Thursday, October 07, 2010

Our encounter with Vinoth Ramachandra, the author of 'Subverting Global Myths', at Trinity Theological College, Singapore

Vinoth Ramachandra was invited to have a conversation session with our class on globalization yesterday. He spoke about the book he co-authored with Howard Peskett The Message of Mission (USA: Inter-Varsity Press, 2003) where they pointed out that our understanding of mission has to be directed back to our understanding of who God is, what has God done to the world through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, and what is God doing today.

The class had a time of dialog and engagement with Vinoth after his sharing. One of my classmates, Petrus from Indonesia, raised a question on the role of evangelism in Vinoth's understanding of mission.

They disagreed on the topic as Petrus thought that evangelism revolves around saving souls while Vinoth emphasized that our understanding of mission should be interpreted through Jesus' commandment "Love God with our whole being and love our neighbor as ourselves."

Petrus pointed out that the New Testament contains passages where evangelism is prioritized as the main concern (for eg. Paul's own life mission).

Instead of engaging with Petrus' point, Vinoth asked Petrus to read the entire Bible again and again (implying that Petrus is not reading his Bible) so that Petrus would come to the same understanding as him. He then told us that he has been reading his Bible over and over again every year, implying that his understanding of mission came out directly from his reading of the Bible.

Then I asked Vinoth how does his understanding of mission work in practice. I gave this example: "A parent has only enough money to send his kids for higher education while his neighbor does not. So according to your understanding of Jesus' commandment, how should the parent exercise mission in this case?"

Vinoth's first sentence to me was that I was using hypothetical situation and not realistic. So he simply brushed aside my question by hypothesizing it as a hypothetical situation. He then elaborated to us by giving an example of a Singaporean parent who wants to buy a Plasma TV for his children while ignoring the fact that he can donate his money for the Plasma TV to children in destitute. He said that the act of giving money to those in need is doing mission when mission is understood through Jesus' commandments.

After the class, Wei Yi, one of my classmates, told me that he turned off right away by Vinoth's remark that parents who can't afford to send their children for higher education is a hypothetical situation. Wei Yi also mentioned that he was displeased when Vinoth gave an example of Singaporean parents who buy Plasma TV for their children. The fact is that Wei Yi, a 23 year old Singaporean, has no higher education or a Plasma TV because his parents can't afford either. And Vinoth thought it was hypothetical, denying the realness of Wei Yi's experience, while his own example of a spendthrift Singaporean is not hypothetical.

Then, again, Vinoth reminded the class that if we read through the entire Bible, we will see mission in that way.

Another classmate, Zhe Hao, seek for clarification from Vinoth on the place of evangelism in this understanding of mission. Zhe Hao mentioned that our understanding of mission should also take into account Paul's theology together with those from the four gospels and the rest of the New Testament.

Vinoth replied that Paul's theology need to be understood with more nuance. Without explaining how such nuance understanding is reached, Vinoth cited example that when Paul wrote "Jesus is Lord", that means Caesar is not.

I don't know how is that related to the question raised by Zhe Hao.

Again, Vinoth urged us to read the entire Bible to understand mission. At that third (or so) time hearing the same thing from him, I knew that I have to respond to that point. As my friend once told me, if people knock you one time, you can close one eye. When knocked the second time, you can close the other eye. When knocked the third time, the knocker is asking for it.

I spoke out, "I would like to ask something not too related with our discussion on mission but related to the point which you have been repeating over and over again. You said that we will understand the meaning of mission like you do if we read through the Bible again and again. But I arrived at the same understanding of mission as you not by reading the entire Bible but N. T. Wright (as most people who read current semi-academic Christian literatures will know that it was N. T. Wright who made famous the phrase 'If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.')"

Vinoth replied along this line: "That's the down side of theological education. When you come into theological institution, you are required to read so much materials written by scholars and lack the time to read through the Bible. This is why I think theological education is not necessary unless the denomination or church that you want to work at requires an accredited certificate."

(It is obvious that Vinoth did not get my point. He said that we will understand mission as he does if we read through the Bible repetitively. My example of me coming to understand mission as he does without needing to read through the entire Bible is a direct defeater to the point he made.)

Hearing that, I clarified to Vinoth that I read N. T. Wright a few years back before I enrolled into theological college. So it is not that I lack the time to read through the Bible after I came into the college.

He further added that many theological discussion among scholars are "trivial." He named the New Perspective on Paul as one example. To him, this is a trivial issue because it has not much practical significance. It is obvious that he doesn't know that the current discussion on Paul is a result of a post-Holocaust interpretation. The implication of this reading of Paul has implication on the relationship between Jews and Christians, antisemitism, and the political situation in Palestine (which is directly related to certain view of Pauline ecclesiology and New Testament eschatology). And Vinoth thinks that this is trivial.

I continued to remark that reading the entire Bible over and over again does not guarantee any right understanding as there are cases where people amputated themselves after reading the Bible, as there are such commandments recorded in it.

Hearing that, Vinoth chuckled and said that he did not mean that we read only the Bible and neglect scholars' works. We have to read widely, including the Bible. Scholarship helps us to understand that the laws in the Book of Leviticus do not apply anymore and there is no such law in the New Testament.

I responded that the person who chop off himself got the idea from Matthew 5.30, from the New Testament. It seemed to me that Vinoth did not get my point. My point is simply that there is no guarantee to arrive at the right understanding of the Bible even when we read through the Bible repetitively. Hence his advice for us to read through the Bible is redundant and irrelevant to the subject matter.

After the class, most of us think that Vinoth was arrogant in the manner he engaged us. He seems to enjoy brushing aside our remarks (for eg. "Your statement is hypothetical", "Go and read the Bible", "Theological education is not necessary and at times disrupt spiritual growth") without engaging our points nor even understanding them. Perhaps he is a very nice guy in reality but that was certainly not the impression he left us with. A classmate actually wondered how does Vinoth understands the word 'dialogue' in his designation as the Secretary for Dialogue & Social Engagement of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students.

And that was not my first encounter with Vinoth. I engaged with him in 2007 when he came to give a public lecture at TTC, in 2009, in March this year when he spoke at GCF Intersect conference, and yesterday. And I find him rather consistently condescending to those who disagree with him. And this perception does not mean he is always such a person; just that he has to change his dialogue manner.

19 comments:

achorusofehoes said...

Reading the title I thought, Wow, but after reading through the post, it's sad that Vinoth gave responses to your questions in that manner. At least he could have tried to listen, understood and proposed to answer. Anyway I would have loved to have the opportunity of hearing his speak.

Israel Lee said...

Just by reading your post, I have the image that this person has a very negative view on the theology being studied as academic field.

Second, I get the impression that he thinks that way is because he perceives doing theology in a scholarly manner only produces impractical theories that could not be applied in reality.

The third image of him from your post is that he either hides his own insecurity of having the lack of knowledge to dialogue or he is plain proud of himself because he is an Asian who gets to write and publish his books.

Fourth, he seems to be to be so assured of his own interpretation of the bible that he does not feel the audience is capable of teaching him something new during the discussion. Basically, listen and follow him because the audience do not know enough to question him constructively.

Just my thoughts of this 'brother' based on your post (which by the way really annoys me because in real life, something he is so good in emphasizing, this is how some church leaders behave and one major reason why some get disillusioned and leave.) ;-)

Sze Zeng said...

Hi achorusofehoes,

Yes I was surprised too when I first encounter Vinoth. There is always new things to learn about somebody.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Israel,

I share all the impressions you have after the session with Vinoth.

But, I have to bear in mind that he might be an entirely different person when he is not in engaging mode :)

vaiphei said...

1.to achorusofehoes, please go to
https://info.ifesworld.org/livingstones/discuss/item/6

http://www.intervarsity.org/followingchrist/audio/

2. to israel lee, you're jumping tovery erroneous conclusions about the man. read his books and if u r among those who've no time, at least plz spend 46 mins listening to my 1st link for achorusofehoes . that answers ur 2nd impression as to what value vinoth places on scholarship. the 3rd impression is quite sad. vinoth is a really humble man.

if that is what you gain by reading szeng post's that he''s inadvertently succeeded in creating a caricature of vinoth.

vaiphei said...

1. Pertrus:
Instead of engaging with Petrus' point, Vinoth asked Petrus to read the entire Bible again and again (implying that Petrus is not reading his Bible)
Vinoth's engaged Petraus by asking him to reread the Bible. The Jews who faithfully searched the Bible and directed Herod to Bethlahem missed Jesus.

implying that Petrus is not reading his Bible
that's ur misconception. Vinoth wouldn't assume Pertrus wouldn't have opened the Bible in his life (the discussion is taking place for God's sake in a theology classroom).

what do we mean by reading?
************
Vinoth didn't respond by what is ur understanding of evangelism (which i would) to pertrus? is it the same as that of st paul? or is it a reductionistic gospel which we've foisted on paul by selectively amplifying a few versus over the whole corpus of Biblical teaching?
the 1st link i gave to achorusofehoes has reference to evangelism and is well worth chercking out.

//Being the grandson of a pioneer “evangelist” in northeast India converting headhunting heathens, and being the son of a retd (now) Gospel for Asia missionary, and an erstwhile admirer of KP Yohanan’s books, I instinctively knew what's on Perturs mind. Consistently engaging with Vinoth changed my mind over the years.

Or re-read the Bible. by the age of 19, we start to acquire the cap to analyze things independently but at the same time we've to overcome years of being brought up to read see in a particular way.

2. Szeng's hypotehtical question to Vinoth:

this really looks like raising needless point for disputation in an effort to look smart. I feel it can be rephrased in other ways if one is indeed really making the effort to understand vinoth rather than seek examples to solidify our preconception of the person.
Years back vinoth spoke to a group of lawyers in New Delhi. He used the example of the Sabbath Law... comparing nay billing it as the 1st trade union law ever passed to protect the worker from being over exploited. (Compare the Sabbath law with the laws of any ancient regime, it stands out; Jesus says the Sabbath was created for man).
An idiotic lawyer then raised, of course the Bible may proscribe the owner from over exploiting by prescribing Sabbath for everyone, but God could be smarter by “prescribing” working hours for weekdays too so that the owner cannot cheat God by giving his/her slaves only 4 hours of sleep during weekdays!!!! The spirit of the law, my brother, and the direction which the law is directing the covenant members are important.
I saw your hypothetical situation in similar light. If one has got the bigger picture of Mission in this instance you cite “loving your neighbour as one love oneself”, than a person who has that understanding may you know be even willing to pour his little money for his neighbour’s children in case he thinks that’s better.
Do you truly love your neighbour? If so, only then can mission have Biblical grounding.

more replies coming wrt wei hao et al.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi vaiphei,

Israel Lee is critical enough to state in his last sentence "Just my thoughts of this 'brother' based on your post."

Israel knows his own perception and really doesn't need you to remind him of what is already obvious.

I created a caricature of Vinoth? If this is merely my own individual perception, then you may say so. But most of my classmates shared the same impression. And that is not a caricature. If you are against caricature, you shouldn't use caricature on me.

The fact that you still think that my question to Vinoth is a hypothetical question already shows that you don't understand what I wrote on the post.

Nuances matter in theological discourse. The sort of dialogue manner exemplified by Vinoth and you here does not belong to the enterprise.

And I have to emphasize this to you: I am not against what Vinoth wrote about, but against his dialogue manners. If you can't see the difference between both, then I think you still have not engage with what I wrote in the post.

Sze Zeng said...

vaiphei,

By the way, if ever you think Vinoth's perception of mission is unprecedented, please read David Bosch's 'Transforming Mission' published in 1991. That is a truly groundbreaking book that changes the paradigm of doing mission from mere evangelism to 'missio Dei'.

Vinoth's Message of Mission published in 2003, twelve years after Bosch, reminiscent Bosch's work.

Sze Zeng said...

vaiphei,

In terms of understanding the struggle between socio-political powers in the world through the scripture, Walter Wink's trilogy published from 1980s to 1992 already laid out the framework for such understanding.

scruffy said...

The issue at hand is the medium, not the message. Vaiphei, offering an intellectual argument on Sze Zeng's blog does nothing to address the issue at hand.

Besides, since you seem to be a "Vinoth-apologist", which i unequivocally state to be my personal, probably erroneous opinion, perhaps you should take his advice and not rhetoricize in hypotheticals.

"Vinoth wouldn't assume Pertrus [sic] wouldn't have opened the Bible in his life (the discussion is taking place for God's sake in a theology classroom). "

Firstly, that statement is hypothetical and not quantifiable. Secondly, I don't think Sze Zeng's point is that Vinoth is assuming that Petrus has NEVER opened the Bible in his life. He is merely pointing to the fact that only reading the Bible is not a foolproof method. At the very least, it is a poor way to answer Petrus in terms of dialogue and engagement.

"This really looks like raising needless point for disputation in an effort to look smart." and "idiotic lawyer" I assume are your own words and not Vinoth's. In any case, they are not only hypothetical, but highly judgmental and if I may, arrogant.

I fail to see how you got the conclusion that Sze Zeng wanted to raise a needless point in an effort to look smart. Please explain, if you will. If it's something I missed from reading the post, I would like to learn it.

To me, the logical extension of "loving your neighbour as yourself" is that you need to love yourself. I'm not sure that Jesus meant that we should look for neighbours from those outside our social/religious circle to the extent that we neglect those closest to us. In fact, as a participant in the discussion, I recall that Sze Zeng in fact tried to ask that question about defining a "neighbour". It is a pity that Vinoth did not engage Sze Zeng on that point. Jesus' own reply to that was to affirm that it was the Samaritan, who showed mercy on the man, that was a neighbour.

If I sound like a Sze Zeng-apologist, then I apologize (pun intended). As his friend, I must say that I very much doubt that his post was intended to smear Vinoth's good name. Sze Zeng has posted many statements suggesting that one should not stereotype Vinoth based on the blog posts alone. I think the post was intended to portray a frustration that the dialogue did not go as far as it could have. It is a frustration I share, and shared by many in the class. Engaging in this point would be far more useful than insinuating that Petrus has read the Bible wrongly, or refuting Wei Yi or Zhe Hao's questions. Perhaps you could share about your "consistent engagement" with Vinoth. I for one would like to hear how he helped change your view of the Gospel. I agree that the totality of the Gospel must be brought to bear on the totality of human experience. It would really help if you could share how Vinoth critically engaged your belief about the relationship between mission and evangelism. Perhaps sharing it here would enable Josh to relay the information to Petrus, who was denied that critical engagement on his part.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi scruffy,

Thank you for your comment. You recall details better than I do.

Yes, I still wonder why Vinoth didn't explain why he hypothesize "neighbor" to mean only those who are outside of the family or immediate contacts. This is of course a huge hypothetical understanding of Jesus' parable which is very historically situated to the challenges he faced in his day. Unless one can justify such hypothesizing, hardly one can convince anyone by just asking everyone to read the Bible.

And yes, you have said it rightly that my point is not "that Vinoth is assuming that Petrus has NEVER opened the Bible in his life." I was "merely pointing to the fact that only reading the Bible is not a foolproof method."

Thanks again for recalling the event.

Jason Ting said...

Haha wow! Sounds like you guys had so much fun in class and out of class! :)

scruffy said...

Hey bro,

yup i tend to recall these details well. Maybe it's cuz of my training in news journalism, must be able to identify and recall details!

On the topic of neighbour, I remember being asked to donate to certain non-Christian religious groups (for e.g, at the MRT station and someone approached with the coin box and stickers) and thinking, "Should I give to these groups or give to a Christian charity instead?"

I know that many people would abhor such a thought, but given the fact that I have limited resources, personally, I would make a choice to give to a Christian charitable organization - that organization's work might not be so limited as to merely help Christian families or the Christian needy anyway. It's just that that is the way in which I want to use the money God has given to me.

I wanted to ask Vinoth if it would have mattered who I gave to, and how he would have interpreted the situation vis-a-vis the Parable of the Good Samaritan. (I have a feeling he might have asked me to go back and re-read the Bible though.) Your thoughts, bro?

Sze Zeng said...

scruffy,

That's a good case study for Vinoth.

On my part, I tend to agree with you that given our limitation, we should invest in works we are most familiar and identify with.

Sze Zeng said...

Welcome to the discussion Jason! :)

Israel Lee said...

sorry guys ... I am not sure why Google did not send me the subsequent replies for the comments so I thought there was no activity here.

vaiphei, there is no need to be so apologetic over Vinoth. This goes to show that impression is subjective and we try our very best to present it in a way that reflects Christ.

Asking theological students to re-read the bible without explaining further the method to 're-read' it properly is not a very wise way to promote the reading of the bible.

KFive said...

Sze Zeng,

I am a US/Singapore businessman, and saw that Tim Keller (pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, NY, US) quoted Ramachandra in his new book, Gracious Justice. I was not sure who Ramachandra was, but upon further research, I was troubled by Ramachandra's socialist bent, and was particularly disappointed by his unwillingness to address the question about paying the cost of tuition for higher education. It is certainly not a hypothetical situation, and is one I face daily, as well. "Am I failing the gospel mission by saving up an inheritance for my children, but not for someone else's?" (see Pr 13:22). What if I want to use my children's inheritance on their education? Vinoth's answer was simplistic and dismissive, and shows that his theories are still ethereal and cannot be applied to the decisions we face in our daily lives. Jesus had answers to these questions: should we use this perfume to honor the Lord, or should we sell it and give the money to the poor? (Mt 26:9). (Simply put, it's the prerogative of the owner to decide the best use of the goods!) Your question was quite insightful, and I regret that you did not receive an answer worthy of your inquiry. Thank you so much for your very informative post. It was very valuable to me.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi KFive,

Thank you for your comment. I'm glad that the shared experience is valuable.

pleasant said...

in refernce to the pat where you said that he did away with ur question ,i see that you didnt bother to explain in detail of the 'real ' situation and that causes him to assume that ur statement was just a hypothesis , which anyone would assume , if there is any such thing as a real situation , proper facts must be given to assess the situation well enough as i dont think there is an absolute way of assessing a situation and the Holy Spirit's guidance is necessary to assist you to do what is needed to be done.
taking what you said about him telling the group that bible must be read over and over again, and that u got the same from reading another book isnt that the principles derived are the same but that the word of the Lord is His word and they will speak to u better and breathe in u life that would lead you to translate the knowledge in your mind to work in and work through your heart and the bible should be given precedence over any book, because only the SPirit can make you do and can guide you in doing what
God has planned in advance for u to do.
talking about the question being brushed aside, well , the words of his mouth are also led by the spirit and its the spirit of the Lord brushing aside your question maybe cause your intentions were not right, not because he didnt want to or some excus eof that sort, do reflect on what ur true motives were .
I just thought of sharing this,,, each of us who care about the kingdom of God must be more concerned about his works and HIs WOrd, later comes what man says,,, and this unnecessary dissent and disunity should be looked over, yes u may disagree with him , but God has his way of teaching and disciplining his people,, GOd BLess!