This post is inspired by my friend’s Facebook note. As a highly intellectual young man, Michael is a PhD candidate in biblical studies under the famous Ben Witherington. In all my interaction with him, he seems like someone who's going places but at the same time serves others with warm compassion. He’s also frustrated by his intellectual place in church where he so wants to analyze the biblical texts while people do grave violence to it. He observes, “Let's say I spend 80 hours in the week studying the Bible. Then, on Sunday morning I go to church or on Sunday night to a Bible study. In each of those venues, I hear what I perceive to be someone ripping the verse or passage out of context. All week long I have been conditioned to challenge arguments or debate with scholars, etc. So, unwittingly, I do the same thing in one of these settings.” Michael brings up a problem that all of us who are intellectually oriented face. This frustration is especially strong for seminary students, fresh graduates and some of us who teach grad school for a living. How do we deal with it.
Recognition of the “Religious” Mode
“Religion” came from the Latin word “religio” which means a respect (healthy or otherwise) for the gods. In this blog, my definition is slightly different. I use the “religious mode” to describe the difficulty many people have dealing with challenging ideas. Let me first define the terms. Religious mode is the phrase I use to describe the emotional state people get into whenever they hold dearly onto an idea. This does not have to be religious at all, but I use the word “religious” because there’s an element of worship or “this MUST be right” to it. This mode can equally hit atheists and theists alike. When someone proclaim loudly and passionately, “God CANNOT exist.” He’s on a religious mode because he worships that IDEA. The idea becomes a kind of "god" to him, as it were.
Now, lest anyone thinks I’m negatively ranting against emotion, I’m not. In fact, I believe we’re all emotional beings. That’s the way God created us. As believers, we SHOULD worship God with our emotions as well as our intellect. However, the religious mode is more appropriate in some contexts than others. Understand once again, I’m not talking about religion, but the religious mode.
Recognition of the “Religious” Mode in Others
When I read Michael’s note, I thought to myself, “I can truly relate to him.” If I count the number of times I had to bite my lips in church Bible studies, I’d be so rich I can retire and travel the world full time. The fact is, we who are in the academic guild think differently. The academy rewards those who have both creativity AND logic all at once. Such people succeed. Trouble is, the rest of the world is not like that, even within the church. Otherwise, we would have a lot of people running around with "real" PhD's and writing loads of break-through books, but we do not.
Whenever someone says, “God just told me this morning in this Bible verse,” he is in religious mode. He is sharing something intimate and dear to his heart which he affirms IS truth. There is no doubt that this truth exists for him, and he worships this truth. It is not a changeable truth that deserves any kind of intellectual challenge. I’m not saying intellectuals are immune to this. Intellectuals can also worship certain ideas as the definitive truth. They could say, “This method is obviously superior in so many ways than THAT one.” That statement indicates a possible religious mode there. I’ve see people get quite red faced in academic settings as well, though they get over themselves pretty quickly for the most part. The difference between professional academics and the person in the pew is the ability to switch on and off that religious mode and getting over the “debate” quickly (at least for the most part).
Recognition of the “Religious” Mode in Ourselves
It's often easier to recognize religious mode in others than in ourselves. As academics, like I said above, we too have our own passionate moments. Our passion about getting the text “just right” can switch on our religious mode. Trouble is, whenever that gets switched on, our interlocutors in our Bible studies may also step his religious mode up a notch. Before you know it, our study turns into a full scale battle of the minds and hearts. Feelings WILL get hurt.
Whenever I’m around intellectuals, I am more aware of my own religious mode because our rule of engagement is to analyze and not pontificate. Whenever I’m around my brother in law who has a PhD from Wisconsin in the Hebrew Bible, I’m quite aware that I’m switching off the religious mode because we relate logically and academically.
The fact is, most academics are passionate about academics. That passion is reason why we get into academics in the first place. Contrary to popular notion of “if you can’t do, teach,” most academics I meet are competent human beings. For some of us, this is our second career (based on our interest or what some consider a personal call) after a successful career in a previous lifetime. What I’m saying is, even though we may be passionate about academics, we must figure it out by now that not everyone is equally passionate in every occasion. Some are rarely passionate even about reading a book, let alone debating the fine points of truth. Thus, we too have our passion, not just everyone else. We too have our “religious mode” for academics.
Some Suggested Solutions to Make Life a Little Easier
Let me first state that the religious mode is not bad. In fact, it can be very helpful to have dose of it whenever we’re in church or practicing our spiritual disciplines such as reading the Bible or praying. As believers, we cannot be dispassionate about our faith. At the same time, I think there’re some ways we can strike some kind of balance to help us navigate life.
First, we must recognize that not everything is equally important. Some of the points we debate (against popular interpretation of the Bible) are valid but may not change Christendom any time soon. My former pastor once told me, "Sam, it must be agonizing to listen to sermons for you." In some ways, it can be because I teach preaching here in HKBTS. At the same time, I recognize that perhaps I was there for a reason to listen to some general truth that may not fit my mode of thinking but nevertheless helpful to me. I would suggest that we seek truth in all circumstances and we will not look as critical as a Pharisee when we worship.
Second, we must recognize that our own passion for academics may not mix well with another person who’s on the “religious mode”. Those are the times when I bite my lips. Believe me, if you’re not an academic, you probably do not know how hard it is to withhold our expert opinions. It’s like someone with no medical background passionately telling a famous MD how to operate. Religion is emotional and illogical. Notice I say “religion” because I believe real faith balances out by truth seeking. Sometimes, people, including ourselves, need to be left alone with their sacred cows. When people are in worship mode with their "ideas," we'd be rude to interrupt their sacred moment. It would be like telling the kissing couple that germs are passing between them while they kiss. Such is not the point!
Third, we must recognize that timing is everything. Not everyone is ready at any time (like us?) to listen to our “corrections.” Whenever I sense the temperature rising to the “religious mode,” I know the analytical side of the brain is being turned off. At that moment, I need to drop my opinion back a notch. If the temperature is heating up, there’s no point discussing or analyzing anything. Nothing will get solved. People are in different parts of their spiritual journey. We must accept that. Sometimes, what we say may be 100% true, but will fall on deaf ears. “It may make sense to them later” is only wishful thinking. More than likely, they’ll resent us for disturbing their religious mode. Timing is indeed everything. Quite often, with other professional church workers, I take the “I don’t give my opinion unless I’m asked” approach. Pastors are sensitive souls. With us academics professionals in the pew, they must find it hard to get up Sunday morning to speak about topics we've studied for years. They genuinely care about their people which is why they get into the ministry in the first place. Even the most magnanimous pastor may not be ready to receive our “input” right after the sermon. Most are not even ready for any serious intellectual discourse. Lest everyone thinks I’m being hard on pastors, I’m not. Let me state that after preaching 2-3 services, even I’m dead tired. I’m just ready to take a nap or watch football. Save your intellectual enlightenment on another day via email form. Thank you! Public speaking (which most people fear) is what pastors (and some of us acadmics who speak in public on weekends besides our weekly duties in our lecture halls) do week in and week out. Quite often, we do it more than once on Sunday. It is emotionally and intellectually taxing. Timing is everything.
I haven’t blogged for a while because of busy writing and speaking schedule. A friend’s Facebook has brought me out of my blogging hibernation. She asked the question, “Is anyone bothered by people saying Merry Xmas?” This is a good question. Typically Christians respond in three different ways to the perceived secularization of Christmas.
The Attack: Xmas a Pagan Notion?
The first approach to secularization of Christmas by Christians is loud and vitriolic rhetoric. Usually the argument goes something like this. “Oh, the damn secularists. They take away our Christmas by putting an X in the place of Christ.” Whoops, did I say “damn”? I meant “darn.” Seriously, “damn” probably expresses how their feel deep down inside (though such respectable folks would never use it in front of me).
What such angry folks do not know is that the “X” is not an English-X. It is the Greek letter pronounced “Ki” which stands for the first letter of Christos, the title for Jesus. “Xmas” is just another way of saying “Christmas”. This seems like a small point, but such polemic betrays a complete lack of cultural literacy even about our own faith. When we have this LITTLE biblical literacy, we can’t speak so proudly that we are some kind of Bible-believing Christians. I'm more bothered by such biblical illiteracy or ignorance than about the derisive usage by secular folks of the term "Xmas." Such polemical Christians are the perfect pawns in the hands of manipulative and often paranoid Religious Right of our country. I pray that none of that rubbish invades Hong Kong.
The Retreat: Secularist as the Christmas Thief?
The next approach is a bit more sophisticated but still remains quite negative and naive. The argument goes something like this. “I know X stands for Christos (then again, maybe the person does not really know but just pretend to know AFTER you tell him or her), but the secularist has already ruined that part and we must fight him by insisting that he removes the X from our Christmas.” This negative attitude is typical of those who take the “retreat from secularist deconstruction of our faith” approach.
This is nothing new. In the early parts of 20th century, the church had been on retreat from increasingly liberal institutions by the formation of Westminster Theological Seminary. The whole enterprise seems to be a cultural failure as the Christian voice is either weak or non-existent. Polemics clearly do not work in a culture of pluralism (of course, you can also decry pluralism, modernism and postmodernism or any other “isms” in your own Christian bubble). The historical reality of our secularized universities that were originally all Christian is the clear indicator of the failure in using the strategy of retreat. The fact of the matter is, such retreating Christians never read carefully enough in their Bible that Jesus and Paul ministered in a culture of diversity and paganism. They did just fine. In fact, Christianity did best before it BECAME a religion. The lack of understanding of how Christianity grows betrays yet another type of ignorance. Beating a path to retreat only shows how irrelevance Christianity has become instead of how secularized the world is.
True Spirit of Christmas?
What is the true spirit of Christmas? I think there’re more positive ways to reclaim Christmas rather than either attacking the secular approach ignorantly or retreating from the onslaught knowingly. Here are some suggestions.
First, we can simply spread the good news of Christmas by taking a positive approach without retreating. I’ve suggested using “Xmas” as a conversation starter, “Did you know what Xmas REALLY means? X actually means Christos. You know what Christos means?” It is really not that hard. I have had colleagues and friends who blog about the true meaning of Christmas in a pluralistic age. Two friends I can suggest are Dr. John Byron, a professor and friend teaching in Ashland Seminary, and Michael Halcomb, a PhD candidate studying under Ben Witherington III in Asbury Seminary. You can see their blogs here.
Second, besides using our words, we can scale back from the materialistic approach of Christmas. I find it almost unfathomable to watch Christians dive into the materialism of Black Friday year after year while so many in the world are starving. The same folks may be bragging about the "bargains" while decrying pagan usage of "Xmas." Years ago, a very close friend gave me a suggestion that has a continued impact in my life. She copied this story about a family foregoing their Christmas gift-giving to each other but have chosen to use the same amount of money to help the poor. I think that is closer to the true Christmas spirit because Christmas is not about materialism and giving gifts to those who already have almost everything. Christmas is about God’s gift through Jesus whose birth pointed towards His eventual death on Good Friday. Humanity needed the Son of God. So, God gave the gift through the Son. This is exactly why the incarnation cannot be duplicated. I see a lot of Christians getting caught in the shopping frenzies while decrying secularization of Christmas. Decrying how non-Christian celebrating the holidays merely makes us look like party poopers. Why not create a new party of compassion and love through helping the unfortunate?
From the above assessment, we still need to deal with some issues within our faith, including a glaring ignorance about Christian faith among believers. The churches are responsible for this problem. Seminaries also must step up teaching, not even in terms of sophisticated theology but also simple Christian literacy. Another issue deserves our attention is the basic fortress mentality Christians take, not just towards Christmas, but towards everything. The worst problem remains in the way Christian action speaks louder than words. The biggest problem is not just whether the X is in Christmas or what the X represents. Bigger issues than the name or semantics deserve our urgent attention. The problem is our willingness to engage in a pluralistic society by celebrating every challenge as opportunity for mission. On that note, I wish everyone happy holidays and Merry Christmas … or Xmas.
I’ve had some fun this semester teaching a class for the first time. I’m teaching Advanced Preaching with a special focus on exegeting and expositing Revelation on the pulpit. The results have been quite interesting. Besides being satisfied with the progress our graduating students are making, I’m also enjoying watching them struggle. Before anyone accuses me for being a sadist, let me say this upfront. Let’s see YOU preach the entire Revelation on YOUR pulpit, Sunday after agonizing Sunday.
The lack of proper systematic preaching of Revelation in our churches speaks loudly about how difficult the text is. By common standard, my students have done better than most, and I’m incredibly blessed by their efforts. In the process of solving one homiletical problem this week, one student asked, “Isn’t it our job to make the text relevant for our audience?” From the beginning of the New Homiletic Movement, relevance has been put front and center in all homiletical preaching. I want to share a contrarian perspective. It is not our job to make the text relevant all the time. In fact, any time we MAKE the text do something, we're in serious danger of raping the text altogether. There’s a time for relevance and there’s a time for irrelevance.
If we use an analogy from Christology, my assertion may make sense. In the Gospel accounts, we find our human Jesus so relevant because He was human. In Revelation, we find an alien Jesus even Martin Luther found hard to put his head around. This same alien Jesus cannot possibly become completely relevant in a world that was so different than ours. The fact is, the more we understand first century, the more we find it to be an alien society, even in our reading of the Gospel texts. Sure, we’re all humans together for 2000 years, but now we behave differently because of geographical, historical and cultural distances. There lies our problem.
Especially irrelevant are the passages dealing with persecution and martyrdom of Christians. Most students try to find parallels in their persecution-free world by talking about pressure at work, homework or other issues. By using such illustrations, we’ve actually trivialized the great sacrifices of people who lived by their faith and consciences back in first century. We have degraded their role modeling. This, I believe, is a mistake.
There is a little-noted fact in our modern pulpit about Revelation. Not every church in Rev. 2-3 faced persecution. For some churches then (as well as now), the discussion on persecution was “irrelevant.” How do you deal with such irrelevance? First, we must not use lesser examples that trivialize the seriousness of the text. If we do, we have undermined the rhetorical force of the text. Second, such situations serve as reminder to us who are not persecuted that there are people still suffering for living out their beliefs today. They ought to serve as ethical example of how we should live. The rhetorical argument could be something like this. IF we think we have it bad, we haven’t seen what “bad” is. I recall reading Foxx’s Book of Martyrs in seminary and being inspired over and over by some great examples of faith. At the same time, such work reminds me that we need to remember the oppressed, especially those of the Christian faith in parts of world where there is no religious freedom. I’m reminded to work towards greater freedom in those places. Most importantly, I’m reminded that the transcendent text of Revelation is not “all about me.” It is so easy to make the Bible our therapy book and Christ our therapist. It is a much greater work than that.
The problem then is not whether the text is relevant. Of course it is relevant, but relevant for what? Remember the oppressed. The world is not just about our tiny little inconveniences in our warm little upper-middle class bubble. “Me” and “relevance for me” are overrated.
This is a short blog full of quotes from some of the best descriptions of bad preaching by Anna Carter Florence in her article "Put Away Your Sword!" in What's the Matter with Preaching Today (Louisville: WJKP, 2004). And please, do not debate on whether a woman is qualified to teach preaching or to preach here. She said the following:
- The students start hacking away at the text until they can grasp a piece of it to hold up while announcing, "Let me tell you what this passage means; it means that everything will be fine if we only have faith.'"
- There is another, more sinister side to the "hunt for Meaning" ... : studnets so dead set on finding out what a poem means that they will tie it to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it. Preachers, too, can take up rope and victimize a text ... We preachers cannot hope to nurture an intimate relationship with our sacred text in all its beauty and mystery, as long as our need to solve it overrides our desire to listen to it, and look at it.
- Their [the students] initial forays into preaching look more like the Spanish Inquisition than the proclamation of the Word of God.
Here's another good one by Mike Graves, "God of Grace and Glory" in the same book.
- "Why is the preacher always so mad, Mommy?" Somehow Paul's statement about preaching Christ crucified becomes in the mouths of some preachers a license to crucify the listeners.
Funny, sad, but true.
I'm writing this short blog about a week after the tragedy in Philippines out of respect for the victims and their families. What has happened sparked different reactions, many of which are quite legitimate. Let me preface this by saying that whatever our opinions are, prayers are still much needed for the victims and their families. In this blog, I wish to focus on the media impact of this event. With the invention of TV and free reporting media, how the story gets told impacts the reception of the story itself.
As I was finishing a book on preaching and modern media, a tragedy happened to some tourists of Hong Kong. On Aug. 23, 2010, a disgruntle police officer who was fired from his job held a tour bus full of Hong Kongers hostage in Manila, Philippines. The siege lasted some eleven hours, with eight hostages killed in the ensuing firefight. In those agonizing hours, the TV reported live all the ineptness of the Filipino police force (or the so-called commandos) which failed to negotiate but instead escalated the situation so much that the gun man opened fire on hostages. At the end, the gum man was killed by a sniper bullet. This tragedy immediately caused extreme reactions from Hong Kong government calling for travel advisory against going to the Philippines for holiday. Many Hong Kongers created such an outcry against Philippines that drastic actions such as firing their Filipino domestic helpers became rampant, even though those workers did not represent their country’s corrupt and incompetent politics. http://in.news.yahoo.com/43/20100825/876/twl-filipino-maids-in-hong-kong-sacked.html
A less known fact is, during that same day, another report of a greater scale atrocity had taken place in Congo where two hundred women and children were systematically raped by Rwandan and Congolese rebels. The victims included infants and little boys. There was hardly any outrage by Hong Kongers. Now, the simple-minded would say that Hong Kongers are generally more concerned about their own than the wellbeing of the globe. This may be partly true, but imagine another scenario where the raping and ravaging of these women were played out like a pornographic horror movie right in our living rooms. What would be the impact? I can almost see the internet chat rooms lighting up. I’m suggesting that TV has done a lot to shape our perception by the way it is used by media (sometimes even wrongly). The medium tells a story that cannot otherwise be told with greater effect. May the memory of all these victims become a warning to our media-saturated age.