Mother of Horrors
The most famous ghost story in Thailand is the tale of Mae Naak Pra Khanong แม่นากพระโขนง. This horror story is said to refer to an incident in the time of King Rama IV who reigned in Siam from 1851 to 1868. The story is that Mrs. Naak died in childbirth while her husband Mak was away at war. But when he returned he found her there with her child. Neighbors were killed who tried to warn Mak that his wife and child were ghosts. Mak accidentally learned the truth and managed to flee. Mae Naak chased him until she was subdued by a priest who was an exorcist who encased her in a bone fragment of her forehead which he kept in his sash. It is said that this is now property of the Thai royal family. In 1899 Anek Nawikamul, a Thai historian, investigated and wrote an account to set the record straight. Nevertheless, for decades one of the most popular personages in Thai culture was Nang Naak whose selfless devotion surpasses even her death. To this day women seeking easy childbirth make offerings at a shrine in the Suan Luang District of Bangkok [see (above) the picture of her shrine in Wat Mahabut near the Pra Khanong Canal]. More than 20 films and TV versions, as well as one opera, have been made of this romantic ghost story.
The story of Mae Naak Pra Khanong has everything that Thai people love. It is a lurid ghost story; Nae Naak murders her neighbors in a vain effort to prevent them from exposing her real nature as a ghost. It is a tender love story about the supernatural lengths romantic love might go. It is about people who really lived – and, importantly, died. On top of that, the story has royal connections having been retold by no less than Prince Damrong, a son of King Mongkut (Rama IV), whereby the relic possibly came into the possession of the Palace. Just as significantly, the story’s satisfactory ending involves Mak taking refuge in a Buddhist temple, and a Buddhist priest capturing the ghost and (in one version) pacifying her by promising her reunion with her husband. Aside from the story, traditions have developed that encourage continued veneration of Mae Naak Pra Khanong as a granter of petitions.
There are countless ghosts on the loose and in literature, but Mae Naak beats them all.
NOTE OF THANKS This blog essay is our 427th as we conclude our 8th year online with weekly essays from northern Thailand. November 1 begins our 9th year.
“Woke is a political term originating in the United States referring to a perceived awareness of issues concerning social justice and racial justice,” our amazing online reference resource, Wikipedia, informs us. “It derives from the African-American Vernacular English expression ‘stay woke’, whose grammatical aspect refers to a continuing awareness of these issues.”
I’m guessing a few million of us became aware of the word “woke” during the events following the murder of George Floyd when protests arose and expanded from anger about that single injustice, to that sort of injustice, to what police do, to the danger of white supremacy, to the racism of some national heroes (Columbus, Churchill, Woodrow Wilson, Gen. Paton, Robert E. Lee … and Edward Colston – you’d know who he was if you were a woke Londoner). The protests were a “Woke Movement”.
The question that quickly follows when one is woke is what to do about it. And that sometimes leads to our second jargon of the year Cancel Culture.
“Cancel culture refers to the popular practice of withdrawing support for public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. Cancel culture is generally discussed as being performed on social media in the form of group shaming.” Thanks for that definition, Pop Culture Dictionary.
Before this year I would have associated the term with, say, a TV show being cancelled when the ratings dropped. Then came the ruckus about J.K Rowling, the author whose books I have read and written about more than any other in the last 20 years. Timorously, a group of alarmed celebrities (including Piers Morgan of the BBC’s “Good Morning Britain”) have tried to help us understand that cancel culture attacks can become exaggerated, as when a group of Vegans intruded into a British steak restaurant and interrupted everybody. They were out-shouted by a spontaneous group of diners chanting “Red Meat, Red Meat!”
As I understand it, social media (and by that many observers mean TWITTER) have raised the stakes. For some targets, such as Rowling with her millions of pounds in the bank, being smeared and vilified online and having her popularity dimmed is more of an inconvenience than a danger. But for people of lesser means, just being accused of not being a strong enough supporter of a cause can result in the end of a job or being physically attacked.
Stay woke, cancel culture, and virtue signaling, which are moral issues, have a sinister potential to turn into a purity spiral, which is a competition.
Nathan Taylor, a gay guy who loves knitting started a hashtag aimed at promoting diversity in knitting. What happened was what Gavin Haynes in a BBC documentary called a “purity spiral” in which the online “discussion” intensified into moral outrage. Haynes insists that “the spiral often concerns morality, it is not about morality. It’s about purity — a very different concept. Morality doesn’t need to exist with reference to anything other than itself. Purity, on the other hand, is an inherently relative value — the game is always one of purer-than-thou.” What happens is that people who are involved feel the need to defend their purity as more pure than other’s. They list examples. The knitting group began talking about the books they were reading to prove they were pure of the racism the knitters were being accused of. The books were found to be racist by other knitters. Knitting businesses began to become targets. But those accused could also benefit by agreeing with the thought leaders. Saying, “We just sell yarn!” could lead to death-threats. But agreeing that “We knitters have been deeply remiss in our failure to acknowledge the pain we have inflicted on struggling Black and indigenous people of colour,” [a paraphrase of a comment by a Scottish knitter quoted by Haynes] might get one by until rants began that “just feeling sorry is the very essence of white privilege.” When Nathan Taylor tried to calm things down the attacks intensified so much that he had a nervous breakdown.
Purity spirals can have those outcomes. They happen when a purity spiral turns mindless and destructive. But purity spirals contain their own demise in the way they form. Pressure to be purer and purer leads to posturing and defensiveness that are unsustainable. Timur Kuran, Professor of Economics and Political Science at Duke University, calls this ‘preference falsification’. His theory relates to things like the fall of the Soviet Union, where almost no one saw the end coming, because they hadn’t realized that an entire population was falsifying their experience to each other. That’s what happens when one tries to win in a purity spiral. Eventually the effort simply becomes too much.
Before that happens it can get very ugly.
Persistence is the word that most characterizes the protest movement in Thailand. Events of the last couple of days have made the front pages of newspapers worldwide. Those who read carefully may know more than I do, here where my access to news is limited by the self-censorship of the media and my distrust of them. However, for friends and family who have been wondering, here is my brief interpretation of what is going on.
Beginning with the military-controlled government’s liquidation of the main political party opposing them, students began protests to call for constitutional reform to restore democracy and to call for the Prime Minister to step down. That call expanded to include reform of the provisions in the constitution relating to the monarchy and release of people charged with undermining the monarchy or the government. But movements evolve.
In the past, criticism of the monarchy as an institution and any members of the royal family was against the law, the rationale being that Thai culture rests on three pillars: the state, religion, and the monarch. The previous King was held in high esteem. Criticism of him was quite unpopular. But as of 4 years ago his son has become King. He has not cared for popularity. The protest movement about 6 months ago began the previously unheard of practice of calling for the King to return funds to public control which he had taken over. The movement took the form of large gatherings of students and young adults on a frequent basis, often in symbolic locations. Thai ex-pats began to draw attention to an additional list of grievances including the fact that the King and Queen spent most of their time in Germany without appointing a regent to act when the King is not in the country.
Until this weekend the government has permitted the students to gather and say pretty much whatever they wanted. But the King and Queen have now returned, not just for a brief holiday, but for 7 weeks or longer. They have resumed public activities such as audiences and presiding at university commencement services. The government (meaning the central part that includes the Prime Minister as well as senior military leaders) would like very much for the young people to “go back home and attend to your business.” To underline this demand, twenty or so “leaders” of the student movement were arrested. But the demonstrations have continued.
Crisis times came and passed without violence. Police have kept royalist counter-demonstrators separated.
But it appears that now the government has decided to “up the ante” to use a gamblers’ term. Following an incident yesterday where the Queen’s motorcade was obstructed when it drove unexpectedly onto a street blocked by a group of demonstrators, last night police in riot gear put up road blocks and sprayed the crowd with a high pressure water cannon using water mixed with blue dye and a caustic substance (called tear gas by one source). A “Severe State of Emergency” was declared restricting public gatherings to no more than 5 persons. In defiance, thousands of students gathered Saturday at five locations in Bangkok, and other locations around the country including a packed crowd at Chiang Mai University.
October is a deeply symbolic month. It is the month two previous student movements for democratic reform were put down by the military, killing hundreds (perhaps thousands). Once again it is the young adult generation that is persisting in challenging the powerful elite to include the people. “It’s our money!” the protesters shouted at the royal motorcade. The young people have changed the words of the national pledge, too. It used to be a pledge to uphold “the nation, religion, and King.” Yesterday they were shouting, “Nation, religion, people!”
Points to Ponder
Here’s a little exercise to see if your vision is 2020.
Insert first pic
1. Make 4 dots at random.
2. Connect the dots with 4 uninterrupted lines.
Insert second pic
3. Find the middle point on each line.
4. Connect the points.
Insert third pic
5. This will always provide a parallelogram.
Does this theorem have any application? I do not know of any, but I do not work with geometry or physics any more than I have to. Nevertheless, I do not think this odd fact should be discounted quickly. I would not be surprised if Pythagoras or Paracelsus has considered this phenomenon. It’s the sort of thing that might have popped into Einstein’s head to open an avenue of thought about space, time, and gravity. Somebody COULD decide that this example of random irregularity resolving into regularity has profound significance.
So far I have only gotten far enough to feel that thinking about this is a relief from almost everything else that 2020 has brought so far.
As the USA gets close to the national election on November 3 the rhetoric has tended to get hot. One Trump supporter appealed for reducing the name calling. He objected to being called a “nationalist” which was equivalent to “supremacist” or “racist”.
He said, “Perhaps people vote for Trump, blacks and hispanics included, that believe: late term abortion is wrong, a strong economy is good, critical race theory is racist and teaches children to hate America, BLM is a radical, Marxist terrorist organization, antifa is more than an idea - they murder burn and loot.”
I’d like to reply to him. I think we can be reasonable.
Let’s agree that some voters are issue oriented. Let’s identify their issues as (1) late-term abortion, (2) economic growth, (3) racism that teaches children to hate America, (4) Black Lives Matter is a radical Marxist terrorist organization, (5) Antifa advocates murder, burning and looting. Let’s even lay aside the notion that those who most fervently hold these concerns are nationalists. These concerns are exaggerated out of proportion to reality. But we can even postpone that debate although that is at the heart of this.
What cannot be so easily ignored is the result of these concerns. The issues lead to actions. The action being supported to address some or all of these is the matter being contended in this US election. What those voters advocate amounts to this: In order to prevent late-term abortions all abortions are to be prevented. In order to permit economic growth almost no limits should be imposed on industries. In order to promote patriotism narratives concerning past humanitarian errors and slavery must be toned down. In order to keep America secure radical black as well as anti-Fascist movements must be seen as organizations and suppressed. As the danger of these things is exaggerated so are the actions in response to them.
Since America is not a pure democracy in which every issue is decided by a referendum, but is a republic where representatives meet to do that, the election is our main recourse. We can ask the candidates what they believe about these issues, and consider how their answers line up with our understanding of justice and sustainable progress. But then we need to ponder how trustworthy the candidates are and whether we believe they will take action when elected that stays consistent with what they say they will do. Our power as citizens is limited. We can do almost nothing but consider the character of the people standing for election and then vote.
My Fourth Career
I think I will retire from my fourth career now. This career I call, “Trying to make the world a better place through writing.” My previous careers have been ordained pastoral ministry, seminary teaching, and higher education administration. As I was doing each of these careers I thought, “This is what I am all about.” The goal has always been trying to make the world a better place through doing what the career involved. They were overlapping in many ways. I was a pastoral minister while being a seminary teacher, and I was a writer while being a full-time pastor.
Writing has been my default hobby since I was a teenager. In fact, my second salaried position was the summer I was 17 when I was a cub-reporter for the Jacksonville Journal-Courier. My first salaried position at $20 a week, was as caddy-master and golf shop attendant at the Jacksonville Country Club, from which I learned mostly that community leaders are not at their best when they’re playing golf and that I was not born to be a golfer.
Since it is apparent to me that my efforts to make the world a better place through writing are dwindling in effectiveness, I’ll close out this career before people start hinting even more loudly that I should. For my own peace of mind, and for the record, I want to list the accomplishments of this fourth career. These are easier to list than accomplishments in the first three careers. I count it as an accomplishment when I have written something, finished it, and stopped working on it. I admit that it is generally agreed that one should only count things that get published as writing successes. But it’s a blurry line. I was never established on the “noteworthy published author” side of it. I produced a lot, it turns out. Making this list (see below) has helped me feel better about what I’ve accomplished.
I gave it all I had during my fourth career which began long before the other careers ended and continued until now, a decade after I formally retired from the other careers. My output includes several thousand pages divided into book-length writings, essays and articles.
Worship as Celebration of Life (in Thai), 1974, Suriyaban, Bangkok. This was translated into Thai and published as a textbook by the Fund for Theological Education. It was used for more than 20 years by theological seminaries in Thailand.
The Pastoral Call (Lectures in Thai at Payap University, 1986, printed in English in the USA, 1989). This was a formal lectureship sponsored by the McGilvary Faculty of Divinity of Payap University to mark the end of my teaching at the seminary. The lectures were reformatted in print for use in the USA.
Acharn: Pastoral Counseling in Thailand (Doctor of Ministry thesis, Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey) 1987. There was hope that this would be followed by a new approach to teaching pastoral counseling based on the research findings about what makes counseling successful in Thailand, but that project was not enthusiastically received as the seminaries downgraded their basic professional courses. A microfilm version is preserved and available through the archives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
History of the First Presbyterian Church of Alton, Illinois, published as a limited edition of about 200 copies for subscribers by the First Presbyterian Church, Alton, Illinois, 1991. This was written to refresh the memory of members of that church about their history, and also to express appreciation for contributions made to rebuilding the sanctuary after a fire in 1988.
The Lives of Christ, published by First Presbyterian Church, Alton 1992. This is a collection of studies of the Gospels. It was printed for those who participated in an adult class. The conclusion was that a synthesized, unified biography of Jesus is not possible, nor was that the aim of the Gospel writers.
Ten Stories: A Storyteller’s Guide to the Book of Genesis, First Presbyterian Church, Alton, Illinois, 1993. The stories of Genesis are all “gospel stories.” Any other reading of them is a misreading.
Emerald Valley Chronicles, published by the author, 1994. I believe that between 1981 and 1985 our work in village churches with seminary students on weekends was transformative. It helped the students mature and helped the churches meet challenges and accomplish their mission. The book is an anthology of factual accounts about those students and their episodes. I submitted the manuscript to all the denominational publishing houses that had anything to do with Protestant work in Thailand but was told that “nobody is interested in missionary stories anymore.”
English for Professional Nurses, a textbook for nurses’ workshops, Christian University, Nakhon Pathom, 2003. This book was used for more than 20 workshops. It was only available to those who enrolled in the workshops.
English Camp is Easy, a handbook of activities and plans, prepared for the Thailand TESOL Conference in 2004. As a result of conducting several English Camps at schools in central Thailand, this handbook was then provided for participants at the annual national conference for English teachers in Thailand.
Progress Toward Mutual Recognition Through Educational Benchmarking and Quality Assurance, (Reflections on and analysis of a conference on Mutual Recognition: Educational Benchmarking and Quality Assurance at Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand, November 16-19, 2004) with Janjira Wongkhomthong, Christian University of Thailand, presented to the Board of Directors of the International Association of University Presidents, meeting in Bangkok in 2005. The “proceedings” of the conference was printed, and then a synopsis was published a year later.
A Bright Future: The Christian University of Thailand Model for Teaching English at the University Level in Thailand, Nakhon Pathom: Christian University of Thailand, 2006. This book-length series of articles describes how to design an English language proficiency program for a university in Thailand. ISBN 974-627-1334
Lands of the Yip: Book One, Velia; Book Two, Exporia; and Book Three, Vitalia, Payap University, Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2011. This is a set of 4 fantasy novels for young adult readers. In each novel a couple of ex-pat kids in Northern Thailand and their expanding group of friends are brought into parallel lands to help sort out catastrophes and to have adventures while coming of age.
Spiritual Wellness: the Basis of Holistic Peace, volume 1 Wellness and volume 2 Dysfunction, Payap University, Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2011. Growth is the main feature of spiritual wellness. When growth stops decay begins with spiritual stagnation followed by profound terror and finally corruption. This collection of 75 essays has gone through three editions. I am sure the concept is sound, but I have not found a way to make it therapeutically useful. One publishing company agreed to publish the book and provide it on demand if I would pay them $11,000.
Ban Den Friends: Gay Experiences in Thailand, Out in Thailand publications, 2012, serialized 2013-2015 in Out in Thailand magazine. The book is an anthology of 67 anecdotes based on true-life experiences of LGBTK people in Thailand I have known. Two international publishing houses considered and rejected it because it was not built around a central character, but was modeled on Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 novel Winesburg, Ohio.
Kiddy Lit: Stories to Grow On, 2013. This book is a retelling and analysis of 25 of the best-known stories for children in cultures that use English as their primary language. As with Bruno Bettelheim’s ground-breaking book, The Uses of Enchantment, the stories all have messages to help pre-adolescents negotiate their basic fears and issues. I submitted the manuscript to a couple of experts in the field but received no encouragement to seek a publisher. A local publishing house also refused to consider the book because it has no local (Thai) connection.
Enchanted Astorwold, self-published in 2016 and reformatted for online publication with help and illustrations by my son Andrew Dobson in 2019. The book is one of a very large number of fan-fiction anthologies based on the Harry Potter novels and movies. As with most of these works, this one introduces people of the next generation after the battle of Hogwarts.
Varieties of Faith: The Thai Case, Payap University, 2016. The book is a set of illustrated essays on 4 Thai faith domains, namely, formal religion, spiritual self-development, supernaturalism, and venerations of saints and semi-divine people. It is available as an e-book upon request, but was never intended to be commercially published.
“Three Types of Theological Education” in South-East Asia Journal of Theology, ca. 1970, Singapore. This was my first professional publication. It was revised and expanded as “Antecedents of Higher Education of Christian Professionals” to be presented at the 2008 United Board Faculty Forum in Indonesia.
“Millennial Challenges to Education” revised for the ASAIHL International Conference, Kota Kina Baru, Malaysia, September, 2003, published in Christian University Journal, Christian University, Nakhon Pathom, 2001. This is a collection of short stories on the theme of higher education.
“Beneficiaries and Benefactors: Who Are the Winners in Thailand’s Income Contingency Loan Scheme?” a presentation at the International Symposium on Student Loan Policy, organized by UNESCO and the Student Loans Fund, March 16, 2006, Bangkok International Trade & Exhibition Centre, Bangkok.
“Theory and Practice: Two Aspects of ESL” Christian University Journal, Christian University of Thailand, Vol. 12, No. 2 (May-August) 2006.
“Anticipating Cognition: Breaking Through from Curiosity to Prescience” a presentation at an international conference on Body and Mind: Science and Spirituality Perspectives, organized by Chulalongkorn University and The Thousand Stars Buddhism and Science Group, December 8, 2006.
“The Unlikeliest Link: Mythic Archetypes as a Means toward Transcultural Theologizing” a presentation at an international conference on Religion and Culture, organized by the Institute of Religion, Culture and Peace, Payap University, June 24-30, 2007.
Three essays on being a Buddhist-Christian entitled “The Labels are Falling off the Pickle Jars”, “A Christian Buddhist Option”, and “A Compelling Reason to Chant” published in Thursday-Theology No. 541 and 542, October 2008 by the Crossings Community, www.crossings.org
“Three Red Flags: Why We Should Worry About the Future of Higher Education” presented in the 23rd Inter-University Conference of The Association of Southeast Asian Institutions of Higher Learning at Payap University on September 4, 2009 and published in the ASAIHL-Thailand Journal, Vol. 12, Number 2, September 2009.
“Gender Ambiguity: Thai Village Case Studies” presented October 7, 2009 at the Simpson College Faculty Forum, Indianola, Iowa. The case studies were horizontal studies that tended to demonstrate the Thai preference at the time for maintaining ambiguity about one’s gender. This set of cases has been revised and presented several times since.
“An Introduction to the Biblical Theology of Land” presented at a symposium as part of the celebration of the 35th Anniversary of Payap University on February 16. 2010.
“Creation of a Creation Myth: Steps Towards a Promethean Age” with Arthur Saniotis of the University of Adelaide, accepted for publication in Prajina Vihara Journal of Philosophy and Religion of Assumption University of Thailand in 2011.
“The End of Christian Civilization” 2012 also called “1922” in 2020. This research article is the one I consider my most original and insightful article. The thesis is that prior to World War I there was a consensus that Christian morality was the basis for the advances of Christian civilization as evidenced by the industrial revolution. After the war that consensus evaporated. Four of the greatest works of Modernist literature were published in 1922. They were written by James Joyce, Marcel Proust, TS Eliot, and Sinclair Lewis. They unanimously rejected the concept that Christian Civilization was superior, and even the Church dropped the idea.
“After Baal and Christ” 2013. This series of essays traced the development of the Judeo-Christian idea of God through several distinct phases. The present consensus is that God and Jesus are synonymous and interchangeable terms (thus “after Christ” whom the Church has held to be one person of the Holy Trinity). The key essay was edited as “The Quest.”
“The Quest” published by Thursday Theology, the Crossings Community. Oct. 23, 2013. http://www.crossings.org/thursday
“Dragons: Myth and Cosmic Powers” by Kenneth Dobson and Arthur Saniotis. Prajna Vihara Journal of Philosophy and Religion, Assumption University of Thailand. Vol. 15, No. 1, Jan-June 2014.
“The Future of Institutional Christianity in the Postmodern Era”, April 18, 2014. This essay is an attempt to assess how popular culture, which is overwhelmingly postmodern, will have an impact on institutional Christianity. The project began with a description of postmodernism. I believe the essay was prophetic as it applies to the USA and parts of Anglo-European dispersion (Canada, Australia, New Zealand in particular).
“Vanishing Village Culture” is a series of 18 descriptions of how life is carried on now in villages around our house compared with the past. The essays were published as blogs on “Ken Dobson’s Queer Reminiscences from Thailand” in 2015 and 2016.
“10 Challenges to Christian Higher Education” presented at the ACUCA Management Conference, October 2017. The essay was printed in the proceedings in summary.
“What Makes Thai Buddhism So Strong” was first a PowerPoint “Payap Presents” program on July 4, 2019. Then it was reformatted as an illustrated article to be available online. The analysis of Buddhism’s strength is based on a description of several key events that coalesced participation and were important.
“Social Order, Five Essays” are a discussion of what makes society sustainable. The essays are entitled, “Social Bond”, “Social Contact”, “Social Ethic”, “Social Media” and “Social Context.” The essays were published online in 2019.
BLOG ESSAYS and SHORT MAGAZINE ARTICLES
James Barnes made a valiant attempt to produce a high-class magazine for gay readers in Thailand. He had gifts as a publisher and contacts that got him exclusive interviews with the likes of Hillary Clinton and Anderson Cooper. I provided occasional 800 word articles on a variety of subjects. James also liked Ban Den Friends, which I began with the thought of writing 7 stories for him. The 7 grew to 67 as he encouraged me to write more. His editorial talent was compromised, however, by a combination of health issues and a disability as a financier. His health and finances collapsed in June 2015 and he fled the country.
In addition to major articles for particular occasions and publications, my fourth career has been devoted to a constant output of short works that began as I reflected on my past as an author of an average of two sermons a week when I was a full-time pastor.
Beginning on Halloween in 2012 a colleague and I purchased a web-domain which I called “Ken Dobson’s Queer Ruminations from Thailand.” I have averaged an essay a week for a total of some 430 blogs. We will continue the blog for at least another year.
CAREER ENDS – HOBBY CONTINUES
I am calling this the end of my 4th career as a writer. As with the other three careers I am on call but expect the phone to rarely ring. It is best to know what stage one’s in.
I think, as a whole, I was a preacher in a time that preaching was still a high-profile, effective way to make an impact. I was helpful to move the two universities I served as administrator forward. As a pastor I was valuable to a substantial number of people going through crises and transitions. Those roles have been handed over to a younger generation, and in several instances relinquished by them to a still younger generation.
This is the era of social media and short attention spans. My talent for long essays of cultural and philosophical reflection is in short demand. I will still write. It just won’t be “what I’m all about” anymore. I’m trying to figure out how to do memes and photo essays.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.