An avid reader and an avid traveller, I always enjoy fantasy novels the most. But not just any fantasy. I desire stories that transport me to another place, allow me to experience a new culture, and challenge me to think about the aspects of life I take for granted in a new light. For all of these reasons and more, I finished Anna Tan’s book Amok in one day! And as a girl navigating the adulting struggle, you know I don’t have a lot of time, so this book was !!!
Which is why I’m excited to welcome Anna Tan as a guest blogger to discuss her new novel Amok. In the novel, the main character’s struggle with rising above cultural Christianity and taking ownership of his faith is something I experience in my own faith journey.
What does it mean to stand firm in the faith? If faith is belief without evidence, how do I keep myself from doubting? These are all questions we ask alongside Mikal, the main character of Amok, as we learn to own our faith and stand firm in who God is.
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Cultural Christianity v. Owning Your Faith
Anna Tan, Owner of Teaspoon Publishing
Many of us who grew up in the church tend to fall into the trap of cultural Christianity.
Even living in Malaysia, where Christians are a minority, growing up in church is a kind of “bubble” or culture of its own. In fact, Christianity used to be referred to as the “white man’s religion.” When the missionaries first came over (at first British and later American), many of those who converted had to leave their cultures and take on a “Western” one because those cultural practices—even the non-spiritual ones—were thought of as inherently wrong and unchristian.
While it’s true that religious practices are often embedded in a culture, it’s also true that not all cultural practices are unchristian or wrong. Some of them are just…the way things are done. And that’s the same with cultural Christianity.
How Growing Up in the Church Feeds Cultural Christianity
We do a lot of things because we were taught that was what Christians do. So, if you go to church, pray before you eat, say Hallelujah, and do not swear, then you are culturally deemed a Christian. Even if you don’t really know exactly what you believe in or haven’t read the Bible in years.
And just because a majority of a country (or culture) does a certain thing, it doesn’t mean that it’s Christian either.
Would it shock you to know that some people here in Malaysia assume Halloween is a “Christian celebration” because “white people celebrate it?” (Don’t get me started on Easter bunnies and Santa.)
When is it faith and when is it culture?
One of the most dangerous parts of cultural Christianity is that we often don’t question what we say, what we do, or why we do things until something happens—often a crisis of faith. And then we start to wonder if anything we’ve done has any meaning at all.
Standing Firm in the Faith
There are many sayings that we repeat amongst ourselves, thinking they are “Christian,” that are actually not from the Bible. Things like, “cleanliness is next to godliness” and “God helps those who help themselves.”
Many people have said this before in various ways:
This is also not directly from the Bible, but James 1:3 does say that “the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” Which is why you have many fervent, enthusiastic youths who graduate out of youth group…and out of the faith.
So that really is the question here—how do you stand firm in the faith when you’re no longer sure what or why you believe? I look at one aspect of this in Amok.
Performative faith: If God isn’t answering me, I must be doing something wrong
In Amok, Mikal grew up as the prince of Maha, a city whose culture is dictated by faith and faith practices. Like those fervent youth group members, Mikal is the golden child, probably even the Pastor’s Kid who can do no wrong. The chosen one, the one who will, as we say, “do great things for God.”
But Mikal has a deep, dark secret—no matter how much he tries, Kudus doesn’t give him the Amok Strength.
So when everything goes wrong, the first thing he does is doubt—not so much the existence of Kudus [God], but the actual love and promises of Kudus.
Performative Faith v. Faith Without Evidence
Mikal’s faith is a very performative faith, one that many of us are also familiar with:
“If you serve him faithfully, God will give you all the desires of your heart.”
“If you don’t receive [insert whatever you prayed for], it means you don’t have enough faith/you didn’t pray hard enough.”
This part of our Christian culture makes God’s blessings (or even His existence) dependent on how we “perform” and what we do for Him.
Mikal blames his father, Simson, for the fall of Maha—and that’s true. But he also blames himself. He wonders if he was not worthy enough of Kudus’ love.
If maybe there was something else he could have done, something more he could have tried to earn the Amok Strength.
He’s done all the right things, kept all his vows—but maybe he didn’t do enough of it or the right way. And then he blames Kudus. Maybe Kudus wasn’t ever really there and didn’t actually care about Mikal or his city.
That’s the way many of us (myself included) see God when we don’t get what we want. When our prayers go unanswered. When our faith seems to fail. When we don’t know what to believe anymore. Maybe we didn’t insert enough X [faith, tithes, ministry time] into the slot, that’s why God didn’t give us Y [that promotion, husband, healing].
Maybe God was lying and didn’t really love us anyway. Or maybe he just loves everyone else but me.
Making Your Faith Your Own
Yet Mikal doesn’t get what he so desperately wants partly because the timing is wrong, but also because he’s desiring the wrong things. He wants the Amok Strength because he wants to be worthy of the throne. He wants it so that his father will love him. He wants to prove himself. He doesn’t really want Kudus, he just wants the power.
And when he reaches rock bottom, when there is no other way out and no other plan he can make, he realizes that all this time, whatever faith he thought he professed, he’s only ever been relying on the faith of those around him—the priests who taught him, the faithful in the Temple, even his father’s lack of faith.
I had a reviewer say she couldn’t stand Mikal because he whined so much. And she was annoyed because she thought he wasn’t worthy of actually receiving the Strength. Sure, he said he believed, but what did he actually do to prove it? What god would do that, she asked, reward such lack of faith?
And yet, ours does.
Understanding Who God Is
That’s the crux of Mikal’s journey of faith. Yes, he’s done all the right things. Yes, he’s tried his best. And yes, he does become bitter and does not trust Kudus to take him out of his situation. He tries to device his own ways, like Abraham tried another way to have his promised son.
Yet in the end, God came through and blessed Abraham, not because he did everything right. Not because he never doubted.
But because God said He would do it, despite Abraham’s misadventures and mistakes.
In the same way, Kudus fulfils his promises in his time—because his bigger goal is not just Mikal’s journey of faith, but Simson’s redemption as well.
So what does it mean to own your faith?
Whenever religion gets entrenched in a land or a system, there’s always a risk of the people (us) growing distant from true faith, and just going through the motions. It becomes culture, the thing we do because we’ve always done it. It’s the way our social contract is written, it’s also the way the laws of the land have been formed.
And unquestioned culture, unquestioned faith is often the most dangerous—because we don’t even realise that we’ve gotten lost along the way.
This too is what drives most people away from faith—because when they’re not allowed to ask questions to understand why they should believe a thing, it’s often best to not even believe in it.
What does standing firm in faith mean?
Standing firm in the faith doesn’t mean that you don’t ever question God. It doesn’t mean that you don’t sometimes doubt. It also doesn’t mean that you have all the answers.
It just means that you take ownership of your faith journey and decide for yourself what you believe and why you believe it.
It means studying the Bible for yourself and no longer relying solely on what your parents believe or what the church around you says you should believe, just because they say you should. That’s part of growing up spiritually, just the way you grow up physically.
Like Mikal (and like Jacob and David and many others in the Bible) it may mean that you need to yell at God a little more, and wrestle through some questions a little longer. And sometimes it means reading the Bible with fresh eyes and asking yourself, “Have I become the Pharisee in this story?”
Take Ownership of Your Faith
Kara J Lovett
Anna’s book Amok challenges us to reflect on our own faith journey. This is one of the reasons I love the book. It prompts me to look at my own relationship with Jesus and ask:
Are you taking ownership of your faith or are you drifting into cultural Christianity? Do you stand firm in your faith even when there is no evidence of God’s presence? And lastly, from the back cover of the book, what is faith except hope in desperation?
Read More about Standing Firm in Faith in Amok
What is faith, except hope in desperation?
All Putera Mikal wants is to gain the Amok Strength, the supernatural power granted by Kudus to the Mahan royal family. No matter how religiously Mikal keeps his vows, Kudus still denies him the Strength—whilst his father, Sultan Simson, flaunts the Strength despite his blatant defiance of the Temple and the priests’ visions of coming doom.
Then the prophecies come true.
Taken captive, Mikal must find a way to liberate his people and restore his throne in Maha—and the key to this is the Amok Strength. But what does it take to gain Kudus’ favour?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Tan grew up in Malaysia, the country that is not Singapore. She is interested in Malay/Nusantara and Chinese legends and folklore in exploring the intersection of language, culture, and faith.
Anna has an MA in Creative Writing: The Novel under a Chevening scholarship and is the President of the Malaysian Writers Society. She can be found tweeting as @natzers and forgetting to update annatsp.com.
If you grew up in the church, how do you fight cultural Christianity and instead take ownership of your faith?
Leave me a comment below!
While You’re Here…More posts about Growing in Faith:
- 5 Keys to Accepting God’s Love
- What does it mean that God’s will is sovereign?
- Believing that God is still in Control
- How to Find Comfort in God
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