The main religion/theology/bible conference held in the States is the American Academy of Religion (held together with the Society for Biblical Literature). 10,000 scholars come from all over the world to share work on religions, texts, and movements. I’ve been going on and off since early in grad studies. Initially, I found the conference to be kind of loud and disorienting. Over the years I’ve been grateful to find a mix of communities that I value. Early on these were the world Christianity, Chinese religions, and Reformed history and theology groups.

In 2011, via Sandy Kuntz, I was invited to join Society for Buddhist-Christian Study’s board and then became its newsletter editor. I like the group because they meet on Friday, so I get to start the conference a little earlier, to reconnect with people in a structured format, and often there’s a trip in the evening to a religious site (this year was my first time organizing it—we visited a Buddhist temple, Fo Guang Shan Boston). I’ve been grateful to be part of Chinese Christianities also, which is a seminar now in its third year and has helped give some direction to the field. I’ve also bounced around some—I followed the immigration seminar’s work for a while and this year was on a panel on gaming.

I often visit Princeton Seminary’s reception and sometimes Vanderbilt (because our family friend Yakhwee and I go together). In the past, PCUSA had a meeting, but it seems to have now disappeared. This year there were other fun parts. A coworker’s daughter presented this year, I saw a number of old classmates and professors, and I was able to wander the voluminous book hall, checking out new books and dreaming about future projects. The value of a conference is you get a fair amount of focused time—thirty or forty hours of interaction pushed into a few days.

I can usually only justify trips like this if I do several things. This time I went several days earlier to get on time and visited family in Williamstown, MA, where my mother grew up. I also spent one day in Boston getting the lay of the land and visiting two people at BU. I was able to visit the Taiwanese Presbyterian Church of Greater Boston. Now I am back in Taiwan and still jet-lagged. Today I am helping my seminary with papers for its accreditation with ATESEA. I teach tomorrow and Wednesday. I’m feeling a bit behind on paperwork and grading, but also grateful for the chance to get new perspectives.

End of Semester: Teaching, Logistics

The end of the semester this year is feeling busy but not-quite-frantic. I had two main courses, one a required survey and one an elective. The elective was really fun—we did a visit to Danshui, saw Silence, and talked through Christianity in different parts of Asia. The students were especially interested in the Taiping, which surprised me.

I did several guest lectures for our lay academy. I still find public lectures on a new topic to be about the most stressful part of teaching in Taiwan. For the main lecture I talked a friend, Yin-an Chen, into translating my ppt notes into Chinese, but for the other lectures I did a mix of partial translation and my best effort. This was for a series on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, so I talked about Presbyterians around the world and modern mission for the smaller classes and then “Protestant, Reformed, Presbyterian,” for the large lecture. It’s still a work in process. Two Sundays ago I preached at Shuanglian and this Saturday I’m visiting a church about an hour south of Taipei. Emily is doing the graduation trip for the twins’ school on Saturday, so Sam will come with me.

I’m always amazed by how much logistical work there is. PCUSA requires about 5 hours of online training. I’m working on submitting materials for the Ministry of Education, since the Seminary’s accreditation requires this. We dropped off visa renewals last week and pick them up Monday. We did two sets of taxes in April-May. To return to the US I’m confirming flights and lodging. (Our return flight to Taiwan was bumped from a 7:45am flight to a 6am flight, which means our whole family will have to get up in the middle of the night then.) We also need to get drivers’ license addresses updated and get information out to congregations we visit. Then there’s grading.

I’m editing some English for our postgrad department and trying to finish up a dissertation review and some book reviews. I’m excited to go to the Yale Edinburgh Conference on World Christianity in New Haven this year, and am finalizing that paper. Next week will be the big flight back to the US. Trying to stick with “busy not frantic.” And of course we’re very much looking forward to seeing family and reconnecting to old friends.


We’re now in the middle of our next travel iteration, finishing out Oxford and soon to head to Edinburgh. I visited the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, where an old coworker/mentor, Tom Harvey, is dean. Tom and Judy hosted Sam and I and it was a really nice place to be along the way.

In Oxford we spent most of our time in museums, first the Ashmolean and then today the Natural Science and Rivers Museum. Sam found an interactive display on the tree of life that just fascinated him. The goal was to show how single lines separate into individual species. There was also a bird exhibit in the upper gallery and I was impressed by how many species he’s identified in our time here—a gray heron, assorted ducks, mute swans, a magpie, a pheasant, a common buzzard, and so on. He occupies himself pretty well. I also booked the last legs of our trip using museum wifi—another day in London and a bus to Heathrow. We also walked to Christ Church, which has the fame of being the dining hall for the Harry Potter movies. (And of course there are regularly portraits up of Henry VIII, Elizabeth, Wesley, and others.)

Tom’s work is interesting because he’s also doing Chinese Christianity but more theologically. He’s interested in several of the major twentieth century figures—Wang Mingdao, Nee, Song and a few others—who sought to recover a primitive Christianity. I had a good time talking with him—about Barth, mission Dei, the different academic networks, PCUSA and the Reformed churches here, and so on. OCMS’s major work is focused on academic training for African, Asian, and Latin American Christians. When I arrived yesterday there was a conversation in Korean and two vivas (vivae?) being conducted for students. It really does interdisciplinary work. I enjoyed the chance to hear about it. The Harveys have also raised third-culture kids, so that interests me too. Both the mechanics of this process (schools, moves, US time) and also their own approach to it were helpful. Tom told Sam not to give up on math, that music makes your brain bigger, and that it’s good to study Chinese. As parents, we often have our own model we hold up, but it’s always helpful to have convivial models shared with them.

The next stop is Edinburgh. This is our trickiest connection because there’s the real chance Sam will fall into a deep sleep on the way to London to switch. There’s also the equally troubling possibility he won’t sleep at all in which case tomorrow could be rocky. That said, he’s been very adaptable and takes almost no extra energy. For lunch we at granola bars earlier and split a tavern meal. I’m grateful for these small moments of joy along the way.

Green Island

25763894A friend on facebook recommended this novel, posting the New York Times review. I checked it out online from my library and really enjoyed the read. It’s an epic family saga that stretches across Taiwan’s history from 1947 into the present. It’s probably the best novel I’ve read in terms of treating modern Taiwan’s experience: the period of economic growth, the strange education culture (where students memorized Chinese provinces that no longer existed), the ways Taiwan’s relationship was shaped by US policy, the mix of language, the losses families experienced (of property, of culture, of life).

The main protagonists are a mother and father (Mama, Baba), their four children (the protagonist, an older sister and two older brothers), and assorted spouses, friends, and coworkers. The story is told via the youngest daughter of the four, who is born during the 228 incident (in 1947). Her father, a doctor, gives a political speech after trying to save the life of a wounded protester. He’s subsequently arrested and imprisoned on Green Island for 11 years. The siblings go in different directions–one marries a young soldier, a brother rises in the military in large part by informing on others, and another brother is something of a drifter. The father is released and lives out the next 40+ years with his family, but he’s never the same. The youngest sister eventually marries a Berkeley physics PhD and moves to California, where her husband is involved in a resistance cell. The siblings’ paths all reflect different trajectories Taiwanese families faced (intermarriage, exile abroad, collaboration, escapism).

The family has a mix of ups and downs. Her father never truly recovers from his imprisonment and is implicated in providing info that leads to the jailings of others. The protagonist’s husband’s work leads to a mix of family oppression, failed efforts, and so on. State violence taints everyone in the story in questionable ethical behavior, with the exception of one idealistic activist who stays pure in his resistance without sacrificing those around him. More over, there’s no happy conclusion at the end. Taiwan never has its truth and reconciliation commission. The book ends with the idea that the stories that were oppressed might still be told. True enough, in Taiwan, more of these stories are told, but there’s still a lot of silence. The generation that committed these crimes and experienced them is now passing away…

There’s not a lot of English language lit available on Taiwan. Tao Lin’s 2013 Taipei, was a more experimental, creative effort (that related a drug-loving, internet-addicted antihero). Green Island is a bit more of what I know. In churches here I often meet people who came of age in the late 40s and 50s. They sometimes had parents disappeared. A Methodist missionary at my seminary, Milo Thornberry, wrote a book Fireproof Moth (2011), that related his experience in Taiwan and his subsequent exile from Taiwan. Thornberry directs his book towards the ethics of resistance, including the question of violent resistance (he apparently was unknowingly involve in a bomb plot). He struggled with church culture, which was sometimes quietistic or conservative about Chiang’s authoritarianism.

In Green Island, the protagonist’s older sister and mother become Christian. The author struggles to make sense of the conversion, even as this was a period in church life when Christianity grew rapidly. I think the picture was limited, but also fairly honest. I often meet families here where there is a Christian “wing,” and often a mother will follow a daughter into faith. It was a small detail, but I appreciated it.

Second Chances

It’s fun to be back in Taipei. It’s surprised me how much I’ve enjoyed little things–wonton soup, the park with kids, seeing surprised students and coworkers. Part of the fun is that when we left in February we weren’t sure if we’d return. I told everyone “maybe/probably,” but in Chinese I think many people took this to mean we wouldn’t be back. The church we’ve been involved in included me (without me knowing beforehand) in a group farewell that honored the departing senior pastor and the music director. It was funny then to be back half a year later. At the same time, it’s let me to say to people “we’re very happy to be back,” and “we’re glad everything has worked out.” I’m treating it as a second chance, and really enjoying being in a new apartment with a new pace and a new outlook. Emily has new academic responsibilities. The kids are on a new (better) schedule and are enjoying schools. It’s a lot to manage, and yet is also feeling more manageable. I’m treating it like a second chance.

This is taking several forms. We’re trying to branch out a little on visiting congregations. I’ve reengaged with writing projects. I’m enjoying showing Taipei to others. This week Kevin Ward from Knox College in Dunedin, New Zealand came through. Knox is the Presbyterian seminary for New Zealand and they have a very interesting formation. They offer ministerial training that typically comes after a first degree at Otago. The faculty is basically four teachers who are all focused on preparation for ministry. It’s an interesting model and offers that rare academic/practitioner blend that most seminaries want but struggle to get. (In my seminary, there are some students who come in with basically no academic reading/writing, while in the US there are a number of seminarians who drift through their studies with limited church attachment.) I really enjoyed Kevin because we have a lot of friends in common and seem to be working on some similar issues. He’d been in Korea and had seen a classmate and we both know Yakhwee Tan, who is a kind of godmother to our children. The Liang Fa biography I’d edited was written by a New Zealand Presbyterian. A friend we’ve enjoyed getting to know the last few years is Stuart Vogel who shows up in Taipei annually and does similar academic work. It’s a web of relationships for which I’m grateful. This semester I was also surprised to discover that there’s a music prof from Northwestern College in Iowa who is on sabbatical and is guest teaching at my seminary. It’s always fun to see a place through others’ eyes.

This week is the first week of course. I’ve met with two thesis students–one is a Malaysian student interested in Islam. He wants to look at the early Muslim-Christian encounters to get some perspective on the modern relationship. I also have one PhD student who is pastoring in Vancouver and is now looking at two dissertation topics and trying to figure out which to pursue. I really enjoy work like this. I introduced the MDiv student to bibliography software, worldcat, and some other resources, and I helped the PhD student get a sense of the methods question for his work.

Chinese Christian Thought

Taiwan Seminary has a “Center for the Study of Christian Thought” 基督教思想研究中心 which holds several seminars or symposia a year on different topics. This weekend there was one on theological thought and formation 神學人學思──心路歷程. Several fairly recent PhD grads shared about how they came to the point they are at. It was an interesting group, with several mainland and several overseas (Malaysia, Singapore) scholars, as well as a mix of faculty from my seminary, China Evangelical Seminary, Taiwan Baptist Seminary, and Zhongtai Seminary. It was probably 70% Reformed and of the 17 PhD/ThDs I counted today, 100% male (which I think is very unfortunate but tends to be the norm in this group). That said, I am grateful for ecumenism in all its forms, and this particular conversation (1) is relatively new, (2) reflects friendships and collaborations between traditions that have often been challenging (China, Taiwan, SE Asia; Taiwanese and Mandarin churches; evangelical and mainline denominations), and (3) invites conversations that are probably good for the broader church.

A mainland pastor-scholar talked about the Chinese church as a “tradition-rejecting church” and also on his own search for a theological genealogy 家譜. In his personal pantheon of traditions, he included a pastiche of the great early 20th century Christian scholars (Song Shangjie, Wang Mingdao), the broader tradition (reflected through a study of Pelikan and others and an affinity for some periods, such as the pilgrim movements), and some appeal to modern translated scholars (from Calvin early on to Barth more recently). I found him very thoughtful and helpful to the overall conversation.

There was a also a recent Oxford grad who talked about his path via music and science into theology. He referenced Karl Barth a lot and I found his dissertation online, also on Barth. One of the things that has sort of surprised me is how popular Barth is among the under-40 crowd. My only contribution to the discussion today was to say that when I first came to Taiwan 10 years ago, I rarely heard about Barth, and after studying at PTS (where I think at one point 7 of the theologians were Barthians or had written on Barth for their dissertations), I was sort of grateful for a reprieve from him. In the last few months, when I’ve encountered Barth, he’s often been used how as I remember him, which is to say as a weapon. In Taiwan recently I’ve seen him used (1) to reject theological pluralism, (2) to repudiate contextual theology, and (3) as a safe all-purpose answer to various contemporary concerns (the guy today mentioned Barth’s usefulness for scripture). I understand that Barth is a major figure, but I still often feel like his total emphasis on revelation and rejection of natural theology means that he more or less ignores culture and has almost nothing to say to human-human (as opposed to divine-human) interaction. This is probably unfair of me, so I’ll try to read more in this area.


One of the side conversations during the conference was over Confucianism and Christianity. When theologians discuss Confucianism they bring great nuance to their Christian theology, but then offer a fairly simple “teachings of Confucius” approach to Confucianism (it would be as if you compared 100 scholars from 2500 years of Chinese teaching to the words of Moses). In Taiwan, a compounding problem is that there’s a strong emphasis on Chinese classics in education and a sense that people have a grounding in traditional Chinese culture, but then there are not the public conversations over Confucianism as in Singapore. People feel like they *own* the tradition, but then often haven’t really thought through how Confucianism acts like a religion (or doesn’t), contributes to the broader cultural system, or is applicable (or not) to education, government, and so on. One of the things about conferences like this that drive me nuts is that we can lose so much time just trying to get on the same page (what do we mean by “worldview,” “Confucianism,” “Reformed,” “Chinese,” etc.). There is sometimes a core of theological shared texts within one or two traditions, but when we get beyond this (into other cultures, religions, disciplines) we lack even the basic ability to understand each other.

Chinese Christianities Panel

This year was also the launch of the Chinese Christianities Seminar. Within AAR there were other papers on Chinese Christianities within the Chinese religions group, Society for the Study of Chinese religions, and world Christianity group, but it is nice to have a dedicated space. This year the panel was:

1. Christopher D Sneller, King’s College London

The Role of Union Theological Seminary (New York) in Indigenizing Christianity in Twentieth-Century China

2. Stephanie Wong, Georgetown University

Towards A Responsive Urbanizing Church: Chinese Catholics Crossing the Rural-Urban Boundary

3. Mu-tien Chiou, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

Pluralism and Christian Ecumenism: A Theological Reflection on Post-Sunflower Movement Taiwan

4. Di Kang, Lutheran School of Theology, Chicago

Historiography and Community Identity: Hong Kong Christians and the Recording of the 2014 Pro-Democracy Protest

5. Justin Tse, University of Washington

A Tale of Three Bishops: Chineseness and the Global City in Vancouver’s Anglican Realignment


I had about ten minutes to give a response, and I tried to highlight several of the major themes in our discussion. An emphasis we have is “border crossing,” and here some papers looked at border crossing within China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and others highlighted movement between different areas (Vancouver’s three Anglican bishops, borrowing between protest movements, historical flows between the US theological academy and diaspora groups). I said that I think the field has really grown in the last ten or twenty years. It used to be that there were still a few foundational figures that were always cited, but that’s not really the case any more. Social sciences are also more critical than in the past, and almost ever paper dealt substantively with theory pulled from soc/anthro or another field. “Chinese Christianity” used to really be “Christianity in the service of China,” and that’s clearly not the case.


Someone asked me again about using “Chinese Christianities.” Why not use “ethnic Chinese,” as in the Ethnic Chinese Biblical Colloquium, which meets at SBL? I actually prefer Chinese Christianities, where Chinese is an adjective, to Ethnic Chinese, where Chinese is the noun. When we talked about this a couple of years ago there were real questions about how we understand China and Chinese. I often cite Henrietta Harrison’s description of China as empire, nation, and civilization. Here there’s not a single, changeless China. Instead Chinese-ness has been spread through the state, through empire, and through culture. China is still a nation, it acts or often has acted as a multicultural empire, and it is also something like a broad-reaching culture with shared aspects of worldview, written language, and history. So, in Taiwan, where I live, a good chunk of the Christians are aborigines and predate the arrival of Han/Chinese peoples. Chinese culture influences everyone here, but Taiwan has been de facto separate from Taiwan for more than a century, after having been part of it for three centuries. “Chinese” is hotly contested here. I have a colleague who really doesn’t like using the word “Han” to describe Taiwanese people, but most Taiwanese casually will still call themselves Chinese or Han. In Taiwan, citizenship is still related to blood ancestry, but there’s also an increasing sense of difference from China, and a broader range of meanings for Chinese. The plural “Christianities” also highlights the real disagreements about what it means to be Christian.

Other Discussions

Being in AAR situates us between theology and religious studies. At the same time, I came to this discussion first through Asian studies (Association for Asian Studies long had an informal group that discussed Chinese Christianity) and the Yale-Edinburgh group (which usually has a few papers). There are also theological discussions–Mark Toulouse sent us the invite for a conference on Christianity in China in the 21st Century that included many three self leaders. In Taiwan there’s a Jonathan Chao archives that has hosted some public discussions on Christianity in China and many of the seminaries here have daughter seminaries that run in Taiwan. In Taiwan Chung-Yuan University has a Sino-Christian studies program, and there are similar departments in Hong Kong and Sinagapore. As an academic field, Chinese Christianity is often part of philosophy or history departments in China (in 2004 I attended a conference on missionaries and translation). There is a broader and broader range of academic networks, including schools in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and among interested researchers in North American and Europe. I feel grateful that I got to be part of the tail end of an earlier wave of scholars but am now watching a rising generation that is truly interdisciplinary, interconfessional, and international.

American Academy of Religions / Society for Biblical Literature 2015

The largest conference in the US–perhaps the world?–for scholars of religion is the American Academy of Religions. It’s held at the same time as the Society for Biblical Literature. Taken together there are something like 10,000 scholars from a range of backgrounds. I really like AAR and do my best to go, especially if I can stay with family for part of the trip back. This time AAR was in Atlanta so I was able to stay with family in Birmingham.


I spent Friday with the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies, where I’m the newsletter editor. SBCS is a fun group, very eclectic, and probably still skewed towards senior scholars with a long history of interfaith work. This gathering came a few weeks after the death of Professor Rita Gross, a senior scholar, founding member of the Society, and mentor to a lot of the members of the group. We spent most of the morning and afternoon in meetings and then visited the Atlanta Shambhala Center in the evening. I also attended a panel on Merton on Monday that was quite excellent. For Christians today, a key conundrum is pluralism. To be honest, I often feel like Protestants have fewer resources for making sense of pluralism, and that there is more built in opposition to inter-religious work. This has been a really helpful group in learning about how to relate across religious traditions.


At Shambhala Atlanta

Traditionally at AAR, I also spend some time with the world Christianity group (although less this time), then also visit Chinese religions panels and Reformed History and Theology. At this conference I also went to a panel where George Hunsinger was a respondent on war and terrorism (pretty interesting).

Chinese religions


For Chinese religions, the challenge is just that the field is so vast. This time I attended a short session on Holmes Welch, a prominent mid-century sinologist and scholar of Buddhism, a session on academic legacies in Chinese religions (this included a Legge paper by one of the other scholars who studies early 19th century China missions, Christopher Daly). Finally, I attended a “Buddho-Daoist” panel that debated how to make sense of communities, rituals or texts that sit between the two traditions.

Reformed history and theology

For Reformed History and Theology, there was a panel on Gerrish’s new dogmatic theology in outline. One of the most interesting comments came in the discussion, where a panelist said that Gerrish was somewhat concerned with the possibilities that his theology would be dated by the time of publication. The commentator mentioned several specific concerns, including the rise of contextual theology and world Christianity, and the challenge of pluralism. Dogmatics have rarely tackled these subjects, so I was interested to see these raised as questions. Gerrish seems to situate his work as an extension of Calvin and Schleiermacher, and as a Presbyterian pastor and teacher I have been really interested in this particular question. I’m still not sure how dogmatics bridges the gap to questions like pluralism or contextual theology.

I’ll offer another post on the Chinese Christianities panel, which was a highlight.

Indigenous Christianity in the Asia Pacific Region

Today I’m at a conference at Academia Sinica, “Indigenous Christianity in the Asia Pacific Region” 亞太地區本土基督教國際學術研究討會 organized by Professor Shu-Yuan Yang at Academia Sinica. I was asked to respond to a paper on the evangelization of the Karen people in what is now Myanmar. The paper to which I am responding is Yoko Hayami 速水洋子 “Traveling Karen Preachers and the Culture of Evangelism: The Founding of Modern Missions in Nineteenth-Century Burma,” and it was quite good. The presenter was from Kyoto University. This was a historical paper, and grappled with some of the same questions I have had in using partial historical records.

In responding to the paper, my main questions relate to challenges that I face in my own work: what do we do when there are simply no materials by local people? And, how do we capture insider views about indigenous authority? (Here understood as what ordination meant to missionaries and locals, especially when we have limited discussions by these two parties.) In this paper as in a lot of the works I read on early Christian communities, the main or sometimes only sources are missionary accounts in English. There are other ways, however, to get at insider voices (tracts, catechisms, original hymns, letters, local news sources, etc.). One of my classmates in PhD was a Kachin scholar, La Seng Dingrin, so as I listened to other papers I went back to his thesis, which got at Kachin identity in a variety of ways (using lexica and dictionaries, Burmese and Kachin translations, and so on).

Other papers treated a wide range of groups: the Bukalot of Northern Luzon, Philippines; Lahu Christians in Thailand; Bunun, Amis Catholics, and Protestant Rukai in Taiwan; Trobriands; Ahmao Millenarians in SW China; and Kachin and Karen from Myanmar. There were two papers on early 20th century China, one on minority peoples and their continued affiliation to different traditions (CIM, charismatic, Methodist) and another on the rise of charismatics as a third stream in Chinese Christianity, with particular reference to class and education (i.e. unlike the denominationalists or the independent churches, charismatics tended to have had little interaction with missionary institutions).

One of the most interesting insights was from Mark Mosko, responding to Shu-Yuan Yang on the continuity/discontinuity question. Mosko says that if one goes to study Christianity the default response is often discontinuity, but if one goes to study social change, the default response is often continuity. Another discussion involved vernacularization versus literacy, which, honestly, I have often treated as interchangeable (although vernacularization often involves a different language than literacy). I took an anthro theory class in undergrad and have been influenced a lot by several priest-anthropologists, as well as mission literature on Christianity. The conference in general, one participant told me, partly comes from a realization during the last thirty years that many of the cultures anthropologists study are now Christian (or Muslim, or Buddhist, or something that they were not during the early golden era of anthropology).

There were also several interesting ecclesiastical discussions. I met one anthropologist who became a Christian as part of her work with aborigines, and heard of another who was baptized in a minority church in SE Asia. The conversion of anthropologists (and missionaries) is something I always find very interesting, so I was grateful for these discussions.

Writing Projects

For PhD I was in an eclectic sub-department within Princeton Seminary’s History Department. The field was known as MEHR (Mission, Ecumenics, and the History of Religions). Some candidates gravitated very strongly in one direction, and now are: mission theologians, historians of religion, mission historians, ecumenical theologians, etc. (Scroll down on this page to see what graduates have done.) One of my joys and challenges is that I teach broadly and have also tended to write broadly. In the last few months, several small projects I’ve been involved in have come out in each of these fields.

Strangers in this World

  • Several short articles on China, religions of China and Christianity in China in the Handbook of Religion

Handbook of Religion

Finally, I’ve just had this article, “Dismissional on Missional? The Growth of Missional Language” published in the online PCUSA journal Justice Unbound.

All of these were fun pieces. It was interesting to work with four very different editors, some quite hands-on and some where after I submitted the first major draft I never saw it again before publication. These also cover the full range of theology, history and religions. Next up is the final draft of a project on aborigines in Taiwan, with a former theologian colleague. Fun times…