Tag Archives: culture

Art and Obscenity

July 2017 Pulse

Two planned performances in the recently-concluded M1 Singapore Fringe Festival ran into difficulties with the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) due to “excessive nudity”. In ‘Naked Ladies’, burlesque dancer Thea Fitz-James strips and performs an indecent act, and in ‘Undressing Room’, dancer Ming Poon challenges a participant to undress him even as he undresses her.

Both performances were cut from the festival.

In London, Japanese photographer and artist Nobuyoshi Araki achieved both fame and notoriety for his work called kinbaku (or erotic bondage), which features photos of naked or partially-naked Japanese women bound in different poses.

That these works are described as “art” forces one to question if any work can be so “christened”, so long as it has the blessings of the high priests of the art world.

Take for example, Fountain, a 1917 work by Marcel Duchamp that is widely seen as the icon of the 20th century. Art specialists have described the dislodged urinal as the quintessential example of what Duchamp called “ready-made”, a manufactured object into which the artist imbues some mysterious meaning simply by calling it art.

This state of affairs suggests that modern art has lost its way. Art is simply surrendered to the currents of moral and cultural relativism, even as the objective standards by which it was once judged become irrelevant or are simply abandoned.

When this happens, trash can become art, when the official channels of patronage support it. And pornography (like kinbaku) is considered as art if it hangs in the museum or gallery, as if sanctified by its hallowed halls.

As Jonathan Jones has put it so pointedly: “Sell a nude photograph in a gallery shop and you are disseminating art. Move the place of exchange to a grubby north-eastern drinking den… on a dead Sunday afternoon… it all becomes much muckier – ‘pornography’, even.”

This has led Roger Scruton, one of the most astute philosophers of our day, who still cares about those immutable qualities that would distinguish a piece of work as art, to write: “The world of art… is full of fakes. Fake originality, fake emotion and the fake expertise of the critics – these are all around us and in such abundance that we hardly know where to look for the real thing.”

That art is now obsessed with sex and the sexual act – given our post-Kinsey culture – is clearly seen when works of banal obscenity are reverenced as art.

An example of such philistinism in art is the series of prints and statuettes by American artist Jeff Koons that depict couples copulating. Their creator hopes to turn pornography into art and give it spiritual significance and depth.

One of the many reasons why art has degenerated in this way is that our culture, having tried so strenuously to abolish shame, can no longer recognise it or understand its importance.

The revulsion that society once had for the obscene has all but disappeared. The fig leaves – in language, behaviour and thought – have been removed by a culture that is now shame-less.

Another reason is that we have now come to look at sex very differently from the past, having acquired, according to Scruton, “a habit of describing sex in demeaning and depersonalising terms”.

Most importantly, our culture seems increasingly incapable of appreciating beauty – no thanks to the modern iconoclasts for whom beauty is denigrated as a bourgeois concept, too superficial and old-fashioned to be taken seriously by artists.

But in despising Beauty, we will also fail to recognise Truth and Goodness. We will fail to see that good art – true art – can be an epiphany of these transcendentals, without which human life would be meaningless.

True beauty is transformative in that it draws us away from ourselves. As Scruton has once again put it so well: “Beauty tells you to stop thinking about yourself, and to wake up to the world of others.”

We see such beauty in a Michelangelo or a Rembrandt. We see it also in Bach’s Mass and in Mozart’s Requiem.

When art puts us in touch with the true, the good and the beautiful, it becomes in some important ways redemptive. It shows us that despite the ubiquity of sorrow and suffering in our world, life is still meaningful.

Such art can be the conduit of God’s grace.


 

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Pop Music, Pragmatism, and Christianity

May 2017 Feature

In February 2016, Singapore’s Catholic archbishop Goh urged his fellow Catholics to differentiate “pseudo arts” from “authentic arts that lead us to God.” The criticism was directed toward the “Queen of Pop”, Madonna.

In everyday discourse, the term popular music can generally be described as types of music of lower complexity than art music, having wide appeal, and ready to be enjoyed by large numbers of musically uneducated people rather than only by a certain élite. Its identifying elements can include the use of simple melodic tunes and repeated choruses.

How should Christians view and evaluate pop music along with the culture it spawns?

In order to understand the phenomena of popular art, we must understand a certain philosophical background that has helped these phenomena to flourish, that is, the philosophy of pragmatism.

According to the pragmatist philosopher Dewey, the special function of art lies above all in the enhancement of human immediate experience. The supremacy of the aesthetic is that art can be immediately enjoyed. The final standard in pragmatism is not truth but experience.

Pragmatism criticizes the modern conception of art that has detached art from real life and send it to a separate realm like the concert hall and museum. Instead of associating aesthetic experience with normal processes of living, art has been compartmentalized in an élite realm accessible only for certain people.

Dewey disapproves such elitist tradition and want to bring art back in everydayness. He therefore rejects the dualism of high versus popular culture by insisting on the fundamental continuity instead.

According to pragmatism, the so-called ‘high’ art music performed in the concert halls (and in some traditional churches!) has removed art from human lives. Pragmatist aesthetics therefore privileges art experience over the art object. The way to this enhanced art experience is through popular art.

We can appreciate Dewey’s genuine concern about the elitist tradition. Indeed, the Bible does not advocate elitism but opts for universal inclusion. “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.” We also appreciate Dewey’s effort to bring art back in everydayness.

However, there are serious difficulties in the pragmatist solution of popular art viewed from the Christian perspective.

First, the immediacy of aesthetic experience as the ultimate goal of art is highly problematic when viewed from biblical perspective. Christianity is not an immediate (read: instant) way of life. There is no easy and convenient truth without a long process of learning and struggling.

If we agree that there is a strong relation between the kind of art that we consume and our spirituality, then one of the dangers of popular music lies precisely in its immediacy and instantness. The unformed life is not worth living. Popular music tends to produce instant (pseudo) spirituality.

Secondly, the strong emphasis on experience at the expense of truth is hardly compatible with the biblical view. Biblically speaking, there is no truly satisfying experience apart from truth.

Popular music cares little for its content since it aims primarily for enhanced experience (of feeling good, for instance). This kind of experience, however, imprisons humans in subtle addiction.

On the contrary, “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

The Swiss reformer Zwingli related the idea of Christian freedom and true happiness when he said, “Truth wears a happy face.” Happy experience cannot be separated from truth.

Thirdly, due to its goal to bring music to large numbers of listeners with little or no musical training, popular music frequently, if not always, displays lack of depth and along with it, of deep quality.

Any complex music is suspected of succumbing to the elitist tradition. The absoluteness of simplicity, however, can be considered as a denial of growing and becoming mature seen from the biblical perspective. The celebration of simplicity that avoids the process of growing can easily lead to the celebration of triviality and naïveness.

The Bible, on the contrary, teaches humans to give up childish ways to become an adult and mature (cf. 1 Cor. 13:11; Heb. 5:14).

Fourthly, the problem of sharing the complex art and music, the so-called ‘high’ art, is not resolved by replacing them with easy-to-listen music. If that were the case, then there would have been no incarnation. Replacing high Christology with low Christology is never an orthodox evangelical way of settling the problem.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Christianity commits to believe in the incarnation of the Most High. Pragmatism teaches us to discard everything high coming from the idealistic realm while replacing it with popular concrete experience.

Christianity celebrates not only the possibility but also the certainty of the Logos that has become flesh. Christianity concurs with pragmatist criticism of Platonic idealism but comes up with different solution.

If we believe in the way of incarnation, then we don’t have to replace the ‘high’ with the ‘low’ but to teach and edify our children and ourselves so that we can grow from childhood to adulthood.

The reformers believed in the power of catechism. Luther translated the Bible into German. Zwingli applied the university method of teaching in his Sunday service expository preaching, that is, chapter by chapter of the Gospel. He did not oversimplify the life of Christ through popular preaching; rather, he edified his congregation in the way theological students were taught at the university.

Catechism is a Christian protest against the pragmatist easy solution that often leads to uneducatedness and ignorance. Calvin famously stated, “We know that where there is no understanding, there is certainly no edification.”

We need not only theological catechism but also catechism on good Christian arts and music. May God help us grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.



Rev. Billy Kristanto is the Academic Dean of International Reformed Evangelical Seminary Jakarta and a part time lecturer at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory. He received a doctorate of philosophy in musicology and a doctorate in theology Systematic Theology both from Heidelberg University. He lives in Singapore since 2002 with his Family.

Gender Chaos

April 2017 Pulse

At Brighton College, one of the most prestigious private schools in Britain, gender distinct uniforms have been abolished. This means that the students in the school could choose to wear trousers or a skirt, a blazer or a bolero jacket.

Teachers in some preschools in America are not allowed to call the children “boys and girls” because to do so would promote unhelpful gender stereotypes.

In its 2015 Report, the Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee suggests that Britain should adopt the ‘self-declaration’ model that is currently used in Ireland, Argentina, and Denmark. Instead of undergoing sexual reassignment surgery, transgendered people should be allowed to simply declare the sex of their choice by filling a form.

The LGBTQI community has produced a glossary that lists a bewildering number of different expressions of gender and orientations. These include skoliosexual (people who are attracted to transsexual people), genderqueer (people who think of themselves either as pangender or genderless), third gender (people who do not identify with either male or female), and many more.

Gender-neutral language has also been introduced in some circles, where “Ze” replaces “he” and “she” and “Hir” replaces “his” and “hers”.

These are just some of the many examples of the chaos and insanity surrounding gender in modern society.

The traditional binary model that presents men and women as different and that insists that the difference between them is fundamental has been called to question. “There is no way that six billion people can be categorised into two groups”, asserts Dr Jack Dreshner, a member of the American Psychiatric Association.

Indeed the term “binary” is now regarded in some quarters as pejorative and even as carrying the same offense as terms like “racist”, “sexist” and “homophobic”. Gender fluidity – the idea that gender is not fixed but mutable – is now the new orthodoxy, and it is even promoted as a lifestyle choice.

The origins of this new dogma can be traced to the 1970s when postmodern philosophers and feminists argued that gender is not a matter of biological fact but a social construct.

Michel Foucault challenged the essentialism of the Enlightenment view of sexual identity, arguing that it is in fact a social construct that can always be negotiated and redefined.

Judith Butler argues that our understanding of what it means to be a man or a woman is very much shaped by the gender scripts that we receive from our culture. And as we perform these scripts, the gender it constructs is somehow etched into our bodies and psyches.

Needless to say, these conceptions of human sexuality and gender are antithetical to the teachings of Scripture, which clearly present the duality of sexes (the binary model) as the Creator’s intention for human beings (Genesis 1:27).

Reflecting on this passage, Karl Barth concludes that “We cannot say man without having to say male or female and also male and female. Man exists in this differentiation, in this duality”. Put differently, the distinction between male and female, their equality before God and their fundamental mutuality are indispensable to our understanding of the meaning of human existence.

In addition, although sexual differentiation cannot be said to only serve the procreative purpose, procreation would not be possible without it.

All this means is that although gender has to do with the complex relationship between biological sex and behaviour, it is in fact not as fluid as the postmodern deconstructionists have made it out to be.

In its document on human sexuality, the Evangelical Free Church of America rightly states that “All of human existence, including sexuality, has been damaged by the fall into sin”.

However, it should be pointed out that the fall has not only resulted in perversions in our sexual desires, habits and behaviour. It has also introduced serious distortions to our understanding of human sexuality and gender that has resulted in the current confusion.

This new orthodoxy concerning gender, therefore, should not be greeted in a cavalier manner as if it is just a benign social experiment or a harmless quirk in culture. The dysfunctions it legitimises and the irrational intolerances it advocates can create an oppressive hegemony, a new tyranny that deprives society of certain rightful freedoms.

It must therefore be challenged and rejected.


 

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the ETHOS Institute™ for Public Christianity. This article is first published in Methodist Message.

Religion, Public Discourse and the Common Good

November 2016 Pulse

Without doubt, one of the most important – if highly contentious – ideas in political and social philosophy today is that of the common good.

Although the idea is once again in vogue in recent public and academic discourse, its origins can be traced to Aristotle, who refused to designate a government just if it neglected to pursue the common good. As the Greek philosopher and scientist put it in his famous work Politics: “The good is justice, in other words, the common interest.”

It should be emphasised that the envisioning and quest for the common good is the responsibility of every member of society, not just that of the government. Participation is key. As The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states: “Participation is a duty to be fulfilled by all, with responsibility and a view to the common good.”

This is especially the case in modern democratic societies.

In our postmodern and culturally pluralistic societies, it is sometimes difficult to arrive at a notion of the good that can be truly described as common, shared by communities with very different cultural sensibilities and habits.

However, it is important not to exaggerate the incommensurability of the different cultures. As the Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon has perceptively pointed out – against the instincts of some postmodern fundamentalists – “Where basic human values are concerned, cultural diversity has been exaggerated.”

Be that as it may, cultural differences can sometimes become an impediment to social life by obfuscating important issues and should therefore be taken seriously. That is why in the quest for a shared vision of the good, the participation of every member of society in the deliberative process is extremely important.

“In a society where everyone has a share in government,” writes Robin Lovin, “the deliberative process cannot be irrelevant to the search for the common good.”

Does religion have a role in this deliberative process?

Many secularists – even those of a benign variety – question the legitimacy of religion’s contribution to debates about the political and economic wellbeing of society. Procedural secularists – namely, those who do not oppose religion per se, but insist that public debates should be kept secular – assume that religion and politics simply do not mix, and that the former’s participation in public debate would result in confusion instead of clarity.

Such misgivings, however, are unfounded.

Not many people would doubt the sterling achievement of the United Nations in promulgating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, in the aftermath of the atrocities of World War II.

But what is sometimes missed is that this document was put together not only with the input of diplomats from different countries, but also that of scholars and intellectuals from different faith communities.

The Declaration shows that it is quite possible for people shaped by different philosophical and religious traditions and who belong to divergent political and economic systems to have common convictions about what it means to speak of the rights of a human being.

But there is another reason why religion – especially Christianity – should not be excluded from the ongoing effort to envision the common good. Its presence can in some important sense challenge our idolatries, the myriad of “isms” to which we give our unquestioning allegiance.

To say this is not to naively suggest that religions are somehow immunised from perversions. Indeed, some of the most sinister idolatries can parade under the banner of religion.

It is to recognise that religion can encourage certain important ways of seeing and of thinking about what it means to be human or what it means to be a community that is forgotten, obscured or simply absent in secular accounts.

Even a secular philosopher like Jürgen Habermas recognises this. In his famous 2005 essay “Religion in the Public Sphere”, Habermas notes that “Religious traditions have a special power to articulate moral intuitions, especially with regard to vulnerable forms of communal life.”

Against the oft-repeated refrain about the divisiveness of religion, religious traditions like Christianity – with its emphasis on equality and justice – can in fact help society achieve a clearer vision of the common good by exposing and correcting veiled intolerances and fanaticisms.


Roland Chia (suit)_Large


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

 

Music and Morality

November 2016 Pulse

In February this year (2016), Pop Queen Madonna held her controversial Rebel Heart concert in Singapore amidst concerns expressed by religious groups.

In his pastoral letter, Roman Catholic Archbishop William Goh urges his 300,000 strong flock not to support ‘pseudo-arts that promote sensuality, rebellion, disrespect, pornography, contamination of the mind of the young, abusive freedom, individualism at the expense of the common good, vulgarity, lies and half-truths’.

The influence of modern pop and rock music on society and culture is a question which scholars – philosophers, theologians and sociologists – have been debating for quite some time. Although a consensus on the extent of music’s impact has not been reached, many are of the view that music does in some ways influence society.

The educational uses of music are, of course, already quite well documented. Children find it much easier to learn the alphabet if it is set to a song. This raises an important question: if children can be taught the alphabet or how to read through music, can they be taught what is right and wrong through the same medium?

To help us to reflect on these questions, we turn to the writings of two of the most eminent philosophers of Greek antiquity – Plato and Aristotle. What they have to say on this important subject is not only enlightening, but also surprisingly relevant.

Plato believes that far from being morally benign or neutral music has a profound if subtle ability to sway its listeners either positively or negatively. Thus, in The Republic Plato argues that music can be subversive and that certain kinds (or ‘modes’) of music can even engender a spirit of lawlessness.

The persuasive nature of music, Plato maintains, its ability not only to arouse particular emotions but also to habituate them, means that it can even shape the character of its listeners.

Now, the claim that certain forms of music produce certain effects in the listener is hardly controversial. It is obvious that listening to the Gregorian Chant and to Metallica’s ‘Creeping Death’ produce quite different effects in the listener.

But can listening to music mould the character of the listener (for the worse), as Plato claims? And if it can, how does it do this?

Rock music may influence the character of its listener – especially its teenage and young listeners – by the subtle and sometimes not so subtle messages it conveys through its lyrics but also through the sensibilities it generates.

Laced as it often is with themes of anger, frustration and self-indulgence, rock music presents the message of anarchy that is often very appealing to young people. For example, heavy metal contains such toxic messages of hatred against parents that it is sometimes described as music to kill your parents by.

But rock also urges the view that all social conventions and values must be overturned: nothing is sacred. A good example of this is Madonna, who throughout her career has attempted to desacralize sex and vulgarise (and even pornify) Christianity, especially its Roman Catholic variety.

Rock does not do this only with its provocative and damning lyrics. It does this by the music itself.

Here is where what our next philosopher, Aristotle, has to say about music is instructive.

According to Aristotle, music works on the will and the soul through representation. By this he means that music directly represents certain passions or emotional states such that by listening to certain types of music certain passions – courage and temperance or anger and rebellion – may be aroused.

Rock often arouses anger, angst and rebellion in the listener. As one commentator puts it, ‘One of the things that rock and the rock industry do best is to take normal adolescent frustration and rebellion and heat it up to boiling point’.

As Aristotle has taught us, we are not dealing here only with the lyrics but the whole emotional arc that the music creates. As (re-)presentational rather than discursive language, music abstracts feelings from lived experiences and impresses them powerfully on the listener.

As John Dewey has put it, ‘Music, having sound as its medium … expresses in a concentrated way the shocks and instabilities, the conflicts and resolutions, that are the dramatic changes enacted upon the more enduring background of nature and human life’.

That is why Plato emphasises the importance of proper education in music. ‘Education in music’ he writes, ‘is most sovereign because more than anything else rhythm and harmony find their way to the inmost soul and take strongest hold of it’.

What sort of music, then, would contribute to the healthy moral development of an individual?

To answer this question would require another article. But briefly put, it is music that is wholesome, music that celebrates the good and the beautiful and music that tells the truth. It is music that is firmly rooted in a community, music that tells a story that captures the profoundest human experiences and emotions, and music that has stood the test of time.

We find such qualities in the music of Bach, Mozart and Handel. We also find them in varying degrees in Joan Baez’s ‘Barbara Allen’, in spirituals such as ‘Go Down, Moses’ and in ballads like Paul Simon’s and Art Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’.

In his letter to the Church at Philippi, the Apostle Paul writes: ‘whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things’ (Philippians 4:8).

These qualities are of paramount importance to good music, music that will form its listeners into people of virtue and substance.


Roland Chia (suit)_Large
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

 

 

Niebuhr in Asia: Christianity and Culture

August 2016 Feature Article

When we speak of ‘culture’, what do we mean? It is a notoriously slippery term, especially so when an Australian is writing for an unseen global readership! Culture can be ‘your culture’, ‘my culture’ or ‘our culture’. It can be as broad or as specific as one wishes. But in order to discuss its relationship with Christianity, we will need a working definition. For its inherent value in this discussion, I consider T.S. Eliot’s definition as powerful: “culture is an incarnation of the religion of the people”.[1] By this, the great poet meant that culture arises from beliefs; it is the offspring of beliefs.

If Eliot is correct, then it is the spiritual capital of a race or nation that forms the backbone of its culture. This can be seen in very explicit ways (in religious architecture, for example). But it can also be extremely integrated and organic in its expression. For example, a culture that holds a high place for children will exhibit different characteristics to one that does not. The set of beliefs in operation in a society concerning an afterlife will be seen to have effects on a culture’s approach to war, environmental issues, health care, and disability.

This paper addresses the way any particular culture—Singaporean, Australian or otherwise—might relate to the Christian faith. This assumes that Christianity is more than a culture, a view that might be challenged by post-metaphysical thinkers. However, it is a widely held feature of almost all Christian traditions that its doctrine is transcendent, and cultural expressions of this faith and practice will vary. For all of its interspersions with the cultures it encounters, Christianity retains a metaphysical heart, proposing answers to worldview questions such as the nature of God, the nature of human beings, the meaning of the world, and the possibility of ultimate justice.

Since the late 18th century, there has been strong interest in connecting the Christian religion with modern culture. A range of philosophers, theologians and cultural theorists have explored how Christianity is, should be, or shouldn’t be, in relationship with a national culture, or a set of cultures. Whilst all of this work remains interesting and pertinent, I have chosen one particular author through whom to shape our discussion.

My point of reference is the well-known work by American theologian, H. Richard Niebuhr. In the 1950s, Niebuhr wrote a very influential short book called Christ and Culture.[2] In it, he posits a series of views concerning how Christianity (by which he means something like ‘the Christian Church in the West’ might relate to the world it found itself in after the second World War. Niebuhr offered a five-part paradigm of relations between the Christians and the culture. Although influenced strongly by existentialism, the post-war mood and Barthian theology, there is ongoing value in his distinctions.

I will use Niebuhr as my background to consider these various ways that Christians in China might consider their ‘stance’ towards the broader culture. I offer these thoughts humbly, as a visitor with a love for Asian culture, and a growing but ‘youthful’ understanding of its wonderful diversity.

Niebuhr’s Five Positions

For Christians, there is an ongoing question about what it means to say “Jesus Christ is Lord” in the present day. Because this statement is both a dogmatic belief, and an expression of eschatological hope, its meaning is complex. Christians follow the theological, ethical and practical teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, but do they expect others, of different beliefs, to do so? And do they expect Christian views to gain a hearing in the arenas of politics, morality or business ethics? Furthermore, do Christians expect to participate freely in a culture, or do they expect that their beliefs will exclude them from participation at some (or many) points? Do they deliberately involved themselves in broader cultural pursuits, or do they withdraw to practise their religion as purely and unimpeded as possible?

These are the questions that spurred Niebuhr to construct his five views of how Christianity and culture can relate. Each view deserves brief mention.

First, it is possible to position Christ against culture. If a Christian sees the culture as actively or passively antagonistic to faith, he may see little or no connection between the church and the world outside it. This view is found in the statement from Tertullian, the second century Christian apologist: “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” In other words, Tertullian suggests that the worldviews of Christianity and the cultures in which it finds itself, are bound to clash, to be vastly different and incompatible. One of them must move. Often in history, it has been the Christians who have withdrawn from the culture, setting up monastic communities or separate schooling systems. We see this stance today in some areas of bioethics or financial affairs, where Christians may feel a need to separate from the norms of the culture in order to be faithful to Christ.

The second position takes the other extreme, to subscribe to the Christ of culture. Christians holding this view do not feel any significant tensions between the Christian worldview and the culture they inhabit. In this view, Christianity might offer the highest forms of culture and Christians endeavour to blend Christ into culture as a gift of excellence. Christianity is the ‘best of humanity’, it is argued, and therefore to christianize the culture is to improve it; this is the spiritual goal. This position was held by a number of 19th Century liberal Protestants, who saw the task of the church as the civilizing of a culture too influenced by barbaric or pedestrian ideals.

The remaining three positions sit between the first two extremes. It is possible to think of Christ above culture, which is perhaps the most common position taken by the Church throughout Christian history. In this view, Christianity exists beyond any cultural expressions of it, but is a church for the world. Christians become involved in the culture, seeking roles of authority and influence. They have confidence in the Christian worldview as a means of rational and ethical governance of a society, all the while maintaining that there is a reality and a community beyond that of the world, and it is the church. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Mk 12:17; Matt 22:20-22) might be the catchcry of this standpoint.

It is also possible to conceive, rather awkwardly, of Christ and culture in paradox. This view recognizes that Christians are simul justus et peccator (“always just, always a sinner”, a quote from Martin Luther) and therefore are as much part of the culture as they are part of the Church. In this view the culture is corrupt, and Christians are part of that corrupt culture; but they are also forgiven in Christ, held by grace. They live a paradoxical life. They are therefore right to be immersed in the culture as ‘natural man’, but ought to be doing their work there as slaves of Christ, obeying God in the midst of a sinful environment.

Finally, there is a view of Christ transforming culture, held by the original Calvinists. Niebuhr emphasizes (perhaps over-emphasizes) the goodness of the world that God created, and the capacity to return it to the state in which it was created. Thus, Christians enact that journey back to Eden, the return to perfection, as they dwell in the world. So, to build ‘Jerusalem’ or ‘Geneva’ or ‘America’ becomes the goal of Christian endeavour. This view is profoundly optimistic in its eschatology. It sees Christian actions in the world as eternally valuable. A less extreme version of this view would see Christians as “inaugurating the kingdom of God on earth”, even if that place will not finally come to be manifest until the return of Jesus Christ.

Contemporary Criticisms of Niebuhr

Niebuhr’s paradigm is extremely helpful as a tool for discussion of these various stances. However, it has come under constant criticism, especially for the nebulous nature of the terms used. North American Christian scholars such as George Marsden and Don Carson have criticized Niebuhr’s understanding of both ‘Christ’ and ‘culture’. Marsden argues that none of Niebuhr’s categories are specific enough to help today’s Christians map their relations with the 21st Century world. For instance, Marsden says there is little to be gained by a broad term such as ‘culture’ rather than specific enquiries into how disciplines and areas of public life such as art, politics, medicine or business might relate to the Christian worldview.

Carson wishes to suggest that the use of biblical theology modifies Niebuhr’s quadrants in a useful way. Whereas Niebuhr posits theoretical stances, Carson argues that the unfolding story of Scripture, with its “non-negotiables of biblical theology”, provides a clearer map of how Christians relate to the world. Through the acknowledgement of the development of God’s relationship with the world—from creation and then the fall into sin, to redemption in Christ and then the promise of a new heavens and new earth—Carson argues that we are given a stronger base on which to make decisions about Christian living.

Christians cannot long think about Christ and culture without reflecting on the fact that this is God’s world, but that this side of the fall this world is simultaneously resplendent with glory and awash with shame, and that every expression of human culture simultaneously discloses that we were made in God’s image and shows itself to be mis-shaped and corroded by human rebellion against God.[3]

Another author, Craig A. Carter, argues that implicit in Niebuhr’s thesis is the view that Christendom is the desirable state of culture, and one that should be restored. “The essence of the idea is the assertion that Western civilization is Christian”.[4] Niebuhr, in Carter’s view, is simply offering various methods by which that restoration might occur. A broader expression of this criticism might be that the West has laboured under the influence of Emperor Constantine’s success in integrating Christian structures and practices into the Roman Empire of the fourth Century. The contemporary Church is questioning whether ‘Constantinianism’ is a desirable project.

Social critics have suggested that Niebuhr’s conception of culture is already infected by modernist distinctions between high and low culture, between European high aesthetics and more grassroots cultural phenomena. In other words, culture is as much Madonna as Mahler, Lady Gaga as Lord Byron. It is football, dancing and gardening as much as it is fine art and classical music.

In summary, Niebuhr has provided an enduring but approximate way of describing the relationship between Christianity and culture. In reflecting on the nature of his thesis, it has struck me that there is no one category to which many Christians would happily subscribe. Most Christians see in each category something important about the way they do, or should, relate to their culture. There may be a way of understanding why this is the case.

A Christological Proposal regarding Christ and Culture

In Christian theology, Jesus plays a central role. In fact Christology is the study of the many and various understandings of him; from teacher (rabbi) to member of the Trinity, to co-Creator, to Son of Man, and so forth, Jesus is the centre of the faith. The Bible passage in Colossians 1:15-20 helps us to see the comprehensive role that is given to Jesus in Christian faith:

15The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (New International Version).

Such an all-encompassing vision of Christ’s importance leads me to consider the manner in which He may be central to understanding the relationship between Christians and culture. Could it be that each of the aspects of Niebuhr’s paradigm corresponds with different roles that Jesus Christ is given in the Bible?

Christ is against culture in his role as Judge, declaring what is righteous and shunning evil. Christ is of culture in his humanity, being fully human but bearing divinity at the same time. He is the perfect expression of Man. Christ is above culture in his Lordship, a doctrine that is both contemporary and eschatological for Christians (“now and not yet”), while we wait for his glory to be revealed. And Christ is transforming culture; he began as co-Creator (with the Father and Spirit), and continues as ‘new creator’, the one through whom peace and reconciliation is being achieved.

Where the Church is emulating Christ, it can take on each of these roles in relation to the culture, as is fitting in time and place: judge, full participant, ‘lord’ (or authority), and transforming servant. The only aspect of the Niebuhr paradigm for which such a christological focus doesn’t work is to see Christ and culture in paradox, for this involves the acknowledgement of sin and failure. Where Christians are ‘always just, always sinner’, Christ himself remained perfectly obedient to God. Perhaps this is addressed in a Bible passage such as 2 Corinthians 5:21, which speaks of Christ “becoming sin” for us. This difficult concept (a sinless man who becomes sin but remains perfect) is best understood in terms of substitutionary theory: the sinless Christ substituted for the sinful man, such that Christ is treated as if he were a sinner.

Nevertheless, this particular difficulty with Christ and culture in paradox does not detract from the overall value of analyzing one’s stance towards the culture in terms of whichever role of Christ is most significant for any given time or circumstance.

For example, in assessing an ethical issue, it may be appropriate for the Church to take a stance as ‘judge’ of the culture, critiquing an evil law or process. Or it may be appropriate for Christians to fully participate in a culture, as citizens—for example, as part of an Olympics or a public festival of unity. At times, it will be appropriate for Christians to express the authority of the Church; I would suggest this is the case if a central doctrine of Christianity is being declared illegal or inadmissible. And it is certainly important that Christians act as “salt and light” to transform a culture, offering the good blessings of the Christian worldview to a world in need. An area where this might apply is in contributing to social services.

Overall, it is valuable to reflect christologically on the connection between Christ and culture, to determine, situation by situation, what attitude or stance Christ himself might take to a particular cultural moment or event or issue. This is likely to result in any or all of Niebuhr’s positions being valid and appropriate as a summary of how the Church and the culture might relate.

Building culture

As all governments understand, culture is something that can be built. The construction of culture can take a long time, but it need not. Sometimes, events or decisions shape a culture decisively in a short time period: the events of September 11, 2001 in America changed the country’s culture overnight. Technology changes behaviour rapidly, bringing about new cultural expressions (for example, the iPod very quickly changed the way music was purchased and appreciated).

But, if T.S. Eliot is correct, the deepest changes to culture emerge from changed beliefs. When the Bible informs belief, cultures are affected. This effect can be for the good of the culture; in fact, in every part of the Niebuhr paradigm, the relationship between the Church and the culture is for the good of the culture. Even the ‘Christ against culture’ approach includes a desire that the culture ‘see the light’ so that integration and acceptance might be possible.

An example of the cultural impact of beliefs can be found in India. The caste system in India allows, indeed insists, that not all people are equal. Some are born into situations that label them for life as inferior, even as untouchable. Things that happen to you in life are a result of karma, and history cannot fight the forces of karma, fate, nature or even entrenched culture. Such beliefs flow over into how one treats the sick, whether babies have rights, and whether a person is more valuable than an animal. As Indian Christian philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi writes in his book addressing the importance of the Bible for culture-shaping, “Notions of human dignity and rights came to India with Christian education”.[5]

The effects of Christianity on any particular culture will be unique in some elements, and general in others. Christianity contributes to many aspects of a culture, not just a narrow sector of it. The history of the impact of Christianity on a nation is always rich, complex and fascinating. As Christianity continues to grow and develop in Asia, I look forward to seeing how Asian Christians seek to relate to the culture through the wide lens of Christology, in all of its dimensions, and am very happy to be a small part of thinking about how best this can be done.


Dr. Greg Clarke

Dr Greg Clarke is CEO of Bible Society Australia, the nation’s oldest continuously operating organisation. His doctorate is in literature, and he has published books on a range of topics including the life of Jesus, spirituality in The Da Vinci Code and the Bible’s teaching about the end of the world.


[1] T.S. Eliot, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, Faber & Faber, London, 1948, p.33. See also his The Idea of a Christian Society, Faber & Faber, London, 1939.

[2]  H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, Harper & Row, New York, 1951.

[3]  D.A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2008, p.49.

[4]  Craig A. Carter, Rethinking Christ and Culture: A Post-Christendom Perspective, Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, 2006, p.14.

[5] Vishal Mangalwadi, The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western CIvilisation, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 2011, p.66.

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.


David-Lang-e1446447900639-225x300


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

The Two Kingdoms: A Christian Perspective on Church and State in Singapore

October 2015 Feature Article

From the “culture wars” and heated debates over casinos, abortion, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) issues, to evangelistic efforts and charitable works, many wonder what the proper relationship between religion and state should be.

Aggressive secularists argue that Christians should not “impose” our religion on others in a multi-religious society like Singapore and “keep religion separate from politics”. Some Christians think that we should not be concerned about “politics”, but should focus on “preaching the Gospel”. Others think that we should be deeply concerned about laws like Section 377A of the Penal Code which criminalises sodomy.

How should Christians understand the relationship between Church and State?

It is well-known that Jesus did not come as a political Messiah to establish an earthly kingdom. As then-Minister for National Development S. Dhanabalan once said, “one of the reasons why Jesus Christ disillusioned the Jews of His time was… that He refused to become a political leader to help the Jews throw off the Roman yoke. And He was interested in changing individuals, not the society directly, but change society by changing individuals.”[1]

Nevertheless, we can learn much about the roles of Church and State in Jesus’ response when the Pharisees asked whether they ought to pay taxes to Caesar. Referring to the image of Caesar on a denarius, Jesus replied them, “render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21, KJV)

During the Protestant Reformation, German reformer Martin Luther saw in Jesus’ profound statement a distinction between Two Kingdoms which God has ordained: first, the Kingdom of God (the Church) which He rules through His Gospel and, second, the Kingdom of the World (the State) which He rules through His Law.

This became known as the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, the basis for much of our modern understanding of the Separation of Church and State.

The Doctrine emphasises that the Church should focus on preaching the Gospel for the salvation of all. As a result, it is not the role of the Church to govern matters of life and property, which are matters for the State.

On the other hand, the State should devote its full time to governing temporal matters, as servants sent by God “to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right” (1 Peter 2:14ff). Just as the Church should respect the political independence of the State, the State should also respect the autonomy of the Church in its religious affairs. For example, the State has no right to dictate how the Church should preach the Gospel, choose its clergy, or conduct itself in worship.

The Protestant emphasis on justification by faith led to a third principle – freedom of religion – which is now recognised as a fundamental human right. Since faith is the work of the Holy Spirit and “a free work, to which no man can or should be forced”, human authority should not try to coerce religious belief.

Because human authority is delegated by God, there are limits to human government. Hence, if any human authority commands things that are contrary to God’s Laws, we should “obey God rather than men”, as the apostles did when the Sanhedrin commanded them to stop preaching in Jesus’ name (Acts 5:29ff). In a modern context, Christians should exercise conscientious objection by refusing to participate in abortions or same-sex marriages, even when threatened with punishment.

The final principle is that of vocation (i.e. God’s calling). Implicit in Jesus’ teaching to “render unto Caesar” and “render unto God” is a call to discipleship; if the denarius belonged to Caesar because it bore his image, then we ought to render ourselves to God because we bear His image (cf. Genesis 1:27)! It is a call to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:29).

Thus, each of us is called to live out the Gospel in full wherever God has called us, whether as pastors, politicians, teachers, doctors, lawyers, or any other vocation. Given that disciples of Jesus Christ are ‘in’ but not ‘of’ the world (John 17:6-19), we cannot ignore political developments around us. Instead, a faithful preaching of the Gospel will always minister holistically to people at all levels of their being, i.e. heart, soul, mind and strength (emotionally, spiritually, intellectually and physically).

Taken holistically, the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms has several important implications for the Church in Singapore.

Firstly, the Church and pastors should always focus on preaching the full counsel of the Gospel both in season and out of season, including on “controversial issues” such as the sanctity of human life from conception and the sanctity of marriage, and to equip believers for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17). We should never compromise our calling to speak the truth in love, however politically-incorrect certain parts of the Gospel may be for the season.

Secondly, while it is not the vocation of pastors to advocate for political causes, it falls to individual Christians to minister the Gospel at our workplaces, schools or in the public square where God has placed us. Furthermore, in a democratic society like Singapore, each individual Christian can and should exercise his or her rights to freedom of speech and religion to speak truth to power.

Thirdly, in the midst of an increasingly complicated world, we should remember that politics is not salvation. While a godless world has to rely on human politics to build its Tower of Babel – its own idea of utopia here on earth – we look to Christ our true salvation, whose kingdom “is not of this world” but “from another place” (John 18:36).

Ultimately, as citizens of Two Kingdoms and “aliens” in this world, we know that God’s kingdom is both here and not yet. Meanwhile, we are each called to remain faithful with all that God has entrusted to us as we look to the day that Jesus will return as King to manifest His kingdom in full.


Darius-Lee-202x300

Darius Lee is a lawyer in private practice and a member of the Global Young Reformers Network Steering Committee of the Lutheran World Federation. Darius holds religious freedom, marriage and the sanctity of human life in high regard, and has defended these important values and rights on various platforms. He has written about his journey of discipleship and passion for matters of justice and righteousness in his book, ‘Like a Fire in My Bones: A Journey of Discipleship’.

 


Notes:

[1] Maintenance of Religious Harmony Bill, Singapore Parliament Reports (23 February 1990) at col. 1170

Transhumanism

What is Transhumanism? And how should Christians respond to its philosophy?

The twenty-first century has been described by some as the ‘Age of Bio-technology’. Advances in science and technology, especially in cybernetics and nanotechnology, are so rapid and significant that futuristic techno-utopians or ‘technopians’ are predicting that it would soon be possible for scientists to engineer ‘better’ human beings who are not vulnerable to certain weaknesses and diseases. In fact some have predicted that the future that awaits humankind is ‘trans-human’ in that these new technologies will enable the human race to possess powers beyond our imagination.

The World Transhumanist Association based in the United States defines transhumanism as a ‘sort of humanism plus’. Transhumanists believe that human beings can ‘better themselves socially, physically, and mentally by making use of reason, science and technology’. At the heart of the transhumanist movement, therefore, is the desire to create a utopia by improving ‘humankind and humanity in all their facets’.

In June 2000, the first artificial retinas were implanted in the eyes of three patients in Chicago suffering from retinis pigmentosa, which enabled them to see. The implants, which are 2mm in diameter each, 1/1000 of an inch thick, converts -3500 microphotodiodes that changes light energies into electrical impulses, which in turn stimulate the functioning nerves of the retina. This is the exciting world of ‘cybernetics’, the science which attempts to combine living organisms with machines.

The journal Science published a report in its June 2000 issue that scientists Edwin Jager, Olle Inganas and Ingemar Lundstorm have successfully developed a synthesized micro-robot that can move micrometer-size objects and manipulate single cells and cell-sized particles in an area of 250 x 100 micrometers.

The term ‘nanotechnology’ was brought to public consciousness by Eric Dexler in his book, Engines of Creation, first published in 1986. The term refers to precision machining with the tolerance level of a micrometer or less. Imagine a robot so small that it can be sent into the human body to detect and destroy malignant cells and cancers. Imagine using these micro-robots as immune machines to detect and combat infection. Imagine robots that could repair or replace damaged tissues and non-cellular connective tissue materials such as the extracellular matrix, or remove atherosclerotic plaque in coronary and cerebral arteries.

Although none of these technologies exist presently, scientists believe that these nanorobots will be a reality in the near future, and that their appearance will revolutionize medicine. Inspired by the promises of cybernetics and nanotechnology, transhumanists look forward to a future in which the limitations and the burdens of the present can be overcome by science and technology. Transhumanists therefore could speak of an alternative immortality.

The transhumanist vision can be critiqued from various angles from the Christian perspective. The optimism that transhumanism exudes regarding the future betrays the fact that its ideology is very much influenced by the Enlightenment. Its confidence in science and technology to secure a promising future for (post-) humanity merely shows that it has given scientism a new face. Scientism is the view espoused by some that the natural sciences (and its close cousin, technology) not only has the ability to unlock the mysteries of the universe, but also the ability to solve all the problems we currently face.

Science is here presented as revealer and saviour, the roles which the Christian Faith properly accords to God alone. Its confidence in science and technology, and its very optimistic view of human nature has led transhumanism to boldly present its own secular ‘eschatology’. It envisions a posthuman future in which, according to Katherine Hayles, ‘there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulations, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot technology and human goals’.

Because transhumanism is a secular ideology, it has no conception of the divine, and so no understanding of the radical nature of human sinfulness. Seen from another perspective, however, transhumanism presents itself as something of a religion. Although it is a secular ideology, it is in some ways profoundly religious. It has deified science and technology, and gives them the powers to change human nature itself, and to bring about ‘eschatological’ perfection through the emergence of a posthuman race, the cyborgs.

At its very heart, transhumanism despises the nature that human beings now possess, with all its frailties and limitations. The goal of the transhumanist is to press towards the posthuman future in which homo sapiens become techno sapiens (‘transhuman’ is short for transitional human).  Hence the transhumanist writer Bart Kosko could assert: ‘Biology is not destiny. It was never more than tendency. It was just nature’s first quick and dirty way to compute with meat. Chips are destiny’. In similar vein, Kevin Warwick, another transhumanist writer could declare: ‘I was born human. But this was an accident of fate – a condition merely of time and place. I believe it’s something I have the power to change’.

At every turn, transhumanism presents itself as not just inimical to the teachings of the Bible and the Christian tradition, but as antithetical to them. The Christian Faith teaches that we are fearfully and wonderfully made by our Creator to bear his image. Our nature is not an accident, but a gift from our Creator. The Christian Faith speaks about sin and the fall which affects all that we do – even our science – and from which we must be saved. That salvation comes only from God, who in his love and grace has sent his only begotten Son to die on the cross for sinful humanity. Nothing from human culture, not even the most profound science and the most precise technology, can bring about salvation.

The Christian Faith teaches that God alone will bring about a new creation at the eschaton, a new heavens and a new earth. It speaks about the resurrection, not the ‘borgification’ (from the word ‘cyborg’) of humanity! In the final analysis, transhumanism presents itself as another attempt at constructing a Babel. It is as much a defiant expression of self-reliance as a manifestation of a sinful and perverse titanism of the human spirit.


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 published in The Bible Speaks Today, January 2015.

The Success of a Hoax: The Da Vinci Code, Culture and The Church

In many ways The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown which was published in 2003 is an anomaly in recent publishing history. The thriller,   Brown’s   fourth novel, received glowing reviews from leading newspapers and magazines, and held its place on the New York Times best-seller list for a remarkable sixty weeks. A reviewer from the New York Times describes   it   as   ‘a   riddle-filled, code-breaking, exhilaratingly brainy thriller ’, while The Library Journal raved, ‘This masterpiece should   be   mandatory   reading’. The Chicago Tribune said that the book contained ‘several doctorates’ worth of fascinating history and learned speculation’.

So what is The Da Vinci Code? Is it a one-hit wonder?  Is it a fad? Is it a novel? Why should Christians be bothered with it?

On the surface, The Da Vinci Code is, of course, a novel.  It has a story, a plot, and various characters to play out the story. But The Da Vinci Code is more than this. It claims to deconstruct the history of the church and its traditional teachings regarding Christ. By Brown’s own admission, the novel hopes to provide an alternative account of the history of Christianity. ‘Since the beginning’, Brown asserts, ‘history has been written by the “winners” (those societies and belief systems that conquered and survived)’. ‘My sincere   hope’,   he continues,   ‘is that The Da Vinci Code, in addition to entertaining people, will serve as an open door to begin their own explorations’.

Why is The Da Vinci Code so successful? And why is it being taken so seriously by so many readers and by the mainstream media?

On an immediate level, the answer lies in the genre that Brown has chosen to communicate his theories. In his website, Brown admits that the theories that he presents are not new.   What   is novel is that for the first time such theories are expounded in the format of a popular thriller. In his chosen format, Brown could entice the reader until the latter is fully absorbed into the ‘secret’ that he unveils. As one reader puts it, ‘I found myself, unwillingly, leaving the   novel, and time and time again, going online to research Brown’s research – only to find a new world of historic possibilities opening up for me’.

But on a deeper level, the novel panders admirably to the ambiguities and ambivalence of our culture – its suspicion and even deep-seated distrust for institutionalized religions like Christianity on the one hand, and its spiritual restlessness on the other. As Carl Olson and Sandra Miesel put it in their book, The Da Vinci Hoax, ‘The Da Vinci Code is custom-made fiction for our time: pretentious, posturing, self-serving, arrogant, self- congratulatory, condescending, glib, illogical, superficial, and deviant.  It has managed to tap into the deep reservoir of spiritual longing, restlessness, distrust, suspicion, and credulity’.

Philip Jenkins has argued convincingly in similar vein in The New Anti-Catholicism:  The Last Acceptable Prejudice that ‘the main reason for the book’s popularity is deeper, a fundamental suspicion of traditional claims to authority, where they conflict with contemporary ideas and standards, especially over sex and gender. It mainly illustrates a broader suspicion about orthodoxy generally, and the idea that the truth is out there’.

Many decades ago, G. K. Chesterton wrote perceptively that ‘Truth, of course, must of necessity be stranger than fiction, for we have made fiction to suit ourselves’. The Da Vinci Code is able to enjoy such a huge success precisely because ours is a culture that no longer has respect or patience for truth. It is a culture that has sought to blur the boundaries between fiction and reality, myth and truth. In many ways The Da Vinci Code is the ideal postmodern myth, pulp-fiction style. ‘We have made fiction to suit ourselves’.

The success of the book can be further attributed to the fact that many people do not care   that they are historically illiterate. As historian James Hitchcock has put it pointedly,

The Da Vinci Code can be viewed as merely an ephemeral artifact of popular culture, but its immense sales ensure that it will have influence on people who never read serious books. Brown has found a formula for becoming rich: sex, sensationalism, feminism, anti-Catholicism, and the occult. But it is also obvious that he sincerely hates Christianity and sees himself as   engaged in an anti-crusade. The culture is ripe for such a debased book, so that even professing Christians are being seduced by it.

Should Christians take the book seriously? Since the appearance of The Da Vinci Code, a steady stream of reviews, articles, essays and books have been written by Christians to debunk its claims. Seminars, conferences and classes are organised to expose the gross historical inaccuracies of the book and the agenda of its author. Some churches have organised comprehensive projects to educate their congregations and the Christian public.

Not everyone, however, is convinced that such efforts are necessary. Some are of the opinion that Christians have over- reacted, while others feel that the enormous interest in the book is just a harmless fad.

I think Christians should take the book seriously. Imagine if someone were to write a novel that argues that the Holocaust never really happened, and that it was fabricated by a group of powerful Jews, who used the ‘myth’ to attain for they power and fortune. Or imagine a novel that claims that the prophet Mohammed was a violent alcoholic and a homosexual.  Such novels should be rightly condemned, not just by the relevant religious communities but also by a majority of critics and readers. The Da Vinci Code claims that Christianity is fraudulent, that the church is a misogynist, violent institution, and that Jesus was a mere mortal. Christians have every right to respond to such claims.

But there is another reason why Christians should take the book seriously. And that is because the book has caused much confusion even among Christians. One Christian reader wrote, ‘Honestly, [reading the book] shook my whole faith. I realise that the book is fiction, but much of what he wrote about seemed like it was based on historical facts aside from the characters. Since I am not a Christian scholar I don’t even know where to begin to refute such   claims’. The issues raised in the book must be addressed because there are Christians who need guidance and help.

However, it is not enough for the church to organize seminars to address the issues raised by The Da Vinci Code. The success of the book, and the confusion that it has caused among Christians should remind the church of the importance of its teaching ministry. The church neglects this important ministry only at its own peril. In

2004, I published a brief review of The Da Vinci Code in the Methodist Message. I think the words I wrote in the concluding paragraph of the review still ring true and bear repeating as I end this essay:

… the success of the book should  serve  as  a  wake- up call for the Christian church. It should challenge Christians to know their own history and to steep themselves in the apostolic tradition that shapes their faith. It serves as a clarion call for Christians to take theological truth seriously.


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 Trumpet (TTC).