Anyone interpreted in biblical intepretation must be a reader of the Bible. In addition, one must also be well-versed in one’s cultural-religious heritage. It means that one must do the following:

  • understand one’s culture
  • be able to speak one’s native language(s) and write anything perfectly
  • try to sort out good cultural elements from bad (life-degrading) cultural items.
  • read the Bible and expect lessons to be taught and get surprises
  • pay close attention to the encounter between Christianity and ethnic (native) religions
  • try to figure out how they (Christianity and native religions) can be used to strenghten one’s identity as an “ethnic Christian.”

There are more that can be added to the list.

In the past, scriptural interpretation in Myanmar has been largely influenced by interpretive methods proposed and practiced in western countries. Christianity in Myanmar has been more than 200 years since the arrival  of the first American Baptist missionary couple Adoniram Judson and his wife Ann Judson.

Yet, for a variety of reasons, Myanmar Christians still rely on commentaries and theologies written and published in the West. In fact, these commentaries and theologies are wanting in Myanmar context mainly because they were not written for people in Myanmar. Since a few decades ago, some of Myanmar scholars and theologians such as Simon Pau Khan En and Samuel Ngun Ling (both of whom are former President and current President of MIT respectively) have voiced the need for doing Myanmar theology and Myanmar scriptural interpretation.

People (Christians in particular) in Myanmar have been blessed with two texts: the Bible and cultural-religious text. The latter has been largely ignored in discussions in regards to biblical and theological articulation. As a result, Myanmar Christians are in identity crisis. They have been nurtued and sustained by their cultural goods, but in order to become Christian, they were asked directly or indirected to abandon their past (including their culture) attachment.

Since they are to get rid of their cultural-religious elements, they have found themselves in confusing but complex situation(s). They cannot really get rid of all their cultural-religious elements despite their “obedient” attempt. Why? Because these cultural elements have been part of their lives, and cannot be erased from their memories and experiences. Although they are now Christian, they still long for their home-grown foods (cultural-religious things). Christianity has no doubt brought them into closer relationship with God through the belief in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Yet, it cannot really satisfy their thirst and hunger. In other words, apart from their cultural-religious heritage, Myanmar Christians cannot actually progress in their lives. They oftentimes feel lost in the middle of nowhere. Hence, split identity that needs to be integrated.

 

Why Study the Past?

Posted: May 20, 2011 in Uncategorized

The following quotes are from Rowan Williams (Why Study the Past? 2005):

[W]hen you sense that you cannot take for granted that things are the same, you begin to write history, to organise the collective memory so that breaches may be mended and identities displayed. [p. 5]

Christians from the beginning have a strong investment in history as a discipline which seeks to hold together in one story continuity and discontinuity. [p. 8]

Brian L. Webster and David R. Beach

The Essential Bible Companion to the Psalms: Key Insights for Reading God’s Word

Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2010. Pp. 185.

Several weeks ago, when I went to check my mailbox, I was happy to receive a review copy of  The Essential Bible Companion to the Psalms. I came back home and put it on my table, thinking that I would read it shortly. My wife asked me whether I bought it. I told her that it was sent to me by the folks at Zondervan for a blog tour. She picked up the book, looked at its front, back, and content; then, she browsed it and read some part of it. Looking at me still holding the book, my wife said, “I think this is what I want. Can I have it?” I said, “You can but not now. I want to read it first and write a short review for the blog tour.” She then said, smiling: “Please let me know when you are ready to read and review it. Until then I will keep it.” Since then she has been reading one or two chapters daily. Yesterday, I borrowed the book from my wife in order  to read and review it.

This book is co-authored by Brian L. Webster, an associate professor of Old Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, and David R. Beach (MA), a licensed counselor who teaches spiritual formation and psychology courses at Cornerstone University.

From the outset, I want to point out that this will not be an exhaustive review of the book. My review will be in the following order. First, I will mention the outline of the book. Second, I will pick up the authors’ treatment of Psalm 23 in order that readers may be able to “see and taste” it. Third, I will voice my opinion on the book.

The book has three parts: introduction to the Palms, quick reference charts, and the Psalms. In the first part, the authors discuss perspectives on the Psalms (the Psalms as songs, ceremony, prayers, and book), groups of Psalms in the Psalter (types of Psalms, collections and arrangments in the Psalms, collections, and the five books), the poetry of the Psalms, and personalyzing the Psalms. The second part has quick reference charts: unusual terms found in the Psalms, Hebrew references to God, types of Psalms, and common elements of the Psalms (explanation of titles and index of verses).

In the third part, the authors present “the following information on the Psalms as an aid to reading them in your Bible” (p. 12).

THEME: States the main idea of the psalm

TYPE: Classifies the psalm by its literary type, such as lament by an individual, hymn of thanksgiving, praise, royal, etc.

AUTHOR: Supplies information about the author, musical notations, and historical notes

BACKGROUND: Elaborates on the historical or theological background of the psalm and its connections to other biblical passages

STRUCTURE: Describes how the lines of poetry are grouped into stanzas and gives a basic sketch of the flow of thought

SPECIAL NOTES: Makes miscellaneous comments on words or phrases in the psalm

REFLECTION: Applies the concepts or images in the psalm and their significance for us today

Each psalm has a page with the above information: theme, type, author, background, structure, special notes, and reflection. Besides, each page has a full-color photograph that is loosely related to the theme of the psalm. The following is their treatment of  Psalm 23 (p. 59):

THEME: The Lord provides faithfully in the midst of danger from enemies.

TYPE: Confidence.

AUTHOR: A psalm (mizmor) of David

BACKGROUND: The image of a shepherd was often used of a king in the ancient world.

STRUCTURE: There are four main images in the psalm. In verses 1-3 the Lord is pictured as a shepherd providing safe pasture and water for his sheep. In verse 4 the setting is danger, but the shepherd still protects. In verse 5 the Lord provides bounty with enemies around. In the final picture, goodness is personified as chasing down the psalmist.

SPECIAL NOTES: Psalm 23 is a fitting equal to Psalm 22, which describes in more detail the idea of being surrounded and threathened by enemies.

REFLECTION: As a postscript to Psalm 22, this psalm is an even more wonderful word picture of the redemption of pain and suffering and the transformation of the suffering one—one who found no rest is restored; quiet waters follow the dust of death; raging bulls and roaring lions are kept at bay while a sumptuous feast is spread; the one with out-of-joint bones on display now has anointing oil dipping down his face; and the one with a thirsty mouth dried up like a potsherd now has a cup running over.

The Essential Bible Companion to the Psalms “provides fundamental information regarding the meaning, background, context, and application of the Psalms.” I find the first part most helpful because it provides information about the various types of Psalms and the essential elements for understanding the Psalms. The authors says, “We point out essential elements and shed light on occasional phrases or identify relevant information about the setting” (p. 11). In my opinion, the authors have acheived their goal.

I, however, have a minor criticism. The authors have written this book to be an aid to reading the Psalms, but the book lacks a bibliography or suggested readings on the Psalms. Yet, The Essential Bible Companion to the Psalms is a good, devotional book, a quick guide for pastors in their sermon preparation, and an essential companion for anyone who is interested in reading and studying the Psalms. Recommended!

Well, I am done with the review. Now it’s time to return the book to my wife.🙂

Note: Thanks to the kind folks at Zondervan for the review copy of The Essential Bible Companion to the Psalms by Brian L. Webster and David R. Beach. I was neither requested nor obligated to write a positive review.

Why Study the Past?

Posted: April 29, 2011 in Uncategorized

In his book Why Study the Past?: The Quest for the Historical Church (2005), Rowan Williams, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, says:

(H)istory is a set of stories we tell in order to understand better who we are and the world we’re now in; a written affair, it is never just a catalogue of things that happen to have happened. It is bound to be making judgements about the importance of what it deals with, and often – always? – has some element of moral judgement not far below the surface. We start telling the story to get a better definition of who we are or of what the subject is that we’re describing: history helps us define things. Good history makes us think again about the definition of things we thought we understood pretty well, because it engages not just with what is familiar but with what is strange. It recognises that ‘the past is a foreign country’ as well as being our past. (p. 1)

Why Study the Past is a book that any student of church history must read. The book was written “in the hope of encouraging people to look at Christian history expecting to be surprised and questioned” (p. 3).

Catholics in Burma

Posted: April 28, 2011 in Mission
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Concerning Catholics in Burma, Samuel Hugh Moffett* states:

Catholic missionaries first entered Burma long before the Protestant, in 1554. Not until 1613, however, was there a permanent mission presence, with churches in Ava, Sirian, and three hundred Roman Catholic believers in Rangoon. But growth was so disrupted by wars between Burma and Siam in the next two centuries that as they entered the nineteenth century, a total membership of five thousand in 1800 had fallen to about three thousand in 1832. So great was the discouragement about the unhappy situation that two apostolic vicars who were sent out in 1830 gave up in despair and returned to Europe.

Then at about mid-century came the Catholic recovery. In Burma the Congregation fro Propagation of the Faith finally in 1857 turned missional responsibility for the whole peninsula over to the Foreign Mission Society of Paris. By 1870 there had been enough progress to allow a reorganization into two vicariates and one prefecture: British Burma in the south, the ancient Burmese kingdom in the north, and tribal Burma on the Chinese border and south and east along the long Siamese border.But unlike Ceylon where Dutch and British Protestant occupation failed to present a serious challenge to prior Catholic expansion, in Burma the opposite was true. As British control widened in the first half of the nineteenth century, Protestant growth, chiefly Baptist, made the greater advances. Since 1800, by about mid-century Roman Catholics had increased their relationship by only about a thousand, from five thousand to about six hundred. But Catholics too were on the verge of a recovery, and their future would be encouraging though less spectacular than that of the Baptist successors of Adoniram Judson.

By 1896, in a hundred years Catholic membership had grown from about five thousand in 1800 to fifty thousand, ten times that number. In a total population of about 9 million this was nothing to boast about perhaps. But in Asia it was nothing to be ashamed of, either. Very significantly, the number of Burmese priests (thirteen) compared to foreign missionary priests (sixty-two) was growing at a considerably faster rate. Add 325 Catholic churches and chapels, and 191 schools with 5,000 pupils, and the future for Roman Catholics in Burma was no less bright than Judson’s claim for his much-admired model of a nineteenth-century Protestant mission.

* Samuel Hugh Moffett, “Burma (1813-1850),” in A History of Christianity in Asia, Vol. 2 (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2005), 330-331.

On the Back Road to Mandalay

Posted: April 27, 2011 in Mission

On the Back Road to Mandalay by Robert Gustave Johnson was published in 2007. Rev. Dr. R.G. Johnson and his wife were the last missionaries who worked among the Chins in Myanmar. They left Myanmar in 1966 when the Burmese government asked all the foreigners, including the missionaries, to leave the country.

The following is from the “PREFACE” of the book (ix-x):

The country of Burma, now called Myanmar, is so little known to the Western world, and the various tribes even less known, that a few facts about the land, the people, and the mission may be helpful.

  1. The Chin Hills, now the Chin State, has an area of 13,902 miles in western Burma and a population of 438,000 (1994 estimate). Think of the Chin Hills as 45 to 90 miles broad, east to west, and 250 miles long, north to south–all of it steep mountain ranges reaching 9,000 to 10,000 feet high. Travel is mostly on foot, and a day’s journey or a “stage” is ten miles.
  2. The Chin people originated probably in Tibet and migrated southward centuries ago. Their languages are classified as in the Kuki-Chin branch of the Tibeto-Burman language family.
  3. Religous affiliations in Burma in the year 2000 were: Buddhist 72.8%, Christian 8.3%, “traditional” 12.6%, Muslim 2.3%, Hindu 2.0%, Others 2% {Encyclopedia Britannica 2005 Yearbook}. During our time in Burma the Christian percentage was lower.
  4. Christian work among the Chins (teachnically the Northern Chins) began in 1899 in Hakha. A second mission station was established in Tiddim, one hundred miles north, in 1910. Seven missionary couples served in this area. We, the Johnsons, were the last couple. Foreign missionaries have not been permitted in Burma since 1966.
  5. Mrs. Johnson and I spent twenty years in the Chin Hills of Burma in a remote village called Haka. These years were from 1946-1966.
  6. Our mission was the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society located in New York, later moved to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. This organization began work in Burma in 1813 and in the Chin Hills in 1899. In Burma the mission headquarters were in Rangon, the capital city.
  7. Our twenty years in Burma were divided into three terms of service, with two furloughs in the United States. These were First Term, 1946 to 1951, Second Term 1953 to 1959, Third Term 1960 to 1966.
  8. Burma has renamed itself Myanmar after its ancient name, and has changed many other names of cities, towns, rivers, etc. I have chosen to retain the names commonly used for decades and known to Western peoples.