Interview with Christopher Tan

Christopher Tan (b. 1972) is a writer, cooking instructor, and photographer. A commentator on and chronicler of food, culture and heritage for local and international publications for over two decades, he has given talks and demonstrations at museums and symposia in Singapore, Paris, California, and Sydney. He has authored and co-authored numerous cookbooks, most recently The Way of Kueh, a compendium of Singapore’s traditional kueh heritage which won Best Illustrated Non-Fiction Book and Book of the Year at the 2020 Singapore Book Awards.

In this interview, Jonathan and Christopher talk about Christopher’s path to becoming a writer, a theology of cooking and eating, and the sense of the ineffable that has carried Christopher through his work.

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Jonathan: Was there a spiritual or religious element to your upbringing? I’m thinking particularly of how you grew up between the UK and Singapore – how did these transitions and this exposure to different places and communities shape you?

Christopher: On religion, not at all – my immediate family were not even faintly religious. The first time I had any taste of organised religion was after my parents and I moved to the UK when I was 13. I enrolled in a local school that was nominally affiliated with the Church of England – we sang a hymn in assembly twice a week, and Scripture was a subject at the primary level. The latter had much less of an impact on me than the influence of Christians who were my form teachers and mentors during my secondary and high school years.

One other thing which opened my eyes to religion – which I am not at all being flippant about – was that in the UK I lived not far from a predominantly Jewish area whose shops were the only ones open on Sundays in the ‘80s. So one of the first things which acquainted me with the people of the Book was their food and the importance of food in their culture… and also how ingrained their religion was in their everyday lives.

‘Jeremiah 4:14’ by Christopher Tan

In hindsight, I think God was speaking me to during my childhood and teenage years through what C. S. Lewis has identified as ‘sehnsucht’ – the longing for something ineffable and indescribable but yet that was intensely craved. One clear moment of this happened when I was in France on a school history trip, and wandering around Bayeux Cathedral in Normandy… I had not spent much (if any) time in churches before then, and the ambient mood of the cathedral just seemed so different to me, somehow elevated and separated from regular everyday life. I reckon this was not so much because of anything particular about the setting, but because God was allowing me to sense something of His presence, to the extent that I could at that stage of my spiritual development.

Reading English children’s classics in my youth, by C. S. Lewis and his ilk, exposed me to a certain metaphysical-mystical-magical realist strain of storytelling which likely primed me for sehnsucht, also. I am thinking here of authors like Lucy M. Boston, Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Lewis Carroll, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Richard Adams and such.

I actually came to Christ after a platoon mate witnessed to me during BMT. Shortly after this, I started attending a local church. Then, after finishing NS and going back to the UK for university – ironically enough, UCL, the ‘godless college’ – my experience of the faith exploded after I joined the Christian Union and a gospel choir, visited churches of different denominations, attended Christian festival camps, and so on.

Jonathan: That sense of the ineffable, this sehnsucht that Lewis identified, is such a profound and transcendent sensation. It must have carried you onward after university, as you transitioned from your academic training in psychology to your present endeavours in writing about food. How did God bring you along this path?

Christopher: When I was in primary school, I felt drawn toward the craft of writing, albeit in a vague and inchoate way. At the secondary and high school level, I opted for science rather than arts subjects, as they interested me more, and also out of pragmatism – this was in an era where the arts were not as prominently supported in Singapore as they are now. In university, psychology was the only subject I felt suited me. It also taught me valuable skills – the rigour and concision of writing papers, planning analyses, and experimental trials – which serve me to this day.

After graduation and trying and failing to find a job in academic research, I ended up working for a magazine publisher, writing mental health articles for its health magazine and food articles for its F&B mag. Gradually, food writing subsumed all other endeavours. After I left that firm to go freelance, I started writing cookbooks as well as teaching cooking classes, and have been doing that ever since.

Something which God has always impressed on me – and I mean on me personally, I don’t mean to say that this is necessarily prescriptive for anyone else – is that my responsibility is to look after my character and spiritual formation and that God’s responsibility is to look after my reputation and career. And He holds me to it – I can testify that every single attempt I’ve made to further myself by making connections with influential people or ‘bigging up’ my work has failed, often dismally so. Only when I take the hands off the reins and leave it to God to open doors and nudge me in the right direction and fill my creative lamp with oil, that’s when things fall into place. God takes all the credit.

‘Psalm 23:4’ by Christopher Tan

Jonathan: That’s incredibly encouraging – and quite sagely counsel for so many involved in creative pursuits, whether it’s meant to be prescriptive or not. Though thinking of food, while it may often be overlooked, food is central to so many pivotal moments in the Bible – feasts, celebrations, weddings, harvests. Even recipes feature in some chapters of the Bible. What have been ways you have been able to weave some of these Biblical notions and representations of food into your creative work?

Christopher: The first ‘recipes’ in the Bible are actually for anointing oil and incense, dictated to Moses by God in Exodus 30. God very firmly instructs him that the oil and incense were sacred, holy things not to be used frivolously or merely for sensory pleasure – they were signs and carriers of holiness itself. The incense is also twice referred to as ‘the work of a perfumer’ – and yet, how often does perfumery feature in modern-day surveys of ‘Christian art’? Clearly, God cares about smells. I originally started thinking about all this when I had the opportunity to write a couple of pieces about the intersection of food and perfumery and the immense complexity of natural aromas.

Also, a central thread of my book The Way of Kueh (2019) was to encourage people to rediscover the meaningfulness and fruitfulness of cooking together with their families, extended families and communities – to understand that it not only eases physical labour and produces wonderful food but also that it strengthens bonds and passes on wisdom and legacies.

The Way of Kueh (2019)

Most people, in the church and outside of it, seldom think of cooking as ‘art’ unless it’s in the context of high-concept fine-dining, or decorated cakes, to be honest, and they can be dismissive, whether consciously or not. I get strangers asking me for free recipes now and then – I’m not sure if they realise that as a cookbook author and culinary instructor, I invest a lot of time (sometimes years), effort and expense in recipe development, and that’s how I make my living. I always want to reply by asking them if they ask doctors they barely know for free prescriptions, but I bite my tongue…

Jonathan: It’s such a restorative act to reframe cooking as a fundamentally communal activity, and a sensuous, visceral one as well. There’s something about the sensations, smells, and tastes that can bypass the rational or intellectual and bring people into a fold of warmth and affection. There’s something about how a recipe transmits memory, one that is both embedded and embodied through the shared acts of cooking and eating. Is this part of a holistic vision that you’ve attempted to put forth in your work?

Christopher:
I believe that insofar as the Fall corrupted mankind, it is echoed in how our desires and drives – created for and meant to be directed towards good things – get led astray. Greed and lust are corruptions of good desires for things meant to nourish and help us physically and spiritually, warped into never-satiated hunger for unhealthy amounts of unhealthy things.

Hence in all aspects of my work, I feel pressure to help point and guide others in the opposite direction, to help them rightly perceive and rightly respond to themselves and the world, the flesh and the spirit, the beautiful and the ugly.

Secular art – and increasingly, the contents of social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram –  is made and positioned to glorify itself or the cleverness of the artist who created it. As Christians, we have a different mandate – we use our art to point away from ourselves and to God and the things of God. And yes, to foster sehnsuct.

Also, I view cooking as an incredibly unique discipline: cooking is both a craft and an art form. It is also one of the most necessary crafts and art forms – we all need to eat. It is also one of the most accessible and easiest to acquire skills – learning to cook at a decent level is easier than, say, picking up piano-playing, I would argue. As a medium, food is as capable as music or dance or prose at expressing all aspects of the human condition and experience, and at evoking emotion: we can often lose sight of this because of cooking’s everydayness.

Learning to appreciate ingredients, from the agricultural level upwards, is part of creation care, and cooking and eating wisely is an inseparable part of care for oneself and others, and also of medical ministry. Cooks and farmers receive and engage with the food-related symbols and metaphors in the Bible – salt, yeast, wheat, harvest, fruit, etc – on a different level than non-cooks and non-farmers, simply because we live and work close to the ground.

In the context of the wider Church, making food to bless people has always been a core part of my role in the various ministry groups I’ve been a part of. So I guess my culinary creative impulse has served more of a ‘tentmaker’ type of purpose rather than through an overtly ‘artistic’ contribution. I probably enjoy it more this way.

Yet beyond once writing a few recipes for a church magazine, and cooking for the odd bake sale or pot luck, my food work has not directly impinged on my organised church life. Perhaps the only – and the most vivid – exception was when on a couple of occasions I was roped in by a friend to help put together and lead Messianic Jewish Passover dinners with liturgies for small groups, which were enormously fulfilling and meaningful endeavours for me.

With regard to food embodying memory and meaning: Jesus instituted holy communion as an act of eating and drinking and remembrance, and did so in the context of a supper. Then, among Jesus’ first recorded post-resurrection deeds, he cooked a barbecued fish breakfast for the disciples. What does all this say about the significance of cooking and eating together in the new kingdom?

‘Mark 8:7’ by Christopher Tan

Jonathan: That’s an incredible way of weaving together all these dimensions of the act of cooking, whether symbolic, scientific, or communal. Were you ever conscious of the relationship between your faith, your work, your cooking, and your writing, the latter two particularly as artistic practices?

Christopher: I find these questions quite tough to answer. I have always tackled the writing first and foremost from the posture of a jobbing writer – 2 Thessalonians 3:10, after all – as opposed to from an identity as ‘an artist’.

For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10, NIV)

I focus on and enjoy the craft of writing without feeling I need to wear a hat that says ‘artist’. It’s more like – these are the skills I’ve been given and been enabled to nurture. Therefore these are what I use to make my way in the world and make my living. In fact, it was probably only when I started attending meetings with The Group in its early days that it even occurred to me to think about writing as my ‘artistic practice’. It still doesn’t feel wholly natural to me to come at it from that angle.

Music is in many ways, my first love. I can’t play any instruments or write songs, but I love singing. As mentioned, I was in a gospel choir at university for 3 years, and in a Christian a cappella group in Singapore, Agapella, for 12 years. I find the immediacy and intimacy of live vocal performance simultaneously dauntingly challenging and enormously thrilling. Among the hardest and also most rewarding experiences in my life thus far have been the album recordings I did with Agapella and for some other ministries. I’m not currently involved in any music ministries, and I miss it sorely – it’s like not using a limb.

And then there’s photography: I initially got into it from having to take my own photos for journalism work assignments. From there, I segued into becoming a weekend hobby photographer, to doing wedding shoots for friends, to finally shooting all the photographs for my own cookbooks.

‘Matthew 25:13’ by Christopher Tan

When I really think about it, the work projects which I most enjoy and which seem to be the most fruitful are those which require me to wear multiple hats simultaneously. When I teach cooking, I draw upon my writing skills to craft detailed recipes, as well as upon my performance skills during the actual class. I use both of those skills, plus photography when I give talks and presentations with slideshows and demonstrations. I draw on my science background when I am researching and developing recipes for my cookbooks, and then on my academic and journalist experience to digest and translate the information into palatable forms (in all senses) for readers.

It has been a gradual realisation for me that perhaps I am called to work the boundaries – to inhabit the spaces and bridges between disciplines and fields, to have feet in different camps and fingers in different pies. I’m figuring it out as I go along.

‘Psalm 18:13’ by Christopher Tan

Jonathan: To kind of stalk the borders, or to probe the boundaries between disciplines – that’s such a vital role to be playing.

Now, what would you want to say to pastors and ordinary church folks who may not be familiar with your writing as a form of art, or even with food and cooking as a mode of worship? I’m thinking of how occasions such as Christmas or the Lunar New Year are ripe with opportunities to get people thinking about a theology of food.

Christopher: What a great question. I think Robert Farrar Capon’s The Supper of the Lamb (1969) covers pretty much all the bases with regard to a theology of food – I would recommend that to them, first of all.

Second of all, I would point to a Feast as being both a frequent biblical metaphor and an explicit feature of the coming kingdom as mentioned by Jesus himself, and ask – how can our feasting on earth now prefigure and anticipate the Feast?

Who are the ‘widows and orphans’ and Mephibosheth-es whom we can host and serve? Can we leave aside lame jokes about ‘fei lo ship’ and view our dining tables as opportunities to proclaim and practise the kingdom?

‘1 Corinthians 4:12’ by Christopher Tan
‘Genesis 1:29’ by Christoper Tan
‘Penang-style char kway teow’ by Christopher Tan

Cover image: ‘Matthew 19:14’ by Christopher Tan

Website: http://foodfella.com/

The Digital Music World: A Lesser Explored Pastoral and Missional Frontier

Summary

In this essay, one of our Groupers, Dr. Calvin Chong, shares about his journey of exploring fresh missional, pastoral, and educational possibilities through digital technology and the arts with various communities.

He shares 6 examples for our consideration: i. collaborative music making with seniors; ii. music ministry amongst Thai youth; iii. digital music production class with Myanmese refugee youths; iv. online music therapy; v. sonic arts with migrant workers; vi. performing Bible texts.

Calvin is an Associate Professor of Practical Theology at Singapore Bible College, Board member of the migrant NGO HealthServe, and a leader at Covenant Community Methodist church.

Church Music Ministries: Alive or Asleep?

One of major setbacks for churches in COVID pandemic lockdown has been the loss of our ability to participate in in-person congregational worship. The restrictions that churches have had to endure over the last year-and-a-half has resulted in church bands and choirs becoming less active. This loss of momentum has seen our musicians and their equipment now become rusty or dusty.

The same has been true for church groups conducting musical outreaches into the community. Whether to hospices, elderly homes, and shelters, or through face-to-face classes with underprivileged youth, domestic workers or migrant workers, many outreach initiatives have now come to a standstill.

This sad, sleepy state of music ministry’s contribution to the life of the church might strike a chord with many, but it tells only half the story. That’s because early adopters of digital music technologies have long been creating and recording music on their computers and mobile devices. This group was already exploring music ministry’s horizons of possibilities and were able to help fill the content gaps for weekly pre-recorded or live-streamed worship services. 

With relative ease, they helped create backing tracks, home worship recordings, and even video collages of choirs and bands from their home studios. Late adopters picked up necessary skills and know-how to support various worship and outreach initiatives. 

Far from having to stare blankly at a wall of uncertainty, this ministry discovered new impetus and energy. From the contribution of this team, congregation members in lockdown continued to be provided weekly opportunities to exalt, encounter, and respond to God in praise and worship.  Opportunities for praise leaders, instrumentalists, and choir members to contribute remain available.  Innovation and adaptation is keeping the ministry alive. The flame is kept burning – ministry members are not rusty and their equipment not dusty. 

My Journey into the World of Digital Music 

The impetus for my journey into the world of digital music can be described in four words – “The tuning lacks precision!”  I had at that point of my life become very fascinated by ethnic flutes from around the world and sought not just to collect them, but also to play them. The more I played these largely handcrafted instruments, the more I became conscious of how imprecisely tuned folk instruments can be. 

I thus acquired an electronic flute to stay in pitch. The technical term for this class of electronic instruments is “midi windcontroller.”  The immediate hiccup that I experienced with my first midi windcontroller was that it wasn’t an instrument which had its own built-in sounds. The instrument had to be paired with computer software (also known as Digital Work Stations or DAWs) from which sounds were derived. Having successfully overcome that first challenge and listening to my first sounds played, I also learned that you can record the sounds and melodies produced in your DAW.

This understanding of how instruments can be paired with software and how melodies can be captured as musical tracks in DAWs spawned many other discoveries. YouTube opened my eyes to an amazing range of digital instruments you can hook up to your DAW. 

Besides wind controllers, musicians were using keyboards, guitars, violins, harmonicas, accordions, drum pads, and other midi controllers to produce a very wide range of instrument sounds. Sounds generated didn’t have to match what the instruments looked like. In skilful hands, midi keyboards could be used to produce the music of an entire orchestra. Midi harmonicas could sound like violas. Midi guitars could play like a very nice Steinway. Midi saxophones could imitate the haunting sounds of the Chinese erhu quite precisely.

With my midi windcontroller, I explored all my favourite instrument sounds – from the oboe to the cello to the haunting sounds of the Armenian duduk!  What impressed me was that urban, orchestral, and exotic ethnic sounds all can be produced by any of these instruments! And the nicest thing for me is that everything produced remained in tune!

Alongside the digital music discovery journey also began the digital music creation journey. That involved using music creation tools like loops and plug-ins, recording with proper equipment, auditioning sounds and instruments, and learning about mixing tracks. Along the way, I also discovered multiple repositories of free, downloadable hymn tracks which could be dragged into my DAW. With a few quick moves, karaoke hymn tracks would be ready for use. All that was needed were choir voices or instrumental leads!

This excursion into the world of digital music brought awareness of a very rich, thriving culture of music creation and consumption. I had entered a realm which was already populated by songwriters, performers, producers, hobbyists, educators, therapists. Together with them, I had found my way into a space where tools, workflows, and intuitions were quite different from that found in traditional settings. 

A Pastoral and Missional Frontier?

For years, the church has explored avenues of incorporating music and the arts in outreach and missions. This is already an area of interest I have explored extensively. For this, I have read many books and spent many hours listening to the stories of practitioners. I have even taught a whole course on it at Singapore Bible College and supervised many incubator projects proposed by students.  

Observations and experiences at the digital frontier however raised for me  questions about fresh missional, pastoral, and educational possibilities. Having ventured into the world of digital music creation and tinkered with many toys in this sonic playground, something in me was triggered to explore and experiment. 

Given that a lot of my involvement in music lies in music education,  community outreach, and mental wellness support, the initial ministry projects were focused on collaborative music creation on a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) hosted in the cloud. Most DAWS reside in your computer. The one I used was different because it is web-based and free to use.

This online platform, named Bandlab, offered opportunity to gather different groups at a common digital space to make music together. And all this done in real-time and remotely from different parts of the country or the world.

Below I share six project ideas which have been initiated or which hold out promising ministry potential. 

i) Collaborative Music Making with Ukulele Group Seniors

I lead a weekly Monday evening ukulele group. Currently meeting on Zoom for a year-and-a-half, the group comprises largely of seniors from different churches in Singapore and Penang. The group is eclectic – we have churched, unchurched, Protestant believers, Roman Catholic believers, as well as non-believers in our midst.

In the spirit of learning new skills, I offered to teach the group how to record ukulele and vocal tracks into BandLab. The early sessions were focused on simple tech challenges like how to create a BandLab account, how to share Zoom screen, and questions about microphone settings. That the challenges for some of them were overwhelming and ran deep reflected in how answers to basic questions had to be repeated over and over. In the end, half the initial group dropped out. 

One helpful move was when one of the members hosted four of us at his home. There we were able to address the technical issues, record a song together, and enjoy curry puff and nyonya kueh together!

But the real joy in the group continues to be how we are able to record songs from our remote locations. Indeed, the first successful group recording was done from two countries. After one of the participants from Penang had completed recording the vocals for “Jesus Saves” (to the tune of “Pearly Shells”), I then added the ukulele track to her track. Imagine the wonder and amazement of all present in the Zoom session as we witness with our ears and our eyes the possibilities of co-creation in spite of our physical distance!

This group continues to meet. Our goal is to make more tracks together but my strong encouragement to them is to use music to connect family members together–especially if their children and grandchildren are overseas. Creating shared experiences and shared memories strengthens families. How much better if the cool grandpa or the cool grandma is initiating efforts using cool tools!

ii) Thai Folk Song Project 

As the seniors project was taking off, I reached out to a young Thai student from Singapore Bible College who is in her twenties. I shared the idea of a collaborative DAW with her and then spent half an hour showing her the features found in BandLab. I then left her a challenge to record a song with her brother who is based in Chiangmai.

Unlike the seniors who struggled with tech questions and challenges, their project was completed in a week. She and her brother had decided to do a cover of a song produced by a popular Thai “uncle band.”  In a short time, they went on to record vocals, drums, keyboard, melodica, guitar, and bass parts.

As a follow-up, I did a Zoom interview of both of them to ask questions about their process of recording as well as the ministry possibilities that BandLab offered. The answer about process revealed details unknown to me. It turned out that the song was co-created from three physical locations. 

My student was in Singapore and her brother was in Chiang Mai. He reached out to his girlfriend located in Bangkok who added vocals and keyboard tracks. The interview also revealed that my Thai student had also roped in her Filipino roommate who recorded guitar parts in the project. 

It was the answers about ministry possibilities however that caused my heart to beat really fast. The siblings shared in great detail about being able to support under-resourced churches by helping them to create worship tracks. They also shared about how pastors with interest and know-how can connect deeply with segments of their congregation members, about how intergenerational connections can be built through online music creation, about how this can be used as a training and recruitment platform for the AV team, about how worshiping with knowledge of the music behind the lyrics can be promoted, etc.

But the one they shared that caught my attention more than any other was about how Thai youth love music and how the non-Christian ones amongst them go to church to jam and to learn. Going to church however is often perceived as being anti-Thai because parents expect their children to be at the local temple, not at the local church. 

Meeting with them online and connecting over music making would sidestep parental objections and allow the work of outreach and discipleship to carry on in a creative, caring environment! Woohoo!

iii) Digital Music Production Class with Myanmese Refugee Youth

One of the joys in life I have is knowing that there are committed Christians reaching out to the many refugees populations in Malaysia. One such group, the Ruth Education Centre (REC) in Klang, Malaysia serves Myanmese refugees by offering schooling to their youth. 

What began as a casual acquaintance with REC developed into an opportunity to introduce the Irish tinwhistle to twenty of them in 2017. Then in June 2021, I was able to offer a two week class entitled “Becoming a Digital Music Creator, Storyteller, and Educator” to thirteen of the youth and young adults from REC. 

For that, I created a whole website to support their learning and raised funds from my seniors ukulele group to purchase equipment for them. Together with my classes and the practice exercises they had to work on, I also invited industry experts to share on digital music production and mixing skills. 

The thinking behind this initiative was to take a more developmental approach to serving refugee populations. Too often, solutions offered to this demographic serve immediate needs but don’t help them to break out of their economic traps. The class was designed to expose the youth to 21stC digital literacies and competencies. It was offered to stimulate educational imagination and expand economic horizons! And this being a Christian school, it also gave the youth an opportunity to pay forward and in turn, to be a blessing to others!

iv) Exploring Online Music Therapy

Having participated in many different arts events either as an observer, performer or a facilitator, I have come to the conclusion that freeplay as well as facilitated arts sessions can lead to profound therapeutic outcomes. Whether it be through community drama, clay art sessions, community drumming, and art jams, they hold potential for transforming mindsets and uplifting spirits!

How about use of digital tools and platforms for music therapy?  To find my answer, I reached out to a trained music therapist with my question. The effort yielded fascinating answers. Yes, music therapists have long used audio recording software with their clients.    

Amongst the stories she shared included one of recording the heartbeat of a prematurely born baby with neonatal complications. She then invited both parents to sing to the rhythm of the heartbeat and provided the musical support to produce several lullaby tracks. 

My contact also shared an article about the genesis of this music therapy idea. After reading it, I began to understand why the idea is meaningful to parents with babies who have a reduced chance of survival. 

Sometimes, parents have found solace in listening to the recordings after the death of a child who couldn’t be saved.

Some parents have used these recordings at their funeral or celebration of life.

The other story she shared was about clients in hospice care requesting the music therapist to record their favourite songs in the final weeks of their lives. Some of these clients were too weak to sing the whole song and could only voice the last lines of each verse.

She was thus able to weave those recordings with recordings done by other members of the family to create keepsakes of the deceased after the client’s passing. What amazing and creative pre-loss care offered through legacy creation!

Just these two stories gleaned from the interview left me wondering about extended possibilities that come with inviting contributions by others separated by geographic distance. With music and words recorded into an accessible online DAW, how can significant others and invited guests offer tangible support to individuals facing vulnerable moments in life? Perhaps music therapists amongst us can help us with answers and possibilities!

v) Sonic Arts Project amongst Migrant Workers

If the nation under COVID pandemic lockdown is facing many mental health challenges, the migrant worker population in Singapore continues to experience mental health challenges in ways we could never imagine. Faced with fear and uncertainty about COVID-19 infection, job insecurity, inability to repay huge debts owed, safety of family members back home, and prolonged periods of confinement, stress levels amongst them are currently at very unhealthy levels.

Those involved with outreach work amongst migrant workers in Singapore tell us that “boots on the ground” is the most effective way to engage the brothers. However, the tight movement and access restrictions has forced deliberation of “virtual boots on the ground” engagement events and activities.

One of the ideas I am currently experimenting with is getting migrant workers to record sounds from their dormitories or workplace that represent the dirty, dangerous, demeaning and dreary world they live in. This could be the sound of the pile driver, the road drill, the lorry engine, the grass cutter motor, the security scanner, etc.

The sounds extracted from the mud of everyday life can be reinterpreted and woven into a tapestry of sonic art comprising songs, poetry, ethnic percussive rhythms, and other recorded sounds. Put together, they can help participants to express thoughts, shared experiences, lament, hope, and other emotions. As a meaning making activity with contributions from family members, members in their dormitory, and even with sympathetic local volunteers, it can also serve as a bonding activity between and across communities. 

vi) Feeling the Message by Performing the Bible Text

The final project finds inspiration from the oral arts community where participants are invited to perform a text. Performing a text allows participants to go beyond merely reading the text silently as individuals. It allows a group to vocalize as well as listen to spoken renditions of the text. 

Drawing inspiration from Readers’ Theatre (where performers are not pressured to memorize the text but invited to read with expression) and Speech Choirs (where choir members perform words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs of the text in unison, antiphonal recitation, echo, harmony, with sound effects, etc), participants familiarize themselves with the text as well as immerse themselves in the feeling of the text. 

The experience of gathering to perform a text, working out roles, rehearsing for the performance, recording parts, and reviewing the completed production contributes powerfully to understanding in both head and heart. In addition, the group preparation and performance also translates into a very bonding and uplifting social experience.   

One project that I have began work on relates to performing the Psalms. The different genres in the Book of Psalms capture a very broad range of psalmists’ emotions and responses to God, people, and circumstances. To explore these, students are invited to discover through performance not just literary elements used by psalmists but also emotional depth found in Hebrew poetic works. In addition, we also explore how to communicate both cognitive and emotional elements of specific Psalms to modern audiences!

Summary and Concluding Challenge

I introduced this article using the language of setback, stoppage and restriction experienced by church music ministries. I then moved on to describe a personal journey of discovery as I sought to explore possibilities with music technologies.

There remain many other music technology explorations and discoveries which I have not shared. The ones I have, however, flow from my interest in gathering people at free-to-access online platforms to learn new skills. There they can find music creation and audio recording tools to play with, to experiment together, and to co-create.

While not the only online platform available in the market, I featured one called BandLab and shared six projects which have either been completed, remain ongoing, or are underway. I share these projects as my way of directing the gaze of the church to an underexplored pastoral and missional frontier. 

For me, sharing these possibilities for missions and ministry in the digital music world is likened to starting a sentence and then putting a comma after. If the story we write together begins with a sentence which helps to fuel our imagination and point at possibilities, then the paragraphs that follow can only thicken the plot and heighten the adventure. 

What’s your part in this story? We’re dying to hear about it. Just don’t take too long to start because there are still too many gaps in our story!

If you’re keen to find out more about how to be involved in digital music missional projects such as those above, feel free to email Calvin at calchong[at]sbc.edu.sg.

7 September 2021

Interview with Eric Tinsay Valles

Eric Tinsay Valles (b. 1968) recreates home in exile, whether physical or spiritual. He has won a Goh Sin Tub Creative Writing prize for poems in his second collection, After the Fall: Dirges Among Ruins (2014). His first poetry book was A World in Transit (2011). He co-edited Get Lucky (2015), an anthology of Singapore and Filipino writings, SG Poems 2015-2016 (2016), Anima Methodi (2018) and The Nature of Poetry (2019). He has been featured in & Words, Reflecting on the Merlion, Southeast Asian Review of English, Routledge’s New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing and other journals. His critical essays have appeared in The Asiatic and Writing Diaspora. He has been invited to read poetry or commentaries at Baylor, Melbourne and Oxford Universities as well as Kistrech Poetry Festival. He is a director of Poetry Festival (Singapore).

In this interview, Jonathan and Eric discuss Eric’s academic work on trauma theory, the place of Christianity in creative work, the sensation of dislocation that accompanies migration, and Eric’s upcoming literary projects. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

***

What/is this world? And what doth man desire?/
Now with his love, and now in his cold grave/
Alone without any company.

– Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (Trans.)

A World in Transit: A Prologue
Eric Tinsay Valles

Blaring boarding calls
Suspend Tagalog [1] in mid-sentence.
More deafening are stifled sobs
Of maids, singers and poets crafting
Monologues to hear babies through college
From Singapore, Madrid or Daly City. 

Plum-fleshed mouths quaver
As they imagine little ones scalded
By fever with them absent in their telenovela.
Chestnut eyes wink at counter buzzards
For extra luggage space; goodbyes
Yelped via mobile text on travelators.

Heroes march to colonize ex-colonial masters;
Chuck mango peels to the bin;
Lug sacks bursting with denials;
Dream of a dizzying-lit house, all-night singing;
Dread straining sun-kissed throat
At table with a boss spouting gibberish.

Bar singers in tube tops,
Sundown skins shunned by Malate, [2]
Croon the blues in a gilded cage.
Poets wrestle with identity and the bottle,
Flush native idioms with vomit,
Soul wings heavy with snatches of

Breakfasts of bread and salt,
Red banners bawling at street protests,
The Child Jesus floating in jasmine,
English slaughtered in playful banter,
Tug homeward with each air ticket
Paid for with absent-minded sweat.


[1] The dominant language in the Philippines
[2] Pronounced “Mah.lah teh.” This is an entertainment district dotted with bars in Manila.

This poem first appeared in Bukker Tillibul, an online journal of the Swinburne University of Technology.

***

Jonathan: How did you begin your journey in creative writing?

Eric: I suppose people get a sense of their vocation, what they want to be, when they’re kids. When I was in Primary Four, I wrote for the newspaper in school. It was called The Link. And I decided to write a poem entitled ‘The Wanderer,’ and it was kind of prophetic because I’ve been writing about wanderers since. I had no way of knowing that I would continue writing about that theme. Writing became a habit, and the habit became an integral part of my life. Poetry is the literary form that I am most accustomed to. I’ve continued writing in that genre even if I would like to branch out into other genres like the novel. I’m trying to write a novel in verse as part of my dissertation. It’s very ambitious and I don’t know if I’m going to finish it.

I was privileged in a way as far as writing about Christian themes, because I lived in the Philippines, a country that is predominantly, at least nominally, Christian. It was very natural for us to pray in public, for example, at the start of meetings. I went to church on weekdays. It’s not alien to talk about Jesus or Mary. When people get into accidents or are startled, they blurt out “Oh Jesus, Mary, Joseph” or something similar. Its Christian culture seeps into my work, naturally. When I write about weddings in the middle of a coup attempt, for example, there are characters like priests. Nuns faced tanks on the main thoroughfare of Manila during the 1986 People’s Power revolution.

We are conscious of the working of grace in our daily lives, which is, I suppose, unlike the experience of people in other places. Christianity is part of what I know and experience. It is one of those very basic things that make up my identity.

Jonathan: I think it’s interesting that you mentioned that the kind of deep saturation of Christianity in the culture of The Philippines– in language and in the way that people engage with and process daily life. But there’s also that fraught history of Christianity arriving alongside the Spanish and then the Americans that’s wrapped up with all kinds of physical and psychological violence.

Eric: It was a traumatic experience, for sure, but life is traumatic everywhere. We have to cope with the violence of colonialism. In a certain sense, colonialism gave us the gift of Christianity, but, of course, there was oppression, the sexual assault of some women, and our forgetting of ancient traditions and forms of script. Those are some of the givens of life we have to accept, and writers have to do the same. I don’t look at history with ideological lenses, so for me, there are pluses and minuses that have produced our complex present.

It’s very telling that it’s the 500th anniversary of the beginning of Christianity in the Philippines. It’s also the 500th year of the Western discovery of the Philippines, but the government doesn’t celebrate it as such. That is understandable because of the unfortunate colonial underpinnings. But there is no denying historical milestones.  And so, the church is celebrating the first mass in thanksgiving, truly a eucharist.

Jonathan: And the first missionaries?

Eric: Yes.  We can’t really change history. We make the most out of it. The unfortunate experience of our national hero and Southeast Asia’s first novelist Jose Rizal with friars produced the revolutionary romance classics Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. His passion for poetry and the humanities was stoked by his education with the Jesuits. He repudiated religion as a freemason, a trajectory that was common among revolutionaries of his time. But he must have retracted his works and returned to the church partly because he wanted to solemnise his marriage with Josephine Bracken, an American. He must have also kept traces of the faith as he carried a rosary in his pocket for many years even as a freemason.

Jonathan: It’s definitely true that there remains it’s vital to engage and grapple with history, and the task of so many writers, as is with the case of Rizal, is to imagine a new path forward for communities and sometimes entire polities.

I’m also thinking about this slightly from the sense of coming out of detritus, coming out of difficult situations, which is very much a theme in your second collection, reckoning with trauma and instances of natural disaster. Was that also tied in with your academic work?

Eric: It was actually part of my dissertation. I wrote it in my first two years of a programme in literature and creative writing. It just so happened that Ethos published it even before I could finish the dissertation. I studied trauma theory and I had to write my own work, which was After the Fall: Dirges Among Ruins, my second book, and War Quilt, a novel in verse.

After the Fall: Dirges Among Ruins (2014)

Jonathan: Who are some of your literary influences?

Eric: I admire the work of Federico García Lorca, because he affirmed gypsies and the downtrodden in society in a way that draws from their literary tradition; Thom Gunn, because he empathised with contemporary people, AIDS victims, using classical rhetorical techniques; Elizabeth Bishop for the precision in her craft — “the art of losing … [is] hard to master” – as she wrote about psychological wounds in a very non-emotional manner; Pablo Neruda, for his wit and his seeing something glorious about the ordinary; and Seamus Heaney who wrote about ploughing and plumbing in such a rhythmic way. These are my heroes as far as modern poetry is concerned. Looking further back, I would like to write like Qoheleth or the Preacher in Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs.

Jonathan: The apotheosis of Biblical love poetry. You’ve mentioned that the initial focus of your dissertation was on examining the problem of good and evil, where you were working on Chaucer, Ben Jonson, and Flannery O’Connor, and how it eventually moved toward reckoning with traumatic events. I’ve been thinking about the idea of cultural memory as well, embodied memory, intergenerational trauma. What kinds of cultural contexts were you engaging with for your academic work?

Eric: I had to read about the Holocaust and its survivors in America for the trauma theory. I also had to read Japanese poems. One of the characters in my novel, you see, is a Japanese army lieutenant who’s actually from Taiwan, so he’s displaced in his own way. The main character is a Eurasian with whom I share the Catholic tradition. His love interest is a Chinese nurse, so I also had to read some Chinese stories. The challenge is to weave the disparate threads, stories and translations into a coherent whole. But the backbone of that project is trauma theory, as expounded by the likes of Dori Laub and Shoshana Felman.

Jonathan: And this verse novel will be set in Singapore?

Eric: Yeah, in Malaya, during World War 2, because Eurasians were relocated to Bahau with the help of the Catholic church and they tried to grow their own food with the hope of sending some back to Singapore. It was a way for the Japanese to get rid of Eurasians as a people because they were sympathetic to the British without committing crimes against humanity as in the Sook Ching. There was this negotiation with the Catholic church to move the Eurasians, most of whom were Catholic. And the bishop, Adrian Devals, went with them. About 1 500 of them died of cholera, dysentery and other diseases. They weren’t skilled at farming at all. There are stories circulating that they even brought a piano. But they suffered a lot. They were so affected by the misery and the deaths that Bahau was abandoned after the war, and they all came back here or moved to Australia or other places.

Jonathan: I suppose the place itself had become so closely intertwined with the pain, the suffering, the gruelling experience of having to live in abysmal conditions for an extended period of time. That not only bespeaks that relationship not only between trauma and memory but between trauma and a specific place as well, especially if you’re talking about a displaced people.

I’ve also noticed from some of your work that this is another running thread. So like the departure lounge in an airport or the poem that you wrote about the Filipino soldier during World War I during the ceasefire or even the taikonaut– he’s actually experiencing the most extreme kind of displacement in a way, because he’s beyond our material, immediate reality, beyond earth.

And then of course there is the other assumption that I have that part of it is tied to your experience moving from The Philippines, eventually settling in Singapore, and having that itinerant experience, the occasional experience of being an outsider as well.

***

A Taikonaut’s* View of Earth
Eric Tinsay Valles

Earthlight rising, with shadow patches,
Bird’s Nest stadium lights multiplied
Dazzling as I cling to handlebars,
My feet and dreams dangling in space.
With eyes shut, I see my little girl
Jumping into bed, calling Papa,
My wife beside her pointing
At me twinkling in the night sky.

Dark, quiet waters wash the earth,
Flushing out silt from sandy shores.
A flag I wave does not flutter in space,
Like my cheek planted on my love’s navel,
Heaving softly with each breath.
Both of us lie awake till dawn
Chasing away doubts unresolved
Before my rocket shoots through the firmament.

The world is aglow with rocks
Hemming in soot-dressed miners,
Forests laden with goods for sweatshops,
Treasures from the deep hauled by divers.
I raise a cup to my young family,
Their concerns invisible in the gem of earth.
My heart beats through a Teflon suit;
Roaring like a firetruck until my landing berth.


*A Chinese astronaut.

From A World in Transit (2011)

***

Eric: All those are tropes of the human condition. We’re all displaced. We’re not meant to be here. And our suffering or other pressures are just symptoms of our being meant for a better place after this life.

Displacement is also part of my experience of living in different places. Before coming here, I moved to Taiwan to help in Opus Dei, a Catholic group that I’m part of. Very few Filipino members wanted to move to Taipei, but I volunteered. I was in Taiwan for seven years as a journalist for an English-language daily. I studied Mandarin for the first time as an adult. That was a watershed moment, learning a new language, starting anew in a foreign country. Being an exile is an essential part of my experience.

So I write about what I’m familiar with: displacement. I’ve also been using that as a metaphor for the human condition and all sorts of situations like that of the taikonaut, in airport lounges, which is true to life because I’ve spent so many hours in airport lounges, especially in the States, where storms can cause flight delays. And that’s part of what I am.

Jonathan: It makes sense– your experience of both being displaced but also in those kinds of liminal spaces between coming and going.

Eric: There’s a lot of that in Singapore as well. Edwin Thumboo, for example, is half Indian and half Teochew, and he sees himself as this sort of outsider/insider. And he writes about migrants as well and people on the fringes. ‘Ulysses by the Merlion’ is the quintessential migrant poem of Singapore, and it draws on all the literary and cultural conditions that are present here. And in so doing, he was forging Singapore poetry.

Jonathan: That’s definitely true. There is an element of some kind of displacement in many Singaporeans’ lives. But I was also thinking of the way that people engage with their familial histories, especially those of Chinese or Indian descent whose ancestors were brought to or came to Singapore, or even those from the Malay community who experienced a kind of solastalgic or psychological displacement when Singapore separated from Malaysia. Then in subsequent generations, people who have gone abroad from Singapore and have that experience of then trying to process or clarify that sense of national identity and bringing that back with them. Or even this whole national positioning of playing an interpretive, translational role between English-speaking countries, “Western” countries, and Asian countries.

From a lot of the writing, art, and film that I’ve seen by Filipino artists, that is quite prevalent as well, especially because so many Filipinos and Filipinas go abroad for work. If I’m not wrong, one of The Philippines’ highest exports is nurses. And then of course, here in Singapore, there are a lot who come as domestic workers. So at least in my mind, almost every family in The Philippines has one relative who lives abroad and sends money home. That sense of displacement is also very much interwoven in a lot of writing that I’ve read from Filipino writers. One person that comes to mind, you can correct me if I’m wrong, that I see is a really big exemplar of that is Carlos Bulosan.

Eric: Bulosan and some of those published Filipino writers are recognised internationally because they have some connection with the US. There are many talented other writers back in the Philippines who don’t venture abroad and don’t have agents or publishers. The writers people abroad know are Filipino Americans.

Jonathan: Yes, but I was also thinking about Rolinda Onates Espanola and her work and some of the work coming up from the Pinoy writers here in Singapore like Lawrence Ypil and Rodrigo Dela Peña Jr. For lack of a better term, there is also a kind of classed division, because people come over as educators and marketing professionals, and then there are also people who come over to perform more physical labour.

Eric: There’re actually so many of us who are based in Singapore. Some, like Victor Ocampo, Noelle de Jesus-Chua and Felisa Batacan, write fiction. Besides Rolinda, there are other domestic helper poets like Belen Esposo Repollo. She’s published books here. All of us can form a guild. The Philippine experience is, as you say, diasporic, so we write about that primordial experience. Filipinos come from elsewhere. Most are from Borneo or Indonesia. Then there have been migration waves from China and colonial invasions from Spain and the US. And to say it’s class-based is also quite observant because The Philippines is a very hierarchical society. It’s very difficult to move ahead if you don’t know the right people and you’re in the wrong class. A lot of people in the lower classes move abroad because they’re thinking of a better life for their families.

Get Lucky (2015), an anthology of writing by Singaporeans and Filipinos that Eric helped to edit.

Singapore is so different, because you’re quite egalitarian and it’s very difficult to tell billionaires from ordinary people because the really rich are not ostentatious. But in the Philippines the distinctions, even in skin tone, are sharp. Because of that, there’s little social mobility. That is the stuff of novels.

Jonathan: I was trying to formulate that question of the structural difficulties in the country that have driven so many people abroad, about the push toward a remittance economy as well, in some ways.

Eric: It’s always been like that, and it’s the reason that many Filipinos end up in the States. Every Filipino family has relatives in the States or elsewhere. We’re everywhere: in Iraq, Palestine, even in Ramallah and all those places where you don’t expect foreigners. We’re a people on the move.

***

A Filipino in Belleau Wood [1]
Eric Tinsay Valles

This is a grave in Chateau Thierry.

This is a marine
who lies in a grave in Chateau Thierry.

This is a requiem
for the marine from hilly Morong [2]
who lies in a grave in Chateau Thierry.

This is a score sheet
with all the notes
for the singing marine
who lies in a grave in Chateau Thierry.

This is a Filipino bugler
clutching the score sheet
with all the notes
for the obscure marine
who lies in a grave in Chateau Thierry.

This is the trench of sand
that the bugler lay in with the wounded,
clutching the score sheet
with all the notes
for the dead volunteer
Who lies in a grave in Chateau Thierry.

These are the traces and bare trees,
the sun and the waves of the sea
that the bugler braved,
clutching the scores
with all the notes
for the crushed marine
who lies in a grave in Chateau Thierry.

This is a white governor with a pen
who signs a letter in the big chamber
after reading about four thousand Filipino sakadas [3]
under fire, like the bugler,
playing notes
on the scores
for the honorable man
who lies in a grave in Chateau Thierry.

These are the traces and the trees and the “Silent Night”
that a German intoned in his trench
and to which the marine sang along
before gunfire broke the silence into endless day.
This is a white governor with a pen
signing a letter in the big chamber
feeling guilt about four thousand sakada soldiers
with the bugler nearby
Improvising notes
on the scores
for the singer, the marine
who lies in a grave in Chateau Thierry.

This is the Filipino who died far from home.
These are the traces and the trees and the “Silent Night”
that a German sang in his trench
and to which the marine sang along
before gunfire broke the silence into endless day.
This is a white governor with a pen
honoring four thousand sakada soldiers
and a scarred bugler
who plays boogie woogie
with veterans from his company
for the near-forgotten marine
who lies in a grave in Chateau Thierry.


[1] Tomas Mateo Claudio died in Chateau Thierry, France in the deadly Battle of Belleau Wood. It was in Belleau Wood that Allied and German soldiers sang “Silent Night” on Christmas day before resuming fighting the following day.
[2] A town in Rizal province, the Philippines.
[3] Contract workers.

***

Jonathan: As you said, even as a metaphor, being part of a diaspora is symptomatic of feeling ill at ease with a place or not feeling fully home at a place. That points to that yearning for belonging elsewhere. Yet, there’s still a lot of difficulty and sacrifice wrapped up in that at least in terms of our time here on earth.

Eric: But it’s also what human beings yearn for: belonging. That corresponds with the theological virtue of hope. And we will not be where we belong until we are one with Jesus Christ in an overflow of love.

Jonathan: One of the things that you mentioned elsewhere was wanting to bear witness to Jesus Christ in your poetic location. Where do you see yourself within this task?

Eric: So I’m definitely Christian, but I don’t write about Christian themes per se. It’s just part of the architectonics, as it were, in my work. My culture is Christian, but my themes are not necessarily so. They meet in my experience, some of which is articulated on the page. The migrant experience that I write about could be a metaphor for the situation of a Christian after original sin. If the reader is drawn to look up some of the Christian references in my work, that is close enough to the act of preaching in a secular world.

Jonathan: But that’s kind of more of an analogical connection as opposed to an explicit one per se.

Eric: Yes, but that’s an essential part of Christian rhetoric even from the beginning. You can read it in St. Augustine’s On Christian Teaching (426), in which he suggests that preachers make do with Egyptian gold, as the chosen people did. We don’t really have to turn our back on rhetoric, whether classical or contemporary. But we can talk about the new dispensation in which life is charged with grace using the same tools as secular writers and artists do. There can be art in homiletics as there can be some homiletics in art. As someone who would like to practice art, I think analogy comes closer to my work than quoting scriptures.

Jonathan: I agree– these rhetorical structures and techniques are prominent throughout the whole historical corpus of English literature, oratory, and disquisition.

Eric: English literature has always been Christian in its roots. It’s a sad thing, how it is in the present, how people are turning their backs on all that because of cultural studies. Many Old English poems such as “Caedmon’s Hymn” are in praise of God. Even Beowulf is an eminently Christian work- in which there is a hymn, ‘grace to the Creator’.

Jonathan: So has there been a kind of move from the past where Christianity was very much the backbone of a lot of your work, given what you mentioned about wanting to witness to Christ?

Eric: People do give witness to Christ in various ways. Doing what we do the best we can is a way of preaching. That could be a bearing witness in itself. It just so happened that some of my poems are overtly Christian in theme or imagery. But not all of them are.

Jonathan: And rightfully so, I think.

Eric: But there are people who see themselves as mainly Christian writers. D. S. Martin’s latest book is about angels. I can do that sometimes, but it’s just that my experience is more than just that. And writing my own experience in itself can give glory to God. By doing so, I can draw people to read some of my work that is explicitly Christian. Readers can also find out on their own about the sources of some of the Christian images that are mentioned in my work.

Jonathan: I’m thinking of a cultural theorist named Ted Turnau, who is a Christian. The metaphor he uses for art is that it’s like a portal that people stumble into, where they enter the world of those who follow Christ. The Christian artist’s job is not to preach because that’s the preacher’s job. I think that’s a better way of thinking about the position of an artist who is also a Christian.

Eric: Gerard Manley Hopkins was a Jesuit who wrote about the grandeur of God with his sprung rhythm. So it is with whatever we work on, as long as we do it with attention to and love of God.

Jonathan: Bearing that in mind, what would you say is the relationship that you see yourself having with the institutional church?

Eric: I’m very much part of the church because I’m a single member of Opus Dei. I’m committed to giving classes on church doctrine to other people, mostly Catholics. We also have non-Catholics who attend the activities of Opus Dei. Did you ever read The Da Vinci Code?

Jonathan: I did not.

Eric: Good for you. (laughs) We’re the villains in that novel. Anyway, we’re not all like that. We’re not out to conquer the world. We’re just ordinary people trying to get by as poets or teachers. We have a few priests and our message is that we can become saints and encounter His grace through our ordinary work. Very simple thing. But it can be quite a challenge to live out. We have a regime of sorts with prayers, reception of the sacraments and personal spiritual direction to help with that.

The church is a vital part of my life, and that has also shaped my wandering all over. That was how I ended up in Taipei and here, where I’m still helping out in Opus Dei. The church helps me to understand reality as it is and that makes me see Jesus Christ in everything, even the squalor of things, in marginalised people. So he’s very much like the migrant workers, the maids, and the nurses because Jesus Christ himself is a migrant. And when He was a toddler, His parents had to take Him to Egypt to save Him and then back to Galilee. Migrants can identify with that situation. They are Christlike in a way, maybe mainly because of their sufferings at that moment. But they also manifest His glory when they see their condition as a sharing in Christ’s passion and potentially redemptive.

The church is part of my writing too in the sense that it shapes my beliefs and ideas. And so I see my work as sacramental in that sense, making explicit something that is really mysterious: redemption. And I make use of tropes that are available to me from my own experience.

Jonathan: And now God has placed you in a position to foster more conversations on poetry as director of Poetry Festival Singapore.

Eric: I’m very grateful for that calling, which is primarily God’s initiative. I just didn’t say no. I see my work in poetry as a very minor hymn to the body and blood of Jesus Christ. It is one long act of thanksgiving for whatever ability he’s given me to write about this place, about experiences, about histories. And to be initiating dialogues among poets about writing in the island’s four official languages as well as between them and the bigger society – in the time of Covid, with a worldwide online audience. In some ways, it can be burdensome in that one has to put up with plenty of hassles. A friend calls me crazy for taking on the responsibility of overseeing the festival. But it’s been mostly a gift – a crazy, good gift.

***

On Peace
(Reading
City of God Book 19)
Eric Tinsay Valles

When stars dance in their own orbits,
When body and soul ponder their image in the night sky,
When one makes a home with another
And both laugh, their shoulders shaking;
Not when one commands the cosmos
Or another as one orders a blister to heal
But only feels the thrumming ooze,
In a truce but with swords unsheathed;
Not as the devil passes his life for the truth
Though he be an angel of light;
Not as one who, falling ill in body or soul, sobs
For what lies outside starry fields, beyond recovery

Tears mark a trial toward peace
Like silver rain seagulls glide through homeward,
But not for ghosts who hide their gifts in shadows,
Whose thick skull sockets do not reflect
Love that sets stars spinning on their axes,
Makes the cut heal through deep,
Gilds in crystal summer daylight,
Trills like a perpetual, clear spring
As it trades jests at a floodlit banquet;
A white-capped peak above a dark grove;
An inn for pilgrims where ale flows free
And blankets are pressed warm for restless souls.


Cover image: Eric reading his poems at Lake Victoria in Kenya.

Websites: https://ericvalles.tripod.com/
http://www.poetry.sg/eric-valles-bio

Interview with Joshuah Lim

Joshuah Lim En (b. 1995) is a filmmaker who is intrigued by time and transcendence. He has always regarded film as a medium that has the ability to contain the intricacies of the human journey rather than as just a group of moving images. Some of his recent works have explored topics close to his heart: social disconnections, spirituality, the decay of culture, and loneliness. His recent films were screened at the Singapore International Film Festival and the National Youth Film Awards.

In this interview, Jonathan and Joshuah discuss filmmaking as a medium, the influence of transcendental style of cinema on Joshuah’s work, and the relationship between Joshuah’s faith and his filmmaking. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Jonathan: How have you seen your faith guide you as you’ve along this path of being a filmmaker?

Joshuah: I was born into a Christian family. My dad used to be an elder in a church. In my youth, I would say that I was quite on fire for God. I had cancer, and after cancer, I wanted to go to Bible school and become a pastor, but my dad told me to wait. I had this passion for film at the same time, but it wasn’t really film as we know it. It was more of moving images and videos.

A still from Chiak (2017), the first short film that Joshuah directed. It was the winner of the GV 25 Film Shorts competition.
Chiak (2017) is a portrait of an aging hawker struggling with dementia.

At that time I thought that Bible school was the way to be called and then you go full-time in church. But I felt that was the easy way out. That was me trying to escape my real calling. So I said okay, I’ll give myself at least three years in uni to do film and be secular and figure this out. And then if God calls me back to the church, He will call me back to the church. I’m saying I’m not on fire for God right now, but it’s just that the passion has, I think, evolved in a different way.

A scene from Peanut (2019), Joshuah’s second film.


But I think only now, after maybe my third film, have I been able to see God in the work that I do.

Jonathan: Which is your third film?

Joshuah: It’s called And They Roamed. It’s actually about two lesbian girls who want to commit suicide in a school. Then they find a ghost and she brings them around the school, and they find the rope with which she killed herself, but they also relive their childhood memories in this abandoned school. I remember asking God, what’s the position I should take in that film.

It was tough because I wanted to make a film about suicide and homosexuality, but I was also conscious of the spiritual climate of the church at that time. The sentiment was quite angry and opposed to those who are gay or lesbian. I remember thinking about it and going into what was human about that film and about these characters. I think that was a process that allowed me to see God in the work that I do.

And They Roamed (2020)
And They Roamed (2020)

At the end of that film, I realised something: film is not the Bible. It’s like an instrument in worship, you know, it can create the environment of holiness. It can create an opportunity, but it is not inherently God. I came to the conclusion that film is not sacred, but it can replicate that sacredness. It can bring us to that position of sacredness, and that was always its purpose.

So I saw that human aspect of filmmaking, that if I wanted to be a filmmaker and a Christian, I could not make it so black and white. It doesn’t work that way. My mindset right now is that film is like the fruit that comes out of me and if I align myself to God, the fruit should be good. But if I don’t align myself to God, it should be bad. And trust me, there are bad fruits that come out of me also.

That was how I think filmmaking integrated with my spiritual walk.

Jonathan: That’s definitely a valid part of what it means to be an artist because as you alluded to, there is a danger that the practice or the medium itself becomes a form of idolatry, and that idolatry is not recognised as idolatry.

Joshuah: Yeah, and I don’t think it’s contained to the arts only. I feel it’s across the church. But for the rest of the departments, whether it’s worship or Bible study or preaching, they can hide behind what is actually really sacred. That blindness is even more dangerous. It’s harder to find what’s edifying because everything looks edifying. You need to go through a second layer to the intention behind it. But for film, we have the privilege of going against what is sacred. In a way, it’s easier to spot what’s holy and what’s not holy when it comes out in a film.

It’s like what Andrei Tarkovsky said, filmmaking basically serves the message of the film only. And that message is not God. I don’t think it will ever be God because God is God and the message of the film itself is inherently secular to a certain point. But can that message bring a sense of the divine, bring a sense of transcendence?

I do believe so! Like the old paintings of Jesus, how when you look at them, it’s okay to feel that holiness and be like, hey, it’s beautiful. You know, I feel like I’m closer to God. But it’s not okay to go and be like, oh my gosh, that painting is the source of the holiness because that’s basically saying that painting is an idol. That’s the position that I try to take with filmmaking.

Jonathan: As you were speaking that had me thinking a lot about Paul Schrader and the kind of thinking that goes into his films. His films toy and engage with the idea of Christ, what is compelling about Christ, but at the same time, he doesn’t lapse into moralising or preaching. So if you think about First Reformed (2017), for example, or even Taxi Driver (1976).

As you were speaking about that process of recognising film as a medium that is not inherently made sacred, I was thinking about your process of going from the media team in church to learning from Tarkovsky and Schrader. How was that for you?

Joshuah: For me, I struggled because I felt that media and art are two different things. Like the need to record a sermon and the need to make a film about a sermon are two different things. I think for church right now, I have yet to experience a ministry that is really for artists just doing art. My main struggle was that I was trying to do things that were too different, that were not like the conventional way of doing a short.

Film school was what helped me understand the transcendental style of cinema. I was doing critical film studies and reading about early filmmakers like Robert Bresson and Yasujirō Ozu and realised that the form of slow cinema itself has an idea of waiting. You know Ozu has Zen Buddhism as his backbone for his films, where everything’s connected. That’s why you’ll see a shot of like a vase, and then you’ll just stay on the shot and hear the dialogue going over because it implies that in that frame, the vase is connected to the characters as you are to the vase to the characters.

Then for Bresson, there’s always the three aspects. There’s the everyday that’s established, which is the reality of life. Then you’ve got the disparity, which is this tension between man and environment, which is a very Christian thing, like, God and man never being able to but always trying to come together. And there’s that holy suffering that you go through. If you watch Diary of a Country Priest (1951), you kind of see that, and it’s even a physical ailment – he cannot drink anything, he can only drink wine. And the third aspect is stasis, which is the idea that through the suffering, there’s always this icon that transcends, the cross, for example. It’s no longer that the cross is just like a symbol of the cross. It has a deeper meaning because of what we give it to be as the audience.

So I think I’ve actually found God in film school. I found God in film in film school. I know it’s strange because I do watch a lot of types of films and give credit to everything, but my passion for film was reignited when I watched Bresson and Schrader and I was just like, huh, that’s interesting.  It’s things like that: they made me realise that God does exist in this industry.

Jonathan: That’s interesting though because that gives the sense that coming to film school gave you the language to articulate what you were searching for in your craft, the theoretical backbone. It gave you the scaffolding, maybe mentally, intellectually, that you needed to grow in your style and recognise, these auteurs’ connection with some kind of transcendence or divinity. That sense of waiting, the stretches of time, the immanence, the sense of connection of it.

Joshuah: Yeah, that pain we put our audience through. I totally agree. Slow cinema is where I found more of God, where I experienced more of his characteristics because it reflected my process, my own spiritual journey with God. The idea of waiting for an answer that you don’t know. And some of the slow cinema films, sometimes there’s actually no good ending or bad ending. There’s just an ending.

That kind of reflects my spiritual journey with God. Sometimes you ask Him a question and you just wait and wait and wait. And then you realise that maybe the whole point is just that wait you had to go through, like King David and his anointing and how twenty years later he was still not the king. And for our generation in modern-day Singapore, everything is so fast. You realise that some things are not meant to come now, some things are meant to come like five, ten years later. We don’t water those things. We don’t have the patience to wait and groom them. That was a process that I had to go through.

And I think that is reflected in the film I just did, Gone are the Moat and the Walls. If you watch that film, the protagonist Zhang is actually a disjointed man. I really wanted that perspective of a spiritual man in modern Singapore, like how foreign everything is. We start in a cityscape and we end in the forest and every scene gets more isolated from the city. With every new person he meets, it’s almost like they’re telling him that God doesn’t exist anymore. That’s the subtext: no one has time for God.

Zhang and the son of an old friend. From Gone Are the Moat and the Walls (2021).

Even though I chose to make the film about Taoism and Buddhism, which I like because of their physicality, that was how I felt as a Christian at the time. In every conversation I had, it was like I was having a conversation with the fortune teller in the film, which is basically about how there is no God. And there’s the monk who is like, yes there’s a God but there probably won’t be in the next five, ten years. Or the son, who is basically a representation of the next generation who say, I see the impact of religion, but I just want to gain back the connections I’ve lost with my family, which are all side effects of the degradation of religion.

That was my treatment for that film, which was damn tough because I didn’t get the ending right. I feel that the film was the most spiritual film that I’ve done in a long time.

Jonathan: I think Henri Nouwen talks about how the paradox of faith is that you are made more conscious of God when you are most aware of His absence. And it is in the sensation of the absence of God that is the period of waiting. For a lot of people, that period of waiting is the season that is most discouraging. People talk about dryness, being in the desert, going through the motions, not getting anything.

And to find something that mirrors that for you, that was slow cinema. I think it’s interesting that you took that as an affirmation of your spiritual walk as if to say that this is part of what it is to be a believer. Maybe that was what resonated with me as well about the film. It’s that sense of that slippage out of Zhang’s hands, right? The feeling of a world that he once knew, I guess not just a physical world, but a transcendent, ethereal world that everyone was losing touch with. I think the way that is literalised in your film – the gods only speak Hokkien, so no one can speak to the gods anymore – that was such a powerful display of what it means to have that connection severed.

Zhang and the priest, Gone Are the Moat and the Walls (2021)

Joshuah: Language for that film was big because it started with this pretence of how do we communicate with the gods? In the film, there are Chinese puppetry shows that are done in service of a god, like they give thanks to a god, put on a show, and speak Hokkien. And then what happens is that because of the Speak Mandarin campaign in Singapore, no one speaks Hokkien anymore because we’re trying to globalise everything. And what happens is that these youths including myself – I don’t speak Hokkien, I don’t even speak Mandarin – don’t understand, and the tradition begins to die.

And in a way that was something about how Taoism and Buddhism, because of the physicality, rituals, and performances, have a strong cultural backbone. When the undercurrent of modernisation erodes this backbone, you are left with a shell. That’s something Zhang is facing; he’s facing a generation that does not understand Hokkien or who this god is. To him, that’s the scariest thing that could happen.

In a way, that’s also my critique of Christianity, because I feel like now, being a good Christian means going to church, doing missions, helping the migrant workers, and I’m not critiquing, that’s good. But this undercurrent of materialism, self-centeredness, fear of pain, fear of suffering, kind of eroded away some of the spiritual backbones that Christianity has, which are long-suffering, patience, obedience, truth. It’s eroded and what we’re left with is a church that is kind of just a shell. That’s a whole new film I would love to do honestly

Jonathan: That’s a good transition to talking about what it would look like to make that film. In your mind, the film about Christianity that is still swirling, do you have a sense of how that might take shape?

Joshuah: I feel like truth is what I aspire to replicate. I’m not saying truth in the sense of factual truth, but spiritual truth in a way, or at least minimally a piece of me that I identify now in my season in my life. I think that’s how we make films that are God centred.

I feel like if we as artists were… I wouldn’t say supported but had more backing with the church, and we could be honest with this process, I feel that we could make films that can minimally connect to the audience on the human level. When we can at least connect with them with the idea of seeking, the question we’ll ask will be what are they looking for? And I think that is enough of a spark because that’s when the other ministries come in because you’ve got your pastoral care, your outreach, your worship.

But for me as a filmmaker, it’s first doing something really personal, and that’s between me and God. That’s my prayer la. For Gone are the Moat and the Walls, Zhang is me. I have a spiritual background and it is becoming like a distant memory, and I’m trying to find where this God is that I remember in my youth. That is basically what Zhang is finding – the city god he worshipped and prayed to when he was younger. So that was the prayer that was converted into a film.

Joshuah (second from the right) with the cast and crew of Gone are the Moat and the Walls (2021)

Jonathan: I like what you’ve said earlier about your creative work as the fruit of your walk. I think what you just verbalised was alluding to that: how it is part of the outflow of the intimacy with God. Even locating prayer as the kind of heartbeat of the process, not simplistic prayers or platitudinous prayers, because I see that a lot in the writing I try to undertake. When you’re trying to get to the truth, you are not trying to bypass suffering, doubt, or anguish. And those experiences cut across, like you said, almost all people, in some shape or form.

To build off of that, what are some hurdles that you see in making that film about Christ?

Joshuah: The first struggle is that the church is so big and so divided. If I do a film about a church, I have to understand that maybe the church won’t like it. That’s the first thing that I have to let go of, though part of me would want the church to like it and want it to resonate because it’s out of Christendom.

The second struggle I have is that when you make a film about Christianity and it cuts so close to you in a very direct way, you don’t have a mask anymore. You’re not hiding. You feel this duty to do things. You have more of a higher responsibility. There’s always that question that comes in: do the films that you make stumble people, do they make people go further away from Christ or closer to God? And then if it’s like further away from Christ then why do you do it? Then the next question I’d ask myself is how do we define it? What’s the sample size? You know, maybe out of ten, two people find it stumbling and eight people find it edifying. Does that mean I fail or pass?

I came to the conclusion that the only way I can do this right is by ensuring that my posture is right. Like I’m really spiritually in tune with God. And I’m not sure if I’m there yet. I wouldn’t dare say that the past two films were you know, God-ordained. I think the best I can do is make sure my posture is right first, then make the film, which is something I struggle with because how do you know your posture is right as a Christian in the arts?

I think the climate we’re in is even more hostile as well. Like the trends of filmmaking, it makes it even harder because now you’ve got to go against that but at the same time, you’ve got to make sure you don’t piss off your own camp. I think the next film that I do will not be about God. It will probably be more explicit about spirituality and suffering and severance. I think it’ll actually take four or five more films before I can actually say ‘this is for you God’ if I ever get there.

And even as an independent filmmaker in Singapore, that’s already hard. I’m working in a creative agency, and I love my job, but it does hit you sometimes. Like you don’t have a producer, you don’t have money, you don’t have a crew. I’m not that rich to just spend 50k. So in a way, there’s that fear of not doing that. I’d always thought that maybe Gone are the Moat and The Walls might be the last film I’ll ever do.

I do hope to make a new one, but the thought does come into my head like maybe this is the last one, but I’m still writing, so hopefully.


Watch Joshuah’s films Chiak (2017) here and Peanut (2019) here. Watch the trailers for And They Roamed (2020) here and Gone are the Moat and the Walls (2021) here.

Interview with Jenni Ho-Huan

Rev. Jenni Ho-Huan (b. 1966) was raised and ordained in the Presbyterian Church. Her desire is to live with authenticity and help others develop a vibrant faith-life in their particular circumstances and personalities through developing a strong inner life. Her passion is Spiritual Formation, Family-Life, Women’s’ Ministry & developing the Inner-Life of Leaders. An avid writer, Jenni was columnist for Impact magazine; and has authored three books and blogs. Jenni holds a Bachelor of Arts (NUS), Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Theology (Trinity Theological College).

Jonathan chats with Jenni about her lifelong love for the arts, the place of the arts in pastoral ministry, and her vision for creative flourishing in the church.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jonathan: To begin our discussion I’d like to ask: what draws you to the arts?

Jenni: I think it’s interesting, and this must be providence because I actually grew up in a very poor family. We had nothing on our walls. I hardly had any toys. While I always loved wordplay, my exposure to the arts can at best be said to be very bare, reduced to maybe only two things. One was Sesame Street, and the other was actually my father, who I believe if he had better circumstances, would actually be an artist himself. He would always come home with odds and ends of things that he would either take apart or build and then sell to pay his gambling debts. My dad was also quite conversant in languages and could play the accordion.

I’m not sure exactly, but I suspect that did feed something in me because when I went to church, I realised that I was always going to my pastor and suggesting that we do things that involve a little bit of beauty, that involve meaningful words. And it’s strange: my pastor actually gave me many opportunities. I got one peer of mine to do ballet during a worship service, which got everybody in the Presbyterian church gaping, like what just happened here? I also persuaded my pastor to let me take one entire service and turn it into a two-hour worship extravaganza and I got the creative people to do up the stage and all sorts of things. This kind of culminated when a new, younger pastor who was a friend of mine, took over and bought me a book. It’s called The Christian, the Arts, and Truth. So unbeknownst to me, there has always been this stream in my life.

I did something similar in school too, you know, it was hilarious. I was in the home economics class and everyone would think that we were dumb, so I was thinking I need to help my classmates feel better about themselves. I ended up choreographing a dance for my cookery class. A group of us went up during one school assembly and put up this dance– we all couldn’t really dance but we danced with our aprons, we danced with our whisks, we danced with our wooden spoons onstage to some Broadway musical tune. I think I would have died in school without all these fun things going on.

But you know how the education system is—the science people are the smart ones. I was actually in the science stream for a while, did very badly, and finally, when I went to university I switched to humanities, where I flourished, thank God. I found my way back to words and that was very life-giving for me.

I have always loved the arts, but my definition of the arts is not clear even to me. It’s very broad. I would consider any pursuit of truth, any expression of beauty, and even any loving labour to be expressions of art. If an artist is angsty about their work, they don’t clearly love it, and there’s a commercial price tag to it, I would have difficulty calling that art, which is why art collecting doesn’t make sense to me. But the simple act of creating a meal, plating it nicely, serving it with love, to me that is art. So I’m not very orthodox in my definition I guess.

But on the other hand, I believe that my definition makes art more accessible and allows more people to consider themselves artists. And I like people to think of themselves as artists because I think it’s a beautiful thought. God is an artist, we are made in His image, and I believe we are all creative and can bring art into our lives somehow. So I need to work with a broader definition as a pastor la, maybe to the chagrin of all my artist friends.  

Photo: Pixabay, 2017.

Jonathan: I like that definition. I love what you said about accessibility as well because that three-fold definition encapsulating truth, beauty and love bespeaks a kind of artistry that is embedded in what we do every day.

Jenni: Actually I got the truth, beauty, and love framing from a theologian whose name is Hans Urs von Balthasar. You need a name like that to make a point like that. (laughs) If you were raised in a propositional faith tradition like I was which is all about faith statements and doctrine, it’s paradigm-shifting to think that truth is one way to God but there’s also beauty and love.

Jonathan: It’s interesting that you mentioned that, because on one hand you have this doctrinal, rigid upbringing in the faith, but at the same time, you also mentioned that you were the one who brought in ballerinas and worship extravaganzas to church.

How would you view the place of artistic practice and creativity, not only in the church but broadly in the way that it is woven into people’s lives?

Photo: To Really Live.

Jenni: I think I feel quite concerned because, in Singapore, we are so functional and pragmatic. We like to put everything in boxes, label them, organise them, and then just shift them around. That seems to be how we operate down here in Singapore. It’s efficient, minimum fuss, whatever. That’s been quite disappointing for me when I look back. When I recount all these experiences I had, I feel a certain urgency to do more of these things. I wish I could just tell these stories to more people and tell them to go and do the same if they feel the urge to do it.

In Singapore, I find that, and I don’t know whether it’s true elsewhere, art is too linked to performance, which is why a lot of people will say ‘I’m not artistic’ because they are afraid they have to perform and attain a certain standard. Again I say this, with some reticence because I know that there is also professional art and full-time artists who should be paid for the labour. But if we can in some way decouple art and performance, that would be very powerful.

This is a tension I always struggle with. For example, I believe that there should be pastors and pastors should be paid, but I also believe every person can be a pastor. So, I feel like it’s not an either/or thing, but maybe a both/and. If everyone is a pastor nobody’s a pastor right. If everyone’s an artist, nobody’s an artist, but we need artists to inspire us, to show us that in our ordinary lives it is possible to participate in art. As I said, from cooking to home decor, these are not professional art practices, but they are bringing some measure of beauty, love, truth, and order into people’s lives.

Jonathan: I think that analogy with pastoral practice is helpful especially since it can be subjected to similar pragmatic criticisms– How are you going to make money? How are you going to raise a family? And the material that a pastor works with, in many senses, is like that of an artist. You’re working with texts, you’re working with stories. Maybe some denominations will prioritise a kind of formal textual analysis of scripture, but at least to me, I’ve always found that the pastors I’ve liked most are the ones who can balance exegesis with stories, whether it’s something they’ve encountered in day-to-day ministry with their congregants or something that they’ve read elsewhere.

Jenni: It’s interesting because as you say that the word that comes to me is the word canvas. As pastors, we work with lives, and every life that comes to you thinks they are a complete artwork. This is where I’m at and these are all the things I can’t change about myself.

But I think if you are skilful in your pastoral ministry, you can show them that there are bits of the canvas that are unfinished or can have a do-over. That’s about casting a biblical vision of life and then giving a person certain tools and saying, you can add a couple of strokes here, you can add some shadows, you can throw more light on this side, and a picture will come out completely different.

The covers of books that Jenni has written.

I also want to mention something about anger. In my writing journey, one of the things I realised is that anger is a very useful emotion when creating art, unfortunately. This anger is so high energy that sometimes you write very good pieces which just rail against something. Maybe that’s why the prophets were such effective orators because they were so angry all the time. So there is a place for anger, but how do you be angry and not be dark?

Jonathan: To go back to the initial point you made, you talked about art that you saw that was motivated primarily by angst. And I think it’s a question of how you channel that anger. On one hand, if you just indulge it and allow it to progress without restraint, it becomes destructive and corrosive.

Whereas with the example that you gave of writing, the anger can be funnelled into something that is more creative. Something that builds, something that goes the opposite path. Especially if the anger, as with the case of the prophets or some of the psalmists, even Lamentations, is directed toward drawing people’s attention to injustice, drawing people’s attention to sin.

The anger is over something that can be changed, over something that can be redeemed, but has not undergone that process of transformation just yet. But I think that this is getting to daily territory, how we process our emotions as well.

And I’m thinking about how to channel that anger to God first before one ends up taking it out on another person. To turn it to an infinite source that can handle all complaints.

Jenni: I call him the ultimate sponge that absorbs everything. But I also raise this point because, to be honest, I find a lot of artists I’ve met… maybe have experienced wounding. There’s a certain level of anger you know. Even when you read about great writers and some of their life stories, they’re a little bit angry. They are not happy-go-lucky people. They just care too much, you know? I guess that’s why I liked that definition of an artist as somebody who is in pursuit of truth. To pursue truth you just have to care a lot.

Jonathan: I like that phrasing. Anger is the consequence of caring too much, of really paying attention and being aware of things that other people might not see. And for so much of an artist’s work, whether you’re a writer or a painter or a filmmaker, the creative impulse is often observational. It stems from what you detect and how that factors into something you want to create, especially if it’s about truth and beauty. Sometimes, it can be about directing people to those aspects of truth and beauty in the everyday. But at the same time, it can also be a powerful tool to draw people’s attention toward things that shouldn’t be happening.

I think at the same time, a lot of artists might go through that phase of not being understood. I was thinking that particularly in the Singaporean context, there are always many things to get angry about in the arts. One of them is this broader historical current, as you said, of people in arts not being seen as smart compared to those in the science stream and how that has held a lot of sway over Singapore’s educational system. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel like from the ’70s to the ’90s, that was probably dominant, and it’s only recently where people are beginning to push against that.

Jenni: It’s true. I mean, last year we had the non-essential services debacle. But essentiality is also a climb because if you use Maslow’s hierarchy, you wouldn’t put the arts as a security need. But then again, an artist would beg to differ, so it does boil down to your vision of life. If your vision of life is just material sustenance then maybe you don’t need art. But if being alive is more than just breathing, living, or taking up space, then maybe you do need art.

Recently in a sermon, I referenced a story that Makoto Fujimura shared himself about how when he was a struggling young artist and eating canned tuna every day, he came home and nearly flew into a rage because his wife had bought a flower and put it in the living room in a vase.

Photo: Trina Snow, 2018

And that actually reminds me of an even older story by Jane Tyson Clement called ‘The White Lily’. That was a fable about how this old man and boy come across a white lily and bring the white lily home, which was in disarray. Everything was broken and they were dirty and unbathed, back about a hundred years ago in Europe. But when they brought it home, the beauty of the white lily began to transform their home, began to transform them. They cleaned themselves and cleaned their act up to match the white lily. And of course, the white lily is a symbol of Christ in that story. I’ve used that story several times with people.

So it boils down to your vision of life.

Jonathan: That’s helpful though, weaving that into your sermons because the act of telling a parable, telling a story, is Christlike, to begin with. I’d be interested to hear, perhaps not just in your pastoral ministry, but also in your work on The Cathedral Podcast and To Really Live, how storytelling coalesces in the way you see your work of being involved in other people’s lives.

A glimpse of To Really Live’s website.

Jenni: Actually, I really want to thank The Group. Thanks to all these friends in The Group, I’ve gotten more and more courage to live and serve off a broader base. And a lot of that base is art, whether it’s poetry or music and all that. I tried to integrate that, and my main reason is I discovered that art is powerful because it is indirect.

I think the parable is an art form and is very subversive. I really liked that because, over time as a pastor, I realised that people can be really stuck in their ways. To dislodge people you cannot reason with them because the brain works to create possibility structures, right? We all rationalise and explain our behaviour in some way. And sometimes the deeper the problem, the more ironclad the explanation will be because it’s a protective mechanism. I realised that the way to go about this is to blindside people. Something comes and the brain doesn’t quite expect it and suddenly the structure shakes a little and a few pieces fall off, some light comes in, and things begin to happen.

Photo:  Bas van den Eijkhof, 2020.

I have a special heart for pastors being a pastor myself, and last year I started running the Shepherd’s Shalom, which is a half-day retreat for pastors. And we always try to incorporate art right at the first part. You don’t come to sing songs. You don’t come to follow PowerPoints. You don’t come to hear a sermon, a teaching, an inspiration, an exhorting, none of that. It’s completely outside of their typical realm of how things operate.

And I just love it because it’s unpredictable. It moves them to a space of freedom that they have not allowed themselves to move to because they are the ones creating structures and persevering in making sure these structures continuing working week in, week out, year in, year out. They become captives in their own structures, unfortunately. It can happen in any profession but especially in the people-helping professions. I think there’s a lot of scope for that freedom.

The logo of The Cathedral Podcast, which is hosted by Jenni.

In podcasts, I try to bring conversations with artists in as there’s a lot more need for that. And of course, in my new community I founded last year, To Really Live, we try to share things that are in that direction. The one thing I don’t want us to do is to complain. ‘You know, ah, Singapore is like that… Christians are like that.’ Complaining never gets us anywhere­– just look at the Israelites. I think it’s much better to foster new narratives. So a sense of wonder, a sense of surprise, a sense of adventure. This is where art is extremely helpful. So a good film, some good visuals… there’s actually a lot of work to be done.

So I would like my church, the church, to do that more. The pastors can maybe play a collaborative role with artists. I think that will be powerful for the world going ahead.

Jonathan: That leads well to my next question– what would good engagement with the arts look like for church leaders and church members? What do you have in mind when you think about the collaborative labour between pastors and artists?

Jenni: Sometimes in church, we seem to be dealing with crisis after crisis, and that cannot be helped because in a fast-paced city you just have unending crises. But I think it’d be fun to shift gear. Not that you don’t deal with the crisis– you still have to have pastoral care, counselling, and good foundational small group practices. But at the same time, we have to emphasise having deeper conversations about why we have those crises, to begin with.

Let me give an example. Every generation has crises in parenting. So when you get up to the pulpit, you try your best and you’re pulling out Ephesians and you’re pulling up Abraham’s story and you smush it with some pop psychology and you do this inspirational talk, right? Eh… That’s not going to help. What needs to happen is maybe, you know, getting families, artists, different people in a room.

Let’s say we ask the artist whether we can have some kind of experiential piece on all these issues that can get people past talking about them to actually being able to reflect and think harder about them. Maybe we can get to the deeper issues, like when you talk about parenting crises, maybe they’re linked to other things like the vision for life, personal identity, or just communication skills. I think it would be very powerful leh. People can journal and be in small groups talking. A pastor can do a pastoral wrap up and pray for everyone. And after that, people can say, you know, I think this has surfaced some things for me. After that people can line up to see a counsellor because they know the issues better. I think there’s really a lot of scope for this. Let’s not bring the arts for an event. Let’s bring the arts for the lives or even for the season the church is in.

A few Sundays ago was Pentecost Sunday. I belong to an online women pastors’ group and the prompt was, what did you all do for Pentecost Sunday? They were sharing what they did, and one female pastor put a kite in the church with a lot of long tails. People went up and wrote and pinned something that they wanted to see the Holy Spirit do in their life to the kite. I thought, wow, that’s a beautiful, amazing, and powerful experience of the Pentecost.

Photo: FOX, 2015

It’s beyond words, but it probably does a lot more than if you just kept preaching on Acts 1 and 2. But wow. Can’t we do more of those things? I mean, pastors can come with their ideas, but why not ask the members? If you follow any church calendar anyway, it’s easier to get people into the rhythm of it also. Can be fun la. Don’t have to do it so many times, at least once or twice a year.

Jonathan: As a participant, you’re not just a passive receiver, but there’s something you do in response.

Jenni: That’s right, you’re not a consumer.

Jonathan: You’re a respondent in some way.

Jenni: Yeah. I think responding to the arts is a better term than consuming.

However, in order to do this hor, we have to be prepared to slow down. I think that is something of a disease in our society la. I don’t know where we’re rushing to. I don’t know what we’re so busy about. Honestly, it baffles me. I don’t have a ready answer, but I do know that we have to slow down. We have to believe that less can be more. Less with the right things, including the arts.

Jonathan: That seems like a good place for us to end. Thank you so much, Jenni.


Cover image from To Really Live.
Website: jennihh.blogspot.com

In Conversation with Kenneth Lau, Lee Huiwen, and Lee E Mae (Part 2)

Kenneth Lau (b. 1982) and Lee Huiwen (b. 1981) founded Studio Asobi to try and explore a slower and simpler way of life. From their cosy little home in the heartlands of Singapore, they create handmade pottery and share their love of the craft with fellow pilgrims.

They enjoy watching singing competitions, cycling slowly on cloudy days, and laughing about their son’s antics while they are still cute.

Lee E Mae (b. 1996) is a 24-year-old trying to carve out her own path of creative expression after art school. A librarian by day, she steals every other pocket of time to sink her fingers into a good old lump of clay. She believes that we can inhabit our lived realities in new spatial, experiential and poetic ways through art and making.

In this second half of their conversation, Kenneth, Huiwen, and E Mae discuss the attraction of the arts and the place of artists in the church. This discussion was held in response to framing questions provided by Jonathan Chan. It has been edited for length and clarity. 

What draws you to the arts? 

Emae: It’s such a luxury to be able to create something just for the sake of creating something… just bringing beauty into the world. I think that is something really special and different. I think that in my and Jon’s church, in our age group, not many people pursue the arts. And you know, doctors save lives, social workers are out helping people, and I’m like, what do I do ah. 

Huiwen: I draw! (laughter

Emae: I think the revelation for me was when I realised that all these compulsions that I have reflect our true Maker. Other people mirror God’s characteristics by singing or patching up what is broken, but for me, what is stronger is that I love to create stuff, I like making things new out of nothing. 

From then on I was like, I don’t have to answer to anybody on why I chose to pursue this. It’s just natural. It just comes out of me. If I don’t, then I feel stifled. If I don’t, then I don’t feel fulfilled. And then the pieces just clicked together and I stopped thinking about these questions so much. 

Room (2017) by Lee E Mae
Polyresin, paper clay

Kenneth: Talking about making, I think we had this question in church during cell on how you relate to God. For me, one of my primary ways of relating to God is as my Creator. For some people they’d feel like God is their Father and therefore feel very close to Him. But when I think of God as my Creator, I’m really in awe. God made me, whether it is through millions of years of evolution, or in an instant, nobody knows. Whatever it is, I am a created being and I think I get the privilege of experiencing that when I make something. I just feel this sense of magic, like something’s happening out of nothing. And I feel very loved to know that I’m created by God. 

Huiwen: Actually on this topic of making, a moment where I felt keenly aware of this was during our honeymoon. We were in New Zealand and staying at all of these bed and breakfasts and it astounded us how people would re-tile their own bathrooms. They were so DIY, hands-on, and we realised it’s actually that they’re special. It’s just that as Singaporeans we have it too easy and don’t need to do anything with our hands as it’s convenient to pay for a service. 

I do feel like this compulsion to create has always been there. I mean, it’s in Genesis, this whole idea of how we’re made in the image of God and how civilisations couldn’t have functioned without people getting their hands dirty when building houses, making pots. Something we like to share with people is that a lot of artifacts left behind by ancient civilisations are pottery because they last for so long even though they’re so fragile. Maybe after the Industrial Revolution, the making got outsourced to very specialised tradespeople and people actually lost this. We find ourselves trying to recover from that. 

Customised Set by Studio Asobi

During our workshops, there’s so much of this narrative we’ve been seeing where they’ll come and be like, “Oh, I am very bad at art one… I’ll make a mess…” You hear these things spoken out and you have to kind of restore them. I’m like, “No, it’s okay. Even if you make a hole, the clay is very forgiving. I can teach you how to patch it back.” And then they have this sort of safe space to fail, or even embrace the imperfections. Sometimes after talking to them, they’ll be like, “Oh yeah, I don’t need to make it too even la. I purposely want to leave it a bit raw.” Then you know that something has happened because they start to see that it’s actually okay. Life is like that. There’s beauty in imperfections. 

On a separate note, there’s this book I was reading called Awaking Wonder by Sally Clarkson. She’s a writer who talks more about parenting and marriage. It was interesting because it talks about her passion for awakening wonder and imagination. I feel like that’s a very nice posture to have as Christians. Oh, like, let’s think… “Why did God make the bees this colour? Why are there so many varieties of flowers? Look at the stars!” Just to have this sense of awe and wonder, pondering just what we observe from a posture of excitement. I wish somebody had done that for me when I was young, you know? I hope now that we have a young child that we can do that for him. 

Kenneth: In engaging in pottery, it helps to liberate our parenting. We see this clay: it can become anything. And we see all of our peers engaging in different kinds of work, but we can be artists. Then when we look at our child: there’s endless potential for him. We don’t have to parent him in a way that other people say we have to. 

Huiwen: It’s like this analogy of working with a wheel, right. It starts off with a lump, but who knows what it will become? Is it going to be a cylinder? Is it going to be a pot? You have to ask the potter because only the potter knows. The clay has no idea, like, “Uh, am I supposed to be in this or that shape”. I think that also helps us to hold a bit less tightly. Kind of like who we are, what we do, and all these things, because really, who knows? 

Schooling (2019) by Studio Asobi

***

How have you experienced being a Christian in creative practice and, conversely, as a creative practitioner in the church? What are some misconceptions you’ve encountered in either sphere? 

Huiwen: Based on some conversations I’ve heard, sometimes when we’re artists as a group we feel very misunderstood or used. But actually, I feel like it’s also too much to say that because artists are just a type of person right. We are not so special until we need to be cared for in a particular sense. The church is really made out of different parts. 

And I feel like actually, the tension that E Mae felt with art history is that we are all actually fighting for that lens that is being put on art, the value of things. Who decides what is fine art, or that it should cost 5 million dollars, or that it should cost 5 dollars? As artists, do we help people to see reality for what it really is? If you’re able to help contribute to that, I think then that’s our role. We bring beauty and because of how evocative it is to our senses when we view, hear, or touch something, it brings us to a different kind of perspective.

I think that’s a good place for artists to participate in the role of church life. In the past, it’s like all these frescoes of the big, nice churches in Europe. Many people who were illiterate would just look at these paintings and that’s how they would understand theology. That’s how they received information and the biggest patrons were actually for religious purposes. Even for all religions, it’s always this question of how can we use beauty, expressions, and tangible objects to bring across that sort of reverence? 

Watershed (2020) by Studio Asobi

Kenneth: I always felt very out of place, even in church… you could feel like people value you to a certain extent because maybe you can write a bit better or you have something special, but they also don’t know how to talk to you. I always felt like I needed to fit in, to communicate in people’s language. I guess with what we create, it’s also like us putting feelers out to connect with people. 

I think that’s why I don’t really do the kind of art that I previously did that is very imaginative, because I’m starting to think that I don’t really know what to tell people. What do I know about life that is so much better? But in having a common place of connection, I think that’s where we can discover together what is important, like when Jonathan shares about poetry. I also write poetry and you don’t have to compare who is better. There’s something that means we understand, that tells us a little bit about our own lives. That helps me to live in a bit more secure way, knowing that there are people in the same boat. 

Huiwen: Actually I think that the arts are not as non-utilitarian as we may feel. For a large part of my life, the arts played such an important role. Just having these books to read, music to listen to, these random poems to muse over. It is actually very formative to your being, your soul, and your whole mindset. I love Chinese and I studied some Chinese poems. I mean, there’s this lady sitting there, and she could have been wallowing in self-pity from the way she writes her words. And somehow for thousands of years, people still read her four liners now and are still empathising with whatever she was feeling for that day. 

I love being touched by these things. Maybe that says what we lack in life, right? Everything is just so efficient and pragmatic. But why did God make so many varieties of fungus or flowers? He doesn’t need to, right? But He does. And I guess that’s the point? Just going into the field and feeling like, “Wow”, like, “I don’t know why I God made this, but it’s beautiful and I love it.” 

***

Bear A Fruit in Me
Kenneth Lau

Give me love
When my love fades
Give me joy
When my heart aches
Give me peace
When the storms rage
Spirit bear a fruit in me

Oh give me ears to hear
Oh give me eyes to see
Give me grace to live
This life you gave to me
Oh give me ears to hear
Oh give me eyes to see
Spirit bear a fruit in me

Keep me patient
For the hard days
Keep me kind
When I’ve nothing kind to say
Keep me good
When evil comes my way
Spirit bear a fruit in me

Keep me faithful
For this long race
Keep me gentle
Before the harshest gaze
Take control
When I’m wandering away
Spirit bear a fruit in me

Oh give me ears to hear
Oh give me eyes to see
Give me grace to live
This life you gave to me
Oh give me ears to hear
Oh give me eyes to see
Spirit bear a fruit in me


Cover image: Handmade Paper Study (2019) by Lee E Mae.
Handmade cotton paper, unfired terracotta, black ink. Image taken by the artist

Websites

Studio Asobi: studioasobi.com

Lee E Mae: emaelee.com

In Conversation with Kenneth Lau, Lee Huiwen, and Lee E Mae (Part 1)

Kenneth Lau (b. 1982) and Lee Huiwen (b. 1981) founded Studio Asobi to try and explore a slower and simpler way of life. From their cosy little home in the heartlands of Singapore, they create handmade pottery and share their love of the craft with fellow pilgrims.

They enjoy watching singing competitions, cycling slowly on cloudy days, and laughing about their son’s antics while they are still cute.

Lee E Mae (b. 1996) is a 24-year-old trying to carve out her own path of creative expression after art school. A librarian by day, she steals every other pocket of time to sink her fingers into a good old lump of clay. She believes that we can inhabit our lived realities in new spatial, experiential and poetic ways through art and making.

This conversation on art, inspiration, and beauty was held in response to framing questions provided by Jonathan Chan. It has been edited for length and clarity. 

How did you first begin practising your artistic craft?

Huiwen: It was during our pre-marriage course that I committed my life to Christ. As we started taking our faith seriously,  we grew increasingly dissatisfied with what our lives were at the time. I had my corporate job, he had his, and it felt like we were spending a good part of our time just trying to make more money for our companies and ourselves. I think there was a lot of conflict between what we were reading in the Bible and committing our energy towards. For us one key verse was Ephesians 2:10:

‘For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.’

What is it that God has created, had made us to be, and what are these good works that He has prepared in advance for us to do? 

We started taking pottery classes after the first year of our marriage after realising that we were spending way too much time at work. It was a way to spend intentional quality time together. Kenneth did some ceramics as an O-Level art student, but I was a complete beginner. It surprised me how moved I was to be able to create a beautiful vessel out of the dust of the earth. As we gradually fell in love with the craft, we began to wonder: if a hobby gives us so much joy and meaning, what’s stopping us from finding something similar in our work, something that can help us integrate our faith with the rest of our lives?

We had no intention of becoming potters as pottery was a sunset industry at the time. However, this question led me to leave my job and go on a sabbatical. During that year of rest and exploration, I spent 40 days in Japan, staying in the studio of an old potter and learning from him. It was during the season of Lent and I was on a social media fast, so my mind was clear and free from its usual distractions. As I watched the lives of the local Japanese, I felt like God was telling me, “Look at these people – they may not know Me, but their lives are so simple, joyful and peaceful. What about you, who claim to know Me?”

After returning to Singapore, those reflections eventually gradually grew into a decision to start a pottery practice from our home. I honestly wasn’t thinking much about becoming a professional ceramic artist, but it was more Kenneth and I setting out to answer the question of whether there’s a way to live our lives more aligned to biblical values, even in a place like Singapore. How could we integrate our faith, our marriage, our work, and our ministry in a manner that pleases God and brings us sustainable joy?

Rise (2015) by Studio Asobi

Kenneth: We met Pastor Benny Ho at a church camp, and at that time we were already thinking a little bit about going into pottery. When we told him about some of our ideas, he was actually very excited. I remember him talking about how the creation of beauty is a bit lost in the Christian tradition. While the rest of society is very much focused on expressions of creativity, the Christian world holds back. In that sense, we are not able to engage with people in the way they are engaging with themselves. 

It really struck me because when I told my parents I wanted to be an artist after O-Levels, they were very against it. Now I’ve gone in one big round. I always felt like art was something special but never felt like there could be a use for it. When I looked at beautiful works of art, they would really move me, but I’d always felt like they’re just feelings and those are not important. 

So when I heard Pastor Benny talk about this value of beauty and how that pertains to Christianity, this was something new for me. I think that’s where we wanted to start to explore. We never felt like we were cut out to be ceramic artists…

Huiwen: Yeah, we are extremely unqualified. (laughs

Kenneth: Yeah, it’s an exploration or experimentation. I think because we came from stressful corporate jobs, being able to slow down was also very valuable. Time is a resource that’s lacking in Singapore. I think it was also around this time that I saw a few examples of how life is very transient. We had a friend who passed away at 30 and everybody was shocked. Another friend, 37, who was an ex-colleague had a cancer relapse. Now she’s okay but it suddenly made her feel like, wah, any time I can just be gone. 

So we just felt we needed to look at time in a different way. In this period of our lives when we have energy, we have resources, we have intellect, we are educated… This is the best time for us to use our time wisely, rather than wait for when we are weaker, a bit older, and a lot more burdened. If we want to go and tire ourselves at an older age… it’s a risky move. Some people can contribute a lot at that age, but you never know how it might be like for yourself. 

See You Latte (2020) by Studio Asobi

Huiwen: Actually, what I discovered in that sabbatical year is that time is a non-renewable resource. Money is a renewable resource, but time is not. And because we are also quite involved in the Young Adults ministry in our church, when we see a lot of people feeling very trapped by work, we’ll try and help them ponder: what are you trapped by? Sometimes we’ll ask them, if you’re 50, how much would you pay to get back one year of your youth? I think when you think about that, and then you think about how much you are sacrificing now just to earn that extra amount of money a month… To start like that… are you going to regret it? But not everyone takes our advice la (laughs

So for us, this foray into arts is not really like “arts” per se… but actually more about life and relationships. I think that’s more core to our identity as artisans. Even in the workshops we run, oftentimes the pottery is just a means to spend time asking our participants about their lives. I think this path into the arts is like a third space between the secular world and the church where people are a bit more willing to talk about deeper things. 

And the name “Asobi” actually means “play” in Japanese, and the kanji word is 遊 (you), which means “journey” in Mandarin. To me, pottery is not the end goal. I always felt that way even when we started. It is just a means – who knows what we’ll do 10, 20 years down the road? I see the importance of art, as it has the power to transcend time and space and it also gets people more in touch with their inner thoughts. It’s now our seventh year so we’re actually doing a lot of reflection. What is it that God wants us to do for the next seven years? 

I Am Open (2019) by Studio Asobi

Take this jar of clay
And place me where the rain falls
Till I overflow

***

Do you have any reflections about the weaving of faith and art?  

E Mae: I did Art and Art History in joint majors at the University of Reading, but the art there was not traditional at all, so we didn’t specialise at all. It’s very theory-based, very critical, contemporary art-focused… and I enjoyed it la, I thrived. But after four years I was just pretty exhausted. I was just very sceptical and apprehensive about the art that I saw there.

Huiwen: Like the typical cynical art student.

E Mae: Yes! Everyone who graduates from art school is like, “This is not all I thought it would be”. I think from there I’m still finding my way. In art school I was very process- and medium-driven, always working with clay, but there’s also that weird segregation between art and craft. At first, I was trying to wrap my head around it. I was like, “Is there some kind of colonial undertone to this…” Like, who was the one who separated fine art and craft? 

Even in art school when I was pinching pots on my table, just having a good time while my other friends were wracking their brains on their computers, they would stop by and be like, “Oh, that’s so cute! I wish I worked with clay.” And then I’m like, “Excuse me?” (laughter) I was just very tired of that. I came back to Singapore and went to a pottery studio to continue throwing, and then I felt, wah, this release. I didn’t have to think about anything. I could just think about improving my pottery skills and enjoying the process and that was very freeing for me. So I’m still honing my craft in that sense. 

Part of Leaky Vessels (2019) by Lee E Mae
Ceramic, paper, graphite, ink, plywood, mild steel

But also, in uni, not many people knew I was a Christian. I was a bit scared la. I mean the environment there was quite hostile… 

Huiwen: Art school especially it’s like when you say you’re religious… and they’re like, “Oh my goodness.”

E Mae: Yeah! I was like, “What does that even mean?” If I believe in God? Does that make me religious? I didn’t really understand that concept either. It was quite hard for me to find community there as well. It was very small, liberal, and I was the only Singaporean in my department, one of very few Asians. It was tough as I felt like I was going against the current.

It’s quite a pity that I wasn’t able to integrate more of my faith into what I studied, into my uni life, but it’s still something I’m trying to reconcile now. I never thought it would clash so much until I went to uni. 

Huiwen: Was it because of the ideas? 

E Mae: Yeah! In art history, a lot of thought that goes into it is already very post-Enlightenment, post-religious, post-living with God, post-Jesus… it was quite a cynical place. It might come as a surprise to my course mates now actually that I’m a Christian. But if they ask I’ll be like, yeah la I am la, I pray la (laughter) I love Jesus. Do you? (laughter) Then they’re like, “I do yoga”. (laughter

Space (2017) by Lee E Mae
Hessian, plaster, clay

Kenneth: In a way, it’s good that it clashed. For me, the fact that it didn’t clash actually speaks a lot about my faith back then. When I was there, I could on one hand go for Christian Fellowship, then, on the other hand, my architecture faculty’s culture was very… carnal. (laughter) Looking back at my life then, I could feel very spiritual on Sunday, and it didn’t matter to me on all the other days. 

Whereas now there’s a lot more tension because we really want to see what the rest of our lives will look like since we’ve decided to be more integrated. When COVID happened, it made me realise that going to church doesn’t really mean that I’m a disciple of Christ. I remember listening to various sermons before COVID that talked about how the first century Christians showed examples of what Christianity really is during the plague. They were out in the streets sacrificing themselves and loving each other and people saw that this is very different from seeing everybody fighting for their own lives. I’m sure every church has probably preached about being salt and light, but the church in Singapore has still pretty much stuck to the status quo in this period. There are definitely responses in parts of the church that say, “I’m going to stand up and be counted”, but the same is happening in other religions. Everybody in Singapore has naturally become a bit more attentive to various social issues. I think we are still constantly trying to get a grip on what discipleship really means. 

And that’s why we come back to art. Recently I’ve been reflecting: do I call myself an artist? Or do I call myself more of an artisan or craftsman, just like how you were thinking about that dichotomy? I find it hard to call myself an artist because of the way I approach my craft… I don’t try to make a statement. Rather, I really treasure the connections that we can make with the people who commission us to do something or the people who come to our classes. And on our Instagram page, we make something and then just reflect about it and our lives and the process of making it. It’s because we want to connect with people, to feel like we all share some stories, some common narratives. 

Huiwen: I guess one of the struggles that we also had is that we don’t want to add on to this culture of consumerism. I think how we manage that is that we actually don’t create collections to sell. Rather it’s more of when people approach us to make something, we make la. We try not to encourage a desire to consume. But it’s still a journey of figuring out how to properly live out our faith in our work.

Kenneth: Yeah, so, what’s an artist? I also don’t really know. But for us, even the act of making something to sell, as long as it’s meaningful to the person, that feels very nice. 

Making Our Mark (2015) by Studio Asobi
Made out of 2500 pieces of handmade ceramic tiles, this was a community art project co-created with the people of Hougang.

***

A Mirror Darkly
Kenneth Lau

There’s a fog in my eyes and I can’t see
Where the earth ends and begins the sea
When the dusk gives up its light
When the shore fades out of sight
Am I alone or are You with me

There’s a weight on my chest and I can’t breathe
As I follow Your voice in the wind
Will my world be left behind
Or is there life for me to find
Am I in chains or am I set free

Though now I peer, into a mirror darkly
Oh that one day, Your face I will see
Though now I know, in broken pieces
Oh to behold You, like You’ve always known me

There’s a limp in my stride and I can’t run
Long is this race I have barely begun
Will I stumble round the bend
Or will I make it to the end
To be called a son, a friend

Though now I peer, into a mirror darkly
Oh that one day, Your face I will see
Though now I know, in broken pieces
Oh to behold You, like You’ve always known me


Cover image: Slippage (2018) by Lee Emae.
Terracotta, paper, ink, acrylic, fluorescent lights.

Website

Studio Asobi: studioasobi.com

Lee E Mae: emaelee.com

Tragedy, Christianity, and Holy Saturday: Looking toward Easter

The term ‘Christian tragedy’ has often been described as a paradox, in part because the Christian system of belief insists on the persistence of hope. A Christian framework ascribes meaning to suffering: in his epistle, James writes:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. [1]

Suffering begins to inhere in a broader purpose rather than in the interminable knot of stasis or in the perpetuity of physical anguish. If the promise of a living hope, one that is revitalised each day, invigorates the narrative sensibility of the believer, and the figure of Jesus Christ symbolises a conquering of the forces of death, it is difficult to hold to the apathetic determinism that has coloured many tragic narratives.

One way to carve out dimensions of the tragic within the Christian worldview may be expressed in the perceived absence, or silence, of God. If Good Friday represents the death of Christ for the salvation of all mankind, and Easter Sunday represents the resurrection that seals the new life that believers have in Christ, it is in the agonising experience of the Saturday between where the locus of tragedy remains. One must cling to the assurance that ‘all things work together for good’, [2] that Christ will return, and that justice will be restored, despite the immediacy of suffering or persecution. It is in the faltering of this promise where tragedy emerges, particularly for the believing subject who must suffer emotional, psychological, and physical violence.

Shūsaku Endō and Danai Gurira explore the psychological and physical anguish of religious persecution in their respective works Silence (1966) and The Convert (2012). The site of interior contest is found in 17th-century Japan and 19th-century Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), in wars raging between Christian piety and indigenous belief, foreign influence and tribal obligation. Jesuit priest Sebastião Rodrigues rails against a God who does not intervene in the slaughter of Japanese Christians; Catholic priest Chilford must witness his protégé Jekesai succumb to violence as she witnesses the Christian British kill her fellow Shona.

Endō’s novel and Gurira’s play variously question the indigenisation of Christianity, of the possibility of integrating local belief systems and languages under a Christian framework, but also the notion that a benevolent God demands the martyrdom of His followers. There can be no glory in the sacrifices that Endō and Gurira depict, not least when God seems distant, absent, and insistently apophatic – the assurance of a benevolent divinity evaporates in the midst of unceasing anguish.

Central to the tragedy of Silence is the campaign of extermination waged by the Tokugawa Shogunate upon Japan’s Christian population. Noting the unquestioning obedience of his subjects to foreign priests, Emperor Hideyoshi issued an edict of expulsion in 1587. In it, he declares that Christianity is ‘longing to disseminate an evil law, to overthrow true doctrine, so that they may change the government of the country, and obtain possession of the land’. [3] Recognising that the killing of Christians was not serving its purpose, the Shogunate developed modes of torture to force martyrs to apostatise. This reckoning with Japan’s persecution of Christians was central to Endō’s ambivalence toward his Catholicism. He writes:

There were many times when I felt I wanted to get rid of my Catholicism, but I was finally unable to do so. […] Still, there was always that feeling in my heart that it was something borrowed, and I began to wonder what my real self was like. This I think is the ‘mud swamp’ Japanese in me. [4]

This lack of a coterminous Japanese Christian identity beleaguered Endō, traced to the violence wrought upon those who first sought to propagate the faith. After witnessing the martyrdoms of Mokichi and Ichizo, Rodrigues is brought to meet Ferreira, his former mentor and subsequent Christian apostate. Ferreira inveighs against the possibility of Christianity taking root in Japan, declaring,

This country is a more terrible swamp than you can imagine. Whenever you plant a sapling in this swamp the roots begin to rot; the leaves grow yellow and wither. And we have planted the sapling of Christianity in this swamp. […] In Japan our God is just like that butterfly caught in the spider’s web: only the exterior form of God remains, but it has already become a skeleton.’ [5]

There can be no Christian hope if the Japanese can have no conception of the Christian God, twisted beyond recognition, unable to reconcile with the strictures of a fundamentally distinct episteme. The substance of Christian doctrine is hollowed in Ferreira’s conception, God expressed only in the ‘exterior form’ of liturgy, an allegation that the Japanese form of Christian belief abides ritual and nothing else.

This irreconcilability is taken as justification for the violence that Rodrigues must bear witness to.  Japanese converts are beheaded, immolated, and drowned by rising tides in his presence. In his letters, he writes:

the black soil of Japan has been filled with the lament of so many Christians; the red blood of priests has flowed profusely; the walls of the churches have fallen down; and in the face of this terrible and merciless sacrifice offered up to Him, God has remained silent. [6]

The silence of God is what tars the violence against the Japanese Christians with senselessness, one in which there can be no assurance of glorious deliverance. The Christian God is not understood to be retributive, but this intensifies the psychic fissures of Japan’s persecuted church, of the struggle to find meaning amidst the campaign of annihilation they face.

As with Ferreira, the seeming silence of God erodes Rodrigues’ faith. His reverence is put under strain when he is forced to a position of apostasy. Trapped in a cage, Rodrigues is forced to bear witness to Christians whose bodies are subject to the same physical torture that Ferreira experienced:

Behind their ears a small incision has been made; the blood drips slowly through this incision and through the nose and mouth. I know it well, because I have experienced that same suffering in my own body. Prayer does nothing to alleviate suffering.

So long as Rodrigues does not recant his faith, they will continue to be tortured. The Shogunate’s shrewd assessment of Christian ethics has enabled them to craft a form of torture that problematises its imperatives. The meaning of suffering is displaced onto Rodrigues, who must weigh the costs of his own personal tragedy – apostasy – against the atrocity he faces. The novel reaches its climax as Rodrigues can bear this burden no more:

He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample ! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.’

The priest placed his foot on the fumie
[7]. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew. [8]

The connection Endō draws between Rodrigues and Saint Peter is damning. Peter, infamously, disavowed Christ thrice after promising he would not, a prophecy signified by the sound of a rooster crowing. Such a parallel illustrates the pressures that turned Rodrigues into that which he feared most – a traitor, an apostate, a hypocrite.

The tragedy of Rodrigues lies in the irreconcilability of the conflict he faces, a Christian paradox in its own right. Which is to be privileged: the outward declaration of faith in Christ, or the imperative toward laying down one’s life for one’s neighbor? The meaning of suffering is manipulated to enact the greatest amount of pain upon Rodrigues as a priest. The greatest irony, then, is that the moment of Rodrigues’ apostasy is when God breaks his silence. Somehow, providential sovereignty reasserts itself at the point where it seems most likely to disappear.

Pappa Essiedu and Letitia Wright as Chilford and Ester, The Convert. All photos © Marc Brenner

Gurira’s dramatisation of the encounter between Christianity and a non-Christian episteme is just as fraught as Endō’s, albeit exacerbated by the violence of British colonialism. The native Rhodesians regard Christianity as a symbol of betrayal, seeing converts as abandoning their heritage and mimicking European habits to acquire their discursive and economic power. This is captured in the epithet ‘Bafu, a lover to the white man.’ [9] The eponymous Convert is Ester, formerly Jekesai, who flees to Catholic priest Chilford’s home under the auspices of her aunt Mai Tamba who works as his housekeeper.

Chilford is presented as the ideal colonised subject when he ostentatiously defends his decision to ‘civilise’ Ester by steeping her in ‘the most potent margination of biblical and academic studies’. [10] The tropes of African barbarism and paganism are fully imbibed by Chilford, for whom Catholicism, the English language, and European thought represent a pathway out. Ester’s adoption of Christianity is swift, as she sees the Christian God as delivering her from a forced marriage to a distant uncle. Yet, her mimicry earns her the scorn of her cousin Tamba, who laments:

You are a muzeuru of the first and the foremost. The daughter of many lines of vazezuru, but you want to sit in this BAFU idiot’s home acting rike you ara a white [11]

The irreconcilability herein is between their Shona lineage and Ester’s adoption of the Christian faith. If Endō was haunted by the impossibility of Christianity thriving in the mud swamp of Japan, Gurira is haunted by the epistemic and cultural violence of exchanging one belief system for another. Tamba persists in his hatred for the British:

Now we do what they say because we need these monies they bring to GIVE BEK TO THEM in the hut tex to live in a smar hut and they ara riving in the BIIIIG houses they mek US build. Then they say – ‘Oh – here is this God who is coming from they sky to mek you crean from a sin – you love on him end be heppy. […] (Picks up Bible and throws it to the ground.) It is the poison of the white man. It kill the spirit of your forefather inside you. [12]

Tamba’s creolised monologue alludes to the fundamental transformation wrought upon Zimbabwe by the imposition of British economic systems, one driven by an obsession with material extraction and accumulation. Tamba notes the injustices of taxation, of which the benefits are not equitably distributed amongst the indigenous. This spirit of capitalism that has infested Rhodesia is what he conflates with Christianity, as he identifies the hypocrisy of the colonialists who claim to abide by its tenets.

Ester, Tamba, and Mai Tamba © Young Vic

This hypocrisy is what breaks Ester’s faith in the God of the British, resulting in an eruption of violence. Like Rodrigues, she cannot help but question the presence of a God who allows for senseless atrocity to take place. She returns to Chilford after attempting to advocate on Tamba’s behalf during a trial for his murder of a British national. Abandoning the name Ester and reclaiming the name Jekesai, she confesses:

The whites don’t do what their book it is saying. I thought they would be like Jesus, show his love, love their enemy, I thought – (Beat.) I wanted to not care and spill their blood like they were not caring and spilling mine. They killed him like a chicken, Master. A chicken. (Beat.)

[…]

I knew how to cut quick, how to life the knife just like so and drop it heavy. I just lift the knife like I do with the chicken and drop it through Mrs. Coltern she her neck. [13]

[…]

(Dawn begins to break.) Master, can you be absolving me?’ [14]

Jekesai’s monologue comes at the play’s conclusion, at the height of her disillusionment toward the benevolence of British rule and its supposed Christian scaffolding. Her belief in British piety is torn asunder by the merciless murder of Tamba, dehumanised like ‘a chicken’. The words of Ester’s father lead her to succumb to the tribalistic pressures of the blood feud, as she claims the life of a British national in exchange. The visceral violence she enacts on her kindly benefactors is couched in the similar lexis of animal slaughter, as if to enact the same dehumanisation upon ‘the whites’.

Herein the tension is between two compelling systems of belief, of the impossibility of acceding to Christian mercy when it seems absent in those who enact violence. Yet, Jekesai is firmly convinced of her Christianity, declaring:

I am already making my peace on this one. This I was doing for my blood, but I am knowing there is a price I must be paying. […] Don’t be fearing for me Master, the Lord he is with me. [15]

Jekesai is able to reconcile these imperatives in a way that Rodrigues cannot. For her, revenge is a satisfactory resolution to the silence of God amidst atrocity. If we are to take a Hegelian formulation of tragedy, it is out of these two clashing paradigms that something new is born, that the Geist of history proceeds. In Gurira’s formulation, it is the promise of a fully Shona Christianity. The play concludes with a composition by Jekesai:

I am making this song as I was walking just now. It is to the Lord my God in the tongue of my ancestors. You, Father Ndlovu, you can be singing it in you your new church. (Starts to sing.)

Makanaka baba, makanaka,

[…]

Ndinotenda, ndinotenda Jesu, ndinotenda.

[God you are good. I thank you Jesus][16]

The tragedy of Christianity is entwined with the physical and epistemic violence wrought upon Rhodesia: the oppositions of native and coloniser, indigenous belief and Christianity, a reified past and an obscured future. The promise of a Zimbabwean Christianity is enmeshed in a struggle for a new self-definition in the aftermath of British colonialism. As Gurira has written elsewhere, ‘The clash of voice, dream, God and song is destined to be mighty, bloody and age-long.’ [17]

If the Christian framework offers a way of ascribing meaning to suffering, a Christian tragedy functions in such a way that it hollows it of the possibility of this meaning. Endō’s God seems cruelly distant from the suffering of His church in Japan. It is in this silence that Endō’s tragedy unfolds as Rodrigues is forced to apostasise. For Gurira, God is Himself the site of contest – He surely cannot be the God that Jekesai worships if the British are willing to commit egregious violence in His name. Yet, the God that she knows is never distant, but with her even in the midst of her retaliatory murders, even in the enactment of tribal custom.

The despair of the Holy Saturday between the death and resurrection of Christ finds itself elongated, just as Christians anticipate the eventual return of Christ, who will bring an end to all pain and suffering. What Endō and Gurira testify to is the possibility of a Christian tragedy that inheres in its framework, destined to play out in this long period of waiting, eager for the release that arrives with the hope of Easter Sunday.

***

Pietà
R. S. Thomas

Always the same hills
Crowd the horizon,
Remote witnesses
Of the still scene.

And in the foreground
The tall Cross,
Sombre, untenanted,
Aches for the Body
That is back in the cradle
Of a maid’s arms.

***

Bibliography

Primary Works

Endō, Shusaku, Silence, trans. by William Johnston (United States: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1969)

Gurira, Danai, The Convert, (United Kingdom: Oberon Books Ltd, 2017)

Thomas, R. S., ‘Pietà’ in Selected Poems (United Kingdom: Penguin Books, 2003), p. 59

Secondary Works

Boxer, C. R., The Christian Century in Japan (United States: University of California Press, 1951)

ESV Study Bible, English Standard Version, ed. by Crossway (United States: Crossway, 2011)

Mathy, Francis, ‘Shusaku Endō: Japanese Catholic Novelist’, Thought, Winter 1967


***

[1] ESV Study Bible, English Standard Version, ed. by Crossway (United States: Crossway, 2011), James 1:2-8.

[2] ESV Study Bible, English Standard Version, ed. by Crossway (United States: Crossway, 2011), Romans 8:28.

[3] C. R. Boxer, The Christian Century in Japan (United States: University of California Press, 1951), p. 318.

[4] Francis Mathy, ‘Shusaku Endō: Japanese Catholic Novelist’, Thought, Winter 1967.

[5] Shusaku Endō, Silence, trans. by William Johnston (United States: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1969), pp. 225, 228.

[6] Endō, Silence, pp. 84-85.

[7] Japanese flat image of a Christian symbol, usually the crucifixion, designed to be stepped on. Suspected Christians were required to step on the representation to prove that they were not believers.

[8] Endō, Silence, p. 259.

[9] Danai Gurira, The Convert, (United Kingdom: Oberon Books Ltd, 2017), p. 39.

[10] Gurira, The Convert, p. 8.

[11] Gurira, The Convert, p. 39.

[12] Gurira, The Convert, p. 39.

[13] Ester works as the maid of the Colterns in the play.

[14] Gurira, The Convert, pp. 84-85.

[15] Gurira, The Convert, p. 86.

[16] Gurira, The Convert, pp. 86-87.

[17] Gurira, The Convert.

Interview with Mike Wong

Mike Wong (b. 1967) is a multi-media artist who works across the platforms of painting, video, theatre, and installations. Having received training in Western and Chinese art and studied engineering in his academic years, while still being mostly self-taught as an artist, Mike has a unique perspective and approach towards his art-making. He lives and works in Singapore. His art has been featured in exhibitions in Singapore, New York, and Chicago.

Jonathan Chan interviews Mike about his thoughts on making art, the place of faith in his creative process, and his position as an artist working in and outside of the church.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jonathan: I thought we could start by speaking about ‘Communion’, the piece that you prepared for Easter last year. I thought it was powerful that you took a piece called ‘Voidness’, took it apart, and you put together over it this visual expression of the coming together of the body of Christ beneath the bleeding crown of thorns. It presented a sense of coming from nothingness into the substance of the church itself.

‘Voidness’ by Mike Wong (2013)
‘Communion’ by Mike Wong (2020)

Why did you choose to work over that piece in particular and was it something your church commissioned you to do?

Mike: When the pastor of my church approached me, that was when the entire church was given the notice that they were not allowed to meet anymore when Singapore was under lockdown. He asked me, “Do you have anything with which you are able to encourage the congregation through art?” He’d given me a blank cheque, and I like blank cheques because when I deal with art, I want to sense on my own where I should head to.

At the beginning of the year 2000, I began to experiment with bright colours in my paintings – using the paint in its original form, its original hues, and not mixing the colour so much. I would use the technique of applying and taking away, so it was always a continuous process of letting it dry or half-dry before I would just tear it off. That is my practice with the abstract paintings I’ve done and part of what I was doing with my solo exhibition in Chicago in 2013.

‘Wiping Voidness’ by Mike Wong (2013)

The reason why I chose this particular piece is that when I was painting ‘Voidness’, I’d had enough of colours that shout because that was how I was seeing the world. To draw attention, whether it was in the commercial world, the religious world, everybody was shouting! So that’s why my paintings were loud, bright, and colourful. People may think they’re cheerful but behind that brightness, I was criticising the unbearable loudness of it.

And then COVID-19 came. I felt that it was like God giving a pause button. You couldn’t speed anymore. Nobody could. And even churches, with what was supposed to be a year of reaching out to the lost, couldn’t! So I didn’t see 2020 as dark and gloomy in every way. Of course, there were moments where it was depressing, but that is only because of our indulgence in this speeding world… our indulgence in always trying to brighten everything, you know?

So I decided to do a very contemplative piece that says: what better way to tear down the brightness, the emptiness of the past, pause for a moment and, focus on what really matters: what is the anchor of our faith? I think that was the message: that we are all having communion together not just of bread and wine, but also of His death and His resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Jonathan: I’d be interested to hear how your pastor responded to it, and your fellow church members as well. Would you say there’s a place that the arts occupy within the consciousness of your church and how it does ministry?

Mike: For people who are not so exposed to art in general, they actually had no clue what was going on, though they did feel that the metaphor of tearing the old painting down was a bit shocking. They were like, why is this guy tearing down all the different paints? They were more curious about the material that I was using, that it could be torn down and be taken apart. I was glad that they were curious about it and I was hoping that they would be. I was also hoping that there would be negative remarks, but they were all very courteous and nice lah.

Mike tearing paint in ‘Communion’ (2020).

The relationship between art and church is always like that. In Singapore, particularly, I find that people are not so exposed to the art scene or to art forms, so in terms of paintings, I think they would think that paintings are all the same. It has to present something, it has to say something, and it has to be about something.

Jonathan: Would you say then that part of that perception comes from the sense that art should only depict “serious things” or matters of social concern?

Mike: Yes. I think for all these years I’ve been working with the church, whether it’s been in paintings,  theatre, or videos, if art is not useful, then it’s not needed.

That is what I have always tried to educate the church about: that art is not something you’re supposed to quickly bend to your needs. Rather, it is in its most un-useful way that it is useful. Do you know what I mean? Why does God want to make the skies of the evenings and mornings so different every day? He could have just prescribed one shade or hue consistently throughout, yet every day is different. There is no particular need for them to be different. So in a way, I think this is how I see how the church and other institutions. They always look at art as something that has to be useful.

When I do theatre in church, often they are looking from the angle of a sermon. I always have to tell them that sometimes what I’m doing on stage is experimental, and may not even be theologically correct. However, I’m quite fortunate because the pastors do allow me to experiment to a certain degree. After a while, they’d say, “Can you stop experimenting?” Because most normal folks when they come to church they don’t want to think too much. They just want to be fed. Then I’d say, “I’m not the person who’s supposed to do this because it is not my inclination to do that.”

So that’s my relationship with the church. Historically, a lot of Christians have had that struggle with the church, like in the time of Michelangelo with the struggles he had with the Pope. I guess all Christians who are artists in their churches will have that kind of struggle as well. Art is like a bulldozer that tears down walls, or at least a means of opening a window or a door. It’s a catalyst – such that you might be inspired to explore, find the truth for yourself, and own that truth. It is my belief that that is the duty and responsibility of an artist, especially for a Christian artist.

Jonathan: I guess that’s one of the tensions we always have to navigate – that feeling of the accessibility of what you create. I think it’s interesting how there is a spectrum of work you’ve presented for the edification of the church – some experimental and some more straightforward, parable-like work as well.

‘3 Trees’ (2017), a film by Mike Wong.

This is a good place for us to transition to talking about your career because just as there are struggles that accompany being an artist in the church, I’m sure there must have also been difficulties being a Christian in the art world. In particular, I was interested in talking about your exhibition The Dramatics of Living (2013).

‘Quiet Foam’ by Mike Wong (2013)

I read what you wrote about wanting to be a facilitator of how paint moves on the canvas and I thought that came through with the pieces for that exhibition, including one I like called ‘Quiet Foam’. To me, the paint stacked on itself in a way that almost looked like cake icing. I was curious about the process of bringing that exhibition to life and the interaction that process had with your faith.

Mike: First of all, I’m not involved full-time in artmaking. I was an engineer and until I really had no more energy or inspiration left to be in engineering, I was telling my wife, “I really want to be a full-time artist! I just want to paint for the rest of my life”. And my wife was like, “Are you sure we are not going to be hungry?” (laughs) I was thinking, okay, maybe I will paint when I have time and give myself work that will be able to bring in the bread and the butter. So I started Stampede Pictures, a video production company doing wedding videos, but soon went into corporate videos and commercials. That’s how God has led me.

The Dramatics of Living was during that period of my life when I felt I was doing so much commercial work where everybody wanted to tell the world, “Hey look at me! Look how fantastic I am!” I love what I do in video and film production, but I was getting fed up with all the overly dramatic promotional videos I was making. For me to create all those artworks afterwards – that was my reflection lah. That was my anger: that it was overdramatic all the time in the commercial world. And everyone artistic has to be angry about certain things so that the work has that content that people will be able to resonate with.

‘Last Dance’ by Mike Wong (2013)

That’s why I was trying to bend the paint and the medium- it’s acrylic paint actually. It’s plastic paint. And I was trying to bend it in a certain way that was hard to bend as an expression of how my world was in day-to-day living. It was almost like you had to bend every aspect of yourself to suit what the world was wanting from you. That’s how the exhibition was conceptualised.

The American art scene surprised me in a big way because it’s very different from Singapore. They were much more receptive towards the abstract and their curiosity was like… Wow. I created an installation in the middle of the painting exhibition– it’s literally a cardboard box, and in the box, I put a television inside with a video of me drowning. When you go in and have no more space to look around, you get the feeling that water is filling up and you are drowning with me.

Stills from the video from the installation ‘Unburden’ by Mike Wong (2013)

That piece of work created a lot of interactions- a lot of people were crawling into it, especially kids who liked to crawl into spaces like that. That piece, somehow, created conversations that I really loved. I’d have people walk up to me and tell me their whole life stories. It was like… “Shall I tell you my dark secrets now?” Do you know what I mean? And that’s what was really delightful for me at that time in Chicago. Different people would just come up to me and tell me how their lives were wrecked by alcoholism, drugs, or whatever else. I was like, “Wow, you’re telling me this?” Would people tell me that in Singapore? No, they wouldn’t.

Somehow that changed the way I staged that later on in Singapore, as I felt that Singaporeans would not walk up and tell me about their lives like that. So I created a box where they were able to put in notes or items that they wished for me to destroy for them. That’s how I felt Singaporeans or Asians could communicate- by leaving things behind. There were people who would write about what they went through in their lives and put it inside the box. Some of them wrote in Japanese. I could not even understand what they were writing, but I created a ritual to burn and erase them so that it would symbolise that part of their lives could be released.

Jonathan: That’s almost very sacramental, like a confession box in the Catholic tradition, that realisation that comes with articulating what you’re struggling with. I suppose it must have been that feeling of drowning that must have drawn something out of a lot of people – that claustrophobia that made them reflect on the conditions that made them feel like they were drowning in their own lives.

Mike: That’s right.

Jonathan: It’s like you said: the role of the artist is different from that of a preacher in the articulation of truths or the beauty embodied in those truths. I was looking at some of the other pieces that you did in 2013, especially ‘Jubilation’ and ‘Arise’. Those, to me, had a very intuitively Christian feel to them, maybe because these senses of arising or jubilee are very biblical ideas. At the same time, while I was thinking about them – the drip painting, the tape – those kinds of mixed media approaches reminded me of the works of Jackson Pollock, Cy Twombly, even some of Anthony Poon’s paintings.

‘Arise’ by Mike Wong (2013)
‘Jubilation’ by Mike Wong (2013)

Given that you have had these experiences of exhibiting your art in different contexts, do you ever feel this tug in considering how your pieces are going to be received by different audiences?

Mike: When I’m creating I don’t think about the audience because I know the minute I think about the audience, the work is gone. It does not come from me anymore. It’s a reflection of the audience. I do hope more people will like my paintings and want to purchase them for their collections, but I know that the minute I’m tempted to paint what an audience would love to see, the originality of how I conceive it will be gone. There have been times where I would have to destroy the work because one day later I’d go back and look at it and say, nah. This is not me at all. I don’t think I can live with it to show such work no matter how beautiful it is to me.

Most of the time I just want my pieces to communicate what I intend for them to communicate. Most of my work is fast, quick, and spontaneous. Sometimes I do not know what colour I’ll apply to it. That is very much in the moment, what people would say is action painting, but I would purposefully destroy that action or bend that action to another way… so it would not look as if it is an action. It’s conflicting when I’m in the process.

‘Looking Through’ (2010) by Mike Wong

But I love painting because every time I do a painting, I can feel that there is a spiritual sense to it… That I am in touch with someone or something. Being drawn into it –  it’s out of this world. Your presence is no longer measured by time or limited by three-dimensional space. It’s like your whole being is having an out-of-body experience. I love painting because the more I get into it, the more I get that communication with God, I think. So it is a form of worship to me as well.

Jonathan: That’s very powerful, especially given that painting was part of your life even before you knew the Christian God. You mentioned learning different techniques growing up – Chinese painting, European and American painting styles – that have all now converged in your practice and been refracted through the lens of faith.

Mike: Yup. For my works of art, it’s always about my struggle with and understanding of the Christian faith. Struggle because I believe the Christian faith has to be struggled with. If there is no struggle with that faith, I don’t think it’s faith anymore. It’s really not easy to believe in something that you cannot see or cannot touch. When you picture Christ, every one of us has a different image of Him. You know, we may draw inspiration from the Romans, from the medieval paintings, or the modern paintings, or whatever that has struck us – whether He is yellow, black, or white.

But I think, in a lot of senses, God has to be experienced in the spiritual form, and the medium that gets to it, whether it’s text-based, or paint-based, or sound-based, I think He has a way to reach out to us through them. You look at how He painted the sky for everyone to be able to see His greatness – I think that is enough. It doesn’t need a lot of explanation.

Jonathan: Beautiful. And unfortunately not always the kind of thing that can be communicated in a video or a skit to a congregation.

Mike: (laughs) Yes, it’s not something we’re always able to do. But I’m really into using technology and fusing it with art so that I’m able to communicate this Jesus whom we so love. There was one theatre piece I did about six years ago, where we converted the two-storey church car park into a dramatic space and called it the ‘Final Hours’, inspired by the Stations of the Cross. That work was about the final hours of Jesus, from the time He entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to the Resurrection and used technology and stage play to let the audience walk through the stations themselves.

There was one particular station inside a black box where audience members would be ushered in by Roman soldiers. The wind would blow around them, dust would blow upwards, and they would not know what was happening. Once they stood behind the luminous line, the lights would come up and they would actually be standing at the bottom of the Cross. Jesus would look down at them and utter, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” until it was finished. A lot of them could not hold back their tears.

The other thing was that I had an infrared camera that would capture the faces of the audience, and I’d project them onto the ceiling. They would literally be seeing themselves looking at Jesus. And a lot of them just looked away – they could not stare at this screen of themselves looking at Jesus, they could not stare into the face of Christ. But they had to decide who this Jesus is.

Jonathan: As a last question, I wanted to quote something that you’ve written to get a sense of your thinking. You wrote:

“Spontaneity is spiritual. It is mysterious, unpredictable and always explorative and experimental. Can spontaneous notion be engineered. Spontaneity is almost exclusive to humans. I may be wrong but no all-knowing and higher beings can have this experience.”

I was just wondering what you meant by that and what it makes you think of now.

Mike: The question I still have and the mystery I’m still having is whether God can be spontaneous. You know, I asked my pastor about it. I asked him, “Can God be spontaneous? Is God capable of being spontaneous?” And he said he did not want to attempt to answer it and said, “Why don’t you explore?”

So I’ve been asking people, what do you think? Do you think God is capable of being spontaneous or is it something that He is not able to do? In other words, I have an advantage over God! I can be spontaneous, while God can’t! (laughs)

The more that I dig into it, the more I observe, from my own human understanding as the years go by, I think He can and He does it much more beautifully than we do, but not in a way that we really understand. So, I do not really know how, but I have this sense that He can, that there is a spiritual aspect to the spontaneity that is not bound by time and space. So what do you think? Do you think God can perform spontaneous decisions, from your understanding?

Jonathan: Part of me thinks about the foreknowledge of God, and how what may appear as spontaneous to us might not actually be. But at the same time I also think about how, as you said, spontaneity is something that is very human, because we act responsively to constantly changing variables. I think of how God became man and so became Himself subject to that uncertainty, and how the Holy Spirit, in His interactions with us, operates in and around our fickleness. So my inkling is that God can be spontaneous, even if not necessarily in the way we might think.

Mike: (laughs) Well, it’s a mystery, but it’s something that I think is fun to think about, you know? Art is like that, where sometimes you have to explore certain things and not be too afraid to explore them because this is the span of life where I believe we can explore within certain parameters that God has given us.

Jonathan: That’s a great place for us to end. Thank you so much, Mike.

Mike: Thank you very much.


Website: https://www.absolutearts.com/portfolios/m/mikewong

Poems for Englings: An Anthology

Photo: Nadi Lindsay (2019)

Introduction

and that will be heaven
at last      the first unclouded
seeing

to stand like the sunflower
turned full face to the sun
– Evangeline Paterson

This collection of poems is the fruit of many conversations, dinners, and events held by The CICCU Englings between 2017 and 2020. The CICCU Englings are a group of English students at the University of Cambridge who gather under the auspices of the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU). The group’s name takes its reference from The Inklings, a literary discussion group at the University of Oxford in the 1930s and 1940s that counted such luminaries as J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis in its membership. 

The Englings gather for meals, each time bringing along poems, excerpts of literature, and Scripture for discussion, prepared in response to particular pressures each of us face over the course of the academic term. The space this opens up is intimate, allowing each of us to discuss intellectual tensions and difficulties we face in supervisions, in the works we read, or in the argumentative positions we encounter. 

As Christians, we were often a small group within the English Faculty. Being in The Englings gave us the opportunity to examine the generative, symbiotic relations between our faith and our academic work. Alongside fixtures such as R. S. Thomas, John Donne, Christian Wiman, Shūsaku Endō, Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Herbert, Mary Oliver, and Julian of Norwich, we looked to scholars and clergy such as Rowan Williams and Malcolm Guite for guidance.

These conversations often served as the starting point for various events, allowing us to home in on specific, recurring themes. It was questions of doubt, restlessness, and ambiguity that came up most often. This served as the departure point from which we envisioned spaces where people could be invited to think and ponder, to read and reflect, to have the opportunity to encounter Christ on their own terms. 

In the years where I was a member of the group, we organised two such evangelistic events: Resurrection Poetry at The Round Church in Lent 2018, and waiting // poetry, art, music at Pembroke College Chapel in Lent 2019. These events featured poetry printed on posters that were placed at eye level at different parts of the venues. Some poems had brief commentaries and question prompts, with pens and paper available for attendees to write down their thoughts and responses. This space to read was accompanied by poetry readings, Scripture readings, as well as musical performances. 

As providence would have it, Malcolm Guite attended waiting in 2019 and revealed that he had accepted Christ as a Pembroke student in the 1970s, often praying in Pembroke Chapel itself. Later on, as an outgrowth of my interest in the poetry of R. S. Thomas, one nourished by my time with The Englings, Rowan Williams was assigned to me as my dissertation supervisor in 2020. Generous and attentive, I brought the wisdom he shared with me to subsequent Engling gatherings. 

From 2017 to 2019, Madeleine Kelly and I served as the group’s representatives and spearheaded these events, assisted and supported ably by our mentor Imogen Phillips and The Englings. In many respects, this has shaped this collection, with each section a reflection of some of the poems featured in events and discussions over the course of several years. Some poems and songs by Englings themselves are included in this collection, in particular contributions by Cecily Fasham, Matt Lewis, Jacob Henstridge, Maddy Constant, Leonard Yip, and me. 

The vision for an event in Lent 2020 centered on the themes of despair and hope but did not come to fruition; what remains are some of the poems we shared, especially as the pandemic entrenched physical distance between all of us. 

These poems are not all necessarily ‘Christian’ in their subject matter or audience, but each bore a particular resonance at the points in time at which we read them. We hope that you will read them in this spirit of openness and allow them to bring you into a place of introspection. They have proven nourishing, edifying, and bracing for us, and we hope they prove the same for you. 

Jonathan Chan
Singapore, February 2021 

Poems for Englings: An Anthology [PDF]

Contents

i. Resurrection
‘i am a little church’, e. e. cummings … 7
‘The Dead Woman’, Pablo Neruda … 8
‘Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward’, John Donne … 9
‘Anything Can Happen’, Seamus Heaney … 10
‘Food for Risen Bodies’, Michael Symmons Roberts … 11
‘Resurrection’, R. S. Thomas … 12
‘Descending Theology: The Resurrection’, Mary Karr … 13
‘The Black Christ’, Arthur Shearly Cripps … 14
‘Even Such Is Time (Verses Written The Night Before His Death)’, Sir Walter Raleigh … 15
‘A Hymn to God the Father’, John Donne …16
‘In a Green Night’, Derek Walcott … 17
‘Sympathy’, Paul Laurence Dunbar … 18
‘And that will be Heaven’, Evangeline Paterson … 19
‘pembroke chapel’, Jonathan Chan … 20
‘Blandeur’, Kay Ryan … 21
‘Design’, Robert Frost … 22
‘Wild Geese’, Mary Oliver … 23 
‘The Bright Field’, R. S. Thomas … 24

ii. Waiting
‘My Bright Abyss’, Christian Wiman … 26
‘Waiting’, R. S. Thomas … 27
‘Postscript’, Seamus Heaney … 28
‘Homecoming’, Gwyneth Lewis … 29 
‘Late Ripeness’, Czesław Miłosz … 30
‘Golgotha’, John Heath-Stubbs … 31
‘Gethsemane’, Rowan Williams … 32
‘Into The Light’ (excerpt), Meir of Norwich … 33
‘Lachrimae Amantis’, Geoffrey Hill … 34
‘waiting’, Jonathan Chan … 35
‘patience’, Jonathan Chan … 36
‘I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day’, Gerard Manley Hopkins … 37
Psalm 130 (NIV) … 38
‘In A Country Church’, R. S. Thomas … 39
‘Skewed Space’, Cecily Fasham … 40
‘How I Talk to God’, Kelly Belmonte … 42
‘Every Riven Thing’, Christian Wiman … 43
Habakkuk 3:16-19 (NIV) … 44
‘September Rain: A Song’, Matt Lewis … 45
‘Love’s as Warm as Tears’, C. S. Lewis … 46
‘Beannacht/Blessing’, John O’Donohue … 47

iii. Despair / Hope
‘Love (III)’, George Herbert … 49
‘Maundy Thursday’, Malcolm Guite … 50
‘Pietà’, R. S. Thomas … 51
‘Liberty’, Matt Lewis … 52
‘Hope’, Matt Lewis … 53
‘Babel’, Jacob Henstridge … 55
‘Candlelight’, Cecily Fasham … 57
‘the problem of rain’, Cecily Fasham … 58
‘I Am’, Maddy Constant … 60
‘The Age of Second Chances’, Leonard Yip … 61
‘As John to Patmos’, Derek Walcott … 62
‘A Song of Hope’, Oodgeroo Noonuccal … 63
‘Kindness’, Naomi Shihab Nye … 64
‘Metamorphosis’, Jenny Xie … 65
‘As imperceptibly as Grief’, Emily Dickinson … 66
‘”Hope” is the thing with feathers’, Emily Dickinson … 67
‘De Profundis’, Christina Rossetti … 68
‘Misgivings’, Herman Melville … 69
‘Lockdown’, Simon Armitage … 70
‘lament’, Jonathan Chan … 72
‘Prayer’, Carol Ann Duffy … 73
‘Adrift’, Mark Nepo … 74
‘hold’, Jonathan Chan … 75
‘The Instinct of Hope’, John Clare … 76
‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’, Gerard Manley Hopkins … 77