They had Christ right there – with them – and they missed it. How could they not see? Why were they so blind? How could they not recognize him? It is typical in Christian circles to ask such questions, with the implied assumption that we, had we been there, would have recognized him right away. We, the good Christians of the twenty second century, would have flocked to him, praised him, where the stupid people in the Bible – the Pharisees, the Romans, the keepers of the law – failed.
But I have always wondered about this. Of course, we hope that our place in the story is with the disciples, those who recognized Him, but how can we know? When I look in my heart – and see the piles and piles of problems there – I certainly want to be one of those who would have recognized him, but find myself fearing; what if, instead of one of the “good guys,” I would have been one of the bad guys? I would after all make an excellent Pharisee, fastidious and proud as I am. I also see in myself the figure of Pilate, agnosticism hiding behind a sensible-looking but false neutrality. Moreover, even when one doesn’t account for these proclivities to evil, there are still questions. From the perspective of hindsight, we feel we can of course “see” the outcome – Jesus was of course the messiah – but one wonders if it can have been at all clear at the time. There were after all all kinds of pretenders to messianic claims around Christ’s time, and the correlation of the Old Testament prophecies with Christ’s life – while certainly not false – nevertheless often require a somewhat counter intuitive interpretation of such prophecies. Put another way, there was, I think, another reason besides hardheartedness that people expected a military messiah – left with just the prophecies, it would be very difficult to hypothesize without divine guidance a messiah that takes the form Christ takes.
I preface my reflection on Luigi Giussani’s At the Origin of the Christian Claim with these matters because it is exactly such questions Giussani deals with in his second book. What kind of encounter would it take to convince an ordinary person, with all his/her virtues and flaws, of the divinity and messianic function of someone one initially mistook for just another generally wise man? Put another way, what kind of encounter had to happen for those curious – encountering Christ in all his curiously simple complexity – to transform from ambivalent onlookers to disciples of Christ? This question – what Giussani describes as Christ’s pedagogy – is the matter of the second book, which seeks to demonstrate that Christ is a concrete answer to the questions and problems raised by the human religious sense, outlined in his prior book.
Anticipating critics who suggest that Christ’s incarnation hardly accords with the kind of tough questioning and seeking involved in pursuing the religious sense, Giussani suggests that no seriously proposed hypothesis should be dismissed as out of hand before it is considered. The problem that the religious sense will have with the Christian incarnation is that it is not something one can figure out or hypothesize on one’s own; the path of such searching, left to its own devices, leads perhaps to Socratic irony at best and sophistry at worst. But, as Giussani points out, that the Incarnation cannot have been “figured out” by human searching alone does not necessarily indicate its falsehood – it is after all unreasonable to exclude out of hand the possibility that God could take initiative and propose an answer to the religious sense that humans could not have come up with on their own. But in opening ourselves to this possibility, one raises the difficult question of determining how one might verify it – what rubric do we use to verify the claims of someone who claims in fact to be the source of any and every such rubric? Hypothetically speaking, if one were to appear on earth from a realm beyond worldly experience, this person would presumably defy what we consider reasonable in many ways. Yet how does one tell if this person is telling the truth – if their claims of beyondness are actually real – or if their incoherence is in fact something that should be judged false when gauged by human experience?
For Giussani, we are left with a problem. If Christ is the messiah – God-made-man – then his very confusion of our sense of rationality and common experience will in fact constitute part of the proof that he is Other to us. Yet such confusion might equally suggest that he is a pretender using obfuscation as a cloak to conceal a scam. Is he hard to grasp because he is beyond us, or because he is simply incoherent?
This for Giussani is where the issue of method becomes important, that is, the issue of determining means of gauging a phenomenon appropriate to that phenomenon. This may sound complicated, but it is really a very fancy way of saying something that Christians have always insisted upon – that the whole person matters, as does the entire capacity of his/her judgement, and the most fitting answer to the problems raised by human existence is not that which simply answers a single niche problem confined to a single experience or criterion. Rather, the answer will be that which holistically answers in a way that does not do violence to the understanding of human nature as a whole, defined as generously as possible to include reason, emotion, psychology, relationships etc. – in short, all that constitutes human experience.
Turning to the gospels, then, Giussani discusses the way we see Christ encountering humans such that these humans are brought to a point of crisis where they either must acknowledge Christ as who he is and trust him – even beyond their understanding at times – or must decide against him and turn away. For Giussani, it is of the utmost importance that Christ’s appearance is never coercive; there is enough about him to invite further those who are curious and freely choose to explore, yet belief in him is never absolutely compelled or completely incontrovertible, as might be the case, say, in a mathematical equation. Giussani sees this as God’s way of honoring the free will he has given humans. There is enough evidence to go on for those who seek truth. But God will not compel anyone to follow him by the violence of a too narrow syllogism – those who wish to reject him can, and do. God will not compel stubborn hearts.
The shape of Christ’s answer to human experience – what is invoked in humans by the religious sense – is thus the matter of the book, and the book’s burden is defining and nuancing this answer such that it is mistaken neither as simplistic or completely incomprehensible. In my prior post, I described Giussani’s conception of human existence as a great riddle to be solved by as many legitimate means as are available to us. Conversely, Christ, for him, is a divine riddle posed as an answer to the human riddle. As such a riddle, Christ gives his followers just enough of himself to keep them following him – just enough of himself that they can know he is trustworthy – but there is always a part of Him beyond the bit of Him they see and measure, the part that continually challenges them to open themselves to the mystery of heaven beyond themselves, toward which He is the way.
The rest of the book is a sketch of how this Divine Riddle that answers the human riddle interacts with those he meets in the gospel accounts. I say “sketch” because the intention is hardly to exhaust what could be said on this matter, but rather to offer tantalizing glimpses of this interaction and so invite readers to further consider these gospel accounts for themselves – an intention in which (I feel) the book succeeds admirably.
But the series does not end here, and this in itself is a significant thing. I could list off any number of authors who might have ended here; the first book introduces the human need, and the second book shows how Christ answers that human need. What more can remain? What in fact remains is the question of how Christ’s life- a life lived historically two thousand years ago – is mediated to us in the present. It is, after all, one thing to say that Christ was such that he was sufficient as an answering riddle to those in the first century, but their experiences are not ours – say what we will about our personal relationships with Christ, we cannot say – at least in the strictly literal sense – that we have put our fingers in the holes in his hands, or that our hearts burned within us while he talked to us on the road. But if we have not done these things, how can we in fact evaluate Christ’s answer, if that very answer is a person – in flesh and blood – rather than a proposition? How can we encounter One who has not been present – at least in the full physical manifestation described in the gospels – for the last two thousand years? Is there another way that we might encounter Christ, not as a detached idea or historical artifact, but as His full Person, the very Person proposed as the answer to the religious sense? Is there a way of encountering this Person, not secondhand through accounts written thousands of years ago, but in such a way that we can evaluate him via our own experiences and judgements? This question – whether Christ can be encountered in the present as in the past – will be the matter of my third review, dealing with Giussani’s Why the Church?
Today is the Memorial of St. Athanasius of Alexandria. Accordingly, I decided to give his De Incarnatione VerbiDei a re-read.
I read it first seven years ago. That time, I was sitting in a parking lot for a public park in my Vancouver suburb. An auntie I knew from the Chinese evangelical church I was going to–all women my mom’s age are called “auntie”–drove over and asked what I was reading. I said that I was reading Athanasius. Just the name weirded her out. “You are always reading such complicated stuff,” she said.
I would have explained to her that because she was a fan of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity–a book she recommended to everybody (though I doubt she’s actually read it all the way through herself)–she should read Athanasius. In fact, I was reading Athanasius because I had read C.S. Lewis’s foreword to On theIncarnation in one of the versions of Mere Christianity that I had flipped through. He talks about why it’s important to read old books: because each “age” has its particular ways of thinking and doing things, reading an old book helps you see all the blind spots of your own particular “age.” In this preface, Lewis talks particularly about the impact that Athanasius had on his own theological thinking:
When I first opened his De Incarnatione I soon discovered by a very simple test that I was reading a masterpiece. I knew very little Christian Greek except that of the New Testament and I had expected difficulties. To my astonishment I found it almost as easy as Xenophon; and only a master mind could, in the fourth century, have written so deeply on such a subject with such classical simplicity. Every page I read confirmed this impression. His approach to the Miracles is badly needed today, for it is the final answer to those who object to them as “arbitrary and meaningless violations of the laws of Nature.” They are here shown to be rather the re-telling in capital letters of the same message which Nature writes in her crabbed cursive hand; the very operations one would expect of Him who was so full of life that when He wished to die He had to “borrow death from others.” The whole book, indeed, is a picture of the Tree of Life—a sappy and golden book, full of buoyancy and confidence. We cannot, I admit, appropriate all its confidence today. We cannot point to the high virtue of Christian living and the gay, almost mocking courage of Christian martyrdom, as a proof of our doctrines with quite that assurance which Athanasius takes as a matter of course. But whoever may be to blame for that it is not Athanasius.
Of course, this sounds all so much like what Molly Worthen has recently written about the Anglophilia of American evangelicals trying to find intellectual moorings for an otherwise anti-intellectual American evangelicalism, and I won’t deny that at the time, I was soaking up the neo-Reformed goodies put out by Mark Driscoll and John Piper. In fact, to come completely clean, I was reading Lewis’s Mere Christianity for a course on Christian Living at Calvary Chapel Bible College, and yes, this was the Calvary Chapel where Pastor Chuck Smith baptized over 10,000 hippies in the 1960s and became the flagship church of what has come to be known as the Jesus Movement. (I learned about Lonnie Frisbee much, much later.)
I’m just trying to say that C.S. Lewis sounded really smart because he was British.
So, OK, fine, I’ll admit that I was reading Athanasius to show off that I could read “complicated stuff” by authors with complicated names with a hint of Anglophilia thrown in. In fact, I have to say that I was being outright Anglophilic because I was reading a horrible nineteenth-century translation that made Athanasius sound like some highfalutin Oxford don. Like Lewis, Athanasius sounded so smart because he was–well, at least in my translation–so British.
Fast-forward six or seven years. I’m completely done with Calvary Chapel’s dispensationalism–I threw in the towel when we were dissecting Romans for verses related to the Rapture–and I’ve jumped ship to Regent College. A paper topic for the Christian Thought and Culture course on pre-Reformation Christianity asked us to take a position on one of the old heresies in the early church. I chose Arianism, partly because a few faculty members had duked it out during their joint lectures over whether Athanasius’s polemics toward Arianism actually made any theological or biblical exegetical sense.
That’s when I read Rowan Williams’s Arius. One of the funny things about Anglophilia is that it’s so selective: American evangelicals love their Lewis, Tolkien, Stott, and all the rest that they re-baptize into their evangelical fold, but they most certainly are not going to take in Rowan Williams. Most of what I’d read and heard about Williams at that point, especially from Anglicans who had broken away from their dioceses over the blessing of same-sex unions, was that he was a “spineless moron” who didn’t have the guts to enforce the moratoria on gay bishops and same-sex partnerships called for in the Windsor Report. I expected him to be equally spineless on fourth-century orthodoxy.
Williams pulled a fast one on me. His analysis of Arius was that Arius was an ultra-conservative pastor in Alexandria whose view of God the Father was too high. He wanted to protect the Father from the suffering of the Son, and that’s why he insisted that the Son had to be sub-divine. Moreover, he was a worship song writer, so he wrote songs like the Thalia so that, as Williams astutely points out, when Arius’s teaching was condemned at Nicaea, Arius still had plenty of fans to keep him company and bury him when he died.
For Williams, orthodoxy did not mean the same thing as conservatism. If anything, it was just the opposite. It was the polemicists like Athanasius who had to keep on their toes, the ones who had to stay creative:
Athanasius and the consistent Nicenes actually accept Arius’ challenge, and agree with the need for conceptual innovation: for them the issue is whether new formulations can be found which do justice not only to the requirements of intellectual clarity but to the wholeness of the worshipping and reflecting experience of the Church. (235)
Little surprise that the conservatives in the Anglican Communion don’t exactly like Williams: after all, who would want to admit that “historic Anglican orthodoxy” with all of its “traditional” teaching on marriage and family is a modern creative formulation that needs more serious theological probing? I’m not even sure that Athanasius would have liked Williams’s assessment of his historical situation, as Williams does go out of his way to say that Athanasius’s polemics might have distorted and exaggerated Arius’s teaching quite a bit.
It’s with this new ambivalence toward Athanasius that I found myself reading De Incarnatione Verbi Dei this morning.
Lewis says that Athanasius’s writing throws the modern world in sharp contrast. On the one hand, Athanasius’s take on miracles is a robust reply to those who say that these things violate “the law of nature”: if the creative Word became flesh, after all, he can create whatever he wants, and that’s OK in a pre-modern enchanted context. On the other, Athanasius’s assumption that all Christians live virtuous lives cannot be said of Lewis’s mid-twentieth-century British experience. For Lewis, Athanasius’s world is fundamentally different from the modern world, and that’s why we have a lot to learn from him. (One could point out the superficial similarities between Lewis’s view and the heterotopias in Foucault’s Of Other Spaces.)
Forgive me, then, for sounding like a heretic to American evangelical Anglophilia and say that I found Athanasius’s On the Incarnation surprisingly similar to what an old-school Chinese Christian pastor in the late twentieth century would be hammering from the pulpit. In fact, as a second-generation Chinese Christian who has less-than-proudly joined the “silent exodus” by attending a non-Chinese church regularly (see also Doreen Carjaval’s original article in the Los Angeles Times and Esther Yuen’s Vancouver adaptation), I might say that it even revived so old-time resentments toward some of my first-generation patriarchs.
On the face of it, De Incarnatione is a very sophisticated theological argument. Athanasius’s main thrust through the work is that the Word became flesh because while the Word had created the world out of nothing, the Fall was corrupting all of creation back into nothing. You can see this corruption, Athanasius begins, in violence from personal adulteries and murders to outright warfare between city-states. The Word thus takes on a body so that he can resurrect to conquer death. A new existence follows in which adulterers are made chaste, murderers are made peaceful, and wars stop.
So far, so good. In fact, I like the pacifist implications of all of this.
That’s when it gets violent. As Athanasius gets polemical about Jewish and Greek interlocutors about Christianity in the second half of the work, I was like, “Wow, an old-school Chinese church pastor could have said this.” And that ticked me off a little bit.
First off, Athanasius would be as helpful to interreligious dialogue as a Chinese Christian fundamentalist. Maybe it’s my stupid nineteenth-century translation that makes the Orientalism come out so pointedly, but here’s a quick snapshot:
And whereas formerly every place was full of the deceit of the oracles, and the oracles at Delphi and Dodona, and in Boeotia and Lycia and Libya and Egypt and those of the Cabiri, and the Pythoness, were held in repute by men’s imagination, now, since Christ has begun to be preached everywhere, their madness also has ceased and there is none among them to divine any more. And whereas formerly demons used to deceive men’s fancy, occupying springs or rivers, trees or stones, and thus imposed upon the simple by their juggleries; now, after the divine visitation of the Word, their deception has ceased. For by the sign of the cross, though a man but use it, he drives out their deceit. And while formerly men held to be gods Zeus and Cronos and Apollo and the heroes mentioned in the poets, and went astray in honoring them, now that the Saviour has appeared among men, those others have been exposed as mortal men, and Christ alone has been recognized among men as the true God, the Word of God. And what is one to say of the magic esteemed among them? that before the Word sojourned among us this was strong and active among Egyptians, and Chaldeans, and Indians, and inspired awe in those who saw it; but that by the presence of the truth, and the appearing of the Word, it also has been thoroughly confuted, and brought wholly to nought. (De Incarnatione 47).
This brings back memories of old-school Chinese church pastors fuming at the pulpit about smashing Buddhas and burning them in tin trash cans in new converts’ backyards or imagining demons flying out of Buddhist temples to corrupt the suburb his people are living in. (Chinese women pastors are a recent phenomenon.) I certainly couldn’t imagine this turning into A Common Word or Nostra Aetate. In this view, there’s something inherently bad about religions other than Christianity. Other religions, it would be said, deal with demons and the devil. Christianity is the light that drives out the darkness, the good that drives out the bad.
Ditto Athanasius on Jewishness:
What is left unfulfilled, that the Jews should now disbelieve with impunity? For if, I say–which is just what we actually see–there is no longer king, nor prophet, nor Jerusalem, nor sacrifice, nor vision, among them, but even the whole earth is filled with the knowledge of God, and Gentiles, leaving their godlessness, are now taking refuge with the God of Abraham, through the Word, even our Lord Jesus Christ, then it must be plain, even to those who are exceedingly obstinate, that the Christ is come, and that he has illumined absolutely all with his light, and given them the true and divine teaching concerning his Father. (De Incarnatione 40).
It’s not Dabru Emet, that’s for sure. I’ve certainly heard my share within Chinese churches about the ignorance of Jews refusing to believe in the Messiah and how we’re so much smarter because it’s so obvious that Jesus is the one they’ve been looking for. As one Hong Kong Chinese pastor in Vancouver who did his Doctor of Ministry thesis on Jewish-Christian relations pointed out to me, that’s why there’s zero dialogue between Chinese Christians and their Jewish neighbours.
Athanasius then assumes that where Christianity is, it just triumphalistically pastes over an existing religious landscape with its own enlightened geography:
This, then, after what we have so far said, it is right for you to realize, and to take as the sum of what we have already started, and to marvel at exceedingly; namely, that since the Saviour has come among us, idolatry not only has no longer increased, but what there was is diminishing and gradually coming to an end; and not only does the wisdom of the Greeks no longer advance, but what there is is now fading away; and demons, so far from cheating any more by illusions and prophecies and magic arts, if they so much as dare to make the attempt, are put to shame by the sign of the cross. And, to sum the matter up, behold how the Saviour’s doctrine is everywhere increasing, while all idolatry and everything opposed to the faith of Christ is daily dwindling, and losing power, and falling. (De Incarnatione 55).
Rowan Williams casts a fair bit of doubt on this assessment with the view that there were lots of different kinds of Arians and lots of different factions within Nicene orthodox groups and that these guys duked it out for well over a century and a half. And yet, Athanasius’s polemic against all things non-Christian reminds me of the Chinese senior pastor in my childhood church who used to declare from the pulpit, “Where Christianity is, there is prosperity!” (How Weberian.) As geographer Judy Han writes about Korean Christians, there is often a lack of clarity about what’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the gospel of prosperity in all of this.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that–contrary to Lewis’s view of ages as so different from each other–I now find Athanasius’s On the Incarnation to be familiar childhood territory, not the “complicated stuff” with a hard-to-pronounce name laced with Anglophilic otherness. Perhaps, as Charles Taylor points out, the “disenchantment” of the enchanted pre-modern world was never fully completed. Instead, Taylor suggests that we live in a “cross-pressured,” if not “schizophrenic,” world where we tell ourselves that we shouldn’t believe in anything supernatural and are subsequently fascinated by anything remotely magical. (Stanford anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann has a fascinating take on how this all gets reconciled psychologically.) Athanasius isn’t so different from the rest of us, especially me as a Chinese Christian.
And yet, if Athanasius isn’t so different, I’d like to follow Williams and hold him accountable for some of his statements. Woe be to me to take a canonized church father in both Catholic and Orthodox communions to task, but I’m totally on with Williams in thinking that Athanasius may really have exaggerated some of his polemics. This is admittedly a frightful task, as nerve-wracking as trying to have a theological dispute with a first-generation Chinese Christian senior pastor revered by an adoring immigrant congregation. After all, I run the risk of being called disrepectful to my elders, the zhangzhe (長者) revered in popular Confucian ideology.
A helpful–but still admittedly problematic–way to push St. Athanasius a bit might be to follow the comparisons between him and twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth. Athanasius’s take on religion itself sounds very Barthian (or Barth sounds very Athanasian, which is probably more the case):
But men once more in their perversity having set at nought, in spite of all this, the grace given them, so wholly rejected God, and so darkened their soul, as not merely to forget their idea of God, but also to fashion for themselves one invention after another. (De Incarnatione 11).
This sounds an awful lot like Barth railing about religion as the “frontier” of human possibilities, that the whole point of the resurrection of Jesus is to show how far off the gods that we project from our own desires are from the beaten track.
The two of them came to similar ethical conclusions. For Athanasius, this sort of projected religion led to increased human conflict:
For formerly, while in idolatry, Greeks and Barbarians used to war against each other, and were actually cruel to their own kin. For it was impossible for anyone to cross sea or land at all without arming the hand with swords, because of their implacable fighting among themselves. For the whole course of their life was carried on by arms, and the sword with them took the place of a staff, and was their support in every emergency; and still, as I said before, they were serving idols, and offering sacrifices to demons, while for all their idolatrous superstition they could not be reclaimed from this spirit. (De Incarnatione 51).
For Barth, when the German nation-state made up versions of God for the church to subscribe to, it was well on the way to Nazi totalitarianism and the geopolitical madness of World War II.
If this is the case, this is a profound challenge to the old-school Chinese Christian pastors I think sound so similar to Athanasius. It would challenge them to say concretely what the links between idolatry and ethics are. Don’t just say that “other religions” or “folk religions” are inherently, essentially bad and evil systems associated with the devil. Are they actually violent in practice? How so? Be concrete. We believers in the incarnation are, after all, a concrete people.
And what about Henri de Lubac’s argument in Catholicism that the catholic impulse is all about re-focusing spiritualities on Jesus Christ? or Tolkien’s point that all true narratives find their fulfillment in the eucatastrophic redemption in the death and resurrection of Jesus? (I realize that the latter example brings us back to Anglophilia, which just goes to show that, as James Cone says about his training in white neo-orthodoxy, it’s pretty hard to shake.)
Or what if, as Stanley Hauerwas has it in his own reflection on interreligious interaction and the work of Fr. David Burrell, CSC, the whole point is that faith is all about embodied, performative practice, not propositional systems? Maybe St. Athanasius is making a René Girard argument, that all of this violence is caused by the projection of mimetic desire into religious ritual.
Sure, OK, maybe we shouldn’t tell St. Athanasius to read our twentieth-century theologians, but what I’m saying is that it’s not that St. Athanasius is wrong about religion. It’s that he’s got thoughts to develop. And our job, far from uncritically revering him, is to push that development along.
The point is, if we really do believe in the communion of saints, let’s not put the artificial distances of modernity, Anglophilia, or canonized sainthood between us and the church doctor. After all, Athanasius’s central point in De Incarnatione is that the Word became flesh to free us from the state of corruption so that we can share in the divine resurrection life. If this is so, St. Athanasius is still alive, and he is our brother.
Catholic popular theology would have us say then, “St. Athanasius, pray for us.” What Rowan Williams has shown us that we can also say is, “St. Athanasius, I’m going to push you on this one.” Growing up Chinese Christian, I’d say the latter is absolutely necessary for a more solid understanding of how the church ought to relate to the world.
But it’s a hard thing to say. After all, we don’t want to be disrespectful to our elders.
We’re up, both here at A Christian Thing, and at my blog, Chinglican at Table. It’s the week of Chinese New Year and the auspicious Year of the Dragon. My mother-in-law asked me if the dragon could be correlated with the Satanic figure in Revelation. I pleaded the Fifth. I’m sure, having invoked the dragon in Evangelium Vitae, the late Pope John Paul II would have pleaded equal ignorance, not least because it might have ruined his interfaith Assisi dialogue initiatives.
Theologically interesting as dragons may be, then, I’m going to take a pass at reflecting on them this zodiac year. Stay tuned twelve years later for a reply to my mother-in-law.
Meanwhile, I’ll take this chance to wish Thick Dumpling Skin a happy one year birthday, a momentous event that coincides with Year of the Dragon celebrations.
Thick Dumpling Skin is a blog started by Hyphen magazine publisher Lisa Lee and Asian American actress and food blogger Lynn Chen to explore body image issues in Asian America. They noted a paradox that they’d both experienced, that when they came home to their families, they would receive comments about how much weight they had gained or lost and then, as if there were no contradiction, be told to eat more. As they rightly point out, Chinese New Year epitomizes this madness, with relatives commenting on weight over a big meal where it’s rude to abstain. Such eating schizophrenia within their own families, they suggest, can lead to eating disorders, being insecure about the way one’s body looks and self-medicating by avoiding food, binge eating, or the bulimic combination of both. One year and 50 posts later, and with the recent introduction of a psychotherapist in the person of Ashley Solomon, their site has made it clear that there are resonances with the Asian American community on this issue.
What I’d like to suggest is that what Lisa and Lynn have hit upon is also a theological issue. To bring up theology here might tempt you to hear me as turning into Juliet Yang, Lynn Chen’s character in The People I’ve Slept With, a hilariously caricatured treatment of an Asian North American evangelical with “a family straight out of the Gap catalogue.” If I were to to do this, I’d go straight into a moralizing treatment of why you should take care of your body because it’s made in the image of God. Then, after telling you that keeping your body holy because it’s a temple of the Holy Spirit means that you need to exercise, eat well, and find balance (just as any other self-help guru would say), I’d say that you then need to dress it modestly (which is probably not what just any old self-help guru would say). I wouldn’t put it past Juliet Yang to go in that direction, but I’m also confident that Lynn Chen herself would take a pass on such an imitation.
Juliet Yang (Lynn Chen, right) confronts her sister Angela (Karin Anna Cheung, left) for her promiscuity
I don’t want to take a faux progressive moralizing tack either, telling you that because there are starving people all over the world, we should take all the food that we binge on and give it to the poor. There is a place for this line of thought, especially around issues of food security and the unjust socio-economic-political structures that keep people hungry, but this isn’t the point of Thick Dumpling Skin. And besides, unless this progressivism is pursued with clear-headed thoughtfulness, it can come out sounding awfully paternalistic and colonizing.
Instead, I want to lightly interrogate what Thick Dumpling Skin means by “Asian culture” that leads to the crazy contradicting messages we get about our bodies from family and community. It’s not like Confucius says that Asians have to be thin. It’s rather the discourse that partly is spread in popular media, Asian and American alike, that unlike white people, Asians can keep eating and be skinny as a stick. It’s also the constant comments from friends and family, sometimes subtle, often not, about weight vis-a-vis the perfect body shape an Asian “should” have. Culture, in short, is simply code for the narratives of the body that are communicated in families, churches, and community networks. They are stories about what Asian bodies should look like, which, by the way, means that whether they are deployed by a white mainstream media or our Asian families, they also happen to be deeply racist because they are orientalizing.
By providing a safe space to air out the destructiveness of these orientalizing stories, Thick Dumpling Skin tells a different story, summed up by their tagline: “It’s what’s on the inside that counts.” There are numerous posts about taking a different tack–learning to love yourself for what’s on the inside, complete with spiritual, psychological, and emotional exercises to embrace who you are as a person as opposed to what you look like in hopes that you’ll be actually able to embrace what your body actually looks like because of the radiance of your inner beauty. It’s about pursuing a healthy identity in defiance of the discourses of the skinny Asian proliferating in media and family, to metaphorically “grow some thicker skins, and learn to love them as well.”
I might venture to say that Thick Dumpling Skin is implicitly–and probably without themselves knowing it–offering a theological alternative for bodily practices in Asian American churches. In one place on the blog, Lisa writes that some of the more destructive comments as well as the site for the greatest binge eating to be had around Chinese New Year was the infamous church potlucks. As she elaborates on BlogHer:
Chinese Lunar New Year is just around the corner. What this usually means for me is another one of those potlucks at church, where there’s way too much food prepared by way too many aunties, or a yis as I fondly call them. Like most people, I can’t wait for the hot pots and steamed fish, but as a person who has struggled with my body image, the huge feast brings up complications. In order for me to get my hands on the delicious dishes that they’ve prepared, I have to brace myself for the string of, “Lisa! You’re back! You ______ (insert either lost/gained in blank) weight!”
Lisa Lee (far right) at an “infamous church potluck”
The real question is: what alternatives does the church have to the weighty auntie discourse on the week of Chinese New Year? I’m inclined to take the tack that the Christian faith is a deeply incarnational one with a theology profoundly interested in embodiment. After all, what seemed to piss the early church fathers off the most was when spiritual elitists broadly labeled “Gnostics” denied the importance of the body to Christian spirituality. What Thick Dumpling Skin reveals about the racialized discourse of Asian thin is that it may well be another destructive gnostic ideology that makes no sense in terms of how the human body actually works. You can’t binge eat and stay thin, you can’t starve yourself and stay out of the hospital, and yet this is precisely what this schizophrenic ideology would have us believe. The theological implication that Thick Dumpling Skin may be communicating unawares is that God weeps with us when we destroy our bodies for a gnostic ideology, especially because he welcomes us to his table no matter what our body shape is.
In short, Asian North American churches can really be the church when it moves away from offering a Chinese festival meal where gossip about weight rules the conversation toward the table of the Lord where the gospel reaches those marginalized by the racist discourse of Asian thin. I imagine Jesus extending arms of welcome to the readers of Thick Dumpling Skin. To be a Christian family and a Christian church is precisely not to reproduce practices of patriarchy and orientalization, racist colonial legacies and consumer objectifications of the body. If anything, it is to embody the announcement of the kingdom of God that is itself a proclamation of the end of these regimes of exclusion and the beginning of an age when my body and your body matter because they are cherished members of the Body of Christ. And because of that, when we worship at church, we are sitting at table with Jesus where he offers us his own body and blood to eat and drink.
What I like about Thick Dumpling Skin is that it is simply a forum for stories about body image and eating disorders among Asian North Americans. But what is particularly Christian about this approach, though likely unintentional, is that once these stories get aired, there is something and someone to forgive (which, incidentally, is #7 on a list of 12 things happy people do differently copied from Marc and Angel Hack Life on November 21, 2011). It is as if they were reciting the words of Jesus, that when a brother or sister sins against you, go and show them their fault so as to encourage reconciliation. If family and friends, church and community, have sinned by perpetuating these gnostic narratives that lead to eating disorders, then what better way is there than to put it all out in the open in hopes of a tearful reunion laced with forgiveness?
That’s what a Chinglican Chinese New Year table could really look like. In good Christian fashion, when we air out these stories, they paradoxically are not myopically self-centered. If we’re speaking specifically to Asian North American churches (let’s limit the audience tentatively for practicality’s sake), we’re not just saying, “You hurt me with your comments about my weight.” We’re saying, “These subtle hints about body image constitute a gnostic ideology that we together should consider abandoning for a more orthodox practice of incarnational welcome.” Part of that welcome is forgiveness, which is why at a Chinglican Chinese New Year table, you might look around the table, and it’s all of these people you’ve had to forgive, not least because they’ve probably also forgiven you too for something else unrelated. After all, Chinglicans do pray with the rest of the church, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Thick Dumpling Skin reveals the trespasses that must be forgiven so that you can pass the roasted pig, the abalone, the sea cucumber, the hairy fat choy, and your parents’ Chinese soup without the shame of conforming to an impossible and racist body image and the guilt of being complicit in proliferating this discourse.