The Inscrutably Chinese Church: How Narratives and Nationalism Continue to Divide Christianity
Lexington Books, 2010
310 pp., $105.00
Sino-Christian Studies in China
Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2006
341 pp., $67.95
David Lyle Jeffrey
A Critique of ALL Religions
Faries' book is nonetheless an excellent place for an interested Christian reader in America to begin to appreciate both the realities and their filtering. In ways that are corroborated by the research of others as well as by experience on the ground, he shows clearly how the tendency in America to focus primarily on stories of persecution tends to occlude a larger Chinese Christian reality. In fact, he argues, there is more toleration and even cooperation from the government than, on these accounts, we might imagine. While his strong thesis disposes Faries to appear inattentive to abuses and contradictions of the professed freedom of religion that are frequently in our news about China, it seems to me that he is also largely correct in his view that the missiological narratives of the late 19th and early 20th centuries—in which a combination of mythic heroism and conflation of the political gospel of American-style democracy with the good news of liberty in Christ is characteristic—have frequently caused misestimations of what is transpiring more generally. Amongst intellectual Chinese Christians in particular, Western preoccupation with highly visible individual cases of conflict with the Chinese government is typically thought to overlook the larger pattern of their principled witness and engagement of mainstream Chinese thought and practice. Sometimes our almost exclusive Western focus on cases of abuse inadvertently creates unhelpful pressures upon that most vital internal conversation, which, in the end, is likely to be more fruitful than foreign pressure in reducing the abuse.
Some perceptions of weiguoren observers afford a reliable index to Chinese Christian experience; some are misleading. Thus, what many foreign visitors have observed, namely that the quality of biblical preaching and teaching in the patriotic (registered) churches and in the study groups and house churches typically seems much higher than in evangelical churches here in America, is confirmable by anyone from the West who spends time with Chinese students and younger faculty converts; one may expect to find much higher levels of biblical literacy and theological clarity by three to five years post-conversion than amongst American counterparts after two or three decades in the church. In urban house churches, the teaching is often led by young women, professional university teachers (laoshe) with doctoral degrees in literature and philosophy. This teaching is learned, yet marked by an evangelical urgency and commitment to obedient practice rather than simply intellectual assent. Yet another common perception among Western visitors, that membership in both Catholic and Protestant patriotic (registered) churches suggests a worshipping Christian community in China predominantly female and aging, is fundamentally misleading. Chinese colleagues regularly tell us that in urban house churches since the beginning of the past decade, gender distribution is about even, and more than half of congregants are between the ages of 18 and 40. 
Faries reports on the widespread and longstanding Chinese view that historically the gospel moved west from Jerusalem, largely around the northern hemisphere, and that a special calling of the burgeoning Chinese church is to complete this heliotropic movement westward through Muslim lands until the church comes back again to Jerusalem. This sense of mission outward, with its eschatological consciousness, provides an important qualifier to another dimension of theology in the Chinese context less frequently discussed in the West. It also has a natural point of contact with Marxism. David J. Bosch has noted that Marxism is also "intrinsically missionary," having universal rather than merely local aspirations. A very large proportion of the intellectual Christians one meets in China today were once Marxist idealists; disappointment since the Cultural Revolution and the turn to market economy have created conditions in which the utopian eschatology of Marxism has in the end proven less compelling than the biblical ideals of justice, truth, and love. In this way, a substantially failed Marxist historiography has prepared the way for a growing sense of China's distinctive place in the historia humanae salvationis. That this should lead to important divergences from American Christian eschatology and historiography is hardly surprising, and it deserves a more thoughtful consideration.