Behind the bamboo curtain, I stood on the edge of a mountain. I didn’t know the language or the culture, but I knew that I wanted to be there. From Kunming, we journeyed eight hours into the mountains to the town of Yuanyang. From here, it is another ten-hour hike to the Vietnamese border, or a few days by truck. The land of the Hani tribes, for more than 1000 years they have been farming these rice terraces high above the clouds. Majestically descending down the violet hillside, the rice patties shimmered like dragon scales in the sunlight.

It was the spring of 2002 and I was then living in Seoul, South Korea. Invited to join this expedition by members of the Onnuri Church English Fellowship – a conglomeration of mix-n-match nationalities living in Seoul – I was excited to see the interior of China. Although I had spent my childhood in Japan, we were never able to get beyond the bamboo curtain that fell just beyond Hong Kong. China was the land of Hudson Taylor, the hero of missionary kid bedtime stories. In my childhood mind, it was also the land of persecution for Christians and imprisonment for missionaries. My parents were the sort of missionaries who smuggled Bibles into Russia in their children’s luggage and took family vacations to the West Bank in order to see Biblical landmarks. Despite the dangers, I longed to slip behind the bamboo curtain.

Our team was commissioned to assess the needs of a small Hani community about 45 minutes drive from Yuanyang. As a minority group, they had difficulty gaining the proper resources from the government to fix their water supply problem. We were also interested in the scholarship needs among the children. While China’s socialized education system provides education to all, many poor villagers were unable to produce the money required for supplies and textbooks. In each passing village, the school children swarmed our team with cries of  “Hello, nice to meet you!” and invitations to sing endless renditions of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” on the school’s karaoke machine.

On our third day in China, after crowding into an overnight sleeper bus and hitching a ride in the back of a banana truck, we hired a van and driver to take us to the Hani village. The primitive village was situated on a terraced ridge among rice patties scaling along the contour of the mountain. The houses were simple mud shacks rambling along the hillside with dark interiors and earthen floors. As we tumbled out of a van onto the dirt road, a crowd quickly formed around us.

While the men and our only translator gathered in a little hut to speak with the village elder, I longed for a way to connect with the wide-eyed women and children who were brimming with curiosity. Many of them had never gazed upon a white person. We stood on the edge of the snaking road gazing down at the descending terraces glowing in the afternoon sun and I asked what word they used for beautiful. “Piào liàng” someone timidly replied (although most of these women also knew very little Mandarin). I pointed at the Eden surrounding us and said “liàng”. They giggled. So I pointed at the children and said, “liàng”. The mothers howled in glee as they smeared the dirt from around the smiles of their children’s grimy faces. I went on pointing at the wiry mountain flowers, the hunched old women, their pompom headdresses and fantastically embroidered tribal clothes saying “liàng, liàng, liàng!”

A woman emerged from a hut with a bundle of dark blue cloth and began wrapping a very ornate turban with yarn pompoms around my head. It didn’t take long for the women to grab my hands and drag me into one of the low-ceiling huts. Before I knew it, they had laid out traditional Hani tribal clothes and were undressing me. The children screeched in delight, clapping their hands while a small crowd of tiny Hani women tried to stuff me into their clothes.

Smacking my white legs in fits of laughter, I watched as they made large gestures, which seemed to hysterically relate how fat I must have seemed to these Lilliputian mountain women. Prompting me to exhale deeply, they buttoned the black top closed, and began manually stuffing my legs into the zipperless bottoms. I couldn’t help but giggle along with the women as they tried to cram my hiney into their best Hani clothing. There I was in a remote corner of China, leaning against the sturdy backs of tribal women huddled around my waist, dressing me up as though I were a giant, ghastly Barbie-doll. Predictably, I failed to fit into their pants and opted to hold up a pair of their slacks over my own as we posed for a picture.

As a Third Culture Kid, I like to believe the language barrier is made of bamboo. Though strong and durable, bamboo is also flexible and yielding. A Japanese proverb says, “the bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists”. Across Asia, bamboo is the symbol of flexibility and harmony. When visiting new places, I often prefer relating with strangers within limited linguistic confines; for then I must yield to the intimacy of physical exchange, sweeping gestures, the fluency of expression, and the bend of laughter. Like bamboo in the wind, I am forced to adapt to my surroundings and find other paths of communication.

In retrospect, I wonder if the delightful thigh-smacking encounter with the Hani women would have occurred had I known how to speak Mandarin? As we are supple, the language barrier, the bamboo curtain, reminds us to flex our inhibitions and discover alternative ways of communicating ­– ways that may form bonds and memories to last a lifetime.

I was told that pictures of our dress-up party were given to the Hani women the following year when a new team returned to their village. I am delighted to know that somewhere in remote China, behind the bamboo curtain, I am remembered with howls of laughter.
 

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Recently, I read Frank Schaeffer’s book Crazy for God and was struck by how much we have in common. We were both raised overseas as MKs (Missionary Kids), both immersed in the fabric of Christian fundamentalism, and both became disillusioned with American evangelicalism. And like Frank, I find myself trying to shake off some of the philosophies of Frank’s father Francis Schaeffer, which were driven into to me as gospel since birth. Crazy for God made me feel kind of crazy as it illuminated just how many of my core beliefs stem from the work of Francis Schaeffer.

Challenged to deconstruct some of my own “fundamentals,” I revisited Francis Schaeffer’s view of truth in post-enlightenment. Schaeffer, an astute critic of art history and continental philosophy, devoted much of his writing to the concept of absolute truth. He became a rock star within evangelical circles and helped lay the foundations for the powerful rise of the Religious Right.

In the Great Evangelical Disaster he says, “Christianity is no longer providing the consensus for our society . . . the consensus upon which our law is based.” 1 Without this consensus, Schaeffer concluded, society relies on post-modern relativism and humanistic thought to determine morality. When society walks away from absolute truth, it heads into chaos void of moral code and, ultimately, disintegration.

Truth lies at the heart of the evangelical movement. It’s also one of the ideologies that makes me most uncomfortable with evangelicalism. Let me clarify upfront that I do not question the viability of absolute truth. However, what fascinates me by the evangelical rhetoric of absolute truth is not morality, but power. While I still appreciate much of Schaeffer’s teachings, it is the trajectory of the discourse which fueled the Right-wing powerhouse and Dominionist philosophy that gives me worry.

Schaeffer was a leader in the fight to restore morality through enforcing the truths of Scripture on big issues like abortion, euthanasia, and evolution that energized the growing Culture Wars in America. Dominionism became viral. Lazy Sunday afternoons were replaced with hyped rallies and picket signs. Youth (like me) were bused to DC to march on the Mall and reclaim Washington for Jesus. Radios across America (including ours) were tuned in to Coral Ridge Ministries’ daily show Truths that Transform.

Coral Ridge president, Rev. D. James Kennedy, expressed Dominionism to conference attendees this way: “As the vice-regents of God, we are to bring His truth and His will to bear on every sphere of our world and our society. We are to exercise godly dominion and influence over our neighborhoods, our schools, our government … our entertainment media, our news media, our scientific endeavors — in short, over every aspect and institution of human society.”2

George Grant, Executive Director at Coral Ridge Ministries (later called Truth in Action Ministries), reinforced this position by declaring, “it is dominion that we are after. Not just a voice. It is dominion we are after. Not just influence. It is dominion we are after. Not just equal time. It is dominion we are after. World conquest.” 3

While this may seem like fringe extremism, I recently heard an evangelical pastor say that he is not afraid to speak truth from the pulpit. In fact, when he speaks truth, the world takes offense. He went on to celebrate how boldly he preaches on topics like the role of women in the church and homosexuality. Even if he was indeed speaking truth on these topics, I had a hard time understanding how celebrating our own offensiveness is ever a good thing. Do offensive statements bring about restoration and redemption?

Over the years, I’ve heard similar statements by other pastors and lay people alike and wondered what lies at the root of these statements. Is this really about truth? Is it really about morality? Or could it be that manipulation (in the name of truth) is employed to reduce complex issues into simple beliefs in order to harness power? While I don’t know the motivation behind these sentiments, the bully pulpit is a dangerous temptation for many in a position of spiritual authority.

So, what happens if the “true” claims of the Church are found to be false or merely opinion?  Of course, there was the extreme case of Galileo who was arrested for his heliocentric view of the universe, which was in opposition to the church-approved geocentric model. While most of us are no Galileo, I believe there is a subtler consequence that affects regular folks like me and Frank Schaeffer: disillusionment.

The danger for aggressive banner-of-truth waving evangelicals is that their dogmatism often provokes skepticism within those outside the picket lines. For many of my peers, the harsh rhetoric on political hot-topics like abortion and gay marriage reduces the other “truths” of the Church to mere ideology. Nietzsche predicted that the unraveling of truth in such a way would lead to the Church’s own dissolution and ultimately to a “despair of meaningless.” Wouldn’t it be ironic if the church’s iron-fisted clutch on truth ended up fuelling the very nihilism that we are trying to defend against?

Jesus relates to truth and power in unexpected ways. He declares the earth as an inheritance for the meek, rather than a conquest for the powerful. He manifested the fullness of his power through humility. In contrast to the rulers who wished to lord it over the people, he declared his intent was to serve, rather than be served.

I resonated with Pope Benedict’s January 2012 radio address where he said, “For man, authority often means possession, power, domination, success. For God, however, authority means service, humility, love; it means entering into the logic of Jesus who stoops to wash the disciples’ feet, who seeks the true good of man, who heals wounds, who is capable of a love so great as to give up his life, because he is Love.” 5

As the evangelical church continues to grapple with big issues like abortion, evolution, and homosexuality, it is important to do a gut check on our motivation. Do we reflect the humility of Christ? Do we care more about pointing out fault in others or washing feet and healing wounds? Are we seeking aristocracy in a Christian empire or servanthood in the Kingdom of God?

While the Church has a lot to say about truth and morality, it must take great care to distinguish truth from cultural ideology and resist the temptation to use fear, manipulation, and power as weapons to control congregants and society.

Bringing it home, the greater challenge for me in reconstructing my “fundementals” is not just navigating the complexities of discerning truth but, perhaps more critically, knowing what to do with it. I hope to become the sort of truth-teller that speaks in humility and love to witnesses the power of God in its most spectacular form–setting the oppressed free, breaking the chains that bind people, and healing the broken-hearted. I echo this prayer attributed to Methodist Minister Albert Outler: “Lord, protect us from the mindless love that deceives and the loveless truth that kills.” Amen.

1 Chapter 2 from The Great Evangelical Disaster (Crossway Books, 1984)

2 Christian Science Monitor, March 16, 2005

3 George Grant, “Changing Of The Guard” [PDF], Dominion Press, 1987 (http://www.rightwingwatch.org/category/groups/coral-ridge-ministries)

4  Pat Robertson, The New World Order (Dallas, Tex.: Word Publishing Co, 1991), 227.

5 http://www.news.va/en/news/pope-true-authority-is-humble-service-in-love

 

 

“We are molding Jesus into our image . . . And the danger now is that when we gather in our church buildings to sing and lift up our hands in worship, we may not actually be worshiping the Jesus of the bible. instead, we may be worshiping ourselves”.

Knowing my struggle with pop-culture Christianity, a mentor suggested I read this book. There is much to appreciate about Dr. Platt and his ideas. He is obviously very bright and yet he comes across gently. I would not disagree with many of his ideas, but found the book to be superficial and steeped in modernist thought with a tinge of American exceptionalism behind an age-old missions rhetoric.

In Radical, Dr. Platt identifies the American Dream as a value system “dominated be self-advancement, self-esteem, & self-sufficiency, by individualism, materialism, and universalism”. He goes on to say that “we have a dangerous tendency to misunderstand, minimize, and even manipulate the gospel in order to accommodate our assumptions and our desires… how much of our understanding of the gospel is American and how much is Biblical?”

These thoughts resonate deeply. In recent years, I have been struck by the weak Biblical hermeneutics delivered from many pulpits. Sermons quickly become the platforms for setting agendas – agendas for evangelism, for building plans, for budgets, for making a name for ourselves (in Jesus’ name).

Of course, this is nothing new. Religious leaders have notoriously used power for self-gain throughout history. However, i wonder at the cultural undercurrent of American individualism and how it manifests itself in the American church. What unique eisegetical pitfalls does the independent evangelical church face? Why is individualism so great a danger to the church?

Dr. Platt suggests that individualism is dangerous because it leads to complacency and a lack of zeal to go to all the world and preach the gospel. While I cannot argue with this point, I am more interested in delving deeper into where this individualism came from, how it has polluted the framework of American church, and what an appropriate response should be.

Perhaps we can trace this individualistic trend back to the Great Reformation of the 16th century. Or perhaps it was confounded by (or was it precipitated) by the cultural shift toward humanism that took grip of the newly independent protestant denominations. Within a few centuries, the church continued to divide, splintering into faction after faction. I am afraid to know just how many denominations exists today in North America. I am more afraid to know how many independent churches exist with no authorities or theological guardians keeping an ear to the pulpit. Each church upholds a unique and “true” interpretation of God’s word and is burdened with the great task of making disciples. I can’t help but ask, disciples of whom?

When Christ said to Peter, “upon this rock, I will build my church”, did he really have the assorted independent denominations of the 21st century in mind? Do these schisms reflect the way of Christ as he led in humility and submission? I cannot recall the last sermon I’ve heard about Biblical submission that wasn’t geared toward women only. Rather, our pastors uphold rhetoric of independence – after all, we have been set free in Christ. Lone ranger pastors. Rebellion and self-determination outweigh respect for elders, compliance to authority, and seeking out Godly council. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if Martin Luther stuck it out and reformed within. Is it possible that in an act of righteous protest the path toward individualism and rebellion was forged? Is it possible that this path has led to this evangelicalism “dominated be self-advancement, self-esteem, & self-sufficiency, by individualism, materialism, and universalism”?

This poses some significant challenges for a struggling evangelical who longs to be set free of the American church. In a future post, I hope to explore some of the perplexities this presents in terms of the authenticity of Protestantism in general. But for today, I must consider that the way of the consumer is not the way of Christ. Perhaps this cagey creature should stick it out and learn a lesson or two from Christ about submission and healthy spiritual reform before jumping ship in search of the perfect church that meets all felt individual needs.

For several years now I’ve wrestled with my inner “evangelical”. I like the music, the coffee, the manger scenes. There’s something so American about church. It’s a great show, often quirky, but to me, always a little foreign as I watch the others swaddle up the fake baby Jesus and grab another cup of coffee. Although I have struggled against it for so long, I find my inner evangelical is now on the outside looking in at the American evangelical church. A drive-thru nativity spectator. Some say I’m recovering. I prefer cagey. . . wary, skeptical, trapped. Perhaps it’s the Third Culture kid inside that’s having a hard time recognizing this American god. Perhaps it’s the media critic in me that just can’t stop analyzing script in terms of culture, power, and hegemony. Or perhaps God is doing something very fascinating and utterly confusing. These next few posts will explore some of the questions a cagey, recovering evangelical ponders, a few book reviews, and some interesting thoughts I hope to borrow from respected friends. Come on ring those bells and everybody stay tuned.