The message read simply enough: “We invite you to address us on the theme ‘Reformation Then and Now.'” But the origin of the request gave me pause. It came from Presbyterian churches in Singapore that trace their roots to conservative American Presbyterians, circa 1950. Beyond traveling halfway around the world, there stood a more daunting challenge. How could I draw lessons from the Refomation, for a body of churches living in an Asian, Westernized, prosperous, polyglot, polyethnic culture that I barely understood? What could I say about the Reformation to believers so far removed from Luther and Calvin?
The character of the Reformation is so distant, so alien to Singapore, an island state without German or Catholic roots. Their religious interlocutors are not a single, society-dominating, gospel-fuddling church, but an amalgamation of Taoists, Muslims, Hindus, and syncretistic, shape-shifting Buddhists.
Concerns of the Reformation
My meditation on the distance from Luther and Singapore led me to ask if the gap between Luther and America might be just as great. Luther was wracked by guilt and doubted his ability to lay hold of sufficient grace to satisfy God’s justice. The typical American feels no such burden. For Americans, guilt is not a problem, but a pseudo problem. Luther agonized over the wrath of God toward sin. Today, Christianity lite regards God as a genial Father, arms perpetually open to everyone, without mentioning repentance and atonement. Luther worried about demons bent on dragging his sinful soul to hell. Americans scoff; many Singaporeans share his concern. Here, Hindus flog and pierce themselves, hoping to atone for their sin. Their customs and rationale seem eerily similar to that of medieval flagellants. Here, Buddhists buy garden deities (for $88.88) that promise divine favor in terms that bear resemblance to the indulgences that stimulated Luther’s Ninety-five Theses.
So Singapore and Seattle might be equally distant from Luther. Later, as I witnessed the Singaporean Christians’ passion to spread the gospel to China, Nepal, Vietnam, and Malaysia, I wondered if conditions might make Singapore the source of a new Reformation.
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