Why not record an conversation while getting a haircut? Fellow friend and developer Jonathan Tsao cuts Henry's hair and they have a spontaneous conversation about a variety of topics covering faith and culture, living in NYC, creativitiy, narratives, sharing in vulnerability, and embodiment.
Conversations may be edited for clarity. (edit)
Henry: So this podcast, I have a special bonus episode with my friend Jonathan. We recorded this podcast earlier this year in April, on Holy Saturday, which is the day before Easter. I thought it’d be fun to record a podcast while he was cutting my hair. So the kind of topics that we talked about are pretty varied. Just to give you a summary of what we talked about: the relationship between faith and the world and culture, how we should engage living in New York, worklife balance, serendipity, thinking about communities, creativity and how it relates to God, the importance of testimony and of stories, seeing God as a person, and the importance of bodies. Let us know what you think and enjoy the conversation. I don’t even know how to start. You’re like, “I’m going to get a haircut” and if I want to get one with you. I was like, I might as well cut my own hair. Oh, do you want to cut my hair? And we should record a podcast while you’re cutting my hair.
Jonathan: Yeah. Only good ideas.
Henry: I think we just cut the sides and then trim the top a little bit.
Jonathan: Okay, so we’re doing one on the sides.
Henry: 1 on the side, probably 5 or 6 everywhere else. I think the back could probably be shorter too? I think you need that to be in the up position? What are we going to talk about?
Jonathan: What do you want to talk about?
Henry: What have you been thinking about recently?
Jonathan: Recently I’ve been thinking about how it’s so easy as Christians to be in our own circle
Henry: In a bubble?
Jonathan: Yeah, in a bubble and we get really good at loving.
Henry: Each other?
Jonathan: We get really good at encouraging one another, at worshiping with one another. But yeah how we’re meant to live in the community of other people who don’t follow Christ. If we’re Christians and want to testify to the world how much Jesus has changed our lives, then we really have to be more out there than within ourselves. What do you think about that?
Henry: What was that lecture we went to?
Jonathan: about like culture,
Henry: Dr. Hunter ? I forgot. it was talking about how Christians tend to see our place in the culture in three different ways. And the first way was.. I don’t know what the word was. It was forcing people to adhere to what our morals are. That kind of brings up pictures of kings and the opposite of separation of church and state.
Jonathan: What do you mean?
Henry: They would like to have theocracy, where the church has power and is how we’re gonna change the culture. The other way was, assimilation, where you give up and you become like the world. I guess the first way is being stubborn ? And then the second way is accepting what everyone else says? And then the third way is isolating yourself, becoming a monk, living out what you believe without telling anyone anything.
Jonathan: Yeah, it’s really interesting too because it’s back in the time when Jesus was, there were a lot of different people like the Roman government or just the culture that they lived in. There are people who isolate from society because of being incredibly hopeless with whatever God was calling them to live in accordance to. Then there are other people who are like, I’m just going to give up and follow whatever people around me are doing. And there are people who are like really fiery, the zealots, right? They would resort to violence, to means that really go against how God calls us to live, to love other people. And it’s so interesting because I was reading The Creative Minority by John Tyson. A lot of people see the religious group of ISIS trying to take control by force. What they find to be correct, what they find to be true. And they’re trying to take back their culture. and it’s interesting cause us as Christians, when we get really frustrated, we feel like we have to win our culture back and we have that mentality. He drew really interesting parallels, right? And it’s not every day when people make comparisons with the modern church and ISIS, right. But the church, they shy away from these problems or try to almost be more silent because they don’t want to be seen in that light. How do you participate in this community while also living out your faith and showing people, wow, this is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me.
Henry: You were saying that people are scared of telling people who they are being Christian. It’s not cool anymore. There’s a rise of religious none, where you say that you have no affiliation to anything. It doesn’t mean that you’re not spiritual or religious, you just don’t associate with a particular name. There was a graph that someone posted about the change in just the last 20 years. Before the nones were about 12%. The amount of Catholics and Protestants and then nones are all around 25%. And most of the change has been because of Mainline Protestantism, that has been declining while everything else has stayed the same, other than the rise of the people that have no, belief. It’s interesting because, I would consider mainline the closest to cultural or nominal Christianity where maybe it’s so similar to the general culture that going from Christian to atheist isn’t that big of a leap, right?
Henry: It’s not that hard to stop believing in God when how you live and how you think about it is not that different from anyone else, so we shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve heard about how more, Orthodox belief stays the same.
Jonathan: It’s a challenging question. I’m no longer in college. My life is very much dictated by schedules of classes, of the people around me or whatever organizations I’m in. Just have to take more ownership over the decisions I’m making, the way that I’m living my life. I dunno. I mean you’ve been out of college longer than I have, so what are your thoughts about being a young adult, Christian, living in New York City? It’s hard living in New York City when there’s a lot of pressures and what they define as a meaningful and purposeful life. How do you maintain that?
Henry: Yeah. There’s a lot to unpack there cause being a young adult in New York is pretty different from being a college student in New York. I can get back to how I even came to New York. I didn’t want to come cause I had negative opinions but maybe a lot of us grew up in the suburbs and decided to go to the city for some reason. I was just talking about this with my, old friends.
Jonathan: I have no idea what I’m doing right now.
Henry: That’s fine. We’ll see how this is gonna turn out. It’s going to be a surprise.
Jonathan: It’s definitely a surprise to me to!
Henry: But you get to see it before. I can just guess how this is gonna turn out. I was just thinking, why do people come to the city in the first place? Because of opportunity, and I came here too, because of a job. Now that I left my job at Adobe, a lot of people ask me, why do I stay here? It costs so much and for most people it’s not worth it.
Jonathan: That’s a good question, honestly.
Henry: And with the work that we do as software engineers, I don’t have to live here anymore, but even thinking in that way already assumes that work is most important thing about why you live somewhere. I found a good community through our church, but also my old job, I go my office pretty often, two or three times a week at some point. I went yesterday even. It’s cool that you can leave a company and still feel a connection where you can go back and talk to people and even meet new people that joined after you quit. I think that’s kind of special. Well, I don’t know anyone that actually decides to go back because it’s kind of weird, but I think it’s cool. Feels like more of a family type thing. But we were talking about this earlier, I think it’s cool that in New York, You can just randomly see people that you’ve known just because people are going to come to New York. It could be that they’ll message you beforehand. Even better is that you randomly stumble upon someone on the subway. The last two weeks, I just met like four or five random people unplanned. Like that one time I decided to go to your place instead of going home and I randomly saw my high school friend on the subway. It’s something that you can’t really measure. Being anywhere else, I feel like you would never see anyone, maybe because in the suburbs, everyone’s driving. But people take the subway here and it encourages me to go out more or just walk on the street or the park. It’s not like I’m expecting people to show up, but I’m not as surprised when I finally do see someone. I know that it happens so often.
Jonathan: I’m curious. I mean, you’ve lived in New York for some time now. When someone says, how’s your community Henry? What do you think of?
Jonathan: Yeah, that’s interesting too, because I feel like in New York there’s honestly a good majority of people who have come here for work. And not that it’s like a bad thing, but it’s interesting seeing that difference in you deciding to stay here, even though it might be more convenient for you maybe living at home or living in a different place where you don’t need to pay as much for rent. You’re drawn here by the community. But for a lot of people here in New York, that’s not the case. Maybe they’d much rather like, Oh, I want to live in California. I want to live in Florida. I want to live in somewhere that’s warm and sunny, or, but they’re drawn here because of their work.
Henry: We’re called to be a light in the world or whatever. I stayed knowing that, talking about missions, everyone’s coming here for work. It’s good to be someone that is trying to live out the values that we have, being disciples of Christ and hopefully people can see the difference in how we do our work. Even the idea of how we rest, how we spend our time with others, by ourselves, or with God. It’s a good opportunity for us to be a part of God’s work in the city. Obviously we’re biased because we live here, but where are people going and where should the gospel be spread? The city’s that place. I think we all have different reasons. But I want to be a part of it here.
Jonathan: Yeah. You have a very different perspective on work and probably just with a lot of thinking. Getting sweaty. What are your perspectives on work? A lot of people have a lot of guilt when they don’t feel productive and even on the weekends. And I noticed that with you is that you really try to actively fight against those sorts of pressures that are so prevalent in the city.
Henry: I think a big reason for that is cause I struggle with it so much. I’m still figuring that now, but at least recently, I feel a lot more at peace. When I was younger, I was super perfectionist. Especially with Asian parents, they always want you to do well in school. Really early on I kind of internalized that myself, where they didn’t even have to tell me anymore. Wait, why do you care so much about grades now? So they never had to ask me cause I would just do it myself. But I think about like why I wanted to so badly. I think in the end, it would have to be about my identity. But I finally started questioning, thinking more about Christianity. You can replay what your life’s going to be like in your head saying, I have to get into a good college. Then you have to get a good job. Then you get married and you have kids. At the end you feel like you’ve already fast forwarded and what’s the point? This is all going back to good grades. And so is life more than that? Is life more than getting a good job and making it? Of being successful? So when I finally started questioning, I remember talking to my mom and she didn’t have an answer for that. At the end of high school, I started not caring as much about how well I was doing, having to get a perfect score. I ended up being a lot more lazy than I thought. I only applied to Georgia Tech and University of Georgia instead of any other school. It ended up being helpful because I realized everything’s about name. I was really internally motivated to work on stuff. That’s why I was so into programming cause I made my own projects and I went to hackathons or whatever was interesting. I just did it. I’m trying to learn how to be more, experimental or spontaneous in having ideas and just trying them out and not being so scared. I think one thing that we all could be better at is having the confidence to execute on our imagination. I remember reading this book recently called Art and Fear, and one of quotes was saying: “Your imagination is always going to be like ahead of what you can do, your execution.” The problem is that we feel bad when the thing that is in your mind isn’t the thing that is happening now. So you try really hard to get there. We feel like if you’re not there, you’re not good enough. But if you’re a professional or the best in the world, that they’ve figured that out. You’re always gonna feel that way and it’s a good thing that your aspirations should always be ahead of where you’re at. That’s why people feel so bad when you finally accomplish your goal. It’s because you didn’t have another goal. I remember feeling that too. Say you finally graduated. That’s why after you graduate school, you’re like, I don’t know what to do with my life. Or you quit your job and you don’t have one lined up. I don’t know what to do. Or I finally released the major version of the project I was working on after two years. There’s always this, now what? It was talking about how in the midst of finishing, you’ve had the seeds of the next thing that you want to do. And hopefully that’s the thing to inspire you versus, Oh, there’s another thing. So it’s not the hedonic treadmill, there’s always a new thing, but that should be something that sparks some kind of hope or joy and not be so burdened.
Jonathan: I dunno. your hair is looking, let’s just say this. You know how you’re talking about like art
Henry: the haircut’s a piece of art now. Oh, wow.
Jonathan: I don’t know. I’m trying to figure out how to get the back part a little bit shorter.
Henry: You can use your judgment, I trust you. I think you’ll be okay.
Jonathan: I just don’t want to cut you, you know.
Henry: Recently I’ve been thinking more about creativity. I don’t see myself as an artist in the traditional sense of the word, but starting to read this book called The Mind of the Maker. It’s a book by Dorothy Sayers, and she’s writing about the Trinity, about God the maker. And she’s explaining the Trinity through creativity. Oh, she was saying that the Trinity is one of the doctrines in Christianity that’s the hardest to understand because there’s no relation to reality, and we try to find metaphors because that’s how we understand things. But most of the metaphors that we come up with are, you could use the word heresy. The Trinity is like water where God’s a gas form and liquid and solid and ice. Or it’s like a three leaf Clover. So all those have their own issues. People have creeds and all these different ways of explaining what the Trinity is. We don’t have a good metaphor for it because they all kind of lack. She was saying that all these attributes are hard to relate to, but the one that we can relate to really well could be the act of creating. God can create out of nothing. All we do is retake existing things and make them into something else. But in another sense, when we imagine something, we are making something out of nothing, right? Cause it’s just in your mind. And ideas, it’s not a physical thing. So one way of being able to see how God works is the act of creating. And especially cause we’re programmers, it makes more sense because we’re writing code from scratch all the time. And people that write, they’re creating something like literature or poetry.
Jonathan: It’s interesting. We were actually talking today, Henry and I were talking today about how hard it is to name something. Oh yeah. Like let’s say you’re making up words in a language or something. You’re never in a position where everything is going to be objectively new from that point forward. When God has this idea of creation, however he created the world, we can’t relate to that because we have creation, we have inspirations. There’s a lot of people who limit creativity as just the output of using a specific side of the brain. Or just something that artists or people like writers or dancers, these few people are creative. People who studies science, they’re not creative. I think even in engineering, there’s this aspect of creativity that is overlooked and we also think about certain problems in metaphors. I was talking with my manager and we were talking about this one problem and there’s a story of this one, painter right? He was painting the sidewalk and he put his bucket of paint in one place. Then, he painted let’s say one yard, but then he left the bucket in the same place. And after each yard you have to walk all the way back and dip his paintbrush in the bucket. And then the further that that he was painting, the farther and farther he had to go to redip his paintbrush. And we were just kind of thinking of these different ways to imagine problems, which in a way it takes some sort of creativity as well. Maybe there’s less of a left brain, right brain type of thing, or there’s only some people who have creativity, but maybe the way that we view creativity is just very boxed into things that we can describe clearly.
Henry: It’s funny, the painting thing, I thought you were gonna mention Tom Sawyer or something. Wasn’t he painting a fence and then he somehow got everyone else to do it? I forgot the story, but he didn’t want to do it, but he convinced everyone else to do it for him. Which is creative too, in a different way.
Jonathan: It’s like creatively lying to everyone. Yeah but even wit is a form of creativity, right?
Jonathan: Exactly. Comedians are creative people as well.
Henry: Right, all they do is just tell stories and trying to connect something else. A pastor, they do the same thing. This gets into the idea of how people learn and understand information. Especially now, throughout history it’s all through narrative and story and even when we were talking about evangelism, how do we present the gospel? We do it through narrative. How do we present ideas through narrative? People like hearing experience, something that you’ve done or has happened to you or other people. That’s why testimony such a powerful thing? Versus just the facts. I think about all the talks that I’ve given, all are literally just personal testimony on what I’ve experienced through doing open source or life. And it’s more fun for me. It’s also easier to prepare cause you don’t really have to prepare on the history of your life. No one can call you out because no one’s going to be like, that didn’t happen to you. Because it’s personal and not as technical, it’s more relatable to more people. You might not even have to be in the community in terms of technical skill to understand the general sense of things. What’s the point of a conference talk? What do you want to get across? Do you want to teach people a certain thing or do you want them to come away being inspired? I think that’s a better use of this opportunity to speak than just simply presenting some information they could have looked up. Especially if they have the opportunity to see you in person. The more personal, the better.
Jonathan: I think that’s really interesting too, because I feel as Christians it’s incredibly easy to portray in our society. When you tell someone I’m going to Easter Sunday it’s really easy for people to be like, Oh this guy’s probably, you know, especially wholly, right? Or this guy wouldn’t be someone I’d have asked to hang out and go out at night, right? They instantly kind of put you in this box where you’re abstaining from these things, I dunno. One of the ways that we tell our testimony is just like, sharing with people all the ways that I am broken, right? Sharing all the ways I have failed a million times. I have really struggled with these things. For me, my story is that I wanted to go into medical school, and I didn’t make it right, and I think before I’d be like so ashamed of that. Instantly I started to fear, people are going to view me as the guy who couldn’t make it right, that the wall was a little bit too high for him. But I think as Christians, when we show our shortcomings, our vulnerability, yeah, all the ways that we are broken.. we not only break down the walls of differences between other people, but we also show and point all the glory to God, right? In those moments where we show our vulnerability, we live in a life with such hope. It begs the question okay, what was the factor that brought you from a point of brokenness to this point of redemption. That’s where testimony is strong, right? There’s a part where we were not all put together, there was a part when we struggled. It doesn’t have to be those crazy stories, a lot of people get scared of sharing their testimony because they don’t feel it’s grandiose enough. Yeah. I think it’s unfortunate, right? The point of testimony, what makes it so powerful is that there was this sort of turnaround, right? And it’s this focus in this direction of, okay, God pulled me out of this situation and it wasn’t me. There’s such a power in sharing the place where we were and the place we are now.
Henry: Yeah. A lot of suffering that people go through can be shared, right? So in a way, people relate to your sufferings, weakness, burdens a lot more than your strengths or your accomplishments. That is that kind of leveling where we all feel weak at times and we all feel inadequate, because we are so similar in being sinful. it’s pretty relevant even just for this week, how Christ redeems all that. Kind of going back to what you were saying, instead of saving the world, it’s more how do we redeem the world, restore the world, and repair the world? I think there’s a different attitude, approach, or mindset around that. Seeing the world more not like an actual person, seeing it as biological system. This is the same with how we can see cities or even code. We want to treat everything like a robot or a program because it’s easy to reason about those things. But reality is so complicated that it actually makes more sense to treat it as living This is like the book I was reading, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The last chapter is called “What kind of problem is the city”? She was saying in the book that if you approach a problem in the wrong way, then you won’t be able to attempt to solve it. Treating it as a problem of simplicity will lead you in the wrong direction. Applying that to cities, Jane Jacobs, her thing was that the urban planners at that time, this was 1960s New York, they have a certain vision of what a city should look like. A vision is a fixed picture and usually your picture of what you think something should be become. Maybe that goes back to Christianity too, us imposing our view of what we think flourishing is. The problem is that if we don’t accomplish that, you might be hard on yourself or other people for not stepping up. They would use the word high modernism. When you think of those those TV shows or movies where the future is skyscrapers, flying cars, and clean streets, that kind of look. For her that vision was dead. For her cities should be for people. No one was intentionally like, this city should be for cars or for buildings, but trapped in your own vision, you might forget that it’s about people. That’s what I was saying earlier about the Bonhoeffer quote, about dreams of community. If you seek the dreams only, then you’ll destroy the community because you lost the sense of loving people themselves. You have to go back to the loving people versus your idea. And that goes back to loving God. We think we love God through ideas and promises. We learn all this stuff and read all these books about theology, but we don’t actually know God.
Jonathan: Knowing God versus knowing about God.
Henry: It’s super hard sometimes to know the difference. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read. It’s just that it’s easy for that to become the most important thing.
Jonathan: I think it’s interesting cause you brought up the quote saying that sometimes if we approach a problem in too simple of a way, it might stifle how we go about solving the problem. There’s this common sort of methodology that I use at work actually for programming, right? Sometimes approaching the problem in the simplest way to implement a solution is just the best way to do it. I think there’s a probability thereom, I forgot by who, the simplest way to look at things is usually the answer. Oh Occam’s Razor. Yeah, Occam’s Razor . There you go. But those are all models on how to approach problems and this is in the case of loving community, right? You’re with people or you’re not even loving people, but seeing the city. And I like what you said. You’re seeing these systems as less of just a mechanical, robotic infrastructures, but more as a living being that is dynamic, whose problems are dynamics, who is within city is dynamic.
Henry: Even there our faith itself needs to become more holistic. Our lives too, not separating the mind and the body. I think that is so true, especially in Christianity. Thinking about Good Friday, the Cross, and Easter, our faith isn’t just belief, right. Our faith isn’t all spiritual, it’s spiritual and bodily. And this is true because Christ incarnated and then Christ resurrected. So we know that the body is important because God became a person and he also redeemed his body. And we going to have our bodies redeemed too. So I think of religions where everything is about the spirit, thinking the spirit is more important than the body, or the mind is more important than body. Then we can see, not that the body is more important, but they’re both important.
Jonathan: That is really interesting. The haircut is officially over.
Henry: The haircut is over. Okay. Let’s see.
Jonathan: At least for now, we might need to make
Henry: Some adjustments or something. But this was fun!
Jonathan: This was fun. I already know places where I messed up but it’s okay. Yeah thank you, Henry, for letting me do this.