Monday, February 24, 2014

Joel Osteen and prosperity gospel

I bought a book by Joel Osteen titled It’s Your Time while browsing through some books at a book sale corner while waiting for a friend. Given my adverse sentiments towards Health-and-Wealth prosperity gospel, one may wonder why I bought a book by a preacher who is characteristically a proponent of such teachings. For one, I am not really sure whether Joel Osteen is the heretic of a run-of-the-mill prosperity gospelist that I have the impression of, and I would to examine it for myself. For two, I wonder whether there might be something that Joel Osteen has to say that might provide insight or encouragement from a Christian standpoint to where I am in life.

One thing from my perusal of the book is that Joel Osteen’s prosperity gospel is somewhat different from the prosperty gospel of other preachers I have heard. For Joel Osteen, periods of ill-fortune are simply another way in which God may work to the ultimate good and success for the righteous believer. He gave the account of a person shipwrecked on an island, and who was miserable at God for not answering his prayers to be rescued. When the hut he had built caught fire and burnt down, he was furthermore upset at God. Just then, a ship arrived to his location. When he asked the shipmen how they found him, they replied that they saw the fire and thought someone was sending a distress signal. I say that this view of prosperity gospel is different from that of another prosperity gospelist I have heard. That other prosperity gospelist was of the view that a righteous believer will never suffer, and things like ill-health are simply not the will of God.

Still, there are things written in the book which causes to curl some of the ingrained traditionalist Christian worldview that I hold. For one, Joel Osteen makes statements characteristic of what I would call trust theology. That is, belief, or trust in God, is the paramount factor in receiving God’s blessings. He would quite encouragingly talk about how God is not limited by things such as one’s financial status, intelligence, talents, social skills etc, but then follow at the end of the passage with a rather ironic and dubious sounding statement that God is however limited by one’s beliefs. It is very much like how some popular self-help authors would quip that an individual is the measure of his beliefs, except that this self-help dogma is packaged in Christian evangelistic terms.

Still, I do take away some encouraging bits for my Christian faith from having read the first few chapters of the book. I am reminded that God is able to work ultimate good through bad. Indeed, I have the predilection of thinking along lines doubting the existence of God when things are not going my way, and my prayers are not getting answered, or that God doesn’t care. I still do have such doubts, but I am open-minded to the possibility that God is real and has a plan for ultimate good for my life, and that things would turn out well for me. As much as I am skeptical of prosperity gospel and find it artificial, I still wish for it to be true because it provides hope of a better life for people while they are on earth.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Thoughts on Singapore-Indonesian tension: The naming of Indonesian vessel, the Harun Osman

Recently, the hot button foreign affair issue in the Singapore media has been about Singapore’s row with Indonesia over Indonesia’s naming of the navy ship Harun Osman. Harun Osman is taken after the names of two executed Indonesian commandos by the name of Harun Said, and Osman Hj Mohd Ali, who were responsible for setting off a time bomb at a place in Singapore known as the MacDonald House which killed 3 people and injured 33 others. The bombing was part of Indonesia’s armed opposition during the reign of Sukarno towards what was perceived as British attempts to withhold onto power in South East Asia after World War II.

The two commandos were arrested, put on trial, and sentenced to death. During the period of their detention, Sukarno was deposed by Suharto following the 30th September Movement in 1965, who renounced the confrontational policy towards Malaysia; whilst the planned inclusion of Singapore into the Federation of Malaya went awry and Singapore became an independent state in 1965. Suharto petitions for a grant of clemency for the two commandos was turned down by the Singapore government, and the two commandos were executed shortly afterwards in 1968. Their bodies were returned to the Indonesian authorities which had them interred in a national heroes cemetery. Their hanging saw some 400 agitated students in Jakarta ransack the Singapore embassy, attack the consul’s residence and burn the Singapore flag, and bilateral ties remained tense for several years.  Supposedly, tensions were cooled after then Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew visited Indonesia, and sprinkled flowers over the graves of the two executed commandos. But it seems that any concealed deep-seethed misgivings towards Singapore for executing the two commandos are surfaced from the naming of the ship.

I have several thoughts and questions about the issue.

1.       The opinion of the Singapore government is that the two executed commandos were terrorists. The argument that they are goes that they targeted innocent civilians while not clothed in military uniforms. If they had been targeting military installations instead, they might have been deemd prisoner-of-wars rather than terrorists and been afforded certain protection that comes under the Geneva Convention on how Prisoner-of-Wars should be dealt with. However, I think the complication of this case as compared to the usual case of terrorism is that these soldiers could simply be carrying out the orders of the incumbent government to commit terrorist actions. How are they to be held accountable when that government is deposed and replaced by another government? I have read a blogger who argues that President Suharto was attempting to portray himself as distancing himself from the aggressive and expensive foreign interventionist policy in the region of his predecessor, so as to exculpate the two commandos for their actions.

2.       How much does domestic pressure plays in a government’s foreign policy? There are some examples in regional affairs where local domestic pressure in foreign regional countries causes their government to assume an antagnostic stance towards Singapore. In this case of the executed commandos, President Suharto could possibly have come under some form of domestic pressure to secure the release of the two commandos, which is possibly evidenced by the ransack of the Singapore embassy in Indonesia by the 400 agitated students. Another example where domestic pressure factored in was when the Philippines government threatened to cut off all diplomatic relations with Singapore during the Flor Contemplacion incident when a Filippino domestic worker was executed in Singapore for murder. But anyone claiming that the Singapore government had been ignorant of domestic pressure of the other countries in its foreign affairs dealing possibly misses out on taking into account the domestic pressure that is within Singapore as well. If there had been any domestic pressure that came upon the Singapore government in the executed commandos case, they most likely came from victims or relatives of those who were killed by the acts of the commandos. However, is it possible that sometimes, governments are the ones who incite domestic unrest towards foreign nations through their media as a way of building national solidarity and diverting attention from other important domestic issues?

3.       How should such gestures as the naming of the ship be interpreted by the Singapore government? Is it a bold affront by the authorties in Indonesia towards Singapore, a form of condescension by a big state towards a small state? Is it a way of testing the resolve of Singapore to assert itself? This seems to be the concern and sentiment of the Singapore government, who are probably concerned that any failure to speak up might be seen as weakness. Could it simply have been an oversight by the Indonesians to the sensitivities of neighboring nations. This seems to be the opinion of some Indonesian officials that the Singapore government is simply overreacting to what is a perfunctory tradition of naming ships after national heroes. Yet, there are other Indonesian officials who do make very aggressive statement towards Singapore, such as this comment “Let Singapore keep shrieking, like a chicken beaten by a stick” by Golkar MP Hajriyanto Thohari, deputy chairman of the People' Consultative Assembly. There are both hawks and doves in a country’s government, and I think if there is any concern by Singaporeans, it is whether these hawkish elements in neighboring governments are gaining more sway in their government.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Comparative understanding of Islam to the Christian religion

The church discipleship group which I attended yesterday was going through a comparative religious study on Islam. The focus of the study was on Islam’s understanding of the resurrection of Christ.

The differences highlighted by the discipleship group leader about Islam in regards to Jesus Christ is that Islam teaches in the Qur’an that Jesus is only a prophet and not divine, and that Jesus was not crucified, but it was merely made to appear so, while Allah raised Jesus to heaven.

The material that the discipleship group leader had prepared then went on to the question on whether the Bible or the Qur’an was more reliable. The answer given was that the Bible was more reliable because it was written down within the first generation of the events recorded, while the eyewitnesses were still alive, as compared to the Qur’an, written over 600 years after the events with no independent, historical source of information. An excerpt from William Lane Craig’s article “Who is the Real Jesus : The Jesus of the Bible or The Jesus of the Qur’an?” was presented in the material, which states that “In fact, the Qur’an contains demonstrably legendary stories about Jesus which evolved during the centuries after his death….For example, the Qur’an mentions the story – borrowed from the legendary forgery entitled The Infancy Gospel of Thomas – of how the boy Jesus made a bird out of clay and then made it come to life. Such stories are fictional.”

The material also cites historical evidences other than the bible which corroborates with the account of Jesus crucifixion, such as the Jewish historian Josephus reference to Jesus’ condemnation to the cross by Pilate in Testimonium Flavianum, Roman senator and historian Tacitus reference to Jesus in his Annals, and Greek satirist Lucian’s scornful remark of Christ in The Death of Peregrine. One objection that I have heard raised by counter-apologists is whether these other sources qualify as independent attestations of the gospel narrative, since they were written decades after the crucifixion, and might have been derived from the same sources used for the gospels

The session also discusses about the understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity. Islam rejects the Christian belief of God as existing in three persons. The material attempts to explain the idea of the Trinity with William Lane Craig’s description of God as a soul endowed with three complete sets of rational cognitive faculties, each sufficient for personhood. The discipleship group leader tried to explain this using the analogy of three different people in a company holding the similar position of CEO and being able to sign off with such a title. Another member in the discipleship group attempted to explain the idea of the trinity with an analogy of different descriptions given of a three-dimensional object from different perspectives. According to her, there exists a fourth dimension not comprehensible by human mind where God can exist in separate rational forms but maintain the same essence. Another discipleship group member casually cites the example of someone with the mental illness of bipolar, where two separate personalities exists in the same person, much like the story of Jerkyll and Hyde. For me, I find it easier to understand the idea of the Trinity as simply one rational faculty controlling three persons, much like how a puppet master controls multiple puppets, although I reckon that such an idea of the trinity would run into problems explaining why Jesus would admit not having knowledge that belongs to God the Father, or why Jesus had to pray to God. Considering such difficulties of conceiving the idea of the Trinity, I can understand why Islam would reject this idea and why some Muslims would even label this as polytheistic.

I would like to present here the beliefs of a Jewish law professor on campus on how he understands the Christian religion in relation to his own Judaistic faith. This professor believes that Jesus is both the Messiah prophesied in Isaiah 53, but also the prophet described in Deuteronomy 13 whom God had warned the Israelites not to follow but to put to death. As such, the Christian religion is God’s way of reaching out to the gentiles, but is also a test of the Jews to remain faithful to their Judaistic roots and not be led astray by other beliefs. I wonder whether such a pluralistic theology explaining Judaism and Christianity as being God’s different ways of reaching out to different people can also encompass Islam.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Representations of God

At church last Sunday, the pastor was giving a sermon about the significance of sin in Christian theology, and how some people downplay its significance. He was talking about how no sin of any individual on earth is obscured from the knowledge of God, and cited a verse where God calls upon the mountains and the earth to testify against his people. His point was that God could even call upon inanimate objects as witnesses, such that one cannot hide one’s sins even if he or she is secured behind four corners of walls, because even the ‘walls have ears’. The pastor made a tongue-in-cheek reference to the forensic detective show CSI, and said that God’s ability to call upon inanimate objects to provide evidence is superior forensic techniques to anything seen on that CSI show.

I suppose different people would react differently to a sermon message on the significance of sin in Christian theology. Some people find any emphasis on the doctrine of sin offensive, others may concur with it but believe that such messages should be relegated behind messages espousing God’s grace and redemption of sin. Indeed, there are other sermons given by other speakers in church who seem to prefer to emphasize God’s grace and redemption over his abhorrence over sin.

There are indeed many representations of God afforded by various people, with different emphasis on certain aspects of God preferred by one person over another. Occasionally, such difference of emphasis can become dividing points amongst the Christian community. But I suppose that the problem may lie with how different Christians may prefer different emphasis on God’s character. For me, I acknowledge the doctrine of sin, but I also acknowledge the redemptive works of God to forgive sins. I think it is good to avoid either extreme in portraying God as either a condemning, wrathful God on one hand, or as a completely non-judgemental, antinomian God on the other hand.

Can one truly know who God is, or are any description of him merely representations? Some may say, “Isn’t it possible to refer to the Bible for authority on this?”, or “You can only know God if you personally experience him.” I just don’ like it when some Christians thump their verses from their bible on others to support their idea of what God is like so as to support in a rather shallow way whatever they are trying to proposition. I suppose I try to square my idea of what God is from reading the Bible. Yet, I am not a complete textual fundamentalist regarding how God should be represented. I see benefits in people finding a personal understanding of God that appeals to them, without them being castigated for not adhering strictly to the bible. My personal preference of how I would like to understand God is one who is understanding enough to know that we as human beings are susceptible to doubts, weakness of the flesh, disillusionment, and all other human frailties, and who loves us despite of these and will forgive us as long as we ask for it.

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