The lay-Christian’s guide to Biblical interpretation

If you’ve never gone to seminary or studied ancient languages, it can be difficult to know how to interpret the Bible. There are so many interpretations that many critics of Christianity claim the Bible is essentially meaningless, since people can use it to justify anything.

I’m not a theologian. I’m just a lay-Christian, as most Christians are. We read books and listen to sermons by people who have studied ancient texts. We try our best to figure out what our stances should be on various issues in modern life based on what was written in cultures removed by time and often place as well.

I don’t know that my interpretations of the Bible are always right. Some passages seem to need reconciling with other passages (an eye for an eye or not?). Some passages seem to need reconciling with the common sense of everyday life (I don’t plan on literally gouging out my eye any time soon). So the way I make sense of the Bible is to look at what priorities the Bible itself places. What is the greatest commandment? What virtue is the most important?

Here’s what Jesus has to say:

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:34-40 TNIV)

Loving the Lord your God is quite abstract, and the implementation of that principle is subject to interpretation. But loving your neighbor doesn’t seem too difficult to understand. Who’s your neighbor? Well, the person you’re supposed to hate, of course (read the parable of the good Samaritan, if you don’t believe me). You can see this shown through the stories of Jesus’ own life. Whom did he scorn and publicly humiliate? The people with theological authority who judged others as morally inferior. Whom did Jesus love and associate with? Just about everybody else—the outcasts, the “sinners,” the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the lepers.

So try to think about, in today’s society, who the theological authorities are who judge others. Then think about who the outcasts and “sinners” are. Love the latter. Associate with them. Then call the former on their bullshit, just as Jesus did.

Let’s take a look at what Paul says:

If I speak in human or angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body [to hardship] that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3,13 TNIV)

Yup. That’s right. All that religious stuff you do? Pretty cool stuff. All that stuff without love? Worthless. Love trumps all. If you don’t love, as far as I can tell, you’re not a Christian, just a religious legalist. So the basic guideline you should have when struggling with scripture, working out interpretations, trying to resolve apparent discrepancies, figuring out practical applications to life: love. Make sure you remind yourself that both Jesus and Paul have said the greatest thing is love. That’s the priority.

I may not have seminary training. I may occasionally get some biblical interpretation wrong, but if I love people and God, I know I’m on the right track.

Christianity Movies Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

For the Bible Tells Me So documentary is subversive

As you may know if you’ve read my post from four years ago “Subversive” Saved!? I get annoyed when people use the word subversive inappropriately.

Well, I just saw a movie called For the Bible Tells Me So, and I have to say it’s pretty subversive. Unlike Jesus Camp and Hell House, this film doesn’t have as its primary purpose the making fun of “those crazy Christians.” In fact, rather than seeking to appease anti-Christian non-Christians, For the Bible Tells Me So seeks mainly to educate Christians about Biblical interpretation and the theological dangers of selective literalism.

And where it doesn’t get you on an intellectual level, it also presents the real humanity of the situation: even if you do want to be anti-gay as a Christian, how can your heart not cry out for people with gay children having rocks being thrown in the windows of their houses? How can you not feel compassion for gay people being beaten to death?

But, apart from one badly written and juvenile animated segment, the film really is quite educational and should be a must-see for any Christian who is anti-gay. I can’t guarantee you’ll change your theological views on sexuality after seeing this movie. You should still see it, though. It’s great exercise for the mind and the heart.


The Scary Charismatic Movement

Let me start off by saying, as obnoxious as it sounds, that some of my best friends are Charismatics. I know it’s dumb. When White people tell me some of their best friends are Black, I can only roll my eyes. But, I mean it. I don’t doubt Charismatics’ sincerity of faith in God. I don’t doubt their good intentions. I’m not theoretically opposed to anyone speaking in tongues ever, but there is a problem with how the Charismatic movement has appeared to me through many people (mostly friends).

My only encounters with the Charismatic movement have all been scary, and they usually involve some person or people praying in “tongues” (translation: gibberish). One time, I even went on a retreat where, while someone was playing guitar continuously in the background, everyone else was rocking back and forth (sometimes on all fours), making animal noises, moaning, and just generally being scary. For a while, I stayed, hoping it would go away. Maybe I was too shocked to move. Eventually, though, I had to hide in my little bunk to get away from the insanity, but the noise still penetrated the walls. I thought to myself, “How could this be godly? What non-Christian would ever want to become a Christian after going to a retreat like this?”

Even though I’ve heard friends and acquaintances of mine pray “in tongues” on many occasions, I’ve never once heard anyone interpret tongues. I’ve also heard some people insinuate or say straight-out that having the gift of tongues is indicative of having a closer relationship with God. This is dangerous territory, folks. That would be like a situation in which a teacher tells another teacher, “I’m a better teacher because my students give me better Christmas gifts.”

What bothers me more is that there seem to be no bounds to what can be considered a “spiritual gift.” Tongues is clearly a spiritual gift outlined numerous times in the New Testament, but people will go to holy laughter, holy feeling each other up, holy whatever-I-feel-like-doing-but-am-usually-too-inhibited-to-do. Worship services dominated by a Charismatic ideology have an anything-goes and anything-is-valid feel to them, in which if someone says, “X is from God because I feel it,” there’s little room for any kind of validation or challenge.

What’s worse is that oftentimes participants in and proponents of the Charismatic movement do not even follow scriptural guidelines for gifts. The most appropriate scripture (which Charismatics conveniently ignore in sermons, Bible studies, and general conversations) is I Corinthians 14, where Paul urges people to conduct an orderly worship (no animal noises and such, I’m assuming) in order to bear good witness. Paul also encourages those who speak in tongues to do so in private or to ask God for the gift of the interpretation of tongues. I’ve never seen any Charismatic be at all concerned with how Charismatic manifestations, however “godly” or “spiritual,” may turn off seekers, nor have I seen Charismatics express to me any sentiment similar to “I know I’ve been blessed a lot in my times alone with God to be able to pray in tongues, but I have asked God to give me the gift of the interpretation of tongues so that others, too, can be edified when I pray in tongues.”

I have, however, seen a lot of Charismatics flaunt, in direct opposition to Paul’s admonishments, their “spiritual gifts” in extremely unedifying and haughty ways.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with gifts, healing, or “feeling” God, but when an Evangelical Christian movement becomes too experienced-centered and not scripturally centered, it must be called into question. It must be made accountable.


Christian Living

I actually started my summer thinking I would write a book. In case you’re really curious, you can read the start of my book. It ends in the middle of a sentence and there’s nothing after that. Enjoy!

I would imagine most published authors would write prefaces after they have completed their books: The work has been done–the preface is merely the icing on the cake, the trophy to congratulate the champion runner who has flown through the ribbon. I cannot resist, however, the pleasures of eating that icing, taking that trophy, before the cake is baked or the race run.

I’ve always enjoyed reading prefaces, hated introductions. Introductions tend to be either capsule summaries of what’s in the book or boring historical background that supposedly helps you understand the author’s intent. Prefaces, however, are a voyeuristic glance into the author’s mind: What drove her to write that? What difficulties did she face? What must I know before I read the book?

My experience with books has been a rocky relationship. I started off not reading at all. I opted instead for the more intellectual pursuits of television-watching and war toy-playing. Three key events changed my relationship with books. In fourth grade, my friend B. gave me a novel (either for Christmas or my birthday; I can’t remember which) entitled The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas. The book sucked me in–I couldn’t stop reading. I loved it from beginning to end and, to this day, it remains my favorite novel. In eleventh grade, after entertaining the ideas of being a schoolteacher, a comic book artist, a postal worker and “Mr. Nobody” (not in that order), I took American Literature with Mr. H. It was then that I began to realize how much I appreciated literature. I can’t say there was any one book I favored from that course. In fact, I don’t think I particularly liked either The Scarlet Letter or The Great Gatsby at the time. “Roman Fever,” however, will remain one of my favorite short stories of all time. It was Wharton’s “Roman Fever” that baffled me, that caused me to think. It was the discussion of the story that opened my eyes to what I could not see and the fact I could not see it. And, finally, in twelfth grade, I took a recommendation from my friend D. to read two of her favorite books of the time, The Autobiography of Malcolm X and The Feminine Mystique, opening the doors to both my continued appreciation for non-fictional works as well as my passion for race theory and feminism.

Now I am an English teacher at an independent school in California. I help students learn to read carefully, to think critically, to write analytically, and to listen humbly to each other (and to me, of course). While teaching is a satisfying and enjoyable profession, while the rewards are many and the intellectual discourse exciting, I’ve found myself both at work and at home to be primarily a consumer. I have found myself, at this point in my spiritual life to be consuming churches. I have taken a sabbatical from ministry (not that I was ever a pastor, but ministry as any christian can participate in) and I now am a Sunday worshiper, looking to God only and not my peers. I’d like to emphasize that this is a sabbatical and not what I endorse as something to be perpetually a part of the christian’s life. I am a material consumer: having just moved recently, I am acquiring furniture, electronics, car insurance, groceries, cat food, etc. I am an intellectual consumer, reading, analyzing, preparing to teach literary texts; on my own time, reading, analyzing and digesting works of non-fiction.

For several years now, I have entertained the idea of writing a book. I’ve gone every which way about it—trying to write a collection of essays, trying to write a collection of short stories (which are now buried in a pile with the rest of the casualties from my stay in England—a Eurail pass, several expired phone cards, miscellaneous train and bus ticket stubs), and thinking about what might make an interesting novel. I had gone with the novel idea for a while, thinking, first of all, as an English teacher who helps students to analyze and consume literature, why could I not make an interesting novel to consume? So few of todays novels make it into the scholarly canon of literature (Toni Morrison pops into mind, as do only several others). I have a number of theories as to why. I will not take the purist route by saying that they just dont make them like they used to. We could make them as we used to, but then its already been done—it’s not exactly original to write Pride and Prejudice when Jane Austen’s already done so. Our spoken language (and by our I am speaking of the intellectual elite) has become quite colloquial (which, in some ways, is a good thing), and so it seems somehow artificial to write a book with flowery language and complex diction merely to satisfy the appetites of literary scholars. Books are also trying to keep up with the fast pace of Hollywood movies and are actually becoming Hollywood movies (Michael Crichton, John Grisham, Tom Clancy, etc.). I wanted to write a novel worth analyzing. I would try something new—no simple patterns, nothing preachy or trite, some fun, some reality. For instance, I was going to include descriptions of movements, facial expressions in addition to dialogue, but no physical descriptions of characters. I was going to write a book about Asian-Americans without making it some sob story about a girl’s struggle for independence, her mother’s suffering, some sexuality, and exotic food.

This all sounded good, but I realized I had so much to say that I could not say in a novel without being preachy, without transparent didacticism. And, in fact, some things I could not think of a way to say at all. Recently, as I’ve heard sermons at church, I’ve thought that I, too, could speak theology; that I, too, had something to say. I also remembered just how powerful Malcolm X’s and Betty Friedan’s books were and how powerless my psychology textbook from college was. My psychology textbook from college had appropriate footnotes, all sorts of scientific studies, cold (objective) explanations of concepts and a scholarly and authoritative tone. Malcolm X and Betty Friedan, however, while both citing some facts and statistics were primarily concerned with experience, the concrete, how theories related to their own lives, what needed to be changed—the subjectivity of dialogue served to empower their voices, supplemented only peripherally by statistics.

Model Over Scope
One concept that is important to understanding this book is the idea of model over scope. In essence, it is the approach of being more concerned about how to deal with the existence of a concept than in proving the prevalence of it. For instance, I will mention the stereotype of the white, liberal, intellectual atheist. I know full well that it is a stereotype and that while it may apply, in part, to a
great many people, not that many people will actually fit so neatly and squarely into the mold I have set up. It is not a straw man to attack. If you resemble the straw in any way, it is cause for self-examination. If you don’t, then don’t worry about it. I am not attempting to say either that any people fit entirely into any stereotype (or model) that I set up, nor do I speculate as to how widespread those models are. There are no statistics, for example, about how many white, liberal, intellectual atheists there are in California or in the United States. And, when I speak of “the church,” I am, of course, speaking of the limited number of churches I have run into in my experience. If your church does not resemble these in any way, then that’s fine. Go on your merry way.

The value of talking about model over scope is that you can talk in detail, keeping in mind how to practically change things without having intellectual filibuster bog your argument down with trivia about to what percent of the population your model actually applies. As an English teacher, I see this as akin to how we consume novels. Novels, rather than concerning themselves with facts, trivia, statistics and sociological trends, represent themselves as fiction intentionally so as to present some form of the truth apart from facts–they, in fact, deny the facts altogether to avoid discussions of degree or scope. If a novelist paints a vivid picture of a woman’s struggle between femininity, masculinity and the balance of power in her life, the novelist does not then need to say how many women struggle with those values or that any women do.

Dialogue Before Proof
Likewise, I am not concerned with proof. While facts are theoretically important to our understanding of life, the same facts are often easily manipulated and used to prove divergent points of view (for example, the Bible has been used to both favor and oppose slavery; intelligence tests have been used to “prove” both nature and nurture).

I am more concerned about dialogue. I believe in some moral and intellectual absolutes; In my experience, most people who claim that everything is relative are actually oblivious to their own values that they impose on others. However, in many spheres of discussion and debate, there is an assumption among certain contingents that what’s important to a debate or dialogue is whether one is right or wrong. While that is one important aspect to living, thinking, and socially interacting, it tends to ignore the fact that in most discussions about theology, literature, psychology, or almost any topic have a certain conventional wisdom attached and certain positions which either society or institutional structures deem more tenable or less in need of a defense. So, a radical or unconventional position does not merely have the burden of being either right or wrong but must prove itself even worth discussing. And, the radical or unconventional position, if not fully proven, if not fully carried out, if not fully implemented, loses by default to conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom does not need to fight to win. It is the rich who own publishing companies. It is a tall hill with an even taller tower. It is the norm.

Take literature, for example. Even though many traditional works of literature have come under attack for some reason or another (too much sex, violence, etc.), including Shakespeare, there is a way in which I, as an English teacher can feel safe in assuming that if I want to teach The Great Gatsby at a school, almost any school in the United States, public or private, in any region in the country, that the administration and other faculty will probably embrace the idea. It is a classic work of literature. Its value is, by default, unquestionable. If someone questions its value, she will have to make quite a case for not teaching it. And, even if she does convince that one school of Gatsby‘s lack of value, hundreds, indeed thousands, of other schools will continue to teach the book unquestioningly. I happen to like The Great Gatsby, but I’ve never had to explain why I wanted to teach it to anyone. And, in fact, Ive never even had to ask to teach it. Most of the time, it’s already part of the curriculum. When I wanted to teach David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, however, I had a lot of explaining to do, a lot of justifying. In the end, I got to teach it at this one elite, independent school, but that does not mean it will be a regular fixture in the curriculum, nor does it mean that other schools will embrace the text, with its subversive take on gender roles, sexuality and race.

Now, I just went to great pains to explain the example of conventional wisdom versus radical positions in the world of literature and the canon. You knew that already, though, didn’t you? It wasn’t a surprise. Think about it. Did you really think, “Wow! He got to teach The Great Gatsby? I know of very few school districts that allow someone to teach that book unless the teacher gives a thorough explanation for doing so?” Did you really wonder why I had to explain wanting to teach M. Butterfly? How many of you actually have even read/ seen the play or even heard of it?

Hirsch’s idea of cultural literacy is a widespread concept, even before he gave it a name. When I am among a group of white, liberal, atheist intellectuals, I can assume the group will think a discussion about the changes in the comic book industry over the past two decades is a fringe discussion that may leave them either baffled or intrigued for only a few hours (and then never more). We all have a sense about what values and modes of discourse we can assume people have even before we meet them. That’s how American contemporary society functions. Unless we’re in a gay community, we assume everyone’s straight and then are surprised when we find out someone’s gay. We assume most strangers we meet have heard of the latest pop star, not the obscure garage band.

I’m not saying those assumptions are invalid. What we need to recognize, though, is that an argument about what’s a better movie, Foreign Correspondents or Goodfellas, is not an equal argument. Apart from the judgment of films being to a certain degree always subjective, Scorcese is an established filmmaker; Goodfellas has had much acclaim and has much more availability in video stores and websites. The burden of proof is really on the Foreign Correspondents fan, not the Goodfellas one.

So, another reason why I’m not that concerned about backing up my worldview with facts is because it’s so important for the issues to even be on the table, for people to even think about my points of view, more important than it is for people to agree with them. There are so many dichotomies that I have witnessed in discourse and so little room for a sensible and logical middle ground. As I was growing up, it was either creationism or evolution. There was no such thing as old-earth creationism versus young-earth creationism. It was always pro-choice or pro-life. There was never any pro-choice anti-abortion. It was always pro-Bible or pro-feminism. There was never any Biblical feminism. It was always bigots and liberals. There were never radicals and progressives.

Personal With Political
Along with the notion of being heard, of making noise, of opening up a dialogue, right or wrong, I am deeply committed to the personal being political. I abhor the expr
ession, I’m just concerned about fill-in-the-blank. I dont want to be political. A lack of religion is a religion. Likewise, a lack of political affiliation is a political affiliation. There is no neutrality. Neutrality is conventional wisdom. If you’re not fighting for M. Butterfly, you’re automatically fighting for The Great Gatsby. If you’re not fighting for Foreign Correspondents, you’re automatically fighting for Goodfellas. Now, again, I like The Great Gatsby and Goodfellas… but that’s not something I need to defend or write a book about. Those are established. I am simply acknowledging what is the default and what needs fighting for–not just to implement, not just to be right, but to even be considered or heard of.

No one can be objective. Every scholar, every scientist, every psychologist, every politician, everyone should know this deep down in her heart. The only academically honest solution to a lack of true objectivity is the recognition of subjectivity; the deep confession of subjectivity and the outing of any appearances of objectivity.

This is where white people have difficulty understanding why blacks needs to do things for themselves. This is where straight people have difficulty understanding why the queer community needs to do things for itself. And so on. You cannot always be right. You cannot always have the right position, stance, opinion, action. Sometimes it’s not up to you. That’s what frightens conventional wisdom, status quo and power–a lack of agency, not being able to do something. Perfect example of this is white people not understanding why it’s “okay” for blacks to say nigga but it’s not “okay” for whites to say nigger. That’s because there isn’t a universal “okay” for everybody. Each person is not just a person. Each person has a political identity. For better or worse, at the turn of the twenty-first century, part of our political identities as Americans is our race. A black person will know that if another black person says, “How my niggas doing?” that that first person will not deny her a job, tell racist jokes on the side, or commit hate crimes against black people. As an Asian-American, I know that if a fellow Asian-American talks about Lucy Liu having “chinky eyes” I have nothing to fear from her. She will not assume that I like computers, that I am a hard worker, that I am an immigrant. She will not find my cultural heritage “fascinating” or “exotic.” She will not commit hate crimes against Asian people. It almost goes without saying… a white person should not use the word chink.

A person’s history (familial, racial, political) informs our understanding of her position. Malcolm X inspired me not just because of what he believed and spoke but because of what he had gone through. How else can his speech about “plymouth rock land[ing] on us” have so much power unless he felt that landing, unless he is a part of the “us”?

And white people’s constant harping that they “do not see race” is just a joke among people of color. We know that whites see race because they’re the ones who “raced” us in the first place and who continue to see race in us. We can see the message in society over and over again, that white is authoritative, neutral/ objective, universal. Black, yellow, red, brown are ethnic, exotic, familial, subjective, colored by culture, heritage, superstitions, etc.

You can see the white-universal/ color-subjective dynamic in literature–even though Asians, and even Amy Tan herself, acknowledge and insist that Joy Luck Club does not represent the Asian-American experience (supposing there is one and not many), it is mainly white people who tend to see it not as a universal story of mother-daughter relationships, but as Asian-American literature. As an English teacher, I know how difficult it is not to tokenize ethnic or women’s literature. In forming my courses, I always try to include something non-canonical (or in the “New Canon”), but oftentimes I (and/or my colleagues and students) accidentally view those inclusions as “the ethnic book,” “the African-American book,” “the woman’s book.” And how can we not? There is such a rich body of literature in the English language. Unfortunately, a large section of the canon which we cannot and should not abandon happens to have been written by dead, white, usually straight, usually educated (and rich) males. I have to admit, Im hard-pressed to think of even five books written by Asian-Americans that have great literary merit. As an Asian-American intellectual, however, I know that is not because we Asians lack the brainpower or creativity to write great works of literature. After all, in almost every culture with a written language there is great literature. The ability to write great literature is not tied to race.

Why is it so important to assert the lack of connection between race and the ability to write great literature? There is no separation between statements and the race of the person who has made the statement or the race of the person the statement is about. I stated before that as an Asian-American who considers himself to have brainpower, to have creativity, I can make the statement that good Asian-American literature is hard to find without insulting Asian people. However, if a white person says good Asian literature is hard to find, she may believe it is due to a lack of opportunity or social pressures, but she may also be tempted to believe that Asians are just not prone to creativity or literary pursuits. Perhaps, she may speculate, they are more science-minded. It is much easier and more dangerous to make statements about others than to make them about yourself, your own race, gender, or other identification.

In her heart, everyone knows this to be true, yet in some arenas (race, in particular), whites imagine that they can make any statement about race as long as it’s “true” and it doesn’t matter that they’re white making the statement or some other color making the statement. Think about social etiquette, though. Do we not often put ourselves down to be polite, to be modest? “Oh, I’m not really all that.” “Thank you, but its so-and-so that deserves most of the credit. All I did was…” Those statements are personal. They are not absolutely true, no matter who makes them. A scenario in which a football player gave credit to his teammates for a game’s victory he obviously made a major contribution to seems appropriately chivalrous. A scenario in which the teammates celebrate after their win how much they did not need that star player in order to win would show both arrogance and a lack of appreciation on the part of the team, and leave the player feeling bitter or ostracized. In each scenario, someone is giving more credit of the win to the team rather than the player, but who’s saying it determines the ultimate effect.

Not only do white people often ignore this dynamic in talks about race, but almost every category of person tends to ignore this dynamic in discussions about religion. Religious scholars of every denomination, religion or atheism all have agendas, all have prejudices, biases, and preconceived notions of the truth. Yet they pretend whatever truth or facts they have found they can objectively analyze. I’m not saying there isn’t any point to examining what is truth or what the facts are. It is important to any discussion to recognize that who the messenger of the truth is colors the way we view it.

Jesus tells us not to judge others. He repeatedly says so throughout the gospels. The reason he gives is not that the others are not doing anything worth judging. It is because it is not our place to illuminate, emphasize, or vocalize that particular truth. What we say is not as important as who we are that are saying it.

Ordinal Values
Truth is a funny thing. I can’t say that I’m the fir
st to make a distinction between truth and facts. Oftentimes, though, it is easy to confuse the two. Im not endorsing a relativistic stance. I do believe there are universal truths as well as a type of universal ethics. As C. S. Lewis did, I believe that people adhere to universal truths and morals whether they like to believe it or not. The encapsulated (and thus, watered down version) of his argument is basically that any judgment we make on people’s behaviors assumes universality of standards. If the philosophy “to each her own” really applied in life to a large degree, we would excuse everyone’s behaviors and differences of opinions as “that’s just what they believe.” Sometimes we do. If someone likes coconut ice cream and another can’t stand coconuts, usually both parties will let the difference in tastes slide. Even if one person is a Republican and another a Democrat, they will each think themselves in the right and the other the wrong, but will likely say, “Let’s agree to disagree.” They may not even say so aloud but might come to an unspoken agreement. However, a racist and an anti-racist often have difficulty coming to terms with each other. So might a warhawk and a peacenik. So might a fundamentalist Christian and a die-hard atheist. So might a nudist and a prude. There is a spectrum of both morality and truth, on one end there being differences of value which compose the necessary diversity that makes life interesting, on the other unshakeable tenets and basic values no one will stand to have challenged (usually).

In the modest number of years I have spent upon the earth, there are several truths or morals Ive encountered that most people feel to be universal, even if they are not, and even if they may, in fact, be wrong (in my opinion, of course):

    1. The sanctity of life
    2. That the taking of life is an extreme act (whether necessary or abhorrent)
    3. The undesirability of hypocrisy
    4. Passion and direction
    5. Humility
    6. Growth
    7. The expression of respect
    8. Intelligence
    9. Wisdom
    10. Self-preservation

There are many others. Now again, I qualify this list by saying that these are often what people feel to be universal, not what are universal, necessarily. What does seem to be universal is both the set of possible universals emphasized to different degrees (so that in the case that several potential universals contradict each other, one takes precedence over the other) and the mere existence of a value system. For instance, I believe in God’s burden for the poor, the suffering, and the underprivileged. I also believe in the musical expression of worship to God. Another Christian may believe in both as well, but if the musical expression of worship to God and caring for the poor come into conflict, I may choose to care for the poor, and she may choose to sing to God. In both cases we have a value system. We also share a pool of values but do not choose from the pool in the same way. Many people seek to protect others as well as themselves. When others attack you, however, sometimes you must choose to protect either yourself or them. It is not always possible to keep them from damaging you and to keep yourself from damaging them.

Most preachers and devoted Christians do not often speak about ordinal values—that one part of the Bible may have a stronger message, may be more important than another part, that one value may be more important than another value. Yet they often express their set of ordinal values by what they choose to emphasize either in practice or in speech. A Christian who spends most of her time converting people, doing her quiet time, and worshiping God has made a value choice. These are all good things she is doing, but they also leave certain other things undone. A preacher who spends most of her time covering Genesis, Romans, and Ephesians is purposefully leaving out Hosea, Habakkuk and Revelation.

Now, it isn’t bad to have ordinal values. We must—not only because there isn’t enough time to cover everything in the Bible, not only because there isn’t enough time to do everything we want to do: we must have ordinal values because Jesus himself has ordinal values. He decrees that there is, in fact, a commandment that is the greatest and one that is the second greatest. Not all commandments are of equal value. We should recognize, though, that we have ordinal values. Only then can we open up a dialogue about whether or not we are emphasizing the right things. That’s the tricky thing about truth. I will often have disagreements with other Christians not about the facts but about the truth. And the truth is often not about whether the facts are right or not—it’s about what facts you leave out and what facts you leave in and which ones you emphasize.

I have written this preface to color the way you read this [currently incomplete] book [set of essays?]. It is not a sociological text. It is not fiction. It is not academic study. First, before you disagree with anything I write (and you probably will, at some point), consider model over scope. I may present problems but they are problems—I am not speaking about the degree to which they are problems, simply that the problems exist. Second, consider dialogue before proof. It is much more important to me that what I present, what I propose, what I write is presented, proposed, written, than that it is correct or correctly argued. Once the opinion is on the floor, once I have gotten you to think, to challenge yourself and your assumptions, then you can wonder about what proof might support or refute what I have written. Third, remember that the political is always personal. I do not say these things as an ultimate, objective authority. I say them as “I.” I say them based on my experience. Lastly, keep in mind that I am not disputing facts; I am affirming what I believe to be the truth: Model over scope, dialogue before proof, personal with political, and ordinal values.

The word church has several connotations in popular culture, religion and history. It can refer to a building, a rock band, a cult, a gathering of people, or a corrupt political force. Ever since I was born, I followed my parents around to any number of Chinese churches—Evangelical or non-denominational, usually composed of middle-aged Chinese (mostly Mandarin-speaking, some Cantonese-speaking) immigrants and American-born Chinese teenagers and young children. Occasionally there would be one or two black or white people in the congregation, maybe a few Koreans as well. Never any Japanese. No Latinos as far as I could tell.

While I feel God has called me to be a part of some church in a spiritual capacity, I cannot help always thinking of churches in a political capacity. There, of course, lurks in my mind the horrifying past of the European church colored by torture, oppression, slavery, conquest, corruption, racism, sexism, and animal cruelty, among other things. I’ve often found that there are historically informed political trends and divisions as far as faces I’ve seen in the media and at visits to churches and church conferences, as well as friends and acquaintances in my social circles. I am speaking of trends and what I have seen which may or may not coincide with sociological data. This is anecdotal and personal testimony, not hard social science; model, not scope.

There are the white, liberal, intellectual atheists. Speaking strictly in terms of models (not individuals), I see these as WASPs or Catholics who are not the children of immigrants but whose families have been in the US for at least two or three generations (if not since the Mayflower). Their parents may have been hippies or their parents may have forced them to attend church when they were young. They are not proud of the racist attitudes of their parents, but they usually do not do much to promote antiracism themselves. They feel that they are rebelling by turning their backs on their Christian heritage and that they are somehow more intellectual, more progressive than naiv
e, brainwashed, blind-faith religious Christians who are still following a scientifically backward, historically oppressive and imperialistic, patriarchal, sexually repressed, racist tradition.

There are the conservative, Bible-belt Southern Christians (black and white—though, the white ones are more prominent in the media). Perhaps this is my own bias coming out, but it seems to me logical to lump the televangelists in this group. They’re outspoken, proud of their heritage, always opinionated, always feeling there’s “something wrong” with this country, while simultaneously being overly patriotic.

The Latino and black communities have their predominantly Catholic and Baptist traditions, respectively. I have to confess that I know very little about these traditions, as Chinese churches tend to have almost nothing to do with Latinos or blacks.

I grew up with a community of (mostly conservative) Chinese Christians, young people whose parents are Christian but who did not necessarily come from a long Christian tradition. For example, my brother and I are Christian, and so are my parents and one of my aunts, but no one else in my family (including my grandparents and cousins) is. Among Koreans, there is a long (and strong) tradition of Christianity. And then there are any number of marginalized or developing communities that have embraced Christianity in the past fifty years in amazing numbers—Latin America, Native America, Africa, South Asia…

There are three major trends I see in the church today: a European tradition of Christianity embracing or denying its religious heritage, a number of nonwhite populations becoming part of a sweeping movement of evangelism, and a rarely occurring commitment to a multiethnic Christian church. After graduating from college, I sought after this last set of churches. The Chinese churches were too conservative, too political (pro-Bush, pro-Reagan pulpits; internal political division); the white churches too white. The closest I could find to God’s vision for the church were these multiethnic churches. Multiethnic is still not utopian, though. These churches are usually led by a white male pastor. Theyre usually predominantly white, largely Asian (and of that Asian population, largely Korean), with a spattering of Latinos, Blacks, and white internationals (British and Australians) and Asian internationals (overseas-born Asians). They are in major cities—New York, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago. What appeals to me about these churches, despite their racial trends, is the refreshing attitude the congregants and leadership take toward worship and the idea of church. Church is often not a building, especially because the church does not have the money to own a building—it rents or borrows space from local schools or community centers. Worship is non-traditional, replacing organs, pianos and hymns with drums, basses, synthesizers and hip praise songs.

Most importantly, these few multiethnic evangelical churches I’ve encountered have not compromised the central tenets of the Christian faith, have abandoned many meaningless or dangerously entrapping rituals of the traditional church, and are seeking more and more to reach out to the surrounding community.

The church I grew up in repeatedly told me to make a distinction between religion and faith. I do think there is a value to making that distinction. I also feel that distinction is a little false. The value is that separating faith (a system of belief and action) from religion (a system of rituals indirectly linked to belief) allows us to examine the meaning of our actions. There are two reasons I think the distinction is false. It’s false in a practical sense, as are many arguments about semantics: when someone asks me what religion I am, I do not say, “I’m not religious, but I’m of the Christian faith.” My religion is Christianity. I can expound upon that. I can describe in great detail the distinction between faith and religion. That’s not what the persons asking about, and it really does not change their perception of Christianity; just as if someone asks me what race I am, I say that I’m Asian. I don’t go on a long tirade about how complicated the notion of race is and that it is an ideological construction, etc. Yes, it is a construction, but until it is deconstructed, it exists, just as any physical construction (think: building) does.

The distinction I will make that is not false is between “being religious” and “taking my faith seriously.” If someone asks me what religion I am, I will answer that I’m a Christian, but if someone asks me if I am religious, I will say that I take my faith seriously. Likewise, if someone asks me what country I’m from or where I’m from (this person is usually white, by the way; most people of color are savvy enough to realize I’m from America), I say where I’m from. I do not say I’m from Hong Kong. I’m not. If they ask me what my heritage is or where my parents are from, that’s a different story: my parents are from Hong Kong. White people, of course, think I’m just being nitpicky or have a chip on my shoulder, but what right do they have to foreign-ize me, to exoticize me, when I am more American than they are? That’s right, more American, because I do believe all humans are created equal–I do not just say it; more American, because I know I am descended from immigrants–I dont pretend to have been here forever.

I have a white friend who’s a staunch atheist. She’s intelligent, was practically the valedictorian of her class in high school (she may have actually been–I don’t remember), went to a prestigious Ivy League school, and she cannot fathom how an intelligent person (though I never got the grades she got) like me could seriously believe in Christianity. Ironically, it is I, the religious one who does not believe in traditions and rituals that have outlived their original purposes or meanings, and it is she, the non-religious one, who denies faith but finds beauty and comfort in the rituals of the church she grew up (but does not believe) in.

I’ve often questioned many rituals, and no one has given me a satisfactory answer about them. Keep in mind that I’m speaking of the large number of churches that I have attended. I realize there are a handful of denominations and individual churches to which these questions do not apply. Why do we always have to have a sermon every Sunday? Why pass around buckets, baskets, or bags to collect offering during service?

Im not doubting that there is a reason for these things to occur, I just feel morally outraged that no one has ever bothered to explain the meaning of these rituals to me. At least the way I have seen sermons typically handled, the notion seems ludicrous: usually one, though sometimes a handful, of pastors have to come up with a thirty-minute (if you’re lucky) to hour and a half (if you’re not so lucky) sermon every week. Keep in mind that sermons are not academic study. They aren’t classes. Sermons are more like books; they sometimes involve humor, entertain, instruct, include anecdotes and/or research, and have to hold the attention of twenty to 6,000 congregants. Ive heard many complaints and have to confess I myself have complained of the lack of quality in sermons. They are often repetitious, uninspiring, trite, offensive, or poorly organized. Why shouldn’t they be, though? Pastors have the job of a newspaper columnist with no editor and also have a lot of other responsibilities. I’m not sure how much columnists have to do outside of writing their columns, but I know pastors have to attend dinners, perform wedding ceremonies, visit their congregation members, run Bible studies, and attend deacon board meetings, among other things. All this, and they have to come up with an inspiring sermon every Sunday? No wonder the quality fades so quickly.

Too often I have sat in Sunday service either thinking, “This sermon is too long,” “Didn’t I hear this one before?” or “You went to seminary to learn that?” It’s not the best attitude to have in church, I know. I should be focusing on
God. I should be appreciating his servants. I’d always thought that other parts of the worship service should go on as they usually do, and if the pastor feels inspired, then we can hear a sermon. Who wants to hear an uninspired sermon? And why should the pastor ever feel pressured to come up with something?

What’s with the baskets at worship? I’m not a Biblical scholar, of course, but I have yet to find a passage in the Bible indicating that we should pass around baskets (bags or trays, whatever) when giving our offering to God. In fact, Jesus’ directive that “you should not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret” (Matthew 6:3-4, NIV) seems to indicate that the offering receptacle should be in as private a place as possible. Granted, he was talking about giving to the poor, but his rationalization (that you should not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men) seems to follow for almost anything that could be construed as religious or good (he makes a similar statement in other parts of the Sermon on the Mount dealing with prayer and fasting).

Communion. Ah, there’s an interesting part of service. In every church I’ve been in, the leaders of the church have been finicky about people either being baptized or merely Christian to participate in Holy Communion, and usually the leaders insist everyone wait until all the congregants have the elements (bread/ matzo and wine/ grape juice) before symbolically consuming Jesus body and blood. I’m assuming this comes from I Corinthians 11:21, in which Paul scolds the church of Corinth, saying, “as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anyone else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk” (NIV). Again, I am not a religious scholar, so I may be wrong. If I’m wrong, it is almost all the better. As I have stated before, I am mostly concerned about opening up a dialogue. These are things I do not often hear questioned. Merely bringing to light issues is more important than what the light shining on them might reveal. I can imagine, though, that the church in Corinth is not a church with a steeple, etc. It is someone’s home. And their worship service isn’t a service as we know it today, with a pulpit, pipe organ, and pews. From what Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians (in translation, I know, but I can’t read Greek), it sounds to me as if the Corinthians were getting together to have dinner for communion and instead of recognizing that it is Christ’s blood they are drinking or his body they are eating in remembrance of Christ, they are merely eating and drinking haphazardly, and, I would imagine, literally getting drunk. The context seems to support this idea, because Paul then goes on to say that “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord” (I Corinthians 11:27, NIV). It isn’t the worshipers attending an organized Sunday service and eating their wafers a second too early who are eating in an unworthy manner. I do recognize there is a solemnity and community-building aspect to having everyone eat her wafer at the same time, drinking her cup at the same time, but I also see that pastors are adding a certain death and doom to the act that might be a misappropriated admonition. The context is not the same at all.

What about the church service, itself? Well, in the churches I have attended, there is a Sunday service, possibly a separate, more charismatic service, a singles group, a couples group, various Bible study groups that meet once a week, a youth group, a children’s worship service, and a non-English service (either Chinese or Korean, depending on what church I was attending). These are all valid forms of worship. What I have found encouraging is that in the past few years, churches seem to have become more and more concerned with how they fit into their surrounding communities, how they serve their surrounding communities.

But what exists is not what has to exist. I’ve found my fellow Christians do not even try to understand people’s need to get away. After my first year in college, I decided that I needed a break from church, a break. I was disillusioned with church services, with Bible studies… I needed some time alone with God. When I told my Christian friends and family about even considering taking a break, I was surprised by their knee-jerk and negative responses. Most people told me essentially that taking a break from church was wrong, morally wrong, that it was also dangerous (i.e. that would be the first step to backsliding, falling away from God, no longer being a Christian–though the idea that you can un-Christian yourself is something Christians have debated even before Goethe’s Faust). I didn’t understand where this was coming from. In fact, two forces seemed to be driving the backlash I experienced: fear of change and fear of Satan.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with church as it is usually structured. A morning Sunday service that includes music, testimony/ preaching, fellowship time/ lunch, communion, offering, and a benediction; various church events, retreats, community service, and Bible studies… these are all good things, but they are not necessary, and when you are a Christian and you choose to step away from those things (even for a short while), you can expect to be treated like an outcast, like the prodigal son (before his return). All I wanted was some time alone with God, away from the politics of the church and fellowship, away from the hypocrisy. I think there’s Biblical precedent for this, as well. Didn’t Moses spend time in the wilderness? Didn’t Jesus? Didn’t John the Baptist? Those times in the wilderness, although sometimes trials of faith, were not negative events or times. Those were times to concentrate on God, to fast, to hear his voice, to get away from people. That’s all I wanted. Ironically, it was people’s irrational fear of my going away from God that kept me further from the church and fellowship. I was even more disgusted by the religion of the church taking over the faith of the church, the tradition of the church taking over the rationality of the church.

The fear of Satan is an interesting thing. Many Christians will use Satan as a scare tactic a la Jonathan Edwards: hellfire and brimstone, as the saying goes. He is the bogey man. He is a force to be reckoned with. Watch out! He’ll get you, if you’re not careful. That isn’t what the Bible tells us, though. All this worry about backsliding, temptation and falling into the wrong hands is the type of fear that God does not encourage us to embrace and perpetuate. Although I am often critical of the church and church structures, the small group Bible study I had while in high school has still left its mark on me, and from it I well remember Paul’s admonition from I Corinthians 10:13 that

[n]o temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it (NIV).

So why fear Satan? Why fear losing faith? If we truly follow God, if we truly believe God to be all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving, how can we fear? I’m not saying we should underestimate the Satan, but we know we have a support system. I love the phrase “he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.” We are truly strong with God, and we should not ever imagine that as long as we make a genuine commitment to follow him that we’re ever “in danger” of falling away.