The following is a guest post by my friend Joel Gn, writing in response to the latest issue with regards to Reverend Kong of City Harvest Church.
And so it came to past, that a certain Reverend H. Kong declared in hyper-theatrical fashion that God, in the midst of his legal difficulties, had apologised to him. The result was nothing short of a heated exchange between ardent supporters and infuriated detractors, which naturally provoked Kong and his church to issue a statement, explaining that the use of the word ‘sorry’ was in the context of comfort, rather than apology. Although I am for now, convinced that there is no need to debate about semantics and we must admit that verbal slips can playfully colour our language, a closer examination of the sermon presents—to me at least—two very important questions that will be used to initiate the following note.
First, we shall concern ourselves with the conscious, verbal voice of the Almighty to his Son at Gethsemane, for Kong in his sermon believes that the Almighty had expressed sympathy and comfort at his Son’s ordeal. Scripture, however, makes no explicit mention of such an affective state and hence readers would greatly benefit from any effort to locate both the source and context of the Almighty’s voice.
At the same time, we must also take great pains to not forget that if Scripture makes no such mention, then we are entitled to ask if Kong has not carelessly placed his own words over that which by Divine inspiration was left to be silent. In other words, is Kong writing on behalf of the other? Does he claim to speak for God when God speaks not?
There is less of a need to deliver a response to the first question. Rather, I shall concede and argue in Kong’s place that the expression or inference of Divine emotion occurs by way of analogy, insofar as Kong had employed it as a metaphor for his own trials. In this way, our attention is brought to the second question of his basis for the Passion as a rhetorical device. Doubtless anyone would encounter much difficulty when making the appropriate justification for such a comparison; the depth of the Passion’s symbolism transcends history, whereas a lawsuit, as the prefix suggests, is but an arbitrary matter of law.
From an Evangelical perspective (and I may only draw reference to the tradition I am aligned with), the comparison is equally, if not more problematic, given that the Passion is understood to be a mission of salvation. Hence, the only path to take is to again, direct the question to Kong and ask if he had implied that his legal issues were for the good of others. And whilst the good of salvation retains its clarity among believers, I would wager that it does no one any good if he is convicted or acquitted, since it is agreed that such good is to be found in the Cross and not on the verdict of the court.
But let us not pass these questions by, for they point to a more severe problem within the very language of Evangelicalism itself, namely the condition for the possibility of such questions. As much as Kong would probably refuse to admit, there is hardly any difference between his imbrication of the Passion with his own situation and the absence of a transcendental signified which, according to Jacques Derrida, ‘is never absolutely present outside a system of differences’ (280). Kong’s controversial comparison is to be read as a symptom of the postmodern condition, where metaphors are layered over one another and masks are stripped to reveal other masks. By way of personalising Scripture, Kong has simply applied the postmodern sleight of hand to find no one, except himself in the text. As written by Friedrich Nietzsche with much prescience:
‘Ultimately, man finds in things nothing but what he himself as has imported into them.’ (327)
Such an absence then, predicated on the writing and interpretation of one, denotes not just the absence of unequivocal meaning, but the very absence of God himself. By claiming to speak for the Almighty over a space of silence, Kong wrote himself over the text and consequently assumed the affective state of the Passion for himself. A disturbing similarity to the primitive stigmata is invoked in this instance, for even as they are intense corporeal experiences of the Crucifixion, their hermetical structure delivers no revelation to the outsider. It suffices to claim that Kong’s efforts had utterly fallen short, if we adhere to the notion that an exegesis of the sermon brings Divine revelation to the listeners.
But to determine that his interpretation, however absurd, was theologically incorrect should be confined to another domain, for we have only gone so far as to establish he was making a relatively inappropriate interpretation. That is to say, he should not have made that comparison given the setting, audience and the specific designation of his ministry, but to say that Kong or anyone else is not entitled to such an interpretation remains a separatist and equally problematic opposition, for what is ahead of us is not about the propensity of interpretations to proliferate (for they will and can only continue to do so), but where these interpretations are going and the point upon which they will overtake us.
Hence, our inquiry will delve into the very tenets of Evangelicalism itself, not in terms of what the tradition does, but what it believes it is doing. The fact that Kong’s detractors have only managed to identify the fault in his application and not interpretation of Scripture can only be due to the emphasis on praxis at the expense of communal hermeneutics on the part of contemporary Evangelicalism. For all its grandiose manifestations of extravagant worship, exemplary conduct and acts of service, it is this particular tradition (many members would claim in ignorance that they are non-denominational) which knows too little of its own history or tradition.
Apart from personal, subjective belief, there is little or no space for interpretation, not because one is not allowed to make or have one, but that it is not practical or tangibly effective to do so. If the Word must be enacted in works, then one should act and refrain from extensively deliberating on what the Word can possibly mean. It is certainly ironic that in their own critique of past traditions as monolithic and idolatrous, most Evangelicals have turned simplistic notions of ‘spiritual gifts’ and ‘outreach’ into objects of worship. In short, the rituals did not disappear, but have conveniently adopted new forms.
It is thus in this particular trajectory of development that the space for interpretation has eroded, for in failing to interpret and read for what it can possibly mean, the one who hears inadvertently pays homage to a single regime of understanding. Kong sees himself in the text, and his followers in turn encounter him in the message. In an irreverent modification of the language of St. John, the word was Kong, and Kong was god. Still, Kong is not solely in error here—the lack of a community of interpretation, I argue, underscores the blind fault of an Evangelical tradition that has been increasingly displaced by the influences and hence praxis of contemporary culture. Without a community of interpretation, without the space for debate about interpretation, we like the ones who took Christ to the cross, know not what we are doing.
Recourse to a community of interpretation in the Evangelical tradition is pertinent, for if it claims to belong to the Church of Christ, then it must recover that which it lost. Rather than seek to replace one regime of knowledge over another, there is an urgent need to collective consider, deliberate and arbitrate over all interpretive endeavour. As profoundly expressed by John Behr in The Mystery of Christ:
‘The interpretative character of theological statements forces us to take seriously the exegetical practices of the apostles and the early Christians following in their footsteps, in and through which doctrinal formulae were articulated. The disciples did not simply come to understand Christ in the light of Passion. Rather, only when turned again (or were turned by the risen Christ) to the Scriptures (meaning what we call now the “Old Testament”), did they begin to see all sorts of references to Christ [italics my own]…In this it is not so much Scripture that is being exegeted, but rather Christ who is being interpreted by recourse to the Scriptures.”
Behr’s excerpt, I contend, raises two critical counter-gestures to the fundamental problems of Kong’s hermeneutical position. First, Christ did not bequeath his message to one, but to all his disciples, which defines an important horizon for the plurality of interpretation and its accompanying anti-totalitarian insistence. Christ’s body was not broken for one, but for many and thus the ‘doctrinal formulae’ Behr refers to was not articulated by a single person. The early Church, for example took monumental efforts to develop and debate it as a body of believers. Like the sower who intended all seeds be scattered and planted, the Word belongs not to a single principality and will not be occluded by it.
And second, it is from this dissemination that we participate in collective proclamation, a point Behr teaches when he explains that the disciples when turned to the Scriptures began to see all sorts of references to Christ. This is not to say that Christ was in one interpretation, but that Christ persists in all interpretations. For the faithful, the possibility of proclamation is neither derived from affirming nor refuting Kong’s interpretation (since that would already either be an alliance or conflict of varying regimes) but by subjecting it to other interpretations, to tenably refuse the absolutism of his interpretation, to be aware that Scripture is always in excess of his own significance, for according to St. Paul, we see through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12). The Greek for glass, (εσοπτρου) is as subtle as it is paradoxical, for while we see through this glass, we, in our own strength, know not if it is the lens through in which we see God or the mirror whereupon we find no one but ourselves.
Which in this case (and quite certainly in all cases), it is imperative to attend to the call for a community of interpretation, to ‘bear one another’s burdens’ (Galatians 6: 2) as it were, for it is by sight that we come to see our struggle with blindness. Consider St. Paul’s blindness on the road to Damascus and how the revelation could only unfold and be brought back to sight by his meeting with Ananias. This is not merely a commissioning or sending forth, but also a dialogue between the faithful, for it is in dialogue, in the interpretation of revelation that we attend to the blindness of others. Throughout the history of the Church and no matter how uncomfortable the circumstances, this dialogue has been at work, not to add or take away what has been put down by Divine inspiration, but to understand all this in light of one another’s situation, to empower the faithful with wisdom to tell the left from the right; to know the difference between heresy and orthodoxy.
To conclude, the dispute that Kong has sparked off is not between an established creed and his band of seemingly recalcitrant followers, but of one’s version of God against the other. In writing this note, I too am likewise inflicted with the postmodern condition of encountering myself in the text, of interpreting Scripture alone and of treacherously mistaking my own image for the Divine’s. Even more disconcerting is that to date, no council has been established to review, much less censure Kong’s theological framework, which has arguably culminated in an absolutist sense of belief in his own community. We have, quite unfortunately, done only as each of us has saw fit.
This crisis probably explains why the majority of detractors have never managed to agree or get further than Kong’s prosecutors, when they essentially claim that he has abused his authority and the status of the church for personal profit. Reservations aside, I have to agree with his followers here: there is absolutely no need for others to attend to the legality of the issue; the courts are more than equipped to handle it. The fault, I claim, is located at the every structure of Evangelicalism itself, of its modernisation and relentless pursuit of action over debate and of the imminent demise of its own theology. It is my prayer that we come together and rigorously engage this, with much fear and trembling, before what is imminent is eventually reality.
Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. London: Routledge, 1978. Print.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1967. Print.
Update: I’ve written a response to Joel’s article here.
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