard racial and religious harmony” and “preserve the social fabric of the country”.

He sees the upholding of this law as “mollycoddling” citizens and an “insult to the forbearance of religious groups” as it implies these groups will cause social unrest when offended, which will not happen.

Carlton also points out that Section 298A is meant for the same purpose, so “Section 298 is redundant.”

In short, Carlton is saying that since Section 298 and 298A share the same objective, then the former has to go as it underestimates citizens’ integrity.

I see three problems with Carlton’s view. First, as I understand them, Section 298 and 298A do not have the same objective. There are five laws (Section 295, 296, 297, 298, and 298A) under Penal Code Chapter XV that address “Offences Relating to Religion or Race.” 

Section 298 is against “Uttering words, etc., with deliberate intent to wound the religious or racial feelings of any person.” I will be charged under this law if I intentionally mock someone’s religion or race. For instance, the statement: “Joshua’s religion makes people stupid, and the fact that he is Chinese explains it.”

Section 298A is specifically against “Promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion or race and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony.” I will be charged by this law if I provoke hostility between factions of the society based on religious or racial reason, which I may or may not offend either group. Perhaps an example is someone saying, “Group X and group Y killed each other in the past; they are sworn rivals, so they should continue killing each other here in Singapore,” without him being in either group.

Section 298 prevents individual from hurting others’ religious and racial sentiment, while Section 298A attempts to avert (what Samuel Huntington calls) “clash of civilizations” which the instigator may or may not offend any individual’s religious or racial sentiment. Carlton could not see their difference and so think that Section 298 is redundant.

Again, I have to emphasize that I am not legally trained, so my interpretation is opened for correction.

The other reason why Carlton thinks that Section 298 is unnecessary is because it underestimates citizens’ and religious groups’ integrity. I think this is a misperception of the rule of law.

It is not the concern of law whether it underestimates anyone’s integrity. If it is, then the very existence of the legal system is as guilty because all laws assume the possibility of violation. For instances, law against rape assumes the possibility that people could rape, law against murder assumes the possibility that people could murder, etc.

If as Carlton argues, that law is insulting to people because it implies that people could commit crime, then should we abolish laws against rape and murder because they imply that people could rape and be homicidal? I am sure no one in their right mind would want this. Therefore it is erroneous to argue that a law is unnecessary because it underestimates citizen’s integrity.

Thirdly, Carlton’s optimism on religious groups’ forbearance ignores the potency of religious violence. As much as religion is a source for personal wellbeing and peace, it is also a powerful ideological basis that fuels much violence affecting the world today.

Many major religions have an inherent logic that can be interpreted to justify violence. As the renowned sociologist of religious violence Mark Juergensmeyer remarks, 
“Although it may seem paradoxical that images of destruction often accompany a commitment to realizing a harmonious form of existence, there is a certain logic at work that makes this conjunction natural.”
(Mark Juergensmeyer, Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State, from Christian Militias to al Qaeda [USA: University of California Press, 2008], 213.)
The religious potency for violence is one thing that no government or citizen of every country can afford to treat lightly. It requires insurmountable dose of optimism on Carlton’s part to be able to dismiss this at a time when Islamic militants are beheading people in Syria, violent monks are inciting hostility in Sri Lanka, Christian militia are rampaging Central African Republic, Hindus are persecuting religious minorities in India, and Muslim separatists are orchestrating mass-stabbing in China.

Cannot be consistently applied and liable to be abused?
Carlton alleges that Section 298 is problematic because it cannot be consistently applied. He writes, 
“It’s impossible to legislate and police against every single instance when they are. Instead, only those who come under the national spotlight and become the subject of multiple police reports get prosecuted — people like Yee who posted his video in the middle of the mourning period for the late Lee Kuan Yew and became the subject of over 20 police reports… because this law cannot be equally enforced against every violator, it is also liable to be abused. Prosecutors have a certain degree of freedom to choose who to prosecute and who not to, but it cannot make its decision on political grounds, because the prosecutor is there to serve the public interest, not the Prime Minister’s interest (when they come into conflict).”
I think the inconsistency is not so much in the application of the law, but in the public’s reaction towards contemptuous act that is based on religious and racial ground.

In other words, it is not that the authority does not consistently apply Section 298 on cases of similar nature. Rather, the public does not react consistently to cases of similar nature, such as making more than 20 police reports on all known cases and not only on Amos Yee.

If the public has responded consistently to all known cases of similar nature by making more than 20 police reports on each, then the authority would probably have attended to every case consistently. This is rightly so because the authority exists for the interest of the public (as Carlton also recognizes), and so they act based on the public responses.

Hence this is not a case where the law is inconsistently applied for political interest, as Carlton alleges. Rather, it is the inconsistency of public response to every case of similar nature that led to the authority’s variegated response to each. If the public has responded consistently, then the authority will respond accordingly.

On Government’s security measure
Lastly, Carlton accuses the government for “systematically inculcated a sense of vulnerability in Singaporeans and sought to establish its right to rule on that basis—as a protector of racial and religious harmony.”

As I have commented on the Asian Correspondent site, I admire Carlton for his optimism in society’s social resilience. Such optimism is scarce in view of what is happening around the world, not to mention with Singapore’s neighbours in the present. However, turning such optimism into a critique of governance is perhaps overstretching it.

I worked on a cruise ship previously. All crews are required to go through safety training lessons from time to time. During one lesson I learned that there was a Surveillance Department on board the ship. Its purpose was to monitor every public areas of the ship through hundreds of surveillance cameras. Working closely with the department was the Security Department, consisted of 50 to 100 security officers, of which many of them were former Ghurkha soldiers. I remember one officer said during briefing, “The Surveillance and Security Departments are very important in this ship. All it needs to sink the ship is only one person tries something crazy.”

The officer was telling us about the safety measures of our ship which was the size of about 3 football fields, with an average of 2,600 passengers and 1,600 crews.

I wonder what kind of safety measure is needed for a country the size of Singapore with 5,000,000 occupants?

If there is little space for optimism in trusting the 4000 plus people on board will not try something crazy, what more for a country?

It is therefore a mistake to think that we can lower our gut when society seems to be more civil now. That was the mistake Norway has paid with 77 lives in 2011. Regardless of the degree of peace a society is currently enjoying, all it needs is one Anders Behring Breivik to try something crazy.

One could dismiss the Norway’s case as an exception. Yet it is precisely for such exception that the law is there to safeguard against. If it is the norm, then it will be a state of emergency already.

Therefore Carlton’s point that the government has been cultivating a sense of vulnerability to establish its rule needs to be rethought. After all it is the job of all governments to constantly be aware of possible and actual vulnerability of their own country and take the necessary pre-emptive measures.

No doubt these measures can be interpreted (as Carlton has) to establish the government’s rule. Yet to ask the government not to administer them is to ask them not to do their job. Even one life is too much for the government to risk.

Carlton writes well. He should continue writing. What he should not do is to apply for a job in the Surveillance or Security Department of a ship. In this case, accusing the government for its “rule by anxiety”.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Joshua Berman's essay on the historicity of the exodus

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The movie Exodus: Gods and Kings has sparked some discussions over whether was there an actual exodus. Liberal scholars readily came out and repeated their mantra that there is little, if any, historical value in the Book of Exodus.
 
There is a recent insightful essay written by Rabbi Joshua Berman (Senior Lecturer at the Zalman Shamir Bible Deparment of Bar-Ilan University) that challenges the liberal view (H/T: Gerald McDermott). Berman points out several phrases in the Book of Exodus that parallel Egyptian Pharaohs' imperial propaganda contained in the Kadesh poem. For instance:
In the Kadesh poem we read: Then when my troops and chariotry saw me, that I was like Montu , my arm strong, . . . then they presented themselves one by one, to approach the camp at evening time. They found all the foreign lands, among which I had gone, lying overthrown in their blood . . . . I had made white [with their corpses] the countryside of the land of Kadesh. Then my army came to praise me, their faces [amazed/averted] at seeing what I had done.

Exodus 14:30-31 is remarkably similar, and in two cases identical: “Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea. And when Israel saw the great hand which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord.” As I noted earlier, “great hand” here and “great arm” in 15:16 are used exclusively in the Hebrew Bible with regard to the exodus, a trope found elsewhere only within Egyptian propaganda, especially during the late-second-millennium New Kingdom.
Evidence such as this suggests a relation between the Egyptian and Hebrew sources:
I’m fully aware that similarities between two ancient texts do not automatically imply that one was inspired by the other, and also that common terms and images were the intellectual property of many cultures simultaneously. [...] Thus, although few if any ancient battle accounts record an army on the march that is suddenly attacked by a massive chariot force and breaks ranks as a result, it could still be that Exodus and the Kadesh poem employ this motif independently.
What really suggests a relation between the two texts, however, is the totality of the parallels, plus the large number of highly distinctive motifs that appear in these two works alone. No other battle account known to us either from the Hebrew Bible or from the epigraphic remains of the ancient Near East provide even half the number of shared narrative motifs exhibited here. [...]

To be plain about it, the parallels I have drawn here do not “prove” the historical accuracy of the Exodus account, certainly not in its entirety. [...]

But my own conclusion is [...]: the evidence adduced here can be reasonably taken as indicating that the poem was transmitted during the period of its greatest diffusion, which is the only period when anyone in Egypt seems to have paid much attention to it: namely, during the reign of Ramesses II himself. In my view, the evidence suggests that the Exodus text preserves the memory of a moment when the earliest Israelites reached for language with which to extol the mighty virtues of God, and found the raw material in the terms and tropes of an Egyptian text well-known to them. In appropriating and “transvaluing” that material, they put forward the claim that the God of Israel had far outdone the greatest achievement of the greatest earthly potentate. 
There are three responses to Berman's essay. Richard Hess and Benjamin Sommer agree with him, while Ronald Hendel remains unconvinced.

Here is a short video that summarizes Berman's argument:


Monday, March 02, 2015

A response to Islamic Information & Services Foundation's distribution of translated Quran

The Islamic Information and Services Foundation (IIS) in Malaysia has launched “One Soul One Quran” programme, with the former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad serving as its patron. The programme will translate and distribute 1 million copies of the Quran to non-Muslims and Muslims through Islamic institutions. 

The purpose of the programme is said to dispel misunderstanding of Islam as a “cruel religion”. IIS’s official has also stated that, “It’s up to non-Muslims to take them or not. We are also not taking down their personal information.” The project aims to deal with “Islamophobia as we want to spread awareness about Islam’s teachings. We do not want what is going on in the West to happen here.” 

The Malaysian Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) has since produced a statement to reprove the programme. The council states that the actual intention of the programme is “to propagate the Islamic faith to the Non-Muslims under the guise of removing misconceptions of Islam.” The statement also condemns the programme as “obnoxious as a similar right is not given to Non-Muslims.” Therefore, the council advises non-Muslims not to accept the translated Quran. 

 I am inclined to ask if there is another way for non-Muslims to respond to the “One Soul One Quran” programme? I think there is. What I am suggesting here is meant for Malaysian Christians, though it may also be applicable to believers of other religions. 

Another Way 
As someone who is tasked to lead a religious community, it is my responsibility to constantly ask what kind of religious people we are developing. Are we developing people (in my case, Christians) who are suspicious of the “religious others”, alienating them, and further fragmenting the fragile social cohesion of Malaysia’s pluralistic society? 

How we respond to initiatives such as IIS’s programme will shape the kind of people in our respective religious communities. The present world cannot afford to have more religiously motivated people who are cynical and hostile towards religious others. Neither should there be further escalation of religious ghettoisation that leads to the rise of Christian (or any other religions) version of Perkasa and Pekida

What our society needs but seriously lack of are religious communities that are able to relate to other religions in an appreciative, open, and discerning disposition as how we should relate to our own faith. 

Regardless of IIS’s intention, its “One Soul One Quran” programme will distribute translated Quran to non-Muslims. My take is that, instead of rejecting when given, Christians should be glad to receive them. There are three important reasons for doing so. 

First, by reading the actual (though translated) Quran, Christians get to learn about Islam from its original source mindful of the fact that reading the Quran does not guarantee right understanding and that we can also learn about Islam from other sources as well. If so, there is no reason not to include the Quran as part of our learning as it is the text that all Muslims deem authoritative, something that cannot be said of other books on Islam. 

Our knowledge of Islam and our relationship with Muslims should be cultivated by reading the Quran, various Islamic books and websites, attending lectures by Islamic scholars, and having conversations with Muslim friends. I learn about Islam in the same way as I learn about Christianity: through reading the sacred text alongside works by respected exegetes, attend courses, and talk to other ardent believers. This is not the best way but it has so far been the least unreliable way for me to gain certain degree of reliable understanding of complex phenomena such as religions. 

The second reason Christians should accept and read the translated Quran is for evangelical (or ‘evangelisation’ for Roman Catholics) purpose. There is no need for Christians to feel sorry or embarrassed for our evangelical intent as Christianity since its beginning is as much a missionary faith as Islam (the same can be said to all religions seeking followers). Reading other religious texts help us to understand how best to communicate with the religious others when we share our perspective of Christianity. Besides facilitating mutual understanding, it also enables us to introduce our faith to them with illustrations and analogies that are relevant to them. 

A good example of this is what Paul did at Aeropagus when he quoted from Aratus’ Phaenomena and Epimenides’ Cretica about Zeus to point his hearers to the gospel (Acts 17:28). The apostle has no hesitation to draw from the Greeks’ idea of their deity for evangelical purpose. Paul’s quoting of these works shows that he has read them and saw the missiological value in them. And he used them as illustrations when he shared the gospel to the Greeks. 

The third reason is simply that those translated Quran are free. I had to purchase the two different translations of the Quran for my own reading. So a complimentary copy is welcomed. I suppose non-Muslims who are keen to learn about Islam for the above mentioned reasons should not mind accepting a Quran as a gift. I would be glad to be given another translation of the Quran. So far I have only received a free copy of the Book of Mormon, a gift from Mormon Elders. 

Nonetheless, many Christians in Malaysia are not willing to accept the Quran because they are forbidden to distribute the Bible to Muslims: If non-Muslims are not allowed to distribute their religious texts to Muslims then Muslims should likewise be prohibited. The case of Al-Kitab further aggravated this sentiment among non-Muslims. We are not being treated fairly by the ruling Muslim party and its various interest groups and Islamic authorities. 

However I think there are several reasons why such unfair treatment on non-Muslims should not prevent Christians from receiving the Quran. First, Christians should not imitate the intolerant behaviour and siege-mentality exemplified by others (regardless of religion). Second, Christians should be open to learn from others even though others do not want to learn from us. Third, Christians can and should cultivate the ability to appreciate religious others without compromising our own faith and mission. Fourth, Christians can turn this unfair treatment around by making the best of the situation by appropriating it for our own learning and missiological purpose, as mentioned above. 

Concerns 
I understand there are concerns among Christians with such suggestion. For one, there is fear among Christians that believers will be led away from Christianity when they read the Quran. I think this fear is not only invalid but also hypocritical and unfair. 

It is invalid because if Christianity is true, then Christians should be able to engage other religions’ text with discernment. Of course, not every Christians may be able to do that, yet this means that all the more there is a need to disciple church members and equip church leaders with solid theological education so that they are able to discern. 

Secondly, such fear is hypocritical and unfair because if Christians welcome non-Christians to read the Bible, then we should likewise be open to be welcomed to read the text of other religions. If we are not willing to read others’ scripture, then on what grounds do we have to ask and expect others to read ours willingly? 

Another concern comes in the form of a question: many Christians do not even read the Bible and/or as often as they should have, then why should they read the Quran? I think this question can be used on everything: Christians do not even read the Bible as often as they should have, then why should they read newspapers, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, websites, blogs, novels, magazines, textbooks, journals, infographs, pamphlets, watch movies, dramas, and YouTube videos, and play golf? So, how consistent do we want to apply this in all other areas? At least, as I have outlined above, reading the Quran can help in evangelisation. 

Conclusion 
As the journey to improve the governing structures of Malaysia is still going on, there is much we can do in response to challenges we face as a minor religious community. For one, Christians should not shy away from making use of the state’s designated funds for Islamic proselytisation for our own Christian evangelisation and peace-building work. If they distribute free Quran, we take and learn it. If they give out Islamic theological books, we include them in our seminaries’ library for research. If they have funds for further education in Islamic Studies, we take it and gain expertise in the field. 

The responsibility of Christian leaders to our community is twofold when it comes to interfaith matters in a pluralistic society. On one hand, we must not foster Christians who are resentful and alienating to the religious others, and further contribute to social hostility among different religious groups in the society. We must not become the Christian version of Perkasa, Pekida, or ISIS. On the other hand, we have to draw from the Christian scripture and tradition resources to inculcate an appreciative, open, and discerning disposition among our community’s members towards the religious others, as how we should be in relation to our own faith. We want to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles while at the same time being fair to the religious others as we want them to be fair to us. All these are to be pursued for the glory of God, for the work of the gospel, and for the cultivation of peace and harmony in our society. 

This article was originally published on New Mandala website, 2 March 2015.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

"Hell" is Valley of Hinnom, so Jesus is back already?

Benjamin Corey's post on Jesus' reference of hell as the Valley of Hinnom is being circulated widely on social media. He rightly points out that the word "Gehenna" which is usually translated as "hell" is a reference to the valley. 

What's wrong with Corey's post is his conclusion that Jesus' warning to his hearers in Matthew 24 is a reference to the impending destruction of the temple in 70 A.D (with emphasis added):
At the beginning of Matthew 24 Jesus explicitly sets the stage for the coming destruction, warning them that even the temple will be destroyed (“not one stone will remain on another, it will all be thrown down.” V. 2) Jesus goes so far as to even tell them what the signs of the coming judgment (the end of the “age”) would look like: wars, rumors of wars, famine, earthquakes, etc. As Jesus describes this “great tribulation” with horrible persecution, he advises them that if they want to escape death at the hands of the Romans, they would need to flee to the hillsides when they see the “signs of the times” (verse 16).

This actual event and the fulfillment of Jesus’ warning came in AD70 when Roman armies destroyed Jerusalem along with her temple. Presumably, those who heeded Jesus’ warning in Matthew 24 of fleeing to the hillside would have survived the advancing destruction of the Roman army… but those who didn’t?

Well, those folks were killed. And guess what we know actually happened to their bodies? They were burned in… “hell”, just outside of Jerusalem– exactly as Jesus had warned. This makes the teachings of Jesus very practical when considering the historical and grammatical context: those who listened to him would live, and those who didn’t would end up burned in the Valley of Hinnom. While we don’t know for sure, it is highly likely that some/many of the people in the audience when Jesus warned “how will you escape going to the Valley of Hinnom?” actually ended up dead and burned in Gehenna by the Romans.

You probably didn’t hear any of this in Sunday School, but that’s what Jesus was talking about when he talked about hell, at least on a historical level (not accounting for symbolism or dual fulfillment).
Corey argues that Jesus was referring to an event that will soon take place, and so the reference of Gehenna points to the cremation of those who didn't heed his warning. I find this an inconsistent reading of Matthew 24.

When we read the whole of Matthew 24, we would see how Corey has wrongly concluded that Jesus was referring to the imminent destruction of the temple.
3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” 4 Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you...

29 Immediately after the distress of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ 30 “Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. (Matthew 24:3, 29-30. Emphasis added.)
The whole point of Jesus' reply is to answer his disciples' inquiry about his glorious return. If Jesus' warning refers to the temple destruction in 70 A.D., then he would have return at that time, as per his own foresight.

The only way for Corey to go around this is to insert a "gap" between verse 29 and 30. Yet this hermeneutical move is perhaps too convenient. When the verses agree with one's proposal, there is no gap. When the verses disagree, suddenly we should find a gap there.

Well, historically, there is no record of Jesus appearing after the temple's destruction in 70 A.D. So on historical basis, we can deduce that Jesus had something else in mind in his warning. Gehenna as the Valley of Hinnom doesn't lead to the conclusion that Jesus was referring to the destruction of the temple in Matthew 24.

Of course, there is a way to go around this. Corey could say that Jesus has returned, but it wasn't recorded anywhere in the ancient world. But I don't think he and those who agree with him want to take this route.

To sum up, we can agree that Gehenna refers to the Valley of Hinnom. However, we have to recognize that Jesus uses it as a vivid imagery of his days as illustration of a horror. And Jesus' warning in Matthew 24 may or may not link to his reference of Gehenna in the previous chapter. Jesus could be envisioning the hypocrites' upcoming cremation at Hinnom Valley in chapter 23, while talking about the afterlife condition of weeping and gnashing of teeth for hypocrites (24:50, 25:30), which may be his reference of eternal punishment (25:46).

Or, Jesus was using Gehenna as a symbol for the afterlife condition. Whichever it may be, the reading of Jesus' warning in Matthew 24 as reference to the 70 A.D. temple destruction can hardly be sustained.