Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Power of Color

Written by: on June 21, 2018

Therefore, visual ethnography…does not claim to reproduce an objective or truthful account of reality, but should offer versions of ethnographers’ experiences of reality that are as loyal as possible to the context, the embodied, sensory, and affective experiences, and the negotiations and intersubjectivities through which the knowledge was produced.[1]

Sarah Pink’s explanation of visual ethnography offers a helpful framework for Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel set, Boxers & Saints. Though his novels are aimed at educating readers about this historical event in China at the turn of the century, his visual depictions of the events clearly reflect the “negotiations and intersubjectivities” of this conflict. The Boxer Rebellion and what historians refer to as “China’s Century of Humiliation,”[2] continue to impact China’s engagement with the modern world. While it does not get much attention in the west, Yang points out that it “still weighs heavily on [China’s] foreign policy.”[3]

Reading Boxers & Saints as a visual ethnography, it would seem that the everyday Chinese experience of life during the late 1800’s was a bland and colorless, with a few exceptions. In Boxers, most people and places are depicted using neutral colors, whereas the opera, the god Tu Di Gong, the apparitions of the gods as the “Big Sword Society,” the cherry-blossom tree, and the foreigners (both good and bad) are bright and colorful. Similarly, in Saints, the apparitions of Joan of Arc stand out as colorful moments in the life of Four/Vibiana. In both novels, color marks the exotic or supernatural, giving the overall impression that the “other” is seen as more vivacious, significant, or powerful.

In Wild Swans, a novel set in the middle of the 20th century in China, I noticed several scenes where the choosing of one’s seat in a social setting was significant.[4] A friend of mine who is an expert on Chinese culture told me, “this seating structure is still around and foreigners get the honored seat.”[5] This comment got me thinking about the fact that the “other” or the foreigners in Boxers & Saints were the most colorful. Was this a way of giving the “honored seat” to the outsiders? Or was this simply a device for highlighting their “otherliness”?

Beyond the visual impact of the novels, I was struck by the profound themes of cultural and religious identity. As a westerner who is a Christian, I’ve not had to wrestle with a conflict between my cultural and religious identities, but Yang reveals how this struggle is very real for those from eastern cultures who identify as Christians. “In China just over a hundred years ago, being a Chinese Christian was seen as a contradiction. Embracing a Western faith meant turning your back on Eastern culture.”[6] This was the tension that he sought to explore in these graphic novels that that tell the story of the Boxer Rebellion along two parallel time frames, with opposing perspectives.

Author Gene Luen Yang, who was raised as a Chinese-American Roman Catholic, explains, “Religion and culture are two important ways in which we as humans find our identity. That’s certainly true for me. My experiences growing up in both a Chinese American household and the Catholic Church define much of who I am.”[7]

While Boxers & Saints delves into what happens when cultural identity and religious identity are at odds with each other, I find that in my context the opposite dynamic is at work. French people who have never set foot inside a church a will identify themselves as “Christian” or “Roman Catholic,” because their religious identity is completely conflated with their cultural identity. This leads to religious statistics that say anywhere from 50-60% of French people are Christians. It also leads to North American Christians asking missionaries like me, “Does France really need missionaries? Aren’t they already ‘reached’?”.[8]

That’s why I loved it when an article came out on the Catholic website La Vie, entitled, “France, (de nouveau) terre de mission?” (which translates, “France, once again a mission field?”). This article, published March 31, 2016, says that (and I’m translating here!) “The numbers speak.” According to the Roman Catholic Church’s own data, fewer than 5% of those who claim to be Catholic are “practicing” Christians, and even if they count everyone who shows up for special occasions (weddings, baptisms, funerals) and holidays, that number only rises to 10%. In their own words, “Therefore, 90% of our citizens could be considered a ‘mission field.’”[9]

In both cases, in Yang’s depiction of the Boxer Rebellion and in the mission field of modern France, one theme that rings true is the need for wise contextualization. I found myself so frustrated (as I’m sure Yang intended) when I read how the Gospel was twisted and misunderstood by the Chinese because the missionary priest failed to fully understand the culture. In France, it is the Gospel that gets drawn in dull colors, like a story so familiar that everyone assumes they already know it. It almost need to be de-contextualized in order to be re-contextualized and seen as the radical Good News that it really is. Instead, many French people view Christianity as a backdrop to their modern lives, like the Roman Empire or writings of Charlemagne. They miss the reality of its presence and activity in their world today.

[1] Sarah Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography, 3rd edition (Los Angeles: SAGE, 2013). 34.

[2] Petra Mayer, “‘Boxers & Saints’ & Compassion: Questions For Gene Luen Yang,” NPR.org, accessed June 21, 2018, https://www.npr.org/2013/10/22/234824741/boxers-saints-compassion-quesions-for-gene-luen-yang.

[3] Mayer.

[4] Jung Chang, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, 1st Touchstone ed (New York: Touchstone, 2003). 24.

[5] http://blogs.georgefox.edu/dminlgp/which-seat/ Greg’s response.

[6] J. Caleb Mozzocco, “Interview: Gene Luen Yang on Boxers & Saints — Good Comics for Kids,” accessed June 21, 2018, http://blogs.slj.com/goodcomicsforkids/2013/09/19/interview-gene-luen-yang-on-boxers-saints/.

[7] Mayer, “‘Boxers & Saints’ & Compassion.”

[8] “Religions in France | French Religion Data | GRF,” accessed June 21, 2018, http://www.globalreligiousfutures.org/countries/france#/?affiliations_religion_id=0&affiliations_year=2010&region_name=All%20Countries&restrictions_year=2015.

[9] Mahaut Hermann, “France, (de nouveua) terre de mission ?,” La Vie, March 31, 2016.

About the Author

Jennifer Williamson

Jenn Williamson is a wife and mother of two adult sons. Before moving to France in 2010, she was the women's pastor at Life Center Foursquare Church in Spokane, WA. As a missionary with Greater Europe Mission, she is involved in church planting and mentoring emerging leaders. Jenn benefitted from French mentors during her transition to the field, and recognizes that cross-cultural ministry success depends on being well integrated into the host culture. Academic research into missionary sustainability and cultural adaptation confirmed her own experience and gave her the vision to create Elan, an organization aimed at helping missionaries transition to the field in France through the participation of French partners.

15 responses to “The Power of Color”

  1. M Webb says:

    Good job pulling Pink into your opening and use of ethnography themes to analyze Yang’s graphic narratives. Thanks for the Christian demographic review for France. We support a couple with BLF in France and see all the French-Christian literary releases that they help publish and distribute as part of their mission ministry. We have another missionary with Cru that bases out of France but serves in the Middle East.
    The c’est la vie view of Christianity in your people group’s modern lives is what I see as another strategy, scheme, and method that the evil one uses to blind people from Christ. That is why you are there! PTL.
    Stand firm, 站立得住
    M. Webb

    • Jennifer Williamson says:

      Yes, Mike, I would agree with you. If the enemy can keep Christianity “tamed” and “diluted” within the culture then the Gospel is not much of a threat!

  2. Beautifully written Jenn! I love how you brought out the visual characteristics of the books and brought it to your “home” with your statement at the end…”In both cases, in Yang’s depiction of the Boxer Rebellion and in the mission field of modern France, one theme that rings true is the need for wise contextualization. I found myself so frustrated (as I’m sure Yang intended) when I read how the Gospel was twisted and misunderstood by the Chinese because the missionary priest failed to fully understand the culture.” It is always sad when Christ gets represented as a noisy gong or clanging cymbal.

    • Jennifer Williamson says:

      IN France it is not so much a banging gong as some sort of bland elevator muzak that has been running in the background for so long that people are no longer listening.

  3. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Jenn,

    Brilliant job of connecting so much of our prior readings into this week’s Blog. I too was frustrated like you with how Christianity was perceived, and I am sure the lack of “Cultural Intelligence” (Livermore) was astounding.

    Thinking about this makes me all the more respectful of your work in France, and I cannot imagine the challenges that you face with French culture as compared to your upbringing.

    Thanks for answering God’s call and for being part of our Cohort. You make a wonderful difference with us all!

    • Jennifer Williamson says:

      Hey Jay, we each serve as called, and no call is greater than the other. I have learned much about contextualization, and I’ve also made a lot of mistakes. While I believe strongly in the value of contextualization, I’m also coming to terms with its limits. This is why my research on missionary effectiveness and sustainability is leading me to push for collaboration between nationals and foreigners as the the key to fruitful and sustainable ministries.

  4. Shawn Hart says:

    Jennifer, great job bringing the visual ethnography in. The day after I posted mine paper, I thought about the potential for bringing V.E. into this reading, and could have kicked myself. You tied it in beautifully.

    I was actually curious how you would have interpreted this reading, because of your Catholic perspective on things. Technically, I viewed the Catholic church as the real bad guy in this reading (Bao’s perspective). It was the attitude and methods of the church that resulted in his crusade.

    So here is the question; “How does a Catholic view the methods of early Catholicism regarding aggression and violence…did the end justify the means?”

    • Jennifer Williamson says:

      Most Catholics I know today are appalled by the crusades. The sad thing, imho, is that I feel like the pendulum has swung too far the other way. Most Catholic ministries do a phenomenal job at humanitarian efforts–feeding the hungry, healing the sick, etc; but they fail to announce the Gospel.

  5. Greg says:

    Way to relate the challenges you see in this chinese context to the frustrating folks in the states that have predetermined what a “mission field” is and how those Ms function.
    Loved the concept of de-contextualizing the Gospel so we can share again. It reminded me again of the South African presenter that shares with people about Jesus knowing they associated Jesus with apartheid saying, “ oh not that Jesus. I want to tell you about someone else who also happens to be called Jesus”. Even in my context I am trying to talk to people that tell me that Christianity is a foreign religion about the monks coming in 645. For me I am trying to relate their heritage to Christ so they can see that it doesn’t come from the white foreign devils of the 1800s. Keep at it.

    • Jennifer Williamson says:

      I can only imagine your struggles. I watched the fild Silence, and felt so completely overwhelmed. I know that was Japan, and not China, but I wonder if there are some similar stories out of China. Can’t wait to get to talk to you more in person when we meet up in HK.

  6. Jenn,

    I totally agree with the idea of decontextualizing in order to recontextualize, and think your work in Lyon is a great example of this for your compatriotes. I read one time a quote that has always stayed with me … source unknown … “Every generation needs its own revival/renewal.” I think this is something of what you are getting at.

    • Jennifer Williamson says:

      YES! Great quote. And in that way, France is primed fo revival. The boomer and builder generations mostly walked away from God an did not bring their children up in the Church, so the millenials are like spiritual “blank slates,” open and eager to know this man called Jesus.

  7. Jason Turbeville says:

    Magnificent approach to our reading this week. It never even dawned to me to see the different uses of color as you pointed out. I also appreciate the introspective on being a French Christian. My guess is the same can be said for many Western nations. Even in Texas, our county has approximately 65,000 people and on any given Sunday throughout all denominations only about 7,000 are churched. Even though most would consider themselves Christian. Only about 9% probably actually are.


  8. Jean Ollis says:

    Great connection to Pink’s text on Visual Ethnography. I appreciated your missional context related to culture – in France and China. Thank you for always keeping us educated on missions around the world. If you were to visually depict the French Christian experience through history, how would it differ from Boxers and Saints?

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