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
The Chinese version of national calling is not unproblematic theologically. Faries does an admirable job of contextualizing the extremely rapid growth of Christian adherence within the reality of a rising Chinese nationalism in which there is a near consensus view that China in this century has a "manifest destiny" every bit as inevitable as that attributed to the United States in its earlier history. His analysis of Chinese fiction is particularly effective in this regard. One of the characters in novelist Li Ping's When Fade Away the Colors of Dusk describes the Chinese metanarrative (what we might call Chinese exceptionalism) as "the basic and unshakeable belief in the mind of every Chinese," stronger and more enduring than any form of government, a cultural bond which unites diaspora Chinese everywhere with their Chinese roots. Faries comments pertinently that, "If evangelical American Christians tend to be patriotic, Chinese Christians (evangelicals themselves, by a wide margin) also have strong ties to their homeland and are probably even more uniformly nationalistic than their American counterparts." The view advanced by some Westerners (David Aikman in Jesus in Beijing among them), that a more Christian China will almost automatically be an ally of the United States, is not well supported by this reality.
The essays in Yang and Yeung help greatly to qualify further some of the assumptions Americans are likely to make about the political implications of Christian theology. One of these pertains to the American conception of freedom so often advertised both commercially and even by our politicians. Zhang Xian, observing our general disposition to regard personal liberty of the more or less autonomous self as the highest political good, notes that in fact ,"Christianity has a very different understanding of freedom … [not] to seek to be excused from restriction, but to seek a freedom which can transcend the self, to be willing to forebear and to sacrifice, i.e., the freedom to love." His view carries with it a convincing biblical warrant. Among Chinese Christians generally, and Christian intellectuals particularly, democracy of the Western sort is seen neither as an entailment nor a primary goal.
It may be amongst intellectuals (academics, lawyers, physicians, and bureaucrats) in particular that the divergences from our own predilections become most interesting. For example, Faries surveys literary criticism of both Chinese and American literature on both sides of the Pacific and finds that in China, the Christian dimension of literary texts—novels, plays, poems—is paid much greater critical attention, and this amongst secular as well as Christian scholars. He does a good job, I think, of analyzing the intellectual engagement of the representations of Christianity one finds in non-believing writers such as Li Ping, Zhang Xiaotian, and Wang Anyi, and also in well-known Christian novelists Shi Tiesheng and Bei Cun, author of the celebrated novels River of Baptism and, more recently, Divine Covenant (2007). There are many more highly regarded Chinese Christian artists than he mentions now emerging—Bing Xin, Hu Shi, Lao She, Yu Jiu, Yu Dafu, Xu Dishan, the contemporary Catholic poet Jian Chua, among others—all of whose work is largely unknown in the West. Faries notes of Bei Cun something that, mutatis mutandis, more widely applies, namely that "his conversion has lost [him] foreign readers but has not apparently done any great harm to his reputation at home." Lack of interest among Western literary scholars in depictions of Chinese engagement with Christianity means that we shall probably wait awhile yet for English translations of many fine Chinese Christian literary works—unless, perhaps, Christian scholars and publishers in the West begin actively to seek out and translate them.
If we turn from Faries' overview of literary writers to reflect on the writings of Chinese Christian intellectuals in philosophy and theology, we also encounter the problem of a gap in translated work. That is what makes the collection of Yang and Yeung so valuable, for in its pages we find principled essays by some of the most formidable intellectuals in the larger Chinese Christian national dialogue. Many of these people would once have been called "cultural Christians," associated as such less with the worshiping church than with study of Christianity as a cultural vector. "Cultural Christian" as a term and concept has led to Westerners paying far too little attention to the evolving reality, and should now be used with caution, since many such intellectuals have become highly active in local congregations. In his essay in Yang and Yeung, one of the most prominent of such "cultural Christians," the Renmin University philosopher Liu Xiaofeng, sharply challenges this now clichéd conception: