Darkness in The Golden Land

A temporal disjuncture of sorts.

Sin Ming coin prata, mutton curry, teh si kosong ping. Karen Connelly's When I look up from the book I’m reading, while nibbling coin pratas (doused in spicy tender mutton curry) and sipping a teh si kosong ping, I am, for a brief moment, amazed to find myself Singapore coffeeshop under a HDB block in Sin Ming.

A week ago, this would have been a dark teahouse or streetside affair in Yangon, with a semolina cake and very thick sweet tea. The dusty air, swirled about in the afternoon heat by an old fan, would have been a delicate potpourri of cheerful cheroot, flaking thanka, juicy red betel nut chews, and exhaust fumes; of sandalwood, jasmine, rose.

It is strange to feel this way. Just a hint of that sour-bitter taste of leaving the people I loved in London to come to Singapore. But how could any part of this heart have been left in the Golden Land? True, it was easy to slip into local life there – the cheap, ubiquitous, delicious street food; the oases of teahouses; the pedestrian dance with slow-moving traffic; the clean derelict streets… But no real gospel partnerships were found.streetside tea shop, Yangon

CC was both keen and cynical – the Judson translation was in Old Burmese and far too difficult for anyone to comprehend (LC agreed: “it’s like the KJV, in Latin”) so good secondary material was necessary, he thought. But so few of those were in Burmese. Yet, the situation was dire: Sunday school teachers were known to teach stories not even found in the Bible because that’s what they themselves had been taught. Meanwhile, Singaporean churches were arriving in Myanmar and throwing their money around, starting cycles of dire dependency and dangerously linking Christianity to material prosperity. Right doctrine, thought CC, was the way to go. – reformed doctrine, Westminster Confession etc.

LC, on the other hand, enthusiastic and well-intentioned, had an endearing way of sharing his life and his struggles, and was keen on social justice – visiting orphanages, feeding the poor in villages, fighting for the rights of those he perceived to be downtrodden. This was admirable and certainly love for neighbour in this sense must be one of the effects of the gospel in one’s life. However, not to the exclusion of and not divorced from even more important things: love for God and his word. LC had a risky loose way of speaking about things: “you are blessed” he said when I made it to the airport in time despite Monday morning traffic (so would I be “cursed” if i suffered the natural consequences of my procrastination?), “God told me/him/her” he explained, admiringly, as the reason why people arrived/left Myanmar sometimes just on the basis of someone’s dream, etc. And when I pointed out that his church was using “salvation”, “healing”, and “wellness” interchangeably, he got annoyed and said that I should not bring intellectual Singaporean standards to Myanmar.

waiting for the sun to rise in Bagan, atop a templeBut if we do not speak according to God’s word, there will be no light of dawn.

Attention to God’s word is necessary because it is our only authoritative communication from God – by his Scripture, God speaks to us and tells us of himself and his plan for the world, of our dire situation, of his Son’s saving work and future universal reign. And by God’s word, God works – his transforming powerful word does not return empty but accomplishes his mission of uniting all things under Christ.

God’s word is sufficient as the means by which we can have knowledge about salvation and knowledge about how to live godly lives. One shouldn’t admire the occurrence of random doubtful dreams and prophecies, but rather praise God for the miraculous ability of Christians to now live lives pleasing to God, putting to death our sins.

And God’s word is clear. God has not left his word to modern intellectuals; he gave his word to people in many places and many times – they were kings and court officials, and also peasants and fishermen, and the uneducated and the orphans, and he expected that they would understand and obey. But we do have to do the hard work of understanding it, just as we would a textbook or a legal document. And the Bible is far more important!

goatherds in Bagan, MyanmarPerhaps this heartache is for hungry goats without a goatherd who will beat the trees of leaves and feed and nourish them. Yet, I take heart that God is the ultimate provider, and will be praying for these dear brothers and for Myanmar for quite some time to come it seems.


Flight from Singapore to Yangon: Jetstar Asia (S$230)
Train from Yangon to Bagan, and Bagan to Yangon: purchase at the station – second class (6,000 kyat), sleeper (14,000 kyat)

Killiney Kopitiam and Existential Pedagogy

When we lived on Grange Road, Killiney Kopitiam (67 Killiney Road, Singapore) was my breakfast haunt on Saturday mornings. It was best to go alone, or with someone who didn’t want much chat, score a seat outside, next to the road, and read the Saturday Business Times between mouthfuls of lemak curry chicken and roti prata, finished off with slices of kaya toast. A good time too for thinking.
Killiney Kopitiam, Killiney Road

Am still brooding over pedagogical methods for teaching people to read their Bibles.

Was looking today specifically at the sort of instructional design that emerges from idealism, phenomenology, and existentialism. Might have misunderstood stuff, but here goes anyway:

Idealism is an ontological concept that says that reality consists only of minds. The physical world is only an illusion, a product of minds.

Phenomenology (closely linked with Edmund Husserl) is the epistemological concept that says therefore that all we know is our subjective reality. It is meaningless to seek out an objective reality. Our perceptions and internal experience are all that matter. As Albert Camus put it:

This heart within me I can feel, and I judge that it exists. This world around me I can feel, and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction.

Existentialism (Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre et al) then says, in light of the above, that since there are no truths about human nature, the individual is free to make his/her life in whatever way he/she wants.

In this worldview, inauthenticity is the biggest crime one can commit. Inauthenticity is when the individual allows him/herself to be defined by social categorisation, by conforming to the pressure to be a certain sort of person, or to adopt a particular manner of living, or to ignore their own moral or aesthetic judgements. Inauthenticity is being a “moral person” because by doing so, one subjects oneself to traditional external ethics.

Authenticity then is to be true to one’s own personality, spirit, character, despite external pressures.

Killiney Kopitiam, Killiney RoadThe aim of education within an existential worldview would be to allow students to learn that the world is absurd and without intrinsic meaning, and their lives are limited and temporal. They must then learn to be authentic by unilaterally creating and re-creating their lives through their own free will.

Of the educational curriculum, James Magrini in Existentialism, Phenomenology, and Education calls us to recognise and seek:

to overcome the injustice of a curriculum that embraces and privileges certain modes of knowing about others, such as an epistemological model favouring analytic-logical-empirical clusters of knowledge over more intangible forms of knowledge, those associated with the arts, which include the intuitive-perceptual model of knowledge…
Curriculum making conceived existentially, as opposed to following a product-process model (Tyler, 1949), which in great part determines the trajectory of the education in advance of actual student learning, would attempt to adopt a process-product line of curriculum development (“curriculum-envisioning”). This would allow for the curriculum to develop and evolve autonomously as the learning unfolds. In this “existentially” conceived curriculum, benchmarks are merely temporary, transitory, and malleable, they develop along with the learning process.

Instructional design then, is along the lines of the constructivist model I looked at previously. Magrini again:

The method of pedagogy must allow for the student’s development of her own unique possibilities, which is why the existentialists would reject a standardized curriculum and an authoritarian model for teaching. An “existential” curriculum would include a diverse content as well as an array of varied pedagogical methods, which would, importantly, include ample opportunities for peer-initiated and peer-directed learning.

Educators should plan lessons that embrace and incorporate aspects of the student’s emotional and intellectual autobiography (Grumet, 1992). However, it is not only the aspects of one’s unique life-story that matter, it is also important that students understand the major role that “history” and “heritage”play in shaping who we become-history’s authentic role not only forges our past but as well contributes to the future enactment of our possibilities that we gather from our“heritage”

The instructional methods employed should not be resemble the out-dated authoritarian model,where the teacher is the “superior” possessor of knowledge and the student the “inferior,” empty vessel waiting to be filled (Freire, 1970). This is model for pedagogy views knowledge at an objective remove from the student, and demonstrates no concern for the place of the existential “lived world” in the curriculum as shared by both teacher and student. Knowledge, according to the existentialists does not reside at a remove from our “lived world”  and in addition is constructive. Thus pedagogical techniques should stress the co-creative, co-responsive, and co-participatory aspects of education. This is not to indicate that the teacher allows the student to dictate each and every aspect of her education, for teachers need to be in command of the subject matter in order to first tailor it to fit the students needs. In relation to this issue, Heidegger (1952) famously stated that the most difficult task for educators was to learn how to let students learn

kaya toast, Killiney Kopitiam, Killiney Road
One’s first instinctive criticism of this worldview would be that there is no evidence or basis for these theories. But of course, that would be refuted by the presuppositions of this worldview – that there is nothing objective that can be quantified or measured.

And the Christian would object that it is God who defines right and wrong and morality, and reality, and the meaning of life, and the certainty of the future. At which, the existentialist would blow a giant raspberry and point to the self-referential pre-suppositions of existentialism.

But hardly any existentialist is a true solipsist of the Eastern mysticism persuasion, I’d think, so while I’m not too bothered with the validity of the worldview itself, its practical application suiting the convenience and what seems to be the natural self-centredness and selfishness is saddening.

However, might some of the pedagogical designs that emerged from this worldview be useful for a worldview that sees ample evidence for divine revelation?