Sunday, February 27, 2011

Why I Like The Economist Magazine


Among the newsweekly, The Economist is the one that the global elite read. Newsweek has been sold by The Washington Post Company and we are not certain if Tina Brown will be able to turn it around. In the shrinking market of the weekly news magazines, The Economist is doing much better than its competitors.

I started reading The Economist since last year for it was sent to me for free. The frequent miles program of an airline gave me a free subscription and I have enjoyed reading it. When the free subscription ended, I became a paid subscriber.

The Economist has a circulation much smaller than Time and Newsweek. Time has a circulation of 3.3 million (down from 4.1 million in 2000) and Newsweek has 1.6 million (down from 3.1 million in 2000). The Economist had only about 823,000 for the first half of 2010 and sold 52,000 on the newsstand each week. Its subscription rate at $127 is several times more than that of Time and Newsweek.

The Economist stands out among the newsweeklies in terms of its global reach. Each issue has coverage on the world this week, the United States, Europe, Asia, and Africa. While Time and Newsweek tend to focus more on U.S. news, The Economist told you something about Uganda’s election, the French in London, the Swedish company Ikea, and gambling in Singapore in last week’s issue.

With the information overload, it is good to have a magazine that provides a snapshot of what is happening in the world. The Economist’s reporting is short and to the point.

I also like The Economist because China features quite prominently in its coverage. Last year, when Xi Jinping became the designated successor of Chinese President Hu Jintao, The Economist had a detailed report of who this rising star is.

The Economist is a British journal and has its own biases. But it provides a lens for me to look at China from a different angle. For example, we know China has overtaken Japan as the world’s second largest economy. But exactly how large is this? The Economist matches the Chinese provinces with countries in terms of GDP, population, and exports. I didn’t know that Guangdong’s GDP is almost equivalent to Indonesia’s. The output of Beijing is as big as the Philippines and Shanghai's output is equivalent to Finland's.

I am also impressed by the occasional special reports, which provide in depth coverage on a certain topic. When I taught a course on liberation theology last semester, I was able to use the special report on Latin America.

In the current issue the Special Report on the future of food asks whether we will have enough food to feed the world’s 9 billion people in 2050. I learned that currently the world produces more than enough to go around. The major reason for famines is not shortage of basic foods, but other factors such as wages, distribution, wastes, and politics. To be able to feed the increasing population, one of the key areas to consider is how to balance the production of crop for food and for biofuels. The United States, the European Union, and Japan all want biofuels to supply 10% of energy demand for transport by 2020.

As an economic and business magazine, The Economist has the interests of corporation and private enterprise in mind. Yet its ideological stance is much less conservative than the Wall Street Journal’s. It chastises the European countries for not speaking more powerfully in support of Arab democracy. The EU is accused of being preoccupied with stability in the Middle East and migrants not landing on their shores, than siding with democracy for the Arabs.

As I watched the news from major American media outlets about the uprising in North Africa and the Middle East, the focus has been what this would mean for the USA. The Economist at least provides a wider angle to look at the world.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Emergent Church Movement in the UK


The Rev. Ian Mobsby of the Moot Community is coming to my school to speak and preach this week. The Moot Community is a new monastic community in central London, which develops a rhythm of life combining worship, mission, and community.

Mobsby has over 20 years’ experience of working with various emerging and fresh expressions of church and lectures internationally on these topics. He serves on the core team of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Fresh Expressions team.

In his book Emerging and Fresh Expressions of the Church, Mobsby examines the postmodern and high tech consumerist culture and describes the development of a new mysticism as a form of spirituality for what he calls a “post-religion” culture.

Church membership and attendance in the Church of England have been falling sharply. Fifty years ago, over half of the population in England would go to church. A report on “Churchgoing in United Kingdom," published in 2007, shows that about 15% go to church at least once a month.

The search for new forms of church is urgent. Mobsby wants to move away from the established church model, or the church of the Christendom, to church models that emphasize the mystical and sacramental dimensions.

Mobsby and Steven Croft coedited the book Fresh Expressions in the Sacramental Tradition in the “Ancient Faith, Future Mission” Series. It includes an essay by Paige Blair, an alumna of the Episcopal Divinity School, on U2charist.

Mobsby contributes an essay on the new monasticism, which he describes as an outward facing, missional movement. It has the path of withdrawal, retreat, and sanctuary as well as a path of journey, presence, and engagement. This new monastic movement has the following characteristics:

· Simplicity in a context of complexity. People living in these communities keep minimal possessions and maintain a spiritual rhythm of life. Owning and spending less means they do less harm to the environment.

· Sacramental understanding of time. The binary division of the sacred and secular is challenged. There is a new appreciation of what Barry Taylor has called the sacralization of culture. The Moot Community develops a rhythm of life which consists of six elements: presence, acceptance, creativity, balance, accountability, and hospitality.

· Prayer. Contemplative prayers and daily prayers are seen as source and inspiration.

· Mission. Premodern friars provide care for the sick and the poor. Modern monastics engage in missions to serve the economic poor and spiritually impoverished.

· Love for the Earth. Monastics view all life as holy and live close to the earth.

Some people in the UK have criticized the emergent and new expressions movement. Some question whether the movement has sufficiently differentiated what is “in culture and not of culture.” Others are not sure how the new expressions are related to the old.

In the U.S. the emergent church is predominantly white. I am eager to learn more about this movement in the UK and to see how it has combined the missional and the spiritual to serve the poor and revitalize the old church.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Poem for Theological Education


Today the trustees, faculty, and administration of my school spent the afternoon talking about why we teach what we teach. Our facilitator used this poem to begin the conversation. I found it very helpful and want to share with you.



Connections

We learn to make connections -
between ancient texts and modern minds
between Codex Sinaiaticus and the internet
between Pew, Pulpit and Public Presence
between the then-Jesus and the now-Christ
between the roller-coaster of human emotion
and the steady devotion of the disciple
between the local congregation and the universal church
between orthodoxy and the adventurous spirit.

So we prepare for ministry
that we may be those who connect
the once-only and the always of God
for healing, hope and grace.

It's a costly business,
in time, talent, money, family,
whether in a little Bible school
or an ancient university,
in distance learning or large seminary,
for in all theological education
we are slowly becoming
what we were called to be,
and that takes a lifetime.
--Bernard Thorogood

Thursday, February 24, 2011

12 Tips to Improve Your Academic Paper

As a teacher I have read many students’ papers and conducted writing workshops for students. I offer these simple tips if you are a budding writer.

· Choose a manageable topic. A strong paper is one that is focused and shows the author has something to say. You can cast the net wide when you fish for a topic, but once you know more about the subject, you have to narrow it down.

· Start with a strong beginning. Journalists usually start with a story as a hook. Make it enticing for your reader.

· Provide a clear road map. What is the paper about? Why does it matter? What do you want to do? How are you going to do it?

· Use your own words. An academic paper does not mean that you should hide behind other authors’ words.

· Develop a narrative arc. I learn this from fiction writing. Why is the paper divided into different sections? What drives the arc? Where is the climax and where is the tension? How is the end related to the beginning?

· Don’t just cut and paste. When you cite other people’s words, make sure they fit the context of your paper. Read your paper without the quotes once to see if your arguments are clear.

· Check the direct quotes. Make sure you quote correctly (before you return the books).

· Always re-write. Even professional writers can’t do it right the first time. It is often when you’ve come to the end of your paper that you really know what you're trying to say. So leave time for re-writing and editing.

· Follow the style sheet. Your work will not be taken seriously if your notes do not conform to the “academic convention.”

· Read poetry and literature. I am sorry to say that many of the theology books are quite dry. You need to read outside the field to write well.

· Ask someone to read over it. You have worked on your paper for so long and can use a fresh pair of eyes.

· Never stop learning to write. It is a craft to be honed.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

So What's for Lunch



Lunch means eating rice. This was the way I was brought up in Hong Kong. So I was surprised to see that lunch could mean so many things when I first arrived in Boston.

I still vividly remember the dean of my theological school walking passed by Harvard Science Center, eating a pretzel on his way during lunchtime. My fellow students brought an apple, pieces of carrots, or nuts to eat for lunch. Others had muffins, potato chips, and every kinds of niceties which I would call snacks.

Food has become a major war in the United States. On the one hand, Michael Pollan admonishes us to “eat real food.” On the other hand, the agribusiness and fast-food chains want to entice us to eat much more than real food.

Today, Mark Bittman of the New York Times has joined the fray. His target was McDonald’s “bowl full of wholesome”—also known as oatmeal. Instead of just plain 100% natural oatmeal, McDonald has added many more ingredients. To be honest, Bittman says, the fast-food chain should label it as “oats, sugar, sweetened dried fruit, cream and 11 weird ingredients you would never keep in your kitchen.”

You can’t have plain oatmeal, just as you can’t simply have rice. Have you been to restaurants and fast-food stores that serve fried rice, curry rice, rice with raisins and nuts? You have to ask if you want white or brown rice.

Americans have so many choices in food. Yet most of the food is of such poor quality. During my recent trip to Sweden, my host took me to a bakery and the aroma of the bread was just delightful. People lined up to buy fresh-baked bread after work. We went to a fish store to buy soup with fish and clams, freshly prepared for the day. It tasted delicious, and much less salty than soup served in the U.S.

I don’t know why Americans put so much sugar and salt in their food. When I first looked at an American cookbook, I thought something was wrong with a cake recipe. It said one cup of sugar. My goodness, you can use this amount of sugar for several months of Chinese cooking. When I told my friends I’d cut the amount of sugar in the recipe to half, if not to one-third, they rolled their eyes in disbelief.

I have a conspiracy theory about why so much sugar and salt are added to food. When the food you eat is so sweet and salty, you have to drink a lot of sodas—alas, not water.

The popular sodas have so much sugar. A 12-ounce can of Coke contains 39 grams of sugar, equivalent to nine-and-a-half sugar cubes. A 20-ounce bottle contains sixteen-and-a-half cubes!

Mrs. Michelle Obama is waging a campaign to provide healthier lunches in schools as one of the steps to address childhood obesity. The federally-funded school program feeds 31-million low-income American children a year. She wants to increase the amount of fruit and vegetables on the school-lunch trays. But the prices of these products have increased significantly. Even if money can be found to fund the proposal, she faces an uphill battle to convince American children to eat healthy food.

My mother has told her children to eat fresh food and avoid canned food and preservatives. We learned to drink green tea when we were young. I would just stick to her sound advice.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Improvisation in Teaching


I am going to direct a teaching workshop for Asian and Asian American faculty this summer. As the staff gathered to plan for the workshop, we discussed the important role improvisation plays in teaching.

Since it is improvisation, the result cannot be foreseen.

I once attended a workshop led by Dr. Ysaye Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock. She divided the participants into different groups. Each group would sing different notes with different rhythm. When she put all the groups together, the result was amazing.

I thought I could try this in my classroom. We sang the simple tune “Veni Spiritus” with the women singing the melody and different groups doing the harmony. It worked out quite well.

I invited the class to sing at worship, and asked other students to participate. Before the service, I said that they could improvise and add other harmony, when the Spirit moved them. The Spirit was too energetic that day. The music director, not knowing what we were doing, began to frown and wondered when this would end.

We had a Both/And show in the spring, a kind of annual talent show in the school. A group of students decided to re-create the moment at chapel. We laughed so loud. I guess I had at least restored fun in learning.

Another time, my improvisation turned out much better. I organized a meeting for several graduating seniors to share they journeys and their plans for the future. At the end of the session, I could easily ask the school’s President or a faculty member to say a concluding prayer. I decided on the spot that the prayer should be a collective one.

When I said, “Dear God, we pray that you will give them…” I asked the audience to join in. Instead of saying “wisdom,” “joy,” “strength” one by one, many said different words simultaneously. We repeated this several times using different bidding. The chorus of good wishes and prayers was deeply moving.

Then there was one time that I really had to improvise.

I was invited to deliver a lecture at a university. After I have climbed the several steps onto the stage, I could not find my lecture notes on the podium. I thought I had left them there when I tried out the Powerpoint.

What to do?

Without losing a moment, I said, “The topic we are going to discuss is an interesting one and I am sure you all have different opinions. I invite you to talk with your neighbor for 3 minutes before we begin.”

Then I quietly walked down the stage and found my lecture notes in my handbag.

When I got up the stage again, I invited two students to share with the audience what they had said. These students felt so proud! No one seemed to have noticed that this exercise was unscripted.

In my long teaching career, there have been embarrassing moments, awkward moments, and moments I would rather forget. Often it is the least expected moment that I enjoy most.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Root and Route


I am sitting at the Indianapolis airport drinking my favorite Earl Grey tea. I have to wait for several hours for my flight to return home after a conference.

“Home” is contested term in postcolonial discourse. One of the members of the conference was born in Kenya. She immigrated to Canada and now teaches in California. When we asked her where home is for her, she had to give a long answer.

Anthropologist James Clifford uses the metaphors of “root” and “route” to talk about culture and identity. Root stands for the place of origin and community of belonging. Route is about travel and transition. Some people embark on the journey voluntarily: visiting relatives and friends, taking a business trip or vacation, going on a pilgrimage, and spending a semester abroad. Others are not so lucky. They are displaced from their homeland, forced to emigrate, and uprooted as refugees or asylum seekers.

Root and route can be real and imaginary. I have met devout Tibetan Buddhists in the U.S., who consider Shangri-La their spiritual home, though they have never set foot there. Others are so fond of the Native American tradition that they feel an affinity when they visit Native lands and reservations. There are also the Indian wannabes who imagine they are Native in another life.

Many of us enjoy being armchair travelers. A popular article published earlier in the year in The New York Times recommended 41 places to visit in 2011. Many of us cannot afford to visit these faraway places. But we can imagine climbing up the Lin Yin temple on West Lake in Hangzhou, China, enjoying a soothing bath in the thermal springs in Iceland, or sampling seafood in Melbourne.

Some places are better left to the imagination, because we might be disillusioned when we actually go there. I had high expectations for my first trip to Jerusalem. The holy sites were so full of people. The conflict between the Israeli and the Palestinians was so palpable. The city of peace had become a city of animosity.

Postcolonial discourse dwells on the in-between spaces. Feeling out of place and unsettled can make one constantly alert. Having grown up in the British colony of Hong Kong, the most jarring experience was communicating with my Chinese teachers in my high school in English. Stuart Hall is right when he says that colonization makes one feel “diasporic” even at home.

For a long time, the Jewish people were dispersed and in diaspora. They have longed for returning home. The establishment of the State and Israel created many new issues for progressive Jews in the U.S.

I appreciate Jonathan Boyarin’s insistence of maintaining a diasporic consciousness even though a Jewish state had been established. A diasporic existence forces people to look at culture, nation, peoplehood from radically different vantage points.

Sometimes one needs to travel away to be able to see more clearly what one’s root is. This can be physical, cultural, or even spiritual.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Why Would People Like Glenn Beck



I do not know why people would tune in to listen to people like Glenn Beck.

I am attending a conference at Wabash Center in Crawfordsville, Indiana. There is an outspoken conservative group at Wabash College, a men’s liberal arts college of 850 students. This group published a magazine The Phoenix, which I found this morning on the coffee table.

A senior student Adam Current published an essay in it entitled, “Out of the Closet: Why I like Glenn Beck.”

He asks, “How is it that a critically thinking Wabash Man could possibly enjoy the likes of Glenn Beck?” My interest was piqued.


He lists three reasons:

  • Beck is entertaining: “Beck’s politically incorrect humor is reason enough to tune in.”


  • Beck dares to say things that others don’t dare. “Beck’s appeal is largely derived from his truly unique narrative.”


  • Beck is the workingman’s epistemologist. He asks his audience to check out his claims instead of simply taking his word.
  • Though I might disagree with Current, I find his criticism of the Left intriguing. He charges, “The Left’s puritanical enforcement of political correctness is as hysterical as it is pathetic.” The Left, he continues, have created their “own political dialect, cluttered with forbidden words.”

    After Senator John Kerry lost the presidential election, many pundits offered statistics, diagnoses, and commentaries. Cognitive scientist and linguist at Berkeley George Lakoff’s comments caught my attention. In Don’t Think of an Elephant! He argued that the Democrats lost before they have allowed the Republicans to frame and control the language of the issues.


    When the conservatives used the positive terminologies of “pro-life,” “tax relief,” and “family values, it was harder to win over the issues. People voted with their values and framing the moral terrain was crucial.


    When the Republicans won a landslide in the election last November, Lakoff observed, the conservatives had think tanks and a vast communication system dominating the wavelength. They won over the independents—the “bi-conceptuals” who have both the progressive and conservative conceptual systems in their brains. They tend to apply these systems to different issues. The conservatives were able to appeal to them by using language such as government takeover and death panels. President Obama had no overriding narratives in his first two years, he said.


    In a very interesting article, “Head, Heart, Guts, and Gonads: Getting Dirty in the Rhetoric War,” Robin Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at Berkeley chastises the progressives for not using rhetorical strategy effectively.

    She points out the head is the seat of logic. The heart is the locus of feeling. The guts are about fear. The gonads are about sexual identities. Transgressing sexual boundaries creates terror.


    “The left likes to argue to the head; conservatives know that the further down you go, the more persuasive you will be,” she argues.

    In order to win, rhetorical strategy is important. But you still need people to tune in. Politically incorrect humor helps, because news has turned into entertainment in the U.S.

    I want to come out of the closet: I like Jon Stewart. When I am tired after a day’s work, I sometimes turn to The Daily Show for entertainment. Carefree, satirical, and irreverent, Stewart never fails to entertain. I prefer him over Keith Obermann, who is too much in your face.

    The Republicans have already begun to jockey for position for 2012. Progressives need to gear up soon.

    Friday, February 18, 2011

    Hello Watson


    In January 1998 I wrote an article entitled, “What If God’s Name Is 01100100?” I was trying to imagine what God would look like in a digital age. What kind of metaphors would we use to describe God? I asked, Would we talk about God’s omnipotence in terms of gigabytes?

    Oh boy, gigabytes? How much have I underestimated the power of God!

    This week, IBM’s supercomputer Watson beat Jeopardy’s record holder Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in a two-match contest. In conceding defeat, Jennings wrote, “I for one welcome our new computer overlords.”

    Watson was created by a team of 25 IBM scientists over four years. It has 10 racks of IBM’s new parallel POWER7 processors, with a capacity equivalent to 6,000 high-end home computers.

    One of the answer in Jeopardy was “Kathleen Kenyon’s excavation of this city mentioned in Joshua showed that the walls had been repaired 17 times.”

    Watson correctly asked the question, “What is Jericho?” (The whole Bible has been installed in Watson).

    Since the computer Deep Blue we have never been so enthralled by the competition between human beings and machine. In the famous contest in May 1997, Deep Blue beat the chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov.

    While Deep Blue could anticipate millions of positions of the chess game in seconds, Watson’s ability to understand human language represents a gigantic step forward in artificial intelligence. Paul McDougall writes, “Watson simultaneously runs natural language processing, information retrieval, knowledge representation and reasoning algorithms to fathom the intent of questions and yield what it thinks is the best answer—all in a matter of seconds or less.”

    What are the implications for advances in artificial intelligence for theology?

    In her book In Our Image: Artificial Intelligence and the Human Spirit, Noreen L. Hersfeld writes, “The potentiality of the computer to mimic human thought has opened the door for a new era of self-imaging.”

    The abilities of Watson to recognize human language and process complex thought raise the question of what is truly human. What do we see as important in human nature that we want to create robots and cyborgs that can function like us and hope to image in artificial intelligence? How would this tell us about our relationship to other humans and to machines?

    In a wider context, what will be the contributions of cognitive sciences to theology? In Minding God: Theology and the Cognitive Sciences, Gregory R. Peterson asks, “What does the Silicon Valley have to do with Jerusalem?” He says that theology has not entered into much dialogue with cognitive sciences. But since cognitive sciences have revolutionized the ways we think about the mind, human nature, and our position in the world, they have much to offer to theology.

    More religion scholars have shown interest in the cognitive sciences. At last year's annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, the theme of the plenary sessions was on Religion and Science, with particular attention to new research on the brain/mind.

    Watson’s brilliant performance this week will heighten interest in the relation between cognitive sciences and religious studies.

    Thursday, February 17, 2011

    Do the Postcolonial Theorists Write Badly?


    The Journal of Philosophy and Literature used to run Bad Writing Contest in the late 1990s. Postcolonial critic Homi Bhabha won a second prize in 1999 for a passage in The Location of Culture.

    "If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories,
    superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to 'mormalize' formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality."

    The debate on whether bad writing is necessary has a long history. Socrates was mocked for his technical language. In our modern time, George Orwell in “Politics and the English Language” (1946) warned of the use of obfuscating abstraction in political prose. For him, to write and to think “clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.”

    The late Edward W. Said shared Orwell’s thinking and criticized the opaque and difficult writings in humanities. Such style of writing, he surmised, has made humanities largely irrelevant to the public. He said intellectuals should communicate as immediately and forcefully as possible.

    However, Said defended his friend Bhabha in an interview, saying, “Writers like Bhabha are looking for the occasion to work out ideas. There's something unfinished about it.”

    The work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is also notoriously difficult. In his review of Spivak’s work, Terry Eagleton teases that there must be a rule in the handbook for postcolonial critic that reads: “Be as obscurantist as you can decently get away with.”

    In 2007 Spivak spent a whole day in conversation with theologians and biblical critics. The result was the anthology Planetary Love: Spivak, Postcoloniality, and Theology. I had the opportunity to ask her if she were to do it all over again, what would she have changed?

    Spivak said that she would write in a more accessible way.

    This is quite different from her earlier position, for she distrusts the demands for linguistic transparency. The criticism that her work is difficult to understand might mean to her that the person has not worked hard enough.

    For Bhabha and Spivak, language is a performance. Bhabha said, “South Asian and Continental traditions tend to be more metaphoric and symbolic in their use of language.”

    Bhabha’s mind is subtle, fluid, and multi-dimensional. This might have something to do with his upbringing in highly pluralistic Bombay. His new preface for the Routledge Classic Edition of The Location of Culture said he grew up “in Bombay as a middle-class Parsi—a member of a small Zoroastrian-Persian minority in a predominantly Hindu and Muslim context." He observes, “Learning to work with the contradictory strains of languages lived, and languages learned, has the potential for a remarkable critical and creative impulse.”

    Bhabha’s writing reflects the palimpsest of his postcolonial mind and identity.

    Spivak writes as she speaks—going back and forth and with loose structures. She demonstrates a mind in transition—transversing different terrains, going at full speed, making sudden turns, and shifting gears.

    I certainly hope that Bhabha and Spivak would write in a way that can be more easily understood. I am not always sure that I fully understand what they try to say.

    But I am amazed by how their minds work.

    Wednesday, February 16, 2011

    The Dalai Lama Met Thomas Merton


    The Dalai Lama met the Trappist monk Thomas Merton at his exiled home at Dharamsala in India in November of 1968. The Dalai Lama was 33 and Merton was 20 years his senior.

    The two men had a sense of humor when they met. The Dalai Lama wondered why the Western monk was wearing a pair of tall brownish boots, which seemed out of place in India. He noticed the white robe and a broad leather belt Merton wore. The Dalai Lama was wearing his maroon robes with a patch of golden yellow on his vest.

    “Merton was a robust man, both in the physical sense—he had a bodily frame with big bones—and in the spiritual sense,” recalled the Dalai Lama some 40 years after the encounter.

    Merton was so curious of the Dalai Lama’s abode and study. He noted the Tibetan block-print texts in oblong sheets, the rows of little bowls of water, a tanka, and marigolds growing in old tin cans. The artificial flowers in a Coke bottle amused him.

    Merton was on his trip to Bangkok to meet with abbots of Catholic monastic orders and to attend an interfaith meeting. He took the opportunity to visit India and met with the Dalai Lama for three times at Dharamsala in India, where the Dalai Lama was in exile since 1959.

    Merton wrote in his journal: “The Dalai Lama is most impressive as a person. He is strong and alert, bigger than I expected (for some reason I thought he would be small). A very solid, energetic, generous, and warm person, very capable of trying to handle enormous problems.”

    I had similar impressions about the Dalai Lama, when I saw him in 1991, when he and his Tibetan monks came to speak in New York for the International Year of Tibet. I still have the seeds the Dalai Lama gave out at the end to remind us to take care of the earth and build a new world.

    The Dalai Lama and Merton discovered they had many things in common. Merton’s day began at 2.30 a.m., while the Dalai Lama’s begins at 3.30 a.m. Both spent many hours in the morning in contemplative prayer and silence.

    Merton recalled that the Dalai Lama was very interested in Western monasticism and asked about the Cistercian life. He asked Merton about the meaning of the monk’s vows. Merton found out that the Tibetan monks around the Dalai Lama complained as the Cistercian monks did—that they had too much work to do and too little time for meditation.

    No one would expect that Merton would die just weeks after the visit of an accidental electric shock in Thailand. The Dalai Lama mourned his death, saying, “the world lost a truly spiritual man…I lost a friend.”

    I was very moved by the accounts these two spiritual leaders wrote about their encounter. I tried to imagine the emotions that the Dalai Lama had when he stood inside Merton’s cell in Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky some 20 years after their brief encounter.

    The Dalai Lama recalls Merton’s visit in the beginning of his book Toward a True Kinship of Faiths. He urges us to leave our comfort zone and be open to the spiritual treasures of humankind. The journey will deepen our own spiritual practices. He writes, “Thomas Merton opened my eyes to the richness and depth of the Christian faith.”

    Tuesday, February 15, 2011

    Architecture of the Mind


    The students in my Spirituality class today responded favorably to my image of the bazaar mind. Bazaar is a marketplace where you go from place to place shopping for what you need. You have no obligation to stay long and no commitment to buy.

    Clayton Shirly uses the metaphor of the “bazaar” to describe our networked society. The bazaar mind is constantly connected: surfing on the web, tweeting, chatting on Facebook, while doing homework and/or listening to music at the same time.

    A colleague of mine has a blog with hundreds of visitors a day. The sitemeter in her blog shows that her visitors spend on average about one minute on her site.

    The bazaar mind is constantly on the go. It is contrary to the cathedral mind, a mind full of knowledge and wisdom. I came across the metaphor of the cathedral mind in Nicholas Carr’s article “Is Google Making Us Stupid.”


    The cathedral mind requires years of learning and training. Like a cathedral, the mind is complex, multilayered, and voluminous, with immense depth. Thomas Aquinas is often associated with having such a brilliant mind.

    It is very difficult, and totally counter-cultural, in our age to produce people with a cathedral mind. Thomas lived in the Middle Age with much fewer attractions.

    What kind of spirituality is suitable for people with a bazaar mind? Should we call these people “the shallows,” as the title of Carr’s book?

    As I was thinking about this, I was reminded that the Buddhists have very different images of the mind. The mind that is not trained and wanders around is called the monkey mind. The aim of meditation is to tame the monkey mind, and to become conscious of one’s thoughts. After much practice, the mind can become empty and no longer attached to things.

    The most famous story about the empty mind is about Hui Neng, the sixth patriarch of Chan (Zen) Buddhism. The fifth patriarch wanted to select his successor and asked his followers to express their wisdom in a poem. The learned head monk wrote this poem:
    The body is the wisdom-tree,
    The mind is a bright mirror in a stand;
    Take care to wipe it all the time,
    And allow no dust to cling.
    Hui Neng’s poem was like this:
    Fundamentally no wisdom-tree exists,
    Nor the stand of a mirror bright.
    Since all is empty from the beginning,
    Where can the dust alight
    Hui Neng received the insignia and became an important master of Chan Buddhism.

    I have noticed that many young people in the West are attracted to Zen-like meditation or practices of mindfulness. I once attended a dharma talk by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in the Boston Convention Center. Almost 3,000 were present and many were young people. When Thich asked us to meditate, all were quiet.

    Perhaps the bazaar mind needs the empty mind for a change.

    Monday, February 14, 2011

    Why Send Roses

    Today is Valentine's Day and many will send roses to their loved ones. But that is so lack of imagination. Why? A vase of usually the same color of roses looks so monotonous to me. Plus, it is so expensive.

    A colleague of mine sent a Powerpoint of Japanese ikebana. Ikekana is the art of flower arrangement, which dated back to the sixth century, when Buddhism was brought to Japan. The Buddhists offer flowers on the altar in honor of the Buddha.

    Ikebana embodies the spirit of East Asian aesthetics and beauty. It evokes the balance of the strong and the weak, permanence and impermanence, full and empty.


    Ikebana uses not only the flowers, but also the stems and leaves, and draws emphasis toward shape, style, and form. The structure of the flower arrangement often symbolizes heaven, earth, and human beings.

    Traditionally, ikebana is placed in an alcove or a corner of the room, usually with a scroll. The flowers are changed according to the seasons. Imagine drinking tea in such a room with your loved ones.











    So next year's Valentine's Day, you can
    be more creative.

    Sunday, February 13, 2011

    Egyptian Revolution and China


    What happened at Tahrir Square in the past two weeks reminded me of Tiananmen Square in 1989.

    After 18 days of peaceful demonstration, the people of Egypt forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign. The exhilarating people at the Tahrir Square chanted, “The people made the regime step down.”

    The protesters cleaned the Square to prepare for the birth of a new Egypt. A woman offered white chrysanthemum flowers to the soldiers.

    After ruling Egypt with a strong hand for 30 years, Mubarak left Cairo last Friday and handed the control of the country to the military. As the Vice President announced this transition, car horns honked and the people sang their national anthem and waved their flags.

    The outcome of the Tiananmen demonstration was drastically different. A lasting image was a young Chinese man standing alone to block a line of tanks from moving closer to Tiananmen.

    The Chinese presses were careful and guarded in reporting Egypt’s regime change. It has been reported that China attempted to prevent the dissemination of information of the Egyptian protests over the Internet.

    After Mubarak’s resignation, the Chinese government released a statement saying China hopes stability and order would soon be restored in Egypt and urges foreigners not to interfere with Egypt’s internal affairs.

    Many Chinese commentators believe that the kind of mass demonstration in Egypt will not happen in China anytime soon.

    China and the Arabic world chose very different paths of development in the last several decades, Chinese critic Meng Xuan writes.

    In 1952 a military coup d’état by a group of young military officers overthrew the monarchy of King Farouk. Since then Egypt has been under of the rule of strong men—Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak. Egypt experienced two different ideologies in its development: increasing Westernization and capitalist market economy or Islamization under fundamentalist religious groups.

    Even though Mubarak had been re-elected, his government was criticized because of economic decline, unemployment, and increased influences of Islamic fundamentalism.

    China began its economic reform and liberalization policies since 1980. Deng Xiaoping led China toward a socialist market economy. Today, China is the world’s second largest economy and the country has become much more pluralistic. Young people have many outlets for their energy. Although the gap between the rich and the poor is huge, it would be difficult for people of different sectors to come together to launch a mass protest such as the one in Egypt.

    The road to democracy is long and tortuous. The Egyptians have lighted the fire of democracy in Yemen and other countries in the Middle East. I hope Egypt will not soon turn into a military dictatorship and a free presidential election will occur in a timely fashion.

    Saturday, February 12, 2011

    What Is Neurotheology

    We have heard about feminist theology, ecotheology, Black theology, Latino/a theology, liberation theology, and animal theology. The latest one is called neurotheology.

    Neurotheology has attracted attention in academia and among the general public. Many books have been published that explore the relationship between brain science and religious experience, and re-open the debate between science and religion.

    Dr. Henry Benson of Harvard, a pioneer in mind/body medicine, talked about the relaxation response and the benefits of meditation in the 1970s. Today one can observe what happens in the brain when one meditates.

    Scientist Andrew B. Newberg studied the brain activities of experienced Tibetan monks before and during meditation. The brain scans showed increased activities in the meditators’ frontal lobe, which is responsible for focusing and concentration.

    Another study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison using functional magnetic resonance imagining (fMRI) showed that compassion could be learned. That parts of the brain associated with compassion could be changed by meditation.

    Some scientists insist that our religious and spiritual experiences are nothing more than biological phenomena. Newberg said on NPR, “But the data also does not specifically eliminate the notion that there is a religious or spiritual or divine presence in the world.”

    Newberg suggests that science and religion are not antagonistic, and the two can help one another. Georgetown University Professor Ronald Murphy, S.J., writes, “Augustine once defined theology as fides quaerens intellectum, faith seeking to understand. Newberg wants to establish a partnership between that quest and mens quaerens intellectum, the brain seeking to understand.”

    In Principles of Neurotheology, Newberg discusses the interaction between neuroscience and theology, proposes guidelines for a neurotheological hermeneutic, and reflects on major topics in theology.

    You might have also seen Dr. Daniel Amen’s PBS programs on “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.” He has also written Healing the Hardware of the Soul and talks about optimizing the brain-soul connection.

    One chapter particularly catches my eyes. It’s about brain health and the Sunday sermon. He asks, “Can your priest, rabbi, or minister’s weekly sermon be affected by brain function?” Then he answers, “Preachers who exhort the love of God likely have cool limbic systems; ministers who preach God’s wrath likely have limbic systems that are often associated with negativity.”


    I guess next time when your church interviews for a new minister, you better ask for his or her brain scans.

    Do you like rituals? Dr. Amen writes, Catholics, Lutherans, and Episcopalians tend to be more “anterior cingulate” in brain function. This part of brain enables people to be flexible, adaptable, going with the flow, and cooperative.

    Christians “with temporal-lobe sensitivity who experience mystical or spiritual experiences may gravitate to Evangelical of Pentecostal worship services.” The temporal lobe is responsible for memory, hearing, and the understanding of language.

    I find this emerging field of neurotheology fascinating. Knowing a bit more about how the brain functions helps us to be better pastors and spiritual leaders.

    Friday, February 11, 2011

    Top 5 Funniest Theological/Biblical Works


    Theology—God-talk—is often heavy, serious, and pretentious. Often too long-winded (Thomas’ Summa) and dry (Barth’s Church Dogmatics).

    Yet occasionally there are some gems that cause a good laugh. Have you read something humorous and witty lately? I’d love to hear them.

    Here is my list of top 5 funniest works by theologians and biblical scholars:

    1. Stephen D. Moore, “Ugly Thought: On the Face and Physique of the Historical Jesus,” in Biblical Studies/Cultural Studies: The Third Sheffield Colloquium

    Moore is a rare biblical scholar who has the skills to write fiction. He pokes fun at the covers of the books on the historical Jesus.

    “Many of us have joined that manhunt for the Jew of Nazareth, many more of us cheering or yelling obscenities from the sidelines. Startled eyes turn as the hysterical Jesus suspects are dragged into the church by the triumphant band of scholars. To the dubious congregation in the pews, each Jesus seems more unlikely than the last. 'Did you at any time claim to be the Christ, the Son of the living God?' each is asked in turn. 'I did not,' most of them reply.”

    2. Gale A. Yee, “‘Oooooh, Onan!’: Geschlechtsgeschicte and Women in the Biblical World,” in Are We Amused? Humour About Women in the Biblical World

    This one is rated PG-13—parents strongly cautioned, lest you have to explain to your child what did Onan do.

    To avoid onanism, one conservative pundit instructs:
    1. Never touch the intimate parts of your body excerpt during normal toilet processes.
    2. Avoid being alone as much as possible.
    3. Wear pajamas that are difficult to open, yet loose and not binding.
    4. In very severe cases, it may be necessary to tie a hand to the bed frame.

    3. Marcella Althaus-Reid, Indecent Theology

    She would surely win the Most Daring Theologian Award, if there were one. For her the greatest sin of a theologian is to be dull.

    She creates a whole new vocabulary for theology: the G-spot, French kissing God, Bi/Christ, dis-grace, queer God, and the like. She invites us to lift up the skirt of Jesus and see what is there.

    4. Mary Daly, Pure Lust

    Arguably the most witty and sharp-tongued feminist philosopher. Her ability to make fun of Christian symbols, doctrines, and the church was legendary.

    Vice [from the Latin vitis, vine], then, can Name the characteristic spiral pattern of biophilic movement, of growth.”

    “Thus lust is pure in the sense that it is characterized by unmitigated malevolence. It is pure in the sense that it is ontologically evil.”

    5. Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies
    I know, I know, she is not a theologian. Don’t be a snob. Isn’t she funny?

    “looking back on the God my friend believed in, he seems a little erratic, not entirely unlike her father—God as borderline personality.”

    Now, please help to make the list up to 10, or more.

    Thursday, February 10, 2011

    How to Read a Theological Book


    As theological educators, we want to help students to develop critical theological thinking. Let me offer some hints on how to read a theological book:

    · When you read a theology book, instead of nodding, shake your head. Don’t give consent to the author too easily.

    · Don’t assume the author has you in mind. Then you will see Anselm, Calvin, or Tillich were writing for a different audience and context.

    · Try to see the forest and not just the trees. Let me teach you some Chinese and you'll get it. Forest looks like 森, and a tree is 木.

    · A picture is worth 1,000 words. Some people will benefit from something like a concept map.

    · After reading, put down the book, summarize the main arguments in your own words. If you can’t do this, that means you haven’t grasped it yet. Re-read.

    · Ask who is missing from the conversation? While you can’t expect the author to speak for the poor, the blind, your next-door neighbor, the girl with a tattoo, and everyone else, you want to ask what are the voices missing.

    · Set up a debate with a friend or in your own head, e.g. I asked the students to debate whether Christ is Black when reading James Cone.

    · If you don’t understand, take a break. Your mind might be constipated. Poke somebody on Facebook, tweet, and have coffee.

    · Laugh Out Loud. This is a strategy taught by Mary Daly. Ask many early feminists. This was how they survived seminary.

    · Create your own index. The indexer of the book might not have your interest in mind. Note down the concepts important to you and page numbers.

    · Buy the book. This is not to fatten the publishing houses. Having the book means you can underline, draw droodles, and stick colored tapes on it.

    · Stretch the ideas to the limit. This one is from Gayatri Spivak. This is how she can be a feminist, Marxist, and poststructuralist at the same time.

    · Plot a different itinerary. Also from Spivak. Trace the itinerary of the author’s thought and plot a different one.

    · Invite yourself to the table. What would you say to the author if you meet her? What are the questions you want to ask?

    Wednesday, February 9, 2011

    Crazy Busy and the Rule of Life


    I often wonder how can one manage all the emails, blogs, speaking engagements, appointments, relationships in this crazy, busy world. I feel over-booked, over-stretched all the time.

    In my spirituality class, we talked about the rule of life. The Latin term for “rule” is regula, from which our words regular and regulate derive. Marjorie Thompson explains that this does not mean to be restrictive. “It is meant to establish a rhythm of daily living, a basic order within which new freedom can grow.”

    Many of us Anglicans do not know there is an Anglican rule of life. Owen Thomas says that the Anglican rule has 5 elements:
    • Weekly public worship
    • Daily private or family prayer
    • Participation in the mission of the church
    • Spiritual reading
    • Self-examination in preparation for the Eucharist*

    The most famous rule is perhaps the rule of St. Benedictine, written in the 6th century. Sister Jane Michele McClure, OSB, says, “Benedict envisioned a balanced life of prayer and work as the ideal. Monastics would spend time in prayer so as to discover why they're working, and would spend time in work so that good order and harmony would prevail in the monastery.”

    There has been a revival of interest in contemplation and the wisdom of monastic life. When our lives are so chaotic and fragmented, we long for some structure and order.

    Edward M. Hallowell, a psychiatrist who specializes in treating ADD, has coined a new term ADT (attention deficit trait) to describe symptoms caused by living in a hyper-kinetic environment.

    Our brains are required to process data faster and faster, to adapt to new situations quickly, and to solve problems flexibly. In a survival mode, we become easily exhausted, anxious, impulsive, and are about to snap.

    Hallowell can’t prescribe a regula, but he can at least suggest some remedies. I have selected those things that are most helpful to me:

    • Get enough sleep
    • Exercise at least 30 minutes at least every other day
    • Talk to people, not just sending emails and texting
    • Set aside email until you have done at least one or two important tasks
    • Don’t let papers accumulate (I have never learned how)
    • Pay attention to the time of the day that you are at your best and do important work
    • Clear one corner of your desk/office so that you can work comfortably
    • Do an easy rote task when you feel overwhelmed.

    Owen C. Thomas, Christian Life and Practice (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009), 8-9.

    Tuesday, February 8, 2011

    Is HuffPost Selling Out?



    I was shocked yesterday to hear that Arianna Huffington has sold the Huffington Post to AOL for $315 million.

    The HuffPost was founded by Huffington and Kenny Lerer in May 2005. Beginning with a shoestring budget, Arianna will pocket about $100 million from the deal.


    Arianna wrote that she became addicted to the blogosphere in 2002, on the heels of the Trent Lott/Thurmond story. She noted that blogging has rapidly transformed the media culture in America. Citizens are empowered to create news, and they are no longer passive consumers.

    With 25 million visitors each month, the HuffPost is one of the first Internet newspapers to fully integrate with social networks, such as FaceBook and Twitter.


    I am a frequent visitor to the HuffPost because it started out as a progressive blog. The site features many left-wing commentators, critical of President Bush's policies. Many academics also write for HuffPost, providing information and detailed analyses of current issues. My colleague Patrick S. Cheng is a regular blogger for the Religion page.

    But over time, I have noticed that the HuffPost has branched out to cover more topics: health, divorce, books, arts, education, sports, etc. As Arianna said yesterday, only 15 percent of her site's traffic is for politics (that is down from 50 percent a couple of years ago). Politics is just one of the two dozen sections.

    Indeed, the site is more interesting than something like Politico. I read the blogs "The First Lady's Dress," and "What Makes a Man Attractive" in the last two days because the latter includes a gorgeous photo of George Clooney.


    The site has become a hot commodity because it has created a community. But has it been sold to corporate interests? Will it lose its progressive edge in order to have a broader appeal? I have noticed many popular posts on the sidebar featuring scantily-clothed stars.

    Many people are deeply concerned about the deal. Arianna's blog announcing the deal has 221,000 pageviews and more than 7,400 comments.

    Many progressives want to see news media that would counter-balance the conservative talk shows and FOX News. It is too early to tell if the visitors will go somewhere else.

    Many have criticized the site for not paying its writers. Now that Arianna has cut such a shrewd deal, will her bloggers continue to write without pay?

    Arianna, at 60, has reinvented herself so many times. Some one said, she is "the most upwardly mobile Greek since Icarus," while others admire her ability to always chasing the next big thing.


    It is amazing to see her ability to use so many platforms to get her message out. Arianna is a phenomenon that is worth paying attention to.

    Monday, February 7, 2011

    Can a Feminist Love Football?


    Can a feminist love baseball? No question. There are no head-butting and no bone-chilling tackles.

    And if you live in Boston, you are expected to be a card-carrying member of the Red Sox Nation.

    American football is a different matter.

    I didn't grow up with American football, but with English soccer. My dad's only hobby was to follow his favorite soccer teams on the sports pages and on the radio. Pele and Maradona were household names.

    So when I first watched American football, I was surprised to find that only the kicker can kick the ball. Everyone else holds the ball in his hands.

    English soccer is a world game. More than 700 million people watched the World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands last summer. One cannot but marvel at the cultural influences of the British Empire.

    Football is so quintessentially American. "It is big, optimistic, lousy, passionate, and egoistic," a Chinese commentator says. It is a war game: violence masquerading as entertainment. It cost $3 million for a 30-second ad last night.

    The first football game I watched was Super Bowl XXXI in 1997. It was completely out of curiosity. Beantown was exhilarated because the Patriots were going against Green Bay Packers in the final. Buses had signs that read "Go Pats." Star Market even had a display of the two teams made of fish fillet. Tuna's (Bill Parcell) team, the Patriots, were made of tuna.

    It was clear that the Super Bowl was a cultural phenomenon and not just a ball game. It turned out to be the most exceptional final game. Green Bay's kick returner Desmond Howard won the game's MVP for scoring the winning touchdown on a Super Bowl record of 99-yard kick off return.

    When the Patriots became a dominant team in the last decade, I was hooked. I love watching football because it is all about teamwork. You need skinny and fast receivers such as Randy Moss, as well as big and strong linebackers such as Mike Vrabel. A quarterback as talented as Tom Brady needs the protection of his linebackers.

    Sports is one of the few places that men are allowed to show their emotions. KG and Michael Jordan play with a lot of passion. But it is nothing like when Aaron Rodgers bumped and touched the head of Greg Jennings when the two connected for a touch down.

    My husband said football is just a lot of big men piling over a ball. Well, it is a little more than that. After I have watched TV programs that dissected a football game, I know it involves a lot of game planning, strategies, and tactics. You can go back to the tapes to see who was not doing the right thing.

    Football is the most unpredictable game. One can throw a "Hail Mary" at the end, like Doug Flutie's game-winning 48-yard pass that gave the Eagles a victory.

    Last night, the game was not decided until the last minute. Big Ben and the Steelers got to work with two minutes left. They were down 6 points. They had been there before and had scored. But Big Ben came up short this time; his 4th down couldn't connect. Then all was over. The Packers almost couldn't believe their luck.

    There was also so much drama behind the games. Aaron Rodgers was one of the most scrutinized quarterbacks because he had succeeded the legendary Brett Favre. Commentators prefered him over Ben Roethlisberger, whose conduct off the court has courted a lot of ire. He was accused of sexual assault by a young woman. Since I had no connections with either teams, I rooted for Rodgers' team.

    During the orientation of my school, I told the new students that I am a feminist and I belong to the Patriots Nation. Sometimes we should just follow our passions. Brady was voted unanimously as the League's 2010 MVP and Bill Belichick NFL Coach of the Year. We have hopes for 2011.

    Sunday, February 6, 2011

    Theology in a Post-Theological Moment


    "What is the fate of theology in a post-theological moment?"* asked Dr. Corey D. B. Walker, a professor of Religious Studies and African American Studies at Brown University.

    "A post-theological moment?" One might ask when, and perhaps why?

    Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck are talking openly about God. The TV evangelists have not shut up. Even atheists, such as Christopher Hutchins and company, are busy talking about God --though negatively.

    It it way too early to speak of a post-theological moment?

    Walker, of course, does not mean that there is no theology done. He is saying that the way we used to do theology needs to change, and change fast and radically.

    So what are the problems as Walker sees them?

    First, there have been much intellectual stimulation and discussions on the theological and the political that the traditional boundaries of the theological can no longer contain the depth and breadth of the discourse.

    Second, there is the crisis of thought, in that the ways we understand theology cannot be contained within the traditional theological proper.

    Walker's arguments touch on the more fundamental questions of "What is theology?" and "Who is defining it?"

    When Asians and/or feminists do theology, our works have been seen as "less than," or "not quite" theology. The implicit norm is still white male theology.

    But Walker's "post-theological moment" connotes an ethical inquiry: Why is theology seemingly impotent to address the present? He is particularly interested in the conjuncture between the theological and the political.

    As Mark Lewis Taylor comments in his recent book The Theological and the Political:

    "This moment has often been discussed at the resurgence of a particular kind of "theologico-political," viewing Theology, with its diverse beliefs and practices of its faith as rife with political meanings and consequences for wide sectors of secular and public life, even for purportedly nontheological and nonreligious sectors."

    Taylor has written a very important book and the subtitle of it is "On the Weight of the World."

    The author of The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America, Taylor has been involved in prison reform for decades. In this new work, he presents an analysis of the politicality of theology, which persists as "the theological."

    The book is divided into five chapters. It engages critical political theorists as well as the art of Richard Wright, of Guantanamo's detainees, and other torture survivors.

    It also develops Jean-Luc Nancy's concept of "transimmanence" to gesture beyond transcendence and immanence, and to open spaces for a "creative world-projecting and world-making power."

    For this, theology must open itself to artful imaging: whether in music, painting, poetry, sculpture, and cyberart.

    The book may be difficult for those unfamiliar with Nancy, Bourdieu, Agamben, Butler, and JanMohamed. But it will be very rewarding for all those searching for new ways to re-energize the theological discourse and to speak to the "post-theological moment."

    My mind has been stretched. But more importantly, I was deeply moved by Taylor's concerns for the tortured, the colonized, and the war victims, who have too often been left out in our imaging of God.

    *Corey D. B. Walker," Theology and Democratic Futures," Political Theology, 10, no. 1 (April 2009): 200.

    Saturday, February 5, 2011

    Blogging to Change the World


    "All writing is designed to change the world, at least a small part of the world, or in some small ways perhaps a change in the reader's mood or his appreciation of a certain kind of beauty," writes Mary Pipher in Writing to Change the World.

    With blogging, everyone can write to change the world. At least, try to. You don't need a publisher or an editor. It is instant and spontaneous.

    If you've found a fabulous and cheap Indian restaurant in downtown, you can blog about it. If you've read something interesting, you can tell your friends through your blog.

    But writing a blog is not for everyone.

    Andrew Sullivan, a senior editor of The Atlantic, wrote "Why I blog." He says, "For centuries, writers have experimented with forms that evoke the imperfection of thought, the inconstancy of human affairs, and the chastening passage of time. But as blogging evolves as a literary form, it is generating a new and quintessentially postmodern idiom that’s enabling writers to express themselves in ways that have never been seen or understood before. Its truths are provisional, and its ethos collective and messy. Yet the interaction it enables between writer and reader is unprecedented, visceral, and sometimes brutal."

    Blogging can be hard for academics. Why? Blogging requires thinking on the fly. We are used to take time to collect our thoughts, gather the data, and wait until events have settled. But by then, our blog will be so outdated. All that needs to be said would have been blogged already.

    Blogging requires a different writing style. I am not used to writing paragraphs that are so short. I was horrified when the editor of a communal blog cut one of my paragraphs down to only one sentence.

    As academics we are used to put our most important conclusion at the end, after we have laid out the arguments. But in a blog, we need to put the most important thing upfront, for we have a few seconds--three or less--to encourage people to read more. There is eye-tracking technology that follows a reader's eye movement as the person views a page.

    The Yahoo! Style Guide says most readers scan first:


    • They scan to see whether the content is relevant.


    • They are more likely to scan the top of the page than the bottom.


    • They look at headings, boldfaced terms, and images.

    Thus the Style Guide advises:



    • Keep it short: use short words, short sentences, short paragraphs, bulleted lists.


    • Front-load your content: put the most important content in the upper-left area of the screen.


    • Keep it simple: include only one or two ideas per short paragraph, choose common words over more difficult ones.

    The Huffington Post is a site I visit often. Some of the site's bloggers are real experts in this genre. I especially like Bill Maher, who is always witty and funny. Here is how he writes about the NFL and socialism.


    The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging recommends the following rules:



    1. Blog often


    2. Perfect is the enemy of done.


    3. Write like you speak


    4. Focus on specific details


    5. Own your topic: think of your topic as you beat


    6. Know your audience


    7. Write short: we live in an ADD culture


    8. Become part of the conversation with like-minded blogs

    I especially like "perfect is the enemy of done."


    When I started, I did not know how to cut and paste from a Word doc and did not know there is a devise for checking spelling in Blogger. Now I have learned gradually. I even know how to post a video. This is a video on how to create a blog with Blogger. May be you should start one too.


    Friday, February 4, 2011

    What Do the Chinese Think?


    What do the Chinese think during the so-called "peaceful rise of China?"

    Today's Chinese newspaper The World Journal interviewed two intellectuals in China and asked them to recommend books for understanding contemporary China. One of these books is a translated work and the others are written by Chinese authors.

    Professor Zhang Yiwu (张颐武), a professor of Chinese Language at Beijing University and Deputy Director of the Research Institute of Cultural Resources, recommends Martin Jacques's When China Rules the World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World. This book is so popular that it has a mainland Chinese translation (left) and a Taiwanese translation (right).



    Martin Jacques argues that China is learning from the West. But because China does not follow completely the West, she develops her own model.

    Professor Zhang also recommends Zhang Wuchang's Chinese Economic Institution, which details economic changes in the last 32 years, since open policy was adopted. Another book uses the Buddhist six reincarnations to describe the changes of mentality of Chinese people since the founding of the People's Republic of China.

    Professor Li Zhengliang (李政亮), a professor of communications at Tianjin Nankai University, recommends several books that touch on popular culture. One discusses cultural workers who have migrated to Beijing and created an alternative cultural space. They are anarchists and rebel against the dominant ideology.

    The Tribe of Ants explores the existence of young university graduates who are unemployed. Since 2007, it has become more difficult for graduates to find jobs in big cities. Those who grew up in rural areas would lose face if they return to the countryside.

    Several books talk about the situation of Chinese intellectuals. Prosperous China 2013 criticizes that as China becomes more powerful, the intellectuals have lost their power of critical thinking. Wither China discusses intellectuals' concerns and mentality.

    Professor Li hopes that as China has introduced market economy, people in Taiwan will get to know more about the intellectual and cultural scenes of China through dialogue and exchanges.

    Thursday, February 3, 2011

    Chinese New Year

    Today is Chinese New Year, the beginning of the Year of the Rabbit. My sister in Hong Kong sent me a greeting card, showing the plum branches they bought for the new year. The Chinese characters say, "May your wishes come true and may you have luck and harmony."

    As a Christian, I celebrate three different new year days. The Christian calendar begins with the season of Advent. I spent the first week of Advent last year in Victoria, British Columbia, and preached at Christ Church Cathedral. We began the new year preparing for the birth of Christ.


    The New Year of the Gregorian calendar begins on January 1. This is the day of circumcision of Jesus (the eighth day of his birth) and the baby was given the name Jesus.

    The Chinese New Year was a big day for my family when we lived in Hong Kong. My sisters and brothers all returned home on New Year's Eve for the big banquet. It was a time for family reunion. The Chinese New Year is about family, relationships, and food.

    New year is a time of renewal and fresh start. In many ancient religious traditions, there is the myth of eternal return.

    There is a group of psalms called enthronement psalms, such as Ps 47, 93, and 96. These psalms emphasize Yahweh as the king.

    Clap your hands, all you peoples;
    shout to God with loud songs of joy.
    For the Lord, the Most High, is awesome,
    a great king over all the earth. (Ps 47: 1-2)

    Some have suggested that these psalms were likely used during Israel's New Year's Festival, which celebrated Yahweh's kingship and rule and God's covenant with Israel. The all-powerful God is king of the universe.

    The belief that God rules over the universe is under much attack today. Stephen Hawking has said, "Let there be no God!," and there was light! He also proudly proclaimed, "Science makes God unnecessary."

    Yet his Cambridge colleague Stephen Toulmin reminds us that traditional world picture combined "an astronomical, a teleological, and a theological picture" and stressed "cosmic interrelatedness."

    Toulmin's teacher Ludwig Wittgenstein, said in Culture and Value, "An honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker. He almost looks as though he were walking on nothing but air. His support is the slenderest imaginable. And yet it really is possible to walk on it."

    Indeed, "the opposite of faith is not doubt, it's certainty," writes Anne Lamott.

    Wednesday, February 2, 2011

    Poetry and the In-between Space


    What happens when theologians meet with poets? Several faculty of the Boston Theological Institute found this a very rewarding experience. Professor Mark S. Burrows of the Andover Newton Theological School was the instigator of the group.


    The first poet we met was Robert Cording, author of Walking with Ruskin and a professor of English and Creative Writing at the College of Holy Cross.

    Just now,
    overlapping,

    the sound of water
    against rock, against rock

    and, diminuendo
    with less plock, against driftwood. . .

    I instantly connect with his poetry--so Haiku-like, so Chinese.

    The images jump from the pages. His words so sparse.

    As an epigraph to one poem, he cites Wang Wei. It was Wang Wei , an eighth-century Chinese poet, who famously said that there is painting in poetry, and poetry in painting.

    Poetry has a special place in Chinese culture. The Chinese word for poetry shi means "the language of the heart." No private or social occasion was considered complete in the old days without a few chosen words in rhyme to mark it.

    Unlike in the West, Chinese women have had a long tradition of writing poetry. Many of these have been preserved and published. The most famous one is Li Qingzhao of the Song Dynasty.

    The ground is covered with yellow flowers
    Faded and fallen in showers
    Who will pick them up now?
    Sitting alone at the window, how
    Could I but quicken

    As the language of the heart, poetry allows the Chinese to express the subtleties of realities and the shades of emotions. The best poetry infuses the scenery with emotions.

    Poetry inverts grammar, reverses syntax, and separates lines in awkward places. We don't call this "poetic licence" for nothing. As a result, poetry is often hard to understand.

    But for Cording, poetry opens an in-between space, and in-betweenness is the condition of our humanness. "We live between our birth and death, about which we can know almost nothing," he writes.

    In a traditional Tang poem of 4 lines and each with only 5 characters, you cannot say much. But much can be said. A whole universe can be painted. What is not said is often as important as what is said.

    It is between the lines, in the in-between spaces, that the readers are invited to re-create with the poet, to imagine, and to roam freely.