Monthly Archives: November 2015

Civilisation and Barbarism

November 2015 Pulse

In his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker argues that “violence has been in decline for long stretches of time” and that “we may be living in the most peaceful era of our species’ existence.”

Describing the 800-page tome as a “masterly achievement”, the Princeton ethicist Peter Singer declares that not only has Pinker convincingly demonstrated “that there has been a decline in violence”, he is also “persuasive about its causes”. The establishment media in the USA has also welcomed Better Angels, for reasons that will soon become obvious.

However, Pinker’s bold statements and his almost nonchalant narrative of progress have been subjected to sharp criticisms by social scientists and historians. Pinker’s assumptions about human nature and his philosophical commitments must also be subjected to rigorous theological evaluation.

Pinker argues that since 1945, the “great powers” that fought each other in the Second World War have not made war with each other. While this is basically correct, Pinker goes on to make the highly dubious claim that not only have the democracies avoided disputes with each other, they “tend to stay out of disputes across the board”.

Pinker appears to have ignored the numerous and devastating wars conducted by his own country since 1945: in North and South Korea (1950 – 1953), Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia (1854 -1975), and more recently in Iraq (1990 till present) and Afghanistan (2001 till present). If we add to the list the numerous assassinations, sanctions, bombings and invasions conducted by the USA post-1945, the ludicrousness of Pinker’s assertion is magnified.

That Pinker’s discussion on violence in the book is skewed is clearly evidenced in his treatment of the Vietnam War. Ever the enemy of communism, Pinker lays the devastation and the carnage of Vietnam firmly on the shoulders of the communist regimes “that had a fanatical dedication to outlasting their opponents”.

But Pinker offers no critique of the violence and aggression of the invaders. Nor does he reflect on how one of the “great democracies” can so seriously violate the laws of war by waging a war on a distant land that claimed the lives of more than 800,000 civilians. Also absent from Pinker’s account is the unconscionable use of chemical warfare by the U.S. (1961-1970) and the three million Vietnamese, including 500,000 children, that suffered from the toxic effects of the chemicals as a result.

Some commentators have rightly discerned that Better Angels is a patriotic re-writing of history and the use of sources that would aid this re- writing. An evidence of this is Pinker’s use of statistics. For example, he prefers to rely on the report published by the Iraq Body Count (IBC) which suggests that 53,373 Iraqis died from violence between March 2003 and July 2006, instead of the more authoritative study by Johns Hopkins which reported a death toll that is eleven times higher at 601,000.

But his patriotism aside, Pinker’s revisionism is chiefly inspired by
two important ideologies that have shaped his entire intellectual outlook: liberal humanism and Darwinian evolutionism.

Pinker argues that it was the “coherent philosophy that emerged during the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment” that put an end to the influence of “violent institutions”. Among the many patron saints of the Enlightenment, Pinker names Hobbes, Spinoza, Descartes, Locke, Hume, and John Stuart Mill.

The broad brush with which Pinker paints obscures the fact that apart from some broadly shared assumptions, we cannot say that these disparate thinkers have engendered anything like a “coherent philosophy”.

And we most definitely cannot insist, as Pinker does, that these Enlightenment rationalists and their followers categorically rejected the use of violence for social transformation. Think of the Jacobins and their Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, who were responsible for innumerable beheadings and other acts of violence.

Pinker’s commitment to evolutionary theory has led him to entertain the possibility that “in recent history Homo Sapiens has literally evolved to become less violent in the biologist’s technical sense of a change in our genome.” Evolution has caused “the better angels of our nature” to emerge (an expression which Pinker borrowed from Abraham Lincoln).

These assumptions must be challenged from the standpoint of Christian anthropology, especially its doctrine of sin, which presents a more realistic assessment of the human condition. According to the Christian tradition, although fallen human beings continue to be bearers of the divine image, that image is distorted and defaced because of sin.

The idea of progress promoted by liberal humanism is a myth. Human beings will always be seriously flawed, and even the most civilised society is capable of barbarism.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.
This article was originally published in the June 2015 issue of the Methodist Message.

The Crisis of Biblical Literacy

November 2015 Feature Article

The “crisis of biblical literacy” among Christians is now well known. It has been reported in various journals for over 20 years now. The 17 October 2014 issue of the Christianity Today reports:

Study after study in the last quarter-century has revealed that American Christians increasingly don’t read their Bibles, don’t engage their Bibles, and don’t know their Bibles. It’s obvious: We are living in a post-biblically literate culture.

The situation in Singapore is not much better. To alleviate the problem, several Christian organizations are now taking steps to promote the reading and teaching of Scripture. The Bible Society of Singapore and Project Timothy are two of such organizations here in Singapore.

The problem of biblical literacy is much worse and more complicated than is reported or realized. Reports on biblical literacy usually cites the majority of lay Christians not reading or knowing very little about the content of the Bible. This problem is worse than is realized if we include the many who do read it regularly and who show they know the Bible by their frequent citation of biblical text but who for the most part misread or misinterpret the Bible. These are effectively illiterate. The very low level of biblical literacy is also rampant among those who teach the Bible in Sunday Schools, in Bible Study or fellowship groups and also over the pulpits. It also occurs among the clergy and those who teach others how to teach and preach the Bible.

It may seem odd that those who regularly read the Bible and write messages based on the Bible to preach it or teach it can be considered as biblically illiterate or have a low level of biblical literacy. Is not “literacy” defined as “the ability to read and write”?

Actually it is has been realized for some time now that the standard dictionary’s definition of literacy as “the ability to read and write” is no longer adequate. One cannot assume that just because a person can read and write, he can read and understand all texts correctly and is capable of using what he has read appropriately and effectively.

There is now a realization that literacy must include critical and effective functioning. Critical ability is necessary so that one can differentiate right from wrong interpretations. Effective functioning is necessary so that one can translate the information given and apply it in a way intended by the text. A man who having read a manual on how to repair a television yet does not know how to follow the instructions to repair his television is essentially no different from his child who cannot read it. As far as that manual is concerned, he is effectively illiterate.

There is also the realization that literacy is not something as simple as completing a course of study or passing a series of tests. Literacy is something that can be gained incrementally in a continuum and over a lifelong process. This is especially so when we realize that what is needed to read various texts and various media is not just literacy but multiple literacies. Persons literate in a particular text, such as poetic text or historical prose, may be illiterate in scientific, computational or even legal texts. The ability to interpret one narrative text does not necessarily mean having the competency to interpret other narrative texts. Literacy acquisition must be a lifelong process because linguists, literary experts and biblical scholars are still gaining new useful insights on text processing and interpretation of texts.

The concept of literacy is now better understood and is being redefined. A working definition given by UNESCO is this:

Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential and to participate fully in their community and wider society. (The Plurality of Literacy and Its Implications for Policies and Programmes, UNESCO: 2004)

This expanded understanding of literacy has important implications for those who teach the Bible or who promote biblical literacy. Firstly, it highlights to us the complexity of biblical literacy. It is possible that those reading and teaching the bible in the homes or in churches may be doing so with a very low level of understanding of the biblical text. Secondly, we should help our members have a critical ability to differentiate right from wrong readings of scripture based on sound linguistics and literary principles. Thirdly, we need to help Christians use the biblical texts according to their intended function and be able to differentiate a right application from a wrong application. This requires learning how to identify the intended rhetorical function of various genre, books and passages and also how to do contextualization. Fourthly, we need to realize that just because we have the skill to understand or teach a particular book of the bible, it does not mean we have the skill to understand or teach other books. This calls for a lifelong learning for all; the laity, the clergy and the academicians in the seminaries.

I have mentioned that the problem of biblical literacy is worse than what is reported. Let me highlight four specific problems that mask the low level of biblical literacy prevalent among Christians: The first is the atomistic reading of biblical text; the second is the failure to take seriously the multi-contextual nature of all biblical texts, the third is the use of biblical texts beyond their intended rhetorical function; and finally, the failure to properly recontexualize the message of the Bible when we apply them in different time and context. I shall just elaborate on the first.

Most of the biblical books are intended to be read as a continuous whole. These include the longer books like Judges, Job, Ezekiel, Matthew, Romans, Hebrews and Revelation. Either there is a central plot line that runs right through the book or the different parts of the book are arranged and function together to form a chain of argument. For some books, the continuous whole may mean going beyond one book. For example, Exodus is but part of the plot from Genesis to Deuteronomy. The book of Acts is a sequel to Luke’s Gospel. Those with an eye for holistic reading of the Bible tell us that even the books which were previously thought of as random compilations of unrelated parts such as Psalms, Proverbs or James, are actually organized in certain logical order to function and be read like a book. Finally there are those books which are indeed separate books but they are intended to be read with certain other books as foils or counter foils- such as Joshua is to be read in conjunction with Judges and Ezra with Nehemiah.

So to read in Genesis about Sarah being held captive by Pharaoh and about Jacob and his wives in the crutches of Laban without seeing its connection to the Exodus account of Israel’s captivity (slavery) in Egypt and to Deuteronomy’s anticipation of Israel’s exile foretold, is to miss the larger intended theological message. Similarly, to read the story of the good Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel without seeing its connection to the Samaritans and the Gentiles being accepted into the kingdom of God in Acts also misses out an important point of Luke’s Gospel. Reading Psalm 8 as God giving all human beings the right to rule all creation without considering that the adjacent psalms are actually cries of David as king against his enemies and the Davidic Kingship theme in Psalm 1-2 serves as an important frame to read the whole Psalter in the hope of God fulfilling his promise to restore the Davidic kingship is to misread a passage anthropologically when it is intended christologically.

A look at the reading of scripture recorded in the Bible reveals that for the most part they are intended to be read holistically (Exo 24:7, Deut 31:11; Josh 8:34; Neh 8:3; Isa 29:11-12; Jer 36:13; Col 4:16; 1 Thess 5:27; Rev 22:18-19). If the books of the Bible are intended to be read holistically, then much of our reading and preaching of the Bible err in its atomistic approach. Reading or preaching one part of the book without considering how it functions within the whole book, may cause us to mistake the tree for the woods. We are not only missing the main theme or the rhetorical function of the book; we misinterpret the passage and read into it some ideas foreign to the book. Drawing application from every short passage instead of deriving application based on the whole book may be akin to attempting to build a house out of one brick or a beam. Sadly, much of our devotional reading of Scripture, the preaching and teaching of the Bible in churches, and the way preaching or teaching of the Bible is taught in seminaries are mostly based on atomistic reading and preaching of biblical text. There is a need to teach the reading and preaching of whole books.

The story in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” strikes a similar vein. The twist at the end of this story highlights to us the need to read in full before making a premature conclusion. Applying a small passage before reading the whole book may lead us to imitate the many “laudable” things the pigs did but only to realize at the end that the author is actually against what the pigs were doing. Christians who do no know how to read text holistically or contextually, can easily be misled to radical extremism and imitate what the pigs do in the “ Animal Farm”.

Dealing with the problem of biblical literacy should now be a matter of public concern. There are at least three reasons why it is so. First, how Christians read their biblical text will affect how we live in the public square: our clothing, our diet, our leisure activities, our ethics and our involvement in social issues. Second, it affects the way we view and relate to others: our neighbours, our government, those of different cultural or economic groups, those of other faiths or ethnicity, and those with differing ethical values. Third, it can affect how others relate to us: positively as people whose view and participation are to be welcome, or negatively, as people whose views are best kept to ourselves and whose participation is to be curtailed.

How Christians read the Bible and even how adherents of other religions read their religious text can no longer be said to be of the concern for the individual or the religious leaders of the various religions. It should be a matter of public concern too.

In today’s world where our education is more focused on reading computer, engineering and financial texts than on literary texts or historical documents, we cannot assume that people know how to read and interpret religious texts which are more akin to literary or historical texts. Well-educated Christians who have a high regard for the Scripture but who have low level of biblical literacy can be misled by others who distort the teachings of the Bible. This is also true for members of other religions. The official stance of Islam in Singapore and that of many Islamic scholars elsewhere is that Islam is a religion of peace, and that the chief characteristic of God in the Quran is mercy. According to these scholars, those who use the Quran to call for radical violence have taken the teachings of the Quran out of context. Yet recently, we read that well-educated Muslims have been radicalized by certain teachings to leave their family and profession to join ISIS in the war.

For this reason some governments now realize it is no longer wise to ignore how various religious communities read their religious texts. Christians in places of influence should not just be concerned with how their fellow Christian read texts; they should also help promote competent contextual reading of literary and religious text to the general public. While we have no right to dictate how people of other religions read and interpret their texts, the way we read and interpret our text holistically and contextually can be a model for others to follow. Christians are supposed to be light of the world; we should also set an example in competent reading of text. It is important to teach proper reading of biblical text not only at home, in church and in the seminaries, but also in the public arena as well.


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David Lang is an Associate Professor at the Singapore Bible College. He teaches Theology, New Testament and Hermeneutics .

Mind the Gap

November 2015 Pulse

In his speech during the 2011 Presidential Address Debate, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong alluded to the rising income inequality in Singapore when he said: ‘the most successful Singaporeans will continue to do very well. The average Singaporeans will be able to make improvements in their lives and are much better off than people in most other countries. But at the lower end, incomes have risen slowly, especially in real terms.’

Scholars have been tracking the rising income inequality in Singapore for more than ten years, taking their cue from the Gini co-efficient and other income inequality metrics like the Palma or Hoover indices. Although this trend is a matter of concern for some, what is perhaps even more worrying is that it is accompanied by wage stagnations and slowing social mobility.

This phenomenon is, of course, not unique to Singapore. The United States and many countries in the European Union are experiencing rise in inequality, as are developed Asian countries like Japan and South Korea.

But as some scholars have pointed out, ‘What makes Singapore’s inequality picture stand out is the speed at which it has increased as well as the level which it has increased to.’

In responding to this issue, it is crucial to see that not all forms of inequality are unnatural or unjust. While all human beings created in the image and likeness of God are equally loved and valued by their Creator, each is given unique talents and abilities. And in this life, these talents and abilities carry unequal rewards, one of which is income.

Income inequality is therefore a fact of economic life. It should be pointed out that far from being unjust, some income inequality is actually the sign of fair distribution of income based on factors such as abilities, experience, productivity and work ethic. Thus, a society that ignores these factors and pays everyone equally may be said to be unjust.

This means that income inequality per se is not the problem. Neither can it be regarded as an indication of the economic health of a country.

The Gini co-efficient, which is often used to measure income inequality, does not present a reliable picture of the economic flourishing of a country. For instance, it tells us nothing about its living standards.

Take, for example, Bangladesh and the Netherlands, two very different countries that had the same Gini index of 0.31 in 2010. While these two countries had the same level of income inequality, their per capita incomes were vastly different: US$1,693 in Bangladesh and US$42,183 in the Netherlands.

If inequality is not the problem, what is? The simple answer is poverty.

Armatya Sen defines poverty as a condition of having less than what is required to function. Notice that poverty is not defined as a condition of having less than others. Sen’s definition underscores the important distinction between income inequality and poverty: there can be income inequality without poverty.

Is there poverty in Singapore?

Singapore does not have an official poverty line. But in a 2011 study, which used household income of S$1,250 to S$1,500 per month as the poverty line, it was estimated that 10 to 12 per cent or 110,000 to 140,000 Singapore resident households fall below the mark. A 2008 study, which set the poverty line at S$1,500 per month, arrived at the same ballpark figure of 130,000 to 150,000 Singapore resident households.

Although income inequality alone is not an issue, extreme inequality mixed with poverty makes for a lethal cocktail for any country.

This is precisely the challenge that Singapore is currently facing.

As the report on domestic poverty published by The Lien Centre for Social Innovation and SMU School of Social Sciences states: ‘Rising inequality does not necessarily denote the existence of poverty. However, rising inequality combined with evidence of poverty indicates that the poor are left behind, and this appears to be what is happening in Singapore.’

In addition, extreme inequality plus poverty can arouse an amorphous but real sense of antipathy towards prevailing economic and political policies, which in turn can threaten social stability.

Singapore must therefore focus on helping the poor.

The Bible has much to say about God’s preferential option for the poor. The people of God are enjoined to take care of the poor, the vulnerable and the unprotected (Deut 16:11-12; Exodus 22:21-27, Isa 1:16-17). There is a profound sense in which the justice of a society is tested by the way it treats the disadvantaged.

Justice to the poor is not about eradicating income inequality (even if that were possible) but about ensuring that they are not forgotten, that their conditions are improved.

The Singapore Government has always understood this. Its fiscal policies are designed in such a way that lower income citizens receive most of the benefits while higher income earners pay most of the tax revenues.

But helping the poor does not only have to do with the distribution of resources. The question that must also be asked is: Do the people at the bottom of the economic ladder have opportunities to move up that ladder? Or are they hopelessly trapped, no matter what they do?

The Government is well aware of the importance of social mobility. It has put numerous measures in place, such as education, home ownership and skills upgrading, to ensure that mobility is not thwarted.

As a result, in Singapore 14 per cent of young adults from families in the poorest one-fifth of income earners have moved into the top one-fifth of income earners compared to 7.5 per cent in the US and 9 per cent in the UK. The Government understands that meritocracy requires a society in which fair equality of opportunity is satisfied.

However, due to a confluence of factors sustaining such fluidity in the future would be more and more challenging.

Singapore is well placed to meet these challenges. Thanks to the leadership of its late founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew and his exceptional colleagues, Singapore has established a social compact that has served the country well.

And although this compact needs to be tweaked and enhanced, the principles upon which it was established – individual responsibility, self-reliance, economic growth, jobs for all and a security system based on savings and home ownership – continue to be sound.

But helping the poor and addressing the discrimination and stratification that inequality can engender is the responsibility of every member of society.

As Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has put it, ‘we must preserve a sense of compact among Singaporeans, a sense of obligation on the part of those who are doing well to help others in their own society. We cannot build an inclusive society without the spirit of inclusiveness. It is not just a matter of getting the right policies.’

SG50 should not only be an occasion for celebrating past and present successes. It should also be an occasion for Singaporeans from all walks of life to renew their resolve to stand in solidarity and to work together for the common good and build a better future for all.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.
This article was first published in the August 2015 issue of the Trumpet.