Is the Road to Hell Paved with Good Intentions?

good intentions

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

 

For some reason, many people insist on thinking this proverb* is true, which is unfathomable to me.

*(Not a biblical proverb, just a proverb as in a common saying)

 

Just because something is a common saying doesn’t make it true.

 

Look: if person A tries to do good for me, and person B tries to cause me harm, and both result in a train wreck in my life, I am far more inclined to forgive and be understanding toward A than B. I would think that any logical person would be able to distinguish between action with good intentions and action with malicious intent behind it. But people will just repeat this mantra in their bitterness: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

 

About a year ago I was really convicted by the Lord to make amends with five different relationships that needed reconciling. Just to be clear: in one of these, it was my fault; in one of these, it was their fault; but in all the others, it was really both of our faults. And in all the cases where I shared at least some of the blame, I never had malicious intent. But I decided, no matter whose fault it was, I would be the one to reach out first in reconciliation. So I emailed all five of them. The result was a dismal surprise: all five of them refused to reconcile—and all of them were Christians! Some of them never responded (basically just gave me the silent treatment), and some said the horrible “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” or something of the equivalent.

 

Now, if you know me, if I need reconciliation with someone, even if it is clearly their fault, I will often try to make amends and be the one to extend the olive branch. But especially if they are the first to reach out to me, I will almost always accept their apology, offer my forgiveness, and do the same for them. I mean, 99% of the time I will do this. And I know of almost nothing, short of abuse or loss of life or major breach of trust or violation of a person’s body, that could be unforgivable—and even in those extreme cases, sometimes people still have the power to forgive. (And whatever harm I did, it was nothing even close to those aforementioned). So it was completely shocking to me that none of these five was willing to reconcile with me. Especially since the Christian message is one of forgiveness and reconciliation—I mean, that’s essentially the Gospel.

 

Still, though reconciliation is a two-way street, forgiveness can be a one-way street. So I still choose to forgive. But I still can’t help but hate that awful proverb and stand mystified that people would see action with good intent but bad consequences as equivalent to action with malicious intent. But I suppose there are just things in this world that I have no power to change and I can only pray for the Lord to stir hearts in the right direction. Or for me to, in an adaption of the Serenity Prayer, say: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…”

What Is a Maven?

maven

One of my friends said to me a few years ago, “You are a maven.” Being unfamiliar with the term, I asked what that was, and he said, “Read Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point.”

 

So I did—and discovered that there are certain types of people that make trends “tip” (i.e. become popular, trendy, memetic, viral): the Salesman, the Connector, and the Maven.

 

The Salesman is someone who tries to make something popular out of a desire to make a profit. Steve Jobs would be a perfect example. Though he was hailed as being a visionary for basically creating and popularizing the personal computer, he was really out for #1: to make Apple the next big thing. And he succeeded, big-time.

 

The Connector is someone who knows a lot of people and whose opinion holds powerful sway. Oprah Winfrey is an example par excellence. She is so beloved by the general public, especially women in America, that if she suggests a book to read, it immediately shoots to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.

 

The Maven (derived from the Hebrew word mevin [מבֿי]), meaning “one who understands,” is someone who likes to collect and dispense information. He is not out to make a profit like the Salesman, nor is he as well-connected or popular like the Connector. Rather, he collects and dispenses information for the sheer pleasure that it brings him. That’s me.

 

I love collecting and dispensing information: for example, if someone says to me, “You gotta try the Sea Salt Coffee at 85 Degrees Café,” I immediately write it down and make sure to try it. And once I’ve tried it, and if I love it, I spread the word. (The website Yelp operates on this principle, and that’s why I consult it every time I go to a new restaurant). The sheer delight that I bring others by telling them about this amazing thing is reward enough for me. The biggest drag is telling people who don’t appreciate it—like, “You gotta ride Space Mountain 2 at Disneyland Paris, it’ll blow your mind!” and have someone return saying, “Meh. It was OK.” But if they say, “That was so cool!” then I feel like my work here is done.

 

So it is no surprise I am a professor: because it is all about collecting information (doing research) and dispensing information (teaching). And if I bring enlightenment and learning to my students, seeing them light up is worth more than a million bucks to me. I remember one student, in my History of Missions class, say the most complimentary thing to me once: “Your class is like the movie Inception! Because every time you teach us something, once you make me aware of it I start seeing it everywhere and it’s so eye-opening!” Haha—I love it. My class is like Inception! For example, I said, “The Treaty of Tordesillas divided up the world between the Spanish and Portuguese empires in 1494. The Spanish got to colonize the Western Hemisphere, and the Portuguese got to colonize the Eastern Hemisphere. But the Portuguese were allowed to have one Western colony (Brazil) and the Spanish got one Eastern colony (the Philippines). This is why Filipinos have Hispanic last names. And why they are the only majority-Catholic Asian country.” And this one student said, “OMG! So this is why my roommate, who is Filipina, has the last name Gonzales!”

 

It is also no surprise I like missions. Because missions is taking received information (the Gospel, the Good News, the best news on earth!) and dispensing it to others. Telling the world about God’s good news that he sent his only Son as a sacrifice for our sins and to redeem us to eternal life! This is also why I love this definition of mission, by Sri Lankan missiologist D.T. Niles: “Evangelism is simply one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” It’s not paternalism, it’s not profiteering, it’s not self-centeredness, it’s not shoving it down someone else’s throat: it’s helpfulness and altruism if it’s done correctly.

 

I have to make one caveat, though: in order to be a proper Maven, you have to be as much a learner as a dispenser of information. Because if you don’t learn, you have nothing to dispense. This is why being a Maven is not about being self-centered or a know-it-all with a big head. It is not “I am the center of the universe and everyone must bow at my feet of wisdom!” It is a life of constant learning. Whenever someone tells me something, I not only listen hard, but I write it down. And I take their advice: e.g. “You must read this book, it’s the best!” And I love going back to the person and saying, “You were totally right! Thanks for the suggestion—it was amazing!” That almost always brings a smile to their face. So maybe everyone is a Maven!

 

Legacy: The Measure of a Man

Carey tombstone

Tombstone of William Carey, the “Father of Modern Missions”: despite all his great accomplishments on the mission field (not forgetting the fact that he was a terrible husband), he wanted the inscription to read “A wretched poor and helpless worm on Thy kind arms I fall.”

 

*Although the title uses the male noun, it could just as easily be “Legacy: The Measure of a Woman”—but I’m going to keep it male because it’s written from my perspective and for ease of reading.

 

What defines a man’s life? The entire arc of his life’s accomplishments, or the few bad things in his life? Four examples I can think of from history are Magic Johnson vs. Tiger Woods, and Bill Clinton vs. Richard Nixon.

 

On the one hand, you have the Laker great, the Hall-of-Famer, the man with the million-dollar smile, the inner-city developer, the Dodger owner… who also was unfaithful to his wife and famously contracted HIV. Yet, that episode didn’t seem to tarnish his image and he is now more beloved than ever. On the other hand, you have the near-best golfer of all time (rivaled only by Jack Nicklaus) who lit the world on fire when he came upon the golf scene, became the highest-paid athlete in history, and was the very essence of clean-cut role model… who also was unfaithful to his wife in several much-publicized episodes and eventually made a public and very contrite confession and apology. But everyone withdrew sponsorship from him and he became a pariah.

 

On the one hand, you have arguably the best President in modern history, with the Midas touch who sailed us through a strong economy and times of peace and ushered in the golden age of modern America… who also was unfaithful to his wife in the infamous “Monicagate” scandal. Yet, though nobody will forget Monicagate, Bill’s brand name is still so powerful that people yearn for a return to the glory days of the Clinton administration. On the other hand, you have the man who historians actually say was one of the best Presidents in history who opened up China and put a man on the moon… who got caught in the infamous Watergate scandal. But nobody seems to remember the good that Nixon did, and he is forever branded as one of the worst Presidents in history in popular imagination.

 

What is the measure of a man? And why do people love Magic and Clinton, but hate Tiger and Nixon?

 

I would like to say the answer is repentance. You would think that people would be more inclined to forgive if they see a broken man. But Tiger was broken and Clinton wasn’t very, and people love Clinton and hate Tiger. (Though to be fair, Nixon was very unrepentant and Magic was repentant).

 

The Bible has an answer for the Christian man: faith. Abraham was a liar and is still known as the Father of the Faith (by Jews, Christians, and Muslims!). Moses was a murderer and is hailed as the hero that rescued the Israelites from slavery and brought them to the Promised Land. King David was an adulterer and murderer and is mostly remembered as the “Man after God’s own heart.” Peter denied Jesus three times and is known as “The Rock.” Paul murdered Christians and ended up writing half the New Testament.

 

But clearly, faith is not the answer to whether secular people’s legacies are perceived well or poorly, and whether a man is judged by the overall good things in his life, or the few bad things he has done.

 

I think, in popular opinion, the answer is positivity. When people think about Magic and Clinton, they think of smiles and warm fuzzies. Tiger and Nixon, however, were surly—and so the public was far less likely to forgive them.

 

But I’d like to think there’s more to it than this. And it is a truth that many people in life have a positive overall arc but have done a few things they really are not proud of. So how does one leave a lasting overall positive legacy? And what is the measure of a man? I don’t have an answer at the moment so this blog post is just a musing (not to be confused with amusing…)

Advice for Applying for Grad School in Theology

PhD comics

Earlier this year I wrote a blog post entitled, “A Crisis in Higher Education.”

This is a follow-up blog which contains advice that I give my students when they say they ask me about going for a Ph.D. in theology. Some of this is “insider” information that no admissions counselor will tell you, so hopefully this will be helpful!

 

-First, you must read this article called “My Credentials Gap” in the Chronicle of Higher Education, this article called “The Unending Horror of the Humanities Job Market” in Slate, and this article called “The Disposable Academic” in The Economist. They are eye-opening.

 

tan lines

The rest is my own personal advice:

 

-Does where I get my Ph.D. matter?

In light of the article cited above, yes. Initially. To get your foot in the door. Because if you have no publications, then all you have is the name of your school to go off of. However, once you get your foot in the door, then no, the name of your school does not matter as much. If you’ve published a lot of well-respected stuff, nobody will care where you did your degree(s). But until that point, how “big” your school’s name is counts for a lot because that’s all you have.

Keep in mind when schools will be hiring you, the hiring committee will have a huge pile of applications on their desk. Hundreds. How will they weed through them? Take anyone who does not have a Ph.D. (D.Min. doesn’t count, see below) or equivalent terminal degree, and chuck out their application. Take anyone who does not have a big-enough school name and dump their application in the trash. The hiring committee will do whatever is expedient to narrow that pool of applicants down to a handful, and if you don’t look impressive at first glance, you won’t get a second chance. (See this article “Why We Said No” for an insider’s view into the hiring process). It is a cruel world, and Christian institutions are beholden to the same criteria as the secular world, unfortunately.

Also, I remember being at the last Urbana missions conference and someone from the Christian Emerging Scholars’ Network gave a seminar. He put up these schools on the screen: Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Northwestern.

He asked, “What binds all these schools together?”

The answer: this is where all the nine Supreme Court justices went to Law School.

There are about 200 accredited Law Schools in the U.S. and almost to a T (the lone exception being Northwestern), the Supreme Court justices all hailed from three Law Schools, and all are top-five schools. This seminar leader lamented, “I really hate saying this, because as Christians we’re not supposed to care about things like how big of a name your university is, but the name of your school matters. It really does.” (Incidentally, the one justice who went to Northwestern, John Paul Stevens, retired and Elena Kagan, a Harvard graduate, took his place—thus unequivocally solidifying the Law School Triumvirate’s [Harvard/Yale/Stanford] hegemony on the Supreme Court). Also, do you think it’s a coincidence that 26 British prime ministers attended Oxford?

 

-If I were choosing between a well-known dissertation advisor at a no-name school vs. a no-name advisor at a well-known school, which way should I go?

The latter. Though it might be great to say, “I studied with [insert big-name advisor here],” honestly unless your listener is immersed in the field of theology, he or she probably has never heard of your big-name advisor. But they certainly know the name of your school, and whether it is famous or not. And it is the name of the school that will open more doors.

 

-How do you know if you are called to seminary/ministry?

My former pastor gave me this advice, he said that there are three ways to tell if you’re “called”. He said that he has seen far too many young people go straight from college into seminary without a clear call, and it is a waste of their time and money. So he told me to take a year and be a pastoral intern. And it will help to confirm these three things:

  • Peace—after prayer and reflection, do you still feel that God is calling you to this?
  • Affirmation of others—do people say, “Yes, I can see you in full-time ministry (pastor, missionary, campus staff worker, etc.)?”
  • Bearing fruit—are you producing good fruit in doing ministry?

My year of deferring my seminary education was an immensely helpful one, and gave me a lot of discernment, especially regarding #2 and #3. My pastor certainly gave me great advice!

 

-What’s the difference between an M.A. and an M.Div.? What about a Th.M.?

An M.A. (Master of Arts) is a two-year academic degree. An M.Div. (Master of Divinity) is a three-year practical & academic degree. A Th.M. (Master of Theology) is a one-year addition to an M.Div. (where you write a thesis) to add academic credibility if you’re thinking of going on for a Ph.D. program. You can’t do a Th.M. unless you’ve already done an M.Div. (with a very few exceptions, like Regent College and Fuller Seminary).

 

-Why should you go for an M.Div. + Th.M. when that takes four years total, if you can just do a two-year M.A.?

Because a lot of Christian schools love the M.Div. since it is practical and academic, not just academic. All other things being equal, if you have an M.Div. + Th.M. + Ph.D. (or even just an M.Div. + Ph.D.), you’ll be hired over somebody who has an M.A. + Ph.D. However, if you don’t plan to teach in a Christian school, then by all means just do the M.A. But then don’t do your M.A. at a Christian school, do it at a secular school if you are planning on teaching at a secular school.

 

-What about a D.Min. (Doctor of Ministry)?

It is not an academic doctorate, it is a practical doctorate. It exists mainly as a cash cow for many Christian schools. You almost certainly will not be able to teach with a D.Min.

 

-How can I strengthen my CV?

Diversify your education. Don’t do all your schooling just at Christian schools. If you did a Christian undergrad degree, go to a secular school for your Masters otherwise you’re pigeonholing yourself. However, if you did not go to a Christian undergrad, then by all means do your M.Div. at a strongly evangelical Christian seminary! Only people with a strong Bible college background should even think of going to a “liberal” or “secular” seminary or divinity school, otherwise it is the kiss of death in terms of your faith. Also, try not to do more than one degree in the same school, it looks better if you went to a diversity of institutions otherwise you give off the impression that you can only think one way. So, even if you love Biola, it’s probably not good to have on your resume: B.A. Biola; M.Div. Biola; Ph.D. Biola.

 

-What’s the difference between a British vs. American philosophy of education?

In Britain, they have a pre-professional mentality. Thus, grad degrees are considered bad, because you should’ve learned your trade as an undergrad. If you are doing a grad degree, it means you did poorly as an undergrad.

In America, it’s just the opposite. The more degrees, the better. That’s because we have a concept of “liberal arts” as undergrads—you can study anything, and do anything else later on in life; your major has no necessary correlation with your future job. So it’s almost like Americans have to go on to grad school in order to learn their trade.

Also, in Britain, they consider education to be a right. In America, we consider it a privilege. So for us, we think it’s all right to pay $35,000 per year for an undergrad education, whereas in Britain, they complain if they have to pay “top-up fees” which, last time I checked, was £3000 (about $5000). They were protesting because £3000 was more than they ever had to pay before in their lives! All us American students looked at them complaining, and just shook our heads in disbelief.

 

-Difference between British & American degrees:

British degrees are much shorter than American ones. Three years for an undergrad degree as opposed to four. One year for a Masters instead of two. Three years for a Ph.D. instead of seven.

An American Ph.D. will require you to learn French & German (even if they have nothing to do with your thesis topic), take two years of classes before even starting your dissertation, take a series of comprehensive exams, T.A. classes, and then when you are ABD (“All But Dissertation”), then you can finally work on that beast. In Britain, you start off your degree as ABD! You can start writing that dissertation the day you start your program. The two requirements are so different from each other, it’s almost like they shouldn’t both be called PhDs. The American Ph.D. definitely has more worldwide acceptance, unless you do your Ph.D. at a top-flight British university.

 

-Why should you go to an American degree program, then?

Well, if you go to a major research university, your degree is free. Not only do you not have to pay tuition, but you get a stipend on top of that. Why? Because you are essentially an employee of the university, working as a T.A.

But, notice: this makes it all the harder to get into an American Ph.D. program. It’s so competitive, because it’s free. You have a much better chance of being accepted into a British program.

 

-Why you should not get a British degree:

Depends how good you are with independence. Someone once likened a British degree to being parachuted into the middle of a dark forest and you’re expected to find your way out. If you want guidance, do an American Ph.D. Your British supervisor will not be of much assistance.

Also, the job market: if you apply for a teaching post, all other things being equal, the person with an American Ph.D. will get the job over you. In other words, if you come armed with a British Ph.D. (say, from Oxford), and someone is applying for the same job (with a Ph.D. from, say, Harvard), and you two have the same amount of publications and the same everything, they will hire the Harvard person because they’ll say, “He or she has more teaching experience than you, more languages than you, and overall did a more rigorous Ph.D. than you.” And the hiring committee would be correct. Really, though America’s secondary system of education stinks, there’s no system of higher education in the world better than what the U.S. has to offer. American universities are the richest, strongest, and best in the world, in terms of research, teaching, and resources.

 

-Why you should get a British degree:

International exposure. You become a much better “world” scholar, and not just a narrow-minded parochial American scholar. That being said, unfortunately your international perspective is not very quantifiable, so even though it makes you a well-rounded person, it doesn’t necessarily help your CV.

Freedom & independence. You can run on your own without having your supervisor hold your hand all the way or keep you on a short leash.

The ability to write as a Christian. Even though Britain is only nominally Christian, they have no separation of church & state so everyone still thinks of themselves as Christian. Therefore you can write a Christian dissertation from a faith perspective without getting your hand slapped. It’s much harder to get away with that in an American secular university.

Also, you may think, I don’t want to pay three years of tuition when I can get a free American program! But think about it this way: opportunity costs. If you can get done with your British Ph.D. in three years, you have four more years to generate full-time income, before your American friend even finishes his or her program! And meanwhile they’re making diddly-squat as a grad student (it’s a small stipend for which they’re busting their butt).

Also, if you plan on teaching in a Christian university/seminary, for some reason they love British PhDs. If you are planning on teaching in a secular school, stick with the American Ph.D.

 

-What can you study in seminary?

There are about ten subjects: New Testament, Old Testament, Systematic Theology, Church History, Ethics, Christian Education, Counseling, Spiritual Formation, Homiletics, Missions & Evangelism. Unfortunately, there is a Platonic dualistic relegation to “lower” status of the “practical” subjects as opposed to the “academic” subjects. The first half of the list are “academic” subjects and the last half are “practical.” This is unfortunate, because 1) there should not be a dichotomy, and 2) seminaries exist to train people for practical ministry! Yet the dichotomy exists. Someone once told me that the subject I study, missiology, is one of the “poor boy” subjects of seminary studies. Hmph.

 

-What implications does this have on what to study?

Here are the cold hard facts: Ph.D. programs crank out graduates in numbers far exceeding the number of jobs that are available. As such, you have to play the numbers game. Every seminary needs at least one professor in each of the above subjects. If you go for one of the “academic” subjects, your chances of getting a job are greatly decreased due to the competition. Why make life harder on yourself? The worst of them all is New Testament. The field is so saturated, that you will be fighting against literally hundreds of candidates for each professor position that you apply for. Old Testament is slightly better (people are daunted by the fact that you not only have to learn Hebrew, but also related Ancient Near Eastern languages like Ugaritic, Akkadian, Syriac, Coptic, etc.—in NT studies, you just have to know Greek), but still not easy. But go get a Ph.D. in homiletics, and seminaries will be beating down your door to hire you, because you’d be a rare commodity.

 

-How to choose a dissertation topic:

Your Ph.D. topic must be an original contribution to knowledge. I remember having a conversation with one of my fellow classmates in grad school, and we tongue-in-cheek came up with this list of how to choose the “easiest dissertation topic.” Though this list is not mean to be totally taken seriously, it has enough truth in it to be instructive nonetheless:

1) Pick a person to write on, not a topic. Topics are WAY too broad. Picking a person will keep it narrow, and specificity and narrow scope is a huge key to a successful doctoral dissertation topic. Also, don’t compare two people; that will only double your work load. Just pick one and stick with him/her.

2) Pick a person who has not been written on much. Forget writing on Barth or Calvin, because you will have to read every single dissertation ever written on them, in order to come up with an original contribution to knowledge that hasn’t been touched on before. That being said, don’t pick someone so obscure that nobody cares. They must have some significance.

3) Pick a person who has not written much. Again, avoid people like Barth (do you really want to read all of the Church Dogmatics?), or Aquinas (hello, Summa Theologica!). I’m not saying that you have to pick someone who has written only two books, because that will not be taken seriously, but you don’t have to unnecessarily swamp yourself. Don’t spend all your time reading and forget that you still have to write.

4) Pick a person who has not written in a foreign language. Or at least not a difficult foreign language! Spanish, French, fine. Don’t choose someone who has written extensively in Sanskrit or Arabic or Chinese (unless you already know those languages)!

 

-Advice for finishing your dissertation:

My Ph.D. supervisor gave me two wise words of advice: 1) Your dissertation is not your magnum opus. It is a credential for joining the guild of scholars, similar to how a lawyer needs to pass their bar exam. Just get the thing done so that you can join the academy, and then write your magnum opus later! 2) There are two kinds of dissertations: the perfect dissertation; and the finished dissertation. Again, just get it done.

 

P.S. Here are some differences in U.K. vs. U.S. terminology (after all, we are two countries divided by a common language!):

In America, “doctor” is higher than “professor,” because the former implies that you have a Ph.D. In Britain, it’s just the opposite—“doctor” means you merely have a Ph.D., whereas “professor” means you have tenure and/or an endowed chair. Don’t call a British professor “doctor” otherwise it’s considered highly insulting!

In America, we call a Masters research work a “thesis,” and a Ph.D. research work a “dissertation.” In Britain, the Ph.D. research is called “thesis.”

 

A Review of “Dr. Sun Yat-sen: The Opera”

SYS opera

I just saw a most unique opera: based on the life of Dr. Sun Yat-sen! For those of you unfamiliar with him, he’s like the George Washington of China: basically the Father of the Nation, the leader who shook off the old monarchical system via revolution and became the first President of the new Republic. China’s government was a series of imperial dynasties until 1911, and finally the last emperor abdicated and Sun Yat-sen became the Republic of China’s first President. And he was a Christian!

 

I made the drive all the way from L.A. (12 hours!) just to see it. Why my obsession with Sun Yat-sen? Because he is the only person that both Taiwan and China respect and look up to as the Father of the Nation (my father is from Taiwan and my mother is from China so I have a vested interest in both countries). And because Sun was a Christian. And because I have a sabbatical in 2015 during which I am going to go to China to research his life and write a biography of the man, to be published in 2016 which is the 150th anniversary of his birth.

 

It may seem odd that an opera was written based on his life. I mean, if someone said they were going to do an opera on the life of George Washington, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or somebody like that—wouldn’t it seem a little strange? Because operas are often romantic tragedies and not usually reserved for politician-types.

 

Even more unusually, the opera was held in Santa Fe! I mean, it would make sense that this opera—which was sung completely in Chinese—would make its debut in a place like San Francisco or Los Angeles or New York, cities where there are many Chinese—but Santa Fe?! And yet this is where the American premiere took place. The opera made its worldwide debut in 2011 in Hong Kong, fittingly celebrating the centenary of the founding of the Republic of China, but this was the first time it ever was shown in the U.S.

 

I don’t have an answer for the choice of location but now that I saw the opera I can definitely attest to the fact that Sun’s life makes a great subject for an opera. Though the man was a towering political figure, the composer Huang Ruo wanted to portray the human side of the man, the side that very few people know about: his intimate, personal life, complete with loves and losses—and that’s why Sun Yat-sen is a fitting subject for an opera.

 

The opera revolves around four “loves”: friends, spouse, parents, and country. This reminds me somewhat of the ancient Greeks who had four words for love: philia (friendship), eros (romance), storge (parents/children), and agape (charity, or God’s love), so as you can see there is some definite overlap.

 

The musical is shown in three acts:

 

Act 1 portrays Dr. Sun Yat-sen and his best friend, Charlie Soong. Charlie is trying to raise money to support Sun’s revolution. Therefore this scene is about the love of friends, and the love of country.

 

Act 2 shows Sun Yat-sen meeting Charlie Soong’s daughter, Soong Ching-ling. Sun and Ching-ling fall in love. This is problematic on two levels: the girl is 26 years his junior—and, Sun is already married! When Sun was very young, he had a feudal arranged marriage to Lu Mu-zhen whom he never loved; and it must also be understood that in this time it was very common for Chinese men to have a wife and concubines too, so for Sun to have both women was not without precedence. But to complicate matters, Charlie Soong feels betrayed by his friend Sun: after supporting his revolution, this is the thanks he gets—to have Sun take away his daughter inappropriately! So this act is about three loves being severely tested: the love of spouse (Sun and Lu, and Sun and Ching-ling), the love of parents (Charlie and Ching-ling), and the love of friends (Sun and Charlie). Ultimately, Sun and Lu divorce, and Sun and Ching-ling marry.

 

Act 3 shows Sun Yat-sen winning the Revolution with Ching-ling by his side. Charlie, meanwhile, is dying, and Sun and Ching-ling go to see their friend and father, respectively. They are all reconciled, thus love of friends and love of parent are restored. Sun and Charlie reaffirm their political alliance as mutual revolutionaries, so love for country is also highlighted, as is Sun and Ching-ling’s romantic love.

 

At first, I was baffled that so much of Sun Yat-sen’s life was excluded from this opera—then I realized that the composer Huang Ruo was intentionally trying to leave out everything “known” and focusing on the lesser-known sides of Sun (happily, the sides that just happen to make for a great opera!). In a way, this is kind of like the Apostle John who wrote his Gospel filling in all the information that the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) hadn’t already said. John didn’t feel the need to rehash familiar territory, and neither did Huang in telling Sun’s life.

 

One question this opera wrestles with is: how does a person balance the various loves in their life? I often hear Christians prioritize their three loves this way: God must come first, then family, then ministry/job. In the operatic narrative, Sun Yat-sen, obviously decided to put spousal love (for Ching-ling) over his love for his friend Charlie. And Ching-ling also put her love for Sun over her love for her father Charlie. But interestingly, in the final act, Sun put his love for his country over his love for even his wife!

 

Sun and Ching-ling’s spousal love is further complicated by the fact that Sun’s first wife, Lu Mu-zhen, is a relic of a bygone era. She has bound feet, which in imperial China was a symbol of beauty, but it makes her nearly unable to walk. In contrast, Sun Yat-sen is a man of the future, not of the past: he is a revolutionary hero who will overthrow imperial China yet he is saddled with a wife who is the very symbol of the old order. She not only figuratively can’t keep up with her husband, but quite literally can’t even walk to keep up with his stride. In a poignant scene in Act 2, she grants him a certificate of divorce, releasing him to marry Ching-ling. She laments that in the next life she would like to marry an “ordinary man”: one who is simple but has time to spend with her every day. In contrast, Ching-ling is starry-eyed over Sun because he is that revolutionary hero whom she admires. In Act 3, Sun makes clear that because Ching-ling has chosen him, she also must accept the fact that she has chosen a life where her husband will have his attention divided. This reminds me of 1 Corinthians 7:7,32-33 where the Apostle Paul says: “ I wish that all were as I myself am [single]…. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.” Sacrifices need to be made: nobody can give full attention to their spouse while at the same giving full attention to a noble cause like the overthrow of an oppressive regime, or the mission of God. Ching-ling accepts this reality because, unlike Lu, she doesn’t want to marry an ordinary man, she wants a great hero for a husband even if she has to share his attentions with a cause.

 

In reality, historically Charlie Soong had three daughters: in addition to Ching-ling, another daughter married Sun Yat-sen’s successor, Chiang Kai-shek, the ruthless generalissimo of Sun’s armies; and the final one married the richest man in China. So there is a saying about these three daughters: one married for love of money, one married for love of power, and one married for love of China! Though it would’ve unnecessarily complicated the plot of this opera, it would’ve been fascinating to incorporate all three daughters, showing their contrasting loves.

 

One thing which bothered me was that they completely left out Sun Yat-sen’s Christian faith. There was no mention of it in the opera, and that was a hugely important part of his life—in fact, it was what led him to the principles of revolution in overthrowing imperial China. Where was Sun’s love of God in all this? This will be an integral part of my book.

 

Santa Fe opera

A few observational notes:

 

-The venue: the Santa Fe Opera House is gorgeous. Built for the dry warm climate of the Southwest, it is a state-of-the-art theater with no walls, so it’s almost completely exposed to the elements. I saw the opera on July 30, 2014—the next day, however, there were flash floods and torrential downpours throughout much of New Mexico. I guess the weather is not always “perfect” in these parts and I’m glad the performance wasn’t on July 31!

 

-The language: it was done entirely in Chinese, with English translation (the Santa Fe Opera House has individual digital screens in front of each seat which provides the subtitles). The language made this all very interesting on several levels: 1) Though almost all the men in the cast were Chinese, the women were almost entirely Caucasian—and they had to learn to sing all in Mandarin! But I guess this is not too mind-boggling, considering that most operas are in German or Italian or French, so performers are used to singing in foreign languages anyway. 2) The opera was mostly in Mandarin (China’s official language), but the love scenes were all sung in Cantonese (Sun’s native local dialect, thus his “heart” language). How appropriate that love for country and love for spouse each had their own language! 3) For some mysterious inexplicable reason, at the last minute the lead performer Warren Mok (who portrays Sun Yat-sen) was recalled to China—leaving his understudy, a Caucasian man named Joseph Dennis, to sing the lead in all the performances! Dennis, to his credit, did an outstanding job.

 

-The set: It made great use of Chinese elements like bamboo scaffolding and, symbolically, broken and half-buried Terracotta Warrior statues, showing the passing of the imperial age of China. They even used a spinning stage to great effect, especially in Act 2 which takes place in Japan.

 

-The clothing: All authentic-looking, though what might surprise audience members most is that the infamous “Mao suit” is actually a “Sun suit.” It was invented by Sun Yat-sen and various elements on the clothing are representative of Chinese thought and culture. For example, it has four pockets symbolizing the four Chinese virtues: propriety, justice, honesty, and honor.

 

-East meets West: Sun Yat-sen was a man of both hemispheres. Though he was born in China, he went to medical school in Hawaii, spent significant time in Los Angeles and London, as well as Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Nanjing. This East-West fusion was evident in the cast who were half American and half Chinese, as well as in the instruments used by the orchestra, which were also half Western and half Chinese. The composer himself, Huang Ruo, is a Chinese national who earned his Ph.D. from Juilliard School of Music in New York City.

 

SYS opera stage

The ending of the opera was very thought-provoking. Sun kept singing, “I have had 30 years of trying for revolution, and I have failed 20 times. Will revolution ever succeed? I do not know.” And yet, though he died prematurely of cancer in 1925 and never fully realized his dream during his lifetime of seeing a peaceful united China, in this way he was very similar to the biblical character of Moses, the great leader of the Israelites who led his people toward the Promised Land but died just short of seeing it realized in his lifetime. It makes me wonder: if Sun had not died early, what would’ve happened? Would Mao not have come to power and ravaged China as he did? Would Sun have tempered Mao’s ambitions? At the end of the opera, Sun sings, “This is not about me; it’s about the people.” But almost in contradiction, a huge statue of Sun seated on a chair, Lincoln Memorial-like, appears on stage, as if to belie his words. Perhaps it really is a case of “The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:11-12).

 

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!