Attending the Seventh Biennial Society of Asian Biblical Studies (SABS) Conference in the city Malang in Indonesia was a mind-blowing experience. The conference was held at the Catholic Seminary STFT Widya Sasana and lasted from the 16th to the 20th of July, 2018. About 88 biblical researchers from around the world (mainly from Asia) flocked to this “Bible Belt” of Indonesia, where a dozen theological colleges and seminaries from various denominations make their home. This incredible journey managed to stimulate my mind (work), spoil my tastebuds (eat), and let me observe the spirituality of others (pray).
The diverse topics presented at the conference blew my mind. I especially enjoyed the session on the Malaysian/Indonesian Bible translations. Dr. Kar Yong Lim from the Seminari Theologi Malaysia and Dr. Daud Soesilo from the United Bible Societies in Indonesia presented an overview of how the Malaysian ruling government considers the Arabic loanword “Allah” a sort of proper name of the Muslims’ God, and thus prohibits the use of “Allah” by the non-Muslims. Some of the country’s Christians, who understand “Allah” as a common noun “God” in their Malay language Bibles, are particularly affected by this prohibition. Dr. Anwar Tjen from the Indonesian Bible Society, on the other hand, presented another kind of motivation that leads some Indonesian Christian communities to reject the use of “Allah” in their Bible translations. As he showed, these Christian groups, under the influence of the Sacred Name Movement in the US, think the term “Allah” is too Arabic and seek to rediscover the Jewish root of Christianity by simply transliterating the Hebrew term אלהים/אל/אלה into “Elohim.” At first sight, two different groups of people in two different countries seek to reject the use of the Arabic loanword “Allah” in the Christian Bible translations for two seemingly different reasons. On closer inspection, both groups actually are motivated by the same desire to sharply delineate their religious identity from the surrounding peoples. One (the Malaysian government) seeks to restrict the term “Allah” for the Islamic God, while another (some Indonesian Christians) strives to distance itself from the Arabic flavoured “Allah” and to highlight the Judeo-Christian origin of its own religion, by adopting the transliteration “Elohim.” The result is a starkly dualistic contrast between the Islam and the Judeo-Christian traditions. The question remains if an extra space can be created for those Christians, who wish to maintain both their national/linguistic and religious identities by using the Malay term “Allah” in their own Christian Bible translations.
I was privileged to preside at the session, where Prof. Koowon Kim, Prof. Zhenhua Meng and Dr. Kwan-Hung Leo Li utilised a comparative/dialogic approach to contextualise different parts of the Hebrew Bible for the Chinese people. The other sessions also include some stimulating analyses of the biblical texts from the Japanese and Korean perspectives. One of the highlights of the conference is the session on the queer readings of the biblical texts in Asia. Homosexuality is still a taboo in many Asian countries and in the traditional monotheistic religions. Therefore, the presenters, including Rev. Dr. Stephen Suleeman, Ms. Pearl Wong, and Prof. Yeong Mee Lee, should be applauded for bringing their research on this difficult subject to the table. All the above sessions have introduced me to so many lights that can be cast on the Bible through reading it in different modern-day societies. I cannot claim to have grasped or concurred with all the discussions appearing in the conference, but I sincerely think that all these different discussions in the academic context are necessary and even beneficial, since they allow us to temporarily jump out of the comfort zones and critically examine our commonly held beliefs.
In addition to learning from the others’ perspectives, I also presented a paper entitled “Seeking a Way Forward: Reflections on the Scholarly Imaginations of Good and Evil in the Book of Esther.” As seen from the above, most of the conference papers focused on reading the Bible in modern-day Asian societies. On the other hand, my paper explored how the Christian and Jewish commentators had used to characterise the book of Esther in their contemporary European, Northern American, Israeli, and African societies. At the end of the presentation, I concluded:
Reading the Esther story from the commentators’ own historical contexts is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the commentators’ prejudices can lead to distorting the textual ideology. On the other hand, the commentators’ own circumstances can also resonate with the narrative, so as to shed light on some textual elements that have been ignored, marginalised, or misunderstood.
Perhaps, such a historical survey of biblical scholarship in the other parts of the world can provide some food for thought for the Asian biblical commentators, who are now appropriating and analysing the biblical texts in their own social contexts.
Remember, if you are interested in the abstracts of any of the other papers, you can always find and download them on the SABS official website.
Hospitality seems to be at the core of the Indonesian lifestyle. One of the many ways the Indonesians honour their guests is by inviting them to meals. All the meals (including breakfast, morning snacks, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner) during the conference were graciously provided by the host institution. (Photo Credits: Gio and Winner @ 2018 SABS Conference)
Each dinner, especially the end-of-conference party, was also accompanied by the fascinating cultural performances (Photo Credit: Gio @ 2018 SABS Conference).
After the conference, I was able to explore a greater variety of the Indonesian cuisines. The choices seemed endless and the rich aroma of the spices just chocked me with happiness 🙂
The Indonesians I met during this trip were extremely warm and friendly. When I asked for a “Bakso” and fresh juice with my very limited knowledge of Malay, the above young man and lady got very excited that they decided to converse with me completely in Malay for another 10 to 15 minutes. I could not understand more than half of the conversation, but I got the part when the young man asked for a photo shoot 🙂
Apart from food, religions also play an important role in the Indonesian society. Everyone here seems to belong to either Islam, or Christianity, or Hinduism, or Buddhism, or a syncretism of any of these religions with the folk beliefs.
Christianity, comprising about 10% of the country’s population, is not the main religion in Indonesia. Even then, the actual size of the Indonesian Christian population, according to one of the conference organisers, is roughly equivalent to the whole of the Australian population. Despite the fact that our conference was hosted at a Catholic seminary, the neighbouring Protestant seminary “Seminari Alkitab Asia Tenggara” also cordially invited us for a lunch. After the lunch, the Protestant seminary students gave us a tour around their beautiful campus.
The main religion in Indonesia is Islam, and the Muslims make up about 87% of the population. Some Indonesians told me that the Muslims in Malang are moderate, and they get along with people from the other religions very well. These Muslims also take their praying rituals very seriously. In every hotel room I stayed during the trip, I could find an arrow on the ceiling indicating the prayer direction.
Mt. Bromo, the active volcano near Malang, is a sacred site for the Hindu believers. According to this website, the name Bromo “derives from the Javanese pronunciation of Brahma, the Hindu creator god.” A lecturer from a neighbouring charismatic Christian seminary kindly offered to take some of the conference participants to hike Mt. Bromo at a small price. We set out at midnight and arrived at Mount Penanjakan when it was still dark. We waited patiently at the lookout point until the sun rose gently over Mt. Bromo at around 05:30am.
Then we waded through the “Sea of Sand” (Laut Pasir), while the sand and dust were blown all over our face.
We climbed along a rather steep slope of mountain.
Finally, we reached the smoking crater of Mt. Bromo.
Some Hindu believers would throw offerings into the crater to appease their gods.
The view from the crater to the bottom of the mountain was incredible.
Some people in Malang practice a form of syncretic religion, combining their own religious traditions with the beliefs of their partners. For instance, the hired driver who took us to Mt. Bromo with his Jeep was a Muslim married to a Hindu lady. Therefore, he, despite being a Muslim, made his offerings to various small Hindu shrines sprinkling at the feet of the mountains. The syncretism of various cultures and beliefs is perhaps best captured at the boutique Tugu Hotel Malang, which also acts like a museum of the Indonesian antiques and artworks. The great-grandfather of the founder of Tugu Hotels & Restaurants Group was a Chinese Indonesian tycoon known as the sugar baron. He then married to a local Javanese woman named Raden Adjeng Kasinem (1857–1935). Therefore, you can find a fusion of the Chinese ancestor worship and the other local/international cultures in the midst of the hotel. The whole place can be quite eerie but also magically beautiful especially after dark.
It must be quite challenging but also exciting to negotiate one’s identity amidst so many other cultural traditions. This trip was an eye-opening experience for me. I enjoyed it a lot, and I definitely want to visit Indonesia again when I save more money and time. Selamat tinggal, sampai jumpa lagi 😉