The Silent Exodus

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Helen Lee with her family

I’ve been spending my time this summer as an intern working for a wonderful organization, the Institute for the Study of Asian American Christianity (ISAAC). I meet with my coordinator and my fellow interns each week to discuss our church experiences, our ethnic identities (by coincidence, we are all Chinese-American), and to discern our ministry callings together with church leaders and former interns. Lately we have been discussing articles from a special anthology published by ISAAC, the Asian American Christianity Reader, which is quite theologically robust and includes material from well-known scholars like Peter Phan, Helen Lee, and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, in addition to endorsements from Mark Noll and Amos Young.

This week we read two articles, but I want to focus on the first one because it generated the most discussion. Though “Silent Exodus” is nearly 20 years old, Helen Lee’s famous Christianity Today article seems to still shape our discourse about Asian American ministry, particularly among Korean and Chinese evangelicals who share a common formative experience of ethnic churches filled with immigrants and their children. Lee observed that most Asian-Americans raised in their parent’s churches never return to an Asian church, or any church, once they reach maturity. This is the titular “silent exodus” which has troubled many ministries.

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the black ones form a cross!

This article resonated very strongly with my cohorts, who shared stories about the tensions between the older leadership of their Chinese/Korean churches and the younger “English Ministry” (EM) that is forever subordinate to their elders. Even in Asian churches that strive for greater equality between the two ministries, one intern reported a feeling of unease, the unease of implicit deference to authority, when a grey-haired senior pastor sits in a meeting with the English ministry pastor.

The article describes these “pressure points” well: different understandings of hierarchy and how to transmit leadership; whether a church should pursue a multiethnic congregation; and, perhaps most importantly for evangelicals, a fear that a personal faith has been smothered by a lack of intentional formation.

“The kids don’t own the faith. They come to church because they are forced to. They can’t differentiate between Asian culture and Christianity, and they they often develop a hatred of the culture — which they then extend to Christianity. (103)

“We have been given ministries on a silver platter… which has resulted in a weak Christianity.” (103)

These quotes may come from separate people interviewed in the article, but they point to a common phenomenon. Most Korean and Chinese-American churches are evangelical or some sort of low-church Protestant, but the same phenomenon of not owning the faith has also been observed in American Orthodox parishes, which are often seen as ethnic enclaves for Middle Eastern or Eastern European groups that do not welcome outsiders and do not pass down the tradition to the second generation.

There is a common thread in these groups. Older generations rightly see the church as a refuge to navigate life in America in solidarity with fellow immigrants and to preserve their culture. I would describe this situation as a particular, encultured mission for that generation’s church. There is nothing inherently wrong with this model of ministry, especially when so many immigrants who come to a hostile culture need a social circle to resist discrimination. But the first generation’s enculturation is not ours. The second generation feels stifled by this particularity. We seem to instinctively understand that a monocultural setting does not seem to reflect the universality of Christianity. Jesus Christ, as the Incarnate Son who mediates God and humanity and grafts the Gentiles into the tree of Israel, is a universal savior for all nations. God is no “respecter of persons” (Acts 10.34 KJV) in his salvific plan.

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St. Peter Preaching in Jerusalem by Tommaso Masolino da Panicale in the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine (Florence, Italty)

A fellow intern, who serves a dynamic multiethnic church with a large Chinese demographic, described a wedding between a white woman and a Chinese man in her congregation, who boldly — repeatedly — proclaimed in their vows that they would follow “God’s way” and not the Chinese way or the American way. We talked about deep value of this statement to us — it saw faith as something that could transcend culture or at least help us navigate its pitfalls more effectively. Why focus on saving face, for example, when we could instead display a radical Christian vulnerability to our friends and family?

At the same time, these sorts of statements make me a just a little uncomfortable because they seem to ignore that “God’s way” always expressed in a cultural package. The Bible is an encultured text. Most importantly, our Lord was an encultured person. As Christians we can’t just believe that the Son of God assumed an abstract “humanity” not bound to a particular culture. In the same way I believe that our task, as second-generation Asian Christians, is to proclaim the good news in our lifetimes by “enculturating” it — what makes our context unique? How can we use that uniqueness to highlight a particular aspect of the Good News that other contexts do not emphasize?

Ecce Homo by Antonio Ciseri c. 1880

“Ecce Homo” is the Latin for John 19.5 – “Behold the man!” What do we see when we think about Jesus as a human being?

For the first generation, the beauty of the Gospel could have been that it proclaimed a God who provided safety and solidarity. “God is our refuge and strength.” (Psalm 46.1) But in our second-generation Chinese-American context, our comfort with multiculturalism allows us to “enculture” or “contextualize” the Gospel by emphasizing its own pluralism, its own ability to hold all people in its embrace .

The Lord has made his salvation widely known;
he has revealed his righteousness in the eyes of all the nations.
…every corner of the earth has seen our God’s salvation. (Psalm 98.2, 3 CEB)

Joan Chittister, “In Search of Belief”

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This is the original 1999 edition I read. Apparently she updated it in 2006.

The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds express the backbone of the realities that all Christians take refuge in: the loving reality of how Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection takes us into communion with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. When I was baptized, I was asked to affirm the Apostles’ Creed with the congregation. And my affirmation of the Nicene Creed every Sunday tangibly expresses my participation in the greater Church.

I own a handful of little meditations and treatments of the Creeds and I’d like to spend time this summer going through them all. I think that engaging with the diversity of their contents will show me the flexibility of the Creeds, and how the Creed is a fertile ground to for the many different fruits of the Spirit for all Christians.

Most contemporary discussions of the Creeds draw our attention to the divide between orthodoxy and orthopraxy – right opinions or right behavior. The word “orthodox” is not a popular word today. It has associations with an exclusionary and smug attitude. At least, in the church circles I hang around, to be concerned with orthodoxy is seen as too intellectually persnickety and unable to grasp the bigger picture of loving others. Better focus on the practical questions of caring for others than pie-in-the-sky questions of doctrine. I think devout Christians who spend any time thinking on their faith today are embarrassed that Christianity has historically emphasized orthodoxy over orthopraxy. It makes the faith look callous and inflexible. And so the response has been to downplay Christianity as a mere religion of abstract thought and to push for Christianity as a religion of action.

That’s what I primarily liked about Joan Chittister’s book on the Apostles’ Creed, In Search of Belief. I had never heard of Chittister before finding this work. She is a progressive Roman Catholic nun (a Benedictcine!) who lived through the changes of American Catholic culture during Vatican II. My first impression of her writing was that she embodies “the Spirit of Vatican II” (a phrase inviting praise or sneering depending on who you ask) in her strong criticisms of the Roman church, her feminist concerns for women’s dignity, and her emphasis on social justice over doctrinal correctness.

Chittister’s chapters treat the Creed in a traditional phrase-by-phrase sequence. The themes are diverse but typically end in a call to action. I detected a formula in each chapter: Chittister dismisses the norms of traditional piety in treating the theme, and then tries to give a more expansive view of the theme that is conducive to social justice. This tone made the book feel more like a series of sermons than an academic treatment or a layman’s introduction. Chittister wants to convict her readers. It helps that she has an ear for a quotable phrases: “Dalinesss is the stuff of contemplation.” (143) “The Creed invites us to consider our guilt and call it grace.” (157) “The rudimentary shocks of creaturehood.” (42) “Jesus, the Great Failure, breathes life in to every broken moment.” (128).

My favorite chapter in the book is 15, devoted to the phrase, “[he suffered] under Pontius Pilate.” Chittister argues that Pilate, an actual historical figure, represents all of us in a way. Pilate represents our ability to be complicit in the face of injustice. Jesus presented Pilate with a decision: “Justice was on one side; expedience was on the other.” (115) Pilate made the wrong choice. His punishment is that every Christian in history remembers him for it. Chittister’s treatment of Pilate made me consider how Jesus doesn’t just meet us, but confronts us. Jesus forces us into situations where our selfishness comes to light.

In a similar vein, there are many powerful anecdotes in this book. The saddest one was in Chapter 5, on the phrase “Creator.”

I stood in a mud hut in a Mexican barrio. Three dirty children crawled along the floor, their bellies distended with worms, the stream below the house a running latrine. The young mother looked twice her age. She was blind in one eye, thin, living in a hovel, and bent over the old treadle sewing machine that was her only livelihood. “Marta,” one of the members of the group asked suddenly, “What is your happiest moment in life?” Marta paused, crossed her arms tightly across her chest, lowered her eyes, and said softly, “Maybe when it’s over.”… I realized how easy it is to fool ourselves in the name of religion. I knew looking at Marta, whose creaturehood was painfully, pitifully obvious in a life where death was preferable that we had failed in our creaturehood, as well. (46)

This story illustrates the key strength of the book: Chittister’s ability to convict. I had to put the book down and really think about my own creaturehood. What am I using the Creed for? Do I just let its words wash over me, or will I use them to galvanize me to deeper awareness of my place in the world? Will I see myself as someone who will submit to God’s will and help his Kingdom come, or will I turn a blind eye to my neighbors? Chittister sees the Creed as a prophetic tool. She shows me that the Creed exists as a loudspeaker for the Christian desire to transform the world.

Sky Burial by Xinran review

 

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The Penguin Drop Caps edition is pretty!

I finished this book well over a month ago. I thought it was pleasant enough. I picked it at a whim at the library because the edition was pretty. On the surface, Sky Burial is a love story about a wife’s long search to find her husband. I thought the characterization was fairly simple: the pure devotion between Shu Wen and her husband was very sweet.

But I personally noticed another agenda embedded in this woman’s journey. I think the novel is Xinran’s implicit critique on Chinese-Tibetan relations. The Chinese military becomes Wen’s main obstacle to finding her husband Kejun: he would never have even gone missing had the military not called him to service. Shu Wen spends an extended portion of the novel with Tibetans and slowly begins to appreciate the depth behind their way of life. When Wen returns to her hometown, she’s shocked by the urban modernization. She can’t even find her home address anymore. Wen’s like a living time capsule by the end of the novel, her world upside-down. Ironically, it’s the exotic and initially frightening and strange Tibetans to which Wen’s husband ultimately devotes himself that demonstrate the strongest integrity in the whole novel.

Sky Burial feeds into a popular way of distinguishing Chinese-Tibetan relations. China is violent, militaristic, modern, and anti-spiritual, while Tibet is peaceful, pre-modern, rural, and deeply spiritual. The spiritual and the natural is equated with an authentic confidence in one’s own identity. One does not have to discern an identity for themselves because it is already there, provided by the rhythms of nature and tradition. China has uprooted itself of these anchors and so does not have an identity anymore. In its national, existential confusion, China lashes out by clutching tightly to a vision of Party order that regulates all aspects of society, especially in commerce, religion, and Internet discourse, and suppressing dissenting voices.

Modern China fascinates me because of how often it is described as a country going through growing pains. I am close to it because I am a second-generation Chinese-American and I am far from it because I have never lived or visited there. And novels like Sky Burial help shape my framework to think about the rapid changes Chinese society is experiencing. In this case, the way the Chinese have regarded and treated Tibet raises questions about what kind of society modern China envisions for itself, with the implication that this vision has no room for the ancient ways as depicted in the novel.

 

It was not in the temple, whose cult was now at an end, that Christ, as the new and authentic sacrifice of reconciliation, offered himself to the Father; nor was it within the walls of the city doomed to destruction for its crimes. It was beyond the city gates, outside the camp, that he was crucified, in order that when the ancient sacrificial dispensation came to an end a new victim might be laid on a new altar, and the cross of Christ become the altar not of the temple, but of the world. (Leo the Great)

The co-ed Bible study went through Hebrews this semester and I realized how well this quote lined up with the themes of that epistle.

Passover, the Resurrection, and the Paschal Mystery

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The fancy Seder plate that my campus’ Hillel chapter used to demonstrate the various food items. Everyone else used plastic though. 

So my university’s Hillel chapter (a Jewish students organization) hosted an interfaith Passover Seder on Tuesday night, and they invited some representatives from Christian organizations, including my InterVarsity chapter, to talk about how Christians view Passover. It was a deep privilege to be given a platform to speak about this topic. Here is my speech.

My favorite name for Easter and what its significance is also one of the most curious: the Paschal Mystery. It comes from the Greek word for Passover, Pascha. And this one word demonstrates how Christianity is fundamentally Jewish in character – this Jewish term has been enshrined by Christians as the most pregnant description of the event of salvation in Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

But why is Passover called a mystery? “Mystery” is a Greek word referring to when something hidden was revealed. Christians trust that the Paschal Mystery revealed something beautiful and wonderful about the character of God. It is linked to the same wonder the Israelites felt when the Red Sea was split in two.

Since this wonder is rooted in history, I must look backward. I must do what the earliest Christians did, and use the Paschal Mystery to re-remember the past.

In the Book of Exodus, as the Hebrews leave Egypt, God commands his people to inaugurate the Festival of Unleavened Bread for all generations, saying

And you shall tell your son on that day,
“It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.” [13.8]

The Haggadah’s use of rabbinic tradition echoes that command in its exhortation that in each generation, each person is obligated to see themselves as if they personally came forth from Egypt. (Mishnah, Mo’ed: Pesachim 10:5) We are told to internalize the Passover event so that it is re-enacted year by year. Passover is not merely a distant event, but a way of living right now.

Christians trust that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the entire history of a people is re-enacted and internalized into a single human being. The Lord’s passing over from house to house is re-enacted in Jesus’ passing over from death into life. The Hebrews’ passing over from Egyptian slavery into God’s glorious freedom is presented in the Christians’ passing over from the darkness of sin into fullness of life.

It is incredibly telling that the Easter Vigil, the ancient Christian worship service held the eve of Easter Day, takes special care to proclaim God’s salvation in three stages: 1) in Scripture, re-telling the memory of the passage through the Red Sea in Exodus, 2) in water, baptizing new members of God’s household, and 3) in bread and wine, celebrating the great feast of the Eucharist.

To include the Exodus story displays how fundamental Passover is to the Christian understanding of what the Paschal Mystery reveals. And in so closely linking baptism and communion to the Easter celebration Christians are taught how to concretely immerse themselves into that Mystery. Baptism is a journey through the Sea into a new life. Communion is the supper of the sacrificial Lamb and the memory of the Lord passing over from death into life. As the New Testament proclaims,

For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. [I Corinthians 11.26]

What the Paschal Mystery reveals for Christians is that the Lord’s Resurrection re-creates reality. The Resurrection is the 8th day of creation. The Resurrection re-frames history itself. It re-frames how human beings will relate to God and to the world and to each other. Christians trust that Jesus, hidden in the darkness of the tomb, was revealed by daybreak as the harbringer of a new world, a world freed to enter the depths of divinity. The empty space in the tomb became an expanse of freedom for the people of God who choose to enter – a new promised land. Christians rejoice in the Paschal Mystery because it pushes us into a new way of living right now.

And so it is a wonderful privilege that I can celebrate the groundwork of the Paschal Mystery with you all. And I can only do so because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.

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Ansari-Man V Dunham-Woman : Dawn of Adulthood

 

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Master of None: “Nashville” [S1E6], which features one of the most delightful first dates ever put to screen

I haven’t watched much TV lately. But in February I watched 2-ish seasons of Girls and a few weeks ago I scored a trial month of Netflix and devoured Aziz Ansari’s Master of None. It’s a delight to see a comedian like Ansari so introspective on how his doubts and concerns about adulthood may reflect those of his entire generation.

Both are funny and well-written and have lots of great moments. The shows deserve comparison because they’re trying to analyze the Millennial generation. But they do so differently. Ansari’s show has a lighter, more positive tone. The characters are likable even when they are doubtful and make mistakes. I want to see these characters (especially Dev, Ansari’s character) mature and learn from their mistakes because we know that they mean well and are trying their best.

Dunham’s show (which should be subtitled Selfish White People Have Awkward Sex) is delightful precisely because the main foursome of girls are so unlikable. In that sense it is continuing the legacy of other programs like Seinfeld and Archie in All in the Family. I want these young women to succeed in spite of who they are, not (as in Master of None) because of who they are; it’s a desire tinged with a “you-NEED-to do-better” desperation lacking in the Ansari show. One could argue that the quartet is also trying their best, but they often do so with malice or obtuse selfishness that makes me see their version of “trying my best” in a different category than Master of None.

But my desperation and exasperation at the quartet is part of Girls‘ appeal for me. As I watch these characters act foolishly and selfishly, I also wonder if I exhibit any of these traits. This is a powerful strength of the show and I hope it reflects the intentions of the writers. I think this dynamic of “wait.. is that me?” is a vehicle for developing self-reflection in the audience itself. It’s what the best fiction does: place yourself in another life’s shoes and learn more about your own life as a result.

 

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Girls: “Beach House” [S3E7] 

In regards to race, Girls has received criticism for its lack of diversity: young adults living in New York City don’t have any non-white friends? But I think that’s more of a feature of the show than a bug. The lack of diversity in the quartet’s social circles reflects the lack of self awareness and the navel-gazing insularity among the characters themselves. Insularity and ignorance of other experiences is a prime breeding ground for all types of racism, whether malicious or unintentional. I think the episode where Hannah dates a black Republican (played by Should Have Been Spider-Man Donald Glover) illustrates this insularity well. Hannah and other characters in Girls are easy stand-ins for the so-called “white feminism” that intersectional-minded feminists and social critics enjoy tearing apart: outwardly progressive, yet inwardly obtuse.

Master of None displays a comparatively laudable sensitivity to issues of race and (to a lesser extent) age. I love the episode devoted to second-generation immigrants and their parents (which has Dev’s parents played by Ansari’s actual parents! That’s great.) There’s another episode where Dev hangs out with his girlfriend’s mother. Another episode is devoted to the Indian Dev responding to racial discrimination. Such reflections could not exist in Girls because Hannah and her friends simply do not have that experience to share – and even if these issues are addressed, they would probably get filtered through the quartet’s self-centeredness rather than a sense of sympathy as in Master of None. I bet that comparing the racial dynamics of Girls with Master of None reflects the different life experiences of their creators. These differences remind me that there is more than one way to be a Millenial, as we all try to write our story in the great Facebook of Life.