Sometimes, a broken power pole is just a broken power pole

A while back, A tornado just ripped through Oklahoma, killing one and injuring many others.   At least 1100 insured homes were damaged.  Since I had gone to the university there, I was quite concerned.  My university roommate and one of my best friends still lives there.  He was fine.

 

What struck me about this storm was one photo that got passed around that says “God is with us” with a snapped power pole hanging off some power lines that looks like a cross.  It never fails to amaze me how Christians are able to spiritualize every little sign that may resemble some object in the Bible.  This time, the cross got the call.  To the world, we just look completely silly, but somehow within church walls, it’s all OK.

 

Many Christians have mistaken fiction for facts when it comes to letting our faith saturate every part of our lives.  When it comes to a living faith, I don’t believe God is calling for us to see sacred objects and superstitious signs everywhere.  How do we know that power pole was a reminder by God that He’s with us?  Do we honestly need that kind of reminder?  The best reminder often isn’t some crazy pronouncement right after such a disaster.  Neither should we be pontificating on the question “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  The best way to make the faith a living faith is to practice our faith everyday.  In such a situation as the Oklahoma storm, perhaps the best way is to donate, or to send a mission team to help rebuild or to help a neighbor with a fell tree.  Superstition and subjective pronouncement does nothing for our faith.

 

Sometimes, a broken power pole isn’t the cross or a reminder that God is with us. Sometimes, it’s just a broken piece of wood.

Readiness or Laziness

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“I’m astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel …” Galatians 1.6

 

My PhD is in Galatians. I haven’t written about it for a long time. I ought to get back to writing something on it in the near future.  Quite a while back, a church was trying to invite an academic to be a speaker for a special weekend conference.  The church has had some history. In fact, it is one of the older churches in the town.  As a subordinate made suggestion for this speaker, the more senior leadership said that they didn’t think the church is mature enough to take such intellectual vigor.  This whole scenario probably occurs more often than everyone realizes.

 

Readiness is something quite tricky. When exactly is the believer ready to tackle hard questions of faith? When is the believer ready for some real meat?  I believe it all boils down to philosophy of what we can expect from the church.  Some people these days even propose that we really don’t need anything like this. All we need is something practical, “grounded”, and adhere to tradition. The problem is, “What is that tradition?” I used to work with youth a long time ago, after I first graduated from seminary.  Most youth groups are just programs to babysit teens.  The fun factor is the focal point.  I even saw one advert that says, “Lots of fun and some Jesus.”  When will the young people be ready for hard studies.  I suppose many leaders expect them to just “get it.”  The fact is, most teens never “got it.” They go to the university, drift away from church and never come back.  Some eventually “got it” and wondered why they didn’t get it in their youth groups.  A normal and healthy upbringing for any family is to prepare children to grow up. A normal and healthy youth group prepares the teens to face adulthood, and adulthood is not always pretty or fun; adulthood is tough.  In the same way, what is the church for?  A standard answer is that it is a place that builds up believers to grow into adulthood.  Will a lot of fun and some Jesus do the trick?  I doubt it.  Believers will NEVER be ready if they aren’t challenged.

 

Paul’s letter to the Galatians above expects the Galatians whom he left for a short while to have the ability to distinguish one kind of knowledge from another kind. Paul expected intellectual vigor in new converts.  I suspect Paul taught with intellectual vigor when he first conducted his mission.  How far off we are today in our churches in the way we approach faith?   We certainly talk about readiness. The fact is, people are never fully ready to become adults.  Many adults have the EQ of a teen (or below). That’s why we have so many relational problems.  In the same way, the spiritual journey of the Christian should start with strong intellectual nutrition.  No way should we use “readiness” as the excuse for laziness.  I propose that we don’t waste young believers’ time (and also that of the older believer) by teaching the fluff.  I propose that our church should be the hotbed for creating mature believers right off the bat.  This goes for our preaching and our Christian education program. I believe many churches need an overhaul, but the most important overhaul doesn’t come from the program level; it should come from the ideological level.  If more of us think like Paul and have higher expectations for our churches, we won’t be in the mess that we’re in now.

Breaking the Bondage of Entitlement

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“To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” 1 Corinthians 9:20-22, apostle Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians
As my family and I moved into our Paris apartment, our departing guests from North America informed us that the place lacks good curtains, and the bathroom definitely need an upgrade, but they added, “Although we aren’t used to this, you’ll have fun in Paris.” Right!

 

 

I travel a lot. Generally, two types of travelers annoy the locals the most: Mainland Chinese and North Americans. I’m going to talk a bit about traveling in Europe in this blog.

 

 

When the two annoying groups travel, these are the stereotypical ways they fail to respect and appreciate local customs and history. Here’re some tips to help blend in so that when we’re not the sore thumb that stand out among tourists.

 

 

First, don’t talk loudly in your own tongue. One of the most annoying thing is to listen to my fellow Americans give uninformed opinions about local customs. In one particular instance, I heard a trainload of Americans chanting “USA, USA, USA” as they passed the Statue of Liberty, probably not knowing that the giant statue sitting in NYC harbor was actually a gift of friendship from the French who have always been a good ally to the US. The chant was one of those moments that I felt the immense shame of being American. I notice that in most relatively classy places, it’s best to lean over to talk to your dining buddies instead of carrying on in English in the normal tone simply because hearing another tongue is annoying for locals. I was having tea in Le Train Bleu. I notice even the locals lean forward to talk just out of courtesy to the other diners. A toned down volume is the best way to go in public places anywhere.

 

 

Second, learn to speak some local language. If you can’t, at least try not to butcher its pronunciation. When we land in a place, we should at least know how to ask someone in the local language, “Do you speak English?” I find that most people are very friendly, to a fault, AS LONG AS WE ASK HUMBLY. A lot of Americans just go right up to people and start speaking English. I find that a lot of countries I visit, the locals speak some English. Many actually speak excellent English, almost without any accent (e.g. some Germans and French). I don’t patronize them by saying, “Oh, you speak such good English.” I just speak normally or maybe slow down a tad just knowing that they aren’t native speakers but please, stop butchering the local language. They show enough respect to speak to us in English, the least we can do is to try to speak their language. Sometimes, knowing that we’ve made the best effort would earn local good will. And for goodness’ sake, “thank you” in French is pronounced “meahk-see” not “mercy”. “Thank you” in Italian is “glot-zee” not “graaaacee.” Mercy me! Goodness gracious. In Spain, their “c’s” are like “th’s” if it’s between letters. For example, “garcias” (the Spanish word for “thanks”) is pronounced “gra-the-as” in Spain. This is different from the Mexican pronunciation of “gracias” with more of an “s” sound.

 

 

Third, learn to dress appropriately. This is a big beef with me. Most who can afford to holiday in Europe can afford to dress appropriately. We can always spot Americans because they’re hands down, the worst dressed tourists of the bunch. Typically, we dress in lousy Nike t-shirts that don’t match our equally lousy basketball shorts along with our odd looking sneakers (what the British call “trainers”). We then expect all the places to be casual. Usually, we stand out like TWO sore thumbs. In most establishments, people simply don’t dine in tank tops and t-shirts and sneakers. Rather, people dress in some kind of suit jackets or dressed shoes. Smart casual is the rule. It’s best to be overdressed than underdressed. No matter how bad off we are financially, if we can holiday in Europe or in many places in Asia like Hong Kong or Tokyo, we can at least afford to keep ONE pair of well cared for dressed shoes (as my buddy Keith the fashionista remarks).

 

 

Third, don’t expect others to take on our lifestyle. Every culture has expectations. In the US, restaurants have waiters that want to rush you in and out quickly. They want to earn money because time is money. Not so in Europe. In Europe, waiters give customers plenty of time to order. So, we have to adjust for more time to eat. Supper is serious business with Europeans. They don’t rush it. They dress up to meet with friends as an important social occasion. They don’t just get together to stuff their faces with high calorie junk they serve up in American restaurants. If we’re in a rush, we shouldn’t expect the locals to be in a rush also. They don’t have bad customer service. They just work at a different pace and define “service” differently because the locals value sitting down over a meal more than most Americans. There’re pluses in adjusting because waiters in France don’t come by to ask that intrusive question just to ask, “How’s your food?” In the US, that’s extremely annoying because we all know that the waiter doesn’t give a rip about how the food is. The US waiters often ask that question before we even dig into the first piece of the main course just to get that question out of the way. Not so in Europe. When they come by to ask, it’s usually after we’ve had a few bites. They notice details like that. Once again, different cultures, different expectations. We adjust to theirs. We shouldn’t expect them to adjust to ours.

 

 

Fourth, learn to listen and research local customs. Even admit we know nothing! “Back in China, we …” “Back in the US, we …” are two of the most annoying phrases I hear. Please, if you want to go back to China or the US so much, don’t come over. It’s imperative to research local customs. If we don’t know, instead of saying what we think, asking a question may be the best way to go. Say something like, “I notice you … can you explain why?” instead of “These people call appetizer entrée. It’s so confusing …” Say “What’re the in-season fashion colors” instead of saying, “These people dress funny.” How can we say OTHERS dress funny when Paris, Rome, Milan, Hong Kong, and Tokyo are the fashion capitals of the world? To them, WE dress funny (if funny dressing has any humorous at all). One big custom adjustment we have to make is the rhythm for dining in culture. In continental Europe, dinner is very late. Hardly any restaurant is open at 5 pm. People might also have later lunch. The rhythm is just different. Assume nothing unless you’ve researched the local customs. We should adjust to their vocabulary and customs. We shouldn’t expect them to adjust to ours.

 

 

Fifth, be friendly but not stupid friendly. One special characteristic of Americans is the “smile”. I’m not talking about the slightly shy smiley “bonjour” I say to my neighbors every morning. I’m talking about the stupid oh-look-I-found-my-puppy grin followed by “Hey, hello, how’re YOU doing?” Different cultures have different verbal space with strangers. Our superficial “How are you doing?” just doesn’t work with strangers in a different country. Honestly, how often do we even ask that to fellow Americans without caring how they’re doing? If you don’t believe me, try this. Next time, someone asks you how you’re doing, as a rule, say, “I’m doing really bad.” See what happens. We do theatrical friendliness as conversational fillers. Even our grin is often a non-verbal filler. Fillers don’t work for many cultures. Look for verbal and non-verbal cues that work. Observe, and turn off that crazy grin.

 

 

I think in order to travel well, we need to have this “off button” for our Americanism. We need to turn down our culture much more and that’s just basic courtesy. Tart tartare is better than humble pie any day. How does this relate to Christians?

 

 

One of the most influential Christian is the apostle Paul. Paul’s greatness came from his ability to adapt. He could blend into local culture even as a Jew (even without losing his Jewish distinctions). That’s why he had such a positive influence in the world. Many Christians can learn so much from Paul when traveling. Many Americans can learn so much from Paul. Paul was an ambassador for the gospel. He knew that in order to represent properly his gospel, he had to adapt to local cultures. In order to represent the gospel or our country, we too need to know when to push the “off” button on our own culture. Paul had a goal in mind, and that goal caused him to have flexible perspectives. With flexible perspectives, we buy ourselves potentials to have positive influence, sometimes even for the sake of the gospel.

 

 

As I moved into my apartment, I found out that the curtains were indeed a tad old, but the view off the street is spectacular (okay, I’m an urbanite. I love street views). Although our hot water tank didn’t work perfectly, our hostess was gracious in providing us immediate help for early move-in and for when we locked ourselves out of our flat. We also live in an area where we can access relatively affordable but excellent food. We can look at the beautiful architecture just outside our window knowing that our building is probably as old as the United States. These are things a perfectly new curtain can’t buy. Once again, everything is a matter of perspective.

The “Evangelical” Clique as Enemy of Truth

“One of you says, ‘I follow Paul': another, ‘I follow Apollos'; another, ‘I follow Cephas”; still another, ‘I follow Christ.” 1 Corinthians 1.12 (NIV)

 

Most would find my title off-putting.  Before you launch missiles and stones, read on.  A friend made a comment on Facebook after he heard a lecture from an evangelical professor about how scriptures are formed before they were canonized and how the formation and creation of those texts have meanings before the canonized scripture assigns some kind of churchly secondary meaning to these texts.  Straight forward enough! In fact, I’ve said this for years and in more recent years, I’ve built my reading of Paul off such a common fact.  These are really elementary principles.  So, jokingly, I asked, “How come they don’t accuse him of being an anti-Reformed heretic? I’ve been saying the same thing for years especially in my new construct of Paul.”  The answer from my friend is telling, “That’s because you don’t have the evangelical umbrella to protect you.”  Apparently, seeking and telling of truth aren’t enough.  We need an umbrella from the stormy fallout.  If I didn’t know better, I’d think we’re talking about a Mafia protection racket in the neighborhood in collecting protection money.

 

The above exchange really sums up the evangelical woes for recent years.  We’ve formed a clique that goes by certain party lines under the guise of ideology (notice I didn’t say “theology”. Go ahead, google and note the difference), whether it is five-point Calvinism or an antiquated model of inerrancy.  So long as we hang around with the right people saying the right spiritual jargons, we won’t be scrutinized. We have all become cliquish ideologues.  Truth telling becomes a celebration party of our cliques.  We love to party but we only party by the ideologies we set up.  Our party line becomes our ideology and then we read all reality with that ideology.  What if the ideology is inadequate?  When faced with that question, most would just shake their heads and walk away.  I think the problem with the above exchange is in the metaphor of protective umbrella.

 

Why do Christian truth tellers need a protective umbrella?  It is because the forces around us, even in the faith community circle, is polemical.  The question we need to ask is “Protection from whom?”  Usually, people go with the idea of “protection from what?” The usual answer is “Protection from heresies.”  The problem with a singular lens of viewing Christian spirituality and intellect isn’t that it’s wrong.  It’s just inadequate.  Faith isn’t all about a battle.  Faith isn’t all about the danger of the unknown. Faith, least of all, isn’t about fear, but we have plenty of fear.  The very reason why we need protection (either from “whom” or from “what”) is because we fear that we have no category to navigate life. We fear that we don’t have all the answers. So, we form protective gangs the way new immigrants form protective gangs in Chinatown or Little Italy etc.  We create a holy huddle from our fear. Soon enough, our ideology that we use to envelope us makes all of us ideologues.  Evangelicals read non-evangelicals (both Protestants and Catholics) using their own ideology instead of trying to see things from the perspective of others.  We become ideologues.

 

Once we become ideologues, our intellectual honesty will die a quick death.  Now, the problem of being ideologues isn’t limited to evangelical circles.  It can occurs in all walks of life.  What I find interesting is that we aren’t just trying to use our ideology to protect ourselves.  We find other ideologues to form our holy huddle to create terrorizing gangs against those who don’t want to be ideologues. I question all ideologues.  I don’t believe in umbrellas because I don’t always think that life is always a storm.  The very fact the ideologue needs an umbrella shows that he is insecure about his truth.  The fact he needs an ideological umbrella is not so much to be protected from the storm of the outside, but from the storm created by the illusion of his fellow Evangelicals that somehow that’s a storm.  For the man with the umbrella, everything looks like a storm. Yet, the same man often fails to ask, “Where is the storm from?”

 

In Chinatown, the recent influx of mainland Chinese immigrants create new social challenges for the old Chinatown crowd.  Many came from other provinces other than Canton.  These immigrants are low-level workers. Many are upstanding people living under less than ideal circumstances.  Some have form cliques and groups that come in form of gangs.  The new gangs are a headache because they don’t really provide protection from the white men or black men around Chinatowns all over the US.  They provide “protection” from their own kind. The protection money is what people pay to their own kinds who created the problem to begin with.  The threat is, “If we don’t get money from you, we can’t guarantee that ‘someone’ won’t burn down your store.”  That “someone” is often a thug INSIDE the gang.  THIS is the reflection of the evangelical protection umbrella.  We often create illusion that the threat is from the outside (and sometimes, we aren’t wrong), but many times, the threat is within our ranks.  Our holy huddle has become one big ghetto of our own Chinatown. When we start making faith a battle all the time, our imagery and politics will look more and more like the Mafia’s racketeering schemes rather than the vibrant resurrection faith we believe.  That’s the tragedy of our time.

 

If I were to rename this blog post, I would call it “truth murdered by the ideologue”, but someone surely would accuse me of being unloving.  At the end of the day, when telling the truth requires protection from ideologues, truth dies on the altar of an ideology.  Ideology isn’t the truth. It’s a caricature of half-truths, and that’s the pity of our faith community.

 

To qualify all of the above statements, I still believe in a lot of what evangelicals hold dear, but that’s besides the point. The very fact I have to write that qualifying statement in shows how far off we are from seeking the truth without an ideology.  One question remains, Since when did the Body of Christ operate like organized criminals? As far as truth is concerned, the ideologue has murdered it.

Missed Opportunities in the Safety Zone: Fake reform in Hong Kong

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The last two days feature one event that shapes my world, the world where I do most of my academic and ministerial work. I’m talking about the mysterious walkout by pro-China legislators in HK in a vote for a fake reform orchestrated by them that was to be voted down. I say “fake reform” because it was something that would allow people to vote ONLY Beijing-approved candidates instead of a free election as proposed before. To save their own blushes, these pro-communist legislators walked out of the legislature building instead of voting, suffering a landslide defeat. Mockery reigned for the moment, as China lost face. Some Christians even call this a miracle, an act of God.

 

Quite ironically, the eve before the vote, the three major Christian denominations, the Baptist, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, and the Evangelical Free Churches, to which some of the pro-communist Christian legislators belong (yes, some of those pro-communist politicians are self-professed Christians), held a joint public lecture to address the politics mostly of the church about how to be harmonious with a little spillover rehash of separation of church and state. Most of the lecturers avoided a direct confrontation with the present political situation. Instead, they would talk about the need of peaceful solution. Okay I must admit Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi had already spoken on this.  No one needs to read the Bible to get that picture. Furthermore,  they distract by using red herrings by going conceptual instead of practical and by pointing to the past instead of dealing the present. They would talk insipidly about separation of the church and state, but not even in the right way because that whole phrase ironically was used originally in the US within the period when Thomas Jefferson was trying to give the baptists dignity and freedom to practice their religion. If we appeal to the concept, we should at least get our history right. Then, someone said that we should be certain that the Tiananmen massacre on June 4th, 1989, was definitely wrong. That’s like saying that the Holocaust was wrong.  Everyone knows that. Tell us something we don’t know! All these people did was an appeal to the vapidly safe option. Sometimes the church just needs to spell stuff out straight, like “This reform is a lie” instead of beating around the bush about church and state relations and other mind-numbing niceties. To call a lie a half truth is lying. To call a lie a matter of separation of church and state is lying. To call a lie something that is anything else is lying.

 

When we look at such a simple discussion by the church, we can’t help but to say that the free churches of HK have been standing on the safe side of the whole democracy debate. Leaders and even theologians skirt the issues instead of attacking them head on. Why? It’s because taking a real stand creates risks.

 

I have one thing to say to this situation. NOT taking a risk also creates risks. There’s no safety. Safety is an illusion. Risky situations are risky whether we take a stand or not. This is what some people fail to understand. Failing to voice out doesn’t just make our silence a political stance. Our failure also puts us at great risks. With such failure to voice out, the free churches of HK have missed an opportunity to witness against an oppressive system. Sure, many would excuse this silence by saying that they have interests and mission in China and that’s why they keep silent. Fine! Have they however thought of the home mission? HK, as a home to these Christians, also is a mission field. We fail our home mission by staying on the safe side of the political debate. We fail human dignity of the students who were abused during the Umbrella Movement. We fail biblical justice when we don’t denounce a government that hires thugs to keep order in the election or protest. Does the Bible have no answer about the problem of human dignity?

 

Jesus said to the disciples, “You will be my witness in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria” in Acts 1.8. Being a witness in Acts had never been about keeping silent. Being a witness was about speaking into a real situation on the ground via the gospel of Jesus Christ. Silence is risky because it reeks of cowardice and ignorance. Silence is risky most of all because it violates the very nature of being a witness. Silence creates missed opportunity. Silence doesn’t create safety. It creates the illusion of safety. In this debacle, no one is safe. The perfect opportunity to tackle a situation head-on had passed in the luke-warm discussion the night before the vote. At the moment, many of the representative speakers of the three denominations look more like the German Church leaders during WWII than Barth or Bonhoeffer. Now that the vote had gone the way of democratic advocates, many celebrate, but these free churches should mourn instead because they had very little part in the discussion leading up to the vote. They don’t deserve to celebrate! The only question left for them would be, “How many more opportunities will we miss before the church becomes completely irrelevant to our world?”

 

For Christians to appeal to this event as a miracle, the event has to have enough church involvement whether in prayer or social action. The problem isn’t whether God is working in THIS or THAT event. God’s always working, though we probably don’t know what He’s doing up there. The problem isn’t God working or not or whether this can be deemed a miracle.  The problem is whether the church has done much leading up to this miraculous event. More important, the problem is whether Christians, especially Christian leaders, have been involved either by voice or by prayer or by action before all this took place. Some did, but many didn’t. Some were riding the fence so hard that I worry about their trousers.

 

Silence can’t save us all. In fact, silence in this case just destroyed us all because silence is equally risky. We shall not be silenced.

Tiananmen Massacre, June 4th Vigil and Imprecatory Psalms

This year’s June 4th vigil for the massacre of innocent students and medical personnel, the bloodiest and most unjust Chinese government action against its own people since the Cultural Revolution, has come and gone without a hitch.  The worst thing that happened was a burning of the Basic Law papers at the commemoration.

 

 

The event has evolved a little from the original purpose of the event.  Originally, it’s purely a call for justice for all the victims and their families.  It has since become a politically driven event with the mention of all sorts of misdeeds of the HK government. I continue to go to the Victoria Park even though I know there’re people with agenda there because I mostly support the agenda, but more importantly, because I don’t want to split off so easily from this big event into the splinter groups. I don’t condemn the splinter groups. I just feel that at this point, I can still go to the Victoria Park just to be in solidarity with local causes about social justice issues.

 

 

The most harrowing part of the vigil is the continuous videos of many of the victim’s families telling of continuous governmental harassment and even torture against them, even though such a horrible event happened twenty six years ago. China is a little child who is afraid of its own shadows.  Even unarmed citizens with good intentions can’t escape unscathed.  If this trend continues, the West has nothing to fear from this little big country (i.e., little in mentality, big in population and land mass). The next most harrowing part of the program is the recitation of the aftermath for the thirty seven families that stood up against the government because they lost loved ones.  Some were crippled. Others were imprisoned. Still others were/are tortured. Still, they can’t be silenced. The courage of such freedom fighters ought to encourage those of us in the West not to take our freedom for granted.  Freedom and human dignity aren’t simple pleasures until we lose them.

 

 

The final impression I had was the number of barricades being prepared for the event. By now, we must realize that most HK citizens are (overly) gentle souls. Instead of burning down and tearing stuff up, they clean up the park after the vigil and so on.  I understand that this is the first vigil since the Umbrella Movement, but why be so cautious and treat every one like a criminal. The real criminals are the ones ordering the desecration of crosses and churches.  The REAL criminals launder their money in the West. The REAL criminals wear suits and kill off opponents in the name of anti-corruption movements.  THOSE are the ones we need to fear. Watching this comical tragedy helps me to appreciate what the Psalmist says in Psalm 137.  This is the only appropriate prayer for the occasion.

 

1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
    may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
    my highest joy.

Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
    on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
    “tear it down to its foundations!”
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
    happy is the one who repays you
    according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
    and dashes them against the rocks.

 

May this scripture be fulfilled against the real criminal.  May the just God judge such wickedness.  Amen.

When the PC Train Missed the Stereotyping Track: Eddie Huang and Our Ethnic Discomfort

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Well, Eddie Huang finally did it.  He did it big this time on Twitter.  He did it so big that no less than the //

“You have lots of important things to say, Eddie, and I earnestly want to hear them — but misogyny simply cannot be one of them.”

Posted by Angry Asian Man on Thursday, May 7, 2015

“>Angry Asian Man had denounced his rap-like misogynistic language.  An article written by an Asian feminist graciously criticizes Eddie, and Asian rejoinders are dime a dozen.  Here’re some of Eddie’s offenses, according to his critics.

 

 

1) His overtly sexualized names for dishes in his restaurant raise plenty of eyebrows because they don’t only objectify women but also stereotype Asian American women.

 

 

2) He refers to black women as less desirable in the same way the stereotypical emasculated Asian males are undesirable.

 

 

3) He jests with several black feminists on Twitter who took exception to his alleged portrait of the undesirable black women.  He does so by asking them out (in jest of course).

 

 

I’m going to read Eddie as an exegete via rhetorical criticism.  Don’t let my fancy term scare you. What I mean is this. I’m going to look at Eddie not only as a person but his text (his book, his conversations, and his twitter) as a rhetorical device not just to see what he said, but to see what he did with what he said.

 

 

I suggest that many of my Asian American critics aren’t reading Eddie correctly.  I’m not saying this as an apologist of Eddie. I don’t know him. I’ve voiced my dissatisfaction and praise for the show FOTB in equal measure in the past blogs.  I just want to look at the recent controversy by exegeting what Eddie said simply because I exegete texts for my academic vocation. I read (not just biblical texts but non-biblical texts also) and write for a living. I also exegete people in my former ministerial vocation. Interpretation is important. This present post is an exercise in interpretation. Interpretations have implications for our ethics as Asian Americans, especially Christian Asian Americans.

 

 

I think we need to now look at Eddie from a Christian’s point of view (any non-Christian, you can look at him from a different point of view).  I want to look at him beyond his symbolic role as a person and how his rhetoric reflects that person.  We often mistakenly read public figures only in terms of their ideologies or what they represent to US instead of seeing the whole picture of how they represent themselves (via various posts and books written by such figures).

 

 

Now, I have no problem saying that Eddie’s rap personality is a bit bigger than life, and there’re times when his rhetoric crosses the line in rocking the boat. I’m not at all in favor of misogynistic language in either music or in our daily conversation (especially in our Chinese food menu’s).  I appreciate the concern of all those who lovingly or not so lovingly admonish Eddie’s vocabulary usage.  However, in this blog, I want to step back just a tiny bit to look at this whole outcry from a bigger picture. I’m going to look at this from only one way of how Asians react to this situation.

 

 

A question intrigues me.  Why are so many Asians so eager to distance themselves from Eddie in the fallout from his recent social media faux pas, besides not wanting to appear misogynistic and racist?   Eddie simply doesn’t fit. He uses hyperbole and sarcasm.  He uses over-the-top exaggerations in order to make his point.   Here’s the problem.  Many Asians aren’t comfortable with this kind of crazy usage of language. Instead, they read him literally (I mean, read him only one way).

 

 

Many who criticize him surely are well meaning. At the same time, Eddie’s hyper masculine persona doesn’t blend well with our perceived (and sometimes self-imposed) hypo masculinity.  Eddie is no girly man!  He’s wilding (to use his vocabulary) all the time.  Sure, he overstated his case many times over. Let’s face it, Asians don’t use hip hop language because we sure play real nice. We are, after all, a model minority. A model minority doesn’t incite; we harmonize.   Let’s interpret Eddie just a little bit though, not so much on what he says, but how he says it. He compares undesirable Asian males to the stereotypical undesirable black women.  What many miss is his irony because he isn’t saying that black women aren’t desirable.  He’s making a comparison between two stereotypes (i.e., the desirable black woman and the even less desirable Asian girly men).  Was his representation of black women and Asian men accurate? No, I think Alicia Keys and Halle Berry etc. are very attractive (well, okay, I think my wife is MORE attractive).

 

 

Whether you think Asian men are attractive, ladies, is up to you. I can’t comment on that. Was his representation of black women and Asian mane stereotype accurate? Absolutely! Just look at how many leading black women and Asian male are in Hollywood romantic drama in comparison to the predominantly white list of leading roles. Case closed! We hate being the perpetual foreigners and being strangers from a foreign shore. The bamboo ceiling in Hollywood is really low.  Eddie just points that out using the most outrageous (but definitely true) rhetoric, and that brings horrible discomfort to our cultural wound.

 

 

Granted, Eddie’s analogy is unfortunate because it is made at the expense of black woman stereotype (but not necessarily black women themselves), but he does so to move the conversation along on stereotyping. What Eddie is saying however isn’t that the stereotype is good. He seems to be saying the opposite, that the stereotype is bad.  His very jest of asking those black feminists out signals to me that he doesn’t find black women unattractive per se, but I think the irony is lost in cyber space knee jerk blog sphere. Why else would anyone ask someone else for a date unless that person feels that someone belongs to an attractive group rather than an unattractive group?

 

 

A more serious issue still is Eddie’s ambiguous role as the Asian American representative. The critic who calls Eddie out in a blog points to Eddie’s enjoyment of seeing himself as a representative of Asian Americans while saying that he really can’t speak for all of us. Well, does he represent all of us or not? I saw the Bill Mahr show on which Eddie made those remarks. He seems to be saying, “You make me some kind of representative and I enjoy that, but I really don’t speak for all Asian Americans.”  Fair enough.  We MAKE Eddie into this ideal and we want our unwilling Eddie to stay at that ideal, but Eddie is just being his sarcastic self. He’s the wilding Eddie. He isn’t just an angry Asian dude; he’s a wilding Asian dude. He’s the Asian hip-hop dude!   To get a fuller picture of Eddie, we should read his book carefully. The Eddie of the book, the relative real Eddie (at least on paper), is quite different from our ideal.  When Eddie complained that the show didn’t represent his life fairly and that there were some family problems, many Asians automatically pointed to the issue Eddie with his parents (the word “abusive” came up several times).

 

 

Many AA’s have a love-hate relationship with their family, especially with the first generation immigrant parents. Whether Eddie’s parents were problematic parents is quite a different issue, but many second generation clearly want to read their own experience into Eddie’s complex family relationship.  Sure, there were some first generation and second generation tension in the book. Eddie’s dad’s real old school and didn’t hesitate to put the fear of authority into Eddie when Eddie stepped out of line.  But there were also happy moments when Eddie was incredibly proud of his dad for being the guy who had swag and proud of his mom for being intelligent and strong in her own immigrant parenting experience. Parenting is a complex thing.  So is the Asian family. Yet, many second generation AA’s focus on the negatives. Why? We love to stereotype our parents (who obviously lack understanding of the “American” culture which we love so much) because sometimes such a move is therapeutic. The only problem is, Eddie’s memoir isn’t simplistic. Neither is it a caricature or a stereotype. It has more flesh than the bony sound bite popular media allows Eddie.  Most who haven’t read the entire memoir shouldn’t really go into judging Eddie’s parents so that they can feel better about themselves.  An autobiography isn’t the best therapy tool.

 

 

IF we say that Eddie doesn’t represent us, why do we get on his case like he does? IF we say that Eddie represents us, aren’t we going against the whole idea of “we don’t want the model minority stereotype”? Perhaps, in making him represent us originally, he has brought us “shame” (well, shame is such a sensitive and important concept in Asian America). Eddie sure broke the model minority mode.  We get on his case because we can’t have Eddie representing us and say these things. Because the FOTB show somehow represents our very best effort at prime time TV, we need to get on the case of Eddie who inspired the show. We only have a slight problem.  Eddie clearly doesn’t want to represent us Asians.  In fact, we have two problems.  We can’t hang on to our anti-model-minority cause while forcing our unwilling representative Eddie to conform to the model minority stereotype.  What do we want?  Clearly, we can’t have your cake and eat it too.  We can’t make Eddie represent us when he fits our model minority mode, but when he doesn’t or when he fails our model minority stereotype, we throw him under the bus. The problem is that in the Asian culture, representative politics are deeply ingrained. How many times do we grow up hearing our elders telling us that our self-identity is in our 5000 years of history?  Probably more times than we care to admit.

 

 

As human beings, we often see things in terms of ideologies.  We see wars between one ideology against another.  We see the black versus the white in conflicts.  Life is full of grey however.  Human factor often cause this shade of grey.  Rhetorical moves are greyer still. Eddie is going to be what Eddie claims to be.  He doesn’t want to represent us though he loves to use his voice for the causes of racial equality and AA’s.  In seeing this case, we have to understand the importance of treating people as human beings instead of ideologues. People and ideals are two different things.  As Christians, we need to break out of our own racial ideological bubble.  We need to think pastorally.   How do we see things pastorally?  Instead of trying to deny our overseas Asian culture having no impact in our present Asian America, we need to call out when we make those representative political moves. We need to own up to our deeply ingrained cultural knee jerk reactions as uniquely ours.

 

 

In reality, representative politics are dead, but we simply don’t know it. The objections against Eddie come from a very overseas Asian reading of Huang’s work.  Our desperate attempt to be “Americans” can’t save us from our blind spots that originated from our ancestral culture (namely, representation politics).  We need to examine whether such a way of reading reality is healthy or Christian for AA Christians.

 

 

Where does Christianity fit in this whole mess because obviously just radical and self-hating detachment isn’t an option?   A simpler lesson we can gather from Eddie’s recent episode is the way rhetoric works both in our public speaking and in social media. Sarcasm is best served sparingly. Irony is often lost on many who lack the cultural navigation tools. Instead, many can easily misread irony. I know this advice is strange coming from me because I’m a terribly sarcastic person in my public speaking, but I’m working on it.  Some of us who read this blog are preachers. We’re still constrained by our PC culture to avoid certain analogies, however valid or clever the analogies are. This would impact the way we use illustrations and the kind of illustrations we choose. Sarcasm and irony are hard to control. They wild! The wild beast of rhetoric can break out of the cage unexpectedly and the aftermath isn’t worth our cleverness. Once the beast gets out, it’s hard to rein it back in.

More Trouble with Cyberspace (and Blog Sphere)

With the proliferation of cyberspace especially with the blossoming of social media, people tend to think that cyberspace is reality.  The fact is, cyberspace sometimes represents reality but isn’t necessarily reality itself.  Cyberspace often represents different facets of reality, even amplifying one facet over other facets.  One facet that consistently gets amplified is conflict.

 

These days, what starts off a full disclosure of a personal perspective turns into a kind of defensive armor that allows people to say whatever they want with impunity.  One popular tact is, “I’m not an expert of X … So, please don’t fault me for my mistakes.”  Another tact is, “If you don’t like this post, don’t share, but also don’t attack me on here.”  This is indeed a problem because such disclaimers aren’t means to free speech but a violation of it.

 

Certainly, some malicious people misread, misquoted and deliberately misrepresented what they read, and such people should shut up.  With the above tact however, the effect moves far beyond shutting up morons.  They in fact create a kind of micro aggressive linguistic hegemony.  It’s a way of saying, “My opinion is more valid and I’m not interested in hearing yours. Why? Because I said so.”  This kind of passive aggressive rudeness does represent the reality we live in. As a minority in the US, I lost count in how many times I heard the phrase, “I don’t want to sound racist, but …” or “just kidding” after a cheap racist joke.  Such subtle realities are there to remind us all that certain people think they have the right to be complete jerks while you and I are jerks for calling them on bing jerks.  In reality, the real jerks are those who use such full disclosures as defensive weapons against critics.

 

The best representation of the above problem is the issue of body shaming.  Selena Gomez the starlet of pop music is known for posting endless pictures of herself either fully clothed or partially nude (bikini pictures) on social media.  Certainly, the jerks come out in droves to congratulate her for being fat, skinny and everything else in between.  While I’m totally against cyber bullying, I get what’s happening.  Whatever we post on there and the theme about which we post will be viewed by the public.  Whether the public opinions are valid, they will be heard.  We simply can’t police the jerks who bully Selena Gomez.  I suppose the easier way is for her (or anyone else) not to post any body picture unless she’s ready for all sorts of reaction.  The same goes for blogs.  There’s only so much we can do to police our own blog space.  Haters will continue to write nasty things regardless of how much we clearly explain ourselves, and they will do so behind the privacy of their own Facebook settings.

 

What can Christian bloggers do?  Well, we like to think of blogging as being about truth because as Christians, we like to think that we own the truth or that we try our best to talk about the truth.  The fact is,  no matter what truth is spoken, someone else can misread and misunderstand what we write.  At worst, the haters will deliberately misrepresent what we write.  At a certain stage, we’ll have to accept the fact that we aren’t going to please everyone and only some opinions are valid.  We simply can’t occupy our time with answering every single critic for the fear of others accepting their warped views.  The fools will follow other fools.

 

With social media, there’s always good news.  People forget easily.  The viral video or blog today will turn to a faded memory of tomorrow.  We can only do what we can right now and let tomorrow worry about itself.  Surely, we should try to write responsibly, but at a certain stage, responsibility for our own action can only get us so far.  This is the world of social media.

Trouble with Cyberspace (and Blog Sphere)

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I’ve read an article recently that complains about the rise of bloggers, especially those who have many negative things to say about the church.  The article is in Chinese. So, I won’t post it here, but it does remind me of a greater problem in blog sphere in general.

 

Opinion is like our bathrooms.  Everyone has one and sometimes it stinks.  The problem isn’t whether it stinks or not but whether the said opinion is true.  Blogs allows us to have an outlet for our opinions.  As a result, everyone can be a writer these days. So long as we know how to open up a blog via WordPress or other tools, we can become  a writer. We don’t need to publish journal articles and books (both of which I also publish).  The trouble with blogs is sometimes we run out of things to say.  Many bloggers, including academics, merely reblog what other people write because they’ve run out of things to say (I’ve seen this on Patheos quite a lot).

 

Another problem with blogging is that everyone can sound like an expert, even though the definition of “expert” ought to be more stringent.  Many blog about all sorts of things with almost no experience: dating, church leadership, making rockets (OK, I made the last one up).  Not every opinion is legitimate, but every opinion has the potential to SOUND legitimate.

 

Another problem with blogging (as well as with Twitter, Facebook or Instagram) is how easy one can gain exposure and fame (or notoriety).  As a result, I’ve known a few academics who haven’t ever done hardcore research work in their area of supposed expertise but have become quite popular due to blogging. This happens even (perhaps especially) with big and famous primarily white (read, Western) blog portals like Patheos.  In fact, many got invited to speak at churches or many religious settings just from blogging or messing about on social media (no, I’m not jealous.  I’m already pretty full with invites for about one to one and a half years out).  They create “impression” of expertise by social media. These are real scenarios.  The complaint of the article I read is real even though it speaks with a bit too much negativity against blogging.

 

We can learn much about the present phenomenon of blogging.  In relation to the church, I think we often fault our pastors for not keeping preaching fresh and relevant. The fact is, many pastors, like many bloggers, have run out of ideas because ideas are hard to come by.  In order to have fresh ideas, one has to be both intellectually and spiritually rich. Having an opinion and a few good ideas isn’t enough.  Having aspiration to be a blogger isn’t enough.  I sympathize with the pastor who runs out of ideas.  Blogging isn’t easy but at least the blogger can take a break if he wants.  Not so the pastor.  He still has to speak every week.

 

I think the article that criticizes those who criticize the church through blogsphere has legitimacy in that blogging can create “impressions” through opinions. Bloggers should be responsible for what they say.  Impression can be false and lasting.  Sometimes, because of our voluminous output about a problem, we cause many others to have false impressions that this problem is bigger than other problems.  More volume shouldn’t be equal to more truth.

 

As for those who want to get popular via blogsphere, there’s real danger involved.  For example, if we are very self-centered in our approach to life and complain about life, we will draw many “likes” and responses.  These blogs actually expose all those who “like” the blog for who they are.  I saw one example of a single (and often dateless) person who often complain about how modern women are hard to deal with and so on.  This blog draws many “likes” but if we look at both sides, dating problem is rarely single-sided. Relationships are complicated.  I’m sure the problem may not only be from modern women.  Yet, with the writing of the blog, the “likes” expose other similar readers who may be equally self-centered.  Of course, the women readers will further notice which readers belong in this single and dateless category and be cautious in their company.  Similarly, someone pointed out to me a Facebook update of an American lawyer who seeks exposure for her “expertise” on China that she has “lost her virginity” (her literal terms) to Global Times by giving an interview.  I nearly spat out my drink.  The very fact she brags about Global Times, a propaganda news machine published by the Chinese government (in the same vein as People’s Daily) shows how little of an expert she really is.  She will be scrutinized for this move by those in the know and whatever opinions she holds will lose credibility.  To those who are complete ignoramuses on China, she may have just found her place in the sun for 15 minutes of fame.  Opinions have consequences.  Media also have repercussion. Blog sphere and cyberspace can be cruel places.

 

The problem of social media is real as it creates easy opportunity for fame without hard work.  I would advise those in academia not to be tempted by this contrived fame.  This applies especially to the next generation of academics who can blog and write well but often without any hardcore research in their own area in real publications.  The fame will backfire.  No serious intellectual can have longevity while avoiding hard work.  Blogging of course is my hobby. So are Facebook and Instagram. I’m under no illusion that my blogs are all quality writing.  They’re but one way to express my reaction and opinions towards so many things related to Christianity and society.  My real work remains publication with legitimate publishers to benefit serious readers.  I hope people don’t abandon this path in favor of quick fame.  Otherwise, we’re just cheap ambulance chasers.

 

Cyber courage, on top of subjectivity and click baiting, does very little for church and society.

Fresh off the Boat Season Finale: Yuppification through the Country Club

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The episode that marks the end of the season is called “So Chinese.”  It’s an episode about assimilation. Jessica has been invited to join the country club.  This is what we call gentrification.  The funniest line comes from a country club member, “Come on, Louis, this club is classy as hell” followed by “sometimes, I just forget that you guys are Chinese” and “you guys are just regular all Americans to us.”  Yeah!  In an ironic twist, Jessica’s responds to this whole overwhelming situation, “Are we Chinese enough?”  In order to make sure the kids remember their roots, Jessica has started a new rule: everyone will now speak Mandarin at home and take off his shoes.  Once Jessica sees that the country club can potentially cause the Huangs to lose their Chinese identity, she has decided against joining.  On the opposite end, Louis is warming to the idea of joining the country club because of all the business opportunities membership creates.  Inevitably, the tension is between ethnic identity and business opportunities.

 

The word “yuppification” is a perfect description of what’s going on with the Huang’s.  “Yuppies” is an old term describing “young upwardly mobile” types.  It’s a perfect word to describe social mobility of the Huang’s though they might not be THAT young.  They’re moving from working class into being yuppies.  The social mobility of the Huang’s is an interesting study because social mobility means different things to different races.

 

For many white folks, social mobility just means rising income.  For minorities like myself and the Huangs, the racial dimension can’t be dismissed entirely.  The initial unintentionally uncomfortable remark by Jessica’s blonde buddy Honey “you guys are just regular all Americans to us.” In such a qualifying statement, the speaker clearly sees us as the “other” because let’s face it, no one would say that to another white immigrant (e.g. Italian, Irish etc.).  No “fresh white towels and hand-shake deals” will ever diminish that.  In many ways, I can understand Jessica’s trepidation in joining just because of that fact, but joining or not joining doesn’t necessarily change the otherness of being Asian.  The solution, I don’t think is in assimilation or ghettoization.

 

I think many of us who are Asians almost try too hard to assimilate that we just look funny (but not in the slant-eye, dark-hair exotic way).  I think it’s important to know that we aren’t whites. We’ll never assimilate no matter how much we intend to.  Assimilation is a power game of being submissive to a dominate culture that looks down upon us.  Yet, even the assimilated will never been considered “one of them.”  How I’m treated at the customs in various white-dominated countries around the world (e.g. Australia, Canada) on a recent business trip speaks volumes.  Even in my perfectly pressed Hugo Boss suit with matching pocket square from Michael Kors arriving from business class, I got put in a room with the “Chinese” (mostly mainland Chinese) to have my luggage examined because the Chinese are well known to bring in illegal foodstuff.  Never mind I don’t speak with a Chinese accent and I hold a US Passport.  My only trespass is something I can’t change: the color of my skin (or maybe they just don’t like my earring. That’s entirely possible).  Assimilation has very minimal impact on the dominant culture because let’s face it, people don’t change their prejudices very easily.

 

There’s the opposite solution of ghettoization, a term to describe how minorities congregate only “with their own kinds.”  Jessica in the show puts up a Buddha poster to fit the Asian stereotype so that her kids can get a sense of their Asianess.  Louis however says something quite profound, “You know what’s a white thing? Putting up a picture of Buddha.”  Bingo!  After all, Buddhism came not from China but from India, but Jessica’s action is ahistorical.  Her attempt doesn’t take seriously the historical content of her action.  As a result, our ghettoization creates an equally funny look about us.  Our identity is often just another Asian caricature albeit in Asian orientation this time, if we use representative politics of “what typifies an Asian/Chinese/Japanese etc.” In Eddie Huang’s book, he observes that it’s the American-born Asians that are most eager to be Chinese/Japanese/Vietnamese etc.  I find it hilarious that many of my ABC (American-born Chinese) friends love to buy those cheap potteries from Chinatown to decorate their houses in order to show their identity.  It’s simultaneously kitschy and archaic.  Good Chinese pottery doesn’t come from the cheap shop in Chinatown (and yes, I own real and original Chinese classical paintings and I apologize for my snobbishness)!  We aren’t caricatures.

 

The above two extremes of dealing with being a minority makes us equally funny looking in different ways.  What can we do?  It’s best to see our recent past as something that connects us to REAL history (e.g. what about China that actually connects me to her?) and our own narratives (e.g. how have I experienced my own ethnic identity in multicultural America?). Reading history and traveling may connect us to our ethic origin, in the same way some Italians and Irish go back to their ancestral homes to visit relatives in their motherland.  America is a multicultural experiment that makes us all Americans.  Whether people think of us as “Americans” means very little.  We ARE Americans.  Yet, every American has a historical narrative from his or her ancestors that is beyond this young and artificially created multicultural mirage called “America”.  These narratives can fit neatly into the tapestry that is this country.  It’s best to be a hyphenated American because “American” as it is often constructed by the white majority is an idol with clay feet.

 

For all Christians, the relative popularity of the Fresh of the Boat can inform many in the faith community. Although I feel that some of the episodes can be written better, I think the show has the merit to call all believers in faith communities to learn to hear others whose cultures are fascinatingly (and often drastically) different from their own.  The beauty of the gospel should be able to incorporate these cultures into the saving grace proclaimed.  Only then will American Christianity become a true blessing not just to its various members but to the world.  Otherwise, we’re still a religious country club with membership fees and perceived privileges.  An illusion isn’t the gospel.

 

 

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