Going on a Pacific island 'holyday'

by on Monday, 31 January 2011 9005 hits Comments
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When discussing Taiwan’s links with the Pacific islands, it is well worth considering the religious dimension.  I have previously written about the connection that Taiwanese religious groups, in particular New Religious Movements, are seeking to forge with Mainland China[1].  However if we look in the other direction, from the gritty megacities of China to the lightly populated islands of the Pacific Ocean, we can see another current of religiosity that is circulating belief, culture and innovation.

The New Testament Church (NTC) is a small charismatic Protestant Church based at Mount Zion in Kaohsiung County in southern Taiwan. It was founded by a Hong Kong movie star in 1963 and has managed to survive leadership disputes, struggles with the Taiwanese government and natural disasters to now be in its fifth decade.  No small feat for a modestly sized and socially marginalized group. You can watch me give a brief introduction to the NTC here and here.

The NTC believes that God has chosen Taiwan’s Mount Zion instead of the traditional and better-known Mount Zion in Israel.  The mountain serves the important roles of not only being God’s home, but also the venue for the impending Tribulation (when Jesus will descend to Mount Zion and members of the NTC will ascend to heaven).  The NTC has developed Mount Zion into a community of around 300 adherents, complete with agricultural and educational facilities.

Furthermore, the NTC is a passionate and dedicated exponent of organic agriculture.  The rationale behind choosing organic farming over conventional (that is, pesticide-based) farming is that it is the ‘God-based’ way to farm. The NTC equates God’s law of creation, as outlined in the bible, with the natural method of farming.  As the bible does not contain any directive to use chemicals, the church therefore refrains from doing so.  In avoiding such pollutants, the NTC can more easily recreate their ideal of a holy and “Edenic” environment.  It seeks to do this on Mount Zion and at its properties abroad.

Mount Zion is an interesting place for tourists to visit, and one of utmost spiritual importance to the NTC.  However the spiritual power of the mountain is not limited to the peak in Taiwan – other places around the world also share in it.

The NTC has developed a series of ‘Offshoots of Zion’ around the world.  These rural properties are places where the NTC’s international adherents live, worship and farm.  Mostly scattered around Malaysia and the Pacific Rim, there are also two Offshoots of Zion on Pacific Islands – Eden Isle (伊甸島) on Tikehau, Polynesia and Mount Tabor (他泊山) on Tahiti.

Just as in Taiwan, the NTC’s community in the Pacific developed out of the Assemblies of God church. Having established Mount Tabor in 1985, the NTC has around 300 “exclusively Chinese” adherents in Tahiti[2]. The church has not limited itself to one island though, expanding elsewhere in the region.

Inhabited by the NTC since 1993, Eden Isle is a small island where the NTC has an organic farm and open-air church.  Based on reports by visiting sailors, the number of people living on Eden Isle seems to vary between 5 and 10.  This number can swell exponentially when international members of the NTC arrive for religious celebrations and various types of exchange programs.  There are a number of online reports from sailors passing by Tikehau who have been welcomed in by the NTC and given tours of the island[3].

In considering these two Pacific island spiritual centres, Mount Zion in Taiwan, and the NTC that binds them, we can get a glimpse of the dynamics between the two regions.  The main temple on Mount Zion was rebuilt in the late 1980s using indigenous Taiwanese techniques and designs.  In turn, the venues of worship on Eden Isle and Mount Tabor reflect the style of Mount Zion’s temple. Mount Tabor’s temple appears to be an almost perfect copy of Mount Zion’s temple. The Eden Isle temple is smaller and more open than that of Mount Tabor, yet remains true to the form of the temple on Mount Zion.  Yet it is not only a temple template that the NTC has imported.

Representatives of the NTC have been keen to point out to me the work that the church has done in the Pacific with regard to organic farming, particularly innovations in composting methods.  Indeed, the French Polynesian government has even engaged the NTC to provide consultancy services and training in organic farming techniques [4].

However, the flow of knowledge and religious concepts is not simply one-way.  Children from the NTC’s ‘Eden Homestead’ school system spend time in the Pacific centres learning about agriculture, in both its practical and spiritual dimensions.  These children are not just from Taiwan and Malaysia, but also Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the USA.  In this sense, Eden Isle and Mount Tabor have become the metaphorical hub of a trans-Pacific ‘spiritual wheel’, circulating the beliefs of the NTC around the Pacific Rim.

The traditional costumes and accoutrements of the Pacific islands have also made their way back to Mount Zion. For instance, whereas once couples were married at Mount Zion wearing western-style wedding outfits, now they dress in more simple outfits that demonstrate a Pacific influence (through accessories such as floral garlands, shell belt buckles and bare feet)[5].  Alternatively, dressing like this could also reflect Taiwan’s own indigenous traditions.  Either way, it contrasts starkly with the modern wedding traditions that are so popular in Taiwan.

The New Testament Church is only small and has a fledgling presence in the Pacific. Nevertheless, it is a pertinent example of how a decidedly non-mainstream Taiwanese organization has created a presence in there. The NTC's exchange of ideas – be they religious, agricultural or cultural – is multifaceted and of use to us when trying to conceive how Taiwan sits in relation to its Pacific Island neighbours.

Photo: P.F.

[1] http://www.erenlai.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3982:an-overview-of-religious-life-in-modern-taiwan&catid=688:october-2010&Itemid=331&lang=en

[2] http://chinaperspectives.revues.org/1118#tocto2n3

[3] http://www.thebigvoyage.com/the-pacific/tikehau-day-2-lagoon-excursion/

[4] http://tahitipresse.pf/2009/12/le-bio-une-voie-davenir-pour-lagriculture-polynesienne/

[5] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UeFTDGwo8sA

Last modified on Wednesday, 08 January 2014 17:35
Paul Farrelly (范寶文)

Paul is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University in Canberra. His primary research interests are new religious movements and religious innovation in China and Taiwan.

Website: twitter.com/paul_farrelly

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