Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year of the Snake

On this last day of 2012, which is already the first day of 2013 for some of my readers, I take this means to wish you all a very happy and healthy new year.
In East Asia, 2013 is the Year of the Snake, although in China and those countries that still follow Chinese customs the new year doesn’t begin until February 10. While in the West a snake usually conjures up bad images and is sometimes a symbol of evil, that is not the case in East Asia.
In several ancient cultures, snake worship was a common practice, and the ancient Egyptians saw the snake as a symbol of wisdom. Similarly, to the Chinese of the past and many of the present the snake is a symbol of good fortune.
Still, the snake is my least-liked of the twelve Asian zodiac symbols. I have never liked snakes of any kind anywhere.
In the English-speaking world, “a snake in the grass” is an idiom used for “a sneaky and despised person.” And “killing snakes” is a metaphor sometimes used to describe energetic effort in getting something done; usually it means going overboard, being a bit overzealous. In these and other western expressions, snakes are seen negatively.
In its first edition of the year, The Economist magazine wrote, “So in Tokyo it is already the year of the snake. In the East these animals are associated with good fortune. Japan’s politics being what it is these days, the western meaning may be more suitable.”
That was in written in 1989, two cycles ago; some things don’t change much! (I don’t have many positive feelings toward the new Prime Minister of Japan who was elected earlier this month.)
But it is true, in East Asia the snake is a symbol of good fortune, and those born in the Year of the Snake (for example, those born in 1941, 1953, 1965) are usually kind, vibrant, introspective, and refinedor so it is said.
So this is a special year for people born in those years (and there may even be some readers who were born in 1929). I hope it will be an extraordinary year for all of you born in the Year of the Snake, even if you don’t live in Japan or China.
Who knows, though, what will happen in our world, on in our personal lives, between now and the beginning of next year, the Year of the Horse. Some of you reading this may no longer be here next year—and neither may the one writing this. (My daughter Kathy’s father-in-law suddenly passed away last week—just three days after they saw him “hale and hearty” in Louisville; he was several years older than I, but still . . .)
So perhaps the beginning of the new year is a good time to recall, and to pray, the words of the 1974 hit song that contains these important words,
Yesterday’s gone, Sweet Jesus,
And tomorrow may never be mine.
Lord, help me today,
Show me the way,
One day at a time.
I pray that you will, indeed, have a happy new year, one day at a time.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

In Praise of Lottie Moon

“Southern Baptists have only one saint and her name is Lottie Moon.” So wrote Texas pastor Chuck Warnock in his fine review of Regina D. Sullivan’s book Lottie Moon: A Southern Baptist Missionary to China in History and Legend (2011). 
I am writing this in praise of “St. Lottie” (she has never actually been called this), whose full name was Charlotte Digges Moon, and in commemoration of her outstanding work and life, which ended soon after her 72nd birthday 100 years ago, on Christmas Eve, 1912. She was on her way back from China to the U.S. and died on board the steamer Manchuria as it lay at anchor off Kobe, Japan.
At the beginning of the 1870s, Southern Baptists did not think single women should be appointed as missionaries, but in 1871 Lottie argued publicly that women should be allowed to do paid religious work.
Consequently, Lottie became one of the first single Baptist women to be appointed as a missionary—with the understanding that she would be involved only in “women’s work for women.” Among other things, that meant not preaching or engaging in any kind of public activity when men were present.
But Lottie soon began to ignore the restrictions. As Sullivan says, “Moon was never one to be dissuaded by an argument that centered on gender.” Her breaking with her culture and board policy culminated with her, alone, beginning new mission work in the city of Pingtu. It was the first time for a Southern Baptist woman to start a new mission point.
As Southern Baptist missionaries for 38 years, June and I were indirectly linked to Lottie Moon, for in each of those years the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering (LMCO) was a major source of funding for the Foreign (latter International) Mission Board that provided our support in Japan. And I have spoken in numerous churches through the years, encouraging generous giving to the LMCO.
In July 2004 when June and I left Japan as missionaries for the last time, we spent a few days in China before coming on back to the States. Our most memorable time there was seeing the places where Lottie Moon had lived and worked. We visited the church where she had worshipped soon after her arrival in Tengchow (now Penglai) in 1873. And then we went to Pingtu (now Pingdu), where Lottie had lived and worked from 1886 to 1891.
We visited a church in Pingdu that resulted from Lottie Moon’s work there. Appropriately, the senior pastor there is Wang Xia, a woman—and a fourth-generation believer whose ancestors were among the earliest Christians in the city.
The picture shows Pastor Wang on the left and the couple who were living on the property by the house where Lottie had lived—and which we are standing in front of. 
For a long time Lottie Moon has often been considered “saintly” because of what was written about her sacrificing her food, and ultimately her life, for the sake of the poverty-stricken people of China. According to Sullivan, those stories are likely fabrications for the most part. (Writing as a scholar rather than as the promoter of a cause, makes one more objective—and more nearly accurate.)
Lottie Moon deserves our praise, though, for her courageous work for gender equality among missionaries and for sparking the formation of the Woman’s Missionary Union among Southern Baptists as well as the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, which has raised more than $1.5 billion for missions since its inception in 1888.
We may not want to call her St. Lottie, but she is well deserving of appreciative remembrance on this 100th anniversary of her passing.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Dickens of a Good Story

Charles Dickens was an English social critic and writer who is generally regarded as the greatest novelist of the Victorian era (1837-1901) in Great Britain. He was born two hundred years ago, in 1812, and is the author of such highly acclaimed novels as The Adventures of Oliver Twist (1837-39), David Copperfield (1848-50), and A Tale of Two Cities (1859). 

The latter was required reading in my sophomore English class, but I was too young (or too immature) to appreciate it properly at the time. (It’s a shame that much good literature is “ruined” by requiring students to read it before they are mature enough to do so effectively.)

A Christmas Carol is undoubtedly Dickens’ most widely read work. It was written when he was a young man, in 1843. In contrast to his several quite long novels, A Christmas Carol is fairly short. And it is, indeed, a Dickens of a good story!
Through the years I have enjoyed various film versions of Dickens’ novella, but this month I have just read the book again—and once again found it to be delightful. As is widely known, A Christmas Carol is basically about Ebenezer Scrooge, an affluent but pitiful old grouch in London.
Sour and stingy Scrooge is transformed, though, through visits of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. At the time the third Ghost first appears, he exclaims, “I hope to live to be another man from what I was.” And change he does! From the tight-fisted employer seeking to get all he can out of Bob Cratchit, his long-suffering employee, he becomes a benefactor of the Cratchit family.
Because of Scrooge’s help, Tiny Tim does not die, even though that is what Scrooge saw when he was with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. He realizes that by changing he has the power to make a positive difference in the lives of people around him.
We now hear about “class warfare” from time to time, but the plight of the poor and the criticism of the rich has been around for a long time. That was a theme common in the writings of Charles Dickens. In his longer novels, he became an outspoken critic of unjust economic and social conditions.
There are many who think that helping the poor such as Scrooge ended up doing for the Cratchit family, should be mainly up to individuals, or groups of individuals such as churches. And certainly that is a very commendable thing for people to do. Most employers, however, have more than one employee, and few can become as involved in the lives of their employees as Scrooge did.
During the Christmas season, much emphasis is placed on loving acts of kindness, including giving to the poor—as there should be. But we also need a system of social justice that operates all year long, not just during the Christmas season. As Joseph Fletcher significantly said in Situation Ethics, “justice is love distributed.”
I hope this Christmas season, and thinking about the message in A Christmas Carol, can encourage us all to be more generous in sharing with those less fortunate than us. Perhaps it can even help us feel happier to pay taxes that support social justice programs in our country.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Remembering the "Rape of Nanking"

December 13, 1937, was the beginning of a terrible, terrible time for the Chinese people living in Nanking (now Nanjing), China. That day was the beginning of the Nanking Massacre, which is also known as the Rape of Nanking.
Nanking (literally: Southern Capital) first became the capital of China in 229 A.D. and was the capital of the country many times over the next eighteen centuries. In 1912 it was made the capital of the new Republic of China and then was re-established there in 1927 under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.
Exactly 75 years ago, from 12/13/37 and for the next six weeks, perhaps as many as 300,000 Chinese people in Nanking were murdered, and it is estimated that around 20,000 Chinese women and girls were raped by soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army.
Iris Chang (1968-2004) was a Chinese-American woman who wrote The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, a powerful book that was a bestseller in 1997. Ten years later, “Iris Chang: The Rape of Nanking,” a documentary starring Olivia Cheng, a Chinese-Canadian actress, was released.
Two years ago Miss Cheng was in Japan and spoke in Chapel at Seinan Gakuin University (where I taught for thirty-six years). It must have been hard for the Japanese students, and especially for faculty and staff members, to hear the details about such an atrocity. This is a part of history that most Japanese would like to forget—and they have fairly successfully kept it under cover.
Since the 1970s, though, there has been a gradual recognition in Japan that the Japanese people have not only been victims (especially of the atomic bombing) but also victimizers (as in the case of the Nanking Massacre).
Two outstanding artists, Toshi and Iri Maruki (a married couple whom I have had the privilege of hearing speak), are mainly known for their paintings about the bombing of Hiroshima. But in 1975 they painted “The Rape of Nanjing,” a 13 x 26 feet black and white panel.
This fall I read the highly acclaimed novel Nanjing Requiem (2011) by Ha Jin (b. 1956 in China). Although a novel, Jin’s work is based partly on the diaries of Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary who was the acting dean of Jinling College in Nanking in 1937. Through her efforts, some 10,000 girls and women were admitted to the relative safety provided at the college.
Earlier this week, June and I watched “Nanking” (2007), a very well done documentary. The film is a blend of actual movie clips taken at the time (in 1937) and contemporary actors telling the story of the main foreigners who exerted extraordinary effort to save perhaps as many as 250,000 lives. (Mariel Hemingway told Minnie Vautrin’s story of valor.)
Toward the end of Nanjing Requiem, one of the American men in the devastated city avers, “Men can be more vicious than beasts of prey if they’re put in the extreme situation of war. No rules will be followed, and all kinds of evil will be unleashed. War is simply the most destructive force we human beings can produce, so we must make every effort to prevent it (p. 273).  
Those were profound words for the people in Nanjing in 1937—and for us today, 75 years later.
According to yesterday’s SouthChina Morning Post, about 10,000 people gathered in Nanjing on Thursday to mark the 75th anniversary of the Massacre. The Japan Times reported that there were 9,000 people there, including around 100 Japanese.

Monday, December 10, 2012

In Memory of Karl Barth

Karl Barth passed away forty-four years ago today, on December 10, 1968. Since he is generally regarded as the greatest Christian theologian of the twentieth century, I am writing this in memory of his life and the significant contributions he made to the world of Christian theology.
Barth was born in Switzerland in 1886. A couple of years after studying at some of the best universities in Germany, learning from the leading liberal theologians of the day, in 1911 he became pastor of a Reformed church back in his home country and served that church for ten years.
In 1919, Barth published a commentary, The Epistle to the Romans (Der Römerbrief). That seminal book resulted from his struggling over what to preach during the difficult years of World War I. What he had learned from his liberal professors did not seem to work, so as he began work on that book in 1916 he turned to what he called “the strange new world within the Bible.”
In spite of not having a doctorate, Barth was appointed a professor in Göttingen in 1921, and he taught in Germany until he was exiled from the country (Germany) in 1935. He was exiled partly because of his penning the Barmen Declaration the year before, a document of the Confessing Church that was formed in opposition to the “German Christians” who pledged their loyalty to Hitler.
Barth’s greatest theological achievement was the writing of Church Dogmatics, a detailed exposition of Christian doctrine that ended up being more than 9,000 pages (and six million words!) and which was published in thirteen volumes from 1932 to 1967.
The great Swiss theologian made only one visit to the United States, in 1962. I still regret not being able to go with some seminary friends to hear Barth speak that year when he came to Chicago Divinity School. (I didn’t think I had the time, and as a full-time student with a wife and two children I certainly didn’t have the money to make that trip to Chicago from Louisville.)
April 20, 1962
Many of you have heard the anecdote about a question he answered when he was in the U.S. A seminary student asked him what the most momentous discovery of his long theological life had been. Barth’s terse answer was, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
Barth was widely criticized by conservative Christians who thought he was too liberal. But ironically, his theology was developed mainly in opposition to the theological liberalism of the early twentieth century—and the support of the German war effort by some of his former liberal theology professors.
It is true that Barth did not affirm the inerrancy of the Bible, and he accepted the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation. But he rejected many of the central emphasizes of theological liberalism and re-emphasized many of the central themes of the Protestant reformers. Thus, in this country his work became widely known as neo-orthodox theology.
Personally, I was influenced more by another Swiss theologian, Emil Brunner (1889-1962) with whom Barth sometimes disagreed. But they both were advocates of neo-orthodoxy—a theology of the “radiant center,” which I have long emphasized in my teaching and writing.
The brief concluding section of the last chapter of my book The Limits of Liberalism is titled “Recommending the Radiant Center.” In that book, Barth’s theology is introduced briefly on pages 28-29 and 120-1; his name is mentioned in several other places as well.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

“God’s Samurai”

December 7, 1941, was a big day for Mitsuo Fuchida, a day he had long prepared for and looked forward to. For, you see, Fuchida was the lead pilot of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. And his life story is quite amazing.
I have heard Fuchida’s story from time to time through the years, maybe first in 1954 when his article “I Led the Attack on Pearl Harbor” appeared in the Reader’s Digest, which I often read when I was in high school.
But I have just finished reading for the first time a book that impressively tells of his preparation for 12/7/41, his battles over the next 3½ years, and then the remarkable story of his becoming a Christian and an evangelist after the war. The book is titled God’s Samurai: Lead Pilot at Pearl Harbor (1990).
Gordon W. Prange, professor of history at the University of Maryland, is the primary author of God’s Samurai, but it was not published until ten years after his death in 1980. Prange’s manuscript, completed by two colleagues, was based mostly on his extensive interviews of Fuchida (b. 1902) in the mid-1960s. Prange and Fuchida first met in the late 1940s and had regular contact with each other until Fuchida’s death in 1976.
Lieutenant Fuchida was thrilled when he was chosen to lead the attack on Pearl Harbor. “No moral qualms assailed him,” according to Prange (p.26). So it was that on the morning of December 7, 1941, Fuchida led the attack, triumphantly shouting over the radio to the other fighter planes following him as they neared Pearl Harbor, “Tora! Tora! Tora!” (Tora, the Japanese word for tiger, was the code word indicating that complete surprise had been achieved.)*
Prange remarks that after the attack Fuchida “was filled with pride of his men and of himself, and from his standpoint he had every right to be. The airmen had succeeded beyond all expectation” (p. 37).
The next 150 pages narrate events in the Pacific War, detailing the initial Japanese successes, the decisive battle of Midway that changed the course of the war, and then the dropping of the atomic bombs and the subsequent end of the war. It was rather miraculous that Fuchida came through all that alive.
A little over three years later, in October 1948, Fuchida was handed a Christian tract near the famous Hachiko (a dog) statue in Tokyo. Nearly a year later he decided to become a Christian, and then contacted the man whose name and address was on the tract. That man was Timothy Pietsch, a missionary.
I was quite interested to see Prange’s reference to Pietsch, for his wife Helen was the sister of Edwin Dozier. And Dr. Dozier was the chancellor of Seinan Gakuin in Japan when I became a faculty member of the university there in 1968. (Although I never met Pietsch, I have met his wife, Helen, and their son. And their grandson, Billy Pietsch, is one of my Facebook friends.)
After becoming a Christian, Fuchida soon began giving his testimony and later sailed with Timothy Pietsch to the United States where he spent several months, speaking in numerous churches and even being interviewed by Billy Graham. That interview was telecast on Graham’s “Hour of Decision” on December 7, 1952.
The story of Mitsuo Fuchida is a fascinating one, and Christians can easily understand why he has been called God’s Samurai
* “Tora! Tora! Tora!” (1970) is the title of a movie on the Pearl Harbor attack, and Prange was a technical consultant during its production. This weekend June and I plan to watch the video of it that we checked out of the local library.