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Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China
Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China
Xi Lian
Yale University Press, 2010
352 pp., $85.00

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David Lyle Jeffrey


Christianity in China

An irreducible complexity.

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Communitarianism and communitarian extremes provide Lian with another major theme. Here, as is sometimes the case in American church history as well, he lumps together under the cognomen "Protestant" a wide range of heresies, sects, and cults. Some of these more resemble Jim Jones's People's Temple than should make us comfortable. In fact, indigenous origins aside, the reader can hardly help but notice many parallels between American and Chinese movements in this period. The same tension between Pentecostalism and liberal churchmanship is found in China, though adversity there more quickly winnowed out the liberal options. There are far too many fascinating movements and individuals of a charismatic bent (in both senses) to recount here, but Wang Mingdao is one of the genuinely epoch-making figures to whom Lian gives enough space for us to see how the conflict between liberalism and fundamentalism played out in China. Wang is paired with John Sung, the Billy Sunday of China, famous for his stage histrionics during evangelistic revivals, and each in his own way illustrates the curious proximity of the United States and China in this long-running 20th-century conflict, in which at its height Harry Emerson Fosdick of Union Theological Seminary seems to have tried to get Sung committed to a mental hospital. Yet it was men like Sung and Wang Mingdao who were to win the day in China.

Watchman Nee (Ni Tuosheng) was their successor. Nee introduced Darby's dispensationalism and a typically Plymouth Brethren-flavored rejection of traditional denominationalism in China. Nee was also influenced by the British Keswick movement, and there the leadership of F. B. Meyer (a Baptist) and others moved Nee away from the pursuit of spiritual gifts and toward the rigorous New Testament asceticism for which he became famous. Nee's The Spiritual Man (1928) continues to have an influence. The True Jesus Church and Jesus Family both grew most rapidly in the years just preceding the Revolution. Afterward, there were impediments. During the same period, Watchman Nee suffered a loss of face through a sex scandal and, though he was reinstated in 1948, his and other groups capitulated to the Party and all were absorbed into the new TSPM. (Nee died in a labor camp in 1972.)

Lian captures this period of reorganization in its essentials, and though there is clearly much more to say, his is to date perhaps the most useful source in English on these developments. His last chapter, on the house church movement, is in many ways at the heart of what most readers will want to know still more about, but even as it stands it is a helpful summary: the 1990s "collapse of Communist beliefs," he writes, left a huge void, hastening "the search for alternative inspirations for life's struggles."

So, what does Lian think about the matter of numbers? He writes, "At the dawn of the twentieth century, there were only some eight-thousand baptized Protestants in a land of more than four hundred million. Today there are probably more than fifty million Protestants in China." He estimates about seventeen million Catholics (a figure that seems to me low). By any standard this is momentous church growth, and by now it is growth with many durable "Chinese characteristics."

China-watchers in the church should now be looking for another book, one that cannot quite yet be written, namely a study of the rapid growth of Christianity in the intellectual and governing communities over the past twenty years. By a great irony of history, "true-believer Marxism" has been a precursor, a John the Baptist, to Christianity among cultural élites. In these circles one finds an increasingly vibrant, intelligent faith that has more in common with the Christianity of Roman antiquity just before Constantine than it does with anything currently Western. This major development, uncharted in the present work, is a source of great hope for our Chinese brothers and sisters. For ourselves it may prove an interesting challenge.

David Lyle Jeffrey is Distinguished Professor of Literature and the Humanities at Baylor University.

1. See especially Jean-Pierre Charbonnier, Christians in China, AD 600-2000 (Ignatius, 2002), the essays in Yang Huilin and Daniel H.N. Yeung, Sino-Christian Studies in China (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2006), and also the revised edition of David Aikman's Jesus in Beijing (Regnery, 2006).

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