Meet the former Keeper of the Middle East Department at the British Museum as he answers questions about his upcoming book on Ancient Persia.
What inspired you to write Studies in Ancient Persia and the Achaemenid Period?
This book is a collection of essays in honour of Terence Mitchell. At its core is a long essay by Terence himself. When I became CEO of the Iran Heritage Foundation I promised to try and get this essay published for him, and I hit on the idea of combining it with a Festschrift, and now here it is.
What does your writing process consist of?
I research and write whenever I have time, either during my normal working day or in evenings and weekends.
Who was Terrence Mitchell to you, and how has he influenced you and your work?
Terence was a colleague at the British Museum 1971-1989, and for the last 7-8 years of that period he was head of the Department of the Middle East. I succeeded him as Keeper.
What most interests you about the future of archaeological work in Iran, and the study of Achaemenid Period?
Incredible archaeological discoveries have been made in Iran since the time of the revolution in 1979 and continue to be made. In spite of this, there is still much to be learnt about the Achaemenid period, many aspects of which remain elusive.
To whom will Studies in Ancient Persia and the Achaemenid Period appeal most?
Those with a scholarly interest in the Iranian history, archaeology and the Achaemenid period, and those interested in Biblical studies.
What will be your next project?
I am co-curating a major exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum on Iran that will open in October 2020.
What are you currently reading?
I am reading the Peter Francopan books as I admire the way he paints with a broad brush and puts things into context.
Studies in Ancient Persia and the Achaemenid Period available for pre-order.
1. As your new book will not be your first book with us, please could you detail your previous work and inspirations from 2015.
My first book, published by James Clarke & Co., Purification of Memory, is an exploration, from a Catholic and ecumenical perspective, of the theological thoughts of eight distinguished Orthodox theologians. It attempts to demonstrate that, in spite of the mistrust and conflict between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches, they actually share a common heritage, which can be a basis for reunification. This work provides an insightful study of eight Orthodox theological movers-and-shakers and compares and contrasts them with their Roman Catholic counterparts. Interestingly, I find that some Catholic theologians are closer to the Orthodox theologians than to their own confessional colleagues and vice versa.
The second book, Accommodation and Acceptance, investigates the works of some prominent Christian missionaries and thinkers regarding non-Christian religions. By their innovations, these pioneers in interfaith relations have blazed new paths for better understanding between people of diverse beliefs in a world torn by conflicts and violence.
My aim in writing this volume is to promote interreligious dialogue and greater understanding among various religions. Through their innovation and creativity, the pioneers in inter-religious relations discussed in this work have blazed new paths for better understanding between people of diverse beliefs. As religion has played an important role in politics and international relations, dialogue between different religions has become urgent in the face of globalization and divisiveness and confrontation between the East and the West.
2. Likewise, how have writing these books led you to your forthcoming title, Guns and Gospel: Imperialism and Evangelicalism in China?
The first book is on Orthodox theology and the second on Roman Catholic thought.
I wanted to be ecumenical in my theological outlook and thus, I decided to focus on Protestant missionaries in China during the Qing dynasty (19th century). China is now playing a prominent role in global politics and economics. It is important to understand why the Communist government in China is wary of religious influence from outside and why it seeks to control the churches that are flourishing in spite of years of persecutions.
Guns and Gospel attempts to explain why in spite of so much toil and sacrifices undertaken by foreign missionaries in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Christianity is still a minority faith in China. The book aims at a critical examination of missionary activities taking place under the auspices of gunboat diplomacy and unequal treaties, which eventually increased hostilities of the natives towards Christianity. “One more Christian, one less Chinese,” has long been a popular cliché in China.
Although it failed to win many adherents, in terms of modernization of China, Christian influence was significant. Christian missionaries addressed the issues of education, health care, women’s rights and agriculture. Critical of polygamy, infanticide and foot binding, they fought for the rights of women for equal opportunities. Christian missionaries anticipated the Communist effort in adapting western science and knowledge to reform Chinese society.
3. What does your writing typical process consist of?
I read as much as possible regarding the topic, from journal articles, books, newspapers, and magazines. Then I start summarising key ideas from relevant texts and attempt some kind of analysis by way of comparison or critique. It is a strange process how I start putting the various ideas and views together to construct coherent arguments. Physical exercises like swimming and jogging are very useful for me to have a clear mind to craft my chapter.
Reading as much and as wide as possible on a topic is necessary to provide a good and comprehensive argument. I normally write a chapter that can stand on its own – that it can be published in an abridged version as an article. Thus when I write a chapter I look upon it as an extended essay. My focus is on one chapter at a time. In many ways, writing a book is like running a marathon. I try not to look at the entire distance, but concentrate on running from one point to another, one kilometre at a time.
4. In layman’s terms, what are the main ideas that Guns and Gospel explores?
Going beyond generalizations, the issue I want to raise here is to what extent the missionaries had become lackeys of imperialism. In this work I propose to study individual missionaries in order to examine their positions regarding western military aggression, the opium trade, and the unequal treaties. It is a critical review of Christian missions against the backdrop of the Opium Wars (1839 – 1860), Treaty of Nanking (1842), Gunboat Diplomacy, Taiping Rebellion (1850 – 1864) and Boxer Rebellion (1899 – 1901).
5. Which writers or academics do you think have had the greatest impact on you and why?
Professor Peter C. Phan, who holds the Ignacio Ellacuría Chair of Catholic Social Thought, Georgetown University. I am inspired by his dedication in exploring ways to make Christianity relevant to modern times. He is very knowledgeable not just in Catholic theology, but in Orthodox and Protestant thoughts as well. In spite of his great achievements as a theologian, he remains a very humble and down-to-earth person.
Professor Lai Pan-Chiu, a Lutheran pastor, from The Chinese University of Hong Kong. He was the supervisor and mentor for my doctoral dissertation. Besides being a good scholar, Prof Lai is a very conscientious teacher. He looks after his students very well, directs their thesis with great dedication and care. After graduation, he tries to find suitable teaching and research positions for them. He is a great influence on my theological outlook. Knowing Professor P.C. Lai has been one of the great blessings in my life.
6. Who do you think the book will appeal most to?
The general public, those who are interested in history, East-West relations, post-colonial and religious studies. This can include undergraduates, theology students, seminarians, priests, religious and lay people, who are interested in broadening their understanding of Christianity as a minority religion in Asia, especially in China.
7. What are the most obscure notions the book explores?
This work examines the precarious and ambivalent relationship between the missionaries and the British colonial government that controlled the territories in which they attempted to propagate the faith.
8. Who are your favourite authors to read?
William Shakespeare, James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, John Keats, George Eliot, and Leo Tolstoy.
9. From your author questionnaire, you detail being educated all around the world; how do you think this has influenced your writing?
My early years in India have deeply influenced my writings. I realize the importance of culture, religious belief or unbelief, and language that conditions our perception of reality and life in general. I am also more conscious of the gap between the rich and the poor, and thus in my writings, I attempt to give voice to the voiceless, the marginalized and downtrodden. I also attempt to provide philosophical and historical backgrounds in my theological reflections. I seek to be open-minded and to understand the thoughts of “others.” At the moment, my research is on liberation theology, migration, religion and the diaspora.
10. Alongside having taking a diverse interest in the world of academia, we would be delighted to learn about any additional projects or hobbies!
I work as an assistant parish priest in the Church of St Theresa, Kowloon. It is one of the oldest churches in Hong Kong. This gives me chance to interact with people from all walks of life. I swim and cycle regularly and enjoy hikes along many of the spectacular trails here. Like many people in Hong Kong, I enjoy dining out. We take eating very seriously here!
Any additional information you would like our readers to know?
I am very grateful to the editors and the staff in the sales and marketing department at James Clarke & Co. for their great help and support. It is a blessing for an author to have such friendly, competent, and dedicated staff behind him.
Ambrose Mong was born in Singapore and earned degrees in English from the Universities of Calgary and British Columbia. He went on to enter the Dominican Novitiate in Seville and completed his philosophical and theological studies at the University of St Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Ordained as a priest in Hong Kong in 2008, he continued to study at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, completing his M.Phil. and Ph.D. in Religious Studies.
At present he is assistant parish priest at St Theresa’s Church, Kowloon, HK, and teaching part-time at The Caritas Institute of Higher Education and at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Guns and Gospel: Imperialism and Evangelicalism in China is due for publication 29th November, 2016. For more on Ambrose Mong’s previous titles, extracts and reviews, click to see our author page here.