Tuesday, April 30, 2019

A Big Day for Japan

Emperor Hirohito of Japan, properly known as Emperor Showa, died in 1989. His successor, Emperor Akihito, is abdicating the Chrysanthemum Throne today, so as of tomorrow, May 1, Japan will have its third Emperor in thirty-one years.
The Last Day of Showa
Emperor Showa died at 6:33 a.m. on January 7, 1989. I remember that morning well, for I was scheduled that morning to give the final paper at the Hayama Missionary Seminar, an interdenominational gathering of missionaries to Japan. The theme of that conference was “Showa, X-Day, and Beyond.”
“Showa” was the name of the era that started when Hirohito became emperor in 1926. So, in Japan I would sometimes give my birth year as Showa 13, and we would sometimes have to indicate that we arrived in Japan for the first time in Showa 41. New Year’s Day in 1989 was the beginning of Showa 64, the longest era in Japanese history.
“X-Day” was the Japanese circumlocution for the day Emperor Hirohito would die--and since he turned 87 years old in 1988 and was not in good health, throughout the last part of that year, X-Day was expected at any time.
It was sobering to present my paper just three hours or so after the Emperor’s death. The title of my paper was “Beyond Showa: Christianity and Japanese Religions.” (A PDF of the entire booklet of that 1989 Hayama Conference papers can be found here.)
A deep concern of Christians in Japan at that time was the possible impact all the Shinto-related enthronement ceremonies might have on Christianity during that year and in the years to come. For good reason, given its close ties to the Pacific War (1941~45), most Japanese Christians were quite critical of the imperial system of Japan--and that is still true now.
The day after the Showa Era ended, the new era, called Heisei, began on January 8, 1989. And now, today (April 30), that era comes to an end.
The Last Day of Heisei
The era names in Japan all are composed of two kanji (Chinese characters). 昭和 (Showa) is generally said to mean “enlightened peace (or harmony).”
平成 (Heisei) means “achieving peace”--and it seemed to be a fitting era name for Japan, which had certainly been a peace-loving, peace-seeking nation since the end of World War II. (The most common Japanese word for peace is 平和heiwa.).
The new era which begins tomorrow (on May 1) is Reiwa (the kanji is shown in the picture on the right), which is now commonly said to mean “beautiful harmony.” According to Prime Minister Abe, the new name conveys a meaning that “culture is born and nurtured when people’s hearts empathize with each other beautifully.”
Although the “Western calendar” is also used in Japan, the era name is still a part of daily life there, used on coins, drivers' licenses, and official paperwork.
The Ongoing Opposition
Everyone in Japan, however, is not satisfied with the ceremonies surrounding the enthronement of the new emperor. As in 1988-89, many Christians oppose those activities because they are so closely tied to the Shinto religion--and to Japanese exceptionalism.
What in this country is generally called the separation of church and state is also acknowledged in the current (since 1947) Constitution of Japan. But tomorrow’s activities, and those scheduled for October 22, seem to be blatant violations of that principle.
Perhaps even more than in 1989, the enthronement ceremonies for the new emperor may well stir nationalistic (Make Japan Great Again!) sentiment in Japan--and that is the underlying reason for the ongoing opposition to the imperial system and the enthronement ceremonies tomorrow for Emperor Naruhito. 

Thursday, April 25, 2019

The Appeal of Fundamentalism


Since fundamentalism has been so widespread and influential in the past decades, its popularity must surely be because there are many people who find it appealing. This article, based on the third chapter of my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism (FuF, which I am in the process of updating) analyzes some of that appeal.
The Religious Appeal
Since Christian fundamentalism claims to uphold, to preserve, and/or to restore the true faith, many believers who are serious about their faith are naturally drawn to the type of Christianity that makes such claims.
Especially for non-creedal Protestant Christians, the Bible is the basis for all faith and action. Thus, any questioning of the veracity of the Bible is seen by many such Christians as a potentially dangerous attack on the faith.
The fundamentalist emphasis on an inerrant Bible, consequently, has great appeal for all who wish to protect Christianity from attacks.
Fundamentalism, which is sometimes little more than traditionalism, is also appealing to many because of its emphasis on a glorious past. Such Christians have been happy to sing “Give Me that Old Time Religion” and have seen fundamentalism as the effort to protect that hallowed tradition from the eroding effects of “modernism.” 
Further, fundamentalism’s affirmation of a type of faith that doesn’t compromise is appealing to some, for compromise is seen as a weakness--and a factor that weakens robust Christianity.
The Psychological Appeal
In addition to the religious appeal, there is also a psychological appeal in fundamentalism--such as is seen in its emphasis on simplicity and certainty.
Others find fundamentalism psychologically appealing because of the pride factor and/or the fear factor.
One of the bestselling novels of 2004 was Michael Crichton’s State of Fear. It was not about religion, but one of the characters in the book declares, “I'm telling you, this is the way modern society works--by the constant creation of fear” (p. 456).
That has been how fundamentalism works also. The fostering of fear has been strong in fundamentalism from its beginning to the present--and the claim of fundamentalist preachers that their message overcomes those fears has been psychologically appealing to many people.
The Political Appeal
From the beginning of Christian fundamentalism a century ago, there has been a strong strain of American patriotism--or even nationalism--in it. Many conservative evangelical leaders have claimed that the United States was a Christian nation from the beginning and that it is up to Christians to see that it stays that way.
While FuF considers fundamentalism mainly up to the year 2005, we have seen even more in the years since then how conservative evangelicals have aligned with the Republican Party.
The inexplicably overwhelming support of DJT by conservative evangelicals show how fundamentalism and politics have become strongly intertwined. The MAGA emphasis of DJT is one of several political appeals to Christian conservatives.
It is quite likely that, on the other hand, conservative Protestant churches are the most appealing form of Christianity to the MAGA enthusiasts who are not Christians.
My March 5 blog article was about Project Blitz, and those political efforts of conservative evangelicals are appealing to those who want to make America great again by restoring it to the type of society it was in the 18th century.
In spite of these various appeals of fundamentalism, though, there are plenty of problems in it that repel many people. Next month I plan to post an article based on “The Problem with Fundamentalism,” the fourth chapter of FuF.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

A Resurrection-Shaped Life


In this article I am sharing some reflections on Episcopal Bishop Jake Owensby’s book, A Resurrection-Shaped Life: Dying and Rising on Planet Earth (2018), and relating it to my cousin who was buried yesterday.
Characteristics of a Resurrection-Shaped Life
1) Those who live a resurrection-shaped life are hopeful. Owensby’s slim book is neither directly about Jesus’ resurrection nor the resurrection of Jesus-believers in the future. Rather, it is about one’s manner of living in the here and now.
Owensby asserts that “it’s in the depths of loss and sorrow that hope brings us to new life” (p. 51). Jesus had said to his disciples, “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matt. 5:4). Even though they did not understand this as they mourned Jesus’ crucifixion, they experienced that blessedness when Jesus was resurrected.
So, “the resurrection of Christ gives new meaning to our experience of grief” (p. 52). Those who live a resurrection-shaped life embrace, and are embraced by, the blessing of hope even in the midst of grief.
2) Those who live a resurrection-shaped life are joyful. Perhaps it is largely because of their hopeful attitude, a resurrection-shaped life is characterized by joy as well as by hope.
Owensby (b. 1957) doesn’t write much about joy in this book--except for his several references to Joy, which is his wife’s name. But joy definitely seems to be a by-product of a resurrection-shaped life.
The third chapter of Owensby’s book is “Recovering from Shame and Blame.” (I was pleasantly surprised to see this chapter just after posting my article about shame on April 5.) Those who live a resurrection-shaped life have learned to overcome shame. That is because, as Owensby writes,
Overcoming shame involves changing our minds about ourselves. And Jesus came in part to help us do precisely that. Jesus changes our minds about ourselves by changing our minds about God (p. 36).
3) Those who live a resurrection-shaped life are helpful. That is, they regularly engage in loving service.
To cite Owensby again,
Life centered on caring for ourselves turns to dust. A life devoted to the growth, nurture, and well-being of others stretches into eternity. A resurrection-shaped life is love in the flesh (p. 102).
And this gets us to my cousin Carolyn, who was my oldest first cousin on the Seat side of the family.  
The Resurrection-Shaped Life of Cousin Carolyn
Carolyn Houts passed away on April 12 and her funeral/burial was yesterday, on Good Friday. Carolyn, who celebrated her 77th birthday last month, died peacefully, sitting in a chair waiting for the delivery of her Meals on Wheels lunch.
After serving for nearly 34 years as a Southern Baptist missionary to Ghana, Carolyn retired in 2010 and had lived in Grant City, Missouri, since 2011. My blog article for 7/5/10 (see here) was about Cousin Carolyn, just as she was returning to the U.S., and I hope you will read it (again). 
Carolyn Houts (1942-2019)
As I said in the eulogy that I gave at her funeral yesterday, it seems quite clear to me that Carolyn lived a resurrection-shaped life. Hopefulness, joyfulness, and helpfulness were definitely characteristics of her life.
As we observe the celebration of Easter tomorrow—and I realize there will be a great variety in the way readers of this blog will celebrate Easter—my deepest prayer is that we all will not only know what a resurrection-shaped life means but will, in reality, be able to live such a life.
Happy Easter!

Monday, April 15, 2019

The Kondo Craze

Kondo (近藤、pronounced like cone-dough) is a rather common name in Japan, but thanks to Marie (麻理恵, pronounced in Japanese like mah-rhee-eh) it has become a household name (and even a verb!) in the U.S. Let’s think a bit about what some call “the Kondo craze.”

Kondo’s Book                                                                                  
As you probably know, Marie Kondo is the author of a bestselling book: The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. In 2011 it was published in Japanese and the English translation was issued three years later.
Beginning in January, Kondo also hosted “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo,” a reality television series developed for Netflix. The eight episodes showed Marie visiting families to help them organize and tidy up their homes.
Without question, many USAmericans need help/advice in decluttering their homes--and their lives. Much of what Kondo suggests in her KonMari method, which is explained on her website (here), is good, helpful advice.
Giving that advice has become lucrative for her. In helping people tidy up, Kondo and her husband have acquired a tidy fortune. They are said to be now worth $8,000,000.
Kondo’s Point
In most cases, tidying up one’s home means getting rid of a lot of “stuff.” Most people, here and in Japan, have far more than they need--or have room to store or display in a comfortable manner.
A key point of the KonMari method is not deciding what to discard but rather in deciding what to keep. The “selection criterion” for the latter is this: “does it spark joy?”
In the English translation of her book, Kondo writes that “the best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in one’s hand and ask: ‘Does this spark joy?’ If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it” (p. 41, bolding in original.)
It is interesting how “joy” is used in the English translation, but the Japanese book uses the word tokimeku which means to “flutter” or “sparkle.” In consulting with my Japanese daughter-in-law, I decided that a literal translation of the Japanese title would be something like The Magic of Tidying Up that Makes Life Sparkle.
The English translation, though, is about keeping only those things that “spark joy.” That emphasis raises some questions. 
Questioning Kondo
Why should material things spark joy (or cause our lives to sparkle)? I can think of two reasons: because they are decidedly beautiful or because they have deep sentimental value.
But can anyone live with only possessions that are beautiful and sentimental? Probably not--so there goes Kondo’s key criterion.
Kondo suggests starting decluttering by disposing of unnecessary clothing. Admittedly, probably all of us have some wearing apparel we like more than others. But should we, can we, daily wear only those clothes that “spark joy”?
It is suggested that the KonMari method is opposed to consumerism--and it may inspire some people to buy less. But for many people, discarding things that don’t spark joy probably means that when they go shopping again, they will see new things that do spark joy and buy them.
Consequently, as a January 2019 article in The Guardian points out, “Some of her clients may just make space for fresh purchases in an endless binge-purge cycle.”
In spite of my questions, though, I do like Kondo’s emphasis in the last paragraph of her book: “As for you, pour your time and passion into what brings you the most joy, your mission in life.
Exactly. It is living to fulfill a mission rather than having things that produce real joy.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Beating Guns

For many years I have been an admirer of Shane Claiborne, author of several books and leader of “new monastic” Christians who go by the name The Simple Way in downtown Philadelphia. Last week I had the privilege of meeting Shane for the first time.
Beating Guns
Claiborne (b. 1975) is the author of The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical (2006). That was the first book of his that I read, and I was very favorably impressed by it.
He also wrote, with Chris Haw, Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals (2008). That was also an impressive book. Two years later he wrote Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, which I have not yet read but have seen quoted often.
Mike Martin (b. 1982) is a Mennonite blacksmith from Colorado. He is the founder and Executive Director of an organization known as RAWtools. (Check out their attractive website here.)
Shane and Mike teamed up to write Beating Guns: Hope for People Who are Weary of Violence, a nearly 300-page book that was published last month. It is an attractive, challenging work worthy of serious consideration.
Beating Guns Tour
Currently, Shane and Mike are on a thirty-seven-city Beating Guns Tour. The 23rd stop on that tour was in Kansas City, Kansas, on April 2. Their event there was held at the Rainbow Mennonite Church, where June and I are members, and it was a very engaging evening.
Here is the picture I took of Mike standing by the bus: 
And click here to see a video of Shane telling about that bus soon after they acquired it in November 2018.
The inside-the-church program was primarily an excellent presentation by Shane explaining the purpose of the Beating Guns Tour. It also featured a brief talk by Jamal Shakur who works for Kansas City in what is called the Aim4Peace program.
Outside, in the parking lot right behind the church building, they used their forge to heat the metal of a gun red hot. The metal was then placed on an anvil where several people, one after another, beat it with a hammer. Before the close of the event, the new garden tool, as you see below, was brought in for our admiration. 
Beating Guns into Garden Tools
One of my favorite sculptures was created by Arlie Regier (1931~2014), a member of Rainbow Mennonite Church. It is a “swords into plowshares” work which I wrote about (and included a picture of) in my 5/25/11 blog article.
Since there is not so much use of swords, or even plows, now, Shane & Mike’s emphasis is on guns and garden tools. While they certainly stress the problem of guns in USAmerican society, their primary opposition is to violence of all kinds.
Following the teachings of Jesus, they not only oppose the rampant violence of guns used for both homicides and suicides in this country, but they also speak out clearly and firmly against all war as well as capital punishment.
The tone of the book—and certainly the tone of the authors as they spoke to us last Tuesday evening—is not harsh. Shane and Mike don’t come across as strident or angry, but they do speak out forcefully—and also with a hopeful message.
In the words of the subtitle of their book, they, indeed, are seeking to foster “hope for people who are weary of violence.” They end their book with these words:
May we be the midwives of a better world—through our prayers, by our lives, and with our hammers.

Friday, April 5, 2019

The Problem of Shame

Although most of this blog’s readers likely do not know/remember his name, this article was prompted by the death of C. Norman Kraus a year ago, on April 6, 2018. Kraus, who died at age 94, had a long and distinguished career as a Mennonite scholar, teacher, and author, but I am just writing about one aspect of his scholarly work here.
Guilt Cultures and Shame Cultures
Ruth Benedict (1887~1948) was an American anthropologist widely known for her seminal book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture (1946).
Benedict’s book, written at the invitation of the U.S. Office of War in 1944, was influential in shaping American ideas about Japanese culture during the occupation of Japan after World War II. It popularized the distinction between what she termed “shame cultures” and “guilt cultures.”
While there have been shifts in both Japanese and American cultures over the last 70+ years, it remains true that Japanese culture, as well as that of other Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, place far more emphasis on shame/honor than do Western cultures.
Christianity in a Shame Culture
Dr. C. Norman Kraus (c. 2015)
In 1980, Norman Kraus and his wife accepted an assignment from Mennonite Board of Missions to work with Mennonite churches in Japan. After 18 months of language study in Tokyo, they moved to Hokkaido in northern Japan, and Norman taught there for six years. 
During that time, he also wrote a two-volume Christology, the first volume titled Jesus Christ Our Lord: Christology from a Disciple’s Perspective. The 12th chapter of that book explores “The Cross of Reconciliation: Dealing with Shame and Guilt.”
Since, from shortly after the publication of Benedict’s book, Japan had frequently been understood as a shame culture, I thought it was brilliant for an American theologian in Japan to relate the death of Jesus to the problem of shame.
Shortly after reading what Kraus had written about the Christian message for a shame culture, I mentioned his helpful insights to some Southern Baptist missionary colleagues—and I was somewhat chagrined when they scoffed at the idea.
It seemed to me then, and it still does, that Kraus was making a praiseworthy effort to contextualize the Christian message.
Dealing with Shame in Any Culture
There were those who later criticized Benedict’s bifurcation of guilt and shame cultures, and through the years, especially in Japan and the U.S., the differences have been much less obvious.
Still, there are cultures that are still rightly designated as shame/honor cultures. I am grateful to my granddaughter Katrina for introducing me a couple of weeks ago to a book titled Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (2012).
The fifth chapter of that book is “Have You No Shame” and explains the difference between contemporary shame cultures and guilt cultures.
However, shame does exist in American cultures—and even has benefits that must not be overlooked. In fact, one of the problems in the U.S. right now is having a President who seems to be shameless. (You might want to take a look at this link to “Trump and the shameless society.”)
There is, though, that which some psychologists call “toxic shame,” and that is a serious problem for everyone suffering from such a malady.
John Bradshaw popularized the concept of “toxic shame” in his 1988 book Healing the Shame that Binds You. That kind of destructive shame has been with humans from the beginning. In the Preface of his book, Bradshaw (1933~2016) wrote, “The Bible describes shame as the core and consequence of Adam’s fall.”

So, Kraus’s contention that Jesus died for our shame, as well as our guilt, is relevant for everyone, not just Japanese people.