Friday, December 12, 2008

Family Ties, December 2008

Sometimes relatives differ, and that's okay.

When my wife, Ellen, and I were dating, I found her sarcasm jarring. I would respond to her sarcastic remarks by saying, "Did you know that sarcasm comes from the Greek word sarkazo? It's a verb form of the noun sarx, meaning flesh. Sarkazo was used to describe wild dogs ripping out flesh. That's what it's like when you are sarcastic—you're tearing out my flesh." She didn't quite see it that way.

It wasn't until I got to know her family better that I came to understand that sarcasm was one of her family's love languages. They joked around with those they cared for; it was their way of saying, "You're part of the family." I gradually realized that Ellen's sarcastic remarks were her way of telling me that she liked me.

Holidays are usually times of gathering with extended family and relatives that we don't see very often. This can be a cross-cultural experience. The kids play outside while the aunts and uncles hash out family issues in the kitchen. We wonder, How can these people possibly be related?

We all have quirky family traditions and wacky uncles. But we are still family. Christianity Today senior writer Tim Stafford notes in Never Mind the Joneses that every family has its own way of doing things. Most marriages face conflict when one family culture bumps up against another. Successful marriages incorporate elements from the cultures of both families of origin and forge a distinctive third culture.

Socially, many of us rarely mingle with people beyond our own "family." Bill Bishop, in The Big Sort, observes that Americans tend to organize themselves into like-minded communities, both politically and religiously. We live in fragmented tribes in which we only interact with people we already agree with on most issues. Bishop notes that when communities are homogenous, opinion becomes far more absolute and dogmatic. Conservatives become extremely conservative, and liberals become radically liberal.

Some geographic areas are so overwhelmingly Republican or Democrat that it becomes inconceivable to residents that people could hold differing opinions. As playwright Arthur Miller asked during the 2004 election cycle, "How can the polls be neck and neck when I don't know one Bush supporter?" We live in echo chambers where our perspectives are not tempered by alternate views.

The church is also at risk of living in theologically homogenous echo chambers. We sort ourselves based on doctrinal tradition, church polity, or worship style. We fight over issues like young-earth creationism or intelligent design and whether moms should stay at home or not. We question the salvation of Christians in different tribes. Our reading lists only have books from our theological perspective, or only male authors, or only North Americans.

Educational theory tells us that at earlier developmental stages, we think in black and white; one perspective is right and others are wrong. But as we age and grow, we learn that it's not that simple. Different perspectives each have their own value and contribution. We forget that the umbrella of Nicene Christianity has permitted the development of a variety of theological traditions, each with its own biblical rationale and justification.

Rubbing shoulders with other Christian family members helps us rediscover our own denominational and ecclesial distinctives. And we can be alerted to our own blind spots. Evangelicals benefit when Pentecostals remind them of the importance of the Holy Spirit. Contemplatives and activists can temper each other's emphases. And Christians in North America can learn much from Christians living out their faith in different political and economic circumstances around the world.

So this holiday season, put something on your Amazon wish list that you ordinarily wouldn't pick up. Go through a four-views book, and give each perspective a charitable reading. Don't just subscribe to CT; read The Christian Century as well. Or Sojourners, World, or Relevant.

Better yet, begin a face-to-face friendship with someone who thinks differently from you. Have lunch with a friend from a different church or theological tradition or who voted for the other presidential candidate. Instead of only advocating for your point of view, focus on understanding theirs.

I've been sharpened by friends who are more conservative than me and by those more liberal than me. They stretch me and challenge me in different ways, and I am better for it.

Most of the time we live out our immediate family's traits and traditions, and that's fine. But sometimes it is good for us to hang out with the in-laws or extended relatives and swap stories. And we shouldn't be too surprised if we learn something from other members of the body of Christ. After all, we're family.

Al Hsu is an associate editor at InterVarsityPress. He is the author of several books, most recently The Suburban Christian and blogs at

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Surprised by Disability, October 2008

Why the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensible.

When my wife, Ellen, and I received prenatal confirmation that our second son would have Down syndrome, we were concerned but also relieved. Why? Because a previous diagnosis was more severe: that our son's condition might have been, as the doctor put it, "incompatible with life." He told us that we could terminate the pregnancy, but we chose to "do no harm" and prepare for our child's birth, come what may. Several months later, we joyously and nervously welcomed Elijah Timothy Hsu into the world.

Life with Elijah has been challenging but not unmanageable. He has had his share of doctors and therapists. But for the most part, he is a happy and healthy three-year-old who loves Blue's Clues and Signing Time DVDS, roughhousing with his older brother, saying "No!" and giving hugs.

October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month, and the public needs to know that Down syndrome is not nearly as scary as many imagine. Recent articles in both the American Journal of Medical Genetics and Prenatal Diagnosis report that more than 90 percent of pregnancies prenatally diagnosed as Down syndrome are terminated. As prenatal testing becomes normative, expectant couples may be more likely to abort babies who are not exactly what they had hoped for.

Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche communities, which bring abled and disabled people together under one roof, warns in Living Gently in a Violent World that in a few years there may be no more children with Down syndrome in France because they will have all been aborted. In China, babies with disabilities are often abandoned. Extremist groups in the Middle East have even used people with mental disabilities as unwitting suicide bombers. The church must advocate on behalf of those most vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Care for the disabled is a global justice issue.

The 2000 U.S. Census found that 19.4 percent of the population is affected by physical or intellectual disability. One in 140 children now has an autism spectrum disorder, according to the 2007 Annual Review of Public Health. Cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injuries, spina bifida, Alzheimer's, and a host of other conditions affect millions. If you don't currently know someone with a disability, chances are that you will.

All of us are only temporarily abled. We are only a car accident or stroke away from disability. As Joan Mahler, coordinator of L'Arche USA, told me, "All of us are abled in some ways and disabled in others. People with developmental disabilities often help all of us understand our own brokenness."

The church must take up Luke 14's call to welcome the disabled to the great banquet of the kingdom. According to the Christian Institute on Disability (CID), perhaps 80 percent of the disabled are unchurched. As disabilities become more common, churches and seminaries increasingly need disability ministries.

When Biola University recently offered its first-ever course on the theology of suffering and disability, registration filled up within one hour. California Baptist University now offers a master's degree in disability studies—the first of its kind from a Christian institution—on campus and online. Joni Eareckson Tada's organization, Joni and Friends, launched CID to equip individuals and churches for disability ministry. Its managing director, Steve Bundy, says, "The body of Christ is incomplete when it does not include the disabled."

Our theology needs to rediscover God's particular concern for and identification with the disabled. We worship a God who both healed the sick and took on our infirmities as the suffering, crucified Savior. Nancy Eiesland, author of The Disabled God, notes that it's theologically significant that Jesus' post-resurrection body still bore the scars.

My wife now uses American Sign Language while leading worship at our church. People have told her that the beauty of sign language helps them experience God. Just as different spoken languages such as Spanish or Mandarin can help English speakers worship God in new ways, so, too, can the languages of the disabled allow us to worship God not only with our lips, but with our hands and bodies as well.

Jesus' ministry of healing gives us hope that the blind will see and the deaf will hear. But that's not all. The scars in Jesus' hands and side are not erased, but transformed into testimony to the Resurrection. We don't know for sure in what ways our disabilities will be healed, but we can have confidence that our resurrected bodies will be even more wondrous than if they had never experienced disability at all.

My family was surprised by disability. Surprised by its unexpected nature, but also by the unanticipated blessings that Elijah has brought into our lives. Down syndrome may well be an effect of the Fall, but by God's grace, it has also become for us a window into the joy of the kingdom of God.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Olympic Snapshot, August 2008

Olympic Snapshot

Imagine swords turned into plowshares, and soldiers into soccer players.

Al Hsu posted 8/08/2008 07:26AM

I love the Olympics. My grandfather attended the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles and brought back an Olympic keychain that I used for two decades before the clasp broke. I have pins from every Olympiad since my birth. I'd love to take a class at Regent College in the winter of 2010 just so I can be in town for the Vancouver Winter Games. I'm hoping Chicago gets to host the 2016 Olympics so I can volunteer.

Every Olympiad, both summer and winter, I spend two weeks engrossed in obscure events and medal counts. I find myself caught up in the competitions and the stories of the individual athletes, as well as in the global community the Games foster.

But I've been conflicted about the 2008 Games ever since they were awarded to Beijing. As many have noted, China's human-rights record is tainted with abuses. The international community has rightly been concerned about China's relationships with Tibet and Sudan.

In addition, I am a second-generation Taiwanese American, and Taiwan and China have been at odds for decades. Part of me feels kinship with Chinese culture and history, while another part carries a fierce sense of Taiwanese independence.

A few years ago, I visited mainland China, and I had an uneasy feeling at the Beijing airport. It was akin to how an American might have felt visiting the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The closing ceremonies of the 2004 Olympics marked the transition from Athens to Beijing with a cultural display of Chinese dance and music. I realized that I can honor China's 5,000-year history, which far transcends China's modern-day Communist rule. I can affirm my Chinese ethnic heritage even if I find myself protesting certain aspects of the present Chinese government. I can also celebrate the redemptive possibilities of the current Olympics.

Christian Vision Project editor Andy Crouch writes in his new book, Culture Making, that the cultural treasures of this world will be redeemed and incorporated into the kingdom of God as "the furniture of the new Jerusalem." Like athletes entering a stadium, the kings of the earth bring their splendor (Rev. 21:24). Far from being destroyed on the Last Day, cultural goods will be purified, renewed, and received into the kingdom as tribute to the one true God.

Thus, the Olympics as a cultural artifact can be seen as a sign of the kingdom. The Olympics are one of the rare occasions when the world comes together in peace and unity, with a minimum of political division or acrimony. The "Olympic spirit" or "Olympic ideal" harks back to ancient Greece, when city-states would declare a truce while the Olympic Games were taking place.

Imagine if fighting ceased worldwide during these 17 days in August. Imagine not just swords made into plowshares, but soldiers turned into soccer players.

Of course, the Olympic spirit is not the Spirit of God. But the Holy Spirit can certainly work through the Olympic Games to call the church to global mission. Christians watching the Olympics can see both a snapshot of the "next Christendom" of the majority-world church, as well as windows into people groups that lack a viable witness to the gospel. (Prayer trigger idea: Pray for Christian witness in each country as they are featured during the Games, and keep a copy of Operation World handy so you can look up specific missional issues.)

The Games likewise give us a snapshot of the future world. In Surprised by Hope, N. T. Wright notes that Revelation 4 and 5 do not merely provide a vision of the future consummated kingdom. He argues that they also provide a picture of the present global church as "the heavenly dimension of our present life." The international, multiethnic nature of the church is a prophetic sign of the kingdom of God in today's world.

At InterVarsity's triennial Urbana mission conventions, college students encounter God's call to global mission in the midst of a transnational, multilingual, and multiethnic array of worship and speakers. For many delegates, this is the first time they have worshiped with people and in ways outside their own cultural tradition. They often exclaim, "This must be what heaven is like!"

Well, yes. But it's not just a preview of heaven. It's also a picture of what earth should be like.

Jesus taught us to pray: "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." My prayer is that this global, crosscultural kingdom vision will be glimpsed not just at Urbana every three years or at the Olympics every four years, but also every day in churches both at home and around the world.

Copyright © 2008 Christianity Today. This article first appeared in the August 2008 issue of Christianity Today. Used by permission of Christianity Today International, Carol Stream, IL 60188. Click for reprint information.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Grace and Peace, June 2008

How a simple salutation points us toward a new society.

I'm a book geek, so one of my hobbies is collecting autographed books. Some I acquire through my work in book publishing; others I find at bookshops. I now have more than 500 signed volumes, comprising authors from Sue Grafton and Walter Wangerin to Anne Lamott and John Stott.

Authors sign their books in myriad ways. Jimmy Carter's signature is a modest "J Carter." Max Lucado's is barely recognizable—what might be an "ML__." Calvin Miller used calligraphy. Eugene Peterson signed off with "the peace of the Lord." J. I. Packer rotated through Bible verses, from 2 Timothy 3:14–17 for a book about Scripture to Psalm 46 for Knowing God. Chuck Colson chose Romans 12:2, but more baffling was his inscription, which looked vaguely like "Burm gd."

I especially treasure signatures from those who are no longer with us. My former Wheaton professor Bob Webber signed several books to me with Dominus Vobiscum ("the Lord be with you"). Spencer Perkins wrote, "In the hope of racial healing." Rich Mullins autographed CDs with "Be God's!" Stanley Grenz inscribed a theology text with "May our Lord guide your steps." And one of my most memorable dedications came from Madeleine L'Engle, who signed my copy of A Wrinkle in Time with "Tesser well."

But my favorite phrase was inscribed by Michael Card, who borrowed the apostle Paul's signature expression: "Grace and peace." This greeting is found in some form at the opening of all of Paul's epistles, most commonly, "Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."

What many don't realize is that Paul coined a new phrase. "Grace" or "Grace to you" sounded like the standard Greek greeting, but was infused with theological meaning. On the other hand, "Peace" was a Jewish blessing that sounds weightier in the Hebrew: "Shalom."

Paul knew that many of his congregations were torn by factional strife. But he didn't say, "Grace to you Gentiles, and shalom to you Jews." Grace is not just for Greeks, and peace is not just for Jews. God's desire was for the whole community to receive his grace and experience his shalom—not merely the absence of conflict, but the fullness of well being, harmony, wholeness, and life.

So Paul said, "Grace and peace to you." Paul addressed Gentile and Jewish believers together, as members of one body. He wrote in continuity with their cultural and ethnic backgrounds, yet pointed to a new, countercultural reality. He combined a Greek greeting and a Hebrew greeting to create a distinctively Christian greeting.

Paul did not neuter the cultural particulars of the church's constituents. Nor did he emphasize identity politics or pit categories against each other. Instead, he affirmed the communities' distinct identities, then transcended them to forge a new identity in which the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. He modeled unity amid cultural diversity, as experienced in the church's birth at Pentecost. If Paul were writing today, he might choose other vocabulary and language to bridge contemporary divides: "Hola and howdy, y'all, in the name of Jesus." Or, "Salaam and shalom to you."

As Brenda Salter McNeil points out in A Credible Witness, the gospel is both vertical and horizontal. Jesus reconciles us to God and to each other. Paul's greeting reminded the church of the new society it was supposed to be—one that had received grace, forgiveness, and salvation from God and also would extend peace, shalom, and goodwill to one another.

The church embodies a radically peculiar social order that incorporates vastly dissimilar people. In Paul's day, the world was divided between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. But he dared to imagine a Christian community that not only included all of these, but also enjoyed interdependent relationships. The power of the church's witness was due, at least in part, to the compelling alternative this new society offered to the world around it.

Today our culture continues to be divided by race, class, gender, and politics. Within the church, we are split between Calvinists and Arminians, complementarians and egalitarians, evangelicals and mainliners. Yet Paul would argue that our common identity transcends our differences. He would plead with us to treat one another charitably, to extend grace, and to make peace with one another. Indeed, our congregations should be some of the few places in society where conservatives and liberals can break bread together and make common cause.

When signing books, letters, and e-mails, "Grace and peace" has become my customary benediction. It has also become my prayer for the church, that we would truly bestow grace and peace on one another and, in so doing, offer a prophetic witness to our world. May it be so.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Multifaceted Gospel, Apr. 2008

A Multifaceted Gospel

Why evangelicals shouldn't be threatened by new tellings of the Good News.

Al Hsu posted 4/10/2008 09:41AM

At the 2006 Ancient Evangelical Future conference, historian Martin Marty commented briefly on the Atonement theories proposed by the early church. Did the church fathers hold to penal substitution, Christus Victor, or Anselm's view of the Atonement? Yes. All of the above.

Panelists pressed Marty to declare one view or another the "right" one. Whatever one thinks, he responded, the reality is that the church held to multiple versions.

The same is true today, in evangelical thinking about the nature of the gospel. Because we are a biblical people, we want to preserve the gospel in as pure a form as possible, which is why many people and institutions (like this magazine) prioritize substitutionary Atonement. But because we are an evangelistic, missional people, we want to contextualize the gospel to reach as many as possible.

The danger of the conservationist impulse is that it can lead to static reductionism. The danger of the entrepreneurial impulse is that it can lead to utilitarianism or relativism. At our best, we hold these impulses in tension, creating gospel approaches that are both timeless and timely. The result is multiple ways of explaining the gospel—and that makes some of us nervous.

Communication theory teaches that messages are conditioned by the social location of both sender and receiver. You can tell two people the same sentence, and they might hear entirely different things. Likewise, people naturally tell the gospel in their own particular way. Some focus on a change of heart, mind, or direction; others major on judgment or conviction of sin. Some speak about the promise of new life, now and eternally; others stress individual transformation or societal and cosmic renewal.

We need all of the above. Jesus did not speak the same blanket message to all people. Instead, he used a variety of metaphors to explain his identity: light, door, bread, way, truth, life. Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman received very different messages. Jesus proclaimed the Good News sometimes in parables, sometimes through denunciation, sometimes by action.

Indeed, some might criticize Jesus for not presenting the gospel comprehensively on every occasion. Sometimes he mentioned "eternal life" or "the kingdom of God." Other times he didn't. Sometimes he called for repentance, but not always. Jesus, and the New Testament writers who followed him, modeled cultural creativity and contextualization by telling the Good News in multiple ways: "Come, follow me." "The kingdom of God is at hand." "Jesus is Lord." "Repent and be baptized." "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved." "For God so loved the world."

We need not pit these passages against one another. Plurality does not equal pluralism. The ancient creeds, echoing 1 Corinthians 15, say that for our sake Jesus was crucified, buried, and on the third day rose again. God's people have been reflecting on these declarations ever since. We will never exhaust their implications, whether expressed as "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life," or "I once was lost, but now am found."

Every gospel summary has pros and cons. None is comprehensive; indeed, some may well be deficient. But different approaches can provide necessary correctives. Thus, we need what Joel Green calls a "kaleidoscopic" understanding of the Atonement, or what Scot McKnight calls "stories of the Story."

Evangelicals needn't be afraid of new approaches to the gospel—the church has been coming up with them for centuries. We managed to get through 1,900 years of Christian history without the Four Spiritual Laws and the bridge diagram. The formula of "accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior" is also fairly recent. And what worked in the post–World War II context might not be appropriate in the early 21st century. Many people today have different questions, assumptions, and concerns.

Hence, we need variety and creativity in our gospel witness. A chorus of voices from N. T. Wright and Dallas Willard to Allen Wakabayashi and Brian McLaren calls us to rediscover the kingdom of God. Scot McKnight tells a story about the restoration of cracked eikons (image-bearers). Kevin Vanhoozer places the gospel in the context of an unfolding drama. James Choung's True Story offers a "four worlds" diagram in which we are designed for good, damaged by evil, restored for better, and sent together to heal.

Let us continue to explore and share the gospel in ways old and new. Whether we talk about justification by faith or defeating the powers, sight for the blind or reversal of entropy, freedom for the oppressed or healing of the nations, it's all good. The gospel is all of the above, and so much more.

Copyright © 2008 Christianity Today. This article first appeared in the April 2008 issue of Christianity Today. Used by permission of Christianity Today International, Carol Stream, IL 60188. Click for reprint information.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Vision Thing, Feb. 2008

The Vision Thing

Clarity came just as things got blurry.

Al Hsu posted 2/21/2008 08:57AM

My vision has never been good. I've worn eyeglasses since second grade and contact lenses since high school. Once during a Little League game, a line drive smacked me right on the nose, splitting my glasses' plastic frames neatly in half. My vision was so bad that at optometrists' exams, the only letter I could see on the eye chart was the big E—and then only because I knew it was an E.

For several years, I pondered whether I should have laser surgery to correct my vision. Friends and colleagues gave the procedure glowing reviews, and I read positive testimonies on websites and blogs. My main stumbling block was justifying the cost. Was it a vanity expense, like a facelift or a tummy tuck? But after losing yet another contact, I calculated that I'd spent enough money on lost lenses, contact fluid, and other supplies that it might be better stewardship to get my vision corrected.

Last year, I took the plunge. Encouraged by a 25 percent-off coupon given to me by a friend, I went ahead and had the surgery. My corneas were too thin for the normal slice-a-flap procedure, so I underwent a different procedure (which was more expensive, of course).

It didn't quite take. The doctor said that when you throw a football from 50 yards, it's harder to be on target than it is from 5 yards. My vision had been something like 20/400, and he was able to bring it to 20/40—tantalizingly close to clear vision, but still fuzzy.

The doctor scheduled follow-up "enhancement" procedures. For the next several months, my vision remained in an in-between state, far better than it had been for decades, but still not quite as sharp as I would have liked. I sat closer to my computer screen and increased the zoom on Microsoft Word to 125 percent. When I spoke at a conference, my notes were punched up to a 16-point font size.

Then I happened to attend an InterVarsity Asian American staff conference. During corporate worship, I squinted to make out lyrics on the far wall. In one particular session, we sang "God of Justice":

Live to feed the hungry
Stand beside the broken
We must go
Stepping forward
Keep us from just singing
Move us into action
We must go

I closed my eyes as we repeated the chorus, praying that God would direct me. How might I move into action? I live in such a cerebral world of books and ideas—what might I do to become more active in pursuing global mission?

The song cycled back to an earlier verse, and I opened my watering eyes. The lyrics on the screen shimmered slightly, then came crisply into focus.

I could see. Clearly. Wow. I could read every word easily, without squinting.

Had God just healed me? My innards fluttered, and I suddenly understood all those clich├ęs about feeling your heart race and pound. Had I just experienced a miracle?

I blinked several times, and my vision wavered back and forth. Clear, blurry, clear, blurry. Then I realized what was happening. While singing I had been tearing up, moved by God's call, and the thin layer of water on my eyeballs functioned like contact lenses. The tears had been making my vision clearer.

I immediately asked a friend to pray with me for clarity of vision, both literally and spiritually. There is so much I do not see. I am blind to the needs of my neighbors down the block and around the world. I do not see the plight of the enslaved child laborer, the trapped sex worker, the communities wracked by aids or genocide, the people around the world who still lack witness to the gospel.

I do not act because I do not see. I am blinded by insularity, privilege, and affluence, which give me the luxury of having laser surgery when countless millions around the world lack basic medical care. But when God moves me to tears, I begin to see more clearly. And I have a clearer vision for how he calls me to participate in his work as an agent of shalom at home and around the world.

I've now had follow-up enhancements on my eyes, and my vision clocks in at 20/20 for each individual eye and 20/15 when using them together. I'm grateful. But I hope that God will continue to make my eyes water for the sake of his kingdom. I suspect that I will never see as clearly as I do when I have tears in my eyes.

Copyright © 2008 Christianity Today. This article first appeared in the February 2008 issue of Christianity Today. Used by permission of Christianity Today International, Carol Stream, IL 60188. Click for reprint information.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Kingdom Sightings

This blog serves as an online archive or parking space for my "Kingdom Sightings" columns from Christianity Today magazine. Managing editor Mark Galli said this when introducing the column:

"A new CT columnist who's a sign of the church's lively present is Al Hsu (pronounced Shee). Al begins his column "Kingdom Sightings" (page 76) in this issue. He is an associate editor at InterVarsity Press and author of a number of books, including The Suburban Christian: Finding Spiritual Vitality in the Land of Plenty (2006), which Publishers Weekly called "a thoughtful critique of what living Christianly in the suburbs should look like." We have followed Al's writings for some time, including his blog,, and we're excited that he will be able to join us as a columnist this year."