About Kiel Nation

Loving my wife. Teaching the Bible. Surviving nuclear threats, earthquakes & typhoons. Cooking curry.

What does Hyderabad have to do with Jerusalem: a reflection on spices and catechesis

Perhaps the most interesting thing I ate before attending college was a spicy chicken sandwich from Wendy’s. I grew up in the central parts of Kentucky and the southern parts of Indiana. I’m not saying food wasn’t good in my life, just that from a global perspective it certainly wasn’t topping the list of foodie “must-go-to” places. We had a rotation at home, taco night, lasagna night (sides of the dish hardened, and topped with some mini sausage that tasted like a hotdog), pizza night and so on. Sometimes my dad would make chili, and that was good. My grandparents on his side did a lot of farming, and we always had fresh meat, veggies, and succulent desserts, but there wasn’t much in the way of variety a spice or flavor. Mexican, Chinese, and Italian food, at least in their Americana variety, were regular features. However, there was really nothing that made me any more excited then a good slice of pizza, or a burger or something else in a fairly plain variety. When Wendy’s came to my small hometown in Kentucky, there was a line of cars down the street for about a week. Never mind the fact that we had other fast food joints in town, it was still a big hit. It was new, it was different-ish, and now it was close. And for my group of friends, we had never so consistently desired a spicy product over a non-spicy one like that before. It held our attention, and captured our imagination. It was different and it was also more, more flavor, not just more content, but better content. We were in high school. Life was simple, like a fast food menu.

This group of friends I would usually go to Wendy’s with, they were friends from my youth group at church. And while we were discovering the wonders of regularly adding spice to our culinary experience we were also in the process of engaging the complexities of life with our faith. We had grown up attending Sunday school and learning a children’s version of all the great narratives contained in the Bible. How Adam and Eve came to wear clothes. How Noah had a floating zoo. How the old geezer Abraham still managed to crank out a family line. Moses the white wizard and his magical staff. The Game of Judges. The horny David, who had a heart for God but a libido for something else, contain thyself bro. And a generic mass of prophets who had tripped out visions, and hard lives, and seemed angry and harsh. Then of course Jesus and the 12 dwarves, followed by the odyssey of a man named Paul, followed then by Kirk Cameron and the end of time. I’m poking a bit of fun to highlight that we were in the process of taking what we had been taught as kids, in a kid like fashion, and applying it to adulthood in a teenager like fashion as we engaged what we were learning from and about the world around us from school, TV, the internet, and our friends. To be honest, we weren’t always sure how it fit. We knew it probably could, somehow, but more often than not at youth group we were more or less encouraged in a method of not engaging when we were confused. If a new idea might be poisonous, we were told to avoid, and that avoidance was holy, and mature, and growth in our faith, and it was the method by which one would add any complexity available to our simple faith as we aged. In answer to what Athens had to do with Jerusalem, our answer was largely… nothing. Faith was simple.

My mouth had never experienced anything that had coated it in flavor that was simultaneously peak pleasure and peak painful before, but as the plastic spoon exited my lips, having delivered a mere few grams of tomato pickle-infused-basmati white rice, my entire being went into a reaction. I wanted it to last, I wanted it to end, I had questions, and yet had also received some answers. All I knew is that I needed water, and I needed to do it again, whatever I had just done. But please notice my choice of the word “coated.” Less the idea of covering (covering your mouth is a different idea), but coating, filling, anointing, removing all other sensations with itself, the way fresh flowers fill a room, the way love fills the heart, the way a fire dispels the cold, and the way the Holy Spirit fills the soul. I had never encountered food to this effect. All other food became irrelevant. What was this concoction, why was it called pickle, why did so little of it cause such a magical experience? It was my freshman year of college, and the one Indian student who attended our tiny follicle in the Devil’s armpit of eastern Kentucky had received a package from his mom. He made some fragrant, long grain, white basmati rice, and added a mere dollop of this red lava called tomato pickle to a styrofoam bowl of the rice. I later learned that “pickle” was used to capture the idea that this was highly preserved, “pickled” in that sense, but really in no other sense familiar to the western hearer of said term. It was indeed a highly concentrated version of a spice saturated tomato curry. Oily, spicy, packed with flavor. Years later I would behold my friend’s mother making this in our kitchen where we lived while going to seminary. Tons of tomatoes, whole spices, powdered spices, and chilies, chilies, chilies, praise the good Lord, chilies, cooked down to a paste and then canned (pickled) for use as a side dish or a snack mixed lightly with rice. She had shipped it from India, and God in his good grace, had blinded all customs agents such that it had arrived in our small eastern Kentucky abode. The shadows of the Appalachian mountains may have protected us from the rays of the sun, but nothing could protect us from the fire of tomato pickle, and for that we were thankful. I ran down the hall of our dorm to the water fountain. I shielded my face from those I encountered on the path, for I like Moses coming off of Mount Sinai, was radiating the Shekinah glory of God, and was too bright to gaze upon. As I drank the water, the thought entered my mind, I had been impressed with spicy chicken from Wendy’s all the while this flavor was available. I would go on to discover many of the wonders of global cuisine and rediscover much of what makes my own native food magical in it’s own way. But something forever changed in that season of life. Life was no longer simple, but something complex that I must simplify through hard work and discipline. One of the ways I learned this was by learning all the building blocks of Indian cooking, a very complex thing. Years later I would be cooking for my family as they visited me in Washington state before my wife and I moved to Korea. I was making them curry at the request of my sisters. I was cooking in their rental cabin overlooking the Bellingham Bay and as time passed my dad looked at me and commented on how I had been cooking and talking to them for two hours and the meal was still not ready. I honestly hadn’t even thought about it. I was going off instinct, and it felt effortless and simple, like breathing. However, I had used more than a dozen spices, near a dozen other ingredients, all added at different times to achieve specific aromatic and/or flavor goals for the dish. In the end it sat there, as simple as a pot of water, but with all the complexity of a culinary heritage of thousands of years of innovation and iteration.

By the end of Bible College I mostly felt beat up and wounded, spiritually and emotionally. I had learned from some fantastic mentors and professors, enough to know that the God I had learned about as a kid was real, and in fact, profoundly true and great. I also learned the Bible I had grown up studying was a document that could encounter me at my weakest point and it could lift me up, and at my most probing and skeptical and stand up. I had learned in community with other genuine followers of Jesus but also through private prayer, and the means by which God will speak to and train someone individually. I was grateful for this, but there were still many lurking problems for me integrating this faith with the world around me. Connecting the dots you might say, between the secular and the sacred, finding the contours of theological realities in my church life and making sense of them in light of science, culture, and how I was supposed to not only live in the world, but challenge it, even dare to change it, when I had seen it do so much to change those in my church life. It wasn’t clear to me how to, in practice, authoritatively encounter the world knowing what to condone or condemn, how to tell the truth in love, because I had witnessed so much compromise and inconsistency and I knew I too would be prone to simply hide behind false religion and I couldn’t accept that. At my graduation party an old man who had supported my Indian friend and his family came to celebrate with us. He was a professor at a small seminary and he inquired about the details of our education. By the time I finished he stopped and then began to expound on the theological method we had been instructed with, and then shared his own, using the entire scope of scripture and systematic categories of doctrine, and appealing here and there to relevant case studies from church history, even locating our school’s faith tradition in that narrative in a way our school had failed to do. Many Christian traditions have Sunday school for children like mine did. However, some of them are more intentional and somewhat formal, and this school is called catechesis, which trains the young and new believers in all the essentials of the faith, both the content and the meaning. As I sat there I realized I had been taught but not catechized, and many of those serious about their faith in low church traditions seek out formal theological education, not because they are called to formal ministry, but because they were never catechized. They had the meal of their faith, but something was missing. We didn’t know what any of the ingredients were. We didn’t know how to reproduce it. We had a fast food version of a faith that had thousands of years of heritage, depth, innovation and iteration. A year from this moment I would visit India, and when I saw the children eating their local cuisine I remember thinking, I’m so jealous, I only started when I was 18 and you’ll be eating the best food on earth from the time you’re a baby. We had catered our party using our favorite Indian restaurant in West Virginia, (that’s right, an Indian restaurant in West Virginia), and as I sat there eating it listening to him I thought, this is like the first time I’m actually tasting the complexity of my faith, and I had questions, but I had also received some answers. All I knew is that I needed more, and we all went to study under that professor and many other mentors, and now we’re scattered in ministry around the world making curry and teaching the Bible to this day.

EPILOGUE: There is and will always be much discussion on the best way to teach the Christian faith and disciple each other to follow Jesus in the world we live in. My big idea here is that simplicity of content is not the answer, even while simplicity of delivery might be. In both East and West there is a move away from the complexities of the mind, and away from theological discipline, in favor of and often exclusively to more solely experiential expressions of faith. I see this killing my students and others in my life who are laboring under similar convictions at the moment. No one school, or church, or book, or professor is going to nail this down. However, I do believe there are those doing it better than others. I think theological discipline happens at various levels and to different degrees depending on an individual’s calling and context. But the Bible itself presents a deep well of content to draw from, and encourages a simple life of virtuous discipline from which to engage and fully embrace the depths and complexities of God in our otherwise simple spiritual journeys. I’ve been reading through various confessions of faith from church history as I revise and update my Bible curriculum, and studying the historic backgrounds. These confessions are deep, and designed to take around a year for the young or for new believers to process. There is much more that can and should be learned than what is contained in any one faith statement, or catechism, or confessional document, but it is a suitable starting place and foundation. To deny this is a great disservice, and an illusion really, because while accepting the Christian faith can happen quite simply for many, that initial encounter can in no way encompass it’s depth. Who among us who truly loves something wants less of it? Wants it simplified to the point of infantile milk? One of the great heresies of Indian cooking is “curry powder.” It was created when the British East India Trading Company threw a bunch of spices into one barrel to ship back to England and is itself not a real thing, but a dumbing down of many great things. Western faith has attempted to create a “curry powder” out of the great ingredients of the Christian faith, and the youth and the new believers aren’t being taught how to make it their own, but just to consume it, and to do so with blander flavor. Many are spitting it out. Obviously I have found a preferred metaphor for talking about these issues of faith in the realities of Indian cooking. My Indian friend is from Hyderabad so it serves as a symbolic stand-in for everything I have learned about the cuisine of the great and diverse country of India. Just more than a century after Christ an early church father posed a question that I find sad, though I respect this historic figure on many other counts. Tertullian asked “what Athens has to do with Jerusalem” in a book he was writing against heretics. For such an early intellectual figure, this is a surprisingly anti-intellectual statement. He’s asking what human philosophy has to do with religious doctrines. Paul in Acts 17 in his encounters with philosophers in Athens seems to set a more proper foundation for engaging such an issue. I find that many are still putting up such fearful borders to Christian engagement with complexities presented from the world because there are those, and always will be, who compromise. I understand the dilemma, as it’s all to real as a Bible teacher at a school accredited by a Korean government that doesn’t much care for religious education. But is a full retreat called for, or something else? So for myself, I’ve changed the question and the answer just a bit. What does Hyderabad have to do with Jerusalem? For me…..a great deal. Faith is complex, like a curry.

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Reflection on the Incarnation

At the end of every school year I have the seniors in my Bible class do a reflection project where they can choose any number of methods they want to reflect on any of the topics we covered through the year. The first semester is focused on basic Christian doctrine, what you may know as the systematic topics of Christian theology. We talk about the Trinity, Creation, Salvation, the Church, Satan, Demons and Hell, and the End Times among other things. In the second semester we turn towards ethics, and talk about Sex, Entertainment, Alcohol and Drugs, War and Politics among other things. We do projects or essays on each one, and take a few quizzes along the way. 

This year I had one senior who was an avowed atheist from the time he came to our school. Approximately 25% of our upperclassmen identify as agnostic or atheist privately in a survey our spiritual formation committee, which I help lead, sends out each year. I love having them in my classes and I plead with them to share openly and freely and work hard to create an environment where they feel safe to do so. According to the Fuller Youth Study “Sticky Faith” being able to share doubts and ask questions about one’s faith is one of the key data points discovered when figuring out which students gain and retain their own faith once they leave their homes. My experience confirms this. So this senior chose to reflect on the theological category of Christology, the study of Christ, for his final project. The only thing was, he didn’t want to actually present it because he didn’t want to out himself. In the presentation he sent me he claimed to be Christian, though he was still working through many of his questions. He said the study of the person and the work of Jesus Christ had changed his life. I was stunned, and grateful. I don’t need much more motivation to keep doing what I’m doing than that. It got me thinking about all the fluff we try to throw at youth when we do ministry to them. They are learning advanced math and science, getting ready to do their military service, and absorb more digital media than any other youth generation combined. They can handle some theological education. In fact, they crave it.

I wish I had learned advanced Christology when I was in high school. I didn’t really learn it in any depth until I was in seminary, and as soon as I did I felt robbed. It was a similar sensation to when I first ate Indian food as a 19 year old. I said to myself, where in God’s name has this been all my life? I should have had this from the age I was able to consume whole food! I felt the same about Christology, and I still do. To this day I feed both Christology and Indian food to my students as a matter of divine command, duty, and privilege.

As it’s Christmastime, one subcategory of Christology I’m reflecting on is the Incarnation, the act of God adding humanity to his divinity, fully God and fully man. What I think is fun is that each of the four Gospels come at the life of Christ from slightly different angles depending on their experience and context. They have the same compass as they write, the true Jesus is their north star, but they all have different maps they plot for getting there, with various intersections. The first three Gospels have so many intersections that they are known as the synoptic Gospels, because they share much that is the same. However, when you read them, and even more so when you truly study them, you see all kinds of details that distinguish them from one another. Some critics try to use this to say they are lying. But in actuality it lends itself to their authenticity. I truly love reading them more and more as I age. Considering all the variety in the Gospels is quite a task, a book length one. But one simple thing I like to do is just notice how they all start differently.

Matthew is writing to a Jewish context and his book is full of quotes and allusions to the Old Testament that his audience would readily understand. It’s even designed in a way that sections itself into a kind of retelling of the first five books of the Bible, the Torah, the foundation of all true Judaism and Christianity. But he starts like this. “1 The record of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham:” (Mt. 1:1, NASB). A genealogy of the promised Messiah, via King David, via Father Abraham? A religion and culture obsessed with Old Testament is all ears. There’s plenty in there for all peoples, and even in the original audience there would have been non-Jews familiar with the Old Testament. But before getting in to Jesus’ birth narrative, Matthew gives an epic backstory that many cultures find a bit negligible. I’ll never forget the time one of my Indian friends told me about his church mistakenly printing the Matthean genealogy in an invitation to their Christmas service. But not having the money to reprint they past them out anyway. To their surprise a Hindu stranger came, holding the invite. They asked him why he came. He said that none of his gods had a family history like his own, but this one did. He wanted to hear more. That’s incarnation.

Mark is writing in a more Graeco-Roman context, heavily influenced by the early church leader Peter who was in Rome later in his ministry according to history, serving the church there. There are fascinating studies about Mark against the backdrop of the imperial cult of Rome, and how Jesus is presented as a triumphant king in their context. Mark starts this way. ” 1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1, NASB). What’s fun about Mark is that it’s short and fast. I like reading those who study the book and feel they can find Peter’s personality behind it. Quick thinking, looking for the action, and moving forward with haste. Mark rushes headlong toward the final week of Jesus’ life, when no other than a Roman soldier declares Christ to be God. But Mark begins with an allusion to Genesis one, when he says “the beginning,” and then says it’s good news of Jesus Christ, who is the Son of God. Good news was what was declared when Roman kings came back from war victorious. Mark skips the birth narrative to state simply, when Jesus began, he began as a victorious king. And when he ended, even Roman soldiers sworn to the emperor were bending the knee to him. Many Romans were asked to fight and die for their king, to defeat his enemies. None had a king die for them to defeat their enemies, and then conquer the greatest enemy, death. That’s incarnation.

Luke is awesome. He’s possibly the only non-Jew to write of a Gospel, or any book of the Bible as far as we can tell. And he was a scholar. Though Paul writes the most books in the New Testament, Luke write the most words. The first sentence of his Gospel takes four verses. He’s writing a researched and historical narrative of the life of Christ and all the events surrounding his life, and then after he ascended into Heaven in his sequel, Acts. Some scholars debate the genre of Luke, as the other Gospels are more clearly ancient biography, some argue Luke is ancient history, along with Acts, because it’s more event focused than person focused. It appears that some person either named or under the pseudonym Theophilus is a patron paying for this research. He or she has a cool name, it means “lover of God.” Luke starts this way. “1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; 4 so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:1-4, NASB). Few research papers have started so powerfully. Luke was a physician and a traveling companion of the apostle Paul. What a special life. As a physician it seemed Luke was quite keen on how Jesus dealt with suffering people. He’s also interested in details so he goes back to before Jesus was born to when his cousin, and the final Old Testament style prophet, John, was born. He would later be known as John the baptist, and he made the authorities so mad they put him in jail and later cut off his head to keep him from telling them they were wrong. This still happens to those who proclaim Christ today. Luke captures elements to the these stories others leave out, including a song Mary, Jesus’ mother, sings when she is told of her virgin birth. If you study the origin of other religious leaders, or gods or goddesses, the historicity of their lives can often be completely detached from human history, or hard to establish in any official records, or quite negligible to their teachings, or simply reveal that they were really not divine at all. It’s certainly of little interest to know the “exact truth” about them, more just to get a sense of the rules to be on their team. But Jesus entered into human history, and opened himself up to investigation, scrutiny, and from his earliest followers they didn’t just engage him with their emotions, that’s only part of being human, they also engaged him with their minds, seeking to be as exact as they could in their understanding of his divinity and his humanity. That’s incarnation. 

Of the earliest Christians, particularly those who were Jesus’ disciples, and who were inspired by the Holy Spirit to write scripture, the apostle John lived the longest, and wrote the latest. Though he didn’t write the most books, or words, he did write in the most genres represented in the New Testament, penning a Gospel, three letters, and the only book of prophecy, Revelation. By the time John wrote his Gospel, Jewish and Greek Christians were mingling more and more in various cities around the Roman empire. It’s believed he wrote primarily to those in the region around Ephesus with churches that were diverse. He writes about Jesus in a way that clearly fulfills themes in the Old Testament, but also in a way that utilizes, and shows a deep awareness of, Greek language and thought. He explains geographic locations in Palestine that Greek Christians wouldn’t understand, as well as Aramaic words. His audience appears to have been mixed and integrated, and his writing reflected that. He starts his Gospel this way. “1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1, NASB). John directly quotes Genesis 1:1 when he starts his Gospel. Unlike Matthew, he’s not starting from Abraham. Unlike Mark, he’s not starting with Jesus’ ministry. Unlike Luke, he’s not starting with the birth of John the baptist, and then later with Adam in his genealogy that goes back to the first man. John starts with the beginning of the world, and even before, Christ was there, and as you read the first chapter, you find Christ was doing the creating as part of the divine Godhead. John is not a synoptic Gospel, his is the cosmic Gospel. And once you get to verse 14, this “word” that was with, and was, in fact, God, you read that he “became flesh.” And when he became flesh, he dwelt with his people, and they saw his glory, it was the same glory Moses had seen, and the same glory the Greeks were striving after with their “words,” their logic. But this glorious word wasn’t something that would kill them, but who would die for them. And it wasn’t some esoteric and distant stoic philosophy about how to detach yourself from the world of pain and emotion, but entered into your pain and emotion, and lived there, and took it in, took it all in, and let it kill him. And that word rose again, and lives even now. And you can read that word, and you can follow that word, and you can speak that word, and one day be with that word forever. That’s incarnation.

Why on earth would I let my students, or myself, swim in the shallow pool when this ocean is ours? Merry Christmas. 

Kind and Nice

I’m currently listening to instrumental Christmas music that my wife has playing in the background of our Sunday evening. Some say it’s too early. We don’t care. 

Growing up in a Christian home, and in a pastor’s family especially, one of the expectations is that people are “nice.” I kind of laugh when I think about this, not in a cynical way, but because there are so many problems with the notion. One of them is indeed that you can find just as many mean people in a church as outside of it, in many cases anyway. I personally find the difference to be that in a church, at least in one of any measure of health, you will also find confession, repentance, and forgiveness as well. This is what makes the church, the healthy one, different. Not the absence of conflict, but the presence of forgiveness at scale. Another reason I laugh is all the ways that niceness has been perpetrated to some of the most tragic and unkind ends. I once had a pastor who said “it’s not kind to be nice to an evil person.” The idea is if you welcome an abuser in to your life, or home, or the church, and in order to be nice to them you let them do whatever makes them comfortable, you are in fact being unkind to those they harm. You may in fact have to be something other than nice to them to truly be a kind individual. 

I find this to be resonate throughout the biblical narrative, something that perplexes the hyper-moral secularist, and even progressive Christians. They love to cut out the Old Testament, or say God didn’t really kill his son Jesus for our sin, or some other thing that cuts some of the blood and guts out of the persona of God that they don’t find to be very “nice.” I find in every context I’m in the norm for deciding when, how, how often, and to whom to be nice too will reveal the real worldview of the community. In business who gets the default, the leaders, the employees, or the clients? In a school, is it the administrators, the board, the parents, the teachers, or the students? If the debate is brought to a vote, because some issue has been raised, who is going to be treated the nicest? Who gets their way and why? 

One of the things about Jesus I honestly love is that he rips in to the Pharisees, and hard. Some of them come around and join his team. By the time we get to the Acts of the Apostles, there are Pharisees in the Christian church. That’s amazing. Hard words led to soft hearts. I think it’s because those who were humble could see he was right about their hypocrisy. But in chapters like Matthew 23, Jesus just straight lays into them. It’s brutal. And the more you study the history and language of the time, the darker it is. But you don’t need to dig too deep to know that saying things like like this are harsh, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.” (Mt. 23:15 NIV). I know there are times I need a hard word. I’ve had abusive people lay in to me needlessly, sure, I’m no glutton for that kind of punishment. But the idea that the God-become-flesh nicest man on earth laid out some sick burns against the prideful who were leading others away from him gives me peace. Because when you really go through you life, you see the need for this kind of leadership. Sometime you have to say hard things, and it doesn’t make you a mean person, it makes you kind to the right people, the innocent, the helpless, the weak. And in Jesus’ case, it makes you exceedingly honest and committed to the truth. Everywhere I have been there has been a need for that kind of leadership, and a craving for it. There hasn’t always been a knowledge or an initial acceptance of what it looks like, but when it is manifest over any amount of time to any effect, it is appreciated by the right people. 

I want to be a kind person, and have always tried to be. Most think I am. I was voted the friendliest guy in my senior class in high school. But to do so I have to be guided but what is just and righteous, and that involves hard things and harsh words sometimes. There is definitely a balance, and a need to default to being as kind as possible. Too often it is believed that as a personal of faith, it is only possible to be kind, and that is only true if you know when, how, how often, and to whom to be kind to. Jesus knew, and I’ll keep trying to follow his lead.