Should We Separate Missions and Theology?

missions theology

“Of course not,” you may be thinking. “What kind of dumb question is that?”

 

But this is exactly what some Christian educational institutions do: like Fuller Seminary, which has three schools: Theology; Intercultural Studies (formerly called World Missions); and Psychology. Where I teach, Biola University, does the same thing, except we have six schools: Theology; Intercultural Studies; Psychology; Business; Education; and Arts & Sciences. In contrast, where I attended seminary, Gordon-Conwell, subsumes their Missions department under the Christian Thought department. Which is the better approach?

 

To answer this question, I’ll compare Fuller with Gordon-Conwell (especially since they are both seminaries, whereas Biola is a university; and also they are sister schools since they were founded by the same person—Harold Ockenga—and he served as the first President of both seminaries).

 

The Gordon-Conwell approach seems to be more integrative at first glance. After all, missions should inform theology, and theology should inform missions. The Apostle Paul was a missionary, and he was also the greatest theologian in the Bible (after Jesus of course). Paul wrote half the New Testament, much of his theology coming out of his missionary work with the churches, including the greatest theological treatise in Scripture: the epistle to the Romans! Theology should never be divorced from practical ministry, otherwise it just becomes philosophical and theoretical. And faith should always lead to good works (Eph. 2:10), not the other way around (that would be works-righteousness) and if you say you have faith but don’t show the fruit, well even the demons can do that! (James 2:18-20).

 

Yet, one time I heard a joke: “What do you get when you mix religion with politics?” Answer: “You get politics!” Sometimes one tends to trump the other, and in a lot of evangelical institutions, theology trumps mission, even though the two naturally should be synergistic. This is because of the Platonic dualism that still permeates much of Western Christianity, where the spiritual is “higher” than the physical, and the life of the mind is deemed more important than the life of the body. In a Western setting, systematic theology trumps practical theology every time. So maybe there is something to separating the two, so that missions gets a chance to thrive? It’s like sometimes zookeepers separate a baby animal from its parents and put it in a special environment so that it has a better chance of survival.

 

Therefore, the Fuller approach may not be seen so much as relegating missions to the sidelines as giving it a place of security, and a place of honor. Almost no other subject in seminary gets a whole separate school—I mean, we don’t have a separate School of Old Testament, or School of Ethics, or School of Systematic Theology, or School of Homiletics. But we have a School of World Missions (in modern-day jargon, School of Intercultural Studies)! A lot of times, missionaries encounter cultures that challenge their Western way of thinking. In a School of Theology, that “alternative” way of thinking would be shut down by the systematic theologians who insist that there is only the Western way of processing such information. But within the School of Intercultural Studies, they are free to pursue alternate lines of thinking, some of which might actually prove to be good—not all “outside the box” thinkers are heretics! (think Martin Luther, William Carey, Martin Luther King, Jr.)

 

There are some negative repercussions to separating the two, however: the School of Intercultural Studies tends to be seen as less intellectual because they are the “doers” as opposed to the School of Theology who are the “thinkers.” And if we end up having all our brightest thinkers gravitating toward Theology, then unfortunately this means that we get our “lesser” thinkers out on the mission field. This is not how it’s supposed to be! Missions is such a challenge which requires one to adapt to new situations and requires innovative thinking and language acquisition, that it really ought to be the best and brightest minds getting out there to the mission field. I mean, that’s what the Apostle Paul was, right?

 

Yet, the anti-intellectualism of the “doers” could just as easily be a tendency in a Gordon-Conwell type model too. I remember when I was a student there, the people inclined toward the intellectual life became professors, and everyone else became pastors. So the fallout from this is that we often don’t get our brightest minds shepherding our flocks—how tragic is that? By the way I don’t mean to denigrate pastors; I do know of some brilliant people who have PhDs (or have the chops to get a PhD) and decided to go the pastoral route—not just the likes of John Piper and N.T. Wright and Tim Keller, but also some of my very own seminary classmates. But still—this is Platonic dualism rearing its ugly head yet again.

 

So, should we separate theology and missions, or not? There seem to be pros and cons to both approaches, but I like the separation—but maybe this is just my bias because this is the model that I enjoy at Biola University where I teach! But honestly, I do enjoy the freedom to think “outside the box” and not be confined by the strictures of traditional Western systematic theology. And I enjoy being surrounded by colleagues who are willing to think outside the box with me. But there is still the chance for collaboration because, after all, we are still part of the same university, and I do know that some classes have been co-taught by faculty from both Intercultural Studies and Theology. And I think, in that, we get the best of both worlds.

 

Maleficent: True Love Comes in Many Forms

Maleficent

I’m a huge fan of fantasy (both in book form and in movies) and sports (esp. soccer, baseball, and tennis). In both, I think there’s something about the “hero” plots and non-reality of “otherworldly” storylines that transports a person away into another dimension. This is not escapism (because I am well aware of being able to distinguish between this and reality—which is why I can love Disney movies and still think that those who try to live those Disney princess storylines in real life need to get a clue), but it is an exercise of the imagination that is healthy and boosts endorphins and optimism.

 

I think the TV show Once Upon a Time is shaping up to be my favorite TV show on air right now—not just for the fantasy element but because the writing is just superb. It takes fairy tales and puts all the characters together, kind of like Shrek—but instead of being slapstick, it’s more serious and deals with real-life issues albeit in a storybook setting. The show turns many of the stories on their head, making for some jaw-dropping plot twists and interesting reinterpretations of familiar fairy tales.

 

In the same vein, the Disney movie Maleficent purports to retell the story of Sleeping Beauty’s eponymous nemesis. This blog is not a movie review—so I won’t go into the many gaping plot holes that really bothered me. Still, I really enjoyed the movie for its lush special effects (no surprise that the director is the same one who did the art direction on Avatar and Alice in Wonderland) and its magical qualities.

 

But what really struck me, though (spoiler alert!) is how Sleeping Beauty, aka Aurora, is rescued from her curse. Everyone knows that, according to the familiar story, it is Prince Philip who awakens Aurora from her cursed deep slumber with True Love’s Kiss.

 

In the movie Maleficent, Philip’s kiss doesn’t work—partially because Philip had only met Aurora once, so how could they have true love?—but mostly because True Love can come in many different forms. This is where it gets really interesting. In this case, True Love came from Aurora’s “fairy godmother,” Maleficent herself, whose parental love for Aurora was the thing that broke the curse. I loved this “twist” on the traditional story.

 

Now here are my reflections on that:

 

The old way of telling fairy tales was modern, and the new way of telling fairy tales is postmodern. The old way was: boy and girl fall in love, good triumphs over evil, happily ever after. It’s very straightforward and very black-and-white. The new way is: there are multiple permutations of love, nobody is wholly good and nobody is wholly evil, and sometimes many complications arise even after happiness is reached. There are pros and cons to both approaches which I won’t get into here.

 

What I want to bring up, though, is this: fairy tales these days, like Shrek, Once Upon a Time, Frozen (think of the sisterly love that is the main love in that movie), and Maleficent, are conjuring up (yes, pun intended) different/multiple forms of love. Bored of the “old way,” they are trying to get creative by offering up new spins on traditional fare. However, there seem to be two versions of the “new way,” both of which come from the ancient Greeks, which means that the new way is actually ancient. One modern version of the new way is homosexuality. In ancient Greece, homosexuality was quite common. But the Greeks also had four different words for love: eros (romantic love); philia (friendship love); storge (parental love); and agape (charity, or unconditional love). So another modern version of the new way is philia, storge, or agape.

 

Here’s the thing: people think that homosexuality is bursting all sorts of social conventions, but in reality it is still stuck in eros. It is same-sex, but it is still homosexuality imitating heterosexuality. It is merely another form of eros, thus not particularly creative or expansive. It is still small-minded (and for the record, so is heterosexual eros)—by this I don’t mean that eros is bad or unimportant, but it is small-minded to focus mostly on eros to the exclusion of the other loves which is the tendency in our society. The movie Maleficent showed a grander vision for what love could be: storge, or parental love, which is what True Love’s Kiss in the movie ends up being. It spreads love’s wings (yes, another pun allusion to the movie) so wide that you can see that love really is not just limited to eros. This is something that fantasy—and theology—offer the world. It’s not just eros (which manifests itself in our culture as rom-coms and trashy romance novels), it’s storge or parental love as seen in Maleficent, it’s philia or friendship love as seen in Shrek, it’s sibling love (a combination of storge and philia) as seen in Frozen, and it’s agape or undeserved forgiveness and grace as shown in the Bible: God’s love for people who absolutely don’t deserve it. And that is what I appreciated about Maleficent—True Love’s Kiss was not limited to eros but was so much more. What a refreshing take on an old fairy tale!

World Cup Postmortem: Was This the Best World Cup Ever?

World Cup logo

Before the final match was even played, sports columnists were calling this the best World Cup tournament—ever. I would have to agree. Why?

 

-The Group of Death: This is where there are at least three out of four quality teams and only two can move on. Usually there’s just one Group of Death in the first round, but this time there were arguably three:

  • Group B: Spain-Netherlands-Chile-Australia (which had both World Cup finalists from 2010!)
  • Group D: Uruguay-England-Italy-Costa Rica
  • Group G: USA-Ghana-Germany-Portugal (everyone kept calling this the real Group of Death, but I honestly thought the other two were tougher draws)

 

-Underdogs reigned: In the Group Round, underdogs were winning and producing shocking upsets: Costa Rica made it through to the Round of 16 (they were the really scrappy little team that everyone seemed to be rooting for), as did the USA and Mexico (yay for good representation by CONCACAF—the North & Central American federation of football which often seems to be so lacking in good teams). Meanwhile, traditional powerhouses like Spain (the defending champions), Italy, Portugal, and England, all got knocked out before the second round!

 

-Sweet revenge: The only World Cup match I ever saw live was Italy vs. Costa Rica in 1994 at the Yale Bowl, when the Italians won 1-0. That was the last time these two teams met. Los Ticos got their revenge this time, reversing the score. That tiny little Central American nation of 4 million people showed up so many of the European and South American powerhouses in this tournament! Also, the Netherlands destroyed Spain in their first meeting in this tournament, avenging their loss in the World Cup final from 2010. Unfortunately, Argentina was unable to get back at Germany—they’ve been ousted by Germany in the last two World Cups—now make that three straight.

 

-Unforgettable last-minute goals: Argentina against Bosnia; Netherlands against Mexico; Greece against Costa Rica; Portugal against USA. Especially that last one—oohhh that was like a dagger felt in the hearts of U.S. Americans, you could practically hear the whole nation groaning in pain!

 

-Incredible routs: Netherlands’ 5-1 beating of Spain; Germany’s 4-0 victory over Portugal; and who could forget Germany’s 7-1 absolute pummeling of Brazil in the semifinal? Here’s something to put it in perspective: the worst Brazil loss in WC history was 6-0 against Uruguay in 1928/38. The worst World Cup loss ever was Hungary over El Salvador 10-1, in 1982.

 

-Penalty shootouts galore: Despite the lopsided nature of some of the matches (as expounded in the previous point), I don’t know if there have ever been so many penalty shootouts to determine winners of a World Cup tournament. This shows how evenly matched so many of the teams were (and it also made it all the more heartbreaking when a team plays so well only to lose by one penalty kick—which sometimes is pure luck because it is often determined by a goalkeeper guessing correctly which direction the kicker will aim the ball).

 

-Humiliation of the host nation: Not only did Brazil lose 1-7 to Germany, but they couldn’t even salvage their dignity in a 0-3 loss to the Netherlands for the third-place match. All this on Brazil’s own turf. Their one consolation: at least their greatest rival, Argentina, didn’t win! The host nation’s collective football spirit was crushed nevertheless, and it made the Brazilian public wary of hosting another major sporting event—oh wait, they’re hosting the Olympics in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. Oops.

 

-Speaking of that Brazil-Germany game, these thoughts ran through my head while watching it:

  • “Brazil needs to sign Tim Howard to a long-term contract.”
  • “Is it ungentlemanly for Germany to keep pouring it on when they have such a massive lead?”
  • “7-1: Am I watching a baseball game? Oh no this is soccer.”
  • “German fans are probably hoarse by now after yelling “Gooaalll!!!” seven times.”
  • “Makes me feel good that USA only lost to Germany 0-1.”

And I saw these classic posts on Facebook by friends:

  • “Germany leads by a touchdown. Wait—what kind of football are we talking about here?”
  • “If only the Germans had a word for taking pleasure in the misfortune of others.”

Finally, I saw this hilarious meme circulating on Facebook after that historic beat-down of the host nation:

  • Voy al baño (I went to the bathroom)
  • Gol de Alemania (Germany goal)
  • Regreso (I returned)
  • Gol de Alemania (Germany goal)
  • Me siento (I sat down)
  • Gol de Alemania (Germany goal)
  • Respiro (I breathed)
  • Gol de Alemania (Germany goal)
  • Pestañeo (I blinked)
  • Gol de Alemania (Germany goal)

 

-Speaking of memes, the Netherlands’ Arjen Robben’s last-minute PK-inducing “flop” made Mexican fans livid and generated the phrase “No Era Penal” (“it wasn’t a penalty”) all over the internet with this amazingly funny graphic:

Robben dive

 

-Record-breaker: Miroslav Klose of Germany, in that Brazil-Germany match, passed Ronaldo of Brazil as the top scorer in the history of the World Cup. Klose now has 16 to Ronaldo’s 15, and he did it by scoring two goals within minutes of each other, fittingly with Ronaldo looking on (commentating from the press box).

 

-U.S. Americans are finally getting into soccer. Maybe because the scoring is high, averaging 2.69 goals a game, which is the highest-scoring World Cup since 1982. According to The Atlantic, “America’s World Cup game against Portugal attracted almost 25 million television viewers in the U.S., eight million more than watched the highest rated World Cup game in 2010, and far more than the average viewership for last year’s World Series or this year’s NBA finals. NBC now broadcasts English soccer. And America’s own league, Major League Soccer, draws as many fans to its stadiums as do the NHL and NBA.” (Though it must be said that the 1994 World Cup, hosted by the U.S., still holds the record for attendance at 69,000 per game—so perhaps this contradicts the stereotype that Americans don’t like soccer!) And the final match between Germany and Argentina broke the U.S.-Belgium match record with a 26.5 million viewership. ESPN said “The tournament as a whole exceeded expectations for ESPN, and… it permeated U.S. culture as no World Cup has before.” A final interesting stat from The Atlantic: “The average age of Americans who call baseball their favorite sport is 53. Among Americans who like football best, it’s 46. Among Americans who prefer soccer, by contrast, the average age is only 37.”

 

-There is still one American who still doesn’t get it: conservative pundit Ann Coulter. She wrote this moronic column calling our growing interest in soccer a “moral decay”. She obviously doesn’t understand that soccer, while “liberal” in most of the rest of the world, is “conservative” (and upper-middle class) in America. Goodness, Sarah Palin is a self-confessed “hockey/soccer mom”! The New York Times made this insightful observation: “Coulter fails to see that soccer is growing in popularity in the United States because the national team keeps getting better, Hispanics now make up 17 percent of the U.S. population, and America is getting globalized just like everywhere else. America’s core strength is constant reinvention, in part through immigration; soccer’s surge is no sign of weakness.”

 

-Two words: Tim Howard. Perhaps one of the reasons Americans were so much more into this World Cup is not just due to the fact that the U.S. played very well in the Group Round and advanced to the Round of 16; it also had to do with the heroics of goalkeeper Tim Howard in the Belgium game. Who can forget his record-breaking 16 saves, the most in any World Cup since 1956? That heroic display also generated a hashtag meme: #ThingsTimHowardCouldSave, such as:

  • the dinosaurs
  • Bambi’s mom
  • the Titanic
  • the Leaning Tower of Pisa
  • the economy
  • Miley Cyrus

Somebody also briefly changed the Wikipedia page for “U.S. Secretary of Defense” to Tim Howard.

 

-A final example of a LOL meme is due to one of the weirdest episodes in World Cup history: Luis Suarez of Uruguay, who bit—yes, bit!—an opponent for the third time in competition. (This time it was Giorgio Chiellini of Italy). This spawned all sorts of photos comparing Suarez to:

  • Jaws
  • a rabid dog wearing a cone of shame
  • Mike Tyson
  • Dracula
  • Hungry Hungry Hippos
  • Hannibal the Cannibal wearing a mouth guard

 

-A new generation of heroes has arisen: names such as Beckham and Zidane and Ronaldo have given way to Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi, and Neymar. A fresh infusion of heroes is necessary to keep a sport alive and well. I say, Marvel Comics needs to invest in South American futbol for its potential superheroes: because Brazil has a Hulk, Argentina has a Lionel (Thundercats), and Uruguay has a vampire!

 

-The curse of Europeans playing the Americas has been broken: Before this World Cup, no European team had ever won a championship which was hosted in the Americas. Soccer’s equivalent of the Curse of the Bambino has now been lifted!

 

-The Europe vs. South America rivalry: Going into this World Cup, Europe had won the World Cup ten times, and South America nine times. Argentina was hoping to even it up—no such luck. Europe has now pulled ahead 11-9. At least one thing has evened up: the only time a North or South American team has ever won on European soil was 1958 when Brazil defeated Sweden. So now it’s one transatlantic win apiece.

 

-Where’s Africa and Asia?: I long for the day when an Asian or African nation will win the World Cup to break the South American and European monopoly (duopoly?). Things still don’t look hopeful. Four years ago when the continent of Africa hosted the tournament for the very first time, that was considered progress—but it was also the first time that a host nation (in this case, South Africa) failed to advance beyond the first round. This time, the perennial Asian powerhouse, South Korea (who made it to the final four in 2002 when they co-hosted the tournament with Japan), was eliminated without a win in 16 years—and they returned home to “fans” throwing yeot (pine-nut taffy) candy at them (a cultural gesture which in that country is a vulgar insult). I was really hoping that Japan would gain some traction this year, because Brazil has the largest Japanese population in the world outside of Japan, thus there would have been tremendous “home” support—similar to the Dutch in South Africa in 2010.

 

-Middle East represent: It was heartening to see Muslim nations like Algeria and Iran do well. In addition, at first awarding the 2022 World Cup hosting to Qatar seemed like a progressive move on the part of FIFA in terms of having a Middle Eastern country host it for the first time—something not even the Olympics has ever done—this now is seen as ill-advised and may even lead to Qatar being the first-ever nation to have their hosting be rescinded. One of the reasons is because of the extreme heat of that desert country. This time, even in Brazil who has hosted the tournament many times, a new rule was instituted: cooling breaks due to the intense Amazonian heat. In fact something known as “The Manaus Effect” was noticed: every team which played in the Amazonian city of Manaus lost their next game. I can’t imagine what they’d need to do to counter the Arabian heat of the Middle East in the summer!

 

-Religion and sports: This is the first time in history we’ve had a Pope Emeritus: Benedict XVI of Germany who retired in 2013 (usually popes serve until they die). And this is the first time we’ve ever had a Latin American pope: Francis of Argentina. Hmm, is it a coincidence that the World Cup final was Germany vs. Argentina? But I guess it goes to show that a retired pope’s prayers have more power than a current pope’s prayers, as Germany won! :) Too bad, considering Francis is a self-confessed avid futbol fan, whereas Benedict has said he doesn’t care about sports. On a serious note, Pope Francis said he wouldn’t be praying for his national team to win, but instead “May sport always promote the culture of encounter.” Yet another reason I’m a huge fan of Pope Francis!

 

-Religion and sports part 2: I love it when sports and Christian faith intersect. The Apostle Paul does this (1 Cor 9; Phil 3; 2 Tim 4), and of course we’ve seen this with Clayton Kershaw, Tim Tebow, and Jeremy Lin. Here’s Clint Dempsey: “Now my faith in Christ is what gives me confidence for the future.” And Tim Howard: “The most important thing in my life is Christ. He’s more important to me than winning or losing or whether I’m playing or not. Everything else is just a bonus.” He’s had to battle Tourette’s his whole life too.

 

-World War or World Cup? As I wrote in my last blog, soccer explains the world. It was interesting that, on June 28, 2014, the knockout rounds of the World Cup began. That day, coincidentally, was also the centenary of the beginning of World War I as symbolized in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. Hopefully soccer is the closest thing to a world war that we will ever experience henceforth! Let’s allow sports to be the thing that can satiate our lust for battle, and leave it at that.

 

-My predictions were almost correct! I had chosen the Final Four to be France, Germany, Brazil, and Argentina. And I had chosen the Netherlands to be the ones I hoped would win. Turns out, the Final Four were among those five nations I had chosen. Although I was dead wrong that Brazil would be the eventual winner. Dead wrong considering how they flamed out!

 

-No vuvuzelas: This is probably the least important but one of the most appreciated things about this tournament—that annoying horn was conspicuously absent this time around! And thank goodness the caxirola rattle, Brazil’s answer to the vuvuzela, was banned from matches (not because it’s annoying—which it is—but because it was a throwing hazard and could potentially harm the players) before the tournament ever started!

Was Paul the Inventor of Christianity Rather Than Jesus?

Paul vs Jesus

I’ve heard this argument before, and it’s intriguing—that somehow Paul contradicts Jesus, or that Paul added things that Jesus never taught, or that the Church is more based on Paul than on Jesus. Someone recently came to me with this idea again, expressed in this way:

 

I can’t speak to other religions, but regarding what most people consider “Christianity” in the US is anything but. If you listen to the majority of conservative Christians, they rarely quote Jesus—they almost always quote cherry-picked verses from the Torah, or the writings attributed to Paul of Tarsus. Paul was a self-appointed ‘apostle’ of Jesus, who had never met nor studied with him prior to crucifixion. The brief 2 weeks in which Paul interacted with Jesus’ actual apostles/siblings, he disagreed with them, claimed they were wrong, and that he was the real apostle. He went on to found many churches based on his own beliefs, some of which were in direct opposition to Jesus’ teachings. Unlike Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—Paul rarely quotes Jesus—perhaps because he was largely unfamiliar with what he actually taught. When the Roman/pagan emperor Constantine formed the Nicene Council to select which writings would be included in the New Testament canon, they overwhelmingly selected those letters that were attributed to Paul, as he was a Roman citizen, and his writings supported the Roman patriarchy. Many of the writings attributed to Jesus’ apostles/siblings were excluded. When I read the teachings that are explicitly attributed to Jesus, I find them to be completely self-consistent.

 

My response:

 

That’s a really interesting theory. I can see how someone can piece those things together and construct what sounds like a plausible argument. However, the link between Paul and Jesus is the Book of Acts. That’s the only book where both of them appear together, thus establishing an undeniable link between the two. Acts clearly shows that Paul was Jesus’s chosen apostle (Acts 9:15-16). And Paul didn’t write Acts; Luke did, so this is not Paul’s self-propaganda (which some people think his own epistles are). Of course you might argue that since Luke was a companion of Paul, Luke deliberately wrote Acts to be biased toward Paul. However, consider that Luke also wrote one of the four Gospels which was highly consistent with the other three Gospels—so if Luke is considered a legitimate person to write a whole book about Jesus, then he is also a legitimate author to write a whole book about post-Jesus, connecting the early church to Jesus’s ministry, and creating a bridge between the Gospels and the Epistles. I mean, if there’s any Gospel which seems to be out of place, it is John which is very different from the other three Synoptic Gospels (this is not to suggest that John is wrong btw!).

 

One final point: to define Christianity as just about Jesus is inadequate; it is also about the Holy Spirit and the Church. Christianity was fully identified as a separate religion in Acts 11 at Antioch, the first place believers were called “Christians.” So to claim that Christianity is only to be found in the Gospels is not true; it is to be found in the Gospels and Acts. The Gospels are about Jesus; Acts is about the Holy Spirit. Christianity is about all three persons of the Trinity–so to say that it’s just about the Son is an insufficient definition.

 

P.S. The Council of Nicaea wasn’t where they chose the books of the New Testament, that is a common myth; the books kind of just came together naturally and was determined by usage among the churches, there was no one adjudicating council to decide.

Reflections on the Death of a Friend

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Kenny was a lover of nature. This is him on Vancouver Island, Canada, one of the many trips we took together.

Exactly four years ago, on July 3, 2010, my dear friend, Pastor Kenny Ye, died in a bus accident (here is the AP news story about the accident). Kenny was going to Sri Lanka for a mission trip to train church leaders in that country, but he had a brief layover in Seoul, South Korea, where the accident occurred. The airport bus that he was riding swerved to avoid a stalled vehicle and fell off the bridge it was on, plummeting 30 feet upside-down. Kenny was traveling with one of my former seminary professors, Dr. Gary Parrett, who survived the bus accident but not without resulting in a long coma—and as anyone would, wrestling with questions about life and death, especially the “why?” questions (Why did one person survive and the other didn’t? What was God’s purpose behind the accident?)

I first met Kenny over a decade ago because we lived in the same dorm hallway as classmates at Gordon-Conwell Seminary. Kenny was a vibrant unforgettable guy, and truly larger-than-life. He was often loud and boisterous, with a hilarious sense of humor. Me being a Red Sox fan and he being a Yankees fan, we’d let each other have it—but more often than not, he’d win (simply by virtue of the fact that he could just pick me up and hang me upside down until I cried mercy)!

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Kenny and I had a mutual love (crush?) on Lea Salonga so we just had to see her perform live on Broadway

I recall all the trips we took together: camping in Acadia National Park (Maine), doing a Polar Bear Dive during the first snowfall in Boston, Disney World, England (and taking a crazy overnight bus to Scotland), New York City (mainly to watch Broadway musicals—we were huge Lea Salonga fans and saw her perform in both Les Mis and Miss Saigon, though the Pirate Queen was just awful), Walden Pond (where he tried to dump me in the water), Cooperstown (Baseball Hall of Fame), eating crab in Maryland, an Orioles game at Camden Yards, Vancouver & Whistler (where we went whalewatching, and where he taught me how to properly throw a baseball), Santa Barbara (where he actually was my “wing man” for a blind date!). He’d drive people around in his little red Honda Civic (later upgraded to a little black Mazda Miata), loving having the convertible top down, and relishing the feel of the wind as he talked theology and ministered to people. Some of my most profound spiritual moments came as he would expound theology to me in his car and we would listen to Tim Keller sermons on his iPod. It was from Kenny that I learned that the Christian life is not one extreme or the other but is often that hard middle way (and you can see that influence throughout many of my blogs—I am constantly advocating a “third way” and that was largely Kenny’s influence, via Tim Keller and the Parable of the Prodigal Son). He also gave me a piece of advice that has always stuck with me, that I often pass on to my students: “Don’t take yourself too seriously; but take God seriously. And know the difference between the two.” Kenny worked hard and played hard, but most of all, he loved all the people under his care, whether they were part of his congregation or just his friends.

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Kenny and I at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. Though we had a mutual love for baseball, he was a Yankees fan and gave me no shortage of grief for being a Red Sox fan.

I had a lot of nicknames for him: K-Rod; Dice-K; Kid ‘n Play; Kentastic; Special K; Circle K; Kendo; Kennedy Lake; Kennilicious; Kennedy International Airport; Kentucky Fried Chicken; K-Fed; Kenobi; Kid Rock; O Kenada; Clark Kenny; K Dawg; Kentucky Derby; R. Kenny; Kenny G; Kennedy Space Center; Kennebunkport; O Say Ken You See; Ken & Barbie. He would call me, in turn: A-Rod; Mel Allen (“How about that?”); Tim Allen; Leaving Allentown; Alienation; Alaska Pipeline; Alzheimers; Alimony; Abimelek; Allen Parsons Project; Yo Arnold; Alvin the Chipmunk; Aloysius; A-1 sauce; and Alan Ye (“the way it should be spelled”). But to those who he ministered to under his pastoral care, he was simply “PK”: Pastor Kenny.

Kenny was a big man, and he would give you a bear hug every time he saw you. But he was more than just a big teddy bear—he knew that life was not just about encouragement but also incisive discernment, and he could cut straight to the heart of the matter better than anyone I knew. Every time I would be arrogant or stupid or trying to impress girls or trying to justify something to myself, he would call me out on it. He knew what was in a man’s heart and he never let people get away with it—but this keen counselor’s insight was always balanced with care. He was like a big brother—willing to say the hard things to me that no one else would say, but I always knew that we were family which is why he had a right to say such things.

Tall, Grande, & Venti

In Scotland with Chris and Kenny, this is one of our favorite photos–which we labeled “Tall, Grande, & Venti.” Chris remarked, “This is the first time anybody has ever called me tall!”

In many ways, he and I were opposites. He is Korean-American, and I am Chinese-American (given the fact that our surnames are so similar, he would always swear that his was the original spelling and mine was just a corruption); he’s a large guy, and I’m not particularly big; he’s a talker, I’m an emailer; he’s actually a lot more athletic than me despite his size; he was heart and I am head. It took me only 3 years to finish my M.Div. but it took him 10, but that belies the fact that I think he was still a lot smarter than me despite all my earned degrees. We stood next to each other at graduation (because our names were ordered alphabetically) and he wept when he got his diploma because it had been a long-time coming and he had to overcome many obstacles to get there; but I still maintain that, between the two of us, he definitely had the keener mind (and a more magnanimous spirit). But I think this is part of what made Kenny what he was—things were never easy for him, so like the Parable of the Two Debtors (Luke 7:36-50), the one who possesses less has greater appreciation and thankfulness for everything in life. Or rather, he only appeared to have less, but really he had more—and that is, I think, one of the Gospel principles of Jesus’s upside-down kingdom which Kenny so often showed me by his word and his life lived out.

Kenny ended up being a pastor in Baltimore, Maryland, but he always maintained a heart for missions, regularly traveling to places like Turkey, Namibia, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka to bring the Gospel. And it was on one of these trips that he lost his life. This is the first time in my life that a close friend of mine has died. I have lost all of my grandparents, but it is a completely different thing to lose someone unexpectedly “before their time.” Of course I put that phrase in quotes because everything is in the Lord’s timing. Yet, that doesn’t make this pill any easier to swallow.

The main question I have been wrestling with is this: Why would God take someone who was faithfully serving him?

Reflecting on the kind of God we serve, I think we often (wrongly) still think he operates in a quid pro quo manner, i.e. he is a reactionary God: we do something wrong, we get our hands slapped; we do something right, we get rewarded. But that turns God into a predictable vending machine. And that turns Christianity into a religion of works, making it just like every other religion on earth.

The fact of a matter is, we worship a God who loves to lavish grace on us—to people who don’t deserve it. If we wanted a God who gave us our just desserts, I’d be quaking in my boots, because none of us deserve very much at all if we are rewarded according to our behavior! Now, of course some people in the Bible did lose their lives because of their sin (e.g. Uzzah; Ananias and Sapphira), but I think that is not the usual way that God acts. This is why the Psalmist, Job, and Jeremiah, so often lament the fact that the wicked prosper and the righteous have to wait for justice to come. How long, oh Lord?

If death is often not a punishment for wrongdoing, could it possibly be just the opposite—a reward? I know that seems strange to contemplate, but Jesus did say that those who die for his sake will be accorded the highest honors in heaven. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all but one of the twelve disciples were martyred. And the Apostle Paul, himself a martyr, said: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21)

This is just speculation, but I wonder if God calls people quickly to himself if they especially please him. I have listened to a lot of Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) in my life, and unfortunately a lot of it is rubbish. But two of the most profound singers that have affected me are Keith Green and Rich Mullins. Green was considered a modern-day prophet, refusing to give us candy-coated sugary songs but instead challenging us with lyrics like: “The world is sleeping in the dark that the church just can’t fight ‘cause it’s asleep in the light. How can you be so dead when you’ve been so well fed? Jesus rose from the grave and you, you can’t even get out of bed!” And Mullins was nicknamed the “Ragamuffin Poet” because he was a modern-day St. Francis of Assisi, giving away all his money for the sake of the poor and ministering to Native Americans while living on a reservation, but expressing his theology poetically with lyrics like, “We are frail, we are fearfully and wonderfully made, forged in the fires of human passion, choking on the fumes of selfish rage. And with these our hells and our heavens so few inches apart, we must be awfully small and not as strong as we think we are.” Keith Green died in a plane crash and Rich Mullins died in a car accident. Why did God take the two most profound and uncompromisingly Christian CCM singers?

I am a big baseball fan, and I also think of Roberto Clemente, the first Latino to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Clemente was not only a phenomenal hitter, he was an extraordinary Christian. He often took trips to Latin America to deliver food and other supplies to the needy. He had just reached the 3,000-hit landmark in baseball when a devastating earthquake struck Nicaragua in 1972. Roberto Clemente flew out there to deliver relief supplies to the victims and died en route in a plane crash. How do we make sense of Clemente, Green, and Mullins? I think of Rich Mullins’ prophetic song, “Elijah,” in which he says:

But when I leave I want to go out like Elijah
With a whirlwind to fuel my chariot of fire
And when I look back on the stars
Well, It’ll be like a candlelight in Central Park
And it won’t break my heart to say goodbye

But the Jordan is waiting
Though I ain’t never seen the other side
They say you can’t take in
The things you have here
So on the road to salvation
I stick out my thumb and He gives me a ride
And His music is already falling on my ears

Kenny, you went out like Elijah, now go with God. I take comfort in knowing that we will see each other again.

“Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.” (Psalm 116:15)
“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” (Matthew 10:28)
“For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.” (Luke 9:24)

Here is a video tribute to Kenny which aired at his memorial service four years ago.

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Kenny and his favorite baseball player, “Mr. October”: Reggie Jackson

 

Bible Lands: Israel, Greece, and Turkey (and why I think the last is the best)

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I’ve just come home from a two-and-a-half week archaeological/biblical study tour of Turkey, and now I’ve been to all three major “Bible lands”: I’ve been to Israel twice, Greece thrice, and now Turkey once.

 

Of course, Israel is indisputably a Bible land—that’s a no-brainer. It’s where Jesus himself lived—and it’s the Promised Land, no less!

 

Most people would also be able to name Greece as a Bible land: after all, it is where places like Corinth, Philippi, and Thessalonica are located.

 

However, many people would not immediately name Turkey as a Bible land—I suspect for three reasons: 1) it is mostly Muslim today; 2) it doesn’t have the same name today as it did in biblical times—back then it was called Asia Minor; 3) everyone knows the Old Testament was written in Hebrew (hence they think of Israel) and the New Testament was written in Greek (hence they think of Greece)—but “Turkish” doesn’t sound like a Biblical language!; 4) most people think that every geographical name that doesn’t sound Jewish must have taken place in Greece.

 

But most of the Apostle Paul’s missionary journeys took place in Asia Minor, not Greece. The following familiar names are all located in Turkey: the province of Galatia, and the cities of Colossae, Antioch, Lystra, Derbe, Iconium, Pisidian Antioch, Troas, Assos, as well as the Seven Churches of Revelation: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea.

 

Plus, Turkey has the following non-Bible related amazing things to see (it’s a theologian’s/historian’s/architect’s/nerd’s paradise):

 

-The ruins of Troy. This is the historical foundation of all Western literature as expressed in Homer’s Iliad (and eventually the Odyssey as well). The Iliad is the greatest epic poem that kicked off and inspired all the rest: Virgil’s Aeneid, Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and William Blake’s Milton. Homer himself lived in the caves in the hills above ancient Smyrna.

 

-All seven of the ecumenical councils happened in Turkey: Constantinople I, II, III; Nicaea I & II; Ephesus; and Chalcedon. These are the foundations of some of the essential doctrines our Christian faith, such as the Trinity and the two natures of Christ, and they spawned the greatest creed of all: the Nicene Creed.

 

-The great church of the East, the Hagia Sophia, is in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople). I’ve always thought of this church as the “Vatican of the East.” Oh how wrong I was. When the Hagia Sophia was built in the 6th century AD (I had no idea, which is staggeringly mind-blowing that anything this amazing could’ve been built this early with the available technology), nothing like it had ever been seen or built—and nothing surpassed it for 1100 years. Yes, you got that right. It was the highest building in the world, with the biggest dome (an engineering marvel) that nobody could match. The architect of the Blue Mosque immediately opposite it tried to imitate the Hagia Sophia but couldn’t match the size—even 1000 years later! It took Michelangelo himself, 1100 years later, with Renaissance innovation, to build St. Peter’s Basilica, to finally surpass it in height and dome size. The Vatican should be called the “Hagia Sophia of the West”!

 

-Cappadocia, in central Turkey, is like an alien landscape with so-called “fairy chimney” rock formations. Just do a Google image search on it to see what I mean. Monks lived here and built their monasteries in the caves and chimneys of this exotic geology.

 

-Speaking of, Turkey is a land of much church history: the first multiethnic church was at Antioch; the Cappadocian fathers (Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and Basil of Caesarea) lived here; and many other apostles and church fathers lived here and died here, such as: the Apostle Philip at Hierapolis; Polycarp at Smyrna; and the Apostle John at Ephesus.

 

Why do I like Turkey more than Israel and Greece? It is much more vast in terms of geographical area so there is so much more to see here than in the other two countries—both in terms of biblical and non-biblical sites.

 

But probably the main reason I like Turkey (here I’ll include Greece too) more than Israel is because of the preservation of the past. This is, ironically, because Muslims preserved the Christian past better than Christians did! To explain why, this requires a bit of historical explanation: when the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312AD, his mother Helena (who also was a Christian) traveled to Israel and asked the locals to identify all the places that Jesus did anything. Of course, what did the locals know? It was several hundred years after the fact, but tradition persisted. So Helena went to Bethlehem, and asked the locals where Jesus was born. They identified a spot, so she commanded a church be built on top of it: the Church of the Nativity! She traveled to the Sea of Galilee and likewise asked the locals where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. And, what do you know—she commanded a church to be erected on that spot: the Church of the Beatitudes. And she went to Jerusalem and asked where Jesus was crucified and buried, and—you guessed it—had a church built on that location: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

 

All this meant several things: 1) Almost none of the biblical sites in Israel look as they looked in the first century. They almost all have a church on top of it. I hate to say it, but I wish those churches were never built. I want to see these sites as they looked back then. 2) The fact that Christians, Muslims, and Jews have lived here, and fought over the Holy Land, so many times, means that so many things are stacked on top of each other. The Temple Mount, for example, has a mosque (the Dome of the Rock) sitting on top of where the Jewish Temple once stood. Where Jesus actually walked is buried under so many layers of archaeology that you can’t even really say “I’m standing where Jesus walked!” That would be ten meters underground. 3) Politics. Even if you wanted to dig any of these layers up, you can’t. People still live here. And people of other faiths would object (for example, you can’t dig up the Dome of the Rock to find remains of the Jewish Temple—World War III would erupt). 4) Everything is based on tradition. Christianity was persecuted so widely here that everything was hidden and nothing was commemorated until several centuries later. We have no idea where almost anything actually happened. It’s really disappointing, actually, if you’re hoping to go to Israel and see where stuff actually occurred. Almost everything is speculative and labeled “the traditional site” (read: we have no idea if this is actually it, but it was somewhere around here, and looked something like this).

 

In contrast, Turkey (and to some degree Greece) doesn’t have any of the problems of the above. Most of the biblical sites of Turkey don’t have anyone living on top of them, so archaeologists can dig to their heart’s content (among the exceptions are Smyrna, which is modern-day Izmir, the third-biggest metropolis in Turkey—it’s hard to uncover anything because of the giant city on top of the site). But places like Colossae (which remains completely unexcavated—what wonders exist under there!) to Ephesus (the grandest biblical ruins in Turkey, and perhaps the grandest biblical ruins anywhere!) are wonderful to behold and look just like they did back then—they remain archaeological ruins with no later embellishments. You can literally stand on the Roman road at the site and say, “I am walking the very road that the Apostle Paul walked.” Wow. How cool is that. And there is no question as to the veracity of the location—it is 100% certain that this is Ephesus, or this is Laodicea, because inscriptions were found there. And we know that Paul always went to the Agora (marketplace) to do his tentmaking ministry so we know for certain where Paul was too. And Muslims didn’t have any interest in building churches on top of these sites, so they were largely left intact because Muslims had very little interest in them—they just left them alone. They didn’t mess with them, unlike what Christians did in Israel.

 

Another amazing example is something like the Hagia Sophia church in Istanbul. It has all these beautiful Christian mosaics which were plastered over when this became a mosque in 1453AD. Many lament this but the plaster actually preserved the mosaics! When the mosque was turned into a museum in 1935, and the plaster was removed, the mosaics were in much better shape than they would’ve been had they been left exposed to the elements. So in a way, Christians should thank Muslims for inadvertently protecting this treasure of church history!

 

All these reasons are why Turkey impressed me much more than Israel as a place to go for a Bible/archaeology tour.

 

P.S. Some of you may object that the following should also be considered Bible lands: Iraq (where the Garden of Eden was located, it’s ancient Babylon where the Jews were deported for exile, and where Abraham and Ur of the Chaldeans was located); Egypt (where the Israelites were enslaved by Pharaoh, and where Jesus had to flee as a refugee as a baby with his parents to escape King Herod’s wrath); and perhaps also Syria and Italy and Malta and Cypress among others. True. But the vast majority of the action in the Bible overwhelmingly takes place in Israel, Greece, and Turkey.

How Soccer Explains the World

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Ah, the Beautiful Game. The 2014 FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) World Cup begins today in Brazil and lasts a whole month (June 12 – July 13), and the whole world will be watching (except, perhaps, Americans sadly). If you think you know England, but you don’t know anything about English football (translation: soccer) then you don’t really know England. England is much more than Buckingham Palace, high tea, and Oxford; and in many ways, football—and its accompanying hooligans—is just as representative of English identity if not more so. An analogy is like saying you know the U.S. if you know only cowboys and New York City. No—clearly, there is so much more! In fact, I would say you also don’t really know Latin America if you don’t know “futbol.”

I lived in the U.K. for five years (one in Edinburgh, Scotland; and four in Oxford, England) and I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Latin American missiology, and my hometown is Los Angeles (home of the L.A. Galaxy which was David Beckham’s team from 2007-12—in fact I was there in person for Beckham’s first full game with the Galaxy, against the New York Red Bull), so naturally football/futbol must flow through my veins. In fact, it is one of my three favorite sports, the other two being baseball and tennis. Why these three? I think part of it has to do with the fact that these are the three most multiethnic sports in the world, and as a missiologist I am always interested in the idea of the gathering of the nations (though I have a loftier purpose in mind than just sports! But I think it is fascinating that something as seemingly inconsequential as sports brings together the world better than religion or politics or anything else). I love culture, I love international gatherings, and the World Cup—along with the Olympics and the Super Bowl—are the three most-watched sporting events in the world. But I think the World Cup, more than any other sporting event, helps you to understand the world’s religions, politics, and cultures. Like the Olympics, the World Cup is played every four years, but it is always two years before/behind the Olympics. So every other year, I can happily look forward to a wonderful international sporting competition.

 

What’s in a name? Why does everyone else call it football/futbol instead of the U.S. and Australia who call it soccer? Well that’s because the U.S. and Australia already have another sport called “football” so they have to use the word “soccer” to distinguish between them (Australian-rules football, btw, is very different from American football and is quite a spectacle to behold). But ironically, “soccer” actually was coined by the English. Because they used to have similar names for these two sports: rugby football and association football, which they shortened to “rugger” and “soccer” respectively. Of course now the English just call them “rugby” and “football” but the U.S. and Australia took the word “soccer” and ran with it. So if any English person ever makes fun of Americans or Australians for the word “soccer” we can just throw it right back at them and tell them that they invented the term!

 

Here are some personal observations about soccer/football/futbol and the world:

 

-England is the birthplace of sport. The English invented football (and rugby, and cricket, and tennis—though I’d rather not mention curling), while the Scottish invented golf; but football remains the most important athletic contribution of England to the world. This is why they are so angst-ridden whenever they don’t win! It is central to English identity.

 

-Football is nationalism. Unlike the Olympics or other sporting events, the World Cup is hosted by a country, not a city. This breeds tremendous national unity, not just provincialism. So, while it is Rio de Janeiro who will host the 2016 Olympics, it is Brazil who will host the 2014 World Cup. Huge difference. The whole country unites under one flag during the World Cup.

 

-The one exception to the previous point is the United Kingdom. During the Olympics, they fly the Union Flag (it’s only called the Union Jack if it’s flown on a ship) and compete as Great Britain. During the World Cup, they separate into England, Scotland, Wales, and (Northern) Ireland—the British flag is nowhere in sight, but you see prominently displayed the St. George cross (the English flag) instead. There is no love lost between these bitter rivals of England and Scotland. I remember watching the 2006 World Cup in a pub in Edinburgh, and all the Scottish fans were cheering for the Portuguese to defeat the English. When that victory happened, a great roar of triumph went up. Good thing I wasn’t wearing my England “kit” (translation: uniform/jersey) at the time! Now that would have been a cultural faux pas if there ever was one (and I’m sure most Americans would have errantly thought, “What’s the difference? It’s the same country!”). The Scottish feeling of defensive inferiority to the English gets expressed mightily during the World Cup. (Incidentally, it doesn’t go the other way around—the Scottish hate the English but not vice-versa. Andy Murray, the Scottish tennis player who has won two Grand Slam events, best summed up England’s qualified love for Scotland when he said, “When I win, the media calls me British—when I lose, I’m Scottish.”)

 

-Home is where the (trophy) is. For much of the history of the World Cup, home field advantage has carried great weight. Out of 19 World Cups thus far, the host nation has been in the Final Four 12 times, and actually won the World Cup 6 times.   The only time England has won the World Cup—yep, you guessed it—was when they hosted it in 1966 (just mention the year ‘1966’ to any Englishman, and he will beam with pride). Why the advantage of home field? A large part of it has to do with rabid fan support which is greater than anything you’ll ever see in American sports.

 

-Football is not just once every four years. In addition to the national team, there are also the English “clubs” (translation: city, not national, teams), the most important four in the Premier League being Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, and Manchester United (Man U is a bigger deal, and makes more money, than the New York Yankees). I myself was an Arsenal “supporter” (translation: fan), especially under manager Arsène Wenger and “striker” (translation: forward) Thierry Henry, the latter being one of the truly nice respectable guys in sports. Unfortunately Henry moved on to FC Barcelona and then New York Red Bulls, but at least Wenger is still with the club. I’m still waiting for Arsenal to win the “Treble” (translation: “Triple,” which includes the Premier League, FA Cup, and UEFA Champions League trophies, all in the same season, which has only been achieved once in English history—by Sir Alex Ferguson’s Man U team in 1999; Jose Mourinho, “The Special One,” also won an Italian Treble with Inter Milan in 2010 with his victory in the Champions League, combined with the Serie A and Italian Cup trophies).

 

-Sport can be the greatest unifier. Everyone loves football, whether rich or poor, black or white, male or female. It cuts through social stratifications. (This is especially true in Australia, where sport makes this classist country very socially egalitarian). I also remember several years ago when I lived in a certain city on the East Coast, and I desperately wanted to watch the Arsenal vs. Manchester United match, which was a battle of unbeatens that season. I called around, and one local pub said they were airing it at 7am (the equivalent of noon in Britain). But they told me, “You must sneak in the back door” (I assume because they were not licensed to serve alcohol at that time of morning). I walked in at 7:05am, and the pub was filled with townspeople—both British and non-British—wearing their kits supporting their favorite club. It was remarkable, everyone was united by their common interest in the match!

 

-Sport can be the greatest divider. Ugly nationalism can also rear its head. Sven-Goran Eriksson, the enigmatic Swede, was the somewhat successful manager of the English national team for many years. In their bid to desperately secure an English manager as a successor to Eriksson, England decided to reject many other worthy candidates and instead went for the very English—but truly awful—Steve McLaren, who failed to get England qualified for Euro 2008 (the UEFA European Football Championship), one of the first times in history that has happened. The English then realized that talent is better than xenophobia, so they did much better under the direction of manager Fabio Capello, from Italy. Now they are back under an Englishman, Roy Hodgson, so let’s see how that fares.

 

-The ugly team in European football is Spain. They are one of the major world football powers along with Portugal, Uruguay, the Netherlands, Germany, England, Brazil, France, Italy, and Argentina), and they are the most racist country in Europe (ironic, considering that many Spaniards are not exactly “white” but olive-complected, they’ve racially mixed with a lot of indigenous Indians in the Americas, and they’ve had a long history of Africans and Muslims inhabiting their country). Notice that they are the only Western European country not to have a black player on their team. As one example of Spanish ridiculousness, the Spanish basketball team took a team picture at the Beijing Olympics imitating slanted eyes by pulling their eyes back with their hands—and they claimed they were just honoring the Chinese hosts! (See this photo for what I mean—I’m a Laker fan and all, but c’mon Pau Gasol, I can’t believe you participated in that). As another example, Spanish fans are notorious for making monkey noises at visiting black players from other countries who come to play in Spain.

 

-The only two major world football powers never to have won the World Cup are Portugal and the Netherlands. I am rooting for one of them to win this time! Or perhaps an African or Asian country to finally win it for the first time.

 

-The World Cup really lives up to its name. Unlike the baseball “World Series” which really just involves the best of the American teams (though it does have a fair share of international players), the World Cup is a truly global phenomenon. But it was not always that way. For most of its history, it was hosted, and dominated, by Europe and Latin America, alternating between the two continents. In 1994, it finally was hosted by the United States; in 2002, it was held for the first time in Asia (Korea & Japan co-hosted); and last time, in 2010, it was in Africa for the first time in history (South Africa, to be precise). All that needs to happen is for Australia to host it, and then every continent will have had its day (I predict that Australia will host it soon, since North America got it in ’94, Asia in ’02, Africa in ’10, and the Middle East will have it in ‘22). When I was an undergrad at Yale, I remember seeing a World Cup match (don’t call it a “game”!) in ’94 at the Yale Bowl, my alma mater’s stadium (the famous Rose Bowl in Pasadena was modeled after the Yale Bowl, btw). It was Costa Rica vs. Italy, a fabulous matchup, and the Italian supporters in the crowd kept chanting, “Forza Italia!” (“Forward Italy!”). I’ll never forget that—it was my first taste of international soccer and the passion it evokes.

 

-Sport requires insider knowledge of history, e.g. kit colors are often not what you may expect. Of course Brazil and Argentina wear yellow & green, and blue & white, respectively, because those are the colors of their flags. But why does Italy wear blue? Or the Dutch orange? Or Korea red? Or Australia green & yellow? None of those match their flags! You have to be “in the know” to understand: Blue is the color of Savoy, the ruling house of Italy from 1861 until 1946. Orange stands for William of Orange, the Netherlands’ first prince who ushered in the country’s independence from Spain. RED is an acronym for South Korea’s economy: Resilient, Enthusiastic, Dynamic. And the Wattle tree is the national tree of Australia, which has green leaves and yellow flowers. Each team also has their own nicknames, which the media often uses: Spain [“La Furia Roja”], Portugal [“Selecção das Quinas”], the Netherlands [“Oranje”], Germany [“Die Mannschaft”], England [“Three Lions”], France [“Les Bleus”], Italy [“Azzurri”], Brazil [“A Seleção”], Argentina [“Albiceleste”], Japan [“Blue Samurai”], Korea [“Red Devils”], Belgium [“les Diables Rouges” which incidentally is the same name as Korea], Australia [“Socceroos”], and New Zealand [“All Whites” because of their uniform, and their rugby team is “All Blacks” for the same reason].

 

-Sport is fascinating if you know colonial history. In the 1986 World Cup, Diego Maradona scored the two most famous goals in the same match: the infamous “Hand of God” goal, and the “Goal of the Century,” to help Argentina defeat England 2-1–all this in the midst of an Argentina-England dispute over the ownership of the Falkland Islands. So it wasn’t just a battle on the field, it was a battle off the field too! In the last World Cup, England played the USA in the first round, and that made for an interesting match because obviously one is the mother country and the other is the daughter country. Last World Cup, if the Netherlands had won, that would’ve been interesting because they were the colonizer of the host country, South Africa (the language Afrikaans is a variation on Dutch). In this World Cup, not only would a Portugal victory be appropriate (given that it is the mother country of Brazil), but so would a Japan victory because there are more Japanese in Brazil than in any country in the world outside of Japan!

 

-Sport elicits the highest allegiance in many countries. If you think that the greatest sports rivalries are Yankees-Red Sox, or Lakers-Celtics, nothing will prepare you for European and Latin American football (Brazil vs. Argentina is almost as intense as you can get). You know what’s even crazier than the Europeans and Latinos? Australians. That is the most sports-mad country in the world. They’re the only country in the world to play both rugby and football; both cricket and baseball; and are astonishingly good at both the Olympics and World Cup. Watch the Ashes (England vs. Australia cricket) for an example of utter insanity and the most historic sports rivalry.

 

-Sport is religion in many countries. During the 2002 World Cup which was hosted by Japan & Korea, I was living in the U.K. and I remember the first day of the tournament when the English “side” (translation: team) played at what was 8am on a Sunday morning. What happened? All the pubs opened so people could watch, and everybody missed church. And football has even affected the Edinburgh 2010 conference which I attended. This conference was the centenary celebration of the Edinburgh 1910 missionary conference which was held from June 14-23, 1910. Why did we celebrate it June 2-6, 2010, instead? Because the conference organizers didn’t want it conflicting with the World Cup. Again, sadly, sport trumps even theology. This never would’ve happened 100 years ago!

 

-Sport is politics in many countries. Ever see the movie “Invictus”? Nelson Mandela saw the South African rugby team as so important to national identity that he took time out of his busy political schedule to advocate for it—because sport was politics. I’d say that it’s even more true of football than rugby, because rugby (and cricket) is only limited to the “Commonwealth” (translation: the U.K. and former British colonies), while football is in practically every nation on earth.

 

-Sport exposes American exceptionalism. Why are we the only nation in the world that runs on Imperial units instead of Metric, and and plays American football instead of soccer? Is it arrogance or apathy or narrowmindedness? However you slice it, it is not good—and this tendency to not play by the rules of the world often gets us in trouble in other arenas, not just sport. Soccer also highlights Americans’ sports ADD (attention deficit disorder): we desire games that score 20-100 points (American football or basketball). But if the final score is 1-0, or a 1-1 draw, that is unbelievably boring to us. This also explains the decline of baseball in America for the same reasons: lower scores and slower pace of game (since the post-steroids era is no longer putting up monster offense numbers) do not appeal to this ADD generation. It’s sad that people would rather see a cheating PED-fueled Barry Bonds more than pitchers’ duels, no-hitters, and perfect games.

 

-Sport is humorous. I remember in the ’06 World Cup when Germany played Sweden, and the German fans chanted toward the Swedes, “You are nothing but furniture makers!” (think IKEA and you’ll start laughing)

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in Rio de Janeiro’s famous Maracanã Stadium, with my Australian friend Alison and Brazilian friend Mateus

-Sport is deadly serious. I remember being in Rio de Janeiro a few years ago, and I saw a football match at the famous Maracanã Stadium, featuring two Rio teams: Flamengo vs. Botafogo. The fans sit on opposite sides of the stadium, and after the match the police let one side out first, then the other side 30 minutes later, otherwise there will inevitably be fights on the subways and buses. Even more appalling, in the ’94 World Cup, Andres Escobar from Colombia accidentally scored an “own goal” while playing against the United States. Colombia lost that match 2-1. Ten days later, back in his hometown of Medellin, Escobar was gunned down for his mistake.

 

-To gain an appreciation (albeit fictional) of English and international football, watch the “Goal!” movie trilogy. It is about a Mexican-American football player named Santiago who gets recruited to play for Newcastle United, an English club. Then in the second part of the trilogy, he moves to Real Madrid, the richest and most famous club in continental Europe. And in the third installment, he plays for the World Cup. This will give you an idea of three types of football, at the local, continental, and global levels of competition.

 

-Speaking of movies, remember the romantic comedy “Fever Pitch” which came out a few years ago about a Red Sox fan? Well, that was based on a popular book by Nick Hornby (who also wrote the book-turned-movie “About a Boy”) who wrote it about soccer, not baseball! But the word “pitch” (translation: playing field) doesn’t mean the same in Europe as it does in America. So not only did the Americans mess with the sport in the book, and changed the word “pitch” to mean something that a baseball player throws, but when the movie was exported to England, they had to change the title to “The Perfect Catch” so as not to confuse British audiences. Sigh. Truly two countries divided by a common language.

 

 

The title of this blog comes from a book by Franklin Foer called How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization. I have chosen the following select observations from his book:

-“across the world—war had been a metaphor for sports.” (p. 21)

-“the Celtic-Rangers rivalry [the two Glasgow football teams, symbolizing Catholics and Protestants, respectively] represents something more than the enmity of proximity. It is an unfinished fight over the Protestant Reformation… [moreover] they know ethnic hatred makes good business sense.” (pp. 36, 39)

-“the achievement stands: Before Hakoah [a Jewish football club], no continental team had beaten an English club on English soil, the same soil on which the game had been created. There was, however, an unintended consequence of this success. On the team’s 1925 trip, Hakoah players caught a glimpse of New York City, a metropolis seemingly uninfected by European anti-Semitism. It replaced Jerusalem as their Zion, and, over the next year, they immigrated there en masse.” (pp. 74-5)

-“Even in posh West London, perhaps the most yuppie stretch in the whole of Britain, Chelsea [Football Club] still manages to draw a largely working-class crowd. The main difference is that it’s an integrated crowd, labor and management, street cleaner and advertising executive together. In the course of [class-conscious] English history, this may be an earth-shattering development.” (p. 97)

-“Americans call their sporting teams ‘franchises.’ Brazilians would never tolerate that use of the term. It has too many commercial associations with chains of McDonald’s and dry cleaners. Instead, Brazilians call their teams ‘clubs,’ because most are actually clubs.” (p. 116)

-“The Brazilian style is so much more aesthetically pleasing than any other brand of play… To paraphrase the Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s formulation, where the European style was prose, the Brazilian was poetry.” (p. 120)

-“As part of the culture of the Soviet game, players often obtained advanced degrees [so that they can work other jobs]. Besides, only after the arrival of capitalism have players earned salaries that can sustain them through post-playing days.” (p. 149)

-“Italian men are the most foppish representatives of their sex on the planet. They smear on substantial quantities of hair care products and expend considerable mental energies color-coordinating socks with belts. Because of their dandyism, the world has Vespa, Prada, and Renzo Piano. With such theological devotion to aesthetic pleasure, it is truly perplexing that their national style of soccer should be so devoid of this quality.” (p. 168)

-“[a] widely spread thesis holds that the root cause of violence can be found in the pace of the game itself. Because goals come so irregularly, fans spend far too much time sublimating their emotions, anticipating but not ever releasing. When those emotions swell and become uncontainable, the fans erupt into dark, Dionysian fits of ecstatic violence. Barca [FC Barcelona] redeems the game from these criticisms, by showing that fans can love a club and a country with passion and without turning into a thug or terrorist.” (p. 197)

-“humans crave identifying with a group. It is an unavoidable, immemorial, hardwired instinct. Since modern life has knocked the family and tribe from their central positions, the nation has become the only viable vessel for this impulse. To deny this craving is to deny human nature and human dignity.” (p. 198)

-“Iranians crave international soccer because the game links them to the advanced, capitalist, un-Islamic West… In their papers, photo editors blot out the advertising that graces the chests of Western jerseys. But again, there’s only so much damage control that the conservatives can do. They can blot out the ads but not the players themselves. Any photo of David Beckham, for example, with his protean hair always shifting from buzz to Mohawk to ponytail, represents an idea of freedom.” (pp. 230-1)

-“[There is] a more fundamental difference between American youth soccer and the game as practice in the rest of the world. In every other part of the world, soccer’s sociology varies little: it is the province of the working class… The United States…inverts the class structure of the game…children of middle class and affluent families play the game disproportionately.” (pp. 238-9)

 

What to watch for:

Whenever there are at least three teams out of four that are very strong in the same group in the first round of the World Cup, that is dubbed the “Group of Death.” Congratulations to the United States, we are in this year’s Group of Death (Group G) along with Ghana (one of Africa’s top teams), and Portugal and Germany (two of Europe’s top teams). It’ll be a wonder if the U.S. even makes it out of the first round! Group D is not much better: with Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, and Italy, probably only Costa Rica is the weak link—even though they are one of Central America’s best teams.

 

Here is my prediction for the Final Four:

Argentina, Brazil, France, and Spain, with Brazil winning it all because not only are they good—they’re the hosts! That home field advantage is not to be underestimated.

 

What I would like to see:

Either an African nation winning it all (since that continent has never had a World Cup Champion, and it would be highly appropriate given the fact that they hosted it for the first time last time); or an Asian country (South Korea has the best bet of doing so, and in 2002 they were the first Asian team to ever make the Final Four). More realistically, I’d love to see one of the two football powers that have never won a World Cup do it for the first time ever: either the Portuguese, as they have the best player in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo; or even more, I want to see the Dutch being crowned champions. I will be wearing orange, because it’s the color of Dutch Calvinist Protestantism. I would relish a Netherlands-Spain final again, as it would be historically, politically, and religiously fitting if Protestant Netherlands beats Catholic Spain—especially since the Netherlands had to declare independence from King Philip II of Spain in 1581 (on July 26, which is my birthday no less)! In fact, both teams are in Group B so you’ll see them go head-to-head in the first round. And it would be exciting to defeat the defending champions from 2010 and avenge their loss in the final. You see—soccer really does explain the world!

P.S. I love this New York Times article about soccer’s version of moneyball/sabermetrics.