Dec 22, 2014

Islam Lessons in North Carolina

Sources: FOX News, The Inquisitr, WCTI. I know, not the best sources (like, FOX, what), but I couldn't find better ones; besides, one can sieve through all the biased stuff to get down to the facts of the news.) 

(source. Click image for larger view)

I came across a recent North Carolina controversy regarding a vocabulary lesson for high school seniors that included elements about Islam. Personally, I wish Singapore had more religious education. I wish that I knew earlier that Hari Raya Haji commemorated Abraham's sacrifice. I wish we were more aware of the beauty in our differences. It's great that students are being taught about who Muhammad was, and about what Islam really is about, in light of all the Islamophobia being triggered from the actions of extremist groups.

1. What's wrong with teaching about Islam? 

This worksheet was accused of "[pushing] the religion on students", being "Islamic propaganda", etc. A parent said “What if right after Pearl Harbor our educational system was talking about how great the Japanese emperor was? What if during the Cold War our educational system was telling students how wonderful Russia was?”

Is this lesson dangerous to national identity? The sentence completion worksheet does sound a bit pushy, but this is part of their World Literature lessons, "which emphasizes culture in literature". It's allowing the students to step into Muslims' shoes. Is that dangerous? A person who knows more is always more equipped to make informed judgments. Instead of worrying about the student getting sucked into other cultures just by knowing about them, why not dare to see how the world is beautiful in multiple ways? (And these lessons were for high school seniors - 16-17 years old. They're almost entering university. They probably aren't about to be swayed by every piece of information.)

Is the parent worried that learning about the beauty of Islam will make students sympathize with extremists? A terrible act (or even many) doesn't make its entire culture inherently bad; it's this sort of polarising that results in senseless racism and hate. Is Islam the enemy, or is extremism?

Fear is triggered by the unknown. In light of terrorism, should we condone irrational and ignorant Islamophobia, or teach people about what Islam really is? The parent's attitude is exactly what the school hopes to curb. Extremist Islamic movements doesn't make Islam an ugly religion. (If you would allow me to draw this analogy - it's a little like using Westboro Baptist Church to form your impression of Christianity.) I personally believe that it isn't religion that kills; it is people who do. People take the bits of religion that they agree with and run with it. But even if you believe that religion is the cause of these horrible events, does that make the religion not worth learning about? Doesn't it make sense to "know your enemy", to understand what exactly you're against and why?

The same parent said “I just told my daughter to read it as if it’s fiction. It’s no different than another of fictional book you’ve read.” Which part of the vocabulary guide is fiction? Muhammad's previous career? The five pillars of faith? The fact that it was an influential movement? The sentence completion worksheet is obviously an imagination-stimulating exercise, but it's a wonderful one: it invites the students to step into the world of another, to realize beauty in other cultures.

The real issue, I think, was identified by one of the students: “If we are not allowed to talk about any other religions in school – how is this appropriate?” 

2. Avoiding discussion of religious diversity

The problem is that countries and schools are shying away from religious discussion. America is largely moving away from the public mention of religion. Military personnel aren't supposed to talk about religion - when a fellow soldier is wounded, or grieving, or badly in need of something to hold on to, you aren't supposed to mention your faith even if it's the one ray of hope. Giving out religious material is banned from the classroom; public religious talk is treated with wariness. Last semester in school, we discussed how France (and Singapore) banned the Muslim headscarf in public schools, in the name of secularity. Schools seem to be avoiding religion to create an impression of sameness, so that the country can more easily forge a national identity, like as if we can't handle our differences and thus we must pretend they don't exist. I wish we did the opposite instead: teach one another about our faiths, deepen our understanding of one another, and celebrate our diversity.

In upper primary I hung out with the Indians and Malays, so I celebrated Hari Raya with ketupat and green packets, and Deepavali with curry and Bollywood movies. I watched my Indian friends dress up, flowers and oil and beautiful bangles. In secondary school, practically everyone wore saris on Racial Harmony Day. And when Nazeera dressed up in traditional Malay dress with her tudung, everyone was amazed by how mature and graceful she looked. Last semester I was so fortunate to have learnt more about the Abrahamic religions, and it's beautiful how they build upon one another.

Recently Divina showed me around a Hindu temple, and I was delighted to find a shrine dedicated to Rama, Sita and Lakshmana (we read The Ramayana in our curriculum). She invited me to receive a blessing from the priest - "would you like to experience it?" - but I didn't want to spoil the sacredness. Divina also says that her guru teaches about Jesus often, and that she loves Jesus too, and that John 3:16 is beautiful. I guess in polytheistic Hinduism, talking about Jesus as a god isn't a big problem. Above her door hangs a sign that says "Lord, Bless our Family". Every time Divina leaves the house, she touches the forehead of her guru in a photograph, and then her own forehead; it's lovely that she constantly remembers her devotion, and the source of her protection.

3. Why Islam in particular?

This bit is in response to the second half of the FOX article. Given the current political climate, it’s a great idea to get students exposed to Islam when they don’t know anything about it except from radical extremist terrorism. It'll help them form a more nuanced view of the matter, and recognize that the faith isn’t the one to be condemned, but the hate-filled murderers who use a loving message for evil. Learning about Islam is especially urgent now, more than Buddhism or Hinduism, because of the extremist movements. You don’t want a hate war ensuing from ignorance. A huge proportion of people don’t realise that Allah is also the Jewish and Christian God, and that Jesus is also revered (albeit only as a prophet) in Islam. How different would our feelings and fears be towards Muslims if we were more educated about Islam? (It would be great if Judaism and Christianity were discussed more too, of course, but I’m guessing the school assumes that the students know far less about Islam than the other two.) It’s a great idea that the school is getting the students to understand the religion for what it really is.

Good job North Carolina. I’m glad students are being taught something important. Maybe it wasn't taught in a tactful way; I hope that with refinement, the curriculum will be more publicly approved, not taken away altogether. Then we'll have fewer people who are irrationally afraid of the religion and its people, or who ignorantly condemn Islam, because of the actions of extremists.

Dec 19, 2014

amor vincit omnia

In fact, you are right: Love does conquer all. But lesser loves submit to greater loves. The greatest Love stands, an undefeated tower; in its light all other loves stand or crumble.

Dec 15, 2014


I am in a Greyhound bus on the way to Orlando, and I am looking at the night sky. There is no other car on the road, no streetlights, only a short constant row of dark trees blocking the horizon. The sky is almost all there is outside my window. I am looking at a drape of black spotted with stars like splotches of paint, so bold, so clear. And even here, as on the wall of my dorm room, Orion the hunter watches over me. 

Jupiter creeps out over the row of trees, and with my Sky Safari app (thank you Prof. Penprase and Cosmic Origins!), I learn some new stars: Procyon from the Canis Minor constellation, and the heads of the Gemini twins. The entire time I am thinking the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. Look at His beautiful handiwork all the way out there, and also consider His handiwork in us. 

Occasionally a series of super bright streetlamps come barging their way in, and the stars give way. Or a few cars with bright headlamps, or a little rest stop. When the fierce human lights command their power, the black is just black; the stars knowingly take a step back. I try to close my eyes, get some sleep, but the stars are still whispering. 

It is dark again, and the stars reappear. Hello, home. 

Dec 14, 2014

God's Transformation, feat. Nick & Ivan

(I'm not supposed to post the (beautiful) photos we took at the wedding yet, so here's a picture from yesterday at World of Coca-Cola featuring an unsuspecting Nick and cheeky Ivan, who had tricked him into trying the Zimbabwean drink that, according to Nick a few seconds after this photo was taken, tasted like medicine.)


So I'm with the cousins in Atlanta to attend my aunt's wedding (congrats!), and today I learnt that Nick now leads a youth cell group, and he's been receiving training from his youth pastor. At the wedding today (in a cabin in the woods; it was incredible) Nick and Ivan were talking about Ravi Zacharias and Tim Keller and understanding apologetics and all the things we all still didn't know, yet knowing that it was important to "always be prepared to give an answer...for the hope that you have" (1 Pet 3:15).

They're both eighteen now, and the whole time I was amazed at how different they are from the Nick and Ivan I once knew. Like, you have well-behaved children, and then you have really bad ones. Once upon a time Ivan and Nick were just...people you would never come close to associating with the "good Christian kid".

I remember the year I noticed Ivan's stark transformation from a terror of a child into a gentle, loving, quiet preteen. 2009: I was 16, he was 13. I mean, he was quiet. I was like, woah, dude, I don't even know you anymore. And he told me that at church camp the previous year, he and his older brother Ian had encountered God in a very tangible way for the first time. I guess the transformation was more dramatic in Ivan because Ian had always been the better-behaved kid, but that marked the start of their lives in Christ. Whenever Ian messages me to clarify or challenge something I said on Facebook regarding Christianity, I am reminded again of the work that God is doing in him, and that only God brings us to desire to know Him. While Ian's the more word-focused, "is this biblically founded or not" type of Christian (reminds me of Kenneth the Yale-NUS DF heh), God's work in Ivan is more evident in his relationship with Him and the grace and love that he shows to others, I think.

And I guess I only realised the change in Nick on this trip. I see Nick very rarely, and I had a pretty bad impression of his fourteen-year-old character, to say the least. I noticed it this time: courteous, helpful and obedient to his parents, not distasteful in his jokes (but still hilarious), genuine, not a single swear word. He was talking about his challenges as a youth leader, and the kids whom he really cares for and whom he'd love to see grow up; his difficulties in answering their questions or helping them with their problems, that motivate him to read up more, question more, understand his faith better.

"It's 24/7", he said, and that pretty much sums up my experience leading CF, too. It's a 24/7 job. As a church or ministry leader people somehow seem to expect you to be flawless like God, and you often trip up with a slip of the tongue, or a graceless act, or just about anything when people scrutinise and judge you that way.

It's tiring, and it often feels unfair. "Hey, you don't judge that Christian when he does this, why judge me." Once I poured it out to Yixuan and Baoyun in frustration. Frustration that I had to set higher standards for myself, when it might not even be a sinful act but could be judged to be so. Frustration that I always felt judged, like I lugged about an iron chain of watchful eyes 24/7. And then Yixuan said "but isn't it a wonderful thing to be able to represent God?" That sentence changed the way I saw everything.

Looking at my cousins, I'm also reminded of Theo, and how much he has changed since really coming to Christ around this time last year. Just in one year, he has become such a different person, so selfless and so thoughtful for other people, so helpful, so gracious in speech and thought, so anxious to live out a close relationship with God. It's incredible to witness. And I wonder if people see the change in me. I see the inward change in myself, in my thoughts and decisions and motivations, but I wonder if people who've known me through the years can also see God's work in me this tangibly. I don't think so. I mean, I wasn't a very good fourteen-year-old either, but I think I was a somewhat decent kid. And I still say 'shit' and 'damn' very frequently, and I very often forget to be graceful or reflect Christlikeness in my speech. And I'm a pretty awful child to my parents. I'm sorry, Mum and Dad, that you guys think I cannot stand you guys and would always rather be somewhere else and won't listen and will always do things my way. I was eating Sun Chips on my bed and Mum said "You know, I don't know if I should make you eat better food or just let you learn for yourself, because it's so bad for you and you'll come to see the effects one day", and I didn't say anything because I didn't know what to say, and I continued eating my Sun Chips because well the packet had to be finished anyway and I knew that once the school semester started again I'd go right back to eating junk, so why pretend? And then I thought "I'm probably a terrible child." But then, also, "will I ever please my parents?", and then, "does any child ever fully meet their parents' expectations?"

Anyway, now I'm rambling.

(I never actually try to end a post properly eh, must be a subconscious rebellion against all the pretty concluding paragraphs I try to squeeze out when I write essays)

Dec 9, 2014

"No, you know what? Let's talk about Kong Hee."

They say that the thing you see when you look into the mirror is your insecurity. Your fat thighs, maybe, or your acne, or your eyes that will never be pretty no matter how hard you try, or your race or sexuality. On a typical day I look in the mirror and see a City Harvest Christian. I have good reason to feel socially insecure as a Christian, and especially as a CHC-goer. Everyone judges you for being a CHC-goer, including other Christians; or at least that's how I felt for the longest time. "Oh my god, the china wine church" "Oh your pastor pocketed the money?" "Everyone's queueing up to give money to your pastor" "You all got the Greece trip? Your church bribed the school ah?" "All these biblically-shallow, feel-good worshippers" "Prosperity gospel" etc. I thought it was miraculous that people accepted me as the CF leader. This must be somewhat similar to how a homosexual pastor might feel.

I don't see the need to justify myself, or my church, or anyone. The church's been publicly shamed for longer than I've been in it. I do take the stand that my church is as sound in its main theological beliefs as any other church, and there is nothing fundamentally wrong with its mode of worship, etc. But my membership does not mean that I fully adopt the complete City Harvest identity as my own identity, just as how my passionate and steady commitment to Yale-NUS doesn't mean I fully take its identity as my own. City Harvest is a place where I feel free to worship and learn to develop my relationship with God; beyond than the immediate institution, I am first a Christian.

Besides, I also don't think it should be necessary for me to completely reject the ways and beliefs of my church - "I go there, but I don't agree with any of it" - in order to feel socially accepted. This church guided me in my journey with Jesus; without it, I wouldn't have known God like I now do. Yes, I don't drink it all in; not all of what I believe is from the church; I disagree with the ways in which they present certain things, and - well - unlike many Christians (enough to get me extremely frustrated and worried), I am very much for evolution, as much as the average non-Christian. But I owe a great deal to this place.

Also I have come to be very frustrated at the self-righteousness of many demeaningly cynical non- or anti-Christians. Oh, look at those opiate-addicted religious people, naive, unquestioning, just buying these lies. Look at this City Harvest, the thousands of stupid sheep just buying it all in. Maybe it is my insecurity, but I often feel like people try hard to continue being nice to me upon finding out which church I belong to. Oh, this sad girl. I hope she doesn't give money to the church.

I'm not giving anything, any devotion or defence or money, to a human being. And this is why I will neither defend nor demean my pastor and his wife, but I ask that, like I do, like Jesus does, you do not judge. I ask that you do not mock him, because are you more righteous than a God who will never deride a sinner? More righteous than a God who will cry for our sins, cry for the heartbreak that we inflict upon ourselves? I am a human being, and I too try not to judge. I think the basic thing we can do is practice respect and acceptance, instead of laughing at a person. Today I was invited to watch a series of videos of supposedly deranged people doing embarrassing things in public, like stripping naked in a station or wailing uncontrollably at losing a flight or picking a fight in a bus. Was I supposed to laugh? What if the person in the video, or a deranged person I encountered in the streets one day, was someone I knew, someone who had a pleasant demeanour in secondary school but who possibly got very stressed out when she started working at a law firm, and lost it all one day? Would I find it funny then?

I find it uncomfortable to be around people who practice derision, or a self-righteous sort of compassion, or arrogance that assumes a higher ground, that assumes we can save ourselves because our hearts are so good, or that those who believe in anything beyond are too naive, not enlightened like you are. Right now, halfway around the world from Singapore, I miss the gentle, all-loving respect and humility that I could easily find in those around me, in Christians and non-Christians alike. Humility is something rare and precious, something we all need to be whacked in the head to remember from time to time.

I don't think this post makes much sense. I'm just typing.