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Once Upon a Time in Asia Once Upon a Time in Asia
Stories of Harmony and Peace

James H Kroeger and Eugene F Thalman
ISBN 1570756376 (9781570756375)
Orbis Books, 2006
£8.99

Category: Prayer, Poetry and Spirituality

Orbis Books describe themselves as seeking to "explore the global dimensions of the Christian faith and mission, to invite dialogue with diverse cultures and religious traditions, and to serve the cause of reconciliation and peace."

This short book (165 pages) epitomizes that ideal, a collection of traditional folklore, short stories and wise sayings which offer brief snapshots of and insights into life from an Asian perspective. The stories vary in length from just a few lines to a couple of pages, and have been compiled variously from local folklore and myths, missionaries' personal observations, news reports and other books such as The Tao Te Ching and the Christian Way (Orbis Books, 1998) and Prayer without Borders: Celebrating Global Wisdom (Catholic Relief Services, 2004). Wisdom and insights from Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism and Islam are brought together with black and white illustrations by Jason K Dy, a Filipino-Chinese artist, to create a unique portfolio of Asian spirituality.

Eight sections group the stories loosely together:

  • In the Beginning
  • Living in Asia
  • The Importance of Family
  • Caring for One Another in Community
  • Culture Matters
  • Wisdom from the Orient
  • One God — Many Faith Traditions
  • Seeds of God in Asian Soil

My personal favourites were "Cambodian Traffic", contrasting Cambodian attitudes to rights of way — everyone has equal right of way all the time — to the typical western approach where drivers (in theory at least, if not always in practice!) take their rights of way in turn (p.86, in "Culture Matters"); and "What Did Jesus Do For Fun?" in which a priest working with the Atayal people of Taiwan breaks the Christian message down into a set of four questions and answers:

Question 1: When Jesus came to live among us, what did he do?
Answer 1: According to the gospels, he participated in a lot of meals.

Question 2: What was Jesus' message?
Answer 2: His message was to invite people to banquets.

Question 3: What must followers of Jesus do?
Answer 3: They should have meals together.

Question 4: What else must followers of Jesus do?
Answer 4: They should invite others to meals, especially the poor.

(p.145, in "Seeds of God in Asian Soil")

Asia is, of course, a vast continent, and a book of this size can only just begin to explore the depth and breadth of its myriad cultures: but every step along the way toward mutual understanding is surely a step in the right direction.

Some of the accounts and excerpts inevitably jar with western sensibilities, others connect with a sudden flash of enlightenment, opening up a new way of seeing. Whatever the effect of a particular story, all help to bridge the gap between cultures, making this valuable reading for any westerner considering life or work in an Asian setting, or simply wanting to gain a better understanding of their Asian neighbours.

Phil Groom, August 2006

Phil Groom is this site's Webmaster and Reviews Editor. He's a freelance blogger, writer and web developer who spent ten years managing the bookshop at London School of Theology alongside eight years writing web reviews for Christian Marketplace magazine before he came to his senses and went independent. You can find him on facebook or follow him on twitter @notbovvered.

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