Beng Hiang Restaurant, Amoy Street, and the Bioethics of Mercy Killing

Beng Hiang Restaurant, Amoy Street, SingaporeBeng Hiang at Chinese New Year

Beng Hiang Restaurant, Amoy Street
Beng Hiang Restaurant, Amoy StreetBeng Hiang on a normal weeknight, and even then, there was occasion for a blast of their classic “Happy Birthday” recording

Whenever I returned to Singapore from a long stint abroad, we would always head straight to Beng Hiang Restaurant (currently at 112-116 Amoy Street, but moving to 135 Jurong Gateway Road in June 2015. facebook) from Changi Airport, to inhale some of that absolutely delicious fish maw soup, hei zhou and ngoh hiang, dark hokkien noodles, and tender kong ba bao.

Our family, having eaten there for at least 30 years since they were at Murray Street Terrace, were on nodding terms with the Boss With The Tie, who was always polite enough for a smile and some small talk, even if neither party knew the other’s name.

fish maw thick soup with crab meat (蚧肉鱼鳔羹), Beng Hiang Restaurant, Amoy Street, Singapore
fish maw thick soup with crab meat (蚧肉鱼鳔羹), Beng Hiang Restaurant, Amoy Street, Singaporefish maw thick soup with crab meat (蚧肉鱼鳔羹)

I was last there a fortnight ago, stuffing some Londoners with the delights of Hokkien cuisine. Later that night, all that good stodgy stuff fuelled a night working on the bioethics of family-assisted suicide (FAS) or physician-assisted suicide (PAS).

Thanks to NC, access to Ronald Dworkin’s Life’s Dominion was a useful starting point. Too often, people are more than eager to shop for a side to take in such a debate, to carry a political part badge, without being about to articulate clearly what their position is, or to engage meaningfully with other parties without a lot of name-calling.

What is necessary for this hot potato as for any other topic is to first identify the issues, to listen carefully to each party’s stance and understand each party’s rationale for arriving at their respective conclusions, before either agreeing, refuting, or rebutting each point in a constructive manner.

五香虾枣 ngor hiang and hei zhou. Beng Hiang Restaurant, Amoy Street, Singaporengor hiang and hei zhou (五香虾枣)

Dworkin attempts to reconcile the different vocal (American) camps by saying that actually, everyone believes that human life is sacred and wants to preserve the sanctity of such a life.

The difficulty comes in teasing out the different rationale behind this idea that life is valuable. Dworkin proposes categorising the bases for the inherent inviolability of life in terms of the following:

  • critical interests – what makes a life successful rather than unsuccessful – when someone has made something of his life, not just wasted it (p201); a steady, self-defining commitment to a vision of character or achievement that the life as a whole, seen as an integral creative narrative, illustrates and expresses (p205). None of us wants to end our lives out of character (p213). So Dworkin would have approved the integrity of Sandy Bem, the Cornell psychology professor, who chose to die when she found out she had Alzhimer’s, since that was repulsive to her vision of herself as an astute and original thinker (The Last Day of Her Life, New York Times).
  • experiential interests – what makes life pleasant or enjoyable minute by minute, day by day (p201).
  • dignity – decisions about life and death are the most important, the most crucial for forming and expressing personality, says Dworkin. Therefore, to be denied the freedom to choose how to die is an affront to the self-respect and dignity owed to that person by others.

kong ba bao (stewed pork belly with soft buns), Beng Hiang Restaurant, Amoy Street, Singapore
close-up of a kong ba bao. Beng Hiang Restaurant, Amoy Streetkong ba bao (stewed pork belly with soft buns)

I could be mistaken about Dworkin, but he appears to conflate “value of life” with “the good life” (in all its philosophical glory). Related to this is the fact that although he raises the “religious” argument of inherent value of life, he doesn’t quite seem to understand how all-encompassing the right of the divine is on our lives.

The Christian believes that:

  • contra Dworkin’s self-determined dignity: God gave all life; he knit us in our mother’s wombs; he chose us before the beginning of time! (Ephesians 1:4); he redeemed us with the blood of his Son (Ephesians 1:5), and not only that, made us alive in him, raised and seated us with Christ in the heavenly realms! (Ephesians 2). Therefore we do not choose to dispose of our lives in a manner and time fitting to us, because it is not our right to do so;
  • contra Dworkin’s human-determined critical interests: his/her critical interests are tied up with God’s purpose for him/her (“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10));
  • as Dworkin mentions, experiential interests in pleasure may be outweighed at times by critical interests. But more than that, awkward as it sounds, there is purpose to suffering. For “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:4-5)

sweet dessert soup. Beng Hiang Restaurant, Amoy Street, Singapore

Making Dumplings and Pedagogical Approaches to Teaching Bible Reading / Bible Study / Bible Interpretation

What pedagogical approaches are there for teaching people to read the Bible for themselves? I asked several people as a small assembly line of chatterers produced dumplings for dinner.

making dumplings on the second day of Chinese New Year, Singapore(Dumplings, Chinese dumplings and other ones in the same skinned family – Latvian and Russian pelmeni eaten with sour cream and Mongolian Бууз (buuz) slick with the oil of boiled mutton and Georgian khinkali, are best contained a delicate membrane that just about holds the filling in but can be broken with a decisive chomp. Too thick a skin and poor granny might be chewing till kingdom come. Also, when chopsticks are the utensils of choice, the food needs to be bite-sized to avoid all sorts of ungainly contortions (or perhaps that’s just me).

Lucky Peach magazine’s recent dumpling obsession under the banner of Dumpling Month, has resulted in a nice cluster of anecdotal articles on dumpling diplomacy (complete with recipe for shui jiao), the familial socialising that comes with communal making of jiaozidumplings shaped to look like mice.)

Biblical interpretation is mostly about good comprehension skills, yet at the same time it is about God’s word being used by God’s Spirit as a sword for God’s people. So the first and most important thing about biblical interpretation is prayer – depending on God to enable us to understand what he is saying in his word.

But what about comprehension? How can comprehension be taught? Whether or not unique to the school programme I was in, but I don’t remember being formally taught to read or understand a passage. It was just something picked up as we went along.

An English teacher, while rolling out the dough, admitted that even in the normal education stream in Singapore, understanding a passage isn’t a priority in most Singapore schools. Rather, students learn how to ace exams by knowing how marks are allocated for certain sorts of questions. This might explain the dearth of constructive political-social discussions online and offline.

making dumplings on the second day of Chinese New Year, Singaporeugly dumplings

This is very preliminary sketch of things. Have to train a few groups in “Bible reading” and Bible study leading in the next few months, and typing things out helps me think. Wish someone else more competent could do it, but here I am. So, future me, here are some very vague, possibly confused, thoughts about how I might go about it. Please edit as mistakes become apparent:

Session 1 – Priority of God’s Word (Why do Bible study at all?)

Several people have suggested that we dive straight into the skills bit and skip all this “boring doctrine”. But I think that understanding the divine origin of God’s word, and the implications of that undergirds the whole of the human life. Most people would agree its priority in the Christian life, but what exactly does this mean?

There is so much to talk about, including:

    • the trustworthiness of the word because of its divine origins;
    • the necessity of the word because of our sinful creatureliness (cf. John 1:18 – cue cheeky question of “if Christ is the Word of God, then Christians are those who believe in Christ, not in the Bible” etc. Nope, false dichotomy.);
    • the sufficiency of the word to accomplish God’s purposes in the world and in us (1 Corinthians 2:6-16, 2 Corinthians 3:12 – 4:6). Therefore we focus on planting the word faithfully, not ensuring the fruit, eg. the experience the word should produce, the community that the word should gather, the repentance that the word might extract;
    • the power of the word to do this (2 Timothy 3:15-16);
    • confidence in the word – clarity and purpose (cf. reader-response);
    • the ultimate authority that lies in the word (cf. the Pie of Ultimate Authority); and
    • as a warning against bibliolatry, how the Bible is merely the means to an end and not the end.

Maybe Timothy Ward’s excellent Words of Life: Scripture as the living and active word of God as set reading? Or some David Jackman? Jackman’s always good.

Here’s one facet:

  • Q: What is God’s plan for the world? His will and plan is, in the fullness of time, to unite all things in Christ (Ephesians 1:10).
  • Q: Since we Christians are part of “all things”, how are we to be united to him? Once we were separated from Christ and far off, but have now been brought near and united with each other and in Christ through his blood (Ephesians 2:11-22). But that’s not all – we are to maintain the unity of the Spirit, build up the one body of Christ until “we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-16)
  • Q: What does God give us to enable the body of Christ to be built up? Bible (apostles, prophets), people to tell us about Jesus (evangelists), people to proclaim Christ/teach us about Jesus from the Bible (shepherds, teachers) (Ephesians 4:11-16)
  • Q: Why are these necessary for the building up of the body?
  • Q: Who builds the body of Christ?
  • Q: How do they do it?

-> Q: What does this tell us about the usual way God accomplishes his plan for the world?

-> Q: What then are we seeking to accomplish in our times of Bible study?

-> Q: Why would the idea that “everyone can make the Bible say anything they want” be blasphemous?

-> Q: What specific ways would this change the way we personally lead Bible study this year?

 When I was little, Bible study was a chore that you avoided the best you could. But the reality is that it’s not just necessary for growth as much our daily food and water, it’s also like sweet fresh water after you’ve crawled about in a hot acrid desert, or, when you’ve come in from the snow, stamping your feet and sniffling, a steaming pot of slow-cooked stew, rich with red wine, bobbing with tender beef chunks and good carrots and tomatoes .

working on God's word in the Bible with some reference material - Timothy Ward's "Words of Life", Andrew Sach and Richard Alldritt's "Dig Even Deeper", Andrew Sach and Tim Hiorn's "Dig Deeper into the Gospels"Session 2 +++ – Grammatical-Historical Bit and Expositional (Book) Context (What is he saying and why is he saying it?)

God chose to make his official communication through human agents, using human language, expecting human minds to comprehend the same…but not without hard work.

Ask an evangelical minister for book recommendations for a toolkit to interpret the Bible and you get:

As a young Christian, neither of the first two books worked very well for me. It was all very well to have a catalogue of tools to use and a few worked examples, but I still couldn’t understand how they were to be deployed. “It’s more of an art than a science.” they said. Oh thanks very much, I said then, could I have someone hold my hand please? (The latest in the Dig Deeper series is really very useful in this regard, I think.)

Many years on now, I find myself agreeing that it’s more of an art than a science. But let’s see how much of a process we can put on it to help others.

It is clear that to understand the Bible correctly, we need to understand what the human author of that particular passage is saying. God chose to work through prophets and apostles and they wrote at a specific time, to a specific people, in a specific situation.

So our interpretation would have to be two-fold:

(i) working out what the human author is saying; and

(ii) understanding, as far as is necessary, the historical context into which he is writing. working on God's word in the BibleQ: How do I work out what God, through a historical author, is saying?

Here goes an attempt at a process (although I suspect one usually moves back and forth between most of these points in any ordinary reading exercise):

  • read through the whole book once preferably, if you are distracted by such things, without editor-imposed headings and sub-headings
  • note any obvious themes, statements of purpose for writing
  • hypothesize a structure to the book (how the Gospel writers build their argument/evidence for Jesus as the Son of God etc, or for Paul’s epistles, perhaps his argument flow)
  • hypothesize a structure to the given passage
  • work through individual chunks to test hypothesis – bearing in mind the genre of the book or of the specific chunk, dealing with the grammatical stuff like nouns, verbs, tenses, cases, use of metaphors and idioms, and using the usual comprehension skills (eg. in Dig Deeper‘s terminology, “linking words”, “repetition”, “narrator’s comment”, “tone and feel”, “quotation / allusion”) or equivalent in the language in use for that study (Chinese? Tamil? French?)
  • work through the details – this is somewhat controversial in certain circles: my SLOB leader was adamant that one must not spend alot of time working on the details, whereas a lecturer at The School was convinced that the main point of what the author was saying was dependent on the details and the more elusive our understanding of them was, the harder we needed to work at them. I suspect it’s the more-art-than-science thing of knowing when to pursue the details and when to leave them alone because it is unlikely they will contribute much to the main point.
  • check hypothesis of structure to given passage
  • from the structure, hypothesise the main point, that is, the thrust of the given passage

Q: What do we do with the historical context and the expositional/book context? Check how the hypothesised main point might fit into author’s context, intended audience, and the overall purpose of the book as a whole. After all the breaking up of a book into passages for bite-sized studies is artificial.

  • How would this passage link to previous chunk?
  • How would this passage help to develop the purpose of the book (if stated)?
  • What would be missing if this section was not here?
  • Why is this here? What would change if this passage was moved somewhere else in the book?

So:

Q: What does the passage say?

Q: Why is the passage saying this?

Q: Why is it saying it here?

Then come to a conclusion as to the main point of the given passage. Write what some people call a purpose statement – stating the aim of the human author in this chunk of the book. Ensure that it is a clear and specific sentence, not something that can be applied to any other part of the New Testament (eg. not “God loves you and his son died for you.”)

But we need to hold our horses – a nice succinct purpose statement is not the point of Bible study; responding rightly to what God has said is (see Session 4).

(Pedagogical approach-wise, wonder if, instead of doing endless exegetical exercises, we could just work through the text together with the leader modelling how he/she was thinking about it as we went along. Very NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) “pseudo-science”, but it’s certainly the way I personally learn best.)

not quite shashuka Session 3 – Redemptive-historical Context Hmm, it’s really artificial to break all this up into different sessions, but seeing that I have only an hour for each session…

All Scripture (and all of us) fit in somewhere on God’s timeline for the world. Knowing where our particular book fits in eschatologically would help us understand not only what God was saying to his people then, but also what he is saying to us now as we head towards the consummation of all that he has promised.

Loads of biblical theology (“the study of how every text in the Bible relates to every other text in the Bible”) books to choose from here: Graeme Goldsworthy’s Gospel and Kingdom and Vaughan Roberts’ God’s Big Picture trace the storyline through the Bible with themes of kingdom and covenant, Michael You’s Read Mark Learn: Bible Overview studies at St. Helen’s Bishopsgate, and Thomas Schriener and D.A. Carson have a good number of books and articles on this between them.

Session 4 – Living in Light of God’s Word

The main point of the main point is to understand God’s word so that our minds can be changed and we can live differently. Michael You has said in several of his talks that broadly, there isn’t that much that God wants to tell us:

  • he wants us to acknowledge that he is God and we are not;
  • he wants us to see that reality is quite different from what we might think. Our baseline is usually that this world is all there is, will continue forever. But the world isn’t like that – God exists, he made this world, this world will come to an end, whether you like it or not, and Jesus will return to judge;
  • he wants us to change our worldview that shapes how we think and how we act. If we think that this world is all there is, then we want more money, and to get that we will decide on a well-paying job even if we have to work all days of the week. Even if we were brought up in a Christian family, most of us have a worldview that tells us that we have security because of the things of this world. But the reality is that this world is passing away and God wants us to want the new world to come. We must want what God wants, his goals, eternity, new creation.
  • God is not an arbitrary spoilsport. He cares for us with his infinite power and love and he wants us to be assured that we can leave our lives in his hands.

Our right response to God’s word will totally transform our lives. Will this work? Pray so. Now to get some dinner.

Ash Wednesday, Pineapple Tarts at Chinese New Year, and the Significance of Lent

“Excuse me,” I said to the lady who’d just sat down beside me on the bus,”You’ve got this bit of…oh…” I’d mistaken a cross marked with dark ash on her forehead for unwelcome dirt.

So it was Ash Wednesday, and the start of Lent. For one brief moment, I thought of pleading Lent as an excuse to abstain from all the Chinese New Year “goodies” that inevitably beleaguers visitors as they make their rounds, festive house-visiting. To decline any of the pineapple tarts, kueh bangkit, kueh lapis, bak kwa, love letters, peanut cookies, sugee cookies, etc would be to blow a raspberry at the proffered hospitality. But having always nurtured a great dislike of the overly sweet, overly buttery stuff, accompanied by sickly pop soda in garish colours, if I could just claim a fast…

Le Cafe Confectionery, golf ball pineapple tarts, Chinese New Year, SingaporeLe Cafe golf-ball pineapple tarts

Sadly, that would have been a very bad excuse indeed:

(i) it would be an outright lie;

(ii) but if I did make good my fast not just to escape the tyranny of festive baked goods, my motive for so doing would have been wrong ab initio; and

(iii) even if I did mean to fast for a properly good reason, there’s the danger of hypocrisy:

“Beware of practising your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven…And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you…” (Matthew 6:1, 16-18)

Kim Choo pineapple tarts (with cloves), Chinese New Year, Singapore
Kim Choo pineapple tarts (with cloves), Chinese New Year, SingaporeKim Choo pineapple tart / balls with cloves

Well, come to think of it, what rationale is there for fasting for Lent? It’s not prescribed in the Bible. And we can be quite sure about what it is not:

  • for Christians, it is certainly not to earn merit. For Buddhists, for example, vassa is a period of intensive meditation, marked by asceticism – in practice, by the giving up of meat-eating, alcohol-drinking, and smoking. From what I understand (and I might be wrong, since I was only Buddhist for a few years), this stems from the Buddhist world-view that one must accumulate merit in life to ensure rebirth higher up on the spiritual liberation plane. For the Christian, however, there is the understanding that sin is not acknowledging God, who created the world and sustains it, as God, and therefore not heeding his word. The punishment for sin is death, but the blood of Jesus on the cross paid for all the sin of humankind who ever existed in human history. We accept this offer of life by believing that Jesus really did pay for our sins, and living with him as our Lord (as God the Father appointed him to be) and God. Nothing we can do can earn us our salvation, and self-inflicted pain does not in any way gain us spiritual reward;Glory kueh bangkit, Chinese New Year, Singapore
  • it is not quite an act of repentance per se. There are many instances in the Old Testament where fasting is a sign of sorrow over sin, contrition, repentance. That is to say, sackcloth and ashes (eg. Nehemiah 9:1) were merely an outward symbol of the inward turning back to God – the mere act of fasting meant nothing in itself. If sin means not to acknowledge God as God, then repentance is turning back and doing the opposite – acknowledging God as God, and living according to his word in the Bible. Said God through Isaiah to the people of his time:“Cry aloud; do not hold back;
    lift up your voice like a trumpet;
    declare to my people their transgression,
    to the house of Jacob their sins.
    2 Yet they seek me daily
    and delight to know my ways,
    as if they were a nation that did righteousness
    and did not forsake the judgement of their God;
    they ask of me righteous judgements;
    they delight to draw near to God.
    3 ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
    Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’
    Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
    and oppress all your workers.
    4 Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
    and to hit with a wicked fist.
    Fasting like yours this day
    will not make your voice to be heard on high.
    5 Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day for a person to humble himself?
    Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
    and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
    Will you call this a fast,
    and a day acceptable to the Lord?
    6 “Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of wickedness,
    to undo the straps of the yoke,
    to let the oppressed[b] go free,
    and to break every yoke?
    7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
    when you see the naked, to cover him,
    and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isaiah 58, see also Zechariah 7)Glory pineapple tarts, Chinese New Year, SingaporeGlory pineapple tarts, Chinese New Year, Singapore
  • it might be hipster spirituality, not true spirituality. Carl Trueman (good name!) in Ash Wednesday: Picking and Choosing Our Piety wonders how much of the popularity of Lenten observance “speaks of a certain carnality: The desire to do something which simply looks cool and which has a certain ostentatious spirituality about it. As an act of piety, it costs nothing yet implies a deep seriousness. In fact, far from revealing deep seriousness…it simply exposes the superficiality, eclectic consumerism and underlying identity confusion of the movement…it also puzzles me that time and energy is spent each year on extolling the virtues of Lent when comparatively little is spent on extolling the virtues of the Lord’s Day. Presbyterianism has its liturgical calendar, its way of marking time: Six days of earthly pursuits and one day of rest and gathered worship. Of course, that is rather boring. Boring, that is, unless you understand the rich theology which underlies the Lord’s Day and gathered worship, and realize that every week one meets together with fellow believers to taste a little bit of heaven on earth.”
  • fasting is commonly termed a “spiritual discipline” but what is a spiritual discipline? Spirituality itself is a mere theological construct whose basis, as D.A. Carson says in When is Spirituality Spiritual?, is scripturally debatable. And this theory generally devolves into techniques of self-discipline, sometimes called “spiritual disciplines” in order to get on more intimate relations with God.But, continues Carson in Spiritual Disciplines, techniques are never neutral. They are invariably loaded with theological presuppositions, often unrecognized. How closely would fasting (and self-flagellation, hairy shirts etc.) be tied to “medieval notions of elitist perfectionism not open to ordinary Christians? A relationship with God is not based on ecstatic experiences akin to going on a green detox diet or decluttering one’s possessions, but on meditating and chewing on how he has revealed himself in history, as recorded in the Bible, and so understanding him enough to be thinking his thoughts after him.

    “In one sense…all those who by God’s grace exercise saving faith in Christ Jesus have the Spirit (Romans 8:9) and are “spiritual” (1 Corinthians 2:1-15). But then we are to “live by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16), and that means self-consciously putting to death the “acts of sinful nature” and producing the “fruit of the Spirit”…And so we could go on, adding dimensions to any construct of spirituality controlled by the Word of God, correcting ourselves and our experience by Scripture, so that we may enjoy the fullness of the heritage that is ours in Christ Jesus while remaining entirely unwilling to be seduced by every passing fad.”