If you spend enough time in Thailand, one of the phrases that you’ll hear often is “Same, Same but Different,” meaning that two things are almost exactly the same… but not really. The difference may (or may not) be substantial, but that depends on your point of view. A vendor is trying to sell you a wrist watch and you ask if it is a genuine Rolex. Well, it is same same from the vendor’s perspective. But the buyer’s might view it differently.
When it comes to theological education in Thailand, there is a lot that is same same as theological education in the Western world…but there are significant differences too. My point is not to say one in genuine and the other is fake, but rather that on the surface the two have many similarities. But when you dig a bit deeper there are important difference as well. These differences have an impact on how teachers teach and how student learn. Therefore, whether you are teaching Bible school students in Bangkok or running a modular leadership training program in Chiang Rai, it is important to have a heads-up on factors to consider if your previous experience of theological education has been primarily in the West. In this post, I want to briefly consider, in broad brushstrokes, what is the same between Western and Thai theological education, and three things that are different.
In most theological education in Thailand, especially at a formal Bible college or seminary, you will have classes, teachers, curriculum, textbooks, homework, reading assignments, written papers, and a standard range of Bible school or seminary type courses, such as New Testament, Old Testament, Preaching, Evangelism, Church History, Systematic Theology, and so forth. Students take exams, memorize Greek vocab from flash cards, give practice sermons, and go to chapel. They enroll for a Bachelors or Masters degree, or sometimes a Diploma of some sort. If someone from a Western theological school were picked up and were dropped into a Thai theological school, the overall format and organization would look nearly identical. Even the titles and authors of some of the translated textbooks would be familiar.
Despite frequent discussion of contextualization, contextual theology and learner-centered approaches in some circles, the Western model for education is still the accepted standard for quality in today’s world. Whether it should be is another question. But functionally, many schools, both religious and non-religious, look to the West for models to emulate. Some innovative schools chart their own course, to varying degrees of success, but accrediting agencies often maintain traditional Western standards for validating the degrees offered at a school. If you want recognizition, you need to meet the standard. I am not trying to say that this is necessarily a bad thing. There is a lot of value in having an external standard that pushes you to excel. And there is a lot that is done well in Western theological education. That said, striving for an internationally accepted standard can create challenges in adjusting your teaching, delivery methods, and expected outcomes to fit the local context. The “same sameness” between theological education in Thailand and other part of the world is due in no small part to precedents inherited from the West. However, the Thai context is not exactly the same as the United States, Great Britain, or Australia. And that difference must be accounted for if the ultimate goal is to prepare students to teach and minister in their own local contexts in Thailand and neighboring countries.
While I don’t want to exaggerate the ways that Thailand is different or to promote Thai exceptionalism, I have observed subtle (and not so subtle!) ways in which teaching in a seminary in Thailand is different from the theological education I have experienced in Western schools.
The vast majority of Thai people can read. That has not been an issue with the students I’ve taught in Bangkok. But do they like to read? Are they used to reading a lot? Can they effectively process and analyze the material they are reading? Will the people they teach after they graduate be able to read? Many people in the world today, including many Thai, are preferred oral learners. That means that they can read, but they don’t like to. When they want to know something, they’d rather ask somebody or watch a video instead of grab a book. Western theological education, however, assumes a high level of reading ability and assigns many texts to be read and processed, often through writing essays and exams. Some of my students like reading, fewer enjoy writing, and some don’t appear to enjoy either. With that in mind, is a very text heavy approach to theological education the best?
In some ways we can not, and should not, avoid the written word in theological education. God gave us His Word in a book and a lot of the things that students need to learn are in books. There is simply not enough time in the day to deliver everything orally to people. But some (many?) of my students may not learn best with their nose in a book all the time. And a written test may not be the best way to evaluate what they’ve learned. And even if my students do okay with book learning, the people they minister to the hills of Northern Thailand or rural villages of the Northeast may not be functionally literate. How can we prepare students to minister to complete (or nearly complete) oral learners?
In my own classroom, I have introduced more oral testing, requiring a 10 minute oral interview with each student in lieu of the short answer and essay section of exams. I also give students a choice between an end-of-term written paper and an oral presentation in front of the class (though they still have to submit a written bibliography). For church history courses, I ask students to present in front of the class a 5 minute devotional using Scripture and an example from church history. In missions classes, I introduce my students to oral Bible story telling to make them aware of another method for the studying the Scripture with people besides preaching and traditional text-driven Bible study methods. I would never want to do away with preaching and Bible reading but we need to have more than one tool in our tool belts to address different styles of learning.
2. Educational & Cultural Background
Due to educational background and cultural conventions, many Thai students are not used to expressing their opinions in contexts where that opinion would contradict what others have said. Thai are generally concerned about losing face or causing someone else to lose face. For that reason, many students are hesitant to answer their teacher’s questions and are not accustomed to asking questions because it might imply they were not listening or that the teacher did not explain something well. This is especially true at the bachelor’s level, and somewhat less so at the master’s level.
Traditionally, the goal of Thai education has been to prepare people for civil service, and only more recently for jobs in various business or industrial sectors. Learning for learning’s sake and critical thinking have received low priority compared with producing patriotic citizens who know their proper place in society. Much education in Thailand is done through rote learning and the most important thing for students’ success is being able to reproduce on a test what their teacher told them.
Analyzing the pros and cons of anything is difficult for many students, and classroom discussions are challenging when few students want to be seen as disagreeing with either the teacher or another student. Coming into a bible college or seminary from the public school system, students have not learned how to read and evaluate various sources, to categorize and synthesize, and to come to their own conclusions based on what they’ve learned. Most have never learned how to properly footnote or to compare various sources. Many are unsure how to decide what is important and not important when reading a book, or how to write up a paper with a logical progression of argument. Many papers are slapped together from various sources without enough thought. Is it on Wikipedia? It must be true. Is the information in a book written by a Christian? It must be reliable and accurate. Of course, Western students are not totally immune to these problems either. But from what I have seen, these issues are more exacerbated and systemic in Thai education than in Western education.
That said, I don’t want to overstate the case. The students I’ve taught can generally write a book report and piece together a paper on a given topic. And I have been highly impressed with the thoughtfulness, astute questions, and well-written papers of some students, especially at the masters level. But at the same time, the ability to discern, analyze, and critically evaluate and synthesize sources is many times not where one might hope for bachelors and masters students.
3. Lack of Resources
Compared to the English-speaking world, there are extremely few Thai language materials available for biblical and theological studies. There are some Bible commentaries, but some books of the Bible have only one or two commentaries, and those are not always readily available or easy to locate. I once tried to find a book on Islam from a Christian perspective to give to a church member who had been chatting with some Muslims but I couldn’t find any because there are none. There is no Thai-language book-length biography of Martin Luther. There is no Thai-language critical apparatus for the Greek New Testament so students have to try to make heads or tails of English-language commentary on textual variants. One of my students wanted to do a research paper on the history of Presbyterianism but she could only find a short summary in a church history survey book. As a result, she asked to write on Pentecostalism because there were at least a few books on the history of that movement.
The library of the bible college where I teach has 25,000 volumes (book, magazines, pamphlets, etc.) but 75% of them are in English. That might be okay in someplace like India, the Philippines, or Nigeria where the majority of students have a high-level of English ability. But in Thailand, only a small minority of students know enough English to make much use of the English resources in the school library. The others limit themselves to what they can find in Thai and sometimes struggle to get something out of an English book or two. As a result, the breadth and depth of what student are able to learn is more limited than the West because there are few resources in a language that is accessible to them.
This lack of resources may also be partly responsible for the state of biblical and theological knowledge among Thai Christians generally as well. The average incoming Bible college or seminary student in the West may not know the intricacies of the history and theology of Calvinism and Arminianism but they have probably heard about predestination and free will. Most incoming students in Thailand haven’t heard of either.
The Differences Make a Difference
Theological education in Thailand can be effective in preparing students for ministry and service to the church. But it can not be assumed that just because the structure, format, and curriculum of a bible college or seminary in Thailand look similar to a Western school, then the teaching approaches and content should be the same and will have the same results. There is a lot to be learned from Western approaches to theological education but it is unwise to assume that what’s done in the West can simply be cut-and-pasted to other parts of the world.
Adjustments need to be made in light of local conditions, some of which I have highlighted above for the Thai context. Other places in the non-Western world may be similar, but they may be very different. They key is to start with what you know but pro-actively learn what you need to adjust to make your teaching effective where you are, with the resources you have, and with the actual students you have, not the students you don’t have.
For anyone who has grown up in a culturally-Christian country, it can be a bizarre experience to be in a majority non-Christian country on December 25th. It is Christmas, but it isn’t. During one of my first years in Thailand, a Buddhist majority nation, I remember sitting through a school pep rally on Christmas Day at the government college where I was teaching English. It wasn’t about Christmas. It was just rah-rah-go-team-our-school-is-great. It was just a normal day for everyone. Students went to classes. Teachers taught. Everybody went to work. No mention of Christ, or even Santa Claus, although at the end of the pep rally parade there was an odd non-sequitur effigy of Uncle Sam hanging from gallows with IMF written on his chest. I didn’t quite understand what that had to do with the rest of the parade.
Meanwhile, in the United States, it would have been looking a lot like Christmas, or least the Western celebration of it. Carols. Tinsel. Presents. Big sales in the stores. Everyone asking what everyone else was doing for the holiday. Schools and businesses closed, and people traveling to see family. Snow, or at least images of snow. Regardless of whether people are committed Christians or just enjoying a secular holiday of family, food, and gifts, those are the kinds of things that many Westerners think of when they are getting in the “Christmas spirit” or say that it is beginning to look like Christmas.
As someone who grew up with all of those cultural trappings of Christmas, I missed them. When I became a Christian as a teenager, I realized that Christmas should be about Jesus more than about getting stuff. But all the stuff was still around, hence the annual struggle of Christians to try to remember (and remind others) that “Jesus is the Reason for the Season”, as the cliché goes.
But being out of the U.S., and in a country where December 25th is not a public holiday, I was forced to think more seriously about what Christmas was. Since the culture at large was not going to do much for the holiday (aside from a “Big Gift Festival” Christmas-inspired sale at the local mall), it was up to me and my local church to decide what Christmas was about and how to celebrate. In many ways, it is a great experience to be someplace that doesn’t have all the cultural Christmas traditions because it forces you to think about what the holiday is really about.
My experience is not unique, however, and I imagine that many missionaries and other expats from Western countries (the former “Christendom”) have had similar experiences, not only today but in the past as well. While doing some research on Thai church history, I encountered the following Christmas reflection from Mary L. Cort, an American Presbyterian missionary who worked in Phetchaburi province, Thailand in the 1870s. Apparently, she missed snow but found many reasons to rejoice all the same during the Christmas season
MISSIONARY LIFE IN SIAM
by Mary L. Cort
Jan 4. 1875
A Tropical Climate.
The 25th of December was the strangest Christmas I ever spent in my life. There was no Wintry weather outside, no cold or snow, but sunshine, birds, and flowers. The natives were still busy with their rice harvest, and the trees were still gathering sweetness for their luscious fruits. The air was warm and balmy, and the fragrant hay filled the stalls for the cattle just as in the long ago when the Christ-child laid his sacred head among the sweet dry grasses, and became our blessed human Saviour. How glad I am that in ages past he was born in Bethlehem, and we have a Christmas Day to rejoice in—even one in which the loving Father gave to his children the "unspeakable gift.” O that Christ might be formed in the hearts of this people, and a glad Christmas dawn for darkened Siam! I have no doubt the sunshine of that olden time bathed with morning light the very hills that stand about me where I write. For was not Asia the birthplace of our Lord, and did they not see his star in the East? Who knoweth from whence the wise men journeyed, or whether the gold, the frankincense, and the myrrh, were, taken from Persia, from India, or Siam? But this I do know, that once again, in the fulness of time there will be a bringing of gifts to the Saviour, and that then many from this land will cast their bright crowns at his feet!
excerpt from Mary L. Cort, "MISSIONARY LIFE IN SIAM". New York Evangelist (1830-1902), April 29, 1875, 46, 2.
photo credit: Kritmongkholrat
People often ask me how to get a Christian book translated into Thai and published in Thailand. Most of those people are missionaries, but occasionally a Thai Christian wants to know how to get an English-language book or a Thai-language book that they wrote into print. I don’t claim to know everything about publishing in Thailand but I have worked part-time as an editorial and theological advisor at a Thai Christian publisher for a number of years, which is probably sufficient for providing some advice for getting starting in publishing a Christian book in Thailand. With that in mind, what follows is some general guidelines for publication but I make no claims of being comprehensive and the policies/procedures of various publishers and printers may change without notice.
Thailand needs lots of good, biblical literature to support the work of evangelism, discipleship, church planting, and leadership development and I am glad whenever I hear of someone’s desire to publish a good Christian book of that variety. I assume that anyone who wants to publish a Christian book wants it to make as big an impact as possible, so there are two major issues to consider here:
1) the actual translation and publishing of the book
2) distribution of the book AFTER it is published
I’ll get to distribution later in the post (as well as some FAQs), but please don’t skip that part because distribution is just as important as publication. In terms of publication, there are 2 primary routes for publishing a Christian book in Thailand:
1) Formal Publication
This means that a publisher decides to take on a book as part of their regular catalogue and does their own editorial process, and publication and is distributed with their other books. The publisher secures copyright, contracts a translator, does editing, cover art, typesetting, printing, etc. It also provides a second set of eyes (an editor) to iron out and improve oversights on the translator's part. This takes longer to get things published, but provides better visibility and distribution in the end. A formally published book will be held in stock by the publisher who send it to their network of booksellers and will also take care of sales, shipping, receipting, royalties, etc. The funds for this may come from the publisher themselves, or be funded by an outside source.
One challenge in pursuing formal publication is that most Christian publishers in Thailand have a very small staff and budget, and often have a long queue of books awaiting translation and publication. You may have a great book to publish, but it might not be a priority for a publisher who has a whole bunch of other great books that they are working on as well. However, if you really want to get broad distribution of your book and make it known among Thai Christians beyond your personal network, it is worth approaching a Thai Christian publisher and seeing what they say.
There are several Thai Christian publishers but a couple major ones would be Kanok Bannasan (OMF Publishers Thailand) and CED (Christian Education and Development). These publishers are both based in Bangkok.
2) Private Publication
This means that the person/organization who wants to publish a book arranges for their own translation, editing, and secures all necessary copyright permissions and then pays a publisher, printer, or print-on-demand company to publish however many copies they want. The type-setting, formatting, cover art, etc may be done by the publisher for a fee, according to what the person/organization requires. All those books belong to the person/organization who can distribute them however they want (i.e. internal-use only for an organization / contacting bookstores personally to see if they want stock/selling it through a website, etc). If desired, it is sometimes possible for the publisher/printer to sell copies of the book on a consignment basis, and provide some limited distribution and advertising.
There are a number of printers in Thailand but I want to highlight two which serve the Thai Christian and missionary community.
Publish2Day offers print-on-demand and other services for those wanting to publish Christian books (in whatever language) and ActsCo offers a wide range of printing services as well. Both are located in Chiang Mai.
Distribution is the second part of book publication that many people don't think about, and as a result lots of churches/groups/missionaries translate good materials that no one knows about because they don't have any vision or plan for getting these materials out to the broader Thai Christian community. If you want to your book to benefit people, you need to think not only about how to fund translation and publishing, but how to get materials out to people. Although some people publish books to hand out for free rather than for sale, it is not necessary to give stuff away for free in order to reach a broad audience. A small book at a small price is very attractive to many Thai believers if they happen to see the book.
If you are going the formal publication route, you will have a huge advantage in distribution. You’ll still probably want to advertise the book online and get somebody (or a few people) sharing them on Facebook, LINE, etc. to get some good "air-time." If you go with private publication, online advertising will be all the more vital. However, you can’t rely on online advertising alone. Most Thai Christians still buy their books at brick-and-mortar Thai Christian bookshops, not online. A self-distribution plan should include sending samples of your book to Thai Christian bookshops to see if they would like to order more.
Also, it is sometimes possible to ask a publisher like Kanok to hold a portion of your books in stock on consignment for them to advertise via Facebook, website, and within their network of Christian booksellers in Thailand. You would have to, of course, work out a financial arrangement with anyone who takes your books on consignment. It would not be unusual for the publisher/person holding your stock to keep 50% of the cover price as their fee for holding stock, advertising, and processing and shipping orders.
I highly recommend the consignment route for distribution if possible because,
1) A publisher/bookshop can often get the word out to a much larger segment of the Thai Christian & missionary community than you can personally, and
2) You probably don't want to take the time and hassle to receive emails and phone calls for orders for the book(s) and then take the time to package and ship orders.
Translating and Publishing FAQ
How much would a full-time translator cost?
Translators are often hired freelance, per project, rather than on a monthly salary basis. Depending on the book, the translation price would vary according to length, difficulty of material, etc. But just as a rough estimate, a 150-200 page book of medium difficulty would be 20,000-30,000 baht for translation. Don’t hold me to that estimate, however! Prices can vary greatly from translator to translator, and project to project. Generally speaking, the longer the book, and the more difficult/academic it is, the higher the price. If you hired a full-time person on a salary basis, you'd have to come to a careful understanding of how quickly you expect them to work. Otherwise, a translation job could drag on forever. That said, for translators of English to Thai, the most common problem is people translating too wooden-literally and rushing through, rather than taking too long because they are perfectionists.
What should I look for in a translator?
There are a handful of Thai Christians who could do a decent translation job and may be available. The problem that some people run into is that paying on a per-project basis results in translators plowing through the job to get it done and move on to the next project. That is not universally the case, but it is not uncommon.
If you pay per-project, the translator is motivated to get it done quickly rather than drag it out. That is good for getting things moving, but it can be bad because translators sometimes don't take the time to really work through difficult to translate parts, and just write something down to get it done. Therefore, idiomatic or Western cultural expressions are sometimes slaughtered in translation, and theological concepts are rendered poorly in Thai. In hiring a translator, you also need to think about their knowledge of Bible and theology. If they don't "get" the biblical concepts that they are translating, they may not translate them correctly. Materials that are stories, history, or personal/devotional in nature, are easier to translate and less subject to error. The more biblical/theological the concepts, the more challenging it is to get a good translation. This is a big reason why you MUST have someone who knows both languages proofread and/or edit the Thai translation that you have outsourced to a translator.
How do I estimate publication costs for my book project?
If you are working up a budget estimate in order fundraise or apply for project funds, I suggest developing an estimate for publication rather than just printing. What's the difference?
Printing means sending your finalized PDF (with text layout, fonts, cover art, etc) to the printer to physically print the book.
Publishing includes the cost not only for physically printing the book, but all the cost for someone to take your plain vanilla MS Word doc and do the text formatting and book layout, work up some cover art, etc. Unless you and your team have awesome expertise in book layout and graphic design, it much better just to hire someone (like Kanok, or CED, or Publish2Day, or ActsCo) to do the formatting, layout, and cover art rather than mess around with it yourself. The end product will have a polished professional look to it. Trying to do that stuff yourself will take much more time and not come out as well, so it is better to leave it to the professionals.
It is nearly impossible to estimate a general printing cost for a book without knowing what book it is and what is necessary (such as interior art or not? are there graphics that need to be redone to work with Thai?). So here is what you'd need to do to get a cost estimate for a given book:
- for book XYZ, get a quote for translation from a freelance editor
- then get a quote from a freelance editor to read through and make corrections on the translation (could just be a different translator who you hire to only edit/proofread)
- get a quote from a publisher/printer on what it would cost for them to do layout, cover art, etc. and print X number of copies of book XYZ
When you have those 3 numbers, you can put together a quote for publication of book XYZ. An initial print run for a Thai Christian book averages 1500-2000 books.
Should I budget for an outside editor to look over the translated work?
Yes, absolutely. Do not just get something translated and then go straight to publication. Good books are rendered virtually useless through a lack of editing, and it can come back to bite you later if the Thai doesn't correspond to the English sufficiently, or if the translation is so clunky that nobody wants to read it.
If a translation is done well, the editor's job is easy because not many changes need to be made. But if the translation was a rush job and doesn't read very well, the editor's job can be a nightmare and take a long time to massage and edit the translation into something accurate and readable. The quality of the initial translation factors into the time and cost that it will require to have an editor review the translation.
For Further Reading
The following links related to translation and publishing may be useful for as you think about translating, publishing, and distributing written and spoken content.
Ten Tips on Teaching Through Translation
Writing for Translation: 7 Translation Tips to Boost Content Quality
At the end of October 2017, I had the pleasure of visiting Wittenberg, Germany to attend a Reformation 500 conference put on by the World Reformed Fellowship, and to visit some of the famous places associated with Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation in Wittenberg. In many ways, it was a surreal experience to be in Wittenberg and to walk where Luther walked, to see his house, his table, the Castle church, and to imagine what the village of Wittenberg would have been like 500 years ago. In this post, I want to share a few of my personal reflections on visiting Wittenberg in order to help all of us to gain some insight into the past and its relevance (or lack thereof) for the present.
1) The Commercialization of Luther
One of the remarkable things about the unremarkable little town of Wittenberg is the marketing of Luther and His image. This town has one claim to fame, and that’s Luther. So they are trying to milk Luther for all he is worth. You can buy anything imaginable with Luther’s image on it. Luther coffee mugs. Luther plates. Luther socks. Luther pasta. Luther cookie cutters. Luther t-shirts. Luther posters. Luther books. Luther mini-statues. Luther beer. Luther wine. Luther re-imagined as Che Guevara “Viva La Reformation!” It just seems like too much. Admittedly, I did buy a couple Luther posters, a mug, and postcards. And the Luther socks. They were hilarious. The calf is emblazoned with “Here I Stand. I Can Do No Other” and it struck my funny bone. That said, I came away wondering if Luther is more than a marketing opportunity for the residents of Wittenberg. Do the people selling Luther memorabilia embrace what the Reformer stood for, or is this just a way to make money?
2) Wittenberg is SMALL
I had read that Wittenberg was a small town but I didn’t realize how small. Given the fact that it isn’t very big today, I can only imagine what a sleepy little village it was in 1517. I stayed at the Luther Hotel in the older section of town which consists of two cobblestone roads running east-west. At the east end is the former Augustin monastery that became the Luther family’s home. Right next door to Luther lived his friend and right-hand man Philip Melanchthon. From Lutherhaus, walk 5 minutes west and you arrive at St. Mary’s Church where Luther preached regularly. A couple minutes walk south of there are Cranach’s house and workshop, as well as some buildings that used to belong to the University of Wittenberg where Luther and Melanchthon taught. Walk 5 more minutes to the west and you reach the end of the old town and the Castle Church where Luther posted his 95 theses. And that seems to be the entire old town. Wittenberg has grown and expanded over the years so I am sure it is bigger than when Luther lived there, but from looking at the architecture and location of the historical sites, it would seem that Luther’s whole world in Wittenberg was walkable in about 15 minutes, end-to-end.
3) Luther at Home
The former Augustin monastery that Martin and Katy Luther called home has been turned into a splendid museum where you can see not only many 16th century copies of works by Luther and associates but also several displays about Luther’s home life. While I loved seeing all the old books (as well as an actual indulgence chest), it was equally fascinating to learn about Luther’s kitchen, farm animals, fish pond, and property purchases. From the exhibits, it was obvious that his wife Katy must have been a highly competent household manager. There were many people living at Luther’s house besides Martin, Katy, and the kids and they did so on a minimal budget, at least at first. Lots of guests and activity.
The Lutherhaus was filled with many notable quotes from Luther but one in particular caught my attention. He was writing to a merchant in the next town because his wife wanted him to do so, and he told the merchant as much. She wanted a particular type of chest without iron fittings on the inside so that the clean laundry wouldn’t get dirty when put inside. Discovering that Luther did this type of mundane correspondence for the sake of his wife reminded me of the emails and other tasks that my wife asks me to do. Luther had a “honey-do” list as well. Realizing that Luther didn’t do theology 24/7 brings him a little bit closer to home, and makes him more human. Yes, he was a great Reformer, even the most famous Protestant Reformer, but he still had stuff that he needed to do at home. Not too different from you or me.
4) The Importance of Friends
I already knew that Philip Melanchthon was Luther’s right-hand man but I didn’t know that they were next door neighbors. The Lutherhaus museum and the Melanchthonhaus museum are right next to each other and I visited one right after the other. I can easily imagine Luther and Melanchthon popping in to each other’s homes on a regular basis as need or whim arose. It makes me want to learn more about their relationship. In a similar vein, there was a whole room in the Melanchthonhaus museum dedicated to Melanchthon’s friendship with Joachim Camerarius. Even though they didn’t live in the same town, they maintained a lifelong friendship which was very important to Melanchthon, as testified to by a massive amount of personal correspondence from Melanchthon to Camerarius. Melanchthon must have meant a lot to Camerarius too because when Melanchthon’s wife died, Camerarius rode 400 kilometers to tell him in person (Melanchthon was traveling at the time). The Reformation did not run on theological writing and preaching alone, but also on the grace and love of God expressed in personal friendships.
5) The Reformation Has Moved On
Before going there, my entire frame of reference for Wittenberg was historical. I knew that modern Wittenberg would not be the same as it was in Luther’s day but now that I have seen the modern town, I realized that Wittenberg in my mind was frozen in the 16th century. Things like shopping malls and cars seemed incongruous. But of course, life moves on.
Visiting modern Wittenberg reminded me that the Reformation has moved on. For Wittenberg residents, and probably Germans more generally, the Reformation is historical and a source of national pride, but not much more. There were few people in the town during the time I was there although German tourists did start to arrive in greater numbers on October 30th as I was leaving. Wittenberg may have been the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation and an important center for reform in the 16th century but it is no longer. God is moving in the world today in many places, especially in the non-Western world, but Wittenberg has already had its 15 minutes of fame.
It is great to visit historical places, especially those associated with the work of God in the past, but we shouldn’t become overly attached to them or view them as sacred. We should cherish, but not cling to people, places, and things from the past. The world is indebted to what God did through the Protestant Reformers and we should remember and thank God appropriately. But we must not engage in Protestant saint worship. The pastor who said the opening prayer at the Reformation 500 conference I attended set the right tone when he said, “We are not here, Lord, to glorify Martin Luther or John Calvin or any other Reformer. We are not here to glorify the Protestant Reformation, but we are here to glorify You."
At some time, most of us have found ourselves in a new situation where we wanted to feel competent and get things right but were afraid of getting it wrong and feeling embarrassed in front of others. Maybe it was starting a new job or going to a new school. Maybe it was a parent or romantic interest whom we wanted to impress. I’ve certainly felt that way many times in life. Most recently, I have moved to a new country and started a doctoral program. In my new station in life, I’d rather appear as neither an ugly American nor an ignorant fish-out-of-water at the university. But the reality is that I probably come across as one or the other or both from time to time.
Given my recent move, I was particularly struck by the following story from Mark Baker in “Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures: Biblical Foundations and Practical Essentials.” I’ve been slowly working my way through this book over several months, and providentially I came across this testimony of Baker’s experience of being a first year Ph.D student at the same time I had just started my own Ph.D studies. As Baker points out near the end of his story, a lot of people can’t identify with studying for a Ph.D but but all of us have experienced shame at some point and tried to hide the feeling that we just don’t measure up to those around us.
What do we do in those situations? When we experience shame and embarrassment, where do we find hope? Where do we look for honor? Who are we trying to impress anyway?
As you read the following story, give some thought to your own situation. Where do you look for honor and recognition? Whose approval are you looking for?
In 1992 I (Mark) transitioned from ministry in Honduras to doctoral studies at Duke University. To enter the world of a doctoral program at a major university is, like in many jobs and professions, to enter into a situation where one feels constant pressure to improve one’s status among the scholars of the field. Those who have already achieved their degrees seek status by giving papers at conferences and publishing books and articles. Other scholars measure them not only by how much they have published but also by which publishers and journals publish their work. Not yet at that level, graduate students hope that impressing a renowned professor with a great paper will help them move off the bottom rungs as they begin to climb the academic ladder to success. On a day-to-day basis they feel the pressure to impress others by comments they make in seminars.
In my first days in graduate school I was not so much reaching for a higher rung on the ladder as trying to figure out how to demonstrate to others that I was even on the ladder. In a variety of ways I perceived myself as being at the bottom of the group of first-year students. I longed to show that I could speak intelligently about theology, but I lived in fear of saying something that would confirm what I already felt— I was not really in the same league as the other students. Usually the fear of shame won out and I sat quietly in seminars.
One particular moment portrays well the way I felt and acted my first semester. It was midsemester and I had not said anything in one particular seminar. The professor mentioned something that reminded me of a certain theologian. Part of me wanted to seize this opportunity and demonstrate I was “well-read,” but my shame-driven habit of silence seemed to push a mute button. I said the name in a whisper, but the professor, perhaps reading my lips, repeated the name and affirmed the connection.
In contrast to the seminar room the atmosphere at lunchtime in the student lounge was of course more relaxed. I talked with other students, but still there was a sense that I was hiding. At times I said some things as a way of covering up and at other times did not say things for fear of what they would think of me.
Then one day in a seminar the guest speaker said something that so disturbed me that I spoke out before the image-protecting part of me could hit the mute button. It was not a statement that was calculated to impress anyone; I simply reacted. Everyone remained silent after I spoke. I immediately assumed that what I had said was so dumb that people did not even know how to respond. To make matters worse all the theology professors attended this seminar. I wanted to crawl under the table. In a moment someone made another comment and the discussion went off in another direction.
After the seminar I went, not to the student lounge, but out into the parking lot— fleeing my shame. But I started praying. I thought about the cross and the extreme shame Jesus experienced. I continued praying with the confidence that God understood what I was feeling, and I sought to rest in God’s love for me. That allowed me to be compassionate to myself, but also to reflect honestly about my drive to impress others and hide my perceived weaknesses. Why was I feeling ashamed? Was my academic reputation a false idol? Those moments of prayer did not give me a permanent freedom from the pressures I felt. I was still reserved in most seminars, and I prayed similar prayers many times in the remaining three and a half years in graduate school, but one thing did change. Sensing God’s love overcoming my shame, I felt enough security to begin speaking honestly with other students. As I told them how I felt, I was surprised to find that they experienced similar doubts and fears. In moments of vulnerability the suffering and scared part of me connected with the suffering and scared part of others, forming community and friendships of deep solidarity.
The contrasting image is a person who, in the words of Frederick Herzog, “seeks security in external things . . . [and] has built a wall between his true self and the pseudoself he displays.” Wearing masks and presenting a pseudoself means one is not in open relationship with others. It is a counterfeit community of one pseudoself talking to another pseudoself.
The context of my story, a graduate studies program in a renowned university, may be foreign to many readers of this book, but I am sure my experience of shame, the act of wearing masks and presenting a pseudoself is not foreign to most readers. It is certainly not unique to doctoral students.
Christian spirituality entails much more than a couple graduate students standing in the hall sharing their fears about seminars. But my experience demonstrates the link between a person experiencing peace with God, dropping his mask, and having richer relationships and more authentic community. As we come into God’s family, we possess an honorable identity that leads to peace and reconciliation with other people."
The above story may be found in Jayson Georges and Mark Baker. Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures: Biblical Foundations and Practical Essentials (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016), Kindle Locations 2305-2343.
Photo credit: Alex E. Proimos