• 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.

  • Vivaldi, Concerto No. 4 “Winter” (RV 297): 1st Movement (Allegro non molto in F Minor)

    It’s that time of year when you listen to Vivaldi’s concerto “Winter.” It still amazes me (and probably many others) how a mere human being can construe the beauty of four seasons in such a masterfully aesthetic and metaphorically compact way.

    Antonio Vivaldi (1678−1741) was a Baroque musician and he wrote The Four Seasons (Italian: Le quattro stagioni), a group of four violin concertos 1718−1720, which were published in 1721 in Amsterdam. The information of each concerto is as follows:

    • Concerto No. 1 in E major, Op. 8, RV 269, “Spring” (La primavera)
    • Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 8, RV 315, “Summer” (L’estate)
    • Concerto No. 3 in F major, Op. 8, RV 293, “Autumn” (L’autunno)
    • Concerto No. 4 in F minor, Op. 8, RV 297, “Winter” (L’inverno)

    I tried several renderings–for example, Chloe Chua or Julia Fischer–of the first movement of “Winter,” and this one performed by Cynthia Miller Freivogel in January 2016 is absolutely my favorite. In this video, Freivogel plays a baroque violin made by Johann Paul Schorn in 1715 in Salzburg, Austria.

    Vivaldi (ca. 1723) (source: Wikipedia)
  • The First Draft of my Dissertation

    By God’s grace, I finally submitted the first draft (committee copy) of my dissertation on December 1st, 2022. I still remember that surreal feeling that I felt that night when I clicked SEND. It was a long, hard push. I would be lying if I say I never felt like quitting, because I did from time to time. But I knew I had to keep moving. One day, when I realized that my draft–however messy and chaotic it was–had been growing, I began to record word count on sticky notes just so I knew that God was faithfully carrying me. Looking back, I now know even more clearly that God was always there with me. I praise God for his faithfulness. I pray God will continue to carry me as I get closer to the finish line. 神様を賛美します。

  • E. P. Sanders (1937-2022)

    E. P. Sanders, one of the most influential New Testament scholars of this century, passed away on November 21, 2022, at the age of 85.

    Although I am highly critical of his view on Paul and Judaism, I cannot overemphasize the impact he brought about through his magnum opus Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (1977), in which Sanders surveys Jewish-Palestinian literature (200 BC to 200 AD; e.g., early Tannaitic; the Dead Sea Scrolls; Paul’s writings, etc.) and challenges the traditional belief that Second Temple Judaism was a legalistic religion of works-righteousness.

    The pattern that he finds in Palestinian Judaism is not works-righteousness but what he calls covenantal nomism. To borrow his own language (Paul and Palestinian Judaism 422):

    1. God has chosen Israel and given the law.
    2. The law implies God’s promise to maintain the election and the requirement to obey.
    3. God rewards obedience and punishes transgression.
    4. The law provides for means of atonement, and atonement results in maintenance or reestablishment of the covenantal relationship.
    5. All those who are maintained in the covenant by obedience, atonement, and God’s mercy belong to the group which will be saved. An important interpretation of the first and last points is that election and ultimately salvation are considered to be by God’s mercy rather than human achievement.

    So, according to Sanders, you “get in” by God’s act of grace (covenant) but you “stay in” by adhering to the law of Moses (nomism). The law does not get you in, but it will keep you in.

    Literature by and on Sanders is legion. Whether you agree with him or not, the impact that his scholarship has had upon our understanding of Paul and his relationship to the Judaism of his day is undoubtedly tremendous.

  • Nothing Comes from Nothing

    In the beautiful 1965 movie The Sound of Music, Maria (Julie Andrews) and Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) sing “Something Good,” in which they say they must have done something good sometime during their childhood or youth, because they have found each other. What interests me in this song, however, is not their love story but this particular lyric:

    “Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could”

    When put into context, the line means that God has rewarded them for their good deeds in their childhood by bringing them together. But when taken out of context–although I normally don’t like doing it–it may lead one to the question of the origin of the universe. Although it is quite a leap to go from their love song to the origin of everything, the line pertains to one of the most besetting questions:

    “How did the universe and everything in it begin?”

    Roughly speaking, I think that there are two competing types of answers to that question. (* There is a mediating position called TE [Theistic Evolution]).

    First, there is the God explanation. It depends on and trusts the Bible’s description of the origin of the universe: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Second, there is the No God explanation. This attempts to account for the origin of the universe without God. The American Museum of Natural History (amnh.org) gives an exemplary stance of this view: “Our universe began with an explosion of space itself–the Big Bang. Starting from extremely high density and temperature, space expanded, the universe cooled, and the simplest elements formed. Gravity gradually drew matter together to form the first stars and the first galaxies.”

    This question concerning the origin of the world is important because it affects almost every aspect of one’s life. In fact, your answer to that question demonstrates your conviction of where you’re headed after death. For those who accept and believe in the God explanation, death means a passage to God their Maker. For those who resort to the No God explanation, death simply means the end of their existence.

    Where do you stand?