China and the Christian Impact

China and the Christian Impact

Excerpt from ‘A Conflict of Cultures’, the Review of: China and the Christian Impact: A Conflict of Cultures
Jacques Gernet – Cambridge University Press, 1985, by J.S. Cummins:

Translating and closely analysing contemporary Chinese material, Gernet show that it was not merely clerical squabbles, doctrines, rituals or customs which separated missionary and potential convert. The twain were unable to meet because their respective world-pictures differed radically: the Chinese mind-set, for instance, rooted in concepts from the Sino-Tibetan family of languages, found literally inconceivable Christian ideas evolved from the Graeco-Roman- Judaic-Scholastic mental world. And vice versa. The literati, by and large untroubled by metaphysical anxieties, showed keen interest in Ricci’s technology, moral tracts and memory exercises (see History Today, December, 1985) but laid aside with contumely his religion and his Tridentine ‘Ptolemaic’ theology.

Would love to read this book. The above shows that there is an area which students of inculturation should look into – the definition of ‘mind-set’, its relation with language (and vice versa) and how these affect evangelism. If China is having a revival today – how are the barriers of ‘mind-set’ and language overcome? Perhaps inculturation doesn’t work at all if worldview (mind set and language included, philosophy) is to be separated from culture (behaviour)?

Traditionally people ‘blame this first ‘Failure in the Far East’ upon the Jesuits’ ‘narrow-minded’ co-workers, the friars, whose machinations, we read, misled nine successive popes into denouncing, and finally prohibiting the Jesuits’ ‘China Strategy’, thereby destroying the plan to convert Asia.’ But the review highlighted how the author of this book opined that the mistake was Ricci’s as he failed to notice that the key barrier is not cultural (hence Confucianism) but philosophical (Taoism). A more scholarly review from The Journal of Asian Studies summarises the author’s view succinctly: ‘He doubts that many of the early seventeenth-century literati-converts were “really” Christians, because they were so insistent on reconciling Christianity with Neo-Confucian notions; they were attracted to the Jesuits’ behavior and moral rigor, not to Christian doctrine.’ (China and the Christian Impact: A Conflict of Cultures. by Jacques Gernet; Janet Lloyd, Review by: Daniel H. Bays, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Feb., 1987), pp. 114-116)

I will try to find a copy of this book!

Christmas Traditions

I have always wondered how some of the Christmas traditions came into being. Hence I was pleasantly surprise to find a good piece of article in the in-flight magazine of AirAsia which explains the origin of some of the Christmas practices. The following is a selected list of answers I get from the article:

The Christmas Wreath:

Christmas or Advent wreath appeared only in the 16th century – being circular shape to represent God who has no beginning and no end, and the evergreen used to decorate signifies the everlasting life which Jesus brought to His believers.

 

The Nativity Scene:

Introduced by St Francis of Asisi nearly 800 years ago to combat commercialism of Christmas at his time.

 

The Christmas Tree:

Introduced by Martin Luther in 1510 as he decorated a tree with candles ‘to recapture the beautiful sparkling stars amidst the evergeens’. It would have remained a German tradition had it not because of the marriage between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Germany, which saw the tradition setting its foot in the British Isle. By then the Americans still consider decorating a fir tree to celebrate Christmas a pagan practice.

 

The Christmas Carols:

Songs written to celebrate the birth of Christ emerged in the 4th and 5th century in Latin. It was only in the 13th century that carolling became a common practice. In those days, in the context of feudal rules, the poor would sing to the wealthy for supper.

 

Santa Claus:

We can trace the origin of Santa to St. Nicolas, who was a kind monk who cared for the needy and poor.

 

My Observation:

I have not done any research on the above but I believe the article has got the facts right. If the above are true, it intrigues me in a number of ways. Firstly, if I imagine myself as 2th century Christian, not only that there is no wreath, no Santa, no carols, no Christmas tree, no Nativity Scene, there was actually not Christmas (Christmas day as the day to commemorate Christ’s birth came after 2th century)! Secondly, in the course of history, various cultural elements have been added into the celebration of Christmas, and it seems to me that this process has enriched the festival and in each case above, had a good Christian intention. However as times go by their meanings were lost and people tend to adopt the tradition without knowing the meaning behind it. More alarmingly, is that the Christians often find it unnecessary to unveil the true meaning of these traditions. Worse,some would shunned these practices and condemn them as pagan practices. As a Chinese believer I do not think that I need to follow some of the practices of the Western church. However, I would have no problem celebrating the joy of Christmas with the Westerners as they express their celebration via their own cultural elements – be it fir tree, wreath or carols. If possible I would also seek relevant expression from my culture which I could relate to the Christmas meaning, so I could also use them to celebrate Christmas meaningfully.

Review of ‘Pagan Christianity’ at Amazon

I have finally written a short review for Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices at Amazon. It is published in full below:

Good Summary but needs to Look Deeper and Wider!

This book is a good resource for anyone who wonders why and how some of the current practices in the church which are not directly mentioned in the New Testament have into being. This book is arranged systematically and in general clear and well written. However, it is still lacking in a number of ways.

Firstly, the author(s) seems to be judging these so-called pagan practices without taken into consideration of biblical theology. For example, one would wonder if Old Testament metaphor of the shepherd can be totally neglected as the role of the modern pastor is examined. The author has completely disregard the above when he criticises the modern role of the pastor, taking into consideration only the New Testament text. (A helpful book to compensate this is Shepherds After My Own Heart: Pastoral Traditions and Leadership in the Bible (New Studies in Biblical Theology)).

Secondly, the book fails to take into consideration of the fact that contextualisation of the Christian faith is ‘the way it has always been’ in the course of history. A casual study on Bosch’s Transforming Mission or Lesslie Newbigin will help to inform us this. Though not perfect, but the following quote more or less capture the missional dimension that is missing in this book – ‘Christianity is, sociologically speaking, certainly one religion; it is the ancient paganism or, to be more precise, the complex Hebrew-Hellenic-Greco-Latin-Celtic-Gothic-Modern religion converted to Christ more or less successfully.’ (Elwood, ed. What Asian Christians are thinking, 361 as quoted in Jones, Wainwright, Yarnold.Sj, (eds) The Study of Spirituality OUP, 1986, 555). The author fails to see that New Testament was not written in a cultural vacuum and we today cannot live apart from our culture.

Thirdly, limited by his own preferred ecclesiology and background, the author writes with much in favour of the Anabaptist and home church tradition (which are also cultures). Though he has by at large kept the balance he has occasionally allowed this bias to cloud his judgement. Thus some of his conclusions are harsh. For example, he has maintained that churches are not supposed to have a large building but has not consider the paradigm shift typical of the modern cell church where the large building is never considered ‘the church’ but a gathering of all home cell group (churches).

So although the author’s points are clear he would have done better by highlighting the dangers of some of these practices in diluting true Christian values without making harsh but inaccurate criticism of others. Nevertheless I have enjoyed reading this book and find it helpful as a general resource for anyone who is interested in critically evaluating church practices of today. If you would like to have a list of allegedly ‘pagan practices’ in the church look no further. However, I would recommend it only to those who are already aware of the shortcomings I mentioned above. If you have no idea about the three weaknesses above I suggest you look them up before reading this book.

Institutional Church = Pagan Christianity?

Ben Witherington shared Howard Snyder’s review on Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices by Frank Viola here. I find Snyder’s review helpful . He pointed out that there are three approaches to church history: 1. the “traditional orthodox” approach, 2.the “secret history of the faithful remnant” theory and 3. the “renewal movement view.” Snyder mentioned John Wesley’s renewal attempt within the Anglican church as an example of the ‘renewal movement’, which he sees as the preferred solution compared to the ‘secret history of the faithful remnant’, which Viola prefers, where the institutional church is often regarded as corrupted and true Christianity is seen as carried in history by remnant groups. Of course the opposite of the ‘remnant’ theory is the ‘traditional orthodox’ view which sees the institutional church and its progressive development as a natural development of authentic Christianity and Constantinianism is viewed as a victory for the church.

I would like to respond to both the book and Snyder’s review from the perspective of mission, in particular from the inculturation point of view. I will make some quick attempts here to offer alternative views on the issues of ‘pagan’ practices within the church which Viola seems to suggest for the church today to do away with.

First, I am surprise that Augustine of Hippo and his ecclesiology, especially that was expressed in his confrontation with the Donatists, was not mentioned – neither by Snyder nor Viola! Augustine made some important points regarding the church when debating with the Dontists. Dualistic or Platonic as it may seem, Augustine argued (especially later in his ‘City of God’) for the validity, authenticity and authority of the institutional church, while acknowledging that the institutional church and its ministers are not perfect. Though the debate was much more complicated and involves a lot of theological technicalities, especially on the issue of sacraments, it serves as one of the earlier if not the earliest debate on the authenticity of the institutional church and its ministers.

Secondly, I agree with Snyder, who helpfully sees that the whole issue is about  ‘the nature and practice of the church’. Now there is still a difference between the ‘church’ and ‘Christianity’. The other term which one will think of, which is related but not equivalent would be the ‘Kingdom of God’. Again Augustine linked the kingdom with the church as a means to defend his high view of the institutional church. If we are talking about the church (ecclesiology) let the discussion be on the people or ‘group of people’  who are Christians.

Now that is where I think both the book and the reviewer fall short. None noticed that if we are talking about church – we are talking about the universal and the local church. In each case we are talking about people, and when people is involved culture is involved. It would be better to evaluate ‘Pagan Christianity’ with a larger view. From the mission point of view, the so-called ‘pagan practices’ mentioned in the book are just ‘pagan practices’ in the Western church. Constantinianism was a triumphant victory of Christianity successfully converting not just the individuals but the culture of the time. Since ‘Christianity’ has archived such victory, the ‘church’ or the people groups were then happily Christianising everything in their daily lives. These people were not living in a cultural vacuum. Now zoom out and consider the mission situation and we will see that when the Chinese or Indians converted to Christianity, they do not abandon all that is in their culture.

For instance, language is a a key element of culture. Do we abandon our language and adopt Hebrew and Greek so we could ‘fully’ appreciate  authentic Christianity? We all can imagine how a Chinese, an African and a Westerner would understand the word, ‘Lord” quite differently – each according to his or her cultural understanding. Feudal Lord for the Westerner? Does it exist in the history of China (the word ‘Lord’ is translated as ‘master’, not ‘lord’ in Chinese Bible) and Africa? The is no escape of having to face the trouble of cultural difference when one is in mission field. Hudson Taylor has to dress and speak like a Chinese to relate to the Chinese. Now when the Chinese converted, what do we expect them to change? The same happened when Constantine  and others ‘converted’ to Christianity – ‘what do I do with my clothes, my language, my habits, my hairstyle, my furniture, my pets, my buildings, my life?’ Stripe everything and live like John the Baptist? Even Jesus didn’t do that! Viola did his research in the book and one should rightly doubt Constantine’s conversion, but besides that, I wonder how much would the most powerful man in the Western world then be able to theologically reflect and take time to contextualise his faith?

The other problem which I sense when observing the church, especially the modern church, is the insufficiency in Theology of Creation. Viola traced the development of the church architecture, and highlighted how ‘pagan’ they are. However he failed to see how art was ‘redeemed’ for the worship of the creative God. Human beings are created to be creative by the creative God. Architecture, in particularly church architecture is a way people at different times, bound by their cultural circumstances, expressing their feelings towards God. If any house church today arrange their seating in a certain way or sing songs creatively we fall into the same category.

In conclusion, while Viola’s research and ‘Pagan Christianity’ has been helpful in many ways, it is clear that they suffer from what Snyder calls fallacious syllogism – ‘It holds that because much church practice is pagan in origin, therefore such practices should be jettisoned.’ Instead, as Snyder pointed out, the whole issue of Contextualisation needs to be taken into account. The very fact is that, we do not live in the New Testament times! The Western church is as such because it went through a process of interaction of faith and culture. It may need to further undergo more contextualisation for the postmodern world but lest we are able to consider the issue as a matter of culture we will never be able to progress.

Made to Stick

From my previous blog:

One of many books that I value highly is ‘Made to Stick’ by Chip and Dan Heath. You can find its excerpts here. They were also interviewed in the 2009 Global Leadership Summit organized by Willow Creek Community Church.

Their idea matches the format of the Revivalists in the nineteenth century America, where concreteness, emotion, stories and to a certain extent, unexpectedness played a part in shaping the ‘new measures’ of revivalism. A particular case would be Lorenzo ‘Crazy’ Dow who delights in unexpectedness. Applied to preaching, this can be used to distinguish a revivalist from an ‘old school’ (as per Finney’s definition) preacher. Today, such difference is evident between charismatic preacher and his more conservative counterparts.

Interesting Reads on China for Westerners

I have enjoyed reading Martin Jacques’ opinions published in the BBC website and I though it would be good to share them here:

Is China more legitimate than the West?

How China sees a multicultural world

Making sense of China

As a Chinese whom speaks, writes and breath Chinese I am please to see that someone in the West has finally cracked it! Jacques understands China. He is also able to put in words the very differences which distinguish Chinese worldview and that of the West.

Among the interesting points he made is the fact that Chinese has a deep sense of superiority, and this is due to their view on history and culture. Jacques also refers to China as a civilisation state, effectively differentiating it from the West’s understanding of ‘nation state’. The Chinese simply has a very different worldview and culture. It is true, from my own reading and feeling, that China, or the Centre State (中国), has never thought itself as any less, than being the centre and most supreme.  History does attest this. In fact, there have been records of people as far as Africa living in China as early as Tang Dynasty, and all those who have come to China has accepted the superiority of the Chinese culture and many have since been assimilated. So there has never been a desire to be superior or world domination. Instead, having people coming to China and wanted to stay and willingly becoming a part of the society has always been a norm. Furthermore, stronger neighbours have, over the ages, came to China for learning. The Japanese, Koreans and Vietnamese have all been a part of the grand Chinese sphere of influence and the Chinese are so used to being the centre of civilisation admired by others. Thus, with this so-called resurgence of China, the Chinese are just relishing a return to what they used to be.

From Religious Hostility to Religious Hospitality by Brian McLaren

I have read a number of Brian McLaren’s works in the past as I did my postgraduate dissertation which includes a research on how Emerging Churches implement the idea of inculturation (interaction between faith and culture).

Brian McLaren has been vocal on the need to find new ways for Christians to relate to people from other religions. He has been critical towards the way Christians behave and how the somewhat unnecessary ‘fusion’ of the cultural elements into Christianity has caused problems. By looking back, he sees Christians had been time and again, causing various tensions with others due to their lack of judgement – which in turn was due to an uncritical mix of political and social intentions and motives with a Christian outfit. In short, if anyone is to take the blame for religious hostility, Christians should have a hard look at themselves, especially as they claim to live for and according to Jesus.


In this video he highlights the need for Christians to begin thinking about conversing with others with a new attitude. Instead of finding or defining our identity via looking at the differences we have with others, he proposes for us to first be critical to ourselves. He begins, by referring to history, as mentioned earlier.

McLaren then refers to how various doctrines have been used as ‘weapons of hostility’ towards others. The Doctrine of Creation for example, is often used to attack others. The same applied to the Doctrine of Original Sin and the Doctrine of Election, which he sees is often used to show ‘who’s good guy and who is not’. McLaren wonders what if we use them differently – not to show that are we special, nor to exert supremacy?

Next, McLaren refers to the way which the West seems to side the Israelites over the Palestinians, and questions if Christians should be more hospitable. To illustrate, he mentions the plight of some of the non-Christians whom have Christian neighbours who never seems to enjoy them – the only interest they have is to convert them, making them feel like being persuaded to be the down-line of certain network marketing! He then turns to baptism. Again he sees the tendency of Christians making the ritual a way to alienate Christians from others, forgetting that John the Baptist actually performed this rite outside of the exclusive religious establishment – the temple.

After a brief mention of the Eucharist  McLaren proposes that Christians today must work closely with others to face the vast challenges which the whole of humanity is facing – environment, political and social problems, etc. He calls this the Missional Challenge. According to him, due to the magnitude of the challenge the only chance is for everyone to collaborate and work together, and this includes Christians working with others. McLaren believes that the Holy Spirit works through everyone  and every religion. So he has taken a more friendly stance towards the others, in particularly, he mentioned how he speaks kindly about the Muslims, so much so, a Muslim commended that he is ‘saving Muslim’s lives,’ and told him,  ‘you are a true Christian.’

Is Brian McLaren right? If time permits I will do a critical assessment on the points he made on this post. Meanwhile, let’s ponder upon his propositions.

Cultural Clash ‘for everyone’!

We do not normally say that we are experiencing ‘cultural clash’. The term has always been associated with ‘bigger issues’ such as the dispute on minaret in Switzerland or the issue of Islamophobia in America after 911 – which not all of us would be involved on a regular basis. Also, in such cases there exists a clear cultural difference between the West and the Islamic cultural. However, cultural clash does happen at smaller scale and between even groups which are traditionally from the same cultural root. For example, as the number of mainland Chinese immigrants increases in Hong Kong and Singapore, local Chinese are finding it harder to understand lest getting along with their mainland brothers and sisters. A simple explanation to this is the fact that mainland China’s experience of ‘cultural revolution’, and the acceptance of Western culture – to a certain extent – by the post-colonial Singapore and Hong Kong, has created a gulf between the two groups. Thus, cultural differences do occur  between groups which share the same hereditary root. Of course we can argue to what extent can we define ‘culture’. As this would be best dealt with properly in other places, a simply definition of culture would be: a set of values, myths, narratives and rituals which give a sense of belonging and identity to a group of people. Myths and narratives here refer to stories which normally include key legendary figures and events which shape the values of the group. For example, Steve Jobs, and his story, have become, to a large extent, a legend and narrative which shape the values of Apple.

Now, not only that we can experience cultural clash with people which share the same cultural root with us. We face it locally. With that I mean we would face felt cultural tension not only in foreign places with foreign people. Rather, one may be feeling culturally distanced with those that are geographically close to him or her.

For example, a friend who has just returned from a Western country was hit by a car while he was on a zebra (pedestrian) crossing. He was so accustomed to the western society’s respect for law that he forgot that he is now back to his home country, where drivers have the habit of disregarding the pedestrian crossing. Is my friend now at home? He is at the country where he was born and raised where he shares a large part of his cultural root. However, he is not ‘culturally home’. There is deeper issue underneath this seemingly trivial matter. There is a clear cultural differences on the outside – different countries, hence customs, habits, and drivers. There is also a subconscious cultural habits formed within the few years my friend spent oversea. He has, to a certain extent, not just adopted the way-of-life (in crossing a street!) of the West, but may have also buy in to the value system of that culture! Perhaps the fact that since he has been so accustomed by their way of crossing the road or driving shows that he has somewhat, in his soul, accepted their culture and has become one of them? If so, can we say that he was a white man when he was crossing the Asian road and had a cultural ‘crash’?!

Well obviously in this case, my friend has been away for a while and got ‘converted’ by another culture. However, as mentioned, there is still no guarantee that if one is to stay put in one place, he or she will then be exempted from such ‘clash’. In today’s world it is not uncommon to have immigrants staying next door of us. Sometimes people from the same country could also live very differently due to their cultural difference. So we are all open to cultural clash.

No wonder missionaries over the ages are vulnerable to ‘reverse cultural shock’ as their re-enter into their home church and and home country. If ‘locals’ are subjected to cultural clash, imagine the shock missionary would have when they come ‘home’!

Lesslie Newbigin

The church could have escaped persecution by the Roman Empire if it had been content to be treated as a cultus privatus—one of the many forms of personal religion. But it was not. Its affirmation that “Jesus is Lord” implied a public, universal claim that was bound eventually to clash with the cultus publicus of the empire. The Christian mission is thus to act out in the whole life of the whole world the confession that Jesus is Lord of all.
Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: Introduction to the Theology of Mission, p. 16–17

Taken from Kingdom Come

 

When the light shines freely one cannot draw a line and say, “Here light stops and darkness begins.” But one can say and must say, “There is where the light shines; go toward it and your path will be clear; turn your back on it and you will go into deeper darkness.”
Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: Introduction to the Theology of Mission, p. 175

Taken from Kingdom Come