Chanon Showtime is the most successful and creative costume shop in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Every month the shop supplies hundreds of costumes, some of which are made to order and others rented or sold from the shop’s stock of about 1000 costumes. International orders have come from the Netherlands, China and Australia. But the bulk of the business is in the Northern region of Thailand.
The genius in Chanon Showtime is Chanon “Wi” Sanguan. Wi has two full-time protégés, Night and Nam-chio. They operate out of a storefront on the northwest corner of the old city of Chiang Mai. Wi designs the costumes and buys the raw materials. He then hires dressmakers to produce the finished costumes. He specializes in fantasy costumes with exotic crowns and headdresses which they make in the shop. Some orders keep as many as 20 seamstresses busy for a month. The shop also works with customers who have costume designs in mind for their extravagant productions at conventions, business launches, or school and university events. Sometimes Chanon Showtime produces its own spectacular shows, hiring up to 50 models to march, strut and dance. Chanon Showtime entries are expected for most transgender contests in this part of the country.
Wi says his most exciting times come from supplying outfits for models and media stars’ portfolios. But his greatest challenges come from supplying large orders at short notice. One school orders 500 unique costumes each year for an annual sports festival. They have a month to have the costumes ready for the parade.
Wi is a bit reticent to speculate about the financial aspects of his business, but guesses it has risen from zero in 2010, when the business had its third start-up after 2 failures, to a multi-million baht enterprise today.
There are 4 costume rental shops in Chiang Mai to supply the market for designer costumes. Most of them specialize in more traditional or historical Thai costumes and formal attire. Chanon Showtime is outside the box. Some of Wi’s designs look like they were made for Los Vegas shows or Mardi Gras parades. Other costumes show a flare for irony and cultural cross-over or fusion.
The unique thing about this niche business is that all 4 Chiang Mai stores are gay-owned and operated. “Who else but us would do this?” Wi asked, laughing. I agreed it takes flare and daring. It also takes sustained professionalism to keep up with the flood of imaginative designs that pour into Wi’s notebooks, through the showroom, and onto show-time cat-walks and stages.
[For more about Wi and his business, click on this previous blog: www.kendobson.asia/blog/costumes ]
BLACK LIVES are the ones that MATTER in this campaign.
The principles are these:
1. A slogan or symbol belongs to the group that coined it.
2. If the slogan inspires a movement, the slogan and the movement belong to those who join.
3. The slogan of a movement cannot be changed by those outside the movement without opposing the movement.
As applied to the BLACK LIVES MATTER movement, the ALL LIVES MATTER slogan is a protest; otherwise there would not be a slogan insisting that “All Lives Matter!”
1. The effect of All Lives Matter is to deflect attention from Black lives in jeopardy.
2. All Lives Matter will not lead to a movement benefitting all lives or any particular lives.
3. The underlying purpose of the slogan is to decelerate the Black Lives Matter movement.
I hope I have made myself clear about that. I have concern about this gathered over the years. For several reasons, the on-line argument between Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter reminds me of previous controversies. I’ll reflect on four: Gay Pride, Black Is Beautiful, Indians, and the Holocaust.
HOLOCAUST is a term coined in retrospect, referring specifically to the NAZI genocide to wipe out Jews in Europe. The term was borrowed from the name for a sacrifice burned up entirely, on the altar of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is a term fraught with complex sacred significance to Jews. Its use to refer to the NAZI cremation of Jews is intentionally ironic. In a real sense nobody but Jews was killed in the Holocaust. The term does not apply to the liquidation of gays, Gypsies, Bolsheviks and others, although the same NAZI apparatus and facilities were used to exterminate them as well. Holocaust is a term for the Jewish part of the program to “purify Germany in behalf of the Aryan Race through extermination in death camps of impure racial stock.” After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, a “Remember the Holocaust” movement began that included plans to build Holocaust Memorials, beginning with Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Opposition arose to this movement almost immediately by those eager to put the terrible era behind them, and others feeling left out of the remembrance movement and unmentioned in the memorials. The most strident opposition to the Holocaust memorial movement has been in Russia, where they insist that more Soviets died by NAZI hands than any other ethnic group.
BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL is a slogan popularized about 50 years ago to instill racial pride and identity. It coalesced into a movement that promoted a wide range of cosmetic and costume enterprises, as well as unique dialectic and sub-cultural trends. High points in the expanded movement were the establishment of the birthday Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a national holiday in the USA, implementation of Black History Month, and several spectacular events such as the 1964 March on Washington, the “Roots” TV mini-series, and passage of US civil rights laws. Borrowing by non-Blacks of Black is Beautiful symbols such as Afro hair styles, rap music, and dialectic slang still causes backlash as “another cultural exploitation.” The effect, if not the intent, of this borrowing is to deprive Black people of unique cultural indicators for which they can be respected and admired.
INDIAN icons are another ongoing issue in the USA (as are ethnic cultural markers elsewhere). Countless athletic organizations adopted Native American icons as mascots, logos, and brands. Native American advocacy groups want to reclaim their ethnic symbols beginning with such icons as the traditional eagle-feather headdress worn by Sioux chiefs. “This belongs to us,” is the message, “and its use in inappropriate ways distorts its symbolic meaning and diminishes our heritage.” The headdress was a badge of singular honor with particular and almost sacred significance that is being disrespected and desecrated when it is used as a costume or logo. Furthermore, the standard portrayal of the “Indian Chief” is a racial stereotype that triggers a narrow range of ideas about Native Americans in eagle feathers as violent, aggressive, and primitive. Sports clubs insist they honor and admire Indians and want their players to emulate their fighting capabilities. This is a simple admission of racial-ethnic stereotyping and cultural exploitation which ignores everything else about Native American ethnic cultures.
GAY PRIDE parades are organized with the express purpose of communicating personal acceptance of participants’ gay identity and challenging spectators in the community to accept us as we are in our diversity of expression – and to join the parade. Gay Pride parades have spread around the world and the “Gay Pride” movement has engendered organizations such as PFLAG and hundreds of NGOs working on such gay-related issues as HIV-AIDS, homeless gay youths, sexual exploitation and trafficking, and lobbying for legal relief from oppressive laws and the advancement of equal rights. Gay Pride parades have, on the whole, been popular and successful, rivaling or surpassing other annual parades in many cities. So far, Gay Pride events and movements have not been appropriated for some expanded objective, thereby blurring their focus. Possibly that is because outright threats and naked terror are still being used to intimidate the movement and it takes a degree of courage to be associated with Gay Pride.
Application and alteration of these symbols and slogans have one thing in common. They intend to modify the movement so it will settle down and cease to intimidate those who do not belong to it. The fact that the movement by a minority is no threat to the majority is less relevant than the fact that people in the movement are moving and no longer passive. The changes being promoted are understood at some level by everyone to involve a reallocation of power and control.
PS-Thanks for Andrew Dobson for the photos of his neighbors.
Dan Mei: Ironic Gay-Straight Culture Mix
A month ago Dr. Charlie Yi Zhang, Asst. Prof. of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Kentucky, enchanted an audience at Chiang Mai University with his interpretation of a culture-quake going on in China we had barely heard about. We did know that women in North East Asia were fascinated with stories about gay guys, but we did not know this interest had spawned an on-line fan-fad. Charlie filled us in.
Dan Mei is a Chinese subculture centered on fictional homoromantic/homoerotic relationships. As I understand it, websites have been created based on certain stories of love, sex and romance between beautiful, slim, talented boys and young men. Fans of these stories are urban, young, heterosexual women with good jobs. They get on-line and talk to each other about fantasy scripts and developments, adding to the story and including characters from pop culture whom the fans fantasize might be gay, too. The women work their fantasies out within certain boundaries. The stories may begin with a stereotypical rich fellow becoming attached to a younger disadvantaged guy, but sooner or later the tables are turned and the younger lover has the stuff to rescue the older one, showing that there is a balance in their relationship all along. The characters are inevitably effeminate but capable. These websites, Charlie told us, are numerous and very active. Furthermore, they are making inroads into mainline media and influencing popular Chinese vocabulary that even the guardians of Chinese culture cannot avoid.
Then Charlie escorted us through a woodland of topics threatening to turn into a bewildering forest. Rather than try to re-map the zones of neo-liberalism, feminism, and state controls over discourse, I’ll just mention a few of the trees.
What’s going on in this Dan Mei sub-culture is deeply counter-cultural. Whereas, the cultural power structure of the Chinese state has definite roles for women to adhere to, Dan Mei fans are busily imagining alternatives. In the fantasy stories there is a strong male figure, liberated from a tight heterosexual script into a “beautiful and true form of romance.” The women imagine themselves being in the place of the younger fellow, who has a beautiful feminized body but compensating strong masculine disposition. The fans “subject these boys to their voyeuristic gaze [whereas in the West it is the men who inevitably are the voyeurs] and imagine themselves as the one being penetrated.” Charlie was careful to help us understand that this preserves the “domineering penetrating versus docile penetrated” paradigm with the women eagerly seeking the docile role. What is going on, however, is not affirmation of male-centered cultural legacy. They are actually embracing an older pre-colonial traditional culture that contained effeminate “floral men” as valued and significant characters in culture and society. In that way this Chinese form of feminism is the reverse of the feminist position that advocates, embraces and strives for equality. In fantasy and in real-life, the fans dream of finding a masculine, well-built hero but with themselves having equal social, economic, educational, and professional status, by no means walking three steps behind their husbands. Indirectly, therefore, they are undermining “the official social policy of modern neo-liberalism in which women merely complement men in supporting market-driven economic and social goals.”
What this Dan Mei sub-culture is tending to do, Charlie concluded, is to create space for voluntary associations and affiliations. Dan Mei fans are creating “a safe zone to sidestep state-backed gender essentialism.” The goal is to enable a space of flexibility, mutation and contingencies. They are creating a gray area in which both male and female bodies and performances are redefined.
Charlie avoided using the term “revolutionary” to describe the effect Dan Mei fans are having on the state-controlled culture, but he pointed toward the advantages gays and lesbians are deriving from the introduction of a category of life that is utopian, youthful, in between, and free from social penalties and punishments.
PS-Stay tuned for Dr. Zhang's forthcoming article on Dan Mei and for more on this subject see this NY Times' blog post: "Why Many Young Chinese Women Are Writing Gay Male Erotica"
Who gets to say whether “God the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ” is the same as “Adonai Elohenu” of the Jews and “Allah” of Muslims? Who has the authority to mandate, permit or ban the use of any name for the god we are calling God? This is more than an esoteric theological question. It has pragmatic impact.
There is a sense of protective entitlement and ownership involved in this. People tend to get riled up when someone infringes on their right to say who their god is. It’s personal. But most of us become alarmed when our group’s god is described wrong. At that point it is a social issue. “You can’t call God Allah,” I was admonished not long ago. “Allah is not God!” At about the time I was being scolded in that way by a Christian who uses “Jesus” and “God” interchangeably, Muslims in Malaysia were going to court to prevent Christians from distributing Bibles that used the word “Allah” for God. Those Bibles were impounded. That’s pragmatic impact. Now we have the same debate in a distorted form being waged in public media by candidate(s) for President of the United States. Religion is playing a larger role in this year’s Presidential campaign than at any time since John Kennedy was running for office. Who speaks for God can be political.
You may have an image in your mind of a god sitting serenely on a lotus blossom, or peering severely down from celestial clouds. It’s entirely up to you. If you share your view with someone, it’s up to the two of you. If you join a group and want them to adopt your concept, it’s up to the group. That’s the principle.
Is God legitimately addressed as Allah? That involves a second principle, concerning discourse. It’s usually a matter of context. The trouble is that contextual boundaries are fuzzy. Just a couple of hours ago (as I wrote this essay) a controversy arose when someone at a Presbyterian gathering offered a prayer that mentioned God as synonymous with Allah. Protest came from those who refuse to countenance the idea that Muslims and Christians have anything essential in common. I will come back to this prayer later. First, consider contexts for discourse involving God-Allah.
Prayer is one context. Can a prayer offered by someone in a public gathering contain names for God that some might object to? This is a frequently recurring issue wherever religious representatives are invited to lead public groups in prayer. I believe Christians have forgotten the principles of public prayer as opposed to private prayer. In public prayer someone articulates a prayer, and then the assembly responds with “Amen” if they want to. “Amen” is a word derived from the Bible in Hebrew that means one accepts the prayer as one’s own heartfelt prayer, too. Amen doesn’t mean “the end”; it means, “Yes, me too.” Amen is how one person’s prayer becomes the prayer of others. But the person leading a public prayer has an implied duty to respect the persons being invited to include themselves in the prayer. The prayer leader needs to try to respond to what the assembly is thinking, concerned about, and attempting to become. This awareness automatically contextualizes the prayer. It’s how the prayer leader involves the listeners cognitively, emotionally, and spiritually. Otherwise the prayer will fail to be in behalf of the people. But it is unlikely and unnecessary that a prayer leader compose a prayer that in all respects everyone is completely comfortable with.
Speaking is also contextual. Talking and writing implies dialogue, even if the exchange is not explicit. A speaker before a group is in a “both-and” situation. The speaker is both a group representative and an independent individual – depending on context. Who the speaker represents may be as important as what is said. If the speaker represents a group, that needs to be made clear.
H.H. Pope Frances said not long ago that Muslims and Christians pray to the same god (God and Allah, by name). As the acknowledged leader of a billion Roman Catholics he might have been speaking “to” or “in behalf of”. Speaking to, means communicating with. Agreement with what is being said is merely a hope. Speaking in behalf of, means that agreement by those being represented is assumed. Was the Pope’s statement a personal-pastoral one, or ex cathedra: formal-official? I think in this case he was advocating an understanding about God that he hoped all Christians and Muslims might agree upon.
Language is also an aspect of context. When one is speaking in English in a Christian gathering, to refer to God as Allah makes a striking emphasis and probably an argumentative one. It is different if one uses the word Allah while speaking in an Arabic language. In that regard I wonder what the Muslims in Malaysia proposed the Christians call God, if not Allah. As I understand it the Christians said Allah is the word for God. The Muslims were trying to prevent the Christians from including themselves as Allah-worshipers, but they avoided proposing an alternative term. Conservative Islamic clerics might have been trying to head off such phrases as “Allah, the Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Hearing Christians pray to Allah is one thing, but hearing them re-describe Allah as Father of a second divine figure named “Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” would be too much for them to tolerate. Conservative Muslims object to Christians using the word Allah because they cannot abide the elevation of Jesus to divine rank. Conservative Christians object to liberal Christians using the word Allah because they think that by doing so Jesus must be demoted to the rank of prophet.
But were the Presbyterians right to invite a Muslim to pray to God identified as Allah? As I reflect on it, the prayer leader had the right as the one chosen to pray. The assembly had the right to say Amen or to refrain from doing so. The prayer leader also had the right to expect Presbyterian support for a prayer to Allah, God. In the official Presbyterian Church USA Book of Common Worship,prayer 726 says this: “Eternal God, You are the one God to be worshiped by all, the one called Allah by your Muslim children, descendants of Abraham as are we. Give us grace to hear your truth in the teachings of Mohammed, the prophet, and to show your love as disciples of Jesus Christ, that Christians and Muslims together may serve you in faith and fellowship.”
And to that I say, “Amen”.
Note: The picture accompanying this essay is of Wajidi Said offering the prayer referred to above at the opening plenary session of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA in Portland, Oregon, June 22, 2016.
After the massacre in Orlando on June 12, 2016, and in light of many heated statements about Islam in the US media, it is clear that inter-religious (Christian-Muslim) dialogue is very much needed, long overdue, and would not be popular with those on either side who have already made up their minds that “The USA is at war to wipe out Islam” or “Islam is determined to impose Sharia Law on the world”. For the rest of us it might not be too late to actually sit down and talk to one another. That is my agenda for this essay.
My only experience, however, is Buddhist-Christian inter-religious discourse. The following are some guidelines I have discerned about how to go about the first phase, how Christians can most productively get into a creative, positive frame of mind about Buddhism.
Nevertheless, I believe the word Buddhism in the following statements of principle can be replaced with the words Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or Hinduism.
Until one has been profoundly impacted by the magnificence of the Buddhist system of thought one should withhold judgment and criticism of it.
Until then, one’s questions should be in search of the profound and awesome dimensions of Buddhism.
I would argue against the arrogance of Christians or any other religionists who reject Buddhism before accessing its profundity and being impressed by it. There is a time to engage in a critical assessment of a religion, and there are expressions of people in the name of their religion from time to time which need immediate refutation (preferably by others of the same faith). But a whole-scale rejection of any religion as profound as those which have attracted millions of adherents and held them for centuries, despite the particular flaws in some of its aspects, is indefensible.
One should be very cautious about undermining something so valuable to so many other people.
Even if one has a system (or religion) of greater value it will be counter-productive to propose the new one by attacking the old one.
Indeed, the stability of an entire people is at risk when something undermines its organizing principles, perspectives for discerning value, and objects of reverence. Sometimes this is undertaken deliberately, as when colonial powers did it (the Spanish were most egregious in this). Marxists, Stalinists and Maoists in particular, did this to devastating effect. It seems to be happening in Teleban controlled parts of the world. Other occurrences are more coincidental and incremental, as in the secularization of America, in which it seems that most of Christianity is a co-conspirator.
There is a positive and a negative side to this. Obviously a symbol system (e.g. a national religion) can be a source of unity where diverse groups and ethnicities live together; but it may not be necessary if there are other sources of unity. The system also gives individuals the keys to evaluate their integration into their society and culture. But when the culture changes and moves away from the values and principles that are enshrined and essential to the religious system, then the society gets under stress and/or the religion becomes irrelevant.
· Particular examples of a religion’s faith and practice do not express the whole, but they are valid and therefore help define the dimensions of that religion, while at the same time they are anomalies which express the reality of only a part.
Buddhism cannot really be viewed as a single unity, or even as three streams. To see Buddhism as a whole one must look at its national forms and sometimes separate paths within a nation. Christianity is not just one thing either. There are Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant divisions. And within Protestantism, for example, there are many further divisions. And in any one of them there are individuals and groups writing books, developing traditions, building edifices and organizations, and diversifying.
· Underlying the particular expressions of the religion is a body of essential belief shared by all the particular cultural extrusions; the body of essential doctrine usually traces to the teaching and authority of the founder; whereas the religion recognizes an event which precipitated the codifying of its creed and mantras (and sometimes the accumulation of its canon of scripture), while also adopting forms from formative junctures as symbol referents and standards of form.
As two trees springing from the same root are one tree with two trunks, so the doctrinal system of beliefs and the forms of worship and architecture are one faith. Buddhism quotes the Buddha, Christianity holds the sayings of Jesus to be of great importance, and Islam holds the received writings of Mohammed to be sacred scripture. But Christianity needed to combine its diverging teaching into creeds when it became the religion of the Holy Roman Empire and Buddhism seemed to do the same at the time Asoke adopted Buddhism as the Imperial religion of India. The “formative junctures” for Christianity may be the Gothic era, the Protestant Reformation, and certain other times when a massive revision, a “meta-transformation”, took place out of which grew new styles of architecture, organization and practice. Thai Buddhism’s formative junctures were Asoke’s empire (when Buddhism arrived in the region) and the Khmer empire, followed by the reforms of HM King Rama IV.
· Beneath these expressions is a sacred core of unassailable and largely inexpressible foundational principles.
These form the distinctive character of the religion. They are what Zen, Tibetan and Thai Buddhism have in common when all the cultural occlusions and accumulations have been stripped away. This “sacred core” is what unifies Ethiopian Orthodox, Swiss pietists, Dutch Calvinists, Nigerian Pentecostals and Trappist Roman Catholic monks.
· At the base of it all is a bedrock of assumptions about the nature of life and death, human value and destiny, among many other assumptions; these are accessible in a religion only by extraction (of metaphors and archetypical references), by inference, and by deduction.
I take it as more reasonable to conclude that this bedrock of assumptions about the nature of life and so forth is one that the Buddha and Christ had in common, rather than to conclude that Christianity and Buddhism are entirely separate worlds with nothing in common. If this is so, then mutual respect has a solid basis.
Conclusion: There can be no dialogue until participants are impressed with the validity and value of everyone’s view of what is sacred. A religious belief system would not have lasted for centuries and attracted millions of devoted adherents if it was not extremely important to those who live under its umbrella.
Finally, I want to celebrate the ministry and example of Phramaha Boonchuay Doojai from whose website I borrowed the pictures that illustrate this essay. His tireless efforts in behalf of inter-religious dialogue and mutual understanding are inspiring. Sathu, Amen.
My first thought was, “How great!” but my second thought was, “Eek!” when our niece and nephew presented Pramote and me with an oil painting of ourselves for my birthday last month. “Ah, how nice that the kids are growing mature enough to have the foresight and to spend the money on a project like this,” I thought. That thought was followed by, “Where shall we put it so nobody sees it?” Now I’m thinking, “It rather misrepresents reality.”
I’ve been ruminating on this. A couple of days after the birthday dinner, one of the other nieces or nephews posted a picture on Facebook that stunned me by what it showed about how we “click” on reality these days, that is how we capture it, and how we turn it off and on in our minds. In the picture (accompanying this essay) Pramote and I are holding the painting given to us by Wave and Pran. In photo-talk, we are first generation, the living, breathing originals. The oil painting is third generation because it was rendered from a photograph. The photo that was the model for the painter is second generation as are the pictures of us being taken that night. And then, in the view screens of the cell-phone cameras, there are the pictures of the picture made from a picture of the originals.
There are a lot of chances in all that for reality to get out of focus. Reality is a fleeting thing, anyway. Most post-modernist philosophy is about that and post-modern political arguments are about our being manipulated into herds by the fact that reality is fluid.
Using the pictures of Pramote and me as examples, there are 5 ways reality is captured and beheld.
REALITY REFLECTED is how we see it. It is a mirror image or a selfie, still squirming in and out of focus before it is “clicked” and photo-shopped. But our minds can mess with it. “You look happy,” people say when they see the birthday picture, but I was feeling a lot of other things more than simple happiness.
REALITY PRESERVED is after the click when the shutter is snapped, when the prints come back from a Kodak shop or show up on Facebook. Pictures like that are shadows of reality reflected off the wall of the cave, to borrow Plato’s allegory. But when we look at the images years later the mist in the mind grows thinner. The image is light and shadow, but it stimulates a degree of 4-dimensional recall, selective as it may be.
REALITY SIMULATED is virtual reality, reality represented by something symbolic. This type of reality is an ephemeral moment of feeling one hopes to communicate by taking a picture of one’s food or “sharing” an inspirational aphorism. It could also be a snapshot of a candid, transitory moment. It is immediate and ambiguously evocative. Images on social Internet media become a language substitute we supplement with substitutionary glyphs: emoticons like J, abbreviations like LOL and non-verbal explicatives like “sigh”.
REALITY INTERPRETED is the rationale for art. Oil painted portraits are supposed to convey more reality than a mere snap-shot does; they are supposed to help viewers discern invisible reality (aspects of personality or character, perhaps). High quality photographic portraits do that, too, often relying on costume, pose, or facial expressions to capture reality. Portrait painters painstakingly try to entice profound reality to emerge from beneath the caresses of their brush strokes, whereas portrait photographers snap-snap-snap scores of “images” in order to select THE one to interpret layers of elusive reality about the subject.
We ought to be at least mildly disappointed with pictures of ourselves. Portrait pictures inevitably misrepresent. Nuances are missing or seem to be there when they shouldn’t be. Usually it is the circumstances that are fragmented. A life-story is running but the portrait only hints at its most extraneous and trivial bits. There’s a drama going on that no one else can completely comprehend. “Click” – an instant of it is captured, but it is two-dimensional and flat. Still, it has a reality of its own. It is a stand-alone object in a sea of images. To anyone else, the picture is solitary. Observers see what occurs to them, what “clicks”. Their looking is relational and one-directional (no one is looking back), and usually that relationship is as brief as short-term memory.
Yet, when we download a file of pictures, we are not usually disappointed. Even when we look at pictures of ourselves, we do not ponder on what is amiss. That is because there is a fifth way of processing second-hand reality, even about ourselves.
REALITY PERCEIVED has been operated on by the observer. It is treated from a secondary perspective. “Does it look like me? Will others recognize me? Does it convey an agreeable similarity to what I see in the mirror?” By these standards most pictures are satisfactory if they tend to shield our flaws and flatter us. Or they tell a bit of our story and hurl us into a conversation about our life and times. They are doubly satisfying if they elicit a wave of positive reaction from our virtual friends. As time passes and what we see in the mirror evolves, these pictures serve the purpose of “reality preserved”, and grow even more satisfying; it is pleasant to have proof that we once looked better than we now do. But “reality perceived” serves overlapping and self-contradictory purposes in which we are readjusted to fit our expectations.
Since this is how we treat representations of what we presumably know best, it is no wonder “reality” in general has fallen on hard times. Truth, facts, implications, conclusions and data are all subject to manipulation, alteration, derogation, and antipathy, because the line is gone between reality and desire. More precisely, we have just about lost the ability to distinguish between internal realities and external ones.
The Thailand Overseas Missionary Society (TOMS) was a vision of the Rev. Pisanu Arkkapin and members of the Student Christian Movement at the Thailand Theological Seminary (TTS) in the 1960s. Methodist missionaries and church leaders in Malaysia encouraged the Thai young people to develop a program to provide Christian leadership for a larger parish of 5 Iban Christian longhouses in Sarawak (North Borneo), Malaysia. TOMS work was officially commissioned in a worship service presided over by Ajan Muak Chailangkarn, Moderator of the Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT). The first missionary was TTS student Boonrat Boayen. He arrived in Rumah Mabau in mid-1964 for a 3-year term.
Next to the rumah (longhouse) was a school, church and a one-room parsonage the TOMS missionaries called “The Palace”. The mission center was on the Majao River upstream from Sibu, upriver from Kapit. In those days the area was still jungle and the longhouse villages depended on a mix of agriculture as well as hunting and foraging.
After being in the Majao larger parish for 2 years, Boonrat was joined by TOMS missionary #2, Prayong Muangta. The idea was that the incumbent missionary would teach the successor for a year, the new missionary would work alone for a year, and a third missionary would arrive. As it happens, TOMS sent only 3 missionaries. The last was Somporn Pongudom, May 1968-May 1971.
Dr. Boonratna (the current preferred spelling of his name) visited the Majao mission area a few years ago and reports that today Iban culture has been vastly changed by the loss of the jungle, heavy mining, and commercialization brought about by the intrusion of dominant Malay culture and Malaysian government exploitation. The longhouses are gone as well as the wildlife. A new economic base sustains those who remain in villages along the Majao, but many have migrated to big cities where there is work. Christian leadership is now provided by graduates of Methodist seminaries in Sibu, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
TOMS was one of several CCT mission endeavors that were founded, flourished and faded. But it would be wrong to say TOMS failed. It was designed to fill a gap before Iban graduates were ready to assume pastoral leadership. The churches of the Majao parish are grateful for the Thai boys who lived among them 50 years ago. The 3 missionaries thrived and matured on this mission. Each of the missionaries helped and benefitted from the experience as student pastor among the Iban. Boonrat went on to a long career as dean of the seminary (TTS) from which he had graduated and as a Vice President of Payap University; he was then Moderator and General Secretary of the CCT for more terms than any other CCT leader. Prayong became a director of World Vision in Thailand, and other similar Christian philanthropies. Somporn taught in Kuala Lumpur and at Payap University before succumbing to cancer in mid-career.
The photo accompanying this article was taken when I visited TOMS missionaries Boonrat Boayen (left) and Prayong Muangta (right) in April 1967. In the background is the parish church on the grounds of Mabau longhouse. We had communion with rice wine at a delayed Easter service that morning. Other sketches were made on that visit.
It’s commencement season. Virtually every institution of higher education on earth is having a ceremony to send graduates into the big world. Celebrity commencement speakers are competing for sound-bites but tend to be out-shouted by candidates for political office this year. Were I to be a commencement speaker (a role I used to fantasize might happen, but now never will), I would lament the demise of liberal arts.
Liberal arts have declined – declined so far, in fact, that I feel constrained to explain what I am talking about. “Liberal arts” is not a course of study, but an approach to higher education based on the idea that a college graduate would be a leader in society by virtue of an elite educational background. The first question was, “What academic equipment does a leader need for the multiple tasks to be faced?” It was assumed that a college graduate would be a professional, but also more. A dentist might be on the school board, a governor’s committee, or even the governor. A librarian would be counselor to most people in town. A medical doctor might not only be on the hospital board, but the city council, the church council, and the draft board. A physician who became a missionary was ipso facto also a theologian, linguist and anthropologist.
A community leader would need to draw on a wide range of knowledge, or at least not feel like an alien when a discussion was going on about something from literature, history or natural science. It was important for the intellectual area of life to be as familiar as the social circles of the community would be. The task of tertiary education was to acquire a well-rounded understanding of how life functions for the optimal benefit of everybody. Embedded in education was the concept that “ethics is the ability to think critically about life processes and morality is living in conformity to ethics”. These were to be learned if one was to be a leader.
When I went to college in 1958 I was certain it was a step toward seminary and that was preparation for a lifetime of pastoral ministry. I thought I’d have a role in town equivalent to a school principle, chief of police, and superintendant of the hospital. But first I came to Thailand with the same intent I had in college: to be more well-rounded and informed as I prepared myself to contribute to a better society and world.
About the time I was hitting my stride as a pastor-professional, I heard a warning, “Middle age is when you expect to begin to collect your rewards for playing by the rules, and that’s when they change the rules.” The big shift in our case was into a corporate mentality. The mayor of our town was no longer a citizen presiding at city council meetings, but was the CEO of the civic administration. Leaders were specialists, not generalists. The idea of a leadership elite with a holistic vision for society was eclipsed by searches for managerial specialists who would do their job and keep out of the way of other experts doing their jobs.
I am not lamenting my loss of opportunity to wield civic responsibility. I did think Sam Harris, from the town where we lived, President of the Illinois Senate, might nominate me for a position on a state committee … but nevermind. I returned to Thailand just in time to join my friend from college days, Dr. Amnuay Tapingkae, waging a battle against the national higher education bureaucracy to develop Payap into a liberal arts college. We got there too late and in the wrong place. By the 1980s, what Thailand insisted was needed were trained employees. A college graduate was to become part of a corporation of some sort. Some corporations were called companies, some were professional associations, or government organizations – they were functionally corporations. Higher education had become the human resource production tool for corporations, and corporations began to take over what the university taught and then also how universities operated and were oriented. Corporate mergers and internationalization made the world more complex and opaque.
Massification of higher education eliminated the status of graduates as elite. A bachelor’s degree now certifies that one is merely qualified to begin to undertake specialization or professionalization, or licensed to search for employment as one still unqualified. Ironically, the bulk of undergraduate work is increasingly supposed to be vocational, answering “how” without questioning “why”. In order to get into a success track, there is a selection process that gives priority to those with demonstrated capacity to excel, meaning that by graduation from college a student would have to already be “excellent”. Pre-professional bachelor’s degrees like the pre-theology program I took, or pre-med and pre-law, were narrowed so that a graduate entered professional graduate school having already taken as many profession-focused courses as possible. The need to show excellence has also driven the bell-shaped grading curve lopsided. Now students will not stand for grades below outstanding or excellent. Grade inflation is so rampant that grades no longer are treated as indicators of real achievement.
Meanwhile, there is no time in undergraduate programs for becoming liberally educated and well-rounded. “Humane letters” is an archaic term. Education for appreciating areas of life (arts, literature, languages, philosophy, and culture) has become a luxury that is both too expensive and too time-consuming.
As expected, we now have a couple of generations of people who are very selective in what they appreciate, and tend to be unwilling to appreciate people who appreciate other things. I was expounding on a type of literature the other day and was interrupted, “You misunderstand that I care!” I had misunderstood that, but it reminded me that it can no longer be assumed that people care about each other very much either. When this becomes instilled in society (and I believe it has already been) conflicted values and intolerance are sure to follow.
A culture without arts is impossible. But a culture that no longer knows what arts are is one in an accelerated rate of decline. There is more at stake than the loss of a well-rounded leadership class. The loss of liberal arts is the loss of comprehensive education, sabotaged in order to produce trained workers who need not aspire to leadership nor be concerned about what their leaders are doing.
PS-This 2014 article from Psychology Today "The Cult of Ignorance in the United States" expands on the underlying points of this week's blog.
Thailand Theological Seminary as I first knew it in 1965 was a campus built around an imposing central building called either the Main Building or the Yellow Building ตึกหลวง or ตึกเหลือง . The building was constructed on a field in the Nong Seng village part of Chiang Mai Municipality across Kaewnawarat Road from the American Mission Hospital grounds. Both the seminary and the hospital, as well as Dara Academy for girls, were being moved from crowded locations along the Ping River. The cornerstone for the seminary was laid on 25 February 1914 by Mrs. Sophia Bradley McGilvary, wife of the late Rev. Dr. Daniel McGilvary who is credited with founding the evangelist training program that developed into a seminary for pastors and evangelists. At the time of its dedication in October 1915 it was the largest building of its type in Chiang Mai. Funds for the building were provided by the American Presbyterian Mission, which donated $3500 and Mrs. Louise Severance of Cleveland, Ohio who contributed $15,000. [$18,500 in 1915 is equivalent to $436,600 in 2015 funds or about 15 million Thai baht].
As I was introduced to the seminary, the 2 floors were divided, north and south. In the middle, on the ground floor behind the front doors was a reception area with dining area behind. Food preparation was done in a small building behind the dining area. Toilet buildings were there, too, used for storage since restrooms had been installed inside the main building. The ground floor to the north (to the left from the front door) was a hallway with the Rev. Prasert Intaphan’s office and the Rev. Francis Seely’s textbook project office. Beyond, were classrooms on the right and left. The ground floor to the south gave access to an academic office across from the seminary president’s office. Farther down the hall on the left were an apartment on the left and the chapel on the right. The second floor contained the library and study hall in the center with the women’s dorm to the left and offices and small classrooms on the right.
By 1965 the campus contained several residences and a wooden dorm for men. The oldest house was a small bungalow east of the seminary building that had been built for Ajan Prasert and then housed the Koyama family until their new home was finished. That’s where I lived until 1969. The west end of the campus had a wooden house in which Drs Harold and Harriet Hanson and their 3 boys lived, a concrete house for Dr. John and Betsy Guyer (with Janet and Jimmy), and 2 houses built by Taylor Potter in which Dick and Estelle Carlson and 5 children lived next door to a similar house built for the Rev. Dr. E. John Hamlin and “Khun Fran”.
The history of the seminary can be divided into 3 eras: pre-war, post-war, and Payap University. During the years before 1941 the seminary was an unofficial training center for church workers. During World War II when many Christian institutions were closed, the seminary building was used by the Japanese army as a hospital and morgue. This led to the tightly held conviction of students in later years that the seminary was haunted, and there were anecdotes to bolster that belief, despite protests to the contrary from the missionaries and somewhat weaker support from church leaders. Following the war, the seminary was rehabilitated and converted into the configuration I first remember. The Rev. Herbert Grether was assigned to re-open the pastoral training program as a full-fledged seminary. The Rev. Prasert Intaphan was his colleague in this endeavor.
By the time I arrived, Dr. Hamlin had been recruited to preside at the seminary, and he undertook a bold up-grading and expansion of programs. By 1965 there were 5 identifiable units of the seminary. Pastoral training was a 7-year Bachelor of Divinity degree program, unauthorized by the Thai Ministry of Education, but accredited by the Association of Theological Education of South East Asia. The Christian Service Training Center was a development of the Marburger Mission, with a separate campus in Pa Kluay Village next to McKean Leprosy Institute; the CSTC was designed to provide bi-vocational pastors with employable skills as well as a basic theological education so they could be self-sufficient in small rural churches unable to pay a living salary. The CSTC academic program had been brought into the seminary by 1965. A Department of Christian Education was developed to train specialists in Christian religious education. A Department of Church Music was established to help improve the music and worship of churches. This department was transferred into Payap College as the college was founded in 1974 and is today the College of Music of Payap University. Finally, there was a Lay Training Institute that provided a sequence of summer courses for lay leaders, supposedly elders in churches, but usually the participants were young people. The staff and faculty were international: Hamlins from the USA, Riemers and 2 other couples from Germany, Koyamas from Japan and the USA, Suells from England (just leaving as I arrived), Ajan Prakai Nontawasee, Kamol Arayaprateep and Rev. Pisanu Arkkapin from Thailand, Manickams from India, Pouws from Indonesia, as well as Jane Arp, Kellys, Carlsons and Judds from the USA.
There was a wide range of activities going on, including “field education” on weekends. Seminary students were all assigned to churches where they helped teach Sunday School, lead worship, conduct youth activities and sometimes serve as pastors in all but name. The churches around Chiang Mai counted on these seminary students, and the students benefitted from hands-on experience.
In 1974, when Payap College was opened it was expected that McCormick School of Nursing and Midwifery and the McGilvary Theological Seminary (the new name by then) would be pillars of the college. Dr. Hamlin had been working for more than a decade to get the seminary degree fully recognized and that was now possible. However, seminary alumni and leadership of the Church of Christ in Thailand were concerned that the government would exercise control over course content and mandate secularization of theological perspectives. In 1979 the CCT consented to let the undergraduate programs of the seminary be part of Payap. The seminary was then called the McGilvary Faculty of Theology (today it is the McGilvary College of Divinity). Its B.A. program was 4 years, with the Master of Divinity program an additional 3 years, as is standard around the world. The Thai government still does not officially endorse the M.Div. degree, but it is accredited by ATESEA as it has been. The CSTC program was phased out. The Christian Education program became a department of the seminary. And the Church Music program split into a separate department of church music for seminary students offering tutorials and a couple of credit courses, while a much larger program in music developed in the Faculty of Humanities and then became the Faculty of Music, now the College of Music.
In 1989 the old seminary building was torn down. The small street behind the seminary had been expanded into a 4 lane modern street placing the back door of the seminary almost in the street. Plaster and stucco needed replacement and the building was subject to termites. So on November 1, 1989, the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the seminary programs, the old building was de-commissioned and the “foundation stone” for a new building was ceremoniously blessed.
May 14, 1965 was a memorable day for me, but not primarily because it was my 25th birthday. That was the day I graduated from McCormick Theological Seminary and ended 19 years of continuous formal education. The hymn that ran through my head that day included the words, “Time like an ever-flowing stream, bears all its sons away. They fly forgotten as the night flies at the break of day.” I was very conscious of soon flying away from Illinois for distant Thailand, although I thought it was to be a brief tour away.
Now, rather than reminisce on a comparison between past and present which a person my age is wont to do, I want to ruminate on what I have observed that cannot be learned through comparing experiences.
It’s hot today, very hot. People say it’s the hottest stretch of unbroken high temperatures Thailand has had in more than 6 decades. But it is not proof of global warming. Climate change is a matter of centuries. Warming is calculated by thousands of temperature measurements from all over the world averaged month by month. Local extremes count for little. But the totals count for a lot. Two degrees rise in worldwide averages will show up in major ice melts, higher sea levels and coastal erosion. That has nothing much to do with “more tornadoes”, “less rainfall” or any other weather trend we think we might have discerned.
I’m a member of two national cultures. Both of these cultures are experiencing political dissonance. How else do you explain people’s relative apathy toward what’s going on at the political top of the two countries you know I’m talking about? But it’s not proof of intellectual decline. Even if educational systems’ failures have had some impact on people’s disinclination to do critical thinking, the willingness to go along with avalanches of absurdity is too profound to be the fault of schools alone. Comparisons do not help us get to the bottom of this. We cannot explain Trump by comparing the amount of homework American students have, compared to students in Finland. It doesn’t help to compare political indoctrination and intimidation in Thailand with North Korea. The dissonance between people’s values and life goals and their placid reaction to what’s going on is too vast and systemic to be the fault of some isolated thing that can be easily remembered and compared.
“You are high church,” a seminary classmate noted in May 1965. My ordination picture that month (above) is pretty clear about that. I did not disagree, since I understood “high church” to mean I trusted the institutional church to promote what is best for humankind, and to take appropriate corrective action when ecclesiastical change is needed. It was this ideal sort of institution that I felt committed to help lead. I am older and disabused of that idealism now. But it is not my disappointments and experiences that have convinced me that institutional religion is at a threshold. In fact, I tend to believe that institutional Buddhism is about to have a metamorphosis and institutional Islam is splintering even as Islam grows. What is developing and spreading is spiritual diversity, focused on a narrow range of personal attractions to particular objectives, leaving people free to sample and move around. There are Jewish Buddhists in Brooklyn and Chiang Mai, Hindu Catholics in Toronto and Mumbai, atheist Unitarians in Boston and Bangkok. We would be mistaken to see this as a post-modern phenomenon. It has been coming for 500 years and it is just beginning to take a new form.
The conclusion of this set of ruminations on my natal anniversary is that there are truths based on evidence too extensive for us to validate or disregard from our own experience. But we can decide to include the best informed conclusions on these things in how we do things. What we cannot conclude is that our actions do not matter. Tonight we may be gone and tomorrow forgotten, but our carbon imprint will linger.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.