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.

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.


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).



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.

Second Grade has begun….

DSC_1329 After the second day of second grade, with Harry Potter drawing.

Samuel’s back in school, now in the second grade. It has been a smoother transition in general this year. Last year he was looking at a new place, new school, new teachers, new classmates, homework for the first time really. The teacher-student relationship also changed. Sam had attended a large kindergarten in Tianmu where he was in a large class with several teachers. The head teacher had really looked out for him, and it was still a pretty relaxed atmosphere.

This year Samuel seems fairly happy at school. There’s a group of other kids with international experience—Claire, Chloe, Kaylin, Akuma, Adeeb, and Émile. He likes the group of them. He has Mr. Nick for the first time as his English teacher and likes the class. His Chinese teacher, Li Laoshi, is the same for the second year, which is nice, and she’s been willing to work with us.

I’m admittedly a kind of Goldilocks parent: I don’t want Sam to have too much homework or feel too stressed out or scolded, but I also don’t want him to think school’s unimportant or to drift off in studies. The “just right” education is hard to find. This week he wasn’t bringing home his Chinese homework, so Saturday I went over to the school with him and made him go get it. Here’s the photo of words he was to copy out:DSC_1336I don’t know some of these characters! Hang in there Sam!

He was a bit grouchy about doing it, and I think his original plan was to just do CSL homework at a relaxed pace. I’d checked in with his teacher last week and she said that students who do CSL usually just do their Chinese there, but I’m a little afraid Sam may not keep up with the main class. Last year he pretty much could take the tests with the other students and stay close to where they are. I am glad, however, that his English seems on track and that he seems like he’s tracking everything in Chinese. I’m also really glad he seems to have a group of buddies he enjoys seeing every day. Yesterday he seemed really happy that he’d gotten positive feedback to his English sentences and characters, so I think we’re on track.

There are other things that took me a while to figure out. Sam started to demand that we make him lunch instead of having him get it at school (in the first two years, normally kids just have lunch at school). I think partly this was a desire to be like other kids, whose parents have opted them out of the meals for various reasons. But it also turned out that if he brought a snack he could share it with other kids and get friendship points. So we’ve agreed to improve his snacks. Apparently, students are normally required to finish their whole meal also, although it sounds like Sam’s teacher doesn’t make a big deal out of it.

Emily relates how when she asks kids here how they like school they often say things like: “it’s okay” or “I’m used to it now.” I know that different cultures describe schooling, childhood, and parenting very differently. In Taiwan, schooling is generally seen as hard work but necessary. It’s definitely an interesting system. My guess is fewer kids fall through the cracks here, but also that there’s a surplus of work and advice.

Acting Library Director

This semester I’ve been named the acting library director for Taiwan Theological Seminary. I’m following several longtime directors, including the outgoing director (Chang Hsien-Shu, a professional librarian), and Kao Chin-t’ien (a theologian at our school who retired in 2006). The library’s in good shape right now and as I understand it my main work will be to sign forms a couple of hours a week and encourage the librarians.

Librarians are fun to work with because they are so incredibly organized. I inherited the director’s system, which a series of 20+ binders neatly arranged on a shelf and a set of numbered folders on her computer organized by topic and updated regularly. In fact, there are computer records dating back to the mid 1960s, including scanned copies of old reports.

1968 minutesThis note mentions library members: Sutherland, Loh, Thornberry, MacLeod, and Allen, several of whom are famous at our Seminary. P0038_1960年代基督教教育館正面The Library c. 1960. It still looks pretty much the same.

I’m excited to be in the library, even if it’s short-lived. I have a healthy respect for how much it takes to add a collection, switch software, or up patron outreach. Since my training was primarily historical, I also geek-out over a good catalog or a nice set of archives. Highlights of my academic life include archival work at the British Museum, the LOC, and the big mission-focused archives (Yale, Union, Wheaton, Princeton).

Our library is already quite strong. With around 70,000 volumes, it’s a concentrated Taiwanese theological library. There are three full-time librarians; two have been here 20+ years and the other for around ten (which is very impressive at our campus). We have good access (electronic, building, etc.). If you can’t find something at our library, you can often find it at other seminary libraries or in national or university libraries. There’s a separate historical center on campus, and in the Presbyterian world here there are several other big libraries and repositories (each high school, hospital, college, and our General Assembly all have libraries or small museums).

I’m treating this as primarily a learning opportunity. If I get really ambitious I’ll try some grant applications or efforts to add to solicit small collections or build in new directions. Since they haven’t had a native English speaker here for a while, there may be ways I could help expand the collection or build networks. For now, it’s a nice chance to learn more about theological education librarianship and hopefully to get a bit deeper into our collections.

Taiwanese missionaries

Mingshan church picture

Yesterday I was Taiwan Seminary’s representative for the sending service for an Amis pastor, Rev. Apay, and his wife who will go to Japan. (The Amis are a Taiwanese ethnic group; there’s a nice little article here.) Emily and I attended this church (“famous mountain”) for about a year when we first returned to Taiwan in 2009 so I knew the congregation fairly well.

The trend for aborigines in Taiwan has been to move to the cities and so there are a few scattered congregations like this in Taipei. It can be a challenging ministry environment, because work life is hard, children often don’t learn Amis language, and there’s more competition and more distractions in the city. This church is basically a storefront church, but it’s been there for thirty years and has established leaders. We attended for about a year when we first came in 2009 and really liked it. At the same time, after the twins were born, it was just too hard to stay (the congregation is small, so we felt like a distraction, and we moved back to the multilingual church we’d been involved in c. 2006.) The congregation’s always had a place in my heart and it was really fun to return.

Rev. Apay has been a good pastor, serving for twelve years, and the congregation has been a solid presence. It’s fairly rare for PCT to send mission workers cross-culturally, where they will be expected to serve in another language, so I am both excited and nervous for them. It’s an interesting arrangement. Japan is one of the countries in Asia with an even smaller concentration of Christians than Taiwan and apparently they need pastors. They’ll serve for three years at first, but hope to stay long-term. I believe they are both starting Japanese from scratch.

It was a very happy occasion. The preacher was a coworker, John McCall, who used the story of the Good Samaritan to encourage Rev. Abay and Yi-hua to care for others and for their church to embrace there work. There were also representatives from the West Amis Presbytery, from General Assembly, and from many local churches. At least a half a dozen of our students attended, including one who will begin her first pastorate in a few weeks, and two who were technically students of mine ten years ago when I came the first time and now have been pastoring for many years. I really enjoyed the service, which was fairly snappy and deeply meaningful.

I spoke for a few minutes and talked about an Easter service I attended at this congregation when we first came. I shared that I often immediately forget English sermons, but since I have to work harder for sermons in Chinese or Taiwanese, I’m more likely to remember. That Easter is still the most memorable I’ve had in Taiwan, and I remember Pastor Abay talking about the resurrection and what’s called Tombsweeping Day and talking about remembering our ancestors. I know they’ll have plenty of challenges in adjusting to a new culture, but I also hope that they find their own Easter moments at their new church in Japan.

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…


One Month Out

It is the middle of August and our new semester starts in mid-September. It’s been an exciting summer so far:

  • I took Sam with me to Chicago for a quick trip to visit family and attend American Society of Missiology.
  • We put the kids through several summer camps in July, including a week at Taiwan Missionary Fellowship in Taichung.
  • The twins went back to preschool last week and Sam starts second grade in a few weeks.
  • This weekend was the largest typhoon of the year and apparently one of the biggest in recent history. The roof blew of our old house, so we’re grateful to be in a different place now. We had the lights flicker a few times but were otherwise fine.
  • I’ve been made Interim Director of Taiwan Seminary’s library, which is mostly a ceremonial job at this point, but involves me signing a large number of papers.
  • Slow progress has happened on other projects and work. I’m now writing an article on Zhao Zichen.
  • It’s been a lot of kid time this summer. Sam read nearly ten pages of Harry Potter to me last night and I think in a few months he’ll be a truly independent reader.