Friday, October 22, 2010

Spiritual Art-Making: Chong Keng Sen (Interview)

Source: Createlevoyage (Writer: Aaron Lee)

Chong Keng Sen is pastor of Hope Evangelical Free Church (Chinese) and a visual artist. He recently organised and curated the first Malaysian International Christian Artists Show 2009, an annual regional exhibition in Kuala Lumpur. More details of the show can be found at

Aaron: What are your present artistic preoccupations?

Chong Keng Sen (CKS): Since I left my lecturing days at the Kuala Lumpur College of Art in 2000, to continue my artistic vocation, I have been exhibiting my art both locally and overseas. Back then, as I was also the head of the communication design department, it was difficult to juggle art-making with my responsibilities.

During the mid-’70s to early ’80s, I was quite active in the local arts scene. I was among 23 artists invited for the inaugural Malaysian Young Contemporary show organised by the National Art Gallery, in 1977. Around this time I also became the pastor of a Chinese-speaking church that my wife and I had started some years previously. This new arrangement allowed me to fulfill my artistic vocation. For this, I am grateful to the church leadership for their encouragement and support.

I have a passion for networking with other Christian artists, and exploring ways to help the local Christian community understand the significance of the arts. I have had opportunities to teach in local seminaries and at conferences related to this subject. In 2009, I took up the offer to curate the Malaysian International Artists Show (MICAS09), in which artists from 11 countries participated. I am now preparing for another exhibition in conjunction with the 2010 Christian Conference of Asia assembly, which is held every five years. This exhibition will feature Malaysian Christian artists from the Unity Art Fellowship (AUF), of which I am the advisor. I am also tasked to research and write on the development of Malaysian Christian visual art. Lastly, as the Malaysian coordinator for BuildaBridge International, I am preparing an art camp for refugee children. BuildaBridge International is a Philadelphia-based non-profit art education and intervention organisation that engages the transformative power of the arts to bring hope and healing to societies in need.

Aaron: Is there a particular specific issue or theme that you are exploring at length in your art?

CKS: I agree with the Augustinian understanding that man is a spiritual entity. Presently, I am preoccupied with the spiritual dimension of man, informed by the Biblical worldview. Materialism with its utilitarian logic has sought to replace the need for God. But man is made in God’s image — hence there is a relentless existential tension.

I want my art to bring out the ‘spiritual man’ that is rooted in the divine — over and against the unfortunate, blinding, pursuit of material things. I feel an urgency to heighten this spirituality which is unique to the human race; we are caught up in a materialistic-driven environment, and it is imperative therefore both as an artist and a biblically-informed Christian to dwell on this particular subject. Most of today’s critical issues can only be addressed by a renewal of our spiritual consciousness rooted in the Biblical paradigm.

Aaron: Where does this preoccupation fit into your development as an artist so far?

CKS: Only in the past three years or so, I have begun exploring the ‘motif’ which I think will occupy me for the rest of my life. By this I mean that I hope and seek to heighten man’s spirituality through my art. All of life is spiritual and has spiritual values and implications whatever the human situations and conditions. I want my viewers to remember their spiritual ‘rooting’ in the God of the Bible.

As an example, in my self-portrait I painted myself both as a Chinese as well as one rooted in the Adamic lineage. It is both a recognition and a celebrative gesture, spiritually speaking, hence the art work is entitled Adam’s Song. The ongoing ‘fantasy’ series of imaginary islands and rivers speaks of our longing for something beyond mere materialistic needs in the face of our present man-made degradation — we are spiritual beings.

Aaron: Do you see your work as a calling from God, and in what way?

CKS: It is my conviction that I am made in God’s image. Therefore it is axiomatic that this created image should reflect in various degrees the creative attributes of the Creator (as revealed in the Bible). I am not saying this simply because I am a Christian. Back before I received Christ, I had always accepted the notion of God — especially since, as an art student, I had spent a lot of time observing the natural world.

Aaron: What is the biggest spiritual obstacle you face in your art?

CKS: To me, art-making is primarily both a doxological act — a spiritual act of worship — and a ministering act — the sharing of a life. Again, I do not say this because I am a Christian and a pastor. The fact is that I am constantly being reminded about this spiritual reality in the art of Kandinsky, and recently, of Damien Hirst. I would like to point out that author Ben Okri also likened his writings as an act of prayer.

Thus, for me, the biggest spiritual obstacle is maintaining the integrity of my art-making. This is because my motifs (subject matter) come from my meditating on the Bible and my constant reflection upon what I read in contemporary contexts. This is why I make art, and why I always do so with much rejoicing! Moreover, making something meaningful and pleasing in the ‘here and now’ is also a way to anticipate what I believe will be comprehensive artistic opportunities in the ‘post-Consummation Age’. The Biblical prophetic writings, especially in Isaiah, vividly envision God’s re-creation of the new heaven and the new earth. I like to imagine that in that time, artists will be able to create art in the way that creativity is are truly meant to function.

Aaron: Are there are any artists who are Christian, who have inspired you?

CKS: Definitely! There’s Giotto, Masaccio, Fra Angelico, Zurbaran, and Barlach, for example. Viewing their works in church settings is both meaningful and inspirational. (Personally, admiring Giotto’s fresco in the Arena Chapel, Padua, is much more enjoyable aesthetically and spiritually speaking than perusing Michelangelo’s in the Sistine Chapel.) Contemporaries like HeQi and Emmanuel Garibay are like beacons that lead the way forward. For me, foremost among them is George Rouault. I aspire to be like him in the way he lived his life — as an authentic (spiritual) human being who sought to fulfil his artistic vocation without the hype that is expected of an artist in our modern-post-modern strictures of ‘high art elitism’.

PS: You may view some of Ps Chong's works at this event

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Movie Review: "Eat Pray Love"/"Agora"

"The driving force behind the journey in Gilbert's memoir is a pursuit of truth and divinity. 'You sometimes must reach out of [the world's] jurisdiction for help,' she explains, 'appealing to a higher authority in order to find your comfort.'[5] She knows she is lost and, having reached the end of herself, she cries, 'I just want God.'[6] Gilbert's trip may be indulgent, but her search is earnest. In the adaptation, Liz isn't searching for God, she's searching for herself - a pursuit that many critics have deemed narcissistic. Introspection isn't just selfish, however, it's depressing. The film begins as a treatise on individualism, but it gradually slumps into a rom-com because this offers an easier conclusion. In the book, Gilbert grapples with prayer in New York, forgiveness in an Indian ashram and compassion in a Balinese village. The film sees Liz search for the key to her identity at the same far reaches of the world, but - stopping short of spiritual exploration - perhaps she doesn't look far enough."

Bonus: a movie review on Agora  - " 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

"Christians Don't Believe in Science" and 3 Other Misconceptions

Presented this brief sharing to the Ripples youth group at CDPC Subang today on common misconceptions people have on Christians and Christianity in general. Download the full text here

Christians Dun Believe in Science and 3 Other Common Misconceptions

One day, as I was having a conversation with my secondary school friends, someone asked if I am a Christian. I said, “Yes”. Immediately, he responded by saying, “Oh, in that case, you don’t believe in science.” To my surprise, my friend already has a misconception that Christians don’t believe in science. When you introduce yourself as a Christian, some misconceptions may already have colored his perception of our faith.

Misconception #1: Christians Don’t Believe in Science

a) Famous Christian scientists who contributed to the scientific movement because of their belief in an intelligent Creator who made an orderly world that can be discovered: Copernicus was an astronomer who put forward the first mathematically based system of planets going around the sun, Francis Bacon established scientific method of inquiry through experiment and inductive reasoning, Kepler established the elliptical nature of planetary motion about the sun, Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravity etc.

b) The problem is not with the Bible but with some people’s misinterpretation of the Bible. i.e. Even today we say, “The sun rises in the east” (as it appears to our eyes) even though we know it is scientifically inaccurate. Others mistook a non-biblical popular view (i.e. earth is center of solar system) for what the Bible teaches when it doesn’t teach so.

c) Sometimes some Christians may be careful of accepting a certain ‘scientific’ view not because of their faith but because of the lack of scientific evidence to support this view. But when we do real discoveries of the world, our body and the animals, we are finding out more about how God has designed the universe that reflect His wisdom and power. It motivates us to be better scientists.

Misconception#2: Christians are judgmental! Who are you to judge others?

Who are you to judge his or her lifestyle is wrong? Live and let live! Nowadays, you are forbidden to forbid. No one has the right to judge my own values and lifestyles. It’s my life. On the other extreme, there are people who are critical, resentful and narrow who loves to judge people to make themselves look more important. Jesus was speaking to both groups when He said, “Do not judge or you will be judged” (Matt 7).

Jesus is not saying we should not discern right from wrong or never point out wrong practice/beliefs in others for the sake of unity and tolerance. We are called to make good judgments about false prophets etc (Matt 7:6, 15, 21-23).

What He meant was we should not judge like the Pharisees who judged the wrong things (wrong to heal on Sabbath?) or make right judgments for the wrong reasons. They had a ‘holier than thou” superiority rather than humility. Instead of removing the plank in their own eye, they want to remove the speck of dust in others’ eyes. We need to deal with ourselves first, we will see clearly to help others. We do not claim perfection or superior than others. But we are commanded to know God’s word in order to find out what God wants us to believe and how He wants us to live. Discernment determines our destiny.

Misconception#3: Christians are so intolerant. They always force you to believe what they believe.

We need to be winsome, gentle and respectful when sharing the gospel with our friends. There are two dangers of just stopping to evangelize because we don’t want to offend our friends and to be over zealous in being too pushy when people are not yet ready. Very often, our role as witnesses is to ask them questions, drop hints and be like a guide on a journey to a wonderful new country.

But another cause of this misconception is due to our friends’ belief that all religions are valid paths to God. What they really mean is, “Yes, yes, yes… Jesus is the way to God, but there are other ways to get there too. So why insist everyone else to follow Jesus? All roads lead to Rome.” But if you come to think about it for just a minute, actually not all roads lead to Rome. You can’t drive to Rome using Jalan Puchong or Old Klang Road or Federal Highway. You just can’t pay the toll at LDP and get to Rome. Not all roads lead to Rome.

Jesus did not claim to be just one of many ways to God. He says: “I am the way; no one comes to God but by me.” That’s quite a big claim to make. A man who makes a claim to be the only way to God cannot be just another religious guru. He is either a mad man, a bad man or He is really who He claims to be. Jesus did not leave us the option of regarding him as just another wise human teacher. Great human teachers point to the truth, but they don't claim to be the truth. And yet, here we are confronted with the unique claim of Jesus to be the way, the truth and the life.

This is something that many people find hard to accept. In one of our family conversations about Christianity, my dear relatives told me, “How can you Christians believe that Jesus is the only way? That’s too narrow and exclusive. All religions are lead to God. We are like the ten blind men trying to describe an elephant. One guy touched its trunk and said “The elephant is like a snake”. Another touched its body and said, “No, it’s like a wall”. Yet another touched its leg and think it’s like a tree. As they argued amongst themselves, the King walked by and set them straight, “All of you only got part of the truth. The elephant is a huge animal and each of you touched only a part!”

At first, the story appears to be very humble and inclusive: The truth is greater than any one of us can understand. But the only way you can know that all religions have only part of the truth is if you have the whole truth. The only way you could know that none of the blind men have the whole truth is if you can see the elephant. The only way you can tell this story is if you are the King who sees everything. There is an appearance of humility but actually there is a hidden, almost arrogant assumption that the storyteller has a knowledge that is superior to all others. But how did he get this knowledge? How can he see when everyone else is blind? If I am blind and you are blind, then how can you possibly know what the elephant is really like? You see, the problem with this story is it is actually making a very exclusive statement that no one else got it all correct except himself.

And the funny thing is: the story also contains an important truth. Because the only Person who can see everything and know the complete truth is the King… It’s God Himself. No one else can do that. Like blind men, we humans are all limited and sinful creatures who can only see part of reality. There is nothing we can boast about because we are blind like everyone else groping in the dark. We won’t know what the truth is like unless… unless the King has spoken. Unless the King who knows everything reveals Himself to us and corrects our mistakes. And guess what? That is exactly what the gospel is all about. God has already revealed Himself in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “I once was blind but now I see…” because God has revealed Himself to us. The only way we can know the truth is because He has made Himself known in Christ. He is not just one of many ways or one of many gods. Jesus is the way so let us walk in Him with confidence.

Misconception#4: Christianity is just a crutch for weak people

People need to believe in God because of psychological weakness, unable to cope with life, the desperate need for a father figure or emotional need for comfort or to overcome fear of unknowns.

a) We all need a crutch. In a sense, all of us are crippled (needy sinners) so we need a crutch to help us. So it’s a matter of whether we see our real needs and get help; or we ignore our needs and unable to walk properly.

b) People are often attracted to imagine up a religion for emotional needs – find comfort ad consolation even in self-made beliefs. That’s true. The Bible condemns this practice as idolatry – making substitutes of God who alone can meet our needs.

c) But emotional and psychological needs may also cause us to reject God too. Belief in an all powerful, all holy and all knowing God can be scary and uncomfortable to sinners too. So rejecting belief in God can also be a crutch for psychologically ‘weak’ people to run away from their fear of a Judge so they can live however they like. If we want a comfortable religion, we will not invent an awesome, holy and ‘traumatic’ God like the biblical God.

How Christians Successfully Recover The Bible Text

The latest edition of Kairos magazine: "Rediscovering the Whole Bible" is out! There is an article addressing how Christians can be confident that the Bible we read today accurately reflects the original writings and how to choose an English translation of the Bible:

Have you ever played the Telephone Game? It’s an all-time favorite ice breaker where the first player thinks up a phrase and whispers it to his immediate neighbor. And the message gets passed on quietly to the next person until it reaches the last player who in turn shouts it out loud.

In a ‘successful’ game, the final message would bear so little resemblance to the original statement that everyone breaks out in laughter.

Despite their best attempts, mistakes easily creep in somewhere down the line and distort the entire message.

If communication is such a precarious business, how can we know that the Bible we read today accurately reflect the original writings of the authors?

The original manuscripts were lost in the sands of time. All we have were copies of the original. But people make mistakes. Errors accumulate with each successive copy.

In a few hundred years, who could tell how much of the original message was left intact? Just like in the Telephone Game.

Compound that with the fact that the Bible was not written in English. Not even King James English.

Most of the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew (a few passages were in Aramaic) while the entire New Testament was composed in Greek. That means that for most of us, the message of the Bible needs to be translated into a language we can read and understand.

But why are there so many different English versions of the Bible? How much confidence could we have in the accuracy of these translations?

Recovering Lost Lecture Notes

Unlike the telephone game, however, the biblical text was passed down to us in written form. Writings can be tested and less susceptible to distortions compared to oral whispers. In the ice breaker, communication is limited as “one-to-one” with everyone lined up in single file. But the Apostle Paul’s letters can be transmitted via multiple copies, which in turn duplicated into more numerous copies. Its transmission was non-linear.

The fact is that historians can confidently reconstruct what an ancient manuscript says from existing copies even though they may contain differences.

Here is an analogy of how it works.

During secondary school, I had an Economics teacher whose teaching style seems to have missed the invention of the photocopy machine. Mrs. Lee would write her lengthy lecture notes on the whiteboard while the students furiously copy them down before she could wipe them off.

Suppose that the entire class was hit by a flu bug on the crucial day that Mrs. Lee handed out her much-anticipated “spot questions and sample answers” before the exams. Only three students managed to attend the class and copy them down on their notepads. Pitying their sick friends, each of them lent their notes to ten of their classmates who in turn made more hand-written copies.

Since I had missed the class, the original copy on the whiteboard was lost forever. With exams only a week away, I anxiously tried to contact Mrs. Lee and the three students who made those copies. But for some mysterious reasons, they were also down with flu and quarantined for a week. In a state of panic, I rounded up all the remaining classmates and spread out thirty hand-written copies on the floor to recover the original wordings.

Immediately I can detect some differences. Ten copies have a misspelled word (“inflaxion” instead of “inflation”). Five copies had wrongly ordered phrases (“buy high, sell low” instead of “buy low, sell high”). And one copy contains an entire paragraph not found in any of the others.

Do you think I can accurately reconstruct Mrs. Lee’s original lecture notes based on these different copies?

Sure, I can. Misspellings can be easily spotted, mixed-up phrases can be corrected and it is more likely that an extra paragraph was added to one copy than for it to be omitted from twenty nine copies.

Authentic Text: How Many? How Early?

In simplified form, that is how the science of textual criticism works. Even with more numerous and complicated errors, historians can still recover an ancient document depending on two factors:

1) How many surviving copies do we have to compare and test? The more manuscripts we have, the easier it is to detect differences.

2) What is the time gap between the oldest surviving copies and the writing of the original? The closer to the original, the more confidence we have in the manuscripts.

First let us look at the statistics for non-biblical texts:

Caesar's The Gallic Wars has 10 surviving manuscripts with the earliest copy dating to 1,000 years after the original writing; Thucydides' History (8 manuscripts; 1,300 years elapsed); Herodotus' History (8 manuscripts; 1,350 years elapsed) and Tacitus' Annals (20 manuscripts; 1,000 years). The best preserved of ancient non-biblical writings is Homer’s Iliad with about 650 surviving copies (500 years elapsed).

In comparison, there are approximately 5,500 Greek existing manuscripts that contain all or part of the New Testament! The New Testament was written from about A.D. 50 to A.D. 90. Two major manuscripts, Codex Vaticanus (A.D. 325) and Codex Sinaiticus (A.D. 350) date within 250 years of the time of composition. Most fascinating of all, the earliest fragment of a small portion of John’s Gospel dates about A.D. 120 with other important fragments dating within 150-200 years from the time of composition.

On both counts, the manuscript evidence for the biblical texts overwhelmingly surpassed those of other ancient documents. If skeptics dismiss the Bible as unreliable, then they must also dismiss the reliability of virtually everything we learn from ancient documents.

Even if all of these precious biblical manuscripts were somehow lost, we could still reconstruct the entire New Testament from quotations of Scripture found in ancient catechisms, lectionaries and writings of the church fathers. As the gospel spread further by the end of the 2nd century A.D., New Testament translations were made into Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian and other languages. These early versions (more than 18,000 surviving copies) provide valuable resources for scholars to cross-check the original Greek wordings.

Sir Frederic Kenyon, former director of the British Museum and foremost authority on the subject, wrote:

"The interval between the dates of the original composition (of the New Testament) and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established."

Found In Translation
Now, what about the accuracy of the English Bible translations? Even a brief visit to the nearest Christian bookstore would yield a bewildering variety of Bible versions available today.

How shall we even begin to decide on picking one for our personal use?

For almost three hundred years, the King James Version (completed in 1611) was the most widely accepted translation for English-speaking Protestants. Its lofty language had a profound influence on literature and history. However, modern readers began to find its archaic words hard to understand, thus providing impetus for the explosive growth of Bible translations.

Another important reason for fresh translations came about as archaeologists discovered more and older copies of the biblical text (i.e. the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Codex Sinaiticus). As we saw earlier, such a wealth of manuscript evidence enables us to get even closer to the original writings.

Thirdly, the proliferation of English versions resulted from different translation approaches adopted by the translators. Do they aim for an essentially literal word-for-word translation? Or is their goal a thought-for-thought translation that seeks to get the idea across instead? Or is it a free paraphrase like Eugene Peterson’s The Message? Although all translators need to balance readability and faithfulness to the original text, Bible versions differ in how each of these objectives is emphasized.

For the most accurate access to the biblical text, a modern translation that benefits from the best available manuscripts and adopts a ‘word-for-word’ approach that seeks to retain the words that the biblical authors wrote would be a preferred choice. A paraphrased version can provide an interesting read but when it comes to serious study of God’s inspired word, we need a translation that is as close to the original as possible.

Avoid translations made by a single person for it would leave us at the mercy of his or her own private interpretation. Most important translations are done by committees where its members can check on each other.

Choose a readable translation written in contemporary vernacular. You may also find certain Bible study tools like maps, study notes, cross-references and concordances helpful.

Lastly, it may be a good idea to try out a few translations before making your choice. When you come across a difficult verse, read it in several versions and observe the differences. You may also find online resources like convenient and inexpensive for this purpose.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Spiritual Formation Seminar in PJEFC

Saturday, Oct 9, 2010, at PJEFC.
Time: 9.30am-4.30pm
Venue: Petaling Jaya Evangelical Free Church

Registration Fee (incl refreshment, lunch and notes): RM20

address Petaling Jaya Evangelical Free Church
Heritage Centre
No. 3, Jalan 13/6
46200 Petaling Jaya
phone +60 (3) 7957 4341
fax +60 (3) 7957 4560

map please click here to download a printable A4 copy of the map

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Malaysia International Christian Artists Show (MICAS) 2010

Celebrating 2000 years of Christian art heritage, MICAS 2010 will be launched on the 6th Nov. (Saturday) @5pm at Galeri Dunia Seni Lukis in Kuala Lumpur.

A paper on Christ Alive in Culture will be presented by Dr Rev Rod Pattenden on the 7th Nov (Sunday) at the gallery hall. There will also be special art related workshops for those interested to attend.

Those interested may contact Pastor Kengsen at