Sang Kancil Theology





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Sang Kancil Theology: The Search for A Contextualised Theology in Johor Bahru, Malaysia

by Dr Alex Tang


1.                  Introduction

This paper aims to discover whether there are attempts to contextualise theology in a Johor Bahru Presbyterian Church and to describe the characteristics of this local theology. This is just a preliminary study and does not pretend to be exhaustive or comprehensive.

Johor Bahru is one of the most rapidly growing cities in Malaysia. The relocation of many industries from Singapore has contributed to its economic growth. Being at the southern gateway of Peninsular Malaysia and its close proximity to cosmopolitan Singapore brings it into constant contact with new ideas, fashions and ideologies. Its rapid population increase in recent years is mainly due to migrant Malaysians from central and northern Peninsular Malaysia rather than from biological growth. There are also sizable foreign population groups from Indonesia, Philippines, Bangladesh, Japan and Korea. All major religions have their adherents here. The Buddhists have been active in their social programs and their missionary efforts. The Islamic Centre is active with many programs targeted at government schools, Orang Asli settlements and their own training schools.

2.                  Contextualisation

Our belief system and our worldview determine our behaviour; personal lived experience and communal obligations. Theology can be understood as part of a communal self-definition and practice that makes a believing community what it is[1]. In understanding theology, we must distinguish between Scripture, which is the given word of God and culture, which is lifestyle of the community in question. Though God is in culture, culture is not divine because it reflects the fallenness of man. Hence any Christian community in the world is in a unique situation and they have to live by a theology that will take into account the Scriptures and their own culture. This theology, though has most in common with other faithful communities, will also have their differences. This approach of relating the Gospel message (Scripture) to the local culture or situation (context) is called Contextualisation.[2]       Hwa Yung gave a more scholarly definition:

Contextualization is the total process wherein reflection and action are combined as the indigenous church, having properly grasped the meaning of the gospel of Christ from within its own culture, and sociopolitical and economic realities, seeks, on one hand, to live out its new faith in accord with the cultural patterns of the local society and, on the other, to transform that society and individuals therein, in response to their felt needs under the guidance of the Christian Scriptures and the Holy Spirit.[3]

According to Dryness, there are 4 models of approach to Contextualisation:[4]

The approaches are:

i.                    Anthropological Model.

This model implies that God is present in all cultures and is actively acting out His purpose. Thus all peoples and their history display the struggle of God with the forces of evil.[5]

ii.                  Praxis Model

This model also takes culture seriously and begins with the analysis of its socio-economic dimensions. From this analysis, urgent action may need to be taken of behalf of those who are oppressed. The Scripture in this model gives a perspective that God’s basic involvement in history is for liberation from all kinds of oppression.[6]

iii.                Translational Model

This model seeks to place the Gospel into a culture without changing its contents. The Bible is regarded as God’s inspired casebook, a message from beginning to end. The goal is to ‘decode’ the message from the Bible and re-encoded into the culture as dynamic-equivalence.[7]

iv.                Interactional Model.

In this model, the Scripture must first be read and obeyed by believers in the culture. Then the culture must be opened by analysis and the believers look for themes of the Bible that parallels the questions of culture. The believers then obey their findings until the next analysis of culture reveal further questions. Thus there is constant interaction between Scripture and culture.[8]

The Interactional Model makes sense because there is a constant interaction between the Word of God and our culture. This model acknowledge that Scripture comes from outside culture but it also acknowledge that God is interested in culture and in transforming culture to a model that will glorify Him. It is by obedience in applying the Scripture to their culture and analysing their culture that theology is being contextualised. 

3.                  Approaches to Asian Theology

Since the Second World War, there have been many attempts by Asian theologians to present Asian Christian Theologies. They realize that the Protestant theologies they have adopted are greatly influenced by western dualism and Enlightened thought[9].

Examples of Asian Theology are:

i.                     Water Buffalo Theology by Kosuke Koyama[10]

ii.                   Story Theology by C.S. Song[11]

iii.                  Rice Theology of Masao Takenaka[12]

iv.                 Minjung Theology in Korea[13]

v.                   Theology of the Pain of God by Kitamori[14]

Each of these theologians have attempted to develop a theology starting from where they are – their pain, their people, their culture, their history and their socio-economic situation. In Malaysia, Ng Kam Weng[15]     and Hwa Yung[16]    has made a call for a contextualised theology but both did not come out with any specific theology.

4.                  Methodology

The research questions are (1) are there attempts to contextualise theology using the Interactional Model in Holy Light Church, Johor Bahru and, (2) if yes, what are the characteristics of this contextualised theology.

            Data was collected by interviewing the two pastors, members of the Deacon Court (16 persons) and members of my Bible Study Action Group (10 members). [See Appendix A ]. Information gathered was collaborated with my observation of how the church dealt with crises from within and from outside the church for the last 6 years. The data obtained was categorized into 4 areas: (1) Use of Scripture, (2) Church community life, (3) response to society and, (4) response to culture. The characteristics from these four areas will be collaborated in an attempt to identify a contextualised theology.

Rev. John Cook, a missionary of the Presbyterian Church of England, founded the Holy Light Church in 1886. Rev. Nicholas Yeo is the present senior pastor. Rev. Yeo has been pastor of Holy Light Church for 26 years. Pastor Claude O’Keeffe and a Board of Deacons assist him. The Church has a single English service on Sunday and on weekdays, members meet in 20 Bible Study Action Groups. The specialized ministries are Bethel Kindergarten, Agape Youth Fellowship, Ladies Fellowship, Bible Schools, Children Church, Boys and Girls Brigades and Senior Citizens Fellowship. The Church has a present membership of 450. Members are mainly Chinese, middle-class, English-educated, professional or managerial levels with young families.

5.                  Results and Discussion



Use of  Scripture

·        preaching are Word centered, good exegesis by pastors and other preachers.

·        attempts to apply preaching to life. Finding it difficult.

·        no structured discipleship program

·        no discipline in personal bible reading. To busy

·        hunger for deeper spirituality.

·        hunger for touch of the Holy Spirit

·        confused about Baptism of Holy Spirit

·        look to pastors to interprete the bible. feel not qualified to do it alone.

·        unable to apply Scriptural principles to own life and at work.

·        sometimes feel Scripture irrelevant

·        afraid of evangelism

Church Community Life

·        difficult to make friends. cold to strangers.

·        good relationships in BSAG

·        enjoy community love

·        enjoy pastoral visitations

·        conflict between pastors and laity

·        not satisfied with leadership style of pastors


Response to Society

·        no community work outside church

·        afraid of Islam

·        wary of government

·        worried about influence of western media and values on children

·        happy to be left alone

·        do not know how to apply Christian principles to lifestyle

·        have little non Christian friends

·        no contact with other religions.

·        little knowledge of other religions

·        no political involvement

·        no involvement in environmental groups/ NGOs

Response to Culture

·        some knowledge of Chinese culture

·        no sure what to do at Ching Ming, Chinese funerals and tea  ceremony at traditional Chinese weddings.

·        speak English at home.

·        little knowledge of cultures of other races


i.                    Scripture

Even though there is a consensus that Scripture is preached and properly explained, there is an awareness that it is difficult to make meaningful applications in their lives and a hunger to have an experiential encounter with the Holy Spirit.  All members are very dependent on the pastors for teaching and direction.  Few make the effort to seek out the Bible teaching for themselves, feeling inadequate for the task.

ii.                  Church Community

Most are satisfied with relationships in the church. Members are looking to other members for their felt needs. Outsiders have problem fitting into the church.  Church has very few visitors.

iii.                Society

There is no church involvement with the surrounding communities. The church is wary of government and the Islamisation efforts of the government in schools. Members are also wary of materialist influences from an affluence lifestyle. They feel marginalised in the economic and educational opportunities in the country. There is no political involvement. Life is often fragmented between workplace and church.

The reason for this withdrawal from society may be fear of involvement and drawing attention to themselves in a society that is hostile to Christianity. It may also due to the Malaysia Presbyterian tradition. Roxborough wrote, “the focus for many congregations is essentially that of their own life.... denominational expressions of ‘social concerns’ are limited.”[17]

iv.                Culture

There are some attempts to analyse culture. Most will turn to the pastors to give them guidelines on how to behave in certain cultural situations. All will not participate in ancestor worship by offering joss stick to family altar. Some will bow to the altar. Some will eat food offered to idols. Most will take part in Ching Ming and will bow as a sign of respect. All will not take part in the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts. All celebrate Chinese New Year and give ang pows to children. All celebrate Mooncake Festival.

Little or no knowledge of other cultures.

            Holy Light Church has a theology that is Scripture centered and has made some attempt to engage culture in a serious way. It feels threatened in the socio-political situation it is in and withdrew into itself, meeting its own needs. There are no attempts to reach out to society, feeling safer to remain invisible.

            In the light of the above findings, Holy Light Church does have a contextualised theology that involves Scripture and culture. Holy Light Church has a Sang Kancil Theology. Sang Kancil, the mousedeer is a small defenseless animal in a jungle full of predators. It survives by blending into the background, remaining motionless and hoping that the predators will leave it alone. It makes no attempt to change its surroundings. This is the theology that has evolved over the years as the Church seeks to true to its calling and be relevant in its socio-political-economic climate. There was no conscious effort to create this theology.

There are many obvious limitations to this study. The sample is too small, the data analysis is not stringent enough and observer bias was not excluded. But during the study, I was impressed at the fervent desire of Christians in the Church to examine their culture in the light of their understanding of the Scriptures and try to obey the Scriptures. They are aware of their lack of theology training and academic tools but they trust in the great teacher who is the Holy Spirit. (John 14:16,17)

6.                  Conclusion

This paper attempts to discover and examine the Sang Kancil Theology of Holy Light Church in Johor Bahru. This is the result of the Church trying to engage culture in the light of Scripture. This Contextualisation is also present in other Malaysian churches. Tan Chee-Beng wrote, “Christianity as practised by Chinese Malaysians has various  indigenised elements arising from the interaction of Christian and Chinese cultural principles”.[18]       There are attempts by Malaysia Christians to analysis and study the Chinese culture but books in English are few in numbers[19].      There is also no network with the theologians in the local seminaries to help the churches to work out their Contextualisation.

Henri Nouwen wrote on the mission of the church:

There are more people on this planet outside the Church than inside it. Millions have be baptized, millions have not. Millions participate in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, but millions do not. The Church as the body of Christ, as Christ living in the world, has a larger mission than to support, nurture, and guide its own members. It is also called to be a witness to the love of God made visible in Jesus. Before his death Jesus prayed for his followers, “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18). Part of the essence of being the Church is being a living witness for Christ in the world[20].

The challenges facing the Malaysian Church to be a living witness for Christ remains.

                                                                                                                                                         Soli Deo Gloria

Appendix A


1.                  What do you think about pulpit preaching in church?

2.                  Do you find it easy to apply what is preached in your life?

3.                  How do you assess your spiritual growth?

4.                  What can the church do to help you grow?

5.                  How often did you pray last week?

6.                  How often did you read the bible last week?

7.                  What do you think is the spiritual health of the church?

8.                  Do you think this church behave like a true community of believer?

9.                  When you are hurt or in trouble, whom do you turn to anyone in church for help?

10.              In what ways can your church leaders improve in their serving?

11.              Do you have many non-Christian friends outside of your workplace?

12.              How much do you know of Islam?

13.              Did you take part in Ching Ming last year?  Do you have any problem there?

14.              In a family gathering, if you were given food offered to idols, what would you do?

15.              Should a Christian be involved in Malaysian politics?


Chua, Daniel Meng-Wah Feeding on Ashes: A Biblical Evaluation of Chinese Ancestral Worship Kuala Lumpur: Kairos Research Centre, 1998

Dryness, William A. Learning about Theology from the Third World Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990

Hunt, Robert, Lee, Kam-Hing and Roxborough, John (eds) Christianity in Malaysia: A   Denominational History (Petaling Jaya: Pelanduk Publications, 1992)

Hwa, Yung, Mangoes or Bananas? The Quest for an Authentic Asian Christian Theology Oxford: Regnum Books, 1997

Koyama, Kosuke Water Buffalo Theology  New York: Orbis, 1999

Lee, Kam-Hing and Tan, Chee-Bing (eds) The Chinese in Malaysia New York: Oxford  University Press, 2000

Ng, Kam Weng, Doing Responsive Theology in a Developing Nation (Petaling Jaya: Pustaka

          SUFES, 1994)

-----, Bridge-building in a Pluralistic Society: A Christian Contribution (Petaling Jaya: Pustaka SUFES, 1994)

Nouwen, J.M. Henri, Bread for the Journey  New York: Harper Collins, 1997

Poh, Boon-Sing The Christian in the Chinese Culture  Serdang, Malaysia: Good News

 Enterprise, 1986

Song, C.S. Tell Us Our Names  Indore, India : Satprakashan, 1985

Yap, Kim-Hao Doing Theology in a Pluralistic World. Singapore: Methodist Bookroom,  1990


[1] Dryness, William A. Learning about Theology from the Third World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990) p. 22

[2] Yap, Kim-Hao Doing Theology in a Pluralistic World (Singapore: Methodist Bookroom, 1990) p. 35

[3] Hwa, Yung, op. cit. p. 14

[4] Dryness, op. cit. p. 24-34

[5] Ibid., p. 25

[6] Ibid., p. 26

[7] Ibid., p. 27

[8] Ibid., p. 29-34

[9] Hwa, Yung, Mangoes or Bananas? The Quest for an Authentic Asian Christian Theology (Oxford:Regnum Books, 1997)  p. 3-9

[10] Koyama, Kosuke Water Buffalo Theology (New York: Orbis, 1999)

[11] Song, C.S. Tell Us Our Names (Indore, India : Satprakashan, 1985)

[12] Yap, op. cit., p. 46-47

[13] Yap, op. cit., p. 158-163

[14] Koyama.,op. cit. p.82-89

[15] Ng, Kam Weng, Doing Responsive Theology in a Developing Nation (Petaling Jaya: Pustaka SUFES, 1994) and Ng, Kam Weng, Bridge-building in a Pluralistic Society: A Christian Contribution (Petaling Jaya: Pustaka SUFES, 1994)

[16] Hwa, Yung, op. cit.

[17] Roxborough, John , “The Presbyterian Church” in Hunt, Robert, Lee, Kam-Hing and Roxborough, John (eds) Christianity in Malaysia: A Denominational History (Petaling Jaya: Pelanduk Publications, 1992)   p.102

[18] Tan, Chee-Beng, “The Religions of the Chinese in Malaysia” in  Lee, Kam-Hing and Tan, Chee-Bing (eds) The Chinese in Malaysia ( New York: Oxford University Press, 2000)  p. 307

[19] Examples are Poh, Boon-Sing The Christian in the Chinese Culture (Serdang, Malaysia: Good News Enterprise, 1986) and Chua, Daniel Meng-Wah Feeding on Ashes: A Biblical Evaluation of Chinese Ancestral Worship (Kuala Lumpur: Kairos Research Centre, 1998)

[20] Nouwen, J.M. Henri, Bread for the Journey (New York: Harper Colllins, 1997) p. November 5



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