Friday, April 18, 2014

"Director of Operations" a.k.a. mom/dad's salary and vocation

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A greeting card company made a fascinating video consists of interviews with several candidates applying for the position 'Director of Operations'. As reported by Straits Times, the 'Job Description' of the position includes:
"...the worker must stand up almost all the time; work from 135 hours to an unlimited number of hours per week; and have no time to sleep. There would also be no vacations. He or she must also expect his or her workload to increase on occasions like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Oh, and there would be no pay as well."
As each of the candidates find the job's expectation ridiculous, it was revealed to them that the other title of the position is 'mom'. The interviews are actually staged to show how demanding it is to be a mother.

This interview shows us that a mother's "job" is highly demanding. Let's not forget there are also full-time fathers who similarly have taken up such role. I know some of them.

Regardless whether it's mother or father, home-making is definitely no less demanding, if not more, than regular paid job. It is one of the most underpaid vocations. If they are paid at all, the amount that many homemakers get is lesser than full-time missionaries.

Two years ago a journalist, Porsche Moran calculated how much a homemaker should make in a year. As her calculation is based on American society, I thought I can re-work her model for local Singapore context. So I looked up the range of salary in industries related to homemaking, and I picked the lower estimation. This is what I found.

A kitchen chef in Singapore who makes sure your food is healthily prepared earns about $24,000 per year. This has not include grocery shopping and delivery cost.

Domestic cleaning of 4 hours, twice a week, is about $6,200 a year. This has not include annual spring cleaning for festive season. 

Child care cost is about $8,200 per year. And this quotation is only for day time caring. A homemaker often needs to care for the children even in the evening, and sometimes through the whole night.

If we just take these three basic services (cooking, domestic cleaning, and child care), a homemaker should be paid about $38,400 a year, which is $3,200 a month. This is a minimal estimation. Without CPF, annual leave, insurance coverage and medical benefit.  

I haven't take into account that some homemakers are also tutor to their children for school work. Some even play the role of a chauffeur. Sometimes homemakers are also the holiday planner, wealth consultant, career adviser, and counselor for the family. If yours is a Christian home, then you are also the spiritual director to your child. So, a fairer wage should be more than $3,200 per month. 

I think many housewives and house-husbands among us do not receive that much allowance. So, I wonder what can the government and society do to compensate our 'Director of Operations' fairly?

On the part of the church, what can we do to affirm and celebrate their role, place, and gifting in the community?

I think one way is to learn to see homemakers as called to serve in this capacity as their vocation. It is their calling; honourable and no less God-given. As the great reformer Martin Luther wrote,
"The idea that the service to God should have only to do with a church altar, singing, reading, sacrifice, and the like is without doubt but the worst trick of the devil. How could the devil have led us more effectively astray than by the narrow conception that service to God takes place only in church and by works done therein… The whole world could abound with services to the Lord---not only in churches but also in the home, kitchen, workshop, field."
(Quoted in R. Paul Stevens, The Other Six Days: Vocation, Work, and Ministry in Biblical Perspective [USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999], 77.
Like all legitimate vocations, homemaking is not merely taking care of the house and children. Theologically, homemaking provides the possibilities for God's spirit to recreate the world, to install glimpses of the new creation in the present time. In the words of Miroslav Volf,
"The point is not simply to interpret work religiously as cooperation with God and thereby glorify it ideologically, but to transform work into a charismatic cooperation with God on the "project" of the new creation."
(Quoted in Jeffrey Scholes, Vocation and the Politics of Word: Popular Theology in a Consumer Culture [UK: Lexington Books, 2013], 44.)
Family, spirituality, new creation, and God converge in the role of homemaking. It is a high-calling to be a stay-at-home mom or dad.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Two most common questions on Darren Aronofsky's Noah

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They are, "Is it biblical (i.e. faithful to the text)?" and, "Should we watch it?"

Here's my take.

Is Noah faithful to the Genesis story?
There are so many things in the movie which are faithful to the biblical text. Noah, his father (Lamech), his grandfather (Methuselah), his wife, his three sons (Shem, Ham, and Japheth), a world filled with corrupt and violent people, a flood, an ark filled with pairs from each animal, a post-flood drunkard Noah, and his naked episode. And there is "the Creator" who brought the whole cosmos into existence. All these are found in Genesis 6-9.

So what are the additions in the movie which are not found in the Bible?

Creation
There is allusion to macroevolution in the depiction of the creation of the animals in the world. Some Christians are troubled by this. But if you hold to the view that God works through the process of macroevolution, then you would be delighted to see how the time-lapse process is juxtaposed with the reading of Genesis 1.

Nonetheless, Adam and Eve are not shown as the result of evolution. They had unrecognisable glorious body (which is another reason why Christian viewer may cringe). Only after the fall, they became like us. This part may lead us to rethink about Moses' radiant face (Exo. 34:29), Jesus' transfiguration (Matt. 17:2), and how our own body will be transformed with Christ's glory (Phil. 3:21). If we get a peep into our own future glorious body, we might not recognise ourselves too.

Serpent and Its Skin
The serpent in the film shed its glorious skin and turned evil. Christians who assume that the serpent in Eden was a physical manifestation of the devil would be puzzled by this. I think the film-makers are affirming that everything in the created world was good, and the serpent's turn to evil is a corruption of the original good creation. Nothing controversial here. What is troubling is the serpent's glorious skin was portrayed as a sacred relic that transmits inter-generational blessing. This is awkward.

Methuselah
Noah's grandfather was like a Gandalf-figure, but much more powerful. He can eliminate thousands of raging warriors with just one blow from his sword. He can heal barrenness by just a touch. And he has a magic seed taken from Eden which grew into a forest.

Watchers
They were originally angels. After humans were expelled from Eden to live on cursed ground, these angels had compassion on them and descended to help them. For that, they were punished and subsequently being hunted down by the very humans they desired to help. So they were despair and hated humans, until they met Noah the only righteous person around. After Noah told them about his vision, the Watchers helped him to build the ark.

Noah's Confusion and Domestic Affair
Genesis 6-9 tells us nothing much about Noah's family. In the movie, there are tensions in the family which resulted in Noah's confused state of mind to want to kill all of them and commit suicide. Besides this, the Bible records there are 8 people in Noah's family. The movie shows only 5 (Noah, his wife and three sons) with an adopted girl who later became his daughter-in-law. On this, I think the film-makers can be more creative. They should build the domestic tension with the daughters-in-law included.

Tubal-Cain
This character is from Genesis 4:22. He was a great metalsmith and the leader of the corrupted human race. This addition highlights the sociological possibility of having a righteous man, Noah living among wicked and corrupt people.

Silent God
God is portrayed as silent throughout the film. This is very different from Genesis 6-9, where it is understood that God verbally communicated with Noah. Some Christians are offended by this. But I think this is not really a foreign idea.

The movie is clear that Noah received his vision from the Creator, and he had to learn what he needed to do over time. Most of the time, if not always, we don't hear God audibly speaks to us. We spend our entire life learning how God deals with us. Step by step, we articulate what's God like and how to live as a follower. The movie shows us that Noah, like everyone else, is not spared from this. This is a Noah I can relate to. It is very good depiction of Christian's discipleship in the movie; a lifelong discovery filled with mistake and confusion, yet also divine guidance.

Environmentalism
There are Christians who complain about the emphasis on environmentalism, but I think it's time for them to start reading the Bible with wider and greener eyes.

Should we watch it?
You have to ask yourself what do you plan to get out from the movie? If all you want is to learn about the story of Noah, you don't have to spend 2 hours 30 minutes in the cinema. All you need to do is to flip open your Bible and read Genesis 6-9, Matthew 24:38-39, and Hebrews 11:7. Movies in general are for entertainment.

Theologically, movies are modern parables that help us to learn about life. When we watch movie, we don't simply absorb or passively being entertained, but we are actively engaging the show. That's why we laugh, feel disappointed, cry, inspired, and get excited from watching movies. If so, how then can we build on this already active engagement with movie to serve our discipleship?

I think the first step is to discover the theological aspect of movie-watching as a cultural activity. Robert K. Johnston helpfully listed 6:
(1) God's grace is continually present throughout human culture; (2) theology should be concerned with the Spirit's presence and work in the world; (3) God speaks to us through all of life; (4) image as well as word can help us to encounter God; (5) theology's narrative shape makes it particularly open to interaction with other stories; and (6) the nature of constructive theology is a dialogue between God's story (as presented through the Bible, Christian tradition, and a particular worshipping community) and our stories (from the surrounding culture and our life experiences).
(Robert K. Johnston, Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue [USA: Baker Academic, 2nd edition, 2006], 91.)
There is much we can learn by understanding how God interacts with us through cultural artifacts such as movies. So, what did I learn from Noah? Two things. 

First, it is what I've alluded earlier: The movie contains a very good depiction that discipleship is a lifelong process filled with mistake and confusion, yet not without divine guidance.

Nothing can be more theologically dangerous than to assume we have gotten everything about God right right now. Such assumption says, there is nothing more to learn about God; all conceivable theological questions have already been asked, and we have got the answer to those that are answerable. 

If so, faith becomes merely "question and answer"; it is deprived of life. For e.g., to the Calvinists, God is X, and any conception of God other than X is sub-biblical. To the Arminians, God is Y, and any conception of God other than Y is sub-biblical. And so on to other -ists and -ians.

However, faith is not a lifeless catechism. God is the God of the living (Lk. 20:38). He encounters us through our life, revealing little by little of divinity to us. At certain time in life, God is silent. At other times, God speaks. At certain time and on certain issue, God is coherent. At other times and on other matters, God seems paradoxical. We know God through a lifetime (of which studying the scripture is but one part). And so such knowing defines our life.
"A violinist translate notes into music, a physician uses test results to guard and restore health, and a financial advisor read financial reports and follows the market in order to secure a comfortable retirement for her clients. All these require long-studied skills, until we finally say that so-and-so is a violinist, a physician, or a financial advisor. These skills are a central part of their identities. It is similar when they define us as being knowers of God: the experience of knowing God makes us who we are."
(Ellen T. Charry, 'Walking in the Truth: On Knowing God,' in But Is It True? The Bible and the Question of Truth, eds., Alan G. Padgett and Patrick R. Keifert [USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006], 169.)  
The movie reminds us that the great Noah is not spared from the lifelong journey to know God. If so, how much more should mere mortals like us be attentive in our own journey of knowing God?

Second, I really like how the story led to Noah getting drunk after the flood (Gen. 9:21). The whole episode has left Noah with a major trauma. He saw not only the death of all inhabitants on earth, humans and animals, but also the destruction of the world he grew up in. There is a scene in the movie where Noah seated silently in the dim centre of the ark while helplessly hearing the desperate cry and groan of those drowning in the flood. Noah was surrounded by death. The outpouring of divine wrath took place before his eyes.

Noah may have even wondered, if such is God's judgement, what's in store for sinners like me and my family?

He was terrified. And as a result, after the water has subsided, he binge drink to cope with the trauma. Genesis 9:20-21 makes sense. Before I watched Noah, I didn't realize how terrifying that catastrophe was. I didn't intuitively see that global destruction is the result of our sin. And I also didn't see what did it do to those who survived the flood. It destroyed them. Noah, the only righteouss man around, was turned drunkard because of others' sin.

How many people are affected because of our sin?
 
Prior to watching the movie, I read Genesis 6-9 in the manner of "matter-of-fact". There are many things we don't intuitively see. Boredom towards scripture could be a symptom that the scripture is disconnected from my own life. And this in turn could be a symptom that the scripture is disconnected from the contemporary world. The movie helps to reconnect scripture to our life. As Johnston wrote:  
"If theology is boring to many..., if one of the church's primary tasks is to somehow reconnect the church and contemporary life..., if theology is wrongly absent from too much of public discourse---then movies might provide a means of reconnection."
(Reel Spirituality, 134.)
So, should you watch Noah? What do you plan to get out from the movie?

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Paper burning offering as pedagogy? Don't think so.

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The practice of burning 'hell money' is popular among Chinese. It is commonly understood that the burnt offering will be received by the dead as real currency in the afterlife. My family used to practice it. When I was young, I helped to fold 'joss money' into the shape of ancient Chinese gold bar for burning. 

I didn't know that the afterlife evolve according to our time. Nowadays I passed by shops that sell more than just hell money and joss money. There are paper iPad, smartphone, beer can, house, and even paper-maid (!) for burning. I guess, there is a general belief that the afterlife progresses along with the human realm.

Recently I came across a Buddhist website, Nalanda.org.my with an article describing the true meaning of the ritual:
The ORIGINAL meaning of such an act is to show everyone present that all former possessions of the deceased cannot be brought along to the next life.  At one’s death, everything one had ever owned has to be left behind. The burning only emphasizes this message, as it is the most graphical, symbolic, and dramatic way of showing total loss!

Thus, the burning of cheaply-produced paper models and effigies served as an effective educational tool.  Witnessing how fire consumes every ‘former possession’ of the deceased, even an illiterate peasant or young child was able to understand this sense of total relinquishment at death.

Today, this practice is completely misunderstood by the majority of Chinese.  Instead of the original meaning, paper-made models have been turned into “paper offerings” – with the mistaken thought that whatever one burns, his departed relatives will obtain in the netherworld!
The article claims that the true meaning of burning paper offering to the dead is pedagogical. It is a symbolic way to teach the living about the impermanence of material possession. There are Christians who share this article through social media, saying that it enlightens them on the true meaning of the practice. 

But I'm not convinced; the article gives no historical source as reference. 

The emergence of paper burning offering goes back to the 1st century when paper currency came into use. As Janet Lee Scott notes, 
"Paper currency is important in the history of paper offerings concern spirit money. Dard Hunter wrote that by the reign of Ho Ti (He Di, 和帝, AD 89-106) paper was already a substitute for genuine coins, and paper cut into coin shapes was being burned to the spirits by the beginning of the Three Kingdoms Period (三國) from AD 221 to AD 420... By the Tang (唐), imitations of real paper money appeared during the reign of Kao Tsung (Gao Zong, 高宗)...."
(Janet Lee Scott, For Gods, Ghosts and Ancestors: The Chinese Tradition of Paper Offerings [Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2007], 26.)
A good study on the historical origin of this ritual is in the third chapter of C. Fred Blake's Burning Money: The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld (USA: University of Hawai'i Press, 2011). As I don't have the printed text, my citation is based on a proof copy.

In the chapter, Blake introduces several folklore about Cai Lun (蔡伦), a historical 1st century Chinese eunuch who is believed to be the inventor of paper. These stories go along the line that Cai Lun (or his family) needed a way to sell his invention (paper), so he tricked people into believing that when paper is burnt, it becomes money in the afterlife. Here is Yang Wanshang's version, reproduced by Blake:
In ancient times, a person named Cai Lun invented paper. People were anxious to buy the paper to use it to write on. His business flourished. Cai Lun’s sister-in-law [Hui Niang] noticed how profitable his business was. She asked her husband Cai Mo to learn how to make paper from his younger brother. As he was leaving to study his little brother’s trade, his wife enjoined, “Just study for a short while, then come back to start making money as soon as possible.” Cai Mo went to Cai Lun’s home. Three months later, he came back and opened a paper store. Because the paper he and his wife made was too coarse, they could not sell it. The paper piled up all over the place. The couple looked at the paper and they were much worried.

Hui Niang was an astute person. She came up with an idea. She whispered in her husband’s ear and asked her husband to follow her plan.

That night, Cai Mo wailed loudly. Neighbors did not know what happened to his family. They came over and found that Hui Niang had died. She had been put into a coffin. When Cai Mo saw that all his neighbors had come, he cried for a while and carried a bundle of grass paper (căozhĭ) indoors. He lit the paper in front of the coffin. He cried, addressing the coffin: “I learned the paper-making skill from my younger brother, but I was not so earnest, and the paper I made was not so good. This made you so angry and you died as a result. I will burn the paper into ash to quench your hatred.” He burned paper while he was crying. After he had burned the whole bundle, he carried in another bundle and continued to burn. He burned and burned, suddenly there were sounds from inside the coffin. It seemed that he did not hear the sounds, for he kept burning and crying. Suddenly, Hui Niang shouted from inside the coffin, “Take off the lid quickly, I came back!” All of the people were startled, they tried to be brave as they took off the lid.

Hui Niang sat up. She put on an act and sang, “In the yáng-world money can be used everywhere, but in the yīn-world business is also transacted; were it not for my husband’s burning paper, who would let me return home!” After the song, she tried to collect herself saying, “Just now I was a ghost (guĭ), now I am a human. When I got to the yīn-world, they had me push the mill to torture me. I suffered a lot. My husband sent me money. Little ghosts struggled to help me push the mill just for a little money—it was just like the proverb: with money you can buy the ghost to push the mill. The judge (pànguān) knew I had money so he asked me for it. I gave him a lot of money. This was the money my husband was sending to me. Then the pànguān furtively opened the back door of the earth bureau (dìfŭ). I was set free and came back.”

After hearing what his wife said, Cai Mo pretended to be lost and asked, “But I didn’t send you money, did I?”

Hui Niang pointed to the pile of paper on fire and said, “That is the money you sent to me. In yáng-world we use copper for money, whereas in the yīn-world, paper is used for money.”

Having heard this, Cai Mo ran out and carried two big bundles of grass paper inside. As he proceeded to burn it he cried, “Pànguān Pànguān, you let my wife come back, I am so grateful. I’m giving you two more bundles, please treat my parents well in the yīn-world; don’t let them suffer. When you run out of money, I will send you more.” With these words, he carried in two more bundles of grass paper to burn.

The neighbors were fooled by the couple. They thought that burning paper was really feasible. They scrambled to spend their money to buy paper from Cai Mo. Then they went to their ancestors’ tombs to burn paper. In no less than two days, the piles of paper in Cai Mo’s house were sold out. Ever since that time, the custom of going to the tombs to burn paper has continued. (pp.55-57.)
Blake also draws upon an early Buddhist text to highlight the practice of paper burning as offering to the dead:
"One of the first literary references to “paper money” is found in a seventh-century Buddhist text: The Forest of Pearls in the Garden of the Dharma (Fa yuan zhu lin) relates a ghost story in which a man with considerable knowledge of the spirit world tells how "everything of which spirits avail themselves differs from the things that are used by the living. Gold and silks alone can be generally current among them, but are of special utility to them if counterfeited. Hence we must make gold by daubing large sheets of tin with yellow paint, and manufacture pieces of silk stuff out of paper, such articles being more appreciated by them than anything else."" (p.65.)
Then he highlights some ancient Chinese intellectuals who practiced the ritual:
"...the philosopher Kang Jie (1011–1077), who lived in the century before Zhu Xi and burned mulberry-bark paper money (chǔqián) as part of the spring and autumn sacrifices to his ancestors. A contemporary, Cheng Yichuan (1033–1107), was amazed and asked the older Kang why he did this. Kang replied, Since grave goods (míngqì) are proper, why should offerings of paper money not give vent to filial sons and compassionate grandsons?" (p.68.)
Blake summarizes the five theories on the origin of paper offering,
"[My] approach to the history of the paper money custom is to entertain five hypotheses that purport to explain the advent and/or popularization of the custom. These are that (1) the custom derived from the Confucian tradition, especially as it was articulated in the classic books on rites [礼记]; (2) the custom became popular with the advent of printing on paper, which was spurred by the spread of Buddhist texts and talismans; (3) the custom developed as the ideological counterpart to the development of fiduciary papers with the increased velocity and distancing of commercial transactions; (4) the custom became popular as a way for common folks to economize on their offerings; and (5) the custom became popular as a way common folks could participate in the reproduction of cosmic and imperial order yet at the same time mock (in both senses of the word) the sumptuary rules by which imperial order maintained itself. This last explanation is one that I have added to the list of more conventional explanations, so it is the one I favor, although I realize that each explanation has its strengths and weaknesses and no one excludes the other four." 
Where does the purported original meaning of the ritual as "to show everyone present that all former possessions of the deceased cannot be brought along to the next life" fit into any of these five hypotheses that are based on historical records? Seems like no where.

This does not falsify the claim made by the Nalanda article, yet unless we are shown the supporting historical sources, we have no reason to take it as true.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

"Noah" movie promotes Gnosticism?

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I've seen Brian Mattson's misinformed commentary on "Noah" movie being circulated on social media. Mattson accuses the movie for promoting Gnosticism, and he quoted Irenaeus as support. 
"Let’s go back to our luminescent first parents. I recognized the motif instantly as one common to the ancient religion of Gnosticism. Here’s a 2nd century A.D. description about what a sect called the Ophites believed:

"Adam and Eve formerly had light, luminous, and so to speak spiritual bodies, as they had been fashioned. But when they came here, the bodies became dark, fat, and idle." –Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies, I, 30.9

"It occurred to me that a mystical tradition more closely related to Judaism, called Kabbalah (which the singer Madonna made popular a decade ago or so), surely would have held a similar view, since it is essentially a form of Jewish Gnosticism."
 
"The world of Aronofsky’s Noah is a thoroughly Gnostic one: a graded universe of "higher" and "lower.""
And Mattson ended with these strong words: 
"...not a single seminary degree is granted unless the student demonstrates that he has read, digested, and understood Irenaeus of Lyon’s Against Heresies."
Those who have watched "Noah" and read Irenaeus will find Mattson's commentary puzzling. To say that the movie is promoting Gnosticism because it contains some similar ideas found in Gnostic texts is akin of saying the movie is promoting Anglo-Saxonism because it is filmed in English and not the original language which Noah used (Hebrew, may be?).

Besides, the movie's emphasis on the importance of the material world is contrary to Gnosticism, which has a low view of the world. Here is the excerpt from Irenaues' Against Heresies, Book 1, Chapter 5.4:
"As, then, they represent all material substance to be formed from three passions, viz., fear, grief, and perplexity... The corporeal elements of the world, again, sprang, as we before remarked, from bewilderment and perplexity, as from a more ignoble source. Thus the earth arose from her state of stupor; water from the agitation caused by her fear; air from the consolidation of her grief; while fire, producing death and corruption, was inherent in all these elements, even as they teach that ignorance also lay concealed in these three passions."
The "Noah" movie portrays the world in the exact opposite from the Gnostic view mentioned by Irenaeus. Mattson conveniently misses out this part? So, will Mattson heed his own words by returning his degree to Westminster Theological Seminary?

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Responses to World Vision & Mozilla: Hypocrisy & Prejudice

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On 24 March, World Vision in America announced a policy change to allow the hiring of those in legal same-sex marriage. Many Christian leaders responded in surprise. Donors stopped contributing. 

Two days later, World Vision reversed its policy. Many Christian leaders were glad. Donors resume their support. But some people cried (before going on the "I-am-a-better-follower-of-Jesus-than-you-all" mode), some resigned, many were angry. A former bishop in Singapore who is very pro-LGBTQ implicated World Vision for worshiping Mammon.

Critics of the policy reversal accuse donors for prioritizing sexual ethics over hungry children. And this is the reason why young people are leaving evangelical Christianity. However, as pointed out by Chelsen Vicari, the former accusation is naive, while as Daniel Darling shows, the latter is simply false.

A week later, in an entirely unrelated event, Mozilla fired its CEO Brendan Eich because he supported heterosexual marriage over same-sex marriage. New York Times carries an article defending Mozilla's action by saying along the line that the company relies on public support, and since the public's standard has been violated, Eich has to go:
"Mozilla is not a normal company. It is an activist organization... Mr. Eich’s position on gay marriage wasn’t some outré personal stance unrelated to his job; it was a potentially hazardous bit of negative branding in the labor pool, one that was making life difficult for current employees and plausibly reducing Mozilla’s draw to prospective workers..."
Or as a Mozilla's employee states,
"It is difficult for me to understand how we are best served by a leader whose capacity to divide our community is so apparent."
No such defense from New York Times came to World Vision's reversal even though it is also community-based (in its case, the Christians) and dependent on public support. Those who lament over World Vision's reversal didn't cry or get angry. They are simply silent on Mozilla. The pro-LGBTQ former bishop in Singapore even justifies Mozilla's firing of Eich (unlike gay journalist Andrew Sullivan who lashed out against such injustice).

Do you see the hypocrisy and prejudice playing out in the responses to these two events?

Updates: Frank Bruni at the New York Times has finally voiced out

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Question to World Vision's policy change

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Christianity Today reported World Vision in America has a slight change in its employment policy: They can now employ gay Christians in legal same-sex marriages.

Extracts from the interview with Wold Vision U.S. president Richard Stearns:
"This is not an endorsement of same-sex marriage. We have decided we are not going to get into that debate. Nor is this a rejection of traditional marriage, which we affirm and support."

"This is not us compromising. It is us deferring to the authority of churches and denominations on theological issues. We're an operational arm of the global church, we're not a theological arm of the church... This is simply a decision about whether or not you are eligible for employment at World Vision U.S. based on this single issue, and nothing more."

"But if we're making a statement at all, I hope it's a statement about unity...I hope it's a statement that says when Christ left, he gave us the Great Commission [to make disciples] and the Great Commandment [to love others as ourselves], and we're trying to do just that...Bridging the differences we have, and coming together in our unity."
In the same interview, Stearns also said, "Abstinence outside of marriage remains a rule."
I wonder if Stearns is saying that those who are not abstained from sexual activity outside of marriage are not eligible, yet those in legal same-sex marriage are? Does this mean that those who do not practice abstinence have no place in church unity?

The only way for them to justify such policy is to make a theological (or ethical, if you like) assumption that being in a same-sex marriage is more acceptable (which is implied in their disclaimer that this policy change is not endorsement of same-sex marriage, and they still affirm traditional marriage) than non-abstinence outside of marriage. If so, then what is the basis for this theological assumption? If there is no theological deliberation over it, then this policy change is indeed a discrimination against those who are not practicing abstinence.

Monday, February 24, 2014

FAQs on Christian approach to public engagement

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The National Council of Churches (NCCS) and the Roman Catholic Church in Singapore have since released their respective statements on the Health Promotion Board's (HPB) Frequently-Asked-Questions controversy. Both are constructive in character and instructive to local Christians on how to understand the HPB issue. In part, these statements are released in response to the recent debate over the role of religion on social issues. Some wonder why are certain religious groups so caught up with the issue? Others chided them for their seemingly fanaticism to impose on the society, disrupting its pluralistic character with religious values. In the spirit of constructive reflection, building on the two statements, here are my thoughts.

I am not here reflecting on the HPB issue per se, but exploring a Christian approach to public matters. So there is no pretension of neutrality here. Neither is there a naive assumption that discussion over the HPB issue is value-free, nor any group's engagement with it is absent of interest. (Think about it, isn't it precisely because the HPB issue is heavily value-laden that it has incited various responses from interested factions of the society? Isn't it a fact that the more value-laden the issue, the more controversial it is, and hence the more newsworthy it becomes?)

For a start, as stated in the statement by NCCS, Christians "do not condone homosexual practice" and "should not despise or discriminate against homosexuals." This notion is affirmed alongside Christians who experience same-sex attraction such as Christopher Yuan, Wesley Hill, Vaughan Roberts, and those involved in ministries like Living Out. So this is not a position held only by Christians who do not have same-sex attraction, but also those who have.

Therefore this Christian understanding of what is sexually acceptable or not goes beyond the hetero-versus-homo polarity towards the theological notion of God's glorious intention for the broken creation, of which fallen humanity is part of, to flourish and sustain itself. This is the value that grounds our view on the issue.

Following that, any Christian deliberation over the HPB's controversy needs to be framed by 2 theological underpinnings: (1) Christian engagement on public issue in a pluralistic society; and (2) Christian approach to public discourse. Perhaps it is best to elaborate them in a FAQ style.

FAQ 1
Should Christians bear the responsibility to engage public issue in a pluralistic society? If yes, how should Christians understand this responsibility?

The simple answer is "Yes, as commanded by scripture and tradition, Christians have responsibility to engage public issue."

The Christian scripture contains exhortation to "seek the shalom of the city" in Jeremiah 29:7. The word shalom is generally understood as peace though it could be more accurately referred to as wholesomeness or well-being. The New International Version translates it as "peace and prosperity", while the English Standard Version "welfare". Nicholas Wolterstorff, Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale University, understands shalom at its highest as the enjoyment of living harmoniously with God, fellow humans, creation, and with one's self.[1] In the New Testament, shalom is translated with the Greek word eirene.

Jesus Christ declared the blessed state of those who promote eirene. Matthew 5:9 can be translated as, "Blessed are those who bring about the highest enjoyment of life with God, fellow humans, creation and one's self." Eirenopoioi literally means people of eirene. Throughout his ministry, Jesus healed the sick and the blind, cast out demons, calmed storms, critiqued the corrupted temple system and religious elites, and founded a community to continue his ministry to inaugurate the divine wholesomeness into the world.

Yet the eirene that Jesus introduced is not one that the world would immediately recognize (Luke 12:51-53). What he brought about is the divine well-being as defined by God, not by man. When he sent out seventy-two disciples, he instructed them to proclaim eirene around the region (Luke 10:5). When he appeared to the disciples in Jerusalem, Jesus proclaimed eirene to them (Luke 24:36). The gospel is also known as the good news of eirene (Ephesians 6:15). As I have written elsewhere,
"When taken together the passages related to euanggelion from the Old and New Testaments, we get the idea that the gospel or good news is essentially about the fact that God, in exercising His cosmic authority, has established His peaceful order in this world through what Jesus has done and taught."[2]
In continuing Jesus' ministry of eirene, Apostle Peter cited Psalm 34:14 to instruct his readers that, "They must turn from evil and do good; they must seek shalom/eirene and pursue it" (1 Peter 3:11).

Moreover, Apostle Paul encouraged the Christian community in Galatia, "Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people..." (Galatians 6:10, emphasis added). The basis for this command to do good to everyone is because "we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" (Ephesians 2:10). Therefore we can conclude that the responsibility to seek the well-being of all people is also rooted in the theology that we are created for good deeds. If engaging public issues is part of bringing wholesomeness and doing good to everyone, then Christians have the responsibility to participate in it.

For this reason, Christians have been actively engaging in various public issues. Many of these engagements such as providing education to those in the lower social class, abolishing slavery, infant exposure, cannibalism, and widow-burning are now accepted by many as commendable, yet none of them were perceived so initially. Nonetheless, Christians' public engagement has been persisting regardless of popular opinion since the time of the early church. As Robert Solomon, the retired Methodist Bishop of Singapore, reckons,
"Christians have a rich heritage of praying and working for the peace, prosperity, and well-being of the cities that we live in, the nations to which we belong, and indeed, of the earth which is our common home."[3]
Furthermore, the impact of modern Christian public engagement in society is seen in the ground-breaking historical and statistical analysis conducted by Robert Woodberry, Associate Professor of Political Science at National University of Singapore. He detailed the extensive influence of Christian missionaries in bringing about stable democracy around the world:
"[In] trying to spread their faith, CPs [i.e. conversionary Protestants] expanded religious liberty, overcame resistance to mass education and printing, fostered civil society, moderated colonial abuses, and dissipated elite power. These conditions laid a foundation for democracy and long-term economic growth. Once CPs catalyzed these transformations and others copied them, CPs’ unique role diminished. Eventually other traditions justified religious liberty, mass literacy, and the like and began promoting conditions that foster democracy on their own."[4]
Christian engagement in Singapore's society ranges from pioneering education (Raffles Institution, Methodist Girls' School, Anglo-Chinese School, etc), youth empowerment, providing care for the sick and infirm, and etc. Many of these contributions are documented in National Council of Churches of Singapore's publication Many Faces, One Faith (Singapore: National Council of Churches of Singapore, 2004).

From Christian scripture and history, there is a consistent commitment to serve the pluralistic society. This active participation in public life is not Christians' attempt to impose onto the society. Rather, it is the Christians' answer to the calling of our God to serve the society. However, the nature of a pluralistic society means that not everyone shares the same value. We can agree on most aspect of the common life, and disagree on some. It is worth quoting at length the explanation provided by Roland Chia, Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College:
"[The] Church’s engagement in the political and social sphere is connected with her task of summoning the whole world to submit to the dominion of Christ. Her engagement is part of her calling to call sin by its name, to warn humankind against sin, and to point humankind to the ‘more excellent way’ (1 Cor 13). If the Church fails to do this, she would incur part of the guilt for the blood of the wicked (Ezek 3:17ff). Here again, the proper perspective must be emphatically stressed, lest we lose sight of it. The intention of the Church in warning the world of sin is not to improve the world, but to ‘summon it to belief in Jesus Christ and to bear witness to the reconciliation which has been accomplished through him and to his dominion’. This means that the Church has no Christian agenda in the world of politics: she only proclaims her hope for the world. Yet, this hope inadvertently ‘includes a number of causes for which we are bound to contend in the world of politics, because of what we believe we know about man through the revelation of God in Christ’. This dialectic brings out clearly the Church’s connection with and separation from the world (and the State) and the resulting tension. How can the Church engage in the public sphere without compromising the purity of her office and her mission in the polis?... In her proclamation, the Church is simply asking the world to consider the possibility of its redemption. The Church must continue to do this, even though the world does not always respond positively to her proposal, and even though the world may sometimes be hostile towards her, as is evident in the martyrologies of the Christian tradition."[5]
To reiterate, Christian engagement on public matter is not due to political interest: "The Church has no political ambitions. It has no political agenda for the world. The Church only has the Gospel of Christ to proclaim and a hope to point to."[6] Therefore, Christian public engagement is not an ad hoc responsibility. It is part of Christian religiosity. Again, in the words of Roland Chia, "Social and political involvement and engagement is part of Christian discipleship."[7]. At times, this piety coheres with the wider society's aspiration. At other times, it does not. When it does not, Ngoei Foong Nghian, the Principal of Trinity Theological College, reminds us not to "be tempted to aggressively influence society and decision makers," which "will result in poor witness in the public eye."[8] Nevertheless, it is clear that the Christian faith is intrinsically intertwined with the common life. As Christian ethicist Daniel Koh elaborates:
"The call to live a just life and for the people to advocate justice in the wider society is a reminder that spirituality and ethics cannot be separated, and that personal holiness should express itself in the social dimension of life. Spiritual life is vacuous, no matter how regularly one attends worship services or how vibrant a worship service may seem to be, if the worshipers neglect issues of justice in the wider world on those days when they are not gathered in the house of the Lord."[9] 
FAQ 2
How should Christians engage in public discourse? 

The simple answer is "Try our best to explain intelligibly and embody authentically Christian truth in humility, gentleness, and continued activism in conversation with others and of doing good to everyone, including those who do not share our values."

Dealing with differences is not foreign to the Church's experience. The Apostles had to handle internal disagreement and external challenges faced by their churches. In one occasion, Apostle Peter instructed his congregation to "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander" (1 Peter 3:15-16). 

In similar vein, the Apostle Paul wrote, "For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:3-5. Emphasis added).

The Apostles are not telling us of what we should or should not say, but how we communicate. Daniel Koh gives his reading of such character with three 'F': 
  • Faithfulness: Engage with theological integrity that is faithful to the Christian teaching.
  • Fairness: Engage with a bias in favour of the deprived and disadvantaged.
  • Feasibility: Engage with moderation that prevents us from overly theoretical so that our options can be reasonably obtained and applied.[10] 

This form of engagement preserves theological integrity and at the same time emphasizes on inclusiveness, practicality and intelligibility. On one hand, it is often a temptation for Christians to adopt elements foreign to Christian teaching due to sociopolitical pressures and campaign, and so resulted in theological corruption. Thus, it is important to preserve the theological integrity of the Church. In fact, precisely because the Church's position is distinct from the world that it has ground to engage the world. Here is how Simon Chan, Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Theological College, phrases it:
"Theological politics stresses the necessity of theological norms in giving the church its distinctive identity and basis for action in the world. The church is defined by a distinctive story that cannot be reduced to general moral principles..."[11]
On the other hand, there is the risk of being too insular in the preservation of theological integrity to the extent of ending dialogue with others, and thus depriving theology of practicality and relevance. This deprivation eliminates from the Church its credibility before the pluralistic society. Without credibility, the Christian plea would simply fall on deaf ears. As cautioned by Rowan Williams, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury,
"[If] the Church asks of society the respect that will allow it to be itself, it does so not because it is anxious about its survival, but because it asks the freedom to remind the society or societies in which it lives of their own vulnerability and their need to stay close to some fundamental questions about the nature of the humanity they seek to nourish. Such a request from Church to society will be heard and responded to, of course, only if the Church genuinely looks as though it were speaking for more than a self-protecting set of 'religious' concerns; if it appears as concerned for something more than self-defence."[12]
Theologian Ng Kam Weng sympathizes, "[It] could be claimed that theology must take seriously the social phenomenon if christological social practice is to succeed in relating itself to concrete social realities."[13] So is Roland Chia, "[The] Church can no longer exist in cloistered seclusion from what is happening around it," and, "Christians must be sensitive to the fact that there are many disparate voices in the public square that yearns to be heard and acknowledged."[14]

Hence, instead of denying dialogue with others, the impulse to preserve theological integrity should demand the inclusion of various dialogue partners across different groups. Only thus can Christians contribute to the formation of the most appropriate position or policy, which would not satisfy everyone yet ensures that everyone's interest is taken into account. This would foster a hospitable atmosphere in the public space that facilitates the receptivity of theological as well as secular reasoning from various interest groups. If ever there is any agreement among the different groups, it would be a "tense consensus". As described by Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford, 
"[The nature of ethical agreement between Christians and others] is not whole and stable, but partial and provisional... insofar as Christians agree with non-Christians, they should regard it as an imperfect compromise, subject to criticism and yearning for perfection. So, yes, consensus---but tense."[15]
Lastly, Christian public engagement must be grounded on God's restorative judgement. Leow Theng Huat, Lecturer of Church History and Theology at Trinity Theological College, retrieves this neglected theme of judgement from Peter T. Forsyth's works as a guide for engaging society. He reminds us that divine judgement befalls both the Christians and non-Christians. Therefore, Christians' public engagement must begin with self-examination and constantly be subjected to evaluation that leads to repentance. This points back to Apostle Peter's instruction for Christians to engage with gentleness and respect, while keeping a clear conscience.
"The realisation that God is far greater than any human cause, and that he is no respecter of persons, seeking to root sin out wherever he finds it. Therefore, when we try to interpret this or that event as God's judgement, the starting point must be to ask whether it is meant as judgement for me and my group.... [We] should studiously avoid any form of triumphalism, and ask if we ourselves are not guilty of the sins we ascribe to others, and then inquire fearfully if greater judgement is not being stored up for us..."[16]
This awareness of judgement reminds us to be humble, to recognize not only our human limitation in public engagement but also the fallen nature of humanity that distorts our discourse. In the words of the late Jean Bethke Elshtain, Professor of Social and Political Ethics at University of Chicago,
"[The] consequences of sin are such that we should be rather humble about our political philosophies and what we can hope to accomplish through them. Such humility would befit our natures as fallen creatures who are nevertheless called to hope and to possibility."[17]
Conclusion
I hope that this would give some guidelines for others to articulate their response to the HPB controversy. Many are puzzled over the fact that the Christians are so attentive to this matter. As I have tried to demonstrate above, Christians' interest on this issue is partly due to the sense of responsibility that they have for the world. Although it may be mistakenly interpreted as homophobic, it bears reminding that it is this very sense of responsibility that has established schools, abolished slavery, infant exposure, cannibalism, widow-burning, and inaugurated liberal democracy to most part of the world. This is not a call for theocracy. It is an approach to negotiate for peaceful coexistence and society's flourishing in a democratic and pluralistic setting.[18]

In terms of participating in the public discourse of a pluralistic society, Christians need to consider the manner of their engagement. Necessary attempt should be made to explain intelligibly our theological conviction to others. Along with it, we must also embody Christian truth in humility, gentleness, and continued activism in conversation with others and of doing good to everyone.

Endnotes
[1] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Until Justice and Peace Embrace (USA: Eerdmans, 1983), 70.

[2] Joshua Woo Sze Zeng, The Gospel, Sociopolity, and Malaysian Society (Singapore: Graceworks, ebook, 2014), 8. Emphasis edited.

[3] Robert Solomon, 'Foreword,' in Pilgrims and Citizens: Christian Social Engagement in East Asia Today, ed., Michael Nai-Chiu Poon (Australia: Australasian Theological Forum, 2006), ix.

[4] Robert Woodberry, 'The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy,' in American Political Science Review, vol. 106, no.2, May (2012):268.

[5] Roland Chia, 'Rendering to Caesar: A Theology of Church-State Relations,' in Church & Society, vol. 7, no.2 (2004):56. Emphasis added.

[6] Roland Chia, 'Religion and Politics in Singapore: A Christian Reflection,' in Church & Society in Asia Today, vol.16, no.1 (2013):17.

[7] Ibid., 21.

[8] Ngoei Foong Nghian, 'Our Pledge: Let Hope and Charity Flourish in this Land,' in Engaging Society: The Christian in Tomorrow's Singapore, ed., Michael Nai-Chiu Poon (Singapore: Trinity Theological College, 2013), 156.

[9] Daniel Koh, 'Justice: A Christian Social Ethical Perspective,' in Issues of Law and Justice in Singapore: Some Christian Reflections, eds., Daniel K. S. Koh and Kiem-Kiok Kwa (Singapore: Trinity Theological College, 2009), 7. Emphasis added.

[10] Daniel Koh, 'Middle Axioms and Social Engagement in a Plural Society,' in Engaging Society: The Christian in Tomorrow's Singapore, ed., Michael Nai-Chiu Poon (Singapore: Trinity Theological College, 2013), 119-120.

[11] Simon Chan, Spiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life (USA: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 187.

[12] Rowan Williams, Faith in the Public Square (UK: Bloomsbury, 2012), 307.

[13] Ng Kam Weng, From Christ to Social Practice: Christological Foundations for Social Practice in the Theologies of Albrecht Ritschl, Karl Barth and Jürgen Moltmann (Hong Kong: Alliance Bible Seminary, 1996), 197.

[14] Roland Chia, 'Christian Witness in the Public Square: Retrospection and Prospection,' in Engaging Society: The Christian in Tomorrow's Singapore, ed., Michael Nai-Chiu Poon (Singapore: Trinity Theological College, 2013), 143, 144-145.

[15] Nigel Biggar, Behaving in Public: How to do Christian Ethics (USA: Eerdmans, 2011), 43.

[16] Leow Theng Huat, 'The Church in Singapore and the Judgement of God,' in Engaging Society: The Christian in Tomorrow's Singapore, ed., Michael Nai-Chiu Poon (Singapore: Trinity Theological College, 2013), 110. Emphasis edited.

[17] Jean Bethke Elshtain, 'Afterword: A Friendly Outsider's Reflections,' in Evangelicals in the Public Square: Four Formative Voices on Political Thought and Action, ed., J. Budziszewski (USA: Baker Academic, 2006), 207.

[18] See the discussion in Raymond Plant, 'Citizenship, Religion, and Political Liberalism,' in Religious Voices in Public Places, eds., Nigel Biggar and Linda Hogan (USA: Oxford University Press, 2009), 37-57.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Abraham's camels: Archaeological discovery and unwarranted conclusion

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Many have been circulating the recent news on how the latest carbon dating of camel bones in south Levant has shown that the story of Abraham contains anachronism. Abraham's history is commonly dated to about 3,500 to 4,000 years ago (1,500 to 2,000 B.C.), but the carbon dating report concludes that camels were only being domesticated about 3000 years ago (1,000 B.C.):
Current data from copper smelting sites of the Aravah Valley enable us to pinpoint the introduction of domestic camels to the southern Levant more precisely based on stratigraphic contexts associated with an extensive suite of radiocarbon dates. The data indicate that this event occurred not earlier than the last third of the 10th century BCE and most probably during this time.
(Lidar Sapir-Hen and Erez Ben-Yosef, "The Introduction of Domestic Camels to the Southern Levant: Evidence from the Aravah Valley," Tel Aviv, vol. 40 [2013]: 282.)
This conclusion prompted readers to raise question about the camels in the story of Abraham and his family (Genesis 12:16, 24:10-64, 30:43, 31:17, 32:7, 15). Many celebrate this report as another evidence that confirms their belief that the first book in the Bible is not entirely historical. Andrew Brown wrote on his Guardian column:
Whoever put the camels into the story of Abraham and Isaac might as well have improved the story of Little Red Riding Hood by having her ride up to Granny's in an SUV.
The New York Times states in a as-a-matter-of-fact tone,
These anachronisms are telling evidence that the Bible was written or edited long after the events it narrates and is not always reliable as verifiable history.
The National Geographic reports:
While there are conflicting theories about when the Bible was composed, the recent research suggests it was written much later than the events it describes. This supports earlier studies that have challenged the Bible's veracity as a historic document.
The Times interviewed a few scholars for their view. Carol Meyer, the Mary Grace Wilson Professor in Religion at Duke University, said:
The biblical authors, composers, writers used their creative imaginations to shape their stories, and they were not interested in what actually happened, they were interested in what you could learn from telling about the past.
Choon-Leong Seow, Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary, commented (paraphrase),
The Bible has also never been a history book or a scientific textbook…. Interpreting the Bible is a little like studying Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper…. Modern viewers do not consider the Christ figure in da Vinci’s painting an accurate portrait because we know it was painted centuries after the supper happened, but that does not take away from the artist’s spiritual message about Jesus’ last night with his disciples.
Joel Baden, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Yale University, trivializes the anachronism in Abraham's story, making it more palatable for those who are troubled by such conclusion:
It has been suggested that this anachronism in the biblical text is akin to importing semitrailers into the medieval period. But this is a level of ridiculousness too far.

I would suggest that it is more similar to describing a medieval Italian as enjoying pasta with tomato sauce. How many people, even today, know that tomatoes only came to Italy from South America in the 16th century?

The camels in Genesis may be “wrong,” but they are not a “mistake.” We all imagine the past to the best of our knowledge, the biblical authors included.
After reading about the archaeological report, a Singaporean church leader endorses on Facebook that such anachronism is not a problem for Christians except those who believe in the doctrine of inerrancy. The person then asserts that the scripture is saturated with anachronisms.

Reading the comments and conclusions by these journalists, scholars, and church leader, I wonder if they know what the report is really about, and the historical issues involved? 

First, the carbon dating in the report was conducted on dromedary camels' remains. We don't know if the camels mentioned in Abraham's story were dromedary (those with one hump) or bactrian (those with two humps). As K. Martin Heide, Associate Professor for Semitic Languages at Philipps-Universitat Marburg, has pointed out:
It is usually assumed that camels in the book of Genesis are dromedaries. The Semitic root gml, however, occurring once in a Hebrew inscription recently found and dated to the 7th–6th centuries BCE…, and several times in the Hebrew Bible, as gāmāl, does not betray to us what species (Bactrian/Arabian) the animal belongs to.
('The Domestication of the Camel: Biological, Archaeological and Inscriptional Evidence from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel and Arabia, and Literary Evidence from the Hebrew Bible,' in Ugarit-Forschungen: Internationales Jahrbuch fur die Altertumskunde Syrien-Palastinas, eds. Herausgegeben von Manfried Dietrich and Oswald Loretx [Germany: Hubert & Co, 2011], 362.)
So it is very interesting to see those journalist, scholar, and church leader so readily assume that the camels mentioned in Abraham's story are dromedary, and then conclude that the biblical data is anachronistic. I wonder why?

Second, the bactrian camels were already being domesticated during Abraham's time (3,500 to 4,000 years ago):
The earliest known Mesopotamian lexical evidence of the camel is provided by an animal list from Fara of the early Dynastic Period (ca. 2600–2500 BCE), where the Sumerian term am.si.ḫar.an [Bactrian camel] occurs again... In his list, am.si.ḫar.an is found in the proximity of terms for wild animals, such as the elephant, the water buffalo, the bear and the wolf. This looks as if the Bactrian camel was regarded as domesticated in part only in the 3rd millennium BCE [5000 years ago]... But its name element ḫar.an "road/caravan" makes no sense if it would have been assigned to an animal which does not go on the road or in a camel-caravan and Mesopotamia was far away from the natural habitat of the wild Bactrian camel... it can be concluded that the people of Mesopotamia gained some acquaintance with the Bactrian camel in the Old Babylonian period, at the end of the 3rd/ beginning of the 2nd millennium [4000 to 5000 years ago].
(Ibid., 358. Italic added.)
As Heide's concludes:
To sum up the early evidence, it is certain that based on archaeological evidence the domesticated two-humped camel appeared in Southern Turkmenistan not later than the middle of the 3rd millennium BCE. From there or from adjacent regions, the domesticated Bactrian camel must have reached Mesopotamia via the Zagros Mountains. In Mesopotamia, the earliest knowledge of the camel points to the middle of the 3rd millennium, where it seems to have been regarded as a very exotic animal. The horse and the Bactrian camel may have been engaged in sea-borne and overland global trading networks spanning much of the ancient world from the third millennium BCE onwards.
(Ibid., 359. Emphasis added.)
From lexical and archaeological evidence, it could probably be that Abraham had bactrian camels. As Alan Millard, Emeritus Rankin Professor of Hebrew and Ancient Semitic Languages of University of Liverpool, commented on The Telegraph:
Rare references in Babylonian texts and representations from other parts of the Near East show that camels were known in the Age of the Patriarchs, about 2000-1500 BC. Such discoveries are rare because the camel was not at home in urban societies, but useful for long journeys across the steppe and desert.

There is no good reason to suppose the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob cannot reflect events long before the deaths of those camels, whose bones were left south of the Dead Sea in about 900 BC.
Third, even if there is anachronism in Genesis, this does not mean that the whole Bible is not without history. Let's be clear that the Book of Genesis is not the Bible. The Bible is a collection of more than 60 ancient documents of various genre. So if one data found in one of the books is not historically correct, that does not mean other data in the book is wrong, nor does it mean other books are not historically reliable. Say, if we found one data being reported wrongly in an edited volume of academic essays, that does not by itself mean that every other data in the book is wrong. Yes, it raises skepticism, yet to conclude that therefore everything else between the covers is wrong is a leap in logic.

Fourth, disagreement with discovery that can be interpreted to challenge the historical reliability of the Bible is not necessarily motivated by the desire to defend the Christian faith or the doctrine of inerrancy, or both. I find it puzzling that those who think that the Bible is full of anachronism assume that there is no other reason why people would disagree with them except for piety's sake. People, with or without religious commitment, can and do disagree for the sake of historical research and intellectual integrity. I disagree with the conclusion drawn from the report mentioned above not because I believe the Bible cannot have anachronism in it. Rather, it's because I don't find their conclusion historically valid.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Upcoming Lecture: 'The Unholy Notion of Holy War' by Murray Rae


Upcoming lecture on theology of pacifism: The Unholy Notion of Holy War.

Prof. Murray Rae will first present and then offer a critique of the arguments in favour of 'just war' tradition offered by Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr and Oliver O'Donovan.

Date: Tuesday 18 Feb 2014.
Venue: Trinity Theological College, Singapore.
Time: 11:30am-1pm.

Prof. Murray Rae is Head of the Theology Department at University of Otago. He was trained first as an architect, then studied theology and philosophy at Otago. He completed his PhD at King's College, London, on the incarnation in the thought of Søren Kierkegaard. Prof. Rae is the chair of an International Colloquium on Theology and the Built Environment and has continuing research interests in the work of Søren Kierkegaard, Biblical Hermeneutics, Christian Doctrine, and the development of Christian faith amongst Maori.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Why are we still Christian when...

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Some time ago, someone asked me how can we continue to profess our Christian faith when we know that:
  • Christianity has developed over the centuries.
  • There are many theological disagreement and doctrinal differences, for e.g. the doctrine of Trinity.
  • Christians have persecuted other Christians and those who are considered heretics in the past.
  • Christian leaders have played along with and gave in to oppressive political power.
This made me re-think my own religious identity; why am I still a follower of Jesus Christ given the above facts?

So, here is my two-cents worth of suggestion...

The first thing to consider is not how time has affected Christianity, how intense theological disagreement is, and how past or current church leaders have failed or succeed. Rather, it should be on whether is Jesus real? If he is not, if he didn't die and wasn't resurrected, then there is no need to talk about the Christian faith or how un-Christian people are. If Jesus is not historically real, no matter how good Christianity has become or how well behave Christian leaders are, it doesn't change the fact that the Christian religion is a big fabrication.

So, how can we learn about the historical reliability of Jesus Christ?

There is no easy and instantaneous way to this question. The question itself demand nothing less from us than to go through the literature.

First, before examining the historicity of Jesus, we have to establish the reliability of human memory, particularly the New Testament authors' memory that testifies to the historicity of Jesus. On this matter, we could go through Robert K. McIver's Memory, Jesus, and the Synoptic Gospels (Society of Biblical Literature, 2011). Some scholars doubt the reliability of the gospels by casting high degree of skepticism over human memory's capability. McIver engages them by showing that human memory is not as hopeless as they want it to be.

After having established the reliability of human memory, we have to find out what is the genre of the the New Testament gospels that testify to Jesus. Richard Burridge's What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (Eerdmans, 2nd edition, 2004) remains a classic text which concludes that the gospels are best understood as ancient biographies when we compare them with other Greco-Roman literature.

Then, we have to ask how reliable are these ancient biographies in accounting for the historicity of Jesus? There are two books which contribute much to this issue:

1) Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Eerdmans, 2006).

2) Craig Bloomberg's The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (IVP Academic, 2nd edition, 2007).

How about the other 'gospel' documents that are not collected in the Bible such as the Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Peter, Gospel of Judas, Gospel of Mary, etc? Why are they excluded, and are they as historically reliable as the four canonical gospels in the New Testament? 

For these questions, we can to turn to the volume edited by Charles Hill and Michael Kruger The Early Text of the New Testament (Oxford University Press, 2012), Michael Kruger's The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate (IVP Academic, 2013), and perhaps also Daniel Wallace's Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence (Kregel Academic, 2011) for issues such as whether have our present text been corrupted through the centuries-long transmission process.

After we have learned that the canonical gospels are reliable documents that witness to the historicity of Jesus, we have to understand how should we read the narratives in them. In this regard, I find N. T. Wright's works helpful, particularly New Testament and the People of God (Fortress, 1992), 29-144, and Jesus and the Victory of God (Fortress, 1996).

When we have established (1) the reliability of human memory to account for the past, (2) the genre of the New Testament gospels, (3) the historical and canonical reliability of the gospels, and (4) the approach to read and understand the narratives of Jesus found in the New Testament, we then can move on to find out whether did Jesus really rise from the dead. On this, we can engage 3 works:

1) N. T. Wright's Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress, 2003).

2) Michael Licona's The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (IVP Academic, 2010).

3) Christopher Bryan's Resurrection of the Messiah (Oxford University Press, 2011).

If after reading through these and still find that it is difficult to know for sure, then that's fine. Not everyone will be convinced. Nevertheless, these literature show that trusting in the canonical gospels' teaching about Jesus is not unreasonable. Good resources for churches' library; I've purchased some of them for the church that I'm serving in.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Gratitude for 2013

There is so much to be grateful for in this year. This is not to say that there wasn't time of mourning, disappointment, confusion, and anxiousness. There were. Nonetheless the year has to be concluded by thanking God for all the good things that have happened.

First, it has been a year of adjusting to married life. There were happy times as well as times when we argued over petty misunderstanding. And the amusing part is when grievance is over, we can look into the past and laugh away those silly quarrels. For all the experiences, I give thanks to God.

Second, I am grateful for the well-being of my family members in Malaysia. I didn't get to visit them as often as I wanted to. I constantly ask God to provide for my family as my contribution to them is insufficient. God has been faithful. My father has decided to join back the work force after having rested for 2 years. God has provided him a managerial role that oversees the logistic operation in a British company. My brother and sister have graduated and are now working. My mother's health has been good. So my parents do not need to support any of their children anymore. Grateful for God's provision for all these years.

Third, my friends have always been around and well. I thank God for all of them. As I am a more introverted person, I don't have many friends, but God has blessed me with 6 close ones (including my wife). These are people whom I can be vulnerable to. They are people whom I trust. The present age is re-defining "friendship" through social network technology such as Facebook. People think that friends are those on your Facebook's "friend" list. I work with youths and young adults, and this is a concern. Young people should be more savvy with social network technology. The form of virtual "friendship" promoted by social network website is not real. Real friends are those who know us and desire to spend time with us face-to-face. Such desire means that they like to be around you. They have such desire even though they have thousands of things to do on their daily diary. This real gesture is ontologically irreplaceable by social network technology. For this reason, I don't even wish "Happy Birthday" to those on my Facebook list. And likewise, I don't indicate my birth date on it. 5 birthday wishes from those dear to me are much more meaningful than getting spammed by 200 wishes on my Facebook timeline. Therefore I was very happy to receive birthday wishes from the few close friends. And I celebrate their birthday by meeting up to eat and laugh together. God knows that I need friends, and God has provided. 

Fourth, earlier this year, Yale University's Center for Faith & Culture's Singapore Institute graciously sponsored my participation in their 5-days conference on Christian-Muslim relation. It was a marvelous learning experience. There were representatives from the region's religious organizations for the program. I have learnt much from my fellow participants. It was also the first time I met Christopher Choong, a sociologist from Malaysia, after having corresponded over emails and Facebook all this while. He is also one of the contributors in The Bible and the Ballot.

Fifth, I received scholarship from Cambridge University to attend their summer school on inter-faith issues. It was a great experience to study at one of the top universities in the world. I vividly remember the moment I first saw Cambridge on the bus. My heart was filled with so much joy that I couldn't stop thanking God for the opportunity. David Ford, the Regius Professor of Divinity, gave me a ride to the Madingley Hall, where the program was held. Jews, Christians, and Muslims spent 3 weeks learning, engaging, eating, and living together. (The photo above was taken by Sarah Whittle when we visited Cambridge's Selwyn College, where Prof. Ford is a Fellow.) I also took the opportunity to visit my good friend Nathanael Goh and his wife at Durham University. Nathanael is currently pursuing his doctorate there. After the summer school, my wife flew to meet me. We spent the next 2 weeks traveling around London, Amsterdam, and Berlin. All these are possible only because of God who have blessed us through scholarship and friends' love gift.

Sixth, my second co-edited book Christianity and Citizenship is published in electronic form recently. The introduction reads: "[The book] is a follow-up series to The Bible & the Ballot that focuses on Christians’ participation as citizens. Like the previous series, the present one is also a collective effort by Christians from different parts of the theological spectrum. Six writers weigh in on topics ranging from governance to education, political movements to the gospel, as well as things that often go unspoken and avoided."

To God, in gratitude.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Reflection: God plays Lego so that Jean-Paul Sartre may receive life

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When I was a kid, I received Christmas present from my parents every year. But if you ask me if I remember what they gave me each year, I can only say that I remember one. It was a Lego set. I simply don’t have any impression of other presents. So, what’s so special about the Lego set? 

There are two kinds of presents in this world. One kind is an end in itself. For example, chocolate is an end in itself; you eat it and that’s it. The other kind of present is not an end in itself; it leads to new possibility. Lego set is the second kind. From one set of Lego bricks, we can build castle, ship, cars, animals, robots, towns, and islands. It fires up our imagination. We can bring an entire imaginary world into existence. 

I like to think that God’s gift of Jesus Christ for us is the second kind of present. He is like a Lego set. He is the divine present that leads to new possibility for the world. During one Christmas, a Jewish family went shopping in the mall. The young son in the family saw a beautiful Christmas tree and was fascinated by it. He turned to his father and asked, “Daddy, why can’t we have a Christmas tree in our house?” The father very gently said, “Jewish house cannot have Christmas tree.” Then the little boy thought for a while and then replied, “Daddy, why did we buy a Jewish house?” 

While the young boy in the story thought that Christmas is just another holiday with decorated tree, his father knew very well the symbol behind the festivity: It is about the arrival of Jesus Christ into the world. The Almighty came in human flesh. And to the non-Christian religious Jews, this is blasphemous. Yet, this is what Christmas is about. 

What Christmas stands for is not only a blasphemy to the Jews, but it is also a threat to the rest. Jean-Paul Satre was a household name in France in the 1960s. He was a national hero partly due to his works in philosophy, particularly his contribution to the school of thought called ‘existentialism’. Sartre provides the definitive character for existentialism with his famous slogan “existence precedes essence”. When he died, there were about 50,000 people attended his funeral held at Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris. (Something that is very unlikely to happen for a philosopher in Singapore.) Sartre remains the father-figure for many existentialists today. 

In Sartre’s big book Being and Nothingness, he talks about how other people are a threat to us. He gives the example that we are most absorbed in ourselves, true to our own nature, when we stalk at other people through a keyhole. We are so preoccupied peeping at how people behave, gossip, laugh, and live their lives that we are not conscious of our own shame anymore. Yet, in the midst of us looking through the keyhole, suddenly we hear a noise behind us. It appears that another person is stalking us! At such realization, suddenly we feel threatened. We feel ashamed. Other people are threatening! (Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness [UK: Routledge, 2003], 282-284.) In his popular play No Exit, Sartre wrote that, “Hell is other people.” (Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit and Three Other Plays [USA: Vintage, 1989], 45.) May be because of this reason, Sartre doesn’t believe in God. Having the divine ‘Other’ looking at how we live at every moment throughout our life is a terrifying threat to our human nature. As if that is not enough, God became one of us to sneer at us, showing us how far off we have been from God’s standard. Christmas, in this sense, is a threat. 

However, that is not all there is. It is precisely because God became one of us through Jesus that we have the assurance that God truly knows us. And despite all our guilt and shame, God died for us. And because of this, we received new life in Jesus. “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Romans 6:4) 

There was a mother with her three children went for Christmas shopping. As she was alone, she had a very difficult time watching the three kids while at the same time trying to shop for all the presents on her list. The three children were nagging at her, wanting every toy on the shelves. So the mother spent the whole day juggling between watching her kids and shopping. She was fed up. At the end of the day, when she took the crowded lift to go to the basement carpark, she sighed aloud and aired her frustration, “Whoever started this whole Christmas thing should be arrested and hang!” Then someone in the lift replied quietly, “Madam, I believe they have crucified that guy.” 

Living through life can cause us frustration. We get that in our work and in our relationship with other people, and may be also in our Christmas shopping. Sometimes, like the frustrated mother in the story, we are too caught up with what we set up for ourselves to do and lose sight of the real meaning of Christmas. Let us not forget, amidst our festive busyness, that Christmas is the new life that God has given us through Christ. Through Him, we have new approach to deal with our work. Through Him, we have new way to relate to other people. Through Him, there is new life. That is God’s ‘Lego bricks’ for the world. 

Therefore, what Christmas stands for is about Jesus’ birthday and our birthday. Because of Jesus’ birthday, all of us have a new birthday, a new possibility, a new future. We may not be able to choose which family should we born into, which country should we born into, how do we want to be born as. But because of Jesus’ birthday, we can now choose to be born into a new life in Him. Christmas, like Lego bricks, opens up the possibility of new life for us. Like how Rowan Williams said it, “He comes to make humanity itself new, to create fresh possibilities for being at peace with God.” 

We may dislike our life, with the flaws and shortcomings in our nature. We may be terrified by the ever-presence of God looking at our every movement. Yet Christmas brings about the possibility that despite all this we can have new life. A life touched by divine love that is completely renewed by what Jesus has done for us. A life that welcomes every existentialist to receive.