Originally published on June 2014
Some of you may know that I recently had a six- month teaching stint at BGST, which I enjoyed and benefitted from tremendously. During this time, I became firmly convinced that BGST is a unique Christian institution, situated in Asia, which is well worth supporting. Please allow me to share why I came to this personal conclusion. (I should add that I have since moved from BGST, so this isn’t a sneaky way of asking you to support me!)
The competition for hearts and minds
The first reason I think BGST is worth supporting is that there can be said to be a spiritual and intellectual competition for hearts and minds in the Asian church today.
Paul says in his second letter to the Corinthians that Christians are called to ‘destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ’ (2 Cor 10: 5, ESV).
This passage is often cited in the context of spiritual warfare. It’s interesting however that the original context was intellectual and rhetorical. In his book Paul and Philo Amongst the Sophists, Dr Bruce Winter argues that the backdrop is that of the visiting speakers called sophists, who had come to Corinth after Paul, and who peddled a seductive message which was set against the Gospel.
Perhaps we can call these sophists “star professors” or “keynote speakers”. Highly trained in Classical rhetoric and philosophy, the sophists were the intellectual elite of their day, commanding large speaker’s fees from their audiences.
We could say that the contemporary equivalent of sophists are the scholars and teachers in the famous universities of the world – Harvard, Yale, Cambridge, Oxford, and even our own NUS, which was recently ranked the top Asian university in one survey. Far from being cossetted in the proverbial ivory tower, academics have a huge influence on the thinking of young people in society. What is written in scholarly works and taught in the classroom today, become the dominant ideas and beliefs in society tomorrow.
A good example of this influence is the gradual rise of Secularism as a belief system, within the last few decades. It’s possible to view the belief in a particular form of tolerance prevalent in some countries as almost a secular religion (please see Don Carson’s book, The Intolerance of Tolerance, for more on this view).
Within this context, we owe it to Gen Y and Gen Z – the teens, 20s and 30s within our churches – to have informed answers which address the influence of what they will encounter in school. These answers, while biblically based, must also be intellectually rigorous, since the competing philosophies (like Paul’s opponents) are argued by some of the foremost intellectual powerhouses of our time. If we do not do so, the church in Asia risks, like the West, waking up in fifteen or twenty years to find that Secularism has become the dominant belief system amongst the next generation.
Our responsibility as the Singaporean Church
The second reason I think BGST is worth supporting has to do with our place and identity as part of the church in Asia. One simple answer to the question “how do we address secular worldviews?” is to leave this task to Christian seminaries and think-tanks in the West.
After all, we still look to prominent Christian thinkers such as Don Carson, who, like C.S. Lewis in his own day, actively engage with such arguments and philosophies.
However, I personally do not find the “leave it to the West” approach very satisfactory. There are, to my mind, two key issues. The first issue is context. There is an inherent danger in adopting the views of Western Christians: we might take ideas which are generated in a different, Western context, and uncritically adopt them as our own. Generally speaking, the North American church can be said to be in a defensive and reactionary stance to American society, as it goes through the internal crisis of losing the support of the majority of society to the secular philosophies mentioned above.
A wholesale adoption of the thinking of the North American church is unhelpful in Singapore and Asia, where Christianity has never been the dominant belief system. Instead, Christians have either been a minority, or one element of a plural society. Adopting the at-times polemical and reactionary rhetoric of the North American church could risk turning off listeners, and paint the church in Asia as negative or insensitive.
A second issue is accountability. As the Singaporean church, we have been greatly blessed in terms of material wealth, education and resources. While the primary use of those resources must always be the preaching and teaching of the Gospel, there is to my mind a strong argument that we have a responsibility to take the lead in theological scholarship in Asia, providing a considered intellectual response to Asian issues. If the Singaporean church does not do this, who will?
I am not arguing for a ‘Saviour complex’ here, as if God can only work through us. In fact, it’s just the opposite: if we do not let God work through us, he can raise up others to do so, within his perfect plan! (We will however one day has to give an account of how we used the resources we’ve been blessed with!)
BGST’s unique mission
The third reason I think BGST is worth supporting is that it’s in a unique position to address the above. Let me give an example from a course I was recently involved in at BGST.
The course on Christianity, Culture & Society encouraged us to think about how to engage with, and be discerning about, cultural works (e.g. films, books) or trends (e.g. posting selfies on social media). We had an excellent guest lecturer, Ms. Constance Chan, who spoke on the relationship between dance and theology. Constance has really thought through this topic, being both an accomplished Flamenco dancer, and having done a Masters thesis at Regent College.
At the end of the class, a young person from the dance ministry of a major church came to ask Constance several questions. Does dance call unnecessary attention to self? Would the physicality of dance lead to temptation for the viewer? I saw the relief in her eyes as Constance answered her questions. It was almost as if this young person had finally found someone to provide answers that were authentic, deep and biblical.
Why isn’t there more teaching like this, on topics which are relevant not only to the questions and needs of Gen Y and Z, but to societal issues such as secularism, which affect the whole church? The structural answer is that we, as the Singaporean church, are not paying and attracting enough good minds to teach, think and write about these issues within local seminaries.
While other seminaries and theological colleges in Singapore are doing fine work, their mission is mainly focused on full- time workers. BGST is the only institution looking to hire and support teaching faculty in areas like Marketplace Theology and Interdisciplinary Studies, which address issues that ordinary church members face.
BGST has made an excellent start, with a strong core team. There is however a need to further develop BGST’s faculty, adjunct lecturers and students, so that together they can minister to the church in Singapore, Asia and the world in a unique way.
Let me sum up by ‘dreaming big’ for a moment. Imagine if there were funded lectureships at BGST in the areas above, with the positions held by well-respected academics who act as teachers, speakers, and writers. Just as NUS has been built up to become a global university within the last twenty years, perhaps one day we can have local seminaries which are international centres of teaching and scholarship.
In the influential Times Higher Education rankings of the world’s universities, one factor contributing to an institution’s ranking is its income. Baldly speaking, the more resources a university has to command, the more influential it tends to be. Whether we like it or not, through the percentage of our taxes used to support NUS and NTU, some of our personal resources go toward the teaching of secular worldviews. Can we not consider diverting some of our church’s or our own personal resources to help redress the balance, by supporting Christian lecturers in Asia? I invite you to prayerfully consider doing so.
DR. DANIEL JEW
Daniel is a former BGST lecturer. He received a PhD in history from Cambridge, and is currently teaching liberal arts within higher education. The views expressed are his personal opinion. Please contact Dr Lai Pak Wah (email@example.com) if you’re interested in finding out how to support a lecturer at BGST.