Maundy Thursday

Jesus washing feet

Tonight I experienced, with some good friends and a dear family from Biola who “adopted” me, a beautiful Maundy Thursday church service. Maundy Thursday is often an overlooked holiday in light of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, but I love it and think it’s very important, because it has an anticipatory feeling and prepares us for the death and resurrection of our Lord.


The name of the day comes from the Latin word mandatum which means “commandment”—because on the night that Jesus was betrayed, he told his disciples: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)


Interestingly, in the Gospel of John, unlike the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the wine and the bread are replaced with the footwashing. Despite the fact that John is by far my favorite Gospel, this was a detail which I was not aware of until I was older, and it’s striking that there is no mention of the wine and the bread in John. It makes me wonder if the footwashing has the same significance as the Lord’s Supper, namely signifying the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. But it doesn’t seem to suggest such a thing.


Jesus spoke this “new commandment” while he was washing his disciples’ feet. So perhaps the footwashing is more akin to baptism? And yet Jesus differentiates baptism from footwashing when he said, ““The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean…” (v. 10).


So footwashing almost seems to be a third sacrament. Some churches (though a minority) do consider it to be such, because not only is it commanded by our Lord himself (one of the criterion for something to be a sacrament), but it is also done by Jesus himself to show us by example (another criterion for something to be a sacrament). I’ve been to some Maundy Thursday services where there is actual footwashing involved, and I think it’s beautiful.


But the “new commandment” bit has always baffled me: is love a new commandment? I thought it was the Great Commandment and is as old as the Old Testament itself. The more I ponder the text of John 13, I realize that it is the “pay it forward” aspect which is new.


Jesus divested himself of power and humbled himself. He gave of himself freely and expected nothing in return. And yet at the same time, he requires much from us. He said:

“Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am.  If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”


I think I have a hard time knowing how to love properly. Sometimes I demand too much from the other person. But that is not how Jesus told us to love—he told us to serve. Sometimes I think that love is a one-way street. But that also is not a Biblical way to love—a relationship goes both ways. Jesus taught us to give freely, to live humbly, and to expect nothing in return. And yet, at the same time, ironically he wants our whole life. But how? Already in giving of himself he gives far more than we ever could repay to him. When we give back to him, it is not out of indebtedness but out of joy and gratitude—and the way Jesus asks us to “give back” to him is to love others (like in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matt. 25: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”) The first greatest commandment leads to the second greatest commandment. This is why the Apostle Paul, chief of sinners and murderer of Christians, said, “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish.” (Rom. 1:14) Because God rescued him from the pit of hell, he felt the need to “pay it forward.”


I can give to others, likewise, because Jesus has already given way more to me than I ever deserved. So if I give my love to someone else and they don’t return it, then I have no cause for complaint. And if that happens, I can take comfort in the fact that I am identifying with my Lord what it must have felt like when he was on the cross, experiencing the scorn from all the people who betrayed him—which includes myself if I have to be honest.


The Inaugural Yale Asian Alumni Reunion


This past weekend I attended the first-ever Yale reunion for Asian alumni. It was interesting because most reunions bring together people joined by graduating class. A week ago, however, I was in Oxford for a reunion which united people via college rather than graduating class; and this time I was in Yale for a reunion which united people via ethnicity rather than graduating class. Meeting alumni who were much older and much younger than me was fascinating.


The last decade of my life, I have dedicated my research and ministry largely to Latin America: I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the subject, I’ve been a missionary there, and I’ve been a member and proponent of the Latin American Theological Fellowship.


However, in this past year I have felt myself gravitating back toward my roots: Asia. I did my undergrad degree in Chinese history, I want to write my next book on Sun Yat-sen (the Father of Modern China), and would love to move to Singapore or Hong Kong to live and work.


Yale has had a long history with Asia, especially China. The Yale-China Association, founded in 1901, is one of the oldest of its kind, and originally was named the Yale Foreign Missionary Society. As someone who is a missiologist, and who is a Yale alumnus, this makes me happy. Yale also happens to be one of the only secular universities in the nation which has an endowed professorship in missiology! (Currently held by Prof. Lamin Sanneh, who is the D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity at Yale Divinity School, the post formerly held by Kenneth Scott Latourette, one of the greatest missiologists in American history). The impetus for the founding of Yale-China was the martyrdom of Horace Tracy Pitkin, a Yale graduate who was a missionary to China and who died during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion. A monument and plaque dedicated to Pitkin can be found in the Woolsey Rotunda at Yale.


The history of the association between Yale China goes back even further. Yung Wing graduated from Yale in 1854, and was the first Asian to ever graduate from any U.S. university. He subsequently became a translator for American missionaries in China, and finally at the end of his life returned to Connecticut where he died and is buried at Hartford Cemetery. Later a public elementary school in New York City’s Chinatown was named after Yung Wing.


Yung Wing made an appearance at the Yale Asian Alumni Reunion!

Speaking of education, in 1906 Yale established the Yali School in Changsha, Hunan province, which today is one of the top high schools in the world. And just last Fall (2013), Yale joined forces with the NUS (National University of Singapore) to establish a new college in Singapore: Yale-NUS College.


The Yale-China connection runs so deep that Chinese president Hu Jintao, in 2006, visited the U.S. and chose only one American university to visit: Yale. You can read his speech here and watch it here.


In our inaugural Yale Asian Alumni Reunion this past weekend, we were treated to a fantastic lineup of speakers (all Yale alumni): Amy Chua (“tiger mom” and Yale Law professor), Indra Nooyi (CEO of PepsiCo and ranked by Forbes as one of the top 10 most powerful women in the world), David Henry Hwang (Tony Award-winning playwright, especially known for M. Butterfly), Gary Locke (former governor of Washington state—in fact the first-ever Asian American governor of any mainland U.S. state—and U.S. Ambassador to China), Eric Liu (author of the critically acclaimed The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker), Karen Narasaki (civil rights activist), and Vijay Iyer (renowned jazz pianist and 2013 MacArthur Fellow). Three other Yale Asian alumni who did not show up but I would’ve loved to see would’ve been: Maya Lin (renowned architect, especially known for creating the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C.); Robert Lopez (one of the only twelve people in history to win the EGOT); and Brenda Hsueh (screenwriter for the hit T.V. show How I Met Your Mother). The last two were my contemporaries/classmates at Yale. [Though not Asian Americans, other famous classmates of mine at Yale included Josh Saviano from The Wonder Years (he was in Branford College with me), Sara Gilbert from Roseanne (she was in my Art History section), and Kingman Brewster IV (he was my next door neighbor in my dorm), the grandson of Kingman Brewster Jr. the former President of Yale. Actress Jordana Brewster, also a Yalie, is Kingman IV’s cousin.]


Another prominent Yale Asian alumnus is C.Y. Lee (Yale class of 1947) who wrote the book Flower Drum Song off of which the eponymous Rodgers & Hammerstein musical was based in 1958 (the movie version came out in 1961). David Henry Hwang reimagined the musical for a modern audience in 2002 when it enjoyed another Broadway run as a revival. To this day, Flower Drum Song remains the only Broadway musical about Asian Americans.


Despite the myth of Asian Americans being the “model minority,” Jane Hyun pointed out in her book Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians that we are very underrepresented in politics, sports, business leadership, and media—or at least they are not proportional to our educational attainments. Santa J. Ono also wrote a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education last year (October 28, 2013) called “Why So Few Asians Are College Presidents.” Other than Jeremy Lin, I can’t think of any other major Asian American prominent in sports (other than Tiger Woods who is half Thai). Other than Gary Locke, no other prominent Asian American in politics comes to mind other than Bobby Jindal (governor of Louisiana) who is Indian-American. And other than Jim Yong Kim (former President of Dartmouth College), no Asian American has been a prominent university president in the U.S.


In another vein, the recent #cancelcolbert trend by activist Suey Park also highlights the fact that Asian Americans seem to be “easy pickings” when it comes to racism as opposed to other racial groups.


Next month I have the privilege of being one of 150 Asian American Christian leaders to go to the White House for a briefing and the National Asian Prayer Breakfast. Black Christian leaders, and Hispanic Christian leaders, have been invited to the White House in the past, but never before Asian Christian leaders. This is going to be a historic event where we will hopefully have our voice heard in a sphere where we are sorely underrepresented: politics.


Not only that, Christianity (where Asians have been actually quite well represented—for example, the Lausanne movement’s new chairman is Michael Oh, the director of InterVarsity’s Urbana missions conference is Tom Lin, and of course the largest church in the world is in Korea), there still is much lack of understanding and discrimination. Infamously, a decade ago, the Southern Baptists’ LifeWay Christian Resources published a series of offensive (to Asian Americans) VBS curricula called “Rickshaw Rally” and “Deadly Viper.” Rick Warren and Exponential recently have made some faux pas regarding stereotypical portrayals of Asians—with Warren handling it badly by refusing to apologize (or apologizing badly) and Exponential actually handling it well by apologizing immediately and sincerely. This prompted Asian American Christian leaders to write “An Open Letter to the Evangelical Church” of which I was an early signatory. And today, we are campaigning to free Matt & Grace Huang, two Asian American Christians from Southern California who have been wrongly imprisoned in Qatar on trumped-up charges.


Hopefully, at our White House briefing and Prayer Breakfast, we Asian American Christian leaders can bring to the fore some issues that the intersection of our ethnicity and faith uniquely highlights, and maybe speak to the political sphere what the aforementioned “Open Letter” spoke to the religious sphere.

The Best Burger in L.A.


I am at a reunion at my alma mater, Yale, which is located in New Haven, Connecticut. New Haven may have been an obscure city if not for Yale University, but it is also famous for two other things: pizza and the hamburger! I was an undergraduate student at Yale, and I loved the pizza. New Haven-style pizza is, in my humble opinion, better than all others. I’ve had pizza in New York (I’ve been to the birthplace of the American pizza, Lombardi’s, as well as Grimaldi’s which is the famous one under the Brooklyn Bridge); Chicago (likewise, I’ve been to the birthplace of deep-dish pizza, Pizzeria Uno’s, as well as tried the other famous ones like Gino’s East, Lou Malnati’s, and Giordano’s); and I’ve even had a lot of pizza in Italy (though admittedly I’ve never been to Naples). But my favorite in all the world is still New Haven-style. It is similar to New York-style in that it is thin crust, but unlike NYC which garnishes it with a little mozzarella, tomato slices and basil, New Haven-style can have toppings ranging from white clams (try Pepe’s Pizza) to mashed potatoes (Bar Pizza) to the hedonistic “Italian Bomb” (Modern Apizza), though my favorite New Haven establishment is Sally’s Pizza. New Haven-style pizza is irregularly shaped, slightly charred, brick oven-baked, with melty gooey cheesiness all around. People from New York City drive up to New Haven just for the pizza (that’s a 2-hour trip). That’s saying something.

Louis' Lunch

But I digress. This blog is not about pizza, but about hamburgers. There is a little shack of a place in New Haven called Louis’ Lunch, and it is the birthplace of the American hamburger. You would never know it was there if you drove by it, it’s so small. But there is always a line out the door. Once you go inside, they have these original vertical grills in which they place the juicy patties, cooked just like they did when they opened in 1895. In lieu of buns they use slices of toast, because what we know as “hamburger buns” did not exist back then. As the purists that they are, they keep things exactly the same. No condiments are allowed—in fact, if you ask for ketchup or mustard or anything, they will get mad at you. You are only allowed to have cheese, tomatoes, and onions in your burger, which serve as your “condiments.” And no prices are listed—they charge you based on how much they like you—so cooperate nicely and you will be just fine. There is a sign on the wall which sums up their philosophy nicely: “This is not Burger King, you can’t have it your way.” Despite this “Soup Nazi” reputation, people flock to it, because it’s the original. CNN recently ranked the top five burgers in the country as (in no particular order): Hodad’s Burgers in San Diego, Ann’s Snack Bar in Atlanta, Triple XXX in Indiana, Phillips Grocery in Mississippi, and of course Louis’ Lunch at Yale.


Now to the point of this blog—I want to talk about burgers found in Los Angeles, my hometown. I’m not a huge meat eater, but burgers are about as American as you can get, and I had to find the most legendary burger in the City of Angels. Below are what I think are the top six burgers in L.A. You might be thinking something similar to the dialogue in the movie Two Weeks’ Notice when Sandra Bullock’s character says to her boss, “Honestly, I think you are the most selfish person in the world!” to which Hugh Grant’s character replies, “Well that’s just silly, have you met every person in the world?” Similarly, how can I list my top six burgers in L.A.—have I tried every burger in L.A.? No, of course not. But going off of websites, blogs, and word-of-mouth, I narrowed it down to a manageable number, and came up with this list of my top ten:

McDonalds Downey

10) McDonald’s

Hold on—before you write me off as “off my rocker,” there is a reason for this choice. I’m talking specifically about the branch that is located in the city of Downey, one of the suburbs of Los Angeles. I add this to the list more as a point of historical curiosity rather than a quality burger, because Downey has the oldest extant McDonald’s in the world. They’ve kept the old-style sign (it has the original mascot, Speedy—not Ronald McDonald!), and there is a great McDonald’s museum attached to the place, where you can trace the history of this most famous of fast-food chains. This deserves to be on the list simply for historical reasons—and you gotta experience it for the atmosphere (though the food is the same as any other McDonald’s).


9) Five Guys

OK, admittedly this is not an L.A. chain. This is a Washington D.C.-based franchise, but they did open a couple of stores in Los Angeles. It has often been dubbed the “East Coast In-N-Out Burger.” I took that as a challenge. It actually is a really good burger, but it’s no In-N-Out. But it’s almost like comparing apples and oranges. In-N-Out is quite a simple burger; Five Guys loads on the toppings. If you ask for “The Works” or “All the Way” you get: Mayo, Lettuce, Pickles, Tomatoes, Grilled Onions, Grilled Mushrooms, Ketchup, Mustard, Green Peppers. And you could get more free toppings upon request. The bun is very soft; almost too soft. But it’s a flavor explosion in your mouth because of all the toppings. That is what makes it a good burger, not so much the meat (which is not bad)—but it’s just the quantity of stuff on top of the meat that distinguishes this burger.


8) The Counter

This trendy chain has an old-school feel to it, established around a build-your-own-burger concept. I was actually overwhelmed by the options (apparently, there are 312,120 possible permutations of burger, once you decide what kind of meat, cheese, condiments, and toppings you want), so I just went with their standard “Counter Burger” which has provolone, crispy onion strings, sautéed mushrooms, and sun-dried tomatoes. It’s a nice combination of unusual things (provolone instead of American cheese, crispy onions instead of grilled, sun-dried tomatoes instead of regular). The concept is cool, but this burger didn’t knock my socks off, so for the price I’m paying, I’d rather get one of the four I ranked above this.


7) Slater’s 50/50

It’s called this because the meat patty is 50% beef and 50% bacon. Sounds amazing, right? How can anyone go wrong with bacon? (Unless you’re Jewish or Muslim of course, in which case you don’t eat pork—and thus are missing out on a whole lot of awesomeness). The problem with this 50/50 concept, though, is that bacon tastes best when it’s crispy. And when you grind it up with the beef, though you may get the bacon flavor, you don’t get the texture. It stays soft within the patty. So, while this is a really good burger, and the concept of the 50/50 patty is certainly creative, I think they should’ve just stuck with the original way of doing things: a meat patty with crispy bacon on top. Thus you get the best of both worlds. Sometimes gimmicky doesn’t help.


6) Haven Gastropub

Not strictly in L.A. proper, this is located in Orange County—in fact, in the city of Orange itself. Downtown Orange is a trendy happening place these days (especially right around the Orange Circle), and Haven fits right in. The gourmet burger has pickled red onions, roasted red bell peppers, wild arugula, and St. Agur blue cheese (my dislike for blue cheese probably biases me a bit against this burger, like it does for Father’s Office below…)


5) Pie ‘n Burger

This Pasadena establishment is a diner which feels like it has been around forever. The inside is charming, like something out of the 1960s (even the cash register is an antique, and it’s cash-only), and it is one-of-a-kind—all the other burgers on this list have multiple locations, but Pie ‘n Burger is an original. I grew up in the Pasadena area, so I thought this restaurant was only famous locally, but apparently people all over L.A. know about it. The burgers are wonderful, with Thousand Island dressing, pickles, and lettuce—similar to an In-N-Out burger except without the tomatoes. And with a homemade feel to them—they’re really messy and tend to fall apart, but really tasty. The “Pie” in the name of the restaurant is because that’s what they serve for dessert. It’s great as a way to end your meal, it doesn’t matter if you blueberry, peach, banana cream, or another kind of pie—it’s all good. Just make sure you run a marathon the next day to burn off all those calories you just took in.


4) In-N-Out

OK, how do I even describe this burger which is so familiar to every Angeleno? It’s just simply the best fast food hamburger in the world. I don’t know how they do it because it’s so simple, but it tastes fresh and custom-made—but I actually think the secret to its deliciousness lies in the bun. It’s lightly crispy/toasty, and that contrasts so nicely with the soft beef patty. I think it still tastes as good as it did when I first tried it. Oh, and for those of you non-Californians who don’t know, there is a “secret menu” that’s not listed on the regular menu—I always ask for my burger with grilled onions, and you can also get it “Animal Style” among other things. And, like Chick-Fil-A, it’s owned by Christians, which just ups it another notch in my book (look for references to John 3:16, Nahum 1:7, Proverbs 3:5, and Revelation 3:20 on the cups, wrappers, and bags of fries).


3) Father’s Office

This place is what is known as a “gastro-pub”—a pub which serves food, so it’s not exactly a restaurant. And for those of you who are underage, unfortunately you can’t go inside as they check IDs. Well, I didn’t go for the beer but for the burger, which many of my friends swear is the “best burger in L.A.” Obviously I didn’t think so, as I listed it as #2 on my list, but it’s pretty darn amazing. First of all, it’s unusually shaped because it’s not round—it’s served on a soft French baguette so it looks like an oval torpedo sandwich. Inside, they put two kinds of cheese: gruyere and blue cheese; plus arugula, and caramelized onions. These toppings make it truly “gourmet.” It feels like an upper-class burger. And the beef is really superb. Why did I put it not as my #1? One major reason is because I don’t like blue cheese. Another reason is that they are more “Soup Nazi” than Louis’ Lunch: they don’t let you alter the burger at all (and no condiments allowed)—so I was stuck eating it as it was. I think what also detracted from my experience is that this place is always packed, and you can hardly find a seat (it’s self-seating), so it’s difficult to enjoy your meal in such a chaotic atmosphere. But I guess if you like blue cheese, you would love this burger to no end.


2) Umami Burger

Most people think that there are only four tastes that the tongue can sense: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. However, in 1908 a Japanese scientist named Dr. Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University discovered that we actually have a “fifth taste”—what he called umami. In English, we would call it “savory.” People confuse it with “salty” but umami is actually something different. Salty is neutral—it can be a pleasant or unpleasant taste. Bitter and sour are usually unpleasant, and sweet and umami are usually pleasant. This “fifth taste” is the type of flavor you would get from MSG, but other things can produce the umami flavor too, like tomatoes, meat, broth, and teriyaki sauce. Though the Japanese recognized umami 100 years ago, Westerners did not legitimize it until the 1980s. Today, a burger chain has capitalized on this by creating the Umami Burger. They scientifically researched how to target your umami taste buds, and I think they nailed it. There is something so sublimely delicious about this burger. Their classic burger has grilled onions, shiitake mushrooms, and an unusual crispy parmesan cheese thing inside. I don’t even know how to describe it. You can also get variations on the Umami burger, such as the Truffle burger, the Port & Stilton burger, and the Earth burger (vegetarian). Even their fries have ketchup which targets your umami taste buds. Amazing. One warning though: the burgers are a little bit small (typically Japanese), unlike Father’s Office which has fairly large burgers. But it is quality, not quantity, that I was after, so to me this beats out Father’s Office. Oh yes, and another bonus is that you can order “Mexican Coke” here. In Mexico, they make Coke with real sugar, not with high fructose corn syrup as they do in the United States. Mexican Coke tastes so much better! I’m glad they take the effort to import it.


1) The Back Abbey

Located in the suburb of Claremont, the Back Abbey is another gastro-pub (resembling a Belgian monastery) but it serves, in my humble opinion, the best burger in all of L.A. Their signature burger has gouda cheese, mustard aioli sauce, caramelized onions, and crispy bacon, all on a soft brioche bun. I don’t know how they do it, but it just has the best combination of pleasing flavors. Whether or not you think this deserves the top spot is up to you—but I recommend you try it.


So there you have it. For some reason, three of these (The Counter, Father’s Office, Umami) originated in the West Side of L.A., especially around the Santa Monica area. I don’t know why the center of gravity might be out there, but perhaps it has to do with the trendiness/hipsterness of that side of town. Also be sure to try the sweet potato fries that many of these places serve up.


P.S. Honorable mention goes to:

The Foundry

Standing Room

25 Degrees

Burger Lounge

The Apple Pan

G Burger

Hole in the Wall Burger Joint

Hawkins House of Burgers

The Habit Burger Grill

26 Beach

True Burger

Why Japan & Britain Are Alike



I have a theory, which I have held to for some time now, that Japan is the Britain of Asia. Or perhaps the other way around—Britain is the Japan of Europe. Why? There are a number of striking similarities:


-They both are major island nations off the coast of their respective continents.


-They both regard themselves as culturally and economically superior to their continental neighbors.


-They are strong, solemn, polite cultures which are highly educated.


-They are two of the most expensive countries in the world (I don’t know which has a higher cost of living—London or Tokyo)!


-They both have had extensive empires—Japan at one point had conquered half of Asia, and Britain at one point had conquered half the world.


-Both the kings of England and the emperors of Japan have ruled by “divine right.”


-Historically they both have had a feudal system of lords, vassals, kings/emperors, and knights; but now, both are parliamentary monarchies.


-They both drive on the left side of the road (aside from Britain and its former colonies such as Hong Kong, Singapore, India, Kenya, Australia, etc.), the only countries in the world that drive on the left side are Japan and Thailand.


-The reason they both drive on the left is linked to their feudal system. When you have knights (in Japan they were called samurai) who wield their lances/swords with their right hand, they necessarily have to charge at each other, while on horseback, riding on the left side of the road.


-They both have crests and coats of arms for their family names.


-They are both tea-drinking nations, though neither were originally so. Japan derived its tea culture from China; Britain stole its tea-drinking habit from India—notice that all “British” teas are called Darjeeling or Assam (regions of India) or Ceylon (which is Sri Lanka).


-Both countries have fairly bland food.


-People in both countries are stereotyped as having bad teeth.


(Don’t get me wrong—I happen to love both countries! I think the U.K. and Japan are two of my top five favorite countries in the world. I don’t really mean this blog to be a negative critique. But I think we do have to realize that what people love about Japan & Britain—the wealth, power, economic prosperity, and high culture—are often due to building on the backs of oppressed people. Just saying.)


Of course this analogy starts to break down after awhile—after all, the two are different countries. But the parallels are interesting nonetheless.


P.S. A missionary in Japan, after hearing the above theory from me, independently confirmed this by saying, “I’ve thought the same thing. But I would add that Korea is like Italy.” He cited all the same reasons as me for why Japan is like the U.K., and when I asked why Korea is like Italy, he said: “Both are famous for their zesty food, both love garlic, both people have really fiery passionate personalities, both are peninsulas, both are into art and culture, and contribute greatly to music.”  So there you have it.


Or, perhaps Scotland is like Korea! Certainly Scotland and Korea have no great love for England or Japan, respectively, and have seen them as oppressive “bully” neighbors. Plus, Scotland and Korea have probably been the two greatest missions-sending countries in the world, per capita. They are small nations who have made tremendous contributions to the cause of world missions. And both Scotland and Korea have a Presbyterian (read: Calvinist) heritage. Just goes to show, it is a false premise to say that the doctrine of predestination precludes missions! Quite the opposite, in fact. And William Carey, the Father of Modern Missions, was a Calvinist.

Would Jesus forgive Hitler and Pol Pot? (or, Sympathy for the Devil)


This beautiful memorial stupa at Choeung Ek in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, belies the fact that it marks the site of the most infamous of the Killing Fields. The stupa is filled with the skulls of the murdered victims.

A few months ago I was in Cambodia and I visited the capital city of Phnom Penh. Unfortunately one of the things that put this city “on the map” was the so-called Killing Fields—when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime ruled from April 17, 1975, until 1979—3 ½ years of terror where he tried to create a “pure” communist society and killed anyone who was educated or skilled or who had “soft hands” or wore glasses or who were relatives of the killed (because he didn’t want anybody to take revenge). He only wanted the peasants to remain, and in so doing sent Cambodia back to the Stone Age. He killed 3 million of the 8 million people in Cambodia!


Two of the places to visit associated with this are: 1) In the center of the city is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum S-21 (Security Prison 21), built in a former school. S-21 is merely the most infamous of the many “concentration camp” sites in the city (kind of like how Auschwitz is merely the most infamous of the many Nazi concentration camps which killed Jews). 2) On the outskirts of the city are the Killing Fields, the most infamous of which was Choeung Ek, one of over 300 killing fields. What a sobering experience that was. Today there is built a huge stupa in the center, filled with skulls of the deceased, and sites of mass graves, and a “killing tree” where soldiers would smash babies against the trunk. Grim doesn’t even begin to describe it.


I met a British woman on my journey and we were walking through S-21 together and had a conversation. She was not religious woman but she asked me about Christianity, so I tried to put my faith into perspective in light of our surroundings.


I said that the love and forgiveness of Jesus were so great that he would even forgive someone like Pol Pot (or Hitler). She was incredulous, and my example actually had the opposite effect which I intended—rather than seeing Jesus as this savior with such a vast love that it can reach down to the deepest depths of hell, it made her recoil from this Jesus. She remarked: “I can’t believe in a Jesus which would let Pol Pot or Hitler off the hook! Because those two deserve to burn in hell!” Interesting: usually the liberal/secular response is just the opposite—while Christians preach damnation, liberals preach love to the point of universalism: all deserve to be saved no matter what religion they adhere to or no matter what they’ve done. But here I was, the Christian, preaching love and forgiveness, and she was the one insisting on damnation. It was quite a reversal of roles.


In retrospect, I think what was going on with her is actually what goes on with most people, whether or not they’re Christian: they make Hitler and Pol Pot out to be monsters, and by doing so they can dissociate themselves from that evil and even vilify it, thereby exonerating themselves and making themselves feel better. Because, let’s face it, if you compare yourself to the worst of people, you’re always going to look good.

Paradise Lost

Gustave Dore’s illustration of Satan for Milton’s Paradise Lost

The Rolling Stones have a famous song called “Sympathy for the Devil.” I think it may be an apropos title for John Milton’s Paradise Lost. English poet William Blake, who admired but disagreed with Milton, famously said that Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” In other words, Blake thought that Milton so humanized Satan in his epic poem, and so made him a “sympathetic” figure by articulating Satan’s struggles, that readers would be inclined to think kindly of the Devil. And thus, Milton was actually advancing the cause of Satan by portraying him in such a light. I happen to disagree with Blake’s interpretation (I think it’s a superficial reading of the poem), and here’s why.


It is true that many of my students in class have admitted such a sympathy or pity for Satan in Paradise Lost. However, this does not mean that they agree with Satan or are inclined toward him in any way after reading the poem. It may be instructive to take an example from a movie called Downfall which was released in 2004. It tells the story of Hitler’s last days—but what made it different from previous Hitler movies is that: it portrayed Hitler as the main character; it was done all in German and used an actor, not historical film footage, to portray Hitler; and it showed every aspect of him, from the tyrant that we expect, to the “nice” character we don’t. That last one was what provoked the most criticism from audiences. The movie portrayed Hitler petting a dog, being nice to children and his loyal followers, smiling, etc.


Responses from critics ranged from “Are we allowed to show the monster as a human being?” to “A few journalists…wondered aloud whether the ‘human’ treatment of Hitler might not inadvertently aid the neo-Nazi movement” to “Sympathy I felt in the sense that I would feel it for a rabid dog, while accepting that it must be destroyed” to “the monster was not invariably monstrous… We get the point; Hitler was not a supernatural being; he was common clay raised to power by the desire of his followers.”


I think these responses can be applied to Satan in Milton’s poem just as well as they can apply to Hitler in Downfall. Both characters are humanized to the point where you can sympathize with them, but if you come away with the message that both Satan and Hitler are not so bad after all, then you’re missing the point. I think the message is that, when we sympathize with Satan and Hitler, we should think that any one of us can be just like them. After all, Satan started off well, as the greatest of the angels in heaven. Hitler started off well, just as any human being does, as an innocent baby (of course there is original sin to take into account, but my point is that Hitler started off the same way every human did). At some point, they were corrupted and they descended down the slippery slope to the abyss. If someone can go from good to bad, and bad to really really bad, then why can’t we?


I think the genius of Paradise Lost and Downfall (aside from their literary and cinematic craft) is that they are cautionary tales. They portray the everyman and all of our potential for evil. This poem and movie should be like mirrors held up to our faces, showing us the reality of what we really are and can be. It should not cause us to want to be like Hitler or Satan, but rather to frighten us away from that potential that lies like a coiled serpent inside each and every one of us. Know your enemy (in this case yourself) and perhaps that will be the way to overcome it.


Philip Pullman, Exeter College alum and author of the His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass; The Subtle Knife; The Amber Spyglass; in fact the title of the trilogy comes from Paradise Lost, Book II, line 916) sought to write his trilogy based on Milton but taking Blake’s interpretation. In other words, he sought to rewrite Paradise Lost, but being of the Devil’s party and knowing it! But Pullman just doesn’t get it. He’s being just like all the other uncritical voices if he thinks that is what Milton’s point was. Watching Downfall and becoming a neo-Nazi is just as stupid.


Professor John Coe, of Biola University’s ISF (Institute for Spiritual Formation), wrote an article in the Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care (Vol. 1, No. 1, 2008) called “Resisting the Temptation of Moral Formation: Opening to Spiritual Formation in the Cross and the Spirit” where he says on pp. 62-3:

Simple observation of human nature, particularly in more refined and advanced cultures, reveals that natural morality or moralism seems to be the primary way that unbelievers hide from God and guilt and cover their badness as a way to not experience shame. In that sense, morality has become a monolithic defense against seeing oneself truly and opening to one’s need for God. Moralism reaps natural benefits and enables one, at least for a time, to keep at bay feelings of guilt and shame. It is interesting how Christians often take note of the immorality of secular society when, in fact, most unbelievers are not as blatantly bad as they could be. More to the point, they do not think they are bad at all. And just try to convince them otherwise! It seems that humans generally have a deep seated need to not feel guilty, evident in their insistence on their own goodness, that they are not as bad as the criminal, and that their efforts at being good is evidence that that they do not need a savior. As Dallas Willard once said, we are all born legalists. What a waste of a life to spend it trying to be good just to keep from seeing the truth of oneself. The price tag to all of this is that we develop habits of the heart of hiding and covering, unable to fully and truly see ourselves as we are and unable to find full freedom within ourselves, God and others.


Alexander Solzhenitsyn reflected on the reality of total depravity within each person when he wrote:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?


Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil. 
Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.


I hope that our response to sin is not to point it out in others while covering up our own faults with moralism. I hope that we can read Paradise Lost and watch Downfall and visit Auschwitz or Tuol Sleng, and recognize that we can be every bit the Satan or Hitler or Pol Pot, that these are not monsters but rather us taken to the Nth degree. And hopefully this “sympathy for the devil” will cause us not to try to self-help or self-medicate or trust in our own ability (moralism), but to turn to the only One who can save us. Kyrie Eleison.


What Is God’s Chief Attribute?



“To love another person is to see the face of God” — Les Miserables

One of my faculty colleagues at Biola, in his systematic theology class, says that all of God’s attributes are equal: his justice, his mercy, his love, his holiness, his omnipotence, his omniscience, his omnipresence, etc. I understand where he’s coming from: to say any differently seems to limit God or to lessen the fullness of all that he is (or so it seems).


But I want to argue that if there is one attribute of God that rises above all others, it is love. By this, I do not mean to suggest that God’s other attributes are diminished. Rather, I think all his other attributes can remain just as strong as before, but love must be elevated even more above the rest.


I think there is much Scriptural evidence for this.


The Two Greatest Commandments are about love, as seen in Matt. 22:36-40:

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

The word “great” does not mean that love is equal to the others: it means it is higher. Theologians have often said that the Two Greatest Commandments are actually a summary of the Ten Commandments: love God is commandments #1-4, and love neighbor is commandments #5-10.


In the famous 1 Cor. 13 passage, the Apostle Paul expounds at length about love, but starts and ends with this:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing… So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Although I don’t like to pit love against truth, it seems that Paul himself does that—and love wins (not in the Rob Bell sense, of course!). And when love is placed alongside faith and hope, likewise love rises preeminent.


The person closest to Jesus was John, “the disciple who Jesus loved”—so much so, that Jesus entrusted his own mother Mary to him. It’s no wonder that John writes so much about the preeminence of love, as seen in the following passages.


In the renowned “vine and the branches” talk in John 15:9-17, Jesus says:

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.

Jesus is talking about nothing less than his crucifixion/sacrifice, the turning point in history, as representing the greatest love.


John himself writes in his first epistle (1 John 4:7-12):

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.

John makes clear that God is the initiator of love, and we are merely responders. God is love! And we, created in his image, ought to be like that as well.


On Maundy Thursday, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper and gave them this new commandment (John 13:34-35):

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Jesus was about to die, and the thing he leaves with his disciples is a reiteration of the command to love.


And of course, the most famous passage in the entire Bible (John 3:16):

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.


Don’t think that I’m just picking and choosing from John, however: even Matthew and Paul, above, agree that love is God’s outstanding characteristic.


Henri Nouwen, in his Lenten reflections book Show Me the Way, writes about the Trinity as having love as its chief attribute as well:


In all truth I tell you, by himself the Son can do nothing; he can do only what he sees the Father doing: and whatever the Father does the Son does too. -John 5:19

Jesus’ obedience means a total, fearless listening to his loving Father. Between the Father and the Son there is only love. Everything that belongs to the Father, he entrusts to the Son (Luke 10:22), and everything the Son has received, he returns to the Father. The Father opens himself totally to the Son and puts everything in his hands: all knowledge (John 12:50), all glory (John 8:54), all power (John 5:19-21). And the Son opens himself totally to the Father and thus returns everything into his Father’s hands. “I came from the Father and have come into the world and now I leave the world to go to the Father” (John 16:28).


This inexhaustible love between the Father and the Son includes and yet transcends all forms of love known to us. It includes the love of a father and mother, a brother and sister, a husband and wife, a teacher and friend. But it also goes far beyond the many limited and limiting human experiences of love we know. It is a caring yet demanding love. It is a supportive yet severe love. It is a gentle yet strong love. It is a love that gives life yet accepts death. In this divine love Jesus was sent into the world; to this divine love Jesus offered himself on the cross. This all-embracing love, which epitomizes the relationship between the Father and the Son, is a divine Person, coequal with the Father and the Son. It has a personal name. It is called the Holy Spirit. The Father loves the Son and pours himself out in the Son. The Son is loved by the Father and returns all he is to the Father. The Spirit is love itself, eternally embracing the Father and the Son.

This eternal community of love is the center and source of Jesus’ spiritual life, a life of uninterrupted attentiveness to the Father in the Spirit of love. It is from this life that Jesus’ ministry grows. His eating and fasting, his praying and acting, his traveling and resting, his preaching and teaching, his exorcising and healing, were all done in this Spirit of love. We will never understand the full meaning of Jesus’ richly varied ministry unless we see how the many things are rooted in the one thing: listening to the Father in the intimacy of perfect love. When we see this, we will also realize that the goal of Jesus’ ministry is nothing less than to bring us into this most intimate community.


Today in the Gospel reading of the liturgy, Jesus reveals that everything he does is done in relationship with his Father…Jesus’ words have a special meaning for me. I must live in an ongoing relationship with Jesus and through him with the Father. This relationship is the core of the spiritual life. This relationship prevents my life from being consumed by “keeping up” with things. This relationship prevents my days from becoming boring, fatiguing, draining, depressing, and frustrating. If all that I do can become more and more an expression of my participation in God’s life of total giving and receiving in love, everything else will be blessed and will lose its fragmented quality. This does not mean that everything will become easy and harmonious. There will still be much agony, but when connected with God’s own agony, even my agony can lead to life.


Our Prayer
And so, I pray to you, Yahweh,

at the time of your favor; in your faithful love answer me,
in the constancy of your saving power. Answer me, Yahweh, for your faithful love is generous; in your tenderness turn towards me; do not turn away from your servant.
- Ps. 69:13, 16


The 700th Anniversary of Exeter College, Oxford


Today (April 4, 2014) is the 700th anniversary of Exeter College, as the college was founded by the Bishop of Exeter, Walter de Stapeldon, on April 4, 1314. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (I suppose I may still be around for the 750th anniversary though I would be an octogenarian by that time)! And I think 750 would be even more significant than 700—but I’m not willing to bet on the fact that I’ll still be around, so I’m seizing this opportunity while I still have the chance. It’s nice to revisit Oxford University, where I did my D.Phil. degree in theology from 2002-2008.

Exeter 700

Oxford University and Cambridge University (collectively known as “Oxbridge”) operate on a federal system which is fairly unique among universities in this world. But it shouldn’t be hard for Americans to understand. Think of it like this: every American is both a citizen of the U.S. and a resident of one of the 50 states. Same with Oxford: every student is enrolled in the University and a member of one of the 38 constituent colleges (in Cambridge they have 31 colleges). Think of a college as a micro community within the larger university—it gives you an identity and an allegiance and a family, kind of like a small group at a church, so you really get to know certain people well instead of just being lost in the large crowd. Harvard and Yale patterned themselves after Oxbridge and also operate on a federal system (though at Harvard, they call them houses instead of colleges).


I was a member of Exeter College, the fourth-oldest of the 38 colleges at Oxford University, founded 1314. The funny thing is, nobody quite knows the order of the three oldest colleges at Oxford. It is either University College, Balliol College, or Merton College, depending on what criterion you use: University was the first to be conceived via money given for that purpose, Balliol was the first to enroll students and possess buildings on a continuously-occupied site, and Merton was the first to receive a charter of statutes establishing it as one of the colleges of Oxford University. We at Exeter College don’t care: those three can duke it out amongst themselves, but we can rise above the fray and just sit confident as undisputed fourth place! (Though maybe being #2 is best—but I digress.)


Think about it: 700 years! That is three times as old as the United States! That should boggle your mind. In fact, this eye-opening article highlights six things that Oxford University predates, just to help put things in perspective.

I find it deliciously ironic that the sixth-oldest college at Oxford is called New College—because it was new when it was founded in 1379! I just don’t know how anybody can call something founded in the 14th century as new, but I guess

it was new compared to the ancient five (the fifth-oldest is Oriel College).


How does one choose a college at Oxford? I think they may do the selection process slightly differently now, but back in 2001 when I was applying, you first had to get accepted to the University. Once that was complete, then you have to be assigned to a college. You could list your top four, but everyone told me there’s a trick to this: you shouldn’t put one of the highly-sought-after colleges as anything but #1 on your list otherwise it’s just a wasted vote. What are the highly-sought-after ones? Probably the #1 would be Christ Church (the biggest and grandest college at Oxford with the Harry Potter dining hall). Another would be St. John’s College (the richest college at Oxford—they are said to own so much land in England that you can walk from Oxford to London and never leave St. John’s-owned land). And yet another would be Magdalen College (the college of C.S. Lewis, and often considered the most beautiful college at Oxford, with a deer park—yes, they own a herd of deer)! Merton College and New College would probably make the list too. Well, this is what I listed as my top four: 1) Magdalen; 2) Merton; 3) Exeter; 4) Trinity. Considering how hard it is to get into Magdalen College, it’s no wonder that I didn’t get in. But had I known the “trick” above, I never would’ve put Merton as my second choice, because it really was just a wasted vote. So I got assigned to Exeter College. At first I was disappointed, but then I realized it could’ve been worse: I could’ve been passed over by all four of my college selections and then they would randomly assign me to some college which was ugly, or far away, or non-historic. And Exeter actually has much to commend it: it has, in my opinion, the most stunning chapel in Oxford (built in Victorian style), the prettiest dining hall (built in Jacobean style), and the best view in the whole university from the back of the Fellow’s Garden overlooking Radcliffe Square. It’s also the most centrally-located of all the Oxford colleges, literally adjacent to the Bodleian Library. You can’t get much closer to the heart of Oxford than Exeter.

Exeter College dining hall

I chose those four colleges above because I did my research: I wanted a beautiful, centrally-located, ancient college. I’m sorry but I just didn’t want to be in, say, Wolfson College which is extremely far from the geographic core of Oxford with its beautiful cobblestone strets. Instead, Wolfson has hideous 1970s-style architecture and does not carry all the ancient traditions of the University. Basically, if I were assigned there, I wouldn’t feel like I was at Oxford, and I wanted to experience the place in all its robust antiquity.


I later found out that Exeter College is alma mater to some of my heroes! I guess I hadn’t done enough research on the place (all I knew was that it was the college of my favorite fantasy author, J.R.R. Tolkien), but by happy coincidence other alumni/ae include:

-fantasy author Philip Pullman, famous for the His Dark Materials trilogy of which the first was The Golden Compass; the fictional Jordan College in the book/movie is actually Exeter College

-missiologist Andrew Walls

-biblical theologian and former Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright

-athlete Roger Bannister, the first runner in history to break the four-minute mile

-Qian Zhongshu, author of the greatest Chinese novel of the twentieth century, Fortress Besieged


-C. Hubert H. Parry, who wrote the music to the quintessential British hymn “Jerusalem” (used during the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, watch this video from 13:30 to 14:33). Though poet William Blake wrote the words, it was Parry who wrote the haunting melody.

-pre-Raphaelite artists William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones

-authors Martin Amis and Will Self

-playwright and screenwriter Alan Bennett

-stage actress Imogen Stubbs

-Thomas Bodley, founder of the Bodleian Library, was born in the city of Exeter. I suppose it’s fitting, then, that the Bodleian Library and Exeter College are adjacent to one another.

-Queen Sofía of Spain is not an alum, but she is an honorary fellow of Exeter College and gives her name to the Queen Sofía Research Fellow in Modern Peninsular Spanish Literature, held by Dr Daniela Omlor.


A painting of Queen Sofia of Spain, in the Rector’s Lodge of Exeter College

-The current head of Oxford University Press, Nigel Portwood, is also an Exeter College fellow.

-Chris Fletcher, keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian Library, is also an Exeter College fellow.

-Katrina Hancock is the first female undergraduate in the history of the College to be raised to become a fellow of Exeter. She was also the mastermind behind the entire 700th anniversary celebrations!


I was especially happy about the first seven on this list, because I love fantasy literature; I’m a missiologist; I’m a theologian; I’m a runner; I’m ethnically Chinese; and I used to teach in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University which had as its theme song “Jerusalem.” I don’t deserve to be in such illustrious company with Tolkien, Pullman, Walls, Wright, Bannister, Qian, and Parry! In fact, I have had the privilege of meeting all of them except Qian, Parry, and J.R.R. Tolkien himself—though I did meet his daughter, Priscilla Tolkien, when she visited Exeter College once. And I actually met Roger Bannister on the 50th anniversary of his breaking the four-minute mile.

Roger Bannister & Allen

with Roger Bannister on the 50th anniversary of his breaking the four-minute mile

Some might say, “Wait a minute—isn’t J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, also an alum of Exeter College?” Close, but not quite: she is an alum of Exeter University, which is located in the county of Devon in the southwestern part of England. There is a connection, however! The bishop of the city of Exeter (in Devon) was the one who came up to Oxford University in 1314 and founded the College, naming it Exeter College in honor of his city. And one of our special guest speakers for our 700th anniversary celebration is J.K. Rowling herself, as seen in this program of events.


I did my Master of Theology (M.Th.) degree at Edinburgh University right before I came to Oxford, and there is a link to J.K. Rowling there too: in her post-university life, she moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, and lived there for a while (in fact she still lives there). She wrote her Harry Potter novels in Edinburgh (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle also wrote his Sherlock Holmes novels in Edinburgh) and the place to visit for any Harry Potter fan is a café called The Elephant House on George IV Bridge which is where Rowling wrote her first Harry Potter book!


When I was doing my M.Th. degree at Edinburgh University, I was writing my thesis on Latin American theology. I took a class with Prof. Edwin Williamson, author of The Penguin History of Latin America. The next year I moved from Edinburgh University to Exeter College, Oxford—and so did Prof. Williamson! It was great to see a scholar of my subject walking around the environs of my college (though ironically, despite his proximity, I never took a class with him at Oxford).


It wasn’t just famous alums that preceded me; there were some famous alums that matriculated with me at Exeter College in 2002. Two people worth mentioning, who lived in the same dorm (Exeter House) as me:

-Lucy Southworth, who did a one-year Masters degree but entered the same year as me when I did my D.Phil. degree. After completing her Masters, Lucy moved to California to do her Ph.D. at Stanford University. The next thing I heard, she had married Larry Page, the co-founder and CEO of Google! I didn’t quite believe it, so I had to verify—so I googled her! Haha, no joke. And sure enough, it’s true.

-Amy Sackville, who also entered Exeter College with me in 2002. The next thing I heard, she had written a critically-acclaimed novel called The Still Point which won the 2010 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize which, according to Wikipedia, “is awarded annually for the best work of literature (fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama) by an author from the Commonwealth aged 35 or under, written in English and published in the United Kingdom. It is the second oldest literary award in the UK. Since 2011 the award has been suspended due to funding problems. The last award was in 2010.” I read her novel and it is gorgeously written, like poetry even though it is prose. Similar to Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (in the UK the title is Northern Lights), The Still Point is a novel about an expedition to the North Pole.


One other thing that makes me proud to be an “Old Member” (the British word for alum) of Exeter College is the fact that our former Rector, Prof. Marilyn Butler, made history in 1993 when she became the first woman to become the head of one of the ancient Oxbridge colleges—all of which until the last few decades had been male-only (the last to go co-ed was Oriel College in 1985: see the movie Oxford Blue, starring Rob Lowe, which shows that Oriel was still an all-male college in the 1980s.) Marilyn Butler is also immortalized on the front of Exeter College with the gargoyles (this fact is not even known by most Exonians): the gargoyles to the right of the Lodge are: Marigold, Archer, Roundels, Eye (I), Lion, Yew, Neptune; 1993; Bells, Unicorn, Twins, Lamb, Ear, Roman nose. This acrostic spells out: MARILYN BUTLER. Clever, no?


Prof. Marilyn Butler was Exeter College’s Rector when I first arrived at Exeter, but during my four-year stint in the College she retired in 2004 and was replaced by Frances Cairncross, another woman (and this year Cairncross is stepping down and making way for the new Rector, Sir Rick Trainor—an American, and the former President of King’s College, London. The transition of Rectors on the 700th anniversary year reminds me of the transition of Biola’s President from Clyde Cook to Barry Corey in our centenary year in 2008). Sadly, Prof. Marilyn Butler just died a few weeks ago on March 11, 2014—so she did not live to see the 700th anniversary of Exeter. It would have been great to have her here. Her warmth and kindness was always beloved in our College.

But there is also much to be said about Frances Cairncross. She was altogether a different type of Rector. Whereas Butler was grandmotherly, Cairncross is dynamic. Whereas Butler was a scholar, Cairncross is a businesswoman. Frances Cairncross brought her international sensibilities to the college by appealing to traditions to the three largest “foreign” constituents: having a Thanksgiving dinner each year so the Americans feel at home; celebrating Burns Night annually so the Scots have something to get excited about; and holding a Diwali festival every year so the Indians have something to celebrate too! In fact, the Diwali celebration is so successful (they had to figure out how to set off fireworks without breaking fire codes) since Exeter is the only college in Oxford that celebrates Diwali, that Indian students from all over Oxford University flock to Exeter College to partake in Diwali!

At the end of the day, one of the things that shows how much Exeter College alum love our college is the alumni donation rate: 1/3 of all alumni have donated money to Exeter, which is the highest rate of any college in Oxford University! Loyalty abounds. (Although, a cynic might point out the high effectiveness of Exeter College’s fundraising committee. A joke that is sometimes told is: “If Osama bin Laden had been an alum of Exeter College, he would’ve been found in a matter of hours!”)

All in all, we had a wonderful reunion. It was fortuitous that the 700th anniversary fell on a Friday so that we could actually celebrate it on a weekend. Also it was fortuitous that it happened during vacation—between Hilary (Winter) and Trinity (Spring) terms. And finally, it was fortuitous that the end of the weekend corresponded with the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race on the Thames in London, where Oxford took the biggest margin of victory since 1973—a full 11 lengths!

Exeter crest

Some trivia about Exeter College:

-Exeter College has, as its traditional rival, Jesus College which is immediately across Turl Street from us. However, I personally find it hard to say anything disparaging about Jesus! Plus, Jesus College was the college of Sheldon Vanauken, author of one of my favorite books about Oxford, A Severe Mercy.

-There are three colleges on Turl Street in Oxford: Exeter, Jesus, and Lincoln. Turl Street runs perpendicular to the High Street and Broad Street. There is a joke for anyone familiar with Oxford geography: “In what way is the Church of England’s theology like Turl Street? It’s High on one end, Broad on the other, and it goes straight past Jesus.”

-Every year there is the Turl Street Arts Festival where Exeter, Jesus, and Lincoln colleges collaborate.

-Every college at Oxford has a sister college at Cambridge. For Exeter College, Oxford, our sister college is Emmanuel College, Cambridge. This also happens to be the same college that John Harvard (the founder of Harvard University) was a student in.

-The following movies were filmed in part at Exeter College: The Red Violin; The Golden Compass; Inspector Morse (not a movie, but the final episode of the TV series, “The Remorseful Day,” was filmed in our main quad).

-Exeter Cathedral in the Southwest of England has not only the tomb of Walter de Stapeldon, the bishop of Exeter who founded Exeter College, but it is also architecturally glorious: it has the longest unbroken nave (stone vaulted ceiling) of any church in the world.


in Exeter Cathedral, at the tomb of Walter de Stapeldon, bishop of Exeter who founded Exeter College, Oxford, in 1314

-Glastonbury Abbey is where the Holy Grail reputedly was housed, and it was brought here by Joseph of Arimathea. According to legend, Jesus as a child accompanied Joseph to England, prompting William Blake to write the words to the hymn “Jerusalem”: “And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green?” The music for “Jerusalem” was written by Exeter College alumnus C. Hubert H. Parry.