Tag Archives: Religious

The Limits of Freedom

October 2015 Pulse

On a chilly January morning this year, two heavily-armed Islamic terrorists barged into the offices of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris and fired 50 shots, killing 11 people and injuring 11 others. The terrorists shouted “Allahu Akbar” (“God is the greatest”) in an attack that was a violent retaliation to the weekly’s denigrating cartoon caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed.

The Charlie Hebdo incident has sparked one of the most ferocious debates in recent memory on the most sacrosanct of all human rights in Western societies, namely, the freedom of speech – and its corollary, the freedom of the press.

In response to the horrific massacre, French President François Hollande reportedly said: “An act of exceptional barbarism has just been committed here in Paris against a newspaper – a newspaper, i.e. the expression of freedom – and against journalists who had always wanted to show that in France they could always work to uphold their ideas and to enjoy the very freedom the Republic protects.”

While it is inconceivable that anyone would endorse the unconscionable and murderous brutality of the terrorists, Hollande’s defence of an unbridled exercise of freedom must be subjected to interrogation and criticism.

At the heart of the debate on freedom, especially freedom of speech, is whether there are or should be limits. Are there certain things that cannot be said, or circumstances in which things cannot be said?

Without doubt, the clearest articulation of freedom of expression as a basic human right is found in Article 19 of the 1947 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

In Western societies, freedom of expression and that of the press are deemed indispensable for the ‘three Ds’: Development, Democracy and Dialogue. Once freedom is constrained, these ‘three Ds’ – so important to progress and human flourishing – would also be greatly hampered.

However, to champion the freedom of expression is surely not to suggest that its exercise is unlimited. There is something incredibly naïve – even vulgar – about the insistence on the right to exercise unbridled freedom that has reverberated in the heated rhetoric surrounding the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

The fundamental issue in the Charlie Hebdo incident concerning freedom of speech, then, is that a distortion has been inadvertently created because the importance of this basic right has been exaggerated.

Such exaggerations are not just the predilection of the French. It is given voice by the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who in his Declaration of Independence wrote that “the freedom of speech is the greatest good in a free democratic society and prevails over the other constitutional rights”.

But freedom can never be the only or the greatest virtue, and its protection cannot mean that other equally important virtues without which society cannot hold – like truth, justice and respect – must be set aside.

Respecting the right of individuals to express their views does not mean that society should no longer be concerned for the truth, for what is right and wrong. Without a moral compass, the diversity of opinions and viewpoints expressed in freedom will become nothing but ‘noise’. And the very truth that the freedom of speech is supposed to help society arrive at will be obfuscated by such ‘noise’.

Similarly, the emphasis on the basic human right to free speech must be placed alongside the equally important imperative that we respect the beliefs of others. Respect for freedom of expression and respect for the religious beliefs and symbols of others are not in conflict but work together for the common good.

Thus, Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) states that
“Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.”

Put differently, there are limits to the exercise of freedom. And it is only in recognising that boundaries are intrinsic elements to freedom, and that human relationships must also be shaped by other virtues, that society can truly flourish.

Charlie Hebdo has clearly transgressed those limits.

Perhaps our understanding of the meaning of freedom would deepen and mature when we appeal to not just the language of rights but also the language of responsibility. When this happens, freedom is not seen only as our basic right to do as we please or say what we want.

When the language of responsibility is commandeered, our understanding of freedom becomes other-oriented instead of self-centred: we are freed from our own self- absorption, and we begin to learn to love, respect and serve our neighbour with our freedom.

This basic Christian understanding of freedom – as freedom from sin and freedom for service – will surely add depth to the sometimes superficial secular accounts of liberty inspired by an atomised individualism.

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 May 2015 issue of the Methodist Message.

Unpardonable Sin

What was Jesus referring to when he spoke of the unpardonable sin?

Throughout the history of the Church, Christians of every stripe have wondered about the meaning of Jesus’ statement regarding the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit which is recorded in all three synoptic Gospels (Matt 12:31-32; Mark 3:28-30; and Luke 12:10). In Mark, Jesus is recorded as saying: ‘I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin’. Some Christians, like the Welsh preacher Peter Williams in George Borrow’s Lavengro, are worried that they might have committed this sin.

In order to understand what Jesus meant by the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit we must explore the context in which this statement is located in the synoptic Gospels. At the outset, it must be pointed out that Matthew and Mark sets this statement in a similar context, while Luke places it in a different context thereby bringing to this statement a slightly different meaning.

In Mark’s account, the scribes or experts of the law went to Galilee from Jerusalem to assess the miracles of Jesus, particularly his ministry of exorcism. They came to the conclusion that Jesus was himself possessed by the prince of demons, Beelzebub, by whose power he was able to dispel demons (Mark 3:22; Cf., Matt 12: 24). In Canaanite culture, Beelzebub was the name of a god, ‘the lord of the high places’, but for the Jews this name refers to the ruler of the abyss, the abode of demons. Jesus pointed out the absurdity of the suggestion that evil would work against itself: ‘How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand’ (Mark 3:23-24; Cf., Matt 12:25-27).

At this point, Jesus made the statement regarding blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, a sin for which there is no forgiveness. In Matthew and Mark, therefore, the context suggests that the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit has to do with not only the refusal to recognise and acknowledge the work of God but with confusing God’s work with that of Satan. Those who are guilty of this sin have ascribed the Holy Spirit’s activity to demonic agency. In rejecting the redemptive work of God, those who commit this sin have, by implication, refused to accept God’s offer of salvation. In this sense, the ‘unpardonable sin’ is also the ‘eternal sin’. In his commentary on this passage in Mark, Robert Guelich writes: ‘One is culpably refusing God’s offer and thus sealing one’s own eternal judgement by committing the sin for which by definition there is no forgiveness’.

Luke places this saying of Jesus in a different context, giving it a slightly different meaning. He does give an account of the charge by the religious leaders that it was through Beelzebub, the prince of demons that Jesus was able to cast out demons (Luke 11:14-26), but this does not provide the context for the statement on the blasphemy of the Spirit. Instead the statement about the sin against the Holy Spirit is sandwiched between Jesus’ warning that whoever disowns him will ‘be disowned before the angels of God’ (12:9) and his assurance that the Spirit will teach his disciples how to reply their inquisitors (12:11). This suggests that the unpardonable sin, for Luke, is the apostasy committed by the persecuted disciple who refuses to receive help from the Spirit.

Put differently, in Matthew and Mark, the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit has to do with confusing God’s work with demonic activity. In Luke, the unpardonable sin is apostasy – the believer’s repudiation of Jesus as Lord.

Some scholars ask if Peter had committed the unpardonable sin in the Lucan sense when he denied the Lord three times before Jesus’ crucifixion. And what about Paul? Was he also guilty of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit in the Matthean-Markan sense when he persecuted Christians and even tried to make them blaspheme (See Acts 26:11)? Evidently not! A distinction must be made between a human failure – as in the case of Peter – and the persistent hardening of oneself against God. Peter repented of his failure, and was forgiven and restored by Jesus. As far as Paul was concerned, scholars believed that he acted out of ignorance and unbelief and therefore received mercy. Paul was receptive to the revelation that he received while travelling to Damascus. But if Paul had rejected that revelation and continued to persecute Christians, he would have been guilty of the ‘eternal sin’.

This means that there is always forgiveness for the repentant sinner, even if he has blasphemed against the Holy Spirit. We have this assurance in 1 John 1:9, which states, quite categorically, that God will always forgive the repentant sinner. But if this is the case, why did Jesus say that ‘anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven’ (Luke 12:10)? It is possible that Jesus was referring to the person who has so hardened himself against God that he is beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness. In other words, the blasphemy against the Spirit is such that one does not repent of it. And because there is no repentance, there can be no forgiveness. This how the sin of blasphemy becomes ‘unpardonable’.

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 Bible Speaks Today, February 2015.

Responding to Changing Family Realities

September 2015 Feature Article

Conservative Christians perceive that there are threats to the institution of the family.

Most apparent are attempts internationally to redefine marriage to include same-sex unions. Cohabitation has become so common in some societies that they now account for nearly the same number as those who enter into marriage.

Medical technology has also made it possible to redefine parenthood. Single women now have the choice to have children without the need to know their child’s father through the use of donor sperms and artificial insemination. Marriages are more likely to end in divorce, and remarriages are not certain to hold for life.

In the Singaporean context, there is little likelihood that same-sex unions and single parenthood by choice will become mainstream. Surveys show that Singaporeans of all religious persuasions and those who are not religiously affiliated, do not approve of either same-sex unions or out of wedlock pregnancies. The government is conservative and is resistant to make changes related to family norms which may not be well accepted.

While the population, especially younger people are more open to cohabitation, housing is a scarce resource in Singapore and thus practicality will deter many from that option.

The concern of higher divorce rates is however disconcerting.

More recent cohorts who marry are dissolving their unions at a much faster rate. Based on figures released by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, among those who married in 2003, 16.1 per cent of them dissolved their marriage by the tenth year of marriage.

This is compared to the lower proportion of 8.7 per cent for the 1987 cohort. About 20 per cent of the 1998 cohort dissolved their marriage by the fifteenth year of marriage.

The forces that lead to such marriage instability cannot be attributable to mere changes in family values. Most couples are not frivolous about their marriage commitment. They believe that when they enter into marriage, it is meant for life.

However the stressors of modernity and accompanying aspirations can greatly affect what people believe is an acceptable relationship.  With both husband and wife busily engaged at work, the demands of raising children and caring for one’s own parents mean that strains in relationships are very likely.

Because people today want to have authenticity in their relationships, they are unlikely to stay married if the marriage is not fulfilling what it was intended to do. There seems to be greater tolerance for divorce than enduring in a loveless and contentious marriage.

Besides the increase in divorces, the overall profile of households in Singapore is changing. The nuclear family form consisting of a married heterosexual couple with children is declining as the dominant form of household here.

Instead, because of population ageing and norms of privacy, there are more households which comprise of single persons or married couples without children. Lower marriage and parenthood rates also mean that there will be more singles in the years to come and fewer younger family members to attend to the needs of those who are ageing.

With more divorced persons choosing to remarry, there will be more blended families where children can come from two marriages. In other cases, households will comprise a divorced parent who will have to singlehandedly care for his or her child. In general, these different household types have to contend with greater difficulties in accessing adequate care.

The Christian church has always thought highly about preserving and supporting families. In response to the challenges that modern life poses to families, many churches today involve themselves in the provision of a variety of services to assist families in need.

Christian faith does not make Christians unsusceptible to family trials but provides perspectives which allow for better coping. Diana Garland in her often used textbook, Family Ministry states that,  “Congregations nurture strong families by instilling values that promote strong family life, committing themselves to the challenges of loving unconditionally, celebrating joy together, making time together a priority, handling anger and conflicts in ways that strengthen rather than destroy relationships, practising repentance and forgiveness, and together serving the larger community and world.”

Besides the values imbued through the Christian tradition, churches provide practical guidance for family living through sermons and teaching and give a platform for different generations to coexist and interact. Many a church member can learn the struggles and blessings that are unique to different stages of the family life cycle just by interacting with others in the congregation.

What is it like to live as a family with an older parent co-residing in it? How do older spouses who have no children relate to each other? How can a divorced mother ensure that her children have a sense of normalcy despite their father leaving the marriage? It is easy to find suitable models within the church who thrive despite the struggles of family life.

If churches are to continue being relevant and offer strong support for families both in the Christian and broader community, they must also be attuned to the changes that are happening to the institution of family. They must accept that not all families are the same.

There is a common tendency among church-goers to advocate for how the family should be, both in form and function. Whether it is about gender roles, how married couples should relate to one another, optimum parenting styles or the role of grandparents, there are strongly held views which have the tendency of silencing other views and sometimes sidelining those whose families do not conform to expected norms.

The Scripture does prescribe what family should look like and how its members need to meet one another’s needs.

The Bible declares that marriage is between a male and female (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:4-5); sanctions sexual relationships and reproduction only in the confines of marriage (Hebrews 13:4) and stresses the obligations that parents and children as well as husbands and wives have to each other (Ephesians 6:1-4, Ephesians 5:22-33).

However the Bible does not shy away from depicting biblical characters and how far they conduct themselves from the biblical ideals of family. The fact that Jesus Christ is born in a family line full of complications is testament that God uses a variety of family types and conditions to achieve his redemptive purposes.

Churches then need to be places where people know that their family circumstances will not be unkindly judged. Concerns about being held under scrutiny, lead many members and leaders to be ashamed about sharing the realities of their family life where there might be much deep-seated conflict, violence, sexual misconduct and other characteristics deemed as “unbecoming of saints”.

Instead of shunning family arrangements which mainstream culture devalues, Christian theology provides a rich resource where family types can enjoy recognition. For instance, while singlehood may sometimes be deemed in popular culture as depicting one’s lack of ability to attain marriage, Scripture provides value to the role of singles.

Similarly the Bible extols older persons in the family and society, something which our youth-oriented society is just now beginning to grapple with. Where individuals do not have strong family ties to support them, the church provides a platform for them to find kin-like relationships.

The Christian tradition allows us to reconceptualise the concept of family beyond the structures of blood-ties and marriage. Individuals can have kin-like ties with its corresponding privileges and obligations as brothers and sisters because we share God as our Father.

Our response as Christians to the continued changes in the family institution should not be to merely decry or politicize such changes. While it is important to make a stand for biblical principles that undergird strong and stable family units, we should prioritise on what we are best at doing – offering Christian love to support and strengthen families.

Dr Mathew Mathews is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies at the National University of Singapore. He has researched on a number of family-related issues. He actively serves at Alive Community Church. These are his personal views.


March 2015 Pulse

It is quite fashionable to label the period in which we inhabit by the use of the prefix ‘post’: post-liberal, post-colonial, post-modern and even post-human.

While the prefix annoyingly tells us very little, it does suggest that ours is an age riddled with ambiguities. The prefix points to a culture that is still somewhat dependent on the status quo it has revolted against.

Writers as diverse as Jurgen Habermas and Graham Ward have argued quite persuasively that we are beginning to see the emergence of a post-secular age. Post-secularism of course does not signal the end of secularism. It points to the novel miscegenation of the secular and the religious in a way that is both amorphous and treacherous.

The Roman Catholic aesthetic theologian, Richard Viladesu, has said that one way of discerning the evolution of culture is to study its artefacts. Since film continues to be one of the primary mediums in modern culture, in what follows I will briefly reflect on two films to track this shift in sensibility.

On December 26, 1973, Warner Bros. theatrically released The Exorcist in the United States. The film grossed over US$441 million worldwide and earned 10 Academy Award nominations. It starred Ellen Burstyn (as Chris MacNeil), Jason Miller (as Father Karrass, the exorcist) and Linda Blair (as Regan Teresa MacNeil, the demon-possessed adolescent girl).

In many different ways, The Exorcist portrays modern secularism with its stark (one might even say, overwrought) dualisms that pervades almost every aspect of the film. It accentuates a characteristic trademark of secularism, namely its neat compartmentalisation of reality, especially its dogmatic division between the sacred and secular.

Thus in The Exorcist there can be found not just the dualities of good and evil, but also the sacred and profane, church and society. But what is critical is that The Exorcist seems rather determined to ensure that these divisions are never blurred, and the boundaries strictly enforced.

The church, which is always in the background in the film, is called upon only when there is a crisis that science is unable to resolve. But after the successful exorcism, the religious symbols are returned to Father Karrass the exorcist as if to say that now that the crisis is over, church and religion are no longer needed.

The family returns to the usual dualities, and life reverts to the prepossession secular norm. The Church recedes once again into the background, and religion is once again relegated to the periphery of secular society.

In Rupert Wainwright’s 1999 film, Stigmata, the dualities and dichotomies that The Exorcist has carefully defined and guarded appear to have collapsed. Reality is presented as seamless where the distinct categories of sacred and secular no longer apply. In the post-secular age, we see a decisive shift away from the barren materialism of the scientific worldview to a world that is re-enchanted and re-sacralised.

Stigmata underscores the disappearance of dualities in very striking ways. In Roman Catholic piety, the stigmata are granted only to those who are wholly devoted to God, like Francis of Assisi. In the movie, the marks appear on the hairdresser Frankie (played by Patricia Arquette) who is not only an unbeliever but also a promiscuous hedonist. In the post-secular age, the dissolution of the secular and the sacred has led to the democratisation of spiritual experiences.

The removal of these boundaries is also powerfully portrayed by the rosary, which Frankie’s mother bought for her while vacationing in Brazil. Not knowing its significance, Frankie wore it as a necklace, thereby treating a religious object as a mere fashion accessory. Yet it is through the trivialised rosary that Frankie received the supernatural stigmata.

Although post-secularism wants to re-sacralise the world, it is important to note that it has no desire whatsoever to return to traditional religions like Christianity. Some writers have pointed out that God has made a comeback in the post-secular world. However, the God that has appeared on the scene is not the God of the Bible, but a nebulous spiritual force that permeates all of reality.

While The Exorcist presents an ever enlarging secular space where religion is pushed to the margins, summoned only when science is unable to solve a problem (the old ‘God-of-the-gaps’ idea), Stigmata insists that everything is spiritual. Yet, in emphasising spirituality, Stigmata roundly rejects religion as it is traditionally understood and practiced.

Stigmata is truly post-secular in the sense that it abandons both the rationalism and scientism of secularism and traditional religion. In one sense, post-secularism is intrinsically postmodern because it subverts both scientific and religious authorities and abandons their respective metanarratives.

Both films diminish the role of religion and the church in society, but in their own ways. The secularism of The Exorcist says that religion is mostly irrelevant, while the post-secularism of Stigmata says that traditional religion is no longer necessary since spiritual experiences are available everywhere to everyone.

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.

Render To Caesar… Render To God

March 2015 Feature Article

Whenever there is a discussion on the obligations of Christians towards the state, a key saying of Jesus is invariably cited. The most well-known rendition of it is found in the King James’ Version of the Bible: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”.

A common interpretation of this saying is that Christians owe different sets of obligations to God and to the state. It is depicted in the diagram below:

Render to Caesar revised

So, as this interpretation of Jesus’ saying goes, there are obligations we owe to the state alone (perhaps things like paying taxes, respecting public order). These we should “render unto Caesar”. Then there is a completely separate set of obligations we owe to God (perhaps the obligation to tithe or to pray). These we should “render unto God”. Jesus’ saying, therefore, has repeatedly been used through the ages to urge Christians to be good and law-abiding citizens; to discharge well our unique obligations to “Caesar”.

The problem with this interpretation of Jesus’ saying is quickly apparent. It invites us to divide our lives into two portions, one governed by God, and the other by the state, with no interaction between the two. God’s reign over us is therefore restricted to so-called “religious” matters, while Caesar has the final say on how we should behave with regard to our lives in the public square. This interpretation of Jesus’ saying is, in other words, totally in line with the secularising agenda of many contemporary societies. The secular ideal is that one’s public life should be free of religious considerations. There can be a carefully circumscribed role for religion in one’s private devotion and morals, but that is as far as it should go.

Could this understanding of Jesus’ saying be correct? Could Jesus have been a man before his time, advocating a secular agenda more than a millennium and a half before these ideas took root in Western societies? Might Jesus actually approve of the marginalisation of religion we see in so many contemporary societies? Surely, something is amiss. It behoves us to examine carefully the passage in which this saying is contained to see if its context sheds any light on how it should be interpreted. We will focus on the description of this episode in the Gospel of Mark (12:13-17).

This immediate context of our passage is a trap set by the Jewish religious authorities. As v.13 puts it, “they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words”. These emissaries began with flattery. They praised Jesus’ integrity and said they admired the way he taught the way of God truly without being swayed by the fear of man (v.14). Having cunningly set up an expectation for Jesus to speak the truth fearlessly, they sprung the trap:  “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” (v.14-15). This question was designed to put Jesus in a deadly bind. Whether he answers “yes” or “no”, he would get into deep trouble.

If Jesus were to answer, “No, it is not right to pay taxes to Caesar”, it would have given a basis for the Jewish religious authorities to persuade the Roman rulers to arrest Jesus. The Romans were very sensitive about their system of taxation, and any potential disruption to it was likely to draw a swift and firm response. This is where the Herodians come in. They were a political faction of Jews seen as loyal to Rome. They would be best placed to report any subversive behaviour to the Romans.

If, on the other hand, Jesus were to affirm the correctness of paying taxes to Caesar, many of his followers would have abandoned him in deep disappointment. Many Jews had an intense hatred of the Roman tax. They had even started a series of riots over the payment of taxes not too long before Jesus’ time. How do you think these Jews would have felt if Jesus were to encourage meek submission to the oppressive Roman tax system? Most conveniently, the Pharisees were on hand to fan any angry responses. They were respected among the Jews for their anti-Roman sentiments, and were best placed to incite the crowd should Jesus affirm the correctness of paying taxes to Rome.

How did Jesus emerge from this bind unscathed? He did the rather unexpected thing of requesting for a denarius (v.15). He then asked, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” The denarius was a Roman coin, and had the portrait of the Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar on its front side, with words proclaiming his title and name. It was therefore a simple thing for the Pharisees and the Herodians to answer “Caesar’s” (v.16). Jesus then spoke the final words recorded for this episode, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”. This reply totally floored the Pharisees and the Herodians. They thought they were cruising to victory in this boxing match. But Jesus’ reply was the knockout punch they did not see coming. V.17 tells us that the Pharisees and Herodians were amazed at him. The account in the Gospel of Luke describes them being so astonished that they fell silent (Lk 20:26). Matthew adds that they left Jesus and went away (Matt 22:22)—probably in shame that their mission had failed.

This is where the common interpretation of Jesus’ answer does not make sense. What would be so utterly amazing about Jesus teaching that we owe different sets of obligations towards God and the state? Such a reply would also not have successfully evaded the trap, since it is in essence a “yes” answer; it suggests we ought to pay taxes because we owe obligations to the state.

The key to understanding Jesus’ last sentence lies in his earlier question, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” The original Greek word for “portrait” is εἰκών (eikon). This is the word from which the English “icon” is derived, and can also be translated as “image”. To the Jew, one of the first things which come to mind when the term “image” is mentioned is the teaching in Genesis that human beings are created in the image of God. εἰκών has also been used in other parts of the New Testament to denote this image of God present in human beings (e.g. 1 Cor 11:7). The English word “inscription” is translated from ἐπιγραφή (epigraphe). A form of this word is used in passages like Isa 44:5 of the Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint, which reads:

“One will say, ‘I belong to the LORD’;
Another will call himself by the name of Jacob;
Still another will write (epigraphein) on his hand, ‘The LORD’s’
And will take the name Israel”

So how would Jesus’ Jewish audience have understood his reply? Just as the denarius had the image of Caesar and the inscription of Caesar’s name on it, human beings are made in the image of God and all those who belong to God have his name written on their hands. Therefore, when Jesus speaks about giving to God what is in God’s image and what has God’s inscription, he is calling for the giving of the whole of ourselves to God. He is reminding the Jews that their one loyalty is to God alone. So, if we do pay our taxes to Caesar, it should be as an aspect of our sole obligation to God; it should be as an act of worship to God. The converse is also implied: If the state should overstep her boundaries and impose obligations which conflict with our fundamental obligation to God, “we must obey God rather than human beings” (Acts 5:29). The one guiding principle for all of life is our obligation towards the one who has made us in his image and inscribed his name on our hands. Thus Jesus, in his answer, does not advocate uncritical submission to the state and its laws. Yet he also does not advocate rebellion for its own sake. Everything has to be evaluated according to one’s sole duty to God. He therefore manages to avoid the unequivocal “yes” or “no” his enemies were expecting.

The pervasive influence of secularism in modern societies has caused Christians to live fragmented lives. The phenomenon of a “privatised” Christianity is evident amongst many Christians. We have carefully shepherded our Christian faith into a small and comfortable corner of our lives. When it comes to “religious” activities, like attending church, or going for small group meetings, we are happy to say and do all the right “Christian” things. Outside of these times, however, we often refuse to allow the reality of our Christian faith to guide and impact the other aspects of our lives (e.g. when we are in the office, when we discuss national politics, when we evaluate the economic direction of our society). It might not be too much of an exaggeration to say that, for many of us, Christianity has effectively been reduced to a kind of drug for our psychological well-being. We take it once a week on a Sunday to feel a sense of comfort and joy, but refuse to let it interfere with the business of living in the real world.

The privatised Christianity of our secular age needs to hear afresh the words of Jesus, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”. This, far from being an affirmation of the secular tendency to divide our lives into different spheres which are hermetically sealed from one another, is a powerful call for us to re-assemble the fragmented pieces and live our entire life in obedience to God. If we do discharge our obligations to others (e.g. the government, our families, employers, friends), it is as an aspect of our service to God. The key obligation which holds everything together is our loyalty to God, and our key task is to learn and reflect upon what this one loyalty entails for the various facets of our lives, both “religious” and “secular”. May these words of Jesus help bring wholeness and focus to Christians today, as we live in wholehearted gratitude and service to the God who has graciously created us in his image and inscribed his name on our hands.

Dr leowthenghuat


Dr Leow Theng Huat is a lecturer of theology at Trinity Theological College. He is a member and local preacher of Wesley Methodist Church.

Religious Kitsch

September 2014 Pulse

In his insightful book entitled, Contending for the Faith, Ralph Wood, Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University describes a sweatshirt on sale at an annual Christian Book Fair designed by a Christian T-Shirt company called Living Epistle. Labelled ‘The Lord’s Gym’, it depicts Jesus Christ as a muscle-bound body-builder. He presses himself on a pile of rocks, with a huge cross on his back with a caption that reads ‘The Sins of the World’. Beneath him is another caption that challenges anyone to ‘Bench Press This!’ On the other side of the sweatshirt is a picture of Jesus’ nailed-pierced palm and a caption with the words: ‘His Pain, Your Gain’. Wood describes other interesting pieces of paraphernalia like a bumper sticker that declares that ‘Real Men Love Jesus’ and a soccer ball keychain with the slogan ‘Jesus Is My Goal’.

For many years, theologians have noted with alarm what may be described as the kitschification of Christianity, the barbaric debasement of the Christian faith by pop culture. Webster dictionary’s rather pedestrian definition of kitsch as ‘shoddy or cheap artistic or literary material’ fails to bring out its corrosive nature. Etymologically, kitsch is probably derived from a German word coined in the 19th century which means ‘simulation’. Kitsch is therefore a crass imitation of the good and the beautiful. It is a substitute pretending to be the real thing. But kitsch is not just an illusion of the original – it is its perversion. With reference to religion, especially the Christian faith, the insidiousness of kitsch – its ability to corrupt – should never be underestimated. Religious kitsch is the disease of faith that reduces Christianity into ‘Kiddyianity’, a sugary stereotype. It is the profanation of Christianity’s highest values.

Boorish and superficial, kitsch is unable to cope with the complexities of reality – its paradoxes, contradictions and ironies. It thus simplifies our varied experiences by reducing them to stereotypes, and in the process it trivialises reality itself. In the same way, kitsch is incapable of grappling with the vicissitudes and struggles of life. It glosses over that which is part and parcel of human life – suffering, pain, and betrayal – and presents a sentimentalised and manicured version. ‘[K]itsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and figurative senses of the word’, writes Milan Kundera provocatively in his celebrated book, The Unbearable Likeness of Being. ‘Kitsch’, he adds, ‘excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence’. Kitsch has manufactured a souvenir faith that is pleasant, undemanding and very marketable.

More importantly, kitsch reduces God to a docile and domesticated deity, emptied of his mystery, wonder and terror. In his remarkable book on beauty, Roger Scruton describes how the cancer of kitsch has caused the widespread degradation and desecration of art. Religious kitsch has done the same damage to our religious imagination by reducing the splendour, beauty and glory of God to sentimental jargon. In the same way, religious kitsch could not deal with the brutal barbarity of the cross, its bloodiness, gore and violence – its sheer ugliness. By replacing the beautiful with the cute, kitsch is simply unable to discern the strange beauty of God revealed in the ugliness of the cross – the beauty of his sacrificial love. Thus, this souvenir religion resorts to what it does best: it kitschifies the cross. The blood-splattered cross of Calvary is willy-nilly transformed into a piece of sparkling costume jewellery or a decorative kitchen plaque. In its inability to appreciate divine beauty, kitsch has vulgarised the cross and perverts its profound meaning.

It would be a mistake to think that religious kitsch is associated only with the items like T-Shirts and key chains found in our Christian bookshops. Kitsch can infect every aspect of the life of the Church – its spirituality, worship, music, theology and preaching. Kitsch is religious junk food that dulls the spiritual appetite. Kitsch obfuscates the sacramental nature of reality by sugar coating the true essence of things. Souvenir religion can cause cataracts to develop in the eyes of its adherents so that they can no longer perceive the presence, beauty and majesty of God in the world.

Make no mistake: kitsch is an enemy of the Christian faith.

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.