The Academic and the Supernatural

21 04 2010

While I intended this blog as an academic exercise, I’m finding my time spent elsewhere. Yes, I’ve enjoyed the History of Christianity in Asia and a rather conservative commentary on Ephesians. But what I’ve really been reading? Charles Kraft’s I Give You Authority. Demons. Spiritual warfare.

Too often people read such books with a morbid fascination, a strong dread, and a good dose of skepticism. Because, after all, we’re modernists. Or early post-modernists. Or just plain human.

But that’s not how I read it. I’ve had to dig back about 5 years and remember what I’ve learned before. And the truth is, his books say very little that I don’t already know. I mean, I haven’t articulated it all as clearly as he has, but most of what he says I know to be true from my own experience.

The world we walk in is just one facet of reality. But God has given his power that humans in this world may influence the spiritual. So often we’re blind to that. Maybe we’ve never been shown the spiritual world, or maybe we deny it. But it’s there. And the more we ignore / deny it, the more power we give to Satan.

The people I’ve known to be the most effective in ministry, are those that balance the two: professors, pastors, missionaries…. an academic without spiritual awareness lacks authority, and the spiritually aware, without understanding, is easily misled.


Lost in Snow Country

30 03 2010

Since this was my first winter with snow (which I actually love in small doses), a friend recommended the novel Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata. Apparently he was the first Japanese author to win a Nobel Prize for literature. I finally got my hands on a copy, so here are my thoughts:

In middle school, I felt it was time to broaden my literary horizons. So I moved from Black Beauty to Shakespeare. Specifically, The Tempest. I barely understood the plot, let alone the nuances and background stories (although I had better luck with Dickens).

That’s pretty much how I feel about Kawabata. I sense a greatness throbbing beneath the plot, a genius at work in the world of words, but I’m missing it. I feel I must read it again… but that I must read other Japanese authors first so I’m better able to approach Kawabata. While reading, I am missing the cultural background, the assumptions and perspectives, and even the language of the original.

One thing I observed: The story is told in a series of snapshot moments. Spanning years, only a few days are spoken of. The passage of time is jerky, like the train that runs through the center of the novel: rushing recklessly forward, then screeching to a halt at a small rural station.

But the conversations are most elusive. I could blame the translator, but I suspect that the original is full of puns / plays on words / nuanced meaning. Having lived in Japan, I know how very sensitive Japanese culture is to words – it’s all about the way you phrase something, the tone used. So the conversations in the novel leave me frustrated, almost as though they remained in Japanese… dense and impenetrable.

I have thoughts on certain devices used in the novel, but it’s like a child commenting on adult lives. Sometimes insightful, but mostly ignorant. Still, I’ve been a master of words for such a long time, it was disorienting to feel lost. But it made me remember what used to drive me forward. It’s good to be reminded of how much we don’t know, to remember the thrill of discovery and the passions of youth that have mellowed with time and experience.

Found the Stacks!

23 03 2010

I work at a top university and yet, I’m surprised to discover a library. This week, after 6 months here, I ventured into the depths, or rather heights, of the SNU library. Wonder of wonder! Books! The best part? They’re about 30-50% English (at least in the fields I’m interested in).  I was most impressed to find a basic selection of theological books, so much so, that I proceeded to check out more than I can possibly read in the next month (including Tillich’s Systematic Theology – since when am I interested in pure systematics? And can we all say, “Nerd!”)

Well, this blog was intended to motivate me to keep up with my studies, by being more of an academic pursuit. While that’s clearly not the case, I’ll be doing short summaries & analyses of whatever I do manage to read.

There’s not going to be any order to what I read, just the whim of fancy. I also don’t promise to finish any of the books… so you may get nice summaries of the first half of a book. If I’d been doing that the past few months, there would have been a lot more posts.

The first book I’ll be reading: Christianity in Asia: 1500-1900. I’ll only be reading sections I’m interested in, mainly Japan & Korea, and likely China.  I’ll post on those sections later. But for the moment, I’d like to introduce the author:

Samuel Moffett. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because his father was one of the main missionaries to Korea and bore the same name. Moffett Sr. entered Pyongyang in 1890 as a Presbyterian missionary. He was responsible for founding the first seminary in Korea, and a great moving force in the Korea Christianity. Moffett Jr. was born in Korea, then ended up serving 25 yrs there himself. In other words, the history of Christianity in Korea is inextricably linked to the Moffett family.

After his own 25 yrs on the field, Moffett Jr. returned to the US and became a professor at Princeton. Now he’s in his 90’s (b. 1916). He’s still working on finishing the third and final volume of his The History of Christianity in Asia. I pray he completes this task.

Best Sellers & Scripture

26 02 2010

Those two words don’t often go hand-in-hand: best seller & Bible. Unless, of course, someone is quoting that the Bible IS the ultimate best seller. Which it is. But I’m not.

About a year ago, I heard reference to A.J. Jacob’s The Year of Living Biblically. I put it on my list of “books to read” on my iGoogle homepage. A year later, it is still the only book on the that list – not because I’m not ambitious, but because I don’t iGoogle. Seriously, who needs iGoogle when Gmail does the same stuff?  Anyway, a year later, it fell into my lap (the book, of course, not iGoogle!).

Basic reflections: I could have told you exactly what would happen before I picked up this book. See, there’s only 2 ways for it to end: either he becomes a believer / follower or he doesn’t. And guess what? If it’s on the best seller list, I can guarantee I know how it ends.

He did everything right to create a best seller: He took religion (Judaism and Christianity both) just seriously enough to engage even the ardently faithful, but irreverently enough to keep it light. He did his research thoroughly, maintaining fairness to each side of the issues. He touched upon all the key debates, without any firm commitments to any of them. In fact, he laid bare his liberal, agnostic perspective, kept an open mind, and ultimately discovered “spirituality”. His words:

In a sense, they were right to worry. You can’t immerse yourself in religion for 12 months and emerge unaffected. At least I couldn’t. Put it this way: If my former self and my current self met for coffee, they’d get along okay, but they’d both probably walk out of the Starbucks shaking their heads and saying to themselves, “That guy is kinda delusional.”

But in the end, the spirituality he comes up with is nothing more than a post-modern sense of the divine. Is it true? Partially. But it misses the point completely. He admitted he learned to be thankful, that seemed to be one of his best experiences. However, even he confessed that it was thanks directed toward no one – that when he did try to direct the thanks toward some god, it felt even better / more meaningful.

I was hoping to find something useful for Christians in it, much like I Sold my Soul on eBay. But I didn’t. There’s no perceptive insight into Christianity. Yes, there’s an outsider looking in, but he just admires, shrugs his shoulders, and turns away. We can find no reflection of ourselves in him.

What we do find is a perfect reflection of American culture today. There’s a yearning for something deeper, an acceptance of “spirituality”, but a turning away from religious tradition.

The results would have been the same if he’d tried Buddhism.

A little advice from the outside

23 01 2010

“Data crowds out faith . . . Relying too much on proof distracts you from the real mission–which is emotional connection.”

I’m currently reading a book for small group leaders (which I’ll be reviewing shortly). One of the most important things I want to tell small group leaders is precisely that: data crowds out faith. People don’t need more history  or diverse interpretations.

But this quote doesn’t come from a small group leader’s guide. It comes from Seth Godin.

Seth Godin is a marketer. As far as I know, he’s not a Christian. He sells things, but he does it by knowing what people really want. And he’s usually right. People don’t want evidence, proof, or data. They want connection, grace, acceptance, and truth.

So the question is, who’s going to give them that emotional connection? Seth Godin? or the Church?

Discovering George MacDonald

16 01 2010

A friend recently suggested I read George MacDonald. Now, since this is a friend I deeply respect and readily listen to, I picked up a used copy of one of his books. Apparently, C.S.Lewis, the modern St. Paul to Evangelicals, said of MacDonald, “I never wrote a book in which I did not quote George MacDonald.” That’s pretty high praise for a well-established professor and writer.

So, I read. Take Middle Earth and plop it down amidst the common setting of Scotland. Read of rough fishermen with coarse language rather than elves swift or Narnian fauns. See the broad sweep of history condensed to one moment in a simple life. See the divine in the mundane.

Everything that makes a story great weaves through his novels with the ease of a practiced hand.

This reminds me that I owe a bright new thread in my literary pursuits to the recommendation of a friend. Indeed, she has never steered me wrong in her recommendations, giving generally better suggestions than most people I know. Of course, that’s true not only of books, but of life.

The people that know what books we would enjoy also know how to speak to our souls in other ways.