Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Why the popularity?

I got up at 6 when the alarm in my phone sounded and although I had roused myself from sleep, I didn't really get ready as I should have.  Instead, I was engrossed in my own reading until time was running out.  I got dressed, rushed to the car and sped off.  The roads were deserted and it took me only ten minutes to get to church.  I expected to be able to park my car by the road just next to the church but the entire stretch of the road was lined with cars even in parts where it was illegal to park.  I had to park right on the hilltop where there were still a few places left.  Carrying my instrument in one arm and my jacket in another, I rushed down the hill.  I could hear the loud singing of a multitude of people.  They were singing a familiar Easter hymn for it was Easter (this happened just two days ago) and I was to join the rest in my group at 7am for a quick rehearsal.  As I was going down the hill, a strange sight greeted me.

The rooftop of one part of the church was filled with people.  It then dawned on me that these must be parishioners who had gone for the 6am sunrise service.  If there were already so many people at the 6am service, what was I doing playing at the other two morning services?  Would there be anybody attending since most of them would have gone for the 6am service?  As it turned out for both the subsequent services, the church was filled to the brim and even the courtyards outside the church were packed with worshippers.

Why are churches in Asia and Africa attracting so many people when elsewhere in the world, churches have been turned into concert halls and tourist sites?  Last November, I attended services in Canterbury Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral and on other occasions, I have been to churches in various parts of Europe and if there's one word to describe church attendance in most of Europe, it's dismal.  In Salisbury Cathedral, there were only a handful of worshippers and they were all very old and I was possibly the only one there who didn't need a walking stick.  I was seated next to an old grandmother whose grandson was singing in the choir and she told me that once her generation had passed on, there'd be nobody left to attend church.  There were more choristers than parishioners in that cathedral.

I know for a fact that people in China are dying to embrace the Christian faith.  I say this with confidence because a missionary in China I know confirmed this.  But China is a strange country and is not representative of the rest of Asia.  As I understand it, people in China associate Christianity with the West, particularly the US and anything American is good enough for them.  Christian converts run into the millions but it's highly questionable if they are "true" believers - so says this missionary I corresponded with.  He has this niggling suspicion that if all Americans turned Mormon overnight, the people in China would do the same.

China has been through almost a century of Communism and the Chinese are now mainly atheistic.  Adopting Christianity is no different to them from putting on Western clothes.  Christianity is high fashion and the trendsetter is the US.  The rest of Asia (and I would surmise, Africa too) is quite different.  People in Asia are generally superstitious and they have their own religions and Christianity would be looked upon with some suspicion or at best, a competing religion.

But for some reason that is not entirely clear to me, Christianity appears to fare better than other competing religions.  Christmas is celebrated by everyone and in Singapore, non-Christians celebrate it in a big way too, complete with the Christmas turkey, Christmas tree, presents, the singing of hymns but I think (I'm not sure of this) the average heathen Singaporean would stay away from the prayers.  They tuck into their Christmas turkey without saying grace.

The partiality to Christianity among non-Christians in Singapore can also be seen in the adoption of the names of our saints and other names from the Bible.  I have spoken to a few devout Buddhists and they have no qualms about naming their children after Christian saints but they would stay away from names from the Buddhist sutras.  I do not know of anyone who names his kid "Siddhartha" or "Ananda" although presumably, these names would have a greater meaning to devout Buddhists and Buddhism is the majority religion in Singapore.

It is for this reason that churches are able to propagate the faith without the slightest hitch.  The whole nation is highly receptive or if I may borrow the words of our Lord, the harvest is white.

Is this a good thing?  The sort of Christians we get in such an environment are those who aren't really bothered about the details of the faith.  They aren't interested in the intellectual aspects of Christianity.  There is a parallel with China Christians here.  Whereas China believers may very well have taken on the faith as a trendy fashion, many Asian Christians have merely traded one superstition for another.  Apart from a total lack of interest in the faith, they are also not prepared to read critical works of the Bible or books on textual criticism.  Being deeply superstitious, they are fearful that any form of criticism of their new-found faith will offend the forces within their religion with terrifying consequences.

Christianity as the favoured religion in many countries today seems like a totally different religion from the Christianity of the early persecuted church.  In the early days of Christianity, non-believers stayed away from anything Christian also because it was a despised religion.  Only those with deep convictions remained in the faith.

Ask any believer what makes him or her think that the Bible is the word of God, or worse, for the fundamentalists, that it is the inerrant word of God.  I have not found a single person who can give a satisfactory answer.  But you have to exercise caution.  Merely asking such a question is offensive to some people, particularly if they know you are a Christian too.  There is an unwritten code that fellow Christians are obliged to conceal the weaknesses and all the glaring errors of our faith, a code which I reject as dishonest and un-Christian.

That all religions are fraught with errors and untruths is a statement of fact.  Anybody who is honest enough and knowledgeable enough is sure to admit to serious irreconcilable problems within his own faith.  99% of believers are in the dark about these problems.  But surely there must be at least 1% of believers in all the different religions who are aware of the problems with faith?  These are not minor problems.  They have the potential to challenge the truth of religious claims and expose the falsehood in religion.

How does this 1% react?  Many of them are religious scholars and that's not surprising since we are dealing with the intellectual part of the faith and not the mumbo-jumbo feel-good emotional aspects.  Some, like Bart Ehrman, have left the faith.  But he didn't immediately leave the church.  He stayed on for 10 years as a pastor before leaving it.  He's now a renowned Bible scholar.  He writes books to tell the lay person what he styles as things that all scholars already know but have kept the laity in the dark.

Some just go on with their lives and religion without any fuss.  There are many people who can live with the fact that their holy books contain not just errors but deliberate lies as well.  I can't speak for other holy books but I know for a fact that it is certainly the case with the Bible.  It contains errors and deliberate lies.  The lies usually take the shape of cooked up stories by the Bible writers (principally the Evangelists) and they do that because they felt it was needful to convince their readers that Jesus was the Messiah who fulfilled Old Testament prophecies.

I should add that I do not make a claim unadvisedly and I'm able to defend every word I've said about the Bible with clear evidence.  That I can incontrovertibly prove these things about the Bible is not an issue.  The real question is this - what should our reaction be to all this?  Do we leave our childhood religion and declare ourselves atheists?  I must confess I did exactly that in my younger days.  Or do we look at religion in the context of its history and culture and see what good to humanity Christianity can do?  Even the most hardened sceptic must admit that there is a lot of good that the church has done.  No other organisation on this planet can hold a candle to the great charitable works of the church, the orphanages, hospitals, hospices, old folks' homes and countless other homes and charitable institutions it runs.  It's a huge sacrifice to the church and a thankless service too but the church continues to do it not for earthly rewards or recognition but as an expression of Christ's love for the world.

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