Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Greetings from Italy and the Florence 1st Branch; Devotional in Rome on Feb. 2

On Sunday, Feb. 2, I'll have the privilege of speaking at a devotional for LDS single adults in Rome. I will be talking about the Book of Mormon's teachings regarding testimony, evidence, and doubts. My topic is "Dealing with Doubts." It will be at 6:00 5:00 pm in the Roma 1 building. I think it is currently scheduled for the Rome 2nd building, but I should hear back shortly about the possibility of moving it to the Rome 1st building. If you're in Rome, do as a handful of Romans do and join us! I'll be attending church that morning in the Roma 1st building. Special thanks to Dr. Ugo Perego of Rome for extending the kind invitation to speak. 
Yesterday on our first day in Italy we were genuinely blessed to be able to attend church with the Florence 1st branch. With our schedule, we didn't think it would work out because when I checked the LDS church locator website earlier when working out details of our brief visit to Italy, my search indicated that the only meetings in the area were at a time that wouldn't work for us and at a location pretty far outside of Florence itself, and so we figured that we probably wouldn't be able to get to church on Sunday, our only full day in Florence. So, with apologies to the Lord, I explained in my personal prayer Sunday morning that I didn't think we'd be able to make it church, but would be very happy if there might be a way to work around the various constrains I faced to find some way after all. 

At that point I just felt that my apology wasn't exactly accepted, and instead there was something specific I needed to do: search again for Mormon meetings in Florence. It was a very specific prompting and I'm so glad I didn't ignore it. Right after the prayer, I Googled "mormon church meetings in florence italy" (no quotes were used) and saw the LDS meetinghouse locator again in the top results. So I went there, searched again for Florence, and to my surprise found that there was a service in Florence itself in the morning, with the Florence 1st Branch. Why this didn't show up earlier I don't know. But the time and location, coupled with the fact that things went very smoothly for us with our earlier events Sunday, leaving us with enough time to catch a  taxi and arrive early enough to meet several new people and make some valuable and enjoyable connections.

One thing that added a lot to the experience of attending church in Italy was the friendliness of the Italian members and the goodness of the missionaries we met. They translated for us and helped us to understand what was said in a great meeting. Greetings from Sister Holloway (from Portland, Oregon, as I recall) and Sister Strong (from Chandler, Arizona), shown in the photo below (with their permission) with my wife at the end of the special add-on service after sacrament, a pot-luck dinner with real homemade Italian food - the best food we've had so far in this majestic nation, outside of some miraculous gelato. Also shown are two views of the Church building in Florence. One of the great hotspots of this incredibly historic and beautiful city.

My experience reminded me: each day, I should spend a little time in prayer contemplating and reviewing plans because the Lord might have important changes in mind if only I am willing to listen. I am so grateful for the small miracle of being able to attend church in Florence yesterday.

Update, Feb. 3, 2014: Ugo Perego posted a photo from the devotional on his Facebook page. Thanks, Ugo. I was impressed with the attentiveness of the audience and the excellent questions they asked. Fun group. And wow, do I love being in Italy. Rome is marvelous beyond words. Ditto for real gelato. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

How Much Are We Missing?

Seven years ago on a cold January day in Washington, D.C., a man set his open violin case on the floor near the entrance of a subway station and began playing. Over 2,000 people passed by while he played and almost nobody stopped to listen. After 3 minutes one man paused for a few seconds, then went on his way. It was 4 minutes before the first cash was tossed in the case - a $1 bill. The women who tossed it in didn't stop to listen. At 10 minutes a 3-year-old boy wanted to stop and enjoy the music, but was dragged away by a mom in a hurry. The same happened with several other children. Without exception, their parents forced them to move away quickly. After one hour, he had received a total of $32.

The brutally ignored musician was actually of the greatest musicians in the world, playing one of the most beautiful and difficult pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. This was the famous Joshua Bell. Two days earlier, this man performed in a sold-out a theatre in Boston where the crowd paid on average about $100 each to hear the same music he had been playing for free.

When I saw this story, as told by Suni Bali, I wondered if it could really be true. Sounds like one of those Internet rumors, eh? But Snopes confirmed that it was true and led me to the original source, a remarkable story at the Washington Post, "Pearls Before Breakfast" by Gene Weingarten, April 8, 2007. It comes complete with a video of the performance, a discussion of the planning and purpose of the experiment, and feedback from the passers-by who passed by an opportunity to experience remarkable beauty. Fascinating stuff. And a very kind offering from a remarkable musician.

So how much that is majestic and beautiful are we missing in our daily walk?

In Doctrine and Covenants 59, the Lord describes some of the good things that he has given us to bring us joy and gladness. There is a list of the many things we can eat, and the "good things which come of the earth, whether for food or for raiment, or for houses, or for barns, or for orchards, or for gardens, or for vineyards" (v. 17). There are many things "for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart...to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul" (v. 18-19). We need to respond with gratitude, seeing the hand of the Lord in these these and many other things (v. 21). But gratitude takes time. It requires that pause from the mad rush in the profane world and contemplate higher things that we might see the hand of the Lord or perhaps hear His music.

The list of wonders and delights the Lord has given us could be greatly expanded. We are so fortunate in this era to be able to contemplate and enjoy so much more than our ancestors. We can swell our souls with the majesties of space, revealed through that cosmic Urim and Thummim known as the Hubble telescope, and with the help of science can ponder the marvels of stars, so delicately balanced on the razor edge between explosion from the vast hydrogen bombs detonating every instant within, perfectly countering the claws of gravity that would pull its mass upon itself to collapse and perish into blackness.

Today our eyes can be given assistance to scan not only horizons and sunsets, but pierce once invisible boundaries to stare into the wonders of cells, genes, proteins, chlorophyll, and even atoms themselves, where we can gasp in see at the intricate majesty of carbon and look back to its mother stars, so perfectly tuned to give birth to the stuff of life. What we can behold in this era is majestic beyond comprehension. But do we gaze? Do we stop and marvel? Do we let the miracles of the Lord's Creation please the eye, to gladden the heart, and to enliven the soul?

If we don't take time to contemplate grand music when freely given from one of the greatest musicians of the planet, if we don't marvel at the wonders of life and matter itself, then I suspect we are also likely to overlook the intricate beauty and blessings the Lord has given us in the scriptures. Just as new tools from science and scholarship today give us more profound ways to see the hand of the Lord in the Creation, they also give us new ways to appreciate and understand the scriptures. This is especially the case with the Book of Mormon, where we have so many new and rich opportunities to find hidden treasures. For me, some examples of these recent hidden treasures being brought to light in our day with new tools might include:
  • The rich discoveries in the Arabian Peninsula offering layer upon layer of new insight and bold new evidences for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. 
  • The numerous correspondences between ancient civilizations on the American continent in Mesoamerica with the civilizations and peoples described in the Book of Mormon, exemplified by the extensive scholarship of John Sorenson in Mormon's Codex
  • The work of non-LDS scholar Margaret Barker, exemplified by her groundbreaking work, Temple Mysticism, which I am currently reading. Barker's discoveries regarding early Jewish religion fits well with the world of Lehi and Nephi, with surprising and fascinating parallels. There is so much for us to learn by understanding the ancient temple-centric prophetic traditions that have been lost to the world (and fortunately, restored). 
  • Numerous discoveries about the Book of Mormon text and the Hebraic elements in its language, even after translation, including far more than chiasmus and other poetical forms, but also including things such as the ancient covenant formulary with 6 elements identified by scholars in the 1930s and present in King Benjamin's speech (and the LDS temple concept). 
  • Detailed historical analysis of the lives of the many witnesses to the Book of Mormon from Richard L. Anderson and others which add to the power and unity of these diverse individuals and their diverse experiences and responses, all leading to the reality of what they experienced and never denied. 
  • Ongoing finds about topics such as ancient writing on metal plates and other aspects of the Book of Mormon that once were viewed as ludicrous, but now have become more plausible. 
  • Careful textual scholarship from Royal Skousen and others helping us to better understand the text, resolve some puzzles and appreciate the gritty details of producing the Book of Mormon. 
It's such a great time to be a fan of the Book of Mormon. It's filled with treasures and miracles that can enrich our understanding, gladden our hears, and enliven the soul--if only we'll take the time to stop, study, listen, learn, and rejoice. It's a modern miracle.

Don't miss the Book of Mormon. But also don't miss Joshua Bell. Here he is performing at a Nobel Prize event:

Monday, January 20, 2014

Recent Developments in Understanding Polygamy

On my LDSFAQ (Mormon Answers) page on polygamy, I mention two important recent contributions from LDS women that help us look at polygamy in a different light. First, let me recommend the work of Valerie Hudson. See V.H. Cassler, "Polygamy," SquareTwo, Vol. 3 No. 1 (Spring 2010), which explores significant but previously overlooked language in the scriptures that helps resolve the tension between the Book of Mormon's prohibition of polygamy and the revelation in Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants that supported polygamy. She argues that God is not indifferent to polygamy and clearly prefers monogamy for his children. She presents a compelling scriptural case that polygamy should be viewed as an Abrahamic sacrifice for those who took on that challenge during the temporary period when that atypical, normally prohibited practice was in force.  See also her 2004 book with Alma Don Sorensen, Women in Eternity, Women of Zion. You can also listen to a FAIRMORMON interview with her on this topic.

Second, in a breaking story from the end of 2013 and early 2014, I'm impressed with the work of Meg Stout in her series of essays at the Millennial Star beginning with "A Faithful Joseph." She finds evidence that polygamy was not about sex, that Joseph was faithful to Emma, and that a possible purpose in having Joseph and others practice polygamy was to clearly establish and demonstrate that the blessings of eternal sealings and eternal family ties were open not just to those who families with only one marriage, but extended to women who were the second or later wife, including polygamous marriages (which have been accepted over the centuries in many cultures) and marriages in which the original first wife was deceased or divorced. That's something I had never considered, but she presents an interesting case for it. Whether that argument stands or falls, her analysis of the cultural setting in which polygamy was introduced and the details from the life of her polygamous ancestor add several new dimensions to our understanding of polygamy. Her series on the topic is deeply significant, with more to come. Thank you, Meg, for your faith, patience, and research.

None of this removes the pain and tension of polygamy, whether on Joseph's day or Abraham's, but it may help us better appreciate those who endured it.

Kudos to Bookslinger for sharing the news of Meg Stout's new series. Kudos to a terrific mom and thinker in Appleton, Wisconsin for recommending Valerie Hudson's work to me.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Arabian Peninsula Motherlode

Perhaps the most interesting single online document for reading about the growing evidences for Book of Mormon plausibility and authenticity from the Arabian Peninsula is a 2006 edition of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (vol. 15, no. 2), available at the Maxwell Institute. It's a large PDF file that may take a few minutes to download, but it's worth the wait. It includes articles and many photos from Warren Aston (whose monumental book, In the Footsteps of Lehi, remains my favorite single book related to Book of Mormon evidences), Kent Brown, Lynn Hilton, and other experts on the Arabian Peninsula issue. Look at the photos of the ancient altars confirming the existence of the ancient tribal name Nihm (akin to Nahom) in the region where there was an ancient burial place named Nehhem/Nahom, remarkably consistent with the Book of Mormon. Look at photos from a wonderful candidate for Bountiful, right where it is supposed to be, according to the Book of Mormon, and not according to our critics who long said such a place was impossible. Read the stories, ponder the insights they offer, and consider the growing evidences for Book of Mormon plausibility. Fun stuff. This is the best time ever to be a fan of the Book of Mormon. 
Other related resources are discussed on my Book of Mormon Evidences page

Friday, January 17, 2014

An Ancient Tradition of Writing on Metal? Surprise (?) from a Newly Translated Ancient Hebrew Text

"Fate of Ark of the Covenant Revealed in Hebrew Text" is the title of an intriguing news item at LiveScience.com dated Jan. 7, 2014. It discusses a newly translated ancient Hebrew document discussing the ark of the covenant and the preservation of sacred relics. Excerpts follow:
A newly translated Hebrew text claims to reveal where treasures from King Solomon's temple were hidden and discusses the fate of the Ark of the Covenant itself….

The newly translated text, called "Treatise of the Vessels" (Massekhet Kelim in Hebrew), says the "treasures were concealed by a number of Levites and prophets," writes James Davila, a professor at the University of St. Andrews, in an article in the book Old Testament Pseudepigrapha More Noncanonical Scriptures Volume 1 (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013).

"Some of these (treasures) were hidden in various locations in the Land of Israel and in Babylonia, while others were delivered into the hands of the angels Shamshiel, Michael, Gabriel and perhaps Sariel …" writes Davila in his article.

The treatise is similar in some ways to the metallic "Copper Scroll," one of the Dead Sea Scrolls found near the site of Qumran in the West Bank. The Copper Scroll also discusses the location of hidden treasure, although not from Solomon's Temple….

The structure of the story is confusing. In the prologue it states that Shimmur the Levite (he doesn't appear to be a biblical figure) and his companions hid the treasures, "but later on the text mentions the treasures being in the keeping of or hidden by Shamshiel and other angels," Davila said. "I suspect the author collected various legends without too much concern about making them consistent."

Similarities to the Copper Scroll

The Copper Scroll, which dates back around 1,900 years, and is made of copper, shows several "striking parallels" with the newly translated treatise, Davila said.

The treatise says that the treasures from Solomon's Temple were recorded "on a tablet of bronze," a metal like the Copper Scroll. Additionally, among other similarities, the Treatise of the Vessels and Copper Scroll both refer to "vessels" or "implements," including examples made of gold and silver.

These similarities could be a coincidence or part of a tradition of recording important information on metal.

"My guess is that whoever wrote the Treatise of Vessels came up with the same idea [of writing a treasure list on metal] coincidentally on their own, although it is not unthinkable that the writer knew of some ancient tradition or custom about inscribing important information on metal," wrote Davila in the email, noting that metal is a more durable material than parchment or papyrus. [emphasis mine]
Students of the Book of Mormon might not be too surprised to learn of this evidence pointing to a possible ancient Hebrew tradition of writing on metal. They also won't be surprised to learn of an ancient tradition of hiding such writings or the concept of angelic guardians of sacred writings and treasures.

Related resources:
Bonus tip: Some of the above links should be to the MaxwellInstitute.com, which is where I tried to find these links, but their new search engine makes it far too difficult to find archived information. So much is still broken there. But I discovered there is a mirror site preserving the useful organization of the old Maxwell Institute site that is much easier to navigate and to search. The site is www.farmsnewsite.farmsresearch.com. Hurray!

Special thanks to Catherine Taylor for bringing this story to my attention. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Smell of Poverty

At work we've got a great charitable foundation, one of the best and perhaps the largest in China, that is helping kids in one of the poorest parts of the nation, Gansu Province. We received some boxes of gifts from some of these sweet kids living in poverty. These thoughtful kids, sent from the midst of poverty, included several boxes of noodles, some shoe inserts and cloth shoes, and some other things. Most of the gifts had one thing in common: the smell of poverty. A strong, almost overwhelming smell, the smell of second-hand tobacco smoke. It infused everything,  so much so that I had to discard much of what they wanted to be accepted and used as gifts.

Those poor kids must live in a shroud of smoke that surely represents one of the biggest and certainly most wasteful expenses those families face. What a terrible way to live. They lack money for decent food, but dad can puff away their meagre earnings all day until even their noodles reek. 
Thank you, tobacco executives everywhere, for helping to fulfill the prophecy of Christ: "the poor you will always have with you." But also thanks to your help, they won't be among us for all that long once the lung cancer or other tobacco-induced ailments kick in. Why do we accept these illegitimate, parasitic companies spawning death, pollution, and poverty? Depart!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

What Good Is Socialism?

"What good is socialism?" was the frustrated lament I made to myself last night after a surprise encounter with 3 homeless men. My main surprise was that they aren't homeless. 
We live in the most spectacular and beautiful city I know, abounding in wealth, good food, comfort, and inequality. Late last night on a short walk, perhaps just 100 meters from our comfortable apartment complex, I saw three men on the steps of a spacious office building with their coarse blankets getting ready to sleep in the winter cold, nearly out of sight but not quite. It was about 35ยบ F. I had never seen homeless people sleeping on the street in this upscale part of town and was surprised. Shanghai has very few obviously homeless people, though there are beggars and one can find people sleeping at train stations and around the main metro hub at People's Square. 

I wondered what to do and decided to turn the corner and go into a convenience store and get some hot items and other things to provide a warm meal. I can back with my little offerings and walked up to them. "Looks like you're in a tough situation, so here's some food for you," I said. They were so gracious and cheerful--in fact, they were actually very sweet gentlemen. They could speak Mandarin,  not just some bizarre dialect, so I asked them about where they were from and their situation. To my amazement, I learned that these men aren't homeless nor unemployed. They are workers, migrant workers from neighboring Anhui province, working hard here in Shanghai doing demolition work, tearing down old buildings to prepare for new construction. It is tough and dangerous work. Usually construction workers are provided with shelter, but I am guessing the jobs they have either don't come with that or charge some small fee for housing, which these workers would rather not pay because they are out to save every penny possible for their families back home. 

As I met them and pondered their painful situation, I felt angry at the vast bureaucracies here and in the West that have failed the poor. What good is all that theory of sharing and equality and all that massive power that owns everything in sight and can take and redistribute anything, anytime, when the poor are left sleeping in the cold? One can argue that socialism in practice is not really about sharing the wealth, but centralizing power and wealth, with the rhetoric of sharing and equality just being PR tools to justify more grabbing. 

The lot of migrant workers in China is especially serious. It's one of great concern to many of the more enlightened leaders in China, and there are some who really get it and are seeking to do good, but the system has serious problems that will be difficult to resolve now. The wealth of the cities is built on the backs of the working poor, especially the farmers in the country and those from the country who come to the cities to earn more money. The farmers earn so little (about $800 a year in one case I know), partly because of price controls that keep prices low. This creates huge incentives to leave the country and come to the cities, but then they face the burden of a "hukou" registration system that limits their social benefits if they step outside the region where they are registered. So migrant workers coming to Shanghai cannot get public education for their children. The health care benefits they can receive are greatly reduced. The ability to move and work where you want is restricted. If people were suddenly able to go live anywhere and get public education, etc., too many farms would become empty and the cities would be completely overwhelmed. Bureaucracies managing the unmanageable realities of price and supply sometimes create bubbles and distortions in the economy that become increasingly difficult to resolve. I don't know the solution, but am pained at the poverty of the farmers and the migrant workers who come to the cities to seek more opportunity. (Yes, I know, I know: I am an outsider with no right to meddle in China's complex political system. But I'm rooting for China and love China and want to see it rise--the poor included. And yes, there has been remarkable progress in lifting the poor and advancing the economy of China. It is a land of remarkable achievements and progress, and grand hope and vision. But there are still people sleeping in the cold on the streets. Sigh.)

Whether it's the overtly Marxist systems of Europe and Asia or the crony capitalist system of the U.S., mingled with increasing socialism, these systems redistribute vast amounts of wealth in ways that often seem to limit opportunity and make life difficult for the ones doing the hardest work. Neither system is the one that will reign in Zion one day. 

I look forward to Zion, where there will be no more poor among us not because we have driven them out or reduced their population with eugenics and abortion, but because we are all brothers and sisters in the Gospel unwilling to let those we love do without. And because we will be engaged in creating opportunities, not limiting them with endless bureaucracy. 

Meanwhile, what to do for my new friends who sleep in the cold? There must be thousands of them hidden in the shadows of this city that I just haven't noticed. 

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Rickshaw Boy: Messages for Christians (and All of Us)

In a previous post about Lao She, I shared a secret about this beloved and famous Chinese novelist: he was actually Christian. After an inspiring visit to his memorial site and former residence in Beijing, I was inspired to read some of his works. I have begun with one of his most famous novels, Rickshaw Boy. I first purchased the simplified Chinese text and then added a good English translation on Kindle. I am using the translation by Howard Goldblatt, which should be the best one available. One popular early translation made radical and inappropriate changes in the story. If you have read a version with a happy ending, it was fake!

Since Lao She converted to Christianity prior to writing Rickshaw Boy, I cannot help but wonder how Christianity influenced this work. The story is depressing as we watch a diligent, wholesome young man face disasters and setbacks that lead him to give up hope and abandon his former principles that seemed to do him no good. Nevertheless, there are aspects that Christians might appreciate.

Rickshaw Boy is about a young man named Xiangzi which means “lucky son.” The Chinese title is Luoto Xiangzi or Camel Xiangzi, a reference to an early incident in his unlucky life. After diligently saving money to buy his own rickshaw in Beijing, Xiangzi and his rickshaw are seized by a group of soldiers and taken away to the north of Beijing. Xiangzi is able to escape and is able to take 3 camels with him as he flees. Finding the camels actually is a stroke of luck that might have given him the capital needed to buy a new rickshaw. Unfortunately, he is perhaps too anxious to sell them and takes the first low offer he receives, fetching a price of 60 yuan, about 40 yuan short of the price of a rickshaw.

I see the events relating to the camels as a sign of divine intervention, a mysteriously “lucky” event that helped Xiangzi move forward. His lot was hard, but there was hope in the midst of trouble. Later, he encounters another blessing in finding an employer, Mr. Cao, who is a noble Confucian gentleman with kindness and high values. Life looks good and Xiangzi is close to having enough cash to buy his own rickshaw again. Unfortunately, a corrupt detective who is tracking Mr. Cao threatens Xiangzi and takes all the money he has been saving. In this scene, though, there was evidence of hope. Mr. Cao, spooked by the presence of a detective tracking him and knowing that he had a political enemy, gave Xiangzi instructions on how to go back home, warn his family, and help them rapidly escape before the threat of arrest could come. Mr. Cao told Xiangzi that if he suffered any loss in this matter, then he would make it up to him. Xiangzi, though, after being intimidated by the detective, fails to stay true to his commission and flees, as instructed by the detective. The detective tells Xiangzi that it is no use looking out for the Caos and that he needs to just think of himself and his own well being. By the time his conscience leads him to come back to the Cao family home, he is too late, and the Caos have fled to some other city. Had he been less selfish, less focused on himself and more on his duty, Mr. Cao apparently would have helped Xiangzi and reimbursed him for the loss from the detective’s theft. A means for delivery had been provided, but Xiangzi failed in his moral duty and, in my opinion, was unable to receive the blessing prepared for him.

Later, Xiangzi faces further disasters, but also further blessings and, with each disaster, opportunities for escape, if only he would stick to his morals or seek advice from others. His failure to get outside opinions on his difficulties and his lack of connection to others, due to his selfish focus on his own needs, resulted in much unnecessary loss, including being tricked into a terribly unhappy marriage by a girl who had seduced him and then pretended to be pregnant. Getting advice from almost anyone else could have helped him deal with this problem with less pain.

Some see Rickshaw Boy as a depressing story that points to the hopelessness of the poor, even those who are able to work with great diligence and energy. Others see it as a message supporting the claims of socialism and the futility of individualism. The closing paragraph seems to emphasize that point:
Respectable, ambitious, idealistic, self-serving, individualistic, robust, and mighty Xiangzi took part in untold numbers of burial procession s but could not predict when he would bury himself, when he would lay this degenerate, selfish, hapless product of a sick society, this miserable ghost of individualism, to rest.
Xiangzi had been a victim of a sick society and of external evil, suffering theft from soldiers and a detective, abuse from his employers, deception from a woman, and other wrongs. But none of these wrongs were so devastating as to end all hope or leave him with no recourse but abandonment of principles. It was selfishness that ended his hopes most fully.

His victimhood from outside forces is symbolized, in my opinion, by the scar on his head that he received as a boy. While he was napping, a donkey bit him, leaving a scar that ran from his cheekbone to his right ear. He was marked for misfortune, it seems, and when things got worse for him, his scar became more visible and finally becoming “spidered” with wrinkles during the difficult time living with the wife he despised, the one who tricked him into marriage. The scar on his cheek also helped the detective recognize Xiangzi as his former conscripted colleague in the group of soldiers that took his rickshaw, making it easier to extort Xiangzi. Perhaps the scar symbolizes the unavoidable impact of external factors that can destroy that which is material, but it was his entire countenance that changed for the worse when he abandoned principles. Xiangzi’s scar reminds me of the scars Christ received, a symbol of what He suffered at the hands of others, and what He conquered in the end. We cannot avoid scars and injury, but we can choose how we react.

When Xiangzi made the decision to abandon his principles and give up goodness, he blamed goodness itself for his trouble: “…so what is so great about proper behavior anyway? He was beginning to chart a new course for himself, one in direct opposition to that of the old Xiangzi." He would cheat customers, be rude on the street, take advantage of people whenever possible, etc., all of which he felt would help him enjoy life more. “All right: since being conscientious, respectable, and ambitious was a waste of time, living like a no-account rascal was not a bad option.” In fact, it was “heroic.” “Fearing neither heaven nor earth, he’d no longer bow down or suffer in silence. He owed that to himself. Goodness turns a man bad.”

Goodness was not the problem. It was selfishness and despair.

Shortly before this tragic turn in his attitudes and values, he demonstrated the ability to overcome the selfishness and materialism that had fueled his single-minded quest to save money to buy a rickshaw, a quest that is even called his “religion.” The young man who would never waste money or give it away felt a wave of compassion in the presence of a decrepit old rickshaw man who came into a tea house seeking a few minutes of reprieve from the bitter cold of the Beijing winter. Responding to those feelings, Xiangzi ran out to buy the man a dozen hot buns to give him and his young grandson a meal. It was the best he had felt. That event reminds us that he had potential to grow, to life others and himself, in spite of setbacks. That experience was a moment of grace, both for him and the man and child he served.

Another example of grace being offered was his encounter with Mr. Cao after his fall. He resolved to be better, and dared to face him. He was greeted with warmth and given a second chance. The girl of his dreams, whom he had deserted earlier in order to save enough money for marriage, was a topic of the discussion and Mr. Cao offered a job for her as well and a place to stay. The goodness of Mr. Cao and his mercy may be a symbol of God’s love and enduring grace.

In going to meet Mr. Cao, his former employer, the recently fallen Xiangzi was penitent and resolved to abandon his evil ways and return to the virtuous person he once was. He said: “Please, Mr. Cao, be there, don’t let me come up empty. . . . Heaven won’t desert Xiangzi, now that he’s turned his life around, will it?” It was a prayer that was answered, but in a complex way. Mr. Cao would be there and would be as gracious as anyone could hope for. The final challenge Xiangzi had to face, however, was to show that his resolution to change was real, even when faced with the devastating news that the girl he wanted to marry was dead. He failed that challenge, and sank even lower than before. But he had a choice and the opportunity to change and improve, in spite of sorrows.

Suddenly there was hope, and Xiangzi rushed out to find the girl he had neglected. Tragically, he learned that she had been forced into prostitution and had committed suicide. With this final blow, Xiangzi rejected the grace offered him, abandoned his repentance, and plunged to new depths, never to return.

When he previously rejected or walked away from the girl he loved, he focused on his own goals and needs foremost. His selfishness interfered with the chance he could have had to save her and live happily with her, with kind assistance from Mr. Cao.

The major setbacks in Xiangzi’s life were balanced with lucky events such as finding camels or again encountering Mr. Cao, events that had the potential to give him renewed hope, if only he would adhere to virtuous principles and endure. The real tragedy was his abandonment of virtue in the face of trouble. The real enemy was his own selfishness.

One speaker in the novel equates rickshaw men with a grasshopper tied to a string. When grasshoppers join together in a great mass, they can become unstoppable and devour all crops in their way, yet when tied to a string, an individual grasshopper achieves nothing. Their powerful wings have no value when tied down. The need for unity and cooperation among the rickshaw men to improve their lot is one that many of them recognize, but none have the faith or knowledge needed to take action. Xiangzi takes a step in that direction not by agitating for reforms but by sharing to help a needy brother, and it makes him feel better than he had ever felt.

One of the most important Christian objectives that I think may be found in Lao She’s book is making society aware of the challenges of poverty among the workers in our own midst. China and all nations still have numerous rickshaw boys pursuing other endeavors: today’s rickshaw boys may be cabbies, factory workers, peddlers of food and cheap goods on the street, and others who work long hours with little compensation. Rickshaw Boy does much to bring their sorrows and hopes to light, that the rest of us might be able to show more compassion.

It is not an overtly Christian book, but as Christians, we can learn much from it. Though it is rife with sorrow, we can learn from Xiangzi’s mistakes and realize that there may be grace and hope extended to us even in times of trouble. And I hope we will all learn to better grasp the plight of the poor and do what we can to offer hope and mercy to those in distress.