Faculty member Dr Stephen Lim worked as a medical doctor before an interest in the Bible led to him becoming an academic.
Dr Stephen Lim has a passion for reading the Bible from an Asian perspective.
He explains that what really interests him is looking at alternative interpretations that take into account the reader’s own social and cultural context.
In this case, that means looking at the Bible in dialogue with cultures, past and present, in Asia, including religions that were present in Asia before Christianity arrived, local folk songs and traditional stories, and even contemporary cultural productions, such as novels and movies.
He explains: “If you look at creation myths in China and how Nuwa makes men out of clay, this is uncannily similar to how God made men out of dust, which can also be translated as clay.
“This similarity raises the question of why we use the word dust and not clay in translations. If Chinese audiences are reading the Bible, using the word clay may mean more to them because it draws them closer to folk stories in their own culture.”
Stephen taught a course on biblical and theological interpretation at Ming Hua last semester, giving students a taste of how the Bible is read in Asia, Latin America and Africa.
But despite always having had a strong interest in the humanities, teaching is a second career for Stephen, who spent six years working as a medical doctor.
He explains that while he preferred humanities subjects at school, his parents persuaded him to take the science stream and later to study medicine at university.
“I did medical studies in Singapore for five years. The nature of the contract with the government is that you are then bonded for six years after that. Eleven years of my life was written off as I signed on the dotted line,” he says.
But Stephen had doubts about medicine early on in his studies.
“The whole idea of healing has been reduced to treating the disease. Despite a constant move to interdisciplinary approaches in healthcare, the idea of ‘health’ itself was never discussed in my five years’ of training,” he says.
He also found himself missing thinking about abstract concepts and ideas during his first year of work, which involved intense 36-hour shifts.
“I felt completely out of touch with reality and I did not have much time to think about other things apart from taking care of patients. I started to think that being a doctor was not the life I wanted to lead.”
During this period, when time allowed, he turned to the Bible to help fill the intellectual gap in his life.
“The Bible was about ideas and the values that you live your life by. I felt really drawn to it in my first year of work but I had almost no time to read it,” he says.
After working for nine years as a doctor, Stephen left his career in medicine and went to the UK to do a Master of Arts in Religion in Contemporary Society at King’s College London.
“I stumbled my way into the medical profession largely due to my parents’ expectations. I am grateful for those 11 years, but I knew when I embarked on my journey to London that what I was really interested in was ways to read the Bible in Asia,” he says.
Stephen explains that he first became aware of the different ways in which the Bible could be interpreted after reading a book by South African theologian David Bosch called Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission.
“Reading this book, it occurred to me that we are reading the Bible through a certain lens. It made me think about what it means to read the Bible as an Asian.
“Ironically, I did this in England. It was really difficult to find resources to do it in Singapore,” he says.
His interest in this area developed further when he attended two summer schools, one in Germany on Christianity in Asia, and one in Spain on Decolonial Studies.
“It made me realise how we can really think about the Bible differently. I was really interested in decolonial studies after reading works by Latin American thinkers like Walter Mignolo and a number of African thinkers who were expressing discontent with the current state of decolonisation,” he says.
“They argue that deconstructing history is not enough to discover alternative ways of looking at the world. It was why I decided to study hermeneutics, because how you see the world gives birth to how you think about the world.”
Stephen went on to do a PhD in Asian biblical hermeneutics at King’s College London, writing a thesis on interpreting the stories of Daniel in the context of Singapore.
Citing the Malay Muslim minority in Singapore as an example of reading the Bible in context, he says, “I wanted to think about the everyday interactions that the Muslims in Singapore have with us, the Chinese majority, and how it is similar to the type of interactions Daniel, as part of the Jewish minority, had in the Babylonian court. If we think about it in this way, we are able to read the text very differently.”
Another area he is currently working on is looking at the story of Ruth in the context of foreign domestic workers in Singapore, and he presented a paper on this reading at a Global Forum organised by the Council for World Mission in Taipei earlier this year.
So, if he had not gone into academia or medicine, what would he have done as a career?
“I would like to have been a travelling storyteller,” he says.
Dr Stephen Lim is teaching Advanced Biblical Exegesis for the MTh programme at Ming Hua this semester.