Jesus from the Islamic Perspective

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Today on campus via an invitation from the PCT General Assembly office is a guest lecturer, Zeki Saritoprak, who is speaking on Jesus in Islam. The lecturer is Professor in Islamic Studies at John Carroll University. Our senior historian, Cheng Yang-en, is translating. It is a nice overview of how Jesus has been portrayed in the Koran, in Islam, and in modern interpretation. Saritoprak has published a book on this recently, Islam’s Jesus

Students at our seminary used to do a full semester of world religions and a full semester of Taiwanese religions, but now they take just one semester of Taiwanese religions, and can select an alternate course in its stead. It’s nice to have visitors who can fill in this gap. My experience is most students here really only know their own tradition (and sometimes another family tradition), but know almost nothing about Islam, Buddhism, etc. Many have never met a Muslim or talked extensively with someone from any other tradition.

In the spiel I do on Jonah I also talk about Jonah’s use in other traditions (the book is read on Yom Kippur and there’s a “Fast of Jonah” in the eastern Church). The Qur’an also includes several sections that treat Jonah (Jonah is the only minor prophet named in the Qur’an). These types of topics are also interesting to me–how does a figure like Jonah (or Jesus) appear in different traditions, and how is he interpreted today?

Presbyterian Church of Taiwan 150th Anniversary

pct 150A few weeks ago the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan celebrated its 150th anniversary on Easter Sunday. (The kick off was several months back.) The Easter celebration was actually just one piece in a yearlong sequence of celebrations, but this was the main event. (There’s another major event later in the year in the south.) On Easter, some fifteen thousand people gathered in Linkou for a three-hour worship service. During the rest of the week we’ve had a variety of events and anniversaries.

That week, there were actually four things happening together: (1) Easter, (2) the 150th, (3) Clear and Bright Festival and Children’s Day (two national holidays), and the annual General Assembly. This also coincided for us with Emily’s quick return to the US for her defense, so it was probably also the busiest week of the year (see also: taxes due, midterms, a visit with a church youth group, some writing deadlines).

PCT at 150

These events have been a blessing to the church, even as they are a time for reflection for the life of the church. The long worship service on Sunday had amazing music and meaningful reflection, but there has also been some after-the-fact discussion of the Church’s identity, including things like language (this GA has been more “Taiwanese” than most recent ones), ethnicity (to what degree should minorities accommodate majority preferences?), and representation (PCT has a one-third rule for women on committees but in practice it isn’t always followed). Response to the 150th has been 99% positive, but I’m also grateful for the discussions about the future of PCT. I’m also sometimes nostalgic for “committees on representation.” Several times this week I heard people say “it should be X because that’s what the majority of people speak/do/like.”

The 150th has also marked off several areas for growth, study, or development. The best publicized has been the One-Leads-One campaign, but there’s also been the creation of a new historical center, and a host of other projects. My hope is that the PCT can be both backwards looking (in the best sense) and also forward looking. Periods like this offer intense opportunities for review/planning.

The Missionary Tradition

For me, one blessing of the week has been the chance to get to see a range of current and former mission workers. The PCUSA contingent this time was:

Dr. Ed Senner is the mission worker with the longest tenure for Taiwan, having arrived in 1960 and served for more than three decades. One visitor was married in the Taiwan Seminary chapel. Both Faith Bradley and Anne Broom had multiple terms of service and could give some snapshots of mission work over the year. I hadn’t realized that Dr. Senner had done around nine months of archiving over a several year spread, so it was nice to meet him in person and hopefully I’ll be able to locate and use some of his records.

Guests and Visitors

A coup was to have the Board of Pensions (BoP) president, Frank Spencer, here. A BoP Board Member, Mark Lu, helped facilitate the visit and has been a source of information sharing on finances between the churches. I enjoyed talking with Frank and his wife, Melanie, who also has extensive experience in the medical world. I was able to spend a half-day with them and enjoyed sharing what Taiwan is like with them. Both of my parents, Emily and I all are in the BoP plan, so obviously we have some interest in its overall health. I think PCUSA’s pension plan is generally recognized as perhaps the best established and most sustainable in the ecumenical Protestant world (BoP’s tricentennial is coming up in a few years). In Taiwan, my sense is that attitudes towards saving, retirement, and work culture are different. This time we didn’t have any formal discussions, but my hope is that we might increase the flow of information between the churches.

Another blessing for me this time was to get to know David Shinn better. David’s a member of the General Assembly Mission Agency’s executive committee. He came to Taiwan in October as part of the bilateral conversation between PCUSA and PCT. This time I learned that when David went to the US in the 1980s he’d been invited to the church where my parents were pastors and remembers the time fondly. When I was in elementary school and he was in junior high, we were probably at times in the same Sunday School class.  I also saw Shun-Chi Wang, who’d visited us several times before and has brought PCUSA delegations through. It was a nice opportunity to connect to others.  Finally, we saw Stuart Vogel, a pastor-scholar from New Zealand who writes in some of the same areas I do. It was a really great time.

Going Forward

PCUSA’s moderator is to come to Taiwan for the October gathering, so we really feel grateful this year to have the chance to connect to people from “back home.” Our first years in Taiwan we felt a little on our own (some people from Outreach Foundation came through, and so did Shun-Chi, but otherwise we were a bit off the map). Between the gathering last fall and the visits for the 150th we’re feeling more in the middle of things. We’re also thankful to be downtown now, so that we can host events and visitors much more easily. It will be nice to attend the October gathering and meet more people there.

Oral History

I am interested in doing an oral history project with former mission workers from PCUSA or its predecessor bodies in Taiwan. This is a small project–not a single interview has been conducted yet–and I don’t know if it will come off. Still, it’s been really interesting. I’m in contact now with several of the missionaries who have been retired for a longer period of time. Today I was searching for info on the Gelzers and came across an AP article about their expulsion from Taiwan in 1984 for favoring Taiwanese independence. The article was written as the PCT General Secretary, KAO Chung Ming was in prison. The Gelzers taught at my Seminary for eight years. I thought I’d seen their names in old course catalogues, so it was fun to track down a piece of the puzzle.

I figure that there are have been about ninety mission workers in Taiwan with PCUSA or related denominations since the post-War period. Around twenty of these still are alive today. These include the Lims (now serving in Korea), the Kennedys, the Longs, the Dudleys, Robert Montgomery, David Gelzer, Faith Bradley, Ann Broom, John McCall and us. Some are pastoring in the US and some have been retired for decades. It’s not a group I know well but I’m grateful for their time here and for their service.

Christianity and Other Religions Site Visits: Xingtian Temple and the Shihlin LDS Church

For my religions class this semester, I have a smaller group so I’m trying to do more off-campus trips. Our first two trips were to a downtown temple and to the local LDS church.

Xingtian Temple

Two weeks ago we went to Xingtian Temple 行天宮. It was a pretty interesting trip. Xingtian Temple has five main gods. It’s a newer temple, around fifty years old, and there are two branch temples. I selected it because it is known as one of or the most popular temples in Taiwan and is associated with business success. There are electronic kiosks where you can get information, and on visits there are often a wide range of practices (people are seen consulting divination blocks or fortune sticks, praying with beads, there’s a side auditorium for preaching and teaching, and many people are just worshipping 拜拜 throughout the temple).

There are a range of workers in a side room who can help provide the meaning of divination attempts (where people may ask about a life problem or concern), and who also help visitors and assist with problems. It’s a more lay-focused, accessible temple. The helpers are 執事 which is the word Presbyterians use for deacon. People worship in two directions, which I hadn’t normally seen. There’s also a busy, separate underground divination alley, where diviners can study your hands, face, or birthdate to ascertain the future. I use this as a good place to talk about folk religion 民間信仰and students seemed to have a lot to discuss after the trip. Xingtian Temple has its own website, so I was able to print off an overview of the temple and a Q&A section.

Christians here are sometimes apprehensive about visiting temples but this group has seemed pretty open to these trips. One of the things that surprised me in my group is that two of four students had seen ghosts of some sort. I’m a fairly secular, westernized Presbyterian but try to be respectful of those who’ve had these experiences.

Shihlin LDS

Yesterday, we visited the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The original plan had been to do a walking tour of nearby religious sites, especially new religious movements. Because of rain, we just drove to the LDS church. They have distinct Shihlin and Tianmu congregations that meets about a ten minute drive from our Seminary at their local church. A characteristic of LDS is that they often offer English classes. In this case I’d seen the number for their English class on their gate when I was walking home, called it up and talked to Elder Hughes. He and Elder Rasmussen spoke to my small group of students yesterday and I was grateful for their very honest, straightforward sharing. One of the nice things about working with missionary religions is that the people who believe in their message so strongly are willing to share their faith.

In this case, one of the elders had picked out a nineteenth century hymn written by a Presbyterian in their hymnbook and asked us to sing it (one of our students played the piano for them—the rest of us were not very musically gifted but it was a nice icebreaker). Most of the event was an extended period of sharing by the two LDS missionaries (both Americans). They talked about church structure, membership, practices, beliefs, scriptures, and other topics and answered a lot of questions. They prayed for us and at the end I was asked to pray for us all. At one point they shared from scripture and we took turns reading (their Chinese is really good, so I’m glad I got my verse right). It was a pretty interesting event.

Next week I’ll debrief some with the students and we’ll talk about theological questions: scripture and translation, our understanding of revelation, our reading of Christian tradition, and different offices and practices in the church. (PCUSA has a guide that discusses the history of our relationship to LDS and key similarities and differences.) We’ll also talk some about new religious movements, how they grow and change over time, and why people are attracted to them. For this visit, students were very impressed by the intensity of faith and some of the core LDS practices (fasting, tithing, missionary service). It was a really interesting trip. One of the LDS missionaries had attended a Congregational-Presbyterian church in the past and the other is going to college in a place I know well.

On trips like this one of the things I often discover is that my students have a backstory I don’t know. The last time I taught the class, two of the women told me near the end that they were married to non-Christians, which is more common in the US but rare here. For Taiwanese considering church ministry, this can be a problem. This time one of the students told us that for a period in his youth he’d been LDS. He was baptized at the church of a cousin and attended for a few years. This was all fifteen years ago. In the past I’ve had students who’d come out of Yiguandao or worshipped in a range of different religious traditions. Around a quarter of the students at my seminary are first generation Christians. I think in the past my classes were two textbook-driven, so field trips are an improvement. They even seem to be a fairly substantial improvement over guest speakers or media. I’m hoping that these visits will improve over time and I’ll find ways to do more guided tours for students.

Spring 2015 Semester

We are now three weeks into the new semester. This is the first time since 2010 that I don’t have a Friday morning 8 am class and also my first semester with no required course. I have three small courses I’m running: a Doctor of Ministry course on Jonah and mission, a small class on “Christianity and its Relationship to Other Religions” (sort of a mix of theology of religions and anthropology of religions), and a four-session class for a visiting group.

I am also trying to start a small oral history project. This is the 150th anniversary of the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan and the annual General Assembly is in less than a month. There are about 20 living fomer PCUSA mission workers and I’m hoping to interview a number of them by skype or over the phone and then to give copies to several archives in Taiwan and the US. Looking at the names, I realized that they’ve worked in four or five languages (Mandarin, Taiwanese, Hakka, Bunun and perhaps other aboriginal languages) and done all manner of work (teaching, administrative, evangelistic, translation). It shouldn’t take a lot of my time, but clearly this is the year to do it (or not).

I’m also trying to stay connected to church work. I’m doing a four session study for local youth at a small, nearby church (“youth ministry” is understood expansively here, basically junior high through grad school). It’s only five minutes away and one of my students is doing field education there, so it seemed like a good time to make the connection. I’m also hoping to do a small adult ed series for Suanglian’s English Ministry. They only currently have a nursery in English, so we’re going to try to do a small “kids’ club” at the same time.

For writing, I have two small projects this semester, one for a conference where I’ll look at the “missional” language that is more popular, and then a small article on the Chinese church leader Zhao Zichen for a former classmate. I have a new chapter out in this book on Liang Fa. I didn’t see proofs, so I hope the final project is good.

New Year, take two…

10998077_10204965321507325_1645781452024522601_nWe’ve just finished the Lunar New Year break. The picture above is from our annual trip to Danshui/Tamsui. Today starts a new semester. Sam, Eva, and Eli are all back in school. I’m finishing up lecture notes and making a handbook for a class tomorrow. This semester feels like a big shift to me in several ways. The curriculum has been restructured, so I don’t have a required survey like I would normally (classes that before I’d taught for first and third year students will now be taught in the second year) and am instead teaching several smaller classes: an elective, a DMin course, and a class for a visiting group with Council for World Mission.

I joined two academic projects last semester, the first is a group of major Taiwanese academics surveying congregations in Taiwan, and the second is the “Chinese Christianities Seminar” that a group of us proposed for American Academy of Religions (Alex has a nice description here). The survey group is well established and has been going for years, while the Chinese Christianities seminar is brand new. I’m excited to be part of these efforts.

I also asked our administration at Taiwan Seminary if they could reconfigure my title/job description at the Seminary, so I will henceforth be a “Special Professor,” outside of the normal rank system. For the purposes of accreditation I’ll be something like an “Associate Professor of Practice.” In the last fifteen years only three professors here were formally promoted within the system (all are PCT pastors and alumni of our Seminary, so the criteria are different from most academic systems). This didn’t seem a viable path for me, so I essentially asked my school to create a separate category for me. Since I am here via PCUSA, this also seems to more accurately reflect the multiple commitments I have. I’m on a different calendar than the other teachers, a part of my work involves relating to US churches, and more of my work is cross-cultural. The best part of this was the chance to talk things through with everyone and to get us all on the same page.

At our church, I’m hoping to put together a series on living cross-culturally. Presbyterian pastors from New Zealand, Singapore, and the US are coming through in the coming months, and I’d like to connect them together in a series on 1.5 or second generation Christianity. All have worked with 1.5/2.0 generation ethnically Chinese Christians in different contexts, so I think it would be really interesting to see what we could learn from them.

I’m hoping the year of the sheep was will be one of calm, pastoral vistas and slow growth. The last year we did a number of major transitions (location, schooling for kids, a fairly intense summer in the US), so it would be great to have a year that is a bit more peaceful.

Taipei’s International Schools: Bethany

Today I visited Morrison Academy’s Taipei School, Bethany School, for one of their regular tours. The school counselor and admissions director seemed really nice and I have a better sense of what they are doing. In Taipei, there is an American School and a European School (the European has French, German, and English sections). There are also smaller schools (an Advent American school). Besides this, there’s the Morrison Academy, which is a missionary school and has branches in Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung. Taichung is their “main” campus and does grades K-12. Bethany School, Taipei’s branch, has through grade 9 but may expand to include a full high school program. If we stay in Taipei, we’d likely be at either TAS, TES, or Bethany for later elementary or junior high (maybe earlier depending on the kid). Bethany also has a slightly later cutoff for the school year (November 1 birthday, rather than September 1), which is a little appealing.

Bethany is located downtown not far from us ($5 cab rider, probably a half hour if you catch the bus). The closest MRT seems to be 台電大樓, Taipower Station. For us, it would be convenient in the long term because it is only about a five minute walk from the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan’s General Assembly office.

I’ve met a few of Bethany’s students before and one of their teachers had attended our church in the past and is really friendly. I think in many ways this would be a more familiar, fairly friendly atmosphere for us. Their classes are smaller, with just twelve in kindergarten right now. They also offer tracks for Chinese study and a mix of activities (music, art, sports). They have a nice library and place book boxes in each classroom. They do storytimes and other activities.

Total admission at the school maxes out at 240, which means 20-30 per grade. Some people wear multiple hats. The counselor we met also hosts a youth group that meets Friday nights, teaches woodworking, and works with admissions. One of my colleagues at Taiwan Seminary said that when her kid moved from Bethany to Taipei American School for high school, he felt fairly overwhelmed by the size and atmosphere. The American School is gigantic, whereas Bethany’s campus feels very navigable and friendly. It’s a bit more familiar in terms of culture (no uniforms, English language environment, class projects on things like American inventors).

It’s been nice to get a sense of how different schools work and to see what options are for down the road. Sam is keeping up fine, but it wouldn’t surprise me if either homework or culture eventually becomes too much to maintain.

One of the main challenges for most families abroad is sorting out education. In many ways, we’re very lucky to be in Taipei and to have options.

Taiwan’s Bilingual Schools: End of the Semester Overview

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From the balcony, you can see the kids doing their Christmas performances. The founder of the school brings her greetings

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I have basically no memories of performing in elementary school, but at Lih-Jen, kids seem to do regular peformances, marching for assemblies, etc.

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He’s hard to make out, but Sam’s the spiderman in the center of the frame

I recently checked my site stats and realized that the vast number of visitors who come here from Google come to this site for my earlier post on bilingual schools. I didn’t really know these schools existed until a year or so ago, so I can imagine others are also trying to get a sense of how they work. In our initial searches, I didn’t find any other parents writing about these schools (at least in English). So… I thought I’d share a bit more about Sam’s experience at Lih-Jen and how our bilingual experiment is going.

I wrote about visiting bilingual schools earlier and then wrote about how our son was doing in October, halfway through the semester. Sam’s now just finished his first semester of first grade and there’s a new semester starting next week. During the semester students take two big tests, one at the midterm and one at the end. Sam was a little slow getting started—his bopomofo wasn’t as good as classmates at the start of the semester and he hadn’t studied English formally in kindergarten. Nonetheless, he got one of a few perfect scores on his first English test and scored in the 90s on Chinese, lower than classmates but not bad. On this last set of tests he scored in the 80s and 90s for Chinese and English. Despite the more relaxed kindergarten and slower start, he’s doing just great and we feel happy with the choice we made.

In general, he really likes things. We have him in Lih-Jen’s Chinese as a Second Language program. As near as I can tell, no other school has something like this. It means that he gets daily help studying Chinese in a small group with a kindly retired Chinese teacher. He likes that group a lot and has some classmates from Malaysia and other places. We think that being in CSL means that he gets help on his Chinese tests too. I’m all for rigor and fairness, but it’s also nice that he can get help if he struggles. If you’re reading this and know Sam, you may be asking, “how is it that a kid who did four years of preschool/kindergarten in Taiwan still needs CSL help?” What I’d say is that it’s just a really nice buffer for him. We can help him with Chinese, but in practice it’s great that he gets pulled out of the bigger Chinese class and gets more focused attention. His Mandarin is really pretty good now. I think if he spent all his time in the larger class, he’d get less practice talking and less hand-holding with things like stroke order for writing Chinese characters. CSL seems less strict than the regular program and we’re grateful for that too.

Socially it has been a good experience. He struggled a bit initially with the more Taiwanese tendency to scold students. Teachers just scold a lot here and it’s seen as a way to keep kids on track. I have to say that as an adult I don’t particularly like being scolded. I think Taiwanese teachers are just a lot more likely to do things that in the States we wouldn’t do (compare students out loud, use shaming language, etc.). Sam could tell me who all the top test takers were after the last test, since the teacher identifies them and gives them a certificate. We’ve also had a few times where we have had some mild friction. Sam was a bit upset that he wasn’t elected for a position in his regular Chinese class, and said most kids were chosen for something. This is probably because he gets pulled out for CSL, but may also be because he’s different. We’ve also had times where people have seemed a bit abrupt with us, but I think this is just language.

The school has won us over in some other ways. It includes a weekly computer class, some music, and some play/nap time. There are several teachers, so if you get someone who’s not a great fit it’s not the end of the world. We chose bilingual school as a compromise over local public school, which has some afternoons off and which would have required us to organize activities on our own. Sam’s set to do martial arts one period a week in the spring, which should be nice. He seems to get along with most of his classmates and we’ve found more of a social circle with parents than we ever had before. As non-native speakers, we sometimes get confused. I thought his winter break started next week, but actually it’s just that they are starting the new semester then because lunar new year is so late this year.

My sense is still that so far it has really been worth it. Sam’s been able to be part of more Chinese-language gatherings. He goes to Sunday School at church, and we’re going to start him doing baseball again. He can play with other kids on the playground using both languages. Our main reasons initially for bilingual schooling were to get him an English curriculum we didn’t have to teach, to build a base of written/spoken Chinese, and to have activities that we didn’t have to arrange ourselves. On those counts, it’s been a successful experiment.

I do have some caveats on the bilingual schools:

  1. It would be a lot harder with no Chinese at all, and it would probably be easier if one parent was a native Chinese speaker.
  2. It’s also a lot easier if your kid has a base of both Chinese and English heading into schooling. Sam’s Chinese was rusty after a summer in the US but he got it back quickly. I think starting Chinese “cold” would be very hard for an elementary-aged kid. In my experience, for a kid or an adult, it takes at least half a year for basic comprension and a full year for conversing, and that would be hard on an older kid without any Chinese background.
  3. Sometimes there will probably be values conflicts. We often find the homework excessive, since we’d rather spend more time doing free reading or family activities. The teachers have been okay with it when we write “Sam did a half hour of homework but looked tired, so we put him to bed.”
  4. The bilingual schools probably have a little more give than either local public schools or the expat schools.
  5. The bilingual school parents tend to be wealthy corporate types. For me, in a churchy, academic world, it is a nice change, but it means that there are a lot of kids arriving in expensive cars and doing winter breaks in Europe or Japan. Basically all of his classmates are studying music privately. This would probably be the same at TES or TAS, and maybe even just for downtown regular schools. Still, it’s an issue (honestly, most of my coworkers from PCUSA have said the same thing about the schools their kids attend).
  6. Taiwanese parents often seem to be trying to figure out how to game the experience. In a group of five parents, several had a kid at Lih-Jen and another kid at one of the other schools (Kang-chiao, Fu-Hsing), and they were often trying to figure out which school was best (often understood as the one that gives the most homework). When we lived near Tianmu, I know colleagues were aware of which was considered the slightly better junior high school and had their kids on waitlists. There’s a lot of pressure on studies.

If you came to this page looking for information on bilingual education in Taiwan, feel free to send me an email. I spend a lot of time thinking about culture and how to be a foreigner here. I’d love to hear from others facings similar challenges. I like cross-cultural parenting books and am trying to figure out how to do this. I think so far it’s been a good experience, but we’ve definitely learned some lessons along the way. I’d love to hear from others doing something similar.

Seasons Greetings, between Christmas and Lunar New Year

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Eva plays a serious Mary, with brothers as cows, for church Christmas service

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At the performance. Eva and Eli performed in separate classes. 

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With adoptive aunties at Eva and Eli’s performance

This was one of our better Christmases/winter breaks. In the past we were still in the age when our kids were too little to appreciate/understand/acknowledge the season, and bringing them anywhere together was still pretty horrible. This year, however, we had a nice mix of school activities, church activities, and family togetherness. Emily still gets a bit homesick at the holidays, and we had a bout of stomach illness. Still, to me it feels like we’ve turned a corner.

Eva and Eli had performances at their preschool, which were quite impressive. Sam did his performance at his school today.  I’ve been highly impressed by the quality of the kids’ performances. I don’t think in my K-12 schooling I was ever part of a choreographed singing or dancing number and I certainly don’t remember kids doing this at ages 4, 5, or 6. Eli was initially wary about going up, but when he realized I’d stay in his line of sight and that he would get a lighted wand, he decided to go for it. Eva was enthusiastic and even was singing along. We were especially lucky this time to have a coworker come with some friends. It was nice to have a hometown crowd.

Sam’s performance also went well. Here they are today at Lih-Jen. We were even able to sit behind the school’s founder for part of the performance, although parents produced a wall-of-photography that encircled the presentations by the kindergartners and first graders. (I always wonder what will happen to these millions of pictures of the children recorded at every event.)

With church, we’ve been grateful for activities arranged by Sarah Lakkis. This year they did gingerbread houses, candle making, and a small children’s performance that included some of the kids (she made some really nice costumes).

On Christmas day Sam developed a stomach bug. Ironically, he was so happy about the presents and the excitement of the day that the lack of appetite, 5 hour nap, and illness didn’t really phase him.

I was also grateful for a week away from campus. I had a lot to do, but it was nice to be able to work more from home. I’m trying to write up notes for my class next semester, write letters of recommendation, and finish a sermon. Next week Sam starts a new semester. A week later he gets nearly a month of winter vacation. This will also mark a change for us, since we’ll have more schedule but also an older kid to plan for. I’m hopeful that we’ll find some good things to do with the time. We’d been slow on getting Sam back into sports or other activities with the start of the semester, but now we’re starting to re-launch these things. Sam had his first week back at baseball last week and we also did pinewood derby with the Scouts. I’m hoping that we’ll have some good ways to use the weeks ahead.

World Christianity, continued

Earlier I wrote about a course on World Christianity and World Literature (WCWL).  It has been a good semester so far. It’s a small course run seminar style and students seem to like the discussion. In my earlier post I gave a simple typology for WCWL. Here I thought I’d write a bit about challenges for teaching in terms of student backgrounds, materials, and themes.

Student Backgrounds

First I’ll tackle student backgrounds. In the US, literature is pretty firmly rooted in our curricula. Like most high school students, I read or was assigned to read dozens of novels over the four years of high school. These included plays, classical novels, and more contemporary literature. By the time we got to junior and senior year we were reading books by Tolstoy and Shakespeare, and also by Richard Wright, Virginia Woolf and so on. In college I also read novels for language, literature, and history classes. In contrast, most of our students have read little fiction in school. They often begin a more serious study of classical Chinese in high school and the curriculum is rooted towards standardized testing. Students rarely write long essays and they also rarely read long works of fiction.

(As an aside, I am really ambivalent about both systems. A colleague of mine when I taught US undergrad students said she had a nephew who literally never read any of the novels he was assigned in high school, so it is not as if the US educational culture naturally leads to critical reading. Similarly, I know students here who majored in English for college in Taiwan and did essentially four years of grammar and translation with no engagement with literature or culture.)

Materials

A second question is materials. Our course is a bit of a hodgepodge, but in a good way. Students have read a mix of works for Japan, Nigeria, US, Russia, Germany and other areas. We’ve had a guest lecture by a Taiwanese poet who has translated Latin American materials. For many students, there is a vague sense that the west is formed by Christian culture, but it is still interesting to talk about the variety of ways this takes shapes, from Tolstoy’s anarchist Christianity, to revolutionary liberationist movements, to real ambivalence about the relationship of Christianity and culture. One of the books we read is The Color Purple, which treats a long stretch of Jim Crow-era US and also includes a black missionary family to Africa. Many people in Taiwan have literally never met someone who is black. Race has an impact here, but in a totally different way. For many students, the engagement with the US has primarily been via Hollywood, so trying to get behind these images is a challenge.

Themes

What I like best about this course is that it gets at themes that would be hard to find in other ways. We’ve talked a lot about identity. What does it mean to describe something as Taiwanese, as Christian, or as indigenous? I taught a short section on Christians and atrocity. Taiwan is an interesting place to discuss this because it has had its own waves of colonialism and dispossession. The shift in Christianity has taken place together with the end of colonialism and new nationalisms. Christianity in Asia has also often been a critic of the state.

The strength of a course like this is that it gives different lenses to view Christianity’s development in different places. How does faith look when one is part of majority culture, minority culture, empire, or colony? How do Christians abet or resist violent states? How is faith formed or diminished by suffering, resistance, capitulation, consumption?

Future Directions

Ironically, we are limited in the materials we have about Asia. This semester on my own I’ve read two novels that indirectly deal with Christians in Asia, both are epic family tales that cover the WW2 era through the present. The first is the Man Asian Literary Prize winner Please Look After Mom (Kyung-sook Shin, 2008; translated 2011) which tells about a sacrificial mother who goes missing and is never found. (See the New York Times review.) Set in post-war Korea, the book describes the children’s’ reactions with frequent flashbacks to the past. Churches pop up only a few times during the novel, but the concluding scene finds the daughter Chi-hon (an author, likely modeled after Shin) visiting the Pieta and reflecting on how Mary’s relationship to the suffering Christ helps her understand her mother. I remember being surprised that this was the concluding vignette.

I’ve also just finished Mo Yan’s Big Breasts and Wide Hips (1996, 2011 edition). Mo Yan won the 2012 Nobel Prize for literature. (See John Updike’s take in the New Yorker.) Mo Yan writes in a magical realist style, with ghosts or magical events interspersed in a family epic set during the era from Japanese occupation (1937) into the 1990s. This book also had very little directly on faith–it’s not an intellectual reflection on meaning or existence–but featured a foreign missionary and a church that is a major site in the book. The protagonist of the story is the first son born into a family after seven daughters. He is the bastard son of a red-headed Swedish missionary with perfect Chinese who dies fairly early in the novel. The protagonist’s mother sometimes expresses faith in God or divine guidance. At the end of the novel, the protagonist finds his half-brother in a church and the story concludes abruptly.

One of my hopes is that eventually I could cobble together a dozen or fifteen books, translated hopefully into English and/or Chinese, that could give a bit more heft to the Asia section of our course. There are major differences between Taiwan’s modern development and the history of China or Korea, but I think the family epic dovetails well with how many Taiwanese families tell national or Christian history.