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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.
Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit, A History of Thailand, third ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), Kindle Edition.
Years ago, I read David Wyatt's "Thailand: A Short History" but it was a bit too dry and not too short. I nearly gave up as he went on and on reconstructing the pre-history of Thailand. But Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit's “A History of Thailand” has been a completely different experience. The authors have written a briskly moving narrative that gives you the big picture, highlighting the important people and events in the development of the country without getting bogged down in the details. The first chapter (Before Bangkok) takes you through early history to the founding of Bangkok in 1782. In not too many pages, the authors give a helpful picture of the 15-18th century, the empires of Southeast Asia, the old Thai feudal system, and the steps leading up the founding of the Chakri dynasty. And it is the Chakri dynasty and the last 200 years of Thai history that form the bulk of this book.
As the book unfolds however, tracing the political, cultural, and economic development of the country from Rama 1 (1782) to the pre-coup political climate of March 2014, it becomes obviously that writing a history of “Thailand” is problematic. As it were, there was no “Thailand” per se, until the colonial powers forced the kingdom of Siam to define it borders in response to French and British colonial acquisitions in Cambodia, Laos, and Malaysia. In the late 19th century, the kingdom of Siam spread across what is now Central Thailand into Western Cambodia, while the Lao kingdoms and Shan States functioned rather independent of Siam to the north, albeit many of them in a tributary relationship to Siam. The region that constitutes modern day Southern Thailand was also only loosely connected to Bangkok. But as the colonial powers claimed some of these territories and agreed that others belonged to Siam, the government of Siam felt that it was necessary create a sense of unity and nationhood among these different territories and peoples in order to consolidate power and ward off interference from foreign aggression. These reasons, along with the belief that the majority of “Thai” people are passive peasants, led to justifications for a strong state with Bangkok as the center. The strong state was first embodied in the absolute monarchy, but after the revolution of 1932, the strong state re-emerged on-and-off in the form of military dictatorships up through the 1970s and beyond.
I am glad that Benny Hinn came to Thailand in 2012. Really, I am. He is a false teacher and a false prophet who will probably end up with a millstone around his neck in the final judgment. But I am glad he came because he provided the opportunity to make the prosperity gospel into a live issue among Thai churches.
The prosperity gospel has been in Thailand for many years but prior to Hinn’s visit, it was not a topic of controversy. Various teachers, both foreign and domestic, have put on big shows, made outrageous claims and promises, and generally given people false hope while taking away their money and/or their hope. Some churches are into that kind of thing, and others aren’t. But Thai people are generally polite and don’t like to stir up controversy. The Christian community in Thailand is small, people know each other, and it seems more important to affirm each other in light of the Buddhist majority, rather than cause problems. So while prosperity preachers and self-appointed prophets came and went, barely anyone said much about this form of false teaching even as it has continued to spread and work its way into a larger number of churches through big, exciting “revival” meetings, translated books, and YouTube videos.
Anyone who has lived in Thailand for some period of time knows that Thai people like to have fun. If it is not fun, why do it? Even work has to be fun. And apparently some people think that protesting government corruption has to be fun too.
One of the odd trends that is emerging in the Bangkok protests is for people to dress up like Marvel superheroes (okay, it's only 2 so far but I am hopefully waiting for Ironman to make an appearence). I'm not sure what to make of this, but at the very least it says something about the importance of fun in Thai culture.
SpidermanDecember 2, 2013
You don’t have to live in Thailand for long before you’ll run into the concept of “kreng jai”. It is a hard expression to translate but it basically means being considerate and deferential to others, and not wanting to bother or inconvenience them. This is especially true if the one whom you’d be inconveniencing is your social superior. If you want to call someone late at night, you don’t because you are “kreng jai.” If you need a favor from an important person who is busy, you hesitate to ask because you are “kreng jai.” At one level, it is a pretty easy concept to grasp but it isn’t always applied in the ways that I would expect.
guest post by Larry Dinkins
I recently went through training which included 10 days of silently reading portions of the book of Acts for 30 minutes and then discussing them in a group for another 30 minutes. I enjoyed the group discussion time, but was struck how western and individualistic it was to sit by myself and read silently without interacting with the others around my table. Of course, processing the Bible silently and in isolation wasn't hard for me (after all, I got through college sitting by myself in a study carrel in the university library). But what about the Thai; would they have warmed to such an assignment?
As a Westerner, there are many aspects of Thai society and thinking that I find strange, baffling, or frustrating - and sometimes all three at once. But as I read through Walter Ong’s book “Orality and Literacy”, there were several “Ah ha!” moments about Thai culture. Many of his descriptions of oral cultures resonated with things that I’ve observed in Thailand. I felt like I was beginning to understand why the Thai do some of the things that they do, thus disarming the judgmental attitudes that I’ve had at times.I suspect that many more cultural differences between Thailand and the West that can be tracked back to orality than the ones that I list below. And even these differences likely cannot be attributed entirely to orality. Whether you are primarily oral or literate, other factors such as personality, family background, education, sin, and faith come into play in making a person who they are. To classify all Thai people as oral thinkers and all Westerners as literate thinkers would grossly oversimplify matters. However, as a general grid to think about cultural differences that I encounter, orality and literacy are a helpful framework even though individual people from any culture may fall any place along the spectrum.
One of the great strengths of Thai culture is the high value placed on maintaining the peace. Social harmony is very important to Thai people. You don’t get upset at bad drivers or pushy salesmen. You don’t have an argument in public. You avoid saying things that would embarrass other people or make them feel bad. In many ways, this value on maintaining social harmony and good relationships makes Thailand a wonderful place to live.
But there is also a downside. Feelings get hurt and people never forgive each other. Injustice, error, and corruption run rampant and are swept under the rug. Leaders at all levels abuse their power and no one says anything. Sin is winked at and everyone pretends that everything is okay when they know it isn’t. The need for holiness and reconciliation is one the great challenges facing the Thai church today.When the Prophet Comes to Town...
Into the midst of this cultural milieu come the traveling prophets. Teachers like Joyce Meyer and Cindy Jacobs parachute in to Thailand and receive huge venues to speak to the Thai church. They are big names in many evangelical and charismatic circles in America but are relatively unknown in Thailand. But they quickly become known as their big show event is promoted broadly in the small Christian community in Thailand. It is big. It is exciting. And it is “Christian.”
The objection was not uncommon. I recently received an email from an American college professor requesting advice for a Thai student of his who had recently become a Christian. The student’s Buddhist mother back in Thailand was greatly upset about her son’s decision. But she would be okay with his new faith under one condition. He didn’t get baptized. The first time I ever heard this objection to baptism, it seemed a bit odd. Why would a Thai Buddhist, who is largely unfamiliar with the Christian faith, object to baptism in particular? Why would they single out baptism as the one thing that “my son” or “my daughter” can not do? Why does not church attendance, Bible study or prayer solicit the same fierce opposition?
I don’t know of any plans to translate Rob Bell’s new book on hell into Thai. But if it was translated, I doubt it would sell very well. I haven’t read his book so this is not a commentary on what Bell does or does not espouse. But this IS a commentary on how culture shapes our perception of what’s important. The burning issues facing the American church are not necessarily so important in other parts of the world.
While the American church faces the challenges of postmodernity, secularism, and doubt, the church in Thailand does not. The vast majority of Thai Christians and churches affirm the reality of heaven and hell, and the reality of God’s supernatural intervention in the affairs of life. Even Thai Buddhists, who make up 95% of the population of Thailand, believe in heaven and hell. Granted, they have a different understanding of these terms, but most would acknowledge their reality because Buddhism affirms them as well. So, a book addressed to a culture which views heaven and hell with skepticism would likely sit on the shelf in Thailand, gathering dust.
I have been having conversations lately with a Thai Chinese fellow who is a real thinker. That’s hard to find around here. Many folks are happy to not think about (or at least not discuss) difficult or controversial issues. Thai culture places a high value on non-confrontation so it is tough to really engage people in discussion about any issues of significance. But not this guy.
Mr. Mon and his wife own a trucking business and one of their employees is a Christian lady whom my wife disciples (she does housework, not truck driving, if you wanted to know). One night as we were trying to get our kids into bed, I answer a call from her on my wife’s mobile phone. “You have to come over here right now. We’re watching the movie you lent us and he has all these questions and I don’t know the answers. You have to come now.” She was desperate and a bit impatient. “Well, okay” I replied, “Let me talk to my wife for a second. We’re putting the kids to bed.. hang on...” and before I could talk to my wife, the voice on the other end of the phone said, “Okay, I’m waiting for you. You’re coming now. Bye.” Twenty minutes later, after I made sure my wife had the kids under control, I was sitting down with Mr. Mon, his wife, and their Christian house helper who had called us.
Church discipline is not popular and is rarely practiced in Thai churches, and the same can be said for churches in the West. When it is practiced, it is often for those “big” sins like adultery or embezzlement of church funds. Other repeat offenses like slander, gossip and divisiveness are unrightly overlooked. The term conjures up images of judgmental, critical, self-righteous nitpicks who stick their nose in other people's business where it doesn’t belong. Many Christians incorrectly see the goal of church discipline as punishment, despite the fact that the Bible says that the goal of church discipline is restoration and reconciliation.
When I went to a local Buddhist merit making festival, I noticed a great number of children and school groups participating in the event. Parents brought their little ones to participate and some schools brought all their students as a group, dressed in school uniforms. The following Bible verse came to mind:
“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it”(Proverbs 22:6 ESV)
This morning I got up early and walked down to the main temple in Phra Phutta Baht to see the annual Flower Offering Merit Making Festival (ประเพณีตักบาตรดอกไม้) and take some pictures. The two parallel roads leading up to the temple were filled with people waiting to put flowers and dry food goods offerings into the bowls of 3,000 monks who were assembled for the occasion. See below for some photos followed by a bit of commentary.
This Monday, Dec 4th, we'll be flying to Thailand and arriving at the newly constructed Bangkok airport, which opened in September 2006. The construction of it was plagued by a series of accidents and the Thai authorities decided to bring in a bunch of Buddhist monks to chant over it for good luck. The following excerpt from the Bangkok Post (Sept 24, 2006) tells of the bizarre event that happened during the chanting ceremony and gives some insight into the spiritual realities that shape the lives of Thai people.
“Last Saturday there was a large ceremony held at the new BangkokInternationalAirport which is due to open this week. Ninety-nine Buddhist Monks chanted on masse to improve the luck ofthe new airport. Half way through the rite, a man appeared quivering and began to speak in a commanding voice claiming to be the guardian spirit of the airport land. He ordered that a proper spirit house be built at the airport to allow for its smooth operation. The man, who was unidentified, later passed out and woke up to find the spirit had left him” (Bangkok Post article, 24th September, 2006)
The spirit world is very real to Thai people. Please pray that they would understand the true nature of the principalities and powers of this dark world and would come to saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.
The city of Lopburi recently celebrated their annual Narai festival, in honor of King Narai who reigned over Thailand from his palace here in Lopburi about 400 years ago. Part of the story of King Narai includes ambassadors from France who came to visit the king and initiate diplomatic relations between Thailand and France. Later on, the ambassors, together with some Jesuit priests, all got knocked off because some higher up folks in the royal entourage were afraid that the priests were getting to close to converting the king to Catholicism. So, for the Narai festival parade, the organizers needed some white guys to be the French ambassadors. I thought it would be fun, so I volunteered. It was, kind of, but I felt somewhat ridiculous in my ambassador's costume, especially the wig. Even more ridiculous than the guy with the cone on his head in the picture below.
I was a serious French ambassador marching in the hot sun. I look silly enough being a white guy in Thailand, so why not put on some funny looking clothes to top it off?