Contingencies

We are in a transition period for the next six months and are planning to be in Ohio February-July. For seven years we have been here via the Presbyterian Church USA, which has helped us handle a lot of the challenges in working between two places. Being here officially with PCUSA has meant:

  • Salary and pension come from the US and we are in the social security system
  • We have some choice in housing
  • Most kids’ schooling options are open to us
  • We have US health care in the States
  • Some travel is covered
  • We received extra training, language study, and the like
  • We have some flexibility in relating to the Seminary–I’m outside of the normal rank system and get a pass on some language-intensive work (evaluating Taiwanese sermons, etc.)
  • PCT “accepts us,” whereas those who come from outside–even related Reformed churches–often struggle to have basic recognition for ministry here

Lately, the PCUSA system has been under financial stress. Our direct employer made cuts in 2015 and seems likely to make much larger cuts in 2016. If we are cut, we’d have salary extended through the year 2016. After that, it might be possible to negotiate a mixed support, where we’d have some funding from the US and some from Taiwan. Still, it makes me nervous. Here are the questions I am asking:

  • Would we be viable holding two full-time jobs in Taiwan, especially where full-time in local contexts often means weekend and evening work and a 9 hour workday (with a commute)?
  • How reliable is Taiwanese-based employment? Since I started at my Seminary, the four foreigners who received local salaries have all been fired or left.
  • Could we self-fund retirement or the equivalent of social security?
  • How sustainable is our housing? Moving off campus has been nice, but since our landlord is returning, we have to pack out in May one way or another. Some people move essentially every year. Are we willing to do this? After the twins were born, we tried for four years to move out of a 2-bedroom apartment on campus and it is hard to see returning to the campus system, where we were low-seniority, but also paid rent.
  • What are the consequences of leaving the US medical system? Could we still buy a low-level Obamacare plan abroad? If we had a seriously sick kid, could we take them back for care?
  • If we can stay with PCUSA but fundraising requirements go up, how much of our time will be spent in the US? Currently it is 20%, but would it need to go up to 30%, 40%? At what point is it too much?
  • How would kids’ schooling look if things changed? Could we teach them in local school and teach all three English ourselves? Find a US-based online school? Find a public bilingual school (Taipei doesn’t have these, but other places do)?

It’s totally plausible to see a scenario where things would work here if we are cut, but it’s also possible to see how an already challenging situation would become too much. In February we are moving to Cincinnati, but I’ll return in May to either put our things in storage, move them to a new apartment, or pack out. A lot of possibilities…

Presbyterians and Women in the Church

The last several weeks I’ve been thinking more about women in the church, particularly in the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan. There are several points I’ve been trying to connect together into a picture:

  • At the conference I attended last weekend, there were no women among the 17 PhDs/ThDs.
  • I found out recently that the mother church I attend has a session (church council) of something like 22 and of those only four are women.
  • I’d had a student assigned to me (and another person) to write a thesis on women in the church. I think she realized the topic was too sensitive or politically challenging to write and didn’t go through with it.
  • The last weeks of my Taiwanese religions class we talk through different social issues, and gender is one of them.

By way of preface, I should say that Taiwan is often more progressive nationally (and sometimes ecclesiastically) on gender equality issues. When I first started in Taiwan, I met a PCT pastor (Minnie Lee) who had been ordained in the 1950s and who served in Brazil. She gave me a published collection of her letters, which I still have. Taiwan is also set to have elections this year, and it looks like Tsai Ing-wen will win. Until a few months ago, two women were the main contenders. About half of our students at the seminary are women. These are all places where Taiwan was faster or earlier than the US.

Still, Presbyterian Church of Taiwan also has the same negative general trends as PCUSA and many other mainline churches: women are still less likely to be senior pastor, are more likely to be slotted towards family, educational and caring/compassion work, are likely to face much higher hurdles over family issues (leaving ministry or being “pastor wife” tracked after having children; needing to care for aging parents; or sacrificing their careers for husbands), and continue to face covert and overt discrimination. In Taiwan, there seems to be a higher rate of singlehood in the church and a lower birth rate, so this changes some of the dynamics. Clergy couples are also a trend. When the thesis student looked at some of these topics, she found there was almost no formal research on most of this.

Ironically, polity also skews the gender dynamics. In my home denomination polity (=church governance) is very important, such that people often think of Presbyterianism as fundamentally a system of church government (we elect leaders we believe are called to different posts). However, what I didn’t know until a few years ago is that how we elect leaders is very different. In the US, self-nomination or nomination via committee are the norms, whereas in Taiwan you start with a blank ballot with every member eligible for election (easily 100 names for a presbytery), and you keep casting ballots until someone is chosen. When I went to 7 Stars Presbytery for the first time, they were voting that day and they essentially voted all day. The voting was primarily for the sequence of main leaders who serve as assistant clerk, clerk, assistant moderator, and moderator. I’ve seen this in committees too. I’m on a “juridical committee” that manages several small plots of land in Taiwan and a large office building. When we first voted for new leadership I received a call from the outgoing chair asking me to vote for a specific member as the new chair (this is a pretty big no-no in my church). In that committee too, each of the 11 members were eligible and it was slowly whittled down to 6 votes for one candidate. There are strengths to this system: you always elect someone who is a core member of the group with strong supporters, you often elect people who are politically savvy, and you deal with cultural issues about not appearing arrogant or self-promoting or having cronyism in nominations. The flip side is you often get all-made leadership selected out of members who have had time to build constituencies.

Culturally the “all male leadership” model is one that makes me cringe. My mother is a pastor and my wife is an elder. The main denomination here has never had a female moderator or general secretary, most presbytery and church leadership is male, and the theological teaching positions at my seminary are 80% male. Given the way voting is done, I don’t see how this would change in my life time.

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.

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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.

December is here!

December always keeps us busy. Sunday I took the twins to Sunday School while Emily led the baby class (and Sam now goes to the regular English worship service at Suanglian).

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Eva and Eli at 主日學

We also did a belated family Thanksgiving (with home-cooked mash potatoes and stuffing carried back from the US, but KFC in place of turkey).

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Two weeks late but still tasty!

Sam was part of a dance competition at his school. They don’t do a holiday performance (the twins will at their school on the 19th), but this served a similar function. There were something like 20 groups. Sam’s did a German style number with fairly complex choreography (I think his homeroom teacher also teaches dance). Sam is a surprisingly enthusiastic performer. Next up is a violin performance of “O Come, Little Children” as part of a Christmas service in about ten days.

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He’s got rhythm…

This has been a good semester for him. He’s taken to writing little stories on his own and we continue to read a lot of fiction at bedtime (this fall we’ve done some more Roald Dahl, a couple of Lemony Snicket novels, the Silver Chair, and some Goosebumps). His Chinese is pretty good but he’s not taking the full midterm Chinese exams (which often include matching 成語proverbs, sometimes memorizing poetry, and also doing word problems). He’s kept up on vocab. He’s a bit behind on math now, but seems to be getting the concepts.

The twins are also going strong. 5 is pretty intense, but they both seem happy and healthy. Their main loves are the pre-K trinity of drawing, playing in the park, and fighting with each other. They’re working on the alphabet and the bopomofo phonetic system.

Our main family news is that we’re planning to head back to the US in February for at least a semester. We realized it was a good time at the Seminary to take a semester, there’s a house open we can use in Cincinnati, and it would save us doing an intense move mid-semester with the kids around. It’s also a good chance for us to reconnect to congregations and family. So far so good…

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

Response 

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.

Terminology

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.

SBCS

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.

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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.

Presbyterian Church of Taiwan 150th, Tainan

Last week was the Tainan edition of PCT’s 150th anniversary. I took Sam down on Sunday for the last day. There were two long worship services and a parade in between. It was a (hot), great day. The main focus this time was on the aborigine churches, and the first service ended with the longest dance line I’ve ever seen.

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There were several PCUSA visitors–Heath Rada, his wife Peggy, a former mission worker, presbytery exec Bobbi White, and Tom Taylor from the Presbyterian Foundation. It means a lot to the church here to have visitors from abroad. For us, it was nice to talk to former missionaries who had lived in Taiwan 15, 25, or 40 years ago. Several came up to me and asked about Sam and several, somewhat guiltily, shared that they wish their children had been able to do Chinese. One started out in Hakka and then moved to Mandarin but didn’t retain either. Another had kids who learned Mandarin but they were learning Taiwanese. One home-schooled using a UK curriculum. A persistent back story on this blog has been kids and schooling, and it is always interesting for me to see how others have handled things. Sam did great and even made a new friend from Kansas (also in 2nd grade).

 

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Rada preached at our seminary on Sunday. He’s been connecting with PSCE grads (I told him my parents both did degrees at Union Seminary). I’m grateful for the connections between our two denominations. Truly a fun time.

Second languages

On my (mostly) daily commute, I often listen to podcasts. On NPR I listen to This American Life, which I can download. Last week they had a story about a Chinese-American boy, Larry, raised in the US by parents from Fujian. The mother spoke to Larry in English and apparently the father (who didn’t speak English at all) didn’t talk to the son much when he was small and he never learned Chinese. The hook for the story was that the father and son had literally never had a direct conversation. (The transcript is here, but you have to scroll down about 2/3rds of the way.) It was an interesting dynamic to me. I know a lot of families where the parents speak primarily Chinese, Taiwanese, or Korean, and the kids answer in English, but in this case the divide is even larger. I felt a lot of sympathy here for both Larry and his father. In this case, the language split was probably compounded by the father’s hard work schedule and perhaps that the father also spoke two different languages at home.

I’ve been thinking about this because lately I’ve started speaking to our kids occasionally in Mandarin. Partly it’s because I’d like them to be able to keep the language up. It’s a dilemma–it’s never totally ideal for parents to converse with children in a 2nd or 3rd language for both of them, at the same time some of the kids I know in Taiwan have a parent or parents that speak to them exclusively (or regularly, says Tuesdays) in English.

School Days…

Sam’s now near the end of his fourth week of school. It has been fast. I can’t believe quite how much they study. He’s more than 30 pages into a math book (he has two other math books too, so it’s not like this is all there is) and then there’s also been Chinese and English and some extra subjects. There are no tears this year but it’s still a negotiation to figure out what to do and how. Last year the English seemed a bit more urgent, but in the mean time math and Chinese have sped off, so now they get the attention. In math they’re doing double digit addition and subtraction with carrying, which seems pretty advanced to me for the first month of second grade. He likes his teachers (Ms. Lee, Mr. Nick) and is grudgingly continuing a once-a-week wushu class (“long fist” style–he’d hoped to switch to pottery). He still loves to draw and is doing scouts and violin also.

My students are also pretty interesting. My religion class this year is different than ones I’ve taught in the past. The entering class this year is older, and almost none of them come out of humanities or social science backgrounds (it tends instead to mix of a music/arts, teaching, business, engineering, etc.). In Taiwan, in high school study is more memorization (so think classical Chinese rather than great US/Western/World literature) and in college you only study one subject. I like the students a lot. About half are first generation Christians and they all had really interesting stories: one came from a family that did fortune telling, another was originally a candidate to be a prophet medium, several were part of whole-family conversations, and some are still the only Christians in their family. In some ways I’m glad I get to teach the religion class, because for most of them I really probably come out of left field. The semester will be a mix of folk religions, three teachings (Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism), new religions, aborigine religions, and some add-on topics. My main goal is exposure and to help them think about Christian identity in a pluralistic culture. I also hope they’ll stretch a little in how they look at the world. How does Christian faith sit with different cultural views? How do they make sense of aspects of tradition that are troubling? The first class I give them a survey that looks at ideas like qi, ghosts and spirits, salvation, interfaith marriage and so on. I hope that talking about things now will help them later.