File photo of the fight scene between Lee (L) and Chuck Norris (R) in “The Way of the Dragon” at the Roman Colosseum, 1972.
Jared Zimmerer is an American Catholic author, speaker, blogger, husband and father of five, and the Director of Outreach and Mission at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Below is his reflection on Bruce Lee and evangelisation.
Bruce Lee (1940-1973) is known for many things. Most people know him as a movie star, still others see him as the founder of modern mixed martial arts. However, there is another side to Bruce Lee. The man was a philosopher through and through. While many might only see the glistening muscles and the high kicks to a man’s chin on the screen, Bruce was incredibly intelligent and aptly skilled at professing what he believed. At a time when the West was still wary of anything that might come from the East, Bruce was able and willing to make the connection between the two sides of the world. He did so through culture, martial arts, and by living a life of inspiration for anyone who ever met him. As a kid growing up, I couldn’t help but marvel at that man’s ability to control the screen and the attention of his admirers. He represented more than just a walking, talking weapon, he stood up for the little guy, and he didn’t like bullies.
Obviously, as a young boy, his ability to take out any and every threat was attractive to me. But as I grew older it was less about what Bruce could do physically and more about his intellectual martial art. I began reading what he taught. Though you might only catch it briefly in his movies, the man operated on a core set of beliefs. And it was through those beliefs, and his incredible use of culture, that he awakened an entire world. One thing is for sure, Bruce was an evangelist. Not an evangelist as we think of them today in the Christian world, but he had a message to share, one that is good news with a small ‘g’. He believed in human dignity and the unity of all mankind, and that all men must be willing and able to stand up for the good no matter what the situation. I think he offers a vision of what modern evangelisation could look like in the Christian world. While there are many things to learn from Bruce, I want to offer three things that he taught me about sharing a message that is near and dear to your heart. Perhaps just like St Paul acted in Scripture by recognising a cultural opportunity to evangelise, we can look to a man who changed culture in a profound way in order to become even more powerful evangelists.
The first thing I learned from Bruce was to see the good in every situation. He taught that man ought to live through a calculated disengagement with the difficult surroundings you find yourself in. Not so that you can’t have empathy, he had a powerful heart for those who suffer, but rather, like a true Stoic, you can engage a situation without allowing it to destroy the peace within you. In a time and culture where we often find ourselves swimming upstream in order to proclaim the Gospel of Christ, we must be prepared to have all sorts of hurdles to jump and wrongdoings to bear. Bruce taught that this calculated disengagement is not a setting aside of our emotions because most emotions can be a powerful source for courage in the face of danger or the need to sympathise, but rather to recognise that our true self must remain intact in order to be the best evangelist possible. In Bruce’s life, he had to struggle with doubt, his own people trying to stop him, and numerous naysayers who were constantly whispering that he would never succeed. And yet he allowed these attacks to flow off of him so as to focus on the mission and not the hatred of others.
Bruce was thoroughly Eastern, and proudly Chinese, but he also loved American culture and American movies. The second thing I learned from Bruce was to be firmly rooted in who you are, but love the culture you wish to evangelise. At the time of Bruce’s life, there was still a vast problem with racism, from both American moviemakers and Chinese martial artists. American moviemakers didn’t believe that an Asian man could be a lead role, and Chinese martial artists didn’t believe in sharing their ancient tradition with non-Asians. Bruce became the connecting muscle tissue that brought these two vast and far-reaching cultures into one body. He knew who he was, a proud Chinese man who knew martial arts could change the lives of anyone who took part, he also thoroughly loved the power and imagination of American cinema. Even though American movies were not yet ready to put a Chinese man as a leading role, Bruce loved the culture he wanted to be in. He allowed the love of that culture to help him overcome any racism he might’ve received and did his part to spread his message within it even though he may never get his big break. He gradually planted seeds throughout American cinema and those seeds blossomed over the years to become a powerful means by which his message earned respect and the dignity it deserved. As Christians, we must love the culture we wish to evangelise. We must be willing to deal with any hardship or pushback in order to plant the seeds through which the life of Christ can take shape and be born. Much like St Peter and St Paul who went into Roman culture, we use the means available to us in the culture we love to spread the seeds of the Word.
One thing is for sure, Bruce lived and breathed his philosophy. What you saw on the screen was Bruce’s heart with the volume turned all the way up. The third thing I learned from Bruce Lee about evangelisation is to live concretely the message you wish to spread. If you go to YouTube and watch several of Bruce’s interviews you see calm, cool, and collected individual whose words flowed with confidence, clarity, and control. He thoroughly knew and lived what he believed. This made his message attractive because people saw it in action. People wanted what he had. People who watched his movies or saw him in interviews understood that it was what he believed that allowed him to become this incredibly magnanimous individual who you felt you wanted to follow. This is what the early apostles had. This is what Mother Teresa had. To firmly believe in a cause, in a mission, that belief must become incarnational. As Christians, our relationship and faith in Jesus must be so firmly rooted in our heart, our minds, and our souls, that our bodies cannot help but echo the magnanimously attractive life of the Savior we profess. People must be able to see us, hear us, and be with us and know what it is we believe by our actions, our words, and our real selves. One thing Bruce Lee hated was the masks we create for ourselves. He believed that the true self must be the life we live and if we allow our masks, our fake projected self to take the lead, then not only have we failed ourselves, we have failed the mission at hand. We must allow our true self, firmly rooted in the foundation of Christ, to project Christ to the world who is in so much hunger to meet him.
Though Bruce was not a Christian, his strategy of spreading his beliefs is one we must take note of. Bruce was able to evangelise a culture to his cause, and even to create a new culture that we now call mixed martial arts. Bruce only lived to be 32 years old, yet his actions and words have echoed down the decades and I’m sure for many more. He connected Eastern and Western culture unlike any modern that comes to mind. Even though we Christians would hope that Bruce would have met Christ while he was alive, I do think we must take note of his strategic moves to introduce two different worlds to each other and induce his beliefs and lifestyle as a message of hope. We too must see that though our culture might surely be antithetical to our beliefs, we must be able to nimbly introduce them to each other and induce them with the hope of Christ. In this way, we achieve what Christ wanted which was the unification to be found in his grace. In order to do this, we must see the good in every person and situation, love the culture we wish to evangelise, and live the message we preach. Three things Bruce did exceedingly well. – jaredzimmerer.com