A China-themed Lord’s Supper talk

Every second summer we visit family and friends in the U.S. and Canada, since Jessica’s from New Hampshire and I’m from B.C. This summer churches in both countries asked me to do the Sunday morning Communion talk, which means talking for a few minutes to prepare everyone to take the Lord’s Supper, which is, in those kinds of churches, a weekly ceremony where everyone very solemnly gets a cracker crumb and a sip of grape juice to commemorate Jesus’ death and silently think about its significance for a moment or two (symbolically, it’s sharing a meal together, hence the token “bread” and “wine”, in imitation of Jesus’ final meal with His closest followers before He was crucified).

While the form of this particular church heritage’s Lord’s Supper ceremony could be much improved (back in grad school we did it as part of a real meal with real food, sitting around an actual dinner table at someone’s apartment), someone who knows their Bible and theology would still be able to explain the powerful meanings and community implications that this ceremony is supposed to communicate.

Anyway, of course I made my talk China-themed, though different for each church since they’re both very different. The American church is mostly (but not entirely) white, middle and upper-middle class with a high level of education (closely connected to a local Christian university and it’s graduate school of theology). The Canadian church is in the middle of the most ethnically diverse region in all of Canada, so they have a large number of first-generation immigrants from Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe in addition to a born-and-raised-Canadian legacy crowd of fifth and sixth-generation immigrants.

Each church is also going through different things, so I emphasized different things to each church. At one church I said very little about the form/style of the ceremony but emphasized its social status division-demolishing meaning; in the other church I talked more about cultural differences. Below, I’ve mashed both talks together so it’s a bit of a mess, aiming for too many targets at once, but there it is.

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When you live immersed in a culture that’s very different from the one you grew up in, like my family does in China, it gives you lots of opportunities to notice how our own culture from North America affects not only our understanding of the Gospel, but also our experience of life together in the Kingdom of God.

Take sharing a meal together, for example (since that’s what we’re about to do, at least symbolically). If there’s one thing the Chinese know how to do well, it’s eat together. When you’re invited to a meal in China, everyone sits around a round table, facing each other, looking across more food than the guests can possibly finish. And you literally eat and drink together; you don’t scoop food on to your plate with a serving spoon and then eat off your own plate. There are no serving spoons and you don’t get your own plate. You and everyone else each take each bite with chopsticks directly from the serving dishes. Foreigners in China (like us and the other North Americans and Europeans that we know) usually call this “eating family-style”.

And it’s not just the food: even though you get your own cup, you won’t fill it yourself; someone else will make sure it doesn’t stay empty. And before each sip from your cup you’ll first catch someone’s eye across the table, raise your glasses toward one another, and then drink together. Or you’ll first clink glasses with everyone before all drinking together. But you never drink on your own.
chinese_banquet_toast
It’s all intended to communicate acceptance, respect, and togetherness. When you literally share the same bowl of food and acknowledge one another with every single sip, you’re saying that we’re in the same group; you’re one of us and I’m one of you (or at the very least, we could be). You’re honouring each other. It’s a reinforcement and celebration of that circle of relationships, of that community.

And so here we are, on the other side of the world, symbolically sharing a meal that also expresses a kind of togetherness – but this is a togetherness that only Jesus’ death and resurrection can make possible: where the honour we all receive as guests at Christ’s table, as adopted siblings in His family, and as fellow subjects in His Kingdom, transcends and makes obsolete the artificial status divisions of race, nationality, economic class, and gender. Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female – we all sit equally at this table.

Now, the meal we’re about to share doesn’t look much like a Chinese meal. Maybe one day it could. But for now at least, this church does things according to the culture and traditions of the fourth, fifth and sixth-generation immigrants to Canada – white, native English speakers. We are lovers of efficiency and convenience, and we’re highly individualistic and private. That’s why we have our little cracker crumbs, single-sip cups, and individual moments of introspection where we see the back of one another’s heads instead of each other’s faces. It’s almost like someone in the 19th century asked, “How efficient and individualistic can we make this meal while still technically ‘eating together’?”

Our modern form of Communion emphasizes each individual person’s individual relationship with God more than our relationship with God, or with one another as God’s people together. That’s why, even though we’re sitting next to each other, we typically close our eyes and ignore each other so we can have our personal moment of prayer and reflection. You can maybe imagine how from a certain angle that looks a bit odd: everyone coming together and then trying to do the most important thing alone. But that’s our modern culture and tradition. You can take it or leave it.

The New Testament churches, however, did this ceremony much more like a real meal. They were served by the host family of whatever home they were meeting in, with real bread and real wine. We can safely assume this just based on what we know about the 1st century world in general, but we can also see this reflected in the specific problems that the first churches faced that were related to the Lord’s Supper (it’s hard to overeat on cracker crumbs, for example, and it’s even harder to get drunk on grape juice. Can you imagine? Getting drunk during the Lord’s Supper? Maybe that’s why we changed it to grape juice… So we got rid of the alcohol but kept the shot glasses…?). But it helps to remember that they weren’t only somberly memorializing Christ’s death; they were also celebrating His resurrection and the new life together that they shared because of it.

Those New Testament churches didn’t have church buildings or pews or special round silver trays with little shot glasses. The shared homes and dinner tables and food and wine. But still, regardless of what form or style we choose, whether 1st century or modern, when we share our cracker crumbs and sips of grape juice we’re remembering Jesus’ sacrifice for us, and we’re also proclaiming that Jesus’ triumph over death has given us hope and new life with Him, and new life with each other together under His authority in His Kingdom.

When we do this ceremony together, however we do it, we’re saying that we’re part of the same big family, eating at Jesus’ dinner table together, and that the spiritual family bond we share, the allegiance to Christ that binds us together, takes priority over all other identities and allegiances.

At this family dinner table sixth-generation immigrants honour the first-generation immigrants as equal members; senior managers and nannies take from the same bowl; university professors acknowledge cafeteria workers before they drink – all of us humbled and all of us honoured together under Christ.

So as we share the Lord’s Supper together, remembering how Christ’s body was broken and His blood was shed for us, and celebrating His resurrection and the new life together in His Kingdom under Him that His resurrection makes possible, let’s also use the image of a Chinese meal to consider what Jesus’ sacrifice and Jesus’ triumph mean for us together.

And since I’m playing the “host” today, we’ll imitate an ancient New Testament church by having my “household” serve the “meal”.

Heavenly Father, thank You for Jesus, who makes it possible for us to receive the honour of sitting at Your table. Please teach us to realize in fact around our actual dinner tables the kind of community that we symbolically proclaim this morning. Amen.

Taiwanese_Last_Supper
When Jesus ate with chopsticks. (Click for source.)

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*Just to clear up potential confusion: This description of drinking at Chinese meals applies to the main beverage, which is alcoholic – usually beer, baijiu, and/or wine. Each person will also get a cup for tea or hot water as a secondary beverage that you can drink casually on your own. But the alcohol is the main drink, as it’s the one with the social significance.

How we end up living better every time we return to China

Maybe it sounds a little weird to think of making the most of a transition back to China. The goodbyes, 36+ hours of travel door-to-door, jet lag, and downward re-adjustment in comfort all make returning to your overseas home something to merely endure and survive, especially when young kids are involved. That’s still true for us. But we’ve also found there’s a great opportunity buried within each of our family’s sad and stressful biannual transitions back to the far side of the world.

Every second summer we spend two months visiting family and friends in Canada and the US (four states and one province). It’s great and we love it; lots of food and fun and camping and swimming with people we love and don’t get to see even close to near enough. But it’s not healthy in the sense that it’s a break from intentionally established daily routines that include sane sleep, eating, exercise, and relating. Plus, the leaving and the returning each have their own special stress.

Saying goodbye is one thing, but making your kids say goodbye to their grandparents at the international departures gate is just about the worst thing ever. It’s even worse than international travel with kids, which usually includes a long-haul flight followed by a layover followed by another flight that you barely make because your first flight was delayed (“Just hold it, OK?! Better wet pants on the plane than dry pants in the airport! Let’s move!”). Then there’s the step back down in convenience, cleanliness, and familiarity, plus all the stuff/dirt/bugs that has broken/accumulated/infested-and-died while you were away. We return to China physically and emotionally exhausted, out of shape, and relationally disoriented (for an extended period of time our kids haven’t had their usual amount of regular attention from us, and we haven’t had normal couple time, either).

It’s kind of funny: bracing for all that stress during our last two days with family in Canada is almost worse than actually going through it during the first week back in China. Sure, the first couple days of jet-lag and apartment cleaning/repair while trying to not take it out on your beyond-exhausted children aren’t awesome. But the level of discomfort I imagine each time never actually materializes, despite accurately predicting the general level of 麻烦 that awaits us. Each time, we slide back into our life here quicker and more smoothly than I expect us to.

And every return to China gives us an exciting opportunity that we plan for each time: the chance to intentionally alter our lifestyle for the better. Since our previously established routines and habits have been blown to smithereens by over two months of travel, it’s a prime chance to intentionally rearrange them as they start falling back into place, before they re-solidify. When your habits and routines have all been uprooted, it’s a chance to plant different ones.

Every time we come back to China, we end up living better than we had before. When we have about a week to go in North America we start thinking and talking about what we can improve, physically, psychologically, and relationally (I’d say “spiritually” but in my opinion it’s all spiritual one way or another), and keep adjusting it for the first few weeks we’re back.

Here’s some of the things we did this time, after returning to Qingdao a month ago on September 8:

  • Healthier eating: Mostly thanks to recommendations from my health-coach sister (not the product-pushing American-style health coach; the holistic, integrative kind), we tweaked our family’s diet, again.
  • Enhanced workout routine: I soaked up all the advice and info I could from my brother who’s a black belt in multiple martial arts and does judo and jujitsu training, and friends who do hardcore circuit training and strength training, and now my workout routine is more effective and time-saving.
  • Smarter family routines: Sometimes there really are engineering solutions to behaviour problems. Turns out you can avoid some common points of conflict just by adjusting meal/washing/clean up routines and staying on top of them. We talked it over from the vantage point of being outside our life here, and managed to identify and eliminate a couple of the kids’ daily opportunities for whining and noncompliance.
  • Smarter Chinese study routine: One way to get out of a study rut is to not study for two months. The last routine got me through the HSK5, but it didn’t feel good. I’m not going back to what I was doing, and instead have started a simple, doable, but more effective study routine that targets my weaker language areas and begins preparing me for the HSK6.
  • Long-neglected home repairs: For a very brief period of time after leaving the cleanliness and convenience of Canada, my tolerance levels are lower, and that means stuff gets fixed (gotta strike while the iron is hot, you know?), like the water barrier on our bathroom floor that keeps the shower water in the shower, the smoke fan in the kitchen, and the exhaust fan in the bathroom. I also thoroughly cleaned the DIY air purifiers, vacuumed, mopped and dusted the whole apartment and cleaned all the mold that had grown over the summer. And replaced all the dead houseplants with better ones. This would never happen in Month 2.
  • Healthier personal practices: I had personal practices before — what people usually call ‘spiritual’ practices — and those continue. But now I’ve also begun other ones. These are the kinds of things that intentionally set the direction and shape you’re going to grow in — the kind of person you’re going to become. Time will tell how far I’m able to grow into them. (Step 1 in becoming legit spiritual is Get Enough Sleep. We have an infant. I’m working on it…). But being captivated by a liberating, positive, all-encompassing vision is unlike anything else, even when Kid #3 is making you tired. (I’m happy to share details. Spoiler: Jesus.)

The end result is: our life is on a slightly better trajectory now than it was before we left for the summer. And it was the same deal after we returned from the summer two years ago. It makes us excited for where the next few semester will take us.

Labor of Love by Andrew Peterson in Chinese

Have you never wondered: No room at the inn? Why are they even looking for a place? Mary and Joseph would have traveled with a pile of other relatives to Bethlehem where they had even more relatives because it’s Joseph’s hometown. Yet they can’t find a place to stay? No one in Joseph’s extended family has room for a relative who’s ready to go into labour at any moment?

Chinese_no_room_at_the_inn

The scandal of Mary getting pregnant while she was still unmarried, and Joseph deciding to marry her anyway, is more than his family is willing to take. Joseph’s family has shunned them.

That’s one of two main ways to understand the story — that Mary gave birth to Jesus much like this song suggests: on the cold ground of a dark cave where a stranger kept livestock, alone except for her (helpless) carpenter husband because his family wouldn’t take them in. (The other understanding is that they weren’t alone at all, relatives were taking care of them, but due to the overcrowding the best they could do was the family room which the animals were brought into at night. “Inn” is a poor translation.)

圣诞贺卡2015

We’re perennially desperate for Christmas music that isn’t awful. A few weeks ago friends recommended the album Behold the Lamb of God. Although I’m not a huge fan of the CCM genre or familiar with the music of singer-songwriter Andrew Peterson, I thought his song Labor of Love was worth translating into Chinese. It doesn’t attempt any great feats of lyricism; it simply but vividly connects people to the experience of Mary and Joseph the night she gave birth to Jesus in a way that Silent Night, with its tender and mild baby that doesn’t cry, doesn’t even try to do.

This is just a starter translation. It needs native speaker polishing before anyone really tries to sing it. But I want to put this out there and see if I can get some helpful suggestions. More notes on the translation below.

Hear it on Youtube here, here (live performance), and here (set to Nativity movie clips). Artist’s website: Andrew-Peterson.com

It was not a silent night 那夜并不平安
There was blood on the ground 鲜血洒在地面
You could hear a woman cry 女人的哭泣声声
In the alleyways that night 在这漆黑夜晚
On the streets of David’s town 在大卫城中回荡

And the stable was not clean 马厩也并不洁净
And the cobblestones were cold 鹅卵石冷冷冰冰
And little Mary full of grace 玛利亚恩典满满
With tears upon her face 泪水滑落脸庞
Had no mother’s hand to hold 没母亲握手相伴 [*]

It was a labor of pain 那是多么的痛
It was a cold sky above 在这寒冷夜空下
But for the girl on the ground in the dark 黑夜中躺着地上的女孩 [*]
With every beat of her beautiful heart 她的每一次心跳
It was a labor of love 都是爱的跳动 [**]

Noble Joseph at her side 忠实约瑟在身旁
Callused hands and weary eyes 粗糙的双手疲惫的双眼 [*]
There were no midwives to be found 在深夜里遍寻街头
In the streets of David’s town 却找不到一位
In the middle of the night 一位助产的人

So he held her and he prayed 抱着玛利亚祷告
Shafts of moonlight on his face 月光洒向他脸庞
But the baby in her womb 但她腹中的宝贝
He was the maker of the moon 就是月的创造者
He was the Author of the faith 就是有移山信心 [***]
That could make the mountains move 的的始创者

It was a labor of pain 那是多么的痛
It was a cold sky above 在这寒冷夜空下
But for the girl on the ground in the dark 但黑夜中这女孩
With every beat of her beautiful heart 她的每一次心跳
It was a labor of love 都是爱的跳动

For little Mary full of grace 恩典满满的玛利亚
With the tears upon her face 尽管泪水滑落脸庞
It was a labor of love 却是爱的劳作

TRANSLATION NOTES

[*] Details & Syllables:
The few people I bounced this off of struggled to squeeze all of the vivid details into the allotted syllables. In some cases they revised details out to make a better rhythmic fit. So “no mother’s hand to hold” became “no mother by her side” (妈妈却不在身边); Mary “the girl on the ground in the dark” became “the girl in the dark night” (黑夜中这女孩); and Joseph’s “callused hands and weary eyes” became “utterly exhausted” (早已疲惫不堪). I opted to retain the details above even though it’s not as smooth, because those details evoke imagery that powerfully conveys a lot of the story.

[**] The “labour of love” wordplay:
A Chinese friend recommended switching my literal translation of the “labour of love” wordplay (referencing the pain and effort of childbirth) for, “Her every single heartbeat is the beat of love” (她的每一次心跳 / 都是爱的跳动). To me that’s even cheesier than the original, but that’s also par for the course in China. And each person I talked to wasn’t satisfied with using 劳作 for “labor”, but no one had a better alternative.

[***] Everyone had trouble translating “the Author of the faith that can make the mountains move”.

More Chinese Christmas songs:

More English Christmas songs: Merry Christmas Music!

Bible story Chinglish

My favourite Sunday school Chinglish ever: The Parable of the Prodigal Son like you’ve never experienced it before. From our friend Lindy in Tianjin.

Bible Chinglish
“He…lived a wild life wasting his money on beers and women skittles and other skittles.”

A Chinese shrine to… Jesus?

Hong Kongers erected two shrines at different locations on their barricades in their battle against police and thugs: one to Guan Gong 关公 (aka 关羽 and 关帝, a ubiquitous Chinese folk deity especially worshiped by police, triads and restaurant owners), and one to Jesus.

(None of the HK images below are mine; click each for its source.)Comparing these shrines provides a fantastic little opportunity to explore contextualization and syncretism — big words for talking about how ideas, practices and objects are adopted by a culture, and whether or not their core meanings survive intact. But first, the pictures.

A Tale of Two Shrines: Jesus & Guan Gong

The Guan Gong shrine has all the images, statues, fruit, booze and incense offerings you’d expect in a typical Guan Gong shrine, the setting notwithstanding:

The signs say:
[White, far right & left] — 关帝绝不保佑助纣为虐之香港警察
Absolutely no way Emperor Guan will bless and protect Hong Kong police who are accomplices of evil-doers
[Pink, right] — 忠义神武灵佑仁
The Mighty Divine is quick to benevolently protect those who are loyal and righteous
[White, middle] — 亵渎神灵者必遭天谴
Those who profane the gods will surely suffer the wrath of heaven
[Pink, left] — 勇威显护国保民
Bravely and powerfully protect the nation and the people

It’s not really all that remarkable in itself, though it is kind of funny the way it’s being used against police and organized crime thugs. Supposedly one can often find shrines to Guan Gong in Hong Kong police stations, where they worship him for protection. Destroying the shrine invites a curse on oneself and one’s family.

Tsang says demonstrators built the shrine to the general to send a message to their antagonists: Guan Gong is on our side.

“We want this god to punish whoever tries to hurt unarmed citizens,” says Tsang

A Chinese shrine to Jesus understandably raises a few eyebrows (and opens a few shutters); it’s not like you see one of these everyday:


The vertical writing says (right to left):
上主彰正义[xx] The Lord manifests justice & dim0cr@sy
基督赐平安自由 Christ bestows peace & freedom

Turns out there’re at least two Jesus shrines, though in this case it seems shrine isn’t a terribly accurate descriptor. Key details suggest that there are much bigger differences between these two shrines than merely the name and picture of the deity involved.

The Jesus shrine has swapped out the incense, food and booze for flowers, pretty candles and an open Bible. It’s seems the Christians have ditched the offerings — gifts intended to predispose Guan Gong to look favorably upon his worshipers and act for their protection and fortune more than he would otherwise (a bit like giving a doctor a hongbao?) — for decorations and worship aids (Bible, icons), meant to look nice, inspire other Christians and help them focus when worshiping, rather than somehow elicit protection and fortune.

I can’t know for sure just from these photos what exactly is going on here because I’m not there to see how each of these “shrines” actually function in practice. But just from what we can see in the pictures it looks like an interesting contextualization of Christianity rather than syncretism, where Christianity appropriates an aspect of Chinese culture (they’ve made their ‘shrine’ conform to Christianity) rather than Jesus being treated like he’s just another traditional Chinese deity.


(Personal pet peeve: images of pasty British Jesus in Asian churches.)

These two shrines physically display a core distinction between Christianity and traditional Chinese religion: the way in which one relates to God/the gods.

Christians relate to God as the children of a perfect, loving, authoritative parent, or the subjects of a just and benevolent king. It’s in God’s character to always act for the good of his people; gifts can’t make God love more. Prayer is as much to influence the Christian as it is to influence God’s behaviour, who listens like a loving parent listens to a child and may or may not act in response to the child’s request.

With Guan Gong and other traditional Chinese deities it’s more like currying favour (but not seen in a negative way); gifts that show reverence make the deity more predisposed to provide protection or fortune. It doesn’t mean that Christians can’t use incense, for example, but when they do it means something different (if they’re being faithful to a broadly defined, international Christian orthodoxy).


An interesting attempt at contextualization in Thailand, where Thai Christians have incorporated some Thai/Buddhist forms into their worship practices while trying to maintain distinctly Christian meanings.

You can’t influence (or manipulate) Jesus, according to Christianity, in all the same ways that you can traditional Chinese deities according to traditional Chinese religion.


Reading the Bible… in the middle of the road.

That’s not the only fundamental difference between following Jesus and appealing to Guan Gong, of course. And it’s no surprise that each shrine’s respective signage conveys mutually distinct messages.

“There is this Christian spirit,” says Cheng, who wears a yellow ribbon pinned to his shirt pocket — a symbol of the movement. “You are more willing to suffer. Social justice means more to you.”


Singing hymns… in the middle of the road.


Praying at an altar… outside government headquarters.

Contextualization & Syncretism

Simply put: Syncretism changes the essence of the thing; contextualization allows the essence of that thing to be accurately expressed within the cultural context. Contextualization is concerned primarily with meaning; preserving the meaning of a thing in a new cultural context often requires significant changes to form.

(In the images above some unnecessary cultural ‘forms’ that have been directly imported, like British Jesus and ancient iconography. Direct cultural importing is not contextualization; contextualization uses local, rather than foreign, physical or intellectual forms to express meaning.)


Guan Gong: “You’re here, too?”
Jesus: “Had no choice, Carrie Lam made me.”

The text above Jesus says:
“People who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed, because they will be satisfied.”

If the essential meaning of the thing being adopted stays more or less intact, then it’s contextualized. But when the core meaning of the thing is damaged or “lost in translation” due to it’s cultural incorporation, it’s called syncretism. Even though in reality the line between the two is not always crystal clear, and it’s maybe more accurate to think about degrees of syncretism rather than purely either/or, the difference between them is huge.

One curious example of syncretism is the way Chairman Mao is becoming a Chinese folk deity. When average Zhou Chinese Mainlanders take Mao Zedong — who I assume enjoyed being treated like a god but was nevertheless violently anti-religion, anti-traditional-Chinese-culture and anti-capitalism — and turn him into a Chinese folk deity, it’s syncretism because it’s not faithful or compatible with what Mao was about. Atheism was mandatory. You can’t get much more un-Maoist than selling Mao folk deity figurines on the open market.

As a god he’s not as popular as Guanyin 观音, Laughing Buddha 笑佛, Cai Shen 财神 (the money god) or Guan Gong but you can buy him in the god shops, and you occasionally find him occupying spaces usually reserved for Laughing Buddha. It’s “Maoist” in the sense that it involves a lot of Mao — his image and name and greatness — but it’s not Maoist when it comes to the actual teachings of Maoism.


Our local traditional market has more than one place selling Mao alongside Buddhist, Daoist and even Hindu gods.

Mao with Cai Shen, the god of wealth, on the walls of our neighbourhood baozi shop. According to the stories, Mao supposedly refused to even touch money.

Syncretism is misleading because the integrity of the central meaning is lost while superficial elements are still adopted. The new idea gets swapped out for an old one, but the old idea dresses up as if it were the new idea.

Promoting Mao as a folk deity is not promoting Maoism; Maoism is against folk deities. Sticking a BMW logo on a Flying Pigeon bike doesn’t change the quality or nature of the vehicle, no matter how many people you convince to speak and act as if that bike was a luxury car. Swapping out a Chinese restaurant’s prosperity god statue for a Jesus figurine won’t make the shrine Christian; it just creates a new Chinese folk deity who looks like Jesus and is called “Jesus” but in any way that actually matters (according to Jesus) isn’t Jesus.

Doing that is bad — i.e. inaccurate — because the Jesus of Christianity and the deities of Chinese traditional religion are two different kinds of thing. And they each have a different kind of relationship to people; the way people relate to Jesus (according to Christianity) is different from the way people relate to Chinese folk deities (according to traditional Chinese religion). “Prayer” in the Christian sense of the word, as Jesus presents it, is a different kind of thing from “prayer” in a Chinese folk religion sense of the word. (Now if we swapped a God of Wealth statue for a Santa Claus figurine…I could get behind that. ;) )

The examples above are not awesome because they’re too obvious. In reality, syncretism is usually more subtle. The people doing it often don’t realize it, and if they care at all then they’d probably be offended and scandalized if they found out (not everyone cares). What people think they’re doing or say they’re doing is one thing, but their actual behaviour and the function of their language (rather than the surface meanings of their words) is another. What are they actually doing? Or what are they actually communicating by making those statements in those contexts? Are they, for example, really trying to promote and realize Maoism in their society, or just creating a Mao-themed object towards which they can express the worries of life and wish for prosperity and health? Or are they (second example) really trying to become the kind of people and live the kind of life to which Jesus invites them, or are they weekly participants in a religious-themed, self-help-dispensing, cultural values-affirming, family-friendly weekly social club? When it comes to Christians, if they’re the latter they probably still imagine they’re the former, and you’d have a heck of a time trying to make them see a difference.

There are four ubiquitous Chinese deities we routinely see in Qingdao: Cai Shen 财神 (prosperity god) and Guan Gong 关公 in the restaurants, Guanyin 观音 on necklace talismans, and Laughing Buddhas 笑佛 on business counters and dashboards. Lots more about Chinese deities and Mao below.

Mao as a god (literally & figuratively) in contemporary China:

Peruse the Chinese deities for sale:

How Christmas and traditional Chinese religion could so easily get along:

P.S. — It took a little while, but it seems at least some mainstream news media has finally discovered that Christianity is a significant factor in the Ongoing Event Which Must Not Be Named. See more from Bloomberg, NPR, FP, SCMP and CDT.

P.P.S. — A pre-dawn police raid on Oct. 17 has resulted in the unceremonious departure of Guan Gong. The Jesus shrine has apparently met a similar fate.

P.P.P.S. — Feel free to offer input/corrections on Guan Gong worship and traditional Chinese religion in general. Obviously I’m not as familiar with that as I am with Christianity. And since traditional Chinese religion isn’t formally theologized, details can be hard to nail down.

Preparing for the Resurrection Festival (aka “Easter”) in Chinese

If you aren’t going to do in-depth historical and cultural reading on 1st-century Palestine and learn koiné Greek, but you want an Easter tie-in for your Chinese language-learning and/or an intro to the basic “Resurrection Festival” narrative, here you go!

Even if you’re totally unfamiliar with the Easter story, this short reading list should more or less work for you. It’s all actual biblical text, abridged and slightly rearranged to make the narrative easier to follow. It doesn’t include every detail; read each of the four gospel accounts separately for that (like you should! ha). And don’t do like this in exegesis class or they’ll fail you.


“Pilate Washes His Hands” by He Qi.

Each PDF’s text comes in five different Chinese translations, all of which you can view online at BibleGateway.com and Bible.com. My plan is to do one a week ending on Resurrection Festival Sunday. Here they’re arranged to fit the traditional Western church calendar, but it’s cramming a lot of text into only a few days:

  • 2014å¹´4月13æ—¥ — 棕榈主日 — 〈复活节2〉
  • 2014å¹´4月17æ—¥ — 濯足节 — 〈复活节3〉+ 〈复活节4〉
  • 2014å¹´4月18æ—¥ — 受难节 — 〈复活节5〉+ 〈复活节6〉
  • 2014å¹´4月20æ—¥ — 复活节星期日 — 〈复活节7〉

复活节1.pdf

Peter tells Jesus he thinks Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. Jesus tells him he’s right, but when Jesus goes on to talk about dying a horrible, humiliating death at the hands of their foreign political oppressors — basically the antithesis of what the Messiah was expected to be — Peter tells him to knock it off. Jesus responds with some tough love.
(Read Chinese/English parallel online: 可8:27-38 (但7:13-14))

复活节2.pdf

The common people are all keyed up. Word’s got around about Jesus’ miracles, especially about raising Lazarus from the dead. And the religious and cultural elites are calling for Jesus’ arrest. Crowds are fickle, but they know what potential public drama looks like. Will Jesus dare show up in Jerusalem for the Passover Festival when the religious and cultural establishment is out to get him? And what will happen if he does?
(Read Chinese/English parallel online: 约11:55-12:19;2:13-25)

复活节3.pdf

It’s the Passover meal with Jesus’ closest followers, his final meal before his death. Jesus continues to demonstrate his radical redefinition of Messiah and the subversive, upside-down nature of life in his ‘Kingdom’ by taking the role of the lowest servant and washing everyone’s filthy 1st-century Palestine feet. With wine and broken bread, he tells his disciples that his imminent sacrifice is for them.
(Read Chinese/English parallel online: 路22:7-13;约13:1-17;路22:14-30;(但7:13-14))

复活节4.pdf

Jesus knows it’s mere hours before his suffering and death, and he tells his disciples they will all abandon him. Peter refuses to accept this — he’s not afraid of violent revolution; that’s what he signed up for in the first place and he’s not the only one. Despite what Jesus has already said and done, his followers just can’t think outside their preconception of ‘Messiah’ as the long-awaited political liberator. Some of them are armed, and there’s blood shed when Jesus is betrayed. But Jesus’ reaction shatters them, and they do exactly as he said they would.
(Read Chinese/English parallel online: 太26:30-46;路22:47-52;可14:49-52;(但7:13-14))

复活节5.pdf

Jesus’ enemies can’t manage to convict him of blasphemy at their illegal trial because the testimonies of their lying witnesses conflict. So Jesus helps them out and makes a direct claim to divinity right in the high priest’s face. By their own laws that means the death penalty, but under Roman occupation they need an order from Pilate, the Roman governor, so they claim Jesus was organizing an armed rebellion against Rome. Pilate declares him innocent multiple times, but in the interests of diffusing a potential riot he orders Jesus’ brutal flogging and crucifixion, while placing responsibility for Jesus’ death squarely on the religious leaders and the mob they’d stirred up.

Meanwhile, Peter’s followed at a distance all this time, sneaking in within earshot of the proceedings — the only disciple brave enough. He alone of the 12 core disciples has refused to give up all hope that Jesus will bust out with the supernatural power and take down the Romans and the politically sold-out Jewish establishment. But as things turn from bad to worse and the people around him begin to recognize him as one of Jesus’ followers, he finally breaks.
(Read Chinese/English parallel online: 可14:53-72;路23:1-23;太27:24-31;(但7:13-14))

复活节6.pdf

Jesus is crucified. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, two high-ranking and prominent religious leaders, publicly defy their peers by requesting Jesus’ body and giving him as honourable a burial as they can. The religious leaders, aware of Jesus’ claim that he would come back to life on the third day, convince Pilate to place guards at the tomb and seal it with a heavy stone so Jesus’ followers can’t steal the body and claim he’s resurrected. (Plus: the full psalm from which Jesus quotes, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’, and the previous bits involving Nicodemus: where he sneaks off in the night to talk with Jesus, and where he questions the legality of what his peers are suggesting.)
(Read Chinese/English parallel online: 路23:26-43;约19:23-27;可15:33-41、43;约19:38b-40;路23:54-56;太27:62-66;(诗篇22);(约3:1-21、7:45-53))

复活节7.pdf

Women with burial spices arrive at the tomb early in the morning only to discover it open and empty. An angel invites them to have a look, and then go tell Jesus’ other followers. Meanwhile the guards report what happened to the leaders, who bribe them into saying that Jesus’ disciples stole the body while they slept. Jesus appears to various groups of disciples on different occasions, including Thomas, who has refused to believe any of the reports of Jesus’ resurrection, and Peter, who’d denied knowing Jesus before his crucifixion. Peter’s gone back to fishing, and in a dramatic scene reminiscent of previous key shared experiences between the two, Jesus appears and addresses Peter’s denial.
(Read Chinese/English parallel online: 太28:1-15;路24:13-34;约20:19-21:25)

lws7-detail.jpg
“Nail Mark” (detail) by Li Wei San.

More Resurrection Festival in China:

Cross-cultural Incarnation — your identity across cultures

Some Christmastime thoughts on trying to live authentically and meaningfully in a culture not your own. Because the Incarnation (God being born human as baby Jesus), whether you think it’s true or not, is an interesting way to think about living cross-culturally.


(Chinese shepherds visit Chinese baby Jesus)

It’s one thing to study the transmission and transformation of ideas and behaviours across cultural contexts. Those are issues that anyone working cross-culturally has to deal with no matter what field they’re in, whether they realize it or not. But what about how crossing cultures affects your personal identity?

As the outsiders

Here’s a bit from God Spares Not the Branches, an insightful (understatement!) exploration of cross-cultural and development work issues via the story of an American post-grad who volunteers with a local anti-AIDS NGO in Ghana. Emphases mine:

“Bryce,” his father told him, “when you step into the world of other cultures and seek to be a part of that which is different, your difference will be who you are to them. No matter how well you seem to become part of the people and their ways, you are not them. No matter how well they receive you and befriend you, your distinction is your reason for being there. When it doesn’t fit what is expected, you will feel the pain of rejection. It’s always just beneath the surface. That’s life. It’s not fair, but that’s how it is. You have to know who you are and be confident in that and what you are about.”

As a lÇŽowài I automatically identify with Bryce; we’re the outsiders trying to fit in and the Chinese are “them”. Even when we’re feeling good about how well we’re fitting in, even if to the point that we could momentarily forget how different we are, they wouldn’t let us forget, because they remind us every single day. We’re routinely hit with a myriad of largely ignorant-but-understandable expectations of who we are and what we’re like. I wonder what receiving these “identity prescriptions” every day is like for expats who don’t have a strong understanding of who they are and what they’re about. I suspect I’ve maybe seen that show a couple times over our five years in Mainland China.

As the insiders

But the Christmas holidays have made me re-read the above excerpt in light of the Incarnation. In Chinese Bibles it says, “The Dao became flesh and lived among us.” The idea being that the Creator, the Ultimate Being, became a human being. That’s a major living-standard downgrade, in what we could call the ultimate cross-cultural move:

He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges… [From Philippians 2:5-8]

This reverses the roles: God is the outsider and we are the “them”.

I’m not assuming Dan was thinking Incarnation when he wrote that section, but it’s an interesting angle to consider: Jesus as the ultimate model of cross-cultural identification and authenticity: leaving his home and completely taking on the language, culture and ethnicity of his host nation, while refusing to compromise who he is and what he’s about, even though he knows it will eventually result in rejection.

“…when you step into the world of other cultures and seek to be a part of that which is different, your difference will be who you are to them . . . When it doesn’t fit what is expected, you will feel the pain of rejection. It’s always just beneath the surface . . . You have to know who you are and be confident in that and what you are about.”

Maybe Dan was thinking Incarnation; so much of that paragraph relates to not just the Incarnation but also to how we treated Jesus when he refused to conform to our expectations of what he should be. But I’ll save that for a “Resurrection Festival” post (复活节), because I like to keep the meanings of my historically re-appropriated holidays clearly sorted (no crosses at Christmas!). ;)

More about culture & personal identity:

More about Christmas:

P.S. — About God Spares Not the Branches

God Spares Not the Branches gives an intimate look at the complexities of post-colonial West Africa. The events, places and people are so realistically detailed you can’t help but believe this fictional story is actually a collection of real first-hand accounts — and that’s because it pretty much is. Author Dan McVey lived in Ghana for over 20 years, raised his family there, and still spends half of every year there, mostly on his farm. He applies an insight born of first-hand, long-term cultural intimacy to a deep exploration of several interrelated issues (many of which are relevant to China) by embodying them in his characters and their experiences. If you’re more than a little interested in any of the following, I think this book is worth your time:

  • The legacy of colonialism
  • African corruption
  • Problems with international aid and development (like priorities set not by need but by the politics of the donor nations, dependency, etc).
  • Drastic societal change affecting behaviour norms and values
  • The impact on sexuality of economic and gender inequality
  • The influence of the internet, media and Western culture — esp. entertainment and consumerism
  • The cultural hurdles in addressing HIV/AIDS
  • African identity and spirituality, Christianity, Evangelicalism, Islam
  • Muslim/Christian interaction

Two things in particular stand out to me:

  1. Intimate detail and nuance — Dan has lived into this culture and society and conveys a much richer and more empathetic picture of the people and challenges they face than what the best journalists can deliver.
  2. Challenging all around — This is not merely a liberal scolding of conservative Western worldviews, dragging a fictional character through a Western culture war conversion experience in a world of stereotyped stock characters (like in The Help). There’s plenty that will make Western political conservatives squirm, but Dan’s allegiances aren’t dictated by the Western culture wars. His compellingly detailed, uncompromising portrayal of African reality refuses to flinch in the face of events that Westerners, right or left, have difficulty processing. Like a shocking exorcism account, written in the same finely detailed, eye-witness-sounding delivery with which he describes farms. He doesn’t insist the reader accept the account at face value, but he also makes it difficult to casually brush off.