Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Osteen Dialogue

Someone posted this comment about my Osteen posts. I have responded below. Become part of the dialogue by clicking on the comments link under the post. I will moderate them before they go out, but as long as they remain respectful and decent, I'll leave them up. I think you'll enjoy this dialogue, and I was afraid it might get buried in other posts. I'm glad to finally have some interaction on this dead site!

Anonymous said...

Seriously?!?!?! Is Joel Osteen and his preaching such a big issue that we must spend our time cutting his message down with over exaggerated words of disdain? Is there really merit in making these criticisms to begin with? I don't believe so.

Yes, Joel Osteen shares a message of hope, joy, and God's love for us that may seem overly simplistic for the "deep" Christians of today. And yes, I feel that our churches are filled with more motivation rather than God's true proclamation. However, to bash a man who has CLEARLY led thousands (if not more) to Christ is outrageous. If you don't like him, or his style of ministry, then don't watch him. Lord knows there are MILLIONS of authors, preachers, and teachers to choose from. But to belittle a Godly man who's message, while not preferred by you, but who actually ministers to millions worldwide, is completely unnecessary. Can you disagree with him? Absolutely! To seek him out on television and watch for your perception of his "flaws", however, is a little much for me.

Why cut down people who are making a difference in the world for Christ? Why look for things that unnerve or annoy you? While I can't speak for God, I don't believe that He is sitting on his thrown judging the methods of ministers who are leading people to Him. And if He is, I think we should let Him criticize and give His thoughts to Joel once he gets to heaven, as opposed to filling internet blogs with our limited and close minded perceptions of him.

I work with lost, hurting, and damaged people on a daily basis; people looking for a glimmer of hope...people who have never experienced true love or compassion from anyone....people who have little, if any, exposer to Christ and His church. So if someone as "simplistic" and "surface" as Joel Osteen gives them an ounce of understanding on God's amazing grace and love, then I say, good work Joel! There is a place in hearts that are being filled by God's words through Joel....even if it is not your heart. I suggest spending you time watching/reading authors and preachers that you actually like....men and women who minister to you, as opposed to seeking out the ones who fill you with a sense of accomplishment through perceived literary inspiration.
1:31 PM

Trevor Williams said...
In response to the last comment, let me first of all say that you should at least leave your name if you want to comment on this blog. I've put my name on here, and my reputation's at stake. I expect the same from you if you want to challenge my words.

Second of all, let me also say that I agree with you, at least on parts of what you said. You say that I shouldn't spend my time cutting down pastors. This is half right. Yes, as I read today in the words of Jesus, I should look at the plank in my own eye before looking at the speck in Osteen's. I should really evaluate why I'm watching these preachers. If it's only to bash them, then I should change the channel immediately and never type a word about them. That's something I have to work on, so please forgive my arrogance on a subject where humility is so desperately needed.

But I won't change my desire to have a dialogue about church leaders and whether their methods are damaging to the church in America. Just the fact that you responded shows that this is an issue that can create dialogue within the body of Christ, dialogue that has the potential to go beneath the surface, somewhere down deep where Osteen doesn't want to go.

You say God doesn't judge methods, but there are numerous times in scripture where God judges the motivation behind an action, or even an emotion as a precursor to an action. And sometimes, righteous actions are negated by the state of mind in which they were done (Lord, Lord, did we not drive out demons? Heal the sick?... Depart from me, I never knew you). You might use Paul's statement, "Some preach for their own personal gain, but just as long as the Gospel is preached...," as justification for your point that the message, not the vessel, is what we should focus on.

But here's the point you missed entirely: Osteen doesn't preach the Gospel. His message is not complete. He's been asked on TV numerous times whether those who don't believe in Jesus will go eternally suffering, and he hasn't made a clear answer. Jesus CHRIST was pretty clear on this point, and I don't know how you can be a CHRISTian pastor, a supposed shepherd, and not be bold enough to defend your Lord's most basic tenets.

You say that Osteen has CLEARLY led thousands to Christ. How is it so clear? Because he's sold so many books? Because he has the largest church in America? Last time I checked, popularity didn't equal faithfulness to God's call or the presence of real, lasting fruit. In fact, the opposite seems to be true in scripture. It seems that the less popular Christians became, the more effective they were in spreading the Gospel. Take the unbridled growth of the early church and today's Chinese church as examples.

Osteen may fill thousands of hearts with hope, but judging by his words, the hope he sells is shallow and circumstantial, not based on the solid rock of Christ's blood. And what's better? To not give people hope, or to give them false hope based on a fantasy God?

You say that Osteen "ministers" to people. That may be true, but what does that mean? Does it mean they like his words because he feeds their desire to rely on themselves? It is messy to get down to the nitty-gritty and confront how despicably sinful we are and how much we need Christ, not to be used as a pick-me-up like we use a Starbucks latte in mid-afternoon, but for a dynamic transformation of character based on HIS STRENGTH, not our own.

I applaud your work with the hurting people in this world. I myself need to stop being so lazy and get out there and do some of that work too. Let's just make sure that the message of hope we preach to them is true grace. Here's what I mean: You said in your comment that if Joel gives people and ounce of God's grace and love, then we should applaud him. (If you'll check my blog posts, you'll see that I didn't belittle his every accomplishment.) But grace is not shown as grace if there is no knowledge of sin. You can't tell someone that God has grace for them if you don't first tell them they're sinful, which is not the most welcome thing to say to someone. The grace comes from the fact that we are SO UNDESERVING, not because we're "a child of the king."

And God's love is NOT in his ability to make our lives run smoothly, or to get people to go out of their way to give us "favor" (as Joel suggests in his first book). The love of Christ is IN THE CROSS. "God showed his love for us in this: That while we were STILL SINNERS, Christ died for us."

From pastors like Joel, we need the whole story. We need them to preach the hope of Christ and the positive things about his love and grace, but we don't need them to do it as salesmen of a false Gospel of happiness and ease, or in a way that makes us rely on ourselves, our ability, our know-how and our desires.

Really the question is: Which Christ is Osteen leading people to? And what is he filling hearts with? Is Osteen's Christ the one of the scriptures? Is the positive, self-reliant message Osteen talks about something that the world (Tony Robbins, maybe?) couldn't offer these people? If I take your advice, I can't watch Osteen anymore to find out. I guess I'll remain unconvinced, because I've still never seen a sermon on sin or even on the cross. Please email me a transcript if you can find one. Thanks so much for engaging my blog.

Join the conversation...

Monday, October 29, 2007

Our Nature

I walked in the bathroom yesterday and found some new potpourri my wife had put in a basket on the counter. Wow, that's pretty, I thought in passing before brushing my teeth with a plastic toothbrush and then walking out of my cozy, carpeted apartment, putting one foot in front of the other on the hard concrete outside the door. The air was a brisk. The first autumn cool front had come with last week's rains, and I couldn't believe I was actually wearing a jacket in October.

My apartment complex is attractively landscaped, and it's on the terrace level. That means that instead of a view of the parking lot, we have trees outside our windows. Only when you look closely can you see that there are buildings and asphalt peeking through the longleaf pine needles. I walked out to the car, careful to cling to the sidewalk. There would be workers here later today, refinishing the blacktop of the parking lot and painting crisp new lines to keep us in our places.

On my drive to work through a nice residential area, a noticed a few of those little trees (I don't know what kind), the ones that win the race to have their leaves set ablaze by autumn. I've been tracking one on the way home from work. Its gradual bronzing started with a tip of flame at the top, and it's been spreading over the past week or so, working its way down. Now the whole tree is on fire, and soon it will be gone in a puff of winter wind.

Later, I started thinking about the potpourri. Why had I thought it was so pretty? When I realized that it was a harvest mix of cinnamon sticks, pine cones and wood chips, I began to think about how much of the decoration inside our homes is based on things that can be found right outside our windows. Our couch has flowers on it. Shower curtain: paisley with more flowers. My favorite necklace features a dangling leaf carved out of wood.

It seems that somewhere inside, we're searching for a lost ideal. Somewhere down deep, we know we weren't made for fluorescent lights and plush carpet. That's why we're so taken aback by a starry night or an endless canyon. There is a rhythm of creation. Our hearts try to beat to it, but man-made routines, meant to give us structure, sometimes get us out of sync with what's right in front of us. We can go for days without breathing a deep breath of air or listening to the birds call to one another across a forest. If only for a moment, we have to remember the world outside the walls of our office buildings and apartment homes. Sanity can be found there. It's in Our Nature.

Photo: Xinjiang Province, China, Copyright: Brad Kinney 2006

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Intellectual Honesty...Intellectual? Honestly?

After my scathing critique of Osteen in the last blog, I thought I would practice an exercise in intellectual honesty. I was pretty sure that I'd heard Osteen speak enough to have a good grasp on his opinions, but I had never read either of his books cover to cover. Don't get excited. I'm not honest--or bored--enough to begin such a vast undertaking. But as I was back in Borders, that bright smile drew me in, and I found myself wanting to read at least one chapter.

I really tried to be open. This was an exercise, and I was supposed to be honest. So, without casting my theological hat to the side, I let my literary hat take the driver's seat. I sat, and I read. Twenty minutes passed as I trudged through the 18 pages in the first chapter. I can't say that I was impressed by any of the pseudo-spiritual, positive action fluff. It was like the publishers had assigned a writing exercise for the author: Say the same thing as many times as you can, in as many different ways and buttressed by as many different spiritual "analogies" you can muster. Don't be discouraged. Don't be a doubter. God wants to take you higher. If you're not experiencing God's best, keep pressing on. Blah, blah, blah.

I particularly liked how the extremely grave and dynamic story about the woman at the well in John chapter 4 was dumbed into an anecdote about positive thinking. But at least Jesus got in there, which more than surpassed my expectations. Another thing that struck me was the sense of empowerment with which Osteen speaks and writes. Maybe people like him because he validates their feelings of entitlement. More than once, he used the "You're a child of the king..." line to justify why we should expect "God's best." Last time I checked, Jesus was THE child of the King, and God's best for him was a gruesome crucifixion and the Glory shown through the shed blood. I'd dare to say that Paul, the Twelve, and even the OT prophets were children of the king, but they didn't have nifty lights and waterfalls in the jail cells where they were sometimes forced to hold church.

If you're an Osteen supporter, and you discover this blog, please don't think that I hate Osteen. I'm not questioning the guy's faith, because I really think that his heart is to help people. I just wonder if he has the intellectual capacity and spiritual guts vibrance it takes to truly lead even a small church, much less the biggest in the country. Before you think I'm pontificating, let me admit that I am nowhere near capable of leading a spiritual body of believers effectively. But also, let me couch that by saying that I believe that, judging by the first chapter of Osteen's book, I had theological knowledge and writing ability to match his while I was still in high school.

Barbara Walters named Osteen one of her most fascinating people in 2006. I can agree with the label, because he does fascinate. There's something strangely interesting, yet sad and twisted, about a guy who has opportunities day and night to preach the true Gospel, but refuses every time. Consider this little nugget of wisdom from Walters' interview with the man ABC News called "the smiling preacher":

Walters asked Osteen why he stayed away from controversial subjects like gay marriage, abortion or politics.

"Sometimes, I think if you get away from what you're called to do, it's more of a distraction," he said.

I can't stand how this guy is passed off as a hero, and I really don't understand how people can admire his work. Where are the Jonathan Edwardses of this generation? Where are the men with pulpits who aren't afraid of confrontation, the barbarians who don't "trade truth for false unity," as Derek Webb says? They're out there. You just have to get out of the self-help section to find them.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Pensive Pastor's Prosperity Pose

Rodin, the famous sculptor who gave the world The Thinker statue, must have known, like those pictured here, that there's something the chin that gives you the money-making mojo.

And Joel Osteen, the pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston knows something about it. In fact, Osteen has made so much cash off his first self-help book, Your Best Life Now, that he's stopped taking a salary from his basketball arena of a church. A noble act to be sure, but it probably stemmed from the fact that he knew he'd be getting a huge advance for his new book, Become a Better You, which, judging from the first few pages and the table of contents, is just as sappy as his first one. Best Life has more than 4 million copies in print, and it just came out in paperback, which is what bestsellers do when the publisher has milked the entire audience willing to pay the extra 10 bucks for the hardback. In one lap around Borders the other day, a friend and I saw Osteen's million-dollar grin four times, even once in the Spanish section.

For the past few years, I've made it a sort of hobby to watch and trash prosperity pastors. To me, they just too adequately fit the description of false prophets, those who peddle some incomplete version of the Gospel for their personal gain. But a lot of the time, though it's hard--and most of the time inappropriate--to judge another's heart, I've come to believe that these guys aren't necessarily intentional deceivers. As I think is the case with Osteen, they sincerely believe that their namby-pamby, cheerleader-with-a-podium, self-help messages are good for their audiences, and they take the testimonials they receive as validation of their ministries.

A case in point: Osteen was featured on "60 minutes" the other day. When challenged by the reporter about his skimpy messages, Osteen asserted that it was his calling to "lift people up," not to "beat them down," and to give them simple messages that they could use in their daily lives. Not once did he mention Jesus. God got in there a few times, but his portrayal in Osteenology is little more than that of a plump Santa Claus whose main goal as ruler of the universe is to get everyone to hold hands and get along. On the set of the interview, Osteen broke down and cried as he told the reporter how "humbled" he was to hear so many people tell him that he--woops, and God--changed their lives.

As he sobbed, burying his makeup-caked face and pristine white teeth in his hands, I actually began to pity Osteen. The man who created the Wall of Champions to honor church members who paid more than $2,500 for their Sunday season ticket at his stadium has bought the lie that winning the approval of men equals adherence to the mission of God. The problem is that no matter how many books you can sell by editing out the hard-to-swallow aspects of the Gospel, your mission as a pastor is not to motivate people to feel better about themselves. Your mission is to speak truth: hard-hitting, uncompromising and often painful truth. As our Lord said, "Woe to you when all men speak well of you." Translation: If the path you're on has a lot of traffic, you'd better make sure it's not the broad one that leads to destruction.

I'm sure that Osteen has touched lives. He's probably helped some people regain the ability to think positively and persevere without complaining, a few virtues often overlooked in our fast-food culture. And he's probably done these things with great intentions, without realizing that he's shortchanging the Savior he claims to serve by feeding his flock what I call "spiritual gruel" rather than anything approaching milk or solid food.

But that's the problem--and the danger--with Osteen's gospel. It's well-intentioned but incomplete, a recipe for something indescribably delicious but missing the key ingredient. What I mean is that, yes, God wants us to be happy. He wants us to be positive. He wants us to have joy and abundant (Osteen would say "victorious") life. But what God does not want is to be a means to an end. He does not want to be spiritual prozac to make our day positive, uplifting and "safe for the whole family." He does not want to be sprinkled, stirred and mixed into our daily routine as the active ingredient that makes our spirit rise like dough.

As John Piper puts it in a book by the same title, "God is the Gospel." He is the good news. He will not be used as an instrument to bring us joy. Rather, as we learn to worship him for his own sake, he will become our joy, whether we're screaming in agony like Job or rejoicing as Abraham on the day of Isaac's birth. God is the end, not the means. When we learn this fully, we will have our best lives now--and eternally.
You're probably wondering by now what the other pictures have to do with this post. Well, I couldn't resist throwing in Creflo (picture 2) for good measure. I first saw Creflo "Boom! Can I Get A." Dollar when I was about 10 years old. I was at a friend's house in Florida, and we were flipping channels. The dial stopped on Creflo, who was creeping across the stage, hands outstretched like an airplane. His speech is still clear in my mind; I've memorized it by reciting it so many times over the years.

"Steeeeeeeeeeeaaalthfully," he said, drawing out the word for emphasis and tiptoeing sneakily across the stage. "Stealthfully, the Lord's gonna come. And when he does--"

Now he really kicked it into high gear. "You gonna hear the sonic boom, and you gonna look up into the sky, but the Lord ain't gonna be there. Uh-uh, naw he ain't. It's gonna be like BOOM! Yo bank account is filled! BOOM! Yo house paid off! BOOM! Yo car payment is gone! BOOM! Blessed and gone! Blessed and gone! Blessed and gone!" The crowd applauded wildly. I don't know whether they were more excited about God's ability to use the breaking of the sound barrier to bring them instant wealth or Creflo's mastery of the ghetto voice as a means to get things really crankin'.

Creflo is funny for many reasons, one of which is the fact that his last name is Dollar. You'd think someone with that last name would at least try to veil their health and wealth message, not create their own School of Prosperity. Yes, you read me right. Creflo, pastor of World Changers Church International and the proud owner of a Gulfstream private jet to cart him back and for between his congregations in Atlanta and New York, is going to teach you how to be prosperous, but like a true entrepreneur, he ain't gonna do it for free. It's only $20 to get your "millionaire login" name and find out "why God wants you rich."

By the way, Creflo's wife Taffi once used a Psalm to justify why God wants her to have a Rolls Royce.
The last picture is Mason Betha, otherwise known by his hip-hop name, Ma$e. Mase, a former Bad Boy Records artist who rolled with the likes of Puff Daddy back in the day, made waves in the rap industry when he decided to go gospel.

I have nothing bad to say about Mase. I just think it's great that he looks like Creflo's version of Mini-Me.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

A Beautiful Seminary

I went home to a friend's wedding a few weeks ago. It was a great social gathering, and I got to see a lot of familiar faces and eat some amazing food. But the highlight of the event was seeing the couple take their vows and watching their whole universe boil down to that face-to-face moment. Having been in that position not too long ago, I could look on with an understanding grin. I now know how beautiful it is to throw your whole being into a promise, hands shaking and heart relentlessly pounding.

One key to marriage, I think, is to remember the emotion in that fervent pledge and to constantly focus the enormous energy that memory creates into loving that person that stood before you and is now with you every day.

A mentor recently told me this: "You're married to your seminary." He meant that learning how to focus this kind of love on your spouse will help to love God more and teach us how to deal with conflict as Jesus did and still does--with the firmness of a leader and the tenderness of a sincere companion and partner.

Global Trevor: Touching the Maldives

I work at an Internet-based international business news publication called GlobalAtlanta, and we're always talking about how to boost our readership abroad. The problem is that our news is so Atlanta-focused that anyone reading overseas would have to have a keen interest in the Georgia capital to get anything out of our publication.

You'd think a personal blog would be even more localized, thus with less international appeal. But strangely, I have no problem attracting eyes of all shapes, slants and sizes from nations of all political and economic climates.

I know because I keep a ClustrMap in the sidebar on the right, just below the hits counter, which uncaringly shows the cold reality of how few people have visited the site. What's surprising about it, though, is the scope of nations represented on the worldwide ClustrMap and the amount of international hits as a proportion to my overall traffic.
Of course the bigger dots that denote heavier traffic are concentrated in the Southeast United States, but the ClustrMap shows red dots all over China, in Malaysia, the Philippines, Australia, Japan, India, Brazil, South Africa, Argentina, all over Europe and in Mexico, Nicaraugua and Panama, and even in Syria and Iran. There's even red interrupting the deep blues of Pacific and Indian oceans, where the dot is bigger than the landmass it's marking. From their geographic locations, I can only assume they represent the Maldives and the Federated States of Micronesia.
The fact that these countries have Internet access is a testament to how quickly globalization is changing things. But even crazier is the fact that these places are home to people who stumble upon the blog of a random guy in Georgia. I'm sure part of it is because I write a lot about international subjects, and some of the ClustrMap readings most likely have to do with IP addresses routed through different IT hubs. I probably get a lot of hits from random searches that by people that have the least interest in what's on my blog once they do reach it.

But my words could impact someone's life, even in the slightest way, so I plan to keep posting. There's no better place to be than the Internet if you want to have a global impact. If you're the guy or girl from the Maldives, I welcome you to this blog, and I hope that through the tangled networks of cables and wireless signal clouds, the magic of language will connect you to me on a human level.

World-Changer or Roadmaker?

I don't really think of myself as a "world-changer," per se. But Breakaway magazine has an article I wrote in April 2007 about taking the Gospel to a remote area in Southeast Asia featured on one of their web pages under the heading, "Meet the World-Changers, guys who are making their marks on the world as counterculture Christians."

The "world-changer" moniker is interesting because it reminds me of the name our eight-man team adopted in the days leading up to the trip mentioned in the article (which has been written on extensively on this blog. Begin the trip narrative here). I'm not sure who coined the phrase, but we called ourselves the Roadmakers, because as far as we knew, there were very few Americans who were trying to pave the way to God for the Buddhist residents of this remote region.

I think both of these names misrepresent our role in the great spiritual drama unfolding in that region. Yes, I do believe that our prayers can change the spiritual climate of the region, and I do think that our efforts will eventually be stones among those lining this people group's path toward Christ. But to say that we were doing the paving is to misunderstand the role of short-term missions.

We are a piece of the puzzle, one of the many grains of sand swirling down through the hourglass. God was already working in the region long before we showed up, and he will continue that work until he brings it to completion. Although there's a certain Romantic allure to being a trailblazer, and there's a definite God-birthed desire within me go places outside people's normal frame of thought, the credit is due the One who not only makes the road, but called himself The Way. He who made the world is the only one who can change it.

Thursday, October 11, 2007


"So, you're welcome," my wife Katy said after a long spiel about how married men live an average of three years longer than those who fly solo.

We had just pulled into the Target parking lot, and somehow we had gotten into a discussion about lifespans. Katy had seen something on Martha Stewart's TV show where they calculated a projected lifespan for audience members, based on parameters like smoker/non-smoker, married/non-married and other categories. By sticking these numbers into a formula, the guy on the show was diagnosing how long audience members had left to live, based on their current lifestyle and barring catastrophic events.

Katy and I just celebrated our birthdays, which are one day apart in successive years, and I think the talk about our ages is how the whole thing got started. We then began discussing the fact that we've only been married four months and that every passing week brings a new sense of achievement.

"Imagine what it will be like when we've been together 20 or 30 years," I said. "I'll be so proud to say it. And even after that, we'll only be a little over 50 years old, if God allows us to live that long."

"I hope he does."

"Me too."

As the thought of death hung in the air, I think both of us had a pang of fear. What if he doesn't allow us that many years? With that thought front and center in our minds, we were blind-sided with a moment of clarity.

"Even if I live to be a hundred, my life is a quarter of the way over," Katy said.

"Yep, life's like that. It's a breath of steam, and then it's gone in a puff of smoke."

May we use that breath well.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Uighur Watch

The title of this post loses some of its alliterative zing if you don't know how to pronounce the first word. In America, we usually pronounce it "Weeger," hence the repeating w sound. But from some people in the know, I've actually heard it said "Oi-Ger," which sounds a bit more Turkic to me.

Whatever you call them, the Uighurs are an intriguing people group. About 9 million of them occupy Xinjiang province, which covers the northwest quadrant of China's huge landmass. I encountered them on a trip to Xinjiang last year, and I was so interested that I decided to write one of my term papers about them.

Uighurs are predominately Sunni Muslims, Turkic people more closely related to Central Asians in the "Stan" countries than they are to the Han Chinese. As such, they really stick out in China. In contrast to the Hui people, China's other large Muslim ethnic minority, the Uighurs look almost Middle Eastern. Walking through the Uighur section of Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital, is much more like a scene from Jordan than Beijing.

Uighurs aren't on great terms with the Chinese, whom they see as encroaching on Uighur homeland. The Chinese (the government at least) don't much care for Uighurs either, so Xinjiang is an interesting limbo, a forced coexistence between groups trapped in stark borders established by the Qing dynasty in the late 1800s, now maintained by a resource-hungry Communist government in Beijing.

This conflict has caused some skirmishes in the past. Uighur separatists have been blamed for bus bombings on a two or three occasions in the past 20 years. Perhaps the most interesting time period in modern Uighur history was the late 1940s. As the Communists and Nationalists fought it out for control of the Mainland, the Uighurs set up independent state they called the East Turkestan Republic. But the honeymoon was short-lived. Mao consolidated power and the fragmented four-year-old republic could do little but surrender.

As more Han Chinese migrant to Xinjiang, the animosity persists, but without violence for the most part. People usually maintain the status quo, but Uighur groups sometimes complain about human rights abuses by the Chinese government, which claims that all its minority groups have religious freedom. Uighur watchdog groups here in America try to promote awareness about these abuses, and many still hold onto the hope for an independent republic.

I say all this to say that I'm now searching for Uighurs in Atlanta or the surrounding area, so I can learn more about them. Many have come to America for political asylum, and I'm looking to befriend some here. The closest I've gotten is Birmingham. I received that tip from a Turkish guy I interviewed not to long ago and I have a few other leads to sniff out. Uighurs, I'm watching.

The Uighur pictured (far right) owned 60 sheep, and we rented his 4x4 to visit a remote hot springs resort.

River Town

The mundane becomes masterful as Peter Hessler gives vivid accounts of his two years teaching in the Chinese city of Fuling.

About a month ago, I reviewed Peter Hessler's newest book, Oracle Bones, a masterful work that blurs the lines between travel journal, personal diary and compendium of Chinese archaeological knowledge. I raved about his easily readable writing style, how he blends past and present with uncanny ease, and how he has mastered the art of profile to the point that it looks like his subjects are his best friends (see "The Priest" chapter). In Oracle Bones, Hessler's vast knowledge of China is always evident, but he parlays it without the least bit of smugness. The book inspired me to keep dreaming toward China, and it helped me rethink how I organize my writings about the Middle Country while making me wonder how I would fare if I stayed there more than a month, the length of my longest trip there so far.

But my journey with Hessler, thankfully, wasn't over. I still hadn't read his first book, River Town. I wanted to buy it, but I decided to check the Decatur Library first. You can only own so many books, and there's a certain value to reading the books you already have before you start buying more. Luckily, Decatur's library had a hardback edition, and in it I traveled back in time to Hessler's "two years on the Yangtze" (as the subtitle says), to a period in his life only briefly mentioned in his second book.

Both books are great because you don't need one to read the other, in the same way that you don't have to tell someone your entire life story to give them a glimpse of what happened yesterday. But the big picture does matter in a storyline. It helps to know the whole journey because a broader perspective gives insight into the reasons people respond the way they do and shows the underpinnings of their decision-making rather than the bare facts of what occurred. It's like that with Hessler's works. I liked not reading River Town first, but after Oracle Bones, I was intrigued as to the steps Hessler took to achieve his China knowledge and his writing prowess.

To my surprise, Hessler's cultural savvy was hard-earned. The second book starts with him working as a clipper for the "Wall Street Journal" in Beijing. He doesn't tell us that he's Princeton-educated, specializing in literature and creative writing, or that he has two years of teaching in Sichuan province under his belt. Without perspective, Hessler's relatively low on the totem pole in Beijing. But as River Town attests, he was a veteran in China by the time he reached Beijing. He paid his dues on the banks of the Yangtze, in a small town where he was one of just a few foreigners in the entire city.

At first Hessler seemed to relish the role of laowai (foreigner), but as the pages turn I got the sense that he began to grow out of his isolationism and melt into the Sichuan countryside. It's hard to call someone who travels thousands of miles to teach English as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural China an isolationist, but as I can vouch, rural China is a lonely place for the foreigner. I chuckled to myself as Hessler recounted his efforts to balance on the pencil-thin line the preferential treatment you sometimes receive as a foreigner with the unrelenting awkwardness and exclusion you sometimes feel because of that very same status. It's celebrity without the glamour, and it wears on the psyche. At times you just want to shake people and tell them to stop staring. Other times you wave a let out a hearty "ni hao!" Such is the difficulty--and reward--of traveling as an outsider in the interior of the world's most populous country. (I particularly liked his discussion of Ho Wei, the Chinese identity alter-ego he gained when began speaking only Chinese and interacting with the townspeople in Fuling.)

On that and other issues, Hessler's candor is refreshing in River Town, and it's rewarding to see the end result as you plow through the pages with him. He struggles with his Chinese tutor, but the relationship emerges with a deep respect on both sides at the end of the book. He takes part in the faculty drinking contests to score points with the administrators, but eventually he realizes the error in doing so. Finally, after political rallies for the return of Hong Kong to Motherland, almost fighting with some local men, teaching Shakespeare using Communist propaganda, developing sinus infections from the rampant pollution and various other outlandish anecdotes, Hessler realizes the key to surviving in China is to stop asking why, and if you must ask why, always console yourself with the same answer: "Because it's different here."

Even in his first work, Hessler is a master of setting the scene for the reader. I still have a cityscape of Fuling in my head. It might not be realistic, but Hessler provides raw material for the reader's imagination, using his background in literature to produce poetic beauty in his prose. Hessler respects the natural landscape, particularly how it interacts with the rhythm of the people's livelihood. The Yangtze is a symbol of power and timelessness, but its flow replicates the monotony of modern Chinese life. I enjoyed how he weaves this respect together with down-to-earth realism. He's able to get close and understand his surroundings without forfeiting his principles and American values. And like one sitting on the river's bank, Hessler's book gives the world an insider's view of interior China. He's soaking wet but not submerged.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

The 4th Quarter

We only had 30 minutes to spare. One of my friends was just a few hours away from getting married, and I needed to hurry back to my Mom's house in Columbus to quickly change into civilized clothing and pick up my wife, who by that time was getting dressed up in a quite autumnal silk dress. But I didn't mind the frantic rush. Any time with a mentor is worth the hurry, especially when you only get to see him every few months.

When we walked through the door to his home, we were greeted with warm hugs and the warmer aroma of fresh coffee, a special blend brewed both for taste and frugality, the store-brand stuff spiked with Starbucks. We moseyed back to his home office and plopped down in the three chairs available. Brad and the mentor in the comfy padded rockers faced me in the hard wooden desk chair, and we talked.

With time pressing, we were quick and to the point, but a familiar, rhythmic ease settled over the conversation as it has so many other times while talking with the mentor. At 60, he's old-fashioned, well-versed in cliches and overflowing with analogies and illustrations. I often joke that a person speaking English as a second language could never hope to decipher some of his cryptic idioms. Luckily, English is my native language, and one analogy hit me as we talked about marriage, missions and our respective walks with God.

The mentor spoke of a time of rest, a season in which God is allowing him to transition from ministry as an occupation to ministry as a passion and an overflow of what God is doing within him. God has made it clear to him that as he ages, this short respite is meant for preparation, not to get a taste of retirement.

"I feel like we're coming up on the fourth quarter, guys," he said. "For now, I'm gonna chill out, watch some commercials, visit the concession stand and listen to the cheerleaders. But as soon as I get the game plan, I'm gonna hit it hard until the final buzzer sounds."

When I heard that, I first thought of how odd his philosophy must sound to the rest of the world. The mentor has no pension and no idea what life will bring him next, but he's reached the happiest point of his life, where all things are starting to make sense, and the farthest thing from his mind is lazing his days away in a beach house on the island of insignificance.

Then I remembered this quotation from John Piper's "Don't Waste Your Life":

I will tell you what a tragedy is. I will show you how to waste
your life. Consider a story...which tells about a couple who “took early retirement from their jobs in the Northeast five years ago when
he was 59 and she was 51. Now they live in Punta Gorda,
Florida, where they cruise on their 30 foot trawler, play softball
and collect shells.” At first, when I read it I thought it might be
a joke. A spoof on the American Dream. But it wasn’t. Tragically,
this was the dream: Come to the end of your life—your one and
only precious, God-given life—and let the last great work of your
life, before you give an account to your Creator, be this: playing
softball and collecting shells. Picture them before Christ at the
great day of judgment: “Look, Lord. See my shells.” That is a
tragedy. And people today are spending billions of dollars to persuade
you to embrace that tragic dream. Over against that, I put
my protest: Don’t buy it. Don’t waste your life.
Thank God that he has given me mentors that, like my baseball coach used to say, are "mentally tough, physically tough, and respond when the game's on the line."