A Culture of Reading and Learning

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2b. Describe a cultural experience and how it influenced your personal identity and your world view.

I am not exactly sure what you mean by a “cultural experience”, but I would like to share my experience – I believe one can say this is a “cultural experience” – of reading and learning. Reading can be more than a hobby if one reads to learn. It can be a great cultural experience when one immerses oneself into the intellectual world of conflicting ideas and inspirational biographies which illustrates how this world of ideas work out in the lives of great men and women. This essay will thus be about my encounter with intellectual ideas – and those who embody them – through the books I have read, and how this journey of reading and learning has influenced my personal identity, worldview, dreams and visions.

About half a year ago, I took up learning Spanish in a language school. I emailed one of the friends I came to know through the class and was sharing why I decided to learn this foreign language. My decision came after reading the book, “Gaviotas – A village to reinvent the world” by Alan Weissman. This inspirational book is about a true success story of how a group of Colombian visionaries created a village amidst the political turmoil and in one of the most brutal environments imaginable. A story of the triumph of the human spirit, it describes what can be achieved for the good of humanity when people dare to dream and decide to make a difference in the world.

Through that book, I was not only inspired to be like those visionaries but my heart was moved and I felt a sudden love for the Latin American culture and people. I vowed to visit Latin America one day and perhaps even to work among the people there if the opportunity so arises. Thus my decision to learn the Spanish language.

Having read about my reason, my friend replied back, “I’m hardly the type to be inspired by books and get motivated to do something.”

It didn’t strike me straight away but after a few days of thinking through the above sentence, I realised that I’m unique and different from a lot of my friends in that I’m one who has and continues to be greatly moved, inspired and motivated through the books I read. Looking back, I can now see how reading has inspired me in many areas of my life. It has shaped my thinking, dreams and ambitions tremendously. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that reading and learning has created in me ambitions and dreams. For without having read, I would not have known much about the world. I would have been so immersed in my own little world and the trivial things that accompany it such that no dreams or visions would have been formed in my soul. Having read, my heart has been stirred by the many things and events I’ve read about which are occurring not only in this present world but which have occurred in the historical world. I don’t need to be in a country or confront face to face a particular culture. The culture and experience of reading enables me to experience the culture of many worlds – far away from them as I may be. Reading is to me a time and space travelling ‘machine’. Perhaps the greatest ‘machine’ I know of.

It wasn’t long ago that a very close friend of mine – Winston – stayed over at my house and during the night, we prayed for one another. While praying for our future girlfriend/wife [something we do pretty often! ;-) ] one thing he said struck me. I asked him to pray that God will provide me with a girlfriend/wife who is interested in theology and sociology because these were my two major interests at that time and I knew I would probably work in an area related with either one or both of them in future. I thus wanted a companion and life partner who could complement me and challenge me in these intellectual pursuits. Winston prayed accordingly but soon changed his mind and prayed rather that my girlfriend/wife would be one that has a great interest in “learning.” He thought that would be a better prayer for me as he saw in me a passion for “learning”. Perhaps he foresaw that I may change my interests in future and knew if that happened, my spirit of “learning” would however still remain.

I thought it wise of him to sum up all my interests in “learning.” Because as I reflect upon my life, I know what a keen learner I am. My interest in Theology and Sociology has come about because of my intellectual curiosity and passion for learning and finding out more about life. Furthermore, Winston was right. My interests have since changed such that now I’m devouring economic and political science books. But my passion for learning continues.

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates once said. I couldn’t agree more. The heart disturbing questions I constantly face coupled with the unrelenting search for truth and answers in my life and that passion for learning is but a reflection of Socrates’ wise and perceptive words. The unexamined life – the life void of questioning, searching and learning – is not a life being truly and fully lived!

With these two particular incidents and experiences serving as a background, I would now like to share how immersing myself in a culture of reading and learning has impacted me generally in three ways, before touching on specific intellectual ideas and ideals which have shaped my worldview.

Firstly, in my other essay I elaborated on the theological interest that was born in me as I read Christian books. More specifically, it was one of seeing more unity among Christians, seeing a greater love for studying theology and the Word of God among Christians and seeing more balance in beliefs and practices in the Church.

In the beginning, reading and learning had already taught me the importance of “passion” in life. More importantly, reading and learning gave me “passion.” Before reading Christian books, I did not have much of a direction or vision in life. But after, I started to be passionate about something in life. Besides the basic passion for God that all Christians should have, I also started being passionate about theology, about teaching God’s Word, about balance, about unity.

Passion is something that gives you that drive and energy. I believe those who succeed in life or those who thoroughly enjoy life and what they do in life are those who are passionate about what they do. Without that overriding concern and interest in something one does, it becomes mere drudgery. However, with passion also comes joy.

How does reading and learning give one passion? I guess I can’t really answer that in a lucid manner because I myself do not know the answer. But I know that as one reads and learns and becomes more knowledgeable, somehow one develops interests towards certain topics or ideas or things. Maybe it’s because once a person gains certain knowledge of something, this pursuit of knowledge doesn’t stop there. Rather, one finds within a reservoir of thirst for more knowledge that seems unending. The depth of the pursuit of knowledge increases exponentially because one wants to master this or that particular topic. A little knowledge stirs one’s curiosity and this in turn signals the start of a race – a race that will never be finished till that curiosity and fascination is satisfied or dies down.

Reading and learning profoundly changed my life. In this particular case, it was a life-changing encounter resulting in me being passionate for theology. It taught me that whatever one does in life, one ought to do it with passion. For passion is what fuels you in life. It is what causes one to persevere and to become oblivious to surrounding negative circumstances. It exhorts one to strive till the goal is reached.

Beyond giving me passion, reading and learning gave me what I call a “MAD” worldview – an acronym for “Making A Difference.” You see, as I gain knowledge I also start to realise knowledge should not be just for knowledge’s sake. The pursuit of it shouldn’t be just to master a subject or be fluent in a topic of interest. Very soon after the start of pursuing knowledge, one will confront the knowledge of injustices, of untruths or of various other information that will stir one’s heart. And there will be ample opportunities to make a difference in the world around you through the knowledge one has received. For example, I have explained above how I was moved to take up Spanish and also perhaps work in Latin America in future. This stems from my knowledge of the great need in Latin America. Being undeveloped, the third world countries there, like many of those in the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia, are oases of opportunities. For me, these are the “in” places to be. Not the developed countries. Because through reading and learning I’ve been stirred by the great need in many parts of the world and challenged to go to a place where I can truly make a difference in the lives of people. Or take my past desire to want to be a Bible College teacher. This came about because I saw a great need for balance in the Church. There was the opportunity to make a difference. Knowledge gives birth to a sense of need, which in turn gives birth to the desire to make a difference by meeting that need!

Thirdly, reading and learning causes one to come face to face with the lives of great men and women which serves as a model of principles and beliefs being lived out. It allows us to draw all the experience and inspiration from them as we stand on the shoulders of these giants. We also get to learn from their faults, so as not to repeat them again.

Inspirational biographies have played a great part in the formation of my beliefs and worldview. The Apostle Paul told his readers to imitate him in many ways. In this we see the importance of learning from the lives of great people. They don’t have to be perfect to be worthy of imitation. They just have to be better than us in one way or another.

Perhaps the greatest lesson I’ve learnt from biographies is that one ought to “live out one’s beliefs”. Knowledge giving birth to passion is good, but not good enough. Knowledge giving birth to a passion to make a difference is better, but still not good enough. Knowledge giving birth to a passion to make a difference and which eventually causes one to live that passion and “MAD” worldview out – that is the consummate effect of gaining knowledge through reading and learning.

Now on to the specific ideas and ideals which have shaped my worldview. In my other essay I have touched on my theological ideals. I also wrote: “My interests have changed in the past year. I will try and share more about this in my other essay.” Therefore here I hope to expand on these other interests which have to do with my interest in the worlds of sociology, economics and political science. What follows will be a description of my journey.

A quick explanation is needed on my change of interests. I was never really interested in the humanities or social sciences. At one stage I was only interested in theology. However, reading Christian authors like Michael Horton, David Wells and Mark Noll challenged me to be more familiar with these other intellectual pursuits. It was probably that I couldn’t understand a lot of what they wrote – especially when they commented on philosophical ideas. Thus I saw how important it was for a Christian not just to be familiar with theology and the Word of God, but also with the intellectual and social culture of the world. If we are to reach out to the world and if we are to be prepared to be able to formulate a biblical response to various events or ideas in the world, we simply cannot afford to be ignorant of the world. Also, it is not morally wrong to be interested in and to learn about the humanities or social sciences. Yes, we need to evangelise. We need to always remember the Great Commission. We need to keep our eyes on Jesus and on heavenly things. But at the same time, we can do a lot on earth. We ought not to become “so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good.” The creation is after all God’s creation. The environment is God’s environment. And we ought to take good care of it!

I am in the midst of reading a biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Like Henry David Thoreau and Mahatma Gandhi, he inspires me. I admire the three because they are truly passionate about what they do and they lived out their beliefs in spite of fierce opposition. They were not afraid of being “politically incorrect”, but followed their hearts. King and Gandhi also made a difference in the lives of many through what they did. Thoreau influenced many through his books and teachings.

Thoreau was the first of the three I read about. By the time I “discovered” his book “Walden”, I was already very drawn to the ideological underpinnings of his transcendental philosophy. Though being a Christian, I see much good in the life of simplicity he advocates and his disdain of materialistic things and focus on money that is so prevalent in today’s industrial/post industrial society. In my opinion, Thoreau is a sociologist par excellence in his criticism of the ills of modern society and its focus on “the bottom line”. Though not a Christian, dare we say God’s common grace and inspiration was not upon him when he writes words like these which one could almost mistake as being part of a sermon?

But men labour under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon plowed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool’s life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before.

I first really questioned much of the commonly accepted trends in society when I read Neil Postman’s book “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” This was in recommendation by my favourite Christian theological magazine “Modern Reformation” of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (ACE). His thought-provoking critique of Television and its trivializing effect was simply brilliant. It soon led me to reading his “Technopoly” and the rest of his books. Through them, I became interested in sociology and cultural criticism. I also developed a more technophobic, neo-luddite outlook, just as I believe Thoreau did throughout his life.

In this technocratic world today, “men have become the tools of their tools.” (Thoreau). I have always felt we should not concentrate on things, but people. The world revolves around God firstly and people secondarily. Technology should be subservient to people yet sadly the opposite is true nowadays. We see that in this technologically advanced world, while machines are glorified, relationships between people and among families suffer. Countering this trend – the focus on the technological and material rather than the familial and communal – was one reason for my interest in Sociology and also Economics.

“Resistance to Civil Government” or “Civil Disobedience” is a concept of Thoreau I admire. His night spent in jail in wanting to follow his heart and avoid contributing to oppression of others through paying his taxes is simply inspirational. He was not afraid to live out his beliefs, no matter the consequences. What he believed in his heart was more important than what is accepted in society. The truth in his heart prevailed. “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth,” Thoreau wrote. It is a phrase I have memorized, quoted often and held strongly in my heart since I read it.

Though Thoreau and Gandhi weren’t Christians, King was. As a Christian with God-inspired beliefs, he, more than Thoreau and Gandhi, would probably serve as my future role model. Indeed his life is one which I hold in high esteem and seek to imitate. I share his great love for the oppressed. I think of nothing greater that one can do on earth than either to evangelize to the lost or to feed and help the poor and oppressed and cause justice to “roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

King’s justification for his war on economic inequality, his compassion for the poor, his love for the people – all of it stemmed from his Christian faith in God:

Through our airplanes we were able to dwarf the distance and place time in chains. Through our submarines we were able to penetrate oceanic depths. It seems that I can hear the God of the universe saying ‘Even though you’ve done all of that, I was hungry and you fed me not.

His battle against racial discrimination and imperialistic militarism can be equally said to be God-inspired. That is why I admire King – his faith shaped his political vision. He was one who tried to show the compassion of God to the people he met. He was one who tried to translate biblical principles into a living passion. His life was all the more special because He did it for and because of God. I want to live my life like that too!

The recent Terrorist attacks have also shaped my thinking tremendously. Since the attacks and the war, I’ve been following closely to what is happening. Before the Middle East countries did not feature highly in my thinking.

Now I’ve come to realise the importance of interacting with Islam and the Arab countries. I have decided to learn more about the Arabic culture and also to take up learning Arabic for two reasons. As a Christian it’ll serve my understanding of Islam well. And Islam is after all the greatest challenge to Christianity. As one with a compassionate and political heart, I long to help the many poor and oppressed people in that area.

My early theological interest has grounded me firmly in the Word of God. I understand God’s heart for the lost. I want to be part of fulfilling the Great Commission! My latter interests in the more “secular” and “worldly” philosophies and ideologies have also moved my heart greatly. I do not think this is less godly. I do not think pursuing my interests in Sociology, Economics and Political Science is wrong. My belief has always been that this is God’s World and Creation and therefore we need to take care of it – whether it be the environment or the people, we need to be concerned.

The tension of being in the world, but not of it is a difficult one I face. I want to focus on eternal things, yet I know that I can’t do so to the extent I neglect much good that can be done on earth. I want to make a difference on the earth and help the oppressed and poor, yet I know that I need to be careful to keep my eyes on heavenly and eternal things.

That’s why I want to be part of Wheaton College’s education. It is the best Christian College around that will give me the best Christian education available. An education there will also help me keep that tension in balance as it will help me view all my “secular” interests from a proper biblical perspective.

Whether I get a place or not, I believe my life is in God’s hands and He knows best and that all things work for good for those who love Him – Romans 8:28. Thanks for reading and God bless!

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