Friday, April 18, 2014

"Director of Operations" a.k.a. mom/dad's salary and vocation
A greeting card company made a fascinating video consists of interviews with several candidates applying for the position 'Director of Operations'. As reported by Straits Times, the 'Job Description' of the position includes:
"...the worker must stand up almost all the time; work from 135 hours to an unlimited number of hours per week; and have no time to sleep. There would also be no vacations. He or she must also expect his or her workload to increase on occasions like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Oh, and there would be no pay as well."
As each of the candidates find the job's expectation ridiculous, it was revealed to them that the other title of the position is 'mom'. The interviews are actually staged to show how demanding it is to be a mother.

This interview shows us that a mother's "job" is highly demanding. Let's not forget there are also full-time fathers who similarly have taken up such role. I know some of them.

Regardless whether it's mother or father, home-making is definitely no less demanding, if not more, than regular paid job. It is one of the most underpaid vocations. If they are paid at all, the amount that many homemakers get is lesser than full-time missionaries.

Two years ago a journalist, Porsche Moran calculated how much a homemaker should make in a year. As her calculation is based on American society, I thought I can re-work her model for local Singapore context. So I looked up the range of salary in industries related to homemaking, and I picked the lower estimation. This is what I found.

A kitchen chef in Singapore who makes sure your food is healthily prepared earns about $24,000 per year. This has not include grocery shopping and delivery cost.

Domestic cleaning of 4 hours, twice a week, is about $6,200 a year. This has not include annual spring cleaning for festive season. 

Child care cost is about $8,200 per year. And this quotation is only for day time caring. A homemaker often needs to care for the children even in the evening, and sometimes through the whole night.

If we just take these three basic services (cooking, domestic cleaning, and child care), a homemaker should be paid about $38,400 a year, which is $3,200 a month. This is a minimal estimation. Without CPF, annual leave, insurance coverage and medical benefit.  

I haven't take into account that some homemakers are also tutor to their children for school work. Some even play the role of a chauffeur. Sometimes homemakers are also the holiday planner, wealth consultant, career adviser, and counselor for the family. If yours is a Christian home, then you are also the spiritual director to your child. So, a fairer wage should be more than $3,200 per month. 

I think many housewives and house-husbands among us do not receive that much allowance. So, I wonder what can the government and society do to compensate our 'Director of Operations' fairly?

On the part of the church, what can we do to affirm and celebrate their role, place, and gifting in the community?

I think one way is to learn to see homemakers as called to serve in this capacity as their vocation. It is their calling; honourable and no less God-given. As the great reformer Martin Luther wrote,
"The idea that the service to God should have only to do with a church altar, singing, reading, sacrifice, and the like is without doubt but the worst trick of the devil. How could the devil have led us more effectively astray than by the narrow conception that service to God takes place only in church and by works done therein… The whole world could abound with services to the Lord---not only in churches but also in the home, kitchen, workshop, field."
(Quoted in R. Paul Stevens, The Other Six Days: Vocation, Work, and Ministry in Biblical Perspective [USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999], 77.
Like all legitimate vocations, homemaking is not merely taking care of the house and children. Theologically, homemaking provides the possibilities for God's spirit to recreate the world, to install glimpses of the new creation in the present time. In the words of Miroslav Volf,
"The point is not simply to interpret work religiously as cooperation with God and thereby glorify it ideologically, but to transform work into a charismatic cooperation with God on the "project" of the new creation."
(Quoted in Jeffrey Scholes, Vocation and the Politics of Word: Popular Theology in a Consumer Culture [UK: Lexington Books, 2013], 44.)
Family, spirituality, new creation, and God converge in the role of homemaking. It is a high-calling to be a stay-at-home mom or dad.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Two most common questions on Darren Aronofsky's Noah
They are, "Is it biblical (i.e. faithful to the text)?" and, "Should we watch it?"

Here's my take.

Is Noah faithful to the Genesis story?
There are so many things in the movie which are faithful to the biblical text. Noah, his father (Lamech), his grandfather (Methuselah), his wife, his three sons (Shem, Ham, and Japheth), a world filled with corrupt and violent people, a flood, an ark filled with pairs from each animal, a post-flood drunkard Noah, and his naked episode. And there is "the Creator" who brought the whole cosmos into existence. All these are found in Genesis 6-9.

So what are the additions in the movie which are not found in the Bible?

There is allusion to macroevolution in the depiction of the creation of the animals in the world. Some Christians are troubled by this. But if you hold to the view that God works through the process of macroevolution, then you would be delighted to see how the time-lapse process is juxtaposed with the reading of Genesis 1.

Nonetheless, Adam and Eve are not shown as the result of evolution. They had unrecognisable glorious body (which is another reason why Christian viewer may cringe). Only after the fall, they became like us. This part may lead us to rethink about Moses' radiant face (Exo. 34:29), Jesus' transfiguration (Matt. 17:2), and how our own body will be transformed with Christ's glory (Phil. 3:21). If we get a peep into our own future glorious body, we might not recognise ourselves too.

Serpent and Its Skin
The serpent in the film shed its glorious skin and turned evil. Christians who assume that the serpent in Eden was a physical manifestation of the devil would be puzzled by this. I think the film-makers are affirming that everything in the created world was good, and the serpent's turn to evil is a corruption of the original good creation. Nothing controversial here. What is troubling is the serpent's glorious skin was portrayed as a sacred relic that transmits inter-generational blessing. This is awkward.

Noah's grandfather was like a Gandalf-figure, but much more powerful. He can eliminate thousands of raging warriors with just one blow from his sword. He can heal barrenness by just a touch. And he has a magic seed taken from Eden which grew into a forest.

They were originally angels. After humans were expelled from Eden to live on cursed ground, these angels had compassion on them and descended to help them. For that, they were punished and subsequently being hunted down by the very humans they desired to help. So they were despair and hated humans, until they met Noah the only righteous person around. After Noah told them about his vision, the Watchers helped him to build the ark.

Noah's Confusion and Domestic Affair
Genesis 6-9 tells us nothing much about Noah's family. In the movie, there are tensions in the family which resulted in Noah's confused state of mind to want to kill all of them and commit suicide. Besides this, the Bible records there are 8 people in Noah's family. The movie shows only 5 (Noah, his wife and three sons) with an adopted girl who later became his daughter-in-law. On this, I think the film-makers can be more creative. They should build the domestic tension with the daughters-in-law included.

This character is from Genesis 4:22. He was a great metalsmith and the leader of the corrupted human race. This addition highlights the sociological possibility of having a righteous man, Noah living among wicked and corrupt people.

Silent God
God is portrayed as silent throughout the film. This is very different from Genesis 6-9, where it is understood that God verbally communicated with Noah. Some Christians are offended by this. But I think this is not really a foreign idea.

The movie is clear that Noah received his vision from the Creator, and he had to learn what he needed to do over time. Most of the time, if not always, we don't hear God audibly speaks to us. We spend our entire life learning how God deals with us. Step by step, we articulate what's God like and how to live as a follower. The movie shows us that Noah, like everyone else, is not spared from this. This is a Noah I can relate to. It is very good depiction of Christian's discipleship in the movie; a lifelong discovery filled with mistake and confusion, yet also divine guidance.

There are Christians who complain about the emphasis on environmentalism, but I think it's time for them to start reading the Bible with wider and greener eyes.

Should we watch it?
You have to ask yourself what do you plan to get out from the movie? If all you want is to learn about the story of Noah, you don't have to spend 2 hours 30 minutes in the cinema. All you need to do is to flip open your Bible and read Genesis 6-9, Matthew 24:38-39, and Hebrews 11:7. Movies in general are for entertainment.

Theologically, movies are modern parables that help us to learn about life. When we watch movie, we don't simply absorb or passively being entertained, but we are actively engaging the show. That's why we laugh, feel disappointed, cry, inspired, and get excited from watching movies. If so, how then can we build on this already active engagement with movie to serve our discipleship?

I think the first step is to discover the theological aspect of movie-watching as a cultural activity. Robert K. Johnston helpfully listed 6:
(1) God's grace is continually present throughout human culture; (2) theology should be concerned with the Spirit's presence and work in the world; (3) God speaks to us through all of life; (4) image as well as word can help us to encounter God; (5) theology's narrative shape makes it particularly open to interaction with other stories; and (6) the nature of constructive theology is a dialogue between God's story (as presented through the Bible, Christian tradition, and a particular worshipping community) and our stories (from the surrounding culture and our life experiences).
(Robert K. Johnston, Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue [USA: Baker Academic, 2nd edition, 2006], 91.)
There is much we can learn by understanding how God interacts with us through cultural artifacts such as movies. So, what did I learn from Noah? Two things. 

First, it is what I've alluded earlier: The movie contains a very good depiction that discipleship is a lifelong process filled with mistake and confusion, yet not without divine guidance.

Nothing can be more theologically dangerous than to assume we have gotten everything about God right right now. Such assumption says, there is nothing more to learn about God; all conceivable theological questions have already been asked, and we have got the answer to those that are answerable. 

If so, faith becomes merely "question and answer"; it is deprived of life. For e.g., to the Calvinists, God is X, and any conception of God other than X is sub-biblical. To the Arminians, God is Y, and any conception of God other than Y is sub-biblical. And so on to other -ists and -ians.

However, faith is not a lifeless catechism. God is the God of the living (Lk. 20:38). He encounters us through our life, revealing little by little of divinity to us. At certain time in life, God is silent. At other times, God speaks. At certain time and on certain issue, God is coherent. At other times and on other matters, God seems paradoxical. We know God through a lifetime (of which studying the scripture is but one part). And so such knowing defines our life.
"A violinist translate notes into music, a physician uses test results to guard and restore health, and a financial advisor read financial reports and follows the market in order to secure a comfortable retirement for her clients. All these require long-studied skills, until we finally say that so-and-so is a violinist, a physician, or a financial advisor. These skills are a central part of their identities. It is similar when they define us as being knowers of God: the experience of knowing God makes us who we are."
(Ellen T. Charry, 'Walking in the Truth: On Knowing God,' in But Is It True? The Bible and the Question of Truth, eds., Alan G. Padgett and Patrick R. Keifert [USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006], 169.)  
The movie reminds us that the great Noah is not spared from the lifelong journey to know God. If so, how much more should mere mortals like us be attentive in our own journey of knowing God?

Second, I really like how the story led to Noah getting drunk after the flood (Gen. 9:21). The whole episode has left Noah with a major trauma. He saw not only the death of all inhabitants on earth, humans and animals, but also the destruction of the world he grew up in. There is a scene in the movie where Noah seated silently in the dim centre of the ark while helplessly hearing the desperate cry and groan of those drowning in the flood. Noah was surrounded by death. The outpouring of divine wrath took place before his eyes.

Noah may have even wondered, if such is God's judgement, what's in store for sinners like me and my family?

He was terrified. And as a result, after the water has subsided, he binge drink to cope with the trauma. Genesis 9:20-21 makes sense. Before I watched Noah, I didn't realize how terrifying that catastrophe was. I didn't intuitively see that global destruction is the result of our sin. And I also didn't see what did it do to those who survived the flood. It destroyed them. Noah, the only righteouss man around, was turned drunkard because of others' sin.

How many people are affected because of our sin?
Prior to watching the movie, I read Genesis 6-9 in the manner of "matter-of-fact". There are many things we don't intuitively see. Boredom towards scripture could be a symptom that the scripture is disconnected from my own life. And this in turn could be a symptom that the scripture is disconnected from the contemporary world. The movie helps to reconnect scripture to our life. As Johnston wrote:  
"If theology is boring to many..., if one of the church's primary tasks is to somehow reconnect the church and contemporary life..., if theology is wrongly absent from too much of public discourse---then movies might provide a means of reconnection."
(Reel Spirituality, 134.)
So, should you watch Noah? What do you plan to get out from the movie?

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Paper burning offering as pedagogy? Don't think so.
The practice of burning 'hell money' is popular among Chinese. It is commonly understood that the burnt offering will be received by the dead as real currency in the afterlife. My family used to practice it. When I was young, I helped to fold 'joss money' into the shape of ancient Chinese gold bar for burning. 

I didn't know that the afterlife evolve according to our time. Nowadays I passed by shops that sell more than just hell money and joss money. There are paper iPad, smartphone, beer can, house, and even paper-maid (!) for burning. I guess, there is a general belief that the afterlife progresses along with the human realm.

Recently I came across a Buddhist website, with an article describing the true meaning of the ritual:
The ORIGINAL meaning of such an act is to show everyone present that all former possessions of the deceased cannot be brought along to the next life.  At one’s death, everything one had ever owned has to be left behind. The burning only emphasizes this message, as it is the most graphical, symbolic, and dramatic way of showing total loss!

Thus, the burning of cheaply-produced paper models and effigies served as an effective educational tool.  Witnessing how fire consumes every ‘former possession’ of the deceased, even an illiterate peasant or young child was able to understand this sense of total relinquishment at death.

Today, this practice is completely misunderstood by the majority of Chinese.  Instead of the original meaning, paper-made models have been turned into “paper offerings” – with the mistaken thought that whatever one burns, his departed relatives will obtain in the netherworld!
The article claims that the true meaning of burning paper offering to the dead is pedagogical. It is a symbolic way to teach the living about the impermanence of material possession. There are many who shared this article through social media, saying that it enlightens them on the true meaning of the practice. 

But I'm not convinced; the article gives no historical source as reference. 

The emergence of paper burning offering goes back to the 1st century when paper currency came into use. As Janet Lee Scott notes, 
"Paper currency is important in the history of paper offerings concern spirit money. Dard Hunter wrote that by the reign of Ho Ti (He Di, 和帝, AD 89-106) paper was already a substitute for genuine coins, and paper cut into coin shapes was being burned to the spirits by the beginning of the Three Kingdoms Period (三國) from AD 221 to AD 420... By the Tang (唐), imitations of real paper money appeared during the reign of Kao Tsung (Gao Zong, 高宗)...."
(Janet Lee Scott, For Gods, Ghosts and Ancestors: The Chinese Tradition of Paper Offerings [Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2007], 26.)
A good study on the historical origin of this ritual is in the third chapter of C. Fred Blake's Burning Money: The Material Spirit of the Chinese Lifeworld (USA: University of Hawai'i Press, 2011). As I don't have the printed text, my citation is based on a proof copy.

In the chapter, Blake introduces several folklore about Cai Lun (蔡伦), a historical 1st century Chinese eunuch who is believed to be the inventor of paper. These stories go along the line that Cai Lun (or his family) needed a way to sell his invention (paper), so he tricked people into believing that when paper is burnt, it becomes money in the afterlife. Here is Yang Wanshang's version, reproduced by Blake:
In ancient times, a person named Cai Lun invented paper. People were anxious to buy the paper to use it to write on. His business flourished. Cai Lun’s sister-in-law [Hui Niang] noticed how profitable his business was. She asked her husband Cai Mo to learn how to make paper from his younger brother. As he was leaving to study his little brother’s trade, his wife enjoined, “Just study for a short while, then come back to start making money as soon as possible.” Cai Mo went to Cai Lun’s home. Three months later, he came back and opened a paper store. Because the paper he and his wife made was too coarse, they could not sell it. The paper piled up all over the place. The couple looked at the paper and they were much worried.

Hui Niang was an astute person. She came up with an idea. She whispered in her husband’s ear and asked her husband to follow her plan.

That night, Cai Mo wailed loudly. Neighbors did not know what happened to his family. They came over and found that Hui Niang had died. She had been put into a coffin. When Cai Mo saw that all his neighbors had come, he cried for a while and carried a bundle of grass paper (căozhĭ) indoors. He lit the paper in front of the coffin. He cried, addressing the coffin: “I learned the paper-making skill from my younger brother, but I was not so earnest, and the paper I made was not so good. This made you so angry and you died as a result. I will burn the paper into ash to quench your hatred.” He burned paper while he was crying. After he had burned the whole bundle, he carried in another bundle and continued to burn. He burned and burned, suddenly there were sounds from inside the coffin. It seemed that he did not hear the sounds, for he kept burning and crying. Suddenly, Hui Niang shouted from inside the coffin, “Take off the lid quickly, I came back!” All of the people were startled, they tried to be brave as they took off the lid.

Hui Niang sat up. She put on an act and sang, “In the yáng-world money can be used everywhere, but in the yīn-world business is also transacted; were it not for my husband’s burning paper, who would let me return home!” After the song, she tried to collect herself saying, “Just now I was a ghost (guĭ), now I am a human. When I got to the yīn-world, they had me push the mill to torture me. I suffered a lot. My husband sent me money. Little ghosts struggled to help me push the mill just for a little money—it was just like the proverb: with money you can buy the ghost to push the mill. The judge (pànguān) knew I had money so he asked me for it. I gave him a lot of money. This was the money my husband was sending to me. Then the pànguān furtively opened the back door of the earth bureau (dìfŭ). I was set free and came back.”

After hearing what his wife said, Cai Mo pretended to be lost and asked, “But I didn’t send you money, did I?”

Hui Niang pointed to the pile of paper on fire and said, “That is the money you sent to me. In yáng-world we use copper for money, whereas in the yīn-world, paper is used for money.”

Having heard this, Cai Mo ran out and carried two big bundles of grass paper inside. As he proceeded to burn it he cried, “Pànguān Pànguān, you let my wife come back, I am so grateful. I’m giving you two more bundles, please treat my parents well in the yīn-world; don’t let them suffer. When you run out of money, I will send you more.” With these words, he carried in two more bundles of grass paper to burn.

The neighbors were fooled by the couple. They thought that burning paper was really feasible. They scrambled to spend their money to buy paper from Cai Mo. Then they went to their ancestors’ tombs to burn paper. In no less than two days, the piles of paper in Cai Mo’s house were sold out. Ever since that time, the custom of going to the tombs to burn paper has continued. (pp.55-57.)
Blake also draws upon an early Buddhist text to highlight the practice of paper burning as offering to the dead:
"One of the first literary references to “paper money” is found in a seventh-century Buddhist text: The Forest of Pearls in the Garden of the Dharma (Fa yuan zhu lin) relates a ghost story in which a man with considerable knowledge of the spirit world tells how "everything of which spirits avail themselves differs from the things that are used by the living. Gold and silks alone can be generally current among them, but are of special utility to them if counterfeited. Hence we must make gold by daubing large sheets of tin with yellow paint, and manufacture pieces of silk stuff out of paper, such articles being more appreciated by them than anything else."" (p.65.)
Then he highlights some ancient Chinese intellectuals who practiced the ritual:
"...the philosopher Kang Jie (1011–1077), who lived in the century before Zhu Xi and burned mulberry-bark paper money (chǔqián) as part of the spring and autumn sacrifices to his ancestors. A contemporary, Cheng Yichuan (1033–1107), was amazed and asked the older Kang why he did this. Kang replied, Since grave goods (míngqì) are proper, why should offerings of paper money not give vent to filial sons and compassionate grandsons?" (p.68.)
Blake summarizes the five theories on the origin of paper offering,
"[My] approach to the history of the paper money custom is to entertain five hypotheses that purport to explain the advent and/or popularization of the custom. These are that (1) the custom derived from the Confucian tradition, especially as it was articulated in the classic books on rites [礼记]; (2) the custom became popular with the advent of printing on paper, which was spurred by the spread of Buddhist texts and talismans; (3) the custom developed as the ideological counterpart to the development of fiduciary papers with the increased velocity and distancing of commercial transactions; (4) the custom became popular as a way for common folks to economize on their offerings; and (5) the custom became popular as a way common folks could participate in the reproduction of cosmic and imperial order yet at the same time mock (in both senses of the word) the sumptuary rules by which imperial order maintained itself. This last explanation is one that I have added to the list of more conventional explanations, so it is the one I favor, although I realize that each explanation has its strengths and weaknesses and no one excludes the other four." 
Where does the purported original meaning of the ritual as "to show everyone present that all former possessions of the deceased cannot be brought along to the next life" fit into any of these five hypotheses that are based on historical records? Seems like no where.

This does not falsify the claim made by the Nalanda article, yet unless we are shown the supporting historical sources, we have no reason to take it as true.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

"Noah" movie promotes Gnosticism?
I've seen Brian Mattson's misinformed commentary on "Noah" movie being circulated on social media. Mattson accuses the movie for promoting Gnosticism, and he quoted Irenaeus as support. 
"Let’s go back to our luminescent first parents. I recognized the motif instantly as one common to the ancient religion of Gnosticism. Here’s a 2nd century A.D. description about what a sect called the Ophites believed:

"Adam and Eve formerly had light, luminous, and so to speak spiritual bodies, as they had been fashioned. But when they came here, the bodies became dark, fat, and idle." –Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies, I, 30.9

"It occurred to me that a mystical tradition more closely related to Judaism, called Kabbalah (which the singer Madonna made popular a decade ago or so), surely would have held a similar view, since it is essentially a form of Jewish Gnosticism."
"The world of Aronofsky’s Noah is a thoroughly Gnostic one: a graded universe of "higher" and "lower.""
And Mattson ended with these strong words: 
"...not a single seminary degree is granted unless the student demonstrates that he has read, digested, and understood Irenaeus of Lyon’s Against Heresies."
Those who have watched "Noah" and read Irenaeus will find Mattson's commentary puzzling. To say that the movie is promoting Gnosticism because it contains some similar ideas found in Gnostic texts is akin of saying the movie is promoting Anglo-Saxonism because it is filmed in English and not the original language which Noah used (Hebrew, may be?).

Besides, the movie's emphasis on the importance of the material world is contrary to Gnosticism, which has a low view of the world. Here is the excerpt from Irenaues' Against Heresies, Book 1, Chapter 5.4:
"As, then, they represent all material substance to be formed from three passions, viz., fear, grief, and perplexity... The corporeal elements of the world, again, sprang, as we before remarked, from bewilderment and perplexity, as from a more ignoble source. Thus the earth arose from her state of stupor; water from the agitation caused by her fear; air from the consolidation of her grief; while fire, producing death and corruption, was inherent in all these elements, even as they teach that ignorance also lay concealed in these three passions."
The "Noah" movie portrays the world in the exact opposite from the Gnostic view mentioned by Irenaeus. Mattson conveniently misses out this part? So, will Mattson heed his own words by returning his degree to Westminster Theological Seminary?

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Responses to World Vision & Mozilla: Hypocrisy & Prejudice
On 24 March, World Vision in America announced a policy change to allow the hiring of those in legal same-sex marriage. Many Christian leaders responded in surprise. Donors stopped contributing. 

Two days later, World Vision reversed its policy. Many Christian leaders were glad. Donors resume their support. But some people cried (before going on the "I-am-a-better-follower-of-Jesus-than-you-all" mode), some resigned, many were angry. A former bishop in Singapore who is very pro-LGBTQ implicated World Vision for worshiping Mammon.

Critics of the policy reversal accuse donors for prioritizing sexual ethics over hungry children. And this is the reason why young people are leaving evangelical Christianity. However, as pointed out by Chelsen Vicari, the former accusation is naive, while as Daniel Darling shows, the latter is simply false.

A week later, in an entirely unrelated event, Mozilla fired its CEO Brendan Eich because he supported heterosexual marriage over same-sex marriage. New York Times carries an article defending Mozilla's action by saying along the line that the company relies on public support, and since the public's standard has been violated, Eich has to go:
"Mozilla is not a normal company. It is an activist organization... Mr. Eich’s position on gay marriage wasn’t some outré personal stance unrelated to his job; it was a potentially hazardous bit of negative branding in the labor pool, one that was making life difficult for current employees and plausibly reducing Mozilla’s draw to prospective workers..."
Or as a Mozilla's employee states,
"It is difficult for me to understand how we are best served by a leader whose capacity to divide our community is so apparent."
No such defense from New York Times came to World Vision's reversal even though it is also community-based (in its case, the Christians) and dependent on public support. Those who lament over World Vision's reversal didn't cry or get angry. They are simply silent on Mozilla. The pro-LGBTQ former bishop in Singapore even justifies Mozilla's firing of Eich (unlike gay journalist Andrew Sullivan who lashed out against such injustice).

Do you see the hypocrisy and prejudice playing out in the responses to these two events?

Updates: Frank Bruni at the New York Times has finally voiced out