Tuesday, 7 February 2012

A Year of Living Bloglessly



Is anyone still here?

(taps microphone)

Yes, well, in spite of our best intentions, things do not always go as we plan. I had fully intended to continue blogging about the endlessly fascinating time I've been having living in China the past year. However, it turns out that, of the various websites that the Chinese government blocks, Blogger is one of them.

For much of the year, I took this as a divine hint. A providential nudge. Loose lips sink ships, after all, and a fortiori careers. I can endure living bloglessly for a year, I thought. But two things have now happened. My contract at the university where I've been teaching the past year has been renewed for another 12 months, with additional renewals after that a viable possibility (moreover, the current state of the industry in Sydney doesn't give much incentive for coming back anytime soon). So it looks like I might be living in China for the foreseeable future. Also, now that it's the holidays and I've had a couple of weeks back home before returning to China for the new semester, a number of people have prevailed upon me to take up blogging again, at least in some capacity. Finally, the itch to write will not endure suppression for another 12 months.

.....three things. Three things have happened.

Accordingly, blogging will transpire this year. By which I mean I will blog. Not being able to access Blogger, I have set up a new blog with Wordpress (which, mysteriously, is not blocked by the Chinese government- maybe Blogger has a higher percentage of political blogs or something). The address is www.glennabolas.wordpress.com. Necessarily, the new blog will have to be rather different from this one. Obviously I can't talk quite as much about religion, or at least not as freely, and the same goes for politics (and, I suppose, history to an extent). I will try to compensate with cultural stuff and interesting expat observations. I conceive of it as also being a vehicle for those of my students who are interested to practice their English reading and for me to practice a bit of Chinese writing as well. So something for everyone.

So to all of my readers who remain (both of you), migrate along with me; the best is yet to be.

Friday, 21 January 2011

A Change of Scenery

I am not in the habit of posting about personal matters, but this one is of sufficient moment to warrant a post, I think.

As readers of this blog would be aware, I have planned for a while to spend a couple of weeks in China. Some of my thinking and reading (and, consequently, blogging) has reflected this. In fact I am to leave this coming Monday. But there has been something of a change of plans.

Suffice to say, without going into unnecessary details, instead of a couple of weeks it now looks like I am going to be in China for a year, and possibly longer. Due to various market forces and governmental immigration policies, my present job's days have become numbered. I have (albeit with some reluctance) therefore decided to abandon ship and leap across to a more seaworthy vessel. From February 21, then, I shall be an employee of the Hubei University of Chinese Medicine (湖北中医药大学) in Wuhan. There I shall teach English, as I have been doing hitherto, but in a decidedly different environment.

Naturally, I will continue to blog, and there will be no end of interesting details and incidents to report. But I shall also have to be careful, especially when it comes to religious matters, and most especially Chinese religious matters. There are no spiders watching over the web here in Australia, but that is not the case yonder. So expect at least some level of self-censorship in future, at least for the time being.

I humbly petition all of you who read this blog to keep me in your prayers in the days to come.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

"I Have a Work to Do in England."

Much of the time, the Holy Spirit is subtle, even too subtle to notice. Occasionally, amazing and unprecedented things happen, but even when there are deafening fanfares, they tend to take place on hills for the benefit of shepherds rather than from the balconies of ivory towers or in city squares. But if one is paying attention, and happens to be in the right place at the right point in history, one can be given a glimpse of the Hand of God at work.

On that note, exciting things are afoot in England. The Ordinariate is up and running, and from this mustard seed, I hope and pray along with many others, great things will come. This Sunday just past, one of the newly ordained former Anglican bishops, Fr Andrew Burnham, presided over Mass for the first time at the Oxford Oratory. Fr Aidan Nichols preached, and his sermon expresses beautifully and profoundly the importance and significance of the Ordinariate. It may yet be that England will not ultimately be lost to the Faith. If it is not, the Ordinariate will have its part to play in that, in the revivifying of English Christianity (by which I mean both Christianity in England and a uniquely English form of Christianity) and the redemption of what is left of English culture. Big dreams, small mustard seed. But that is how God likes to work. And if He doesn't do exactly that, He will do something better.

'I have a work to do in England.' Quite so.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011


Humans are strange animals who sometimes find patterns in numbers. As such, I happened to notice that today's date is 11/1/11.

Was there today any great world-shattering event to justify this strange yet undeniably significant convergence? Not that I know of.

However, it does remind me of a joke I was once told many years ago by a middle-aged chap whom I met and had dinner with at his home in the French countryside near La Rochelle: "Qu'est-ce qui s'est passé en 1111?" "L'invasion des Huns."

He that hath ears to hear (and knows French), let him hear.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Matteo Ricci - A Different Kind of Missionary

I have recently finished reading "Matteo Ricci- Le Sage Venu de L'Occident" by Vincent Cronin (a title that would sound even better in English- 'Wiseman from the West'!), which is, I suppose, appropriate given that I will be visiting China a fortnight from now. Its subject is the first Western Christian missionary to China. Not quite the first Christian missionary, but he might as well have been- the Nestorians briefly set up shop there at one point but had died out centuries before.
The book has given me a lot of food for thought.

The (very nearly successful) experiment that Ricci set out upon in his missionary work was governed by this question: Can a people be Christianised without being Westernised? Can the leaven of the Gospel be planted in an alien culture and grow without bringing with it the excrescences of the culture planting it? If one thinks about it, such a thing has almost never happened in Christian history. Certainly, as time goes on, cultures and peoples that convert to Christianity take on their own particular character. But it never begins that way. English Christianity was, from the start, unquestionably Roman. The Slavs, though able to worship in their own language thanks to the work of Cyril and Methodius, took on a very recognisably Greek Christianity.

Is there another way?

Matteo Ricci and his superior Alexander Valignano thought there was. And they were given a unique opportunity. Before them they found a culture whose essence was not fundamentally opposed to anything in Christianity. Sure, there were some questionable practices around. No Christian could countenance the widespread practice of concubinage or foot-binding. But at the heart of Chinese culture were duty, filial piety and the whole magnificent ethic of Confucius. In some ways, Chinese culture presented an even greater opportunity than that facing the first Christians who evangelised and converted the Greeks for, whereas the latter had to contend with a typically pagan pantheon whose morals were repugnant and the characteristic suspicion of the body in Greek philosophy, all of these were absent in China. It was an almost unprecedented thing. A sophisticated civilisation with a high ethic. No Dark Age barbarians who would kill you as soon as look at you here. No nomadic tribes as in South America. Nor even a high civilisation built on blood, as in Mexico. No, here was an ancient and highly civilised culture with its own Plato.

The danger of course was that unscrupulous missionaries would come in and treat the Chinese and their culture like other groups they would evangelise, either as an uncivilised group that would need to receive the equal gifts of civilisation and Christianity from the hands of the missionaries, or as a pagan civilisation that must be fought and destroyed so that a Christian civilisation might take root. This, alas, is the route most missionaries eventually took, but it was not taken by Matteo Ricci nor by his immediate Jesuit successors.

Here is a pertinent excerpt, from towards the end of Ricci's life when he has to consider the future of the mission (translated from the French as best I can):

Ricci could see from his own experience eight reasons for hope. Firstly, the miraculous progress accomplished in spite of immense difficulties seemed to prove that God looked on the development of the [Chinese] mission with a favourable eye. Secondly, since the Chinese regarded reason as the highest of all things, Christianity, a religion supported by reason, would satisfy them as much intellectually as mystically. Thirdly, books, which circulated freely in China, would permit the diffusion of an important apostolic literature. Fourthly, the Chinese, an intelligent people, were prepared to admit the superiority of Westerners in metaphysics and theology, as well as in the domains of mathematics and astronomy. Fifthly, Ricci had become convinced, thanks in large part to his study of their ancient beliefs, that the Chinese, a people pious by nature, had created for themselves a philosophy which conformed in almost every point to natural law. Sixthly, the peace which reigned in this country would permit Christianity, once established, to be maintained in a more or less permanent fashion. Seventhly, by adapting themselves to the Chinese mindset and etiquette, missionaries would certainly be known as wise and holy men. Eighthly, the doctrine of Confucius would be for them a most precious ally in their struggle against idolatrous sects [i.e. Buddhism and, to a much lesser extent, Taoism].
One of the really interesting things about all of this is the quite fundamental question, which we never find it necessary to think about: What really is of the substance of Christianity, and what are its accidents? Another book I've been reading on and off for a while is "The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys" by Andrew Louth, which has brought home to me in new and surprising ways to what extent our doctrines and our whole spiritual approach, in both East and West, depend upon Plato and those who came after him (I had hitherto no idea, for example, how vital were the foundations laid in Philo's ideas about the logos to later Christology). In Confucius, Matteo Ricci had a fascinating possibility open to him. Could he do with Confucius what the early Christian theologians had done with Plato? Could Christianity be built as solidly and fruitfully on the Chinese ethical tradition as it had been on the Greek philosophical tradition?

During his lifetime, the approach that Ricci took worked, even if it had slow beginnings. By the end of his life, he had been granted permission to live permanently in Beijing and was being inundated by Confucian mandarins, the cultural elite, and other government officials impressed and intrigued by his scholarship, ideas, skills (he was an adept clockmaker and cartographer) and religion. He had published several books, including a catechism which drew heavily on Confucius to demonstrate Christian truths.

Of course, since his death things have not turned out so well. There has been a lot of water under the bridge. The Rites Controversy, when the Church foolishly and ignorantly forbade the Chinese Christians from revering Confucius or venerating their ancestors during Qingming (thankfully rescinded, though far too late, in 1939); the whole wretchedness of colonialism, the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion; the Taiping Tianguo*; and then the unmitigated disaster that was the twentieth century, whose low point was the induced national brain-death that was the Cultural Revolution, when China's leaders sought to destroy utterly the great ethical tradition that had been the foundation of the Chinese people's culture for 2500 years.

Where to from here, for Christianity in China, or indeed for China itself?

I don't know. But I recall something that Finn Torjesen (whose organisation 'Evergreen' is carrying on a work not entirely dissimilar to Ricci's) said to me when I and some other Evangelicals visited him in China in 2003; that China is heir, as the Chinese love to boast, to a 4000 year old continuous culture and, though the last hundred years have been years of terrible upheaval, that is just a blip in their history and we don't as yet know where things will eventually settle or how the pieces will fall.

I don't know to what extent the approach or ideas of Matteo Ricci are still relevant or appropriate in modern China. Maybe there is no way to recapture the opportunities he saw, now irrevocably lost. Or maybe his ideas are the key to the future of the gospel in China. In any case, I have no doubt that he has not ceased to pray for China and the Chinese, his adopted country and people, especially over the past hundred grievous years, and will continue to do so.

*Warren Carroll, my favourite historian, is very sympathetic to the Taiping Tianguo.I find that remarkable. To me, the Taiping Tianguo epitomises the wrong-headedness of a quintessentially Western and usually Protestant approach to missions that shares, I believe, a similar error with the approach to relief practiced by too many celebrity charity workers and organisations (I'm looking at you, Bono). In the same way such organisations delight in throwing money at Africa, exacerbating the problem of poverty but enjoying the catharsis philanthropy brings, there have been and are plenty of Western missionaries and missionary organisations who delight in throwing Bibles at foreign countries and those who hail from them. I remember well as a child being invited to give money or do fundraising work to help buy Bibles for China, PNG or other such places. Imagine my shock when I eventually went to China and saw that Bibles were plentiful and easy to come by. Come to that, I find the idea that you can give a book to someone who shares almost no common cultural knowledge with you and expect him to come up with full-fledged orthodox Western Nicene Augustinian Protestant Evangelical Christianity on his own simply by reading it a laughably absurd notion. But the Taiping Tianguo shows a darker side to this approach. You may endanger someone's soul by a) not bothering to explain anything about Christianity to him first, b) not bothering to explain or try to approach agreement on the basic philosophical premises necessary to accept Christianity eg. the law of non-contradiction (not accepted by Buddhism), c) not bothering to find out even the first thing about his culture and beliefs. Endangering someone's soul in this way is bad enough. Or it could, on the other hand, lead to the deaths of millions of people (most sources say about 20 million) as when Hong Xiuquan was given a Bible out of the blue, read it and went on to carry out the biggest and bloodiest civil war of the nineteenth century. There are better ways to bear witness to the gospel than this.

Friday, 31 December 2010

Two Thousand and Eleven?

Tonight, lots of people will make resolutions for the New Year, look back on the old with regret, satisfaction or a combination of the two and look towards the seemingly boundless possibilities of twelve brand spanking new months to live through.

For my part, I have only one hope. It is something that I looked forward to this time last year, but which did not then materialise. It is not particularly earth-shattering, but it does make me nervous about going outside or turning on the TV tomorrow.

It has now been ten years since the turn of the millennium. Prior to that, we had been accustomed to describe our years as two sets of double digits (nineteen eighty-nine, eighteen fifteen, etc.), but the moment the millenium hit, it seemed most sensible to describe the year as a single number; to wit, the Year Two Thousand and so on. Last year, I looked forward with some excitement to the end of this pattern. It would again become fashionable to have double digit years. Twenty-ten was about to arrive.

Alas, it didn't happen. Throughout the past year, invariably and with very few exceptions, everybody has gone on saying 'two thousand and ten' despite the superfluous two syllables this added to the obvious alternative.

But this year- this year I'm certain will be the year for this important cultural language shift. People would have to be mad to say 'two thousand and eleven' rather than the much shorter 'twenty-eleven', wouldn't they?

Wouldn't they?!

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

St Thomas Becket

An excerpt from the Christmas sermon given by Thomas Becket in T.S. Eliot's play 'Murder in the Cathedral'.

Reflect now, how Our Lord Himself spoke of Peace. He said to His disciples 'My peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.' Did He mean peace as we think of it: the kingdom of England at peace with its neighbours, the barons at peace with the King, the householder counting over his peaceful gains, the swept hearth, his best wine for a friend at the table, his wife singing to the children? Those men His disciples knew no such things: they went forth to journey afar, to suffer by land and sea, to know torture, imprisonment, disappointment, to suffer death by martyrdom. What then did He mean? If you ask that, remember then that He said also, 'Not as the world gives, give I unto you.' So then, He gave to His disciples peace, but not peace as the world gives.

Consider also one thing of which you have probably never thought. Not only do we at the feast of Christmas celebrate at once Our Lord's Birth and His Death: but on the next day we celebrate the martyrdom of His first martyr, the blessed Stephen. Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ? By no means. Just as we rejoice and mourn at once, in the Birth and in the Passion of Our Lord; so also, in a smaller figure, we both rejoice and mourn in the death of martyrs. We mourn, for the sins of the world that has martyred them; we rejoice, that another soul is numbered among the Saints in Heaven, for the glory of God and for the salvation of men.

Beloved, we do not think of a martyr simply as a good Christian who has been killed because he is a Christian: for that would be solely to mourn. We do not think of him simply as a good Christian who has been elevated to the company of the Saints: for that would be simply to rejoice: and neither our mourning nor our rejoicing is as the world's is. A Christian martyrdom is no accident. Saints are not made by accident. Still less is a Christian martyrdom the effect of a man's will to become a Saint, as a man by willing and contriving may become a ruler of men. Ambition fortifies the will of man to become ruler over other men: it operates with deception, cajolery, and violence, it is the action of impurity upon impurity. Not so in Heaven. A martyr, a saint, is always made by the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways. A martyrdom is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, not lost it but found it, for he has found freedom in submission to God. The martyr no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of martyrdom. So thus as on earth the Church mourns and rejoices at once, in a fashion that the world cannot understand; so in Heaven the Saints are most high, having made themselves most low, seeing themselves not as we see them, but in the light of the Godhead from which they draw their being.

I have spoken to you today, dear children of God, of the martyrs of the past, asking you to remember especially our martyr of Canterbury, the blessed Archbishop Elphege; because it is fitting, on Christ's birth day, to remember what is that Peace which He brought; and because, dear children, I do not think I shall ever preach to you again; and because it is possible that in a short time you may have yet another martyr, and that one perhaps not the last. I would have you keep in your hearts these words that I say, and think of them at another time. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Saturday, 25 December 2010


A relative, reading my last post, challenged me to stop whinging and do something positive to re-emphasise the mystery of the Incarnation. So I wrote this piece- about a week ago, but it seems most appropriate to post it today. I had intended it to have a kind of zooming/panning effect- from outside in the town to inside the creche to the Child in the manger and then to Him in His Mother's arms, but I fear some of the metaphors may have inhibited the effect. On their own, I think the stanzas work, but I'm not sure if the thing works as a whole also. Anyway, feedback is welcome. Merry Christmas to all!

A west wind blows, bleak chill forlorn,
Like icy oceans' rising tides,
And past is the time for wheat and corn
But the House of Bread abides;
And in its midst, amid the rush
Of census-driv'n humanity,
Unseen, unnoticed, is a hush
In the place of God's humility.

All men may seek the comfortable
And shy away from any pain;
The mighty and the miserable
Alike reach for perceivèd gain,
But inches above a dirty floor
Where few but animals have trod,
The thin and prickly ends of straw
Scratch the new-born skin of God.

Strong wine is drunk in palaces.
Though bureaucrats prefer it thin,
Kings laugh and talk, as callous as
A killer on the cusp of sin.
But Jews enjoy their Sabbath rest,
Recalling their commandments ten,
And at a Jewish woman's breast
Tonight God drinks the milk of men.

Most mothers, having given birth,
Have idolised their newborn child
And, overcome with joy and mirth,
To former pain were reconciled;
But She whose pain is yet to be
Is silent, and with feet unshod
Contemplates this mystery:
The human face of God.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Burying the Lead

Why do we Christians shy away from the big selling points of our religion?

Last night I was helping out at the Combined Churches' 'Carols in the Park' at Warragamba, in which my parents' church is heavily involved (my minimal contribution was to assist, in an ecumenical gesture, some of the young people from my brother's Anglican church down the road, who had set up a balloon animal stall for the children). Now one would think, given that it is Advent and Christmas is on the horizon, that this would be the logical time to talk about the Incarnation.

But no.

In between carols and musical items, there was a very well done puppet show put on by a Christian group, very professional and amusing and the children lapped it up, but the puppet talked about Jesus as King, and urged the kids to 'make Him your king'. All well and good, you might say, and fair enough. Then there was a short speech/sermon by the local Anglican minister, and he consistently spoke of Jesus as 'Son of God', but never as 'God'. Nothing truly objectionable there, either, you might say, and I can't really argue with that. No one expects you to use all of Jesus' titles in a short presentation.

But the fact is there was nothing said during the whole night that couldn't have been very easily accepted by an Arian. And this bothers me.

I mean, why would we shy away from the Incarnation? Surely this is Christianity's biggest selling point? What other religion is based on the idea that God (not 'a god' from a pantheon but 'the God') became human? Nobody else has anything like that! This is a word worth preaching. So why are we reluctant to talk explicitly about it?

On the face of it, you would imagine that the more gung-ho and evangelistic of Christians would see the attractive potential of this doctrine and make it the centre-piece of their evangelistic pitch. But it almost never happens. And then we're shocked and annoyed when, at Easter, some fired-up atheist on the radio deplores Christianity's belief in 'divine child abuse'. It never occurs to us that we've left ourselves wide open to the charge by talking about Jesus the way we do.

Nor is the Incarnation the only central doctrine we tend to sideline in public. I've recently been reading this book, which restates the classic Christian ideas about eschatology and shows how far we've drifted from them in the way we tend to talk about the afterlife and the end times. Too many Christians have believed for too long in a kind of Platonic afterlife with some Christian features, and the authentically Christian endgame (the General Resurrection) has all but fallen off the map. Last night provided another example of this when our Lord's resurrection was briefly mentioned thus : "Then on Easter Sunday, Jesus came back from the dead. So, if you believe in Him, when you die, you can go to be with Him forever." I cringed at that, and imagined N. T. Wright appearing and turning over tables and chairs a la Our Lord in the Temple.

Why don't we make more of these doctrines? They are, after all, utterly unique in terms of world religions and distinctively Christian. They are also unusual in their own right and attention-grabbing. And they have some shock value, particularly in a secular Western culture that still thinks it knows all it needs to about Christianity even though it has forgotten most of what it used to know. Idiots that we are, we've put the letters page (or maybe the cartoons?) on the front page and left the lead story for page six.

Friday, 3 December 2010


Loan words are curious animals. Most of them are harmless enough. Kimono means more or less the same in English as it does in Japanese. But now and again, you come across an unusual specimen that has come to mean something quite different in its new environment from what it meant in its original tongue.

I recall, for instance, the surprise on both sides when, living in France a number of years ago, I happened to remark upon an instance of déjàvu. I naturally assumed that, since the word was French (literally meaning 'already seen'), I could simply lift it back across the linguistic divide with no harmful side effects. To my surprise, my French interlocutors had no idea what I was talking about. Was it my accent? I tried a few more times in as un-English a way as I could. Incomprehension persisted. Eventually, I had to explain the concept to them, which they immediately understood. It turned out the French don't describe déjàvu as déjàvu; only English-speakers do that.

I have recently come across another linguistic borrowing in the same vein, but exported from English rather than imported this time . I speak of the use speakers of Asian languages make of the word "fighting". It tends to be used alone as a kind of exclamation and its meaning seems to be located, as far as I can gather, somewhere between, "Chin up!", "Go for it!" and "Hang in there!". I first met it in a Korean TV show called Full House (unrelated to the 80s American sitcom) in which the heroine would say it frequently when facing a difficult situation or trying to encourage someone. I have since heard it on the lips of a number of my students when facing exams or when their course workload is weighing heavily on them.

What interests and amuses me not a little about all this is that they expect me to understand what they mean because, of course, it's an English word. Which I do, but only because I have some acquaintance with Asian people and Asian culture. It doesn't occur to them that an Australian wouldn't pat his mate on the back if he'd had a bad day or was facing some difficulty and say in a bracing tone, "Fighting! Fighting!" just as it never occurred to me that the French wouldn't describe déjàvu as déjàvu.