Platonic Philosophy Is the Foundation of Western Thought—and Why It Is Destructive to Christianity

School of Athens

In Plato’s Republic, the author posits that an ideal society should be tiered in a similar way to how the soul comes in three parts (according to him):


-At the top is the Intellect. In the human body, this is represented by the head. In a society, this means that the intelligent people are the ones who govern, much as the brain controls the body. This is symbolized by the mind.


-In the middle is the Spirited. In the human body, this is represented by the heart. In a society, these are the courageous people who are the guardians of the city, much as the heart is the defender of the body and keeps it healthy. This is symbolized by the soul.


-At the bottom is the Appetitive. In the human body, this is represented by the stomach. In a society, these are the common workers who are ruled by their passions or appetites—they are people of physicality who respond to instinct and desire and thus need to be governed. This is symbolized by the body.

tripartite soul

To simplify it, Plato’s tripartite soul consists of the head, heart, hands—in that order of importance. Societally, that’s how an ideal Republic should function too, according to Plato. In a way, it’s a Western equivalent of an Indian caste system: everyone knows their place and all will work well if they don’t deviate from their assigned roles. Is this different from the Apostle Paul’s assigning of roles in 1 Cor. 12 in the analogy of one body with many members of different functions?


Regardless, this Platonic idea of the tripartite soul has seeped into our literature and modern way of thinking, particularly after the Enlightenment.


Here’s a sampling of literature where Plato rears his head disguised:

Augustine's Confessions

-Augustine’s Confessions: St. Augustine, arguably the greatest theologian in the Church after the Bible, based his biographical magnum opus after Plato, except he reorders the tripartite soul. In his biography, he recounts how he lived for sex as a youngster, then as he grew older he got duped by pagan philosophies, and finally he found God. So instead of Plato which orders them from best to worst as ISA (Intellect, Spirited, Appetitive), Augustine flips the top two and orders them SIA. Essentially, Platonic philosophy has made its way down through history to the Western church via Augustine, but in modified form. We see it expressed detrimentally in our missionary work, for example, because for years we regarded “soul-winning” as more important than social justice: essentially, we were putting the Spirited as the best and the Appetitive as the lowest, as Augustine does—the soul is more important than the body. In fact, Augustine was so ashamed of his sexual sins from childhood that the Western church now has this unhealthy fear of sex due to Augustine via Plato (rather, it’s not sex we should fear, it’s improper use of sex).

Dante's Divine Comedy

-Dante’s Divine Comedy: Though Dante was a Catholic and thus would have been heavily indebted to Augustine’s theology, he in fact reordered Plato’s tripartite soul once again. Instead of Augustine’s SIA, Dante saw it as SAI. Through his three-part epic poem (Inferno, Purgatory, Paradise), he had three guides leading him onward and upward: the secular poet Virgil (representing the best of the secular Intellect), followed by his true love Beatrice (representing romantic love, thus Dante’s Appetitive nature), and finally the mystic saint Bernard of Clairveaux (representing the Spirited because he revealed the divine mysteries of the Godhead to Dante). It’s interesting that Dante did not see the Appetitive as the worst, despite both Plato and Augustine relegating it to the bottom.

Brothers Karamazov

-Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov: Like Augustine and Dante, Dostoevsky was a Christian. Like his two Christian predecessors, he put Spirited at the top. However, he followed Dante and not Augustine in ordering the tripartite soul as SAI. The three eponymous brothers are Ivan (the Intellect), Dmitri (the Appetitive), and Alyosha (the Spirited). Dostoevky paints Ivan as equivalent to the Devil (especially in the famous chapter “The Grand Inquisitor”). In the novel, the father of the three sons is murdered, and it is eventually revealed that a fourth brother, the bastard Smerdyakov, was the perpetrator because he admires Ivan and wants to imitate him. So Dostoevsky puts the Intellect at the bottom: it is equivalent to Satanism and murder in his estimation. The father is more like Dmitri, in that both are sex-obsessed and in fact have relations with the same woman. Alyosha is the saint who emerges at the top, holy and pure. In some sense, it is quite surprising, given our current Western Christian obsession against the body, that neither Dante nor Dostoevsky put the Appetitive as the worst sin.


-Modern storylines: whether Christian or secular, most modern literature seems to follow Augustine’s pattern (SIA) rather than Dante/Dostoevsky’s (SAI) or even Plato’s (ISA). It seems the grandest virtue in our postmodern societal metanarrative is Spirited, or courage/heart. It is more valued and cherished than the mind, and the mind is more valued than the body. Here are some examples:

Lord of the Rings

-The Lord of the Rings: Aragorn (Spirited) is the courageous Christ-figure of the trio (The Return of the King is a thinly-veiled reference to Jesus’s second coming), Legolas (Intellect) is the calm and rational Elf, and Gimli (Appetitive) is the rough and curmudgeonly Dwarf. Even if Elves have better qualities (stronger, immortal, beautiful), the Human is still made out to be the best despite our flaws.

Star Trek

-Star Trek: brave Captain Kirk (Spirited) is the leader, Mr. Spock (Intellect) is the First Officer, and last comes irascible Dr. McCoy (Appetitive) who is gruff and ruled by his temper. Even though Spock is far more gifted than Kirk, his reserved rationality is not seen as great a virtue as Kirk’s “to boldly go where no man has gone before” frontier valor.

Harry Potter

-Harry Potter: Harry (Spirited) is the hero, Hermione (Intellect) is the next-most important, and bumbling Ron (Appetitive) brings up the rear. Notice that J.K. Rowling doesn’t deem Hermione’s brains to be the best, but rather Harry’s courage and love.

Divergent factions

-Divergent: In this recent book-turned-movie which has many parallels with The Hunger Games, this post-apocalyptic future is one where all people are divided into five factions: Candor (honesty), Erudite (intellect), Abnegation (selflessness), Amity (peace), and Dauntless (courage). The main character Tris chooses as her faction (you guessed it)… Dauntless. She could be intelligent, she could be peaceful, she could be honest, she could be selfless, but she chooses to be brave. Though there are five factions, they could easily be reduced to Plato’s tripartite soul: Dauntless, the courageous, are the guardians of the city (sound familiar?). Amity, the peaceful, are the farmers (read: tree-huggers/hippies) who hardly figure into the story, they are so beneath notice because they work with their hands and are people of the body, the peasants of the land. Abnegation are the government rulers because they are not self-interested, but Erudite want to be the rulers because they think that the intelligent people, not the selfless, are the best rulers (which is exactly what Plato posited). Candor is kind of a halfway between Erudite and Abnegation because they are honest (thus appealing to Erudite who seek truth and knowledge) but they also tell the truth no matter whether it helps or hurts (thus they are similar to Abnegation who want to remain neutral and impartial—as seen in the fact that Abnegation are the government rulers but Candor are the judges and lawyers). But in Divergent, Erudite are the great evil: they are the smart-but-megalomaniac ones, much as Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes is a professor, the evil mastermind (though to be fair, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle also makes Holmes the Intellect). This is also echoed in Hogwarts’ four Houses, where the students are placed according to the characteristic they most embody: Hufflepuff are the hard workers who are loyal (like Amity). Ravenclaw are the wise and impartial (like Candor and Abnegation). And of course Gryffindor is the best because they are the courageous (like Dauntless), and Slytherin is the worst because they are the intelligent and clever (like Erudite). The Houses/Factions also correspond to the four Greek elements: Fire is Gryffindor/Dauntless, Earth is Hufflepuff/Amity, Water is Slytherin/Erudite, and Air is Ravenclaw though Glass is Candor—because both represent clarity. Abnegation is gray stone because it represents passionless neutrality.


The author of Divergent, Veronica Roth, is a Christian, and some people have thus chosen to read Christian themes into her book (which are probably there, but are not overt). Could it be that she, by painting Erudite as the bad guys, is following Augustine, or even more so Dante and Dostoevsky, who distrust the intellect as the most important piece, especially if given free reign without a moral framework? It makes me think of C.S. Lewis who famously said, “Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.” In fact the main character Tris gives up Abnegation (selflessness) in favor of Dauntless (courage). Is this how our Christianity is moving: from a self-sacrificial lifestyle to one where we have to play the hero? Are we supposed to be warriors instead of martyrs? Regardless, it seems like courage/heart is the defining characteristic of what it means to be a Christian today, but I would argue that selflessness is a more Christian virtue—if I were to write Divergent as a Christian, I’d put Tris in Abnegation instead of Dauntless (but of course that would make for a less “sexy” storyline—courage looks better on the big screen than altruism). And also, is the heart to be pitted against the mind? After all, the Great Commandment is an injunction to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. Have we Christians vilified the mind because now it is held in thrall by the (secular/liberal) academy and we are being reactionary by pitting faith against reason? If we do this, we are playing their game. Can we not reclaim the life of the mind as something created by God for our good? After all, Christians were the ones who invented universities. The famous twentieth-century British missiologist, Lesslie Newbigin, wrote in his most well-known text, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society:


The great thinkers whose work heralded the dawn of the modern world were Christian believers and took it for granted that theology belonged no less than physics or mathematics to the one seamless robe of truth. A large amount of Isaac Newton’s intellectual energies were devoted to questions of theology, and there was no mental barrier for him between this and his work in mathematics, physics, and astronomy. Yet, as we have seen, there was a tension in which the humanist tradition proved the stronger of the two. The Bible had more and more to justify itself at the bar of reason and conscience. Insofar as it appeared that it could not do so, the tension grew into a separation. The Bible became the book through which the life of the soul, the interior life, the spiritual life was interpreted—at least for those who were content to remain under its influence. It could not hold its own in the public sphere. Scientists and philosophers were no longer theologians and biblical scholars.


Perhaps the greatest disservice that Plato gave to Western society, and by correlation the Western church, is not only the ordering of the tripartite soul (as if some parts were more important than others) but even more the division of the soul into three parts. Because everything belongs to God: both natural revelation and special revelation, both science and theology. We need to recover a holistic way of viewing the world, as all under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. And all parts are equally important. This is what is meant by true Christian integration. So maybe Veronica Roth was right in the end: the hero is actually Divergent, meaning embodying the characteristics of all the Factions. We were created to be whole beings, giving all our heart, soul, strength, and mind as offerings unto the Lord—and this, more than just peace, is what the word shalom truly means: wholeness.

Why Television Is Good


I used to be more into movies than TV—in fact I still am, but not as much as before. Part of the reason is because I love the visual medium. Yes books always will have a special place in my heart because it spawns much more imagination and exercises much more creativity than movies (because it forces you to imagine what Rivendell looks like in The Lord of the Rings rather than Peter Jackson just showing you what it ought to look like) but movies can make books come alive. In cases where this is relevant, I always insist on reading the book before I watch the movie because I don’t want to have preconceived ideas of what characters/places ought to look like; nevertheless I still love watching the movie afterward to see what someone else’s conception of the book is like, even if I already know the plot.


Another reason why I love movies is because it tells stories in a succinct way. I mean, who has the time these days to watch 12 full seasons of NCIS at 24 episodes a season? (That’s 288 episodes x 45 mins each = 216 hours!) Of course the advent of Netflix makes binge-watching accessible to everyone, but that kind of “marathon” is not the healthy kind where you’re actually physically running. Movies, however, are sensitive to a time-budget-conscious society: you can enter a world and see a whole story arc with resolution within the space of two hours. It just fit my busy lifestyle better.


And a final reason I enjoy movies is because they are big-budget: they could make robots or a photo-realistic lion come alive without cheesy special effects detracting from the viewing experience. There is a real suspension of disbelief and it envelops the viewer in a world sometimes more vivid than our own (cf. Pandora in Avatar, or the many planets of the Star Wars universe).


However, I always thought of television as the great evil. It makes kids mindless drooling automatons, sitting in front of the tube for hours, and is a poor substitute babysitter. It is the destroyer of family unity and conversation. It is lower budget than movies and thus seems “cheap.” So much of TV is reality shows which is voyeurism at its worst.


But I’ve since changed my mind about TV. I like it more than movies now (though still not more than books). Here are four reasons why I think TV is superior to movies:


1) Plot over special effects. Because TV does not have the budget that movies do, it has to rely on better screenwriting to keep viewers. And I think most of the most compelling stories I’ve seen in the past few years have all been on television rather than the silver screen. When I watch Transformers, for example, the visuals are spectacular but the plot just makes me want to tear my hair out. Michael Bay is the epitome of sacrificing plot for visuals. (In contrast, I want to make a nod to Pixar for being the anti-Michael Bay: they never deem story as mutually exclusive with special effects. Pixar movies always move my heart while also being visually gorgeous, so it can be done.)


2) Serial writing. This is a corollary to the previous point, but it bears mentioning separately. It’s not just the quality of writing which is better on TV (for the most part), it’s the medium of having multiple episodes to work with. You don’t have to wrap things up in two hours which can often lead to predictability (e.g. you know the good guy is about to win because we’re nearing the two-hour mark)! You have potentially hundreds of hours to work with on TV, and you can kill off characters in the third episode or in the 300th episode—and audiences won’t know what’s coming. You have tons of opportunity for character development that you don’t have in a two-hour movie (you really get to know characters when you’ve spent that much time with them, which is the same principle that relationships operate on—it’s like a long-term relationship vs. movies which are more akin to a one-time date). One of the first episodes to take serial writing to a whole new level was Lost—that was its appeal, that every episode built on top of the previous ones, and it worked so successfully that other TV shows have since followed suit. This is also why I think that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was the best of the five Star Trek TV series, because it was serial not episodic—they didn’t feel the need to wrap up a complete story arc within each episode, it was an ongoing saga that kept unfolding new layers each week. When done properly, there is so much anticipation that keeps the audience coming back for more, so TV seems much more enticing—even if you have to wait over a year for the next season to come out, like Downton Abbey or Sherlock (by that point, fans are slavering at the mouth for the next episodes)!


3) Familiarity. Even movies understand this draw: audiences like characters they’ve gotten used to. This is why, every summer, half the movies these days are sequels. (The same principle applies to why America keeps wanting to elect people named Bush or Clinton and why we love to see Hugh Jackman or Amy Adams over and over again in movies—familiarity). Why give the audience three movies of Batman, when they can get 25 seasons of Bart Simpson? On TV, the characters become like old friends who you delight in seeing on a regular basis.


4) Fellowship. The TV can be a ritual around which friends and family “bond” each week. Currently, four of my TV shows function in such a way. My roommate Matthew and I watch Gotham (the Batman prequel) together. I watch Once Upon a Time (from the same creators and writers as Lost!) every week with my House Church friends Sarah and Ariana and we make dinner together too while we’re at it. My biweekly mentoring sessions with my mentee Geoff always involve watching Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. after we talk and pray—it’s kind of like our “dessert” after the “meal” (and we further enhance this by watching whatever is the latest Avengers movie to come out in the cinema, whether it be Iron Man 3 or Captain America 2). My friend and colleague Arianna and I have been watching the comedy Selfie (based on My Fair Lady) after our weekly running workouts, and it’s great fodder for conversation about the role of social media in our society. And TV is watched in the home, which is more of a comfortable and intimate space than the movie theater. You can talk to your friends while you’re watching it, you can take bathroom breaks, you can eat a meal, all without fear of interrupting or disturbing the neighbor next to you in the movie theater. Unlike a movie which commands your complete attention (it dictates the start and stop time, it doesn’t give you a break, you can’t skip the previews, the theater is darkened so you can’t focus on anything but the movie), TV allows you to master the show (especially if you have DVR): you can watch it whenever you want, you can watch some of it now and some of it later, you can pause it to attend to more important things in your life, you can fast-forward through the commercials, you can work it around your schedule, and each episode is shorter than a movie so it doesn’t feel as interruptive or all-consuming as a movie. In a reworking of Jesus’s famous dictum: “Man is not made for the show; the show is made for man.” Whenever I do a hard day’s work, it’s always nice to come home and kick my feet up and spend 45 minutes (that’s a one-hour episode minus commercials) relaxing in front of my favorite TV show. It’s a nice wind-down and release of daily tension.


This is why I’ve changed my mind about TV—now I love it. But still not as much as books. :)

How to Run Your Best Time: Marathon Training the Hansons Way


World Marathon Majors

Last Sunday, on October 12, 2014, I ran my tenth marathon, and it was a biggie—the Chicago Marathon which is one of the “Big Six” marathons in the world (officially the “World Marathon Majors”). The other five are, in no particular order: Boston, London, Tokyo, New York, and Berlin. But more than my dream of finally running one of the Big Six (and I hope to run all of them, one a year for the next six years)—the important thing was my time, or rather how I achieved my time. You see, I’ve either trained improperly or trained via the standard method but could not seem to get faster after a while. This is the history of my marathoning and the times I’ve achieved:

  • Los Angeles (March 2011)—4:30
  • San Francisco (July 2012)—4:03
  • Malibu (November 2012)—3:58
  • Los Angeles (March 2013)—4:17
  • San Luis Obispo (April 2013)—3:54
  • Rio de Janeiro (July 2013)—4:12
  • Niagara Falls (October 2013)—4:11
  • Santa Barbara (November 2013)—4:27
  • Chiang Mai (December 2013)—4:27

Now it may seem that I did something incredible between my first and second marathons to improve by that much, but not really: I’d say my first race was an anomaly due to the fact that I didn’t know what I was doing, I ran it with friends and we waited for one guy who was injured, and there was a torrential downpour on race day. My second marathon was more indicative of my norm.

But how do you explain my other times? It seems that, aside from L.A. 2013 in which I pulled a calf muscle during my race, I improved all the way until I got to San Luis Obispo (SLO—so yes, I ran my fastest time at SLO! haha). But after SLO, my times just got worse and worse—not only did I fail to crack 4 hours again, but I regressed tremendously! It got to the point I was so discouraged I was ready to quit marathoning altogether.

That is, until my friend Jenny told me about the Hansons Marathon Method. It was named after two brothers, Keith & Kevin Hanson (no, not the brothers of “MMMBop” fame!), who developed this revolutionary and unorthodox method. Jenny had run two marathons using Hansons, and got 4:17 and 3:51 on them, respectively. Wow—in only her second marathon she had already beaten my PR (Personal Record)! She recommended I give it a try. She said not only did it help her achieve a PR by a lot, but she never bonked (“hit the wall”) during her race, which usually happens after Mile 21—so the last five miles usually feel like hell, but they didn’t for her.

Well, I got accepted into the Chicago Marathon for 2014 (all of the Big Six are oversubscribed so you have to get in via random lottery, with the exception of Boston which requires qualification). To celebrate this acceptance, I decided to go with Hansons. After nine marathons, I figured that, in order to get back in the game, and to really do well, I should try something new—and it wouldn’t do to have a poor showing at Chicago! So this became a marathon “rebirth” for me.

Hansons takes 18 weeks to train, but this is how it differs from the conventional marathon method. The following is very simplistic and overly reductionistic, but the principle behind it is this:

The conventional marathon method says to run about 3 miles every other day, and then do your long run on the weekends, with a maximum of 21 miles on the long run. The idea behind the short runs is to just keep your legs warmed up, but your weekend runs is where you really do your marathon training. “How,” you may ask, “are you expected to finish a 26-mile race if you never do more than 21 during training?” Good question. The conventional wisdom is: adrenaline on race day will take you the extra five miles. And that’s true, it will. But still, you hit the wall—so the last five miles feel terrible even if you are able to finish the race, since you’ve never experienced that final stretch in training.

Hansons, however, says to run about 5 miles every day, and then your long run on the weekends is never more than 16 miles. “How,” you may ask even more incredulously, “are you expected to finish a 26-mile race if you never do more than 16 during training?! Because adrenaline may take you an extra 5 miles, but surely it can’t take you an extra 10!” A valid question. The key lies in the 5-miles-every-day routine. Unlike the conventional method where you have a day off to recover from each of your 3-mile runs, Hansons does not let your legs recover from the daily 5-milers. So by the time you get to your 16-miler, you are running on depleted legs. Therefore the 16-mile run simulates the last 16 miles of the marathon rather than the conventional method where the 21-miler simulates the first 21 miles of the marathon. Do you see the difference? When you get to marathon race day, your legs are like, “Oh I already know what this feels like. No big deal.”

Now, as I said, the above is overly simplistic. There is variation in the length of the runs every week, plus there are speed workouts, tempo workouts, strength workouts, and distance workouts. But the philosophy behind the above is accurate. And let me tell you, going out for my daily run knowing that I never have to do more than 16 miles was psychologically relieving. Of course the total mileage was more, but it was taken in more reasonable chunks so it felt more manageable.


So what happened for me on race day? I was aiming for 3:45—a 9-minute improvement—but I ended up running 3:38! I blew away my previous PR by 16 minutes! And I did not hit the wall, nor did I ever feel very tired the entire race! And even more crazy: my friend Kristen (who hosted me in Chicago, and she is a marathon runner herself) pointed out that I got a half marathon PR too! My previous PR for a half marathon was 1:47:39. What were my splits for Chicago? I ran 1:51:13 for the first half, and then 1:47:29 for the second half. That’s right, my second half of Chicago was faster than any single half marathon race that I’ve ever run in my life! And this after I had already run the first half of the marathon! That fact just about blew my mind. Hansons truly works! Because nobody ever broke any significant records by running positive splits (running the second half slower than the first half). People who achieve their PR always run negative splits (running the second half faster than the first half). And that’s exactly what I did—because Hansons helps you achieve a strong second half. Anyone can run a fast first half; it’s the second half that makes or breaks your marathon time.

A note on history: It helped that the Chicago course is flat and fast. It’s not the fastest of the Big Six (that would be Berlin—just a few weeks ago, the world record was set by Dennis Kimetto of Kenya at 2:02 at the Berlin Marathon) but it is the second-fastest. The Chicago winner this year, Eliud Kipchoge, did it in 2:04.

Now, I am still a long ways off from qualifying for Boston (I’d have to run 3:15 for my age and gender). I don’t know if I’ll ever get there, but I do think I have it in me to break 3:30 at some point. If I can do that, I’ll be happy—and I can say that I improved upon my time from my first marathon by a full hour! Next up is Tokyo in February 2015 (yes, I got in via random lottery too) which is probably the third-fastest course of the Big Six. I will continue Hansons to see if I can break 3:30!

Not only would I love to finish the Big Six, but I’d love to run a marathon on each continent. So far I’ve already done three international marathons: in Brazil, Canada, and Thailand. So I’ve got North America, South America, and Asia covered. If I run the Big Six, I’ll hit North America, Asia, and also Europe. So I’d still need to do Africa, Australia, and the hard one is Antarctica—but there is such a thing, made especially for people who have the 7-continents goal in mind! So this is far from my brainchild, it is a “thing” that people do. Just like it is a “thing” for baseball fans to want to visit all 30 Major League baseball stadiums. Does it make my insanity less insane if there are other people who have these ideas too, and are also doing it? :)

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?


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.”