Eat and be satisfied

Eat and be satisfied

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy: On the Limits of White Privilege

A Yale Law graduate gives his first-hand perspective of growing up amidst the white working class.

Hillbilly Elegy is a great book -  a well-written and poignant memoir of J.D. Vance’s childhood in small town Ohio and how his Appalachian-raised grandparents became the intact family that his biological parents never were. His dad abandoned him as a baby and his mom was a substance addict with a conga line of boyfriends and the accompanying rotation of homes. Vance’s memoir is every bit about being an exile in America as Russell Jeung’s book.

I recognize white privilege is a real thing. Being white confers advantages that ethnic minorities do not benefit from. And yet it's difficult to typify Vance’s experience as benefiting from white privilege due the tremendous disadvantages of his upbringing. J.D. Vance’s memoir offers a contrasting data point on how members of the white working class are constrained by the same forces that affect disadvantaged minorities. Here are two observations on the limits of white privilege:

1) Working class shut out of the gospel: Robert Putnam’s recent book, Our Children, talks about evangelicalism’s decline among the working class. The decline is not race specific. We have plenty of churches for the affluent and educated but seem to lack them for the working class. Or at least the ones that exist for the working class aren’t preaching the gospel. Vance’s grandparents were self-professed Christians but not part of any organized group of believers. Faith was a private act. I wonder how common this is among the white working class. 

Here’s how Vance describes his father’s evangelical faith: "Dad’s Christianity was one of withdrawal from society and defining morality as not participating in this or that particular social malady: the gay agenda, evolutionary theory, Clintonian liberalism, or extramarital sex.” This brings home the cliche about how we as Christians are known more for what we’re against than what we’re for. And here’s one of the sadder lines from the book: “Nor did I realize that the religious views I developed during my early years with Dad were sowing seeds for an outright rejection of the Christian faith.” (pg. 99)

At the conclusion of his memoir, Vance offers some suggestions the future of evangelicalism amidst the working class: “Are we tough enough to build a church that forces kids like me to engage with the world rather than withdraw from it? Are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms children?” (pg. 255) I appreciate the humility in the last question. He is cognizant that hillbilly culture, like all cultures, has some inherently destructive aspects.

As a pastor, the most poignant lesson was how his dad’s evangelicalism and its Pharisaical fear of everything “worldly” set him up to later reject the gospel. As a teenager, Vance was assured that as long as he didn’t listen to Satanic music, didn’t curse, and didn’t have premarital sex, he was living a good Christian life.  It brings home the cliche about how Christians are better known for what we’re against than what we’re for. The church can do much better having affirmative expressions of faith like missions, sports, music, and social justice. And finally I’m comforted by the reality that the gospel is the ultimate affirmation of humanity and our broken world. Jesus truly makes things new and he starts from the inside out. I’m grateful for the mentors and churches who have lived out this true image of the gospel rather than the false one Vance received.

2) Culture matters and Amy Chua is still my hero: Vance observes hillbilly culture shares characteristics with southern Blacks arriving from Detroit. “Hillbilly culture at the time (and maybe now) blended a robust sense of honor, devotion to family, and bizarre sexism into a sometimes explosive mix” (pg. 41). Cultural values like suspicion of authority, vigilante justice in the context of an honor and shame culture, and an understanding of masculinity that views educational attainment as feminine make it challenging for certain cultural groups to be upwardly mobile. Vance recounts a story of when his Uncle Jimmy was a child. During Christmas shopping season, Vance’s paternal grandparents, Papaw and Mamaw took toys off a store’s shelves, smashed them to the floor, and threw them all over the place. Towards the end of the encounter, Papaw threatens the store clerk with this: “If you say another word to my son, I will break your <bleep> neck”. All of this because earlier the clerk had asked young Jimmy not to play with the toys and leave the store.

Privilege consists of advantages that have nothing to do with one’s individual merit but rather the circumstances of one’s upbringing (i.e. the household income and level of education of one’s parents), skin color, or cultural heritage and values. Towards the end of his book Vance cites Raj Chetty’s 2014 study on geographic upward mobility. Vance notes two reasons for the uneven geographic distribution of opportunity: the prevalence of single parents and income segregation. As Vance puts it, "Growing up around a lot of single moms and dads and living where most of your neighbors are poor really narrows the realm of possibilities” (pg. 243). Intergenerational mobility is the ability of children born to poor parents to become affluent as adults. The study’s abstract draws a contrast between areas of lowest intergenerational mobility like Charlotte, NC to one of the highest, San Jose, CA. San Jose has high residential income segregation though this is somewhat mitigated by the fact many lower-income families are priced out of living here. And yet I suspect the biggest factor may be that as of 2000, 34% of San Jose was foreign-born, almost seven times that of Charlotte (5.3%) for the same time period. And there’s no doubt that in the 1970s and 1980s, a significant proportion of immigrants to the area were highly educated, foreign-born tech workers from Asia like my parents. Immigrants, especially those that are college-educated, tend to have a higher rate of intact families, which contributes to better financial outcomes for their children.

Amy Chua, Vance’s former Yale Law professor, is credited both for advising Vance at pivotal moment in his budding law career AND in encouraging him to write the book (her endorsement is listed first on the back of the hardcover edition). It is not lost on me the irony of a white male benefitting from the largesse of an Asian American woman (and the one who coined the term “Tiger Mom” no less). Many in the Asian American community don’t like Chua because she represents the idea of cultural superiority but count me as one of her admirers. Cultural values absolutely make a difference for socioeconomic outcomes and unfortunately, many cultural values do not change easily with government intervention.

In light of the above, Vance doesn’t have a lot of advice for the government. He recommends state laws push broader definitions of family so that relatives like grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles can step in when biological parents break down. He advocates stronger laws against residential income segregation - for communities to push for higher proportions of section 8 housing.

And yet Vance notes: “Government policy may be powerless to resolve other problems in our community. As a child, I associated accomplishments in school with femininity. Manliness meant strength, courage, and a willingness to fight, and later, success with girls. Boys who got good grades were ‘sissies’ or ‘faggots’” (pg. 245)

I love how he talks about the honor and shame culture of hillbillies. The most inspiring part of the book is an episode where Mamaw teaches Vance how to punch and use his strength on behalf of the weak - something I believe Jesus would have endorsed in the same manner as when he overturned the tables of the moneychangers - it was pre-meditated, calm, and in defense of others. As a middle schooler, Vance ends up sucker punching a bully who repeatedly terrorizes a classmate of his. His teacher lectures him but she is thankful for the justice he meted out that she could not. Hillbilly culture has inherent flaws and yet the gospel redemptive aspects - family loyalty and justice for the weak - shine through.

Friday, January 6, 2017

What CrossFit taught me about manhood and faith

Jujimufu doesn't need CrossFit
It took me a couple tries at first. I couldn’t quite climb high enough up the rock wall to grab the overhang. But eventually I got comfortable enough with the holds to reach out, grab the ledge, and crank out three pull-ups before jumping to the ground. 

Without a doubt, this was the strangest job interview I had ever participated in or even heard about.

I spent five hours at Castle Rock State Park with my interviewer - hiking, climbing, and fielding questions about small group ministry philosophy and God’s sovereignty. In advance of the interview excursion, I was only told that “we’re going on an adventure so dress accordingly”. During my candidacy process with Garden City Church, I was asked which high school team sports I had played, how I would function as part of a team, and finally, whether I would take advantage of the CrossFit membership benefit. It turns out the male staff did CrossFit workouts together at least twice a week and were highly encouraged to participate. I balked and wondered if I was joining two overlapping religions - this particular church and the cult of CrossFit. I felt this impending baptism into a hyper-masculine culture that was an overcompensation for the feminized Christianity I had been reading about for years. 

The candidacy process turned out to be wonderful - a tremendous encouragement to my wife and me. And yet initially, I was afraid of what I might become if joined the church’s staff team - a short, buffed Asian Christian poser. Despite my misgivings, the process awakened a deeper part of my soul and made me wonder if I was manly enough to make the cut. One of the last phases of my candidacy took place at a CrossFit gym where upon completion of the interview, I was invited to participate in the workout of the day (WoD). As my movements were observed by other Garden City staff, I imagined this was the type of scrutiny beauty pageant contestants experience during the swimsuit round of a competition. I felt like a small calf amidst large cattle - hoping my meager flanks would be found wanting.

I did end up making the cut at Garden City and accepted the offer, despite questions about how one's physicality connected with the job description. As far as I was aware, my CrossFit prowess was not evaluated as a job performance metric. And as the smallest in stature of the male staff and the only minority hire, I felt like I had something to prove. 

In spite of my doubts and insecurities, I’m not sure if I can separate my physicality from my experience of faith and manhood. 

I’m also not sure I want to. 

My first spiritual mentor tricked me into meeting him for a one-on-one session by inviting me to play basketball with him. I kept waiting for other boys to show up but later realized I was the only person he invited. Years later, I realized his intent was not to play basketball but to engage me in conversation. He never would have earned that credibility without the rapport of a hoop and a ball. One of my favorite boyhood memories was push-up contests and playing sports with my guy friends. During youth retreats, my brother and I started boys-only midnight wrestling matches called bedroom brawl. These moments provided a visceral faith experience.  

A couple years ago, I visited an international church in the United Kingdom and played basketball with some of the men from the congregation. The pastor of the church, who didn’t play basketball, commented how playing sports with his congregants forged bonds that ordinary contact couldn’t match. Having heard dozens of faith conversion stories over the years, I've noticed a strong pattern of men being mentored into faith through sports. I know a youth pastor who led 300+ young men to Jesus over twenty years through his platform as a high school football coach. For guys who did not excel at sports, I have seen many instances where music played a pivotal role in nurturing faith. Music may not seem particularly masculine but playing an instrument on a worship team gives boys something to do with their hands and connects their physicality to their spirituality.

To paraphrase the book of James, works evidence faith. Churches today emphasize more sedentary and individual disciplines of prayer and reading of the Word. In recent years, evangelicalism was known more for talking than doing. Yet God, the first mover, designed us to move. Literally. And having strayed from our agrarian past, there is nothing more literally “work” than to lift heavy objects off the floor. 

Six months later and after recovering from Achilles surgery, I now look forward to the twice-weekly, hour-long sessions of self-inflicted suffering with the Garden City male staff. There is plenty of playful banter and boasting (I am the keeper of a spreadsheet of our team’s personal records). CrossFit is a fantastic and healthy way to express our masculinity. Our aggression is poured out on medicine balls and kettle bells.  In the gospel, I have nothing to prove and yet the gym offers a forum for us to sharpen ourselves against each other. It is a testing ground of discipline, courage, and self-control. We’re simultaneously building a team through the building of our bodies.  The workouts expose our physical and mental weaknesses - an invitation to accept each other in grace. But not before giving each other crap about it. 

I look back with fondness on my “adventure” candidacy. No interview process is perfect and yet I appreciate this journey’s emphasis on physicality and teamwork. I did not simply talk about being adventurous, I was asked to live it.  

Faith expresses itself in action. To put a twist on Olympic runner Eric Liddell's quote: When I move, I experience God's delight. And when I move in competition and cooperation with men, I experience His delight to the fullest.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Ten Years of Letters

Back in 2006 when I was working at Hitachi and finishing up seminary on nights and weekends, I took a class with Steve Korch. I don’t remember what the class was but one day, Steve segued into a discussion about parenting. He described a tradition he started when his children were young. Every year on each of their birthdays, he would give them a letter he had written them ten years earlier. He shared how his daughters and son would eagerly anticipate the letter they would receive each year. Each birthday, it must have been like opening up a time capsule about one’s life. I was impressed. I decided it would be a practice I wanted to adopt with my own children.

My oldest son, Caleb, turned fifteen yesterday. I wrote my first birthday letter to him ten years ago. On his latest birthday, I told him about my letter-writing tradition and how I started when he was in kindergarten. I sense he was surprised, in a thoughtful way. Obviously, he’s a completely different person from back then. What fascinates me isn’t how much he’s changed but how much he’s the same. While re-reading the letter, I noticed how much his personality today was evident during kindergarten. He loved being physically active and was popular with his classmates. He also relished building unique LEGO creations. He is all those things today - creative, emotionally intelligent, and athletic. 

I see these letters as a non-emotionally charged way to express our parental commitment over the years. It’s easy to have a selective memory - especially in a rebellious phase - to forget past innocence and how your parents invested in and cared for you in early childhood. I used to blog about raising kids but stopped in the last couple years since Caleb became a teenager. He’s on social media and if I imagine being an adolescent again, I would absolutely not want my dad writing about me. I can understand why parents of teenagers are careful how openly they share about their parenting struggles. It can be quite shaming for their children. And thus for sermon illustrations, I try to use my younger children as examples - they tend not to mind as much. 

But not blogging about Caleb doesnt mean Ive stopped thinking about him or have stopped growing as a parent. In fact, Judy and I think about him just as much - though its often out of frustration with his study and smartphone habits. Every phase of our kids development has challenged us. Adolescence is no exception. If anything, it’s harder because there seem to be fewer resources available, fewer positive role models of good parenting, and the sense that we should have this figured out by now. Thus, these letters also testify to how we’ve grown as parents - or not. 

And from the beginning, I doubted my ability to persevere in writing. Most projects I start are never completed. I start strong and fizzle out about a month or so in. It’s really hard for me to stay consistent and focused on something over the long haul. But somehow, pretty much every birthday, I would remember and get it done. There were challenges. I forgot to do the 2007 letter for Caleb. That year I was transitioning from high-tech employment to vocational ministry, we had three children under six years old, and our marriage was in a bad place. Some letters are short, some are longer. I definitely remember lagging months after a child’s birthday, not wanting to write the letter. 

The letters typically start by narrating events that child was involved with in the past year. I make observations about their character. There’s always some personal self-disclosure. I love talking about myself and would not miss an opportunity to share how I’ve been feeling. I used to be more guarded in what I share but over the years, I’ve become more vulnerable. After all, at this point, they’ll be reading these letters in late teens and early twenties. They will be well-acquainted with my weaknessses whether I share them or not. My biggest concern now is whether they will be able to decipher my penmanship because I so rarely hand-write anything.

I love photos because they can often express more than words. We have lots of pictures of our kids. What we have fewer of is stories. Specifically, stories that capture our hopes, dreams, desires, and fears for our children at a given snapshot in time - those kinds of stories are in shorter supply. So in closing the letter, I share what I’ve been praying for that child - the vision God might have for their lives and our hopes, dreams, and fears for them at that moment. I hope in sharing that they would be reminded of our love and concern for them over the years and remember it for the years to come.

Thank you, Steve. May your tradition carry forward to touch and inspire future generations.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Nerdy Asianz in the Hood

An awkward Asian American intellectual reflects on being a missionary exile in East Oakland

Russell Jeung’s new book is called At Home in Exile: Finding Jesus among My Ancestors & Refugee Neighbors. An alternate title could have been "Nerdy Asianz in the Hood".

Make no mistake about it - Russell Jeung is a nerd. He absolutely fits the model minority stereotype. How to tell? Exhibit A: When you graduate from world-renown Lowell High School in San Francisco, get a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Stanford University, and then later obtain a PhD from UC Berkeley. Check those boxes for Jeung. He now works as a sociology professor at San Francisco State University.

I met Jeung for the first time at his book launch. Exhibit B: When you are decidedly unimposing physically. Jeung doesn’t wear glasses but his look fits the nerd mold. He is rail thin and doesn’t appear to do any strength training. His body language is awkward and although a fluid public speaker, had trouble speaking into the mic.

After graduating from Stanford, instead of taking the high-speed on-ramp into a Silicon Valley tech job, his journey takes an abrupt left turn off the freeway. Jeung didn’t spend a week in the hood, like the typical urban “missionary". He didn’t spend a summer or even a year.

He lived in the Murder Dubs of East Oakland for twenty years.

The neighborhood surrounding 23rd Avenue and International Boulevard in Oakland has been the epicenter of the city's drug dealing and violent crime since the 1990s. I didn't notice any drug deals happening when I parked in the neighborhood but I was nervous about my car being broken into. I was also surprised by how many people in the the neighborhood were of Asian descent. 

Jeung’s perspective of the hood is neither patronizing nor glamorous. He comes from a place of humility. The hood taught him about life, the gospel, and justice in a way that suburban existence could not. He recounts life at the Oak Park Apartments as an incredible learning experience. The Cambodian refugees living there taught him profound lessons about hospitality and community. The lessons did not come easy. Jeung recounts an instance when his laptop was stolen by a neighbor and he attempts to buy it back from a shady character named Roach:
Wanting to catch my enemy, I reported this information to the Oakland Police Department. They said I should arrange a meeting time, and then they would wiretap me under my clothes. I could obtain a verbal confession from the thief, and then they would swoop in for the arrest. As this was the stuff of television cop shows, I was all in. I arranged a meeting time and place with Roach and got my cash payment in mint condition, small denominations. Then I contacted the sergeant of OPD Robbery Division, reporting that the “eagle has almost landed.” The sergeant checked, and then informed that the electronics technician was away on vacation. “Jeez,” I thought, “no wonder no one ever calls the police.” pg. 47
Exhibit C of nerdiness: When you say the “eagle has almost landed” to a police officer. This kind of geek humor occurs throughout the book. The humor underscores an important theme in the book - the marginalized view government institutions with well-founded suspicion. Governing authorities tend to benefit the privileged and being poor is more about powerlessness and alienation than simply a lack of financial resources. 

Jeung also discusses his Chinese ancestry. He writes: 
I feel slightly proud about being Chinese in the United States, because I was different and unique. But then I thought about it. There are about 1.4 billion Chinese in the world. What’s so special about being one of every five humans on earth? Perhaps I stood out because I was Chinese American, an overseas Chinese. Yet that’s not a unique status, either. There are 47 million others just like me. That’s not special Disney material at all. pg. 54
Exhibit D: When you cite global statistics regarding your ethnicity. And yet this ambivalence about ethnic identity resonated with me. I want to feel special about my Chinese heritage but it doesn’t feel very special given the numbers. Undeterred, Jeung researches his family’s history and discovers his Hakka roots. The Hakka are an ancient Chinese tribe who were known for being “ rebels, nomads, and pirates”. He recounts some fascinating history of discrimination against his ancestors in Monterey, California. His comments at the end of this chapter are helpful and inspiring to me: 
Unlike Americans, who value egalitarian relationships, the Chinese recognize the hierarchical nature of relationships that have uneven power dynamics. Since it is easy for those with power to become paternalistic or patronizing when they serve others, we must learn Christ’s humility and self-emptying. . . When doing ministry, our joy and strength cannot be based on our own success or power. We receive these gifts only when being guests of the King and recognizing our limitations while in exile. pg.115
In 2000, Oak Park Ministries, the advocacy group Jeung helped found, won a lawsuit to revamp their dilapidated apartment complex. The apartments were rebuilt and many of the kids received their own bedroom and yet the renovations (fencing, security gates, and lighting) changed the atmosphere and culture of the apartments. Jung reflects candidly:
Whenever I get together with Oak Park youth, we fondly recall the old days of pandemonium and rue the new Oak Park. Our story of community organizing for justice didn’t necessarily have a happily-ever-after ending. We obtained justice, but lost a bit of community. pg. 141
In line with Jeung’s themes, Disney fairy tale endings are for the movies. In the pursuit of justice, we can fall prey to idealistic notions of success. That’s not the nature of urban ministry and the reality of a broken, fallen, sin-cursed world. We can deceive ourselves with metrics indicating we’re making a difference and I deeply appreciate Jeung’s willingness to face truth at the expense of his ego. 

Chapter 5 is my favorite. It’s a story of nerdy Asian American courtship and parenting. This is Jeung’s first impression upon meeting his future wife, Joan (pronounced Joe-Ann):
Instead, I opened the door to a magical scene as if The Lord of the Rings had been set in East Oakland. In front of me, I gazed upon an elfin creature - if you can picture a Korean American female elf - with the sweetest, most delicate heart-shaped face. . . After the Oak Park community met Joan, members gathered and formed the Fellowship of the Ring. They recognized that I had been a bachelor far too long, and the fellowship initiated a collective quest to convince Joan to marry me. Such a venture was quite perilous, and many hearts has already been broken in vain attempts to secure such a ring. pg. 152-153
Exhibit E and F of geekiness: When your first impression of your wife-to-be evokes a scene from Lord of the Rings AND when your friends deem you incapable of wooing a woman on your own and form a team to aid you. On early dates, he talks about getting into arguments with Joan about how to shuffle a deck of cards - Jeung prefers the riffle shuffle because it “more elegantly and efficiently randomizes the cards”. This guy is too much. 

I love how he talks about Asian American parenting, particularly the obsession with our children’s education. This is the sacred cow of overachieving Asian American parents. It’s a controversial topic in their New Hope Covenant Church community. Oakland has two distinct socioeconomic areas - the flatlands encompassing East Oakland where the student population is overwhelmingly low-income and the hills where the schools boast wealthier families and higher test scores. Panda Dad Jeung and his Tiger Mom-ish wife compromise and send their son to a higher performing flatland school. He also discusses the journey of how he and his wife fostered two Bumese teenage girls into adoption. All of this discussion centers around the theme of our shared identity as exiles - we belong neither here nor there - and therefore, to sink deep roots as we invest in and love the city and its exiles (Jeremiah 29).

In the end, Jeung is the exception that proves the rule.

He is a nerd only because of his intelligence, awkwardness, and education. But I know hundreds of nerdy Asians including yours truly and he resembles none of them where it counts. At the core, a nerd is fearful, passive, and insecure. Jeung does not check those boxes. Two attributes stand out about him:

Humble courage: Urban ministry requires a sense of adventure but it takes an entirely different category of courage to embed yourself in a marginalized community for twenty years. It requires humility to come as a guest - in the posture of a learner - and to recognize your impact will not be immediate, broad, or widely recognized. You die to the idealism and walk in simple obedience to love your neighbor. You may experience more of the gospel first-hand than what you impart to others.

Self-awareness without self-loathing: I used to hate being Chinese American. I hated feeling out of place in the US and out of place in Asia. Even today, the awareness of being a cultural exile tempts me to resent my ethnic identity. I see that among my peers. We don’t quite know what to do with our Asian-ness. It’s so easy to hate on our immigrant parents and their backward cultural values. But Jeung’s memoir points to the truth of the gospel: that every culture has redemptive elements. Let us therefore celebrate the gospel values we have inherited from both Asian and American cultures. In this, there is a Spirit-filled self-awareness that is not self-loathing.

At the book launch, when asked who the intended audience of the book was, Jeung replied it was primarily for the Asian American church. He explained we’re often perceived as bridge builders but bridges are trampled on. He wrote this spiritual memoir to highlight how our unique cultural perspective plays a vital role in the American church. Our value of community and humility against the backdrop of an individualistic and self-promoting society make us the destination rather than the means. 

Monday, October 10, 2016

Adding Lawry's to "Oceans"

"I am not an angry black man."

Those were Pastor Bryan Loritts' first words at our church leaders' training session. I had been nervous about the event. When our lead pastor announced Loritts as the guest speaker and his topic of diversity, there were several voices expressing concern this workshop might constitute “social content” and not address our leaders’ need for spiritual formation. 

I understand the root of the concern. “Diversity” is a loaded word. It conjures up visions of state-sponsored politically correct brainwashing. It feels like it emphasizes behavior rather than identity. It feels focused on the outward rather than the inward. It feels beholden to a progressive political agenda. It feels devoid of the gospel. Those concerns are well-founded. There are indeed abuses of social justice by the Christian left, who seem to have  abandoned the centrality of Jesus’ death and resurrection and faithfulness to the scripture. 

Loritts quickly deconstructed this stereotype by leading us through Ephesians 2. He explained how Ephesians 2:1-10 deals with the vertical aspect of our relationship with God. Being a believer absolutely deals with one's individual relationship with Jesus. But conservative evangelicals often forget about the rest of the chapter. Ephesians 2:11-21 transitions into a believer’s corporate relationship with God. Jesus destroyed the dividing wall of hostility between two ethnic groups - Jew and Gentile. Thus, the horizontal aspect of one’s relationship with others is a fundamental aspect of the gospel. 

Loritts pointed out the greatest opponents and proponents of the civil rights movement were both Christians. In recent years, conservative and liberal Christians have fallen into two different yet related errors. If you grew up in a conservative church, you grew up with a bifurcated gospel. This camp has emphasized the horizontal to the detriment of the vertical. Conservatives tout bible reading and theology while neglecting love for the poor and marginalized. Meanwhile the latter camp  has emphasized the vertical to the detriment of the horizontal. Liberals feed the hungry while neglecting the proclamation of the gospel and the study of the scriptures.

Jesus did both. He taught the scriptures AND healed the sick. Orthodoxy cannot be divorced from orthopraxy. The thinking of our faith and doing of our faith are both critical to the life of the follower of Jesus. Loritts went on to explain how the first century church was always multi-cultural - Jew and Gentile in community together. Acts 6 details how the early church accommodated the cultural patterns of Hellenist (Greek-assimilated) Jews and later chapters demonstrate adaptation to Gentile cuisine. In each case, the gospel was both preached and lived out in cross-cultural ways.

One of my favorite moments was when one of our leaders asked “What is white culture? I’ve never experienced anything like that”. It took courage, compassion, and humility to pose that question. It’s exactly the kind of learning posture needed to carry this conversation forward.

Loritts said explaining culture is like telling a fish about water. You never notice it until it’s absent. One of Loritts’ examples concerned music. He shared about a black friend looking for a church in Washington, D.C.. When his friend visited a culturally white church, he wondered why there were five guitarists on stage. How many guitarists do you need? Loritts talked about Hillsong’s “Oceans” - how its slow tempo needed Lawry’s seasoning to make it palatable to a black audience. And Kirk Franklin and other gospel artists need to be toned down to be palatable to a white audience. In white culture, parents negotiate with 3-year olds but in black (and Asian!) households, young children have little autonomy - little say in how the household is run and when your stomach is full. White preaching has a conversational and subdued tone. White culture is far more egalitarian and individualistic. Black culture is more hierarchical and communal. Chinese culture is even more so. One major difference between Chinese and African American culture is that I have never been forced to identify myself in reaction to white American culture because the Chinese immigrant experience has different dimensions from that of blacks in the US. My parents, as recent immigrants in the 1970s, did not face anything remotely resembling the discrimination blacks experienced over the past 150 years or what previous generations of Asian immigrants faced in the past century. 

The second session was based off of Loritts’ book Right Color Wrong Culture. He used characters from the 1990s sitcom, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, to illustrate three types of leaders. C1 leaders represented by the character, Carlton Banks, are those from one ethnicity who have assimilated to another ethnicity. Carlton is black but compleletely immersed in white culture and has few black friends. Will Smith’s character, on the other hand, is the opposite. He refuses to assimilate to white culture and is culturally inflexible. His inflexibility is exhibited by how he wears his private school jacket inside out. Loritts talked about the need to raise up leaders who were culturally flexible - who felt comfortable moving between cultures while retaining aspects of their native culture/ethnicity. These types of leaders are categorized as “C2” leaders as opposed to C1 or C3.

The session made me reflect on whether I could be considered a C2 leader in this culturally white church. I wonder if, as a second-generation Chinese American, I have “sold-out” to white evangelical culture. It’s one of many important questions Loritts helped raise and I look forward to the many discussions his workshop sparked. I pray it bears much fruit for the kingdom.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Indignant vs. Filled with Compassion

Mark 1:40 A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”
41 Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” [italics mine]

Can someone be angry and filled with compassion at the same time? That’s the question for the difference in how various Bible versions render Mark 1:41 - the healing of the man with leprosy. Before reaching out his hand to heal the man, Jesus is overcome with emotion. What does he feel? The New International Version 2011 says “Jesus was indignant” but most translations render it “Filled with compassion” (ESV: “Moved with pity”).

This is not a translation issue in the literal sense. The NIV 2011 committee (taking from the TNIV) made a decision which extant manuscripts to use for translation. Most of the earliest manuscripts use the Greek word for σπλαγχνισθείς which is translated “filled with compassion” versus a smaller number of later manuscripts that use ὀργισθείς, which means “filled with anger”. Why did the NIV 2011 committee choose “indignant”? Perhaps because they felt it better reflected Jesus’ character - he feels insulted the leper would insinuate he does not desire his healing. 

Does this mean he is angry at the leper? Of course not - he is repulsed by the implication he would desire the man to remain in his illness. 

Is there a conflict between feeling indignant and being filled with compassion? I don’t think so. It is absolutely plausible Jesus was both angry and compassionate the same time. He is so with the man with the shriveled hand in Mark 3:5. He heals out of anger and grief at the Pharisees’ hardness of heart. Granted he is not angry at the man with the shriveled hand but I don’t think Jesus is mad at the leper either. He is both indignant AND filled with compassion.

Even without a feeling of indignation, Jesus’ willingness to heal is evident. The encounter with the leper is repeated in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Each instance, the leper asks Jesus “if you will” OR “if you are willing” - this formulation is a question of intent and desire and not used to indicate the future tense. The leper is not questioning Jesus’ ability but his desire. He believes Jesus has the capacity to heal and wants to know if Jesus wants to. There’s an obvious implication the man would not have approached Jesus on his knees if he didn’t believe Jesus desired his healing. The leper believed it was in Jesus’ character to desire his healing and his question is more a pleading to make this healing happen.

I don’t have the space here to examine how this text informs our view of theodicy - why God allows suffering and evil. However, I would interpret this event, along with all of Jesus’ healing encounters, to indicate Jesus does not desire people to suffer from illness and disease. There may be other scriptural evidence that God intends suffering from disease but I do not consider this passage to be one of them. 

Lastly, the most extensive discussion of the manuscript differences in the translations can be found here - the note is reproduced below: 

note 74 tc The reading found in almost the entire NT ms tradition is σπλαγχνισθείς (splancnisqei", “moved with compassion”). Codex Bezae (D), {1358}, and a few Latin mss (a ff r) here read ὀργισθείς (ojrgisqei", “moved with anger”). It is more difficult to account for a change from “moved with compassion” to “moved with anger” than it is for a copyist to soften “moved with anger” to “moved with compassion,” making the decision quite difficult. B. M. Metzger (TCGNT 65) suggests that “moved with anger” could have been prompted by 1:43, “Jesus sent the man away with a very strong warning.” It also could have been prompted by the man’s seeming doubt about Jesus’ desire to heal him (v. 40). As well, it is difficult to explain why scribes would be prone to soften the text here but not in Mark 3:5or 10:14 (where Jesus is also said to be angry or indignant). Thus, in light of diverse msssupporting “moved with compassion,” and at least a plausible explanation for ὀργισθείς as arising from the other reading, it is perhaps best to adopt σπλαγχνισθείς as the original reading. Nevertheless, a decision in this case is not easy. For the best arguments for ὀργισθείς, however, see M. A. Proctor, “The ‘Western’ Text of Mark 1:41: A Case for the Angry Jesus” (Ph.D. diss., Baylor University, 1999).

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Fundamentalism is Masculine

Sam Harris breaks down radical Islam - the beliefs of the Islamic State in this podcast. He references the publication of the Islamic State, Dabiq, Read this magazine at your own risk because it is terrifying. The publication is horrifying for many reasons - mostly because it’s true. It is extremely clear. ISIS is intent on killing people of the West. Make no mistake about it. It is not about our foreign policy, it is not about imperialism, it is not about excess, it is about our beliefs. We are disbelievers.

Harris is an atheist and it is fascinating to listen to the Dabiq writers describe Christianity from the perspective of another religion (radical Islam) and then hear Harris evaluate Christianity and radical Islam from the perspective of an atheist. He brings out good points. The Christian concept of trinity is a doctrine that is very difficult to describe. It’s so easy for us just say oh we’re not meant to understand this mystery of God. That’s such a cop out answer. Harris’ focus is on the religious idea of an after-life. He attempts to get his audience (mostly atheist I’m guessing) to empathize with the game-changing idea. If what we do in this life is secondary to eternal life after death, it creates tremendous incentives towards morally questionable activities (martyrdom, violence, evangelization, etc.). 

It’s disturbing to read the testimony of Finnish woman who converted from Christianity to Islam and find common religious language that Christians to describe their conversion experience - the after life, simplicity, full devotion, etc.Certainly absent from her conversion testimony was a discussion of grace. In fact in her rebuke to Finnish Christians, she claims what Christians is a set of rules and regulations to live life. Indeed we do. That’s called the law and it didn’t work so well. It did not lead to salvation. That’s what the Muslims believe and they’re not wrong. It’s just incomplete. Living by rules and regulations does not get the job done. We need a savior. We need a complete internal renovation - to be transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light.

Harris says there’s something about radical Islam that is incredibly appealing to men or certain types of men. He’s absolutely correct. And he goes on to explain why.

First of all, radical Islam appeals to the male instinct to discuss and debate abstract philosophical ideas. There is a depth of religious thought and discussion that most strains of religion don’t get to. It’s reflective, profound, and meditative. Men love to talk about “What if” scenarios like “What’s the worst way to die?” During Jeremy Lin’s “Linsanity” craze in 2012, I posted about the relationship between hard work and the grace of God. On Facebook, a bunch of my male friends argued through comments about the role of his work ethic and opportunities he was given to succeed in the NBA. Finally, a woman interjected with “Shouldn’t you guys spend more time praying for Jeremy Lin than arguing about something so silly?” That effectively quashed our discussion. Men love to argue about abstract ideas and also find tangible ways to practice them. There are numerous well-defined practices of prayer and spiritual discipline that actively engage a man’s faith in Islam. Sam Harris calls it “yoga” and thus each Muslim male is a yoga practitioner. Conversely, in Christianity, a man attends church and is reduced to a passive spectator. If you’re not on the worship team or the pastor (very narrowly defined positions that few people can participate) then you can feel left out and emasculated. Sure, you can read your Bible and pray but those pursuits can feel very solitary and don’t give a sense of being connected to something better.

Second, radical Islam taps into the male instinct towards aggression and dominance. Put short, you get to kill people. You have a channel for your aggression to pursue evil and eradicate from the universe by fighting disbelievers and putting them to death. That’s where Harris is genius in coining the term “yoga assassin”. Radical Muslims are sent by God on a mission to eliminate disbelievers. You cannot fail at this mission because even if you die trying, that is still success. You have built-in channel to violently vent your fury. War is incredibly bonding because men need tangible enemies and Satan and his demonic forces are intangible opponents.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, radical Islam promotes the subjugation of women. As Harris describes, if you’re a guy who hasn’t experienced much success with women (and this is true for 83% of men under 30), you will find radical Islam appealing because women are subservient to you. You don’t have to work hard to impress them or play mind games or make a lot of money or whatever. Polygamy is encouraged and women have very well-defined and traditional roles. 

And I realized his explanation doesn’t just apply to Islam but all strains of fundamentalism, including Christianity. Fundamentalism, at its core, is composed of an unwavering commitment to a narrowly defined set of beliefs, adherence to a set of rules and regulations, and a militant even violent approach to both people and ideas that threaten the first two qualities. Christian fundamentalism attracts both men and women to be sure, but the fact that fundamentalism attracts both conveys that it is appealing to men. From my understanding, progressive Christianity is female-dominated. Men feel increasingly alienated from mainstream Christianity. There’s an inherent fundamentalism (anger against the establishment and overt misogyny) to Donald Trump that makes him appealing to men. Hillary Clinton simply cannot match that. Men are leaving the organized church in droves, both Millenial and otherwise. I don’t believe Christianity was meant to be feminized. Thus, the questions I’m wrestling with are: What real and good aspects of fundamentalism and masculinity need to be recovered in Christianity? Where do we draw the line when those aspects become destructive and unhealthy?