How much should the Chinese in Singapore retain of their ancient culture? As an immigrant population on the Malaysian peninsula, earlier arrivals—the Peranakan—have often retained their ancestral religion. On a recent visit, I saw paper money being burned for ancestors to use in the netherworld. “Hell notes,” said one of my hosts. And yet, according to another host, when Chinese from mainland China visit, they dismiss these ancestral ways as outdated. “A result of communism,” I was told. What should I think about this loss of religion?
For one, Singapore is a unique place. Situated between the Free West and the Communist East, the small nation has made itself the banking capital of Asia and the host of many multinational corporations. As a democratic socialist state, it politically embraces both the socialism of the East and the democracy of the West. Its time zone is actually one hour off the true time, in order to align with Hong Kong. Having gone from an underdeveloped nation to a developed nation within one generation of its birth in 1965, Singapore in one sense epitomizes the secular globalization of many modern cities. Like the Chinese from mainland China or many urbanites in America, the city in its orientation is very secular—literally, of this age.
The secularism strikes me as a Western encroachment on the East. The founders of the nation were British trained—the city was founded in 1819 as a British colony by Stamford Raffles—and even today, the top graduates are often sent, government-paid, to study at “Oxbridge” in England or Ivy League schools in America. Are East and West drawing closer together, or is the West “winning” over the East?
Posing the question this way is very Gentile-like. The myth of East and West goes back at least to Herodotus, the so-called “father of history,” who pictured the Persian invasions of Greece as the balancing corrective of an east-versus-west pendulum. Had he lived to see Alexander the Great, Herodotus may have pictured the pendulum in its opposite extreme. Such a view of history is very Gentile-centered and arrogant. In the apostle Paul’s inspired letter to Christians in the capital of the Roman Empire, the apostle Paul warned Gentile believers three times not to be arrogant toward the Jews, as if God had forgotten His chosen ethnic people (Romans 11). History is truly a story of “the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16); and it will culminate with the salvation of the Jews (Romans 11:25-26). Here is the fundamental ethnic polarity.
The church is composed of both Jews and Gentiles. Among the Gentiles, the church incorporates both East and West. In the providence of God, Christianity first succeeded in the Gentile West but failed in the Gentile East, as witnessed by the Sigan-Fu Stone, an over nine-foot-high slab of black limestone, discovered early in the seventeenth century. The stone, set up in A.D. 781, told of the missionary monk from Syria, known to the Chinese as A-lo-pen, who brought a Nestorian gospel to northwest China in the early eighth century, but the emperors suppressed all testimony and worship in Jesus’ name (as told in Sinclair Ferguson, In the Year of Our Lord). In contrast, the Gentile West became nominally Christian under Constantine and then very Christianized in the early Middle Ages, even among the Germanic barbarians. According to Charles Norris Cochrane, in his excellent book Christianity and Classical Culture, the gospel changed the way Westerners thought, especially in the areas of personality (an emphasis on the individual’s will) and history (an emphasis on linear progression). Therefore, when a person complains that western missionaries are imposing their “western” ways on the East or on other cultures, I would like to know whether the opposition is due to West-versus-East, a very Gentile-centered question, or Christian-versus-pagan, a very Christian question.
Discerningly, how much of Western culture is due to Christianity? And even among those elements, how have they been perverted due to current secularism?
As Gentiles, both East and West should approach each other with parity—equally open to criticism and equally eager to speak the truth in love. Because the biblical culture is foreign to both of us, neither side should consider it with exclusive ownership, as if there is a giving-and-receiving relationship here (Romans 1:14). Even if the West has had the gospel longer, western culture has perverted and distorted its biblical heritage, so that it needs correction all over again.