Sample Scriptural Manipulation by the Western Religious Right (III): Obedience to the Government and 2 Peter 2.13-14

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In my blog a while back, I discussed the usage of Rom. 13 by one author. Here, in this blog, I will detail another usage of a superficially similar passage in 1 Pet. 2.13-14. I say “superficial” because even though passages may share the same topic, their contexts, both historical and literary, will create different meanings.

The Meaning The typically superficial reading of this passage resembles the other interpretation of Romans 13 which simply says to obey all governing authority with no consideration of the context of the Greco-Roman Empire. The author states rightly that the idea of government established by God is not explicit (p. 81). He could just stop right there, but he goes on. He states, “The idea … is hinted at when Peter says that Christians are to be subject ‘for the Lord’s sake.’” He believes that the government has the function of punishing the evil such as N. Korea, Russia, Iran, Venezuela and Cuba. The only trouble is, he’s assuming moral high ground when he lists these countries.

I hate to say it, US policies, especially the right-wing policies of past administrations, have not endear ourselves to many in the middle east, Asia and South America. The mistake here is to assume that evil resides in others, and not in us. He explicitly argues that the US government’s role to punish “others” and being the world’s policeman.

There’s no parallel here with 1 Peter where even if the government was going good (and it was not), it was doing good on behalf of the world. Neither the US nor the Romans were ever granted the position of the world policemen. This mentality has to change or Christians who support such US policies will continue to be sneered upon and despised by the rest of the world. In his reading of 1 Pet. 2.13-14, he states that there is widespread agreement in the Bible that God had established the government for the benefit of humanity. This however does not mean that everything God allows is morally good. There is a vast difference. He does not distinguish between an observation and ideal-laced assumption.

Appeal to widespread agreement assumes that also all faithful interpreters also agree with his interpretation. Such is not the case, even if we survey superficially the commentaries written on 1 Pet. 2.13-14. Regarding his view of obedience to government, this author calls 1 Pet. 2.13-14 as God’s moral standards. Quite clearly, we can’t debate that! Of course not. After all, evangelical theology is full of such thoughtless clichés. The fact is, I have already shown that this was not loosely about “morality.” (p. 61) The sayings addressed a certain situation the real historical audience faced.   Would Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil disobedience be considered immoral? Would Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth disobedience to the Nazis be immoral? No wonder he never had King, Bonhoeffer and Barth in his bibliography because these recent examples alone prove that biblical interpretation is quite varied and situational. His utter disregard for these examples only shows to me that if he existed in the time of Nazi German or 60s US society, his theory would be in complete favor of the powerful oppressive forces.

Let’s expand that a bit to the rest of the world, shall we? How about those who resist the religiously oppressive regime such as China, N. Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, and many parts of the world? He clearly does not elaborate on these examples, hinting at the fact that he is unaware of global issues that require a more global interpretation of these verses instead of the American evangelical “oasis” from which he reads the Bible. If he reads the passage carefully, the real point is not the nature of divinely ordained governing authority. The real point comes at 1 Pet. 2.15ff where the church was called to do good so that society could not criticize its existence. What good is the church doing? That is the real question.

The thing I object most about his treatment of the passage is his rhetoric. The arrogance of his tone is amazing in that he makes straw men of opposition point of views and just knocks them down triumphantly. He also assumes that those who disagree with him do not preach 1 Pet. 2 because he asks, Have you decided that you wont preach on Romans 13.1-7? Or that you won’t preach on 1 Peter 2.13-14?” I do preach on those passages, just not in the thoughtless colonial paradigm that he does. Apparently, he calls those who disagree with him as those who selectively preach the Bible. I hope by now in my blogs that I have demonstrated that he is the selective writer, not the other way around.

In his view of government, we can see the selective use of certain texts with no regard to other texts or even the historical context of the said text. Revelation was rarely quoted and when quoted, usually misquoted. The author of Revelation did not have much good to say about the Roman government. When he quotes Revelation, he almost always neutralizes the text, either because he wants to support his own view or that he is completely ignorant of Revelation. The best example is his usage of Rev. 18.3, 9 where “sexual immorality” is viewed as the modern evangelical prudish morality. Such is not the case, the sexual vocabulary in Revelation is mostly about faithfulness to God or walking in line with God’s ideal. In short, it is disturbing that works by such a scholar has been so widely used by evangelical systematic instructors. I don’t believe there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for a long time for those who are trained under this textbook

As always, the problem is not the text. The problem is the interpreter.

Thinking before Thanking

This week, I interrupt my usual discussion about misused scriptures by the Religious Right to talk about giving thanks.  I see a lot of thanksgiving on Facebook with the thanksgiving challenge.  It’s pretty delightful to see so many thankful people.  There’s a lot to be thankful for and there’s a lot of theology going into giving thanks.  I will use this post to discuss briefly about our thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving has always filled the pages of the NT and quite often the lips of Christians who like to quote verses (Eph. 5.20; 1 Thess. 5.18; Heb. 13.15).  While I do not deny the very important practice of giving thanks, especially to God who has given us many blessings, I can’t help but think that we really need to use our brains to hear what we’re saying when we “give thanks always.”

I always get a kick out of athletes who give God all the credit for all that happens. “I give thanks to God for my last minute touchdown.”  “I thank God for winning.”  How about this one? Someone finds a load of cash on the ground.  “I thank God for this money. I sure needed this money. Besides, these people probably wouldn’t come back to get the money anyway.”  I can make an endless loop of such thanksgiving, but do you see where I’m going with this?

If God helps one team win, does it mean he condemned the other team then? What if BOTH teams prayed? Was God biased?  Would thanking God by taking someone’s money be a good or bad thing? What if that someone really needed the money and prayed to find the money?

The fact is, we sometimes frivolously thank God for all the things because they centered on us instead of on God.  This is something all Christians need to watch out for.  If not, our thanksgiving is just one more sad effort in creating the Creator in our own image.  We then become God!

Sample Scriptural Manipulation by the Western Religious Right (II): The Problem of Gun Control and Luke 22

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While the last blog was about how one author supports his own take on the environmental issue. This blog will be about gun control. Let me say that, as an American, I feel that there is some merit on gun possession but also stricter gun control. My concern is not about pro or anti gun control. My problem is the way some people justify the right to bear arms to the extent of twisting scripture that clearly teaches the opposite to fit their agenda.

 

The Meaning

 

One author cites Luke 22.36-38.

 

“He said to them, ‘But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” And they said, ‘Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, ‘it is enough.’”

 

Any careful reader will see that the bringing of the two swords made the carriers of the swords transgressors. The word “transgressors” in Greek simply means someone who breaks the law, like a brigand. The literal meaning of the Greek word is “lawless.” (cf. LXX Is. 1.5) In the Galilean environment, if we read Josephus the Jewish historian who led troops of rebels from there, those who carried swords are rebels against the government. They have then trespassed against the law. When reading Scripture, we should not just read the words but get the force of those words from wider context. This is what I teach my first year students whether at the BA or masters level. Let’s see what happened with the swords.

 

In Lk. 22.49-51, Jesus’ followers (Luke did not say) first asked whether they should strike, and then one took action. Jesus’ reaction was an annoyed, “No more of this” and healed the person whose ear got cut off. Based on Jesus’ reaction of “no more of this,” his view of bearing sword for this particular instance was decidedly negative. Let me summarize the evidence.

 

  • Jesus called the sword carriers lawless brigands only to appeal to the problem of revolution again in Lk. 22.52.
  • Jesus rebuked the sword carriers and had told them to put the swords away. This explains why Jesus said that “it” is enough. He didn’t say that TWO swords “are” enough. He said that “it” is enough. We can’t help but to see that Jesus was talking in frustration about their singular (i.e. “it) misunderstanding of his meanings in telling them to carry a sword. Surely, Jesus could use sarcasm in frustration! In reality, Jesus was merely saying that the situation was so dire that it would require people to carry swords. He was not telling them to carry literal swords.

 

Consequences of Misreading

 

This author commits the classic mistake of not studying words such as “sword” to see how an author used it to describe the situation in the entire scene of Jesus’ arrest. When reading a narrative, the plot of each scene determines meanings of the words. Authors further use words specifically in the narrative of the whole book to discuss various aspects. The careless reader can further commit the elementary mistake of not looking closely at the way Jesus talked about the disciples as being trespassers.   A simple word study will point to the meaning as being primarily negative.

 

Instead, this is the way this author concludes about gun possession.

 

“When Jesus says, ‘It is enough,’ it is immediately in response to the disciples showing him ‘two swords,’ so ‘enough’ is best understood to mean ‘enough swords.’ … When Jesus says, ‘It is enough,’ he means that two swords are enough … there is no hint of rebuke. But that means that Jesus is encouraging his disciples to carry a sword for self defense … It is true that later in Luke 22 Jesus rebuked Peter for cutting off the right ear of the servant … but this was because he did not want his disciples to attempt to atop his crucifixion or try to start a military uprising against Rome …”

 

The fact is, the passage is not about weapon acquisition. Even when he gets the plot, he still misses because he sees weapons as the main issue and not some other issues. Clearly the final result was Jesus’ command to put the sword away, but the author is so eager to push the right to bear arm by saying that this in fact does not really mean not to carry sword for that circumstance. What good is the sword if it is not used? This exegetical gymnastic has once again violated the basic reading of a narrative by letting the conclusion of a narrative judge all the previous material. Surely, we can’t twist stuff that comes straight out of Jesus’ mouth (so it is perceived), but some do so to push their agenda.

 

If we put the author’s gun situation back into the scene in Luke, it makes gun owners illegal sinners because that’s exactly what Jesus called them. By misquoting such a passage, this author actually achieved the opposite effect. Proof text is overrated.

Sample Scriptural Manipulation by the Western Religious Right (I): Jeremiah 5.23-25 and Talking about the Weather

In the last blog, I talked about how the Western Religious Right’s claim to orthodoxy is dubious.  This blog starts on this series of sample misquotations of Scriptures in one particular evangelical theologian’s work that has plagued the wider Western church world (and even in Asia). The reason I use his work is because his works are widely used by evangelicals.   This blog is about understanding of the environmental issue. We shall see in this blog that the Bible does not answer some of the hard questions we face. We may choose to use common sense or our limited knowledge from other disciplines, but not so much the Bible. Especially important is the way I have seen this author uses one text below. In this blog, we will learn that the spiritual lesson for the church is not found in each word of the text, but the intended force of those words. The rhetoric assigns meaning to the message.

Here’s a great sample. Discussing the anxiety over environmental concerns and weather pattern, one author puts in bold letters, “People displease God when they fail to acknowledge his control of the weather.” Really? Displease? His citation is Jeremiah 5.23-25 as follows:

 

“But this people has a stubborn and rebellious heart; they have turned aside and gone away. They do not say in their hearts, ‘Let us fear the Lord our God, who gives the rain in its season, the autumn rain and the spring rain, and keeps for us the weeks appointed for the harvest.’ Your iniquities have turned these away [that is, the rains and the harvest seasons], and your sins have kept god from you.”

 

I’m not an expert in weather or environment. This blog will not address this problem, but will address the way the problem is being addressed. The writer interprets the sin to be worries about the weather. The fact is, the weather is not the focus at all. Jeremiah wrote this book progressively all the way to the Babylonian exile. Judah was exiled because, according to Jeremiah, of idolatry. The entire context has nothing to do with environmental concerns.

 

The Meaning

The poetic section starts with Jer. 5.20 and runs all the way to 6.30. It is a series of parallelisms that have nothing to do with weather but almost everything to do with idolatry. Even the language God used to describe the blindness and deafness resemble the idols in Jer. 5.20. The people had essentially become like those idols they worshipped. It is part of God’s law suit (note the lawsuit language of 6.18) against Judah based on the covenant God had made with Israel long ago. The fact God used “Israel” instead of the expected “Judah” in some places (e.g. Jer. 5.9) points to the covenant nation of Israel before the kingdom had split into two. My point is, a careful reader will not find that passage to be mainly about weather. Why talk about weather then?

Weather is symbolic of the religions of the Near East. The worldview of Ancient Near Eastern (ANE henceforth) is that people worshipped the gods so that the gods would provide good weather for one thing and one thing only, good harvest. In other words, the patter situation there had to do with how people worshipped, and not environmental concern. The Lord is reminding Judah that the false worship had caused in this case weather problems. The very fact the Judeans worshipped the Canaanite gods is because, according to many ANE experts, the Canaanite gods promised good harvest. God was basically saying, “Look at how messed up your weather is. How is that working out for you wishful thinking idolaters?”

 

Consequences of Misreading

We no longer have that worldview today. I’m pretty sure God might speak to use in variety of ways in regard to why we sometimes suffer environmental damage. The ANE religious paradigm is not the ONLY way. It WAS for the Israelites because that’s their world. We’re now in our world. I don’t doubt that some of these disasters are man-made. I don’t doubt that some man-made disasters were indirectly punishment from God (well, at least I leave that possibility on the table). Jeremiah 5 does not concretize the author’s conclusion. I’ll let his words speak for themselves.

 

“This passage sounds remarkably similar to the proponents of dangerous global warming today – they fear a fragile, out-of-control climate pattern that will destroy the earth, but ‘do not say in their hearts,’ ‘Let us fear the Lord our God, who gives the rain in its season.’ This suggests that the underlying cause of fears of dangerous global warming might not be science but rejection of belief in God.

 

We learn from this rhetoric three fallacies: 1) Unbelief and not scientific ignorance is the root cause of all human problems. 2) Those who have environmental concern must not trust God. 3) Concern over environment shows a small belief in God. I certainly do not agree with any of these ideas. Besides their circular logic (i.e. if you think our environment has severe problem, you must not believe in God. Due to your unbelief, that’s why you have an environmental concern), the biggest problem is the lack of support from the main thrust of the biblical passage. One lesson we learn from the three fallacies is that we can’t MAKE the Bible say what it does not intend to say. If the interpretation does not deal with the main issue the author was trying to address, the interpretation is wrong. So is the application.

 

On one final word, if this author does not think we should worry about over the air and weather pattern, he may need to travel to China more and do some studies there. I’m sure in his revised version of this book, he’ll think differently.

Western Evangelical Blind Spot While Judging China’s Theology

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I read with interest the various reactions to China’s possible attempt to have its own theology. Of course, from the Western side of the faith, people are alarmed. I mean, how in the world can a Christian faith/theology be formed to support an oppressive government? Really, even words like “Constatinianism” comes up. Scot McKnight’s label in his blog surely brands the Chinese the apostates. Of course, it’s so easy to demonize “red” China. After all, aren’t they the bad guys who put Christians in jail and demolish churches, but is persecution the issue or is Constatinianism the issue?

This is where the West once again runs into its own blind spot, especially for evangelicals. The doctrines formulated and hardened by Western evangelicalism have long been just its own version of “Western” theology, from the rise of the Moral Majority to the Gospel Coalition. Furthermore, as I pointed out to my friend, the Religious Right (and sometimes the Left) has already repeated its attempt to occupy and influence the US government. Of course, no one from the Western side is willing to admit that their version of orthodox faith, especially the “biblical version”, is really the Western indigenized faith, but as Suey Park, Emily Rice, and Mihee Kim-Kort points out, the Western version is quite dominated by white supremacy. The only reason why they can consider it orthodox and feel outraged at OTHER kinds of theology being heterodox is because they have long occupied a powerful position in the faith, so powerful that one prominent Western church leader has pronounced recently that he has found the solution to the Middle East problem via Rwanda!  Before you laugh, my readers, I’m not joking.  The Western evangelical church seems to have ALL the solutions in God’s multicultural, multiracial and multinational kingdom for all the world’s problems.  Is Chinese theology any guiltier of Constantinianism than that of the Religious Right? Let’s go further to ask the question that if no one got imprisoned and persecuted, is the version from Western conservatives still the norm and everything else the deviance? Is Constantinianism the sole privilege of the West that the Religious Right is exempt from its own analysis of other kinds of Christianity? Does the Western Religious Right also make the Bible serve their own political agenda?

I will do a series of blogs in the next few weeks to examine one particular influential Religious Right theologian (whose name will be withheld) in how he uses the Bible to support his political agenda. In so doing, I hope to expose the political raping of the biblical text for political agenda that is already rampant and influential in the evangelical church.

In conclusion, I say this to evangelical critics. Physicians, heal thyself.

 

Evangelical Idolatry: the Offense of the Gospel to the Faith Commuity

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“But Gideon told them, ‘I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you … I do have one request, that each of you give me an earring from your share of the plunder.’ …  Gideon made the gold into an ephod which he placed in Ophrah, his town. All Israel prostituted themselves by worshipping it there …”  (Judges 8.23-24, 27 NIV)

 

I’ve spoken in many settings all over the world and I’m beginning to notice that certain issues being used as illustrations tend to bring inevitable offense. These are also sacrosanct topics for blogging.  Here’re some of the issues I’ve encountered.

  • Infallibility of one’s holy calling into full-time church service
  • Infallibility of John Calvin/John Wesley/Westminster Confession/John Piper (fill in your favorite theologian) and their followers etc.
  • Infallibility of one’s original faith when one’s converted
  • Infallibility of mega church pastors
  • Infallibility of popular evangelistic methods: mass evangelism, celebrity evangelism, personal evangelism through formulae
  • Infallibility of local church growth by statistics

If I were to question any of the above, the reaction of people towards these issues often borders on fanaticism. It is as if I’m attacking the Trinity or the attributes of Jesus. Why are people so angry? Notice I just observe that people possess the same passion towards these issues as they would if someone attacks their God. The problem is simple. People worship these concepts as much as they worship the Bible or even God. It is hard for us to imagine that the gospel is offensive not only to those who do not believe, but also to those who believe for a good long while.  This failure to see our problem IS our problem.

While idolatry happens literally in many parts of the world still, in the developed world, the kind of idolatry is subtler. It is easy to point fingers at unbelievers and condemn them for idolatry. It is exceptionally difficult to see that we worship idols right within the faith community. All these idols have one thing in common: they put humans and tools at the center of worship. What do we feel passionate about? Whatever we feel passionate about may just be our idol, even if that idol has religious clothing.

How May I Help?

A while back in church on one Sunday morning, I walked in and saw one of our members in a wheelchair.  As I went around talking to a few people, I noticed everyone affectionately greeted this injured member.  People were giving hugs, saying cheerful hellos and expressing many other very warm gestures.

Then, something different happened.

Someone came up to her and said, “How may I help you?”  The injured person replied, “I’m actually trying to figure out how to go to the bathroom with this wheelchair.”  Now,  something quite profound just happened at that moment.

Quite often, we are so used to each that we greet each other with superficial affection without asking the important question, “HOW may I help?”  Taking the time to care is an art, but it is also common sense awareness of real needs around us.

When being called “Christian” is stinky: rereading conclusions from statistics

I’ve been reading a lot of blogs from people who quote Pew Research this and Barna Group that.  Quite frankly, people just quote these stats without even a second thought about the hermeneutics behind such “research.”  These thoughtless blogs are once again a proof of “lies, damn lies and statistics” being the trinity of modernistic deception.  This way of blogging has been so hip that it’s become pandemic.

The logic of such blogs usually goes one of the following two ways.  They could say, “Oh, based on these statistics, America has become less Christian.  Look how few people identify themselves as Christians.”  They could also say, “Based on these statistics, these many people who identify themselves as Christians also believe that ___ (fill in the blank: living together, being homosexual, drinking, premarital sex etc.) is okay.  Look how Christian value has eroded.”  There you have it.  The first basically says that the present statistics are accurate reflection of how many real Christians there are, and the number is declining.  It also assumes that previous statistics are quite reliable with the greater number of real Christians.  See? Assumption is everything.  The second basically assumes that whatever ethical value being put in the blank is the key issue that divides what is a true versus a false Christian.  Assumption again!

I wish to question all such assumption as being lacking in any sense in our everyday experience.  I’ll use my experience as an example.  Where I grew up in the Southern part of the US, you can’t kick a little pebble without hitting a baptist.  In fact, I bet the Muslims there are also baptist.  No, I’m kidding.  If you were to ask anyone around where I live with a simplistic statistical questionnaire whether that person is Christian, Catholic, Jew, or Muslim (I’m using their common categories of course), you would find that most would say they’re Christians and some would say that they’re Catholic.  In addition, aren’t Catholics also Christian?  Not according to the way these discussions are framed. I overheard one particular discussion that went something like this.  Person number 1 says, “Are you Christian?”  Person number 2 answers, “No, I’m Catholic.”  What the statistics in the past and often in the present do not tell us is that they frame such questions in such biased way that they would inevitably get a large percentage to be Christian. What being a “Christian” actually means does not matter.

For some, being Christian just means being white and middle class, while believing there’s a god.  I’m not joking. I’ve seen enough examples to tell you that this is true.  And being white and middle class while believing in God is the cool thing to do in the past because that’s the American way.  There’s no way to verify whether that person really is a Christian.  The paradigm begins to shift however.  Now, with the moral value of the society defining what is cool, being Christian may not be cool any longer.

Now, being a Christian could mean being a homophobe and a sexual prude.  That is NOT cool.  Since the Christians no longer project that cool value, less people now identify with being Christians than before.  This is natural.  To top off the problem is the Christian’s own hermeneutics on the Bible as to what consists of “Christian value.” This kind of value obviously shifts, from the prohibition of drinking to premarital sex to now homosexual lifestyle.  What we haven’t realized is that our main problem has not changed: our hermeneutics and ethics still suck.  Only because more people were in agreement that drinking and drugs are usually not good for you, we were able to become more of a moral majority (I mean that, of course, sarcastically) in the past.  Now, societal value can no longer accept “Christian value”, less are willing to be identified as Christians.  I suspect that the decline is over exaggerated.  I suggest though that we have proclaimed something that has repulsed society.  The real issue then is whether the repulsion we have caused is the right issue, the one that we’re willing to die for.   I mean, is not sleeping with your girlfriend before marriage really is the ethical defining line of Christianity?

You see?  The first and the second set of logic are actually related.  When the hermeneutics of scripture on which Christian value is based are framed a certain way, people either identify or not identify with it.  At that point, people’s identification with it shows whether that value is cool or not.  Nothing in such assumptions have to do with truth.  It is a popularity contest.  It is a publicity disaster.  When we use such assumptions, we only reinforce but not solve the problem.

The Gospel according to the Mikado Controversy

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The light opera by Gilbert and Sullivan, “the Mikado”, has been making the news since the Seattle Times editorial columnist Sharon Chan had taken the show to task for its comedic portrait of Japanese people.  Since then, Dave Ross, the radio show host of KIRO Radio, who also starts in Mikado has interviewed Chan to figure out what the offensive elements are.  l think both sides have much to commend them and both sides could also do better in certain areas.  For the sake of fairness, I will try to pick on both sides to get to the bottom of what offends.

To Ross’ credit, he has done so much more than evangelical leaders who repeatedly offend Asian-Americans (henceforth AA) in their own public (either through speech or writing) engagements.  Ross at least tries to engage the offended  to see what the problem is. Thus, I would give Ross credit for not being racist.  To Chan’s credit, she is right to speak out from what she perceived to be the sentiments of many AA’s.  As she pointed out somewhere in the interview, AA’s have protested in the past, even as far back as the 90s. This was not the first time.  Here’re some of the issues I’ve gathered in listening to his response and his interview and in reading some of the defenders of the opera.

1) Ross focuses on the color of the label “yellow face” when Chan clearly tells him that it is not the color of the face but the act of white people portraying Asians (e.g. Halloween Geisha girl etc.).  Ross continues his discussion by talking about a black face flash mob in which he participated, dressing up as Michael Jackson.  Ross’ framing of the argument centers ONLY on his own obsession about skin color. Yet, I think both Ross and Chan miss the point.  The problem though is this.  The Michael Jackson flash mob does not offend people because the intent was to honor and not to mock Jackson (or African-American in general).  Besides obsessing with skin color, Ross moves on to using examples such as wearing martial arts clothing by westerners in Asian martial arts.  I’m unsure whether Ross has any experience with practicing martial arts in a multicultural dojo. I’ve had plenty of experience.  The point is, whenever we participate in, let’s say, a Japanese art, we’re learning all we can about the culture in a respectful and non-joking way.  WE DON’T MAKE A KARATE LIGHT OPERA TO MAKE FUN OF WESTERN SOCIETY!  Ross’ examples just do not parallel the present production of the Mikado.  Chan however freely gets led by her nose in this discussion as she puzzles over whether a white man playing a black role is OK or whether wearing karate gi is OK.  She’s clearly missing the point.  I share Chan’s concern but not her logic because the point is genre and context!  Other arguments I’ve seen in favor of keeping the Mikado as it is comes from drawing simplistic parallels with Turandot and Huckleberry Finn or the Catcher on the Rye.  The fact is, none of these is a comedy specifically to either make fun of a race or using the mockery of a race against one’s own society, even if racial stereotype exists in all of them.

Both Ross and Chan have not realize is that the problem is not the dress, skin color or white people playing Asians.  The problem is the entire means by which the opera communicates mockery.  Asians are the comedic means by which Gilbert and Sullivan use to mock their British society.  We like to use this saying in our AA circles to those who use us as a joke.  We aren’t your punchline.  That principle still holds true.  It has nothing to do with having thin skin.  No people group likes to see the culture which they treasure being used as a means for mocking some other culture.  In other words, Ross seems to miss the point that the Mikado mocks the Japanese in order to mock the British society.  The means is as important as the end here.  For the 21st century audience, the play “as is” is a failure in rhetoric as the means has overrun the message.  Perhaps, the Mikado has both artistic and social value, but its offense can overtake its value.  In the light of the present situation, I wonder if modern producers can find other ways to produce the Mikado to accomplish the same end as Gilbert and Sullivan intended.  Indeed, some are doing just that with the youth version in Seattle.  Maybe a needlessly offensive means is not the best or only way to stay true to the intent of its original authors.  Maybe there’re some other ways to stay close to the content and intent in a creative way for the 21st century political climate.

2) Ross also brings into the discussion of subjective perception in response to Chan’s sentence about just because the Mikado has been done in a racist way for 100 years, it doesn’t make it not racist.  Ross retorted by saying that just because Chan sees it as racist, it doesn’t mean that racism is there, and that Chan doesn’t speak for ALL Asians.  This is the classical argument about intent without considering impact perfectly illustrated by the statistical joke of “how many Asians does it have to offend before it’s racist?” or “I’m not racist because some of my friends are Asian.” The problem has never been statistics.  Anyone talking in statistical terms doesn’t understand the dynamic of this offense.  Ross’ argument is about reducing the AA experience into statistics (more or less Asians offended and more or less Asian friends) in order to allow something to keep going.  Ross fails to realize that the problem is not the NUMBER of the offended but the NATURE of the  offense. No matter how many are offended or not offended, we ought to look at the content at its very essence and see if the essential offense violates the very principles that bind us as Americans.  In order to understand the HOW, he has to, first of all, abandon “HOW MUCH” to get down to the narrative level of the AA’s.   At the narrative level, he will be able to see if the offense is legitimate or otherwise.  People aren’t numbers.  People are storytellers.  Some of our narratives intersect with some of the offensive elements not just in the Mikado but in other cultural heritage.

What kind of narratives do AA’s have?  I can’t speak for all AA’s.  I can only share my narrative.  My narrative is typical of many 1.5 generation AA’s (those born overseas, immigrated and become bicultural/bilingual).  I came here at 10 years old with hardly any English.  Being the only Asian in my school didn’t help.  Kids would make fun of me and my gym teacher would call me Hop Sing (surely, he wasn’t racist. He was just having fun, and he was very nice to me.) after the servile character in the western TV show Bonanza.  That’s almost as bad Pastor Mark Driscoll calling Pastor Francis Chan the “international man of Fu Manchu mystery” in his interview.  In no time flat, I was able to speak fluent English because, as you know, English is cakewalk compared to Chinese.  Once I started speaking like a native speaker, I experienced a different set of problems.  Kids would ask me, “How do you speak such good English?”  (My sons also experience this as native speakers born in the English-speaking world)  I’m fairly sure they wouldn’t ask me that if I were European descent.  When I couldn’t speak English, they made fun of me because I sounded funny.  When I began speaking English too well, they asked me how I did it because I looked funny.  My own narrative of sounding and looking funny contains just about all that is offensive in Ross’ framing of the Mikado.  I was the punchline.  The means has overtaken the message until all I receive is the means.

How does all the above discussion relate to the Bible?  I write all this to point to the important biblical truth of using the right means for the right message.  The Bible does talk about using the right means.  Ross’ controversy with the Mikado acts as a parable to how one kind of text impacts its listeners in real time.

This instance in the Mikado reminds us that we live in a time where certain traditional assumptions are no longer held to true.  The cultural paradigm is shifting. I think it is important for Christians to understand the cultural paradigm shift especially in regard to how we deal with the issue of race and diversity.  The church has been notoriously divisive when it comes to race.  Such conversation about the Mikado informs us that when we speak in public, we have to reexamine the paradigm by which we view “the other” or society in general.  Quite often, whatever we consider unoffensive and “biblical” is neither.

At the end, Ross has proven himself not to be racist, but at the same time, has viewed the situation through racist cultural lenses.  His miscalculated contextualization of the opera does not bode well for him.  If Christians fail to see things through the lenses of others, they will surely meet the same rejection.  The means can often speak louder than the medium.  I hope no one who speaks about the gospel will ever forget the Mikado.

The Art of Listening: The Responsibilities of the Preacher and Listeners (Chinese and English versions)

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Original article in Chinese.

Introduction

This article grows out of a lecture I gave one Saturday afternoon for Hong Kong churches on how to listen to sermons. Quite often, people are very critical of their pastors’ preaching, but I like to take a different perspective to talk about the responsibility of both sides in the process of listening. My starting point is the Bible. The act of listening can be divided into two emphases. The first has to do with the literal physical act of listening. The second has to do with both spiritual and intellectual comprehension (since the two should not be so different). Although I’m never felt comfortable with dichotomous division of the human being, the essay below is borrowing the concept mainly for emphasis and to make a point.

Physical Aspects of Listening

Listening is a physical act. Within Nehemiah, the words “read” and “listen” repeat many times, denoting a communication process between the reader and the receiver. As a physical act, listening is also related to other physical aspects in life. In Ex. 19.14-15, 20-22, the physical preparation of the people precedes the listening to the Ten Commandments in Ex. 20. There was a whole series of rituals that takes place before the spoken word was given. Within Exodus 19, three concepts surface in preparation for listening to the word. Ex. 19.14-15 talks about consecration of the people. Ex. 19.20-24 sets physical limitation for where everything should take place. Ex. 19.22 also talks of consecrating the priests. In other words, both the people and the leaders need to make physical preparation before listening.

When looking at the physical aspect of listening, here are some important concepts we must pay attention to. Let me first talk about the responsibility of the listener before discussion the responsibility of the preacher. First, a lot of the descriptions of listening are corporate. This is an important concept because so often, listening is reduced to the act of a singular individual. The corporate listening implies that people need to work under the same authority of God. They’re not just going to be lone rangers in application but to work together in community with other obedient believers. In the Christian church, the corporate preparation includes participation in singing. Yet, there are many who only rush to the service on time in order to listen to a sermon. Many such listeners are consumers who want nothing more than to “get something out of the service.” However, a person who is aware of the corporate dimension of worship will not miss every part of the service because the sermon is only a part of the service and not the entire service. Singing and putting oneself in a worshipful state helps with listening.

Second, preparation is intentional and not accidental. In Exodus, these Israelites did not happen to be in good condition to listen to the word being read. They had to go through a lot of steps in order to prepare. Intentional preparation is important because many modern listeners lack preparation when it comes to listening to sermons. As a family man, I have come to value preparation of children for services. Our modern services have so focused on age appropriateness that we no longer welcome children to our services, despite the fact that our Savior also had children among his listeners. The excuse that children are too active and cannot sit politely shows more about our perspective of children than what God wants. A step I find helpful is to make sure that tiny kids are fed well before going to church. Hungry children do not sit well. Parents can also do well to prepare the children the night before, especially children who are older. Preparation can be done through prayer with the children the night before. Parents can further encourage children to pray out loud for their pastors for the next day. Some teens are prone to stay up playing on the internet. It is hard for parents to control such habits, unless the household is marked with discipline from top to bottom. If parents would sleep a little earlier as an example to their children, the entire family would be in better physical condition to listen to the sermon.

Another important preparatory step is the setting of limitation for listeners. For children, if they bring their electronic devices, they should at least have them off during services. Many parents are not courageous enough to put their foot down on this bad habit. The fact is, electronic devices distract rather than help with listening. Some churches go as far as giving drawing sheets for children in the pew to color or to encourage listeners to tweet about what they just heard without equally encouraging them to be slow to listen and slow to tweet in order not to interpret the sermon out of context. The message such churches send is that children can have an option of either participate or do something else, and that adults can respond to bits and pieces of the sermon they pick out and respond to them even though the response is totally outside of the realm of proper interpretation. Such a message will become a hindrance rather than help in preparing the children physically to listen.

What implications do the discussions above have for preachers? Preachers should understand that the listeners are not always physically ready to listen. That’s just a fact. In order for preachers to help with connecting with the physical aspect of listening, his voice must not drone on and on in monotone. Most preachers could work on more variation of both the voice and pace. Equally important is to provide continuity between the singing time and other parts of the service with the sermon so that people will know that their physical participation is of utmost importance. Since listening to sermon is a physical act, the physical presence of the preacher is also very important. There are some preachers who rarely gesture. Such preachers could do much better in creating more body language. Visual appeal is physical. It will draw attention of the audience. Another pet peeve of mine has to do with the timeliness of sermons. Many Chinese churches have a strange view of time as the preacher almost always goes overtime. People have limitations. They cannot listen to overtime sermon week after painful week, especially if the preacher is not an outstanding communicator. The listener does not only get bored but in some case gets quite hungry. The preacher needs to understand that not everyone is as spiritual as he is and that some people (especially those who have health problems) need to eat.

Intellectual and Spiritual Aspects of Listening

When looking at the Reformed tradition, there are several means of grace: baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and preaching. The centrality of preaching is only highlighted by the central placement of the pulpit in a Reformed church. Especially important is the preaching aspect because it addresses both hearts and minds. The above discussion already demonstrates the importance of physical aspect of listening without which any intellectual and spiritual sense cannot happen. We must now address the art of listening beyond mere physical act. We must address the non-physical part.

First, when listening to a sermon, the listener is informed by the content. No matter how much we want to make a sermon an inspirational piece of public discourse, the content in it informs so that any inspiration can result. Rom. 10.16-18 talks a little about how the gospel is transmitted. This is an important point to dwell on. Quite often, people in church, especially churches that encourage the consumer mentality, do not listen actively. They do not want anything “too deep” but the entire sermon must be funny. This is a plague among evangelicals at this point. To be informed about the truth means one has to intellectually engage the sermon. This means the brain is actively absorbing and processing what is being said.

Second, Neh. 8.7-9, talks about understanding and Rev. 2-3 often repeats “He who has an ear …” Such sayings are not talking about physical listening, but about understanding. Understanding also requires the listener to track what is being said. The preacher speaks in order for the listener to understand. Once again, I’m talking about active listening. A “discerning” listening is much needed all the time. When listeners hear the sermon, they can either accept one hundred percent of what is said, or keep their bibles open so that they can track the context of scripture to see whether they understand the true message. This requires the listeners to bring their own Bibles or at least have a pew Bible available to him. Many have decided to use electronic edition of the Bible. This is not a great idea. I have tested my listeners who have electronic Bibles in their cell phones. They can track about an average of 7 verses at a time. 7 verses do not give enough context for good understanding.

Third, the true spiritual listener must respond. Neh. 8.5-6, 18; 9.1, show the response of the people upon hearing God’s word. The spoken word demands some kind of change. Responses are important. Let me suggest that every listener jots down one point in a spiritual journal somewhere for the Sunday service. Jot down the point that sticks out and mark out an action plan or change of mind. People would progress so much if they jot down 52 points from the 52 weeks of preaching they listen to in a year. If in addition to the 52 lessons, the listener also writes down 52 action plans. I think the listener’s life would change.

The above discussion implicates the preacher as well. I have read numerous studies in reputable universities about teaching and PowerPoint. It is currently in vogue to use PowerPoint for every teaching endeavor. This fad will soon fade as soon as the user realizes that it is not always as effective as its creators’ boasts. One study actually shows that lecture PowerPoint slides with too much information is 15% less in effectiveness of informing. The reason is that the screen of any kind is originally used for entertainment and not for reflection. As quick as the PowerPoint slide switches, people cannot reflect and listen all at once. Preachers may want to rethink the strategy of using PowerPoint. If it has to be used, less is better. Too much information would mean “no” information. I always challenge my audience to open the Bible to look at context, even though my church may shoot up the verses in PowerPoint format. This will encourage active and discerning listening. If we must use PowerPoint slide for bible passages, we must also inform our audience that the slides are for unbelievers who can’t flip fast enough in their Bibles. For believers, the printed text of the Bible should be the standard, not PowerPoint. Preachers must understand that we create our own listener culture. Our usage of media tool will be part of that creation.

Preachers can help listeners in the understanding of the sermon by strong transition and clear points. The “pointless” sermon will not become anything helpful to the listener. The sermon must have a focal point and that point needs repetition. If a preacher makes clear one point of preaching, his audience will not mistaken the point for something else. The successful preacher can test out his congregation one or two weeks after and see if they get his point in the sermon. If they still remember the single point, then the preacher has communicated successfully.

Conclusion: What Can Both Sides Do About It?

When we look at the art of listening, it requires strong interaction between the preacher and listeners. Physical hearing cannot happen when both sides fail to plan. Spiritual hearing also demands the listener to prepare to act. The preacher still needs to understand the strengths and weaknesses in electronic devices. Churches can prepare pew Bibles for people to at least read what is opened up for that Sunday. When we evaluate both the preacher and listeners, we come away knowing that sacrifice has to happen for both sides.

 

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