Introduction to a Goddess Who I Have Known from Childhood

It is entirely reasonable to think that there was once, in China, the daughter of a Lin family in a fishing village of Fujian Province, possibly on the island of Meizhou, who was born in the late 10th century and who came to be loved as a soothsayer by the people of the region during her lifetime. Oral accounts of her powers started to show up in the known written record about two centuries later with a simple 1150 inscription about her and the community that had started to venerate her departed spirit as a goddess. [1] It gives her surname as Lin and says that “she could foretell a man’s good and ill luck” and that “after her death, the people erected a temple for her on her home island.” Whatever else we might be able to take from the vast and branching family tree of legends regarding her own lifetime, the reference to foretelling events means that she was likely a respected shamaness. And, as I will explain a little more below, this would also suggest that she was from a working class family. Most early sources refer to her as Miss Lin, and her given name Mo (Silent One) or Moniang (the Silent Girl) only appear in later sources. Legends say that she did not cry at her birth and that she remained a thoughtful and unspeaking child as late as four years old. Her father is mentioned in many later stories as a fisherman although there is also a late account in which he is called a chief military inspector.

In our world today, temples dedicated to her have been built on every continent and in numerous countries (4,000 Mazu temples in over 20 countries and regions in this 2006 estimate). There are formally independent, Buddhist, and Daoist temples to her as well as a host of local folk temples (which never care much about religious traditions). Her worship as a local folk goddess is deeply rooted in both Chinese and other ethnic communities from Japan to Singapore. She is known by many names including several intimate forms of address such as Mother, Granny, or Grandmother in various regional dialects. One very widespread folk belief is that prayers to her in her most local and intimate name are answered more quickly because if you use one of the six elaborate official titles conferred upon her by various emperors (in 1156, 1192, 1281, c. 1398, 1409, and 1683) she feels the need to get into formal dress suitable for the imperial court before attending to you.

For the rest of this post, I will use the name Mazu, by which I have known her best since before I learned to talk. (It is rigidly translated as “mother-ancestor” and can be romanized in several other ways such as Matsu or Ma Cho.) Fourteen of my childhood and teenage years were spent growing up in southern Taiwan, which was just across the 100-mile-wide strait from the place where Miss Lin was born. The slightly more formal name of Tianshang Shengmu (Holy Heavenly Mother) was also very widely used in Taiwan and is the name most closely associated with Taiwanese culture. Taiwan is also proud of being the location for several of her oldest and most famous temples (a much contested set of datings, of course, between various regions and countries). When I spent a day with my father and brother filming about 12 hours of video footage during one of her largest feast days in the world at her Lukang Tianhou Temple (one of Taiwan’s two most famous temples to Mazu), there were many visiting gods and goddesses (not other statues of Mazu but many other different gods and goddesses) who came from all over Taiwan as well as Japan and the Philippines to spend several days with Mazu in celebration of her birth. We were only there on the first day from the crack of dawn through dusk. Her guests, however, continued to arrive in an elaborate procession of sedan chairs over several days, and they numbered in the hundreds. After the extraordinary pageantry of each god or goddesses arrival, there was some period within the many places throughout the inside of the temple (with its multiple courtyards and altars) during which devotees of each guest could offer prayers or gifts as well as receive fortune tellings, exorcisms, or séances (depending on the most famous abilities of each particular guest). Once finished, the gods and goddesses were all seated together before massive mountains of long-life noodles to signify their immortality as they feasted (but which is also the traditional birthday meal for mortal humans so that their mortality might be pushed off for as long as possible).

It would be delightful for me to get lost in describing the vast and varied colors, sounds and smells of the rituals, the folk dances, the martial arts demonstrations and the many other aspects of the celebrations, and I will likely return on this blog to a range of themes and questions related to Asian folk traditions). However, for now, I want to keep this focused on an introduction to Mazu herself as I’ve come to know her.

It is important to make clear that I already knew Mazu and her Taiwanese people very well when I went to film for this day with my father and brother. We had seen other temples to Mazu in our own home city, and we had witnessed many such festivals to many local deities (several every year) within the tiny local temples of the two poor, working-class neighborhoods where my family lived (corresponding to my preschool and early elementary years and then to my high school years). On some days, the little streets were so packed with religious festival attendees and ritual processions that we could not possibly get even our bicycles or mo-peds to the store or to church. On those days, us kids typically just joined the crowd and tagged along with whatever all of our friends were doing. We knew our neighbors extremely well and were not just observers. I grew up trilingual (with English, Taiwanese and Mandarin). My little sister only spoke Taiwanese and no English until she was four or so. We children eat many meals in each other’s homes (and my mother fed many other children in her home). This was normal. Many daily activities were done outside by all families. This included shopping for the day’s meals, preparation of food, and completing homework (for older children). Many families ate their meals outside with other families as well. Mothers chased toddlers around with spoons, trying to put them into the correct mouth (or not). I called many women “aunty” as a little boy and some older women I called “granny.” Regularly, before sunrise, a fresh produce market was set up in a nearby public plaza (to use the Italian term since I don’t know what else to call it in English) where you could pick out what had been harvested the day before or select a live chicken or fish to have cut up for you to bring home. We kids honestly did not even fully grasp that we were caucasians. Where we lived for the bulk of my youngest years, the only Europeans that we saw were typically my parents. One time, a white man was riding his bike through our neighborhood, and a growing crowd of children started to follow behind him shouting out “pointy nose, pointy nose” (which was a widespread ethnophaulism in the Taiwanese dialect for white people). My parents watched this white man who they did not know riding by our little row house on his bike and their children in the middle of the crowd of other children, running as fast as we could with everyone else and shouting “pointy nose, pointy nose” at the top of our lungs. While all of the adults in our little row-house neighborhood were laughing, none of my siblings or I (or any of our crowd of little friends) thought that there was anything at all ironic about this scene.

Well, I could go on and on, but the point is that, as a young child, I burned paper money and offered incense sticks many times over several years to various gods, goddesses and family ancestors without my parents particularly knowing or caring about it. Some of the late-night séances with shamans in the tiny temple across the street did frighten me as a toddler while I fell asleep listening to the drums, the shouts, and the moans. I have clear memories of that fear. However, the many daytime feasts and days of ancestral worship were filled with exclusively fun and positive associations for me from the earliest age. I loved to help with the decorations, fresh red paint to apply to gates, the sumptuous festival foods to set out in mountainous displays and then to eat with friends. I probably most loved the endless firecrackers and bottle rockets. Evidently, what caused malevolent spirits to retreat in terror brought endless delight to me and my childhood friends. As I grew older, I stepped back from just a few of the activities naturally without really thinking consciously about it because I became more aware that what my family did every Sunday at church and what we did and learned during our own family devotions (which were very faithful with my missionary parents) meant that I should not be making offerings to various gods and goddesses with paper money or incense (although I had loved such things very much as a little boy because it felt reverent and it involved fire). Even for my neighborhood friends, this adjustment in my participation happened in a fairly natural way that was not a great surprise to any of us or disruptive to our delight in being together during festival days.

As I got older, I also began to learn about the wild web of stories surrounding the sprawling pantheon of folk deities in our area. While my spoken Taiwanese and Mandarin were both fluent, I only learned to read and write in English, but my father and brother learned a good amount of the written language. We all loved to read and share stories, both ancient and local. Several of the vast array of stories about Mazu (both legends from her mortal life as well as her many great works as a goddess) already stood out in my mind. Therefore, when my father, brother and I went to this Mazu festival that attracted gods and goddesses from other nearby countries, we knew a good bit already. Still, this was not our own city, and we certainly remained ignorant regarding a lot of what was going on around us with five or six new local deities from far-away places arriving each hour. Also, out of the hundreds of people in attendance, we were the only ones who were not of some Asian ethnicity. We stood out to everyone around us as Americans, but as soon as we started to talk, faces brightened. My dad always introduced himself as both a literature professor and a missionary pastor. Some of the most recent stories of Mazu told and retold today are of her miraculous protection of many people during American WWII bombing raids over Taiwan as a part of U.S. efforts to push the occupying Japanese off of the island. In fact, one local pastor in our church had his parents killed by American bombs and used to sometimes tease the American missionaries, saying that he had switched over from Mazu to the Americans because Mazu let him down.

However, despite being Americans and missionaries, we were all given the very warmest hospitality throughout the day. My father kept up a conversation over most of the day with one local gentleman who was especially friendly and informative and who we met very soon after our early arrival. We eat breakfast, lunch and dinner on the go with this kind man, while taking turns with the video camera and finding the best positions from which to capture our footage.

One of my own immediate takeaways from that day was a positive one. I was impressed as a 17-year-old boy that Mazu never has any shamans or shamanesses serving her. From what I saw at that festival and from what we could learn in questioning friends and acquaintances, this is unique to Mazu among Chinese folk deities. Every other god and goddess that visited Mazu—and there were easily over 20 just in that first day—every one of the deities brought one or more (sometimes even five or six) shamans with them as well as a large entourage of handlers for the shamans (along with performers of many kinds, typically demonstrating dances or martial arts for which their region was known). I was amazed to learn—as we asked several people connected to the local temple—that Mazu (even when she traveled to visit other deities) never called shamans into her service. This may not be universal or even widespread, even in Taiwan, but that was my impression. It got me wondering if Mazu simply did not feel the need for the often fearsome drama of the shamans. She had, after all, been a shamaness in her own lifetime, and performed dramatic rescues at sea amid terrible storms, alone and unaided. Why would she need any hype or help? Many years ago I tried to find some scholarship on this question, and I don’t recall any success. Specifically, I was taking an anthropology class in college (which I loved), and I wanted to know if Mazu ever called shamans in any other Asian cultures where her cult exists or if this characteristic was universal to Mazu cults in various places and local cultures. I will likely try again some day to find this out on my own, if such a study has ever been done. (By the way, if you, the reader, or anyone who you know might have leads for me on this question or if you might have heard any theories or stories related to why Mazu makes no use of shamans in Taiwan, I would be grateful to hear from you in the comments below.)

What impressed me about this as a high school boy was the sense of magnanimity and beneficence that I felt it gave to Mazu in contrast to the other divinities in the eclectic pantheon of East Asian folk religions. To understand this further, I must explain just a little more about shamanism in Taiwanese folk religion. The handlers for shamans were typically modestly-salaried professionals with some training while the shamans themselves were always called out from the very poorest classes to serve for life (with no formal compensation) on all of the holiest days particular to their local god or goddess. Physical deformities of some kind were clearly more common among shamans than in the general population, and this was common knowledge because any deformity was thought to make a person more spiritually sensitive or open. In all that I can remember with the scores of shaman that I saw, I only recall one shamaness. She was alone serving a divinity who was arriving for the birthday festival to Mazu. She was an older woman and very controlled (almost stately) in her movements and directives. This was a contrast to the men who were often erratic and sometimes even frenzied. Watching the older woman move through her rituals, even as a high school boy, I thought of the world in which Mazu herself might have served as a shamaness during her mortal life.

This distant world was not easy to imagine, but I had grown up with several shamans among my neighbors. Also, one elder in our little Taiwanese church was the son of a shaman who talked lovingly of his father (and also with his father) regularly after his father’s death. Shamans only have to serve on a handful of special occasions each year. When a young man or woman is called for the first time, it is typically during a festival day and ends with their falling into their first trance of possession by the god or goddess. They virtually all protest and resist (sometimes very loudly and intensely for several hours). Typically, no young person expects to become a shaman or wants to become a shaman. When the first trance happens, however, there is a resignation and acceptance because this is understood to be a calling to your community that will continue for the remainder of your life. The shamans close to home who I chatted with several times tended to be content and quiet people with no resentment or great personal flare. They were glad to render the service, but it was also just a task. I remember them relaxing between multiple possessions in the same day, stepping away from the crowd to chew a betel nut or smoke a cigarette. This, in and of itself, impressed me as a boy because the work of a shaman was physically demanding and mysterious (to put it mildly).

I have been told by many people, including many Taiwanese friends, that shamans do not cut themselves and shed their blood during the great festivals or the late-night seances that are expected of many of them. I can’t speak to the current situation, but I can most certainly attest to normal life in southern Taiwan during the 1980s and early 90s. Over many years of my childhood, I saw and smelled countless instances of self-inflicted burning (with incense and boiling oil) as well as the even more frequent instances of cutting themselves with very dramatic violence. This cutting is done with a wide variety of instruments (spiked balls and clubs, large saws, knives, and the dried rostrum of a sawfish being a very standard kit) and on many different parts of the body (the bare back, the top of the head, the forehead and the protruding tongue all being examples I’ve seen repeatedly). The burned and bleeding flesh was said to heal miraculously with a day or two every time and without scarring, and this is what I witnessed myself over several of my high school years. For every god and goddess that my father, brother and I saw at Mazu’s birthday, this self-mutilation was a standard part of the elaborate arrival rituals as well as essential to various tasks that the god performed for devotees once inside the temple (such as telling a fortune or providing a seance). Therefore, on the great birthday festival of Mazu, her temple was filled with the shamans and shamanesses of other gods and goddesses performing all kinds of rituals with fire and blood, but Mazu herself sat serenely at the center of it all, never possessing anyone.

As I have said, this left a lasting impression on me as a young man. I had some vague idea of a benevolent power amid something like a sea of comparative desperation and chaos. In all the stories, when Mazu herself was stirred to help, she would take action, often visible amid a blaze of red light and always serene amid any storm of wind, salty waves, or American firepower.

I’ve returned to reading about Matzu several times in my adult life. I’ve mentioned my college anthropology course. Teaching a college world religions class as an adjunct, I again found myself lingering over stories of her. As a high school theology and world religions teacher in a classical Christian school, I tried again to articulate something of what I loved about Lin Moniang and even what I appreciated about the goddess that she has become. During a more recent work-related trip, I spent a week on Cheung Chau (Long Island) off the coast of Hong Kong. This island, although well populated and developed, has never allowed gasoline engines to be used outside of a few very tight restrictions. Waking up before sunrise, I walked for a few hours to explore. I watched fishermen walking in long lines to their boats, picking up lunch boxes from vendors along the way. I watched a young teenage boy coasting down a long mountain road on his bicycle with a freshly butchered pig splayed out on bamboo sticks for display in the open-air market being set up for the day. I found the graves built far out on steep hillsides with the most traditional of Chinese arrangements for the care of ancestors. I followed water buffalo as they wandered down to the ocean for a swim and then back to their marshy grazing grounds. I found sacred banyan trees and several small shrines to Matzu. In one of these, she was only an upright and uncut stone under a small red roof off to the side of a narrow pathway by the sea, just small enough for any grown man to have carried her away, and with incense stains and wax covering most of her surface. Of course, these days reminded me of a life that I knew as a child and that I can sometimes as an adult not believe was real. This island preserved an almost timeless folk level of Chinese culture to an extraordinary degree. Sadly, I read that the island was briefly consider for development as a “suicide theme park” by the Hong Kong government because so many residence of the urban center went to this island to die. [2] While this idea was thankfully rejected, all that I can find suggests that future plans for the island include large-scale development once they are able to fully connect it to the city’s growing grid of bridges and tunnels. [3]

I cannot imagine that, once this is achieved by the city government, any small upright stones called Mother and covered with incense stains and wax will be left to sit silently between the sea and a trail walked each morning by fishermen. This trip left me with a sense that Mazu shared with the world and with me and with those fishermen some level of connection to a vanishing human experience of each other and of our places on this planet as generously and terribly alive.

What does it mean for a human to be generous and terribly alive? It means for them to be a saint or a goddess in the making. To pick one recent and much-loved example, C.S. Lewis knew that humans were made to be gods and goddesses. He reminded us that “it is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.” Even in high school, reading books like Till We Have Faces (which teaches us of a goddess who is just a standing and unshaped stone) or The Last Battle (where a life-long worshiper of Tash leaps into his idol’s talons only to find himself between the massive paws of Aslan), I was sure that C.S. Lewis would have also loved much about Mazu, and that he would most likely have expected to meet her eventually in Christ’s kingdom, a goddess so wonderful that our current selves “would be strongly tempted to worship.”

C.S. Lewis is not at all alone, of course, in talking about humans as divine beings. He knew very well indeed that this was the most normal way for Christians to talk during the first several hundred years of the church’s history.[4] Even more importantly, it is critical to realize that C.S. Lewis is also not alone in considering the participation of a pagan god or goddess within the eternal life of God’s household as Lewis does in Till We Have Faces. This point is not as straight-forward as human theosis or divinization by any means, but it is one that many Christians (including the Apostle Paul) have understood from the beginning, and it is one that Christians must learn to understand and make clearly again in the truest possible terms. Paul sketches an impossibly complete cosmic vision in Ephesians 1:17-23 where “every authority …and power” and “every name being named not only in this age but in the age to come” has been made part of the body of Christ who has “ordered all things under his feet” so that they might be “the plentitude of the one filling all in all.”[5]

This astounding vision of creation as being united with God’s eternal Son and thereby fully participating in the infinite plentitude of God’s life was understood by many Christians to mean that whatever is true, good and beautiful is needed by Christians in order for them to understand Jesus Christ. We see examples of this today with scholars such as Dr. Andrew Louth who recently gave a lecture called “The Necessity of Platonism for Christian Theology.”[6] Plato and other pagan philosophers were controversial among Christians and clearly opposed in specific ways, but many Christians also came to recognize that Plato had much to offer them in their own understanding of all that Christ revealed of God. Likewise, many Christian churches contained various pagan figures (such as sibyls) in the outer courts as the worshipers approached incrementally toward Christ himself at the altar. Paganism was not understood as simply an evil or a falsehood to be rejected but as a gift containing essential help to Christians in their comprehension of God’s plentitude as revealed by Jesus Christ. Finally, we also see this when early Cumbrian Christians in the first half of the 10th century (just a couple of decades before the Lin family welcomed their quiet baby girl on the other side of our planet) carved the stone Gosforth Cross and depicted the Norse goddess Sigyn symbolically alongside of Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross. Sigyn is shown on this cross saving the life of her husband Loki (the trickster son of Oden) by holding a bowl over Loki’s head to catch the poison dripping toward him from the fangs of a snake that the other gods had sent to kill Loki. Clearly, these Christians understood that their older pagan stories had meaning that could help them to grasp the beauty revealed on the cross.

We could continue with other examples such as the Celtic goddess Brigid (although this case is badly misunderstood in many current popularizations). However, I need to move on and consider why many recent historians of Christianity have described Christianity as having nothing but animosity for paganism. One example of such a history of Christianity would be here with Bart D. Ehrman:

Christians …maintained there was only one God, and if you followed him, you had to abandon the others. …No other religion demanded such exclusivity. For that reason, as Christianity grew, it destroyed all competition in its wake. And it went on like that for millennia, as Christians forged into new territories, toppling Celtic gods, Norse gods and many others.

Such claims can be made by reputable scholars because there have been prominent examples of this from the start of Christian history (although far from the dominant voice in many places and times) and because this became the majority approach across much of the middle ages and certainly since European Christendom gave rise to the heresy of secular modernity after their own radical splintering (which developments terrified Western Christians and has caused them to react with both combative desperation and increasingly fractured impotency ever since as secular modernity marches more and more powerfully onward in its domination of the globe). With this complex story, the claims by Ehrman and such that Christianity “destroyed all competition in its wake” are understandable, but they are also gross oversimplifications that utterly obscure the truth. Even more importantly, for Christians, they don’t represent Christ or Paul. Seeking any other final end than life in the body of Christ is clearly wrong. However, for me to seek out as many guides and helpers who are ahead of me in their own pursuit of Jesus Christ (or who may simply be my fellow travelers with help to offer) is no violation of Christ’s teaching that I cannot serve two masters. Without judging anyone, we should accept help from every comrade and tutor who can orient us more fully to our one master.

If you are still reading, I am not saying that I should turn more and more to Mazu for help in my Christian walk, but I am increasingly sure that I have received help from Mazu along the way in my Christian walk and that she will gladly receive my thanks one day. I also firmly believe that many—including Saint Paul and “Saint Jack” (or C.S. Lewis, if that is an overreach)—would agree that this is a good and healthy openness to help whenever it comes.

And the sources of help can be wild and unexpected indeed. Below is an image of Our Lady of Caysasay from Taal in the Philippines. She is a small wooden statue (10.7 inches tall), whose most-repeated origin story is being pulled from the bottom of the Pansipit River by a fisherman in 1603. Early stories about Our Lady of Caysasay are filled with years of her constant self-directed wanderings. She repeatedly refused to be housed in the multiple magnificent churches provided for her and was found time and again among the poorest people beside the Pansipit River. Finally, as one story connected to 1611 is told, she hid for a longer period of time until two young women, Catalina Talain and Maria Bagohin, gathering firewood saw Our Lady of Caysasay hovering on a branch of a sampaga tree where kingfisher (“kasaykasay”) birds like to rest, and this is how she received her name (leading me to wonder if Gerard Manley Hopkins knew of these stories about Mary appearing two young girls by a river in the Philippines).

Among countless other miracles still being recorded to this day, she brought back to life a poor Chinese artisan named Hay Bing who had been decapitated by the Spanish in 1639. This story was the basis of the stage musical Mapághimaláng Birhen ng Caysasay (“Miraculous Virgin of Caysasay”) that ran in July 2005 at the Cultural Center in Manila. This is especially significant culturally in the Philippines, because the Chinese claimed from the earliest days that this was a lost statue of Mazu. As most Filipinos sided with the Catholic church and the Spanish authorities over the years, the Chinese could never advance their custody claim and the statue remained in the care of the Catholics. Inspired by the astounding miracle of Hay Bing’s restoration to life after decapitation in 1639, a modest shrine was built for the lady beside the river, and the local Chinese people contributed generously to the building fund despite the ownership of the property and the church by the Catholic authorities. The local bishop, however, continued to want the presence of this lady in his cathedral for the high services, but she would never stay past sunset. Finally, a papal order was required to regularize a practice where Our Lady of Caysasay was never required to reside overnight outside of her regular small chapel by the river. In 1954, Our Lady of Caysasay was canonically crowned at the Basilica of San Martin de Tours in Taal by Spanish Cardinal Fernando Quiroga (representing Pope Pius XII). Earlier in that same year, during the Marian Congress in the Philippines, Pope Pius XII had invoked Our Lady of Caysasay in prayer and referred to her upcoming crowning.

There is a widespread belief, especially in the Philippines that Mary and Mazu are two manifestations of the same deity. There is some evidence that this belief is even thought to be sanctioned by the Catholic church. “Mama Ma Cho as Mama Mary” (an online article from Tulay.ph on August 6, 2019 by Teresita Ang) states: “In 1954, during the Marian Congress in the Philippines, Pope Pius XII designated Ma Cho as one of the seven manifestations of the Virgin Mary” which “helped intensify the Ma Cho belief.” This article is almost entirely about the story of Our Lady of Caysasay, and the author seems to have confused the declaration of Our Lady of Caysasay as a canonical Marian apparition with the declaration of the Chinese goddess Mazu as a manifestation of Mary. I cannot find any other such claim, and it would not seem to accord with Catholic theology. However, the story illustrates the great variety of ideas popular in Asian cultures regarding the identity of Mary and Mazu. There are many folk temples throughout East Asia that display the two statues of Mary and Mazu side by side and good indications that they are widely considered by even many with no formal association with the Catholic church to be two manifestations of the same deity. From the side of the Catholic church there is also some encouragement of this association, and I have seen multiple Catholic icons depicting Mary in ways similar to traditional images of Mazu.

My heart, although it also loves many of the stories of Mazu, moves in the opposite direction from associating these two women with some kind of a shared identity. Clearly, each is their own woman. The Mother of God is the Mary who said yes to God, gave birth, stood at the foot of her son’s cross as he died, and showed up before sunrise with a few other women to anoint his dead body despite a posted Roman guard and a massive stone set in place with all the authority of an imperial seal. Likewise, any Tianshang Shengmu (the “Holy Heavenly Mother” or “Granny”) that might be found as a glorious immortal being, will be found by first turning (in the light of Christ, ultimately) to the quiet girl of the Lin family who we know virtually nothing about but who inspired her community so much that their devotion is noted within an national inscription 200 years later and that their love for her would in turn inspire the telling of thousands of stories about her life as a woman and a goddess who sacrificed herself at sea to save another and then returned with the power to overcome any storm. My strong suspicion is that we will all come to know, love and revere both ladies one day, and if you don’t believe this, well, I will hunt you down when we get there and (safely out of sight of either Mary or Mazu) say: “I tried to tell you so.”


Post Script

Some readers and friends have given helpful feedback saying that I went too far here in some ways or that I left out critical points that should be made more clear. These are valid concerns. To clarify, I do think that folk deities are wrapped up with false and evil powers (of which the Christian scriptures have many categories). However, I’m confident that some such deities involve more than just evil spirits. The most clear exception is that some deities have meaningful human origin stories, making it possible to consider separately the human story and the ongoing following of them as a deity (a following that developed after their death). Certainly, any attempt to pray to such divinities by someone who already knows Jesus Christ is false worship that will be taken advantage of by evil powers. I was thinking that some of the details that I provided would make this clear enough while also allowing me to acknowledge a goodness, even an eternal goodness, in some of these deities or at least in the human lives that are involved with them. One helpful introduction to some of these categories regarding various deities that we often do not notice in our own scriptures is The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible by Michael Heiser (a respected American Evangelical scholar).


End Notes

[1] Portrait of a Community: Society, Culture, And the Structures of Kinship in the Mulan River (Fujian) from the Late Tang through the Song by Hugh R. Clark, 2007, page 203.

[2] See “Suicide theme park spooks island” by Winnie Yeung, 9 August 2005 in the South China Morning Post.

[3] Quote: “Concurrently, the Hong Kong Government has expressed a desire for outlying islands to be places for urban expansion and has proposed building more bridges, tunnels, and reclaimed land.” This comes from “Bridges, tunnels, and ferries: Connectivity, transport, and the future of Hong Kong’s outlying islands” in the Island Studies Journal (Dec 2017) by Abraham Leung, Michael Tanko, Matthew Burke, and Chin Sum Shui.

[4] Consider any of these books or book chapters: The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition or Fellow Workers with God: Orthodox Thinking on Theosis by Norman Russell; Deification in Christ: Orthodox Perspectives on the Nature of the Human Person by Panagiotis Nellas; Deification in Eastern Orthodox Theology by Emil Bartos; Metousia Theou: Man’s Participation in God’s Perfections According to Saint Gregory of Nyssa by David L. Balás; Participation in God: A Study in Christian Doctrine and Metaphysics by Andrew Davison, or Chapter 4 (“Participating Divinity, Entering Emptiness: The Shape of Transformation”) of Looking East in Winter by Rowan Williams.

[5] From the New Testament translation by David Bentley Hart (1st ed). Here is the passage in full: “So that the God of our Lord Jesus the Anointed, the Father of glory, might give you a spirit of wisdom, and of revelation by a full knowledge of him, The eyes of your heart having been illumined, so that you should know what the hope in his call is, what the riches of his glory’s inheritance in the holy ones, And what the extravagant glory of his power toward us who have faith, in accord with the operation of the strength of his might, Which he has enacted in the Anointed, raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavenly places, Far above every Rule and Authority and Power and Lordship, and every name being named not only in this age, but in that about to come; And he has ordered all things under his feet, and has given him headship over all things in the assembly, Which is his body, the plenitude of the one filling all in all.”

[6] Fr. Andrew Louth’s “The Necessity of Platonism for Christian Theology” was delivered remotely to the King’s College Chapel, January 17, 2021. Here is a link to the full video of this 2021 Robert Crouse Memorial Lecture.


Epilogue

“I wouldn’t have felt very safe with Bacchus and all his wild girls if we’d met them without Aslan.”

Susan to her little sister as they find that Bacchus serves their beloved king in Narnia restored.

4 thoughts on “Introduction to a Goddess Who I Have Known from Childhood

  1. Interesting but it is important to remember that Ms. Lin, Matzu, is at the moment literally a skeleton and the statues are literally made by human hands in a warehouse. In Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan, where I reside there are several of these warehouses. The gods’ makers don’t show much respect to the statues. Also, in cities at least most people offer in temples out of tradition but are skeptical of the shamans. Having said that, I personally know a young man, 17 years old, who is a shaman. He is terrified of any dark room saying he is constantly attacked by “monster”. Each time he has to fulfill his “duties” and be possessed he is terrified to the point of tears. These “gods” are evil. Even the theology itself is evil with schizophrenic gods who might or might not help you even after you payed (bribed) them. They’re as likely to bring you misfortune as fortune. I don’t think there is anything a Christian can learn from these “gods” and the fact that Matzu seems more serene makes her just more dangerous. Just my opinion.

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    • Thank you for this response. I agree with you that for anyone trapped and endangered by this worship, the way I talk at all positively about Matzu would be just more dangerous. I also remember shaman consistently feeling oppressed or attacked when first called into service. I’m very sorry to hear of your young acquaintance. Lord have mercy.

      All of that said, I am speaking with personal experience but also from inside the safety of a Christian life with much love and support to me from infancy through today. From within a place such as mine, I think that it may be possible to have appreciate something about some of the stories and even about the human person herself who is behind the false worship that has become Matzu. Anyway, I might be wrong, and I’m grateful for your comment here.

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      • I know nothing about Mazu but I was moved by your encounter with her which seemed to have a mutually redemptive quality (as though your recognition of the good in her drew her closer to the good, and her serenity equally pointed you toward grace). Therefore I am disappointed though not surprised by the response you appear to have received and that you are so chastened by it. I think it worth heeding the Hasidic guidance that there are some ‘husks’ that are too far fallen to be raised by human prayer or practice, but equally the blanket labelling of complex local divinities as ‘evil’ is utterly hopeless. Those in darkness need to be raised up whole and transfigured. Disenchantment and the Evangelical obsession with demons and spiritual warfare go hand in hand.

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      • Thank you for taking the time to respond. In acknowledging that evil spirits are involved in some ways (which is rather obvious in some of the details with regard to other deities), I did not change my main point which is (as you say) that we must look toward the goodness that is there too and receive it with gratitude. If I had to try to put my idea of Christian missions into just a few words it would simply be to invite others to know Christ that they might come to see the deeper goodness hidden within their own tradition as well as the treasures that they have that Christians also need to learn from over time. Every human culture has gifts that we all need, ultimately. But this has hardly ever been practiced…

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