• When We Are in Profound Distress (BWV 641)

    To many (I believe), it is almost indisputable that Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) marks the apogee of the Baroque period (seventeenth to mid-eighteenth centuries). His organ chorale titled “Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein” (When We Are in Profound Distress) (BWV 641) is from the Orgelbüchlein, a collection of his chorale preludes (1712-1717). The organist Daniel Seeger’s 2020 rendering of this piece speaks to me in a way that it warmly comforts my weary soul.

    Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein
    When we are in profound distress

    Und wissen nicht, wo aus noch ein,
    And lose our way in helplessness

    Und finden weder Hilf noch Rat
    Without advice to guide our way,

    Ob wir gleich sorgen früh und spat,
    Although we worry night and day,

    So ist dies unser Trost allein,
    Our only comfort in such times,

    Dass wir zusammen insgemein
    Is that together we may come

    Dich anrufen, o treurer Gott,
    And cry to you, our faithful God,

    Um Rettung aus der Angst und Not.
    To save us from our worries’ load.

    Although he was a king, sorrow was not foreign to David. His entire life was filled with challenges, sufferings, many sorrows, and pain. What makes him truly extraordinary, however, is that he kept seeking God. He never stopped pursuing God even when he found himself in profound distress. David says in Psalm 63:5-8 (when he was in the Judean desert) (ESV):

    My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,
    and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips,
    when I remember you upon my bed,
    and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
    for you have been my help,
    and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.
    My soul clings to you;
    your right hand upholds me.

    I am praying for those who are distressed and weary. I hope and pray that Bach’s beautiful chorale and King David’s psalm may bring joy and comfort to those who suffer.

  • Oppenheimer: The Father of the Atomic Bomb

    Oppenheimer: The Father of the Atomic Bomb

    The photo above (Getty Image) is the view of the mushroom cloud from the atomic bomb nicknamed “Fat Man” dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. This was taken from almost 10 km away on August 9, 1945.

    The American theoretical physicist of German-Jewish descent J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967) led the Manhattan Project (1942-) as the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory during WWII to develop an atomic bomb. Their test of the first atomic bomb (named “Trinity” test by Oppenheimer) on July 16, 1945 succeeded, and less than one month later (Aug 8-9), two atomic bombs were dropped on two Japanese cities, instantly killing 105K people and severely injuring 94K, which was one of the biggest tragedies in human history.

    While we know that Oppenheimer later opposed nuclear proliferation and a nuclear arms race with the USSR, it is hard to deny that it was Oppenheimer himself who had opened Pandora’s Nuclear Box. I doubt, however, that Oppenheimer took great pleasure in developing the atomic bomb. He knew more than anybody else did that what he and the team were doing would change the world forever, in a very destructive way. While the atomic world was a constant fascination for him, taking out the immeasurable force of energy and using it to destroy human lives must have placed unendurable pressure and stress upon him. In that sense, when I watched Christopher Nolan’s new film Oppenheimer (Universal Pictures), I thought Cillian Murphy had done an amazing job depicting the agony in which Oppenheimer may have found himself.

    (Cillian Murphy; source: imdb)

    On Aug 8-9, 1945, the world witnessed the first use of atomic weapons. It should also be the last use of nuclear bombs against human lives.

  • Thanks and Prayers

    Our son, Kyum, is starting his college life in the Engineering Science program at UofT (Class of 2027) this fall. Since our daughter, Sue, is going back to Rhodes for her junior year next Sunday, we had family time after church to celebrate Kyum for beginning a new chapter of his life. We took a short tour of University of Toronto campus (St. George) and enjoyed Japanese ramen dinner. It was a peaceful evening, and Lynn and I thanked God for blessing us with our beautiful children, Sue, and Kyum. I cannot even begin to describe how much joy they have brought to our lives. Lynn and I have shed so many tears, however, because of Kyum’s struggles with faith in God. Our prayers for him will continue until God will give him the precious gift of faith (Ephesians 2:8).

    Kyum – UofT EngSci Class of 2027 (2027 is the 200th anniversary of UofT!)

    τῇ γὰρ χάριτί ἐστε σεσῳσμένοι διὰ πίστεως· καὶ τοῦτο οὐκ ἐξ ὑμῶν, θεοῦ τὸ δῶρον
    For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8)

  • Paul gave his life for the gospel of Christ

    Paul gave his life for the gospel of Christ

    Second Timothy is the last letter Paul penned. He probably wrote it while waiting for his execution. Paul writes, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Tim 4:6-8 [ESV]),

    The Scripture says nothing about the Apostle Paul’s death. However, there is almost universal consensus among historians and biblical scholars that he was martyred under Emperor Nero who ruled 54-68 AD. As for the manner in which he was killed, it seems that he was “graciously” beheaded (not brutally crucified) because he was a Roman citizen.

    Why did the Apostle Paul have to be killed? What reason did Nero have to get rid of him? It was during the first Jewish-Roman war (66-70 AD) that Emperor Nero was condemned by the Senate for his ever-growing madness and that he ended his own life. Considering that Roman deference toward Judaism continued at least until this war, it seems unlikely that Paul was executed for belonging to and advancing Judaism. If Nero had any reason to behead Paul, it must have been that Paul was one of the leading figures of the newly formed movement of the gospel of grace of Jesus Christ, not that he had been promoting the so-called Jewish causes.

    Although the Apostle knew that he would soon meet his fate, I don’t see any regrets in his confession in 2 Tim 4. He fought the good fight. He finished the race. He kept the faith. He lived his life for the gospel of grace. And he was now ready to die for the gospel of Christ.

    Far too often, however, we become oblivious to the fact that Paul gave his life for the gospel. Too many academics dismiss this gospel as an old-fashioned, confessional, conservative, and narrowly-defined concept of personal salvation and do not even view it as the core of Paul’s teachings. To Paul, the gospel was a matter of life and death. But to many biblical scholars and theologians, it is just one of the theological concepts that they believe they are licensed to toy with in whatever way they are pleased.

    “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God”

    (Paul to the Ephesian elders; Acts 20:24 [ESV])

    Mattia Preti (1613-1699): “The Martyrdom of Saint Paul” (ca. 1656-1659)
    Google Art Project

  • That Scary Middle-Aged Asian Man

    I chased them furiously. The two teenage boys crazily ran down the stairs as if they were being chased by a wolf. Being caught finally, the younger one cried, “Bayram, bayram!” The older one gave up fleeing, stopped, and looked back in disbelief. Approaching me, he muttered the same thing, “Bayram, bayram.” I was too angry to heed what they were desperately saying. I threw the cap they left at my door and yelled at them with a threatening gaze and a stern face. They repeatedly said, “Sorry, sorry” in English and disappeared into the evening.

    It had been a long day. I had been tired of the day’s work, and the stress from living in a foreign country was taking a toll on me. Exhausted, I was just having a peaceful dinner with my family when the boys came knocking on the door. When I opened the door, I only saw a cap on the ground and heard a couple of boys giggling somewhere in the dark hallway. I couldn’t see them. I was irritated and murmured, ‘Just leave me alone.’ I closed the door and went back to the dinner. The knocking returned within minutes. I opened the door again and it was just the same—the cap, the invisible and giggling boys. It was their huge mistake when they came for the third time because I was going to teach them a lesson. I stormed out and began chasing the two panicked boys pelting down the stairs at top speed—that is how the crazy chase began.

    Although I sprained my left ankle a little bit from the hullabaloo, I felt fine because I made it very clear to them that it was not a good idea to be rude to foreigners. Minutes after I finished dinner, I received a phone call from my Finnish colleague. When I shared with him what had just happened, he laughed and said, “Hey, it’s Novruz Bayram. It’s a Spring festival in this country. The boys were just doing their traditional thing. I’m sure they never intended to be rude.”

    He was right. The two boys were just celebrating Novruz Bayram—a holiday celebrating the coming of Spring. They just wanted to invite this new Asian family to join their fun time. What the boys did was just like trick-or-treating in Halloween in North America: they visit houses and place their caps at the door. They knock on the door and run and hide themselves. The landlord comes out with candies, nuts, and other sweets, and put them in the cap lying on the ground. Then the boys return to collect them, and they leave. It’s a fun and beautiful tradition of Azerbaijan!

    And I did that to the boys.

    When I hung up the phone, it was already past 9 pm. Completely ashamed, however, I couldn’t stay home. I got out to look for the boys. I wanted to apologize to them. I wanted to find them and sincerely ask them to forgive me. But I could never find them. They were gone. Even until today—twelve years since then—I still feel sorry.

    (Novruz Bayram celebration in Azerbaijan)

  • Knowing God versus Knowing about God

    “We come back, then, to where we started. The question is not whether we are good at theology or ‘balanced’ (horrible, self-conscious word!) in our approach to problems of Christian living. The question is, can we say, simply, honestly, not because we feel that as evangelicals we ought to, but because it is a plain matter of fact, that we have known God, and that because we have known God the unplesantness we have had or the pleasantness we have not had, through being Christians, does not matter to us? If we really knew God, this is what we would be saying, and if we are not saying it, that is a sign that we need to face ourselves more sharply with the difference between knowing God and merely knowing about him.” –J. I. Packer

    (Adapted and published by crossway.org. The original comes from his book Knowing God)

  • Paul: Far Too Radical an Apostle

    I have long been wondering about the word “Radical” in the label that refers to the group of scholars who do not allow Paul to be read outside Judaism, i.e., the so-called Radical New Perspective on Paul (or the Paul-within-Judaism Perspective). I think that the term “Radical” is a red herring because placing Paul back into Judaism of his day is one of the least radical ways of reading the Apostle–no matter what you read (be it Jewish writings or his own letters), it is hardly possible to dispute that Paul was (highly) critical of Palestinian Judaism.

    Paul Foster at the University of Edinburgh seems to think like I do. In his insightful article, “An Apostle Too Radical for the Radical Perspective on Paul” (The Expository Times 133 [2021] 1-11), he critiques Paula Fredriksen’s RNP views as represented in her 2017 book Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle. I agree with most of Foster’s points–except for his doubt on Paul’s authorship of Ephesians–and I want to share some portions of his “Concluding Observations” (9-11) because they show why the word “Radical” in Radical New Perspective is misleading:

    “They [RNP, PwJ] present a Paul who simply is not very radical” (10) . . . “Paul the Jew, striving to bring non-Jews to a place where they acknowledged and worshipped the God of Israel as the only God, and engaged in all the ethical practices required by the Law in obedience to that God of Israel” (10) . . . “What could have been more congenial”? (10) . . . “This domesticated and congenial Paul is certainly not the Paul one meets in his own writings” (10).

    If we read Paul’s own writings, he is not a domesticated and congenial figure; rather, he is “a fiery and driven figure, a person who had undergone a radical change in his own self-understanding . . . This is certainly a radical perspective on Paul, but not one that emerges from a Paul with Judaism, but a Paul in Christ” (11).

  • García and Miralles, Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life (2016)

    García, Héctor, and Francesc Miralles. Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life. New York: Penguin, 2016. Hard Cover. 198 pages. $27.50.

    This is a book about an aspect of Japanese culture written by non-Japanese authors. Although one of them (García) does hold Japanese citizenship, this book is an interesting description of Japan by foreigners. Héctor García has written other books about Japan and the co-author Miralles is a best-selling self-help writer from Spain.

    The authors describe and present the Japanese concept of 生き甲斐 (ikigai; “life’s purpose”) as one of the most important elements of “the extraordinary longevity of the Japanese” (2).

    In “Prologue—Ikigai: A mysterious word” (1–6), the authors introduce the notion of ikigai and show that it is closely connected to joy (2, 4).  In “I. Ikigai: The art of staying young while growing old” (7–16), Japanese longevity is presented as another major topic of the book. The three major elements of longevity according to the authors include community, ikigai, and healthy diet. Continuing to be active, too, is a significant factor that attributes to Japanese longevity (10). In “II. Antiaging Secrets: Little things that add up to a long and happy life” (17–34) discusses stress and how to reduce it. In “III. From Logotheraphy to Ikigai: How to live longer and better by finding your purpose” (35–52), they introduce logotherapy (from psychology) and Morita therapy (from Zen Buddhism) and argue that both are ultimately for finding one’s ikigai (51). In “IV. Find Flow in Everything You Do: How to turn work and free time into spaces for growth” (53–86), after a long discussion of Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow” (55–70), the authors argue that it is a notion that is found in Japanese culture (e.g., takumi, Ghibli, the recluses, sophisticated simplicity, microflows, attention to detail, meditation, and rituals). They conclude the chapter by urging the reader to use flow to find their ikigai (86). “V. Masters of Longevity: Words of wisdom from the longest-living people in the world” (87–100) is a short chapter that records the interviews the authors conducted. In “VI. Lessons from Japan’s Centenarians: Traditions and proverbs for happiness and longevity” (101–18), the authors present a short collection of the wisdom from the centenarians they met in Ogimi, Okinawa. Some examples include “Don’t worry” (112–13), “Cultivate good habits” (113–14), “Live an unhurried life” (116), and “Be optimistic” (116–17). The reader who is interested in Japanese cuisine will find “VII. The Ikigai Diet: What the world’s longest-living people eat and drink” (119–32) interesting. Not surprisingly they “consume fewer calories” (124) and enjoy a variety of healthy items (123, 127–28), for example, tofu, miso, tuna, carrots, seaweed, cabbage, green tea, and jasmine tea. Moving actively is another known secret in Japanese longevity, which is described in “VIII. Gentle Movements, Longer Life: Exercises from the East that promote health and longevity” (133–62). The authors introduce Japanese taiso and shiatsu, Indian yoga, Chinese tai chi and qigong. In “IX. Resilience and Wabi-sabi: How to face life’s challenges without letting stress and worry age you” (163–80), the authors conclude that the Japanese notions of 侘寂 (wabi-sabi) and 一期一会 (ichigo-ichie) help the Japanese appreciate and live in the present. Although they say that ikigai is a mysterious notion in “Prologue,” in “Epilogue” (181–86), they confidently define it as “the art of living” and ends with the list of ten rules of ikigai (184–85).

    This book offers several fascinating findings about Japanese culture. First, by reading this book, the reader can learn that ikigai is a significant factor in many advancements in Japan. Once a Japanese has discovered his or her ikigai (“reasons to live,” 37), the person will not want to retire but continue their work (10) because they love what they do. Second, the authors rightly note that ikigai may be related to Shintoism (76–77). In the authors’ opinion, in Japan, those who have found their ikigai and experience a state of flow in what they do are “the happiest people” (86). Third, the reader learns that Japan is a ritualistic society where rituals are rendered as more important than absolute rules (85) because rituals provide concrete sub-steps to follow to accomplish one’s ikigai (85). Fourth, the reader learns that the Japanese understand both the fleeting nature and the importance of the present life. As for the incompleteness of our present life, the authors introduce the Japanese concept of 侘寂 (wabi-sabi) that shows “the beauty of the fleeting, changeable, and imperfect nature of the world around us” (172). At the same time, however, the Japanese are determined to pursue the importance of the here and now, which is reflected in the phrase一期一会 (ichigo-ichie) (173).

    The authors depend on two foreign theories—Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow—to account for the Japanese notion of ikigai. Although I admit that their attempt is insightful and helps the reader see the interconnectedness among them, I wonder if the two can fully describe the nature of ikigai, the mysterious Japanese concept. Furthermore, I doubt the legitimacy of their view that ikigai is, in a sense, being in a state of flow (57, 70, 76, etc.) because, in my opinion, ikigai is a worldview, not a psychological state.

    It seems to me that what constitutes the foundation of the notion of ikigai is the common belief that there is no Divine Being and that every human, therefore, is the master of his own life. In that sense, both ikigai and V. Frankl’s logotherapy share one thing in common: each person has both “a unique reason for being” (3) and “the capacity” to accomplish things (42). While reading this book, I was wondering if human beings could really find—or even think of—ikigai if there’s no God. If everything that exists is a result of accidental evolutionary developments whose process somehow had started from nothing, I can hardly believe that our lives can be meaningful. My short life—maximum 100 years—is a meaningless dot in this never-ending pointless passage of time.

    This book offers an excellent meta-language with which to understand and explain several aspects of Japanese culture. The notion of ikigai is both a universal and a uniquely Japanese framework that accounts for many fine contributions that Japan has been making for the world. I highly recommend this book.

  • Jewish Pride?

    Recently I came across an interesting sermon by rabbi Angela W. Buchdahl at the Central Synagogue in New York city, titled “Jewish Pride: Live Up to Your Name” (preached on September 26, 2022). You can watch it below, or you can read the entire transcript here.

    The thesis of her sermon is this: Stop being afraid of revealing your Jewish identity in public. Be proud of your Jewish identity and live up to it.

    I have three comments.

    First, I found it intriguing when the rabbi mentioned that more and more younger Jews are hiding their Jewish identity because of fear. Citing a 2021 Brandeis study, she emphasized that almost 50 percent of the next Jewish generation was hiding their identity, which, for her, was a “chilling turn.” Her claim is surprising because what I see in today’s New Testament scholarship (or Pauline studies) is something radically different from her observation; for example, an increasing number of scholars now stress the Jewish identity of the Apostle Paul and Paul’s Jewishness has thus become one of the most popular hermeneutical keys in interpreting his teachings.

    Second, although I have no doubt that the rabbi’s Jewish congregants were moved to hear her eloquent exhortation that they should know that they have received a “noble inheritance” (as Hebrews, Jews, and Israel) and therefore double down on their Jewish pride and live it out, I wonder whether such strong Jewish particularism* can have the same effect on non-Jews.

    Third, her sermon betrays Judaism’s works-righteousness aspect. In her attempt to summarize Judaism in five minutes, she emphasizes that Judaism pertains, more than anything else, to performing ethical actions, for example, honoring one’s parents or caring for the sick. According to her definition, Judaism is “ethics in action,” and as long as a Jew performs those “acts of love and kindness,” he or she “should feel well-founded pride.”

    * See Runesson, Anders. “Particularistic Judaism and Universalistic Christianity?: Some Critical Remarks on Terminology and Theology.” Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 1 (2000) 120-44. Although he is not happy with the term particularism, I can think of no better term to capture rabbi Buchdahl’s claim.

  • Claiming To Be Wise, They Became Foolish

    Claiming To Be Wise, They Became Foolish

    In late November, Cambridge researcher Joshua Heath delivered a disgusting “sermon” at Trinity College, which left many worshipers in shock. I do not have access to his full script. But according to Daily Mail and The Economic Times, Heath suggested that Christ had had a trans body. One of the pieces of the evidence he offered to the already speechless audience was the side wound on Jesus’ body in a fourteenth-century painting that looked like a female genital opening (see below).

    This Cambridge student did not seem to care that he also had several children in the audience because he went ahead to make another scandalous claim that the “Miniature of Christ’s Side Wound and Instruments of the Passion” in the Prayer Book of Bonne of Luxembourg of the fourteenth century “takes on a decidedly vaginal appearance.”

    According to The Telegraph, this man concludes his unashamed blasphemy with the following remarks: “In Christ’s simultaneously masculine and feminine body in these works, if the body of Christ as these works suggest the body of all bodies, then his body is also the trans body.”

    Even more shocking was the Dean’s response to the worshipers’ dismay; when confronted by the rightfully distressed worshipers, Michael Banner, Trinity College’s Dean, Fellow and Director of Studies in Theology and Religious Studies, defended Heath, saying the student’s “speculation was legitimate.” And later, the spokesperson of Trinity College wrote, “[Heath’s claim was] in the spirit of thought-provoking academic inquiry . . . [and it] was in keeping with open debate and dialogue at the University of Cambridge.”  

    I am struggling for words to describe the absurd insanity of this Cambridge incident. Heath’s offensive presentation does not even deserve an academic discussion because what he does is not an academic inquiry but the worst mixture of populism and presumptuous eisegesis. Worse yet is that there were worshipers–including children (O Lord, have mercy upon us!)–who came to hear the word of God and Heath did that under the guise of the so-called academic freedom! No wonder many of them left in shock and in tears.

    This Cambridge incident proves again how precisely correct the Apostle Paul was concerning human beings: φάσκοντες εἶναι σοφοὶ ἐμωράνθησαν “Claiming to be wise, they became foolish” (Rom 1:22). This heartbreaking incident also makes me wonder whether today’s biblical scholars and theologians are doing our work in the right way. This is a clear example of our tendency to dump so many extra-textual things onto the text and call it biblical interpretation.

    To me, the most unbelievable thing about Joshua Heath is that he can see a female genital opening in the scandalous wound inflicted upon the body of our Lord Jesus Christ who came to die an unspeakably brutal death to save us from our sins.