My book is now in Kindle form. Many have been asking for the Kindle version. Here’s the link.
I now blog on chapter four of my book. This is not a popular section of the Bible. In fact, its lack of popularity shows how it is popularly avoided even though surrounding contexts are taught routinely in Sunday Schools. Rightly so, this story would scare the living daylight out of little kids. After all, who wants their kids to hear about heads rolling?
I propose however that this is more than a story about beheading that needs to be told at least on the pulpit. Mark 6.14 says, “King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had been well known. Some were saying, ‘John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.’” The story then goes on to talk about John losing his head (literally).
Let me give you some hints to read this story properly within context. The way the story is introduced shows that this is a story about Jesus and not about John. Moreover, the section previous, Mark 6.7-13, talks more about what the disciples did than Jesus. In order to understand the beheading story properly, we need to read it first in terms of the Jesus story and then the disciples’ story. I don’t deny that the text itself is quite violent, but it isn’t violent in the way we imagine.
As I always say, the texts are not at fault. The interpreter is!
I continue to blog on chapter three of my book. Here’s a popular verse. The usual scavenged meaning says that this verse is really about prayer meeting and how Jesus promises to stay within a circle of two or three. In other words, as long as they’re more than one person praying, Jesus will be there. How about when there’s only one? Will Jesus be there? Would two people be enough to form a church and then call that a gathering with Jesus’ presence?
This is the kind of superficial and superstitious meaning that has unbelievers in stitches rolling on the floor. I don’t blame them for dying of laughter either because I usually join them. This verse has nothing to do with prayer meeting. If we read the context, we’ll surely find the purpose for such a meeting. The “two or three” are the witnesses of wrongdoing and are praying and meeting about what to do with the situation (Matthew 18.16). Jesus’ is not promising anything. He is warning about the dire consequences of making a decision without looking closely at the fact that Jesus is watching over the process. A promise is different than a warning.
Yet, this interpretation still does not hit at the heart of the matter because most of the text deals with the importance of the little ones in the kingdom (Matthew 18.1-14). Jesus did not switch topic just because he had an ADD attack. Think about how the present meaning fits with the teaching about little ones. I dare say that most of the passage is really not focused on church discipline but on the little ones because Jesus was answering the initial inquiry of who the greatest in the kingdom is. If our interpretation has nothing to do with the little ones, we have still gone adrift.
As I always say, the texts are not at fault. The interpreter is!
This blog comes from chapter three of my book. Matthew 18 has certainly been scavenged for all sorts of very strange applications in church. A most common reading comes from Matthew 18.10-14. Quite often, the application has to do with evangelism.
The usual interpretation goes something like this. God loves the one lost sheep. The lost sheep is the same sheep as every other lost sheep in the Bible (e.g. Luke 15.4-7). Therefore, let’s evangelize all those who don’t know Jesus. This however is not Jesus’ meaning.
Let’s first imagine what Jesus’ point is when we read the parable of the lost sheep here. Let’s just take Jesus’ words for what they actually say. In Matthew 18.10, Jesus said clearly that the little ones are the most important member, repeating what he had already said in Matthew 18.5-6. The little ones are members in the kingdom. In the way Jesus framed the picture, this little member is IN the kingdom, NOT OUT of it. It is a grave mistake to see the lost sheep as the lost unbelievers. Rather, Jesus was trying to say that the priority for the weak member of the church should always dominate the agenda of his faith community to make the faith community a Christ-like community.
As I always say, the texts are not at fault. The interpreter is!
There he was, drenched with an unlit candle and plastic bag raincoat, an introverted businessman, standing by himself…
My colleague remarked, “It’s raining dog crap (that’s the Cantonese expression of “raining cats and dogs”) …
The loudspeaker said, “Please share your umbrellas with those who need it.” I’m an American. I don’t do “share” well, especially when my umbrella is tiny and my bum is getting soaked. I need my personal space. More out of guilt than conviction, I said to him weakly, “Want to get under my umbrella?” He replied weakly, “Sure. Thanks.”
This man and I are a bit alike. We’re both shy in our public expression. I’m not much into shouting slogans, though I shouted a few. I much prefer to be left alone with my thoughts on what happened on June 4th, 1989 where government figure told us only less than 300 people were killed when in reality, more than 4,000 were killed (according to some eyewitnesses) but surely we can’t ever account for fatalities because the government bulldozed the bodies like useless fecal matter and dumped them into a statistical abyss. They call that “cleanup” around here.
So we stood together in Victoria Park after twenty four years. I admit, this was my first public demonstration. When Tieanmen Square massacre happened, I had lived in the US for a long time, close to fifteen years. I grew up among mostly white kids. I felt appalled but the events felt surreal and faraway as I watched numbly what the TV could reveal. The world of mainland China felt foreign. During my stint in Hong Kong, for one reason or another, I was not able to make the previous demonstrations. This year, I deliberately flew in two days early and tried my best to get over my jet lag to be there. Why was I there?
A dear friend of mine had been asked the same question, “Why do you participate? You know whatever you do won’t change the policy of the oppressive government.” The final count of protesters according to the police last night was around 50,000. You know oppressive government everywhere always have trouble with math, right? That’s why I was there. I was there because there’s 150,000 of us who had our own stories, feelings and reasons against senseless killing of civilians. We refused to be silenced, even after twenty four years. I didn’t care if my waterlogged jeans were stuck to my bum. A little wet firework by nature couldn’t compared to the rain of bullets and reign of terror on that fateful evening on June 4th, 1989. We would not let the victors’ history take over the real narrative. We would pass this to our children and grandchildren, not just as ethnic Chinese but as concerned humans.
Why was I there? I was not there to theologize about heaven crying on this dark day, though some may wish to do that. I’ve long given up trying to figure out where God was and where He is in this and that day. Who knows? I was there for more practical causes. I was there because of the terrorist government using one of the strongest and largest standing armies against its own unarmed people (estimated 300,000 troops that night, and no, the students didn’t try to burn them or murder them the way the authorities would have you believe). I was there because so many terrorist Christian preachers who had bought into Satanic lies about absolute obedience to a terrorist state. I was there because of the government’s lies (per Li Peng) that stability was the best building block for reform. I was there because some Hong Kong Christian leaders now talk like Li Peng and are committing verbal terrorism. After twenty four years, China remains one of the most oppressive regimes of history. Not a damn thing has changed, other than more money resulting in more corruption and oppression. I was there because there’re people who actually bought into the lie about stability. Someone even said, “If China didn’t crack down on the students, it would never be as strong as it is today.” I wasn’t there because I was born in Hong Kong. I was there because I’m human… It’s natural for humans to stand up for other innocent human beings.
Someone finally noticed my new-found friend’s candle was still unlit. He came over and lit his candle. We now had one lit candle between the both of us. My job was to keep the candle from going out. We were a team.
Besides being soaked to the bones, the man who shared my umbrella and I were very much alike. As a team, we stood against something, and we stood for something. We never had a conversation, but we had an understanding. We’re here not just as MANY but also as ONE. As the crowd dispersed, he turned to me shyly and said, “Thanks for sharing.” I said firmly, “Any time! No problem. All the best to you, man.” This night, we’re the same. He’s my brother.
NB: I borrowed the banner from a good friend and translated it while adding English subtitle. Never forget!
On the week of commemorating Tienanmen Square massacre on June 4th, 1989, we must think about liberation. I don’t have much to say about June 4th that people who are much better qualified haven’t already spoken. The bodies flattened by tanks (literally flat) are still fresh in my memory. As a biblical studies specialist, I may have something of broad relevance. The relevance came by the way of an advertisement I saw recently.
Recently, I’ve seen a new series by a reputable publisher that started a new series on contextual reading of the Bible. The advertisement causes me to pause long enough to disrupt my Right Texts, Wrong Meanings series. One description of a book caught my eyes. More importantly, this description made me think. It describes the book as “These essays de-center the often homogeneous first-world orientation of much biblical scholarship and open up new possibilities for discovery.” Of course, the “first-world” technically means that the location was under US (and western) control while the “second-world” was under the USSR. The “third-world” is contested territories. Now that the second-world has collapsed with the breaking up of the USSR, we have only two worlds left: the first and the third.
Upon further review of the authors, I notice one of the editors to be Asian-descent but is now teaching in the US. The Asian country from which he immigrated is far from third-world (in the pejorative popular usage of the term “third-world” by “humanitarians”). In fact, it is a much more thriving country than the US at the moment. Even as a developed world, US may even be less developed than some of the formerly third-world countries. These countries now become the “more developed” world. So, how is his position non-first-world? I should call his world the “hyper-first-world” (at least “developed world”) based on what I know about that country, but then his teaching in the US causes him to be a hybrid of sorts with perhaps the label Asian American. Thus, his perspective should not be considered non-first-world at all. It wold be hard for him to demonstrate 1) he was under poverty and oppression 2) he is now highly influenced by that experience. To call his perspective third-world is to categorize everything “occidental” to be first world (and “modern,” “advanced,” … “better”). Even with intentionality of trying to yield to a broader perspective, this series creates a description that smacks of the pitfall it is trying to avoid.
A friend of mine (aka the blog name Chinglican) and I have been conversing about how it is possible to be an evangelical with liberationist tendency in many parts of the world but not so much the US. In the US, the “liberationist” is the “other”, a liberal, a nut case and most likely a commie. Not so other parts of the world. Why is this? I think we should relabel everything. How about calling the western US reading of the text, a capitalist reading? The fact is, an interpreter can be an evangelical reader of the text without sacrificing cultural context. Sure, grammar and syntax as well as historical backgrounds are important. I believe that. But after that, so what?
What we have is the occidental blind spot. What do I mean by that? It is terribly easy to label the “other” this or that category without being quite aware of one’s social location when reading the Bible. This is a fact! If we look at the “first world” and “third world” labels, we would find that such geographical terminologies to be divided by the Global North and Global South, with the underprivileged being the Global South (aka the “third world”). My friend who’s almost done with his PhD, Mr. Chinglican, gladly informed me that such terminologies reflect a time when global wealth was distributed based on colonial power. This outdated historical fact no longer holds true. The world has moved on, especially in economical and intellectual terms. The sooner we wrestle with this fact, the better reader we will become of the Bible, not in terms of its original message but in terms of the relevance of the original message for today’s world. We should also wrestle with how others read the Bible who according to historical past were the “other” but are no longer so. Without first properly and accurately applying a label (even a negative label) to our own social location in light of the “other” (well, what we consider the “other” though the “other” may consider us the “other”), we continue to favor our own version of truth to be the whole truth.
I do not think we have deconstruct all the old labels thoroughly enough. At least a lot of labels, based on colonial (and antiquated) social-economic geographical terms, are no longer adequate if not outright misleading. Purely from social-economic and intellectual development, the colonial dichotomy between first world and third world isn’t always going to work. Having taught in Hong Kong for almost three years and being active in many contexts over there, I can no longer read the text the same way. Am I third-world? Well, Hong Kong is not third-world. Although it was still a British colony, its social-economic condition was already first-world even when I first immigrated some forty years ago. Its present subway system is more efficient and cleaner than any of the ones I’ve seen in the US. No, I did not work in a third-world mission field. Hong Kong is a developed world. By all accounts, I worked in a first-world academic post dealing with a different set of political and social challenges than the US.
Due to my contextual concerns, I do not think I can ever apply the Bible the same again the way I did in the US. Some might see some liberationist tendency, but that is just my own contextual application of the gospel with no deliberate leaning towards liberationist hermeneutics. Most people who know me still consider me evangelical, though I even have trouble with that label “evangelical.” How do I mix the liberationist and evangelical together? I never try. It just happens when the biblical world and my world collide Beautiful fireworks happen when the two worlds collide.
In my own experience and reflection of the false labels (I can name so many examples), I think we need to start thinking about our own reading context in light of other people’s reading context. Sure, there’ll always be haters saying stuff like, “Oh, he really isn’t Reformed enough. He is a liberationist. He must be liberal then because we know that all liberationists are liberals.” I used to worry about how people would label me but I realize in the last decade or so that such haters will always exist because the majority of the people in our world do not know how to walk in the shoes of the others (and I don’t use the word “others” pejoratively here).
Contrary to the impression of this post, I’m not trying to advocate for more politically correct vocabulary here. My plea is grander. The fact is, many in the US are too comfortable where their biggest problem may be whether Obamacare would take a bit of their earnings away while people are getting killed, imprisoned and oppressed not just in “third-world” societies but even in developed places. Then, I just brought up the political dimension. My context here then isn’t about economics then but has a political aspect because certain environments call for a political reading. Politically speaking, economically developed countries that appear stable are not necessarily stable at all. In other words, the old labels tell me nothing about the interpreter’s perspective or context or experience. Being aware of our interpretive location also demands that we understand the locations of others. This is why we must surge ahead and do better for the sake of the gospel.
I think we’re facing challenging times in the globalized culture. Paradigms shift faster and faster. We’re being challenged to revamp or even discard all our labels. Navigating in this murky water will be risky but navigate we must or our blind spots will become our entire vision. It is no longer (it never was) adequate to label anything that does not fit our comfort zone of old labels. Everyone reads the biblical texts with his or her lenses. Everyone interpreting other readings also interpret those lenses through our own personal lenses. Our reading of other readings and other lenses determine whether we reach true understanding of what “others” are saying.
Liberationist or not, never forget June 4th, 1989.