Narratives, Inequality and the Church Part 3

In previous posts, I reflected on Teo’s analysis of Singaporean society and how the gospel narrative and community offers a promising solution. In this final post, I draw on the previous discussions to sketch out some implications for how we should be thinking about social action. Though reaching this stage has been my goal from the beginning, I must admit that I am most tentative about the more practical conclusions I reach here. Nonetheless, my hope is that this would at least encourage Christians to think more explicitly about how the gospel narrative ought to inform their commitment to social action. I begin by providing a brief articulation of my position and its implications on social action and evangelism. I will then defend and clarify the position by engaging with two extreme tendencies that we may fall into.

A Brief Sketch

Teo’s analysis revealed how the meritocratic national narrative and the state and societal institutions that reproduce these narratives are together the chief ills of society. Offering material aid alone will not help as long as individuals continue to be trapped by the punishing structure of their communities, which are blind to their struggles and the indiosyncracies of their situation. Our social action, therefore, would be fruitless if it stopped at merely offering financial or material aid. What our society really needs is an alternative narrative and an alternative community that embodies that narrative. That narrative is the gospel narrative and that community is the gospel community, the church. To thus put it somewhat simply and no doubt provocatively to some, our social action must be a form of evangelism. Unless we draw individuals into a different narrative and a different community, our aid would not get to the root of their problems.

At the same time, Teo’s analysis reveals that a narrative can only be sustained within a community and social relationships which give it meaning. This means that the gospel must be made concrete through interaction with a community that functions in a manner different from that of society. The larger society functions according to the meritocratic narrative which it embeds, but for the gospel to make sense, it must do so via concrete interactions with a community within which the gospel makes sense. This means, perhaps just as controversially, that our evangelism must be a form of social action. The gospel will begin to make sense to a non-christian, only as they see how it transforms and shapes the life of the church and the Christian’s interaction with them.

I’m no doubt hedging a little when I say that what we are to do is a form of evangelism and a form of social action. The basic idea is that our interaction with others must be shaped by the gospel. This must include telling them about the gospel, but it also includes embodying the gospel via our interactions with them and the church. There is not only one way in which this must be fleshed out. But if we take seriously the idea that the christian community is that which displays and makes legible the gospel narrative, then our outreach ought not be isolated to things we do on the weekends for the homeless or going through that evangelistic tract with a stranger. We need to think harder about how we display the beauty of the church community and gospel-shaped personal interactions with others.

Let me make this more concrete by providing two examples. A couple in my church recently adopted a special needs child from China. In the orphanage that this child is at, he is a little old and so his chances for adoption are slim, his disability also makes him an unlikely candidate for adoption. This is an example of social action that is deeply shaped by the gospel. Such an adoption challenges our meritocratic society’s ideas of worth, and display a love that is not earned but given by grace. This embodies our own narrative as Christians who have been adopted as children of God even though we were not just unlovely, but rebels and fools. Another couple in my church opened their homes to troubled youths and unwed mothers. (See this feature and find out more at their website) Ken and Addy’s guests are invited not just into their house, but indeed their home. In their own words, “They’re invited as part of family … We want them to have the experience of what a normal, safe, functional family looks like.” It’s not just about providing material aid or uploading some information about Christianity, but about inviting them into a context wherein the gospel of grace begins to make sense. Again, “We are not a perfect family. And we are not trying to create a perfect family. But we are forming a community who looks to Him.” These are not isolated pockets of charity either, instead the larger church community is involved. The child, Keyuan, and Ken and Addy’s guests are invited into our church, and we have the privilege of knowing and interacting with them as well. This last aspect is crucial, for they are now invited to peer into the gospel community.

The goal is no doubt the transformation of larger society, or to put it as Jesus would, to ‘Let thy kingdom come … on earth as it is in heaven’. However, the church does not achieve that aim primarily by directly changing the structure of political society, but by presenting a different model of living through the church community. Our primary task is not to have Christians seated into positions of power or to adapt the laws of the land to reflect Christian morality (though there is nothing wrong with hoping or praying for this to happen), but it is to articulate a different narrative by embodying it in an alternative community. We would then love our neighbours by drawing them into this community which exists alongside but yet distinct from larger society. As Jesus proclaims, “My kingdom is not of this world” but we are indeed “sent into the world”. (John 17:14, 18) As I will later note, that we do not completely assimilate into larger society is crucial. For attempting to insinuate ourselves into the halls of power will involve us in the broken narratives and systems which have been the subject of Teo’s analysis. We do better to present to our society an alternative.

In the world but not of the world

To clarify and defend the position I’m sketching out, it might be useful to compare it to two clusters of thought in Singaporean Christian culture. One group is of Christians who are deeply averse to social justice due to a suspicion that it detracts from the gospel. The other group consists of those Christians who plunge headlong into social justice ministries and aim at obtaining influential positions in the culture, often working through state institutions in order to effect change. Though I speak of these two as groups, I believe that they are really tendencies that few hold to extremely resolutely and yet that all of us may fall into. Let me respond to them respectively.

“Not of the world”?

Those in the first group are averse to social action. Of course they do not mind individual members giving to charity, but they are suspicious that the church as a whole should be involved. Part of this comes from a conviction that the proper sphere of action for the church is the church itself. We are to love and care particularly for fellow church members once they have become a part of us, but attempting to change society is outside our jurisdiction. To them we can offer nothing but the preaching of the gospel. This is often tied to certain views about the course of history, whether we can expect the larger society to become more or less Christian (i.e. the pre/post-millenium debate), and about the proper sphere of the magisterium.

I will hardly do any justice to the more deeply theological foundations of this group in this post, but it is probably clear that I am partial to some of their views. Indeed our primary sphere of action is the church itself and not larger society (see Gal 6:10), and our main offer to the outside world is the gospel. But, as I have shown, I do not think that any of this precludes the kind of social action that I am describing. After all, I do not dispute that the primary outworking of the gospel is love within the Christian community, but this does not mean that it is the only outworking of the gospel. It is surely incontrovertible from the command of our Lord that to love your neighbour as yourself extends further than the church community. (see Luke 10:25-37 and indeed much of what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount).

I suspect, however, that the worry might be something more like this: to involve the church with social action would undermine our witness to the gospel. The good news of Jesus alone must draw them into the church. We would be creating false converts and impugning on the purity of the gospel if we attract unbelievers not by the word of God alone but by human care or material gifts. 

I am once again sympathetic to this worry, indeed I believe it sometimes characterises the opposite position. But this is why I have emphasised that our social action must be gospel shaped. Our social action is a means for us to embody the gospel. Those who are hesitant about the relationship between caring for others in a concrete manner and evangelism should think hard about what Paul says as he describes his gospel ministry: “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” (2 Cor 4:5 Emphasis mine) Consider John Piper’s comment on this verse:

The purpose of this transformation into a self-giving servant role is to provide another display of the glory of God as the ground of faith—an embodied display. So we present the glory of Christ not only in our gospel but also in our lives. While proclaiming the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ, we also become the light of the world, so that men may see our good deeds and glorify our Father who is in heaven (Matt. 5:16). If we see and love the glory of God in Christ and are being transformed by it, we become a mirror of that glory and a means to the well-grounded faith of others. This is why 2 Corinthians 4:5 stands between verses 4 and 6. The proclamation of the glory of the Lord, and the embodiment of the glory of the Lord, are the occasion for the miracle of verse 6 or the blindness of verse 4. (Piper, Peculiar Glory p. 144-145.)

And so God does win people through his word. And yet he uses his divinely appointment means to do so. One of those means is our gospel shaped love to others which provides the context through which the gospel begins to make sense.

“In the world”?

The contrary position consists of those who rush headlong into social action and actively attempt to shape society’s institutions. Perhaps as a result of occupying a relatively privileged position in society, many Christians have often attempted to effect change through the state’s institutional structures. Though I believe we should primarily aim to work outside the structures of the state, such work is still precious and valuable. There is nothing wrong per se with being involved in politics and speaking truth to power, as perhaps Daniel or John the Baptist did. I have no doubt that Christian presence in the public square is still valuable. The danger is when we begin to blur the lines between the nation and the church. Such work is perilous in at least two ways:

In the first place, it involves the church in all the moral dangers associated with politicking. Even if Christians come in with innocent intentions, engaging in power struggles with secular folks over control of public institutions will certainly be viewed with suspicion. The AWARE sage from not too long ago stands as the prime example of this. Will we be seen as those who proclaim “not ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord and ourselves as your servants for his sake” (2 Cor 4:5) or those who simply wish to strengthen our political position and lord it over others? To incur such misunderstanding may not be in itself wrong (no doubt whatever one does these days is bound to incur misunderstanding) but is a serious cost that we should take into account.

Second and more importantly, the church and the nation risks becoming intertwined in a way that undermines both the gospel and our effectiveness at making an actual impact in society. Already, many Christians and churches imbibe the harmful meritocratic culture that pervades Singapore society. Many of the mission schools are among the top schools in the nation, and speaking from personal experience, the culture of cutthroat competition and measuring each other by how we stand academically is deeply prevalent. Anecdotally, I know also that many churches are no different in how, despite preaching the gospel on Sundays, members continually compare themselves to each other like the rest of the culture. Not to mention the sad fact that churches are often stratified according to socio-economic status. I’m rarely tempted to commit the sin of being partial to the rich instead of the poor folks in my church (James 2) thanks to the fact that the poor rarely come in.

This intertwining also inhibits our effectiveness. The reason is that in offering such help through the state structure, we inadvertently reinforce the national narrative that is shaped by that structure. Here’s an example of how this could happen. Say we participate in a program that provides free tuition to needy students. To begin with, the very tuition industry itself is already a product of the meritocratic narrative and we reproduce that narrative. Next, how do we motivate these students to continue coming or encourage them to study? If we are working through public institutions, we can’t talk explicitly about the gospel or finding one’s worth in God’s love through Christ. Often, probably out of convenience, we parrot what most of society says: you need to study to get a good job, get into a good course, make it in life, achieve your dreams etc. We would then be merely reinforcing the broken narrative once again! 

Now, I’m not trying to discourage anyone from participating in such programs or trying to outright dismiss them. They provide genuine help to others and are an opportunity to form meaningful relationships. At the same time, I think that those volunteering in such areas need to think harder about how the gospel ought to shape their work and be careful to avoid reproducing the surrounding culture. We need to rethink what it means to be helping others; it cannot simply be equipping and aiding them to participate in the surrounding culture and become embedded into the national narrative. Faith based groups in schools sometimes lead bible studies where the application often seems to be being a better student or studying harder. No doubt the bible calls us to be faithful in living out our vocation, which in that case is that of a student. But we ought to ask whether, instead of Christianity offering an alternative of how things could be, we simply make religion an instrument of the defective wider culture.


The gospel and the dying world before us call us to action. We must be intentional in both preaching the gospel and loving our neighbour, and we do so by cultivating a community which embodies the gospel and drawing our neighbours into it. As I close this series of posts I feel at once both excessively verbose and yet at the same time that there is so much more to be said. Yet my modest hope is that this would spur both discussion and ultimately action.


Narratives, Inequality and the Church Part 2

In a previous post, I reflected on Teo’s This is What Inequality Looks Like and suggested the difficulty in resolving some of the problems she has raised.  I closed by suggesting that the Christian narrative and the Christian community speak to those problems. In this post, I will elaborate on my response. I should add that I will be writing in unapologetically Christian terms here and indeed write as if I address primarily Christians. I do invite, however, my non-Christian readers to look in and hopefully be drawn by the vision that I sketch out. We will see that the gospel narrative provides the resources for believers to live in the Christian community, which in turn reinforces and fleshes the narrative — much in the same way Teo has noticed the relationship between national narratives and our national community. I then bring the discussion to bear on the two questions that I raised in the previous post.

The Gospel Story and the Gospel Community

Let me provide a quick summary of the Christian story. God is the creator of all things. As creature, humanity was to know and to love God and to find fullness of joy in relationship with him, obeying God as a child obeys her father. However, humanity decided to live apart from God, deciding that they should live by their own rules. This is what the bible calls sin. Sin drew humanity apart from God, and God, being just, punished humanity by casting them out of his presence and blessing, resulting in the broken world we know today. All of humanity now lives in alienation and in opposition to God, preferring themselves over God and others. God, however, decided to act in history in order to redeem humanity from the effects of the fall. In the person of Jesus, God took on flesh and dwelt among us. He tasted our brokenness and sin and received the punishment we deserved by dying on the cross. Jesus rose again three days later to signify his victory over sin and death. By his Spirit, he is now creating a new humanity for himself on earth that would enjoy perfect fellowship with him and with each other. 

This summary is a mere recounting of facts. For each individual Christian however, the narrative is embodied in relationships. And the first instance of such relationship is that between God and the individual believer. God himself comes into our lives and speaks his word to us, his Spirit convicts us of our sin. As we put our trust and faith in him, we realise that it was not humanity in abstract that Jesus died for, but it was my pain and my shame that Jesus experienced, it was my sin that hung him on the tree. As the Apostle Paul notes, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20) From the Old to the New Testament, the chief blessing of God has been this: “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God” (Exodus 6:7, see Revelation 21:3). God himself reaches down to form a relationship with us and the Gospel story becomes a part of our personal story.

This narrative and this relationship, however, is further embodied and mediated by the relationships among the community of Christians. In his first letter, the Apostle John writes,

“Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” (1 John 4:11-12)

John begins by noting that God’s love for us leads us to love each other in the same way. This is then followed by a profound remark: although God is invisible, God’s love is perfected and made visible by our love for each other. Jesus makes a similar remark as he prays that for the unity of the Christian church, “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” and “so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” (John 17: 21-23) These are difficult verses, but it seems that it is through the unity of the Christian church that Jesus would manifest the love of God for his people. As the Christian community interacts with each other in love, humbling serving each other, being willing to forgive offences, rejoicing and weeping together, this manifests and embodies the Gospel narrative and the love of God. Apart from the enactment of that narrative by the church, the gospel would begin to make little sense.

Now, why would it be the case that the love of the Christian church would embody the love of God? How is it possible that one can see God’s love through the love of the Christian church? One reason is that what motivates the genuine love of a Christian is none other than the Christian narrative and a relationship with God. The very gospel narrative empowers the love among the community of Christians. We love because God has first loved us. When someone offends us, we do not become high and mighty because we recognise that we too have offended God by our sin. Instead, we forgive as God has forgiven us. When we see a fellow brother or sister caught in self-destructive patterns we do not shy away from admonishing them and we gently and lovingly pursue that person, just as God has not ignored out sin but has reached out to us and pursued us. We are willing to spend our resources and time to build up and bless others because we “know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor 8:9) These very acts of love are fuelled by the gospel and in this way they embody the gospel narrative and our relationship with God. 

This last point is crucial. When our acts of love become divorced from the gospel narrative, they start to distort both the gospel narrative and the Christian community. For example, when we start to see our acts of love as religious deeds that help us to earn our place before God or as an expression of our moral superiority. Our acts of love may then lead to burnout or pride, both of which may end up hurting those whom we try to care for. Our care may become conditional and grudging, with a bitterness evident to those whom we care for. Alternatively, we may, out of an inordinate desire to please others, care for others but without being willing to speak frankly about sinful areas in which they need change. This will not merely harm the Christian community, it would distort the vision of God’s love that we aim to present to others. Our acts of love in the community must thus be motivated and strengthened by the gospel narrative and our personal relationship with God if that act of love is to embody and mediate the two.

Notice that I have framed this discussion in parallel with Teo’s insights. There is a grand cosmic narrative which is made concrete as God draws close to us in relationship and within which Christians now make sense of our individual lives. Both the cosmic and personal narratives are then made concrete in our social relationships within the Christian community which in turn reinforces and makes comprehensible the cosmic gospel narrative. 

Back to Step 2

Let’s now revisit the two questions I raised in the previous post and notice how the Gospel narrative has the resources to respond to them:

    1. If we cast off the old narrative of meritocracy, what is the new narrative that we are going to tell ourselves? 
    1. How do we create the new community that embodies this alternate narrative?

In response to the first question, I propose that the gospel narrative is that story that we need to hear. Recall the problem I raised earlier: any narrative has to embed a set of values and norms, to encourage certain actions instead of others. The difficulty is how the narrative can be value laden without being meritocratic in the harmful ways that Teo has pointed out in her discussion. Notice that the gospel narrative is in fact anti-meritocratic due to the central role that God’s grace plays. There are indeed a set of norms that the gospel narrative embodies: there is a moral order created by God for our good and we are obligated to obey our creator. At the same time, the gospel narrative recognises that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” and “are justified by his grace as a gift”. (Romans 3) This means that none have the right to exalt themselves over another. Our identity is no longer bound up in our station in life or how much we have achieved, but by how much God has loved us. Our primary identity is as a child of God. Even when we celebrate the good works we have done, but do not attribute merit ultimately to ourselves, instead we recognise that even our good works of love are gifts from God who “prepared them beforehand, that we should walk in them”. (Ephesians 2:10) 

The church community, as the national community, requires leaders. Indeed the bible commands us to appoint leaders who will shepherd and guide others in the church. But our leaders are exhorted to follow the example of Christ, who told them “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:43-44) There ought to be nothing remotely resembling elitism among them. Such a community is one where “the first will be last, and the last first” (Matthew 20:16) and it shall be one that removes the sting from the meritocratic alternative.

What about the second question? There the chief issue I raised was how the intertwining of individual narrative and societal structure can create a cycle in which it can be hard for the individual to simply tell herself a different story or for societal structures to be reformed apart from individual change. One might think that the Christian narrative faces the same problem. I have said that the Christian narrative fuels the Christian community, which in turn embodies and mediates the Christian narrative. But if so, don’t we face the same chicken and egg problem? How can either the narrative or the community get started in the first place?

The answer to this is in noticing that the first relationship in which this narrative is embedded is not that between the Christian and the Church but between God and the Christian. It is first and foremost within the context of our relationship with God that we make sense of the gospel, and God is the one who takes the divine initiative to come and pursue us while we tell our own rebellious, sinful stories. God himself is also the one who comes in to create the new Christian community as it were ex nihilo. This description is apt, for the Apostle Paul himself compares conversion to the God’s creation ex nihilo: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor 4:6) Furthermore, God’s activity does not cease at the inception of the church. Instead Jesus promises his personal investment in building his church, telling his disciples that “he is with them always, to the end of the age”. (Matthew 28:20) And he works in and through the church to cause them to love each other in a costly way. 

Let me put this point differently. Because individuals are mired in the harmful prevailing structures of the day, to act apart from them would be both personally costly (the competitive culture would leave you behind) and it could even make no sense or be interpreted as foolish. To create an alternative community in which new actions start to make sense is therefore costly and the person who first begins to enact an alternative narrative where a contrasting one previously dominated would pay the largest cost. In the Christian community, however, it is God who is the first mover. In the midst of our selfishness, he makes the first move to respond to us gently forgive our sins. And he paid the cost by bearing our sins on his body on the tree. He then interacts with us and begins to form a new relationship around which the church community can be centered and from which it can draw strength. This new relationship with God becomes one wherein counter-cultural acts of love and care can begin to make sense. We can forgive because God has forgiven us. We can allow others to get ahead of us because Christ our Lord did not lord it over us but humbly came to serve us. God himself bears the primary cost of enacting this gospel narrative. It too will be costly for us to obey the command of love, but in this new relationship with God, we no longer pay the price for being the ‘first mover’ and our acts now begin to make sense.

God therefore is the one who creates the new community that empowers this alternative narrative. He does so first by entering into relationships with individual believers and by interacting with us according to a different narrative than that which operates in the world. However, he also creates the new community by empowering Christians to obey the command of love and as they begin to interact with each other according to the gospel, an alternative community is created around which the gospel is visibly seen. God is the prime mover in creating the community, but his action does not render our individual actions obsolete, rather it enables us to act.

This, in brief, is how the gospel narrative and community has the resources to respond to these two issues. There is, however, still a gap between this and what implications the church should draw when it thinks about social action. I will make some suggestions about that in the following post. Before that, however, I wish to pause and think about some problems. 

“When you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.”

As I sketch out this alternative, some might read with a growing sense of impatience. For this ideal, beautiful community is nothing like the flesh and blood sinners they meet at church every Sunday. Perhaps some have even experienced severe hurt or even abuse from within the church. The quote which forms the section title above comes from the Apostle Paul himself as he described the church in Corinth, which, despite their apparent spirituality, had imbibed the licentious and self-centered values of the surrounding culture, and had therefore become a source of harm for the Corinthian Christians. It is possible for the church community to degenerate into chaos and a source of evil rather than good. Though I will make some comments in response to this in a while, I really don’t think there is an easy way to respond to this problem. This due primarily to the complexity involved in why churches might end up that way and the roles in which church members play. Some may be perpetrators of the harmful culture in a church, others may be victims, others by their silence and selfishness condone certain behaviours, and most people are a mix of these. Especially where abuse is carried out within the christian community, spiritual, sexual or otherwise, I want to sympathise and admit that writing a blog post hardly does justice to these evils. (I have tried to show how the Christian narrative engages with these elsewhere in this blog and see this article by Rachel Denhollander for one thoughtful perspective on abuse.)

At the same time, I want to make three brief points in response. First, all communities are vulnerable to such a danger of turning inward and corrupt. The reason for this lies in the depravity of the human heart. Any community which relies primarily on human goodwill is therefore bound to disappoint. According to one popular way of understanding democracy, the democratic system was constructed primarily to deal with this problem. To trust in systems, however, especially one created by fallible human beings, is likely to fare no better. (seriously, just read the news these days) Our hope, therefore, is primarily in God to create such a community. The gospel narrative and community, with God at the center instead of man, offers, at the very least the possibility of the creation of such a community and its continuance. God, moreover, is committed sustaining and creating his church. As the Lord Jesus himself says, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) However wretched its earthly form may be, it is the Lord’s commitment to the church that should ground our allegiance, not in the goodwill of any one person or the effectiveness of any system.

Secondly, though I speak merely of possibility in the various paragraph. I dare say that I have seen such love in actuality. When sinners gather together, they are bound to rub each other the wrong way. But what happens after that is where a miracle might take place. Forgiveness, humility, a willingness to admit mistakes. Sacrifice of time, money, emotional resources just to walk with and care for another brother or sister. When a brother or sister makes a mistake and hardens their heart, I’ve seen how the community can firmly correct the person yet gently pursue him with an otherworldly humility. I myself have been at the receiving end of such correction and forgiveness. I have seen displays of radical hospitality and self-sacrifice as well: adopting children with special needs, taking care of unwanted teenagers and walking, often in tears, with those struggling with suffering and sin. When I see these things, I recognise that this is not just the fruit of human effort and goodwill, but indeed that God dwells among his people.

Finally, I must add that my sketch is partly aspirational. I wish to show that Christians have the resources to engage with some of these issues in order to encourage us to work together towards the ideal. The numerous commands to love one another in the bible surely did not arise because the church was naturally predisposed to this. Instead, Jesus’ last command to love one another as he has loved us, came surely because he was familiar with the infighting that regularly plagued his disciples. (John 13) These commands require our obedience: they require us to put aside our pride and actually begin the hard task of loving others. This we shall do by the grace of God.


The gospel narrative and the gospel community is therefore the alternative that we need. The centrality of grace in the Christian religion is key to resolving the issues I’ve raised. Grace is what removes the sting from the harmful tendencies of meritocratic narratives and God’s gracious initiative makes the community which embodies this alternative narrative possible. The discussion in this post is limited, however, within the scope of the Christian community. What does this analysis mean for the way we think about society at large? In the next post, I will draw some implications from this as to how we should think about social action.

Narratives, Inequality and the Church Part 1: Reflections on Teo You Yenn’s This is What Inequality Looks Like

No book has so taken Singapore by storm as Teo You Yenn’s This is What Inequality Looks Like; perhaps not since LKY’s Hard Truths has a book by a local author been sold out so rapidly. I am perhaps late to the party in registering my reflections on the book, but I offer them up here. As usual, I am interested in bringing a Christian perspective to the issues raised here. I eventually hope to show that Christians have much learn from Teo’s insights: her discussion of how narratives are ultimately socially embedded can be a starting point for us to think about how evangelism, community and social justice can be intertwined. More importantly, I believe her analysis reveals that the Church uniquely can and ought to play a crucial role in Singapore society, but that she should focus her energies outside of the usual institutional structures Singaporean Christians have been fond of working in. In this first post, however, I want to simply examine Teo’s analysis and raise some related issues in thinking about how we can respond to it.

Step 1: Disrupt the Narrative

Teo covers much ground in her work, drawing from extensive interviews with those from low socio-economic backgrounds, providing an ethnography of inequality that describes how the state and societal structures of Singapore are differentially experienced by those from such backgrounds. However, there are two interrelated insights that are crucial to her work and that I want to comment on in this essay. The first concerns the intertwining of the national narrative and the individual narrative and the second concerns how these narratives are socially embedded and instantiated and reproduced in our everyday lives.

The emphasis on narrative is evident from the title of Teo’s evocative first chapter: “Step 1: Disrupt the Narrative” and Teo begins by pointing out the relationship between individual narratives and the national narrative. The essence of our national narrative Teo sees as captured by progress and meritocracy. Singapore is a nation that prevailed against the odds to reach the prosperous state that we are in and we must continue to strive forward if we are to survive. Part of what explains our excellence and success is the system of meritocracy we have instituted. This is a system that purports to provide equality of opportunity to all citizens but which produce, by design, unequal outcomes of credentials, status and wealth. This narrative is furthermore value-laden, 

“What the education system does when it selects, sorts and hierarchizes, and when it gives its stamp of approval to those ‘at the top,’ is that it renders those who succeeds through the system as legitimately deserving. Left implicit is that those at the bottom have failed to be deserving.” (p. 26, Original Emphasis.)

This narrative does not remain at the national level, however, but are concretised in individual narratives. The values reflected in the national narrative are imbibed by us and inform the stories that we tell about ourselves. Teo cites the example of two men who proudly talk about having once been in a state where they have had to take cold showers and sleep with bed bugs. She notes that “with the national narrative of miraculous progress serving as backdrop to their personal stories, these persons can lay claims to a kind of dignified triumph.” (p. 21.) Those who have not been able to progress within this narrative, however, have no such recourse to dignify their hardship. Instead, they are understood as symbols of inferiority and unworthiness.

The stories that we tell ourselves, however, do not exist in a vacuum. Instead it is impressed unto us by our interactions with societal structures and our social relations:

“Individuals do not live on islands (even when we literally do!). We are connected through rich, complex, and intricate ties to others in society. What we do and do not do are shaped by our sense of how others are — shared understandings of right and wrong, good and bad, valuable and worthless. The pathways and practices we end up taking are rendered meaningful by shared scripts and narratives that permeate our society.” (Pg. 32.)

Teo then goes on to show how various aspects of Singapore society structurally disadvantages the poor: availability and type of housing, the kinds of employment that the low income have to undertake and the highly competitive education system serve to mire them in their situation despite their best efforts. But not only does it keep them poor, it perpetuates their sense of inferiority and unworthiness. Because they lack the qualities which our meritocratic system rewards, they are made to feel incompetent. Understood from within the perspective of the national narrative they imbibe, they are not ‘normal’ and have been left behind. 

That these narratives are socially embedded is crucial. One cannot simply choose to tell oneself a different story. As Teo notes in her discussion of parenting:

“Parenting is a socially embedded activity… First, it is linked to other elements of everyday life … Second, it is shaped by and rooted in the broader expectations, demands and habits of society. … Many of us like to imagine we are independent — how many times have I heard people declare “I just do what I want to do and I don’t care what other people say”? — but the reality is that what makes for a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ parent is shaped by circumstances and informed by criteria beyond any given individual’s control” (p. 144-145.)

For example, the expected outcomes of parenting are informed by societal interaction and norms: it is not possible for a parent to simply do something else and pronounce their parenting as equally valid. Low income parents end up imbibing these values and ultimately reproduce the image of inferiority in their interactions with their children. As Teo notes, many low income parents find themselves in the unenviable position of telling “their kids to listen to them and yet also send them the message ‘don’t be like me’”. (Emphasis mine, p. 139.)

What is Step 2?

Such is the picture Teo paints of Singapore society that I hope to have captured in broad strokes. If this is the diagnosis, however, what is the solution? Recall that the problem really has two parts, (1) the oppressiveness of the national narrative and its effects on the individual narratives of Singaporeans and (2) the fact that this narrative is embodied in the community and state structures and instantiated and lived out in everyday life. If we wish to solve the problem, we must ask ourselves two corresponding questions:

    1. If we cast off the old narrative of meritocracy, what is the new narrative that we are going to tell ourselves? 
    1. How do we create the new community that embodies this alternate narrative?

Teo’s book does not offer any concrete answers to these questions and much of how I reconstruct her here is somewhat speculative. To be fair to Teo, her book does not pretend to offer comprehensive solutions to the problems and I may be seen as attacking a straw woman here. In fact, however, my intention is not to criticise Teo at all, whose main task in the book was after all merely to give an analysis of the problem. Instead, I merely wish to point out some crucial difficulties in responding to these two questions. Let’s think about the two questions in turn: 

    1. If we cast off the old narrative of meritocracy, what is the new narrative that we are going to tell ourselves? 

With regards to this first question, Teo seems to suggest two different approaches. (1) At times, Teo talks as if the problem is the entire system of meritocracy, the idea that worth is accrued to persons based on some action or virtue they have. (2) At other times she speaks as though it is not meritocracy that is the problem but the specific form of meritocracy that is present in Singapore. In these passages, she says the problem is that some forms of human virtue (especially those displayed by the those from poorer backgrounds) are not “legible” within the current meritocratic framework, suggesting that perhaps what we need is to tell another kind of meritocratic story where merit is accrued to different kinds of values or virtues other than academic or bureaucratic excellence. 

Both responses are, in my view, unsatisfactory. The first response continues to leave the question unanswered. If not meritocracy, then what? How can we have a narrative that does not have norms that privilege some qualities and so some persons over others? Besides, how are we to ex nihilo create and tell ourselves a radically different story from the one that is so deeply embedded in our culture? The second response appears more feasible, but I believe that any such alternative narrative would generate the same problems that Teo identifies. If we divert the award of merit to perhaps more ‘moral’ virtues we may essentially create a kind of moral meritocracy. Who gets to decide which kinds of qualities are the ones that are to be commended? Would it create other kinds of inequalities? How do we prevent those other inequalities from becoming oppressive? For all the talk of Singapore being a Confucian society, the idea of a moral meritocracy perhaps comes closest to Confucianism. Confucian governments after all used to provide pensions to e.g. widows who exhibited some form of great virtue in raising their family. Some may be uncomfortable with the state or even society having such a large role in rewarding this or that virtue.

It may be objected here: “It is unfair to press this worry, no one is saying that we need to decide for others what kinds of stories they want to tell, and certainly no one is suggesting that the state should have a large hand in rewarding virtue.” This is a fair criticism. Teo appears to be a liberal and if so she probably advocates the idea that each individual should be free to craft their own narrative. It is not for the state or society or academics to tell individuals what sort of story they wish to tell themselves. However, the worry still remains. If individuals decide to cast off the old national narrative, who is to say that the new narrative that they tell themselves is not without defect or that it does not perpetuate oppression? Furthermore, as Teo herself has pointed out, individuals cannot simply tell themselves a different story in defiance of the overwhelming social structures that operate around a different narrative. This therefore brings us to the second question:

    1. How do we create the new community that embodies an alternate narrative?

Teo seems to indicate that this should happen primarily by state reform and individual action. Educational/social institutions need to become more progressive and individuals need to play their part to tell a different story to themselves and to treat those around them differently. She closes the book by (somewhat cryptically) calling on Singaporeans to “refuse” (p. 269.) to accept the status quo but to be a part of the ongoing national conversation. 

Such reform is crucial and not to be sniffed at. However, there are general problems with relying on such reform. The first of which is that the effect of such reform is usually limited. Unless individual mindsets can be changed, institutional reform cannot alter the narratives or ways of life of citizens. For example, if we decide to reduce emphasis on academic excellence and choose to reward students for more holistic achievement instead, ‘kiasu’ parents can always decide to divert their tuition money to all sorts of other enrichment activities that would prepare their children for whatever alternative quality the system chooses to reward. Second and relatedly, the ability of the state to make more drastic reform is limited by individuals who continue to imbibe the old narrative of meritocracy. Having been the national narrative for so long, citizens have become invested not only in the story of meritocracy but in its institutional embodiment. They have learned to play the game by those rules and would resent having them changed. Consider the balancing act the government has needed to play as it put out the new housing policy of buying back old and maturing estates. In the interest of greater equality and intergenerational justice, it may be said that the government should not buy back the expiring leases so that wealth would be re-distributed. However, having bought into the narrative that a HDB flat is one’s hard earned property, a narrative which the government itself has tried to perpetuate, Singaporeans would be loath to allow their leases to simply expire into dust.

There is chicken and egg problem here. For there to be drastic institutional reform, individuals must be willing to forsake their investment in the previous narrative. At the same time, until such drastic reform is complete, the costs that individuals would have to pay are prohibitively high. Teo refers to the example of Nikole Hannah-Jones, a journalist who decided to place her daughter in an American public school although she had the means to place her in a reputably better school. (p. 121.) Would any Singaporean take a similar risk? Not many. In fact, most Singaporeans often try to use any means possible to get their children into the better brand-name schools. Recently, I’ve heard that one method many have tried if they are unable to get their child into a brand-name school at Primary one is to ask for a school transfer the next year. I’m told that this fairly popular method can be effective at achieving the desired results.

The problem here is related to those that commentators have raised regarding the problem of being ‘woke’. David Brooks, for example, notes that “The problem with wokeness is that it doesn’t inspire action; it freezes it.” (See his article: Teo notes that even among her acquaintances, such a sentiment is common. (See p. 13.) When one is aware of the massive structural problems we face and how little the individual can do, one starts to feel like a small cog in a large machine.

Telling a New Story

What then should Step 2 be? Here is my response in brief. The alternative narrative is the gospel narrative. The gospel narrative is not without norms, but it is one that is undergirded by grace. The gracious nature of this narrative avoids the problems of meritocracy, creating a community where “the first shall be last and the last first” (e.g. Mark 10:31). The community that embodies this relationship is primarily the relationship between the Christian God and believers, which is mediated by the new kinds of relationships Christians have among themselves. This new community which exists outside the realm of the state can avoid the problems related to state action. In the next post I will elaborate on this alternative in more detail.

Under the Aspect of Eternity

For thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit” (Isaiah 57:15)

The View from Nowhere

In the book, ‘The View from Nowhere’, Thomas Nagel explores the tension between what the subjective point of view and the absolutely objective point of view (the titular ‘view from nowhere’). The subjective point of view is the point of view wherein we encounter the world as it appears to us, awash with emotions and the ordinary things we value, lust, love, hate, the tragic, mundane and beautiful moments of life. On the other hand, we can also occupy a perspective that stands apart from our particular experiences. Intellectual progress is possible because somehow human persons are able to stand apart from their own particular position to consider things from an objective perspective. As we come to abstract from our point of view, we arrive at a more objective picture of the world. For example, as we step back from our particular desires and more sectarian values we see that we ought to pursue the good of others as well; and of course the scientific picture is the paradigm of a picture that is supposed to be independent of any particular perspective. The cosmological, quantum etc. laws purport to describe ultimate reality independent of any particular viewer. Such a view point is one that most philosophers aspire towards, to see things in a sense from the perspective of God, or as Spinoza put it, sub specie aeternitatis; under the aspect of eternity.

Nagel, however, notes that the objective view will sometimes conflict and exist in tension with the subjective view. Of course, this is part of the deal — we enter the objective view so as to discern which parts in the subjective view are really appearances and not to be taken as seriously as they were. But the danger is there. A crucial and fascinating area where this arises is with regards to the value of our individual life-experiences and the meaning of life and death. Seen from a point of view whereby our own individual experiences are but one among many and where we are just a small spatio-temporally extended blip in the entire universe, the things that seem so important to us become pathetic, trivial and, as Camus claimed, absurd. Nagel’s task in his book is to describe the tension and make suggestions on how the two views are to be reconciled in various areas of philosophical interest.

The One who Dwells in Eternity

In this essay, I’m not so much interested in Nagel’s task as I am to explore a related worry present in the Christian view of God. Christians affirm God as transcendent, and far above time and space; as the opening quote notes, God “inhabits eternity”. As understood by most traditional theologians, God’s eternality is understood to refer to the fact that he stands outside of time, and his perception of temporal events is one that is as of all temporal directions at once. All of past, present and future are in a sense immediately present to him. As Peter notes, “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” (2 Peter 3:8). Consideration of God’s eternality and his general transcendence often produces tension and perhaps a kind of emotional dissonance at times with the fact that God is supposed to be a loving Father who tenderly cares for his children. This, in some part, lies behind the resistance to accepting the doctrine of the sovereignty of God: that God ultimately stands in charge of all events and works them all for his purposes. If such is God, high above all human temporal events, it seems impossible or at least emotionally incomprehensible to fathom that he would also be a loving God.

To attempt a full discussion of this is not within the scope of this essay. What I am keen to do instead is to explore the eternality of God and his perception of events under the aspect of eternity to see how it may be reconciled with his tender care and concern for individual persons. To clarify, I am not trying to reconcile the two philosophically. In fact it seems that there is no strictly logical tension between the two. Unashamedly, as a Christian, I begin from the starting point that both can indeed be reconciled — indeed there is none insofar as the biblical authors are concerned. Consider the opening verses again: God both dwells in the high and holy place but also with the contrite and lowly in spirit. He is far and near. But, at least for myself at times, the emotional dissonance persists. I thus attempt a kind of emotional reconciliation here. I want to present the reconciliation as not just possible, but plausible, attractive and indeed sublime. The starting point of my reflection is the recent and deeply beautiful movie, ‘Arrival’. (If you haven’t watched the movie, don’t spoil yourself, go watch the movie now!)

Eternal Perception

In ‘Arrival’, aliens arrive on earth in order to present humanity with a gift. This gift happens to be the very language of the aliens, which they teach Linguistics professor Louise Banks that she may instruct the rest of mankind. The written language of the aliens, which Banks studies and finally decodes, has a free word order such that its content is not ordered sequentially but somehow presented simultaneously in writing. By a fairly ludicrous extrapolation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (essentially the idea that language structures thought), Banks somehow begins to perceive reality in the way these aliens do: all temporal directions are in a way arrayed before her and she begins to view things under the aspect of eternity.

The narrative of Banks’ interaction with the aliens is constantly interjected by scenes of her interaction with a young girl; at times playing with her, going through mundane events, and at other times we see scenes of the girl in the hospital, hooked up to life support and on her death bed. These scenes are present from the beginning of the film and initially appear to be flashbacks of Banks’ life. In fact, they are flash-forwards — they show us scenes from Banks’ future life, where she will marry and have a daughter who will die a painful death at a young age. The movie in a sense affords us a glimpse of what it would look like to perceive as the aliens and later Banks herself perceives temporal events. From the point of view where the present appears as an arbitrary point in time, where the fleetingness and tragedy of human life is made salient, how does the world look? As she gazes on the imminent and ever immanent heartbreak, the viewer is struck both by the preciousness of the little moments and even more by the brokenness of the coming tragedy. Human events are not diminished, instead they intensify in weight from this point of view. Banks will eventually choose to affirm and willingly make the predestined choice to have a daughter, leading to the fated and foreseen events.

The ability to take such a perspective should not be totally foreign to us, nor the experience of being at once aware that all things are fleeting and yet heartbreakingly precious. Does not the Preacher in Ecclesiastes say that God has put eternity into the heart of man? I suggest that anyone who wishes to experience this open their old cupboards and array their old photos before them. This is precisely what I found a few months back as I trudged through my old cupboards to find some old photos to compile into an album as a birthday gift for my late grandfather. It was as if I could now see my present experience as but one among many. The fact that I was occupying this moment as present became arbitrary. Some things did vanish in importance: the ridiculous cares of getting ahead in life, or the small things I could be irritated with. But it was not as though life became sterile and meaningless, instead I now saw all of those moments as deeply precious and charged with importance. Some things receded into trivilaity, but others magnified in significance. The ridiculous smiles on all of our faces in those photographs, which must have seemed a trifle then, now appeared to me as with an astonishing charm.

God’s Eye View

Perhaps such is the perspective of God. At once he views all things, but not in a way that is distant from them. Instead, all things are immediate and intimate. From this perspective, some things which seem important from our limited perspectives become trivial — to him, the “nations are like a drop from a bucket” (Isaiah 40:15). And yet what may appear small becomes infinitely more precious — a cheeky smile, the love between a husband and wife, the out-of-tune singing in church — and others no doubt infinitely more tragic — death, sickness, sin. Perhaps from God’s perspective he views the world not as one sees it as from a high tower or from a satellite gazing at the earth, with all its multifarious features blurred into a blue daze. Instead all things are somehow immediate, all things are the more dear to him.

Let me close by thinking again about Nagel’s project of reconciling the subjective and objective views. His book provides thoughtful explorations of various  themes, some of which Christians can learn from but one which we must ultimately reject as deficient. After all, one may ask, in a non-theistic framework, how are we certain that the objective and subjective views can be reconciled? How can we be so confident that when we obtain a completely objective picture of the world, when we abstract away from all particularity, that there are still irreducibly subjective and personal aspects of the world which are not mere appearances. But if Christianity is true, there is a good reason why even from the most objective perspective, individual persons and the small details of our lives are still charged with importance. After all, if God is the true foundation of reality, then it is simply coherent for the ultimate point of view to be impersonal. Personality is the reality behind the seeming impersonality of the universe, not the other way round. To attempt to abstract away all personality and perspective from our objective view of the universe is not only impossible but wrongheaded.

It is not easy to maintain such a perspective of ourselves and our lives sub specie aeternitatis: it takes not a little for us to be sucked from the beauty and tragedy of life to live for things that from the perspective of eternity are truly lame: being irritated, achieving worldly goals, being anxious about a myriad of trite things and so on. Again and again we must seek the face of God and ask him to “teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12) We must view ourselves under the aspect of eternity. We must see from the perspective of one who stands in a manner disengaged from all particular things, only that we may engage the world more deeply and truly.








This piece dedicated to the memory of my late grandfather, 29/7/2017.

Nature and Artifice in Structure

[This is a continuation of the last post ‘Experiencing Function’. I do welcome comments and responses on what I’ve written, especially since many of those who usually read what I write actually study music or are practitioners.]

In the last post, I suggested that the experience of function in music is the experience of live possibilities as governed by a set of rules, the rules of harmony. I promised to discuss two further related questions, namely: (1) How do these rules make the possibilities salient to us? and (2) What is the status of these rules: are they merely formal constructs or are they somehow natural or innate? I then try to extend some of these findings to two other areas: logic and narrativity.

Convention in Structure

Strictly speaking, the rules of the harmony are but a set of rules, a formal structure: they dictate to us the function of the various notes and chords. How does a formal structure enliven certain possibilities for us? There is a fairly straightforward way in which this is possible — this is by actually learning the structure deliberately or by some kind of social pressure. Consider the rules of chess. Each of the pieces can only move in certain ways, the knight moves in an L-shape, the bishop moves diagonally and so on. If I observe a game of chess before I learn the rules the game would make no sense to me. Without understanding the legitimate moves, I would not understand why the pawn may not simply go off and knock the king off his rocker. It is only as I learn the rules of the game, deliberately or gradually by observing others, that I observe the game as a series of live possibilities. Only certain moves are legitimate, are ‘live’. A game would be played beautifully by a player only if he manages to artfully navigate his pieces according to the formal rules.

Using chess as an example would seem to suggest that in some sense the rules of harmony are conventional. I think this is true to some extent. Consider another larger scale formal structure in music that is somewhat based on the rules of harmony, the fabled sonata form. The sonata form governs not micro chord progressions but the various parts of certain pieces of music — it is somewhat based on the rules of harmony, however, specifically on the primacy of the tonic. (Very roughly, a sonata form always begins and ends in the initial key, throughout the music passes through other keys and passes through an stormy section known as the development where both harmony and melody are developed and extended in various ways, with the harmony tensely anticipating the return of the initial key. Think of it as some kind of musical home-coming story) The sonata form must be learnt in order to be appreciated — without it, the sonata would barely make any cohesive sense, or would be enjoyed as simply discrete sections of music. In fact, the very genius of many composers lies not in their adherence but in their transcendence of the sonata form — presupposing it but subverting it in various ways to electrifying psychological effect. This effect, however, is only felt by the discerning listener, one who has been led by convention to expect certain possibilities and is pleasantly surprised to find them subverted. This conventionality is more evident in the larger formal structure than in the rules of harmony itself, though I believe it is also present there to some degree.

[I digress here and have to add: here is wherein I believe the very definition of art music and pop music lie. Art music always has a form, but the genius of composers lie in their both presupposing and transcending the form at the same time. To simply re-use the form would be lazy, creating some pastiche as most of popular music does. To cast off form completely would result in mere noise: like one who plays chess and then decides that the pawn can move like a queen or that the game can continue when the king is dead. Some contemporary music falls into this category, some others do something more interesting: they contrive a new formal structure and play around in it, I discuss this possibility in a bit.]

The Experience of Natural Structures

Nonetheless, this cannot be the entire picture. There is a sense in which the formal structure is not merely learned but in some sense discovered. The rules of harmony are not laid down completely arbitrarily as say the rules of chess or checkers are. Instead, they purport to describe something we naturally or instinctively experience. Presumably, even before the rules of harmony were formalised, people already had a natural sense of harmony, they felt that certain notes in certain contexts tended to go well together resulting in the formalisation of various modes and scales. Furthermore, the specific kind of experience generated in the experience of function is a lot more rich than that of one who anticipates a myriad of possibilities of chess moves, they are imbued, to borrow a visual metaphor, with a number of colours. It is not merely that the dominant chord anticipates the tonic, but that this movement or anticipation generates a specific phenomenological experience, one that feels like a kind of closure — ditto for the various other kinds of progressions. Therefore, while it is true to say that there is some element of conventionality in music, at bottom there is a certain sense in which the rules of harmony are formalised subsequent to their being experienced as such.

Talk of the naturalness of the rules of harmony, especially as formulated by the old white men of the western classical tradition is sometimes met with accusations of western hegemony. There may be some truth to this suggestion — I concede that that there is some conventionality in play here. Yet I think it would be fantastic to suggest that the entire system is an artifice. Even in other musical traditions (of which I have only a passing acquaintance), the interplay between the tonic and dominant notes in a mode is still a prominent feature. An fruitful consideration here would be to examine formal musical structures that are really invented artifices. One finds such a trend in much of modern music: Schoenberg is such a case. He turns his back on the normal harmonic structure of the classical tradition, but interestingly he does not cast structure off completely; instead, he contrives a new one — what is called the 12-tone technique or serialism. I don’t pretend to understand or appreciate the system fully, but in each iteration of the system there are certain rules that govern the music. Have a listen to one such example below:

What strikes the untrained listener is probably how confusing it all sounds. One does not know what to expect and the notes that come out seem random. They are not in fact random but are the product of following a different set of rules from the ones which we are used to. This suggests that the expectations are in some sense unnatural — they are not the ones we are naturally led to expect.

Now, it might be suggested that the reason why it sounds in this manner despite there being a structure could be due to the fact that unlike the classical rules of harmony, Schoenberg’s system has not yet achieved the privilege of having hegemonic status. If one is sufficiently familiar with its rules and after it has been more widely adopted, perhaps we would come to experience its possibilities as live in the same manner we do the usual rules of harmony. Perhaps, according to the possibly apocryphal quote of Schoenberg, “milkmen would whistle his tunes”.

Let me suggest three responses to this. Firstly, I think there is some truth to the fact that more acquaintance with Schoenberg’s system would allow one to better experience his music. I have been in concerts with more careful listeners who are able to discern the structure and intentions of such esoteric composers. Perhaps the learned and discerning listener experiencing this is like one who experiences live possibilities in a game of chess after having mastered the rules — the moves are now live to him because they have been learned. Secondly, despite this, I do think that there is a manifest difference in the experience of the live possibilities as a result of learning purely formal rules and the corresponding experience when the possibilities are given naturally. The natural possibilities, in the first place, do not have to be learnt — and they carry with them distinct phenomenological qualities, the closure, anticipation etc. that I have been gesturing at. The experience or pleasure that one derives from experiencing the learned possibilities might feel more ‘intellectual’, for lack of a better word. This might suggest why Schoenberg’s prediction about the milkmen have yet to come true.

Thirdly, while I do think that there is a natural innate set of possibilities, I do not think that they necessarily have been completely represented in our current systems of harmony, not least those expressed in the western tradition. There might be new harmonic possibilities that are naturally coherent to us but that we have yet to formulate and composers may be able to grasp these somewhat intuitively. Indeed in Schoenberg’s music, one sometimes catches a whisk of such moments when the music seems to convey something — perhaps it is him as a composer intuitively mapping out some natural harmonic possibility while studiously avoiding some of the hackneyed ones. This is purely speculative of course, but the diversity of harmonic systems in various cultures ought give us some humility into thinking that the set of harmonic rules formulated in the West represent the only natural set.

Dependence and Transcendence

Let me step outside this seemingly neutral analysis of the issue here and make a normative suggestion that I have hinted at already. I believe that the task of the artist is to work within the natural set of possibilities and to transcend them at the same time. This calls for some humility — to step completely outside the natural set of possibilities would result in utter cacophony, mere sound. Nonetheless, while we should not too quickly cast off the ancient harmonic forms, it calls for boldness in that we must not assume that all the harmonic possibilities have been discovered or that artists should simply parrot the music of old. And I mention this again, but art must both presuppose and transcend its form, it must be intelligible and fresh, it must be ancient and new. Thus, there must be room for some sort of artifice in art — and yet the artifice must be in some ways rooted in nature. The sonata form for example, is somewhat based on the harmonic system; it is possible that the larger forms created by other composers may be rooted in natural possibilities as well, grasped somewhat intuitively. A lot more can be said here, and indeed many more qualifications need to be made, but I hope the general direction is sufficiently clear.

There is therefore an interesting interplay between nature and artifice in creating art. And in some ways the very task reflects our ontological status before God: as a created being, we are dependent on him and the natural possibilities he offers us — they are rich and wonderful, to step outside them is a kind of hubris. And yet as image bearers of God, we mimic in a dependent way his creative acts: as he creates new things, so do we out of the materials that he has offered us — such is our task, we must not shirk it or be lazy. We must sing to God ancient truths in a new song. (Psalm 33, 96 et. al.)

Some Extensions: Logic and Narrativity

In this last section I very briefly sketch two areas in which similar phenomenon seem to occur and in which a similar analysis might be extended. My familiarity with these topics is even more sketchy and so I dare not say much.

Firstly, the experience of logical inferences appear to be similar to music. There is a canon of logical rules in the West, the fountainhead of which is Aristotle’s syllogisms, that appear to some today as nothing but a bunch of formal rules and mere convention. And then there is a proliferation of new formal systems of para-consistent logics from the contemporary era, and some from non-western traditions. Certainly the task of logic is not the same as that of art, (on my naive view, its main task should be but aiming at the truth), but I wonder if one can, by reflecting on one’s experience of the various rules of inference, distinguish the natural rules from the merely conventional ones. When I encounter the usual logical rules and move from one proposition to another by logical inference, there is a certain phenomenological experience that I have, when I try to do the same with the non-standard logics, a more jarring experience occurs. I dare not say more.

A second area in which a fruitful connection might be made is with the area of narrativity. Let me consider this first in relation to the field of historical writing, with which I am somewhat more familiar. Historiographers such as Hayden White have noted that in writing history, historians are compelled to adopt one of various generic plot structures such as romance, comedy, tragedy, epic etc. And he notes that this structure seems to float above the facts of history, in the sense that historians can agree about the facts of the case but that they still disagree about how specifically to ‘emplot’ the case. For example, the French revolution has been variously narrated as a story of progress, of tragic decline and of comedy. The decision to make of which facts are relevant and which areas of history to focus on are all governed by the narrative structure, but the structure itself seems to be independent of the facts. Most importantly, the narrative structure provides coherence to the events, attempts to evade it by simply dictating all that has happened result in one feeling as though the historical events have not been explained.

Once again, the status of these narrative structures come into question — are they purely artificial? Were they the result of simply taking the familiar plot forms of the old myths and tales and re-using them for other purposes? Yet from where did the writers and tellers of those tales pluck out these forms in the first place? Surely, the narrative forms must firstly have been experienced before they were formalised. The way we experience history and past events, or perhaps the way we understanding them in the first place is through these structures which are somehow inherent in the way we experience the world. Furthermore the inescapability of these narrative structures parallels the fact that to step outside the natural rules of harmony in music is to lead to incomprehensibility. These are somehow natural structures that we come to experience before they are formalised. There have been narratives before there were narrativists.

Simply because a certain structure is not merely formal but natural in some sense does not yet fully answer the question about how a narrative structure is related to truth. Still, some kind of objectivity may be purchased because if we concede that the natural forms are to be privileged, it provides a heavy constraint on historical writing. Given that there are indeed a set of natural structures, we cannot simply formulate any kind of structure we want with which to explain historical events. These structures have constraints of their own, although there is some leeway on how one might emplot an event: not everything can be a tragedy or comedy, at least not in the same way. However, to answer the question about the relation of historical narrative to truth or historical reality is a far more difficult task.

Here is my intuition of a Christian response to the problem: given that God stands as the ontological ground of the world and that God is personal, it is possible that he understands historical events in a narrative fashion as well. A narrative is true or objective insofar as it corresponds to the narrative that God experiences or fashions in the world. The variety of possible emplotments is no barrier to this formulation: there is no reason why God should not experience or fashion events such that they could be understood under various narrative frameworks. The history of salvation (or if you like, Heilsgeschichte) in fact is understood under various narrative forms in Scripture, it has been described variously as a romance (the pursuit of God’s people), epic (the victory of the serpent-crusher, the coming of the kingdom of God) and perhaps even comedy (John Frame mentions this in connection to Psalm 2:4, I’m half convinced).

I’m sure more connections can be made with narrativity as it is found in literary texts, though I am less familiar with this. The proliferation of new narrative forms in literature mirrors the proliferation of new harmonic forms in music: both the result of a studious avoidance of the ancient forms. Some of these new forms may in fact reflect natural experiences that the ancient systems may have yet formalised: the streams-of-consciousness style of writing may fall into this category. Yet others who are far more experimental or who try to cast off narrative structure completely again fall into incomprehensibility. Once again there is a similar interplay between nature and artifice.

Experiencing Function

[This was initially conceived as a fun post for me to write down my amateurish quasi-psychological/phenomenological musings. Somehow my thoughts became more serious as I continued write to the extent that it seems best to extend my thinking into two posts. Note that some of what is written may require some musical background. Also, I often post my entire writing on Facebook for people who find clicking on links a tiresome task (like myself) — I am not doing that this time because there are pictures and embedded audio which won’t appear on Facebook.]

What I wish to do in this post and the next is to put down some of my thoughts on the experience of music — it’s really an effort to put down some reflections that I have had for quite a while. Much of what I mention may appear painfully obvious to anyone who has had some musical training. Yet I think a closer introspection into our experience of music will prove fruitful in elucidating an interesting aspect of such experience. Specifically, I want to examine how we experience function in music and suggest that the phenomena of function is not in fact a sound. In other words we do not strictly speaking ‘hear’ function. Following this, I want to make some speculative suggestions on how the experience of function might be explained and, I hope, fruitfully extend it to other analogous areas of experience.

Isolating the Experience

To understand what I mean by function, let me try to describe and isolate the specific phenomenology that I am thinking of. By doing so, I hope to show that the experience of function is not a auditory experience, in other words, experiencing function in music is not hearing something. What does it mean to hear something? According to prevailing scientific opinion, the experience of sound is the result of sound waves entering the ear. Depending on the wave, its frequency, amplitude, and form (I think this is the word), what we hear varies — frequency determines the pitch of the sound (whether it is high or low), amplitude its volume (whether it is loud or soft) and form its timbre (e.g. a middle C played on a piano sounds different from a middle C played on a violin). There is a parallel here with visual experience — what we see is dependent on the light waves that enter our eye. Depending on the frequency of the wave, we see variations in colours, depending on its amplitude, we see variations in intensity — a combination of the two gives us the notion of various hues of colours.

Notice, however, that in the experience of music we also experience what musicians call harmony, which is the result of a progression of a cluster of notes (a chord). There are certain rules guiding this progression, some of which are tastefully transgressed at times but often still presupposed. These are the rules of musical harmony. In this framework, each piece of music revolves around a primary note, known as the tonic (or pitch-centre) and will be governed by a certain mode (thus we say that a piece is in A major, C minor and so on) — every note and chord will have a specific function once the tonic and mode are determined (i.e. its key). Note that the function of each note is not a product of its corresponding sound wave (a C still sounds like a C in whatever context) but is determined by its context, namely the key.

So far, this sounds like simply restating in a complex manner what everyone has learnt in Grade 5 theory. Yet I think this experience is actually fairly mysterious. One notices the strangeness when one reflects on the context-dependence on this phenomenon. In other words, the fact that the harmony or function that we experience of the same notes change when its harmonic context changes. Now, that certain experiences are context-dependent is nothing particularly novel. Our visual experience is also commonly susceptible to context dependence — take the famous checker shadow illusion as seen below. The two squares, A and B, are in fact of the same shade of grey, but the context has altered our perception of the shade such that one appears lighter than the other. (google ‘wiki checker shadow’ to see proof that they are indeed the same shade) However, consider what exactly the context alters in our experience of the two squares: it is the very hue or shade of the colour itself i.e. the visual experience, the very sight of the squares. However, the alteration of our experience of the same note or chord in a different context is emphatically not an alteration of the auditory experience — we still experience the exact same pitch, timbre, volume (assuming the latter two are kept constant) — something else, something that isn’t a sound, changes.


Let me say a bit more to isolate this experience for you. This part will require some acquaintance with music. Think about the C Major chord (the notes C, E, G played simultaneously). In the key of C major, this chord is the tonic chord, whereas in the key of F major, it is the dominant chord. The chord sounds the same in both situations, and yet is experienced differently: the appearance of the C major chord in the C major key is experienced (especially at the end of a perfect cadence) with some kind of closure to it or perhaps stability (one struggles to describe such things in words), in the F major key however, the chord is experienced as causing some tension or as generating anticipation. However, especially if you have perfect pitch, you will be able to tell that they are the same old notes.

Consider a different example: the experience of melodic intervals. (This relates more to the context dependence in the experience of specific notes rather than chords). In the key of B major, the notes B and D# are described as in the interval of a major third, whereas in the key of C minor, the same notes, B and Eb (enharmonic of D#, i.e. the same note on the keyboard or whatever) are described as in the interval of a diminished 4th. Few actually know that the change in the description of the intervals are really to mark a change in function. The interval in the context of B major will sound pleasant, whereas the very same interval in the context of C minor will sound gaping and jarring. If you don’t believe me, try it out yourself: play a B major scale (five sharps in case you forgot) and then play B followed by D# and then play a C minor scale (three flats) followed by the same notes. (cf. Beethoven’s last sonata, first movement, where I got the example from). [Alternatively, play the example below. The relevant notes are the last two notes of each phrase, the rest help to set the context, B major first and then C minor] Notice that the two notes sound the same, you should be able to recognise this if you follow the example, but at the same time they are experienced very differently.


Function as the Experience of Live Possibilities

Hopefully I have helped you to locate what exactly I mean by the experience of function and have convinced you that it is not heard (it does not correspond to auditory experience, since the notes or chords are heard as having the same pitch etc.) but somehow experienced. What then is this experience? Here is my suggestion as to what that experience is: the experience of function is in some sense the experience of a set of live possibilities.

What do I mean by live possibilities here? Let me take a step back and talk about live possibilities in general. [The thought here is drawn from McCulloch’s Using Sartre pp. 35-36 though with some modification.] What does it mean to say that some x is possible? There are many senses of possibility at play. Of the broadest scope is perhaps logical possibility, where some x is logically possible as long as it is not a contradiction. And so consider the scenario where I will soon be suddenly transported to the moon and find that there is a nice summer resort there — the scenario is fantastic, but there is nothing logically inconsistent with this scenario, it is logically possible. There is also epistemic possibility, where some scenario x is epistemically possible if it is consistent with what I currently know — the above scenario would be epistemically impossible in this case. But neither of these are relevant here, what we want is live possibility. But what is it for some possibility x to be a live possibility? It is hard to describe, but that possibility x must be a salient possibility for me. This is not the same as epistemic possibility — there could be a range of possibilities that are consistent with what I know but only a number of them could be salient to me. For example, say I wake up one day and find that my parents are not in their room. It may well be consistent with what I know, after considering all the evidence I have, that they may have been kidnaped, but this is not a possibility salient to me. What is salient is the possibility that they left early and are already out etc. This is a live possibility for me.

What determines what the live possibilities are? Perhaps desire or expectation or something else, whatever makes those possibilities salient. What about our musical case? Here I suggest that the salient possibilities are in fact determined by its musical context, namely its pitch-centre and mode, i.e. its key. Each key has a formal structure (the rules of harmony) that mark out the permissible moves that are available after each note or chord, the harmony can only resolve in certain ways and only certain notes are made available. Of course, this formal structure is often subverted, but even in its subversion the very structure is still presupposed. My proposal is thus that what one experiences when one experiences function is in some sense the spectre of live possibilities as governed by the rules of harmony.

Our exploration might still feel somewhat incomplete at the stage. Given that the experience of function is the experience of live possibilities as governed by a set of rules, the rules of harmony, further questions arise. How do these rules make the possibilities salient to us? What exactly are these rules: are they merely formal constructs or are they somehow natural or innate? I think these two questions are related, in a subsequent post, I provide some speculation regarding these questions and try to extend it to other areas of thought.

Thoughts on ‘The Color Purple’; God and Sexual Violence

Being in New York over the fall break and the weekend, I decided to go watch a couple of musicals. And so, just a couple of days ago I had the privilege of watching ‘The Color Purple’. I wanted to watch a more ‘serious’ musical as the other musical that I watched, Cirque du Soliel’s ‘Paramour’, was decidedly frivolous, though I too had a good time with that. I had expected the musical to be artsy, thought provoking and proper, something along the lines of Les Mis and indeed it was no less than that — that cast was superb and the singing was both virtuosic and moving, though instead of the usual classical virtuosity, we were treated to the rhythmic and more improvisatory tunes of the characteristically black style. Yet the story both disturbed and deeply affected me, and the following are my thoughts following the show.

God and Sexual Violence?

The musical is set in the American South during the post-civil war era and begins with a seemingly pastoral scene. Two black teen girls singing a nursery rhyme and playing a game. It is not long, however, before we find out that one of them, the lead Celie, is pregnant with her step-father’s child. This is already her second one by him and he gives them away as soon as they are born. Following this, she is sold of by her step father to marry a man who desires her sister instead — being persuaded when her step-father offers to give him their old cow along with her. Her new husbands finds her downright ugly and despises and practically enslaves her. Along the way, she meets and forms a romantic friendship with her husband’s mistress, the singer Shug Avery, who loves and sees her inner beauty and who teaches her to stand up to the abusive men in her life. The story thus traces Celie’s transformation from an abused and domesticated woman to independence and self-confidence.

God echoes throughout the entire musical as an imperceptible interlocutor. Celie’s water breaks in the midst of a Sunday service and superimposed onto her delivery is the rest of the congregation singing, in the style of black gospel music, a song titled ‘God works in mysterious ways’. Celie prays often in the beginning of the film, asking for deliverance from her conditions, and turns to hate and blame toward God after believing her sister dead. The sexual violence and brokenness in the film disturbed me, and I found myself uncomfortable with the accusations Celie raised against God — is our God really compatible with the suffering of this world? The sorrow of death I have seen, but can I even fathom the pain of being raped by one’s stepfather or to be abused and enslaved by one’s own spouse?

Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar

But whenever I start to have doubts about God when I see something in this world, it is probably because I have discreetly stuffed in my own ideas and fantasies, my own unbiblical presuppositions into thinking about God. As I consider again the biblical story, I find not dissonance with what I saw on the musical but a sense of familiarity. One need look further than the book of Genesis to realise that the patriarchs, the very fathers of Israel, had a bunch of totally [sexually] screwed up families. Consider the mess of Jacob’s family, he had two wives, one of whom he considered downright ugly and married after being duped by his father-in-law. This woman, Leah, would afterward give birth to Judah, from whose descendants the very Christ would come. And yet disturbingly again, his line is perpetuated after his daughter-in-law is widowed, sexually abused by Judah’s other sons (who are struck down soon by God in judgment) and then she tricks Judah into thinking she is a prostitute so that she might bear his children. What a mess! And from thus was the line in which Jesus Christ was to be born! In case anyone thinks this is some mistake, Matthew deliberately includes the names of five women in his selective genealogy of Jesus, of them, three are women of disrepute: one is Tamar, mentioned above, another is a prostitute and the last is an adulterer. God is not far from the brokenness of the world, he is in the midst of it.

Where then does this dissonance come from? I ask this not from Celie’s perspective from my own and on behalf of many comfortable men and women like me who are quick to point the finger at God. Have we been insidiously forming our own ideas of God instead of seeing him as he reveals himself in his Word? Often I see fellow christians quoting Lamentations 3:22-23; “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” The verse usually serves as the caption of a beautiful sunrise or sunset. Yet Lamentations mainly recounts the brutal suffering of Israel, and just two chapters later at the close of the book, Jeremiah would write:

Women are raped in Zion,
young women in the towns of Judah.
Princes are hung up by their hands;
no respect is shown to the elders.
Young men are compelled to grind at the mill,
and boys stagger under loads of wood.
The old men have left the city gate,
the young men their music.
The joy of our hearts has ceased;
our dancing has been turned to mourning.
(Lamentations 5:11-15 ESV)

Jeremiah wrote that very verse in the midst of violence and pain. Is my idea of God big enough to contain this? Have I closed one eye to the immense suffering recorded in the bible? The pain and shame that marks it and indeed is at the heart of the entire religion itself — the cross? If suffering is at the heart of the religion, why am I so surprised when I encounter it? I say this feeling the rebuke myself.

The Color Purple

Now the musical is hardly Christian, there are elements of lesbianism, and secular self-help seems to be at the heart of the story. I make no comment on those here, yet the gospel and grace rings also throughout the musical. Shug speaks to Celie after she learns of her sister’s death and berates her for blaming God for all her misfortune. She lists a number of ordinary graces in the world and reminds Celie of them: a blade of corn, a honeybee, a waterfall. And she mentions a remark from which the title of the musical is derived:

“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”

The world is awash with the evidence of the grace of God even in the midst of its pain and futility. Why don’t we have eyes to see it?

It never ceases to amaze me that it is the norm in many places for Christians to form the less privileged class of society. I have seen it firsthand in Myanmar, where it is not the main Burma tribe but the smaller minority tribes who are majority Christian. Something similar is true when one thinks of the Dalits in India. Many of the blacks who were freed after the civil war were deeply religious — I was moved when I read recently in an autobiography of Booker T. Washington, a black leader, that many of the older generation resolved to learn to read, that they might be able to read the bible before they die. This puts to shame my at times sloppy attitude toward bible reading. Why do such simple arguments from the grace of nature move them, arguments which we sophisticates would scoff as simplistic and uninformed? Perhaps in their pain they see something which we fail to. I recall in my previous study of the book of Exodus how the commentator would mention that the freed blacks found an especial resonance with this book, having understood the pain of long slavery themselves. Open our eyes, O Lord.

I wonder, as I write this, if anyone has been hurt by sexual violence and reading this. I pretend not to understand the pain or the shame or pretend that I have any easy, one-trick answers to these things. If such answers were available the book of Job would not be 42 chapters long and so darn difficult to understand. I have nothing. I have written this for my own benefit and for those like me who have been clouded by the comfort of their lives and so fail to grasp and understand the sublime sovereignty of the God who was broken for our sins. And yet, I know one who does understand, who has dwelled among a broken humanity and dwells among them still. So I wonder if we might consider together, as Shug asked Celie in the titular song,

“The colour purple, where do it come from?”

“I am Reaching, but I Fall”

Earlier last week, I attended a performance of Les Misérables at the Esplanade — it was really enjoyable. I love the story and the music is great. But since this was probably the third or so time I watched the musical, I had the chance to take a step back to undergo deeper reflection on the structure and themes of the musical. I am no musical or literary expert (haven’t read the book, apologies to the purists), but I noticed a single running thread across the musical during this re-watching that I wish to reflect on in this post. It is difficult to provide a succinct summary of this theme, but provisionally let’s call it the tension between idealism and realism (both used in the ordinary, non-philosophical sense).

I noticed this thread as I watched the last scene where we see both Eponine and Fantine as they lead Valjean to heaven. It puzzled me to see Eponine there along with Fantine, since, well Valjean barely knew her. But as I reflected on the entire musical, I discerned some kind of structural parallel between Fantine and Eponine at the beginning and the ending of the first act. Both of their main songs as well as their stories reflect a similar theme — one of the stark contrast between the intensity and tenderness of their idealistic hopes and dreams, almost to the point of delusion, as well as the indifferent and uncaring realism expressed in their circumstances.

Fantine expresses her longing and hope for the bygone days as well as the darkness of her present situation in her song ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ before she sells herself into prostitution, loses her innocence to a random man and is violently beaten:

“I dreamed a dream in time gone by
When hope was high
And life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die
I dreamed that God would be forgiving …

I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living
So different now, from what it seemed
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed”

Eponine expresses a similar sentiment in her song, “On my own”, as she describes her impossible longings for Marius’ affections and her own pathetic comfort in pretending that he is with her. Soon after, she will die in Marius’ arms trying to protect him, her feelings ultimately unrequited;

“On my own, Pretending he’s beside me
All alone, I walk with him ’til morning
Without him, I feel his arms around me
And when I lose my way I close my eyes
And he has found me …

I love him, But every day I’m learning
All my life, I’ve only been pretending
Without me, His world will go on turning
A world that’s full of happiness
That I have never known”

This theme surfaces elsewhere in the musical — consider the revolutionaries, their high idealism as they hope to throw off the monarchy and establish a fair republic, and yet the unmitigated brutality of their eventual deaths. Valjean’s life expresses this as well, his hope at a better life and yet the crushing circumstances he ultimately finds himself in; even Javert’s life, to a lesser extent, demonstrates the dissonance between a man’s idea of the world and yet the world’s painfully subverting reality. A pivotal line that they both sing poignantly highlights this theme; Valjean sings it in the beginning of the musical as he wrestles with his wretchedness and the grace shown to him and Javert at the end as he too wrestles with the mercy shown to him by Valjean:

“I am reaching, but I fall.”

Realism and Idealism

There is something about this tension that resonated deep within me; it had an uncanny ring of truth. Art succeeds when it transcends reality in order to truly represent and communicate it, and these two themes are as true in our day as ever.

Let’s take the unrelenting realism represented in the film first. Surely our world is not much different from that depicted in the musical. Reports of terrorist killings fill the papers nowadays on a daily basis and I’m sure that closer to ourselves, we know of the random, perplexing, and sometimes absurd tragedies that befall those around us. A desperately broken family, a friend lost in his youth and an old man having to amputate his leg because of a car accident. The world resists formulation into neat, nice categories; it is inscrutable and indifferent to our hopes and dreams, to our conceptions of justice (think Javert) and indeed to the very demands of justice.  J.I. Packer, in his classic ‘Knowing God’, speaks of the ‘wisdom’ of the Book of Ecclesiastes in this manner:

“Look (says the preacher) at the sort of world we live in … You see life’s background set by aimlessly recurring cycles in nature. You see its shape fixed by times and circumstances over which we have no control. You see death coming to everyone sooner or later, but coming haphazard; its coming bears no relation to whether it is deserved. Humans die like beasts, good ones like bad, wise ones like fools… Seeing all this, you realise that God’s ordering of events in inscrutable; much as you want to make it out, you cannot do so.”

What of the similarly unrelenting idealism the musical expresses? That too speaks deeply to the human soul. I have written elsewhere of the strange glory in the strivings of man and indeed there is nothing more human than to hope. Despite the bleakness of the lyrics and their context, there is something utterly beautiful about the two songs ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ and ‘On my Own’ — a kind of tender and heartbreaking sublimity is expressed in them.

One response to this tension might be to moderate our expectations. Perhaps we should simply think that the world is a little less decent and cosy as we might have thought and at the same time be a bit less optimistic in our dreams. Such a response would be mistaken — we would be falsely portraying the bleak nature of the world and at the same time be betraying our dreams. No, the world is not a little less cosy than we think, it is full of sorrow and brokenness, and we shall not budge one inch from our hopes. Our pessimism must be as black as night and our optimism as bright as the sun. Chesterton expresses this artfully:

“It will be said that a rational person accepts the world as mixed of good and evil with a decent satisfaction and a decent endurance. But this is exactly the attitude which I maintain to be defective … what we need is not the cold acceptance of the world as a compromise, but some way in which we can heartily hate and heartily love it. We do not want joy and anger to neutralise each other and produce a surly contentment; we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent. We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre’s castle, to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage, to which we can return at evening.”

A Christian Pessimism and Optimism

How are we to live with this, this heartbreaking dichotomy between our deepest longings and the harsh realities that the world presents us? This Christian worldview holds the key as to the reason for both our hopes and our broken world. It tells us that this world feels broken because it is. It truly is not as it is meant to be. The naturalistic atheist can tell you that the world is unfriendly to our transcendent longings, and yet he cannot say that the world is not as it should be, for to him the world simply is. But that is false, the world is in a state in which it ought not be; it has fallen since the dawn of man, since our ancestors cast scorn on God’s love and decided to trust in themselves. This world has been cursed and it now frustrates us. Yet more, it is not merely the world but ourselves in our inward being we have fallen; we have all turned aside from God and his love and all our desperate attempts at finding meaning elsewhere is painful and disappointing. To stare in the face of this is to no doubt call for a bleak pessimism about the world and the human condition.

Yet this, in a paradoxical manner, calls us also to hope. As Chesterton (again) discovered, that the Christian worldview …

“entirely reversed the reason for optimism. And the instant the reversal was made it felt like the abrupt ease when a bone is put back in the socket. I had often called myself an optimist, to avoid the too evident blasphemy of pessimism. But all the optimism of the age had been false and disheartening for this reason, that it had always been trying to prove that we fit in to the world. The Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do NOT fit in to the world. I had tried to be happy by telling myself that man is an animal, like any other which sought its meat from God. But now I really was happy, for I had learnt that man is a monstrosity. I had been right in feeling all things as odd, for I myself was at once worse and better than all things. The optimist’s pleasure was prosaic, for it dwelt on the naturalness of everything; the Christian pleasure was poetic, for it dwelt on the unnaturalness of everything in the light of the supernatural. The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I had still felt depressed even in acquiescence. But I had heard that I was in the WRONG place, and my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring. The knowledge found out and illuminated forgotten chambers in the dark house of infancy. I knew now why grass had always seemed to me as queer as the green beard of a giant, and why I could feel homesick at home.”

Do not avert your gaze from the horrors of this world, but neither grow desensitised to the extent where you no longer grieve at them. Instead let its darkness draw you to despair of both the world and of yourself, and then look to that familiar silhouette of a man on the cross. We bear our crosses to follow him in this world, and with him both forsaking the world and yet loving and giving ourselves for it. Jesus is our hope for forgiveness and glory, and it is through him that we shall one day have the privilege to see

“a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)

Man in the Museum

A couple of days ago I visited the National Museum of Singapore. I actually meant to visit the National Gallery but was confused by the two… nonetheless a highlight there was the ‘Treasures of the World’ exhibit featuring artefacts from the British Museum. Relics were present from places spanning the entire globe, from Europe, Asia to Africa and so on. There was something about looking at millennia old artefacts that is arresting. Many of these artefacts were from cultures far removed from my own, but it seemed as if I was looking at the culture of my own forefathers; I was looking at the culture of Man.

There were certain commonalities in the objects on display; some where household items, a number were religious artefacts, there was even pornography and of course a large number of royal regalia. All reflected a still recognisable facet of man today. Why might the mere passage of time result in this universalisation of particular, otherwise ordinary, objects? I have no answer. Perhaps the everyday objects of every particular culture have always reflected the universal heritage of man, but it is only when they have been defamiliarised by the distance of a thousand years that we see them as they are.


What do these artefacts as a whole speak about Man? What first came to mind was our futility. This was evident especially as I observed many of the Royal Regalia. They were to be symbols of power, often divine or supernatural power, meant to inspire awe and terror. The objects are left limp in the museum, while their bearers themselves are gone. Man strives to leave a legacy, but their very legacy is but a testament to our vanity. Shelly notes in his famous poem about one such artefact:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Solomon himself claims:

“I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts … man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.” (Ecclesiastes 3:18-20)


And yet this cannot be all, for the very artefacts too are a testimony to the glory of Man. Many of the artefacts were beautiful — they were awash with colour and made with intricacy. There was a beautiful Chinese screen divider which depicted the four seasons and the sun and moon and a number of ritual masks that were as detailed and complex as they were terrifying. What sort of creature is this? The terror and subtlety of the artefacts surely reflect the strangeness and the glory of Man.

And I am then reminded of Lewis’ by now cliche remark:

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”

The artefacts in the museum are astounding and amazing, yet they testify not to themselves but to another more wondrous creature. Lewis calls us from Man and Culture as considered in the abstract to the people around us, and so should the artefacts in the museum lead us to see their makers afresh. The glory of civilisation is indeed the glory of man; the people around us whom we live with and hate and love — they are the more appropriate and deserving objects of our wonder than any object in the museum.

And so we are left with this odd paradox, Man the wretched accumulation of dust and Man the being of utter glory. What shall we make of this combination of our futility and yet our beauty? The bible says that we were made to reflect the very glory of God himself, and yet by choosing to turn away from the source of all life, our very existences became futile and transient. Our lives now express this duality — there is yet glory and goodness left in all of us but in the end all our strivings will be  in vain.

Behold, the Man

Another image in the Museum caught my attention — it was a painting of another kind of exhibition. A man wearing a robe and a crown of thorns was thrust before a large crowd to be put on display before them. The robe and the crown indicated that he was some sort a glorious king and yet they were clearly meant to mock him at this show trial. I lingered over this painting for a few moments before passing on. In reflection, I realise that this man represented us all — our glory and our shame mingled in a beautiful and wretched sight.

Jesus was the source of our glory, and yet he took upon himself our shame and futility that we might from thenceforth be free of it. What shall we say in response? There is no need to innovate,

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?

Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.”
(Psalm 8:3-8)

The New True Meaning of Christmas

[This isn’t really a post about philosophy, but since its the Christmas period I feel obliged to write something related. What I plan to do here is to analyse our culture’s worldview by looking at my favourite non-Christian Christmas song (‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’). Unfortunately, my training in philosophy compels me to write a short summary in the introduction to the biblical framework of idolatry that I use for completeness sake — its largely just the understanding of idolatry from the reformed tradition. I have been much helped in my understanding of this by reading “For Their Rock is not as Our Rock” by Daniel Strange. (Which is really an update and summary of the thoughts of many earlier thinkers.)]

Christmas is a time of celebration, and as a Christian what I celebrate is the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who came into our broken world to identify with sinners and ultimately to die for their sin. But everyone celebrates during Christmas, and clearly not everyone is a Christian, so it begs the question: what exactly are they celebrating? Some Christians may immediately shoot back: “Materialism!” (i.e. the insatiable consumption of goods. Not to be confused with the metaphysical hypothesis of the same name.) Perhaps some really do see Christmas as an opportunity to satisfy their endless desire for consumer products, but when we see other non-Christians decrying the same materialistic strain during Christmas, we know that this cannot be the root of their celebration.

Man and Worship

The bible’s thesis about humans is that we are all worshippers — all of us have been made to know and to worship God and it is as we come to him that we find our deepest longings and needs met, when men reject God they do not cease to worship but the bible says that they begin to deify and idolise something in creation. Men “claiming to be wise, [have] became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” (Romans 1:22-23) Idolatry is not confined simply to physical idols made of wood or stone — idols are whatever our hearts, the core of our beings, find rest, comfort, identity and indeed salvation in; they are whatever we long for and sacrifice and worship.

These idols are counterfeit gods — that they are counterfeit means two things: (1) they reveal something about the sinful hearts of men who created them (2) they reveal something about the God of which they are a counterfeit. To understand what one worships points us to the sin of man, but because we are made for God, even the idols we make resemble God as a cheap imitation. Christopher Wright thus notes:

“The fallen duplicity of man is that he simultaneously seeks after God his Maker and flees from God his Judge. Man’s religions, therefore, simultaneously manifest both these human tendencies.”

A New Christmas Liturgy

What we find in the modern celebration of Christmas is an almost literal exchange of the worship of God for the worship of other things. The best way to understand the new worship is to look at our new liturgy, one manifestation of which is the secular Christmas songs that are heard alongside the old hymns in shopping malls. Some songs are of course, utterly frivolous — ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Frosty the Snowman’ don’t really reveal any of the deep longings of humanity. Others, however, do reflect some kind of deep longing, such as ‘White Christmas’ and ’Last Christmas’. The song we will look at is ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. I confess this is partly because its my favourite non-Christian Christmas song — the tune is excellent and the lyrics are utterly poignant. But more importantly I do believe the song reflects something of the heart of modern Christmas. For those who don’t know the song or do not recognise the title:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Let your heart be light
Next year all
Our troubles will be out of sight.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Make the Yule-tide gay,
Next year all
Our troubles will be miles away.

Once again as in olden days,
Happy golden days of yore.
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Will be near to us once more.

Someday soon, we all will be together,
If the Fates allow
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow,
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

(These lyrics are from the original song sung in the movie “Meet Me in St. Louis”)

‘Once Again as in Olden Days’

The first two stanzas hint that we look to the Christmas holiday as an opportunity to rest, to escape from the myriad “troubles” that we face. The world is broken and messy — we are bogged down and exhausted by turmoil at work and relationships and there is the expectation that we will find rest at some place. I think many of us expect this rest to come during Christmas. Even secular people who bemoan the consumeristic materialism of our age and during Christmas as well seek rest from the spiritual exhaustion of chasing after the next flashy consumer product. But what exactly is the rest that we look forward too?

The heart of the song, I believe, lies in the third and fourth stanzas — here we see what we worship, what we long for during Christmas. There are two interconnected elements (1) a sense of nostalgia and (2) the warmth of family and friends. When we come to Christmas, we are overcome with nostalgia for the innocent times of our childhood, perhaps memories of when as children we looked forward to Christmas as the time when there would be parties with our families and all seemed rosy. If we never experienced this in our childhood, Christmas sells us the idea that we can recreate that experience which we never had. Consider the first line of another song, ‘White Christmas’: “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas, just like the ones I used to know…”.

There is something sublime that we look for during Christmas, something intimate and precious. We think that we will have it by revisiting the olden days, by gathering our dear friends and family back again. It is to these that we have turned to seek and find our rest. Yet anyone who has been to any Christmas party since their adolescence knows that the hope of recreating what we thought we experienced is a lie — we are made to long for it, but it never finds its fulfilment as we attempt to recreate our past or gather our loved ones.

C.S. Lewis gives an insightful analysis of this longing:

“Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

The last thing we see in the song is the bleakness of the secular worldview. The possibility of reunion is left to blind fate and until the next Christmas, we drag ourselves through the year. Some versions of the song have edited and changed the line “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow” and replaced it with the utterly facile “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough”. The original better reflects the sentiment of Christmas — it is the time we huddle as we peer over the dark precipice of the coming year of bustling emptiness. The final instruction is deeply poignant: “So”, in light of the muddle of our world, “have yourself a merry little Christmas now”. We must create and seek these precious moments now, before they are taken forever by the dead fates.

That Little Town of Bethlehem

No, this hopelessness cannot have the last word. The Israelites of old held in their hearts the promise of a day when those who walk in darkness will see a great light (Isaiah 9:2) but indeed this is the longing of all our hearts. We all long to cast off this sense of emptiness and dread and guilt that we feel and to be reconciled to something. Christmas reignites these longings, but we have been looking for this reconciliation in recreating our childhood, by being surrounded by our loved ones — soon we are alone again and the cave is even darker now that the small candle has gone out.

But the image of that town, that manger, draws me in again. The theological paradox which is the incarnation, God become Man, becomes strangely warm. In the still of that night, Christ was born. He was born into a life of labour and loneliness, ultimately dying forsaken — he would become one that men would shun and reject and spit on. But he holds a strange attraction to all who have known brokenness in some way both within themselves and without. Chesterton rightly said that this is “the place where God was homeless and all men are at home”. Christmas day comes and the same strange longing comes to me again as it does to everyone else, but as I think of Jesus it hits me afresh, ‘Ah! This was what I was celebrating all along.’ And then I sing:

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.