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Dragons and Devotion: Bridging Cultural Heritage with Christian Faith

From the series Reflections on the Year of the Dragon

The swirling dragon at center of our enormous silk embroidery has been a central image in our home for 40 years. My husband, Steve, and I came across it while strolling down a steep street in Central, in Hong Kong in 1983, while visiting our parents who lived there. We snapped it up, scraping together the price out of tiny post-college savings.

Growing up in Hong Kong in the 60s and 70s connected us to Chinese culture in heart-deep ways. Our Cantonese language skills always remained meager, but we still absorbed the cultural traditions and festivals—the mysterious excitement, fear, and reverence for the dragon being danced through the streets to bone-thumping gongs, loud music, and firecrackers.

Our Christian parents (missionary parents for Steve, and British government for me) were wary. Mine warned me of dragon dances. “Evil spirits could be present,” they said. Others have commented on our gorgeous silk art over the years: “How can you have a pagan symbol on your wall?” In spite of the comments, and questions the art provoked, we stubbornly kept our “100 Children in a Garden” with its dragon dance and playing children, as a central feature of our home. It connects us to our roots in the vibrant city of Hong Kong.

The questions have remained and niggled at my conscience; can I display an artistic representation of a dragon dance in a home that puts Jesus at the center of its allegiance? Is there some evil spiritual influence that the mere embroidery of the dragon has over my soul and home? Does my refusal to take the artwork down show a perverseness of temper in my heart? Am I displeasing God?

Reading the series on the Year of the Dragon from ChinaSource put these questions to rest. Brent Pinkall beautifully filled out a biblical theology of dragons, explaining that the healing bronze serpent in Exodus points us to the Good Dragon, Jesus, who “was nailed to a pole, lifted up, and placed at the right hand of God, where he waits to bestow true power and prosperity on all who call upon him.”  I can see my embroidered dragon pointing me to Jesus.

Sean Long encourages Chinese believers toward an identity as heirs of God, rather than descendants of the dragon, tolerating, challenging, and transforming traditional culture and foreseeing themselves around the throne of God with all tribes, tongues, and nations worshipping God. My Chinese brothers and sisters are part of my “forever.” They will bring with them their unique understanding of Christ and enrich eternity.

EM Carrie’s article from Dr. Chow’s writings explores the possibility of engaging traditional cultures respectfully, harmonizing “distinctive faith with the dynamic world we in habit.” I am encouraged to respect and learn from my Chinese Christian family.

Jeshurun points out in his article, “Chinese Christians and the Chinese Zodiac: Idolatry or a Cultural Artifact?,” that the way we understand the zodiac can be either idolatrous or a cultural artifact—it’s up to me. Is my heart placing any hope or power in the dragon, or anything other than Jesus? Or am I wholly relying on God in Christ who has my days in his loving and all-powerful hands? I don’t need to fear the zodiac representations, nor place any fragment of trust in their suggestive powers. I am to keep my heart giving God all the glory and power.

As a response to these ideas, gratitude flowed over in some tears as I felt something click into place: “Hong Kong me” and “Christian me” found a bit of peace.

I don’t have to exclude either part of my life experience and identity. The dragon doesn’t need to be an idol, a god. He can exist as a rich and joyful cultural symbol without the elevated spiritual status of a god in my understanding.

This resolve of the tension I have felt is a relief to this third-culture kid who sometimes finds her soul torn and messy, struggling with that sense of belonging and roots so essential to our human nature.

I am a child of my Father in heaven, bought by the blood of Jesus Christ. This is my whole soul. But I am also child of Hong Kong, where I received Jesus (at Lan Tau Mountain Camp in 1973). And though I have white skin and round eyes, I love the “descendants of the dragon” and have been privileged to live among them and feel connected to their culture. I am not Chinese, and yet I was so helped by this exploration of the Year of the Dragon. And I realize that for my Chinese Christian brothers and sisters this series of articles may have produced a much deeper sense of relief than mine. For this I am grateful and looking forward to an eternity in which I can know them better.

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Image credit: Courtesy of the author.
Ruth Bauman

Ruth Bauman

Ruth Bauman was born to British parents in Nigeria and grew up in Hong Kong. She lives her third-culture life in chilly, beautiful Minnesota where she enjoys a retirement of travel, reading, writing, occasional knitting (mostly hats), and keeps a finger in the pie of counseling, her former profession. She …View Full Bio

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