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Volume 1/Issue 1/February 2015

Genesis and the Vietnamese Story of Origins: Conversion and Cultural Identity

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Daniel C. Owens is a lecturer at Hanoi Bible College and a regional director for reSource Leadership International.

Abstract

Cultural stories shape identity, so what happens when we believe in Jesus and take part in the biblical story of redemption? Must we completely abandon our cultural story? This article examines this question by comparing the Vietnamese story of origins with the biblical story, with a focus on the book of Genesis. When placed side by side, we find significant differences in worldview between the Vietnamese story of origins and the Bible. On the other hand, both discuss ethics in light of a common humanity and identify estrangement as part of the human condition. With these two points of connection we can begin to negotiate what it means to be a Christian and be Vietnamese.

A story of ancient telling, under blue sky were only two
Lạc Long Quân and Âu CÆ¡ met together on the earth
People began to love, a hundred eggs were born
Fifty went up to the mountains, fifty down to the deep sea
The ocean bears the hand of father Dragon
The face of the deserted earth, mother Âu CÆ¡ built up
 …
Sing….. together one passionate lullaby
Sing….. together, of one bloodline, mother and father

“Lời Ru Âu Lạc,” Nguyá»…n Minh SÆ¡n[1]

What does it mean to be a Christian and to be Vietnamese? Believers in any culture must confront this kind of fundamental question, and it deserves careful theological reflection. To focus the question somewhat, I would like to consider identity in relationship to the biblical story. In conversion, believers enter the broader biblical story as those redeemed through the cross of Christ, but must they abandon their original cultural story in the process? In this article I will try to grapple with how the Vietnamese cultural identity may intersect with the biblical story and how the two may diverge.

By bringing Vietnamese culture into conversation with the Bible I go beyond the comfortable world of biblical theology in which I was trained. I do so recognizing that I am neither an ancient Israelite nor a Vietnamese person. Especially with regard to Vietnamese culture I am likely to get many things wrong or simply apply western categories to two eastern stories. I trust that Vietnamese pastor-theologians can take this essay as a conversation starter and move beyond what I have done so that the biblical story will flourish in a Vietnamese cultural context. And by making this essay available in English, I hope to encourage other Asian pastor-theologians with the possibilities for reflecting on Christian identity as well as to provide westerners with a small window into the rich heritage of Asian literature that is the backdrop to much on-the-ground theologizing and gospel proclamation in Asia.

1. Approach

1.1 Who Should Define the Vietnamese Cultural Identity?

We face certain challenges when we try to define the Vietnamese cultural identity. First, who should define the Vietnamese cultural identity? Vietnam is culturally diverse, with more than sixty distinct ethnic groups. Can there be a single cultural identity for all the cultures represented within Vietnam’s national borders? Even if we limit ourselves to the majority Kinh people, we would likely encounter different perspectives. When I was first living in Vietnam one of my Vietnamese teachers told me that ancestor worship is essential to the Vietnamese identity. Others I met would say in general that Vietnamese people are Buddhists. Is either one of those perspectives essential to the Vietnamese cultural identity? Obviously many Protestants and Catholics would disagree with one or both of those perspectives. In addition, during the 20th century many people left Vietnam for various countries in the West, and yet many in the Vietnamese diaspora maintain close family ties to Vietnam or have returned to Vietnam to live. Does the Vietnamese cultural identity include this diaspora?

1.2 The Impact of Foreign Influences

Second, the diverse foreign influences evident in Vietnamese life make the question more complex. Chinese influence is ancient and deep, but French, American, and Russian influence has shaped Vietnamese life in various ways over the last two centuries. With globalization additional cultural influences from outside Vietnam have increased dramatically. Whatever we conclude about the Vietnamese cultural identity must be cautious and open to revision, especially when the writer is not Vietnamese.

We must establish a concept of culture with which to begin to grasp Vietnamese cultural identity. According to one definition, “culture is a collective phenomenon functioning as a common frame of reference for a human group.”[2] Story can be a common frame of reference that distinguishes one group from another. Americans of European descent often tell their children the story about the voyage of the Mayflower carrying English Puritans seeking religious freedom in North America. This shared cultural story explains a lot about American attitudes toward religious life. However, African-Americans may understand themselves in relationship to the slave trade that brought their ancestors to North America under very different circumstances. In both cases story provides the foundation for identity. What about Vietnam? In modern times the presence of westerners and the influence of western culture in Vietnam has sometimes been beneficial but perhaps more often has been painful.[3] The intersection of east and west in Vietnam is not my concern in this article. Instead, I recognize that Vietnam has a long history with a rich literary tradition that informs Vietnamese cultural identity. When people become Christians, their cultural story then converges with an even bigger story, that of Christianity, which originates in the story of the Bible.

1.3 Connecting Believers to the Bigger Story of the Bible

Some people think of Christianity as a set of beliefs and rules. But when we read the Bible, we see that it is not first a set of ideas or teachings. It is first and foremost a grand story or drama.[4] In it we meet the God who created a good world. We learn about Adam and Eve, the first human beings, who sinned and introduced shame, conflict, and death to the human experience. We see how God chose Abraham and his descendants out of all the families on the earth to be a source of blessing for the world. Through Abraham’s line God chose King David to begin a dynasty of kings who would rule under God’s authority. When Israel failed to be a source of blessing to the world and was sent into exile, the people suffered and yet hoped to see the Davidic king whom the prophets promised would come. Jesus Christ, the God-Man, is that king whose death on the cross satisfies the wrath of God against sinners. Following his resurrection and ascension the church carries on the mission to extend the kingdom of God to all nations as we await the return of Christ to establish his rule and for God to make a new creation. From Genesis to Revelation we see the sweep of that grand narrative.

How does this relate to conversion and cultural identity? The Apostle Paul describes what happens in conversion using multiple metaphors, but I will mention two. In Romans 11:17 Gentile believers are like wild olive branches grafted into the olive tree of God’s people. And in Galatians 3:7–9 those Gentiles who believe become heirs of the promises to Abraham. Later in that chapter, in verses 27–29, Paul declares that through “baptism into Christ,” believers become full heirs with Abraham’s offspring. We might say that Christians become members of a new family with a new family history.[5] Yet they do not leave their old family history entirely behind. In Revelation 5:9–10 our origins from “every tribe and language and people and nation” are not forgotten but are part of the glory given to Christ for his redemptive work. And the diverse multitude that he has redeemed becomes “a kingdom and priests to our God,” which is the role that God gave to Israel in Exodus 19:6.

In conversion two stories converge: our original cultural story and the biblical story. Story involves our imagination. Kevin Vanhoozer describes imagination as an essential tool in sanctification. Through imagination we can see ourselves in the broader biblical story, and this helps us to learn how to live the gospel day by day.[6] For the gospel to reach deep into the Vietnamese cultural imagination, we must negotiate the relationship between the biblical story and the Vietnamese cultural story.

In this short article I can only begin this task. I have chosen to compare and contrast Genesis and the story of Lạc Long Quân-Âu CÆ¡.[7] In the story a dragon prince from the sea named Lạc Long Quân comes to land and falls in love with a beautiful fairy named Âu CÆ¡. Together they produce one hundred children, care for them, and teach them how to live. But in time Lạc Long Quân decides to return to the sea, and they split their children into two groups of fifty, one following Lạc Long Quân to the sea and the other remaining with Âu CÆ¡ in the mountains. This story is a myth of origins for the Vietnamese people, which some Vietnamese regard as an attempt to distinguish the culture of Vietnam from its larger neighbor, China.

I have chosen to compare this story with Genesis for three reasons. Both are stories of beginnings. Both originate in ancient times. And both are relevant for our time. There are problems with comparing these two stories, in part because they are so different, as I will explain below. But an immediate practical problem is to decide which story to tell about Lạc Long Quân and Âu CÆ¡. Two early versions are available in Vietnamese translation, namely, LÄ©nh Nam Chích Quái (LNCQ; 14th–15th centuries AD) and Đại Việt Sá»­ Ký Toàn ThÆ° (ĐVSKTT; complete in AD 1697).[8] Modern versions are available in various forms, from songs, picture books,[9] and online children’s stories[10] to Thích Nhất Hạnh’s imaginative retelling.[11] The various versions bring out various elements of the tradition and identify its significance in different ways, so in this article I will refer to several. Were my purpose purely historical, this would be to commit the sin of anachronism, but my interest is to explore cultural identity as it is today, so the fact that the story of Lạc Long Quân-Âu CÆ¡ has been presented in various forms is relevant to the discussion.

I will compare Genesis and the story of Lạc Long Quân-Âu CÆ¡ in two steps. First, I will compare and contrast certain aspects of the two stories of human origins. Second, I will compare the identity-forming implications of the two stories. Finally, I will offer some reflections about implications for Christian ministry and discipleship in a Vietnamese cultural context.

2. Two Stories of Human Origins

Comparing the story of Genesis with the story of Lạc Long Quân-Âu CÆ¡ may be like comparing apples and oranges, as we say in the West. Although we may identify some common points between them, we must recognize that the two stories reflect two different views of the world.

Some might question the validity of comparing the two stories simply on the basis of their genre. This is a matter of no small debate among Christians. Many scholars in the West would regard Genesis as myth, though not everyone would agree just what myth is.[12] As Oswalt notes, a common popular notion of myth is that it is a story about something that did not really take place.[13] Some would apply this judgment to the early chapters of Genesis and would applaud a comparison with other cultural creation myths. On the other hand, most Christians in Vietnam and many Evangelicals outside Vietnam treat Genesis as historical, though of course allowing for various degrees of literary shaping, particularly in the first chapter. This article does not attempt to settle that debate for anyone, though I personally follow the second view. I begin by acknowledging that the two stories have a very different character: the Vietnamese story has dragons and fairies, while the Genesis account is more down-to-earth. Because of that difference, I assume that Genesis depicts historical events, but the point at issue in this article is not the historicity of Genesis but rather how it portrays human beings and their relationships.

2.1. Lạc Long Quân, Âu CÆ¡, and God

As we consider the Lạc Long Quân-Âu CÆ¡ story, we find that there is no simple character equivalent in Genesis. It would be a mistake simply to compare Lạc Long Quân and Âu CÆ¡ with the Creator-God of Genesis. The traditions about Lạc Long Quân include his ancestry, which God the Creator in Genesis 1 (and elsewhere in the Bible) does not have—God simply exists. In addition, Genesis describes God in a way that causes Christians to worship and trust him, while most Vietnamese people do not worship Lạc Long Quân and Âu CÆ¡.

However, Lạc Long Quân and Âu CÆ¡ play a role in the story that is similar to God. In LNCQ and some modern versions, the people look to Lạc Long Quân to save them from beings who oppress them,[14] much like the Israelites call out to God in the Psalms and Exodus 2:23–25 (see also Gen 21:8–21, where Hagar cries out and is saved by God). In addition, in LNCQ and other versions, Lạc Long Quân and Âu CÆ¡ teach the people to farm, clothe themselves, and relate to each other.[15] They serve a similar role in the narrative to that of God in Genesis, who provides a fruitful place for Adam and Eve to live and work in the Garden of Eden.

We should note that Thích Nhất Hạnh’s version clearly identifies Âu CÆ¡ as a goddess. He begins “The Dragon Prince” in a manner analogous to Genesis. He picks up the story “when earth and sky were still covered in darkness,”[16] and then describes the birth of a golden crow and a wild swan who bring “the comfort of light” to a dark world.[17] This similarity to the Genesis story may or may not be intentional, but it is not found in either LNCQ or DVSKTT.

2.2. Lạc Long Quân, Âu CÆ¡, Adam, and Eve

Perhaps we may compare Lạc Long Quân and Âu CÆ¡ to Adam and Eve. Thích Nhất Hạnh describes Âu CÆ¡ scooping up a handful of fragrant earth and tasting it. Another goddess warns her not to eat it, but after Âu CÆ¡ tastes the earth, this goddess remarks, “Ours is the realm of form, not the realm of desire.”[18] Her desire leads to her “fall.” As a result, she cannot leave the earth to return home with her sister goddesses because her wings are too heavy. She is banished from heaven just as Adam and Eve are banished from the garden of Eden. In Genesis 3:6 Eve sins by giving in to her desire to taste the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. However, it is not desire per se that is her sin but rather that she disobeys God’s command. Of course this connection between Adam and Eve and Âu CÆ¡ works only for Thích Nhất Hạnh’s imaginative version. We find no such story in LNCQ and ĐVSKTT. And yet Lạc Long Quân and Âu CÆ¡ together are said to produce the Hùng VÆ°Æ¡ng dynasty. They are considered the fountain of the Vietnamese people. Lạc Long Quân and Âu CÆ¡ are not the parents of all human beings, but they are like the Adam and Eve of the Vietnamese people.

The comparison with Adam and Eve is not perfect for other reasons. Even if we do not follow Thích Nhất Hạnh’s version, the manner in which Âu CÆ¡ gives birth to one hundred eggs that produce one hundred sons is supernatural, as is Lạc Long Quân’s ability to travel under the sea. In LNCQ, Lạc Long Quân describes himself as a dragon and Âu CÆ¡ as a fairy,[19] which is quite different from the man and woman who walk in the garden of Eden and must clothe themselves with leaves after they sin and become aware of the nakedness (Gen 3:7).

To summarize, we might say that Lạc Long Quân and Âu CÆ¡ are analogous in some ways both to God and to Adam and Eve. Lee notes a similar continuity between the divine and human realms in Chinese traditions about Nu Kua, who is at times a goddess and at times a human who has attained divine status, much like Greek gods and goddesses.[20] The uneasy nature of this comparison leads us to compare the two stories at a more fundamental level.

3. Lạc Long Quân-Âu CÆ¡ and the Biblical Worldview

When we compare Genesis and Lạc Long Quân-Âu CÆ¡ at a theological level, we find that the two stories reflect two very different views of human origins.

As is well-known, the sea plays a role in many ancient creation accounts, including Lạc Long Quân-Âu CÆ¡. Old Testament scholarship has noted the integral role of the sea in the Babylonian story EnÅ«ma Elish, in which Marduk must slay the goddess Tiamat (deified sea) to establish order and put an end to her raging and warfare.[21] Biblical scholars debate the extent to which this mythological background of creation as a battle with chaos informs Genesis 1 and other texts (e.g., Ps 24:2). From a common-sense literary perspective, though the sea is part of the creation narrative in Genesis 1, it is not portrayed as an actor but as the object of God’s creative activity (Gen 1:9–10). There is no explicit battle to subdue the sea or any other monsters (as in Ps 74:12–17). On the other hand, Lạc Long Quân-Âu CÆ¡ presents a much more significant role for the sea, one that separates it from the biblical account. Lạc Long Quân comes from the sea, though he is a benevolent character, unlike the Babylonian goddess Tiamat. In one recent version for children, Lạc Long Quân defeats several malevolent beings who make life miserable for the people, including a sea monster.[22] In Thích Nhất Hạnh’s version Âu CÆ¡ sends Hùng, a villager, to summon Lạc Long Quân from the Sea Palace. Hùng takes this journey with a woman named Mỵ, who knows a mantra to ward off a sea monster on their journey to the Sea Palace. As it relates to the sea, perhaps Lạc Long Quân-Âu CÆ¡ shares more in common with EnÅ«ma Elish than with Genesis, but even there the similarities have their limits. But the fact that the main characters of Lạc Long Quân-Âu CÆ¡ may descend into the sea distinguishes it from the creation story of Genesis 1.

In addition to granting a significant role for the sea, Lạc Long Quân-Âu CÆ¡ depicts the origin of humans as the product of supernatural procreation. Lạc Long Quân and Âu CÆ¡ come together in a physical union that results in the birth of one hundred children who become the Vietnamese people. Their bodies are involved in the origin of humans.[23] Regardless of whether Lạc Long Quân is a god and Âu CÆ¡ a goddess (as in Thích Nhất Hạnh’s version), the way the one hundred eggs are born from a single sack from Âu CÆ¡ is supernatural. And it involves the physical participation of two supernatural beings. In contrast, in Genesis 1:26 humans are created by divine fiat, and in Genesis 2:7 God uses dust and his breath to create Adam. No divine body is involved.[24] While the Bible describes humans as a special creation, the Vietnamese story describes the origin of the Vietnamese people as a product of supernatural procreation.

The differences between Genesis and Lạc Long Quân-Âu CÆ¡ regarding the role of the sea and the manner in which humans are created puts the two stories at odds theologically. Scholars have noted that in some respects the Bible may have been written as a polemic against the foreign gods of ancient Israel’s day.[25] Therefore it should not surprise us that Genesis is at odds with other cultural stories. Just what is at stake in this? John Oswalt compares the Bible to Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) myths and concludes that the Bible represents an entirely different worldview. In the Bible, God is transcendent, meaning that he is ontologically other from his creatures (he has no body, does not procreate to produce humans, and does not need to fight with any beings to create). On the other hand, in the ANE myths, the gods are much like humans in that they marry, give birth, and squabble or even battle with each other, most notably in the process of creation.[26] At a certain level the worldview represented in Lạc Long Quân-Âu CÆ¡ is fundamentally distinct from what we find in the biblical story. Lee recognizes a similar difference between Genesis and Chinese traditions.[27]

Our first attempt to compare Genesis with the story of Lạc Long Quân-Âu CÆ¡ has shown that the two are very different, that the worldview of the famous story of Vietnamese origins is not easy to correlate with that of the biblical story at a theological level. This has been a preliminary attempt to compare the two, and I hope that Vietnamese theologians may take this much farther than I can. However, it is time now to consider the two from another angle, namely how they relate to cultural identity.

3. Two Stories that Shape Identity

If we are to bring Lạc Long Quân-Âu CÆ¡ into a fruitful engagement with Genesis and the broader biblical story, we must do more than compare motifs or even compare the worldviews represented in each story. We must discover how the two stories address the basic ways in which we understand ourselves as human beings. I would suggest that Lạc Long Quân-Âu CÆ¡ helps us to talk about two fundamental aspects of the human experience, namely, belonging and estrangement.

3.1 Belonging as Shared Origin

Cultural identity involves belonging and exclusion: some belong to us and some do not. In Lạc Long Quân-Âu CÆ¡, we read about the birth of the Hùng VÆ°Æ¡ng dynasty. However, the story has been interpreted in various ways to define Vietnamese cultural identity as belonging that is based on a shared origin.

In ĐVSKTT the writer ends the story of Lạc Long Quân with a question: “VÆ°Æ¡ng married the daughter of the Dragon God, and gave birth to Lạc Long Quân. Lạc Long Quân married the daughter of Đế Lai and had the blessing of giving birth to one hundred sons. Is that not what created the inheritance of our country of Viet?”[28] This idea of a common inheritance created by supernatural ancestors assumes a common origin for the Vietnamese people. Similarly, in two children’s versions, the story ends with the statement, “With the myth of Lạc Long Quân-Âu CÆ¡, the Vietnamese people are always proud to be the child of the Dragon, the descendant of the Fairy (con rồng, cháu tiên).”[29] In LNCQ, Âu CÆ¡ “gives birth to a sack of eggs.”[30] In his comments on LNCQ, TrâÌ€n Đình Hoành explains, “One hundred children in one sack emphasize the meaning ‘Ä‘ôÌ€ng bào’ (‘fellow-countryman’).”[31] In this view, Vietnamese people come from a single sack, and on that basis they are fellow-countrymen. That status then has consequences for their relationships with each other. In one novel about the war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, a character cites this story to question why Vietnamese are fighting Vietnamese—he suggests they have forgotten their common womb in Âu CÆ¡.[32] Surely from a Christian perspective we can affirm this ethical conclusion, that a shared origin should lead not only to a sense of belonging but to a sense of responsibility to love and not to hurt the other.

However, in Genesis this shared origin goes back to Eve, who in Genesis 3:20 is called Eve “because she was the mother of all living.” And this mother is made in the image of God (Gen 1:26–27). As Christians face bioethical dilemmas such as abortion, end of life matters, and even the question of war and human community, surely our shared humanity is an important consideration. Reading Lạc Long Quân-Âu CÆ¡ has spurred some to consider these issues in a way that is compatible with the Christian faith.

3.2 Estrangement as the Human Predicament

And yet the character in the novel cited above wonders at the reality that Vietnamese would kill other Vietnamese. This reflects an aspect of the human condition that Lạc Long Quân-Âu CÆ¡ also describes. In all versions of the story that I read, at some point Lạc Long Quân decides he must leave Âu CÆ¡. In LNCQ Lạc Long Quân returns to the sea after the birth of his one hundred sons, leaving Âu CÆ¡ to care for them. She misses her homeland and her husband and so calls out to him. When he comes he recognizes that their separate origins mean they cannot be together forever. He is a dragon; she is a fairy. So they each take fifty sons and go their separate ways. Still, Âu CÆ¡’s people who approach the sea suffer at the hands of dragons and must wear tattoos to ward them off. This theme of estrangement is more significant in LNCQ than in some later versions, including even in ĐVSKTT. In the former Âu CÆ¡ is the wife of Đế Lai, the king who comes and occupies the land LÄ©nh Nam, while in the latter she is his daughter. So in the former Âu CÆ¡ is estranged from two husbands. Children’s versions can obscure this theme of estrangement, for obvious reasons.[33] However, the realism of LNCQ is refreshing and in concert with the biblical story.

Estrangement in Genesis is a frequent theme. In Genesis 3:16 God describes the first estrangement, in which the first marriage relationship is disrupted.[34] We might say that Âu CÆ¡’s longing for her husband in LNCQ is a powerful example of what Genesis 3:16 describes. Continuing to the rest of Genesis, Cain kills Abel his brother in Genesis 4 and becomes a wanderer (Gen 4:11–12). In Genesis 11 humans attempt to build a tower to make a name for themselves (Gen 11:4), so God confuses their language so they become estranged from each other (Gen 11:6–9). The one humanity becomes many peoples. Even within Abraham’s family, brothers are estranged from each other, such as Jacob and Esau and Joseph and his brothers.

Genesis and Lạc Long Quân-Âu CÆ¡ share a realistic view of relationships in which differences tend to lead to estrangement. Even a knowledge of common origins cannot ward off this reality.

3.3. Belonging as Particular or Universal

This brings us to the last point of conversation about Lạc Long Quân-Âu CÆ¡ and Genesis. Lạc Long Quân-Âu CÆ¡ is mainly a particular story of a particular people. However, Genesis, and indeed the rest of the Bible, is both a universal and a particular story.

To a limited extent Lạc Long Quân-Âu CÆ¡ attempts to explain diversity within Vietnam as the result of the hybrid origins of the Vietnamese. But even in the Mường version, in which half of the children follow Âu CÆ¡ to the mountains to become the Mường people, and half follow Lạc Long Quân to the sea to become the Vietnamese people,[35] only two ethnic groups are involved, and the story remains a regional story.

In contrast, Genesis envisions all humanity originating from Eve (Gen 3:20).[36] The Tower of Babel incident in Genesis 11:1–9 leads to a situation in which humans are not only estranged from God, they are estranged from each other. In that context God chooses one man, Abram, to become a father of a nation (Gen 12:2), but his choice of Abram is for the purpose of bringing blessing to “all the families of the earth” (Gen 12:3). The universal scope of God’s plan is only a hint at this stage, and God continues to move his plan forward with both particular and universal horizons in view. In Exodus 19:4–6 God summarizes his salvation of Israel from Egypt to become “his treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine” (Exod 19:5; cf. Ps 24:1). This statement simultaneously describes God’s particular choice of Israel and his universal ownership of the world. The next verse then describes the role of Israel as a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6). Then in 2 Samuel 7:1–17 God narrows the scope of his plan to focus on David and his descendants as an eternal dynasty. In Jesus we have the Davidic king who fulfills a once-for-all priestly role to reconcile people to God (Heb 9:11–12). In one man, one Davidic king, the God-man, Jesus Christ, we see God fulfill his plan to remedy the problem of human estrangement from God and from each other. It was God’s plan to bless all the families of the earth (Gen 12:3). Therefore in Matthew 28:18–20 Jesus charges his followers to make disciples of all nations.

The story of Lạc Long Quân-Âu CÆ¡ shares with Genesis a concept of belonging based on common origin and a realism about the human condition. But Lạc Long Quân-Âu CÆ¡ remains a particular story, while the biblical story is both particular and universal. What are the implications of this for the reception of the gospel in Vietnam?

4 Implications for the Reception of the Christian Gospel in Vietnam

First, we must emphasize that the Vietnamese cultural story has much in common with the story of the Bible. A Vietnamese person becoming a Christian does not need to completely abandon the Vietnamese cultural story. I have pointed out two significant concepts in which the two stories process the world in similar ways. We can talk about ethics in light of a common humanity, and we can talk about the human condition involving estrangement. These basic issues are common ground from which to begin to talk about the gospel because in the gospel we find a solution to estrangement and a sense of belonging.

Second, the more fundamental differences between the biblical story and the Vietnamese cultural story mean that conversion to Christianity involves a substantial departure from the worldview represented in the traditional Vietnamese story, and it involves taking on a new identity in relationship to the biblical story. Of course we must acknowledge that secular Vietnamese and probably even many religious Vietnamese would not understand the story of Lạc Long Quân-Âu CÆ¡ in the same way that evangelical Christians understand Genesis. Many perhaps would regard it as a cultural treasure without much historical basis.[37] But even in that case, the biblical story still represents a very different view of the world: that the one God transcends the world he made, that we are his creatures who have rejected his rule, and that he has made a way for us to be reconciled to him through his son Jesus. The claim that this way is universally open to humanity is likely to offend many in Vietnam who do not regard the biblical story as their story. And the idea that conversion involves taking on this new biblical story is also likely to offend many. We cannot ignore the offense of the cross of Christ, and yet we can find ways to help people to see their need for that cross by connecting with the themes found in the Vietnamese cultural story.

Third, as a matter of discipleship, helping people to see how they fit in the biblical story requires negotiating between the Vietnamese cultural story and the biblical story.[38] Entering the biblical story does not mean abandoning one’s own cultural story. The Bible does not mandate a loss of ethnic identity. However, the new biblical identity can sometimes be at odds with the original cultural identity, and that requires that we find a proper balance between the two. As a foreigner living in Vietnam I have seen the strong bonds that Vietnamese people feel for each other, and I celebrate that. And yet I wonder whether one significant step in discipleship involves the difficult step of re-imagining identity in relationship to a universal humanity and a universal people of God (which are not the same). Once I asked some students in a theological English class in Vietnam where they would go as a missionary if they could choose any country. Various countries came up, like Cambodia, Canada, the United States, Australia, and so on. I began to ask why, and I discovered that many made their choice based on where they might find significant Vietnamese populations. In light of the biblical story, it seems to me that discipleship must involve a re-imagination of one’s identity as both part of a particular people as well as part of a universal humanity and ultimately a universal people of God who are committed to work by the power of the Holy Spirit to see God’s grace in Jesus Christ spread to all peoples. In other words, discipleship must involve not only an urge to see Vietnamese people reconciled to God, but also a longing to see other peoples know Christ.


[1] Source: http://music.yeucahat.com/mp3/vietnamese/21367-loi-ru-au-lac~acm.html, accessed April 6, 2014. English translation mine. 

[2] Barbara Flunger and Hans-Georg Ziebertz, “Intercultural Identity—Religion, Values, In-Group and Out- Group Attitudes,” Journal of Empirical Theology 23 (2010): 2. 

[3] For a fascinating study of the ebb and flow of foreign influence on Vietnamese culture, see Neil L. Jamieson, Understanding Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993). 

[4] “Story” is the fundamental framework of biblical theology. For one scholar’s perspective, see James Barr, The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1999), 345. He acknowledges that not all of the Bible is narrative, but the non-narrative portions of the Bible are brought into the story (ibid., 356). 

[5] This idea of our entering the biblical story or God’s story has been developed in a number of recent books. For example, see Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004). At a popular level, see Max Lucado, God’s Story, Your Story: When His Becomes Yours (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011). 

[6] Justin Taylor, “An Interview with Kevin Vanhoozer,” Between Two Worlds, May 11, 2009, n.p. [cited 20 Septem- ber 2013]. Online: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2009/05/11/interview-with-kevin-vanhoozer/. 

[7] For a similar comparison between Genesis and a Chinese myth of human origins, see Archie C. C. Lee, “The Chinese Creation Myth of Nu Kua and the Biblical Narrative in Genesis 1-11,” BibInt 2 (1994): 312–24. He describes his own task as “doing our theology with Asian resources” (ibid., 323). 

[8] Nguyễn Hữu Vinh and TrâÌ€n ĐiÌ€nh HoaÌ€nh, Lĩnh Nam Chích Quái: BiÌ€nh Giải, 2010, n.p. [cited 20 September 2013]. Online: http://dotchuoinon.files.wordpress.com/2010/11/linhnamchichquai.doc; LeÌ‚ Văn HuÌ›u, Phan Phu TieÌ‚n, and NgoÌ‚ Sĩ LieÌ‚n, ĐaÌ£i Việt Sử Ký ToaÌ€n ThuÌ› (trans. Viện Khoa HoÌ£c Xã Hội Việt Nam; HaÌ€ Nội: NhaÌ€ xuất bản Khoa HoÌ£c Xã Hội, 1993), quyển I, 2a, respectively. 

[9] Vũ Kim Dũng, LaÌ£c Long QuaÌ‚n-AÌ‚u CoÌ› (Kho TaÌ€ng Truyện Cổ Tích Việt Nam; HaÌ€ Nội: NhaÌ€ Xuất Bản DaÌ‚n Trí, 2011). 

[10] “TruyêÌ€n Thuyết LaÌ£c Long QuaÌ‚n vaÌ€ AÌ‚u CoÌ›,” LaÌ€ng XiÌ€trum, n.d., n.p. [cited 19 September 2013]. Online: http:// vanhoc.xitrum.net/truyencotich/truyenthuyet/2006/11.html. 

[11] This was originally published in Vietnamese in Văn Lang DiÌ£ Sử (1974), but it is also available in English in Thích Nhất HaÌ£nh, The Dragon Prince (trans. Mobi Warren; Berkeley, CA: Parallax, 2007). 

[12] John W. Rogerson, “Slippery Words: V. Myth,” ExpTim 90 (1978): 13, cited in John Oswalt, The Bible among the Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), Kindle locations 383–84. 

[13] Oswalt, The Bible among the Myths, Kindle locations 409–11. 

[14] Nguyễn Hữu Vinh and TrâÌ€n ĐiÌ€nh HoaÌ€nh, LNCQ, 14. 

[15] Ibid., 14. See also Vũ Kim Dũng, LaÌ£c Long QuaÌ‚n-AÌ‚u CoÌ›

[16] Thích Nhất HaÌ£nh, The Dragon Prince, 19. 

[17] Ibid., 20.

[18] Ibid., 21.

[19] Nguyễn Hữu Vinh and TrâÌ€n ĐiÌ€nh HoaÌ€nh, LNCQ, 16. 

[20] Lee, “The Chinese Creation Myth,” 317–18. 

[21] William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, eds., “Epic of Creation (EnuÌ„ma Elish),” in The Context of Scripture (trans. Benjamin R. Foster; vol. 1; Leiden: Brill, 1997), 1.111:395. 

[22] Vũ Kim Dũng, LaÌ£c Long QuaÌ‚n-AÌ‚u CoÌ›, 3. 

[23] The physical involvement of deities in human origins is also known from the ANE. In the Mesopotamian story Atra-hÌ®asis, humans are formed from the blood of a deity that is killed (William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, eds.,“Atra-HÌ®asis,” in The Context of Scripture [trans. Benjamin R. Foster; vol. 1; Leiden: Brill, 1997], 1.130:451). Likewise in EnuÌ„ma Elish they are formed from the blood and flesh of deity (COS 1.111:400). And in the Egyptian Coffin Texts humans are made from the tears of a creator god (William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, eds., “From Coffin Texts Spell 1130,” in The Context of Scripture [trans. James P. Allen; vol. 1; Leiden: Brill, 1997], 1.17). Note that in Thích Nhất HaÌ£nh’s version, AÌ‚u CoÌ›’s tears provide fresh water for the earth. 

[24] John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 205–206. 

[25] John D. Currid, Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013). See also Gerhard F. Hasel, “Polemic Nature of the Genesis Cosmology,” EvQ 46 (1974): 81–102. 

[26] Oswalt, The Bible among the Myths

[27] Lee, “The Chinese Creation Myth,” 324. 

[28] LeÌ‚ Văn HuÌ›u, Phan Phu TieÌ‚n, and NgoÌ‚ Sĩ LieÌ‚n, ĐaÌ£i Việt Sử Ký ToaÌ€n ThuÌ›, 2b LeÌ‚ Văn HuÌ›u, Phan Phu TieÌ‚n, and NgoÌ‚ Sĩ LieÌ‚n, ĐaÌ£i Việt Sử Ký ToaÌ€n ThuÌ›, 2b. 

[29] Vũ Kim Dũng, LaÌ£c Long QuaÌ‚n-AÌ‚u CoÌ›, 15; see also “TruyêÌ€n Thuyết LaÌ£c Long QuaÌ‚n vaÌ€ AÌ‚u CoÌ›.” 

[30] Nguyễn Hữu Vinh and TrâÌ€n ĐiÌ€nh HoaÌ€nh, LNCQ, 15. 

[31] Ibid., 19. OÌ‚ng cũng nói rằng “một boÌ£c” nhấn maÌ£nh Ä‘ến tính biÌ€nh đẳng. 

[32] Duong Thu Huong, Novel Without a Name (trans. Phan Huy DuÌ›oÌ›ng and Nina McPherson; New York: Penguin,1995), 247; cited in Ursula Lies, “War and Ideology: Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Novel Without a Name by Duong Thu Huong,” in Chewing Over the West: Occidental Narratives in Non-Western Readings (ed. Doris Jedamski; Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009), 173. 

[33] Vũ Kim Dũng, LaÌ£c Long QuaÌ‚n-AÌ‚u CoÌ›. 

[34] There are multiple views on this verse. Some argue that the pre-fall authority of the man is now corrupted and becomes a matter of domination (Gordon Wenham, Genesis 1–15 [electronic ed.; WBC; Dallas, TX: Word, 1987], 81). Others argue that the pre-fall state of equality is replaced by domineering husbands (Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17 [NICOT; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990], 200). 

[35] Note that in the MuÌ›oÌ›ng version of the story, there are fifty sons and fifty daughters (Keith Weller Taylor, The Birth of Vietnam [Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1983], 303). 

[36] In light of evolutionary biology, some evangelicals have questioned the idea that all humanity came from Adam (Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins [Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2012]). For a response, see John C. Collins, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?: Who They Were and Why You Should Care (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011). Although this matter is debated, the universal vision of Genesis does not depend solely on the traditional view about Adam and Eve. 

[37] However, for a more positive perspective, see Long S. Le, “Reading the Legend of Lac Long Quan and Au Co,” The Global Viet, n.d., n.p. [cited 19 September 2013]. Online: http://blogs.bauer.uh.edu/vietDiaspora/feature-articles/ reading-the-legend-of-lac-long-quan-and-au-co/. 

[38] Le suggests that LaÌ£c Long QuaÌ‚n-AÌ‚u CoÌ› represents the repeated displacement and reconstruction of the Viet- namese identity that has taken place throughout its history. Even with long periods of foreign occupation, the Vietnam- ese identity has proven resilient and unique (ibid.). 

 

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